Space foetuses and Moon bases: Lembit Opik on space colony Asgardia
Image credit: Asgardia/James Vaughan
Asgardian politics is “orders of magnitude more positive” than the British equivalent, claims Lembit Opik, the prospective space colony’s first chair of parliament.
Asgardia, also known as the 'Space Kingdom of Asgardia', was founded in 2016 by aspirational Russian billionaire Igor Ashurbeyli.
Its goal is to be the first “nation” with a permanent colony in space, whether that’s on the Moon or in orbit. The current plan is to establish a permanent Moon base by 2043 – a project that seems ludicrously ambitious, even given the 20-year lead time.
Opik is upbeat about the chances it will happen.
“When John F. Kennedy in the early 60s committed to taking a man to the Moon and bring him safely back to the Earth, they hadn’t even been in orbit yet,” he said. “If you argue for your limitations, they're yours, no one will take them away from you.”
Opik’s political career has had its fair share of twists and turns. Originally an MP for the Liberal Democrats, his flamboyant charisma, brief relationship with a Cheeky Girl and numerous TV appearances on the likes of Have I Got News For You earned him a curious place in the mid-noughties celebrity pantheon.
Following a failed attempt at becoming the Lib Dem candidate for London Mayor in 2012, Opik’s moment in the limelight had largely faded.
Since then, he has drifted far from the political leanings of his former party. In October 2022, he appeared at a UKIP conference addressing wokeness and even seemed to question the validity of climate change science in this interview with E&T. Hence, his affiliation with Asgardia hardly feels out of character.
The organisation sent up its first satellite in 2017 carrying 512GB of personal data provided by 1.5 million “Asgardian citizens” as a proof of concept.
Its latest ambition is far more striking: rearing the first human foetus in space, alongside Dutch firm SpaceBorn United.
“You want people to be able to live real lives from beginning to end in space. That is probably going to be Asgardia’s biggest legacy,” Opik said.
“By definition, if you’re going to travel many millions of miles, you can’t come back to the midwife. You’ve got to have the midwife on Mars. That’s a really big challenge for the human race.
“We spent months talking about the morality of launching a human embryo into space; having the first space birth is part of our mission.
“We started really maturely, compared to some of the debates I’ve had about abortion and end of life on Earth, it’s incomparably better.”
Opik makes frequent references to the future fate of humanity given the eventuality of an asteroid or some other space-based cataclysm that could threaten life on Earth.
Currently, small research modules such as the International Space Station and China’s Tiangong, alongside the now-defunct Mir, are the only examples of successful space habitats. They typically cost many billions of pounds to build and support and are only made possible through the vast might of the largest economies on Earth.
Asgardia’s ambitions, therefore, seem wildly at odds with the organisation’s available resources – even with the backing of a billionaire.
Opik remains buoyant about the plans. It currently costs €100 per annum to be a resident of Asgardia.
“We have many thousands of residents, so we're touching a seven-figure turnover just from the residence fee, which you might think of as a tax on the nation of Asgardia,” he added.
“We are going to get not 10,000, but 100,000 residents. We'll have £10m turnover and after that the internal economy will take its own course.
After some hasty, mid-conversation maths, he added: “If we have 10 million residents in our economy, and they can be persuaded to trade in our economy at £20,000 a year each, it does become quite credible, for building the things we're talking about.”
Admittedly, these numbers would create an income of £200bn, which is higher than the $150bn estimated cost of the ISS.
Even if those lofty aims are achieved, creating a research laboratory such as the ISS, staffed only by trained astronauts, is a much more realistic aim than a living space fit to raise a child.
Asgardia’s Dickensian benefactor, Igor Ashurbeyli, is a self-proclaimed billionaire who rose to prominence as the founder of a software company in Russia in the late 1980s. He managed to emerge from the collapse of the Soviet Union mostly unscathed and in 2000 took up the reins as CEO of state-owned defence firm GSKB Almaz-Antey, which focuses on building anti-aircraft defence systems.
Ashurbeyli was re-elected as Asgardia’s head of state in November last year – supposedly as part of a democratic process, although he faced no challenger to his selection.
Opik believes Ashurbeyli’s intentions are altruistic: “He wants the human race to succeed in space. I think that's more important to him than any personal ambition. No one else can ever be the first founder of Asgardia, or the first head of nation.”
While it’s not clear how much the space nation relies on Ashurbeyli’s personal finances, it seems hard to imagine that it would still be afloat without his financing, as its income streams appear limited at the moment.
“We don't intend to ever run Asgardia at a deficit,” Opik said. “We intend to make the billions we need without asking a billionaire to put his hand in his pocket.”
Another possible fundraising method is Solar, the cryptocurrency that the nation is riding on as a way to bring in huge amounts of external funds to prop up its ambitions.
Although a few years old at this point, Solar – a stablecoin that is supposedly locked to the value of the Euro – has certainly not had its Bitcoin moment yet.
“You can buy real goods,” Opik boasts. “You can buy services and you can sell services and get paid in Solar. It's a real currency. I get paid in Solar if I sell something.
“It's an absolute necessity that Solar works, because we need to generate wealth to generate space stations.
“We have to have the tools to finish the job, to quote Churchill, and part of that is having the money to finish the job of building space stations.”
The currency is not currently available on mainstream crypto exchanges and can only be bought and sold through the Asgardia website using a wallet controlled by them. Similar coins have been launched in the past, although sometimes not to the benefit of buyers. This lack of transparency should make early investors wary about the fluidity of the currency.
When pressed on the potential climate impacts of a space nation, Opik states that the science “is not settled” on climate change, while noting that the space sector has produced very limited emissions thus far in comparison to the rest of human activity.
He believes that humanity has little choice in the matter if it wants to survive in the long run: “We will never mitigate the problem of limited resources from the Earth. We have to live elsewhere. Because otherwise, in 10,000 years, or in a million years, we're going to run out of stuff on the Earth.
“Fundamentally, we're not the culprits. We are not going to wreck the Earth by reaching out to the universe.”
Whether Asgardia becomes a historical footnote or the beginning of the millennia-long space nation it aspires to be will largely be up to its ability to convince enough residents to sign up.
It has been set up with a hard cap on its population and is limited to 150 million people, or roughly 2 per cent of the world’s population.
Thus far, just 200,000 people have signed up via the nation's website, but Ashurbeyli hopes the total population cap could be reached within the next decade.
These ambitions reflect the wild optimism of the nation’s true believers, but it’s unclear whether they are grounded in reality, or whether the space-based project will end up grounded by reality.
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