Aliya Prokofieva doesn’t look like the usual suspect for the founder of a private space initiative, but upon closer inspection, it’s evident that this destiny was inevitable. Having grown up among the astronauts, engineers and sci-fi writers who were part of the community at the famous Pulkovo Observatory, she caught the space fever as a child and carried it, with purity and dedication, to the establishment of her company Galaktika.
In the last few decades, the incredible advances of technology are showing us more and more than anything is possible, but it seems we tend to be over-focused on the way new tech can improve our screen resolutions and scrolling speeds. Aliya intends to shift that focus where it belongs– space, the final frontier. U.Today spoke with Galaktika’s CEO about why it’s worth reclaiming our passion for space travel, not only for the opportunities it will create in the space cities but for the way it can change human society here on Earth.
Drops of Jupiter in her hair
U.Today (Katya Michaels): Aliya, in the last couple of years you have become a prominent player in the private space development industry, but I wanted to start at the beginning – both your mother and your aunt were astrophysicists?
Aliya Prokofieva: Yes, that’s correct. My mom was not only an astrophysicist, she was also chief constructor for the Pulkovo Observatory, one of the biggest and oldest observatories in Russia. She also worked on the observatory in Norway’s Spitsbergen and many others.
UT: That must have been a strong influence on your path as a woman in tech, having these amazing role models.
AP: Of course, although as a child I didn’t dream of being a scientist or an engineer. I am more interested in culture and society, specifically the way scientific discoveries can serve humanity. From the beginning in this industry, I have been more focused on creating something that will help people, that will endure after I’m gone and contribute to sustainable solutions that will be applicable all over the world.
UT: Did your mother also believe that it was possible for humanity to colonize space in your lifetime?
AP: You know, it’s interesting – my mother was born, grew up and worked in the Soviet Union. When she was 19, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space.
It was 1961 and everybody really thought, both in the Soviet Union and the US, that people would be living in space by the millennium.
There was this absolute confidence that the next decades would see massive and fully scaled space development. Not only my mother, but many scientists and engineers in the Soviet Union thought that this would be a reality. If you were to ask some of the old NASA guys who remember those times, they would say the same. So, my childhood impressions were a melding of the engineering facts of space exploration and the romantic-scientific idea of the imminent reality of life in space.
The nearness of stars
UT: I feel like the archetype of the romantic scientist is a uniquely Soviet phenomenon, in many ways exemplified by the sci-fi works of Strugatsky brothers, and that it doesn’t really have parallels in other cultures… Do you think that’s true?
AP: I don’t believe it’s unique, because international sci-fi authors like Isaac Asimov and Arthur Clarke were at that time writing the same kinds of stories as Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. However, what really is different about the Russian approach to space is the background philosophy.
Space was first explored not for the explicit purpose of scientific discovery but approached as a source of spiritual development for humanity.
The philosophy is called Russian Cosmism. It’s a phenomenon that appeared at the end of the 19th century, counting among its proponents such distinguished writers as Dostoyevsky. It was not about technology – Cosmist thinkers explored what space could mean for the human soul and eternal life, in a metaphysical way. In fact, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, one of the founders of cosmonautics and space travel, was inspired by the philosophy of Russian Cosmism to work on his scientific and engineering discoveries.
Swapping space travel for VR
UT: What do you think happened since the 1950s to the way space travel is viewed? It seems that humanity was dreaming of flying cars and space cities, and instead got smartphones and virtual reality. Kids used to dream of being astronauts and now they want to be Instagram influencers.
AP: I think that the main reason for the change is the fashion for particular heroes – what we are shown in social media, in films and so on. Although I don’t agree with you that kids don’t dream about being astronauts. I know lots of young people, both in the US and in Russia, who are really passionate about space and would like to have access to more information and opportunities.
I suppose what I’m trying to do is create a fashion for space – for going there and being connected with it. That’s why I decided to create this community and this space movement.
It’s not so much about technology, but about creating a real community of people who will be supportive to each other to make space real. That’s my mission.
UT: Do you meet with a lot of skepticism? How well informed are people generally in terms of the realities of modern space technology?
AP: Generally, people think that space is something that is very far and not relevant to them. They are taken by surprise when I tell them that we are actually all living in space, already. We have the technology, but it doesn’t have the mass reach of cars or airplanes. There isn’t enough information out there, and it’s part of my mission to educate people. I mean, if you and I were chatting in the 1950s and I’d tell you that it would be possible to converse on video from any location, over any distance – you’d think I was crazy. The same thing is happening with space development, it’s just a question of greater scale.
UT: A big part of what you’re doing to make people more aware of the possibilities of space is an educational initiative here on Earth. Could you elaborate on that?
AP: That effort is in two parts. One is a virtual community platform which is a combination of social networking, project collaboration, an incubator, and a funding structure. It will also give users access to lectures, educational materials, films.
The second part is a space city prototype on Earth, an edutainment format that will be a mix between Universal Studios and the Guggenheim Museum. We are currently creating multimedia and interactive materials for the project. The goal is to make visitors really feel what it would be like to live in space.
UT: Where would this center be located?
AP: Currently we are thinking Switzerland, a location with an area of about 30,000 square meters. We would also have an area nearby for a Mars or Moon safari theme, where visitors could test real equipment. Hopefully, this kind of science center will demonstrate that space is not something distant or fearful, but engaging and fun.
UT: Private space initiatives get investments from the big players, but when will it be possible for everyday, small-scale investors to get into the space game? What kind of returns could they hope to see and in what kind of time frames?
AP: We are in the process of creating tools that will make that possible. It’s something that I have often faced during my space journey – the financing problem in the market. Space companies are either very small startups or established giants like Space X and Blue Origin.
As a result, many great minds don’t have access to financing because most investors think space technology is really remote and risky.
In fact, space investment can be less risky than many IT startups or real estate projects.
Space technologies can be used both in space and on earth– to name just one example, solar panels were originally a space technology and are now a major part of sustainable solutions on Earth.
In our project, the fund structure is a combination of classical venture capital and investment capital instruments, accessible for institutional and large private investors, with a cryptocurrency crowdfunding framework. I discovered that there are so many people who are interested in making their impact on the future of space exploration, whether through intellectual contribution or financial investment.
We also feature different investment categories, with short-term returns within three or four years, midterm returns in five to seven years, and the long-term over ten years. Our management team can work with investors, linking different projects and bringing stable returns of at least 25-30 percent within two years, and those are conservative figures. We are implementing Blockchain and smart contracts to make these investments safe and transparent.
May the forces be with each other
UT: We’ve been discussing private companies, but of course there are government space programs as well. Do you think private and government sectors will combine efforts? How will they work together?
AP: I believe everyone will join forces. Even now, NASA and the European Space Agency are very supportive of private space initiatives. The future will favor projects that join together public and private efforts– governments can provide the infrastructure, and private companies contribute a solid business approach since they are understandably motivated by returns on investment.
UT: What about collaboration between nations? When you talk about your project in Russia and in the US, do you feel that there’s a remaining competitive feeling left over from the Cold War? Or is that completely in the past?
AP: I think that in general it’s gone – as you are well aware, what you read in the newspapers is usually someone’s biased agenda. In the space technology, everybody understands that countries should be supportive of each other. What I find interesting is that people are really prepared to collaborate and create joint projects, such that every country’s and every company’s competence is employed to the fullest for the common good.
Making Marvel comics real
UT: One of the most fascinating questions about space colonization is how it will change human society, both in space cities and here on Earth. You have written about relative autonomy of space colonies as the variable that will determine community development. The first stage is a very demanding survival mode– do you think modern residents of developed countries, used to comforts, are ready for those kinds of sacrifices?
AP: I see that people are searching for something interesting, and their reaction depends on how information is presented to them. If you focus on details of technology development, financing issues and challenges that astronauts face, that can get boring and seem like it’s very far away. When you show how space directly affects people’s lives, show them space as a source of inspiration– their eyes light up.
This is especially true when they realize that they can influence this process– intellectually, financially or by direct participation. It’s like making Marvel comics real! If they can be a part of it, they are eager to step up to the challenge. The space colonization endeavor is really a new, unprecedented type of collaboration.
I think people are tired of the emptiness of social media. What’s the point of showing off and getting a few thousand followers, if that’s all that will be left after you’re gone? What they really want is to make an impact on the future of humanity and the planet, something that will last for generations.
The space city itself is more than a technological challenge. On the one hand, it’s a new economy that will provide a unique professional opportunity for every field– medical, engineering, technical, entrepreneurial, cultural. On a different level, it’s a metaphor for a new era in human evolution, a new purpose for people’s lives.
Independence from Earth
UT: You wrote that at the later stages of increased space city autonomy, these city-states will gain independence from Earth governments. Do you believe this will be a seamless process? Won’t the mother countries fight to retain their space colonies?
AP: I believe, and this is one of my goals as well, that there will be a shift in the mindset. We are still living in a very competitive society, but transitioning to a contributing society. We are used to saying, ok, these 100 acres are mine and these are yours. It’s amusing when people try to apply this dealing to space, which clearly belongs equally to everyone.
I hope that countries will be united in space, regardless of religion and politics, but the way this will turn out depends on us – whether we’ll be entrenched in colonies separated by borders, or sharing space as human beings who are citizens of one community.
UT: What is your personal dream of space?
AP: My personal dream is to inspire every human with the vision of life in space and to build the first space city. I want to make space travel as easy and approachable as buying a ticket from New York to London.
UT: What are your favorite portrayals of space life in books or movies? Something that really reflects the way you imagine space.
AP: Actually, I am currently writing a script for my own space film, as well as a fiction book about a girl’s space journey. What I don’t like about most sci-fi movies is that they portray space as a harsh and hostile environment, while it’s a source of great inspiration and value for humanity. My favorite ones are still Star Wars and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. They are closer to my idea of how life in space could be – not always friendly, but exciting and adventurous.
Here, you can listen to the Technotopia talk with Aliya Prokofieva.