The struggling space age

Apollo_CSM_lunar_orbitThe Washington Post has an interesting summary of the state of the space industry, contrasting the “New Space”, private companies, with “Old Space”, Nasa.  The article is interlaced with interesting photos and is well worth the time investment.  Another article on NBC talks about the White House’s new space transportation policy.

I’m a space enthusiast.  I think it grows out of me being a science fiction fan for as long as I can remember.  The space opera consensus on humanity’s future is that we would first spend the 21st century exploring the solar system, and then after a century or so, go on to explore the stars, perhaps at first with slower than light travel, then eventually with some form of faster than light travel.  I suspect, for your average space enthusiast, this future is what we have in mind when we think of space exploration.  And it’s why so many of us have become impatient with what is essentially the stalled space age.

However, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve also tried to become a realist.  And this leads me to the realization that me and my fellow space enthusiasts have a problem.  Space exploration, particularly manned space exploration, is ridiculously expensive.  At $5000 per pound to get anything in orbit, plus the cost of life support and logistical support, nothing much gets done in the space industry without the price tag climbing into the billions.

With these outrageous costs, there is a requirement to identify an economic rationale for it.  It’s one thing to say that we as a species need to colonize space to insure the survival of the human race, but quite another to convince taxpayers or investors to shell out money for benefits they themselves will never see.  While scientific interest has been enough to finance robotic probes, sadly, it probably won’t be enough to finance the much more expensive and risky manned missions.  (This might change if life is ever discovered anywhere else in the solar system.)

When they hear this, many people like to bring up the Age of Exploration, when Europeans explored the world.  What is often forgotten about the Age of Exploration is that it had a strong economic motivation.  Initially, Portugal was interested in finding an alternate trading route, primarily for spices, to the far east to go around the middlemen in the middle east.  These economic interests, which are barely remembered today, financed the Age of Exploration, at least until other economic interests kicked in with the discovery of new continents.

Space exploration needs its own version of the spice trade.  I fear that, until it finds it, it will continue to struggle.  Neil deGrasse Tyson has proposed that we consider the space program an economic, scientific, and technological stimulus, but it’s not clear how well that sells.  There’s also some hope in the interest of some investors in mining asteroids, but we’ll have to see if that ends up being enough.

5 thoughts on “The struggling space age

  1. Good call. I wonder if most of the advances of the space age were motivated by the cold war, and with that motivation gone, there’s little economic incentive, except to put satellites into orbit.

    That whole thing about guaranteeing the survival of humanity seems to be a non-starter. Other than being something whose benefit the funders won’t experience, it’s also something that may not even come to pass.

    Recently there was a documentary on mining asteroids (“Asteroids: Doomsday or Payday?”), and I was struck at how pie-in-the-sky it all seemed. Maybe I am just cynical, but it was hard to take any of the benefits seriously.


    1. Thanks. Good point on the cold war. It makes you wonder how long it would have taken us to get into space if Soviets hadn’t started it. I’ve often wondered what our reaction might be if China put a man on the moon, and then announced plans for a moon base and Mars expedition.

      Of course, these flag planting motivations only really serve for symbolic achievements. Without an economic incentive, it’s hard to see what would keep us in space.

      You might be right on asteroid mining. If there ever will be an incentive, that will likely be it, but we’ll probably need better technologies for getting to them to make it worth the cost.


  2. There’s currently still an incentive to make putting thibgs in orbit cheaper and easier. If that continues to the point where orbital facilities are affordable for multinationals then that might spark some creative tax avoidance by basing stuff in orbit and claiming it as a regulation and tax free environment. Current international conventions make things above 100km beyond national jurisdictions. That would chnage though if it was being exploited.


    1. Good point. I know SpaceX is trying to get into the satellite launch business, albeit with some difficulties this week. A lot of the cost of space is just getting something in orbit. Things aren’t exactly cheap from there, but if that portion of the costs could be lowered, it might make other things possible.


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