If colonizing space is the inevitable future of humanity, the vision of that future is still taking shape. So far, we have seen three evolving versions of Humankind in space in real life. First, we saw a military style space race between the Soviet Union and the United States of America. Then, the United States followed with a civilian space agency in reply. Today, we also have a growing number of private space companies competing for access to what has always been the purview of nation-states.
Each of these versions of humans in space can achieve the goal of colonization, but each is also inherently different in the details of that effort and how best to achieve it. Military, civilian or corporate, ah that is the question. Which, if any is best for our species? Perhaps the answer lies in how each approaches its goal.
The military option squarely focuses on command and control. Every sensor, craft, pilot and passenger has a well-defined purpose, position and function. Any deviation from the plan is cause for concern and a response proportionate to the danger posed by the deviation. If the need arises, a dispassionate response can and will be executed as quickly as possible. Emphasis on executed.
A civilian option, the kind the United States embraced for the last sixty years, mitigates the emphasis on control with an institutionalized emphasis on safety. Redundant systems to prevent critical failures, payload protection to safeguard equipment, and above all else, crew safety is the focus of NASA and agencies like it around the world. The main drawbacks of this approach are overly cautious designs, missions, astronauts and the changing leadership of the government that supports the agency.
With private companies taking a greater role in government space operations around the world, the third option open to our species is still in its infancy. SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, Bigelow Aerospace, and Virgin Galactic, are only a few of the notable corporations aspiring to a greater presence in human space flight. These companies have specific goals and react quickly to emerging technologies to help them achieve those goals. Their main obstacle so far has been the enormous amount of funding required for sustained profitable operations.
So then, we have distilled the three versions of military space operations, civilian government space agencies and private space companies into their core principles of control, safety and profit. Which of these is best for the future of humanity in space? Each has strengths in comparison to the others, but no single approach seems any better overall to advancing our species along the path to a multi-planet civilization.
Perhaps, and this is entirely from my personal experience having served in the military, experienced the bureaucracy of civilian government agencies, and having run a business, all three have a place in our future. Each will continue to evolve as we develop the technology, infrastructure and the capability to explore and live beyond Earth’s atmosphere. What that future looks like will likely be a blend of all three approaches and perhaps something else entirely that we can scarcely imagine today.