Near-future space science fiction almost by definition has the same shared background of a large human presence in space. Practically no SF stories are about the deep space adventures of an automated space probe, they are mostly about astronauts (with or without the Right Stuff) traveling to other planets and doing things. This got started in the early 1940's, since back in that innocent age there were no automated space probes, nor the transistorized technology with which to create them. Later of course this trend was enforced by Burnside's Zeroth Law of space combat (science fiction fans relate more to human beings than to silicon chips). Often such fiction also features extensive space colonization and/or space industrialization. Not just a few people traveling in space, but huge numbers of people who actually live there.
The Elephant in the room for such novels in general, and this website in particular, is there does not seem to be any obvious way such a future can come to pass.
However, regardless of whether the proposed science fiction background is Rocketpunk or something more like NASA, there is the elephant in the room to consider. Basically, there currently is no reason compelling enough to justify the huge investment required to create an extensive manned presence in space.
Yes, I can already hear the outraged screams of SF fans, and the flood of arguments attempting to refute the elephant. Just keep in mind [a] you are always free to ignore the problem in the same way most SF authors ignore the difficulties associated with faster than light travel and [b] chances are any arguments you have are addressed below, so read this entire page first. Since everybody is busy ignoring the elephant in the room, nobody will notice if you ignore it as well. Like I said about FTL travel: you want it, they want it, everybody is doing it.
Now, currently, pretty much all of the nations on Terra that have the industrial infrastructure to expand in to space tend to have capitalistic cultures. The implication is that the only way widespread expansion in to space will happen is via the free market and the profit motive (this does raise the interesting possibility of an Eastern non-profit motivated culture given access to the required industrial base, SF authors take note). The problem is that expanding in to space is so freaking expensive that there does not seem to be any way to make it turn a profit. SF author Charles Stross goes further, and states that if we expand into the solar system, we're not going to get there by rocket ship, at least not the conventional kind. A space elevator, maybe; a rocket is too inefficient.
In other words: a rocketpunk future will be created by chasing profit, but there isn't any profit to be had. Therefore, no rocketpunk future.
So the way I understand it, one can attack the elephant by:
- reduce the cost per kilogram of delivering payload into space
- reduce the support costs of keeping human beings alive in space
- discover an incredibly valuable resource in space that requires human beings to harvest: "MacGuffinite"
- all of the above
Plus the chance to do an end-run around the profit motive problem by utilizing a non-profit oriented Eastern culture.
Rick Robinson has some interesting essays on the this subject that will provide valuable insights:
- Rocketpunk Manifesto: A Solar System For This Century ...
- Rocketpunk Manifesto: Transport Nexus
- Rocketpunk Manifesto: Transport Nexus II: The Prince versus the Discourses
- Rocketpunk Manifesto: The Dun Hills of Earth
- Rocketpunk Manifesto: In Which I Bash Space Colonization Again
- Rocketpunk Manifesto: The Industrial Scale of Space
- Rocketpunk Manifesto: first Stage
- Rocketpunk Manifesto: Searching For McGuffinite
One good way to avoid the massive cost of transporting payload from Terra into orbit is to manufacture the payload orbitally in the first place. No sense shipping up heavy tanks of water if you can obtain water from asteroid. The water on the asteroid is already in space. Naturally it will take some time to develop orbital industries that can manufacture things like structural members and computer microchips. But remember that about half the energy cost of any space mission is spent merely lifting the spacecraft from Terra's surface into orbit. Orbit is halfway to anywhere, remember?
Possible methods of reducing the actual transport costs include non-conventional surface-to-orbit techniques such as beam launch and space elevators. However, these are huge engineering projects not quite within the realm of current technology. Space elevators especially. With the added difficulty of finding insurers willing to underwrite a trillion dollar project that could be so trivially be sabotaged with a easily concealable bomb.
Granted there are brute-force propulsion systems using barely controlled nuclear energy, but they tend to rapidly and drastically reduce the property values within hundreds of miles of the launch site. Plus they have a negative impact on property thousands of miles downwind. Radioactive fallout is funny that way.
Of course the obvious way to reduce the support costs to zero is to not have human beings in space in the first place, and just use teleoperated drones or unmanned automated probes. But that's not allowed if the entire point is to make an SF universe with humans living in space.
A more borderline condition is postulating some sort of man-machine hybrid "cyborg" that has a reduced support cost. Yes, a human brain floating in a jar inside a robot body will have a much reduced oxygen and food requirements. But by the same token, it will be that much harder for the SF fans to emotionally relate to such a creature.
Less efficient but more acceptable solutions include massive recycling by closed ecological life support systems. Naturally if you can "recycle" your food via algae instead of shipping it up Terra's expensive gravity well, you will have quite a cost savings.
Charles Stross has another incendiary essay where he is of the opinion that space colonization is implicitly incompatible with both libertarian ideology and the myth of the American frontier. But I digress.
"MacGuffinite" comes from the term "MacGuffin", popularized by director Alfred Hitchcock. "MacGuffin" means a plot device that motivates the characters and advances the story, but has little other relevance to the story. I define "MacGuffinite" as some valuable ore, substance, or commodity ( that hopefully introduces no unintended consequences to the SF universe you are creating ).
In the realm of a science fiction universe that contains a thriving space economy and lots of manned space flight, MacGuffinite is:
- some incredibly valuable and lucrative commodity
- that is only available in space
- which must be harvested by a human beings on the spot, not by teleoperated drones or autonomous robots
- that will provide an economic motive for an extensive manned presence in space
The tongue-in-cheek tone of the term is because unfortunately there currently does not appear to be anything resembling MacGuffinite in the real world.
But it is going to have to be something astronomically valuable. Gold or diamonds are not anywhere near valuable enough (and they depend upon artifical scarcity as well), it will have to be something like a cure for male pattern baldness or the perfect weight-loss pill.
Space exploration and research is obviously not MacGuffinite. Otherwise NASA wouldn't have its funding cut with such depressing regularity.
Orbital Propellant Depots are very valuable. Not because liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen are particularly rare, but shipping the stuff up Terra's gravity well makes them outrageously expensive. ISRU propellants are incredibly cheap in comparison. Anybody operating chemical or nuclear-thermal rockets will be potential customers.
The problem is building the infrastruture in the first place. The financial risks are high, no corporation will touch it.
Some kind of harvest-able resource is tricky. Many mineral resources available from, say, the Asteroid Belt could be harvested by robot mining ships. And even if the harvest process requires humans on the spot, if that is all that requires humans, you will wind up with a universe filled with the outer space equivalent of off-shore oil rigs. This will have a small amount of people living on the rig for a couple of years before they return to Terra in order to blow their accumulated back-pay, not the desired result of large space colonies. Rick Robinson says resource extraction is an economic monoculture, and like other monocultures it does not support a rich ecosystem.
In his "Belter" stories, Larry Niven postulated magnetic monopoles as a MacGuffinite. These are hypothetical particles that have yet to be observed. Niven postulated that [a] they existed, [b] they only exist in the space environment for some unexplained reason, [c] they could only be profitably harvested by human beings for some unexplained reason, and [d] they allowed the construction of tiny electric motors since the magnetic field of a monopole falls off linearly instead of inverse square. The latter was desirable since in space mass is always a penalty factor. This is all highly unlikely, but at least Larry Niven worried about the problem in the first place.
Ray McVay has a brilliant variant on using mining as McGuffinite. He noted that in the Ring Raiders speculation, the presence of valuable helium-3 fusion fuel in the atmosphere of Saturn is MacGuffinite.
But then Mr. McVay read a fascinating article from NASA, about the Saturnian moon Titan. As he puts it "Did you catch that? On Titan it rains natural gas." As it turns out Titan has more oil that Terra. Hundreds of times more natural gas and other liquid hydrocarbons than all the known oil and natural gas reserves on Terra, as a matter of fact.
What's better, unlike helium-3, we already know how to use petroleum. Also unlike helium-3, there is a huge demand for the stuff.
Naturally shipping the stuff from Titan to Terra does increase the price of Titan oil. But consider Oil Shale. The expense of extracting oil from shale adds about a hundred dollars a barrel to the price. For decades nobody bothered with it because conventional oil was so cheap. However, as conventional oil became more scarce, its price rose. At the break-even price, oil shale becomes worthwhile.
And at a higher break-even price, Titan oil becomes worthwhile as well.
Keep in mind that the break-even price might be artificially raised by external events. Such as War.
This is the basis for Mr. McVay's Conjunction universe.
Consider: if our civilization slips into barbarism for a few centuries, re-developing spaceflight might be impossible forever. Or at least for the 650 million years it will take for Terra to produce more petroleum. As civilization starts again, the jump from wood fuel to nuclear power or solar energy is just a little too broad. Not to mention the difficulty producing plastics or fertilizer without petroleum feed stocks.
This is what will drive the industrialization of Titan and the creation of fleets of space-going supertanker spacecraft carrying black gold ("Titan Tea") to Terra. Bring oil from Titan or it is Game Over for the next 650 million years.
In his Conjunction universe, the fun starts when the irate colonists of the Jovian moons take advantage of The Great Conjunction, when Jupiter moves into the center of the Hohmann trajectory between Titan and Terra. Here comes the Pirates of Jupiter!
The minor quibbles are:
- To be true MacGuffinite, there has to be a reason why it must be harvested by human beings, not remote drones or robots.
- Rick Robinson's comments about monocultures not supporting rich ecosystems and the fact that off-shore oil rigs are not space colonies
To which I'd answer:
- Average light-speed lag from Terra to Saturn is about 1.3 hours or a reaction time of 2.6 hours: remote control is out of the question. And an autonomous robot will have to cope with rocks, landslides, lakes full of slippery petroleum, wind, and snow.
- When you carbonize coal to make coke, a by-product is coal tar. The coal tar was thrown away, until scientists started investigating it in the 1800's. They found zillions of valuable chemicals, like naphtha to make rubber raincoats, mauve aniline dyes, and various medical drugs. I'm sure the planetary slurry of Titan petroleum will cook up even more valuable chemicals unknown to science. So it won't be a monoculture, and there will be research labs established on site to try and find more valuable stuff.
Phosphorus was previously mentioned as a vital resource in short supply in the solar system. Indeed, it was suggested that Terra would use this as a weapon to keep the space colonies subservient to Terran Control.
However, I received an email from a gentleman named Mr. MJW Nicholas with a brilliant suggestion. He points out that Terra itself is heading for a phosphorus shortage, "Peak Phosphorus". In that case, instead of Terra having a strangle hold on the space colonies, it might be the other way around.
In other words, space phosphorus would be MacGuffinite.
Intense MacGuffinite, because the hungry teeming masses on over-populated Terra have got to eat, and phosphorus is the sine qua non of farming.
Transuranic elements are the chemical elements with atomic numbers greater than 92 (the atomic number of uranium). All of these elements are unstable and decay radioactively into other elements.
Theoretically there exists an island of stability where certain transuranic elements are stable. But no such element has been discovered. Yet.
In the real world these would be useful for creating compact nuclear weapons. But in science fiction, such elements are popular with authors as MacGuffinite, and are given whatever magical properties the authors can imagine in their wildest dreams.
Of course in the real world there is no reason to expect to find such elements occurring naturally. And if they did, it would make more sense to mine the radioactive stuff with robots, not people. So it wouldn't strictly be MacGuffinite.
About this time somebody pops up with the standard talking point for MacGuffinite: Lunar helium-3. Wikipedia says: "A number of people, starting with Gerald Kulcinski in 1986, have proposed to explore the moon, mine lunar regolith and use the helium-3 for fusion. Because of the low concentrations of helium-3 (1.4 to 15 ppb in sunlit areas, up to 50 ppb in permanently shadowed areas), any mining equipment would need to process extremely large amounts of regolith (over 150 million tons of regolith to obtain one ton of helium-3), and some proposals have suggested that helium-3 extraction be piggybacked onto a larger mining and development operation ". This was the background of the movie Moon.
Problems include the unfortunate fact that we still have no idea how to build a break-even helium-3 burning fusion power plant, the very low concentrations of helium-3 in lunar regolith, and the fact that we can manufacture the stuff right here for a fraction of the cost of a lunar mining operation. James Nicoll systematically enumerates the problems here.
A minor point is that the manufacture of helium-3 produces radiation; and manufactured helium-3 is not a power source, it is an energy transport mechanism. It is only a power source if you actually mine it on the moon or other solar system body. And even if you manufacture it, you might want to move the production site into orbit along with other polluting industries.
Helium-3 can also be harvested from the atmospheres of gas giant planets. Jupiter is closest, but its massive gravity means a NERVA powered harvester would need an uneconomical mass ratio of 20 to escape. Saturn is farther but it would only require a mass ratio of 4 from a NERVA harvester.
Jean Remy observed that "However, in a good old Catch-22, I don't think we'll actually need helium-3 unless we have a strong space presence where fusion-powered ships are relatively common. Basically we will need to get helium-3 to support the infrastructure to get helium-3."
CitySide responded with "Not exactly without precedent. Consider coal mining's catalytic role in the development of the steam engine."
What CitySide means is that back in the day, deep coal mines would unfortunately fill up with water. You'd need the power of steam pumps to remove the water. Alas the steam pumps needed coal for fuel.
In a comment on always worth reading Rocketpunk Manifesto, a commenter who goes by the handle CitySide pointed out a historical colonization model that might provide some MacGuffinite: the Caribbean Sugar Islands of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Many science fictional interplanetary colonization models start with the colonists being subsistence farmers, only later becoming industrialized. But the Sugar Islands colonies only used agriculture to produce export products. They were fed with imported food, not locally produced food.
Back in the 1970's, the unique virtues of free-fall manufacturing were touted. Just think, you can smelt ultra-pure compounds and not worry about contamination from the crucible! The compound will be floating in vacuum, touching nothing. One can also create materials that are almost impossible to manufacture in a gravity field: like foam steel. In free-fall, the bubbles have no tendency to float upwards, there is no "up". It also allows the creation of exotic alloys, where the components are reluctant to stay mixed. Not to mention perfectly spherical ball bearings.
This also has applications to Pharmaceutical manufacturing. Apparently free fall allows one to grow protein crystals of superior quality. Other applications include thin-film epitaxy of semiconductors, latex spheres for microscope calibration, manufacture of zeolites and aerogels, and microencapsulation.
A space station is also a safe place to experiment with quarantined items. Things like civilization-destroying biowarfare plagues or planet-eating nanotechnology.
Unfortunately, none of these items have turned out to be commercially viable so far. And in any event, they could just as easily be made in a satellite equipped with teleoperated arms controlled from the ground.
Curse that annoying second law of thermodynamics! Whether the machine in question is a rocket engine or industrial process, there is always going to be waste heat. Which has to be gotten rid of by throwing it into a heat sink, generally a heat radiator.
The efficiency of the process tells you what percentage of the process energy is going to turn into waste heat. The thing about percentages is that whatever the percent is, the bigger the process energy, the more waste heat. This is basic arithmetic but sometimes it isn't obvious.
For example, if your laser efficency is 20% ( η = 0.2) and the weapon uses 100 kilowatts, then it will output a beam of 20 kilowatts and have 80 kilowatts of waste heat.
But if the weapon is using 1 terawatt it will have EIGHT! HUNDRED! FREAKING! GIGAWATTS! OF WASTE HEAT to get rid off. About the energy of 200 metric tons of TNT exploding, per second.
If your industrial process is going to use petawatts or exawatts of energy, you've got a real problem on your hands.
Perhaps the ready availability of icy gas giant moons and comets could be just the MacGuffinite you need to deal with such processes.
Is Lebensraum a possible MacGuffinite? Alas, not when you look over the evidence.
The sad fact of the matter is that it is about a thousand times cheaper to colonize Antarctica than it is to colonize Mars. Antarctica has plentiful water and breathable air, Mars does not. True, the temperature of Mars does occasionally grow warmer than Antarctica, but at its coldest Mars can get 50° C colder than Antarctica. In comparison to Mars, Antarctica is a garden spot.
Yet there is no Antarctican land-rush. One would suspect that there is no Martian land-rush either, except among a few who find the concept to be romantic.
The other problem with colonization is that as nations become industrialized, their population growth tends to level off, or even decline. This removes population pressure as a colonization motive. See Demographic Transition.
Back in the 1960's it was feared that the global population explosion would trigger a Malthusian catastrophe as the four horsemen of the Apocalypse pruned humanity's numbers. That didn't happen, but at the time a few suggested that population pressure could be dealt with by interplanetary colonization. Noted science popularizer Isaac Asimov pointed out the flaw in that solution. Currently population growth is about 140 million people a year, or about 400,000 a day. So you'd have to launch into space 400,000 people every day just to break even. If you wanted to reduce global population, you'd have to launch more than that.
There actually was a pretty good MacGuffinite back in the 1950's: Manned space stations. Werner von Braun had it all figured out in Collier's magazine. The space stations would provide pictures from space of Terra's weather patterns. Just imagine the improvement in weather forecasts. Space stations could relay radio and TV signals, allowing messages to travel anywhere on the globe. And of course space stations could keep an eye on military moves made by hostile nations. These are all vitally important matters, and would more than justify the cost supporting men in space.
Younger readers probably have no idea why communication satellites are such a big deal. Before 1962 there was no such thing as a live TV broadcast from another continent. On on July 23, at 3:00 p.m. EDT, the first communication satellite Telstar 1 gave TV audiences in the US live views of the Eiffel Tower in Paris and audiences in Europe live views of the Statue of Liberty in New York. Not to mention intercontinental phone and fax services. Nowadays all you young jaded whipper-snappers take this for granted.
Ironically NASA destroyed this. NASA's push for computing power led to the development of the transistor and integrated circuit. Suddenly you could make weather satellites, communication satellites, and spy satellites "manned" by a few cubic centimeters of electronics. Bye-bye MacGuffinite.
Of course these space stations would start out as glorified off-shore oil rigs, but they at least had the potential to become space colonies.
Ejner Fulsang in his novel SpaceCorp invented a clever way to make space stations into MacGuffinite once more. I'm impressed, it might not be a total solution but it certainly sounds plausible.
Mr. Fulsang imagines the chaos if the dreaded Kessler Syndrome strikes. While you average person on the street could care less if space probes and astronauts were made extinct, satellites are another matter. The people will howl if their GPS units stopped working (as will the military). Not to mention all the corporations (and their shareholders) who would suffer financially if they suddenly lose the services of communication, weather, and surveillance satellites. There will be large and powerful motivation to replace the functionality of satellites.
If small satellites cannot cope with the hail of Kessler shrapnel, large ones would have a better chance. With huge Whipple shields. But even then there will be unavoidable random damage.
In their short story "Reflex", Niven & Pournelle pointed out that autonomous robots cannot cope with the random nature of damage control. They are much more suited for replacing standardized modules using pre-set sequences.
Which means you'll need manned space stations.
Instant MacGuffinite. I love it!
There are a few quibbles but this comes a lot closer to MacGuffinite than anything else I've seen. The Kessler shrapnel will need to be avoidable enough so that astronauts can survive the trip to LEO. The stations and the station assembly area will need lots of Whipple shields. Teleoperated drones will have to be impractical as a substitute for robots. And no AI software smart enough to deal with damage control. But these are quibbles.
A Free Economic Zone is a nation or area where corporations are given favorable tax status in order to encourage said corporations to set up shop. Traditionally they are restricted to just a port city, but in theory it is possible for it to be the national boundaries of an entire country. Certain types of free economic zones are called "Free Ports."
For Rocketpunk purposes, this could be a tempting idea for a small economically depressed nation located on the equator with a nice "dump zone" to the east where spent rocket stages and malfunctioning spacecraft can ditch without too many people complaining. Corporations in the space boost business would find it very attractive to build launch facilities in such nations, especially if said nation gave the corporation special tax breaks and passed corporate-friendly laws. And the nations would welcome the economic benefits the corporations would bring.
The economically depressed nation might also find it useful to allow merchant spacecraft to use the nation as a flag of convenience.
This is not pure MacGuffinite, since it provides no valuable commodity in space. But it sure does reduce the economic friction.
According to Wikipedia, a "tax haven" is a state or a country or territory where certain taxes are levied at a low rate or not at all while offering due process, good governance and a low corruption rate. An offshore financial centre (OFC), ... is usually a small, low-tax jurisdiction specializing in providing corporate and commercial services to non-resident offshore companies, and for the investment of offshore funds. A free economic zone is a designated areas where companies are taxed very lightly or not at all to encourage development or for some other reason. A corporate haven is a jurisdiction with laws friendly to corporations thereby encouraging them to choose that jurisdiction as a legal domicile.
These are generally located in small geographic areas, tiny countries, and itty-bitty islands. But most readers will see where I am going with this. An orbital habitat could possibly fulfil any or all of these roles.
More to the point, this could be an incredibly lucrative species of MacGuffinite.
A related concept is that of a data haven. Wikipedia says "A data haven, like a corporate haven or tax haven, is a refuge for uninterrupted or unregulated data. Data havens are locations with legal environments that are friendly to the concept of a computer network freely holding data and even protecting its content and associated information. They tend to fit into three categories: a physical locality with weak information-system enforcement and extradition laws, a physical locality with intentionally strong protections of data, and..." Possible uses include access to free political speech, avoiding internet censorship, whistleblowing, copyright infringement, circumventing data protection laws, online gambling, and pornography.
In 2008, John Perry Barlow suggested that Iceland become a data haven, he called it "The Switzerland of bits". The Principality of Sealand is a former World War II sea fort off the coast of England that is owned by the Bates family, who claims it is a sovereign state. It does have an internet hosting facillity that is operating as a data haven, and plans to open an online gambling casino.
Again, an orbital habitat would make a dandy data haven.
Patri Friedman leads the Seasteading Institute. It wants to create a series independent nations, in the middle of the ocean, on prefab floating platforms. In 2011, Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal, has donated $1.25 million to the Seasteading Institute. Once again, an orbital habitat is more expensive than an off-shore ocean platform, but it is far more secure.
These kinds of instant independent nations would also be valuable, to allow wealthy individuals solve the problem of "citizenship." Such individuals might be willing to pay enough to make orbital habitats profitable. A blogger known as mk had this to say:
Wade Hutt and Michel Lavoie pointed out a MacGuffinite I overlooked: a longer life span. Living on a planet with less than Terran gravity or in free fall with no gravity will reduce the wear and tear on body tissues. Especially the heart. This could prolong the length of one's life. This makes a nice MacGuffinite since human beings have to actually live in space in order to obtain the benefits.
Predictably there are some negative factors, such as bone loss due to calcium depletion, increased cancer risk from space radiation, and the risk of accidental death that comes with living in an inherently dangerous enviroment.
Another perennial favorite argument in favor of space coloniziation is so that the Human Race will survive if another Dinosaur Killer asteroid pasturizes the planet. It generally is named something like "Don't keep all your eggs in one basket".
The problem with this motivation is the lamentable reluctance for your average person to worry about anything that will probably happen long after they are dead, and the even more lamentable reluctance for your average politician to worry about anything happening beyond the next election cycle.
In his novel Through Struggle, the Stars, author John Lumpkin postulates the "All Eggs In One Basket" approach in reverse. His rocketpunk future comes after an asteroid smacks into the ocean, killing three million people with an instant tsunami. This spurred Japan to develop a full-scale space program, initially aimed at preventing future potentially hazardous asteroids from striking Earth.
This approach is an expensive leap of faith, but it actually might work. The basic idea is to just assume that there is some marvelous MacGuffinite out in space. So you create a company that provides affordable surface to orbit transport service. With such services available, suddenly you'll have an entire planet full of entrepreneurs trying figure out a way to make it pay.
You don't have to figure out the MacGuffinite(s), they will. All you have to do is make a reasonable profit off the people who have figured it out (or think they have). Remember, in the California Gold Rush of 1849, it was not the miners who grew rich, instead it was the merchants who sold supplies to the miners.
An early example of this in science fiction was Delos D. (Dee-Dee) Harriman, The Man Who Sold The Moon. He was obsessed with the idea of traveling to and possessing the Moon. He liquidates his assets, risks bankruptcy, damages his marriage, and raises funds in numerous legitimate and semi-legitimate ways. The pioneering flight succeeds (though with a different pilot than Harriman). After that proof-of-concept, other rush to invest, and soon a cheaper surface-to-orbit method is financed and built (a catapult launcher running up the side of Pikes Peak). Ironically, Harriman himself never gets to travel to the Moon until he is an old man.
In Martin Cadin's science fiction novel Exit Earth, the billionaire wants to establish a Lunar colony. Alas, his personal fortune is not large enough. Taking a pro-active approach, he takes steps to drastically increase his assets. Specifically he creates a crack team of mercenaries who prey on foreign drug lords, assassinating the drug lords and stealing all their money. Ruthless, but it worked.
The novel The Rocket Company is a fictional but very realistic account of a company who sells a reasonably priced surface-to-orbit rocket. As part of their business model, the company is deliberately not in the business of selling surface-to-orbit boost services. They are just selling the rocket and the support infrastructure. This means that they can avoid all the cost and risk of insuring payload delivery. The package is attractive to small countries and large corporations who want an instant do-it-yourself space program. It is marketed more as a vehicle for "space access" rather than for "cargo delivery", since its 2,300 kg cargo capacity is quite small. For the low-low price of $400 million dollars down and a yearly cost of $100 million, you too can have your own complete space program.
The novel predicts that if such vehicles become common, the cost of delivering payload to orbit could drop to about $100 a kilogram.
The novel is important because it also covers the pitfalls such a company have to avoid due to regulatory and political issues. These are just as important as the technical and engineering issues. The actual rocket design is realistic, in fact the design is patented. I really recommend that you read this book.
One of the front runners is SpaceX. They have successfully tested their amazing Falcon-9 booster, powered by the Merlin engine. They are working on the Falcon Heavy, a heavy lift vehicle that can deliver a whopping 53 metric tons into LEO (about twice the payload of the US Space Shuttle or Delta IV Heavy).
But more to the point, they have shown that their vehicles can deliver payload to orbit for such a low price that it flabbergasts government run (*cough*China*cough*) heavy lift services. Indeed, the sucess of SpaceX threatens US establishment legacy interests to the point where one find commentary such as this. Such commentary is easily debunked, and SpaceX has set the record straight.
Another front runner is XCOR Aerospace. They are busy developing and producing "safe, reliable, reusable launch vehicles, rocket engines and rocket propulsion systems." Their current project is an advanced liquid oxygen-liquid hydrogen (LOX/LH2) engine.
In a 2011 speech at the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference, Jeff Greason (president of XCOR Aerospace) made a major statement in the field of space policy. He stressed the importance of an over-riding strategy for space exploration and settlement (video and transcript here).
Sad news, on November 8, 2017, XCOR filed for bankruptcy.
SpaceX and XCOR will have a future client in Bigelow Aerospace, who think they have found some MacGuffinite. Unstoppable entrepreneur Robert Bigelow sees a future in providing expandable space habitats to national space agencies and corporate clients. They are developing the revolutionary TransHab technology, technology that ironically was originally conceptualized by NASA itself. NASA developed TransHab in the 1990's, but due to political reasons was banned by Congress from developing it further by House Resolution 1654 in the year 2000. Bigelow Aerospace purchased the rights to the patents from NASA (and gained access to engineers and workmen who worked on the TransHab project) and since then have launched two prototypes into orbit, Genesis I and Genesis II.
Eventually Bigelow will produce the BA 330, a commercial inflatable habitat that will provide 330 cubic meters of pressurized living space for the incredibly low price of $100 million dollars each. Bigelow will attach several of these modules together to create the Bigelow Commercial Space Station.
The jaw-dropping news of April 24, 2012 was the revelation of a previously secret company that had been existence for three years: Planetary Resources. Their mission is nothing less than honest-to-Heinlein asteroid mining. Just read their news release.
The company includes several ex-NASA engineers, an astronaut, and planetary scientists. And it has not one, but several billionaires as investors, including a few from Google and James Cameron (yes, that James Cameron).
Step one is boosting into orbit a series of newly developed Arkyd 101 telescopes: small, inexpensive, but powerful. They are light enough to share a ride into orbit with other conventional satellite to do cost sharing. In orbit, they will do a survey to discover all Near Earth Asteroids, prospecting for worthy targets. Later they can be rented to other clients, and mounted on small rockets to go take a closer look at likely targets.
Step two is to mine the best targets for volatiles like water ice. This will allow the establishment of orbital propellant depots, which will drastically cut the cost of space missions. Currently it costs about $20,000 US per liter to boost water from Terra's surface into LEO. Orbital depots will avoid that surtax, and make possible space missions that were previously out of the question. The propellant will be not only used by Planetary Resources, but also sold to NASA, other national space agencies, and private space companies. In the spirit of "if you build it, they will come", entrepreneurs will be busy thinking up new reasons to give Planetary Resources money. There are an endless number of space missions, but practically all of them require propellant.
Step three is actually mining valuable minerals from an asteroid. Planetary Resources was playing this close to their vest and was sparse on details. But the two main methods are creating a robot mining and refining operation on the asteroid, or moving the asteroid into Lunar orbit and returning raw chunks of it to Terra for local refining. The return trajectories will be such that any miss will avoid striking Terra. But even if it did, the only asteroids that can be handled will be very tiny ones due to state of the art of rocket propulsion.
The main value that will be initially mined are platinoids: ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, osmium, iridium, and platinum. True, dumping them on the metals market will drastically reduce their price. But in some cases, Planetary Resources intent it is to make certain metals cheaper, especially if they have applications to other struggling industries.
Nobody knows if Planetary Resources will ever turn a profit or not. But even if this is just an expensive hobby for billionaires, this can only help the Rocketpunk Future.
I recently came across an amusing variation on the "If You Build it" argument. The subject was the US transcontinental railroad, with construction starting in the 1860s. In his book Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, author Richard White points out that there was no economic reason for building the railroad. The motivation was mostly political.
Which is a plausible motive. After all, politics was the main driver behind NASA's Apollo moon program.
Laser Launching is a remarkable inexpensive way to get payload into LEO (aka "Halfway to Anywhere"). Unfortunately it requires lots of money for creating the initial facillity.
Genius Freeman Dyson believes it would be a good investment for a country such as the United States to build a laser-launch site and charge a modest fee to anybody who wanted to boost a payload into orbit. Such as mom & pop asteroid mining businesses. This is similar to the political motivation behind the US transcontinental railroad mentioned above. An affordable space-going version of a Prairie Schooner could be purchased by private individuals, boosted into orbit for a modest fee by laser launch, then another modest fee to an ion-drive tug to join the wagon train to Luna, Mars, or the Asteroid belt. LEO is halfway to anywhere, remember? This would also allow grizzled old asteroid miners to go prospecting in the belt.
To see this concept in more detail, refer to the Infrastructure page.
Many have noticed that war is not healthy for children and other living things, and former president (and five-star general) Dwight D. Eisenhower warned about the dangers of the military–industrial complex. Back in 1911 William James wondered out loud if mankind's drive for war could not be turned towards something more constructive, a "Moral Equivalent of War".
Sir Arthur C. Clarke and others has noted that space exploration and colonization would be a perfect Moral Equivalent of War.
This does sound a bit utopian, but science fiction authors might find the concept useful for their novels anyway. After all just because space exploration, industrialization, and colonization got started for the highest motives doesn't make the process immune to corruption by politicians with jingoistic motives and/or being in the pocket of the military-industrial complex. Which makes for a much more interesting novel than one about Martian colonists sitting in a circle singing Kumbayah and hymns to St. William James. The MacGuffinite just has to work long enough to get things started.