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Titan orbiting Saturn, taken from Cassini. Photo: Universal/Getty
President Trump has set his sights on the Moon. Elon Musk's are on Mars. But some of the edgier talk urges an even bolder national aim — a human mission to Titan, Saturn's largest moon.
A mania broke out in the U.S. last week over the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, and returning to the Moon by 2024 and possibly Mars in the 2030s. But if the aim is an awe-inspiring mission leading to the colonization of space, neither may be the best practical answer.
"Titan should be the keystone for human settlement of the outer solar system, as it has all the materials needed to support life and technological civilization," said Robert Zubrin, a prominent aerospace engineer and space evangelist.
The big picture: Once NASA completed a few moon landings, political and popular support for more ambitious projects dried up. Now that backing for big spending has returned, amid a space race among nations and private companies, it's worth scrutinizing just what constitutes a new moonshot.
"Neither the Moon nor Mars are ideal for long-term human stays," she said. Titan is "a more sustainable destination."
Not everyone thinks a moonshot to Titan is a great idea: Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist, tells Axios' Alison Snyder that he is "not a fan of destination space programs." In an email, he said:
"What would serve multiple interests more reliably and stably in the long run is to create the capacity for robots and people to access space at all levels. Let the needs of the demographic and moment specify what the destination happens to be. Scientists search for life on Mars. Entrepreneurs mine asteroids. Tour companies book trips to orbit and to visit the lunar base, etc. Only then can a space program morph to become a space industry."
In addition, life on Titan would be hard — it's cold (about -290° F) and its atmosphere contains methane, propylene and poisonous hydrogen cyanide, not to mention nitrogen and carbon.
But if you believe that humans respond to specific, difficult-to-reach targets, there is a case for naming Titan as the best next big goal. One main reason is that, unlike the Moon or Mars, astronauts would not have to take everything along to sustain their existence.
If you are thinking genuinely long term, there is also the matter of Saturn's reserves of helium-3 — the largest in the solar system, says Zubrin.
Go deeper: A special report on Earth's nearest neighbor
The American Motors AMX, 1966. Photo: Pat Brollier, Darryl Norenberg/Enthusiast Network/Getty
Just 60 of the Fortune 500 of 1955 remain in the hallowed group. The rest (like American Motors, above, subsumed by Chrysler in 1987) have been largely the victims of changing times, tough competition or their own missteps.
What's happening: Tom Siebel, founder of C3.ai, an artificial intelligence firm that serves big corporations and the Army, says that this is an existential moment for current Fortune 500 companies that don't move quickly to adapt to the new age of AI and robotics.
"We are in a mass extinction event," says Siebel, who stopped by the office last week to talk about his new book, "Digital Transformation."
Westinghouse, Sears, and Toys "R" Us are among the slain former giants, Siebel notes. "You have companies with new DNA filling the voids in the ecosystem. You have Amazon rolling everyone. If you are Walmart, you are looking down that barrel of a gun. You are in a world of hurt," he said.
Siebel is describing one of the current megatrends:
"It's either you're on the train or you're on the track," says Siebel.
Beijing, November 2017. Photo: Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty
Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios
The dangerous future of war in space (The Economist)
Carmakers are putting electrics before driverless cars (Joann Muller - Axios)
What Arthur C. Clarke forecast 50 years ago about today (Rebecca Jones - Car and Driver)
The flying ants of Britain (Meilan Solly - Smithsonian)
The booming business of spying (Bill Priestap - NYT)
U.S. astronaut Kate Rubins, 2016. Photo: Dmitry Lovetsky/AFP/Getty
One of the great unsolved problems of spaceflight is how to pee in zero gravity, Kaveh writes.
For decades, astronauts have been subjected to bags, valves, suction fans, "sheaths" and high-tech diapers — a history painstakingly chronicled in a blockbuster Twitter thread from novelist Mary Robinette Kowal.
Fun fact: It took so long to suit up Russian astronaut Yuri Gargarin, the first human in space, that he had to pee before takeoff.
Go deeper: Space was designed by men, for men (Mary Robinette Kowal - NYT)
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