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.

Rocketpunk Future

One of the species of "man-in-space" SF is what Rick Robinson calls "Rocketpunk".

Steampunk is now a familiar SF subgenre, set in a retro-futuristic vision broadly inspired by Verne and Wells. Among other things it requires a special kind of magitech, really magi-science, with things like aether ships.

Surely there is now a place for a retro-future based on the vision of 50 years ago, on the verge of the actual historical space age. I will call this Rocketpunk.*

*I haven't googled it, but surely I'm not the first to have this idea, including the term.

Rocketpunk differs from steampunk in one fundamentally important way - Rocketpunk can use (largely) real science and tech - much of it the basic tech we still assume. The two main differences are:

1) Optimistic performance and operating assumptions, especially cost. The rocketpunk chemful SSTO shuttle, catapult-launched, looks like the never-flown Mach 3 Navajo cruise missile, and flies daily except in hurricane season.

It costs around $10 million to build, and a round-trip ticket to the orbital station costs perhaps $1000 (but pre-inflation dollars; a steak dinner in autoheat package probably costs $1.95).

2) Pessimistic (indeed, negative-handwaved) electronic assumptions, especially cyber-anything. The ship's computer takes up the deck below the astrogation compartment, and combines the power of my old TI-35 programmable calculator with vastly slower processing speed and incredibly cumbersome I/O.

Astrogators use slide rules for their real work; once you've roughed out a course you feed it into the computer and refine your flight plan to the second.

Everyone does not see everything in space, because your tracking telescopes require human watch standers who get tired and miss things. At most you may be able to review photo plates with blink comparators to back-track contacts.

Higher performance ships use fission drive, usually just called atomic drive - the reactor sometimes called a pile. Many smaller military ships are configured for atmosphere - also looking rather like the Navajo - and can fly directly from planet surface to planet surface. These ships typically have crews from about three men (very occasionally women!) to a dozen or so, and are about the size of large aircraft - hence the B-36 in Spaaaaace!

The Solar Guard Cruiser Polaris, on the Worked Example page of Winch's site, is pretty much a classic rocketpunk ship. In fact, his whole Atomic Rockets site - as the name suggests - sort of does double duty as a summary of current best information and a rocketpunk site.

That's the charm of rocketpunk - it's Realistictm technology, apart from the negative-handwaved electronics, but wonderfully naive about the devils in the details.

I think rocketpunk done today has to accept the real Solar System - alas, no thalassic or steamy-tropical Venus, or canals on Mars, but the Mars we know today goes perfectly comfortably with domed colonies, surface crawlers, and the first stages of a terraforming project.

And surely rocketpunk can have cool space battles, though tending to be missile-dominant - it's too late for heat rays, and too early for lasers.

Rick Robinson from a post on SFConSim-l

Those who are interested in Rocketpunk should explore Rick's blog, the Rocketpunk Manifesto.

Yes, this website does have a Rocketpunk feel to it, as you might have noticed from all the old pulp SF illustrations used as decorations. This is partially because I like rocketpunk, partially to make young readers aware that science fiction did NOT start with "Star Wars", and partially because it makes the site more entertaining to people who would be bored by dry pages with nothing but mathematical equations.

The Elephant in the Room

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:

(One of the first science fiction books I ever read was Lester Del Rey’s Step to the Stars.)

40 years after I first read it, Step to the Stars remains vivid in my memory. The book tells the story of a young welder, Jim Stanley, and the construction of the first space station — the first step on mankind’s journey to the stars. The thing about this book, and many others of similar vein from the same period, are two basic assumptions: 1) we would build space stations and go to the moon and Mars and beyond, and 2) those stations and colonies and ships would be built by civilians. Step is centered around a corporation’s efforts to construct the station on schedule and under budget — it’s the first time I ever heard the contractual phrase “penalty clause” and ever thought about the commercial and business aspects of space exploration, pretty heady stuff for a ten year old. According to the novel, the station was built under government contract, in order to support a military mission — but the heart of it would be commercial, as a way station and stepping stone for exploration of the rest of the solar system, for manufacturing, as an astronomy outpost, and as a commercial broadcast site (remember, this was in 1954, the concepts of orbital telescopes and communications satellites were strictly in the realm of hairy hairball science and barely even a twinkle in science fiction’s eye — unless you were Lester Del Rey or Arthur C. Clarke). The basic concept was that while government might lease a major chunk of the station, it was the commercial aspects that made it a viable concept. Nobody was going to foot the bill for government to build its own station.

Back then, it never occurred to futurists like Del Rey that spaceflight would become the exclusive domain of governments. In the 50’s, it never occurred to anybody that the astronauts and cosmonauts and sinonauts would be government employees instead of commercial spacemen (sure, sure, there were tales of “the Patrol” or whatever the Space Navy was called, but they were there to fight off the aliens or impose law and order on the civilians, they weren’t the only people in space). And while there were numerous scifi stories about First Contact and exploration, a lot of the hard, practical scifi of the time was about the commercial exploitation of the solar system. Writers of hard speculative fiction, such as Heinlein and Del Rey and Nourse wrote stories centered on the concept of exploitation, mining, farming, manufacturing, terraforming, colonization, expansion, with exploration as a sort of byproduct — these were the themes that tied together the Winston series, and it was a common theme of Heinlein and Clarke and Asimov and the other greats who were hardly starry eyed dreamers. It was just assumed that’s what we’d do, because that’s what we, as a race, have always done. That’s what the Vikings were doing when they set out for Iceland, Greenland, and Vineland. That’s what Columbus was doing when he ran into the New World. That what Vespucci and Drake and all those other explorers were doing. That’s what the first European colonists were doing here on the shores of North America — hell, that’s what the Native Americans’ ancestors were doing when they crossed the Bearing Straits 25,000 years ago. During the great ages of exploration there were certainly a number of expeditions and colonization attempts that were sponsored by governments, and certainly countries such as Spain sponsored purely governmental efforts when it came to treasure and land in the new world, but the vast majority of expeditions were commercial enterprises and so it wasn’t a stretch at all for the futurists of the 1950’s and 60’s to expect space exploration to follow the same model.

Unfortunately (or not, depending), history rarely, if ever, repeats itself.

For many reasons — much of which involves the paranoia of the Cold War — access to space became almost exclusively the domain of governments, and only a few governments at that. Because of this, human access to space is far, far beyond the ordinary earthbound human being and is the exclusive purview of a tiny cadre of highly trained government employees (or the very, very rich). After nearly fifty years in space, we — all of us, worldwide, whatever nation ventures into the skies — don’t have space travel, or space exploration, or even space exploitation.

What we have is a space program.

This is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself — depending entirely on what the objective is.

The objectives of our space program are many and varied, but none of those objectives will ever lead to the kind of self sustaining commercial ventures visualized in the popular speculation of the Golden Age.

The Shuttle is a perfect example. Government cannot build a spaceship — at least not a very efficient one. The Shuttle as first designed was supposed to make access to space simple and cheap. Getting out of Earth’s gravity well and into LEO is the hardest part of space travel. That first step is a doozy, but once you’re in orbit, you’re half way to anywhere in the solar system. The Shuttle was supposed to do that for us. And even with 1970’s technology, the Shuttle could have made access to space relatively cheap and easy and a whole lot safer.

Instead we got just exactly the opposite.

Why? Because NASA engineers didn’t build the shuttle, Congress did.

And the lawmakers on Capitol Hill don’t give a fart in a spacesuit about exploration. To them, the Shuttle meant, and still means, jobs and pork and votes. By the time Congress got done redesigning the Shuttle it was astounding that the damned thing could even clear the pad. Gone were the safety features like air-breathing engines that would have let the ship abort a landing and make a once around on final approach, gone was the piloted reusable main booster, gone was the simplicity that would have gotten rid of much of the previous Apollo infrastructure. Gone too was the once-a-week turnaround time from recovery to relaunch that would have made efficient use the economies of scales and reduced ground to orbit costs to dollars a pound instead of tens of thousands of dollars per pound. To this day parts are manufactured all across the country, many as far from the launch and assembly site as it is possible to get and still be on the same continent, because Senators and Representatives from powerful states like California insisted that it be so. The ship does nothing well, it’s too complicated and it requires far too much infrastructure, it’s a poor lift vehicle, it’s a poor science platform, it’s a poor crew vehicle and it falls short of the original design and concept in almost every way. Everybody got a piece of the Shuttle and as a result it shudders into orbit like Frankenstein’s Monster and the fact that it’s only blown up twice in 30 years is a minor miracle in itself

The International Space Station is the same or worse. It is the single most expensive engineering project in the history of the human race (when you fold in everything necessary to build, maintain, and crew it) — and yet, what is its purpose? What does it do? It’s lifetime is limited. It’s crew capacity is limited. It’s fragile. It can’t be expanded much beyond its current size and capacity. It can’t serve as a construction shack for future LEO development, nor can it serve as a jumping off point for the rest of the solar system. As a science platform it is a of limited utility and as a node of commercial development it has little or no utility at all. As far as military functions go it’s useless (this is not necessarily a bad thing). Maintaining the ISS requires a significant fraction of our budget and requires that whatever launch vehicles we build have to be able to reach it and service it. Where does that leave us? Don’t get me wrong here, I think the ISS is an astounding technical achievement — but what purpose does it serve? Well, other than to demonstrate that we can indeed work with other nations when we want too (and maybe that’s not such a bad thing to spend money on either).

But we are never going to get anywhere like this.

From Stonekettle Station: Pie in the Sky by Jim Wright (2014)

Reduce Payload Transport Costs

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.

Reduce Support Costs

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 commodity only available in space which must be harvested by a human being that will provide an economic motive for a 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.

The pressure problems {of living on the sea-floor} are significant, but one of the main reasons I'd hazard that people don't live regularly at depth is the lack of motivation. Why would you live on the seafloor?

Living space? Turns out humans don't mind being tightly packed so while we could live tightly packed under the water, we can do so on coasts instead (and more easily resource wise given oxygen needs etc) and commute.

Farming? No need anything we want to farm can typically be done so from the bottom with the odd trip down if and when its necessary (thus remain on the shore and commute or at the surface and commute).

Mining? Possible but no need yet as terrestrial resources are still available. Nodules have attracted attention, but there's not enough demand or consistency yet to bother given continental resources.

Oil and gas? Add the extra 200m of pipeline to the surface is a simpler solution.

Unlike going to space there isn't a large enough cost (at least yet) to going up and down with the frequency needed to get what we want. So we lack the incentive.

Its pretty apparent that whether talking of Antarctica, the seafloor or space the incentive structure not just the means have to be there. We don't have the incentive for any of them as yet. At a guess (and it is a guess that is only partially educated) I'd say in the next 20-50 years we'll start to see the incentive for going to Antarctica, on the scale of 50-100 we'll see the seafloor open up (but probably still see commuting rather than habitation). How long it takes us to get enough incentive to use a space-based resource is a tougher call. Depends on how fast we chew up existing terrestrial resources, what new demands will arise with changes in technology, and the realised cost of getting into orbit and staying in space vs digging deeper into the crust.

The fiction lover in mes likes the idea of colonies on other planets or orbital mining facilities etc, the realist is more apt to agree that if people are living off Earth anytime in my lifetime it will be in the purely "scientific" curosity outpost mode or tourism venture that we currently see as standard on Antarctica and the seafloor (where there are a cople of purely scientific undersea domes, one of which they used to teach astronauts at, not sure if they still do).

Dr. Beth Fulton

Today in wacky space McGuffinite ideas:


Well, okay, not necessarily chocolate, but it's a good example of a high-value product that is

  1. a pain to grow, climatically
  2. a pain to grow due to political instability in regions where it can grow
  3. threatened by climate shifts
  4. something we can't actually grow enough on Earth, evidently, to satisfy demand anyway

So, imagine a nice O'Neill cylinder with a perfectly controlled guaranteed climate for growing your cacao crop, a distinct absence of local governments and revolutionaries and their wacky fun ideas causing trouble in your company town hab, and with a surface area as large as you care to build it, or it and its neighbors.

Gentlesophs, I give you: Hershey, L5

by Alistair Young (2015)

Orbital Propellant Depots

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 bottom line is that such depots can make cis-lunar and Mars missions within the delta-V capabilities of a chemical rocket.

The problem is building the infrastruture in the first place. The financial risks are high, no corporation will touch it.

Chris Wolfe has found a possible answer in a 2015 study by NexGen Space LLC. The key is an international authority modeled on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

     I've recently stumbled across the NexGen Evolvable Lunar Architecture study via NSS.
     This is a NASA-funded study examining how a lunar propellant facility could be developed via public-private partnership. Definitely worth reading.

     I'd like to explore their proposal for an international lunar authority to manage access to lunar resources. This really fills in the blanks with regard to operational authority and funding sources without necessarily requiring one particular architecture or approach to the actual propellant production.

     In case you don't feel like reading the entire report, it is essentially two separate works.

     The first section discusses a proposed architecture to produce lunar propellant and offer it for sale at an EML2 depot...

     ...The second section discusses in depth how to manage access to lunar resources under current legal frameworks. The short version is that the authors prefer an international authority modeled on the Port Authority of NY and NJ. This would be an international authority established by treaty and given the power to regulate activities in lunar orbit and on the lunar surface, to resolve disputes, to levy taxes and fees, to issue debt, to build and operate infrastructure and to contract with private entities to provide services in furtherance of a stable economic presence on the Moon.
     The ILA would start off government-funded (USA/Canada/JAXA, possibly including ESA and/or India) with a goal of becoming financially self-sufficient over time through taxes and use fees on lunar operations. It would function much like a modern corporation with a board of directors collectively setting policy objectives and naming an executive to pursue those objectives. Board members would be appointed by member nations with terms of service long enough to smooth over any short-term political turmoil.

     This I think is a brilliant approach to solving a number of problems with private lunar operations. Citizens and corporations under the law of member nations would be bound by law to obey the rules of the ILA. The Authority should be bound to preserve the lunar environment and would have the ability to prevent member entities from building giant ads on the lunar surface, for example, or embedding nuclear reactors inside ice-bearing craters. ILA would balance the goals of environmental preservation, scientific exploration and resource exploitation with the need for a stable economically viable system that encourages private participation. It would serve as an initial 'anchor' tenant for surface facilities and a major purchaser of services. Infrastructure that is too expensive or risky for a single company to develop would be developed by the ILA and provided on a fee for use basis.

     Using the approach outlined in the report (and extrapolated somewhat by me), NASA would initially work with private companies using programs similar to COTS / CCDev to establish a permanent habitable base and ISRU facility on the moon. ILA would issue infrastructure bonds to provide partial funding for this bootstrap phase as well as LEO and EML2 depots. Depots would be built and operated by private entities under contract to ILA and would operate as a market for propellant. Propellant would be treated as a commodity with ILA guaranteed to purchase any amount delivered to the depot that meets quality standards, within capacity limits. Both the operator and ILA would collect a fee to cover their expenses and reasonable profit, then the propellant would be available to any conforming buyer. ILA would have the power to reserve propellant for specific customers if they choose, but all operations, terms and prices must be publicly available. An example use for this option would be to guarantee a certain amount of propellant for a NASA Mars mission on a certain date even if other buyers want so much that reserves would have been depleted.

     The initial private partners working with NASA would own their hardware and would provide services to NASA under contract. For example, the habitat provider would charge a fee to NASA for housing four astronauts year-round but could also offer habitat space to other ILA member nations or corporations under whatever terms they choose. They would be responsible for maintenance and operations. NASA could in turn pay some of that fee in the form of maintenance hours of labor provided by on-site astronauts. The initial public funding of these systems is intended to jump-start the market for lunar space services, so the overall program encourages operators to offer services as broadly as possible. A reasonable tax would be applied on services exchanged within the ILA's sphere of influence. Individual member nations are not restricted in their ability to tax or regulate economic activities of companies under their jurisdiction provided those controls do not interfere with the ILA. In other words, a US space services company would still pay taxes on revenue earned through in-space operation even though they also pay fees to the ILA.

     Once this initial ISRU project is under way, competing service providers will be able to enter the market at any point and rely on the availability of other services at reasonable (in most cases published) prices. For example, a startup with a better ISRU plant could contract with SpaceX for earth launch service, ULA for lunar transport service and NASA for night-time nuclear power while selling propellant to ILA at EML2 and excess solar power to multiple customers on the surface. A guaranteed primary market with well-known prices and reliability for related services greatly reduces the risk to an investor, which means that startup is much more likely to get private funding. Inefficient players get priced out of the market, innovation can flourish and the balance of cooperation and competition can ensure a healthy market for all involved. Government funding becomes unnecessary to keep the market moving and NASA can step back to become a simple purchaser of propellant rather than the regulator, funder, designer and operator of all major activities as it often is today.

     The ILA then becomes a diplomatic tool. Any nation can join by contributing funds and ratifying the treaty, which would (among other things) cede any future claim to sovereign territory on or around the moon. An attractive market and the opportunity to gain leverage through board positions could induce Chinese and Russian participation and continue the tradition of open space.


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.

Regolith Scavenging
Regolith is the veneer of rock dust common on asteroids and moons. The stream of solar wind causes space weathering, a deposition of wind particles directly into the dust. The atoms are implanted at a shallow depth (<100 μm) and the finest material is the richest in solar wind gases.

Wind-enriched particles contain traces of hydrogen, helium, carbon, nitrogen, and other low Z elements rare in space. These volatiles can be recovered by scavenging: scooping regolith over wide areas with robonautic buggies, processing it to recover the volatiles, and dumping the remains overboard.

The concentrations of volatiles in lunar maria regolith is a few hundred parts per million (ppm) of each type. Other valuable materials, magnetically or electrophoretically separable from maria regolith, include iron fines, uranium (2-6 ppm), and ice crystals (in permanently shadowed regions). The helium fraction includes 5 to 100 parts per billion of the rare isotope 3He, valued because it is rare on Earth, and can be used as a fusion fuel, using the 3He-D "clean" (aneutronic) fusion reaction.

(ed note: keeping in mind that 5 to 100 parts per billion is pathetically low-grade ore)

From High Frontier rulebook

Citizen Joe:

I've found that Jupiter's radiation belt and wind speeds make it unsuitable for direct harvest.

However, that same radiation belt (and corresponding magnetic fields) could be used for 1) power 2) transportation and 3) spallation of useful elements into needed isotopes.

The last one is an interesting prospect from the mineral spewing volcanic Io. I don't actually recommend colonizing Io, but rather maintaining essentially ion farms within the radiation belt. The other moons are suitable for exploration, but Callisto (the outermost Galilean Moon) is protected from the solar winds by Jupiter's magnetosphere while being far enough away to reduce the radiation exposure. So, if I were to set up a Jupiter base/colony it would be there. That base would hold vast subsurface tanks of water for aquacultures and a whole biosystem. Waste heat from the reactors would be used to keep the tanks temperature regulated and the whole environment could be expanded in a modular manner depending on the waste heat requirements.

Fun fact: It takes two weeks to receive the same radiation dose on Callisto that you receive on Earth every day. Moving in to Ganymede (the next closest moon) you would get a week's dose of radiation in one day.

From On Colonization by Rick Robinson (2009)

Cole was listening carefully to the (Morse code) signals coming through from Pluto. "That," he decided, "sounds like Tad Nichols' fist. You can recognize that broken-down truck-horse trot of his on the key as far away as you can hear it."

"Is that what it is?" sighed Buck. "I thought it was static mushing him at first. What's he like?"

"Like all the other damn fools who come out two billion miles to scratch rock, as if there weren't enough already on the inner planets. He's got a rich platinum property. Sells ninety percent of his output to buy his power, and the other eleven percent for his clothes and food."

"He must be an efficient miner," suggested Kendall, "to maintain 101% production like that."

"No, but his bank account is. He's figured out that's the most economic level of production. If he produces less, he won't be able to pay for his heating power, and if he produces more, his operation power will burn up his bank account too fast."

"Hmmm—sensible way to figure. A man after my own heart. How does he plan to restock his bank account?"

"By mining on Mercury. He does it regularly—sort of a commuter. Out here his power bills eat it up. On Mercury he goes in for potassium, and sells the power he collects in cooling his dome, of course. He's a good miner, and the old fool can make money down there." Like any really skilled operator, Cole had been sending Morse messages while he talked. Now he sat quiet waiting for the reply, glancing at the chronometer.

"I take it he's not after money—just after fun," suggested Buck.

"Oh, no. He's after money," replied Cole gravely. "You ask him—he's going to make his eternal fortune yet by striking a real bed of jovium, and then he'll retire."

"Oh, one of that kind."

"They all are," Cole laughed. "Eternal hope, and the rest of it." He listened a moment and went on. "But old Nichols is a first-grade engineer. He wouldn't be able to remake that bankroll every time if he wasn't. You'll see his Dome out there on Pluto—it's always the best on the planet. Tip-top shape.

From The Ultimate Weapon by John W. Campbell (1936)

(Lit Shaeffer and Lucas Garner are talking about something that happened on Mars. Lit Shaeffer is a relatively young representative of the Asteroid Belt government, Lucas Garner is a 170 year old representative of the Earth government)

"Luke, why do you want to go down there? What could you possibly want from Mars? Revenge? A million tons of dust?"

"Abstract knowledge."

"For what?"

"Lit, you amaze me. Why did Earth go to space in the first place, if not for abstract knowledge?"

Words crowded over each other to reach Lit's mouth. They jammed in his throat, and he was speechless. He spread his hands, made frantic gestures, gulped twice, and said, "It's obvious!"

"Tell me slow. I'm a little dense."

"There's everything in space. Monopoles. Metal. Vacuum for the vacuum industries. A place to build cheap without all kinds of bracing girders. Free fall for people with weak hearts. Room to test things that might blow up. A place to learn physics where you can watch it happen. Controlled environments—"

"Was it all that obvious before we got here?"

"Of course it was!" Lit glared at his visitor. The glare took in Garner's withered legs, his drooping, mottled, hairless skin, the decades that showed in his eyes—and Lit remembered his visitor's age. "...Wasn't it?"

From "At The Bottom Of A Hole" by Larry Niven (1966)

Ken Burnside: For asteroid mining, you can make the case either way — I can tell you that asteroid mining isn't about getting ore from the asteroid. It's about using disttilate mining techniques, and it's a capital rich process. You no more find the Heinleinesque belter miners in their pesky torch ships than you find aluminum or copper mining done by anything smaller than ALCOA or Standard Copper. The economies of scale are too large for them to make much sense the other way.

Volatile mining (for can cities, spaceships, etc) does somewhat support the concept of a family grubstake mine...and in the parts of space people do business in, volatiles are more valuable than metals.

btrotter101: Sure, the economies of scale argue against belter miners, but economies of scale argue against subsistence farming too. I'd argue that if someone wants there to be a wild-eyed miner who is trying to strike it rich, for fictional purposes, it could happen. (Might be useful to know how soon before he has to come home begging, though. Just to compute the astronomical (sorry) odds of finding an asteroid of solid diamond, or osmium, or whatever is in demand.)

ac_jackson: Actually, no they don't. A subsistence farmer can make enough to support himself — his expenses are lower than his income. An independent miner will generally have expenses exceeding his income.

Eric S. Raymond: More sophisticated versions of the Belter mythos recognize the long odds.

From a thread in the Ten_Worlds_Development forum (12 Apr 2006)

I could spout all the statistics from memory. Moria: first inhabited asteroid. Mining colony. Average distance from the Sun, 2.39 AU, or 357 million kilometers. Irregular shape. Average radius, 7.5 kilometers, minimum 4, maximum 11 km. Mass, 1.78 trillion tons, or about one ten-billionth of Earth mass. Rotation period 8.2 hours. Period, 3.69 Earth years, or 1348.6 Earth days, or 3947 local days'. Surface gravity, 0.2 cm/sec2 , two ten- thousandths of an Earth gee, just enough to keep you from jumping off the place.

If you jumped as hard as you could you'd go up a couple of kilometers, and take hours for the round trip. It wouldn't be a smart thing to do.

Composition, varied, with plenty of veins of metals. Moria was once part of a much bigger rock, one big enough to have had a molten core. Then it got battered to hell and gone, exposing what had been the interior. Now you can mine: magnesium, uranium, iron, aluminum, and nickel. There's gold and silver. There's also water and ammonia ices under the surface, which are a hell of a lot more important than the metals. Or are they? Without the metals we wouldn't be out here. Without the ices we couldn't stay.

Our supporters on Earth called us the cutting edge of technology. We were the first of a series of asteroid mine operations that would eventually liberate Earth forever from shortages of raw materials. The orbital space factories already demonstrated what space manufacturing could do; and with asteroid mines to supply raw materials, the day would come when everyone on Earth could enjoy the benefits of industry without the penalties of industrial pollution.

They fought hard in Congress: more government support for Space Industries, and more importantly, tax writeoffs for the private companies investing in Moria. "Look to the future," they said. "We cannot afford shortsightedness now! Is it not time that mankind looked twenty years and more ahead, instead of always seeing no further than the next election?"

Unfortunately there were more on the other side. "Boondoggle" was the kindest word they had for us. We were, they said, a terrible waste of resources. We absorbed billions that could go to immediate improvements for everyone. Foreign aid; schoolhouses; unemployment; these were the immediate problems, and they would not go away through dumping money into outer space! Who ever heard of Moria? Who could even find it? A rock not even visible through Earth's largest telescopes, a tiny speck hundreds of millions of miles away, where expensive people demanded more and more expensive equipment. . .

Our friends kept us alive, but they couldn't get us many supply ships; and we were holding on with our fingernails.

"Interesting thing, admiralty law. Applies to space if there's not special legislation."

There wasn't much to joke about. "It's official," Commander Wiley said. "We've been ordered to abandon Moria. There will be no more support from Earth."

Commander Wiley let the chatter go on for a while. Then he said, "There's a way. It's not something I can order, and it's not something I can put to a vote. But there's a way."

"What?" A hundred people, or more, maybe everyone asked it. "What is it?"

"We can send down one big payload to Earth," Wiley said. "Only one. It can be us, or most of us, if that's what's got to be done. But it could be something else. Twelve thousand tons of copper, iron, silver, and gold. Twelve thousand tons that we can put into Earth orbit from here. If we use every engine we've got and all our fuel."

More chatter. The department heads who were in on Wiley's plan looked smug.

"And it's ours," Commander Wiley said. "The instant they ordered us to abandon Moria this entire station became jetsam. It belongs to the first salvage crew that can get aboard. There's a Swiss firm willing to buy our cargo if we can get it to Earth orbit. They'll pay enough to let us buy our own ship."

And they'd be getting a hell of a deal even so. I could see international lawyers arguing this case for thirty years and more. The United States didn't want us, but they wouldn't want their billions to be lost to the Swiss.

"There's nothing easy about this," Commander Wiley said. "It will be years before we can send our cargo down and bring up new supplies. We'll be on short rations the whole time. And there won't be any new people."

Kevin Hardoy-Randall let out a wail (ed note: age 2 months). "There's your answer to that," his mother said. "We'll have plenty of new people. Commander, can we really do it?"

"We can."

From Bind Your Sons to Exile by Jerry Pournelle (1976)


RocketCat sez

♪♫ Come and listen to a story about a man named Ray
A poor rocketeer, barely kept the bank at bay,
Then one day at a Titan attitude,
He saw through the scope seas of bubblin' crude.
Oil that is, black gold, Titan tea. ♪♫

Using petroleum as MacGuffinite is oh so very zeerust, but the cynic in me gloomily predicts this will probably come true in real life. The more you try to drag the world into the future with cool stuff like fusion power, the more it will stubbornly try to keep burning coal. Hauled ironically by rocketships.

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 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. And an autonomous robot will have to cope with rocks, lakes, 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.
RocketCat sez

♪♫ Conjunction Junction, what's your function?
Puttin' the shaft to trustees of Terra.
Conjunction Junction, how's that function?
I like pirating ships and tankers and convoys. ♪♫


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.

Peak Phosphorus

I was interested to read in the 'Rocketpunk and MacGuffinite' topic the subject of peak oil, and how humanity could make use of Titan. I did a little bit of digging and it struck me how, even if we do come up with viable and sustainable alternatives for both transport and energy production, there are no such alternatives for the vast quantity of other petroleum products our modern society is utterly dependent on.

It was suggested on a number of websites that alternatives for pharmaceuticals would be the holistic or home remedy type eg. willow bark instead of aspirin, and I came to the conclusion that even if you could find natural alternatives, you'd need huge amounts of land to grow them in the quantities required, land which would also need to be used to support cotton and hemp growth to meet the demand for natural fibres for clothing, given that many modern clothes contain oil-based synthetic fibres. Other types of natural fibres come from animals, but then they need grazing land, which means even more land is used. Regardless of the land usage, there is always one thing land will need to be used for — food crops. There is only a finite amount of arable land available, and many breeds of plant can only be grown in certain locations, based on a wide range of environmental variables, which further limits crop yields without either long-term efforts into selectively breeding, or direct manipulation of genes for desired traits. The first one can take potentially hundreds of generations to achieve, depending on the desired result, and the latter requires laboratories, who use equipment that would be difficult and costly to produce, repair or replace in a post-peak oil world, even if one takes into account the usage of oil-sands.

Even if we tapped into difficult to access reserves on a larger scale than we already do, such as deep-sea wells and oil-sands, and even if the ban on exploiting Antarctica's potentially vast mineral wealth was lifted, this is still not a viable long-term solution. Obviously, getting to Titan and extracting, and refining the mineral wealth there in sufficient quantities, and shipping it back, would be immensely costly. I know full well that you know the amount of work and effort behind setting up propellant depots and in-orbit refineries and all the other stuff needed to set that kind of infrastructure in motion, let alone maintain it. This kind of future is one, however, that allows for colonization. But it got me thinking — what are other things that humans, and modern civilisation with it's global scale infrastructure would need, and we have a finite amount of?

Then I harked back to another part of your website, where you mention phosphorus.

Much like peak oil, it is predicted, optimistically, that we'll hit Peak Phosphorus within the next 80-100 years, pessimistic estimates suggest by 2030. Having done some more digging, I noticed that whilst some claim that recycling phosphorus from sewage, and having better crop management and limiting run-off, etc. could outright halt peak phosphorus, a larger number of articles suggested that even with these measures, we're only delaying it. Even if we stop it altogether, we're now limited on how much of anything we can grow, which limits crop yields, which, as you can see, would have a negative impact on the proposed 'plant-based' alternatives for petroleum-based products.

Which leads me onto this — recent in-situ analyses of Martian soil suggest that water soluble phosphorus exists in higher concentrations than anywhere on Earth, with rich deposits near the surface, as well as deeper underground. Also, recent spectroscopic analyses of several near-Earth objects have suggested higher concentrations of phosphorus in C-type asteroids than previously believed.

Both of these things are much easier to get to than Titan, comparatively speaking. Also, given the greater urgency to find alternative phosphorus sources, you could probably convince more people to financially back martian or NEO colonization or exploitation efforts. This would also make it easier to suggest to people 'hey guys, oil's getting a bit pricey, how about Titan?' because you've already got the infrastructure in place between here and Mars.

From MJW Nicholas (2016)


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 He-3 unless we have a strong space presence where fusion-powered ships are relatively common. Basically we will need to get He-3 to support the infrastructure to get He-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.

Helium-3 Lunar Chimera

James Nicoll is a friend of Team Phoenicia's and has been a source encouragement and commentary since the inception of our project. James has given a fair amount of thought into space exploration since it intersects with his dayjob. In a way. James is nontrivial member of the science fiction authorial community and Hugo nominee. We approached him (and others) about doing some guest blogs about lunar exploration and their thoughts thereof. James has had some strong thoughts on the long standing assertion used by some space enthusiasts to go to the moon: mining lunar 3He.

The chimera of Lunar Helium-three as a driving force for space development

One of the primary challenges facing space development advocates is finding some new product or service that is not being satisfied at the moment that can be satisfied using resources found in space and only in space;since the Earth is inconveniently well-stocked with a rich abundance of materials and a technologically sophisticated civilization, competition from terrestrial rivals is a serious problem for space development schemes. Nobody wants to foot the bill for a communications satellite network only to discover they've been underbid by a cable company.

Lunar Helium-three (3He) has been widely promoted [1] as a killer ap for Lunar development; supposedly offering aneutronic fusion to an energy-starved world, helium three is pitched as something that is in short supply on Earth but common on the Moon, apparently the ideal raw material around which to justify the investment needed for Lunar development. In actual fact, lunar 3He is a complete chimera; it is not common on the Moon, it cannot deliver true aneutronic fusion, it is subject to replacement by terrestrial materials, and in fact our civilization is incapable of using it to generate energy at all.


Terrestrial 3He is quite rare; in fact current stocks-in-hand are declining, forcing prices upward. Lunar 3He reserves are pitched in such a way theseemingly large absolute quantities of 3He on the moon (waring pdf); phrases like “enormous reserves” are tossed around to describe the estimated millions of tonnes of 3He potentially trapped in lunar regolith. What boosters fail to highlight in press reports is that this vast reservoir is stored within a much larger amount of regolith; recovering one tonne of lunar helium-three would require processing ten million tonnes or more of regolith (warning pdf).

False Promise

3He is pitched as a clear thermonuclear fuel. Unlike deuterium-tritium reactions, helium-three-deuterium reactions produce no neutrons. The catch is that deuterium can fuse with itself; while half of the D-D reactions produce no neutrons, the other half do produce neutrons. This means that while a fusion reactor using helium three would be cleaner than one using deuterium and tritium, it would still produce neutrons and so cannot be said to be a clean reaction; admitting to the neutron issue would mean admitting that the same mitigating technologies required for D+T reactors would be required for 3He+D reactors, although admittedly to a lesser degree.

3He+D is also harder to fuse than D+T. This means the payoff for power used to induce fusion will be smaller and the cost per kilowatt-hour produced smaller than for D+T fusion; reduced neutron emission comes at a cost.

Terrestrial replacements

There is a potential fusion reaction that is more truly aneutronic than 3He+D, one that uses boron-eleven; 11B +p yields helium; unfortunately like the 3He+D reaction, there will be side-reactions, in particular 11B reacting with alpha particles, that will produce neutrons but these will produce somewhat fewer neutrons overall than the side-reactions for 3He+D. Like 3He based fusion, 11B fusion is more difficult to initiate than D+T fusion and so will be more expensive than D+T but 11B has one great advantage over 3He; boron is a reasonable common substance on Earth and about 80% of it is 11B .

Unfortunately from the point of view of a space proponent, the ease of acquiring boron on Earth is counterproductive; if you can order the stuff from a mundane chemical supply company, there is no need to go into space to get it.

Lunar helium three would also potentially have to compete with terrestrial transmutation; 3He is produced by the decay of tritium and tritium can be produced by a variety of reactions, such as 6Li +n or 7Li+n. This admittedly negates one of the attractions of 3He fusion, since the production of tritium necessarily involves the production of neutrons.

We don't have commercial fusion power plants, not even D+T fusion power plants

This is the giant cephalopod on the kitchen table that lunar 3He boosters have to ignore because without fusion plants, it hardly matters if the reaction the plants would use produce an abundance of neutrons or a dearth of them. Without fusion generators, there's no demand for 3He, lunar or not, as a fusion fuel. Without fusion plants, there's no market for lunar 3He as a fusion fuel.

Sadly, a thorough audit of the power-generating facilities of the world reveals a complete lack of commercial fusion power plants. This is because we have currently lack the know-how needed to build commercial fusion power plants. Not only are we currently incapable of building the devices on which the lunar 3He scheme is utterly dependent but it does not seem very likely that we will acquire the required skills any time soon; although research is ongoing commercial fusion is at best decades away, perhaps longer. ITER, a showcase project for fusion research, is only intended to produce more energy than it consumes rather than producing energy cheaply enough for sale; commercial exploitation of the information produced by ITER will have to follow the complete of that program in 2038 and will presumably involved D+T reactions, not the far more difficult D+3He reactions. It is arguably possible that most of the people reading this will be dead before commercial fusion is developed.

While it would be convenient — invaluable — for space development to have some substance that is both useful on Earth and difficult to obtain there, 3He is not such a material. Publicizing it as such a material is misleading at best and if the people 3He proponents hope to sway do even the least amount of research, counterproductive as well.

by James Nicoll

Caribbean Sugar Islands

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 proved 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.

There at least one historical colonization model that I think may provide some interesting parallels, even from a rocketpunk standpoint — the Caribbean sugar islands of the 17th & 18th centuries.

They were "agricultural" colonies, but the agriculture was, particularly in the case of the lesser Antilles, almost entirely devoted to production of a commodity for export. The islands' worker populations (which, early on, were a mix of indentured and enslaved) were fed largely on imported foodstuffs (the port of Baltimore, for instance, first boomed by shipping Maryland grain to Barbados). Granted, the sugar islands didn't require more basic life support. But yellow fever and malaria didn't make them overly hospitable, either. And the death rate meant that workers, for all practical purposes, were cycled through for relatively short (albeit one-way) tours.

[Subsitute Helium-3 fusion fuel] for sugar and it starts sounding like a plausible model. Although worker populations will doubtless be much lower.

Militarily, it starts sounding somewhat familiar, too. During the 18th century, attack/defense of the islands were essentially a naval matter, with the general idea of grabbing what you could when you could for use later as bargaining chips.

Also, like the (asteroid) belt, there were enough individual chunks of real estate that even the smaller players (the Dutch, Danes, Swedes and even the Brandenburgers) could get in on the game.

Rick Robinson said: "If we have a Helium 3 fusion economy, there's no need to scour around for naturally occurring He3. Anywhere you have plenty of volatiles and no environmental worries will do. Run a tritium breeder reactor to brew up the He3 plus enough tritium to keep its own cycle going."

This is starting to sound more and more like the 18th century "sugar economy" Processing was a big chunk of the operation and cane tended to exhaust the land (one reason why the sugar production eventually shifted to larger islands like Jamaica, Cuba and Hispaniola)

Rick Robinson said: "It is probably a coincidence that this is just the milieu that gave us the yo ho ho image of piracy, but an interesting coincidence."

CitySide (2009)


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.

The Forgotten Resources of Space

There are no unique raw materials waiting for us in space (possible exception of 3He).

There are a lot of hydrocarbons on Titan, but because of delta-v costs, it will always be cheaper to derive them from marginal locations on Earth, like oil shales or biofuels. Even if a platinum-rich asteroid were found, platinum would be obtained cheaper by re-opening a depleted low grade mine on Earth.

If extraterrestrial raw imports will never be economical, is there any motivation for going there?

Increasingly, it is processes rather than raw materials that are important for industry. Space processes can control the gravity, vacuum, radiation, temperature, and energy density to a degree impossible on Earth. These characteristics, the forgotten resources of space, can produce high-strength membranes using surface tension effects, long whiskers and gigantic laser crystals grown in microgravity, nano-engineering using ultrapure vapor deposition, strong glassy materials produced by exploiting a steep temperature gradient, and alloys mixed by diffusion alone. Relatively small manufactured and nano-produced objects, including pharmaceuticals and bio-tech, will be the first space imports to Earth.

Phil Eklund (2009)


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.

I'll believe in people settling Mars at about the same time I see people setting the Gobi Desert. The Gobi Desert is about a thousand times as hospitable as Mars and five hundred times cheaper and easier to reach. Nobody ever writes "Gobi Desert Opera" because, well, it's just kind of plonkingly obvious that there's no good reason to go there and live. It's ugly, it's inhospitable and there's no way to make it pay. Mars is just the same, really. We just romanticize it because it's so hard to reach.

On the other hand, there might really be some way to make living in the Gobi Desert pay. And if that were the case, and you really had communities making a nice cheerful go of daily life on arid, freezing, barren rock and sand, then a cultural transfer to Mars might make a certain sense.

If there were a society with enough technical power to terraform Mars, they would certainly do it. On the other hand. by the time they got around to messing with Mars, they would have been using all that power to transform themselves. So by the time they got there and started rebuilding the Martian atmosphere wholesale, they wouldn't look or act a whole lot like Hollywood extras.

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.

Conquest of Space

Sergeant Imoto: Some years ago, my country chose to fight a terrible war. It was bad, I do not defend it, but there were reasons. Somehow those reasons are never spoken of. To the Western world at that time, Japan was a fairybook nation: little people living in a strange land of rice-paper houses... people who had almost no furniture, who sat on the floor and ate with chopsticks. The quaint houses of rice paper, sir: they were made of paper because there was no other material available. And the winters in Japan are as cold as they are in Boston. And the chopsticks: there was no metal for forks and knives and spoons, but slivers of wood could suffice. So it was with the little people of Japan, little as I am now, because for countless generations we have not been able to produce the food to make us bigger. Japan's yesterday will be the world's tomorrow: too many people and too little land. That is why I say, sir, there is urgent reason for us to reach Mars: to provide the resources the human race will need if they are to survive. That is also why I am most grateful to be found acceptable, sir. I volunteer.

General Samuel T. Merritt: Thank you, Sergeant Imoto. You're not a little man.

From Conquest of Space (1955)

Manned Space Stations

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.

It just occured to me...why didn't we have large scale commercialization of space already? And I had a strange answer:

The microchip and the fiber optic cable.

One of the few killer apps for space satellites was the communications satellite. But the microchip allowed multiplexing many voice streams onto a single high bandwidth signal, and the fiber optic cable made cheap long range high bandwidth communications possible.

What might have happened if the microchip and fiber optic cable weren't developed for another few decades? We might actually have needed hordes of communications satellites to keep up with global demand. That means a solid customer base for launchers, and that means mass produced launchers and/or big dumb boosters.

Without the microchip, these communications satellites suck up all sorts of juice. Thus, there's a huge incentive to develop efficient solar cells. With advanced space rated solar cells and cheaper launch technology, space based power may even be practical.

The result? Large scale industrialization of space, and sufficient economies of scale that launch costs are relatively cheap.

Isaac Kuo

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.

Tax Haven

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:

Last week thenewgreen posted an article about PayPal cofounder Peter Theil’s plan to build micro-nations on offshore platforms. The original article is in Details. In short, residents of these new micro-nations proposed by Peter Theil will not be citizens of any other country.

In my opinion, the creation of a new class of citizenship for the wealthy is near.

Very wealthy people tend to own assets and places of residence in multiple countries. These people travel across national boundaries many times a year, if not each month, or each week. These affluent people often have many friends and relations that reside in multiple countries.

Consider what national identity means to these people? Is citizenship a defining factor of their identity, or is it a more a matter of paperwork?

If you are very rich, your citizenship determines the nation to which you pay the majority of your taxes. It also determines the relative difficulty that you have traveling between countries. You do not use or need other characteristics of citizenship such as social services and national defense. In fact, if you are very wealthy, political actions of your home nation (even when carried out in the interest of your nation) can be a liability that affects your interests in other countries.

For the very rich, traditional citizenship is not a valuable asset; it is a problem to be solved.

For such an individual, a type of citizenship that only included other wealthy people would be more valuable. Peter Theil has suggested a possible route to this new form of citizenship. However, there may be other alternatives.

Unlike the current form of citizenship, this new form of citizenship would be useful to someone that possesses great wealth. Taxes would be very low, as there would be little need of social services, infrastructure, or defense. Furthermore, due to the political influence that comes with wealth, this nation of the rich would have great advantages when forming treaties with traditional nations. In a short time, travel for these citizens would be nearly unlimited. To attract the investment of these citizens, other benefits and incentives would probably follow as well.

Of course, there are hurdles that must be overcome to achieve this new form of citizenship. However, as Peter Thiel demonstrates, these are being worked on at present. Furthermore, as most developed nations currently have high GDP/debt ratios, and as a popular method for reducing this debt is increased taxation on wealthy individuals, the impetus to solve the citizenship problem is rising. As a result, I expect that such a new form of citizenship will arise in the next decade.

What will this new class of citizenship mean for society? I am not sure. However, I expect that the world will go through a period where traditional citizens and these new citizens will live increasingly divergent lifestyles.


But since you brought up Vegas, the interesting thing about Las Vegas is that by the traditional logic of city locations it should just be a railroad yard and a couple of offramps on I-15.

Vegas was made by legalized gambling and cheap transportation. It must have crossed some critical threshold of self sustainment, though, because legalized gambling is now widespread in the US, but Vegas still thrives as Disneyland for adults.

Extanding this further, Los Angeles also should not be a major world city by traditional logic. San Francisco does, but LA has no natural harbor and does not serve an extensive fertile hinterland. What it has is a good climate and a gift for self promotion.

In short, the traditional 'game rules' for what places become major cities broke down in the 20th century.

So once again, maybe we (i.e., I) have been misled by the agrarian analogy. It is hard to figure out why, other things equal, anyone would go to Mars to be a farmer. A city on Mars might be more credible, and then the farmers will follow.

From On Colonization by Rick Robinson (2009)
The Air Force Might Have To Protect Money Laundering in Space

If you’re looking for the ultimate in physical security for your future assets, look up, way up. Growing fears about cybersecurity and the rapidly decreasing cost to access space has given birth to a new class of startups offering satellite-based data centers impervious to all physical hacking. What sort of information is so valuable that the average person needs to protect them in space? One answer: money. Even space vaults need guards, and in this case the brunt of that job will go to U.S. Air Force.

But putting digital money into space-based data centers not only puts it out of reach from thieves, it’s also out of jurisdiction from law enforcement. In other words, the Air Force could one day soon be on the hook to protect a hive of money laundering in space.

Bitcoin data servers in space sounds like a random mashup of tech buzzwords. In fact, it’s a real business model.

These orbital safety deposit boxes would be beyond the jurisdiction (or easy capture) of any law enforcement agency, regulator or tax collector.

But do space banks really represent the ultimate in security for data? In a 2007 missile test, China destroyed a weather satellite to much international condemnation. Over the last few years, a sense of urgency about future threats to space infrastructure has risen among many experts.

(Jeff) Garzik said the outsized role that the United States plays in space is the reason he chose to locate his business here. He needs protection. “Although we target an international market, DSS operates within the United States, protected by U.S. laws. Air Force Space Command has a strong presence in space, providing a sort of protective umbrella that reduces the risk of physical harm to DSS satellites,” he told Defense One.

Is the U.S. specially obligated to protect the property of every startup that wants to do off-planet business? The U.S. is party to various international agreements that govern the uses of space, the most famous of which is the Outer Space Treaty, but there are also international conventions on rescuing astronauts, liability, registering objects and the use of the moon and other celestial objects.

Those agreements do not state that the United States has a special duty to protect all space junk. One watchdog body for policing private activity or protecting private property in space is the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space and its secretariat, the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs. Theoretically, at least, the UN would take the lead in keeping commercial satellites safe from Chinese or Russian rockets.

But the UN doesn’t have its own military.

Like it or not, burgeoning U.S. space-monitoring capabilities could one day be used to protect orbiting money laundering satellites from Chinese rockets.

Comment by John Nowak:

I suspect the model will be something more akin to US Marshals or, better, the Canadian RCMP. "RCMP in Space" is certainly fertile grounds for storytelling.

It is not technically our job to deliver mail to Inuit villages above the arctic circle. But guess what? We're the only guys up here with a boat. 

Captain Future and the Seven Space Stones

The authority of the Solar System Government and its laws shall extend to every celestial body that revolves around the Sun.

THE framers of the Constitution of the Solar System Government supposed that that provision would insure the reign of order on every speck of matter in the System, be it planet, asteroid, moon or meteor. But they reckoned without the devious, subtle ingenuity of a certain Jovian named Bubos Uum. He saw in that paragraph a gaping loophole.

Bubas Uum was a notorious interplanetary gambler whose semi-criminal activities had already won him a term in the dreaded prison on Ceberus, the moon of Pluto. He had started a hidden gambling resort in the jungles of his native world. But after the Planet Police raided it and he was convicted, he had decided not to defy the law. Evading it was more profitable and less wearing.

Through a dummy company, Bubas Uum bought sole title to a small asteroid lying on the extreme outer edge of the asteroidal zone. He had it fitted with air and water creators, and built on it gambling palaces and pleasure gardens — all quite openly. The Planet Police had watched, ready to raid him as soon as he started operating.

Then Bubas Uum had sprung his surprise. Secretly he had had the little asteroid fitted with rocket tubes of gigantic power, enough to move it in space like a great ship. He turned on those tubes. Their blast impelled the little world against its normal orbit. Instead of moving on in its orbit, the little planetoid remained stationary in space — relative to the Solar System

Thus the Pleasure Planet, as he called it, did not revolve around the Sun but remained in one position in space. And thus, according to the Constitution, the law of the Solar System Government did not extend to the Pleasure Planet. The Planet Police had no authority there. The only authority was the word of fat, wily Bubas Uum, its owner.

The Pleasure Planet was, in fact, a lawless little world in the very heart of the System. Gambling flourished there on a lavish scale. Illicit interplanetary drugs could be purchased openly. The only restrictions were the discreet ones imposed by Bubas Uum's yellow-uniformed guards. From all the nine worlds came the rich, the bored, the dissipated, to enjoy themselves without restraint on the Pleasure Planet.

From Captain Future and the Seven Space Stones by Edmond Hamilton (1941)
One Against the Legion

Beyond the five low points of the dead volcanoes on the black horizon, against the fading greenish afterglow, the New Moon was rising.

Not the ancient satellite whose cragged face had looked down upon the Earth since life was born—that had been obliterated a quarter-century ago, by the keeper of the peace when Aladoree Anthar turned her secret ancestral weapon upon the outpost that the invading Medusae had established there.

The New Moon was really new—a glittering creation of modern science and high finance, the proudest triumph of thirtieth century engineering. The heart of it was a vast hexagonal structure of welded metal, ten miles across, that held eighty cubic miles of expensive, air-conditioned space.

Far nearer Earth than the old Moon, the new satellite had a period of only six hours. From the Earth, its motion appeared faster and more spectacular because of its retrograde direction. It rose in the west, fled across the sky against the tide of the stars and plunged down where the old Moon had risen.

The New Moon was designed to be spectacular. A spinning web of steel wires, held rigid by centrifugal force, spread from it across a thousand miles of space. They supported an intricate system of pivoted mirrors of sodium foil and sliding color niters of cellulite. Reflected sunlight was utilized to illuminate the greatest advertising sign ever conceived.

But the rising sign, as it had been designed to do, held his eyes. A vast circle of scarlet stars came up into the greenish desert dusk. They spun giddily, came and went, changed suddenly to a lurid yellow. Then garish blue-and-orange letters flashed a legend:

Tired, Mister? Bored, Sister? Then come with me—The disk became a red-framed animated picture of a slender girl in white, tripping up the gangway of a New Moon liner. She turned, and the gay invitation of her smile changed into burning words: Out in the New Moon, just ask for what you want. Caspar Hannas has it for you.

“Anything.” Jay Kalam smiled grimly. “Even the System’s foremost criminals.”

Find health at our sanatoria! flamed the writing in the sky. Sport in our gravity-free games! Recreation in our clubs and theatres! Knowledge in our museums and observatories. Thrills, and beauty— everywhere! Fortune, if you’re lucky, in our gaming salons! Even oblivion if you desire it, at our Clinic of Euthanasia!

Builder and master of this gaudiest and most glittering of all resorts, Caspar Hannas was a man who had come up out of a dubious obscurity. The rumors of his past—that he had been a space-pirate, drug runner, android-agent, crooked gambler, gang-boss, and racketeer-in-general—were many and somewhat contradictory.

The first New Moon had been the battered hulk of an obsolescent space liner, towed into an orbit about the Earth twenty years ago. The charter somehow issued to the New Moon Syndicate in the interplanetary confusion following the First Interstellar War had given that gambling ship the status of a semi-independent planet, which made it a convenient refuge from the more stringent laws of Earth and the rest of the System. Caspar Hannas, the head of the syndicate, had defied outraged reformers— and prospered exceedingly.

The wondrous artificial satellite, first opened to the public a decade ago, had replaced a whole fleet of luxury liners that once had circled just outside the laws of Earth. The financial rating of the syndicate was still somewhat uncertain—Hannas had been called, among many other things, a conscienceless commercial octopus; but the new resort was obviously a profitable business enterprise, efficiently administered by Hannas and his special police.

His enemies—and there was no lack of them—liked to call the man a spider. True enough, his sign in the sky was like a gaudy web. True, millions swarmed to it, to leave their wealth—or even, if they accepted the dead-black chip that the croupiers would give any player for the asking, their lives.

From One Against the Legion by Jack Williamson (1939)
Procyon's Promise

     Henning’s Roost was renowned throughout the solar system. Its reputation stretched from the intermittently molten plains of Mercury to the helium lakes of Pluto, from the upper reaches of the Jovian atmosphere to the subterranean settlements burrowed deeply into the red surface of Mars’ dusty plains. Wherever men and women worked at hard or dangerous jobs, wherever boredom and terror were normal components of life, The Roost was a standard subject of conversation.
     Henning’s was a pleasure satellite, the largest ever built. Its owners had placed it in solar orbit ten million kilometers in front of Earth. There was a story told of a spaceman who had arrived at The Roost with a year’s accumulated pay in his pocket, stayed ten days, left flat broke, and pronounced himself well satisfied. It was a testimonial to the diversions provided by Henning’s management that the story was widely accepted as completely reasonable. Besides which, it was true.
     Be that as it may, Chryse Haller was bored.
     Chryse had arrived at The Roost two weeks earlier for her first vacation in three years. She had plunged immediately into the social whirl, sampling most of the diversions that were not ultimately harmful to one’s health. She had played chemin de fir, blackjack, poker, roulette, and seven-card stapo on the gaming decks. Later, she had enlisted as a centurion in a Roman Legion on the Sensie-Gamer deck and slogged for two days through the damp chill of a simulated Gaul. Her first battle convinced her that the difference between ancient warfare and a modern butcher shop is mostly a matter of attitude, and she began to cast around for new diversions.

     “I guess I deserved that,” she said. She let her gaze slip from his angry face and move to the viewscreen at the end of the small restaurant. The view was from a remote camera somewhere out on the hull. It showed a jumble of I-beams, pressure spheres, and hull plates framed by the black of space. “Let’s change the subject before we have an argument. I have been staring at that thing all morning. What is it?”
     He turned to follow her gaze. “Just an old worker dormitory used during The Roost’s construction. It’s abandoned now, of course.”
     “I would think the owners would keep local space clear of all such hazards to navigation. Wouldn’t be very good publicity for a shipload of tourists to run into that heap on approach.”
     He shook his head. “It isn’t as ramshackle as it appears. Look closely. See the thruster cluster jutting out near the airlock? There are twenty more scattered over the hull. That hulk and a half dozen others are slaved to the Roost’s central computer.”
     “Sounds like a lot of trouble to go to for a junkyard,” Chryse said.
     “It’s part of the service. The hulks make good destinations for clients with a yen to explore the mysteries of space.”
     “The what?”
     He laughed, his pique suddenly forgotten. “Haven’t you ever skin dived on a sunken ship?”
     She shook her head.
     “How about going up to Zeta Deck then? They have a near perfect simulation of the Esmeralda there. That was a Spanish galleon that sunk off Key West in the Sixteenth Century. They took sixty million stellars worth of treasure out of her back in the thirties.”
     Chryse shook her head. “I’m tired of simulated adventure.”
     He smiled, turning on the boyish charm. “That’s the reason for the hulks. They are the real thing. We could check out two vacsuits at North Pole Terminus and make a day long picnic of it if you like.”

Buck Godot

The evil X-Tel megacorporation has their corporate headquarters located in a space station orbiting a remote star. This puts them out of the jursdiction of galactic law and The Law golden globe robots. This allows them to engage in corporate evil on a truly galactic scale with no fear of reprisal.

It works well until that fateful day when evil X-Tel Director Lucus Fang pressures Buck Godot to enlist the services of The Teleporter, the only entity in known space possessing the secret of teleportation. Unsurprisngly Buck turns the tables on X-Tel.

From Buck Godot: Zap Gun For Hire by Phil Foglio (1980)

Prolonged Lifespan

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.

(Journalist Cooper travels to the Lunar colony to do some investigative reporting, attempting to discover the secret that the scientists won't talk about. Spoilers for the story follow.)

Then Cooper whispered: "My God— you've found a way of prolonging life!"

"No," retorted Hastings. "We've not found it. The Moon has given it to us ... as we might have expected, if we'd looked in front of our noses." He seemed to have gained control over his emotions—as if he was once more the pure scientist, fascinated by a discovery for its own sake and heedless of its implications.

"On Earth," he said, "we spend our whole lives fighting gravity. It wears down our muscles, pulls our stomachs out of shape. In seventy years, how many tons of blood does the heart lift through how many miles? And all that work, all that strain is reduced to a sixth here on the Moon, where a one-hundred-and-eighty-pound human weighs only thirty pounds."

"I see," said Cooper slowly. "Ten years for a hamster—and how long for a man?"

"It's not a simple law," answered Hastings. "It varies with the size and the species. Even a month ago, we weren't certain. But now we're quite sure of this: on the Moon, the span of human life will be at least two hundred years."

"And you've been trying to keep it secret!"

"You fool! Don't you understand?"

"Take it easy, Doctor—take it easy," said Chandra softly.

With an obvious effort of will, Hastings got control of himself again. He began to speak with such icy calm that his words sank like freezing raindrops into Cooper's mind. "Think of them up there," he said, pointing to the roof, to the invisible Earth, whose looming presence no one on the Moon could ever forget. "Six billion of them, packing all the continents to the edges—and now crowding over into the sea beds. And here—" he pointed to the ground—"only a hundred thousand of us, on an almost empty world. But a world where we need miracles of technology and engineering merely to exist, where a man with an I.Q. of only a hundred and fifty can't even get a job.

"And now we find that we can live for two hundred years. Imagine how they're going to react to that news! This is your problem now, Mister Journalist; you've asked for it, and you've got it. Tell me this, please—I'd really be interested to know—just how are you going to break it to them?"

He waited, and waited. Cooper opened his mouth, then closed it again, unable to think of anything to say. In the far corner of the room, a baby monkey started to cry.

From "The Secret" by Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1963)

Interstellar Beamriders

Interstellar Flight, E-sails, and the Economy of a Solar System

(ed note: this is not quite MacGuffinite, but it is so close you can smell it)

   As I and others have frequently noted, space is big.  Very big.  And while it may be the final frontier its exploration is far from an insignificant enterprise.  The technological challenges alone are almost unimaginable, and they are dwarfed by even greater challenges in the form of people.  People like to spend mont and time in their own, direct and immediate, interests.  Although spreading to the stars is, in my own opinion, the best way for humanity to survive in the long run, most people cannot see the need for starships - those in charge, at any rate.  Quite aside from the motivation of the people making decisions, the economics of interstellar travel will prevent it for many years to come.  Something like the Daedalus starship of the British Interplanetary Society, pictured above, would cost ~$175 trillion dollars.  Much of that is research cost, and thus gives back in the long term, but anything spent on the starship itself can never be recovered.  And as much as scientists may argue the value of good data, few politicians would agree with them.

   The solution is to utilised a design that will result in, if not profit, a greatly reduced cost.  Any large - scale interstellar exploration will need large orbital construction facilities, probably utilise asteroid mining, and even might harvest fuel from gas giants.  All in all there will be a lot of infrastructure that needs to be built, adding to the cost.  However, anything geared to mining the asteroids can be put to commercial use once the starship has departed, and represents an investment, not a purchase.  The trick is to minimise the amount of material and tech that actually leaves the solar system, while maximising the amount of tech that can be later used to develop the solar system at a possible profit.

   And for once the universe is playing fair.  It turns out that one of the best systems for a small interstellar craft also best fits the other requirements I've described: the beamrider.  I talked about beamriders here, so I won't go into too much detail about the specific design.  Personally I think that one utilising a e-sail/mag-sail and a plasma based beam would work best.  The beam can provide more momentum for the same amount of power as a laser, so it gives greater acceleration, countering its short range.  Also, the e-sail and magsail are both very effective at decelerating from high speed, so they can be used at the destination.  Another advantage is that it would be harder to use the plasma beam as a weapon, due to a range smaller than hat of a laser, and inability to penetrate Earth's atmosphere, which makes it more likely that governments would allow it to be built.

   Small scale versions could be perfected and used to explore the asteroids and begin mining operations.  These would then be improved as the need for materials increased.  By the time the starship is complete, perhaps fifty-seventy years after the project is started, their are enough large beam stations in various solar obits to boost it to interstellar velocity.  A good tactic would be to start in a orbit distant from the sun, performing the manoeuvre known as a 'sundive' which combines a gravitational slingshot, Oberth flyby, and can use the sail on the starship as a solar sail close to the sun, where it is most effective.

   In a solar system where this has been set up colonisation becomes a reality.  The beams can provide fast interplanetary transport, and also form the basis of an economy.  Coupled with mining, industries that support the colonists, and a secondary economy based on supplying the stations with the mass for the beams.  As more an more people move to the planets and beam stations the need for more mined resources and transport arises, stimulating the economy.

   From the perspective of a SF world builder this provides a compelling hard science 'Verse in which to set a variety of stories.  The beam stations are the centre of a thriving solar system wide economy.  Each could be the centre of a residential space station, income provided by renting the beam and acting as a transport nexus.  Not only this it means that any colonised star system has in place the means of interstellar travel, even if it is still uncommon.  If each beam station is independent politically, very interesting scenarios could play out, with various factions attempting to gain control of the most vital.  Conflict between Earth and the beam stations could provide a refreshing change to colonists on the moon, Mars, or Asteroids.

   I'm not an economist, but that seems to be to be a lot less handwaving that if people are just sent out to mine the asteroids.  That is likely to lead only to unmanned bases, and robotic ships.  The starship project, as an experimental effort, will need people on-sight, and once the infrastructure is in place there is a incentive to use it to regain some of the cost of the starship.  In any case, it is but one vision of the future.

All Eggs In One Basket

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.

Earth is too small a basket for mankind to keep all its eggs in.

Attributed to Robert A. Heinlein

If you build it, they will come

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.

The Man Who Sold the Moon

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.

Exit Earth

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 Rocket Company

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.


But most excitingly, there are actually private companies trying to develop surface to orbit services in the real world. There is a list of them here and here.

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.

XCOR Aerospace

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).

Bigelow Aerospace

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.

Planetary Resources

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 co-founders are Peter Diamandis and Eric Anderson, who are big names in the industry, and they are not fooling around.

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).

Here is their FAQ. But much more interesting is this Asteroid Retrieval Feasibility Study that coincidentally just happened to be recently released.

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.

The plan structure is reminiscent of that of Apollo: have a big goal in mind, but make sure the steps along the way are practical.

The key point is that their plan is not to simply mine precious metals and make millions or billions of dollars— though that’s a long-range goal. If that were the only goal, it would cost too much, be too difficult, and probably not be attainable.

Instead, they’ll make a series of calculated smaller missions that will grow in size and scope.

I asked Lewicki specifically about how this will make money. Some asteroids may be rich in precious metals — some may hold tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars in platinum-group metals — but it will cost billions and take many years, most likely, to mine them before any samples can be returned. Why not just do it here on Earth? In other words, what’s the incentive for profit for the investors? This is probably the idea over which most people are skeptical, including several people I know active in the asteroid science community.

I have to admit, Lewicki’s answer surprised me. "The investors aren’t making decisions based on a business plan or a return on investment," he told me. "They’re basing their decisions on our vision."

On further reflection, I realized this made sense. Not every wealthy investor pumps money into a project in order to make more… at least right away. Elon Musk, for example, has spent hundreds of millions of his own fortune on his company Space X. Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos is doing likewise for his own space company, Blue Origin. Examples abound. And it’ll be years before either turns a respectable profit, but that’s not what motivates Musk and Bezos to do this. They want to explore space.

The vision of Planetary Resources is in their name: they want to make sure there are available resources in place to ensure a permanent future in space. And it’s not just physical resources with which they’re concerned. Their missions will support not just mining asteroids for volatiles and metals, but also to extend our understanding of asteroids and hopefully increase our ability to deflect one should it be headed our way.

My opinion on all this

The beauty of being me (among other things) is that I don’t always have to be objective. So I’ll say this: I love this idea. Love it.

Mind you, that’s different than saying I think they can do it. But, in theory at least, I think they can. Their step-wise plan makes sense to me, and they don’t need huge rockets and huge money to get things started. By the time operations ramp up to something truly ambitious they should already have in place the pieces necessary for it, including the track record. In other words, by the time they’re ready to mine an asteroid, they’ll have in place all the infrastructure needed to actually do it. I still want to see some engineering plans and a timeline, but in general what I’ve heard sounds good.

My biggest initial skepticism would be the investors — with no hope of profit for years, would they really stick with it?

But look at the investors: Film maker James Cameron. Google executives Larry Page & Eric Schmidt, and Google investor K. Ram Shriram. Software pioneer Charles Simonyi. Ross Perot, Jr. These are all billionaires, some of them adventurers, and all of them have proven to have patience in developing new ventures. I don’t think they’ll turn tail and run at the first setback.

Lewicki said much the same thing. "I was a harsh skeptic at first, but [when the company founders Peter Diamandis and Eric Anderson] approached me we talked about a plan on how to create a company and pursue this." Soon after, he came to the conclusion this was a logical plan and the group was capable of doing it. In the press release, he said, "Not only is our mission to expand the world’s resource base, but we want to expand people’s access to, and understanding of, our planet and solar system by developing capable and cost-efficient systems."

That sounds like a great idea to me. And I am strongly of the opinion that private industry is the way to make that happen. The Saturn V was incredible, but not terribly cost effective; that wasn’t its point. And when NASA tried to make a cost-effective machine, they came up with the Space Shuttle, which was terribly expensive, inefficient, and — let’s face it — dangerous. The government is good for a lot of things, but political machinations can really impede innovation when it comes to making things easier and less costly. As many people involved with NASA used to joke: "Faster, better, cheaper: pick two."

But going into space has all the earmarks of a perfect second career for the modern billionaire. It’s amazingly cool and is guaranteed to provoke vast amounts of envy in the hearts of the other billionaires you run into at TED, Davos, and the Bohemian Grove. It’s the sort of hugely ambitious project that is worthy of a man (or woman) with an enormous ego. It costs a whole lot of money, so the barrier to entry is high (that keeps out the riffraff). And done right, it could be massively profitable, maybe even enough to create the world’s first trillionaire. So really, the wonder isn’t that billionaires are doing this, the wonder is that it’s taken them so long.

Economics Of Private Space Services

Today we are in a period of rapidly expanding private space services. There has been a long tradition of private satellite manufacture and related services, but given the roster of launch vehicles that sector saw limited growth and a limited customer base. Now, with more affordable launch options and the ability to launch very small satellites the potential customer base has expanded dramatically. Moving forward, space services must diversify by first focusing on services that provide a concrete benefit Earthside.

I see several areas with profit potential, in various stages of readiness: in-space refueling, satellite maintenance, orbital transportation, beamed power, adventure tourism / private spaceflight and resource harvesting. Let's take a look at each of these after the jump. Note that launch services are not included here; I see that as a current and successful market and as a necessary step before any of these areas could become profitable.

The easiest item on the list is adventure tourism. Russia (via Space Adventures) already sends paying customers into space (including NASA astronauts) and has sent seven private individuals to the ISS. It is worth noting that all of those people object to the label of 'tourist', and with good reason. Each was required to complete rigorous flight training and qualify as trained crewmembers; many performed experiments while in space for their parent company or other entities. It appears the preferred term is private researcher, private astronaut, etc. Obviously there is a market for this among people with a lot of money to burn and a strong desire to go to space; Space Adventures plans to resume paid flights to ISS soon and could see revenues in excess of $100 million per year.

Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and XCOR among others plan to offer suborbital flights. This would be a ~10 minute flight to 100km+ altitude, just enough to qualify one as an astronaut under current rules. I would argue that this is clearly space tourism. Nothing wrong with that, but it's a big gap between this and making orbit. Still, with ticket prices under $1 million there is a much larger potential market; Virgin Galactic alone has sold over 700 tickets before flights have even started (an estimated $80 million in deposits).

SpaceX and Boeing both have crewed orbital capsules in the works and both have plans to offer private seats. SpaceX has a flight-proven capsule and is in the process of human-rating (with $2.6 billion of NASA funds). Boeing is still in design, but they have the resources (including $4.2 billion of NASA funds) and expertise to succeed. Ironically, flights on Boeing's CST-100 craft are likely to be cheapest when launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9. Flights on Dragon v2 are expected to cost $20 million per seat for a full flight of 7 seats. Costs for the CST-100 are harder to pin down. NASA reports that the program will average $58 million per seat, which works out to about 110 seats over the course of the commercial crew program. That would be roughly two flights of seven crew per year for eight years.

Right now the only orbital destination is the ISS, which limits the demand for seats to perhaps two flights per year. Within the next decade, Bigelow Aerospace intends to launch one or more private space stations; crew requirements will depend on how much station volume is sold and to whom, but could raise demand to as many as eight crew launches per year ($1.1 to $1.8 billion). It is also possible that the ISS will be disassembled, with the Russian orbital segment reconfigured into a permanent Russian station. American and international components in the USOS cannot continue in orbit without services provided by the core Russian modules, so either the segment will be deorbited or a new core and propulsion module will be launched to create a majority-US station. If that is done, NASA is considering moving the station to EML1. In any case, this would eliminate commercial crew services to ISS as Russia would almost certainly continue using Soyuz for crew and NASA would use Orion. Other nations, particularly China and India, may decide to launch their own space stations and perhaps rent space or allow private guests; this does not seem likely in the next decade but is possible.

Next up: in-space refueling. The first and most obvious customer is NASA; an orbital fuel depot would allow them to launch satellites on smaller LVs or launch larger satellites, allowing a choice between savings on the LV and increased capabilities on the spacecraft. That could mean buying an Atlas 401, Zenit, Soyuz, H-IIA or Falcon 9 instead of an Atlas 551, Ariane 5, H-IIB or Delta 4(5,4). Perhaps less obvious, Russia would see a significant benefit from a LEO depot in the plane of the Baikonur launch site. Vehicles would refuel in order to plane-change to an equatorial orbit for GEO deployment. Further into the future a fuel depot would be essential for the smooth operation of tugs and satellite tenders, serving as a buffer between fuel launches and fuel used in missions.

I think the current leader is Boeing with their in-development ACES vehicle using integrated fluids management. However, they are focused on LOX/LH2 propellant; few customers today have cryogenic upper stages. Hypergolic fuels require a different set of technologies and would most likely require shipping expendable supplies of a pressurant, either nitrogen or helium, but they have a larger potential market right now as hypergolics are typically used for satellite stationkeeping and orbit changes. The third fuel category is inert gases (argon, xenon) for ion engines; these can be stored as compressed gases or cryogenic liquids.

I think a near-term possibility is simply to ship water. It is dense, relatively inert and can be used as a life support consumable or as a propellant after electrolysis. It has a high surface tension and can be wicked out of a bulk tank in microgravity without pressurants or membranes. There are cubesat-scale thrusters available today that separate water over time, accumulating a charge of gaseous O2 and H2 using small amounts of power, then ignite that fuel in a high-efficiency engine. If future satellites were to adopt this technology for RCS and stationkeeping then they could nearly double their Isp while eliminating toxic fuels and cutting down to a single storage tank. Beyond the near-term possibilities, a water depot operator would be able to buy water from any LEO cargo provider as well as any asteroid mining company, relying on the proven launch capabilities today while safely and cheaply allowing for a riskier but cheaper future supply.

The remaining markets generally rely on an orbital fuel depot and many rely on easy manned access to space, so the first two areas discussed above are 'force multipliers' for the commercialization of space. I will combine the categories of satellite maintenance and orbital transportation next as they have similar operational requirements, even though they can have distinct customers.

The reason an orbital tug is attractive is that rockets can launch much heavier payloads to a low orbit than they can to a high orbit. If the rocket does not have to launch hardware for moving the payload to a higher orbit then mass is saved, allowing the customer to use a cheaper launch vehicle or to launch a heavier payload for the same price.

An orbital transport provider would use a spacecraft, commonly called a tug or taxi, to deliver a payload to a different orbit. Ideally this vehicle would be reusable. This has been an area of active research since the 60's if not earlier, but I would argue that the ESPA ring and particularly the LCROSS mission represent a major step forward. The next step in this vein is probably the SSPS / Sherpa proposal from Spaceflight Inc for smaller payloads. Larger payloads could be handled by a Boeing ACES, Lockheed Martin Jupiter, ISRO PAM-G, RKK Energia Parom or Ad Astra concept vehicle. Of those, only Boeing and ISRO are known to be testing hardware. As far as I know, Boeing is the only contender investing heavily in microgravity cryogenic fluid management; this is a serious roadblock to in-flight refueling, which is a fundamental requirement for reusable tugs.

Ion-powered vehicles are popular concepts since they are so fuel-efficient. One drawback is that an ion-powered spiral from LEO to GEO exposes the payload to the Van Allen radiation belts. A possible solution is for the tug to provide radiation shielding for its payload during transit.

The Jupiter proposal is an example of a reusable tug with no depot. Tug fuel is included on the same launch vehicle as the payload. This is an efficient approach that minimizes risk in the near term. On the other hand, using a depot would allow the tug operator to purchase fuel at the lowest available launch cost and free up all available capacity on the customer's launch vehicle for their payload.

Satellite maintenance is in some ways an extension of an orbital tug. Either fuel or replacement parts are taken from LEO to the satellite's orbit. The craft is fueled, repaired or maintained in position while still operating. The largest market for this service is probably geosynchronous communication satellites, where receiving extra RCS fuel could extend their service lifetime by a decade or more. NASA has done in-space research on this subject under the Robotic Refueling Mission on ISS. Vivisat and MDA have both done work on commercial refueling services, with MDA's entry including a manipulator arm that could be used for ORU-style maintenance as well as refueling.

Adding the ability to swap out solar panels and transponders, a satellite bus could double its profitable lifespan. To take advantage of this the satellite needs to be designed for on-orbit maintenance from the beginning, similar to the way the ISS uses orbital replacement units.

An extension of this would be for a tug to retrieve a satellite and deliver it to a manned repair facility. Satellites with power or communication failures could be rescued or recovered this way, examined by human technicians, then possibly repaired and returned to their service orbit depending on the damage. Right now satellite operators are required to provide their own end-of-mission contingency; in most cases that means reserving a significant chunk of RCS fuel to either deorbit or move to GEO parking orbit. Having a service tug available might allow operators to eliminate that reserve, extending the useful life of satellites (potentially by several years) at the cost of a single tug mission.

In the longer term, most satellites at end of life are still structurally sound. If we start designing satellites with fully-replaceable parts then there is no reason why a GEO sat couldn't be retrieved, refueled, given new power hardware and upgraded navigation and outfitted with a new set of transponders before being placed back in GEO, all automated or remote-controlled. The basic structural bus might last many decades. Even for satellites currently in graveyard orbit, if a suitable crewed facility was available then the owners of those craft would gain considerable value from that mass by refitting or selling the bus to be refitted by someone else.

Resource harvesting is a major draw for investment in space. Two main classes of resources are important in the near term, with three additional classes becoming important in future decades.

First up is water. It is perhaps the easiest substance to extract and purify and is thought to be abundant in chondrite asteroids. It is also present on the Moon, Mars and Ceres, though Mars is an unlikely source of water for shipment back to LEO. Water can be split to provide oxygen for breathing gas or oxidizer and hydrogen for propellant or other chemical uses (Sabatier process for life support or as a fuel cell input for electricity). There is an immediate market for potable water on the ISS and will presumably be a strong market at any future space station. Water depots are another potential customer assuming future satellite RCS transitions from hypergolics to electrolyzed water.

Next is rare elements, mainly platinum group metals. These are abundant in metallic asteroids, with asteroid 16 Psyche alone representing perhaps 110 billion tons of PGM (at 5 PPM). Early efforts will probably focus on bodies of 100-200 meter diameter rather than 200+km diameter, but the supply is out there. Some detractors claim that dumping tons of precious metals on the market will crash prices. Certainly prices will go down if a new and abundant supply comes online, but platinum's value comes from more than being shiny. There are many potential uses for platinum that are not cost-effective today. A massive increase in supply would lead to a technological expansion of similarly massive proportions. Regardless, there is an immediate market for PGMs and other rare elements on Earth; any operator that can land their payload safely will be able to sell it easily any time they choose.

The latter categories are a bit similar. First is construction materials like iron, nickel and other metals (aluminum, calcium, magnesium, titanium, cobalt, tungsten) that might be used to build structural parts and pressure vessels. Next is semiconductors and dopants, mostly silicon but including gallium, germanium and indium plus tin, arsenic, antimony, aluminum, phosphorus, boron and gallium. These would be used to build solar panels, LED lights and potentially microprocessors. Last is whatever is left over, the slag from other processing. This is generally useful for radiation shielding (as is water) and would be used for manned craft and facilities outside Earth's magnetic field. A fourth category might be carbon and any trace nutrients required for plant life, though these materials would be separated as part of the refining process for structural metals and high-purity semiconductors.

All of the latter categories require a significant presence in orbit with the capacity to manufacture complex parts. This is definitely not a near-term environment, so the 'early days' operators are reduced to just water and platinum as potential products. Given the significant complexity involved in extracting platinum, I expect water to be the first non-Earth resource sold.

Last on my list is beamed power, which arguably does not belong in an 'early days' roundup. The usual example is a solar power satellite network beaming power down to the surface. Other uses include long-range power (probably laser) to a vehicle or satellite for propulsion and short-range power (probably RF) between a carrier satellite and payload cubesats or other small craft.

The SPS concept has been thoroughly explored over the decades. All necessary technologies exist and have been demonstrated. Environmental impact studies have been performed. The main barrier now is launch costs, which can be overcome by low-cost reusable LVs and / or the use of material harvested in space. As long as human civilization continues to use electricity there will be a market for SPS power on the surface. As the impact of human-induced climate change grows, the demand for power that does not threaten our species will continue to grow.

This kind of baseload power is further into the future but there are near-term applications. In particular, electric space tugs would benefit from a constellation of modest-sized SPS craft. Instead of carrying large solar panel arrays, a tug could carry just the rectenna and power conditioning equipment necessary to receive beamed power. This hardware would be lighter and much more resistant to radiation, allowing for a longer service life for LEO-GEO tugs. The reduced mass would make the tug more fuel-efficient, while a proper network of satellites would allow full-time operation of the tug's ion engine without requiring large battery packs. This same network of satellites could provide peak power to other assets with intermittent high power demand, particularly to a low-orbit space station that periodically does energy-intensive materials processing or uses electric engines for reboost / CAM. A further set of customers might include satellites intended only for short missions; formation flights of cubesats for example would benefit from requiring a smaller mass (and lower price) of rectenna than they would have required in solar panels.

A 'retrofit' option would be an SPS network that beams power using IR or visible lasers rather than RF. The specific frequency would be one that solar cells can efficiently convert. The SPS would simply lase the solar panels of the client craft, providing power when the sun is not available or increasing power while the craft is lit. This is significantly less efficient than RF but it would work on existing satellites and at longer ranges.


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.

"Western railroads, particularly the transcontinental railroads, would not have been built without public subsidies, without the granting of land and, more important than that, loans from the federal government ... because there is no business [in the West at that time,] there is absolutely no reason to build [railroads] except for political reasons and the hope that business will come."

"What we're talking about is 1,500 or more miles between the Missouri River and California, in which there are virtually no Anglo-Americans. Most railroad men look at this, including [railroad magnate Cornelius] Vanderbilt, and they want nothing to do with it."

Richard White

Laser Launching

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.

Between The Strokes Of Night

From the invited address of Salter Wherry to the United Nations General Assembly, following establishment of Salter Station in a stable six-hour orbit around the Earth, and shortly before Wherry withdrew from contact with the general public:

Nature abhors a vacuum. If there is an open ecological niche, some organism will move to fill it. That's what evolution is all about. Twenty years ago there was a clear emerging crisis in mineral resource supply. Everybody knew that we were heading for shortages of at least twelve key metals. And almost everybody knew that we wouldn't find them in any easily accessible place on Earth. We would be mining fifteen miles down, or at the ocean bottom. I decided it was more logical to mine five thousand miles up. Some of the asteroids are ninety percent metals; what we needed to do was bring them into Earth orbit.

I approached the U.S. Government first with my proposal for asteroid capture and mining. I had full estimates of costs and probable return on investment, and I would have settled for a five percent contract fee.

I was told that it was too controversial, that I would run into questions of international ownership of mineral rights. Other countries would want to be included in the project.

Very well. I came here to the United Nations, and made full disclosure of all my ideas to this group. But after four years of constant debate, and many thousands of hours of my time preparing and presenting additional data, not one line of useful response had been drafted to my proposal. You formed study committees, and committees to study those committees, and that was all you did. You talked.

Life is short. I happened to have one advantage denied to most people. From the 1950s through the 1990s, my father invested his money in computer stocks. I was already very wealthy, and I was frustrated enough to risk it all. You are beginning to see some of the results, in the shape of PSS-One—what the Press seems to prefer to call Salter Station. It will serve as the home for two hundred people, with ease.

But this is no more than a beginning. Although Nature may abhor a vacuum, modern technology loves one; that, and the microgravity environment. I intend to use them to the full. I will construct a succession of large, permanently occupied space stations using asteroidal materials. If any nation here today desires to rent space or facilities from me, or buy my products manufactured in space, I will be happy to consider this—at commercial rates. I also invite people from all nations on Earth to join me in those facilities. We are ready to take all the steps necessary for the human race to begin its exploration of our Universe.

It was past midnight by the time that Jan de Vries had read the full statement twice, then skipped again to the comment with which Salter Wherry had concluded his address. They were words that had become permanently linked to his name, and they had earned him the impotent enmity of every nation on earth: "The conquest of space is too important an enterprise to be entrusted to governments."

From Between The Strokes Of Night by Charles Sheffield (1985)

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