Dr. Chris Impey was at SXSW to let us see what the future of humanity might be. Unfettered by being on Earth, he envisions worlds without end that will keep exploration going for untold millennia.

Impey is Professor of Astronomy at the University of Arizona, and feels we must extend the reach of humanity into space. “Why do we do this?” he asked. “Individuals might have their own reasons, but I think we might have a genetic component to this.” He illustrated the idea with maps showing the migration of humanity across continents: “literally just 10,000 years to go from Siberia to Patagonia.”

Using that as an analogous idea to space travel, he said it’s still early days. “Less than 700 people have ever experienced zero gravity: 15 times more people have stood on top of Mt. Everest. Only a dozen people have set foot on the Moon.” For the first 50 years of space exploration, it was dominated by the superpower rivalry of the US and the USSR. “It did not have this visionary idea of exploration or ideas of tourism or recreation. It was really a quasi-military initiative, although Pres. Eisenhower in 1959 resisted the entreaties of his generals to make NASA a military agency.”  

Impey bemoaned the funding for NASA. It peaked at 4.5 % of GDP in the mid-60s and has since declined to half of 1%. In real terms its budget in the last 20 years is down by a factor of 2. As Impey writes in his new book, “Nasa operates in a political landscape that changes with every election cycle, compromising its ability to do long-term, strategic planning.”

Even more worrying is the rise of the Chinese space program. “The average age of their space employees is 29, the average age of a NASA engineer is late 50s. If you look at the projection for this year, China is planning 100 launches, more than the United States will do. We are in the middle of a space race that has Cold War echoes,” he told the audience at SXSW in Austin.

Asteroid Mining

Looking to the mid-21st century, Impey talked about asteroid mining. “With our current telescopes you can easily find an asteroid with a current retail value of $2 trillion in rare-Earths and precious metals. There’s a myth out there that we are running out of resources: the problem with rare-Earths and precious metals is not that we’re running out of them on Earth. It’s just that most of them in a viable mining situation are in the hands of our adversaries.”

“It’s not even rocket science,” he stated, “to envision capturing an asteroid and steer it into an Earth-Moon orbit. It’s going to happen. People will sink enormous amounts of money into it, the first ones will lose their shirts and go bust, but eventually asteroids will be mined, and we are going to Mars and build habitats.”  There is a whole chapter on asteroid mining in his book, Worlds Without Ends, which he autographed at SXSW.

Space Elevator

On a more immediate level, Impey says with construction of a space elevator, we can put all of Earth’s toxic waste and put it into Earth orbit nearly for free. Impey expands on this idea in his book, tracing the idea to rocket pioneer Tsiolkovsky. More famously, it was seriously proposed by Arthur C Clarke in a technical paper of 1981. Essentially a cable, it would extend from Earth’s surface to a point tens of thousands of miles high, counterbalanced by a heavy mass such as a captured asteroid. “A space elevator would dramatically change the economics of getting to space – no rocket fuel, and no issue of reusability…If one country or corporation built a space elevator, they’d have an enormous strategic advantage and could potentially control all space,” Impey writes in his book.


Looking to the far future, Impey said the technology needed is coming out of medical science where they deal with people who fall into ice, and doctors reanimate them. “We know technologies that can potentially lead to suspended animation of humans for a millennial-type journey to another place. It doesn’t matter whether it takes 10 years or a thousand years: you just wake up in this wonderful new world.” The search for planets orbiting other stars (exo-planets), is a prime area of astronomical research now. The amount of data that will be generated by new telescopes in space and on Earth in this and other searches will overwhelm the ability of scientists to study it all, but the need for AI to take over this task is not addressed in the book.

His book is, however, a fine primer for anyone seeking an easy explanation of the nature of exo-planets.  He has separate chapters on various kinds of planets that orbit other stars, such as Earth clones (“Living Earths might be much rarer than we hope”), water worlds, and gas giants. Written for a wide audience, it covers the astonishing breadth of possibilities for future space exploration.

Worlds Without End: Exoplanets, Habitability, and the Future of Humanity is by MIT Press. It lists for $29.95.

Photo: Dr. Impey (l) with Dr Cunningham

By Dr. Cliff Cunningham

Dr. Cliff Cunningham is a planetary scientist, the acknowledged expert on the 19th century study of asteroids. He is a Research Fellow at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia. He serves as Editor of the History & Cultural Astronomy book series published by Springer; and Associate Editor of the Journal of Astronomical History & Heritage. Asteroid 4276 in space was named in his honour by the International Astronomical Union based in the recommendation of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Dr. Cunningham has written or edited 15 books. His PhD is in the History of Astronomy, and he also holds a BA in Classical Studies.