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  • Writer's pictureGuillermo Sohnlein

Who Can Lead Humanity to Venus?

It is becoming increasingly clear that Venus’ atmosphere may be a viable potential destination for anyone hoping to make humanity a multi-planet species. 


While many governments and companies continue working together in a new “space race” to the lunar surface and then ostensibly on to the Martian surface over the coming decades, we can also embark down a parallel path to establish a permanent human presence in the Venusian atmosphere. 


However, it is not yet clear who will provide the leadership necessary to push this long-term vision forward and turn it into a reality.


There are many prospective contenders to take on this leadership challenge, so below we provide a brief overview of some likely candidates.



PRIVATE SECTOR - BILLIONAIRES, FAMILIES & INVESTORS


The media has made much of the paradigm-shifting effect of the world’s “space billionaires”, especially Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson. To be fair, each of these men founded innovative space companies that have helped (and continue to help) push humanity further into the cosmos. Likewise, the Ansari family is widely credited with playing an historic role by funding the Ansari X PRIZE, which was won in 2004 and marked a clear inflection point in humanity’s space journey. Perhaps more importantly, since 2014 private investors around the world (including China) have poured billions of equity capital into thousands of space startups. These investors include wealthy individuals, institutional money managers, and large corporations, among others. 


Taken together, the private sector has proven to be a formidable force in spearheading–and financing–increasingly ambitious space efforts.


With so much capital available throughout the world, it is not inconceivable that one or more leaders may emerge in the near future to embrace a vision of humans living and working in the Venusian atmosphere.



PUBLIC SECTOR - AGENCIES & ALLIANCES


Historically, space had been the exclusive purview of a small handful of national governments. Obviously, this has changed dramatically in the 21st century with the growth of a global private space ecosystem and the emergence of dozens of smaller national civil space agencies. One or more of these could potentially take up the Venus mantle and play a pivotal leadership role. Below are some of the more likely contenders.


  • United States. On the one hand, NASA seems like an obvious candidate, given its long history of human spaceflight and its immense budget compared to other countries’. On the other hand, the US has been committed to its “Moon, Mars, and Beyond” vision for two decades and is making considerable progress toward its long-term objectives. Not only would it be highly unlikely that the agency would even try to get funding from Congress for developing a human spaceflight program to Venus, but also it would probably not be in humanity’s best interest to risk any distraction from its current efforts on the Moon and later on Mars. After all, making humanity a multi-planet species will ultimately require success at multiple destinations, including the Moon and Mars. This makes NASA a poor candidate for a leadership role, although it likely will not be able to avoid pursuing a potential “partner” role if another agency decides to pursue Venus instead.


  • China. Over the past decade, China has made incredible progress in every aspect of its space initiatives, including its private sector, its human spaceflight program, and its lunar exploration missions. Its partnership with Russia in developing a broad consortium for the International Lunar Research Station is proving the country’s ability to both lead ambitious long-term space initiatives and also form strong coalitions. While it seems to have the resources and vision to play a leadership role to Venus, it is currently focused on the Moon and has expressed ambitions for Mars. As with the US, this makes China an unlikely candidate.


  • Russia. Theoretically, no one knows more about Venus than Russia, given that the Soviet Union sent more missions to the planet than anyone else. Also, it has been leading humanity into space since the very beginning, with Sputnik in 1957 and Yuri Gagarin in 1961. However, it is currently focused on its partnership with China on the ILRS, which will likely preclude it from being distracted with a parallel effort to Venus. Of course, given its strong historical ties to Venus, it will probably eagerly seek a “partner” role if another country pursues it.


  • India. With financial and human capital to complement a proven track record of success in space, India could potentially emerge as a true leader for pushing humanity to Venus. It is not fully immersed in either of the Artemis or ILRS programs, and it only recently announced its first astronaut class. It could conceivably use establishing a human presence in the Venusian atmosphere as a long-term vision that could give it both a galvanizing strategic foundation for all of its programs and also a true leadership position among Earth’s spacefaring nations. In a very real way, focusing on Venus could allow India to go around China, Russia, and the US, in order to leapfrog their space capabilities. Along the way, it could create its own consortium of international partners to support such an ambitious objective.


  • Japan. The relatively small island nation of Japan has had an outsized impact on humanity’s space efforts, with a proud history of success in scientific spacecraft, orbiting satellites, human spaceflight, and lunar landers. It has even flown over a dozen astronauts, and it operated the most recent spacecraft to Venus. Perhaps more importantly, it has a strong private space sector, including equity investors, public-private partnerships, and even recent IPOs. Also, some of its wealthier citizens have expressed strong personal interest in human spaceflight. While Japan could potentially emerge as a leader for Venus, it would most likely rely on a strong consortium of international public and private partners.


  • European Space Agency. For the past half-century, ESA has been a formidable force in pushing humanity into the cosmos, bringing together many countries into concerted efforts for exploration and science. It also has a long tradition of human spaceflight. However, while it would certainly be a valuable strategic partner for anyone leading a long-term plan for Venus, it likely will not have the resources or member mandate to play that leadership role itself.


  • United Arab Emirates. To the extent that making humanity a multi-planet species is a very long-term objective that will require massive amounts of capital, it would be a huge mistake to overlook a nation like the UAE. This country has recently pushed forward with its publicly stated space ambitions, including human spaceflight and even a future science mission to Venus. If it wanted to commit itself to the visionary goal of establishing a permanent human presence in the Venusian atmosphere, it could very easily find itself in a leadership position with support from a wide range of strategic partners.



CONCLUSION


Humanity seems to be on the verge of taking significant next steps toward becoming a multi-planet species, most specifically with current programs targeting the Moon and future plans for leveraging that experience into success on Mars. The atmosphere of Venus could provide a feasible complementary alternative destination. 


Someone will have to take a strong leadership role to get humanity to Venus. Fortunately, there are many prospective candidates, and one or more of them may emerge in the very near future.


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