When I was young I was fascinated by space travel. In the 80s, when the space shuttle missions began it seemed as if, in a few years away, we would be travelling in the kind of ships you could see in Star Wars. But it didn’t happen, and the space shuttle program ended in 2011. Two years later, I was lucky enough to spend some time at the NASA Ames Research Center in the San Francisco Bay Area of Southern California. NASA still attracts some of the world’s finest scientific minds and is carrying out crucial work, but the overall sense was one of decay and underfunding. The explorer Bertrand Piccard, for whom I was working at the time, told me that it was a far cry from the glory days of the 60s and 70s when, as a boy, he watched the launch of several Apollo missions. Then, there was a feeling that humanity could achieve anything.
And today, it seems that optimism is back in the air. I accept that my perception is coloured by my recent experiences: working with Solar Impulse and ABB has meant that I have come into proximity with inventors and entrepreneurs who believe anything is possible. However, we see it in the zeitgeist. Recent movies are paying more than just lip-service to real scientific discussions surrounding inter-planetary travel and the next stage of human evolution (Interstellar and The Martian to name just two). And, with the International Space Station coming to the end of its life, thoughts are turning to a successor, which could be the Moon Village, a collaborative hub for research, exploration, tourism and business. Space X has done a lot to build enthusiasm for a Mars colony and also to bring credibility to space exploration projects, notably with the extraordinary landing of the Falcon rocket on a drone ship.
All this was in my mind when I pitched the idea of a Mars VR experience to the comms leadership at ABB. The company is a respected partner with several space agencies, supplying high quality measurement and analysis equipment that is currently orbiting the Earth on 5 satellites, sending back detailed data on the ozone layer, greenhouse gases and weather patterns, as well as helping us to look further and more accurately out into the galaxy and beyond. Showing great vision they agreed, and the experience premiered at the CERAWeek conference in Houston. There I had the privilege to meet former astronaut Captain Mike Foreman, one of the few people to have broken free from Earth and look down at it in its entirety, and talk to him about his experiences in Space Shuttles Endeavor and Atlantis, and spacewalks outside the International Space Station. Both the VR experience and Mike’s presentations were extremely popular and hopefully added to ABB’s reputation as a thought leader in the energy sector.
Many astronauts have said that, by being able to look down on the planet, they found a new perspective on the fragility of human life, and a fresh impetus to find ways to protect it. This was the philosophy behind the ABB Mars VR experience “Writing the future. In space”. By imagining how ABB technology could be deployed on a manned Mars colony, we shone a light on the ways in which we can already solve some our biggest problems back on Earth. ABB Ability connected digital solutions are enabling efficiency savings in industry, robots and other forms of automation are taking care of “4 d” jobs (dull, dangerous, dirty and delicate), scaled up electric mobility infrastructure will give rise to clean transportation, and smart, digital grid technology will make it possible to realise the dream of reliable electricity dominated by a wide range of renewables sources.
Ultimately, though, the aim was to inspire. Exploration, whether in space or on Earth, signifies a refusal to accept boundaries. Each time we think we’ve reached the limits, someone comes along to push it further, again and again. We’re not there yet, but the exponential increase in technological capabilities is bringing the concept of a “society of abundance” ever closer to reality, will free our minds from the struggle for survival and allow us to think more deeply about that separates us from animals and machines, about what it means to be human.