John Elkington meets James Parr – the space inventor getting astronauts excited

James Parr and John Elkington | Image by TOPIA

James Parr takes us to our planetary limits in a conversation about solving solar system sized problems, low impact reusable rockets – and joyrides for billionaires

James Parr

I have long been fascinated by liminal people, born with the ability to move between worlds. One such is James Parr, founder and CEO of Trillium Technologies and director of Frontier Development Lab, a joint venture with NASA and the SETI Institute.

In the early days of desktop computing, I had the SETI program cranking away in the background, so when my sequence of Macs wasn’t pounding out books it was scouring the universe for signs of intelligent life. 

Turning the focus back on Earth, James is exactly the sort of life-form we need to see more of. He aims to solve solar system-sized problems.

When it comes to saving our planet from asteroids, the goals of space agencies or conducting research on our sun, he believes in the power of radical collaboration methods. He applies AI to the science and technology needed to research the “knotty problems” of Earth science and space exploration. On his “to do” list are grand challenges such as climate change, violent extremism, prevention strategies for cancer and obesity, deforestation mitigation, climate resilience, and planetary stewardship.

As founder of the Open Space Agency – dedicated to the democratisation of space exploration through citizen science and open hardware – he’s dedicated to unlocking the passion and insight of citizen space explorers around the world. It’s aimed at makers, DIY engineers or just long-time aspiring astronauts “with stars in your eyes”. The first real-world ‘mission’ is a 3D printed automated robotic observatory. 

Back here on Earth, James lives in London

with his wife and twin daughters…

John Elkington: James Parr, firstly, wonderful to see you! You’re a peculiar creature as your life straddles these worlds of sustainability (what some now call the regenerative economy) and space. You even created a game for younger people in the 1990s featuring space. So this has always been a part of your makeup. Just to kick us off, how did that happen?

James Parr: I am absolutely the child of Apollo. A lot of us born in the 70s have that in our DNA. I’ve been dancing in and out of the space business for a while. But the thing is, you can’t think about space without thinking about the pale blue dot. I was very aware of Carl Sagan and his concepts even as a young man. It was thinking about the climate and planetary limits that made me realise that perhaps a space career wasn’t for me! When you and I met 20 years ago or so, I was very much a greenie… working for the green parties, trying to figure out how to make the world more sustainable. Space was a forgotten dream. It was part of me, but something I didn’t think was possible to have as a career. When I went to my first space conference, I went for dinner with a whole lot of astronauts and cosmonauts and it was toe-curling! Everybody had spent time in space. As they came around to me, I wanted to shrink away. I said, “I’m a sustainability consultant”. They all lit up and were like, “Well, we’re here for the same reason!”

John: How did they understand their activities as linking to what you are bringing to the table?

James: All of them had spent time in space looking down at the pale blue dot. There is a notion of planetary limits and space as intrinsically linked for people who’ve been up there. It’s completely obvious that they should be at the table. And of course, they’re all brilliantly charming and made me feel comfortable. That’s what astronauts do as well; they wouldn’t be astronauts if they couldn’t get along. It was a very special moment.


John: It’s funny, because I can still remember the time when we suddenly as a species saw our planet from outside and something changed in the human psyche. The paradigm has been shifting, but by god these things take a long time. Maybe it does take 50 or 60 years before people really wake up to the reality which was signalled back then. We’re in one of those moments where people are criticising (including Prince William) the new breed of billionaires and multimillionaires – Branson and Bezos and Musk and so on – who want to go into space and colonise Mars. Do you think there’s some benefit lurking in there somewhere?

James: Well, it’s got a huge symbolic value to criticise them. And I think that’s justifiable! We can safely say that the very, very wealthy have too much and their resources would be better spent figuring out how to manage our planet better. With Blue Origin flights, which have got a lot of attention – and perhaps rightly so, as perhaps providing joyrides for billionaires isn’t a great use of resources – they are building reusable rockets as a new replacement of the F1 rocket engine. It essentially burns clean. It burns liquid hydrogen and the byproduct is water. America doesn’t have an engine like this for access to orbit. So Blue Origin is really leading the charge for low impact, low emission rocketry. 

This is the spin-off benefit of space investment. The case for space is very difficult to make. NASA has an economist, and he figured out that for every dollar of taxpayer money spent in the US, the country has benefited from about $14 of exceptional value. So that’s just how the space business investment and NASA has returned to the US economy. And it’s everything from the CMOS sensors in your smartphone to the silicon chip itself. The first PC was actually the Apollo Guidance Computer, which sat behind the heads of the astronauts on the way to the moon. Even Unix, which the Internet and modern computing is based on, was developed through this process. It’s error-free software architecture that we now take for granted.

Providing joyrides for billionaires isn’t a great use of resources.

John: How do you put a price – or a value, perhaps – on our ability to see our world and what we’re doing to it from outside? I imagine that’s priceless?

James: The story of the astronauts and The Overview Effect has emotional pull. There’s nothing more amazing than the short story from the International Space Station by retired astronaut Ron Garan, who flew across all these countries with no borders, showing how small and fragile the planet is. It’s very difficult for the human brain to conceptualise things outside an eight kilometre radius, which is what we’ve evolved to hold in our RAM. But the fact we can fly around our planet in 90 minutes, shows its finiteness. The atmosphere is small – like the skin of an apple. But there’s much more to it than that. 

Space allows us to measure our planet with all of these different tools: multispectrum, cameras, radars, and a huge variety of technologies. That really gives us an independent unequivocal measure of how the world is changing. Even the most fervent climate deniers can’t argue with the heat energy from the planet measured from space. It’s pretty hard to argue when you show that the world is heating up if you look at it from a distance. In this new era we’re in, we’re starting to observe our planet in extreme detail every day using different tools like radar, optical hyperspectral. This gives us the toolbox to really understand how to measure our planet.

John: And how confident are you that our species will use these tools, these technologies, these vantage points to the right end? We’ve just seen the Chinese demonstrate a hypersonic nuclear glider. And we all know that pretty much most of the space effort came from an existential race between the United States and the Soviet Union for the commanding heights of space. Now, you and I are people who are interested in sustainability and the art of planet management, as Buckminster Fuller once called it, so we tend to think that that’s where it’s going to go. But how do we know?

James: It’s a good question. Our current behaviour suggests that it’s not going in the right direction today. We’re treating low Earth orbit the same way we’re treating our oceans, resulting in another tragedy of the commons. We see it as a place we can pollute, without any sort of consequence. This is the era we’re in now. We need to understand that when there’s a commons and we need to work together to make sure that these very finite things aren’t ruined. With even more military testing, we may not ever be able to leave. The Kessler syndrome makes it impossible for us to navigate those small windows through low Earth orbit. With more devices comes more collisions and more debris and more collisions, we are seeing a chain reaction. 

And then of course, there’s the Moon as well. It’s also a commons. Actually, there’s only a handful of places in cislunar space (or the area of space between Earth and the Moon) which describe the Earth-Moon system, where it’s useful for human science. We do need to be much more circumspect about how to ensure a safe end of life for these missions: they need to age gracefully, then be deorbited or reused, as we find a way of applying the principles of sustainability to space as well as Earth. 

If you look through centuries, 400 years ago we thought as far as the next village, then 300 years ago we started thinking on continental scale. You could argue that in the 20th century we discovered we were global and we started thinking on this global scale. But in the 21st century, we see a transition. 

We’re starting to think in orbital terms in terms of the solar system. And this is one of the things I really enjoy about this moment we’re in now. We can think about the solar system as a place for science and exploration, there are no limits. We’re limited to going to stars, so that may be something for the century after. But for the moment, we have the next 80 years of this century where we have this incredible playground and infinite resources. The sun has more energy in a second than human beings have been in a year. And if we are able to use space resources and the sun and all the water that’s on asteroids, then perhaps we have a chance. 

There are no limits.

John: One of the projects you did recently looked at the interface between the space industry and the sustainability agenda. At the end, what did you conclude?

James: The story is one of our coming of age in the Milky Way. If we’re going to mature as a species, we can’t take the way we’ve been behaving as teenage adolescents to the stars. I’m hoping that by the time we do reach other star systems, we will be a much wiser species. It’s interesting because it’s in Carl Sagan’s Contact, isn’t it? At the end, Dr. Ellie Arroway asks “How did you get through this period of technological adolescence without destroying yourself?” This is the biggest question we have – and at the moment we haven’t got the answer. I’m optimistic that if we can and do become a spacefaring civilisation that we can be wiser and be much better at managing our ascendance and our resources and be the best that we can be.

John: Thank you immensely for what you do and sharing some elements of that today.

James: I always love chatting to you, always a pleasure. Take care.

What’s so good about this?

Much blurs into insignificance when you see our planet from space. What remains is the beauty and possibility of unity in greater purpose. People who return from space come back transformed. Leaving Earth can teach such people – and teach us – how insanely lucky we are with our home planet, and how insanely we continue to misuse and abuse it. Some people look to the stars for wisdom and guidance: we can look to people like James Parr for clues as to where we might boldly go next as a species.

Meet the writer

Known to many as the ‘Godfather of modern sustainability’, John Elkington has been a pioneer of the sustainability movement for well over 30 years – since well before the concept was properly birthed – and is responsible for the concept of the ‘triple bottom line’ (people, planet, profit). The grit-in-the-corporate-oyster has co-founded four companies since 1978, including Volans, and is the prolific author of 20 books, the latest being Green Swans: The Coming Boom in Regenerative Capitalism. In 2021, Elkington was presented with the World Sustainability Award, so he’s come a long way since raising money for the infant World Wildlife Fund with his pocket money back in 1961. Follow @volansjohn.

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