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The eighth continent

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Why should we explore and settle space?

Sometimes, we say that the Moon is “the eighth continent” of Earth. Here is how I like to think of it.

A city on another world. Illustration by David Schleinkofer, 2011.

Imagine. It is year 2020, and for some odd reason, we just discover today a continent the size of Africa, right in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. How much time will pass before we go there?

This fictional continent would have very different rules of the game. Sometimes, it would be very hot, sometimes, very cold. Clearly, we wouldn’t be made to live there. The strange atmosphere would force us to wear special outfits. Ambient air would completely change the way we design industries, because some processes would be a lot easier to do here. Some would be harder. By the way, the soil would be unlike anything we know. It would contain different minerals, in different proportions. That would force us to completely rethink how we build things and how we manufacture the objects of our daily life. There are chemical elements required for our survival that would be very rare, which would force us to make progress on recycling and circular economy, to diminish the costly imports by air from nearby continents. From this continent, we would have easier access to nearby islands, which would also have their own specificities and curiosities.

Life would be tough at first, because everything would still have to be built – there would be few infrastructures in place. We would try new ideas, and some of them would fail. Sometimes, there would be tragic losses of human life, and we would question this whole project. It would be a dangerous adventure, but with a great perspective for the future. The perspective of opening a whole new continent for humanity. A continent that will be the home of people yet to be born, that will create, imagine, love, share, and write their own stories. Their life will be much unlike ours, because they will live in a very different environment and develop their own culture. This difference will be their most cherished strength, and it will bring diversity to the cultural heritage of humanity.

This epic adventure, it won’t be science-fiction. We could say to kids: if you do well in school, you can also join this adventure. You can also become part of history.

To help the brave pioneers that would risk their lives by making the journey first, generations of engineers and scientists would work hard to solve problems we wouldn’t have encountered before. It would offer a new angle of attack for known challenges. It would offer a new perspective to consider solutions we used to ignore. It would offer a second point of measure for established theories.

Some people would be close to those who make the great leap. Their emotional investment would be huge, and when you are passionate and have skin in the game, you think differently – it’s a strength. Wars are known for driving inventions and technical progress. It is better that this emotional investment comes from pursuing a meaningful goal, than from fear, survival instinct, or nationalism. Even without such an intense emotional investment, being able to work for a meaningful cause is the main factor to enjoy our daily work. A lot of diplomated young adults are barely enjoying their work because they lack a meaningful purpose.

At first glance, this huge project would look a lot like a waste of time and money. Why invest so much efforts to live in such an hostile place? There, we could not grow food, at least not like we are used to. There won’t be minerals there that we don’t already find here.

As often, the journey is more interesting than the destination. To accomplish this effort, we would need to invent a lot of things, and develop new ways of thinking. This is what’s important.

It is difficult to know in advance whether an innovation will improve well-being or generate profits… What we know, on the other hand, is that if there was a way to increase the quantity of innovations, some of them will prove useful, and with some luck, some will even be transformational.

We enjoy today a much more pleasant life than 2000 years ago. It is not because we changed planet, or because the rules of the game have changed. It is because technological progress opened new perspectives for us to interact with our environment. Offering a playing ground to stimulate the creativity that lies inside each and every one of us, this is the real purpose. A lot of challenges will be specific to surviving there, but a lot of technologies will for sure be transposable to improve the lives of those that didn’t take the trip. It has been the case since we sent machines to space, and people just above the top of our atmosphere. So, what will it be when we have people living full-time on another world, performing all the essential daily tasks required to survive, work, and have fun?

Choosing to go to space is not leaving behind the challenges we currently face on Earth; it is providing ourselves with new tools to tackle them.

Today, the eighth continent isn’t in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, but above our heads. This continent, it could have been the bottom of the oceans, Antarctica, deserts, the Moon, Mars, giant free-floating space stations, or anything else. But at the intersection between what is technically feasible, is exciting for our future, fits the current geopolitics, and for which we have a considerable number of private actors reaching maturity… Today, there is the Moon. Soon, there will be Mars.

So, let’s go there. And let’s stay.

The best thing about using space as a frontier for innovation and sustainable development, is that it is virtually endless. There will always be new worlds to explore, study, and settle. Let’s seize this opportunity while it is open to us.

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