Students Pushing Space Exploration to Its Outer Limits

It is time to push the resetbutton in opening up thespace frontier.

That’s the view from someparticipants taking part in a 10-weekintensive studies program at SingularityUniversity, a school for technology leaders based at NASA'sAmes Research Centerat Moffett Field in Mountain View, Calif.

The program is titled "To BoldlyStay — ExtendingHumanity into the Solar System."

"The onrush of exponentialtechnologies are reinventinghow we get into space … and reinventing everything we do," said PeterDiamandis, co-founder and chairman of Singularity University. He’s alsochairman and chief executive officer of the X Prize Foundation.

"The students worked on what wecalled '10 tothe 9th — plus' projects … how to positively impact a billion people inadecade.That was their metric of success," Diamandis said.

Singularity University draws its namefrom the book "TheSingularity is Near" written by American inventor and futurist RayKurzweil. The term singularity refers to the rapid and acceleratingonslaughtof sciences and technologies, such as nanotechnology, biotechnology, artificialintelligence, robotics and genetics.

Kurzweil is co-founder of theSingularity University,underscoring his belief that the mind-warping growth in a range oftechnologies"allows us to solve problems that seem unsolvable."

Students from 35 nations attended the10-week program, delvinginto off-Earthexploration, as well as the worldly woes of sustainable waterassets, foodfor cities, home energy use and "upcycle" — waste reduction andreprocessing into useful products.

"Theapplication of exponential thinking to the grand challenge of spaceexplorationand settlement was thrilling to watch unfold this summer," saidBobRichards, a founding trustee of Singularity University.


Chris Lewicki, team leader of theSingularity University spaceproject, is also a space engineer with several NASA Mars missions underhisbelt. that the university's space team explored a broad expanse oftopicsto enable humans to sustainably expand into the solar system. The teamthen producedan Exponential Technology Impact Report that identified sixopportunities toexamine in more detail:   

  • Escape Dynamics: afully reusable space launchsystem to defeat the fundamental limiting factor of access to space. 
  • SWARM: the possibilityofa shared cloud of nanosatellitesin low-Earth orbit to enable space-based services with minimalinfrastructure.
  • Made in Space: exploresbuilding spacecraft, tools andother infrastructure in space using 3-D printing technologies. 
  • SpaceBio Labs:investigates providing cheap and easy accessto highly functional biological experiments in space on automatedplatforms toenable long-duration experiments.
  • Biologically Enhanced SpaceTechnology: envisionsthe use of biological materials and biology-inspired space structuresin spaceexploration.  
  • AI Labs: imaginesthe application of general artificialintelligence to increasingly autonomous remotely operated robots andsyntheticbiology to help create survivable environments, overcome disease andaging, andextend human presence in space.

"Onlyafew of the students had any background or exposure to spaceexploration,"Lewicki said. "This was an asset, as it allowed them to explore thegrand challengeswithout any preconceived ideas of potential solutions."

Anumber ofthe Singularity University students chose the space project, as it wastheironly opportunity to participate in space exploration research, Lewickiadded. "Manyof the teams are planning to turn their summer projects into activebusinesses."

SUcorporatefounders include Autodesk, Google and ePlanet Ventures, as well as theKauffman Foundation, a promoter of entrepreneurship fueled bytechnologicalinnovation.

Spareparts on the fly

Theinterdisciplinary aspect and interactions between fast-movingtechnologies wasunderscored by university faculty head Dan Barry — a veteran shuttleastronautwith three trips to space under his helmet.

Barrysaidthe time is near for making it possible for anyone to buy a ticket togo tospace.

Yetone ofthe biggest issues with living in space, Barry said, is what to do whenthingsbreak.

Thespaceteam appraised the use of 3-D printers, making it possible to createspareparts on the fly, Barry said. He singled out the International SpaceStation ashaving a surprisingly high percentage of its mass in just spare parts.

"Sosuppose you were able to make the parts that you wanted in space, whenyouneeded them," Barry said. "You don’t wait three months for them toshow up."

Theimplications for 3-D printing in space could mean reducing the tons ofhardwaredispatched on, say a mission to Mars.

Producingmade-on-Mars gear would allow exploration missions to use less powerfulboostersand could transform the entire mission scenario in terms of cost, timeandeffort to get to the Red Planet, Barry observed.

"Itcan bethe difference between a Mars mission that gets funded and goes …versusonethat’s too expensive," he said.

Beamedpower launch

SU students also investigated how to reinvent the ability to hurlhumans intospace.

Lookingatthe boosters of today, "it’s the same technology that old Chineserocketshad," Diamandis pointed out, a tube in which you burn something andexhaust gasses come out the other end.

SUstudentsthis summer investigated beamed power launch,  Diamandis said.Using ground-basedsolid-state laser or phased-array microwave energy sources, a craft’sonboard workingfluid, like hydrogen, would be heated to propel it spaceward.

Thatsystemhas the potential to be on the order of 50 to 100 times more efficientthantraditional launch vehicles, with a much higher payload fraction andmuchhigher specific impulse rate, Diamandis explained. "This is a systemthatthe technologies exist today to implement that," he said, and "willchange how we get into space in the next 10 to20 years."

Kurzweil:transcend our limitations

In a Sept. 13 internet briefing,Kurzweil admitted he wasn’ta space cadet, but did spotlight his outlook for moving off the planet.

"I’d say the primary reason right nowis notthat we better get off the planet because we're running out ofresources …  wehave plenty of resources here on Earth, for the time being," Kurzweilemphasized.That being said, moving settlements off Earth is more a prospect towardthe endof the century, he noted, a time "when we might really have to forstrategic reasons."

Kurzweil said that the reason to gointo space "isbecause that's the nature of being human … to transcend our limitationsof beingon one planet."

Getting machinery and people intospace is "aninspiring, grand challenge which expands our knowledge of science andstimulates our imagination and, ultimately, will be strategicallyimportant toour planet," Kurzweil said.

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Leonard David has beenreporting on the space industryfor more than five decades. He is past editor-in-chief of the NationalSpaceSociety's Ad Astra and Space World magazines and has written forSPACE.comsince 1999.

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He has received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.