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The economics of space

Written by James C. Bennett Tuesday, 06 December 2011 08:41
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With the news that scientists say they have found the most Earth-like planet ever discovered - circling a star 600 light years away, it's worth assessing what are the economics of space, and are we ever likely to have the means to travel to this newly discovered planet?

At the end of September, 2011, the space world was electrified  by an announcement made by space entrepreneur Elon Musk in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.  

Musk had already defied the skepticism of many by creating Space Exploration Technologies, Inc. (SpaceX), developing a new large orbital launch vehicle on private financing, with its own human-capable space capsule, and launching it and recovering it successfully, on what has generally been accepted as a tenth of the cost NASA, by its own admission, would have required for the same task.  Until he had actually done it, many had thought it impossible.  Now Musk announced a goal that seemed even more incredible.  He declared his intention to build a colony on Mars -- not just a base with a handful of people, but a small city with thousands of inhabitants.

 

For many people, this seems to stretch the boundaries of credibility. 

The great bulk of discussion, planning, and actual commerce to date in space has been about what the positional resource of space can do for economic activity on earth – i.e., Earth orbit can serve as an unique location for communication relays between two points of Earth; it can serve as a vantage point for better imaging the Earth’s surface, and its unique properties such as microgravity can host research whose results can improve production of materials on Earth.  At the very fringes of this activity is the idea of taking humans for short rides into space for research or other self-defined purposes, or even staying in low Earth orbit for a week or two for such purposes.

 

Longer-term thinking includes establishing research facilities on the Moon, Mars, or other extraterrestrial bodies, and even mining mineral or energy resources for return to Earth.  Some such forecasting envisions permanent, long-term human settlements, often on the model of mining towns built on the frontier, as in North America and Australia in the 19th century, or the less-well-known but probably more relevant resource towns being built today in the Canadian North. 

 

The gap between even the most ambitious plans of space forecasters, and the settings that are so often assumed in science fiction – of self-sufficient human civilizations on other planets – remains enormous.  Yet the settlement of space, along the lines set out by Musk is not only possible, but eventually probable, given a proper understanding of human expansion and settlement.  Only the brilliant British physicist Freeman Dyson has addressed the actual economics of space settlement in the proper manner, that is, from the point of view of the people who might choose to settle, rather than the people who might send them.   Dyson, in his work Infinite in All Directions, viewed the problem of space settlement by calculating what it cost a typical family in various waves of colonization of North America to transplant themselves, in terms of fractions of an average years’ wages.  The Pilgrim emigration, for example, cost substantially more than the Mormon emigration.  However, he calculated that the break point for an affordable middle-class colonization effort at $40,000 US in 1978 dollars (about $132,000 today). 

Taken from Investing in Space by James C. Bennett to be published by Searching Finance in January 2012.

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