Rocketpunk and MacGuffinite

Introduction

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 Missions 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 outrages 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:

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

"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

Mining

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.

(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)

Helium-3

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, any mining equipment would need to process extremely large amounts of regolith (over 100 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.

Manufacturing

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.

Colonization

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.

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

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.

- mk

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 ones 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)

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 1949, 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.

SpaceX

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.

Politics

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

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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