Back in 2017 at the New Worlds conference, I had the chance to meet and talk to Henk Brouwer Rogers, a visionary entrepreneur, known in the space industry as the man who wants to put a Moon base in Hawaii. I have been following his path on social media since, and last year Alexis Aiono and I had the opportunity of interviewing him for Maximum Jailbreak. This article highlights our talk, and showcases a little about this extraordinary man, his life path, and how it took him from Tetris, to the Moon.
Henk Rogers is historically known as the man who brought Tetris into our lives, but his life path goes beyond that. Born in the Netherlands but raised in New York during his adolescence, Henk went on to study Computer Sciences at the University of Hawai’i, then later moved to Japan where he began to work in the video game industry.
He created The Black Onyx, Japan’s first role-playing video game. While traveling the world in search for other games to publish, he discovered Tetris at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas in January 1988. There, he sealed a deal which gave him the rights to distribute the game to video game consoles where it has gained mass appeal.
Years later in 2005, Henk had a heart attack. This experience made him rethink his purpose in life and he came up with a "bucket list" of realizations that he needed to fulfill, and has since set out to tackle them.
As we began our interview, we asked Henk to expand on the topic of his bucket list:
HR: The bucket list, what a place to start! I’m Henk Rogers and I used to be in the computer game business, now I’m working on my missions in life. The missions in life came to me at the end of an ambulance ride. I realized during the ambulance ride that I was dying, and I said to myself: “No, I’m not going, I still have stuff to do!”.
So my missions in life are the things I still have to do. I have four missions. The first is to end the use of carbon-based fuel. This is basically because we are destroying our environment by pouring too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It’s probably not the only problem, but it’s the biggest problem right now and I want to solve that one first.
According to Henk, there’s a difference between trying to stop carbon based fuel compared to trying to get the world to go 100% renewable.
HR: They sound the same but are a little bit different. One is more "let’s fight the oil industry", the other one is more "let’s help the wind, solar and geothermal industries". So I much prefer to do the latter. Let competition take care of what our energy source is going forward, because all of those are cheaper anyway.
My second mission is to end war, and it’s not so much because people die, you know. WW1, WW2, massive numbers of people died. In today’s wars less people die. It’s more about insurgency, occupation, guerrilla warfare. So the number of people who die is relatively small, but the money we spend has gone crazy.
We have spent more money in Afghanistan than in all the history of NASA, and just think of all the progress we got out of things we did with NASA. I mean, going all the way from the beginning: satellites, Gemini, Apollo, space shuttle, ISS, Mars rovers, and all the deep space exploring vehicles, we’ve got a huge amount from it. We’ve got solar panels, computers. We’ve got all these things out of the space program. We've got nothing out of Afghanistan, and neither did they, so it seems to me like an immense waste of money.
The third mission is to make a backup of life on Earth. My speech used to go along the lines of: “Well, 65 million years ago the dinosaurs went extinct. Why? Because they were too stupid to get off the planet. And guess what, we’re pretty much as dumb as the dinosaurs because we’re all here; and if a rock like that hit today, we’d be all gone with everything that we ever built.”
This extinction event is a low probability, but it would go down to zero if we had a backup place where we lived besides this planet. And of course the easiest place to think about is Mars, but to go to Mars you have to go to the Moon first, as is my understanding of it. I’ve changed my tune a little bit, and I can talk about it later if we want, but it really is about taking life as we know it and bringing it to other planets.
The fourth mission is to find out how the universe ends and do something about it. Don’t ask me where I got that mission, I think it must be there to make the other ones seem doable.
I am really glad that someone is thinking about these questions, because they are the biggest questions that humanity faces, and I hope Henk can get us closer to the answers. But my interest lies mostly in space, so I asked him to expand on mission #3, making a backup of life on Earth. How does he intend to do that?
HR: Well it’s not as hard as you think. If you look at all of the places we’ve gone on Earth, wherever we go, we bring stuff with us. I lived in Hawaii, and most of the species of animals and plants that are here were brought here by humans. Even though we don’t have the intention, and in fact we try not to, we can’t help ourselves.
So if we go to Mars and the Moon and create a self-sustaining colony on either of those places… When I say self-sustaining colony, there is no colony in history that wasn’t self sustaining. Meaning that they grow their own food, and learn how to survive on their own. You can’t have a colony and expect the home country or the home planet to keep sending you new resources and food forever. So we have to learn how to live on those planets without help from mother Earth, so to speak.
And the only way we can do that is by growing our own food. And if we're growing our own food, we’ve already brought life as we know it; at least vegetable life. We have brought DNA based life with us. Now, can it live outside on its own without the help of a pressurized environment? On the Moon, probably not. But on Mars, the jury is still out.
Maybe there is a species that can live on 1/100 air pressure, we just don’t know. The jury is still out on all of these things, and life has a way of adapting. So, if we have life, somehow on these planets -- it is possible that life will find a way to propagate on its own. We were not involved in bringing life to the thermal vents at the bottom of the ocean, or underneath the ice in the Arctic, or all these extreme environments that exist on Earth -- but life just went there anyway. And if we go find an environment that is similar to Mars somewhere on Earth, I bet we could find life, and then transport that to Mars.
Everything he’s saying makes complete sense to me, so I ask if his idea is to actually pack up and go to another planet, and settle there, and it would eventually develop into a new nucleus of the human species. He told me to think of our own history, the wave of Europeans “rediscovering” the new World.
HR: First you have Columbus coming and saying “I found the new world, there is gold, etc.”, and all of a sudden you have all these other ships going to the new world. So all we need to do is have a single colony on the Moon or on Mars that is starting to bring back the equivalent of gold.
We should be able to find things on the Moon that don’t exist on Earth, and who knows what their use will be. I think at the end of the day we’ll find all kinds of things on the Moon that are really interesting. Who knows? We’ll find something like "Unobtanium", and then we will have another space race. All private companies will then start needing to have a presence on the Moon to start mining.
Once this starts happening, it starts accelerating very quickly. So once we have an American Moon base, a Russian Moon base, a Chinese Moon base - you are going to see a lot of activity on the Moon very quickly. The Russians say they are going to do it by 2032 – that’s their target. The Chinese have also declared they are going to do one. The US are saying we want to go back to the Moon in the next five years.
Hopefully, instead of having these different countries doing different things, I say let’s go together, and say the Moon is international and anybody can build a base anywhere, but anyone has a right to go there.
Yeah, that’s one of the main ideas behind Space Decentral, to have space exploration be this feat of humanity rather than feat of one or another county. So, humanity will explore space together as a species and not as individual nations, so that's pretty cool.
HR: I think we are already past that stage, just look at what's going on with SpaceX and Blue Origin. They are private companies that are going to land rocket ships on the Moon. What is the US government doing? They are building a rocket ship that goes nowhere, it’s essentially just a one-way trip that goes around the Moon.
You can’t use a one-way rocket to do anything like mining, or building a colony. It’s just too expensive that way. So, the private companies are going to create the ability to transport us; and other private companies are going to pay for payloads to the Moon so they can take advantage of the new ways to make money. But the only way that happens is if the price of payloads decreases to the level where you get a return for your investment for sending something to the Moon.
I totally believe that, and just hope these things will happen in my lifetime so I get to be part of it.
We wanted to know a bit more about Henk’s life trajectory. We know he grew up in New York, studied computer sciences in Hawaii, worked on video games in Japan, and then switched into the clean energy business.
But I met him at the New Worlds Conference, in Austin, Texas – a conference for “new space”. How did his life trajectory take him to being involved in the space industry? How did his life go from software to space? Here’s what he had to say.
HR: Every kid has science fiction and fantasy on their brain, and I was no exception. I was mesmerized by “Lost in Space” even though it got boring real quick. I fell in love with Star Trek. That was the way of the future: we were going to explore new places where no one had gone before. Boldly explore. It was a vision for humanity, where we’d go into space and interact with alien species; and it was amazing.
So I’ve always had an interest in science fiction since I could read or go to movies. Then I got caught up in computer stuff. Well, you could say I majored in computer sciences and minored in dungeons and dragons at the university; so I was stuck in fantasy for quite some time.
Why fantasy over science fiction? When you’re making a computer game, it's much easier to do fantasy than science fiction. When you say fantasy, you can explain anything that’s different by saying “oh, that’s magic”. So you can get away with many more interesting concepts in a fantasy game than if it's a space game.
In space, you are expecting the technology to progress. You are looking into the future, and so you're creating something which has got to be technologically amazing; and to make something technologically amazing is much more difficult than to say “well, I’ve got telepathy here and I can lift a rock”.
Right, we’ve got to obey the laws of physics.
HR: But then, if you look at my life’s progression, even if you look at The Black Onyx, it had to do with the end of the universe. The Onyx itself was an object where some ancient aliens had figured out that there was too much matter in the universe – and the universe was going to collapse, and it was going to be the opposite of the big bang – the end of the universe.
And so, by neutralizing a bunch of the mass of the universe, the aliens managed to capture a third of the universe in the form of black holes, and they created a shield around the black holes. That is the black onyx. So, I did have it on my mind already for a long time. I’m a big fan of astronomy. Back in my college days, I took all the astronomy I could take. It’s just very interesting and fascinating for me.
And then – when I finally got to the point where I retired from the computer game business and I had my freedom – I got back to my roots and did a little soul searching, and found wanting to go to other planets to be one of my missions.
Henk Rogers is chairman of the Blue Planet Foundation, and founder and CEO of a few other related companies, such as Blue Planet Energy Systems, Blue Planet Research, and Blue Startups. He is also chairman of the Pacific International Space Center for Explorations Systems (PISCES), and owns the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS). We asked him how these entities relate to his list of goals, and how they relate to each other to help them all reach their full potential.
HR: So Blue Planet Foundation is working on mission number one. We got Hawaii to have a mandate to have one hundred percent renewable energy by 2045. What this means is all the companies in Hawaii are moving away from fossil fuel lines towards renewable energy. So just keep that one on the shelf for a moment.
Blue Planet Research exists because I realized that there was going to be a point when the electric company said we can't have any more intermittent sources of energy on on the grid. That means wind or solar, which means that we have to have energy storage. So Blue Planet Research focused on energy storage, and we created an energy storage system and turned that into a business, which is Blue Planet Energy. So there’s a whole path starting from the Foundation all the way to Blue Planet Energy.
On the space side, I started going to space conferences, and I started becoming more and more interested in the field. I'm one of the most high-profile people in Hawaii that's really interested in space travel, so they asked me to join as a director of PISCES, which is a government organization that's trying to bring the business of space exploration to Hawaii. But, because it's part of the government, we do everything on a really small scale, and this barely pays the rent and hires a couple of people. And they don't even have money to go to space conferences, so I quickly moved beyond that.
HI-SEAS, the Mars analog habitat, happened because I was interested in space. NASA and University of Hawaii started this project where they were going to study long-duration Mars missions. Four months before the first crew showed up, they collectively realized that neither of them could own a habitat. So they came to me and said “Will you please own the habitat, we will lease it from you”; and I don't know why exactly that is, whether liability or who knows what.
I said “Okay I will own it and I will lease it to you, but if I own it I'm going to have something to say about what it looks like”. I believe that creature comforts have everything to do with surviving long-term missions. You can't expect people to survive in some nasty environment, to last for two years. Missions to Mars last two years. It's eight months to travel, six months to wait on Mars while the Earth comes around, another eight months to come. That's 22 months. You might as well say two years.
We better have really comfortable digs for these people when they go. And so we redesigned the habitat. We didn't like their design. We redesigned it, and I think that we have the best Mars... Moon/Mars analog in the world right now. What we've learned from that is where to go to the next stage; and the next stage will be what's the minimum configuration of a Moon base in a situation where it can be efficient. I think it's more than six people. The Biosphere 2 was eight people. It is not enough.
We had eight people spend all of their time growing food, and they were always hungry. You can't survive as a colony if all you can do is grow food and eat it to survive. That’s just not a sign of a successful colony. You have to be able to grow the colony. You have to be able to create new things, and expand. The Moon base analog on Earth has to be growing larger, to the point where we have the ability to grow food. So there’s gotta be either green houses or underground growth facilities to grow food for the people that are in that situation.
So how do all of these tie together? The answer is sustainability. If we humans don't learn how to live sustainably on this planet we will consume everything. It's just like bacteria in a petri dish. They will eat all of the all the food in the petri dish and then they will die out. Is that our future? Or are we going to learn how to live within our means in the petri dish so that we don’t destroy everything. We have examples like that, where we have cultures that cut down the last tree, and then they didn't have trees anymore. So is that what's going to happen to this planet? Hopefully not.
Hopefully we're going to learn how to live sustainably. And what sustainability means, in my mind, is that we have to learn how to live. You and I, each one of us consuming as we consume. Say that there were seven billion or 10 billion of us living that way. Would we consume the Earth? Or would the Earth still be there after we spend our 80 or 90 years on the planet? How long before we consume the earth? The answer right now is... it wouldn't be that long.
I mean we're living in the “Civilized world” yet we consume much more than mother nature is able to recover from; so it basically means that eventually we're going to end up cutting down all of the trees so we can make food... and then we'll change the climate in a way where food won't grow... and then we all go extinct. That’s a stupid ending. What should happen is we should learn how to live sustainably.
And by going to the Moon and Mars and living there, we have to learn how to live sustainably. So the technologies we need to develop over the next couple of decades are the technologies to survive on another planet, but they are also the technologies we need to survive on this planet. So the overarching goal for all of my missions is for humanity to learn how to live sustainably anywhere.
At this point, Alexis brings up an interesting question for Henk.
Alexis: As a Samoan-American, the Hōkūleʻa voyage is very important to me. So for those that don't know what it is, the Hōkūleʻa is a ship modeled after traditional Polynesian voyaging vessels, and it has sailed across the globe among many lakes in order to revitalize the art and mastery of voyaging for the Polynesian global communities. Henk, you were on a few of these voyages, right? Do you find the purpose of the Hōkūleʻa voyage and the importance of space exploration to be similar?
HR: Oh, they are totally connected. If you look at the globe and you look at where we got started, we got started somewhere in Africa. Let's say we got started in Namibia, we don't actually know. Just on the other side of the planet from Namibia, is Hawaii. If you drill a hole through the planet, you end up in where we got started, and Hawaii is where we ended. Why is that?
Because the hardest place for pre-technology technological civilization to get to was Hawaii. It’s the farthest away from any place. You can say Rapanui is far, but Hawaii is actually a place where we successfully colonized, and we got here in sailing vessels that were made like dugout canoes, and we not only got here but we're able to go back.
We had ships that went back and forth between the islands, and how do we know this? Well we speak the same language. I mean yes, you could see their differences, but it's still Polynesian. So if you go to New Zealand and ask Maori what is a “canoe”, it's a “waka” and in Hawaiian it’s a wa'a. Those are the same words. We've lost the the K in Hawaiian, but this is the same language, and I bet it's the same for Samoan and for Tahitian and for all these Polynesian languages.
That’s the thing that we recreated when we voyaged to Tahiti and back to Hawaii with Hōkūleʻa. We learned... we found the last Navigator in the Pacific, Mau Piailug, and we learned how to navigate by the stars. Celestial navigation. How to keep the course... and it just was the weirdest thing. When Captain Cook found Tahiti, he picked up a navigator that showed him how to get to Hawaii. Columbus, he had a map for Christ’s sakes. They didn't discover a damn thing! They were already discovered!
So what I'm saying is that the first voyage in the double-hulled canoe from Tahiti, or from wherever they came from, to Hawaii... that was the original voyage of discovery. That was the most amazing Voyage of mankind ever. And today we have recreated that Voyage. We didn't just learn how to navigate. We learned how to voyage. That's the thing that we learned. We learned how to work together on a sailing vessel, where our lives depend on each other, and sail around the vast distances of the ocean, under incredibly hostile situations and get through that, basically with ropes and and pails of water and food stores.
I mean okay, so we have Ziplock bags now, that they didn't have in the old days. More ways of storing food and freeze-dried food, but it's still the same voyage, with the same perils that they had in the old days. So I believe that it's the Polynesian voyaging that takes the next step and continues to voyage to the other planets. That is the human voyage. From the beginning, starting in Africa. And Hawaii is not the endpoint, it is the starting point of the rest of the voyage of mankind.
Henk Rogers is by far one of the most interesting people I’ve ever had the opportunity to meet. It’s not enough that he has such an amazing trajectory and is pursuing these inspiring life missions; Henk is down to Earth, extremely approachable, and a great story teller. It lightens my heart to know that there are people like him out there, who are making it their business to make sure humans kind follows a path of balanced growth and evolution as we move on to the space age.
For further enlightenment:
Biosphere 2: https://biosphere2.org/
Blue Startups: https://www.bluestartups.com/
Blue Planet Foundation: https://blueplanetfoundation.org/
Blue Planet Energy: https://blueplanetenergy.com/
The Black Onyx: https://segadoes.com/2014/12/12/the-black-onyx/