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.
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.