Here Be Dragons?

Now that SpaceX’s Dragon capsule has successfully delivered supplies to the International Space Station, does that mean the future lies with the commercial space sector? Well, I’m not convinced. There’s certainly plenty to exploit out there in the Solar System, from the minerals in asteroids to the hydrocarbons in comets to Helium-3 on the lunar surface, and so on. The returns are potentially huge. But so is the capital investment required. And no twenty-first century corporation, focused primarily on managing shareholder expectations, is going to sink billions of dollars or euros into a project that may or may not give a return on investment for decades.

Source: National Geographic

There is no cheap way to get into space, and no cheap way to remain there. At present, the vast budgets required are justified by the science – because the immediate benefits of science are incalculable, but the nature of scientific enterprise means there’s always a golden egg just over the horizon. The only organisations with pockets deep enough, and that will take a long-term view, are public agencies. People cavil at the cost, and rue the opportunity costs – conveniently forgetting that in terms of individual contribution, the price is insignificant, and that saving money in one place rarely means it will be spent where it’s most needed. The Apollo programme, for example, cost $25 billion between 1962 and 1972, or $2.5 billion per year. Given a population of around 190 million over that period, and assuming approximately half paid taxes… that’s about $13 per taxpayer per year. People spend more than that per year on bubblegum.

At present, Low Earth Orbit is desirable real estate, but it is difficult and expensive to reach. Should any company find a cost-effective way of putting hardware into LEO, they will have customers lining up at their door. Commercial satellites are expensive to build, and expensive to put in place, but they make money. Lots of money. Indeed, the services they offer can even be pre-sold to offset the development costs. SpaceX, however, has said it plans to go further. Planetary Resources Inc also intends to move beyond LEO.

The problem is that space is not the Wild West. Back in the day, you spent your savings on your wagon and supplies, and lit out into the great yonder. Once you’d found a suitable spot, you settled down and became self-sufficient. You can’t be self-sufficient in space. LEO is about as safe as it gets in space, and even then living there is an ongoing cost; and an expensive one at that.

I’m not convinced the commercial exploitation of space, given present and foreseeable technology, is possible. I don’t think corporations would even find such projects desirable or sustainable. It needs government, or supra-governmental, involvement. It needs a redistribution of resources and capital that is politically anathema in today’s neoliberal economies. Given the prizes that could be won, it seems to me self-defeating to put our all our hopes in the private sector, which can only chip away ineffectually at the low-hanging fruit.

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2 Comments

Filed under space, space travel

2 responses to “Here Be Dragons?

  1. Great and knowledgeable post as always.

    Glad to hear there’s someone else who doesn’t think that commercial space flight is the main solution and future.

  2. What is curious is how ‘commercial’ space has been achieved so far. Is it at all surprising that the first commercial venture to make it to the ISS was in essence the product of a completely private company? SpaceX is the property of Elon Musk. There are no public shares, governance, or focus on short-term share price targets. He set the long-term goal, and molded the company to that goal.

    You would think that companies in the business for a long time: Lockheed, Boeing, Raytheon, or even United Space Alliance would be able to build a Dragon, slap it onto a Delta, and get into the private spaceflight game. Why didn’t they? I think the answer is clearly because they were NOT personal companies like SpaceX, and thus unable to conceive of, much less build, a completely in-house space project that has nothing to do with a NASA or DoD contract. There’s a whole lot of theory about how such long-time contractors becoming rent-seekers, entreprenurial muscles go flabby, and the creative destruction of newcomers being stymied when the old-timers use government to stifle competition, but I don’t want to get political here.

    I believe that SpaceX, and Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites are a lot like Jerry Pournellle’s Hansen Enterprises, (High Justice, Exiles to Glory)–a personal company where the single owner has created a space-going capability that even governments could not do well. Are we in a spot in history where life will begin to imitate art?

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