An Update on the Space Age

At the time of writing, the Orbital Sciences Corporation is planning to launch a large, two-stage rocket called Antares. The launch is a trial meant to test the spaceworthiness of the rocket and make sure it is capable of safely releasing a small cargo vessel into orbit. If successful, this launch will effectively green-light the use of the Antares delivery system for resupply missions to the International Space Station. The first time that such a mission docks with the station will also make the Orbital Sciences Corporation the second commercial spaceflight provider, joining the California-based SpaceX.

While the world fixates on nuclear weapons and terrorism, the space age has quietly arrived on our doorstep. I don’t know how to adequately state the significance of the work being done by the commercial space industry. NASA and its foreign counterparts have done incredible work over the past 60 years, developing technologies and expanding our understanding the universe, but they have done so in pursuit of knowledge. Private companies pursue profit. For now, those profits take the form of government contracts and assignments; this will not always be the case. These companies are becoming experts in technologies that allow humans to travel to other worlds.

The natural bounty of the solar system outstrips Earth by powers of a hundred. Titan, a moon in orbit around Saturn, has lakes and rivers made of liquid hydrocarbons. Portions of Mercury’s surface are covered in pure titanium. Numerous moons and and asteroids possess entire oceans worth of frozen water. The prosperity that could be achieved through exploitation of these resources is extraordinary and makes most of our current resource conflicts and dilemmas seem depressingly petty.

So, what obstacles still stand between corporate America and the wealth of the solar system? Well, our inability to shield space craft against solar radiation means that any astronauts who spend more than a few weeks in space are very likely to develop severe cancer. A plethora of private and public institutions are presently toiling to develop a solution to this problem. Successful or not, many of these efforts may prove unnecessary as non-living astronauts become more independent and capable. Machines don’t need food, don’t sleep, don’t crack under stress, don’t get sick, and don’t have families who care about their safety. Their only limitation at present is the communication delay caused by the huge distances associated with space travel. Our robots need to get a little more independent before stockholders will start trusting them with multibillion dollar enterprises.

For now, the space industry putters along. New technologies are being developed and companies are building specialized business models to facilitate their future growth. Unfortunately, the wealth of the solar system remains out of reach. Exploration, research, and development remain the primary focuses of the commercial space industry. As a result, the companies I’ve described are looked upon as novelties in the economy; investment opportunities that seem reserved for the excessively optimistic and the government. The turning point will occur once a company takes something valuable from beyond Earth, brings it back, sells it, and makes a profit from doing so.

In economics, industries can be grouped by their “cost to entry.” This refers to the money and effort that must be invested in a new company before profits are possible. For example, the lumber industry has a fairly low cost to entry, just start cutting trees down and you’re more or less in business. In contrast, the telecommunication industry has huge entry costs as billions of dollars’ worth of towers, cables, and personnel must be procured before a company can even begin selling its product. Space travel is the most expensive enterprise ever undertaken. By the time the industry becomes profitable the companies leading the charge will be supercharged versions of AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast; virtually unassailable due to the immense cost of trying to catch up with them.

Space travel has always been regarded as expensive and experimental science. The idea of such science playing a large role in day to day life has long been the stuff of fiction and fantasy. I think this is likely to change. It probably won’t be in the next five years, or perhaps even in the next fifty; but, sometime in the next century, I predict that we are going to see dramatic growth in the space industry. This growth will not come about through some spectacular means. As with most great developments in history, our move into space will be the result of common economics and humanity’s natural drive to expand. The significant thing to keep in mind is that the people and organizations who lead space revolution, like those who led the industrial, computer, and now internet revolutions, will likely find themselves at the top of the world for a very long time.

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