When living in outer space becomes a reality
In this Carl Sagan-inspired sci-fi short, space philosopher Sabine Winters imagines the first small communities of nomads forming beyond the Kármán line
This future-set fiction addresses the present from the year 2030
The Kármán line defines the edge of space and the beginning of outer space and is named after the Hungarian-American engineer and physicist Theodore von Kármán, who first calculated its altitude in 1951. Now, in 2030, the first group of 20 pioneers are trying to survive, live and thrive above this Kármán line. They are referred to as the Kármán Nomad group.
By the late 2030s, they hope to have at least three different space habitats orbiting Earth, each one a pure marvel of engineering, designed to be self-sustaining, with a closed-loop system that recycles water, air, and other resources. Powered by a massive array of solar panels, which absorbs the unfiltered sunlight that is too intense for Earth’s surface, these self-sustaining ships are now home to a diverse community of scientists, engineers, mechanics, artists, philosophers and adventurers who volunteered to be the first human residents of the space habitat. Sabine Winters flew up for an interview.
The visionary input of Carl Sagan
Fifty years ago, astronomer, astrophysicist, and writer Carl Sagan published his series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. Following the publication of the book, in 1980 Cosmos was adapted into a popular science documentary series for television, in which Sagan discussed topics such as extra-terrestrial life, Voyager expeditions, and the beginning and evolution of the universe.
Sagan was a strong advocate for the exploration and study of space, believing that it was essential for humanity’s long-term survival and growth. It is becoming increasingly clear today what a visionary Sagan really was.
Sagan would definitely view the communities that are forming in the most outer layer of our atmosphere as a first step towards a nomadic life in space, and as a potential avenue for exploration and discovery. Thinking of it, the idea of searching for new ways of developing unique cultures and ways of living like the Kármán Nomads do, would have definitely intrigued Sagan.
In the spirit of Sagan’s idea that space travel sets an overarching goal that requires mutual effort, this first colony of Kármán Nomads has members from 25 different countries, and asks for a worldwide collaboration between governments, companies and NGOs. All these different backgrounds and rich cultural heritage come together in pursuit of a common goal: Building the world’s first space community of all time, pushing the frontiers of humankind.
It is thus very fitting that as you enter the airlock of the Kármán Nomad Community, you are greeted with a plaque bearing the words Carl Sagan predicted in his Cosmos series:
We were bounded only by the earth, and the ocean, and the sky. The open road still softly calls. Our little terraqueous globe as the madhouse of those hundred thousand millions of worlds. We, who cannot even put our own planetary home in order, riven with rivalries and hatreds; are we to venture out into space? By the time we are ready to settle even the nearest other planetary systems, we will have changed. The simple passage of so many generations will have changed us; necessity will have changed us. We are… an adaptable species. It will not be we who reach Alpha Centauri and the other nearby stars. It will be a species very like us, but with more of our strengths, and fewer of our weaknesses; more confident, farseeing, capable and prudent.Carl Sagan
Given the isolation and dependence on one another that comes with living in a space community, the importance of fostering a sense of shared purpose and responsibility, I immediately felt that this group has already set in motion the change Sagan was mentioning. The scientific and technological challenges posed by surviving in such a hostile environment, inspires a new lifestyle, pushing adaptability of humankind. Currently living with a group of 20 people in a SpaceX Starship – a posthumous gift from an anonymous philanthropist – demands high levels of operation and cooperation, and I was fortunate to have a week together with them.
This growing group of pioneers – in 2035 the residents hope to have acquired a second ship – have the difficult task at hand to become completely independent of supplies from Earth. They not only work together to conduct scientific experiments and develop new technologies, but also are finding ways to become fully self-sustainable. Fulfilling this task means not only surviving, but also finding ways of thriving. There is a not-to-be-underestimated role for creating art, music, philosophy and literature inspired by their unique surroundings. Moreover, they are experimenting with new forms of communication and interaction, developing the first traces of a new and unique culture, adapted to the challenges and opportunities presented by their space-based existence.
Despite the name Kármán Nomads, the spaceship is orbiting at an altitude far above the Kármán line. The Kármán line is the altitude where space begins and divides the Mesosphere with the Exosphere. The boundary was defined by an international team of the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (the World Air Sports Federation, or FAI) at the initiative of Hungarian-American physicist and engineer Theodore von Kármán. They established the Kármán Line in the 1960s, which is typically defined as 100 kilometers above the mean sea level, meaning it lies in the lower thermosphere. Living just above the Kármán line, would quickly expose the air nomads to the danger of falling out of orbit.
One of the founding members, Maria Saienko, explained: “We have named ourselves after the Kármán Line, because that’s where we will go when we pass away. It entails the ritual we are planning for our last journey, in which we’re literally going as a shooting star, as we enter the atmosphere of our home planet. Cremation by re-entry, and like going to Heaven in reverse. As we too return to where we came, we will burn brightly, as a farewell to our friends and a reminder of the eternity of all things.”
Hopefully that will be a long time in the future, and the community members have their hands more than full in the meantime adjusting to life in space.
As we too return to where we came, we will burn brightly, as a farewell to our friends and a reminder of the eternity of all things.‘Maria Saienko’
Living above the Kármán line is a unique experience. We have to adjust to a microgravity environment, because everything floats weightlessly, and every movement requires deliberate effort’, says air nomad Safina Botha (53) a philosopher and bioengineer who joined the community three years ago. “Living in space makes me more than ever acutely aware of the boundaries that define our lives – the walls of the spaceships, the edges of the thermosphere, the borders of our territories and the flimsy boundary between my space suit and space. To survive in space, we are highly dependent on artificial intelligence and other technology.”
While living in space may have its challenges, they also have a front-row seat to some of the most spectacular views in the solar system. They watch as the Earth rotates beneath them, passing from day to night and back again in just 90 minutes.
Imagine, gazing up at the stars, unobscured by the blurring effects of Earth’s atmosphere, witnessing the occasional meteor shower, as bits of space debris streak past your habitat at incredible speeds. Safina agrees that living in space comes with its visual benefits. But, she says,
“The most treasurable moments are when the Aurorae Borealis and Australis (the Northern and Southern Lights) are clearly visible. I guess that it doesn’t mind whether you are watching it from Earth or from orbit, it’s just pure magic wherever.”
While looking at the Northern Lights might be magical from Earth as it is from space, on a philosophical account there is something essentially different between living in space or living on Earth. Sally Odhiambo told me about the cultural changes the group is undergoing in the early years of their life aloft:
“One of the most profound changes that happened was the way we think about place making,” Sally states. “Place making? Yes. Indeed. On Earth, place making has traditionally been about creating physical spaces that were functional, aesthetically pleasing, and socially cohesive. A space gets meaning through making it a place. A place is a space where people meet, where rituals are performed, where social interaction take places, where we know the way.”
Places are connected to recognition, memory, emotions. Sally proceeds, “We recognize the yellow pavement, the smell of the earth, the vibrant colors of the trees and the grass in the summer. Because places nourish us with friendships, interaction, memories, we grow our roots. Our lives are intertwined and entangled with the Earthly place we grow up in, where we spend our childhood, where we work and relax, and create our homes. But in space, place making takes on a new dimension. It is about creating environments that are not just habitable, but that actively support human well-being, creativity, and exploration.”
The residents of space habitats are thinking about place making in a holistic way. “We have to consider not just the physical layout of our habitat, but also its social dynamics, its technological infrastructure, and its relationship to the wider universe.” mentions Pedro Kovalenko (39) who joined as community member number 18. “We have to create spaces that are optimized for human health and performance, with lighting, temperature, and atmospheric conditions carefully calibrated to support human biology. However, because we are travelling in a closed ship, it is equally important to continually keep re-designing social spaces to foster a sense of community and belonging, despite the constraints of living in a closed environment.”
Pedro also described how living as an air nomad also changes people’s perspective on the nature of place. “On Earth, place was often tied to a physical location, such as a city or a neighborhood. But in space, place this feeling is way more fluid and dynamic as we can move between habitats and colonies.”
He took me to explore the virtual spaces, such as shared virtual reality environments, that transcended physical location. Thus, place making remains a critical aspect of creating sustainable and thriving space habitats. But it is also a tool for exploring the frontiers of human experience, and for creating new forms of connection and meaning in a universe that is vast and endless. However, when it comes to the nomadic lifestyle, “you could argue that it is not much different than what life for many has become on Earth”, says Safina, referring to the seasonal migration, because many places have become too hot to live there in Summer.
“Also, it depends on how you look at what it means to be a place maker. We grow roots by the stories we tell each other. We have found rituals in safety measurements. Not only that, but we celebrate holidays and milestones with special meals and events, and form close bonds with our fellow inhabitants. Not only that, but we feel at home in this way of living.”
Smiling, she continues, “You could say we have grown air roots. And I would argue that we feel more connected to that beautiful blue orb beneath us than most people on Earth do. While living in space definitely got its perks, viewing the Earth from here deeply changes your perspective on what it means to take care of this beautiful place.”
The feeling that one can get when looking at the Earth from space, was coined “the Overview Effect” by philosopher Frank White, not long after Sagan wrote Cosmos.
It is the feeling of the sublime and great admiration of our spaceship that we call Earth. And to circle back to Carl Sagan, he would definitely have agreed with Safina. Sagan was deeply concerned with the preservation of life on Earth and the need to address global issues such as climate crisis, the incredible loss of biodiversity, poverty, and inequality. As Pedro ponders along the lines of Sagan, “most likely, in our wish for the exploration of other worlds, many more people will follow in our footsteps. Our presence in space, with future human expeditions to the planets, will only increase. We have travelled this way before, and there is much to be learned by studying new ways of living. I’m sure that what we are doing here, will have its effects on the way we take care of the Earth.” It can only be hoped, Pedro is having it right.
The passion to explore is at the heart of being human. This impulse to go to see, to know has found expression in every culture. Living as a Kármán Nomad is not only a commercial exploitation, although there is certainly an aspect of that. Beside the usual appeals of ambition, greed, and national pride, there is also the thirst for adventure. Moreover, the Kármán Nomads are motivated by a powerful scientific curiosity and a fascination with all things new: new plants, new animals and creating new places to live. The hope is that the deep understanding of the space residents in various scientific disciplines, including physics, biology, and engineering, will give rise to an interdisciplinary approach to the problems that the majority of the inhabitants of Earth are facing.
With the first small communities thriving in space, a growing number of people will choose to live between the stars. But while the Kármán Nomads are the living example of what we are capable of as a human species, at least for now, it is clear that this nomadic life in space is a temporary solution or a backup plan for humanity, rather than a primary focus.
What’s so good about this?
The future is a hard place to understand. Future-set speculative fiction is not designed to predict the future, but to plausibly and logically tell a story about what we see around us now. It allows us to imagine better.
This article is part of a series of speculative fiction and interviews in partnership with Futurity Systems, a research and design venture studio working at the intersection of tech, society, business innovation and impact to “build better futures, faster”. Their lifestyle magazine, inTENSE, offers a dress rehearsal of the future by exploring how deep tech will shape the world around us in 2030. Read all the features.
Meet the writer
Sabine Winters is a freelance philosopher of science, with a strong focus on philosophy of space. She also teaches philosophy at ArtEZ University of the Arts (Arnhem, Netherlands), lectures on film and philosophy, and creates interdisciplinary research programs on art and technology. Sabine is the founder and director of Future Based, an interdisciplinary philosophy platform organising discussions with experts in their field to foster a deeper understanding of the world we live in. Scientific Imagination is Sabine’s ongoing philosophical quest to deepen our understanding of the role of imagination in the natural sciences. Recently, Sabine was accepted as a PhD researcher at York University to research the role of imagination in space science.