The future of spaceflight lies in the successful transition from an approach in historical past brilliance and relative consistency, such as found in classical music, into a new Space Age utilizing an approach very much like jazz improvisation and continual change.
As a jazz musician, this is my takeaway from an analogy used in presentations and conversations with NASA at the Denver SC23 Supercomputing Conference.
Victoria Da Poian, Data Scientist with NASA, articulated the challenges she and her team are facing in equipping spacecraft to be sent to the ocean world of Europa orbiting Jupiter, and the ocean worlds of Titan and Enceladus orbiting Saturn.
Da Poian needs to evolve from the earth-based communication methods leveraged onboard spacecraft in decades past. This past approach leveraged the expertise of scientists on Earth, but only when in communication range with the spacecraft. The new approach incorporates a level of AI algorithmic-driven analysis and autonomy onboard the craft that, by the nature of their extended flight and eventual orbits, will be out of range of Earth-based contact and guidance for continual periods of time. The craft must be able to make decisions when communication with Earth is not available.
The ability to improve supervised learning to unsupervised learning with semi-autonomous to autonomous spacecraft during gaps in communication with teams on Earth is paramount to future mission success.
Darby Vicker, on contract with NASA, articulated the intricate modeling supercomputing is leveraging with the goal of keeping human astronauts as safe as possible during the launch to orbit process for the Artemis missions and Orion Spacecraft. The stakes of the Artemis missions are enormous, so let’s take a look at the Artemis Missions first.
The Artemis Missions
Human flight through the Artemis Missions is just around the corner as of this writing. The Artemis 1 mission sent the uncrewed Orion Spacecraft into orbit around and beyond the moon in 2022 before splashing back down on Earth. The first attempt at human orbit around the moon in decades is due to take place with the Artemis 2 mission in 2024 or 2025. This will be followed by Artemis 3 in the latter half of this decade: the first humans to land and touch base on the moon in over 50 years.
The ambitions of the Artemis Missions do not stop there. A lunar human colony, with humans orbiting around the moon, is the beginning phase of what is planned to be a permanent human outpost with ambitions toward Mars to come.
NASA isn’t working alone. In the 2000s, the US shifted policy and awarded billions in contracts to private enterprises in the commercial sector, which has empowered an incredible shift in resources, supply chains, low earth orbit satellite innovation, as well an overall cultural and strategic shift in the space industry. Elon Musk’s SpaceX was born, and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin was born. Private enterprises will continue to be directly involved in NASA’s endeavors moving forward.
As with most cultural shifts, it hasn’t always been an easy marriage. With NASA well grounded historically in the scientific driver’s and risk management seats, SpaceX has positioned itself to the public in the risk-taking and innovation seats. They’ve had success and have been awarded government contracts accordingly.
The US military had, and is, partnering with Starlink for connectivity needs around the globe, including the Pacific Theater. Both the US and their allies’ interests continue within the Pacific Theater as China continues its expansion within the South China Sea. From the F-35s to autonomous drones, Starlink is providing a literal lift in connectivity to the Pacific Theater.
The coming Space Age is also a combination of direct interests from nations across the world. Some are in direct competition, like the US, Russia, and China. The militarization of Space is in an ongoing evolution, as is the continuing evolution between NASA, the European Space Agency, and others worldwide in their partnership with private enterprises like SpaceX. International competition in the military, government agencies, and private enterprise is pushing our current Space Age into what happens next.
Ocean Worlds, Autonomous Craft, and Cultural Evolutions
International interests, militaries, alliances, and government agencies all face significant cultural challenges as they coordinate with the players within the commercialization of Space and bridge cultures from government agencies with the cultures of private enterprise. As they all work together and in competition with one another to bring humans to the moon and then to Mars through the Artemis Missions and Orion Spacecraft an enormous potential for innovation lies ahead.
A perspective on the cultural shift that is taking place at NASA was best articulated by Da Poian in her sessions at SC23 in Denver, covering the challenges her spacecraft (drones) are facing. These crafts are due to launch to explore the ocean worlds (moons) orbiting Jupiter and Saturn with limited windows of connectivity while maintaining durability through a lifetime of radiation bombardment.
Some of the key struggles she will be facing with the execution of her research are:
Timeline – NASA has to plan a decade out for launch and then leverage the technology available that has been integrated into drones at the time of launch – and then that technology has to last decades. Her team is migrating a process built in the 1990s, one that, while proven to work through the unforgiving environment of Space, is also one that now needs to evolve forward to incorporate the latest in SuperComputing and AI-driven algorithmic programming.
Radiation – These crafts have to withstand heavy amounts of radiation in their journey through Space. The supercomputing powering the craft and driving the AI built into the craft onboard will have to withstand this radiation for decades to come — these will be quite different than the “fragile” systems we use today.
Connectivity – There will be consistent periods of time where there will be no connectivity with NASA on Earth. Therefore, the AI-driven algorithms built into the supercomputing within the craft onboard will have to be able to adapt to environmental demands while in orbit, including decisions needed for analysis and risk management for the craft itself. The spacecraft will have to make mature decisions in real-time without constant communication back to Earth.
Pursuing these goals requires a shift from what has worked in the past, and embracing the as yet still unknown process of what will work in a semi-autonomous to autonomous future.
A Future in Climate Adaptation and Space-Driven Supply Chains
Recently, during a presentation, I was asked by an audience member, “Why so much focus on the new Space Age when climate adaptation strategies are so desperately needed here on Earth?”
On the face of it, climate adaptation strategy and our Space Age can certainly be perceived as contradictory. There is a mindset that money spent reaching out into Space is money taken away from climate adaptation strategies.
However, as a futurist who studies evolutions in human behavior and technology, I suggest that the lessons learned, and innovations found as we move into this new Space Age can be integrated here on Earth to help us adapt to the changing climate. Our evolving needs on the planet, as we adapt to a changing climate, can draw from the lessons learned by NASA and cooperating global space agencies as they are researching and building habitats and supply chains that extend off the planet.
Simultaneously, as we build these habitable communities off-planet that are meant to withstand the harsh environments of Space, we will be able to utilize some of the same learnings and innovations here on Earth built to help withstand a rapidly evolving climate.
The majority of our supply chains on Earth still rely on shipping lanes across our oceans, which were developed hundreds of years ago, with all of the geopolitical tensions and ramifications that go with them. A strong majority of resources needed in today’s age of technology to navigate climate change, the future of high-performance computing and AI, and evolutions in Quantum rely on rare earth minerals for development. Once we establish communities and supply chains off Earth, then these minerals are no longer rare. They become formerly rare earth minerals, as minerals are in abundance throughout our solar system. Supply chains built atop Earth’s oceans can evolve to supply chains built in Space and in low Earth orbit.
With the aim to build human-based habitats on the moon for the Artemis missions, supply chains, and future human-based habitats on Mars, the asteroid belt, and beyond to the oceanic moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn, the Space Age of the past becomes a brilliant composition of classical music. The future is an evolving series of improvisation and human evolution to the stars.
Eric Hunter is a global futurist, speaker, author, and advisory member to boards across the world. He leads Innovation Futures, an industry agnostic think tank focusing on future disruptions: how to best leverage the future of technology and human behavior in affecting change. For more on his perspectives check out his TEDx: “The Future of Human Behavior“. His latest book, a book of poetry, “Travels in Time,” published in May of 2022.
Follow Eric on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/erichunterfuturist