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The Great 'Beyond': Contemplating Life, Sex And Elevators In Space

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The Great 'Beyond': Contemplating Life, Sex And Elevators In Space

Space

The Great 'Beyond': Contemplating Life, Sex And Elevators In Space

The Great 'Beyond': Contemplating Life, Sex And Elevators In Space

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/405503895/405940390" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Astronomer Chris Impey examines the possibilities of the universe in his new book Beyond. "I like the idea that the universe — the boundless possibility of 20 billion habitable worlds — has led to things that we can barely imagine," he says. In the 1970s, NASA Ames conducted several space colony studies, commissioning renderings of the giant spacecraft which could house entire cities. Rick Guidice/NASA Ames Research Center hide caption

toggle caption Rick Guidice/NASA Ames Research Center

Astronomer Chris Impey examines the possibilities of the universe in his new book Beyond. "I like the idea that the universe — the boundless possibility of 20 billion habitable worlds — has led to things that we can barely imagine," he says. In the 1970s, NASA Ames conducted several space colony studies, commissioning renderings of the giant spacecraft which could house entire cities.

Rick Guidice/NASA Ames Research Center

The possibility of humans colonizing outer space may seem like the stuff of science fiction, but British astronomer Chris Impey says that if the U.S. were pumping more money into the space program, the sci-fi fantasy would be well on its way to reality.

Astronomer Chris Impey is a professor at the University of Arizona. W.W. Norton and Co. hide caption

toggle caption W.W. Norton and Co.

Astronomer Chris Impey is a professor at the University of Arizona.

W.W. Norton and Co.

"I think we might actually be living on the moon and Mars," Impey tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "Maybe not many of us, but we might have our first bases there. We'd have robust commercial space activity or people routinely in orbit. America wouldn't have had a hiatus of four years and counting when we couldn't get astronauts into space. It would be probably quite different."

Impey says the possibility of humans living in space is very real. And if — or when — it happens, the space settlers will face conditions that may cause them to become an entirely new species.

"They'll evolve physiologically quite quickly, because if the gravity is less — as it would be on Mars or the moon — then they will change," Impey says. "Their physical bodies will change even while they're alive. And then if they have children and grandchildren — then they'll change even more."

Impey is a faculty member at the University of Arizona and the author of Beyond: Our Future in Space. In his previous book, Humble Before the Void, Impey recounted his journey to Northern India to teach a program designed to introduce science into the Tibetan Buddhist monastic tradition.


Interview Highlights

Beyond

Our Future in Space

by Chris Impey

Hardcover, 321 pages |

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Our Future in Space
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On what's left of the NASA space program

It's actually still pretty good. I think the perception of NASA — [that] we're in a bad space in our activities — is a little exaggerated. NASA's budget isn't growing, but it's also not declining. So, they're investing in new technologies; we're going to get a new heavy launch capability in a couple of years. The space station is active and doing scientific experiments. We're launching satellites; there's a heavy entourage of spacecraft going through the solar system and exploring there. It's not quite as bad as some people make out.

On China's involvement in the space race

They've grown their space activity at the rate of their economy, which has been 10 percent a year for a decade and maybe slimming down a bit. But that's compared to our flat-line budget for NASA. So they've got a doubling of their activity in less than a decade. They're looking to build their own space station, and it might be up there at a time when the International Space Station is de-orbited and burned up in the atmosphere. They're looking to go to the moon; they're looking to have a Mars rover, and they're actually — unlike the one of the stereotypes that they're just sort of copying our technology — they're actually innovating. They have very young engineers in their space program — very keen, very well trained, very ambitious.

On the concern that China will claim the moon

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 supposedly prohibits any country or government from claiming ownership of the moon or an asteroid or Mars. It leaves a loophole for individuals or corporations because it just didn't anticipate that. So, in principle, they can't really do that. Even where Apollo and the astronauts landed is not really a U.S. preserve, which has led to some interesting issues as commercial entities try and go back to the moon and perhaps send their rovers trampling across the astronauts' footsteps and the lunar rover tracks. So the Chinese can't really claim ownership of it. But, the resources? They can harvest the resources of the moon or mars and, really, there's no rule against that.

On sex in space

The astronauts — NASA and the Russians — continually deny the heavy rumor mill that says it's already happened. The astronauts are well trained and not supposed to do that, but, yes, when the public is up there, they're going to do what they normally do on the earth. ...

Your body is not functioning normally when all your capillaries and your muscles are designed to deal with the tug of gravity and you won't have that. But there'd also be ways in which Newton's third law — of action and reaction — interfere with the normal methods of sex that you might use on Earth. I'd just assume it's going to be an adventure, and people will be creative and they'll find new ways to enjoy themselves.

On creating a space elevator

The space elevator is of course a cool idea out of science fiction, and Arthur C. Clarke most famously asked when we would have our space elevators. And he said, "Fifty years after people stop laughing." And I think people are about to stop laughing. ...

Just imagine you're holding a cable or a rope — a finite length piece of rope — and you're just spinning. You're just spinning it around, and it will go straight out away from you by the centrifugal force. Well, the moon and the Earth are spinning too, so if you have a cable going into the air sufficiently high, then it will be suspended by the force caused by the spinning object that you're standing on. And it will just appear to go straight up into the air — right out into space — and hover there.

On the Dalai Lama's openness to science

The Dalai Lama, he said, famously ... that if modern science is found to disagree with a basic tenet of Buddhism, then Buddhism will change. And it's really hard to imagine those words coming out of the mouths of some religious leaders. That's an extraordinary openness to the inquiry that's at the heart of science.

On life in other universes

I like the idea that we're not it. I like the idea that the universe — the boundless possibility of 20 billion habitable worlds — has led to things that we can barely imagine. I think it's fun because it means your science is not self-contained and finite; it means that you have to really go way out of the box, even to imagine what astrobiology elsewhere might be like.

Correction May 11, 2015

A previous Web version of this story suggested that astronomer Chris Impey blames sharp budget cuts by NASA in the past four years for the slowdown in successful human efforts to colonize outer space. Impey actually said: "NASA's budget isn't growing, but it's also not declining."

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