People sometimes ask me if space industry is “for real”. They want to know if you really can make a profit launching rockets into space, doing exotic activities like deep mining on Mars, bringing back metal ore to Earth, refining it, and selling it on the Earth’s metal markets at a profit. How can that possibly be worthwhile, they ask, since space transportation is so expensive? How can any advantage of the resources in space possibly make up for the huge transportation costs? But space mining isn’t necessarily about bringing ore back to Earth, and yes, it is for real.
The Near Term
Everywhere I go, I ask my colleagues this question: “How can you make money in space?” The answers I have collected over the years can be placed (for the most part) into the following categories.
1. Space Tourism. This involves flying to the ISS, taking trips around the Moon, or taking suborbital flights to see the Earth from the blackness of space while experiencing zero gravity. It might include hotels on the Moon or casinos in Earth orbit. You make money in space tourism by selling people an experience, which might change their lives. What other ways can you offer tourism experiences in space?
2. Space Novelties. This involves selling anything related to space, not for its inherent value, but simply for the novelty that it is somehow connected to space. For example, you might bring back lunar rocks and sell them as paperweights. (If you sell them to scientists, then it’s not a mere novelty.) You might also sell the service of spreading people’s ashes on the Moon. Can you think of space novelties that have significant commercial potential?
3. Supporting science and exploration. This is one of the main ways the “New Space” companies hope to make money in the near term. The classical way to support science and exploration is to get a big government contract to build spaceships that the government designs, owns, and operates, or to provide services to the government for launching or operating those government spacecraft. The New Space companies operate under a more entrepreneurial model: the company puts up its own capital, makes its own decisions, takes its own risks, and makes its own money by offering support for science and exploration customers in space. Those customers may be government agencies like NASA, but they could also be private individuals who want to fund their own missions in space. This method of making money might involve providing rocket propellants needed by a Mars-bound spaceship, allowing it to fuel up in Earth orbit rather than launching with all its own fuel from Earth. That would be a huge cost-saver for Mars exploration. Those propellants might be made by a commercial company that mines the water ice on the Moon or from a nearby asteroid then electrolyzes it to produce hydrogen and oxygen, which are excellent rocket propellants. A company might also manufacture and sell spare parts or even entire spacecraft that they made in space, Other companies are getting ready to provide the transportation services in space: to Earth orbit, to the surface of the Moon, and even to Mars. Do you have any other ideas for companies supporting science and exploration in space? I’d love to hear your thoughts. I’m still collecting ideas for this list.
4. Planetary Protection. A space company might also make money selling services to the United Nations or to some other consortium of governments to protect planet Earth from dangerous Earth-crossing asteroids. It could provide services like mapping the asteroids, tracking and predicting their trajectories, and pushing them out of the way. In the long run, perhaps these companies will completely clear all dangerous asteroids out of the neighborhood of Earth, using them up in construction projects or putting them into long-term, safe parking orbits. Don’t underestimate what fantastical things a self-supporting robotic industry in space can do. If we follow the logical path, soon the entire Oort cloud could be brought under the control of our planetary protection system. This kind of business would be funded ultimately by taxpayers through their governments rather than by individual commercial customers, so in that respect it shares some commonality with government-funded science and exploration (in item 3). However, planetary protection may motivate a unique element of taxpayer support, additional to all the support for item 3. This should become true as the taxpayers grow in their feeling that the risks are real — the risk of an entire city being destroyed, or of all major lifeforms on Earth being extincted. Continuing good science education will eventually make the people feel how real this is. It is true that the risk is low over periods of time as short as, say, 100 years, but how low does the risk need to be to make such a tragic possibility morally acceptable, when we held it in our hands to virtually eliminate it forever?
5. Returning Material Goods to Earth. Maybe a profit can be made by mining metals or other resources and bringing them back to Earth’s markets for sale. Some people I know believe the conditions are right to make this profitable today. They argue that highly valuable platinum can be found near lunar impact craters, and since the pounding of micrometeorites over billions of years has already crushed the ore into a granular material the mining processes will actually be much simpler than on Earth. Others argue that platinum along with other metals will be hugely profitable from asteroids, because their concentration in asteroids is many orders of magnitude higher than in the best ore bodies on Earth. Still others argue that lunar Helium-3 can be sold profitably on Earth, because Helium-3 is needed for many different purposes on Earth and it is a non-renewable resource that is nearly depleted. My opinion on this? I am hopeful. I believe with the advance of robotic technologies it is foolish to think that anything uneconomic today will remain uneconomic more than a few more decades. Whoever isn’t getting into the business today will be getting into the business too late. Also, in addition to raw space resources, maybe finished goods can be manufactured in space for sale on Earth, relying on the special environment of space to do things that can’t be done more economically on Earth. For example, maybe you need zero gravity to make something in space, or maybe you just need the vast real estate of the Moon for some activity that is not permitted on Earth. I have heard many suggestions but so far no definite plans that fall into this latter category. Any other ideas?
6. Beaming Energy to Earth. Maybe instead of bringing material goods back from space, we can bring back immaterial energy. Space beamed power has been controversial. It is the idea of collecting solar power from somewhere in space — perhaps by satellites in geosynchronous orbit around the Earth, or perhaps by solar cells made out of regolith on the surface of the Moon — and then beaming the power down to the surface of the Earth via microwaves or lasers. Some, like me, believe it will be possible to make money this way in the not-too-distant future. Others believe it is a crazy idea and is so far from being profitable that only a fool would ruin his reputation even talking about it. They point out that solar cells in the deserts of Earth are five orders of magnitude cheaper than solar cells launched into space. How can you possibly make up for five orders of magnitude in the cost? However, that argument entirely misses the point of space beamed power. The real cost of solar power is not in generating it, but in storing it so that you have power at night. Storing solar power is orders of magnitude more costly than generating it. As a result, solar power generated in the deserts of Earth is uneconomic as a baseload capacity power source. We use it only for topping off the peak demand during the daytime. Well, if we wanted to invest in dual power generation systems, we could have enough solar cells for all our baseload power in the daytime and then we could use the parallel system for power generation using entirely fossil fuels at night. That would avoid the need for storage and would reduce fossil fuel usage by a little more than half. Why don’t we do that today? Because of the high cost of building and maintaining two completely parallel power generation systems. And even if we did it, we would still be using fossil fuels at night, so it won’t get us completely off fossil fuels. There are only two alternatives. One is to store the solar energy for use at night, which is expensive. The other is to put the solar energy collectors in space outside of Earth’s shadow so that you never have to store it and yet it is still available 24/7. If we reduce the launch cost enough, then maybe it will become economic as baseload power. I have heard two proposals that can in principle do this successfully. One is a unique way of launching very affordably: using a large in-space laser to beam energy at rockets that use uncombusted, pure hydrogen as the propellant for the best possible launch performance. The other proposal is to make the power satellites in space, using materials that were mined in space and thus avoiding the launch costs entirely. More work is needed, but I believe that when we have sufficient industrial capability in space, this will eventually become a money-maker. The question is how soon it will become profitable? Will it contribute to the startup of space industry, or will it be feasible only after the industry is already fully started?
7. Beaming Data to Earth. Like item 6, this one involves bringing an immaterial product down to Earth, and that makes the downward transportation very affordable. To beam data, like energy, you just need an antenna instead of a spaceship. But what kind of data can we sell by beaming it down to Earth? Well, navigation data for one. There is a big market for GPS services. And for another, we can beam down the data that was beamed up from the Earth — I mean, we can offer data relay services: communication satellites. There is much more that we can do with communication satellites than we are doing today. For example, here are two proposals to put bigger and cheaper communication satellites into orbit. The first proposal is to have an orbiting refueling depot and a set of space tugs. These tugs fuel up using propellants mined in space and then take the satellites from low earth orbit to geostationary orbit higher up. A recent study by the 2012 International Space University showed that for most rocket launchers this will provide about a 40% reduction in launch cost. The second proposal is to simply make the communication satellites in space, just like making the beamed power satellites in space. Then you eliminate the launch costs entirely, and (more importantly) enables you to put much larger communication systems into space than will fit on a rocket, and that opens up brilliant possibilities. Beaming data is a huge growth area because the Information Revolution is still in full swing with no signs of abatement. Every year, more and larger communication satellites are demanded and launched into space. Parts of the globe are still under-served in cell phone and internet service. Point-to-point and secure communications are in increasing demand. Soon we will all have the internet with high definition streaming video in our wrist watches and maybe (for some of us?) directly in our brains. In my opinion, the manufacture and support of communication systems is one of the most lucrative opportunities for commercial space companies throughout the next century and beyond.
The Longer Term
The above list is things that companies might start doing to make money even before there is any other infrastructure or industry in space. Those are startup activities. But once those activities are established, they will create opportunities for even more ambitious projects in space. One idea is to build colonies for people on Mars, and to sell or rent membership in those colonies. The miracle of human industry is that we can turn a profit even when there are no resources at all, simply by applying our own ingenuity and effort. So if there are enough humans on Mars, then resources or not, it will eventually be profitable, and with those profits the colony can buy from Earth anything it cannot yet make. One thing that a Mars colony could sell profitably would be intellectual property: inventions, technology, art, music, literature, and so on. Again, it only takes antennas to ship those things back to Earth. Robert Zubrin has pointed out that colonies have historically attracted inventive, entrepreneurial people, so Mars colonies may be expected to rival the most creative places on Earth. Consider Silicon Valley in California: all the people living there do not survive on resources grown and mined in the local area. Their biggest industry is exporting intellectual capital. That allows them to buy everything they need.
Other wild ideas I have heard promoted for the longer term include: extreme sports in the exotic environments in space; nursing homes in low gravity where people will have more freedom to move; and gigantic and dangerous research projects that are just too risky to perform on Earth. What ideas do you have?
The Very Long Term
Eventually, there is no reason why all of the solar system should be less profitable for industry than the Earth is. The solar system has literally billions of times more of every element and billions of times more energy than we have on Earth. There is vastly more real estate. There are unique environments to do things impossible on Earth. With robotics we are no longer limited to operating in the environment of Earth. Robotics can lead the way and set up cities and transportation systems for humans to operate everywhere in the solar system from Mercury to the Oort Cloud. This would be a Kardashev Type 2 civilization.
Shortcutting the Process
My colleagues and I recently wrote a paper about getting to the very long-term in a very short while. The paper is called, “Affordable, Rapid Bootstrapping of the Space Industry and Solar System Civilization.” It was published in the ASCE’s Journal of Aerospace Engineering in January of 2013. I will discuss this paper in more detail in future blog posts. For now I will just mention that, with only a little government funding, we can make a gigantic space industry self-supporting in as short as 20 to 40 years. If we do that, then every activity we do in space will be economic and produce almost unbelievable benefits to humanity.
I think the prospects for space industry are extremely bright. Commercial companies are already lining up to establish businesses in various market niches: mining asteroids, mining the Moon, providing launch services from Earth, providing transportation to the Moon, manufacturing in space, providing tourism opportunities, etc. The governments of the world have a fantastic opportunity to leverage this commercial investment, both enhancing their own activities in space and making the commercial companies successful. And with just a modest investment, we can directly startup a self-sufficient industry in space.
So is space industry for real? It sure is.