Expert Voices

This time, we take it from no one: Why opening the High Frontier of space can be different (op-ed)

Two people in spacesuits walk the surface of a rust colored planet. The astronaut in the foreground looks at something far away, in wonder. The astronaut to the right and slight behind leans on a rock formation and holds a hammer. A many-wheeled rover is parked behind them and in the distance, some habitat modules.
The Moon and Mars beckon as the next destinations for human civilization. (Image credit: NASA/Pat Rawlings)

As we move closer to the greatest revolution of all time, the opening of the High Frontier of space to humanity, some assert this is somehow a bad thing. Based on inaccurate understandings of history and misplaced projections of those misunderstood times to the future, they are spreading ridiculous and possibly dangerous ideas that what is happening in what I call the Space Revolution is a repeat of the conquests and colonization of history. Wrong. Aside from the fact that we are not taking space from anyone, this time, for the first time, if we do it right, we have the chance to give it to everyone.

In the movements and expansion of civilizations and peoples of the past, it has often been the case that, as one group expanded, it was at the cost of another. We have been driven in the past by changes in climate, the pressures of our populations, the collapse of our economies, the oppression of our ideas and beliefs, or the greed of those with a lot of stuff to gather more stuff under their control. Societies have also been forced to move to new lands by the movements of others being driven by others moving into their own, and so on. 

Contrary to current mythology, all of human history, everywhere on the planet has been an unending story of conquest. Around 2,000 years ago, Roman legions brutally conquered the indigenous tribes of Spain, France and the British Isles. One thousand five hundred years later, their progeny then slaughtered the indigenous tribes of a half dozen continents. In the time between, the Aztecs, Incas and Mayans slaughtered and enslaved the smaller tribes and kingdoms around them to expand their domains, while the Mongols conquered China and parts of eastern Europe. A bit later than that, the Zulu swept across southern Africa, conquering their neighbors, only to run into the British, who tried to conquer them. And while some groups may rise in righteous anger over the more recent takings and injustices faced by their ancestors, if one looks far enough back, it becomes clear that, in many cases, their ancestors or ancestors' ancestors took what they had from someone else. 

Related: Who owns the Moon? Law and outer space treaties

A portion of the far side of the Moon looms large just beyond the Orion spacecraft in this image taken on the sixth day of NASA's Artemis 1 mission, in late 2022. (Image credit: NASA)

Too often, we have witnessed the death-rattling chagrin of peoples being "discovered" by others arriving in their "New Worlds." Too often, we have characterized the progress of one society by the decline of another or its usurpation as a conquered nation. It has become almost axiomatic to some historians that this is just how things are and will always be. After all, we live on one planet and have done so for millions of years, and the odds are that, at some point, someone from somewhere else has been where you are going, and if they are still there, they will be in your way. 

Not so on the High Frontier of space. So far as we know, there is no one out there for us to conquer, no one whose lands we will steal or confiscate for our own. There is no one to displace, no one to eliminate, and no one nearby upon whose ashes we will build our own civilization. And so, at last, this ugly aspect of human history has a chance to end.

Rather, it appears that the solar system is empty of intelligence except our own. It is in that sense ours, as it belongs to no one else, not in the way that greed and the grabbing of finite resources and wealth have been taken or possessed in the past, but in the sense that we are responsible for it, We, All of Us — the entire human race. It may be possible there is primitive life to be found under a frozen rock on Mars or beneath the under-oceans of the Jupiter moon Europa or Saturn's Enceladus. In that case, we are obliged to treat it with care, treasuring it and protecting it, even as we move on and around it to fill the immensity of what remains of our neighborhood. The solar system is ours. It is our responsibility. To explore, inhabit, harvest, share and protect — or to pillage, destroy, covet and command. 

To some, this need to take, dominate, and control is a human trait. I agree that, especially in the beginning stages of opening the Frontier, it will be hard to imagine what some call "human nature" changing. But if you stop and think about it, there is no set "human nature" regarding greed or the need to conquer and own other peoples and their lands. I believe it to be more of a historical social norm or even a socially acceptable habit. Domination culture is based on control of technologies and resources, fed by the "have and have not" dynamic and used by power-hungry individuals with traumatic pasts, who have the ability and tools to gaslight and manipulate the elements of society around them, like governments.

As we open the High Frontier, these habits and tendencies will come with us — at least at first. The constant conflicts and geographic games of the nations of Earth will follow us into space. They already have. Keep in mind that the first space race was between rival governments. The next, already underway, is also between ideologically and territorially competing powers. The first was largely symbolic, resulting in little more than flags and footprints left behind by the winner. Today's is far different, and the stakes nothing less than domination of the solar system. From low Earth orbit to who will control the resources of the Moon, the game is afoot, so to speak.

Related: China moving at 'breathtaking speed' in final frontier, Space Force says

But suppose we can get past this first phase of government's trying to use space to dominate Earth and establish the first viable communities in the beyond. These can be based on underlying principles that focus on caring for life, evolving humanity and exploring the cosmos, and yes, funded by new industries and vast resources we no longer have to rip out of the MotherWorld. In that case, we may have a chance to move to a new level of human culture, where war, conquest, and control make way for more peaceful, collaborative efforts to expand the domain of life for all.

I am not speaking of a naïve utopia here but an opportunity that will be forced on us by pragmatic realities. The vast distances, the availability of endless supplies of materials, resources, and energy, and the susceptibility of fragile humans and their constructs to destruction all mitigate for mutual support and against war and conquest. In addition, the rise of our ability via additive manufacturing, robotics, and AI to transform those vast resources and energy into everything we need will eventually mean we don't need to take it from anyone else. After all, if everything I need is provided by the resources around me, I have unlimited clean energy and the machines to convert those resources into anything I need or can imagine, why do I want to take it from someone else? Why go to the trouble?

Again, to be clear, I am not ignoring the dark motivations of humanity's biggest enemy, those (mainly male) aberrations from the good citizens who play on their society's insufficiencies to feed their own bottomless needs for power. Indeed, it has been these damaged humans who have driven much of our history. But to succeed, or at least to undergird their mobilization of entire nations on their behalf, they have most often had to rely on a base of people lacking in comfort or angry at the inability of their states to provide economic or social stability. Even many of what appear to be religious conquests, when examined closely, boil down to control of resources and the fight between haves and have-nots manipulated by very specific people to feed their own spiritual insufficiencies.

On the other hand, most people are good. 99.9% of people on the planet just want to enjoy life. They just want a place to live, meet their needs, and have some fun along the way. Within that group are the 1% who always seem to have far more than the rest, and the 0.1% who seek control of everyone else — almost always by controlling their government. This is a societal problem, not a geographic one. It results more from issues of morality and control of governments than from resources or locations. Take scarce resources and limits on opportunities to engage in risk-reward mobility out of the equation and you've removed their biggest tools.

Speaking of haves and have-nots, I cannot write this without acknowledging what some outsiders see as an entitled group of "super haves" leading the way off the planet that older generations of "haves" nearly destroyed. Fortunately, in this case, that negative assessment is wrong — perhaps for the first time in history. While it is convenient to cast the billionaires building the rocketships as space-based colonialist conquerors, it is also both lazy and wrong. 

It is lazy because any deep examination of their histories or the motives of the movement they are part of would reveal a core benevolence and love for humanity and life driving them forward. For example, Jeff Bezos was, like me, a young disciple of Prof. Gerard K. O'Neill. O'Neill's groundbreaking 1973 book "The High Frontier" was built on his early predictions of the need to fight climate change by creating space solar power satellites, while turning Earth into a garden planet. That's Jeff's plan for his space company, Blue Origin. Meanwhile, he's also donated billions to the environment and other causes. Richard Branson is a leading environmentalist and champion of humanistic causes. Even Elon Musk (whose recent political utterings include many I do not share) has helped bring electric cars and solar powered homes into the mainstream, and began his quest for space by wanting to place a symbolic terrarium of Earthlife on Mars.

Related: As space billionaires take flight, 'the right stuff' for space travel enters a new era

It is wrong because, at least in the case of the three most well-known billionaire rocketeers, even their more well-informed critics admit they are not opening space to make money. They made their money to help open space. The recent attack made by President Obama (whom I revere) — using the tired refrain I will paraphrase as, "Why spend their money out there when we have so many problems down here" — highlighted how ridiculous this dogma is. Had I been there, I would have asked him which of his favorite professional basketball teams (funded by billionaires and taxpayers) should be shut down and the savings donated to the homeless. Love them or their terrestrial business practices, or hate them, these people are trying to do something for the good with at least some of their profits. They are not the robber barons or conquistadors of bygone eras, and it is a cheap exercise of absurdist eco-populism to cast them otherwise.

Of course, this doesn't mean that ego isn't involved. That is part of human nature, to be sure. Be it an artist, athlete, architect, surgeon, chef or scientist, we want to be the best, and if possible achieve great things. At the level of a multi-billionaire, it means, for some, applying that skill they have — accumulating and investing vast sums of money — into something they see as having the most significant impact on the future of their society. For Bill Gates it may mean fighting today's diseases. For these, it means helping build a tomorrow worth living into. In other eras, they might have been underwriting Arctic explorers, funding the first telescopes, or being patrons for a Michelangelo or Da Vinci. We have to separate debates about the system that enables the accumulation of such wealth from what they do with it. For my part, I'll take the fact that what they are funding is not about taking anything for themselves, but giving future generations the chance to have it all.

That means us and our children. All of us. The new rocketships they and others in the revolution are building will finally unshackle us from the government's ownership of the heavens and give us the keys to our tomorrow. Be it an American billionaire's fleet or even one of the many clones being built by Chinese teams, the cost of going out there is about to plummet. This means that, within the following decades, most middle-class people won’t have to settle for science fiction or watching government employees perform space for them; they will be able to go out there themselves. It also means it will be within the means of even the poorest nations to send their scientists, explorers and entrepreneurs to participate in this new renaissance. 

For better or worse, we will take who we are with us wherever we go. But things improve each time we go somewhere new — if we do so based on even the minimum of enlightened self-conceptualization. We improve.

History shows that, due to advances in technology, while the scale of the pain and devastation any single human or group can cause by a single act has grown dramatically, be it the pull of a trigger or the dropping of a bomb, the frequency and social acceptance of such crimes has dropped. It may not seem like it given our media inundation with scenes of violence and evil, but overall humanity is progressing. For example, today rape is a war crime rather than a routine part of battle, and as a male, you no longer have to carry a sword as part of your daily clothing. We improve. We grow. We will still have violence, greed and crime. They will follow us into space. But again, if we do it right, they will fade even more from their once central role in our society.

I have often been asked at my college talks why we don't wait until humanity is more mature before we go out into space. My reply: "When did you grow up the most? Was it while you lived at home with your parents? Or was it when you went out into the world?"

I do not propose perfection. I propose turning our focus in a new direction.

This new High Frontier gives us the chance to redefine our relationship to each other, to our Mother Earth, and to our future. We can use all we have learned of our history, all we know from science, and all we can imagine from our works of art and fiction and apply them to try to get it right this time.

Related: How living on Mars could challenge colonists (infographic)

I propose hope.

Imagine a future where the goal of human society is not to grab as much of a limited pie as we can but to expand the availability of everything to everyone, because all can access an unlimited supply of all we need.

Imagine a humanity driven not by the accumulation of whatever we can accumulate in a limited system but by the desire to experience, explore and create new places to be — everywhere and anywhere we can.

Imagine a society that measures itself not on what it can appropriate from others, but what it can learn and create; not on what it controls, but on what its people can do with their lives, down here or out there, as part of a vital species ending its childhood and awakening to the possible.

The opening of the Frontier offers us the chance to move outward for any of these reasons or for any reason we choose, any reason You choose.

There will be dark moments in the years to come. Political games and power grabs have already begun among the government players. Land grabs will come next — again, not by the people, but by governments. Keep this in mind. This is why we need those who are willing to put their own lives and fortunes on the line for this cause to do so. So that you can. This is the biggest change we can make on this Frontier — giving it to you. By opening the universe to humanity as widely as possible, bypassing government gatekeepers and throwing open the airlock to everyone, and democratizing access to the possibilities offered by everywhere else beyond Earth, we can create the option of an endlessly expanding set of options for all.

Most will stay here. Most always stay. That's fine. Those who choose to move upward will do so because they are bored or excited, tired or seeking a challenge, seeking a fortune or wanting to share the opportunity, oppressed or not oppressed; it does not matter. We must make it possible for them to go — for whatever reason they choose. Within a framework built on our highest principles, we must ensure that as many of us have the chance to do so as we can. What does matter is that, as soon as possible, we begin, and as we begin, we do it right.

We must learn to trust ourselves, even as we use this incredible opportunity to reinvent ourselves. We must reach for what we can be, even as we recall and are informed by what we have been. 

We've gotten so much wrong, so many times. 

This time it can be different, if We decide to Be different. 

Remember: This time we go as one humanity. 

This time we take it from no one. 

Instead, this time, we give it to all.

Rick Tumlinson is the founder of SpaceFund, a venture capital firm investing in space startups. He also founded the Space Frontier Foundation, Earthlight Foundation and New Worlds Institute and is a founding board member of the X Prize Foundation

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Rick Tumlinson
Founder of SpaceFund, Earthlight Foundation, Space Frontier Foundation and New Worlds Institute

Both a rebel and a respected leader, Rick is listed as one of the top 100 influential people in the space field. Called one of the world’s top space “visionaries,” Rick helped coin the term "NewSpace" and worked to create the new commercial space industry highlighted by Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.


A leading writer, speaker, and six-time Congressional witness, Rick helped start the first mission to find water on the Moon, signed the first ever commercial data purchase agreement with NASA, helped start NASA’s Lunar Exploration Analysis Group, led the commercial takeover of the Russian Mir space station, signed the first private astronaut to fly to the space station, co-founded the Space Frontier Foundation, and was a founding board member of the X-Prize. 


As a result of his world-changing work, in 2015 he won the World Technology Award along with Craig Venter of the Human Genome project. He founded the SpaceFund venture capital company with 19 space companies in its portfolio and is a member of the US Space Force Doctrine Advisory Group.


Rick's The Space Revolution "radiopod" is featured on IHeart Radio Network's iRoc Space Radio and is available on most major podcast sites. He hosts the New Worlds Conference and the Space Cowboy Ball in Austin, Texas, and his non-profit EarthLight Foundation is creating an inclusive new movement to use space to protect the Earth and expand life into the cosmos.

  • Unclear Engineer
    While I agree with much of this opinion piece, I am hesitant to share the optimism about human nature.

    I think he has it right that most of our history has been the result of competition among various groups of humans for limited resources. But, his expectations for "unlimited" resources in space seems extremely naïve, for 2 reasons.

    First, there will definitely be limits on resources we can acquire in space. Those limits are not just from limited amounts of something being there at all, but more so the limits on our abilities to extract them from wherever they are and get them to the places where those on Earth and elsewhere actually need them.

    But, more importantly, the reasons that we are feeling limited by the availability of resources that we need is that we have an inbred nature to expand our population, and we do so for as long as there are resources available to support the expansion. Then we fight others to take their resources, using all sorts of arguments to divide into "us" and "them" as the designated appropriate winners and losers.

    And, there will always be a tendency for some individuals to seek control and dominance. Maybe we can select the first generation of colonists for some remote outpost such as a Mars colony. But, once reproduction is occurring at self-sustaining levels in any colony, the variety of individual attitudes there will become far less controllable.

    What is needed is a change in culture that can deal with the negative aspects of human nature. It is naive to think that can all be accomplished with just positive means - only "carrots", no "sticks". And, the use of negative means requires some sorts of authority, which opens the door for repression and domination by the ones who have such tendencies.

    So, while we seem to be making some progress as a species trying to civilize ourselves, I note that the worst behaviors are still occurring in our world, today, and are not being successfully suppressed.

    I think we are going to have to deal with that for some time to come, as we create new colonies far from Earth, that must not only be able to support themselves, but must be able to control themselves in order to survive.
  • techw
    Frankly, your article does sound like a utopian fantasy. I like the thought of a Star Trek future, but it does seem pretty unlikely.

    I recommend reading the book "A City on Mars" by Kelly & Zach Weinersmith. It really is eye opening on the realities of space colonization.
  • Damon A
    This article is inane. There will always be conflict, humans simply cannot let others live as they please. This is true from your HOA to your local government to the federal government and even to the UN. There will always be someone out there that thinks they know better than you how you should live your life, and not only that, they'll be willing to use force to make you comply.

    There is no way space will be demilitarized or peaceful. It's just not who we are.
  • Atlan0001
    Damon A said:
    This article is inane. There will always be conflict, humans simply cannot let others live as they please. This is true from your HOA to your local government to the federal government and even to the UN. There will always be someone out there that thinks they know better than you how you should live your life, and not only that, they'll be willing to use force to make you comply.

    There is no way space will be demilitarized or peaceful. It's just not who we are.
    Colonizing the "High Frontier" in created/constructed "Stanford Torus" and "O'Neill Colony 3" surface of space colonies and other custom specialized made facilitations throughout the Solar System (including a belt belting the Asteroid Belt) and around every planet of the Solar System (excepting Mercury, which local area networked Venusian orbital colonies will take for a resource extension) will be a space surface and mass matter and energy resource miniature-galaxy modeling conquest without pre-existing human presence, just as Tumlinson points out.

    Otherwise, Tumlinson couldn't be more wrong in his energy-less stone-like Utopian view of non-competing evolutionary / revolutionary Tree of Life. Rather that eventually resisted evolutionary / revolutionary evolving and revolutionizing life energetically working and warring (frontier is always a struggle, a competition, thus a war!) its way into the next 'Frontier' beyond the Solar System (if that next 'Frontier' doesn't try to conquer, or eat, us Earth-life first).

    The Earth-life that wins its way out into the universe is going to have to go energetically nova, if not energetically supernova, to win its way out both externally and internally! Tumlinson not only didn't understand human history's battles to get where it is, he didn't understand life's battles, both physical and philosophical (matter / anti-matter-like ever oppositely charging minds, including mass mind (mass genius), in Orwellian/Huxleyan like vastly differing realizations of freedom and liberty, tyranny and slavery, mass cultures and physicalities, equalities and inequalities, compatibilities and incompatibilities ("combinations" (Edmund Burke) versus "associations" (Edmund Burke)).

    Tumlinson should not have entered an arena he apparently knows nothing about . . . or would simply ignore and dismiss. As with Tumlinson, I fight for the Exodus of life from a closed systemic Earth in expansion to not only more space for all but more time for all. The difference between us is, to me, it is "Exodus" to local area networks (LANs) and wide area networks (WANs)! There will be no Utopianization, except discreetly locally and relatively speaking, of Mankind and Life in the "High Frontier"! It will be for expanding survivability and growing chance opportunities in seeking a more resource rich, more open, system as it has always been from the beginning of life's expansion upon the Earth and throughout the universes (u).

    Once more! It has nothing to do with any Dystopian Utopianization of Mankind and Life! Just expanding survivability and growing chance opportunities (for life, whether for good or ill (which means it will be for both! as always for 'Life' . . . opposed to those who dream of life's perfection of death in a closed world system if they can't attain the perfection in life they fanatically dream of)).
  • Ken Fabian
    Impassioned but unrealistic. Passing over the extreme difficulties and costs and going straight to how things play out in an optimistic future where space colonies have income positive economies with no limits to growth and looking to the problems that may cause? Dreaming.
  • billslugg
    What could possibly be a valid, profit making, enterprise in interplanetary space? Maybe a bit of tourism. You might sell space rocks. Precious metals can't pay their own way with current rocket ship technology. Maybe crash a solid nickel asteroid on the Earth somewhere. EPA might have a problem with that. I just don't see any money out there. Deep space travel is going to be for scientific and national security purposes for a long time.
  • Unclear Engineer
    I have to agree with Bill.

    Establishing a colony on the Moon or Mars is a lot harder and more costly than establishing a colony at the South Pole on Earth, and we don't have one there, despite years of habitation by scientists. Even establishing a colony on Greenland has not gone over well with the humans looking for a place to "get away and start over." It is the scientists that go to remote places to learn new things. So, I think our history of habitation at the South Pole is a better analog for our future in "space" than the histories of people spreading across the tropical and temperate zones of Earth.

    The one advantage that "industry" might have with off-Earth production facilities could be the ability to "pollute" their manufacturing site without interference from the EPA, because that pollution would not affect Earth's ecosystem. However, the cost of transporting the products to Earth's surface, where the "market" is for selling them, would tend to make off-Earth production of products have some pretty steep price tags.
  • billslugg
    Space is a great place to get rid of toxic wastes as long as you can assure they keep on going and don't intersect Earth later.
    Deep space is also better for microgravity experiments. LEO has some level of tidal forces that super delicate crystalizations might not like.
  • Atlan0001
    You guys have a 1-dimensional vertical view of past and future history, strictly your city (homeland) versus frontier. You have no conception of inverse square, which means the horizontal-lateral view of growing conquest, step by step increase in lateral growth of opportunity and wealth from the space resource in the outer-space frontier, and the child now out of the womb and growing saying to heck with Mother Earth!

    Of course this very increase in non-Earth orientated energies will still mean growing possibilities of growing energy, opportunity and wealth on Earth in the growing exhaust vacuum to space frontier (exactly what Sir Thomas More was seeing and hating incubating and growing around him in Europe circa 1512OCE when he wrote his nostalgia for the pre-frontier, pre-human energizing (wealth energizing), feudalism of the middle Ages, "Utopia" (originally "Nusquama" (both the Greek and Latin meaning "Nowhere / Nowhereland")).

    No overwhelming floods of mass resources and goods has to flow down to the Earth from the 'High Frontier' for an increasing energy and wealth (in too many ways to count) to come back in backflow to make of the homelands themselves growing "New World Frontiers."


    To borrow and upgrade a line original to Albert Einstein, "The mass genius of 'Frontier' has always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds . . . such as that of 'Utopia's Sir Thomas More, circa 1512OCE!" -- Atlan0001.
  • Catastrophe
    Unclear Engineer. Post #8. I agree.

    I have pointed out several time, the naivety of "just" building a metallurgical plant and "build all" factory on distant exoplanets - those considered too far away to make it worthwhile to ship metals to other locations.

    Some seem to think these distant manufacturing facilities just grow on trees.

    Cat :)