Billionaires in space

by John Quiggin on July 22, 2021

With its unsubtle allusion to an Australian cult classic of the 1980s that’s the headline for my latest piece in Independent Australia. Key points

Nothing has changed in the basic physics that makes space travel, beyond the minimal scale achieved in the 1960s, essentially impossible. On the contrary, advances in physics have shut off every theoretical loophole that might have permitted us to exceed the limit imposed by the speed of light. Nor has there been any reduction in the massive amount of energy needed to propel even a single person into space.

The world is facing challenges that threaten our very existence, from pandemics to climate catastrophe to nuclear war. We can’t rely on fantasies of escaping into outer space. Nor we can afford a system that delivers a huge proportion of our collective income to a handful of irresponsible adventurers.

{ 52 comments… read them below or add one }

1

Brett 07.22.21 at 5:58 am

Nothing has changed in the physics, but the engineering has undergone major changes, and that’s basically all been driven by SpaceX (Elon Musk’s company). We’re able to re-use rockets instead of throwing them away on each flight, and the next SpaceX rocket system – Starship – is meant to get costs down low enough to make space accessible to a far vaster number of groups and people.

The ironic thing about the focus on billionaires going into space is that this is really more about letting people who aren’t billionaires go into space, at least briefly, in the case of Branson and Bezos’ respective companies. Billionaires have been able to go into space for nearly two decades now, because if you’re willing to fork over $20 million the Russians will fly you up in a Soyuz rocket. Dennis Tito did it 20 years ago.

Moreover, everything we have learned about our own biology has emphasised the lesson that we evolved to live here on Earth and nowhere else.

We evolved to live in a narrow segment of East Africa. Almost everywhere else on the Earth will kill us quickly without technology and know-how, including 71% of the planet’s surface. It’s the same with space environments, and nobody’s proposing people live in weightlessness for the long term.

2

Ronald 07.22.21 at 6:08 am

I think our attitude should be:

“What your are doing with space travel is just great, guys, and we’ll soon be behind you 100%. We just need to avoid climate disaster, eliminate easily preventable disease, and end absolute poverty first. Give us a hand with that, and we’ll all be partying on Mars soon!”

Otherwise, they may kill us.

3

John Quiggin 07.22.21 at 6:24 am

“Almost everywhere else on the Earth will kill us quickly without technology and know-how, including 71% of the planet’s surface. ”

This supports my claim, I think. We can’t live on the seafloor without burdensome technology and we don’t. But in the 1970s the idea was taken seriously by quite a few people, such as Jacques Cousteau and Alvin Toffler. We similarly avoid lots of places on land (Antarctica, the Atacama desert) for which we are poorly suited, even though they are much more hospitable than anything reachable in space.

As for reusable space craft, wasn’t the Space Shuttle supposed to solve that problem?

4

Brett 07.22.21 at 6:55 am

We similarly avoid lots of places on land (Antarctica, the Atacama desert) for which we are poorly suited, even though they are much more hospitable than anything reachable in space.

There was a pretty substantial history of civilization in the Atacama Desert, although it’s sparsely populated now. Antarctica’s got some big bases, and legal rules against anything that would amount to permanent inhabitants.

I don’t think there will be a lot of people willing to live on Mars if given the chance. But there’s almost 8 billion people on Earth, and I don’t think it’s a stretch that you might find a couple hundred thousand to a million or so who do out of that. Hundreds of thousands of people live in the Arctic, after all.

As for reusable space craft, wasn’t the Space Shuttle supposed to solve that problem?

Never lived up to its promise of 50 flights per year. NASA was already looking for a way out in the 1990s (hence the research into the VentureStar project), but they were stuck on the idea of reusable spaceflight needing space planes, and space planes mostly aren’t that good of an idea for various reasons unless they’re pretty small.

5

Tim Worstall 07.22.21 at 7:57 am

“Nor we can afford a system that delivers a huge proportion of our collective income to a handful of irresponsible adventurers.”

Musk and Bezos (Branson is a rounding error here) have, what, $400 billion between them? Global collective income is around $100 trillion a year. I agree that $400 billion is “a lot” but 0.4% doesn’t strike as a huge “proportion”.

In slightly more detail, Bezos is said to be funding his rockets with $1 billion a year in stock sales. Sure, “a lot”. 0.001% of global income? “Huge proportion”?

It’s even possible that while humans up there is a waste of time and effort there will still be spin offs that are useful. Starlink might solve rural broadband for example.

“As for reusable space craft, wasn’t the Space Shuttle supposed to solve that problem?”

Well, yes. But the failure of a politically designed attempt, as opposed to the more capitalist success, might not be the lesson you quite want to be broadcasting. These varied Musk/Bezos/Branson versions do seem to work better. Certainly they work cheaper.

Which is really rather the point of what is going on now. Cost. Think it was Arthur C Clarke who pointed out that “once you’re in orbit you’re not half way to the Moon, you’re half way to anywhere” (at least in the Solar System you are). This reduction in cost going on now is akin to the price difference between sailing ships across the Atlantic and steamships for bulk cargo. That did rather change things.

Maybe it will again. And, of course, maybe it will not. But possibly worth finding out.

Of course, I’m hugely biased. I’ve done trivially, really terribly tiny, bits of work for Musk, NASA and the ex-Soviet rocket system in my area of technical expertise – weird alloys containing scandium. So it’s possible to argue that I’m over-invested in the idea for personal reasons.

But there is one interesting question I’d like to ask:

” a huge proportion of our collective income to a handful of irresponsible adventurers.”

OK. So, what portion of our collective income should be left to people to do as the hell they wish with? What’s the percentage of that global GDP that can, righteously, be left to people to waste on whatever? The same question the other way around, how much of the collective income’s use should be determined collectively? The 40% that currently travels through government? The 99.999% that would only just leave room for Bezos and his rockets? More than that?

6

J-D 07.22.21 at 8:32 am

… nobody’s proposing people live in weightlessness for the long term.

I notice that you say nothing about what is being proposed and why you think it’s a good idea. After all, this

… really more about letting people who aren’t billionaires go into space, at least briefly …

already happens–astronauts fall into the category of people who aren’t billionaires.

7

John Quiggin 07.22.21 at 8:47 am

Rate of cost reduction doesn’t look startling. A 50 per cent reduction on Gemini which started in the 1960s. Not much more than background rate of TFP growth, which includes the service sector. About 30 per cent off the price the Russians were charging.

https://www.statista.com/chart/21904/estimated-cost-per-seat-on-selected-spacecraft/

On other points, I’m not going to respond to silly-clever quibbles, so please post them elsewhere. They’ll be deleted in future – you can guess for yourself the kind of thing I mean.

8

MFB 07.22.21 at 9:11 am

Since there is no other means of reaching space than a rocket, and since there are no more powerful rocket fuels than there were in 1960, it follows that only developing some sort of re-usable rocket offers us an opportunity to reach space on any large scale. This could be important if one wishes to maintain human civilisation’s energy supplies, since it is possible that the most efficient energy source is space-based solar power transmitted to the surface via microwaves.
Unfortunately the “reusable” rockets being developed under the auspices of 21st-century billionaires do not appear likely to fulfil this objective, since they are principally aimed at publicity stunts. Since they are able to pay more than governments are willing to, these billionaires can starve more potentially productive projects of expertise. It appears that China may not fall victim to this process, in which case the Chinese project for reusable booster rockets may ultimately materialise in practice.
Of course, if space-based solar is not a practical option, reusable boosters are probably not very important.

9

Tm 07.22.21 at 9:30 am

Never heard of “Dogs in space”, but the Muppet Show’s “Pigs in Space” was always my favorite!

10

Ronald 07.22.21 at 9:36 am

I’m seeing massive cost reductions in space technology. At least in the areas that count. Compare the Curiosity mars rover to the Viking landers. Curiosity has one third more mass but orders of magnitude more capability. Or compare a modern communication satellite to an early Telstar. Or look at what the James Webb space telescope will be able to do compared to Hubble. The increase in capability per kilogram of payload is astounding.

Actual launch costs were lousy and are still lousy, but at least are going in the right direction now. But apart from that, actual capabilities have massively improved. The problem is when people do something strange like shoot a human into space. Their capabilities haven’t improved at all since the 60s. In fact, on average, they’ve gotten heavier. Using them into space is like deciding to use a jelly spanner when you have a perfectly good tungsten carbide one at hand.

11

Richard Melvin 07.22.21 at 10:00 am

Physics says space offers the prospect of access to indefinitely large quantities of pollution-free resources without being a place that people can live. That seems to me to be exactly the thing required to maintain current human population levels without hitting environmental constraints.

It’s sort of the opposite of Australia, which provides the world with a limited amount of pollution-heavy resources, while being a pretty nice place to live. So adding access to space is economically and ecologically similar to deleting Australia. And probably easier.

Falling costs of access to those resources, like that of solar power, changes things. One change is that currently-rich people start paying those costs for frivolous reasons. Another is that it reduces the amount of successful political action required to achieve sustainable world-wide prosperity.

Perhaps some people think things are going so well that they would like to forgo those benefits? Raise the difficulty level, play politics on hard mode?

12

Tm 07.22.21 at 10:02 am

Space tourism will emit cause amounts of harmful emissions, not just carbon emissions caused by the sheer waste of energy but many of the emissions in the stratosphere also damage the ozone layer. (https://theconversation.com/space-tourism-rockets-emit-100-times-more-co-per-passenger-than-flights-imagine-a-whole-industry-164601, (https://gizmodo.com/space-tourism-is-a-waste-1847285820))

The precise environmental footprint of the billionaire space flights is hard to know as long as they don’t publish more data but it’s likely to be orders of magnitude greater than commercial flight.

These irresponsible assholes are using up resources and causing irreparable damage to the planet, to all of us, for pure vanity, and they want to incite more rich assholes to do the same. These assholes already have an environmental footprint orders of magnitude greater than what the median earthling uses, and they don’t compensate the rest of us for the damage they do to us. They are parasites.

Or, in the immortal words of our favorite right wing loon:
“That’s just the way wealth distributions do work”

13

Tm 07.22.21 at 10:04 am

Space tourism will emit huge amounts of harmful emissions, climate destabilizing greenhouse gas emissions caused by the sheer waste of energy and also ozone depleting emissions directly deposited in the stratosphere. (https://theconversation.com/space-tourism-rockets-emit-100-times-more-co-per-passenger-than-flights-imagine-a-whole-industry-164601, (https://gizmodo.com/space-tourism-is-a-waste-1847285820))

The precise environmental footprint of the billionaire space flights is hard to know as long as they don’t measure and publish their emissions data but it’s likely to be orders of magnitude greater than commercial flight.

These irresponsible assholes are using up resources and causing irreparable damage to the planet, to all of us, for pure vanity, and they want to incite more rich assholes to do the same. These assholes already have an environmental footprint orders of magnitude greater than what the median earthling uses, and they don’t compensate the rest of us for the damage they do to us. They are parasites.

Or, in the immortal words of our favorite right wing loon:
“That’s just the way wealth distributions do work”

14

Lee Arnold 07.22.21 at 12:05 pm

Will the left please stop making the error that the amount of money in existence must be equal to the amount of productive resources?

15

derrida derider 07.22.21 at 1:21 pm

Yeah, quoting the quite misconceived Space Shuttle – a failed program, really – as a poster child for costs is a bit cheeky.

Not quibbling really, but that $55m is a gross overestimate for a Crew Dragon ticket – as the development cost is amortised (they’ve only done nine manned trips so far) Elon Musk is actually making a big profit per trip here. And you don’t have to be a Space X fanboy to believe his new Starship is going to get per seat costs well under a million a go (he actually claims it will be way under 100k a seat – to Mars! But I’m not sure he’ll achieve that).

He points out, for instance, that the fuel is well under 1% of current manned spaceflight costs – so that mass production of large capacity reusable rockets has capacity to massively slash costs. And the point above about the bulk of the energy needed for interplanetary travel is expended just getting in to orbit is true.

All in all, I think there could be a lot more harmful things our multibillionaires could be having pissing contests over.

16

Gorgonzola Petrovna 07.22.21 at 2:53 pm

My father was one the designers (leading designers? – so I heard) in the Energia-Buran project. “…access to indefinitely large quantities of pollution-free resources” sounds great, but I’m afraid most of it was done with the long-term focus on military application, and probably still is. I’m curious how Bezos and Musk fit into it.

17

MPAVictoria 07.22.21 at 2:55 pm

“In slightly more detail, Bezos is said to be funding his rockets with $1 billion a year in stock sales. Sure, “a lot”. 0.001% of global income? “Huge proportion”?”

Wonder how many people $1 Billion dollars donated to a UN food aid program would save? Anyway carry on Tim….

18

MPAVictoria 07.22.21 at 2:58 pm

“he actually claims it will be way under 100k a seat – to Mars!”

I mean he also has been claiming his cars would be self driving robotaxis anytime now for the past decade or so…..

19

some lurker 07.22.21 at 3:20 pm

I think we can use the shape of Bezos’ rocket to work out the real purpose here…

Some rich eccentric building a steam-powered supercar is one thing but the massive expense of this NASA cosplay, based on his piratical business practices, makes this look like a huge ego trip. NASA already has a long-term investment in facilities and people: why not just invest in that? You know, maybe with taxes or even as partnership?

20

Tm 07.22.21 at 3:31 pm

Melvin 11: “Physics says space offers the prospect of access to indefinitely large quantities of pollution-free resources without being a place that people can live. That seems to me to be exactly the thing required to maintain current human population levels without hitting environmental constraints.”

If physics says that, she (is it a she?) has not spoken to many people about it ;-)
What kind of resources that we truly can use would this be?

Even if there were a plausible plan for extracting “resources” from “space” without wasting more resources than are gained in the prospect, it wouldn’t help us with most environmental constraints, which concern the planet’s assimilate capacity (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planetary_boundaries). Access to “stuff” isn’t the most pressing problem any more – how to get rid of waste products is.

21

Tm 07.22.21 at 3:47 pm

Among those waste products is heat. We have Global Warming because more energy reaches the planet than is emitted back into space (the greenhouse effect decreases the amount emitted, which causes temperature to rise until a new energetic equilibrium is reached). So what do you think will happen if even more power “is transmitted to the surface via microwaves”? (MFB @8)

People really need to understand thermodynamics.

22

Jerry Vinokurov 07.22.21 at 3:56 pm

The speculation here about the alleged worth of going into space to harvest resources or what have you is completely untethered from any reality. Insofar as actual resource acquisition is concerned, virtually anything that you could theoretically do in space short of the truly fantastical is achievable far more compactly and efficiently here on Earth. The only things it makes sense to send out there are robots who literally cannot collect the required data for research from places other than planetary surfaces, or telescopes that must be in space to avoid attenuation of the atmosphere. Everything else is just setting money on fire at this point.

23

Laurence Cox 07.22.21 at 4:00 pm

We need to remember that all of the early rockets in the NASA space programme up to and including Project Gemini were just repurposed ICBMs. It is only with Saturn 1 and Saturn 5 that we have rocket launchers designed from the start for human space travel. I can remember back in the 1950s before the first sputnik was launched, projections of us reaching the Moon in the year 2000, so to have achieved it before 1970 was a remarkable undertaking. Similarly, the Space Shuttle was the first reusable launcher, with all that means for cost.

There is nothing that Musk is doing now with his reusable rockets, that could not have been done, in principle, fifty years ago; it is just at that time the way forward in reusability was seen as the Space Shuttle, which drew on the USAF Dyna-soar (X-20) program. Other approaches like the Nonweiler Waverider or the British Aerospace HOTOL programme never had the level of funding needed to turn them from interesting ideas into fully-tested launchers. Rather like the development of civil nuclear power generation, many possible options were closed off early and military requirements figured large in the choices made.

Fundamentally, space travel reduces to how do we establish a permanent base on the Moon, for once there one can send payloads to anywhere in the Solar system using mass drivers, the updated versions of Eric Laithwaite’s linear motors, with everything built from elements available in the lunar crust and powered by solar PV.

24

Jim Harrison 07.22.21 at 4:46 pm

The billionaires are living a legend. There’s a long tradition of world conquerors who having mastered the Earth attempt to fly to the heavens. It’s a feature of the endlessly circulated and widely translated Alexander Romance, and one of the Persian monarchs in the Shahnameh also takes off to the skies in a chair drawn by birds. Of course, space flight is only one of the answers to the question what do you give yourself if you’ve got everything. At least Bezos and Musk aren’t pursuing eternal life like some of the vampiric Silicon Valley tycoons for whom the enemy is not the cosmic speed limit but mortality itself. The fundamental plot here is even older than Alexander. It’s the epic of Gilgamesh.

25

Brett 07.22.21 at 4:57 pm

@6 J-D

Musk wants to do colonies – including a city – on the surface of Mars. These could include pressurized facilities buried under Martian dirt, drilled into cliffsides and the ground, or even domes. Mars provides the gravity.

Bezos wants to go for habitats not on a planet or moon’s surface, but floating in space (such as the design called “Island Three” or the O’Neill Cylinder, and Bezos actually was at Princeton when the guy whose group came up with it was still there). These would be gigantic drum-shaped space stations rotating on their long axis to simulate gravity.

already happens–astronauts fall into the category of people who aren’t billionaires.

They’re also an extremely tiny fraction of people who have to spend sometimes decades training just so they can spend weeks in space. Stuff like Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic hold the possibility of far more people than that eventually being able to go to space.

@12 Tm

It depends on the fuel you use. Most existing rockets burn kerosene, which isn’t particularly clean – and the same goes for Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft.

However, Bezos’ New Shepard rocket burns hydrogen, which only produces water vapor as exhaust. Musk’s new rocket – Starship – burns methane, which produces CO2, but you can source the methane in a carbon-neutral way if you make it the same way he’s hoping to make fuel on Mars (the sabatier reaction with hydrogen produced from electrolysis).

I absolutely think we should pressure Bezos and Musk to source their fuels in a sustainable way. Blue Origin should only use “green hydrogen” in their rockets, and Starship from SpaceX should use methane made in the way I described (or maybe sourced from biofuels sufficiently processed).

@8 MFB

There are other proposed ways than rockets, but they just don’t make sense right now in terms of demand. It’d be like building a five lane highway bridge to an island with only enough travelers to justify a couple of ferry rides per day.

26

Kenny Easwaran 07.22.21 at 5:22 pm

The point isn’t to send people to space, any more than the point of NASA is to spend people to space. Both NASA and the private programs are sending people just because people in space get lots of attention from the public.

But the thing they actually care about is cheap and easy access to getting satellites into orbit. And prices have come down by a factor of over 20, and are likely decreasing: https://ntrs.nasa.gov/citations/20200001093

This is how you get internet, telephony, and perhaps even electricity to people all over the world, as well as things like accurate and up-to-the-moment data for geographic, weather, climate, vegetation, etc. questions.

I’m skeptical about mining asteroids, given that they always talk about the value of the material, and never the costs of extracting it and bringing it down – but it’s not totally out of the question that asteroid mining might become relevant some day for building more satellite presence in space.

There’s no more reason for humans to live on Mars than on Antarctica or western Nebraska. However, I do see the motivation for some day getting some population outside the solar system – there really are some existential risks that would be hedged against by having a population outside the solar system. And I suppose a test community on Mars, like one on Antarctica, is relevant for some day figuring that out. But that’s only relevant on a timescale of millennia, not decades.

27

d 07.22.21 at 6:39 pm

The answer to a budget problem was the Space Shuttle.

28

John Quiggin 07.22.21 at 8:21 pm

Ronald @10 Exactly right!

29

jwl 07.22.21 at 8:28 pm

It’s really expensive to go to Mars and support humans living there. I have yet to see a cost-effective justification for going to the Moon or Mars. The Spanish explorations to the New World did eventually “pay off” for the explorers in gold, silver, food, and slave/indentured labor at the cost of massive death and destruction for the original inhabitants. What are people going to do to make money in space outside Earth orbit?

I don’t think space tourism will cut it, unless income inequality gets substantially worse than it is now, i.e., North Korea-type levels for the world as a whole.

All the other things don’t seem remotely cost-effective: water asteroids, mining Venus or Saturn for specific gases, etc. Who’s going to pay for all of those rockets and habitats on Mars and support them ad inifinitum? There’s no atmosphere and no real prospect of them being self-supporting.

Sure, you could have vanity projects, but they are much more likely to equivalent to Vinland than something like the settling of Polynesia.

30

Scott P. 07.22.21 at 8:59 pm

Nor has there been any reduction in the massive amount of energy needed to propel even a single person into space.

This requires a) building the infrastructure for spaceflight, and b) getting a lot of experience. Generally, the equation has been that with N flights, the expense goes down as a factor of 1/2^log(n).

So if the first flight, to the Moon say, costs $X per person, it becomes 1/2(X) after 10 flights, 1/4(X) after 1000 flights, etc.

We were going to build a), but the cancellation of the post-Apollo manned program took that off the table. We’re working slowly on b). But so far, those equations have held.

31

Alex SL 07.22.21 at 10:15 pm

Complete agreement with the original post!

But it will just bounce off. Even in this thread there are many who completely miss the point. Yes, engineering advances, fine. The reality still is and always will be that to maintain a colony on an inhabitable planet or moon, which is every planet or moon in the entire solar system, you have to constantly supply it very expensively from Earth, because there is just no way of maintaining a self-sufficient economy there. So, we can invest a zillion dollars to pointlessly put a thousand people on Mars or a zillion dollars here to make life better for several orders of magnitude more people.

If the idea is merely to create a stepping stone for interstellar travel, the next problem is that it is fundamentally impossible to survive that. If you could, hypothetically, travel fast enough to cut the journey down to a realistic duration, you would be traveling so fast that any speck of dust in the way obliterates the spaceship. If you travel slowly enough to avoid that, all the gas inside your vessel will leak out before you are 10% of the way, you would have to plan for numerous generations of people to live in the vessel, and, by the way, we haven’t really built any complex technology that still works reliably after a few decades, so it isn’t really clear how the spaceship would still work after thousands of years.

Anybody who believes this stuff is possible has read too many science fiction novels. Just because something is written down, doesn’t make it true or even just plausible. This is not “haha, two hundred years ago they wouldn’t have thought we would one day send somebody to the moon, so there”. All we have learned in the last few decades strengthens the case that Mars colonies are not sustainable and that interstellar flight is not survivable.

32

eg 07.22.21 at 11:56 pm

Can someone please explain to me why I’m supposed to be excited by a couple of publicity hounds replicating the Mercury/Gemini program achievements of over 50 years ago?

33

J-D 07.23.21 at 12:03 am

I don’t think there will be a lot of people willing to live on Mars if given the chance. But there’s almost 8 billion people on Earth, and I don’t think it’s a stretch that you might find a couple hundred thousand to a million or so who do out of that.

Whether something (such as living on Mars) is feasible does not depend on how many people are willing to do it. (Also, whether it’s a good idea does not depend on how many people are willing to do it.) I expect you could find a substantial number of people who would be willing (given the chance) to have their minds downloaded to the Internet, but the availability of willing participants is not by itself sufficient to make the project feasible (or a good idea).

We already know there are people who want to go into space. Whether there are people who want to do it is not the question.

34

Rapier 07.23.21 at 12:51 am

Thrill rides for the rich don’t interest me. So they waste stupendous amounts of energy, think of how much energy these projects have used since the first meeting, so it goes. The rubber is going to hit the road when and if Musk launches his doomed party to Mars. It’s going to be a nightmare with probably, murder and madness. Now that’s a story that can’t be ignored.

I especially like that Musk thinks Earth will be uninhabitable so he proposes sending people to uninhabitable places. That boy is smart as a whip.

35

Omega Centauri 07.23.21 at 1:09 am

I see a mixed bag here. Space tourism is obviously a frivolous waste of resources. But space is a part of our industrial economy now, as well as essential for an increasing number of scientific pursuits. While I think space solar is completely bonkers, the new high tech zero carbon economy we need to build will require lots of materials that are rare in earth’s crust, but may be available on asteroids. I expect asteroid mining is probably 25-50 years away, but am convinced that we will need it for long term sustainability.

At least Blue Origin claims to be using hydrogen fuel, which minimizes pollution, although I suspect high temperature rocket exhaust may mess with stratospheric chemistry, there is probably a limit to how many launches per year can be sustained, and that limit is probably below what space enthusiasts dream of. Once we get asteroid mining up and running, an increasing amount of the material needed in space can be sourced in space and will never have to transit through our planet’s fragile atmosphere.

36

hix 07.23.21 at 1:28 am

If space transport would be decided by old fashioned stuff like price or reliability, there would be no American offering in the market, neither public nor private. The only reason Musk can sustain his decadent operation are satellite launches for the US government, mostly military crap he does at something like twice the going international price.

37

EnckeGap 07.23.21 at 5:06 am

If you look at the cheapest options for putting mass in orbit in the 1960s, and the cheapest options today, the cost of space launch has certainly decreased significantly, in large part with the introduction of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. If SpaceX can get Starship flying and it eventually lives up to their goals, it will massively decrease the costs even further (although it is not as certain as the fans like to believe that it will live up to their goals; it could succumb to some of the same problems as the space shuttle). Costs for transporting people will be more apparent when SpaceX is transporting its own paying customers on Dragon or Starship, as supporters could argue that NASA’s involvement in the Commercial Crew program make the costs SpaceX charges for astronaut transportation non-representative.

Ronald @10 “The problem is when people do something strange like shoot a human into space. Their capabilities haven’t improved at all since the 60s. In fact, on average, they’ve gotten heavier. Using them into space is like deciding to use a jelly spanner when you have a perfectly good tungsten carbide one at hand.”

I think that people forget that outside the structured environment of a factory or warehouse floor, and setting aside Roombas and Predator drones, robots kind of suck. Opportunity was an extremely successful Rover, and it went 45 km in 15 years. The Mars InSight lander was supposed to dig a probe down to 5 m deep, but only got to 35 cm before getting stuck, a problem that a person could have solved by pressing on it with a boot. By comparison, the Apollo astronauts were taking sample cores of the Moon 50 years ago. In fact, science was basically an afterthought in the Apollo program, but its scientific return in publications and quantity/quality of samples still dwarfs any robotic planetary science mission, or multiple robotic missions put together.

The ISS is not a great showcase of the scientific utility of humans in space (for anything other than studying human physiological responses to space) because it is a structured environment, and all the experiments done on it are basically automated already. But for something like a Mars mission, the environment is unstructured, and real-time teleoperation from Earth is impossible. A human mission could cost 100-1000 times more than a robot mission, but humans on the surface for weeks or months could likely provide >100-1000 times the scientific return. Thus you could probably get a greater scientific return per dollar spent. The question is if you would want to spend that huge overall amount of science dollars only on Martian planetary science instead of particle accelerators or geology fellowships or deep-sea expeditions or etc.

Counter-intuitively, the fact that robots currently suck raises huge problems for the would-be space colonists. Colonists on Mars would require intensive industrial processes to produce air, water, food and shelter. To be a viable colony, they would need to be able to run and maintain all the machines they use, and make new machine parts or buy them from Earth. (To actually be a safeguard against human extinction like people say, they need to be able to function as a pure autarky that can make and operate everything they need with no trade with Earth, but viability as a colony is a lower bar).

Small population, high-tech island nations like Iceland usually specialize in a few industries (fish, smelting aluminum and software for Iceland) and buy everything else they need from larger countries with the proceeds. If Starship reaches or exceeds Musk’s most ambitious launch cost goals, it might be $10/kg to low Earth orbit. With the refueling flights, this would mean ~$60/kg to Mars. This cost (and the cost to everywhere else in space, really) is hundreds to a thousand times higher than the ocean freight costs that allow places like Iceland to exist as developed nations. And Iceland has free breathable air, drinkable water, timber, cheap hydro and geothermal power and fish and farmland. They don’t have to mine glaciers for water, electrolyze oxygen out of it, live in the equivalent of underground submarines or farm in bigger submarines.

If Mars had some incredibly expensive, high-demand natural resource the Martians could specialize in selling that, but it doesn’t. If robots didn’t suck, they could do 99.9% of the work of building, running and maintaining the life support machines and basically take the place of the ecosystem on Earth, but they do suck. Failing that, unless every colonist has 100 PhDs and can work 10,000 hours per 24 hour day, the colony won’t be viable, with a successful SpaceX’s cheap rockets. An economically self-sufficient Mars colony naturally requires a place with the population of Iceland to have the industrial capacity and knowledge base of Japan.

One day, robots probably won’t suck; in, say, three centuries we could imagine that steady improvements in robotics could make something like the self-replicating lunar factory from the 1980 NASA study on advanced automation (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-replicating_machine#Advanced_Automation_for_Space_Missions) possible. It’s the sort of thing you might expect to see with typical yearly productivity growth over three centuries. With something like that, enthusiasts probably could colonize Mars if they wanted to. But right now it’s a pipe dream even if SpaceX succeeds.

38

Fake Dave 07.23.21 at 6:53 am

No offense intended, but the article in the OP seems rather underbaked. I was quite surprised that it ended when it did as many important topics were not addressed. I loath the current class of billionaire space racers and am offended by the very concept of space tourism, but denying that there is public utility in space travel/exploration concedes far too much, in my opinion. We must plan now for the responsible use, conservation, and equitable distribution of the Solar System’s resources so that space cannot become another playground for unfettered capitalism. You seem to be betting that the plutocrats will fail or content themselves with trivialities, but we’re still in the splashy proof-of-concept phase and these guys are nothing if not ambitious. (Remember when the Tesla was just a bunch of laptop batteries in a Lotus chassis? I laughed then too.) I don’t think you’ve considered the danger we would all be in should they succeed in their higher ambitions.

Asteroid mining is probably the biggest thing you didn’t mention and it is conspicuous in its absence as several apparently serious and well capitalized companies are pursuing it. Single asteroids are estimated to hold trillions of dollars in precious metals and rare earths (although obviously the current market value would quickly become meaningless.) The first company to actually bring one home would effect commodities markets like the Spanish finding Cerro de Potosi. Then there are the industrial applications. There are whole fields of materials science that could be transformed should rare earths cease to be rare. It’s not just cheaper, more powerful cell phones, solar panels, and batteries, it’s all the applications we haven’t even thought of yet because some of these substances are too rare to even experiment with. A company or cartel with monopoly control and vertical integration could become the next Standard Oil — the exclusive purveyor of new technologies we abruptly find we cannot live without.

The next step from asteroid mining is orbital (or extra-orbital) construction. As it stands, construction of even a modest space habitat takes dozens of expensive rocket launches hauling tiny prefabricated payloads. The ISS took decades to reach its current size and it still must be like living in a few airstreams welded together. We’re obviously never going to get very far that way. If we were able to use materials found in space to build robotic factories (technology we already have on Earth), we could then build vehicles and satellites on a much grander scale and with more robust materials (possibly hollowing out the asteroids themselves). Then we could devote precious payload space to passengers, biologicals, and complex instruments instead of spending weight allowances on heavy building materials. As for the deadly effects of weightlessness, the O’Neill Cylinder (which uses centrifugal tori to produce pseudo gravity) has been theorized since the 70s. We’ve just never been able to test it. It would certainly be a game changer if it worked and could be combined with large scale hydroponics to make space habitats in which more people could live for longer periods of time. Full-fledged orbital cities might be only a generation or two away.

Would that be a solution to overpopulation or some “escape” from a dying world? Absolutely not. Might it provide a temporary refuge for plutocrats and their cronies to hide out in celestial villas outside the reach of anyone who could hold them accountable? Maybe, and that’s bad enough. Plus, once you’re in orbit, anything you send back down the gravity well (even by accident) becomes a potential weapon of mass destruction and I’d really rather not grant that power to private interests (governments are bad enough).

I know that all sounds like science fiction, but most of the technology already exists and a lot of very rich people take these ideas quite seriously. It would behoove us to do the same.

39

David J. Littleboy 07.23.21 at 12:01 pm

Re @ 10 and @16.

Really. Putting humans in space isn’t very smart. By the way, the reason the Webb telescope will be so much better than the Hubble, is that the Hubble was designed to be delivered and serviced by low earth orbit vehicles, and thus had to be in low earth orbit, which is about 1/1,000 the distance to the moon. (Low earth orbit isn’t really “space” at all, it’s well within the Earth’s magnetic field. So our twat billionaires haven’t actually made it into space.) The Hubble was a major irritation: if we hadn’t wasted all that money on the space shuttle, we could have afforded a much better telescope than the Hubble, put it in a far better orbit*, simply replaced it if it broke, and still have had lots of change left over from the money saved. From the very start it was designed as an advertising gimmick to sell the shuttle. It’s really sad how badly the English language press fell for the sleaze.

*: Low earth orbit is really low, so things in said orbit zip around the earth at insane speeds (a mere 97 minutes per revolution for the Hubble’s orbit: 28,000 km per hour), which makes it hard for a telescope to do good work (since tracking objects is hard, they go out of view quickly, and you miss half the events you are interested in). If you had a choice, you wouldn’t put a telescope anywhere near low earth orbit. If you cared about its performance, that is.

40

Tim Worstall 07.23.21 at 12:15 pm

“There are whole fields of materials science that could be transformed should rare earths cease to be rare.”

A slight correction. Rare earths aren’t, in fact, rare here on Earth. Cerium alone of the 15 lanthanides is more common than copper. We use perhaps 50k tonnes a year of cerium globally, tens of millions of copper.

Creating whatever quantity of rare earth concentrate (ie, all 15 lanthanides mixed) is not quite trivial but it’s certainly not a difficult task. Disposing of/storing the likely associated thorium is a political problem. What is a technical problem is separating that concentrate into the individual lanthanides. Our current tech in use uses large quantities of acids and thus water – not something we’re going to be doing in space. A different separation tech would change the Earth based problem with the rare earths anyway.

Those nickel based asteroids are likely high in platinum group metals (platiunum, palladium, rhodium etc) and that’s a different story – but then they’re not rare earths.

Asteroid mining wouldn’t solve the problem we have with rare earths.

Just as a reality check, cerium is $5 a kg (as oxide), lutetium maybe $50 (last time I looked), neodymium for those windmill magnets is $30/ kg or so. These are not the prices of things in disastrously short supply. I think rhodium has been to $50 a gramme …..that’s a metal in short supply

41

Tm 07.23.21 at 12:32 pm

Even under the most dire worst case scenarios, the earth will remain a far more habitable place than Mars. It makes infinitely more sense to do everything we can to solve or mitigate our – mostly human made – earthly problems than to invest a penny in Martian escape fantasies. That this argument is even being made is indicative of how irrationally many of our (economic, political and even some scientific) leaders are thinking about the risks that humankind faces.

42

Tim Worstall 07.23.21 at 1:00 pm

Apologies, my mistake, the quoted rhodium price is per troy ounce, so it’s at $580 a gramme or so right now. Distinctly different from the rare earths with their dollars and tens of dollars per kilo pricing.

43

NomadUK 07.23.21 at 5:21 pm

I am, no doubt, a hopeless naïf and romantic, but, much as despise Bezos and Musk as individuals and capitalists, I can’t help but feel that these are necessary steps on what has to be, for our own benefit as a species, a long voyage outward. I’ve carried these words around in my head for decades, and though I’m not one of the ones who will make any of this happen, I support the efforts of those who try to, and fail to understand the lack of vision of those who don’t.

Now, I don’t pretend to tell you how to find happiness and love when every day is just a struggle to survive, but I do insist that you do survive because the days and the years ahead are worth living for. One day — soon — man is going to be able to harness incredible energies, maybe even the atom. Energies that could ultimately hurl us to other worlds in some sort of spaceship. And the men that reach out into space will be able to find ways to feed the hungry millions of the world and to cure their diseases. They will be able to find a way to give each man hope and a common future. And those are the days worth living for.
Star Trek, ‘The City on the Edge of Forever’ (Edith Keeler’s speech), 1967.

We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on Man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say the we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that Man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.

[…] We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
— John F Kennedy, speech at Rice University, 12 September 1962.

44

DCA 07.23.21 at 8:07 pm

Rare earths from asteroids–what is the evidence? Plenty of nickel and iron, yes, but I’ve

never heard of a rare-earth meteorite. And (to quote from a US Geological Survey website):

In many rare earth element deposits, enrichment of rare earth elements is largely controlled by their transport in fluids (orthomagmatic, hydrothermal, groundwater).

None of these processes take place in asteroids.

45

Peter Erwin 07.23.21 at 10:16 pm

DCA @ 44
Rare earths from asteroids–what is the evidence? Plenty of nickel and iron, yes, but I’ve never heard of a rare-earth meteorite.

I believe the current geological thinking is that much of the interesting heavier metals in the Earth’s crust were delivered by asteroidal impacts after the Earth’s formation. The heavier metals that were originally present sank into the core while the Earth was still mostly molten.

People have found all sorts of elements in meteorites. I’m not sure the rare earth concentration is all that high, though I believe some classes of meteorite (and thus some classes of asteroid) have relatively high amounts of platinum-group metals, for example.

46

Ronald 07.23.21 at 11:37 pm

There’s an asteroid about 500 meters from my work place. Thanks to booming commodity prices it’s worth maybe $500 Australian per tonne. Sure, there’s gold and platinum in it, but only in the same way there is gold and platinum in the dirt in your backyard. Since random dirt is already here and space asteroids are in space, I’m not seeing a lot of incentive to mine space asteroids for materials to use on earth. Use in space is another matter.

47

Fake Dave 07.24.21 at 12:10 am

It turns out I may be a little fuzzy on what constitutes a “rare earth.”

48

Peter Erwin 07.24.21 at 1:17 pm

Ronald @46

That’s kind of a silly argument, isn’t it?

For one thing, there are various different kinds of asteroid, not all of which are identical to “dirt in your backyard”, so extrapolation from a single asteroid near you is pretty meaningless.

(The initial evidence for an extraterrestrial impactor as the potential cause of the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction 66 million years ago was the thin layer of clay enriched roughly 100 times in iridium relative to the concentration in the upper crust. Subsequent work has shown this pattern of enrichment extends to other platinum-group elements and related metals, including gold. Again, space is not identical to your backyard.)

And we don’t mine gold and platinum from “random dirt”, do we? We only mine it from specific places where it’s concentrated, easily accessible, and in a form we can profitably process and refine. The question is whether some asteroids might have economically valuable and accessible concentrations of some metals.

49

nastywoman 07.24.21 at 3:25 pm

@
‘Even under the most dire worst case scenarios, the earth will remain a far more habitable place than Mars’.

somehow I really liked that comment as is there really more to say?

50

EnckeGap 07.24.21 at 4:02 pm

People suggest platinum group metals as targets for asteroid mining because they’re thought to be present in some asteroids, and at current prices of thousands of dollars per kg, it seems like they’re expensive enough that you could get more money per kg selling them than you spent bringing them back from the asteroid. If your asteroid mining venture brought back more than a token quantity however, it would drop the price of those metals drastically. Sometimes asteroid mining enthusiasts will say that’s good, because now we can build lots more things out of fancy metals, but it still means the asteroid mine is now running at a loss; the metals’ expense was the whole reason to target them. For asteroid mining to be successful, you really need a resource that is impossible to obtain on Earth, at least thousands of dollars per kg, and so in demand that people will pay that price for any amount of it. I don’t think anything really qualifies.

You can also say you’re mining the metals for use in space, but that raises the question of what you’re building in space that needs large quantities of raw materials, and how it pays for itself. There are some ventures looking to mine lunar or asteroidal ice deposits for rocket fuel for use in space tugs and fuel depots for satellites, or on a future lunar base; even some ULA executives have mentioned this. For the future government lunar base this may make sense; for commercial satellites it’s harder to say. It would be competing with the same cheap space launch that enables it, and with alternative satellite philosophies based around miniaturization and simple, reliable electric propulsion.

51

David J. Littleboy 07.24.21 at 4:31 pm

“I can’t help but feel that these are necessary steps on what has to be, for our own benefit as a species, a long voyage outward.”

It’s been covered above, but perhaps needs reiterating: macroscopic life on Earth evolved to function in a low-radiation, medium-gravity, breathable-atmosphere ecological niche. There isn’t anywhere within many light years that’s anywhere close to meeting those conditions. Other than what we’ve got right here. If we foul it up, we’re done for.

That really is the bottom line for our species. Anything outside the Earth’s magnetic field is deadly. On all three accounts listed above. And can only be made temporarily acceptable for small numbers of people for short amounts of time. Radiation in space is 600 times what it is in New Jersey, which is already well above the limits for background radiation stipulated by law here in Japan. The human species isn’t leaving earth. Ever.

So it’s real important we don’t foul this planet up with insane numbers of private cars, every twat and their uncle thinking that they are entitled to regular international air travel, China frantically building coal-fired power plants, and the like. But we’re doing it.

Given that human written language only appeared 5,000 years ago, I’d say that “our species” hasn’t been around much longer than 10,000 or maybe 15,000 years*. We’re real young in terms of species age; T. Rex was around for 2 or 3 million years. But we’re already fouling our own beds.

*: As a 1980s generation AI type, my intuition is that what makes “us” qualitatively different from earlier human-shaped beasts is the ability to do symbolic thought. Currently, we’re the only animal on this planet that knows that sex causes pregnancy and that pregnancy causes childbirth and can reason about those facts and make bad decisions despite that ability. So when did this symbolic reasoning ability appear in early hominids?

52

EnckeGap 07.24.21 at 4:42 pm

Somebody on Twitter (I’m trying to remember who) pointed out that current plans to return to the Moon and establish a human base match a general pattern in human exploration, and especially the exploration of Antarctica, in that there is an early herculean effort to make token visits to a place, largely for bragging rights, followed by a
~50 year lull in which technology improves, followed by a more sustained effort to establish a human presence for research and/or exploitation.

Leave a Comment

You can use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>