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

This section has been moved here.

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.

The whole structure of Western society may well be unfitted for the effort that the conquest of space demands. No nation can afford to divert its ablest men into such essentially non-creative, and occasionally parasitic, occupations as law, advertising, and banking. Nor can it afford to squander indefinitely the technical manpower it does possess. And it does not necessarily follow that the Soviet Union could do much better.

From ROCKET TO THE RENAISSANCE by Arthur C. Clarke (1960)

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.


Ernst Stuhlinger wrote this letter on May 6, 1970, to Sister Mary Jucunda, a nun who worked among the starving children of Kabwe, Zambia, in Africa, who questioned the value of space exploration. At the time Dr. Stuhlinger was Associate Director for Science at the Marshall Space Flight Center, in Huntsville, Alabama. Touched by Sister Mary’s concern and sincerity, his beliefs about the value of space exploration were expressed in his reply to Sister Mary. It remains, more than four decades later, an eloquent statement of the value of the space exploration endeavor. Born in Germany in 1913, Dr. Stuhlinger received a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Tuebingen in 1936. He was a member of the German rocket development team at Peenemünde, and came to the United States in 1946 to work for the U.S. Army at Fort Bliss, Texas. He moved to Huntsville in 1950 and continued working for the Army at Redstone Arsenal until the Marshall Space Flight Center was formed in 1960. Dr. Stuhlinger received numerous awards and widespread recognition for his research in propulsion. He received the Exceptional Civilian Service Award for his part in launching of Explorer 1, America’s first Earth satellite.

Dear Sister Mary Jucunda:

Your letter was one of many which are reaching me every day, but it has touched me more deeply than all the others because it came so much from the depths of a searching mind and a compassionate heart. I will try to answer your question as best as I possibly can.

First, however, I would like to express my great admiration for you, and for all your many brave sisters, because you are dedicating your lives to the noblest cause of man: help for his fellowmen who are in need.

You asked in your letter how I could suggest the expenditures of billions of dollars for a voyage to Mars, at a time when many children on this Earth are starving to death. I know that you do not expect an answer such as “Oh, I did not know that there are children dying from hunger, but from now on I will desist from any kind of space research until mankind has solved that problem!” In fact, I have known of famined children long before I knew that a voyage to the planet Mars is technically feasible. However, I believe, like many of my friends, that travelling to the Moon and eventually to Mars and to other planets is a venture which we should undertake now, and I even believe that this project, in the long run, will contribute more to the solution of these grave problems we are facing here on Earth than many other potential projects of help which are debated and discussed year after year, and which are so extremely slow in yielding tangible results.

Before trying to describe in more detail how our space program is contributing to the solution of our Earthly problems, I would like to relate briefly a supposedly true story, which may help support the argument. About 400 years ago, there lived a count in a small town in Germany. He was one of the benign counts, and he gave a large part of his income to the poor in his town. This was much appreciated, because poverty was abundant during medieval times, and there were epidemics of the plague which ravaged the country frequently. One day, the count met a strange man. He had a workbench and little laboratory in his house, and he labored hard during the daytime so that he could afford a few hours every evening to work in his laboratory. He ground small lenses from pieces of glass; he mounted the lenses in tubes, and he used these gadgets to look at very small objects. The count was particularly fascinated by the tiny creatures that could be observed with the strong magnification, and which he had never seen before. He invited the man to move with his laboratory to the castle, to become a member of the count’s household, and to devote henceforth all his time to the development and perfection of his optical gadgets as a special employee of the count.

The townspeople, however, became angry when they realized that the count was wasting his money, as they thought, on a stunt without purpose. “We are suffering from this plague,” they said, “while he is paying that man for a useless hobby!” But the count remained firm. “I give you as much as I can afford,” he said, “but I will also support this man and his work, because I know that someday something will come out of it!”

Indeed, something very good came out of this work, and also out of similar work done by others at other places: the microscope. It is well known that the microscope has contributed more than any other invention to the progress of medicine, and that the elimination of the plague and many other contagious diseases from most parts of the world is largely a result of studies which the microscope made possible.

The count, by retaining some of his spending money for research and discovery, contributed far more to the relief of human suffering than he could have contributed by giving all he could possibly spare to his plague-ridden community.

The situation which we are facing today is similar in many respects. The President of the United States is spending about 200 billion dollars in his yearly budget [more than $2 trillion in 2012]. This money goes to health, education, welfare, urban renewal, highways, transportation, foreign aid, defense, conservation, science, agriculture and many installations inside and outside the country. About 1.6 percent of this national budget was allocated to space exploration this year [less than .5 of one percent in 2012]. The space program includes Project Apollo, and many other smaller projects in space physics, space astronomy, space biology, planetary projects, Earth resources projects, and space engineering. To make this expenditure for the space program possible, the average American taxpayer with 10,000 dollars income per year is paying about 30 tax dollars for space. The rest of his income, 9,970 dollars, remains for his subsistence, his recreation, his savings, his other taxes, and all his other expenditures.

You will probably ask now: “Why don’t you take 5 or 3 or 1 dollar out of the 30 space dollars which the average American taxpayer is paying, and send these dollars to the hungry children?” To answer this question, I have to explain briefly how the economy of this country works. The situation is very similar in other countries. The government consists of a number of departments (Interior, Justice, Health, Education and Welfare, Transportation, Defense, and others) and the bureaus (National Science Foundation, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and others). All of them prepare their yearly budgets according to their assigned missions, and each of them must defend its budget against extremely severe screening by congressional committees, and against heavy pressure for economy from the Bureau of the Budget and the President. When the funds are finally appropriated by Congress, they can be spent only for the line items specified and approved in the budget.

The budget of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, naturally, can contain only items directly related to aeronautics and space. If this budget were not approved by Congress, the funds proposed for it would not be available for something else; they would simply not be levied from the taxpayer, unless one of the other budgets had obtained approval for a specific increase which would then absorb the funds not spent for space. You realize from this brief discourse that support for hungry children, or rather a support in addition to what the United States is already contributing to this very worthy cause in the form of foreign aid, can be obtained only if the appropriate department submits a budget line item for this purpose, and if this line item is then approved by Congress.

You may ask now whether I personally would be in favor of such a move by our government. My answer is an emphatic yes. Indeed, I would not mind at all if my annual taxes were increased by a number of dollars for the purpose of feeding hungry children, wherever they may live.

I know that all of my friends feel the same way. However, we could not bring such a program to life merely by desisting from making plans for voyages to Mars. On the contrary, I even believe that by working for the space program I can make some contribution to the relief and eventual solution of such grave problems as poverty and hunger on Earth. Basic to the hunger problem are two functions: the production of food and the distribution of food. Food production by agriculture, cattle ranching, ocean fishing and other large-scale operations is efficient in some parts of the world, but drastically deficient in many others. For example, large areas of land could be utilized far better if efficient methods of watershed control, fertilizer use, weather forecasting, fertility assessment, plantation programming, field selection, planting habits, timing of cultivation, crop survey and harvest planning were applied.

The best tool for the improvement of all these functions, undoubtedly, is the artificial Earth satellite. Circling the globe at a high altitude, it can screen wide areas of land within a short time; it can observe and measure a large variety of factors indicating the status and condition of crops, soil, droughts, rainfall, snow cover, etc., and it can radio this information to ground stations for appropriate use. It has been estimated that even a modest system of Earth satellites equipped with Earth resources, sensors, working within a program for worldwide agricultural improvements, will increase the yearly crops by an equivalent of many billions of dollars.

The distribution of the food to the needy is a completely different problem. The question is not so much one of shipping volume, it is one of international cooperation. The ruler of a small nation may feel very uneasy about the prospect of having large quantities of food shipped into his country by a large nation, simply because he fears that along with the food there may also be an import of influence and foreign power. Efficient relief from hunger, I am afraid, will not come before the boundaries between nations have become less divisive than they are today. I do not believe that space flight will accomplish this miracle over night. However, the space program is certainly among the most promising and powerful agents working in this direction.

Let me only remind you of the recent near-tragedy of Apollo 13. When the time of the crucial reentry of the astronauts approached, the Soviet Union discontinued all Russian radio transmissions in the frequency bands used by the Apollo Project in order to avoid any possible interference, and Russian ships stationed themselves in the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans in case an emergency rescue would become necessary. Had the astronaut capsule touched down near a Russian ship, the Russians would undoubtedly have expended as much care and effort in their rescue as if Russian cosmonauts had returned from a space trip. If Russian space travelers should ever be in a similar emergency situation, Americans would do the same without any doubt.

Higher food production through survey and assessment from orbit, and better food distribution through improved international relations, are only two examples of how profoundly the space program will impact life on Earth. I would like to quote two other examples: stimulation of technological development, and generation of scientific knowledge.

The requirements for high precision and for extreme reliability which must be imposed upon the components of a moon-travelling spacecraft are entirely unprecedented in the history of engineering. The development of systems which meet these severe requirements has provided us a unique opportunity to find new material and methods, to invent better technical systems, to manufacturing procedures, to lengthen the lifetimes of instruments, and even to discover new laws of nature.

All this newly acquired technical knowledge is also available for application to Earth-bound technologies. Every year, about a thousand technical innovations generated in the space program find their ways into our Earthly technology where they lead to better kitchen appliances and farm equipment, better sewing machines and radios, better ships and airplanes, better weather forecasting and storm warning, better communications, better medical instruments, better utensils and tools for everyday life. Presumably, you will ask now why we must develop first a life support system for our moon-travelling astronauts, before we can build a remote-reading sensor system for heart patients. The answer is simple: significant progress in the solutions of technical problems is frequently made not by a direct approach, but by first setting a goal of high challenge which offers a strong motivation for innovative work, which fires the imagination and spurs men to expend their best efforts, and which acts as a catalyst by including chains of other reactions.

Spaceflight without any doubt is playing exactly this role. The voyage to Mars will certainly not be a direct source of food for the hungry. However, it will lead to so many new technologies and capabilities that the spin-offs from this project alone will be worth many times the cost of its implementation.

Besides the need for new technologies, there is a continuing great need for new basic knowledge in the sciences if we wish to improve the conditions of human life on Earth. We need more knowledge in physics and chemistry, in biology and physiology, and very particularly in medicine to cope with all these problems which threaten man’s life: hunger, disease, contamination of food and water, pollution of the environment.

We need more young men and women who choose science as a career and we need better support for those scientists who have the talent and the determination to engage in fruitful research work. Challenging research objectives must be available, and sufficient support for research projects must be provided. Again, the space program with its wonderful opportunities to engage in truly magnificent research studies of moons and planets, of physics and astronomy, of biology and medicine is an almost ideal catalyst which induces the reaction between the motivation for scientific work, opportunities to observe exciting phenomena of nature, and material support needed to carry out the research effort.

Among all the activities which are directed, controlled, and funded by the American government, the space program is certainly the most visible and probably the most debated activity, although it consumes only 1.6 percent of the total national budget, and 3 per mille (less than one-third of 1 percent) of the gross national product. As a stimulant and catalyst for the development of new technologies, and for research in the basic sciences, it is unparalleled by any other activity. In this respect, we may even say that the space program is taking over a function which for three or four thousand years has been the sad prerogative of wars.

How much human suffering can be avoided if nations, instead of competing with their bomb-dropping fleets of airplanes and rockets, compete with their moon-travelling space ships! This competition is full of promise for brilliant victories, but it leaves no room for the bitter fate of the vanquished, which breeds nothing but revenge and new wars.

Although our space program seems to lead us away from our Earth and out toward the moon, the sun, the planets, and the stars, I believe that none of these celestial objects will find as much attention and study by space scientists as our Earth. It will become a better Earth, not only because of all the new technological and scientific knowledge which we will apply to the betterment of life, but also because we are developing a far deeper appreciation of our Earth, of life, and of man.

The photograph which I enclose with this letter shows a view of our Earth as seen from Apollo 8 when it orbited the moon at Christmas, 1968. Of all the many wonderful results of the space program so far, this picture may be the most important one. It opened our eyes to the fact that our Earth is a beautiful and most precious island in an unlimited void, and that there is no other place for us to live but the thin surface layer of our planet, bordered by the bleak nothingness of space. Never before did so many people recognize how limited our Earth really is, and how perilous it would be to tamper with its ecological balance. Ever since this picture was first published, voices have become louder and louder warning of the grave problems that confront man in our times: pollution, hunger, poverty, urban living, food production, water control, overpopulation. It is certainly not by accident that we begin to see the tremendous tasks waiting for us at a time when the young space age has provided us the first good look at our own planet.

Very fortunately though, the space age not only holds out a mirror in which we can see ourselves, it also provides us with the technologies, the challenge, the motivation, and even with the optimism to attack these tasks with confidence. What we learn in our space program, I believe, is fully supporting what Albert Schweitzer had in mind when he said: “I am looking at the future with concern, but with good hope.”

My very best wishes will always be with you, and with your children.

Very sincerely yours,

Ernst Stuhlinger

Associate Director for Science


The exchange illuminates the chief competing impulses that propel all space-farers: exploration for its own sake versus exploration for a specific purpose, be it acquisitive or creative. It's a difference in perspective: We are investigating how we fit into the universe, or we are trying to immortalize our own species. And here is perhaps the best typology of all. In a paradigm Tumlinson dreamed up, the space world fractures into three groups: Saganites, O'Neillians and von Braunians.

Saganites, named for astronomer Carl Sagan (1934—1996), are the philosophers and voyeurs of the cosmos, intent on low-impact exploration that promotes a sense of wonder. They consider the universe an extension of Earth, and want space explorers to be politically correct pacifists and environmentalists.

O'Neillians take their name from Princeton physicist Gerard O'Neill (1927—1992), who imagined city-size colonies in space contained on vast, rotating platforms (think of the space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey, with its spinning rings and artificial gravity). Getting people out of here en masse was the thing—not to kiss Earth good-bye in the rearview mirror, but to give it a chance, by consuming extraterrestrial rather than terrestrial resources. (An O'Neillian motto, riding a bumper sticker of his day, read: "Save Earth: Develop Space.")

Von Braunians are, strictly speaking, the old guard, named for the V-2 and Saturn rocket-meister Wernher von Braun (1912—1977). Von Braunians advocate a centralized approach: large expensive projects like the ones NASA undertakes, projects that ordinary people can be proud of but not participate in.

In a nutshell: Saganites say, Look but don't touch; O'Neillians, Do it yourself; von Braunians, We'll do it for you.

Saganites are about indulging our sense of awe. They believe all space races we can imagine now are just tune-ups for the real event—which will happen when we discover, through SETI, or planet-hunting interferometry probes, evidence of probable intelligent life. Saganites would like to see humanity develop international space treaties, to view space as a common resource.

O'Neillians are about free enterprise, manifest destiny and everyone's right to a piece of the private-entry-to-LEO pie. They believe space is fair game for development.

Von Braunians are about national prestige—NASA's very reason for being, and surely the biggest single driver of space-faring to date. When Kennedy announced Americans would be first to the Moon, when Nixon signed off on the space shuttle program, when Reagan OK'd the space station—they were all serving up old Wernher, wrapped in Old Glory.

From BEYOND NASA: DAWN OF THE NEXT SPACE AGE by Bruce Grierson (2004)

High Concepts


Carl Sagan was the undisputed best communicator the space advocacy community ever had. His series Cosmos was broadcast in 60 countries to over 500 million people. He founded the Planetary Society to continue his advocacy of astronomy and exploration. His hallmark was in expressing the overwhelming vastness of the cosmos and our insignificant role in it. In a word, Sagan's followers were in it for the "wonder". The universe is a beautiful place full of fascinating things and is available to anyone who looks up at night (assuming you live far enough away from city light pollution).

Notably, Sagan was a strong advocate of robotic exploration of the solar system. He arranged experiments and was responsible for the plaques on the Voyager probe which carried a message out of the solar system in the hope that it may one day be picked up by extraterrestrial intelligence. He strongly advocated for the SETI program too, and strongly advocated against the Space Shuttle and International Space Station. So it might seem a little strange that I would bring him up, but plenty of Sagan's followers are advocates of human spaceflight; why?

To many, Sagan's dismissal of human spaceflight became indefensible in 1993 when the crew of the Space Shuttle Endeavour mission STS-61 performed the first servicing mission of the Hubble Space Telescope. Here was the most powerful optical telescope ever built, floating in space with a flawed mirror, providing only fuzzy wonder, and then humans came along and made it good. All of a sudden the public was flooded with fantastic images of distant galaxies and other wonders of the cosmos. The human spaceflight program now had a purpose and four servicing missions later the Hubble Space Telescope is still delivering the wonder.

This caused more Sagan followers to reassess their dismissal of human spaceflight. They started asking astronauts: what's it like up there? and actually waiting around for the answer. Unsurprisingly the answer is full of wonder. Frank White's famous book "The Overview Effect" describes the transcendental feeling of universal connection with the Earth and the cosmos that astronauts report after seeing the Earth from space. Today, the suborbital spaceflight market counts it as one of their deliverables, along with the wonder of zero gravity.

In short: space is awesome, let's go there.


Wernher von Braun was a German missile maker who surrendered to the US at the end of WWII and was shipped with his team to live in New Mexico to build more missiles. He was also a visionary but no-one in the military really cared about that stuff. In 1957 the Soviet Union launched the first man made satellite into space, it was called Sputnik. Although this was not anything the US couldn't do and was only a minor threat to national security, it was a major blow to "prestige". During the height of the cold war, countries around the world were looking to the Soviet Union as a model for how to run their economies. The US didn't like this and felt that as more countries went "red" the inevitability of hostilities with the Soviet Union drew closer and closer. In launching Sputnik the Soviet Union was saying to the world: we're better than the US, you can be better too, just do things our way.

The answer, of course, was for the US to launch their own satellite, an American satellite. Only problem was, the only people they had available that could make it happen were Germans. Soon after, the Soviet Union started launching dogs and then humans into space. The US was way behind.

Fundamentally, the problem was that the US didn't have enough people studying Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (or STEM for short). Without increased STEM education the US would become a backwater. But if kids don't want to enroll in STEM classes, what can you do? You can't force them. That'd be something the Soviet Union would do. The answer? "Inspiration".

Project Apollo soon followed and if you ask just about anyone at NASA or in the aerospace community, you will discover that they were very inspired by Apollo. Today, the younger generation will tell you that they were inspired by the awesome sight of a Space Shuttle launch, or they went to Space Camp when they were a kid. The point is, inspiring these kids to enroll in STEM education pushes forward not just space technology but all technology. It's like the spinoffs argument but even more indirect - not only can NASA take credit for inventions they threw some research dollars at, they can also take credit for anything where the inventor was inspired to STEM education by spaceflight. And what's more, all these STEM educated people are important for the National Security, so human spaceflight is important for National Security. See how it works?

Wernher von Braun's dream was to fly humans to Mars. The Mars Society is the embodiment of the dream, and is fueled by the promise of inspiration. Getting to Mars is a Grand Challenge and will require Technological Progress of the Apollo kind, so we can expect lots and lots of inspiration.


Gerard K. O'Neill was a Princeton University physics professor who had applied to be an astronaut but washed out. Following the Apollo Moon landings, public perception of human spaceflight as a pointless endeavor with no payoff was at an all time high, and other contemporary events (like the Vietnam War) had begun to shatter the belief that Technological Progress was a necessarily positive force in the world.

Nevertheless, O'Neill proposed that humans may one-day live and work in space. He assigned engineering tasks on the subject to students and gave lectures around the country. O'Neill saw Space Colonization as the solution to many of the "major problems" of the world that were haunting the nightmares of people who wrongfully believed they could predict the future. In 1972 a book was released which summarized the findings of these alarmists and was widely read in the scientific community. It was called "The Limits To Growth". After arguing in the scientific literature and going on speaking tours for years, O'Neill released his own popular book "The High Frontier".

The consequences of a rapidly growing world population and finite resources was widely accepted fact in the 70s. The affluence of the US would decline as the other nations of the world caught up. For their growing populations they would want coal, and gold and iron and oil.. especially oil. The oil shortage of the 70s was seen as proof. There wouldn't be enough to go around and everyone would have to go without. Everyone believed it. O'Neill believed it. People still believe it today. It's all so hopeless.

O'Neill's answer was eloquent: who says we've only got the one world? The Moon, which the US has just got done conquering, is rich in iron, aluminum, silicon and oxygen. We could go live there! But being a good scientist, and professor, O'Neill famously asked his brightest students: "Is the surface of a planet really the right place for an expanding technological civilization?" (Notice the word "expanding").

We all live at the bottom of a well.. a gravity well. The Space Shuttle is so big, and the Saturn V was so much bigger, because our gravity well is so deep that we need to spend 90% of the vehicles mass in fuel just to get the little tiny crew bit into orbit. The Earth's gravity well is so deep that, it is said, once you're in orbit you're halfway to anywhere in the solar system. So, if you've just spent all this fuel (not to mention pain, sweat, tears and astronaut blood) to get out of a gravity well, why should you be so eager to dive back into another one?

The answer is resources, which weighed heavily on everyone's mind in the 70s. If you're going to live in space, with an expanding population, you need resources and all the resources O'Neill knew about were at the bottom of gravity wells. If we don't want to go down into the well, how do we get out the water? err, I mean, resources. Another great question!

The fundamental problem with getting material out of a gravity well isn't lifting it up - the analogy to a water well kind of fails you there - it's giving the resources enough horizontal momentum that they can enter a stable orbit. On the Moon, that velocity is low enough that O'Neill figured a high speed train could achieve it. The train would be magnetically levitated about the track and the resources would be hurtled into orbit in steady stream. Then a big catcher's mitt would grab the resources and deliver them to a stable point in space where the colony was being built. When completed, the massive colony would spin to provide artificial gravity. Housing 10,000.

The colony would be economically self supporting. They could, for example, build satellites and "launch" them, but the primary market that the colony would support would be energy. Remember, to everyone in the 70s it was apparent that the world's oil supply was drying up (this is still apparent to a lot of people today). What would the cars run on when all the oil was gone? Well, electricity seems like a good bet, and there's lots and lots of free electricity available in space in the form of solar power. Beaming power from a space colony down to earth is the fundamental O'Neillian dream. The dream that provides hope.

A Modern Perspective

Carl Sagan's love and wonder for the cosmos is powerful and universal. So long as the scientific spirit of openness continues there will always be marvels for the public to enjoy. The continuing light pollution around cities, while tragic, makes the public appreciation of orbital telescopes even stronger. Human servicing of those telescopes and the sheer marvel of the Earth be it experienced on suborbital spaceflight or future orbital spaceflight will always be valuable.

Wernher von Braun's drive for Grand Challenges to inspire the next generation to continue Technological Progress is, to me, a fundamental part of modern life. There is no problem, great or small, that humanity cannot overcome with the measured application of scientific knowledge and technology.

Gerard K. O'Neill's vision, while grand and exquisite, has always felt to me to be a little too much a reaction to his times. Space Solar Power today has as much relevance to O'Neill as Communication Satellites has to von Braun.. neither are or will be manned as originally envisioned. What's more, the fundamental motivation for O'Neill's work, The Limits To Growth, has been shown to be fundamentally alarmist and, well, wrong - even if the damage they've done to our hope is permanent, I don't think the same urgency exists today as it did in the 70s and so I'm sad to say that I think O'Neill's solution has been ruled out. So are we destined to travel down a path where Technological Progress is shunned for Conservation and Environmentalism? I hope not.

That said, Gerard K. O'Neill's vision has always had the greatest appeal to me. Over the years it has been slowly changing. The less timeless motivations have been replaced with more timeless ones. Where O'Neill would have said that the Earth is running out of resources, modern commentators prefer to estimate the vast wealth available in space and ask: as soon as it becomes economical won't someone go get it? Similarly, where O'Neill would say solar power can replace oil when it runs out, modern commentators ask: can anyone close the business case for Space Solar Power?

When you start to think like an Economic O'Neillian the vision changes completely. The fundamental motivation for human spaceflight becomes closing the business case. Does mining the Moon make good business sense? Only if there aren't cheaper resources available. In space, cheaper means less delta-v. If you or your resources are at the bottom of a gravity well then you better plan to spend a lot on delta-v. The traditionalist O'Neillian answer is to build a huge infrastructure on the Moon to get the cheapest delta-v possible (which, btw, is a consistent theme in launch hardware), but the Economic O'Neillian looks to other opportunities. The Near Earth Asteroids and Comets (or NEOs), the moons of Mars, and the asteroid belts are interesting opportunities. By choosing to live there you have all the resources you need without the delta-v penalty of getting them to the colony. Building your colony inside the asteroid/comet/Moon gives you radiation protection (the number one issue to long term colonization of space) and still allows you to spin the habitat to produce full artificial gravity (an option you just don't have if you're living on a planetary body without full Earth gravity).

The pure Economic O'Neillians are gaining traction and if they rephrase O'Neill's famous question as "where is the best place for an expanding human civilization?", the answer may end up being: "whereever you can make a living."

From WHY HUMAN SPACEFLIGHT? by QuantumG (2010)

      (Captain Kipps said) “I married Agnes last Week. It’s peacetime. Time to get married again.”

     Sarah clapped her hat to her head as a wind gust hit them. “Why didn’t your wife fly over for a honeymoon inside your rocket? Wow, We could have promoted the hell out of that!”

     Kipps opened his mouth, and shut it again. Agnes was a planetary scientist. Agnes was a genuine explorer of new Worlds. So Agnes naturally hated manned spaceflight. Agnes loved her robots, and Agnes dearly loved her screens, but Agnes loathed every Buck Rogers moron who had ever wasted her science funding.

(ed note: No Buck Rogers = No Bucks. If NASA eliminates all its astronauts, it will quickly find its budget cut to the bone, or even find itself closed down. The great unwashed masses are not going to have their tax money going to fund silly satellites sending back boring scientific data. They want to see spacemen!)

From JOIN THE NAVY AND SEE THE WORLDS by Bruce Sterling (2009)
"The path made by a Leader is tread on sand,
his track is seen for others to follow
only as one footstep follows another.
For if he stands still, the trail is erased,
its footprints washed away by the changing tide."
— Domitius Lucullan, 195 AD

      We are standing on a crumbling stone abutment that overlooks the port of Ostia on the mouth of the river Tiber, gateway to Imperial Rome. On late summer afternoons like this one, the breeze blows onshore and carries with it the pungent aromas of the Mediterranean and the shriek of gulls that wheel and dip in wide circles over the harbor. The harbor is crowded with vessels of every kind, from huge war galleys with multiple banks of oars that stroke the water in confident, well-coordinated, wingbeat-like sweeps, to lighters and tenders scurrying among the larger ships like beetles. And there are sailing vessels, too -- mostly merchantmen tied up at docks or riding at anchor near the harbor mouth, waiting for evening when the wind will shift from onshore to the offshore breeze that will carry them out to sea.

     A few paces from us stands a very distinguished looking figure staring out to sea, his arms folded behind him at parade rest. His cape is scarlet, trimmed with ermine. He wears the silver breastplate of a proconsul. His retinue is huddled some distance behind him muttering to themseives and casting worried glances in his direction. Their master is scowling; his jaw is set with hard lines around his mouth. Lucius Marcellus Varsovian is not a happy man. He has driven his chariot hard all the way back from the capitol after being handed one of the few defeats in his career. To compound his frustration, insult has been added to injury -- the westbound courier already cleared the harbor earlier in the day, and so he is unable to obtain passage home on a military galley. The first leg of the long voyage back to Spain will have to be on a merchant vessel, a sailing ship. He is not accustomed to having to wait for the wind to change, and he is furious.

     The senate failed to back him again. Too bad -- his proposal was bold and imaginative. It could have resulted in a fresh infusion of riches for the Empire. Possibly, it could have restored Rome's declining fortunes and brought a new sense of purpose, ending the petty squabbling now going on. If China could be reached by going west across the ocean, then the wealth of the Orient could flow to Rome, not in a trickle on the backs of a few pack animals, but by the shipload. How could they be so shortsighted? All he had asked for was some men and a few ships. . . . .

     At this point you might be tempted to characterize Lucius Marcellus as a visionary, a man ahead of his time. That would be a mistake. The ancients ( table I ) knew the world was round ever since Aristotle; from the calculations of Eratosthanes and Hipparchus, they had a pretty good idea of its size. By the second century A.D. they were making geometrically accurate maps by using astronomical observations to locate position.

     And Lucius Marcellus Varsovian is not a dreamer, interested in discovery or commerce. He wants to take his legions to China and plunder their cities!

     The riches of the Orient have tantalized the Romans for a long time. Their knowledge of China is more tangible than just fables because, in the third century, there is regular contact and trade. In Rome's heyday, the emperor Marcus Aurelius had maintained emissaries at the Han court in Peking. Their reports told of large cities, linked by a network of good roads, heavily populated, but not heavily fortified. The richest cities were furthest east, on a wide coastal plain that extended eastward to an ocean. The reports also indicated that the Chinese empire was more a loose confederation of fiefdoms than an empire. Although every warlord had an army, there was no national army nor the political cohesiveness to sustain one. It had not been necessary because they were so well isolated.

     Distance and geography kept the two empires apart. The known route to China, traveled by the caravans, is a tortuous overland journey which permits a limited exchange of communication, trade goods, and culture, but so far has prevented the more direct form of cultural intercourse that Lucius Marcellus Varsovian is contemplating. Taking armies on a long march over the caravan route would be out of the question. Varsovian knew that all too well. As a young centurion in Atticus' disasterous Afghan campaign, he was one of the few who had made it back across the Khyber Pass alive.

     But a sea route would change everything. Lucius Marcellus was mainly a land soldier; but not entirely unappreciative of sea power. He understood the surprise value of an amphibious assault, having used this tactic successfully to crush the Berber rebellion in Mauretania. Ferrying his troops along the coast just out of sight of land until nightfall, he had come ashore at dawn and driven swiftly inland before they could rally their tribes, cutting off their main encampment and capturing their chief, who was subsequently drawn and quartered.

     Wounded in that campaign, he was sent to Alexandria to recuperate. It was on one of his frequent visits to the Great Library there that he had encountered the astronomer Claudius Ptolomy's Map of the World ( fig. 2 ), the first conical projection based on astronomical observations and the most accurate map of its time. Intrigued by the map, he studied Ptolomy's Svnta>CiS,which explained how the map had been made, how astronomy could tell you the size of the world, and where you were located on it. The map showed the easternmost part of China, where the richestcities were, to be located furthest away from the west coast of Spain, where he had been born. But, if that map were wrapped around a globe according to the method explained in the book ( fig. 3 ), the east coast of China and the west coast of Spain were actually facing each other, separated only by an undetermined stretch of ocean.

     According to the calculations and depending on the accuracy of the astronomical measurements, the distance across that stretch of ocean was somewhere between 1500 and 2000 leagues. Lucius Marcellus couldn't . fully understand all the explanations which led to this result, but he was quick to grasp its military significance -- if the ocean could be crossed, the richest part of China might be directly accessible to his armies.

     Would it be possible to cross the Great Ocean? The 1500 to 2000 leagues of open sea was certainly a formidable distance. But it was not an insurmountable distance. Roughly equal to the Empire's dimensions from western Spain to eastern Persia, it was in fact less than the sea distance routinely navigated from Asia Minor to Britain. What if he could muster his troops at the port of Gades ( now Cadiz ) on the west coast of Spain, load them into ships, and head directly west? The seas would be calm in summertime. They could follow the setting sun, or the lodestone. An accurate landfall wouldn't be needed; it would be hard to miss the China coast.

     Compared to the perils of an overland march, a sea voyag% would be short and uneventful. After a few weeks cooped up in their ships, his troops would be spoiling for a fight, eager to attack. A seaborne invasion would not be expected. From an eastern beachhead, his invasion force could easily sweep across the wide coastal plain unopposed; the cities would be easy prey for his seasoned legions and their siege engines. Even if the Chinese emperor were able to rally his minions and prepare a counterattack, it would take time -- time to allow him an orderly retreat back to his ships, laden with the spoils of war.

     He could return to Rome in triumph, perhaps become Emperor. Lucius Marcellus had a rough understanding of the relationships between military strength and economic growth. By the third century, Rome had already absorbed the western world; there was nothing else nearby left to conquer. The army was not engaged in conquest any more but was, instead, relegated to maintaining order on the frontier, collecting taxes and putting down rebellions. That was no challenge. On the other hand, the fabled cities of the Orient would provide a worthy target for his legions. Why waste well-disciplined troops skirmishing with barbarians when their skills could be used so much more profitably against civilized societies? Why burn down some squalid frontier village when, to the east, there were magnificent cities waiting to be sacked? What satisfaction was there in ravishing unwashed savages in animal skins when, to the east, there were palaces to be looted -- with voluptuous princesses, succulent concubines draped in silk and jewels, their bodies bathed in perfumes and spices . . .

     Before his armies could embark, however, he would have to know more about where they were going. Detailed information was needed. Exactly how far was it to the China coast? Where were the best places to land an army? Where could they land unopposed, or better yet, undetected? Before invading by sea, the coastline would have to be positively located and explored. His calculations indicated it should lie 1500 to 2000 leagues west of Spain, but that was only an estimate. Even though he believed an invasion was feasible, he couldn't commit hundreds of ships and thousands of men to a one-way voyage into the sunset without tangible proof that the Great Western Ocean could be crossed, and that China indeed lay on the other side.

     The first mission of the campaign would therefore have to be a voyage of exploration -- or, in terms more familiar to Lucius Marcellus, a reconnaissance.

     To cross the Great Ocean, he would need a ship with extraordinary range. What kind of ship cwld go that distance? A sailing vessel would seem to be the logical choice, since it has the most economical form of propulsion. By Varsovian's time, the sturdy little merchantmen that carried Rome's trade to the four corners of the Empire were routinely sailed beyond the Mediterranean up and down the west coasts of Europe and Africa. Beamy and bluff-bowed, their trademark was a single, loose-footed, square mainsail, often augmented by a spiritsail carried well forward for added stability when the ship ran downwind in rough seas. Their Greek and Phonecian design heritage reflected sailing conditions on the Mediterranean -- which includes generally pleasant, but often unpredictable weather. They were unable to hold a course more than a few points away from the wind, but their shallow draft enabled them to be sailed right up to the shore. Most were light enough to be dragged onto the beach by their crew. Hugging the coastline and making forward progress as long as the wind was behind them, they could steer for shore whenever the wind turned against them, and wait there until better conditions prevailed.

     That strategy, however effective along the well-settled Mediterranean, would not work offshore. The ungainly little Roman vessels were adequate for coastal navigation, but, unable to make headway against the wind, they would not be suited for travel on uncharted waters. If the prevailing winds were easterly, they would never make it to China. If westerly, they would never make it back.

     A more reliable form of propulsion would be required. Oars, with the built-in reliability of hundreds of rowers straining their backs in unison, would be the propulsion system of choice. There was no larger, faster, or more reliable vessel ever propelled by oars than the Roman galley.

     But the reliablility of those straining backs comes at a price. The men who pull the oars must be fed and watered. This severely limits the amount of time a galley can stay at sea. For short voyages it is not be a problem. For longer voyages, however, large amounts of food and water must be carried on board. Space is limited on any ship, but a galley is more restricted because such a large fraction of the available space is taken up by its crew. It is the amount of supplies that can be fitted into the remaining space, together with the rate at which they are consumed, which determines how how many days at sea the ship can operate.

     Compared with the nonstop distances commonly traveled by military vessels, Varsovian's requirement was unprecedented. A trireme, with its slender huU crammed with rowers for high performance, could achieve perhaps three days at 11 knots. The quinquireme, a much larger warship, could last about a week, but only at a sustained speed of about seven knots. That would be enough to cross the Mediterranean from Italy to North Africa, but not enough for a voyage beyond the Pillars of Hercules.

     To row across the ocean, Varsovian would need a ship that maximized the range he could travel before his onboard supplies were exhausted. The solution was to find a galley with moderate crew size and extra cargo capacity, and a cruising speed that took a of minimum effort to sustain. Fortunately, his experience suggested a compromise -- the common troop galley ( fig. 5 ) which had served him so well in the Mauretanian campaign. A medium size vessel of about 70 tons displacement, there were hundreds of them in service throughout the empire, used to ferry the army to wherever there was trouble. Designed to carry a cohort of 100 fully armed troops and their officers, the ship was propelled by another 100 men pulling on the oars. It also carried a lugsail rig for periods of favorable wind. A good compromise -- the sails provided economy, the oars provided reliability. With moderate effort, a galley of this design could be rowed continuously at 4 to 5 knots, enough to cover 30 to 40 leagues per day.

     This galley was not as fast as a warship, but it could stay at sea for a much longer period. With its wider hull and smaller crew, it normally carried enough food and fresh water for voyages of about 10 days. Varsovian could modify this vessel by removing the troop accomodations . and putting in more supplies, essentially replacing the 100 fully armed troops with provisions for his rowers. Based on the weight and volume margins allowed by this modification, he could lay in enough extra provisions for an estimated 54 days of travel, a little less than two months at sea.

     Varsovian calculated that if the ship could average 37 leagues per day ( assuming assistance from favorable winds no more than half the time ), 54 days of continuous travel would cover 21 60 leagues. That would be enough to cross the Great Ocean, if Ptolomy was right.

     However, crossing the Great Ocean nonstop would still not be enough range to accomplish the mission. If he got there -- if he really found the coast -- he wouldn't be able to count on a friendly port or fresh provisions. He might just have to turn around in empty ocean and head home. The 2000 plus leagues of range that he had managed to squeeze out of his troop galleys so fawas only a one-way range. What he actually needed was 2000 + leagues of m dtrip range, more commonly known as the "distance to point of no return" where half the supplies are exhausted. Rowing westwards from Gades, his ship would reach its point of no return ( fig. 6 ) only 27 days into the voyage, a little over 1000 leagues. If he was willing to gamble with the expedition and keep going, a one-way voyage might possibly land them on the China coast, and, with a little bit of luck, they might find a secluded harbor where they could foray ashore for food and water. But the risks jeapordized the success of his mission. What if they never sighted land? That would be dissappointing but nonetheless valuable information. And how much worse would it be to make a successful landfall, only to be butchered on shore by the local cavalry while trying to hustle a few supplies. . . .

     The only way his reconaissance mission could be successful was to ensure that they returned home with the information. ( And knowing you can return generally enhances morale! )

     It would have to be a two-way voyage: westward across that distance to China, or at least as far as China should be, then eastward across that distance back to Gades. Varsovian had to find a way to stretch his range to twice the 2000 or so leagues that he had so far obtained, from ships that were already at their limits. It was a problem which would have caused a lesser man to give up.

     But Varsovian managed to solve this problem also. He did it by organizing the mission in stages, augmenting the expedition with additional vessels that would replenish the other ships at carefully timed intervals.

A fleet of 32 galleys would be required. They would all leave the port of Gades together on the Ides of June and row westward ( fig. 7 ). Eighteen days later, however, after one third of the food and water had been exhausted, the fleet would be split into two groups. The ships would pair off with one another in midocean, and, within each pair, supplies would be transferred from one ship to the other. The ship receiving supplies would be fully reloaded, and would continue westward ( fig. 8 ). The donor vessel, with just enough inventory left for a return trip, would turn east and head home. The westbound ships would gain an additional 54 days of operating time beyond the 18 already used, thus stretching their round trip range an extra 360 leagues beyond the original point of no return.

     Twelve days later, or 30 days into the voyage, this maneuver would take place again. Of the sixteen ships that had continued to row westward, eight of them would relinquish a fraction of their supplies to their sisters and turn home, leaving eight ships to continue the voyage ( fig. 9 ). Again, the westbound ships would be fully replenished; the eastbound ships would head back with exactly enough food and water for the return trip, since it was, in fact, the same amount they had consumed on the outbound leg. The expedition would gain an additional 240 leagues of range.

     Six days later, 1440 leagues west of Gades, the fleet would divide itself once more ( fig. 10 ). Four galleys rowing westward, four galleys rowing back. Another range gain -- 120 extra leagues.

     After another six days, or 42 days elapsed, if land had not been sighted yet, the remaining ships could pair off again, leaving two galleys to venture onward ( fig. 11 ). The expedition would have covered 1680 leagues of ocean at this point, a round trip distance further than any individual galley could have gone, and close to the estimated distance from Spain to China. they would have another four days to push westward before dividing up the fleet again.

     If land was not yet sighted after 46 days from home port, 1840 leagues beyond the Pillars of Hercules, there was still an additional four-day margin. The expedition could split itself up one more time ( fig. 12), stock up the last galley, and send it west for another 160 leagues. The final round trip range that resulted would be 2000 leagues. As always, every vessel would have just enough supplies left to make a safe passage home.

     Varsovian's reconnaissance would be the first known use of staging to boost the range. Figure 13 summarizes the mission stages, their separation points, and the fractional gain in operating time and range.

     This approach had major strengths. It allowed Varsovian to navigate a round trip distance which would have othetwise been impossible, obtaining the endurance he needed from ships whose individual capabilities were limited. Not only did his plan extend the range to almost double that of any individual ship, it guaranteed that every ship in the fleet could return. With portions of his fleet dropping out and returning home as the various mission stages were expended, news of the expedition's progress could be reported home at regular intervals. At each staging point he could choose which ships should continue, thereby ensuring that only the soundest ships and strongest crews continue the voyage. Failed or weakened elements muld be removed to the rear; these would not have to make the return voyage alone.

     Best of all, the plan allowed for contingencies. There was plenty of margin for error. If his range estimate was wrong, if the China coastline proved inhospitable, or if he was unable to make landfall for any reason -- he could still complete the mission. The plan not only extended his range, it did so in a way which maximized the probability of success while minimizing the risks to his ships and crew.

     Unfortunately, Varsovian's plan could not anticipate the most difficult phase of the mission where the risks were greatest: the presentation of his proposal to the Emperor and assembled senate ( fig. 14 ). The review began encouragingly enough; many senators supported his plan. In principle no one was opposed to a China campaign -- everyone agreed that, if a sea-borne invasion was to be considered, a reconnaissance mission would be the next logical step. As for feasibility of the voyage, no one doubted it; the analytical results Lucius Marcellus presented were far too convincing. The Emperor had listened to his plan carefully, had liked it, and had endorsed it. Varsovian's proposal would provide a practical demonstration of something that already appeared to be scientifically sound. His plan was reasonable, the risks were modest. Most important, the mission could be accomplished without any new technology development.

     But the mission was expensive. In fact, the costs were enormous. Instead of a simple scouting foray, this expedition ( summarized by stages in table II ) had the dimensions of a full-scale military campaign -- 32 troop ships and 4000 men, just to see if China was on the other side of the ocean!

     The cost of modifying 32 troop galleys alone was no small amount of money. Of course, shipyards from Venicia to Tarantum would be busy for months. Because of the amount of business the expedition represented, Varsovian obtained a great deal of political support from the shipbuilders who had once furnished the fleet that carried Julius Caesar to Britain. They festooned the outer halls of the senate chamber with banners that proclaimed --

     "Rome needs the Reconnaissance" and "It's time we raised our oars again."

     But when the total costs of the mission were presented ( table III ), the opposition gave way to a clamor. The senators could not understand going to the expense of outfitting 32 ships for a voyage that would actually be completed by 1, or, at the most, 4 ships.

     "Isn't your proposal just a little bit gold-plated?" asked Flattus Flavius, the ranking senator on the floor.

     "Yes, it is gold-plated," replied Lucius Marcellus, "That is the only way we can do it when we really need to have gold, but can't afford it . . . "

     With 32 galleys under stroke, the operating costs were outrageous. Consider the anticipated charges for provisioning the ships -- food, wine, fresh water and casking, not to mention wages for the crew ( they would all have to be volunteers ).

     The opposition was vocal and the criticisms were hard to answer. How could these expenditures be justified? Varsovian's proposal violated the basic rule that governs every enterprise where public monies are involved: Where expenditure is great, great risk is not tolerated; where risk is great, great expenditure is not tolerated.

     "It is nothing but a publicity stunt," some said. "Take the army on a boat ride to China?" With riots at home and rebellions abroad, there was no way to justify committing all those troops to such a speculative expedition. After all, Varsovian couldn't guarantee success. Could he show a tangible benefit? Maybe after the campaign was finished, but certainly not within the next fiscal year. . .

     "What will they do when that last galley finally gets there? Conquer all of China with one cohort?" snorted Caius Crassus. "If you're going to take all those ships to begin with, why not just keep going and invade the place while you're at it? It wouldn't be any more expensive than the fiasco you have proposed!"

     For several hours the debate raged on. No decision was reached. But they agreed to appoint a committee to study the plan further and subject it to a cost/benefit tradeoff analysis to see if the mission could be reoptimized for a reduced range of performance parameters and budget constraints. It was at that point that Varsovian turned on his heel and marched out of the senate chamber in disgust.

     In the end, they voted to table the issue until a more decisive mandate could be established.

     Which brings us back to that brooding figure standing on the pier. Bitter, disillusioned and cynical, he stares out to the sea dancing on the horizon past the breakwall. His eyes pierce the afternoon sunlight, but they are blinded by disappointment. How can the Empire continue if it is not bold enough to mount even this modest expedition? When men and nations no longer dare to dream, what can the future hold?

     But as he stands there staring out to sea, he fails to see a most marvelous thing taking place right in front of him. A graceful Arab dhow ( fig. 15 ), with her lateen rig and deep keel, her sharp prow and delicate forefoot biting cleanly into the waves, is threading its way out of the harbor close-hauled, beating upwind toward the breakwall opening and the open water beyond.

From ROMANS TO MARS by D.J. Bents (1991)

(ed note: our heroes are members of the first lunar expedition. For unclear reasons they establish their lunar base on the far side of the moon, with no communication with Terra. After a year, the resupply rocket tries to land, but crashes. The crew and all the supplies are lost. Presumably Terra knows something is wrong since the resupply rocket does not return. The base has been manufacturing solar cells for power, but Terra does not know that. They need to send some astronauts to trek for the horizon and set up communication devices with line-of-sight to Terra.)

Long has made another proposal, which I can back with my full agreement. Money must be raised by public subscription, and a ship built. The building will take at least four months, and Earth knows we have supplies but for one month more at most. That we have a new supply of oxygen and water they do not know. People will hesitate to give money for a cause lost before it begins. If some word is sent, telling that we have oxygen at least, the aid may be hastened.

His new plan is that twelve men start from the Dome, all but three burdened with oxygen tanks, these three travelling light. At the end of one day, one oxygen-unit's distance, six men will turn back, caching all the oxygen they carried, save one tank apiece for the return. The remaining six will continue, again three heavily loaded, three going light. At the end of that twenty-four hour run, three will turn back, caching all their oxygen save one tank apiece. These will return to the first stop, sleep there for the first time on the trip, then return with one new tank. The remaining three, hitherto unloaded, will sleep at this farthest cache for twelve hours, then carrying four units of oxygen, a small photocell bank for power, a converter-transformer, and a powerful portable radio, will make a dash for the visible border.

If the whole trip be made by daylight, no batteries need be carried (for the space suit heaters), but a second trip to the first cache could put batteries there for emergencies.

The men have all volunteered, and even Garner approves of this plan. Long insists he should go, as he knows the way, and the easiest way. The group will carry more powerful apparatus, and have a far better chance of success.

There has been some discussion of the message we are to send, when we reach the visible zone. Garner points out that possibly only parts of the message will get through. He suggests that it be so worded that even fragments of it will be intelligible and hopeful. It is a wise suggestion, I believe.

The packs for the expedition have been made up, and a definite schedule outlined. I will carry the transformer-converter, Long will carry the photo-cell racks, and Rice the set itself. Portable—but not too portable. In the last dash we will each carry four cylinders as well.

The final selection of the party has been made. Garner, Moore, Whisler, Reed and Bender will turn back after reaching and establishing the first cache, Tolman, Hughey, Kendall, and King will turn back at the second, while Rice, Long and I go on. Only poor Melville will be left behind altogether. We are turning in unusually early, for a long sleep. We start three hours after the sun leaves the horizon. Thermos bottles of hot chocolate have been fixed in the suits of Rice, Long and I. The others must go hungry altogether, though water is the greatest problem.

July 10.

We have stopped at the first cache. Garner, Moore, Whisler and Reed and Bender will return. The sun is up, casting long shadows over everything. We have covered a considerable distance I feel sure, so far with no accidents. We had to skirt several craters, and finally descended into this one. Tremendously high walls ring it, but Long showed us a pass. A second, smaller crater within it is the marker of our cache. By turns we have roasted and frozen all day, particularly on the pass, as it was largely shaded, which means cold here. The moon is a vast frozen hell. The crater tips flame in all directions like motionless, frozen tongues of fire, jagged and broken, a hell frozen in an awful cold, the very light frozen in the flames, where the sun touches them. We are ready to start.

July 11.

     We are nearly exhausted for want of sleep, and from the continuous labor. It will be worse returning, with four days without sleep, and practically without food.
     Tolman, Hughey, Kendall and King have it even worse, I fear. They have just left us, to make their way back over all the distance we have come, with scarcely the chance of a rest, no food, and little water. They will not have slept for four days when they reach the Dome. Sleep for us in our suits.
     Later. Twelve hours sleep, a quarter of our chocolate, still warm, and now on our way. It is eternally magnificent, never beautiful. It is as magnificent as the Grand Canyon of the Colorado made six thousand miles wide, six thousand long, and ten miles deep, with ten times the color. But it isn't beautiful, it's stern and harsh, and horribly, bleakly dead. It makes me think of a skeleton lying in a cave, its skull crushed, and a stone ax beside it It seems to have died violently. We are oppressively alone here.
     Time to go. Four oxygen tanks, besides the load we have carried, which was little. We are fresh from sleep now, to make the attempt!

July 12.

     We have camped. The photo-cells are sending their power to the set correctly, and the converter-transformer is working smoothly. We cannot test the set, as our suit-sets won't pick up its wave. It seems to be okay however. Rice is sending the message. New York now.
     The Earth is immense above us, reddish-green in color, turning slowly, majestically as we watch. It looks wonderfully beautiful and familiar to us, and terribly far away.
     Later. Sending again. Chicago now, with all the power we can get. The aurora is small, so there is hope.
     Still sending. No lack of power, apparently. Let us hope some station receives this.
     Long has contributed a surprise. He produced a can of aluminum paint, and has selected a broad, flat spot on the rocks. He is painting a message in symbols ten feet high. Mt, Palomar could easily read it. But there are some 3,142,000 square miles of rock visible to Mt. Palomar.
     He has finished. "O2 from CaSO4 send food," he has written. No more paint.
     Denver now below—or above us. Telescopes show cities clearly, even some bigger buildings visible. Tremendous magnification possible, but light gathering power of our little telescopes limits it.
     California now. When it passes we can send only to Hawaii, the Philippines and Japan. Opportunities poor. We think it best to start back.
     Rice has produced another triumph. He had an electric clock device rigged that will keep the set transmitting toward Earth as long as the set operates. It is Sun-powered, of course. There is small motion across the skies, so there is no need to aim it carefully! The set, worked automatically, and powered by the photo-cells will continue to send a code message.
     We are leaving. Rice and Long object, but I have ordered them back. We will be exhausted when we get to the first cache, and tired men make for dead men. There are too many opportunities for falls into chasms.

July 13.

     Back at the second cache with a spare tank of oxygen.
     We have decided to carry it; though it increases our load it may save us. We can move more slowly, and not force ourselves so heavily. Leaving at once.

July 14.

     First cache. Exhausted. I wonder that Long ever made it the first time, despite his use of anti-fatigue capsules. Last chocolate gone. Terribly thirsty. Twenty-four hours more. Going on at once.
     We wonder what success our trip had.

(As the world knows, the trip was successful in the extreme. As the men realized, the work of subscribing to an apparently lost cause, that of rescuing men probably dead already, was going very slowly. So many scientists stated positively that it was impossible to secure air on the moon, that the people would not subscribe. The news-bureaus were broadcasting news continually, of the probable plight of the men, and there was much speculation as to whether the ship had crashed before landing, or when starting back to Earth, or whether it had wandered off into fathomless space with all aboard.

The message did not get through complete, and even the fates seemed to be against the men, for the automatic transmitter failed after but a few hours operation. It was afterwards discovered (by the Thurston Expedition in 1994) that the intense heat of the sun's rays had melted the sealing compound of the transformers and caused a short circuit. The only parts of the message that did get through read: "Relief---crashed--ox-en--- gyp-m----electrolysis assures supp-----food sc- t--help" As even this came only a few letters at a time, despite the fact that almost every amateur and professional operator was tuned to it after the messages started coming, it is understandable that a terrific debate began. It was almost impossible to determine where, in the message, the letters received belonged. Some maintained that the "ox" was part of some such word as "box", while others declared it was the far more important word "oxygen." For nearly a week the discussion went on as to the placing of the letters. Then finally the claim of James R. Caldwell, an amateur radio operator of Succasunna, N. J., was printed in the New York Herald-Tribune. He had made phonographic records of the messages as they came, and by careful timing, transcribed the words as "Relief (ship) crashed. Ox(yg)en gyp(su)m (by) electrolysis assures supply. Food sc(an)t. Help."

Immediately scientists who had stoutly maintained that air could not be obtained on Luna, rushed to his defense —, with explanations of how oxygen could be obtained from gypsum by baking and electrolysis, and that that would assure a supply.

But long before this important point was settled, the rush of subscriptions had begun, because the men had sent a message of some sort, proving them alive. The interpretation of the message, and a very fine imaginative account of the hardships the men must have met to send the message, written by Thomas W. Hardy, of the San Francisco Times, and widely re-printed, sent the subscriptions up rapidly. Within two weeks of the receipt of the message, orders that had already been filed, were being filled, workmen donated their time, Universities their instruments and laboratories. The work, terrific though it was, was being rushed ahead at maximum speed.

A telescope manufacturing corporation in Chicago sent one of the largest donations, explaining that the tremendous increase in sales made them feel it only right. Everyone was watching the moon.

Then Mount Palomar, Flagstaff, and Sydney Observatories announced the discovery and confirmation of the sign on the moon almost simultaneously. A photograph taken at Mt. Palomar even showed the tiny, square point of the radio set! The oxygen from gypsum was confirmed. The excitement was world-wide, and the works in the Mojave Desert, California, were besieged. Daily bulletins of progress were published in papers. And, more important, the necessary funds were collected. The amount was passed, by thousands of dollars, before the subscriptions could be stopped. These extra funds permitted the building of the famous detachable tanks, the fuel tanks that were dropped shortly after leaving the Earth's atmosphere, or better, blasted away, leaving a great amount of weight behind.)

From THE MOON IS HELL! by John W. Campbell (1951)

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 and lucrative commodity
  • that is only available in space
  • which must be harvested by a human beings on the spot, not by teleoperated drones or autonomous robots
  • that will provide an economic motive for an extensive manned presence in space
  • which will allow science fiction writers to use a rocketpunk future in their novels and still be considered hard science

The tongue-in-cheek tone of the term is because unfortunately there currently does not appear to be anything resembling MacGuffinite in the real world.

But it is going to have to be something astronomically valuable. Gold or diamonds are not anywhere near valuable enough (and they depend upon artifical scarcity as well), it will have to be something like a cure for male pattern baldness or the perfect weight-loss pill.

Space exploration and research is obviously not MacGuffinite. Otherwise NASA wouldn't have its funding cut with such depressing regularity.


This blog is part of a series tackling common misconceptions in space journalism.

One common trope of space journalism these days concerns the mining of asteroids or the Moon, sometimes combined with environmental handwringing over the aesthetic destruction we may bring to these soulless dino-killing space rocks. Moon mining, we are told, is a gold rush about to happen. In the process, a few people will get super wealthy selling shovels or shiny metal of some kind, and hopefully a few big cities will get built in space. Indeed, space mining is sometimes seen as the “killer app” necessary to fund and motivate large scale human occupation of space.

Advocates of the industrialization of space usually envision a bootstrapping process, wherein one core product provides the profit margin necessary to build out infrastructure and, eventually, move most of Earth’s industry into space.

The question: Where is the space gold mine? While industrial processes add value at every step, space is often seen initially as a source of raw materials. Specifically, asteroids, the Moon, or Mars are seen as sites for future mines. These mines could produce anything from water to gold, Helium-3 to platinum. In this post, I will cover factors general to all material products before diving into specific examples.

My contention is that there are no known commodity resources in space that could be sold profitably on Earth.

The key to a successful business is to obtain feedstocks for cheap and to sell products at a tidy profit. The problem with space mining is that the feedstocks are generally much more expensive than on Earth, and there is an extremely limited market for products, except on Earth. More broadly, for every industrially valuable ore, there is already a competitive and adequate, if not spectacular, supply chain here on Earth.

If and when cities are built on the Moon or Mars, then local sourcing of raw materials makes sense in that context. But until then, the money, the financial resources, are here on Earth. So to make a killing in space, some sort of commodity needs to be obtained, transported to Earth, and sold, all for less money than conventional supply chains.

The challenge is that raw commodity margins on Earth are already super slim. The problem is that there are very few natural monopolies in mineral supply, so mining companies have to compete for market share, lowering prices.

More broadly, it is instructive to consider the value chain as raw materials are gradually processed into high value commercial goods, such as cell phones. Primary production obtains the ores needed to produce chemically pure elemental feedstocks, which are usually packaged in some standard, fungible way. Secondary production processes those feedstocks into individual components, such as the machining of an aluminium cell phone chassis from a raw billet. Finally, the various components are assembled, packaged, and sold. In something like a cell phone, value accrues at every step along this process, representing the revenue stream for each specialized supplier. As the designer and marketer, Apple pockets something like 30% of the sticker price of each phone sold, while the aluminium smelter takes home much less than 1%. A billet of aluminum is much closer in value to raw bauxite than a finished phone.

Similarly for minerals from space. The value per kg is of crucial importance for products where shipping costs are important, and the value per kg of nearly every commodity good is next to nothing.

But just how important are shipping costs? On Earth, bulk cargo costs are something like $0.10/kg to move raw materials or shipping containers almost anywhere with infrastructure. Launch costs are more like $2000/kg to LEO, and $10,000/kg from LEO back to Earth. Currently there is no commercially available service to ship stuff to and from the Moon, but without a diverse marketplace of launch providers, there’s no reason to expect that the de facto monopoly or duopoly of SpaceX and Blue Origin would sell it for less than $100,000/kg, literally a million times more expensive than shipping anywhere on Earth. Before we hate SpaceX for price gouging, it’s not certain that shipping for less than this amount is even possible, but one could relax this assumption by several orders of magnitude and still arrive at the same answer.

For nearly all commodities, shipping costs are a smallish fraction of the overall costs of purchase. More generally, of all the energy and labor embodied in a finished product, most of it is spent in refining, processing, design, and assembly, rather than transport. There are a handful of exceptions where shipping costs dominate the sticker price, usually in industries where transport is itself the product, and the cargo is extremely time sensitive. Shipping perishable food, flowers, and people are a good example.

Given that the Moon is not likely to (initially) be a source of perishable commodities nor enormous numbers of time-poor humans, it is safe to assume that whatever is produced there has to be so valuable on a per kilogram basis that buyers on Earth can absorb the shipping cost. The question then becomes, what commodities cost in the ballpark of $100,000/kg?

As an aside, one obvious way to sidestep the mass transportation requirement is to choose a product with no mass, such as electromagnetic radiation. And indeed, the most vibrant commercial space product is communications, which are beamed using microwaves. Raw microwaves can be used to transmit electrical power, but in a former post I demonstrated that space based solar power can’t compete with the rapid evolution of ground based solar power. Not even a little bit!

There are actually plenty of things which cost $100,000/kg or more in the high tech industries, such as advanced computer chips. The reason computer chips are so expensive (relative to mass) is that they’re extremely hard to make even at the Intel factory, which is stuffed with super smart people. In terms of the value chain, computer chips are at the complete opposite end to raw bulk commodities. Both items are sub ideal for obtaining in space, though for different reasons. Raw commodities have too little intrinsic value to justify the transport costs from space, or even usually from another continent. And high technology products are too expensive to make in any but ideal circumstances here on Earth.

There is a middle ground. The German economy, in particular, is powerfully driven by thousands of small specialty companies that make relatively small numbers of custom machines and tools. Individually, the machines are much more valuable than raw materials, and much less difficult to make than computer chips. But their true value derives from the network effect of having thousands of companies feeding off each other and, fundamentally, building the infrastructure of industrial automation for the rest of the world. There are a number of companies, such as Made In Space, which are actively pursuing bespoke in-space manufacture of specialty items, and there is every indication that their schemes are economically viable. But while they represent a golden ticket for one small engineering company, they lack a path to generalized space industry and the trillion dollar revenue that implies, at least without enormous advances in robotics.

So we’re left with a question about what commodities cost $100,000/kg, or $100/g, and could be found in space. In a previous post, we dispatched the idea of selling lunar water, which in any case is basically free on Earth. Comsats are routinely launched to space at vast expense, but fall in the category of advanced technology which is prohibitively difficult to manufacture in space. Launch may be expensive but it’s cheaper than launching the whole factory!

Let’s consider a representative list of the most expensive materials in the world. In descending order, they are:

  1. Antimatter, currently $62.5t/g.
  2. Californium, $25m/g.
  3. Diamond, $55k/g.
  4. Tritium, $30k/g.
  5. Taaffite, $20k/g.
  6. Helium 3, $15k/g.
  7. Painite, $6k/g.
  8. Plutonium, $4k/g.
  9. LSD, $3k/g.
  10. Cocaine, $236/g.
  11. Heroin, $130/g.
  12. Rhino horn, $110/g.
  13. Crystal meth, $100/g.
  14. Platinum, $60/g.
  15. Rhodium, $58/g.
  16. Gold, $56/g.
  17. Saffron, $11/g.

The previous ballpark estimate for transport costs was $100,000/kg, or $100/g. Since I want to be inclusive, I’ll include everything down to saffron in the list above, whose cost is roughly equal to the current LEO-surface transport cost.

Despite their high value density, none of these make good candidates for commercial extraction from the Moon or asteroids, for a few different reasons.

  • Many do not exist on the Moon at all, or in relatively poor abundances compared to the Earth. This includes everything except for Helium-3, which is slightly more abundant in Lunar dirt.
  • Many are only valuable because of artificial scarcity, such as the illegal drugs or diamonds.
  • None of the products represent large markets, due to their prohibitive price or relative scarcity. As a result, they are subject to substantial price elasticity depending on supply. For example, the global annual market for Helium-3 is about $10m. Double the supply, halve the price, and the net revenue is still about the same. No-one seriously thinks that Lunar mining infrastructure can be built for less than many billions of dollars, so even at a price of $100,000/kg, annual demand needs to exceed hundreds of tons to ensure adequate revenue and price stability.
  • Tritium, helium-3, platinum and antimatter represent speculative future markets, particularly where increased supply could help develop an industry based on, say, fusion, exotic batteries, or a bunch of gamma rays. If fusion-induced demand for helium-3 reaches a point where annual demand has climbed by three orders of magnitude, then I am willing to revisit this point. But current construction rates of cryogenically cooled bolometers are not adequate to fund Lunar mine development, and solar PV electricity production has every indication of destroying competing generation methods, including fusion.
  • Some relatively expensive minerals are only expensive because low levels of industrial demand have failed to develop efficient supply chains. If demand increases, new refining mechanisms are invariably developed which substantially lower the price. A salient example here is rare platinum group metals.

In summary, the Moon seems to have nothing that large numbers of humans are willing to part with large sums of cash to obtain.

This is a recognized problem in science fiction, usually solved by the discovery of some otherwise non-existent and commercially crucial material. For example, in James Cameron’s film “Avatar”, the moon Pandora was a source of “unobtanium”, a room temperature superconductor that justified the enormous expense of mining it. In Cordwainer Smith’s novel “Norstrilia”, giant mutant sheep produce “stroon”, a medicine that provides longevity. In “Dune”, the crucial mineral is “spice”, a powerful drug.

The elixir of life is something that no shortage of people would pay arbitrary prices to obtain. Alternatively, while extremely unlikely, it may be discovered that living in Lunar gravity extends lifespan. If something like this exists, then I think there is a clear business case to be made for the industrialization of space. Without it, I don’t believe that mining the Moon for rocks and metals makes economic sense.

As a final note, while I think there are exactly zero hard-nosed mining executives who believe there are trillions to be made mining asteroids or the Moon, I don’t think this means that humans can’t live and work in space. The faulty assumption is that the activity needs to make lots of money, throughout the process. While a lowered profit motive changes the nature of the game in all kinds of ways, it doesn’t rule out progress, which could be driven by philanthropy or strategic imperatives.

In a future post I’ll explore the “why” of humans exploring space, but for now just remember that if no-one can make money mining the moon, no-one is going to do much of it.


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 me 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

(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)

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)

The call came two weeks later, in the middle of the night—the real lunar night. By Plato City time, it was Sunday morning.

‘Henry? Chandra here. Can you meet me in half an hour at air lock five? Good—I’ll see you.’

This was it, Cooper knew. Air lock five meant that they were going outside the dome. Chandra had found something.

The presence of the police driver restricted conversation as the tractor moved away from the city along the road roughly bulldozed across the ash and pumice. Low in the south, Earth was almost full, casting a brilliant blue-green light over the infernal landscape. However hard one tried. Cooper told himself, it was difficult to make the Moon appear glamorous. But nature guards her greatest secrets well; to such places men must come to find them.

(ed note: this is true, but abstract research still ain't no MacGuffinite)

From THE SECRET by Arthur C. Clarke (1963)

(ed note: TL;DR the various MacGuffinites in O'Neil's book The High Frontier won't work.)

The High Frontier, published in 1976 by Gerard K O'Neill, lays out a vision of economically profitable space colonization in artificial orbital habitats, and guessed (while disclaiming it as prediction) that it was "unlikely" that a space community would not be established in 30 years. I was interested in why those forecasts were made, and why they turned out wrong, as data points for thinking about forecasting future technological developments. The book lays out a case that in the long run space habitats can support immensely larger populations and wealth than the planets in the Solar System. In the medium term it argued that a government program to invest hundreds of billions of dollars to build space factories and Lunar mining facilities would eventually let them produce solar power a few times more efficiently than terrestrial solar power production, and that this would drive space colonization. This seems to have been doomed for multiple reasons, radically underestimating launch costs and likely fatally underestimating the increased costs of space production (to be paid for out of a 2-3x improvement in solar radiation), as well as requiring immense government funding. As a means to improve solar power cost-effectiveness, it would have been far inferior to solar cell R&D. Subsequent orders-of-magnitude improvement in launch costs per kW of solar cells make space-based solar more plausible than at the time, but the challenge of competing with terrestrial solar and especially terrestrial scale economies of industry remains high.

Space colonization as a means to ease ultimate terrestrial resource limits

The book was written when concerns about population growth were a much larger topic of discussion than today, and during the 1970s energy crisis when oil prices had spiked enormously. It discusses historical growth of energy use by 7% per year, and the strong linkage between economic growth (which has been attenuated since the 1970s as economies reduced energy intensity improved their production of economic output per unit energy consumption).

O'Neill mentions but does not rely on the historical superexponential growth of population, the cancelled singularity:

"Viewed on a time scale of many centuries, though, the population-growth rate has itself increased continuously. This has led to such papers as that of Von Hoerner, which shows that up to 1970 the best mathematical fit to the population-growth curve would lead to a true "explosion": an infinite number of people about fifty years from now...Thhis sort of study is of great value in calling attention to the growth problem, but it is best understood as a statement that within the next few decades the growth rate must reduce, and radically. For purposes of this book I will use the much more conservative growth-rate figures of the U.N.: the situation is already serious enough without the need to overstate it...The U.N. hardly dares to predict what will happen [in the 21st century]...but if we project their graphs we find that the 10 billion mark will be reached by 2035"

Space colonization is supposed to provide centuries of headroom in low energy, land-equivalents, and materials, in line with four guiding principles:

  1. A proposal to improve the human condition makes sense only if, in the long term, it has the potential to give all people, whatever their place of birth, access to the energy and materials needed for their progress.
  2. A technical "improvement" is more likely to beneficial if it reduces rather than increases the concentration of power and control.
  3. Improvements are of value if they tend to reduce the scale of cities, industries, and economic systems to small size, so that bureaucracies become less important and direct human contact becomes more easy and effective.
  4. A worthwhile line of technical development must have a useful lifetime "without running into absurdities" of at least several hundred years.

O'Neill argues against 'planetary chauvinism,' noting that the land area of the Moon and Mars is only about the dry land area of Earth. He describes the O'Neill cylinder, habitats that rotate to produce pseudogravity via centrifugal force. While solar power reaching the earth is about 2e17 W, the luminosity of the Sun is ~ 4e26 W, a difference of more than a billionfold. Asteroid materials also dwarf terrestrial resources near the surface.

So space habitats permit vastly larger eventual populations and economic output than the Earth alone can sustain. There is some talk of the long-run possibilities, e.g. that with population growth of 1/6th per generation, 20,000x growth would be attained in 5,000 years, and with doubling times of the day (~35years), growth would max out the solar system's capacity long before that. But even if most of the long-run potential of the solar system lies in space habitats, that doesn't mean that at the current margin it makes sense to build or live in space habitats.

The Earth provides its own atmosphere, gravity, radiation shielding, ecosystem services, and proximity to other humans. It is much cheaper to build homes and factories on Earth, even setting aside the dominant (and enormous) launch costs. While agricultural land is limited, expanding cultivation of marginal land on Earth is cheaper than building greenhouses and hydroponics facilities, let alone space agriculture. Continued population and economic growth would eventually yield much higher land and resource prices, reducing or reversing this price differential, but in the meantime it would only make economic sense to settle space to take advantage of some large special advantage.

The existing satellite industry exploits the high altitude of Earth orbit to increase the portion of the Earth within line of sight of a transmitter, but this does not call for the scale of construction that O'Neill is interested in. The space advantage that he focuses on is the greater availability of solar energy in space without (1) attenuation by the atmosphere, (2) blockage by the Earth, with reduced insolation at night and seasonally. In space at a distance from the sun of 1 astronomical unit the solar irradiation is ~1.36 kW/m^2. Averaging over the surface of the Earth across weather, day, and season irradiation is about 0.18 kW/m^2, In sunnier areas such as deserts close to the equator the numbers can be above 0.3 kW/m^2:

So space habitats could enjoy a 4x advantage in solar flux for solar power or agriculture over terrestrial deserts (which have large areas of unused land that is much less hostile than space and vastly cheaper to transport to and from). In the vision of the High Frontier, this is the difference that is supposed to motivate the construction of space habitats and industries.

Space based solar power as the industry driving space settlement

O'Neill is clear that large scale space colonization requires that it be advantageous for those funding initial construction and those eventually migrating to space, remarking that "even our first space colonies must pay their way, and they can only do so if they do not price themselves out of their markets." So space solar power production must be able to deliver large profits, even considering the costs of launch and industry in space.

A 4x space solar advantage in photovoltaic productions vs terrestrial solar sites (O'Neill likes to compare to the average across the United States, but that doesn't seem to be the right marginal case, although solar power satellites can be directed to different locations) is attenuated by losses in transmitting the power to Earth, by beaming microwaves at fields of receivers on Earth. The book argues for losses of about 2x in this process. There could be improvements on this, but also the technologies have not been tested to reveal other in practice costs.

Combined with increased radiation on the space-based solar panels damaging them, the expense of transmitters and receivers, and the increased costs of space labor (remote controlled robots, or very expensive humans), this seems to leave only a modest or negative potential profit to the solar panels from radiation in space, less than a doubling, even with ~free space transportation at scale.

For comparison, terrestrial solar cell cost-efficiency has doubled about every 5-7 years through technological advance and economies of scale, with the faster progress in recent years:

Recently, as solar becomes economically viable at larger scales, solar costs have dropped 5x in 10 years. These advances came with cumulative R&D spending that is quite small compared to the sorts of investments discussed by O'Neill. E.g. from 1948-2018 the U.S. federal government provided $29.35 BB for all renewable energy  research, of which solar only captured a portion.

Private manufacturer R&D has been increasing recently, but is still small compared to the costs discussed in High Frontier (hundreds of billions of 2020 dollars), e.g. this dataset of public company announced  solar R&D:

It still appears that government funding for solar R&D would have been a far more helpful than space launch and construction subsidies for the goal of cheaper solar power, even if the plan could have proceeded as claimed.

But in fact space transportation is not free, but enormously prohibitively expensive. The Apollo rockets costs thousands of 1976 dollars per kg (4.5x as much in 2020 dollars) to lift material to orbit, several times that for moving to the LaGrange points and geosynchronous orbit and ~$20,000 (1976) per kg sent to the moon. Such prices render shipping solar power satellites from Earth completely economical: a 2x improvement in solar efficiency cannot pay for orders of magnitude increase in costs.

Bootstrapping space manufacturing to reduce launch costs

The original edition of the book had two stages to its model of how transport costs could fall enough to permit space power satellites to pay for themselves. The first step was accepting NASA estimates of its launch costs using the space shuttle, which turned out to be optimistic by more than an order of magnitude.

This was despite the following in the appendix:

Each of the specialists expressed strongly the opinion that the critical numbers assumed for the work so far, and quoted in this book (mass-driver acceleration and efficiency, HLV lift costs, lunar power-plant mass, etc.) were too conservative and could be improved substantially without great technical risk.

The second step was to acquire materials and construct the power satellites using materials acquired from the Moon and eventually asteroids. Terrestrial launch capacity would send workers and industrial equipment to a space manufacturing facility, with mining equipment and electromagnetic mass drivers to extract materials and send them to the manufacturing facilities at manyfold reduced costs, as a result of lower Lunar gravity, and the advantages of mass drivers over rockets.

In a 1975 Science article, O'Neill lays out lift costs for constructing a first manufacturing facility, from $70BB to $380BB in today's dollars (plus somewhat smaller wage and construction/development costs for a total of 142-834BB). With actual shuttle costs, this would be in the trillions of dollars, and completely dominated by terrestrial solar R&D and investment as a means of acquiring cheaper solar energy.

The article assumes this facility would then produce further facilities, equipment, and solar power satellites with minimal further input from Earth (except high value products such as chips and new workers) autarkically, with exponential growth of colony industrial base. Industrial production rates seem to be based off of terrestrial rates (in generic 'tons of production'), without inflation for the high costs of work in space, and especially the lack of economies of scale. We know from terrestrial data that there are quite drastic economies of scale (for both solar and the industries feeding into it, which would compound), and a facility of several thousand people replacing the entire supply chains of the solar, mining, and space habitat construction industries without a 2x loss of productivity from scale effects seems quite unlikely to me, pushing out the minimum scale of space community needed to profitably produce solar power satellite.

The structure of the plan also requires large investments developing all the necessary methods, and astronomical investments in building a space community, in hopes of eventually reaching profitability (which looks unlikely to me given the technology of the time). O'Neill recognized such a thing could only be undertaken by government:

By now our planning group benefits from the advice of senior executives in the electric utilities and investment communities. From them we have learned a good many realities that help us in guiding our research. For one thing, it seems almost certain that we cannot expect private capital to invest in space manufacturing until the risks have been reduced almost to zero. Government funding...will have to carry the program at least until a pilot SSPS, not necessarily made from lunar materials, has supplied energy to the Earth...Above all, the economic studies made at that time will have to show that SSPS power can undersell all competition.
But governments would do vastly better financing solar energy research on Earth, and >Apollo program commitments are not reliable for questionable unproven technologies without returns along the way in any case.

Change since 1976

There were a number of further NASA reports on this subject, but ultimately the US government rejected O'Neill's plans as infeasible. In an update to the book in 1988 O'Neill addressed the shuttle launch costs, citing work on telerobotics and self-replicating machinery. Remote controlled robots could be much cheaper than humans in space, although still far more expensive than human workers (terrestrial solar and mining supply chains weren't completely automated for good economic reason), likely overwhelming the benefits of space solar.

A push towards lowering launch-costs, and progress in making solar cells lighter per unit power production (which accordingly reduces launch costs) could potentially drastically improve the cost-benefit today. SpaceX has cut launch costs by a factor of 20-50x vs the space shuttle to close to $1,000 per kg, with room to improve at least an order o f magnitude if reusable spacecraft can be efficiently turned around (without refurbishment costs close to construction costs). Fuel costs are still substantially less than 1% of SpaceX rocket costs.

Progress in solar cells and thin film cells has increased power per kg several fold, and potentially tremendously for thin film cells. But at the same time the scale of solar production facilities has increased enormously, as has the sophistication of their production: to compete with terrestrial solar panel production, space-based manufacturing facilities would need more sophisticated facilities than O'Neill proposed (and which I had difficulty believing previously), increasing minimum scale. Going from a modern supply chain of millions of people across many factories, mines, etc to a robotic omni-factory looks like a lot more than a 2x or 3x cost difference to justify space production with solar flux.

Earth-launched power satellites may become feasible as an extension of broader solar and launch trends, before robotic space factories that can compete with terrestrial supply chains (even with the advantage of high orbit).

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.

     A major American launch provider has outlined a plan that the company says will help enable a space economy based on refueling spacecraft in Earth orbit.
     Dubbed the "Cislunar 1,000 Vision," the initiative foresees a self-sustaining economy that supports 1,000 people living and working in Earth-moon space roughly 30 years from now. The concept stems from an analysis and ongoing technical work by United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing Co. that provides launches aboard Atlas and Delta rockets.
     A central element of the plan involves the use of a souped-up Centaur rocket stage called ACES (Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage). This liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen upper stage is designed to be reusable and can be refueled, perhaps by propellant made using water extracted from Earth's moonor asteroids...
     ..."ACES is the innovation that we're bringing to bear on this idea, to start talking about lunar propellant and setting price points," said George Sowers, vice president of advanced programs for Colorado-based ULA. "What makes ACES unique is technology that we're currently developing called Integrated Vehicle Fluids."
     Sowers told that the road map also includes a tanker called XEUS. XEUS will use a "kit" that augments an ACES stage, allowing the vehicle to land horizontally on the lunar surface and be stocked with moon-mined fuel for transport to a gravitationally stable "libration point" in the Earth-moon system known as EML1.
     Rocket fuel sourced off Earth could be a game changer for spaceflight, because it's very expensive to launch anything from Earth, Sowers said.
     "I want to buy propellant in space," he said. "Once I have a reusable stage and can buy my fuel, then I have the potential to dramatically lower costs to go elsewhere."
     For example, a rocket could carry just enough fuel to get to low Earth orbit and then refuel its upper stage in space to get a payload to the much more distant geosynchronous transfer orbit.
     "I can potentially do that whole mission cheaper if I can get propellant cheap enough in low Earth orbit," Sowers said.
     As a customer, ULA is willing to pay about $1,360 per lb. ($3,000 per kilogram) for propellant in low Earth orbit. The going rate for fuel on the surface of the moon is $225 per lb. ($500 per kg), Sowers said. In talking with asteroid-mining experts, ULA would take delivery of propellant at L1 for $450 per lb. ($1,000 per kg), he said.
     "Having a source of propellant in space benefits anybody going anywhere in space, to be honest," Sowers said. "What excites me is that, once you have the propellant capability going, you make a lot of other business plans look a lot better, be they on the moon, at EML1, or other places."...
     ...Angel Abbud-Madrid, director of the Center for Space Resources at the Colorado School of Mines, is bullish on ULA's plan.
     For several decades, three important elements have been considered essential to the development of space resources: finding a recoverable resource, developing the technology to recover it, and a customer, Abbud-Madrid told
     This third component has been the most challenging task for in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) advocates, Abbud-Madrid said.
     "Up to now, governments have been the only customer in the business plan," he said. "The announcement made by ULA radically addresses this weak link by opening up new opportunities for space resources development."
     For the first time, a major launch-service provider has seriously stepped forward as a true commercial client to purchase space resources, Abbud-Madrid said.
     "ULA's detailed analysis of the water-based propellant market in cislunar [Earth-moon] space has established specific price points at various orbital destinations," Abbud-Madrid said.
     This plan has reinvigorated the ISRU community by challenging it to re-evaluate all steps of the ISRU process — from prospecting to utilization — to meet these targets, he added...
     ..."I think this is a turning point for ISRU," said Dale Boucher, CEO of Deltion Innovations Ltd. in Ontario, Canada. Deltion develops mining technologies and robotics for the resource sector and is a leader in investigating the promise of space mining.
     "It is the first private industry customer declaring an interest in purchasing space-derived materials for commercial use," Boucher told "They have provided quantities and price points. They are prepared to set quality metrics. This opens the door to negotiations for 'futures' types of speculative contracts for purchase of commodities, much like new gold mines do, or oil and gas."
     The numbers that ULA provided, once crunched, are within the realm of typical terrestrial mining activities and can be used to generate realistic budgets and mine plans, Boucher said.
     ULA's estimate that it will need the off-Earth propellant in the early 2020s follows a pattern seen in Earth-based mining, Boucher added.
     "Typically, a mine will go from an idea to production in five to 10 years, spend billions to get it up and running, and expect a 10-year life," he said. "It all starts with a solid financing plan coupled to prospective customers."
     For the most part, the only potential customers for space-based fuel have been space agencies. But their timelines keep shifting, their budgets keep getting reappropriated and the political will to enable this kind of activity "gets bogged down in bureaucratic zombie zones," Boucher said.
     As for the ISRU impact, Boucher said, the ULA plan enables commercialization in deeper space and provides risk reductions for space-agency-sponsored missions.
     The "next steps would be to evaluate the knowledge and technical gaps that must be addressed to close the case," he said. "This is not a science task; it is a commercial task."


(ed note: Young Karl and Duncan live on the moon Titan. Duncan is of the Makenzie family)

      “Oh. I know what made that noise,” said Karl smugly. “Didn’t you guess? That was a ram-tanker making a scoop. If you call Traffic Control, they’ll tell you where it was heading.”
     Karl had had his fun, and the explanation was undoubtedly correct. Duncan had already thought of it, yet he had hoped for something more romantic. Though it was perhaps too much to expect methane monsters, an everyday spaceship was a disappointing anticlimax. He felt a sense of letdown, and was sorry that he had given Karl another chance to deflate his dreams. Karl was rather good at that.

     But like all healthy ten-year-olds, Duncan was resilient. The magic had not been destroyed. Though the first ship had lifted from Earth three centuries before he was born, the wonder of space had not yet been exhausted. There was romance enough in that shriek from the edge of the atmosphere, as the orbiting tanker collected hydrogen to power the commerce of the Solar System.
     In a few hours, that precious cargo would be falling sunward, past Saturn’s other moons, past giant Jupiter, to make its rendezvous with one of the fueling stations that circled the inner planets. It would take months—even years—to get there, but there was no hurry. As long as cheap hydrogen flowed through the invisible pipeline across the Solar System, the fusion rockets could fly from world to world, as once the ocean liners had plied the seas of Earth.

     Duncan understood this better than most boys of his age; the hydrogen economy was also the story of his family, and would dominate his own future when he was old enough to play a part in the affairs of Titan. It was now almost a century since Grandfather Malcolm had realized that Titan was the key to all the planets, and had shrewdly used this knowledge for the benefit of mankind—and of himself.

     Malcolm Makenzie had been the right man, at the right time. Others before him had looked covetously at Titan, but he was the first to work out all the engineering details and to conceive the total system of orbiting scoops, compressors, and cheap, expendable tanks that could hold their liquid hydrogen with minimum loss as they dropped leisurely sunward.

     Back in the 2180s, Malcolm had been a promising young aerospace designer at Port Lowell, trying to make aircraft that could carry useful payloads in the tenuous Martian atmosphere. In those days he had been Malcolm Mackenzie, for the computer mishap that had irrevocably changed the family name did not occur until he emigrated to Titan. After wasting five years in futile attempts at correction, Malcolm had finally co-operated with the inevitable. It was one of the few battles in which the Makenzies had ever admitted defeat, but now they were quite proud of their unique name.
     When he had finished his calculations and stolen enough drafting-computer time to prepare a beautiful set of drawings, young Malcolm had approached the Planning Office of the Martian Department of Transportation. He did not anticipate serious criticism, because he knew that his facts and his logic were impeccable.
     A large fusion-powered spaceliner could use ten thousand tons of hydrogen on a single flight, merely as inert working fluid. Ninety-nine percent of it took no part in the nuclear reaction, but was hurled from the jets unchanged, at scores of kilometers a second, imparting momentum to the ships it drove between the planets.
     There was plenty of hydrogen on Earth, easily available in the oceans; but the cost of lifting megatons a year into space was horrendous. And the other inhabited worlds—Mars, Mercury, Ganymede, and the Moon—could not help. They had no surplus hydrogen at all.
     Of course, Jupiter and the other Gas Giants possessed unlimited quantities of the vital element, but their gravitational fields guarded it more effectively than any unsleeping dragon, coiled round some mythical treasure of the Gods. In all the Solar System, Titan was the only place where Nature had contrived the paradox of low gravity and an atmosphere remarkably rich in hydrogen and its compounds.

(ed note: Titan's surface gravity is only 0.14 g. Titan's atmosphere is 1.4% methane {easily cracked into hydrogen and carbon} and 0.2% hydrogen. The rest is nitrogen.)

     Malcolm was right in guessing that no one would challenge his figures, or deny the feasibility of the scheme, but a kindhearted senior administrator took it upon himself to lecture young Makenzie on the political and economic facts of life. He learned, with remarkable speed, about growth curves and forward discounting and interplanetary debts and rates of depreciation and technological obsolescence, and understood for the first time why the solar was backed, not by gold, but by kilowatt-hours.
     “It’s an old problem,” his mentor had explained patiently. “In fact, it goes back to the very beginnings of astronautics, in the twentieth century. We couldn’t have commercial space flight until there were flourishing extraterrestrial colonies—and we couldn’t have colonies until there was commercial space transportation. In this sort of bootstrap situation, you have a very slow growth rate until you reach the takeoff point. Then, quite suddenly, the curves start shooting upward, and you’re in business.
     “It could be the same with your Titan refueling scheme—but have you any idea of the initial investment required? Only the World Bank could possibly underwrite it….”
     “What about the Bank of Selene? Isn’t it supposed to be more adventurous?”
     “Don’t believe all you’ve read about the Gnomes of Aristarchus; they’re as careful as anyone else. They have to be. Bankers on Earth can still go on breathing if they make a bad investment….

     But it was the Bank of Selene, three years later, that put up the five megasols for the initial feasibility study. Then Mercury became interested—and finally Mars. By this time, of course, Malcolm was no longer an aerospace engineer. He had become, not necessarily in this order, a financial expert, a public-relations adviser, a media manipulator, and a shrewd politician. In the incredibly short time of twenty years, the first hydrogen shipments were falling sunward from Titan.

From IMPERIAL EARTH by Arthur C. Clarke (1975)


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.


Most of the film Black Panther is set in Wakanda, a fictional sub-Saharan African state. Extremely isolationist, disguised as a very poor agricultural, subsistence economy to the wider world, it is by far the most technologically and, supposedly, economically advanced nation in the planet thanks to its monopoly on the fictional metal vibranium.

It has alternately been described as a message of hope for sub-Saharan Africa otherwise mostly thought as poor, dysfunctional states, a rallying cry for populations of African origin tired of bad Hollywood stereotypes, or even used for racist arguments about "look how far they would be if they weren't so <random racist stereotype>" — conveniently forgetting that a few of those states actually pulling it off, most notably (though not only) South Africa, despite the immense challenges it has and is still facing.

Not your average petro-state

However, one of the recurring themes when talking about Wakanda is the tragedy of the curse of resources. Its source of wealth, what has given it its technological edge, and allowed it so far to ignore the wider world, escape invasions, colonialism or even Cold War machinations, is vibranium, a metal found nowhere else, and whose mountain-sized deposit has been brought to Earth by a giant meteorite about five thousand years ago. Said metal, not unlike another ubiquitous resource, has wildly varied applications for materials and energy applications. And the most striking examples of the curse of resources are often petro-states.

Side-note about the meteorite: A meteorite of such size should have wiped out the entire region, created a giant crater, and probably scattered itself on a much larger area. Instead, the crater seems rather small and vibranium is concentrated on the impact point. This may be attributed to some of the many strange properties of vibranium, notably its ability to absorb and store kinetic energy. This allowed the meteorite to absorb the energy of impact, and possibly some of the heat, instead of releasing it all in megaton blasts in the atmosphere and on the ground.

Amusingly enough, the meteorite arrived 2.5 million years ago, not so long before humans started evolve sapience in more or less the same geographical spot. One may wonder if there is a causal link.

As for the curse of resources, this video gives a good overview of it and its causes, as well as why so many rulers seem to be evil, incompetent tyrants.

Now, it would be easy to dismiss Wakanda as unrealistic, but this would be a mistake. To begin with, the curse of resources can only exist when said resources can be sold on the market in exchange of wealth for the rulers. This cannot happen here, as it is isolationist and living in autarcie.

As such, it has to mine and process vibranium entirely on its own, and whatever wealth and luxuries its rulers and denizens have access to are locally produced. So, by nature, the economy of Wakanda has to be highly diversified.

Vibranium and autarcie

It is interesting to note that the vibranium mine itself seems to be highly automated, with very few workers visible at any time, if any. In fact, the on-site research and development laboratory may well hire more people than the ore extraction process itself.

This makes sense as, contrary to the wider world's global economy, Wakanda has access to only a few million workers at best, with which it has to cover all areas from industry to service to management and research. As such, there is a big incentive to automate everything that can be. We see a similar phenomenon in Japan, due to its free-falling demographics and reluctance to rely on immigration for low-qualification jobs. We can expect Wakanda to develop, say, the same automated restaurant chefs. Similarly, its supermarkets probably have automated cash registers only, if they haven't already been replaced by Internet-based shopping and delivery services. Construction workers would be drone operators and maintenance specialists.

Similarly, their city transports seem to be automated, and the apparent absence of cars in their city may be both to avoid further strain on their industry and because they rely more on teleworking to optimise daily productivity.

One would expect unemployment to be inexistent. And with the absence or near-absence of low-qualification jobs, considerable effort must be put on education, that one can expect to be free, high-quality and mandatory from crèche (required when both parents are working full-time) to university.

In addition to vibranium, they have another major advantage to other, ill-fated autarcies of the wider world: their excellent foreign intelligence service. Great powers are known, and have been known for a long time, to massively use their intelligence services for industrial espionage. There is no reason to think Wakanda would do otherwise, particularly as they are not distracted by things like rival nuclear powers to spy on, terrorist groups to infiltrate, freedom fighters to arm, client states to bully or coups to organize. This also helps them achieving their goals with comparatively few agents, both so they can be directly managed by the monarch and because, again, of general manpower shortage.

Wakandan intelligence services can also count on their technological edge and their targets ignoring their existence. And, of course, they can gather all the public data in fundamental and applied research or from patents they don't have to abide by.

This allows them to focus all their R&D efforts in applications of vibranium instead of, for example, inventing the processor again.

This is not without consequence, though, as we can see from the minuscule size of their army: a few hundred infantry and cavalry soldiers, and a handful of flying aircrafts, with no fixed defences beyond the city forcefield and camouflage system protecting the nation. Even with their reliance on secrecy and advanced technology, and even for such a tiny nation, one would expect them to have a larger army as a safety measure. But they may simply not have the available manpower.

What economic model?

There doesn't seem to be any indication of what economic model Wakanda is using internally. However, we can speculate with what we do see.

Politically, Wakanda is extremely conservative. In five thousand years, they have kept the same federal monarchic government, and have never fallen for the lure of conquest and imperialism. This is literally unheard of anywhere else, by a far margin. Vibranium allowed them to withstand any external threat, be it natural or human, but only an exceptionally conservative and cautious mindset could have allowed them such a feat, adapting their ways only when absolutely necessary - but also with enough pragmatism to avoid ideological pitfalls or reluctance to change even when necessary. While not impossible, this is a very thin line to walk, and implies institutions with exceptionally strong and well-balanced traditions, enough to bind the occasional ruler not doing their job correctly, despite nominally being an absolute monarch.

On this note, modern Wakanda seem to be extremely good at gender equality, even compared to today's champions. While the original tribes may have been this way, it is also possible that this is a later evolution, when the manpower shortages drove them to let women work on more jobs, until gender biases completely disappeared. This has been punctually seen, for example during world wars, when men sent to the front had to be replaced and women started to do jobs they weren't allowed to before — even if, in those cases, after the wars ended, the status quo antebellum often came back.

So the transition from subsistence tribal economy to its modern, highly developed form must have happened slowly, with no abrupt transition, with pragmatism and only when dictated by necessity. This means that the often brutal transitions to mercantilisme, capitalism or modern planned economy didn't happen, and the evolution of Wakanda's economic policies have followed a very different path. While it is impossible to divine its current form, we can still take an educated guess.

When we think of command economy, it generally bring the grand, ill-fated political experiment of the Eastern Block and its variants in mind. However, ancient history has another example: many polities of the ancient world were command economies, run by a monarchic administration. While recent Marxist planned economies pretty much all ended in ruin one way or another, those ancient planned economies lasted centuries, some falling only to apocalyptic disasters.

While there is no concluding evidence to be found either way, and historians should always be wary of advancing hypotheses with no historical evidence, we are here to search for explanations making sense and can afford a bit more freedom in our speculations.

As such, it makes sense to imagine an early Wakanda developing such an ancient planned economy. The rulers being those originally taking all decisions and as such, were the de facto economic planners, and started to rely on advisers on those matters as complexity grew, which became in time specialised administrations.

With no major disruption and being able to resist external influences and threats, Wakanda would be free to slowly evolve and refine its planned economy, until it became the highly efficient system that works so well in its modern incarnation. We may see traces of it with the vibranium mines apparently still under direct control of the royal family.


By nature, Wakanda cannot fall to the curse of resources, as it can only exist if the rulers can be wealthy with a country that is only producing raw resources. As an autarcie, this is impossible and forces Wakanda to have a diversified economy. In fact, the economic challenge of Wakanda is the opposite, making such an economy work with so little manpower. As such, it is closer to Japan than Nigeria.

Unfortunately, this means that, contrary to what we may read in some places, using Wakanda as an example or a model of successful resource-rich African country is counter-productive: whatever lessons may be learned by studying it will be inapplicable to resource-rich nations in general. We are better studying nations like Botswana that seem to actually succeed at this particular challenge.

Even worse, it may be inapplicable to the modern world in general, as it required a stable nation evolving over the centuries, which won't help nations with problems now and attempting to solve them over human time-frames, in some cases because there may otherwise not be a nation anymore otherwise.

But not being applicable right now to nations facing immediate challenges doesn't make it worthless to study, far from it. In fact, the thought experiment of an ancient monarchic command economy surviving to this day, and what forms would its modern forms take, may yield valuable insight. Especially as the varied forms of capitalism have been increasingly criticised for more than a century, and its only serious contender has been experimentally proven unsustainable.


Troy Campbell

     You'll be surprised how often something breaks in mining operations and requires human intervention.
     And, with pure automation you have the risk of someone hijacking your mining operations. Congratulations, you have harvested... a whole lot of fake telemetry!
     Also... mining operations are vast. Absolutely vast. To process enough ore to make a decent return on investment, you need massive infrastructure of scale. If you can build that big, you don't care about the little piddly human life support requirements. Dump trucks start to weigh in at the hundred tonne mark. Sure, those will be automated but you will still need a significant human presence because mining in space adds extra layers of complexity. On Earth, ready access to air and water vastly simplifies all industrial operations. On the Moon, with razor dust everywhere? All heat dumped via radiators? Everything manufactured on-site or brought in from Earth? No water for your separation vats?

William Black

     Spot on, equipment can and will be automated, and there will be extensive application of robotics, and asteroid mining will not involve pick-and-shovel labor, but industrial scale resource extraction will require a large on-site technical and engineering staff, for the explicit reasons stated.
     You've hit every argument I've previously made ... and, frankly, I was staggered by the thunderous silence I received from the "all-automation" contingent. I've even laid out a well researched argument that the resource extraction industry as a matter of course is accustomed to steep up-front operational expenses with returns coming over a span of decades.
     And here it is:
     A drillship is a merchant vessel designed for use in offshore drilling of new oil and gas wells, and for operations in extreme environments, this seems to be the preferred way to go and the numbers of these vessels have been steadily growing.
     As of 2013 (the latest date I can find figures for) there are more than 80 drillships in operation around the world, with an average cost-to-build, per ship, of $600 million, upwards to $1 billion for the newest generation of ship capable of drilling to almost any depth, and in the most severe environments.
     Current day rates for these types of ships, (what oil and gas companies pay to lease time on them) run between $243K/day and $550k/day. This is the cost to the oil company to rent the ship from owner companies like Transocean or Noble Corporation.
     Because there are high costs to move these ships around the world, these ships are typically rented out for years at a time. $/234k/$550k/day covers the operating costs, maintenance capex, survey costs and provides a return on capital on the original build costs of the ship.
     Operating costs for the owner company runs $200k/day. These are expenses like salaries, contractors, transportation, materials and energy costs. Annual maintenance capital expenditures ("capex") runs around $14k/day or $5 million per year. The ship gets pretty battered by the sea, so you need to replace broken equipment continuously while it is in use.
     Annual cost for both operation and maintenance would be around $180 million, per ship.
     Drillships are just one way to perform various types of drilling. This function can also be performed by semi-submersibles, jackups, barges, or platform rigs.
     Oil rig operators also charge in terms of per-day units. Day rates can vary, ranging from $200k to over a $1 million per day.
     Lower cost rigs are generally older refurbished platforms or shallow-water, close in-shore rigs. Modern rigs working in the most harsh locations like North Sea, Arctic, or some deep water locations pull-in $1 million a day, $365 million annually, in fees from oil and gas companies.



Offshore Rig Day Rates


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 get 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 week's dose of radiation in one day.


     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)

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 the fact that off-shore oil rigs are not space colonies

To which I'd answer:

  • Average light-speed lag from Terra to Saturn is about 1.3 hours or a reaction time of 2.6 hours: remote control is out of the question. And an autonomous robot will have to cope with rocks, landslides, lakes full of slippery petroleum, wind, and snow.
  • When you carbonize coal to make coke, a by-product is coal tar. The coal tar was thrown away, until scientists started investigating it in the 1800's. They found zillions of valuable chemicals, like naphtha to make rubber raincoats, mauve aniline dyes, and various medical drugs. I'm sure the planetary slurry of Titan petroleum will cook up even more valuable chemicals unknown to science. So it won't be a monoculture, and there will be research labs established on site to try and find more valuable stuff.
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. ♪♫


      ROB DAVIDOFF: I was thinking about this tonight, and cross-comparing with Atomic Rockets—basically, thinking about the economics of bulk-hauling across various ranges. My immediate questions was, first, what's the gear ratio? Titan surface to Saturn orbit is about 1.8 kms, then according to the obligatory Atomic Rockets mention (mission table), the minimum-energy transfer to take that back to Earth is 18.2 km/s. That's about 20 km/s for the whole mission—a nicely round number. 😁

     If we can assume a nuclear engine, then that's maybe 8 km/s exhaust velocity—that'd be about a mass ratio of 12.7. Say it takes 3 kg of ship per 10kg of oil it hauls, so that means we need a total gross mass on Titan's surface equal to 16.5 times the oil we're moving to LEO. Of that, 16.2 is the propellant and the oil/payload. Assuming that rocket fuel and processed hydrocarbons are basically the same thing (okay, okay, the rocket prop is probably H2, but we cracked that from something and spent some energy doing it), let's assume they cost about the same. That means we're talking about 16.5 times the cost-at-wellhead, minimum, to move oil to LEO. I'd say you could easily double or triple that with operational costs and the like. Say we're looking at a markup of 50x by the time it finds its way out of LEO and to commodities markets on Earth. If the oil costs pennies per kilogram to produce, that's then about $250+/barrel (159 liters per barrel, 0.8 kg/liter, so about 127 kg/barrel).

     I really find it hard to imagine that being a primary energy production system for a planet. For instance, gas prices are about 25% more than oil. That'd be $312/gallon—not inflated, real dollars. That's the kind of pump price that I think would make a lot of "drill baby, drill" types start calling their local Tesla dealership, and asking why we aren't building solar panels in Arizona and wind farms in the Dakotas and routing the energy everywhere—it'd make solar about 10x cheaper than petroleum based grid energy.

     And this is, in some ways, the optimistic way of looking at it—this is the minimum energy route, where transports spend the full 6+ years falling from Saturn and then another 6 coasting back out on the empty leg. I didn't really account for the effects of the fact that a tanker makes less than one full trip a decade in the operating costs, and any burns with more trips per decade will get that at the expense of more fuel per kg of oil.

     I just don't see hauling bulk commodities being worth it unless you're thinking with Portals. Certainly you can't sustain an industrial situation on that kind of energy cost. It might be worth it for some kind of material input you can't synthesize, but not for base megawatts.

     RAYMOND McVAY: Oh, I agree Rob Davidoff, that nobody's going to be using gasoline as a transport fuel @ $312/gal. That being said, there are so many things that you have to have oil for, or you don't have industrial civilization as we know it.

     Also, Laser propulsion is of huge importance to the setting, and the plots I'm devising. Only passenger rated transports have NTRs. Bulk freight is beamed. The infrastructure for the setting is still in the planning stages. Any ideas on how to make "Titan Tea" more economical are welcome. 

     ROB DAVIDOFF: I suppose laser propulsion might help, but you really need the base energy source for the civilization to be something other than the oil you're moving—that's probably means solar or wind since if you're over the hump of peak oil you're probably well on your way past peak uranium, too. The problem is that oil can be synthesized, just at higher energy cost than digging it out of the ground. See the Sabatier reaction, or this thing the Navy's worked up.

     We have a lot of hydrogen and carbon atoms lying around, and shoving them around is "only" chemical engineering (I didn't have many chemE friends in school, so I can get away with saying this). In order to have cheap enough energy for an industrial civilization, energy's got to be within a certain real cost and quite plentiful, so the question is it cheaper/easier to produce it on spec for the processes you really need it for or to ship it in from Titan.

     So, what's synthetic petrochemical's cost? Gasoline has 42.4 MJ/kg of energy, and let's say we're only 10% efficient at assembling that (darn hydrogen is fiddly to grab with the robot arm—that's how chemE works, right?). That's be about 424 MJ/kg. At 0.8 kg of gasoline/liter and 12 cents a kiloWatthour, Wolfram Alpha spits out…$42/gallon for scratch-made oil. I can buy a quart of synthetic motor oil off Walmart for the equivalent of $36/gallon, so that seems reasonable enough. That's the limit on cost for obtaining and transporting Titan Tea—if it costs more than that, why would you go to Titan for it? I guess you'd have to work backwards from there and figure out if you can model production costing less than that.

     Either way, I think the people doing more to save industrial civilization would be the beamjacks assembling orbital powersats or running the superconductor lines from the Sahara to Europe to Iceland to Greenland to LA or whatever.

     RAYMOND McVAY: Again, I agree you can't base an energy economy on oil from another planet — indefinitely. That being said, the time and expense of adding infrastructure to run on something else is so great that desperate measures will be needed to bridge the gap. If we, in the real world had started a couple of decades ago getting ready for peak oil, we would be laughing at the problem now. We didn't, however, so we're reaching the point where it will cost more in energy (read: oil) to retool civilization to run on some other energy source than we currently have oil reserves left, after all, we still have to run civilization, and since Reagan said it's a new morning in America in 1980, we've only spent oil more extravagantly. It's kind of like Ken Burnside's three generation rule for space stations: It's political suicide to try to limit consumption of oil enough to create the reserves needed to change over to a non-oil energy economy.

     So we need more oil. A lot more.

     Titan has a lot more. Can some of Earth's nations afford to produce synthetic oil? Sure, some of them. But here's the thing: Suppose in the future, you want to run civilization on fusion power. The problem is, you don't yet have a working fusion reactor and the best fuel source is the atmosphere of Saturn. How the heck do convince enough people to free up enough resources to establish the infrastructure needed to harvest all that Helium-3 ? Do you try to sell them on the future power source, trusting that the far-sightedness of humanity? Or, do you try to appeal to their greed, and offer them seas of natural gas in exchange of establishing the infrastructure needed to mine the He3 when you eventually need it?

     WINCHELL CHUNG: Rob Davidoff a cogent analysis, as always. I agree with it. Thank you for doing the analysis of the cost of importing Titan oil.

     As a fig-leaf, I still can see a future when importing petroleum from Titan could happen. Because I am old and cynical and believe that the power of money hungry corporations and bribed politicians is almost limitless.

     Imagine a world where cheap fusion power had been invented but it was illegal?

     You may have noticed that OPEC refused to reduce levels of oil production so the price of oil has plummeted. Many analysts are of the opinion that this is an attempt to destroy the infant renewable power industry aborning. Renewable power is an existential threat to the oil industry. An industry with such large amounts of money and power is not going to die without a fight.

     Scifi reference: "Seeding Program" by James Blish, where the Port Authority suppresses Pantropy because they can make more corrupt money with terraforming.

     ROB DAVIDOFF: Winchell Chung No problem, it was fun. 😁 It's worth noting that those assumptions could easily get worse—last night I didn't take into account the acquisition cost of the system. A tanker with a 60 year life, for instance, could only make 5 out-and-back trips. Construction cost for aerospace hardware is in the ballpark of $3500/kg, and those assumptions had 0.3 kg of ship per kg of oil payload. That means a ship transports a total of 16.7 kg of oil for each kg of ship over its lifetime, so we have to add at least a few hundred $/kg to pay for the ship's construction. That'd add about another $300/gallon, for a total cost of about $600/gallon. That's…troublesome.

     As for the oil industry "suppressing" solar or fusion in favor of trying to make corrupt money importing Titan oil…the problem is that the costs are simply too high. For instance, heating a simple 2x1x1 "coffin" apartment under those assumptions could easily run to $3000/month. That means that to live in such luxury as a coffin apartment, a worker would need to a have a minimum productivity of perhaps $10-$15,000/month. This can't be inflation in action—that'd just multiply the cost as well as their salary. Don't even think about what a company would have to pay to heat an office cube farm and keep the lights on. You need a future in which the average worker is vastly more productive, otherwise none of the poor workaday schmucks can pay their exorbitant energy bills and the oligarchs trying to enforce Titan oil use don't get paid. Worse, say one oligarch breaks faith and starts selling solar or wind or fusion energy. Their cost is about 1% the cost of the others, so if they offer a price break to customers of 50%, they're still turning a profit 50-60 times larger than they would as a member of the Titan Tea Conspiracy. The incentive to defect is simply too high to sustain. You could perhaps sustain a supply monopoly conspiracy like that against a cost ratio of 10:1, but 100:1, verging on 1000:1? I don't think so.

     WINCHELL CHUNG: Rob Davidoff, 1000:1? Yeah, I see what you mean. That is a little extreme.

     ROB DAVIDOFF: Winchell Chung, Yeah, that's about what you're talking. At $600/gallon for gas, that's an energy cost of about $4.67/MJ, compared to about $0.02/MJ for solar/wind at current prices (8 cents per kWhr per my local utility, and prices have been trending down). That's already more than 200:1, and could easily head towards 1000:1 as solar matures, or if the competition is something like D:T fusion.

     RAYMOND McVAY: I figured out what was bothering me about the analysis of Rob Davidoff about the costs to transporting Titan's methane to Earth — we were thinking of Titan tea as an equivalent to Texas tea. On Earth, natural gas is underground and has to be drilled and pumped with increasingly sophisticated and expensive methods, from light, sweet crude at low pressure to fraking oil shale. But on Titan, oil is not oil, in the terrestrial sense.

     On Titan, oil is water.

     Literally, methane fills the meteorological niche that water fills on Earth. It forms clouds, precipitates into rain, runs in rivers and forms lakes and seas and drains in to aquifers —well, “alkanifers”, anyway. Therefore, harvesting methane on Titan is analogous to the waterworks industry on Earth, not the petroleum industry.

     Looking at the numbers for water cost, meaning aquifer to tap, the price averages out across the US to about one whole cent a US gallon. That's 3.63 cents/kg. Now, lets increase that by a factor of ten, to reflect the costs of doing all this on a very cold world with no breathable air. So now we're at 36 cents/kg. Fill disposable bags made like trans habs, only thinner, and boost them via laser propulsion on a 6-year trajectory by the hundreds or thousands for about $10.00/kg, raising our price to $10.36/kg This gives us a per barrel cost, if my calculations are correct, of $1,142.00, or an increase over current cost of roughly 7.6:1.

     As for synthetic petrochemicals, the problem comes from energy return on energy investment (EROEI). Basically, does it take more energy to make gas than the gas yields when you burn it? In order to sustain industrial civilization as we know it, the EROEI must be at least 10:1, meaning that for every joule you invest into your energy source, you get ten joules in return. The EROEI of synthetic oil, made from the best oil sands of Canada, is only 6.5:1. No matter how cheap synthetic oil is compared to the real thing, it takes to much energy to make.

     The argument can be made that importing oil from freaking Saturn must surely take more energy than you can get out of it — but does it really? This kind of speculation is vigin territory in the Peal Oil conversation, because it removes the fundamental limitation to growth in closed system — it isn't a closed system anymore.

     They say that for everyone to live like they do in America would take the resources of twenty Earths. I don't disagree — in fact, Conjunction is built on it. Earth's population will naturally stabilize at nine billion. For all of them to live the middle-class American ideal, espoused by Democrats for decades, would take twenty time the stuff we have now. By mining the Solar System, that's possible. A single mid-sized NEO can yield more rare-earths than ever mined on Terra firma, or as much water as in all the oceans, or as much gold and platinum, or as much iron and nickel. And Titan can support Earth's current oil consumption for the next three thousand years, assuming the ecosystem doesn't naturally renew methane.

     Anyway, the bottom line is that if oil flows like water on Titan, it is possible to turn a profit on transporting it to Earth.

     ROB DAVIDOFF: Raymond McVay, I think talking about EROI is a bit of a non sequiter—how're the lasers powered that boost the oil back to Earth? There's not free oxygen on Titan to just burn oil there, so we've got to imagine it's solar or something—either on Titan or back on Earth. Accelerating a kilogram of bagged fuel with a laser by 10 km/s works out, by my calculations, to 20 MJ/kg. Decelerating it takes about the same. Burning the kilogram of fuel gives 42.4 MJ/kg, and that's at 100% efficiency. You've certainly sunk more energy into bringing the oil back than you'll get burning it. Thus, once again, it's not feasible for the base power of an industrial civilization—as you say, you need more like 10:1, where this is about 1:1.

     Shipping it for other uses (plastics manufacturing, etc.) could potentially be useful, the same way you're shipping platinum or iridium from NEOs, but you can't burn it for power—it's much too valuable for that.

     RAYMOND McVAY: I see your point Rob Davidoff. In this case, Titan tea is an energy transport medium…so in order for that to make sense, I need to say, yes to He3 fusion, but perhaps make it so massive that it cannot be used for spacecraft yet. Why not just send He3 to Earth and have fusion power there, you may ask? May still decide to do that. However, all of Earth's current infrastructure is geared toward fossil fuel consumption, and has been for the last 250 years, so it may actually be more economic to have a couple of fusion reactors powering lasers to launch billions of gallons of oil. It sounds preposterous…but since economics is involved as well as physics and chemistry, preposterous is not an unexpected result.

     By the way, I want to thank you for taking the time to comment so extensively on the topic. It's made me have to answer some tough questions and think of creative solutions, as well as check my math. It's going to make for a better setting.

     ROB DAVIDOFF: Raymond McVay, I'm glad I'm not being too much of a pain—I think every hard scifi universe needs to have its edges picked at at least a bit. For me, this is especially true for MacGuffinite, since I'm looking for one that doesn't just hold up for narrative but also for real. 😁

     That said, I hope you'll forgive me when I point out that the effort and investment to build a planet's worth of He3 fusion plants at Titan could just as easily build a solar cell plant on the surface of the moon, and turn lunar regolith into silicon chips and aluminum—creating energy that doesn't have a 6-year latency on demand increases.

     Also, using laser propulsion has the issue that your big burn in the transfer is at the Earth end—so either you're burning most of the energy value of the oil to slow down the next round of oil, or you're beaming the power to slow it down in from Titan, in which case why not just beam it the last mile to consumers on Earth? You just really, really, really cannot burn the oil for energy. It could be worth doing for industrial material inputs depending on what efficiency and base energy cost you feed into your assumptions about building synthetic fuel on a molecular level like the Navy's working on, but burning it doesn't balance economically energy-wise.

     It's worth noting that we've seen economies switch basic energy input before when the cost and availability changed—it happened with water mills to steam, and then again with steam to petroleum combustion. 

     ALISTAIR YOUNG: In my universe-history, I have something of a similar situation —

     (Well, okay, not all that similar, since differences in planetary history/stellar age meant that Eliera had almost no fossil fuels but was rather enriched in radioactives, so their entire fuel history was different, but close enough.)

     — with their outer-system moon Galine, which is a Titan-analog. (Because Titan is too much fun not to have in your setting somewhere.)

     My conclusion, based on not-dissimilar numbers to Rob Davidoff's at the relevant historical period, was that shipping crude was probably a non-starter, economically speaking. On the other hand, it started looking a lot better if you built refineries and chemical plants on Galine, and were shipping back high value-to-mass cargoes like pharmaceuticals, pellets of specialized (non-readily-substitutable) plastics, processed chemical feedstocks, etc., etc., and as a bonus from a worldbuilding perspective, all these large, technically complex installations give you all the excuse you'll ever need to put a genuine colony out there, rather than just a bunch of "wellheads".

     I didn't analyze the prospect of shipping back gasoline and other refined petroleum — although my guess is that they'd fall somewhere in the middle, closer to still better than crude — mostly because in my setting they never got the chance to pick up the gasoline habit, and would probably look funny at anyone who suggested burning such a mighty-useful-for-many-things chemical feedstock when the universe has so much uranium and deuterium and, well, light scattered around that's not all that useful for anything besides energy, belike.

     WINCHELL CHUNG: Alistair Young, putting the manufacturing on Titan is also better from a Rocketpunk standpoint. According to Rick Robinson in order to justify an extensive manned presence in space, it would be better if you had something larger than the outer-space equivalent of an oil rig. An oil rig is not a space colony. And monocultures do not support a rich ecosystem.

     Putting the manufacturing on Titan helps with both problems.

     ROB DAVIDOFF: Alistair Young has a good point, though—as long as it's not the base energy for the society, you could make decent money shipping high-value products made from cheap Titan petrochemicals. Don't know if there's enough margin on simple plastics and the like to be competitive with synthetics, but it could work for pharmaceuticals or the like. A big laser thermal rig could bring home the goods on a mass ratio of about 1.64 (20 km/s at 40 km/s exhaust velocity), which is a lot happier number to base an economy off of.

     RAYMOND McVAY: I definitely like the idea of having the petrol-based industries and refineries based on Titan, shipping high end back to the rest of the system.


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)

Transuranic Elements

Transuranic elements are the chemical elements with atomic numbers greater than 92 (the atomic number of uranium). All of these elements are unstable and decay radioactively into other elements.

Theoretically there exists an island of stability where certain transuranic elements are stable. But no such element has been discovered. Yet.

In the real world these would be useful for creating compact nuclear weapons. But in science fiction, such elements are popular with authors as MacGuffinite, and are given whatever magical properties the authors can imagine in their wildest dreams.

Of course in the real world there is no reason to expect to find such elements occurring naturally. And if they did, it would make more sense to mine the radioactive stuff with robots, not people. So it wouldn't strictly be MacGuffinite.


     Seeking distraction, Falkayn raised screen magnification and swept the scanner around jewel-blazing blackness. When he stopped for another pull at his glass, the view happened to include the enigmatic glow of the Crab Nebula...
     ..."Our dear employer keeps his hirelings fairly moral, but strictly on the principle of running a taut ship. He told me that himself once, and added, 'Never mind what the ship is taught, ho, ho, ho!' No, you won't make an idealist of Nicholas van Rijn. Not without transmuting every atom in his fat body."
     Falkayn let out a tired chuckle. "A new isotope. Van Rijn-235, no, likelier Vr-235,000—"
     And then his glance passed over the Nebula, and as if it had spoken to him across more than a thousand parsecs, he fell silent and grew tense where he sat...

(ed note: Falkayn just had the idea which would create the corporation Supermetals)

     ...Chill entered her guts. "Supermetals?" (which is a mysterious new corporation which sells transuranic elements)
     "What else?" He took a gulp of beer. "Ha, you is guessed what got me started was Supermetals?"
     She finished her coffee and set the cup on a table. It rattled loud through a stretching silence. "Yes," she said at length, flat-voiced. "You've given me a lot of hours to puzzle over what this expedition is for."
     "A jigsaw puzzle it is indeed, girl, and us sitting with bottoms snuggled in front of the jigsaw."
     "In view of the very, very special kind of supernova-and-companion you thought might be somewhere not too far from Sol, and wanted me to compute about—in view of that, and of what Supermetals is doing, sure, I've arrived at a guess."
     "Has you likewise taken into account the fact Supermetals is not just secretive about everything like is its right, but refuses to join the League?"...
     ...The primordial element, with which creation presumably began, is hydrogen-1, a single proton accompanied by a single electron. To this day, it comprises the overwhelming bulk of matter in the universe. Vast masses of it condensed into globes, which grew hot enough from that infall to light thermonuclear fires. Atoms melted together, forming higher elements. Novae, supernovae—and, less picturesquely but more importantly, smaller suns shedding gas in their red giant phase—spread these through space, to enter into later generations of stars. Thus came planets, life, and awareness.
     Throughout the periodic table, many isotopes are radioactive. From polonium (number 84) on, none are stable. Protons packed together in that quantity generate forces of repulsion with which the forces of attraction cannot forever cope. Sooner or later, these atoms will break up. The probability of disintegration—in effect, the half-life—depends on the particular structure. In general, though, the higher the atomic number, the lower the stability.
     Early researchers thought the natural series ended at uranium. If further elements had once existed, they had long since perished. Neptunium, plutonium, and the rest must be made artificially. Later, traces of them were found in nature: but merely traces, and only of nuclei whose atomic numbers were below 100. The creation of new substances grew progressively more difficult, because of proton repulsion, and less rewarding, because of vanishingly brief existence, as atomic number increased. Few people expected a figure as high as 120 would ever be reached.
     Well, few people expected gravity control or faster-than-light travel, either. The universe is rather bigger and more complicated than any given set of brains. Already in those days, an astonishing truth was soon revealed. Beyond a certain point, nuclei become more stable. The periodic table contains an "island of stability," bounded on the near side by ghostly short-lived isotopes like those of 112 and 113, on the far side by the still more speedily fragmenting 123, 124 . . . etc. . . . on to the next "island" which theory says could exist but practice has not reached save on the most infinitesimal scale.
     The first is amply hard to attain. There are no easy intermediate stages, like the neptunium which is a stage between uranium and plutonium. Beyond 100, a half-life of a few hours is Methuselan; most are measured in seconds or less. You build your nuclei by main force, slamming particles into atoms too hard for them to rebound—though not so hard that the targets shatter.
     To make a few micrograms of, say, element 114, eka-platinum, was a laboratory triumph. Aside from knowledge gained, it had no industrial meaning.
     Engineers grew wistful about that. The proper isotope of eka-platinum will not endure forever; yet its half-life is around a quarter million years, abundant for mortal purposes, a radioactivity too weak to demand special precautions. It is lustrous white, dense (31.7), of high melting point (ca. 4700°C.), nontoxic, hard and tough and resistant. You can only get it into solution by grinding it to dust, then treating it with H2F2 and fluorine gas, under pressure at 250°.
     It can alloy to produce metals with a range of properties an engineer would scarcely dare daydream about. Or, pure, used as a catalyst, it can become a veritable Philosopher's Stone. Its neighbors on the island are still more fascinating.
     When (planet )Satan was discovered, talk arose of large-scale manufacture. Calculations soon damped it. The mills which were being designed would use rivers and seas and an entire atmosphere for cooling, whole continents for dumping wastes, in producing special isotopes by the ton. But these isotopes would all belong to elements below 100. Not even on Satan could modern technology handle the energies involved in creating, within reasonable time, a ton of eka-platinum; and supposing this were somehow possible, the cost would remain out of anybody's reach.
     The engineers sighed . . . until a new company appeared, offering supermetals by the ingot or the shipload, at prices high but economic. The source of supply was not revealed. Governments and the Council of the League remembered the Shenna.
     To them, a Cynthian named Tso Yu explained blandly that the organization for which she spoke had developed a new process which it chose not to patent but to keep proprietary. Obviously, she said, new laws of nature had been discovered first; but Supermetals felt no obligation to publish for the benefit of science. Let science do its own sweating. Nor did her company wish to join the League, or put itself under any government. If some did not grant it license to operate in their territories, why, there was no lack of others who would.
     In the three years since, engineers had begun doing things and building devices which were to bring about the same kind of revolution as did the transistor, the fusion converter, or the negagravity generator. Meanwhile a horde of investigators, public and private, went quietly frantic...
     ...Politicians and capitalists alike organized expensive attempts to duplicate the discoveries of whoever was behind Supermetals. Thus far, progress was nil. A body of opinion grew, that that order of capabilities belonged to a society as far ahead of the Technic as the latter was ahead of the neolithic. Then why this quiet invasion?
     "I'm surprised nobody but you has thought of the supernova alternative," Coya said...
     ..."The mass of the planet—" Hirharouk consulted a readout. The figure he gave corresponded approximately to Saturn.
     "No bigger?" asked van Rijn, surprised.
     "Originally, yes," Coya heard herself say. The scientist in her was what spoke, while her heart threshed about like any animal netted by a stooping Ythrian. "A gas giant, barely substellar. The supernova blew most of that away—you can hardly say it boiled the gases off; we have no words for what happened—and nothing was left except a core of nickel-iron and heavier elements."...
     ...She addressed him: "Of course, when the pressure of the outer layers was removed, that core must have exploded into new allotropes, a convulsion which flung away the last atmosphere and maybe a lot of solid matter. Better keep a sharp lookout for meteoroids."...
     ...She talked fast, to stave off silence: "I daresay you've heard this before, Captain, but you may like to have me recapitulate in a few words. When a supernova erupts, it floods out neutrons in quantities that I, I can put a number to, perhaps, but I cannot comprehend. In a full range of energies, too, and the same for other kinds of particles and quanta—do you see? Any possible reaction must happen.
     "Of course, the starting materials available, the reaction rates, the yields, every quantity differs from case to case. The big nuclei which get formed, like the actinides, are a very small percentage of the total. The supermetals are far less. They scatter so thinly into space that they're effectively lost. No detectable amount enters into the formation of a star or planet afterward.
     "Except—here—here was a companion, a planet-sized companion, turned into a bare metallic globe. I wouldn't try to guess how many quintillion tons of blasted-out incandescent gasses washed across it. Some of those alloyed with the molten surface, maybe some plated out—and the supermetals, with their high condensation temperatures, were favored.
     "A minute fraction of the total was supermetals, yes, and a minute fraction of that was captured by the planet, also yes. But this amounted to—how much?—billions of tons? Not hard to extract from combination by modern methods; and a part may actually be lying around pure. It's radioactive; one must be careful, especially of the shorter-lived products, and a lot has decayed away by now. Still, what's left is more than our puny civilization can ever consume. It took a genius to think this might be!"

From LODESTAR by Poul Anderson (1973)

Space Law


An interesting twist on this is that claims might require a permanent human presence to be valid.  This would provide an excuse for human crews in places that normally might not have them, such as mining outposts.  It’s even possible that use claims would be based solely on human habitation, and not on any other factors.  This could lead to odd situations, like a major lunar colony having a web of small outposts solely for the purpose of maintaining title to the surrounding area.  Of course, the meaning of ‘permanent’ in such a situation is another question sure to keep the lawyers busy.

by Byron Coffey (2016)


About this time somebody pops up with the standard talking point for MacGuffinite: Lunar helium-3, the sine qua non of D-3He fusion. Wikipedia says: "A number of people, starting with Gerald Kulcinski in 1986, have proposed to explore the moon, mine lunar regolith and use the helium-3 for fusion. Because of the low concentrations of helium-3 (1.4 to 15 ppb in sunlit areas, up to 50 ppb in permanently shadowed areas), any mining equipment would need to process extremely large amounts of regolith (over 150 million tons of regolith to obtain one ton of helium-3), and some proposals have suggested that helium-3 extraction be piggybacked onto a larger mining and development operation ". This was the background of the movie Moon.

Problems include the unfortunate fact that we still have no idea how to build a break-even helium-3 burning fusion power plant, the very low concentrations of helium-3 in lunar regolith, and the fact that we can manufacture the stuff right here for a fraction of the cost of a lunar mining operation. James Nicoll systematically enumerates the problems here.

A minor point is that the manufacture of helium-3 produces radiation; and manufactured helium-3 is not a power source, it is an energy transport mechanism. It is only a power source if you actually mine it on the moon or other solar system body. And even if you manufacture it, you might want to move the production site into orbit along with other polluting industries.

Helium-3 can also be harvested from the atmospheres of gas giant planets. Jupiter is closest, but its massive gravity means a NERVA powered harvester would need an uneconomical mass ratio of 20 to escape. Saturn is farther but it would only require a mass ratio of 4 from a NERVA harvester.

Jean Remy observed that "However, in a good old Catch-22, I don't think we'll actually need helium-3 unless we have a strong space presence where fusion-powered ships are relatively common. Basically we will need to get helium-3 to support the infrastructure to get helium-3."

CitySide responded with "Not exactly without precedent. Consider coal mining's catalytic role in the development of the steam engine."

What CitySide means is that back in the day, deep coal mines would unfortunately fill up with water. You'd need the power of steam pumps to remove the water. Alas the steam pumps needed coal for fuel. And the coal was inside mines full of water.

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.


Lunar helium three is the brown M&Ms of hard SF.

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 provide some MacGuffinite: the Caribbean Sugar Islands of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Many science fictional interplanetary colonization models start with the colonists being subsistence farmers, only later becoming industrialized. But the Sugar Islands colonies only used agriculture to produce export products. They were fed with imported food, not locally produced food.

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 helium-3. Anywhere you have plenty of volatiles and no environmental worries will do. Run a tritium breeder reactor to brew up the helium-3 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)

A few weeks ago, Bigelow Aerospace made an announcement about establishing a commercial space operations company. The company’s founder, Robert Bigelow, participated in a teleconference for the media where he talked not only about his new plans, but about why some of his company’s prior plans did not come to fruition. Bigelow’s comments shed some light on the subject of “sovereign customers,” foreign governments that could potentially buy goods and services from American aerospace companies. Last decade, and for a few years into the current one, sovereign customers were touted by some aerospace companies as an emerging market in human spaceflight. That did not happen, and it fits a long pattern of predicted space markets that never materialized.

Bigelow debuted on the space stage in 2000, gaining access to a unique bit of NASA technology: an inflatable habitation spacecraft called Transhab that NASA had been working on in-house for several years. The concept of inflatable space stations dates to the early years of human spaceflight, when several companies, including tire maker Goodyear, explored the idea of a soft-skinned vehicle that would be inflated and become semi-rigid in the vacuum of space. NASA never adopted the technology in the Apollo and shuttle eras, but the agency began development of it in the 1990s. For reasons that were never quite clear, but were due at least partly to the immaturity of the technology, the agency canceled the project and used more conventional structures for the International Space Station. That’s when Bigelow stepped in and. through an agreement with the space agency, acquired the technology for further development. Early on, Bigelow said that he preferred the term “expandable” rather than inflatable, because the latter implied that the vehicle was like a balloon and therefore fragile. Because they included a Kevlar-like material similar to that used in bulletproof vests, Bigelow’s spacecraft were in fact bulletproof. The company’s business plan, however, was not.

In the 2000s, Bigelow expected that they would sell opportunities to fly in their inflatable habitats to foreign governments that would fly their own astronauts and conduct their own experiments and could conceivably put their own flag on the outside of the spacecraft. It was never clear what the final arrangements would be for such flights, but the potential customers would have to be countries with a lot of money, and a desire for greater visibility on the world stage, most likely including several Persian Gulf clients that in the 2000s were in the early stages of major economic, education, and technological development projects.

In his recent interview, Robert Bigelow stated that the 2008 economic crisis wiped out that potential market. Bigelow claimed that the company signed memoranda of understanding and letters of intent with eight unnamed countries interested in using its space stations. But, according to an article in SpaceNews, the customers, Bigelow said, “went from fantasizing about ambitious space programs for human beings in LEO to worrying about whether or not they’re going to default tomorrow on their national debt.”s He did not address the fact that the only human spacecraft then capable of reaching one of his orbital habitats was the Russian Soyuz. According to Bigelow, today his company is facing new competitors, including the International Space Station, and China. Once China has a space station operating in the 2020s, they could invite other countries to send astronauts for visits, thus undercutting any potential market for Bigelow.

It is not exactly clear what Bigelow’s early agreements covered. They probably involved more than merely flying experiments in space and probably also included flying citizens of those countries who would be primary sponsors of singular missions. But when Robert Bigelow refers to the ISS and China as his competitors today, he is apparently referring to something less than a foreign government mounting a complete space mission and more like the kind of arrangement that NASA used to have when it flew foreign nationals on space shuttle missions.

Bigelow was not the only company interested in sovereign customers. In December 2012, space startup Golden Spike announced plans to develop a commercial human lunar landing capability. (Golden Spike’s plans were discussed extensively in The Space Review. See: here, here, and here.) Like Bigelow, Golden Spike wanted to find foreign governments that would pay to fly passengers on their spacecraft—offering the opportunity to, say, land the first Saudi Arabians on the Moon. Several countries were rumored to be in “discussions” with Golden Spike at the time, but none ever became customers, and the company went dormant.

The illusive sovereign

There is an inherent problem with the “sovereign market,” which is that governments are generally uninterested in paying large amounts of money simply to fly their citizens as passengers on somebody else’s spacecraft. Although a country can make one of their own astronauts into a national hero, usually if a government decides that it wants a space program, their goal is more than to simply fly in space, but also to develop the country’s own domestic industry and education capabilities. Unless a company can offer to train that country’s engineers and allow that country’s industry to build significant portions of the spacecraft domestically, it is not going to want to pay the money. It was never clear that Bigelow could have offered any of those inducements, nor could Golden Spike.

An obvious analogy to this situation is military and civilian aircraft procurement. It is quite common for foreign governments to agree to buy military fighter jets or even commercial airliners only if substantial components are built in their countries. Many modern aircraft development projects are based upon this work-share assumption. The F-35 fighter, for instance, has subcomponents built in multiple countries, and the initial negotiations over who built what were often contentious. Every F-35 partner wanted to work on the most cutting-edge systems for the plane, such as its avionics, and many were disappointed, complaining that they were given responsibility for minor structural parts like the arrester hook. Foreign governments will often only agree to purchase legacy military aircraft if the manufacturer agrees to produce significant parts within the customer’s borders. Boeing deliberately set out with its 787 commercial airliner production to line up partners all over the world, thereby establishing what they hoped would be a customer base among many nationally-owned airlines.

Space companies also face a great deal of scrutiny over the issue of International Traffic in Arms Regulations, or ITAR, which can treat even totally innocuous space-related items as if they are weapons. Bigelow experienced this in 2006 when they needed to take to Russia a stand to keep their test satellite off the floor. The stand, which Robert Bigelow described as “indistinguishable from a common coffee table,” was part of a satellite assembly and therefore needed to be guarded at all times by two security officers. The takeaway lesson is that an American company will find it difficult to involve a foreign government in the design and development of a spacecraft.

Another issue is that a human spacecraft is a relatively sophisticated vehicle, and there will not be many subsystems that can be delegated to other countries even if ITAR did not get in the way. Add to that the problem of symbolism. If Bigelow had flown one of their inflatable habitat modules, none of the launches would have been from the client state’s territory. A sovereign customer that might accept not gaining contracts or educational training benefits from such a spaceflight will realize that national symbolism will be diminished if all of the launches and all of the hardware manufacturing happen outside of their country. Spaceflight has long been a status symbol—as long as you do it yourself. There is limited symbolism to purchasing the equipment or the service from somebody else and putting your flag on it.

Even if the 2008 economic collapse had not occurred, Bigelow would have still found it difficult to capture clients. It is not surprising that ultimately the company ended up serving as a contractor to NASA, successfully flying its BEAM technology demonstrator as part of the International Space Station. Many other companies started out with ambitions of serving entirely new markets only to end up in much more traditional roles as government contractors; it may not be glamorous, but it is better than bankruptcy.

Beware of promises of market demand

The failure of the emergence of the sovereign market is just one example in a long history of space markets that various entrepreneurs predicted would blossom that ultimately withered. Back in 2011, Henry Hertzfeld, who is now the director of The George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, gave a talk about the history of efforts at space commercialization. Hertzfeld warned “beware of promises of market demand” and noted that ever since the beginning of spaceflight there had been predictions that new markets would emerge to produce various products and commercial services. He provided a list of many of them:

  • 1960s and 1970s
    • Factories in space—drugs, gallium-arsenide crystals, materials
  • 1980s
    • Space Power Satellites
    • Direct TV (10-year delay)
  • 1990s
    • LEO Telecommunications
    • Remote sensing
  • 2000s
    • Space Tourism (suborbital)
    • Colonization of the Moon; mining of Moon’s resources
  • 2010s
    • Fuel Depots
    • Demand from foreign governments

In some cases, terrestrial alternatives, like cellphone technology and fiber optic cables, undercut the space-based market. As Hertzfeld pointed out in a recent email, in cases like telecom and direct TV, markets eventually did develop, but well beyond a profitable business plan horizon envisioned when they were promised or proposed. In other cases, like suborbital space tourism, the technology proved harder to perfect than the entrepreneurs expected. And in many cases, the expectations were never very realistic to begin with.

If we had some cheese we could have ham and cheese, if we also had some ham…

The above list is not exhaustive. Gallium-arsenide crystals and pharmaceuticals were still being touted as potential markets in the 1990s, and there are still die-hard believers in space-based solar power who probably have not bothered to install commercially available solar panels on their rooftops yet. You could also add a few more to the current decade such as asteroid mining, widespread commercial remote sensing, and space-based Internet. The latter two are still in their nascent stage and have not collapsed (yet?), although there was much greater enthusiasm about commercial remote sensing’s growth possibilities only a few years ago than there is today.

Often, prediction of a new market is just one conditional part of an equation with at least one other condition. For instance, space-based manufacturing could be possible if we had low-cost launch. Back in 2009, hundreds of scientists at the American Geophysical Union annual convention attended a special workshop on what commercial reusable spacecraft could offer them. They were told about the possibilities of low-gravity and upper atmosphere research that would be enabled by these new vehicles. But if they had started building experiments back then, the equipment would still be gathering dust today, because the commercial reusable suborbital launch capability does not exist even after nearly fifteen years of promises.

Similarly, the much-touted possibility of “public private partnerships” as a way to fill in the gap between government ambitions and private interests often depends upon a promised, but presently nonexistent, market. “Public private partnership” is often invoked to imply that the government can get what it wants by partnering with a commercial entity that wants the same thing and is willing to invest private capital. But as John Donahue of Harvard University noted in a 2017 workshop on the future of civil space, the term “has gone from obscurity to meaninglessness without passing through a period of coherence.” It’s like saying “abracadabra” and expecting that a problem—the government’s lack of money, or a company’s need for capital—will be solved in a flash of light and a puff of smoke. Often the invocation of a public private partnership solution is based upon the belief that a new market will emerge that a commercial entity wants to tap, rather than being based upon a demonstrated existing market. As the long history of non-emergent space markets demonstrates, there are reasons to worry that a new market will not emerge, and thus the partnership will fail, often before it can even begin. If this happens, the government’s options are to guarantee the debt of a private partner, or to go it alone.

Bigelow and Golden Spike provide examples of how companies can bet on a market that fails to materialize. Golden Spike was not able to recover from that. For Bigelow, a company that has been working on this for almost two decades, the last chapter has not been written, but this story may be coming to a close.

From KNEELING BEFORE A SOVEREIGN by Dwayne A. Day (2018)


In his novel Delta-V, author Daniel Suarez suggests that expansion into space, or more specifically the debt from loans financing expansion into space will be required to prevent the economy of the entire planet from popping and collapsing into a hyper Great Depression. Perhaps not realistic, but it at least seems plausible. It is based on the Credit theory of money, which has been around since the late 1800s - early 1900s.

The bit which enforces the presence of humans instead of an all-robot industrialization is more shaky, but as long as more than zero investors try it we may have MacGuffinite in our pockets.


(ed note: our hero James Tighe, underwater cave diver extraordinaire, has been invited to a meeting with billionaire Nathan Joyce. Also present at the meeting is is Nobel Prize–winning economist Professor Sankar Korrapati. )

The professor retrieved a small remote from a nearby credenza and clicked it. The TV winked off and instead a hologram glowed into existence above the coffee table. It consisted of 3D words in bold white letters:

     What is money?

     Tighe was momentarily startled. He’d never seen an open-air holographic display in person.
     Joyce noticed his reaction. “Pretty cool, eh? Software-defined light. I was an angel investor in the firm that pioneered it.”
     Tighe gazed at the words: What is money? Their meaning started to sink in. He couldn’t help but think this looked like the beginning of the world’s most elaborate time-share pitch. “Mr. Joyce—”
     “Nathan, please.”
     “Uh, Nathan, I appreciate the invitation—”
     “But why are you here? I’ll explain, but first, I’d like you to listen to a talk Sankar has been delivering in certain circles.” On Tighe’s attempt to speak he added, “Indulge me.” Joyce turned to the professor. “Doctor, if you will.”

     “Of course.” Korrapati moved alongside the glowing hologram and stared intently. “Can you tell me from where money comes, Mr. Tighe?”
     Tighe looked from the professor to Joyce and back again. Apparently they were doing this. “I … I guess it comes from a mint.”
     “To be clear: by ‘money,’ I do not mean the physical instruments—the paper and the coins—but the unit of value that money represents. How does a given unit of money come into existence?”
     Tighe was about to answer when he realized with surprise that he did not know.
     “Do not be embarrassed. Many MBAs do not know either.”

     The holographic words morphed into a US one-dollar bill.
     “The reality is that only 5 percent of all money is created by governments in the form of cash in circulation.”
     The holographic dollar shrank to a minuscule size against a backdrop of scrolling database records.
     “The remaining 95 percent of money is created by commercial banks whenever they extend credit to a borrower.”
     Tighe looked at Joyce quizzically. Joyce nodded for him to pay attention.
     The hologram now transformed into a house with a “Sold” sign on the front lawn.
     “For example, when a new mortgage is originated, that money does not come out of a bank vault. Instead, the money is created as a result of the loan. The bank supplies it to the borrower as a bank credit, with the borrower promising to repay the principal plus interest at a future date. This new debt is registered with a federal reserve or a central bank to the commercial bank’s account, allowing it to now loan out more money based on a multiple of that new loan—usually at a ratio of ten or more to one. So the more money the bank lends, the more it has available to lend.

     Tighe frowned. “Hold on. How can that be?”
     “Because in the modern world money does not represent value, Mr. Tighe—money represents debt. And the more debt that is created in the world, the more money there is.”
     Tighe looked again at Joyce.
     Joyce gestured for Korrapati to continue.

     “To be clear, it is very important that banks get back this virtual money they loan out—and with interest—or the bank will become insolvent. However, as long as loans keep getting repaid, a bank can continue creating new money in the form of credit.”
     The hologram now depicted a bar graph with the arrow traveling rightward and ever upward.
     “And so it continues, with new money being created all the time as more and more people, companies, and state and local governments borrow. But this system has a weakness …”
     Another line appeared on the graph. It was labeled Payments Due and began well above and not far behind the rising debt line—chasing it uphill.
     “Banks lend only the principal. However, loans must be repaid plus interest—and with long-term loans like mortgages, the total interest payments far exceed the principal itself. Unless the overall money supply keeps growing, there will never be enough money to pay back all the loans plus interest.
     “This is why we see ‘growth’ as the central mantra of finance. Why consumers are urged to ever-greater consumption, why prices continue to rise—because new debt must feed ever-growing interest requirements.

     “Most shocking to the layman is the fact that repaying debt destroys money. If most debts were paid off, far from helping the economy, it would increasingly paralyze it. No debt would mean there was no money.
     The hologram morphed into a line of people in tattered clothes waiting before a soup kitchen.
     “Recall the Great Depression, Mr. Tighe. Between 1929 and 1933 the overall US money supply was reduced by nearly a third. As bad loans were written off, there was less money overall to meet interest obligations, resulting in a cascade of failure.”
     The hologram now dissolved to show cartoon bank buildings toppling like dominoes.
     “The Great Depression wasn’t a case of too much debt. It was a case of too little debt.”

     Tighe raised his eyebrows, bewildered.
     The virtual graph returned as the debt line resumed its upward trajectory.
     “Debt powers modern economies, which is why it is constantly growing. The greater the debt, the larger the money supply, the more economic activity—but also the more interest that needs to be repaid to keep the system running.”
     Korrapati looked grim. “So at the very time that climate change threatens to destroy human civilization, our economic system compels us to pursue ever-greater business growth—which will eventually become impossible.
     The holographic line of repayments finally overtook the debt line—and suddenly both lines plunged straight down.

(ed note: this is the part enforcing the something lucrative in space part of MacGuffinite)

     “My financial model predicts that on its present course this unsustainable debt bubble will pop within the next decade, collapsing the entire global economy—with the potential for world conflict, mass starvation, and possibly the end of modern civilization as we know it.”

     Tighe was speechless.
     “However, there is a place where near-infinite expansion can occur—is, in fact, already occurring. Where our current debt-based financial system can expand for millions of years uninterrupted.” Korrapati pointed upward. “Space.
     Korrapati clicked on the remote, and the holographic display dissolved.
     “Commercial exploitation of our solar system can expand the human economy beyond Earth to address the accumulated accumulated debt in our economic system, massively increasing the total amount of raw materials and energy without increasing carbon emissions or hastening climate change. It is the only sure way to avoid imminent, global economic collapse.

     Tighe sat numbly for several moments, but then he looked up at an expectant Korrapati. “Let me get this straight: you’re saying humanity must expand into space—not for the sake of science or exploration, but to stop the banks from going broke?”
     “To preserve civilization.”

     “Wouldn’t it be easier to just redesign money?”
     “Redesigning the financial system is more challenging than you might think—especially with winners in the current economic system prepared to use all their power to preserve the status quo. And cryptocurrencies have their own energy—and climate change—related drawbacks.”

     Joyce cleared his throat.
     Tighe turned to look at the billionaire.
     “I have two words for you, J.T.: asteroid mining.”
     “Asteroid mining.”
     “I’ve examined Dr. Korrapati’s financial model. So have my fellow investors. We’re convinced that unless something changes, our portfolios could be worthless within a decade.

(ed note: this is the part enforcing the human beings instead of robots part of MacGuffinite)

     “Look, I’m not sure why you brought me here, but I think there’s been some sort of mistake.” Tighe stood. “I’m not an investor.”
     “There was no mistake, J.T. I’ve launched an asteroid-mining company, and we’re looking to crew our first manned expedition. I’d like you to sign on.”
     Tighe slowly sat back down.
     “Asteroid mining will be a dangerous business. A job for the adventurous.” Joyce gestured to the television screen. “I’ve seen what you’re capable of. We’ll pay all training expenses, and there’s a signing bonus—yours to keep even if you don’t make the final cut.”
     “You’re sending people to mine asteroids?”
     “In space.”
     “Aren’t there already companies doing that with robots?”
     “There are several in the preparation stages. Their tech is still unproven. We think that, despite the significant added costs, sending humans along with robots will give us a competitive edge—chiefly, the ability to iterate new designs on-site to accelerate innovation. As Dr. Korrapati demonstrated, time is a factor.
     However, Tighe wasn’t going to let himself be distracted by high-tech parlor tricks. “You really think humans make sense for asteroid mining?”
     “If humanity is ever going to become a spacefaring species, we actually need to go to space—and not just to visit. That means establishing commerce there. Robots will help us, but they’re not the end goal. We need to expand human presence in our solar system—that’s the only way we get exponential growth.

From DELTA-V by Daniel Suarez (2019)

Heat Sink

Curse that annoying second law of thermodynamics! Whether the machine in question is a rocket engine or industrial process, there is always going to be waste heat. Which has to be gotten rid of by throwing it into a heat sink, generally a heat radiator.

The efficiency of the process tells you what percentage of the process energy is going to turn into waste heat. The thing about percentages is that whatever the percent is, the bigger the process energy, the more waste heat. This is basic arithmetic but sometimes it isn't obvious.

For example, if your laser efficency is 20% ( η = 0.2) and the weapon uses 100 kilowatts, then it will output a beam of 20 kilowatts and have 80 kilowatts of waste heat.

But if the weapon is using 1 terawatt it will have EIGHT! HUNDRED! FREAKING! GIGAWATTS! OF WASTE HEAT to get rid off. About the energy of 200 metric tons of TNT exploding, per second.

If your industrial process is going to use petawatts or exawatts of energy, you've got a real problem on your hands.

Perhaps the ready availability of icy gas giant moons and comets could be just the MacGuffinite you need to deal with such processes.


(ed note: our hero David Falkayn has been sent by his boss Nicholas van Rijn to Serendipity, Inc. There he pays lots of money to hire Serendipity's computers to come up with a previously unknown source of lucrative opportunity for the Solar Spice and Liquor company.)

      "David Falkayn of Hermes!" (said the computer)
     "Yes?" He sat bolt upright and tensed.
     "A possibility. You will recall that, a number of years ago, you showed that the star Beta Centauri has planets in attendance."
     Falkayn couldn't help crowing, uselessly save that it asserted his importance in contrast to the huge blind brain. "I should forget? That was what really attracted the notice of the higher-ups and started me to where I am. Blue giant suns aren't supposed to have planets. But this one does."
     "That is recorded, like most news," said the machine, unimpressed. "Your tentative explanation of the phenomenon was later verified. While the star was condensing, a nucleus still surrounded by an extensive nebular envelope, a swarm of rogue planets chanced by. Losing energy to friction with the nebula, they were captured.
     "Sunless planets are common. They are estimated to number a thousand or more times the stars. That is, nonluminous bodies, ranging in size from superjovian to asteroidal, are believed to occupy interstellar space in an amount greater by three orders of magnitude than the nuclear-reacting self-luminous bodies called stars. Nevertheless, astronomical distances are such that the probability of an object like this passing near a star is vanishingly small. Indeed, explorers have not come upon many rogues even in mid-space. An actual capture must be so rare that the case you found may well be unique in the galaxy.

     "However, your discovery excited sufficient interest that an expedition set forth not long afterward, from the Collectivity of Wisdom in the country of Kothgar upon the planet Lemminkainen. Those are the Anglic names, of course. Herewith a transcript of the full report." A slot extruded a spooled micro-reel which Falkayn automatically pocketed.
     "I know of them," he said. "Nonhuman civilization, but they do have occasional relations with us. And I followed the story. I had somewhat of a personal interest, remember. They checked out every giant within several hundred light-years that hadn't been visited before. Results negative, as expected—which is why no one else bothered to try."
     "At that time, you were on Earth to get your Master's certificate," the machine said. "Otherwise you might never have heard. And, while Earth's data-processing and news facilities are unsurpassed in known space, they are nonetheless so overloaded that details which seem of scant importance are not sent in. Among those filtered-out items was the one presently under consideration.

     "It was by chance that Serendipity, Inc., obtained a full account several years later. A Lemminkainenite captain who had been on that voyage tendered the data in exchange for a reduction of fee for his own inquiries. Actually, he brought information and records pertaining to numerous explorations he had made. This one happened to be among them. No significance was noticed until the present moment, when your appearance stimulated a detailed study of the fact in question."
     The man's pulse quickened. His hands clenched on the chair arms.

     "Preliminary to your perusal of the transcript, a verbal summary is herewith offered," whistled the oracle. "A rogue planet was found to be approaching Beta Crucis. It will not be captured, but the hyperbola of its orbit is narrow and it will come within an astronomical unit."
     The screen darkened. Space and the stars leaped forth. One among them burned a steady steel blue. It waxed as the ship that had taken the pictures ran closer.
     "Beta Crucis lies approximately south of Sol at an approximate distance of two hundred and four light-years." The dry recital, in that windful tone, seemed to make cold strike out of the moving view. "It is of type B1, with a mass of approximately six, radius four, luminosity eight hundred and fifty times Sol's. It is quite young, and its total residence time on the main sequence will be on the order of a hundred million standard years."
     The scene shifted. A streak of light crossed the wintry stellar background. Falkayn recognized the technique. If you cruise rapidly (at faster-than-light speeds) along two or three orthogonal axes, recording photo-multipliers will pick up comparatively nearby objects like planets, by their apparent motion, and their location can be triangulated.
     "In this instance, only a single object was detected, and that at a considerable distance out," said the machine. "Since it represented the lone case of passage that the expedition found, closer observation was made."
     The picture jumped to a strip taken from orbit. Against the stars hung a globe. On one side it was dark, constellations lifting over its airless horizon as the ship moved. On the other side it shimmered wan bluish white. Irregular markings were visible, where the steeper uplands reared naked. But most of the surface was altogether featureless.
     Falkayn shivered. Cryosphere, he thought.

     This world had condensed, sunless, from a minor knot in some primordial nebula. Dust, gravel, stones, meteoroids rained together during multiple megayears; and in the end, a solitary planet moved off between the stars. Infall had released energy; now radioactivity did, and the gravitational compression of matter into denser allotropes. Earthquakes shook the newborn sphere; volcanoes spouted forth gas, water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, ammonia, cyanide, hydrogen sulfide — the same which had finally evolved into Earth's air and oceans.
     But here was no sun to warm, irradiate, start the chemical cookery that might at last yield life. Here were darkness and the deep, and a cold near absolute zero.
     As the planet lost heat, its oceans froze. Later, one by one, the gases of the air fell out solid upon those immense glaciers, a Fimbul blizzard that may have gone for centuries. In a sheath of ice—ice perhaps older than Earth herself—the planet drifted barren, empty, nameless, meaningless, through time to no harbor except time's end.


     "The mass and diameter are slightly greater than terrestrial, the gross density somewhat less," said the brain that thought without being aware. "Details may be found in the transcript, to the extent that they were ascertained. They indicate that the body is quite ancient. No unstable atoms remain in appreciable quantity, apart from a few of the longest half-life.
     "A landing party made a brief visit."
     The view jumped again. Through the camera port of a gig, Falkayn saw bleakness rush toward him. Beta Crucis rose. Even in the picture, it was too savagely brilliant to look near. But it was nonetheless a mere point—distant, distant; for all its unholy radiance, it threw less light than Sol does on Earth.
     That was ample, however, reflected off stiffened air and rigid seas. Falkayn must squint against dazzle to study a ground-level scene.
     That ground was a plain, flat to the horizon save where the spaceboat and crew had troubled it. A mountain range thrust above the world's rim, dark raw stone streaked with white. The gig cast a blue shadow across diamond snow-glitter, under the star-crowded black sky. Some Lemminkainenites moved about, testing and taking samples. Their otter shapes were less graceful than ordinarily, hampered by the thick insulating soles that protected them and the materials of their spacesuits from the heat sink that such an environment is. Falkayn could imagine what hush enclosed them, scarcely touched by radio voices or the seething of cosmic interference.

     "They discovered nothing they considered to be of value," said the computer. "While the planet undoubtedly has mineral wealth, this lay too far under the cryosphere to be worth extracting. Approaching Beta Crucis, solidified material would begin to sublime, melt, or vaporize. But years must pass until the planet came sufficiently near for this effect to be noticeable."
     Unconsciously, Falkayn nodded. Consider the air and oceans of an entire world, chilled to equilibrium with interstellar space. What a Dante's hell of energy you'd need to pour in before you observed so much as a little steam off the crust!
     The machine continued. "While periastron passage would be accompanied by major geological transformations, there was no reason to suppose that any new order of natural phenomena would be disclosed. The course of events was predictable on the basis of the known properties of matter. The cryosphere would become atmosphere and hydrosphere. Though this must cause violent readjustments, the process would be spectacular rather than fundamentally enlightening—or profitable; and members of the dominant culture on Lemminkainen do not enjoy watching catastrophes. Afterward the planet would recede. In time, the cryosphere would re-form. Nothing basic would have happened.
     "Accordingly, the expedition reported what it had found, as a mildly interesting discovery on an otherwise disappointing cruise. Given little emphasis, the data were filed and forgotten. The negative report that reached Earth did not include what appeared to be an incidental."

     Falkayn smote the desk. It thrummed within him. By God, he thought, the Lemminkainenites for sure don't understand us humans. We won't let the thawing of an ice world go unwatched!
     Briefly, fantasies danced in his mind. Suppose you had a globe like that, suddenly brought to a livable temperature. The air would be poisonous, the land raw rock … but that could be changed. You could make your own kingdom—
     No. Quite aside from economics (a lot cheaper to find uninhabited planets with life already on them), there were the dull truths of physical reality. Men can alter a world, or ruin one; but they cannot move it one centimeter off its ordained course. That requires energies of literally cosmic magnitude.
     So you couldn't ease this planet into a suitable orbit around Beta Crucis. It must continue its endless wanderings. It would not freeze again at once. Passage close to a blue giant would pour in unbelievable quantities of heat, which radiation alone is slow to shed. But the twilight would fall within years; the dark within decades; the Cold and the Doom within centuries.
     The screen showed a last glimpse of the unnamed sphere, dwindling as the spaceship departed. It blanked. Falkayn sat shaken by awe.

     He heard himself say, like a stranger, with a flippancy that was self-defensive, "Are you proposing I organize excursions to watch this object swing by the star? A pyrotechnic sight, I'm sure. But how do I get an exclusive franchise?"
     The machine said, "Further study will be required. For example, it will be needful to know whether the entire cryosphere is going to become fluid. Indeed, the very orbit must be ascertained with more precision than now exists. Nevertheless, it does appear that this planet may afford a site of unprecedented value to industry. That did not occur to the Lemminkainenites, whose culture lacks a dynamic expansionism. But a correlation has just been made here with the fact that, while heavy isotopes are much in demand, their production has been severely limited because of the heat energy and lethal waste entailed. Presumably this is a good place on which to build such facilities."
     The idea hit Falkayn in the belly, then soared to his head like champagne bubbles. The money involved wasn't what brought him to his feet shouting. Money was always pleasant to have; but he could get enough for his needs and greeds with less effort. Sheer instinct roused him. He was abruptly a Pleistocene hunter again, on the track of a mammoth.
     "Judas!" he yelled. "Yes!"
     "Because of the commercial potentialities, discretion would be advantageous at the present stage," said the voice which knew no glories. "It is suggested that your employer pay the fee required to place this matter under temporary seal of secrecy. You may discuss that with Freelady Beldaniel upon leaving today, after which you are urged to contact Freeman van Rijn."

     "Frankly," Chee Lan said, "speaking between friends and meaning no offense, you're full of fewmets. How can one uninhabitable piece of thawed hell matter that much to anybody?"
     "Surely I explained, even in my wooze," Falkayn replied. "An industrial base, for the transmutation of elements."
     "But they do that at home."
     "On a frustratingly small scale, compared to the potential market." Falkayn poured himself a stiff whisky and leaned back to enjoy digesting his dinner. He felt he had earned a few hours' ease in the saloon. "Tomorrow" they were to land, having completed their investigations from orbit, and things could get shaggy. "How about a poker game?"
     The Cynthian, perched on the table, shook her head. "No, thanks! I've barely regained my feeling for four-handed play, after Muddlehead got rich enough in its own right to bluff big. Without Adzel, the development's apt to be too unfamiliar. The damned machine'll have our hides." She began grooming her silken fur. "Stick to business, you. I'm a xenologist. I never paid more attention than I could help to your ugly factories. I'd like a proper explanation of why I'm supposed to risk my tailbone down there."

     Falkayn sighed and sipped. He would have taken for granted that she could see the obvious as readily as he. But to her, with her biological heritage, cultural background, and special interests, it was not obvious. I wonder what she sees that I miss? How could I even find out? "I don't have the statistics in my head," he admitted. "But you don't need anything except a general knowledge of the situation. Look, there isn't an element in the periodic table, nor hardly a single isotope, that doesn't have some use in modern technology. And when that technology operates on hundreds of planets, well, I don't care how minor a percentage of the consumption is Material Q. The total amount of Q needed annually is going to run into tons at a minimum—likelier into megatons.
     "Now nature doesn't produce much of some elements. Even in the peculiar stars, transmutation processes have a low yield of nuclei like rhenium and scandium—two metals I happen to know are in heavy demand for certain alloys and semiconductors. Didn't you hear about the rhenium strike on Maui, about twenty years ago? Most fabulous find in history, tremendous boom; and in three years the lodes were exhausted, the towns deserted, the price headed back toward intergalactic space. Then there are the unstable heavy elements, or the shorter-lived isotopes of the lighter ones. Again, they're rare, no matter how you scour the galaxy. When you do find some, you have to mine the stuff under difficult conditions, haul it a long way home … and that also drives up the cost."
     Falkayn took another swallow. He had been very sober of late, so this whisky, on top of cocktails before dinner and wine with, turned him loquacious. "It isn't simply a question of scarcity making certain things expensive," he added. "Various projects are impossible for us, because we're bottlenecked on materials. We could progress a lot faster in interstellar exploration, for instance—with everything that that implies—if we had sufficient hafnium to make sufficient polyergic units to make sufficient computers to pilot a great many more spaceships than we can build at present. Care for some other examples?"

     "N-no. I can think of several for myself," Chee said. "But any kind of nucleus can be made to order these days. And is. I've seen the bloody transmutation plants with my own bloody eyes."
     "What had you been doing the night before to make your eyes bloody?" Falkayn retorted. "Sure, you're right as far as you go. But those were pygmy outfits you saw. They can't ever keep up with the demand. Build them big enough, and their radioactive waste alone would sterilize whatever planets they're on. Not to mention the waste heat. An exothermic reaction gives it off directly. But so does an endothermic one … indirectly, via the power-source that furnishes the energy to make the reaction go. These are nuclear processes, remember. E equals mc squared. One gram of difference, between raw material and final product, means nine times ten to the thirteenth joules. A plant turning out a few tons of element per day would probably take the Amazon River in at one end of its cooling system and blow out a steam jet at the other end. How long before Earth became too hot for life? Ten years, maybe? Or any life-bearing world? Therefore we can't use one, whether or not it's got sophont natives. It's too valuable in other ways—quite apart from interplanetary law, public opinion, and common decency."
     "I realize that much," Chee said. "This is why most existing transmuters are on minor, essentially airless bodies. Of course."
     "Which means they have to install heat exchangers, feeding into the cold mass of the planetoid." Falkayn nodded. "Which is expensive. Worse, it puts engineering limitations on the size of a plant, and prohibits some operations that the managers would dearly love to carry out."

     "I hadn't thought about the subject before," Chee said. "But why not use sterile worlds—new ones, for instance, where life has not begun to evolve—that have reasonable atmospheres and hydrospheres to carry off the heat for you?"
     "Because planets like that belong to suns, and circle 'em fairly close," Falkayn answered. "Otherwise their air would be frozen, wouldn't it? If they have big orbits, they might retain hydrogen and helium in a gaseous state. But hydrogen's nasty. It leaks right in between the molecules of any material shielding you set up, and bollixes your nuclear reactions good. Therefore you need a world about like Earth or Cynthia, with reasonably dense air that does not include free hydrogen, and with plenty of liquid water. Well, as I said, when you have a nearby sun pouring its own energy into the atmosphere, a transmutation industry of any size will cook the planet. How can you use a river if the river's turned to vapor? Oh, there have been proposals to orbit a dust cloud around such a world, raising the albedo to near 100. But that'd tend to trap home-grown heat. Cost-effectiveness studies showed it would never pay. And furthermore, new-formed systems have a lot of junk floating around. One large asteroid, plowing into your planet, stands a good chance of wrecking every operation on it."

     Falkayn refreshed his throat. "Naturally," he continued, "once a few rogues had been discovered, people thought about using them. But they were too cold! Temperatures near absolute zero do odd things to the properties of matter. It'd be necessary to develop an entire new technology before a factory could be erected on the typical rogue. And then it wouldn't accomplish anything. Remember, you need liquid water and gaseous atmosphere—a planet's worth of both—for your coolants. And you can't fluidify an entire cryosphere. Not within historical time. No matter how huge an operation you mount. The energy required is just plain too great. Figure it out for yourself sometime. It turns out to be as much as all Earth gets from Sol in quite a few centuries."
     Falkayn cocked his feet on the table and elevated his glass. "Which happens to be approximately what our planet here will have received, in going from deep space to Beta C. and back again," he finished. He tossed off his drink and poured another.

     "Don't sound that smug," Chee grumbled. "You didn't cause the event. You are not the Omnipotent: a fact which often reconciles me to the universe."
     Falkayn smiled. "You'd prefer Adzel, maybe? Or Muddlehead? Or Old Nick? Hey, what a thought, creation operated for profit!—But at any rate, you can see the opportunity we've got now, if the different factors do turn out the way we hope; and it looks more and more like they will. In another ten years or so, this planet ought to have calmed down. It won't be getting more illumination than your home world or mine; the cold, exposed rocks will have blotted up what excess heat didn't get reradiated; temperature will be reasonable, dropping steadily but not too fast. The transmutation industry can begin building, according to surveys and plans already made. Heat output can be kept in balance with heat loss: the deeper into space the planet moves, the more facilities go to work on it. Since the air will be poisonous anyway, and nearly every job will be automated, radioactive trash won't pose difficulties either.
     "Eventually, some kind of equilibrium will be reached. You'll have a warm surface, lit by stars, lamps here and there, radio beacons guiding down the cargo shuttles; nuclear conversion units on every suitable spot; tons of formerly rare materials moving out each day, to put some real muscle in our industry—" The excitement caught him. He was still a young man. His fist smacked into his other palm. "And we brought it about!"

     "For a goodly reward," Chee said. "It had better be goodly."
     "Oh, it will be, it will be," Falkayn burbled. "Money in great, dripping, beautiful gobs. Only think what a franchise to build here will be worth. Especially if Solar Spice & Liquor can maintain rights of first reconnaissance and effective occupation."
     "As against commercial competitors?" Chee asked. "Or against the unknown rivals of our whole civilization? I think they'll make rather more trouble. The kind of industry you speak of has war potentials, you know."

From SATAN'S WORLD by Poul Anderson (1968)

Unlimited Vacuum

One resource available in unlimited amounts in space is Vacuum. Let's face it, the only breathable air within the solar system is the thin skin around Terra. All the rest of the entire freaking solar system resides within airless vacuum, and probably a major amount of the rest of the universe as well.

It is a pity it isn't userful for anything. Wait a minute, maybe it is.

Perhaps even profitable uses, maybe even rising to MacGuffinite levels.

Jeff Greason noted: "Power beaming is a huge asset for all kinds of lunar surface and in-space applications, and vacuum electronics are much more credible to make in space manufacturing than semiconductors are. I think the pairing Heinlein imagined will one day come to pass."

ToughSF observed: 'Type 1' superconductors can be made out of common, cheap materials. They just need extremely cold conditions, which are impractical on Earth but easy for a shadowed volume in space...

Can't be used as electromagnets though.


(ed note: Dr. Cargraves {late of the Manhatten Project} along with his young adult nephew Art and his chums manage to convert a commercial suborbital passenger rocket into a solid core nuclear rocket engine spacecraft capable of traveling to Luna. They become the first men on the moon. Keep in mind this book was written in 1947)

      Art,” Cargraves inquired when he had taken off his clumsy suit, “how long will it be until you are ready to try out your Earth sender?”

     “Well, I don’t know, Uncle. I never did think we could get through with the equipment we’ve got. If we had been able to carry the stuff I wanted—”

     “You mean if we had been able to afford it,” put in Ross. “Well … anyhow, I’ve got another idea. This place is an electronics man’s dream — all that vacuum! I’m going to try to gimmick up some really big power tubes — only they won’t be tubes. I can just mount the elements out in the open without having to bother with glass. It’s the easiest way to do experimental tube design anybody ever heard of.”

Foone: Brilliant! Let's Kickstart a rocket to fly to the moon and set up a tubepunk civilization.

From ROCKET SHIP GALILEO by Robert Heinlein (1947)

(ed note: This report is written with more scientific precision but is harder for the layman to understand. The alternate report is more accessable.)

High vacuum is required for many industrial processes which might be accomplished on the moon, such as electronic component and solar cell manufacturing or a large particle accelerator. Ambient pressure on the moon is in the range of 1 E-12 torr (night) to 1 E-10 torr (day). The effects of a 20-person base and a 250 person industrial facility on this vacuum are discussed. Exhaust from the transport spacecraft and leakage from the habitat will be roughly comparable to the daytime gas pressure for the 20 person base, and will degrade the vacuum to the range of 2.E-9 torr for the 250 person facility. This is higher than the desired pressures for some semiconductor manufacture processes or for a lunar-based particle accelerator.

1. The Lunar Ambient

The existing lunar atmosphere is tenuous and not well characterized.

The ambient pressure is in the range of 5.E4 [1] to 2.E5 [2-4] molecules/cm3 during the lunar night, and 6.1 E5 to <1 E7 molecules/cm3 during the lunar day [5]. This corresponds to pressures from 5.E-13 torr (0.0005 nanotorr) up to 0.4 nanotorr, primarily consisting of hydrogen, helium, argon, and neon at night, with the probable addition of CO and CO2 in the daytime [6]. The mean free path for these pressures are in the range of hundreds to thousands of kilometers; thus, the movement of gas in the atmosphere is primarily via ballistic transport.

The atmospheric escape lifetime from the sunlit side of the moon is approximately 10000 seconds (fifteen minutes) for the lightest molecules (hydrogen and helium), and up to 1 E7 seconds, approximately 100 days, for heavier molecules [7]. 1 E7 seconds is roughly the maximum lifetime of atmosphere constituents; this is approximately the time it takes for the molecules to become ionized by the solar ultraviolet, at which time they are swept away by electric fields associated with the solar wind in times which are typically no more than a few hundred seconds [7]. As noted by Vondrak [8], this mechanism becomes ineffective if the atmosphere is thick, however, the gas input rate (on the order of 250,000 tons/month) required to reach such a level is considerably higher than what is likely to be produced in any near-term industrial facility.

2. Required Vacuum

It seems absurd to expect that the lunar vacuum could be lost by small-scale operations on the moon. However, high-vacuum and ultra-high vacuum is needed for many industrial processes, some of which may be accomplished on the moon. Some processes which require vacuum and thus would be simpler to manufacture or use on the moon include vacuum tubes, semiconductor manufacture, solar cell manufacture, and particle accelerators.

Silicon is a major component of the lunar crust. One likely low-cost process sequence for producing solar cells on the moon [9] is plasma-deposition of amorphous silicon. Such deposition processes typically have base pressures in the very high vacuum range, mid- E-6 torr, to below 1 E-7 torr for some experimental set-ups. It is believed that impurities in the deposited films of concentration greater than 1 E18/cm3 cause (or exacerbate) the deleterious light-induced degradation effect; this corresponds to a base pressure of 2000 nanotorr at deposition pressure 1 torr; 100 nanotorr at deposition pressure 0.05 torr.

Many processes for manufacturing semiconductor products require vacuum.

One process for depositing high-purity layered compound semiconductors is Molecular Beam Epitaxy (MBE). This process requires ultra-high vacuum.

Base pressure for MBE is in the range of 0.1 nanotorr [10,11] and can be as low as 0.03 nanotorr for GaAlAs [12], where C and O contamination are particularly harmful.

"Vacuum" tubes have a different values for the required operating vacuum, depending on the type of tube and the lifetime, noise level, etc. required. This ranges from 1 E-5 torr for the magnetron tubes used in microwave ovens, to ultra-high vacuum of 1 E-10 torr for travelling-wave tubes.

The moon would be a good location for a large, high-energy particle accelerator for several reasons, one of which is the vacuum ambient.

Intersecting Storage Ring (ISR) accelerators require very good vacuum, since any residual gas tends to scatter and defocus the beam. At a pressure of 10 nanotorr the beam lifetime is typically around one hour; and operating pressures of under 0.01 nanotorr are required for long lifetime storage and operation [13]. An additional problem is that whenever the beam tube is vented to atmosphere, gas is adsorbed onto the surfaces which is later desorbed by the beam current.

This vacuum will be degraded by human habitation and industrial processing of materials. It is unlikely that maintaining the lunar vacuum will be an important priority of the occupants of a moonbase. The amount of degradation can be calculated by multiplying the mass of gas exhausted times the gravitational acceleration of the moon and dividing by the lunar surface area. This factor is equal to 3.2.E-13 torr per (metric) ton of gas exhausted. Since the exhausted gas has an average lifetime in the lunar atmosphere of 100 days, the equilibrium contribution to the atmosphere is 1.3.E-12 torr per ton of exhaust gas per month.

3. Twenty Person Base

The major contribution to the lunar atmosphere from a small exploration base is exhaust gas from the transport. Assuming a specific impulse of 400 seconds (90% of the theoretical specific impulse of a hydrogen/oxygen engine), landing on the moon requires 0.8 tons of propellant per ton of landed material. If we assume a 10 ton lander making one trip per month with 2 tons of supplies landed per person per month (including the personnel rotation, machinery, scientific and exploration equipment, etc.), this results in an equilibrium pressure of 0.06 nanotorr for a 20 person base. This does not assume that the lander is refueled on the moon from lunar oxygen (i.e., it includes the fuel use to relaunch the lander, but does not assume that any payload is carried from the moon).

In actuality, it is not correct to assume that all of the propellant expended from the ship will contribute to the lunar atmosphere. The exhaust velocity of a hydrogen/oxygen engine is 4 km/sec, nearly double the lunar escape velocity. Further, if the trajectory used is an insertion into low lunar orbit followed by a descent burn, for much of the engine burn the exhaust will not be directed toward the lunar surface. However, for a rough calculation here I assume that the entire engine exhaust contributes to the atmosphere.

Another contribution to the generated atmosphere is air leakage from the living quarters. One estimate [14] of air leakage from an advanced long-duration habitat at atmospheric pressure is 1.2 kg of oxygen plus 4.5 kg of nitrogen per person per day. This would result in a pressure contribution of 0.004 nanotorr for a 20 person base. It has frequently been proposed that oxygen be locally generated. If this is done, it is unlikely that nitrogen dilution would be used, since nitrogen is nearly absent on the moon. Thus, the habitat pressure would be proportionately lower, and the leakage rate is expected to be reduced to 23% of that listed above. However, as discussed below, lunar generation of oxygen would itself be likely to be a source of leakage of waste gas.

In addition to this leakage, air will normally be lost during ingress and egress for extra-vehicular (or extra-habitat) activities ("EVA"). The amount of air lost will depend on whether the airlock is simply vented during egress, or if the lock is pumped down and the exhaust air reused.

In the baseline case, I will assume that the lock is simply vented. If there is one EVA per person per day, and the lock volume is 2 cubic meters of air at one atmosphere pressure, this then results in a contribution of 0.0017 nanotorr for the 20 person base, which is somewhat less than the habitat leakage (and, like the leakage, reduced if the base is assumed to have a pure oxygen atmosphere).

Table 1 summarizes the contributions of the various gas sources discussed.

The daytime total atmosphere is in the range of 0.07 nanotorr, comparable to the natural lunar atmosphere. During the lunar night, most of this will be adsorbed into the soil, resulting in considerably lower pressure.

4. 250 Person Industrial Facility

If large-scale industrialization takes place on the moon, it could be expected that the lunar habitat may have hundreds of inhabitants, and considerably more frequent resupply flights. In this case, the vacuum degradation will be correspondingly worse. The baseline calculated here will be for a 250 person base processing oxygen from lunar soil.

I assume here slightly less support material required from Earth, 1 ton of material per person per month; however, since the lander is fueled from lunar-produced oxygen, the fuel for the lander must be delivered into lunar orbit. Total gas contribution to the lunar atmosphere is 720 tons/month, for a pressure contribution of 0.6 nanotorr. Habitat leakage and airlock losses will contribute 0.05 nanotorr.

Lunar oxygen production to fuel the lander will require 400 tons of oxygen per month. A 25% loss rate, which is realistic for a low-cost industrial process, would contribute 0.13 nanotorr. If the trans-lunar injection ship is also to be fueled, this is a additional contribution. It has often been proposed that lunar oxygen production could be used as a cheap source of fuel for spacecraft to be used from Earth orbit. I assume a baseline facility designed to deliver oxygen to Earth orbit at a production rate of 500 tons per month. Lifting this from the moon will require 400 tons of fuel, and leakage losses will be about 200 tons. The contribution to the lunar atmosphere is 0.78 nanotorr. This will be considerably less, however, if the oxygen is to be shipped by mass-driver rather than lifted off the surface by rocket.

Mining of the lunar regolith for helium 3 (3He) to fuel terrestrial deuterium-helium 3 fusion reactors has recently become a topic of interest [15]. 3He implanted into the lunar regolith by the solar wind would be extracted by baking the soil, and then distilled. For every ton of 3He produced, about 3300 tons of helium 4, 6100 tons of hydrogen, 3000 tons of carbon monoxide and dioxide, and 500 tons of nitrogen will be produced [15]. 10 tons of 3He would be required to be mined per year if half the US electrical consumption of 285 GWe is to be produced. Most of the byproduct gasses produced will be useful to the lunar base. Except for refrigeration and pressurization use, however, the helium produced will not be of great use, and may eventually leak to the atmosphere. This was not assumed in the following analysis.

Since the escape lifetime for hydrogen and helium is much shorter than that for other gasses, these must be considered separately. If 25% of the gas content is lost as waste due to soil agitation during mining plus leakage and waste in the baking and condensation process, production of 10 tons/yr of 3He would produce 23500 tons/yr of waste hydrogen and 4He, plus 12000 tons/yr of heavier gas. Assuming an escape lifetime of 10000 seconds for the hydrogen and helium, this results in a contribution of 0.002 nanotorr for helium and hydrogen, and 0.87 nanotorr for heavier gasses.

The impact of helium 3 mining on the lunar atmosphere has also recently been considered by Duke [1], who concluded that stripping 100,000 tons of regolith per year would release an amount of trapped gas "roughly equivalent" to the existing lunar atmosphere.

In addition, the moonbase is likely to be a place where various other mining, refining and manufacturing operations take place, producing solar cells, aluminum and titanium structures, habitation modules, and probably other objects useful to further colonization. These processes will involve some amount of gas generation and, consequently, wastage. Until the processes are more completely specified, the contributions from this processing is unknown.

Finally, the lunar soil contains trapped gas at a concentration on the order of 50 ppm by weight, primarily hydrogen and helium from the solar wind, plus and carbon compounds and nitrogen. This is only loosely bound to the soil, and physical disturbance, as well as movement of soil by mining, etc., will likely release some of the gas content. This contribution is expected to be negligible compared to other sources.

The total contribution to the lunar atmosphere from the assumed industrial facility producing both oxygen and helium 3 is 2.5 nanotorr (see Table 1), a factor of 5-100 higher than the "natural" daytime atmosphere. This is low enough that manufacture of amorphous silicon solar cells can be performed without any additional vacuum pumping. For other processes discussed, such as MBE, travelling-wave vacuum tube formation, or siting of a large accelerator on the moon, the vacuum is not good enough, and these will require additional pumping.

While the lunar vacuum may not be sufficient for some operations, it must be kept in mind that even after degradation, the ambient remains a very high vacuum. It is much easier to pump a starting ambient of 1 E-9 torr down to ultra-high vacuum levels of 1 E-11 than it is to reach ultra-high vacuum starting from atmospheric pressure. Leaks and virtual leaks will be little problem; there will be almost no problem with desorption of gasses from chamber walls that have been exposed to ambient, and finally, the "vacuum chambers" will not be required to hold up to the large mechanical pressure of 10 tons/m2 imposed by the Earth's atmosphere.

It is an advantageous feature of the moon that the vacuum is self cleansing by the solar ultraviolet and solar wind. "Air pollution" is a temporary effect. If it is decided that a high vacuum is required, a wait of a few hundred days will suffice for the gas to be removed by the solar wind.

However, this is only true as long as the amount of atmosphere present is low enough that there is little shielding of the solar UV. This is likely to be true for the amounts of gas discussed in the present paper. Some amount of gas will be adsorbed by the lunar soil. Cleansing of this gas to restore the original ultrahigh vacuum will take longer, since the soil will take time to outgas.

5. Atmosphere Variation with Position

The calculations have so far assumed that the atmosphere generated can be assumed to be evenly distributed around the moon.

The gas input mechanisms discussed are either continuous or periodic with a characteristic time less than or equal to the resupply time, assumed to be one month. This is much shorter than the escape time, and so the overall variation with time is expected to be small. However, in the vicinity of intermittant gas sources, such as the exhaust plume of a lander, will be temporary large increases in the gas concentration. Sensitive processes would likely be shut down during such periods.

Gas molecules escape from the atmosphere primarily from the sunlit hemisphere of the moon, where they have higher kinetic energy and also are subject to photoionization by solar UV. Thus, the escape lifetime is determined by the gas distribution on the sunlit hemisphere.

For pressures of nanotorr and below, the gas in the atmosphere can be well modelled by ballistic transport. Gas molecules leave the surface with random direction and a thermal velocity profile, follow a ballistic trajectory until again intersecting the surface, and then may be temporarily adsorbed by the surface before being reemitted, again at a random direction and velocity. Temporary adsorption of gas by the surface is irrelevant to the calculation of equilibrium atmosphere pressure by a steady-state source, since the adsorbed gas neither contributes to the total pressure nor is subject to escape; however, a large amount of gas stored in the adsorption reservoir will proportionately increase the time needed to reach equilibrium pressure, and also increase the time needed to purge the atmosphere after the gas source is discontinued.

A complete transport calculation would integrate over the thermal (Maxwell-Boltzmann) velocity distribution, averaging over the hemispherical angular distribution, and also take into account the spherical lunar geometry and gravitational potential. A more complete calculation would include gas-gas collisions and the variation of temperature over the lunar surface.

For an order of magnitude calculation, however, it is sufficient to assume that all the molecules can be characterized by the average thermal energy of kT/2 per degree of freedom. At a temperature of 365=B0 K, this yields root mean square (RMS) vertical and radial velocities of 300 and 430 m/sec respectively for an O2 molecule. The horizontal d travelled on a parabolic trajectory is thus 160 km, and the time in flight 380 seconds. This distance is sufficiently small compared to the circumference of the moon that the assumption of parabolic trajectories is justifiable.

In a random walk process the expected distance from the origin equals the distance d per step times =88N, the square root of the number of steps; thus, the area covered equals =BCd2N. To cover the surface area of the moon thus requires roughly 450 steps, a flight time of 47 hours. This time is short compared to the escape lifetime of gas in the atmosphere, thus, the assumption of roughly uniform gas distribution is justified, and there will not be a significant difference in the amount of gas near the base compared to far from the base.

For other molecules, the time is proportional to (kT/m)^-3/2. Water vapor, for example, with a molecular weight of 18, will spread across the surface considerably faster. Hydrogen and Helium spread across the full surface area of the moon in a time of roughly an hour. Since the escape time for hydrogen and helium is considerably less than an hour, gas concentrations for hydrogen and helium can not be assumed uniform, and considerable variations in density will exist between areas close to the gas source to areas far away.

On the night side of the moon, the typical temperature is only 100K.

Molecules thus take six times as long to diffuse across the same area, and since any given molecule will spend six times as long on the night hemisphere as on the day hemisphere, the gas reservoir on the night side will be proportionately greater. Again, it should be noted that these times are exclusive of any time spent adsorbed in the soil.

These conclusions are different from those of Burns et al. [16], who particularly discuss column density with respect to opacity of the atmosphere for UV and radio astronomy, and conclude that the local pressures may be many orders of magnitude larger than the equilibrium pressure at locations close to a gas source.

6. Conclusions

Establishment of a lunar base will degrade the lunar vacuum. The time scale for distribution of exhaust gas across the surface of the moon is much less than the excape lifetime of the gas in the lunar atmosphere, and thus exhaust gas can be approximated as uniformly spread across the surface. A 20 person exploration base will contribute an amount of waste gas on the same order of magnitude as the daytime "natural" atmosphere. A 250 person "industrial" facility would be likely to contribute considerably more due to waste gas from various production processes such as lunar oxygen production and mining of helium 3 from the lunar regolith. This could degrade the lunar ambient to levels on the order of 3 nanotorr, replacing the mostly non-reactive gasses hydrogen, helium, and neon with more reactive gasses containing carbon and oxygen. This vacuum is still good enough to perform many important vacuum processes, such as plasma-deposition of amorphous silicon for solar cells, but processes such as molecular beam epitaxy or locating a intersecting beam accelerator on the moon will require additional vacuum pumping. In any case, though, pumping to ultrahigh vacuum will be much easier on the moon than on Earth.


[1] M. Duke, "Lunar Atmosphere," in Discussion Panel section of NASA Lewis
Research Center, Lunar Helium-3 Fusion Power Workshop, April 25-26 1988.

[2] J.H. Hoffman et al., "Lunar Atmospheric Composition Experiment", in
Apollo 17 Preliminary Science Report, NASA SP-330, p. 17-1 (1973). 

[3] F.S. Johnson et al., "Cold Cathode Gage (Lunar Atmosphere Detector)",
in Apollo 12 Preliminary Science Report, NASA SP-235, p. 93 (1970). 

[4] G. Jeffrey Taylor, "Geological Considerations for Lunar Telescopes,"
Future Astronomical Observatories on the Moon, NASA Conference Publication
2489, 21-28, 1988.

[5] J.H. Hoffman et al., "Lunar Atmospheric Composition Results from Apollo
17," Proc. 4th Lunar Sci. Conf., 2865-2875, 1973.

[6] R.R. Hodges Jr., "The Escape of Solar-Wind Carbon from the Moon,"
Proc. 7th Lunar Sci. Conf., 493-500, 1976.

[7]  F.S. Johnson, "Lunar Atmosphere," Rev. Geophys. and Space Phys., Vol.
9 #3, 813-823 (1971).

[8] R.R. Vondrak, "Creation of an Artificial Lunar Atmosphere," Nature 248,
657-659 (1974).

[9] G.A. Landis, "Lunar Production of Space Photovoltaic Arrays," 20th IEEE
Photovoltaic Specialists Conference, Las Vegas, NV; 874-879 (1988).

[11] S.M. Sze, Semiconductor Devices Physics and Technology, p. 333; Wiley
and Sons, NY (1985).

[12] M. Yokoyama and S-I Ohta, J. Appl. Phys. 59(11), 2929-3921 (1986). 

[13] F.Y. Juang et al., J. Appl. Phys. 58(5), 1986-1989 (1985).  

[14] R. Calder et al., Proc. IX Conf. High Energy Accelerators, p. 70 (1974).

[15] P.O. Quattrane, "Extended Mission Life Support Systems", AAS 81-237,
in Vol. 57, Science and Technology Series, The Case for Mars, P.J. Boston,
ed.  131-162 AAS, 1984.

[16] G.L. Kulcinski and H.H. Schmitt, "The Moon: an Abundant Source of
Clean and Safe Fusion Fuel for the 21st Century," Lunar Helium-3 Fusion
Power Workshop, NASA Lewis Research Center, April 25-26 1988.

[17] J.O. Burns et al., "Artificially Generated Atmosphere Near a Lunar
Base," Lunar Bases and Space Activities in the 21st Century Symposium,
Houston TX, paper LBS-88-024, April 5-7, 1988.

Table 1: Contributions to Lunar Atmosphere

Source            Contribution  Notes

20 Person Base:

Propellant              0.06    50 ton lander; all exhaust gas contributes
Habitat Leakage         0.004   6.7 Kg/person/day
Airlock losses          0.002   2 m3 vented; less if pumped down for EVA
Total                   0.07 nanotorr

250 Person Industrial Facility:

Propellant              0.6     refueled using lunar oxygen
Habitat Leakage         0.05    6.7Kg/person/day
O2 Production           0.9     500 tons/month; 25% leakage
3He Mining              0.9     10 tons/year; 25% leakage
Industrial Processing           unknown
Total                   2.5 nanotorr


(ed note: this report is more understandable to the layman, but with less scientific precision. The alternate report has more precision.)

1. The Lunar Ambient and the Need for Vacuum

It seems absurd to think that there could be such a thing as air pollution on the moon. After all, there isn't even any atmosphere on the moon.

In fact, a little bit of atmosphere does exist on the moon. Gasses get to the moon from natural causes, by most of the same mechanisms gas accumulates on the Earth or on other planets. Carbon dioxide and argon outgassed from the moon as it cooled down (maybe less than the Earth, since the Earth's hot core moves the continents around, forming volcanoes at the plate boundaries--volcanic carbon dioxide is the primary source of the oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere--but still some gas should have formed on the moon). And random comet impacts also add some gas--nitrogen, water vapor, and various junk like that--not to mention a little hydrogen and helium deposited by the solar wind.

The moon, however, keeps very little of the atmosphere it receives. Any gas it momentarily captures escapes from the surface very rapidly. As it turns out, there are two different ways for gas to escape from the moon. For the light gasses--hydrogen, helium--the lunar gravity is just not quite strong enough to hold it very long, and the gas simply leaks away from the top of the atmosphere. On the sunlit side of the moon (where the gas is hottest), hydrogen and helium typically last about fifteen minutes before boiling away.

For the heavier gasses, though--like oxygen and nitrogen--the gravitational escape lifetime in the atmosphere is thousands of years. While the moon will lose atmosphere over geological time spans, it could hold onto gas for a very long time by human scales.

For these gasses a different mechanism removes them from the lunar atmosphere. The unfiltered light of the sun ionizes the gas molecules, and the ionized molecules are then quickly swept away by electric fields associated with the solar wind. This occurs in a time span of approximately 100 days. When the atmosphere gets thick enough this mechanism stops happening--but the gas generation needed to make it "thick enough" is something like 10,000 tons/day--considerably higher than anything produced in our lunar industrial facility--at least in the next century or two.

This self-cleaning property of the lunar atmosphere (or lack-of-atmosphere) is so fast that it seems absurd to expect that the lunar vacuum could be lost by small-scale operations on the moon. However, high-vacuum and ultra-high vacuum is needed for many industrial processes, many of which we may want to do on the moon precisely because of the high-quality vacuum. For example,vacuum processes which might simpler to manufacture or use on the moon include vacuum tubes, semiconductor manufacture, solar cell manufacture, and particle accelerators.

But first, a quick digression to discuss the units used to discuss pressure. For historical reasons, gas pressure is often measured in terms of the height of a column of mercury that will exert the same amount of pressure at its base. This is because old-fashioned barometers used a tube of mercury to measure pressure. One Earth-normal atmosphere is equivalent to the pressure of a column of mercury 760 centimeters tall. Some of the first barometers were made by an Italian scientist named Torricelli, and so the pressure of one millimeter of mercury is called a torr in his honor. One torr is not very much pressure: a little over one one-thousandth of an atmosphere; far too little to even consider breathing, for example. But for processes sensitive to air, one torr is a heck of a lot of gas molecules. In the business we'd call it a "rough" vacuum (although it is a whole lot better vacuum than you'll get with your ordinary home vacuum cleaner).

Good vacuums ("vacua", to the pedant, but heck, why be formal?) are measured in numbers best expressed in exponential notation. Ten to the minus three torr--one millitorr, a tad more than a millionth of an atmosphere--is better vacuum, but still not great. Ten to the minus six is getting into what we'd call very high vacuum. Ten to the minus nine--one nanotorr, roughly a billionth of an atmosphere--now that's getting to be a decent vacuum. A nanotorr qualifies for the range of "ultra-high" vacuum.

Okay, done with that digression. I won't mention the other units vacuum is often measured in, such as pascals, millibars, microns, and so on--no need to get you confused now, right?

The existing lunar atmosphere is exceedingly tenuous: something like 100,000 molecules/cubic centimeter during the lunar night, and one to ten million molecules/cubic centimeter during the lunar day [1,2]. This corresponds to pressures from 0.001 nanotorr up to a "high" of half a nanotorr, primarily consisting of hydrogen, helium, argon, and neon at night, with the probable addition of just a hint of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide in the daytime (they would freeze out at night, of course).

So what do we need a vacuum for? And how much do we need?

As it turns out, the reason I started thinking about this subject is that I had been doing a study about the feasabilty of making solar cells on the moon [3], and I started to wonder if the lunar vacuum would stay good enough to do ultrahigh vacuum semiconductor processing even after we start messing it up. (Why make solar cells on the moon? Well, silicon happens to be a good material to make solar cells out of, and is a major component of the lunar crust. And it's about fifty times easier to lift something off the surface of the moon than off the Earth. If we ever go in for space industrialization in a big way, we're going to need power, and lots of it. Putting the power-plant factory on the moon is the equivalent of putting it near a major port--and one that also happens to be abundantly supplied with natural mineral resources. Anyway--) One good low-cost way to produce low-cost solar cells is by a process called plasma-deposition of amorphous silicon. Plasma deposition typically needs a background pressure in the very high vacuum range: a thousand nanotorr, to below a hundred nanotorr for some experimental set-ups.

Many other processes for manufacturing semiconductor products also require vacuum. A high-tech process for depositing high-purity compound semiconductors is Molecular Beam Epitaxy (MBE). This process requires ultra-high vacuum. Base pressure for MBE is in the range of a tenth of a nanotorr, and even lower base pressure is needed for making some very-high quality materials--where carbon and oxygen contamination are particularly harmful.

"Vacuum" tubes have a different values for the required operating vacuum, depending on the type of tube and the lifetime, noise level, etc. required. This ranges from ten-thousand nanotorr for a magnetron tube like the one in your microwave oven, to ultra-high vacuum of a tenth of a nanotorr for high-power travelling-wave tubes.

What about the moon as a site for the next-generation high-energy supercollider? Land is cheap (and there's no problem with groundhogs burrowing and shorting electrical cables, either!); there's plenty of cheap solar energy (or there will be as soon as I build my solar cell manufacturing factory!), and cooling the superconducting magnets down to cryogenic temperatures will be not very difficult, especially if we put the supercollider at the lunar pole and run it during the polar night. Most important of all, though, the moon has lots of cheap vacuum. Intersecting storage ring accelerators require very good vacuum, since residual gas tends to scatter and defocus the beam. At a pressure of one nanotorr the beam lifetime is typically around ten hours; and operating pressures of under a hundreth of a nanotorr are required for really good beam storage and operation. An additional problem is that whenever the beam tube is vented to atmosphere (for maintanence or whatever) gas gets adsorbed onto the surfaces. When the beam line is then pumped down and turned on, the adsorbed gas is knocked off the surface by the beam, meaning that it takes days after the beam is back up before the beam quality is really up to spec.

2. Twenty Person Base

This vacuum will be degraded by human habitation and industrial processing of materials. Unfortunately, it seems rather unlikely that maintaining the lunar vacuum will be an important priority of the occupants of a moonbase. So now let's consider where waste gas is likely to come from.

The major contribution to the lunar atmosphere from a small exploration base is exhaust gas from the transport. Assuming a specific impulse of 400 seconds (90% of the theoretical specific impulse of a hydrogen/oxygen engine), landing on the moon requires 0.8 tons of propellant per ton of landed material. I assume a 10 ton lander making one trip per month with 2 tons of supplies landed per person per month (including the personnel rotation, machinery, scientific and exploration equipment, etc.) This assumes that the lander is not refueled on the moon from lunar oxygen, and that no payload is carried from the moon.

In actuality, not all of the propellant gasses end up contributing to the lunar atmosphere. The exhaust velocity of a hydrogen/oxygen engine is 4 km/sec, nearly double the lunar escape velocity. Further, if the trajectory used is an insertion into low lunar orbit followed by a descent burn, for much of the engine burn the exhaust will not be directed toward the lunar surface. But for a rough calculation here I assume that the entire engine exhaust contributes to the atmosphere.

Another contribution to the generated atmosphere is air leakage from the living quarters. One estimate [4] of air leakage from an advanced long-duration habitat at atmospheric pressure is 1.2 kg of oxygen plus 4.5 kg of nitrogen per person per day. It has frequently been proposed that oxygen be locally generated. If this is done, it is unlikely that nitrogen dilution would be used, since nitrogen is nearly absent on the moon. Thus, the habitat pressure would be proportionately lower, and the leakage rate is expected to be reduced to 23% of that listed above. However, as discussed later, lunar generation of oxygen would itself be likely to be a source of leakage of waste gas.

In addition to this leakage, air will normally be lost during ingress and egress for extra-vehicular (or extra-habitat) activities ("EVA"). The amount of air lost will depend on whether the airlock is simply vented during egress, or if the lock is pumped down and the exhaust air reused. In the baseline case, I will assume that the lock is simply vented, and there is one EVA per person per day, with an airlock volume is 2 cubic meters of air at one atmosphere pressure, which is somewhat less than the habitat leakage (and, like the leakage, reduced if the base is assumed to have a pure oxygen atmosphere).

A human being generates about a kilogram of waste carbon dioxide per day. I would hope that any reasonable habitat would recycle this rather than waste it... but it's quite possible that a spacesuit might not be designed to recycle the carbon dioxide, and vent it out to the surface. If the twenty person crew averages four hours of EVA per day, that comes out to an additional hundred kilograms per month.

The increase in atmospheric pressure produced by waste gas can be calculated by multiplying the mass of gas exhausted times the gravitational acceleration of the moon and dividing by the lunar surface area. Since the exhausted gas has an average lifetime in the lunar atmosphere of 100 days, the equilibrium contribution to the atmosphere is about a thousandth of a nanotorr per ton of exhaust gas per month.

Lander exhaust results in an equilibrium pressure of 0.06 nanotorr for a 20 person base, habitat leakage in a pressure contribution of 0.004 nanotorr, airlock venting 0.0017 nanotorr, and spacesuit CO2 venting negligible.

Table 1 summarizes the contributions of the various gas sources discussed. The daytime total atmosphere is in the range of 0.07 nanotorr, comparable to the natural lunar atmosphere. (During the lunar night, some of this will be adsorbed into the soil, lowering the pressure a bit). Good: for the small base, at least, the vacuum is still okay for most anything we want to do.

3. 250 Person Industrial Facility

If industrialization takes place on the moon, it could be expected that the lunar habitat may have hundreds of inhabitants, and considerably more frequent resupply flights. In this case, the vacuum degradation will be correspondingly worse. The baseline calculated here will be for a 250 person base processing oxygen from lunar soil.

I assume here slightly less support material required from Earth, 1 ton of material per person per month; however, since the lander is fueled from lunar-produced oxygen, the fuel for the lander must be delivered into lunar orbit. Total gas contribution to the lunar atmosphere is 720 tons/month, for a pressure contribution of 0.6 nanotorr. Habitat leakage and airlock losses will contribute 0.05 nanotorr.

Lunar oxygen production to fuel the lander will require 400 tons of oxygen per month. A 25% loss, which my guess for what might be a realistic leak rate for a low-cost industrial process, would contribute 0.13 nanotorr. If the trans-lunar injection ship is also to be fueled, this is a additional contribution. It has been proposed that lunar oxygen production could be used as a cheap source of fuel for spacecraft to be used from Earth orbit. I assume a baseline facility designed to deliver oxygen to Earth orbit at a production rate of 500 tons per month. Lifting this from the moon will require 400 tons of fuel, and leakage losses will be about 200 tons. The contribution to the lunar atmosphere is 0.78 nanotorr. This will be considerably less, however, if the oxygen is to be shipped by mass-driver rather than lifted off the surface by rocket.

The moon's soil does contain trapped gas, primarily hydrogen and helium from the solar wind, plus some carbon compounds and nitrogen. The concentration is low, something like 50 parts per million, but it is only loosely bound to the soil. Physical disturbance, as well as movement of soil by mining, etc., will likely release some of the gas content. This contribution is expected to be negligible compared to other sources.

However, we may want to use this gas. Fifty parts per million isn't much, but it seems to be the best source of hydrogen on the moon, and it's conveniently easy to recover--literally, all you have to do is shake and bake. Possibly more importantly, the helium in the soil contains a trace amount of the rare isotope helium three (3He). Helium three would make a very nice fuel for a fusion reactor--except that there is very very little 3He on Earth. Mining the lunar regolith for helium 3 to fuel terrestrial deuterium-helium 3 fusion reactors has recently gotten many people quite excited [5] (of course, we do first to learn how to make fusion work...). 3He implanted into the lunar regolith by the solar wind would be extracted by baking the soil, distilled, and shipped to Earth for fusion fuel. And, for every ton of 3He produced, about 3300 tons of helium 4, 6100 tons of hydrogen, 3000 tons of carbon monoxide and dioxide, and 500 tons of nitrogen will be produced. Ten tons of 3He mined per year would fuel half the US electrical consumption, and most of the byproduct gasses produced will be useful to the lunar base. Except for refrigeration and pressurization use, however, the helium produced will not be of great use, and will likely leak to the atmosphere sooner or later. Fortunately, the escape of hydrogen and helium is so fast that despite an estimated 50,000 tons of hydrogen and helium waste released to the atmosphere, the pressure contributed is trivial.

If 25% of the gas content is lost as waste due to soil agitation during mining plus leakage and waste in the baking and condensation process, our ten tons per year of 3He will produce 12,000 tons/yr of carbon dioxide and nitrogen, which results in a contribution of 0.87 nanotorr.

The moonbase is also likely to be a place where many other mining, refining and manufacturing operations take place, producing solar cells, aluminum and titanium structures, habitation modules, and many other objects useful to further industrialization and colonization. These processes will certainly result it some amount of gas generation and, consequently, wastage. But until the processes are more completely specified, the contributions from this processing will remain unknown.

The total contribution to the lunar atmosphere from the assumed industrial facility producing both oxygen and helium 3 is 2.5 nanotorr (see Table 1), a factor of 5-100 higher than the "natural" daytime atmosphere. This is low enough that manufacture of amorphous silicon solar cells can be performed without any additional vacuum pumping. For other processes I mentioned earlier, such as MBE, travelling-wave vacuum tube formation, or siting of a supercollider on the moon, the vacuum is not good enough, and these will require additional pumping.

4. Luna City

What about the future? What happens when Luna City becomes a major node of solar-system transportation, with a population of a million industrial workers?

We can expect that as the technology gets better, the sources of gas leakage will decrease. Mass-driver based systems will undoubtably be used for outward-bound transportation except for human beings, and it is likely that some sort of tether system might be used for transport as well, of humans as well as cargo, eliminating rocket exhaust pollution almost completely. On the other hand, this will be offset to some extent by the fact that as living on the moon becomes more routine and transportation costs drop, people will begin to pay less attention about small losses, and as new mining and manufacturing capabilities come on-line, new sources of pollution will appear as well. So it's hard to predict too far in the future. As a rough estimate, perhaps we could guess that each person in Luna City will produce a quarter as much waste gas as produced per person by the 250 person industrial base. This results in our million-person Luna City having a pressure of two and a half microtorr, making for a very dirty vacuum indeed.

While the lunar vacuum may not be sufficient for some operations, it must be kept in mind that even after degradation, the ambient remains a very high vacuum. It is much easier to pump a starting ambient of one nanotorr down to ultra-high vacuum than it is to reach it from atmospheric pressure. Leaks will be little problem; there will be almost no problem with desorption of gasses from chamber walls that have been exposed to ambient, and finally, the "vacuum chambers" will not be required to hold up to the large mechanical pressure of 10 tons/ square meter imposed by the Earth's atmosphere.

It is an advantageous feature of the moon that the vacuum is self cleansing by the solar ultraviolet and solar wind. "Air pollution" is a temporary effect. If it is decided that a high vacuum is required, a wait of a few hundred days will suffice for the gas to be removed by the solar wind. However, this is only true as long as the amount of atmosphere present is low enough that there is little shielding of the solar UV. This is likely to be true for the amounts of gas discussed in the present paper. Some amount of gas will be adsorbed by the lunar soil. Cleansing of this gas to restore the original ultrahigh vacuum will take longer, since the soil will take time to outgas.

5. Atmosphere Variation with Position

So far I've assumed that the waste gas is evenly distributed around the moon.

The immediate vicinity of intermittant gas sources, such as the exhaust plume of a lander or the area ajacent to an airlock during depressurization, will have large, but temporary, surges in the gas concentration. Such surges in pressure were seen, for example, in results from lunar atmosphere experiments on Apollo missions, where the observed pressure rose dramatically when the LM was depressurized, when an astronaut approached the apparatus [6] (due to exhaust gas from the astronaut's EVA suit), and on lift-off of the LM from the surface. These pressure surges were superimposed on a longer term transient due to gradual degassing of the LM. Sensitive processes would likely be shut down during such periods.

Gas molecules escape from the atmosphere primarily from the sunlit hemisphere of the moon, where they have higher kinetic energy and also are subject to photoionization by solar UV. Thus, the escape lifetime is determined by the gas distribution on the sunlit hemisphere.

For pressures of nanotorr and below, the distance travelled by a typical molecule between collisions with another molecule is hundreds to thousands of kilometers; thus, the movement of gas in the atmosphere is primarily via ballistic transport. Gas molecules leave the surface with random direction and a thermal velocity profile, follow a ballistic trajectory until again intersecting the surface, and then may be temporarily adsorbed by the surface before bounding off again at a random direction and velocity. Adsorption of gas by the surface is irrelevant to final pressure, since the adsorbed gas neither contributes to the total pressure nor is subject to escape; although a large amount of gas stored in the adsorption reservoir does increase the time needed to reach equilibrium pressure as well as the time needed to purge the atmosphere after the gas source is discontinued.

At the daytime surface temperature of 365° K, the average vertical and radial velocities are 300 and 430 m/sec respectively for a typical molecule (here assumed to be O2). The distance this typical molecule travels on an average "hop" is 160 km, spending 380 seconds in flight before bouncing off the surface.

In a random walk process the average distance travelled equals the distance d per step times the square root of the number of steps (just take my word for it, okay?), so to cover the surface area of the moon thus requires 450 steps, and a total flight time of 47 hours. This time is short enough compared to the escape lifetime of gas in the atmosphere that the assumption of roughly uniform gas distribution is justified, and there is little difference in the amount of gas near the base and far from the base.

Hydrogen and helium, though, being considerably lighter, spread across the full surface area of the moon much much faster--in fact, in just about an hour. Since the escape time for hydrogen and helium is much less than an hour, gas concentrations for hydrogen and helium are not uniform, and considerable variations in density will exist between areas close to the gas source to areas far away.

On the night side of the moon, where the temperature is considerably cooler, molecules take six times as long to diffuse across the same area. Since any given molecule will spend six times as long on the night hemisphere as on the day hemisphere, the gas reservoir on the night side will be proportionately greater.

6. Conclusions and Speculations

Establishment of a large lunar base will indeed pollute the lunar vacuum. The time scale for distribution of exhaust gas across the surface of the moon is much less than the excape lifetime of the gas in the lunar atmosphere, and thus exhaust gas end up uniformly spread across the surface. A 20 person exploration base will contribute negligible pollution, but a 250 person "industrial" facility could degrade the lunar ambient to levels on the order of 3 nanotorr, replacing the mostly non-reactive gasses hydrogen, helium, and neon with more reactive gasses containing carbon and oxygen. This vacuum is still good enough to perform some vacuum processes, such as making amorphous silicon solar cells, but other processes will now require pumping down to a good vacuum. Establishment of "Luna City" would inevitably degrade the lunar vacuum much more.

As a concluding speculation, so far I've been assuming that an atmosphere on the moon is bad. But, if we think far enough into the future, wouldn't an atmosphere on the moon be good? Can we put so much gas into the atmosphere of the moon that it could become breathable, to turn the formerly lifeless moon into our nearest habitable world in space?

That's a lot of atmosphere needed. About the minimum you could expect a human to be able to breath is one PSI of pure oxygen, which is about 50 torr--twenty million times the "pollution" level of "Luna City".

Could we manufacture the oxygen? We would need something like two hundred trillion tons. The chemical composition of lunar rock is about half oxygen; all we have to do is reduce the amount of rock equivalent to a cube about fifty kilometers on an edge. That's a lot of rock. On the other hand, it's a small volume compared to the size of the moon. Such a chunk of rock reduced to oxygen would give the moon an atmosphere that would last three thousand years--longer than any civilization on Earth has ever lasted, and when it leaks away, we could keep replacing it every few thousand years for a long, long time before we even begin to use up the moon.

But the amount of energy needed to turn half a quadrillion tons of rock into oxygen is mind numbing! Even fusion energy wouldn't be enough--we'd pretty much require some way of making direct conversion of matter to energy. And if we can do that, minor projects like terraforming the moon become trivial.

Alternatively, if we could find an icecube fifty kilometers on an edge and crash it into the moon, the moon would acquire an atmosphere of water vapor. That, as it happens, is just fine--in a relatively short time (well, "short" might mean as much as hundreds of years) ultraviolet from the sun will split off the hydrogen, which leaks away, leaving atomic oxygen, which will quickly combine to form ordinary O2--just what we need to breath.

A comet pretty much fits the description of a floating ice cube (or at least a snowball). Unfortunately, 50 kilometers across is quite a large comet. Comet Halley, for example, the only one we've ever gotten a good close look at, has a nucleus only 16 kilometers across--it would take fifty to a hundred comets this size to do the job, even assuming that the water doesn't splash away when the comets hit the moon!

But there are plenty of comets out in the Oort cloud. And some of them might very well be big compared to Halley. For example, consider the object called Chiron, that circles around somewhere outside the orbit of Saturn. Chiron was once thought to be a large asteroid but is now known to be a comet, or at least a comet-like object (it has a cometary halo). And Chiron is almost two hundred kilometers across. Plenty of ice to split off a chunk give the moon an atmosphere, and save lots for later.

Leaving plenty of problems to be solved for later. Like, just how do you propel a comet, anyway? Would anybody sane ever let you do it? (Keep in mind that if you should miscalculate and hit the Earth by mistake, you'd make "nuclear winter" look like a warm spring afternoon). What do you do with the inhabitants of Luna City when the comet hits? And just how do you expect renew the atmosphere after a few thousand years, when there is a thriving civilization on the moon that would just as soon not get hit by a comet?

All these are problems for the next millennium. For now, it would be a start just to get the moonbase up and running.

But it doesn't hurt to dream....

*Some people might want to quibble about my characterizing hydrogen as a "mostly nonreactive" gas, since here on Earth it's manifestly very reactive (with air, anyway). Since my main interest is semiconductor manufacturing, where hydrogen contamination is harmless or even beneficial, that's partly my personal bias. However, on the moon, with no free oxygen and a scarcity of oxidizing agents of any sort, there isn't much around for hydrogen to react with.


Most of the results here are taken from the author's article "Degradation of the Lunar Vacuum by a Moon Base" (Acta Astronautica,Vol. 21, No. 3, 183-187 (1990).

See: Degradation of the Lunar Vacuum by a Moon Base

[1] R.R. Vondrak, "Creation of an Artificial Lunar Atmosphere,"Nature, Volume 248, pp. 657-659 (1974).

[2] J.H. Hoffmanet al., "Lunar Atmospheric Composition Results from Apollo 17,"Proc. 4th Lunar Sci. Conf, pp. 2865-2875, 1973.

[3] G.A. Landis and M.A. Perino, "Lunar Production of Solar Cells: a Near-Term Product for a Lunar Industrial Facility," in the AIAA volumeSpace Manufacturing 7 (1989).

see: Lunar Production of Solar Cells

[4] P.O. Quattrane, "Extended Mission Life Support Systems", in Vol. 57, Science and Technology Series,The Case for Mars, P.J. Boston, ed., pp. 131-162 (AAS, 1984).

[5] G.L. Kulcinski and H.H. Schmitt, "The Moon: an Abundant Source of Clean and Safe Fusion Fuel for the 21st Century,"Lunar Helium-3 Fusion Power Workshop, NASA Lewis Research Center, April 25-26 1988.

[6] F.S. Johnson et al., "Cold Cathode Gage (Lunar Atmosphere Detector)", inApollo 12 Preliminary Science Report, NASA SP-235, p. 93 (1970).

Other References:

[7] F.S. Johnson, "Lunar Atmosphere,"Rev. Geophys. and Space Phys., Vol. 9#3, pp. 813-823 (1971).

[8] J.O. Burns et al., "Artificially Generated Atmosphere Near a Lunar Base,"Proceedings of the Lunar Bases and Space Activities in the 21st Century Symposium, Houston TX, April 5-7, 1988.

Table 1: Contributions to Lunar Atmosphere

Source            Contribution  Notes

20 Person Base:

Propellant              0.06    50 ton lander; all exhaust gas contributes
Habitat Leakage         0.004   6.7 Kg/person/day
Airlock losses          0.002   2 m3 vented; less if pumped down for EVA
Total                   0.07 nanotorr

250 Person Industrial Facility:

Propellant              0.6     refueled using lunar oxygen
Habitat Leakage         0.05    6.7Kg/person/day
O2 Production           0.9     500 tons/month; 25% leakage
3He Mining              0.9     10 tons/year; 25% leakage
Industrial Processing           unknown
Total                   2.5 nanotorr

From AIR POLLUTION ON THE MOON by Geoffrey Landis (1990)

(ed note: this is not MacGuffinite, but I found it very amusing in a space-opera sort of way. The protagonist is on the run, and finds a hiding place on a slow moving solar-sail spaceship. The ship is sort of a space-going monastery. Among other pastimes, the monks hand-make old school incandescent light bulbs. They use the unlimited vacuum of space to evacuate all the air from the bulb. Though in the real world, light bulbs were not filled with vacuum after about 1904 or so, they used instead inert gas)

      In spite of himself, he noticed the odd similarity of their work to old electrical light bulbs, not quite completed— but surely that man was twisting tiny filaments; and that one blowing fragile glass bulbs; and down there, several men were delicately inserting the filaments, twisting and cleverly winding and binding.

     Brother Augustus followed his eyes, smiled. "Yes, they are indeed making light bulbs. We find that there is a great demand back on Earth for old-fashioned bulbs, made by the loving care of devoted hands, and filled with the blessed vacuum of outer space itself.

     "We sell these bulbs to light the altars of lamaseries in distant Tibet and in modern Shasta. Students of the mystic lore find them soothing, with their perfect clear vacuum unspoiled by the contamination of machinery and planetary atmospheres."

From DESTINY'S ORBIT by Donald A. Wollheim (writing as David Grinnell) (1961)


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.

Free Economic Zone

RocketCat sez

Yes, this is a sad but common story in the U.S. A state or city gets into an economic jam 'cause there ain't no jobs, and everthing goes to pot. The poster child is Detroit: auto industry beat feet for greener pastures and Detroit turned into Mad Max.

If this happens to your city, be prepared for all the economic diversification advocates to scream I TOLD YOU SO!

City fathers, desperate to avoid the consequences of their idiotic "all eggs in one basket" strategy, will frantically look for a quick fix. Which often means insanely doing the same thing and expecting different results. I mean the city will try attracting a corporation, hoping it'll make some jobs, but not bothering to attract two or more corporations. Monoculture is dangerous but it sure is cheaper!

How can a city lure in a corporation? Why, bribery of course. Oh, where are my manners, I meant to say "economic incentives." These can be tax breaks, sweetheart deals, and business-friendly laws.

Seaports have an extra option. They can become a Freeport, making themselves popular with the ocean shipping corporations.

Which brings us to the MacGuffinite. In many ways, a Spaceport is just a fancy seaport. A desperate city with the right location can sweeten the deal by offering economic incentives to corporations expanding their diversification into space.

And keep in mind that historically a freeport had a tendency to turn into a Pirate Haven. Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of space booze.

A Free Economic Zone is a nation or area where corporations are given favorable tax status in order to encourage said corporations to set up shop. Traditionally they are restricted to just a port city, but in theory it is possible for it to be the national boundaries of an entire country. Certain types of free economic zones are called "Free Ports."

For Rocketpunk purposes, this could be a tempting idea for a small economically depressed nation located on the equator with a nice "dump zone" to the east where spent rocket stages and malfunctioning spacecraft can ditch without too many people complaining. Corporations in the space boost business would find it very attractive to build launch facilities in such nations, especially if said nation gave the corporation special tax breaks and passed corporate-friendly laws. And the nations would welcome the economic benefits the corporations would bring.

The economically depressed nation might also find it useful to allow merchant spacecraft to use the nation as a flag of convenience.

This is not pure MacGuffinite, since it provides no valuable commodity in space. But it sure does reduce the economic friction.


Free economic zones (FEZ), free economic territories (FETs) or free zones (FZ) are a class of special economic zone (SEZ) designated by the trade and commerce administrations of various countries. The term is used to designate areas in which companies are taxed very lightly or not at all to encourage economic activity. The taxation rules are determined by each country. The World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures (SCM) has content on the conditions and benefits of free zones.

Some special economic zones are called free ports. Sometimes they have historically been endowed with favorable customs regulations such as the free port of Trieste. In recent years the free port system has been accused of facilitating international art crime, allowing stolen artworks to remain undetected in storage for decades.

From the Wikipedia entry for FREE ECONOMIC ZONE

(ed note: Officially, the lunar colony Artemis is Kenya Offshore Platform Artemis)

Just in front of the train airlock there was a huge Kenyan flag. Beneath it were the words “You are now boarding Kenya Offshore Platform Artemis. This platform is the property of the Kenya Space Corporation (KSC). International maritime laws apply.”

I peeked in to see Trond sip liquor from a tumbler. He wore his usual bathrobe and chatted with someone across the table. I couldn’t see who.

His daughter Lene sat next to him. She watched her father talk with rapt fascination. Most sixteen-year-olds hate their parents. I was a huge pain in the ass to my dad at that age (nowadays I’m just a general disappointment). But Lene looked up to Trond like he put the Earth in the sky.

She spotted me then waved excitedly. “Jazz! Hi!”

Trond gestured me in. “Jazz! Come in, come in. Have you met the administrator?"

I walked in and—holy s**t! Administrator Ngugi was there. She was just…there! Hanging out at the table.

Fidelis Ngugi is, simply put, the reason Artemis exists. When she was Kenya’s minister of finance, she created the country’s entire space industry from scratch. Kenya had one—and only one—natural resource to offer space companies: the equator. Spacecraft launched from the equator could take full advantage of Earth’s rotation to save fuel. But Ngugi realized they could offer something more: policy. Western nations drowned commercial space companies in red tape. Ngugi said, “F**k that. How about we don't?

I'm paraphrasing here.

God only knows how she convinced fifty corporations from thirty-four countries to dump billions of dollars into creating KSC, but she did it. And she made sure Kenya enacted special tax breaks and laws just for the new megacorporation.

What’s that, you say? Favoring a single company with special laws isn’t fair? Tell that to the East India Tea Company. This is global economics, not kindergarten.

And wouldn’t you know it, when KSC had to pick someone to run Artemis for them, they picked…Fidelis Ngugi! That’s how s**t gets done. She pulled money out of nowhere, created a huge industry in her formerly third-world country, and landed herself a job as ruler of the moon. She had run Artemis for over twenty years.

From ARTEMIS by Andy Weir (2017)

(ed note: the tiny nation of the United Mitanni Commonwealth are the good guys, and the Tripartite Coalition are the bad guys. One of the most vital assets of the Commonwealth is Vamori-Free Space Port, where there are no trade tariffs. It is a freeport. The Free Traders love it, and the bad guys want to shut it down hard.)

"Good evening from Santa Fe," the reporter's image began. "The agenda of the International Space Commerce Conference here was altered to­day by the walk-out of the delegate from the United Mitanni Commonwealth, Alichin Vamori." The screen cut to tape show­ing Ali striding out of the meeting. "Vamori, a leading member of one of the ruling families of the Commonwealth who control the Vamori-Free Space Port, lashed out at the Conference, claiming the proposed space commerce levy was nothing more than, in his words, 'a twenty-first century version of the old protection racket (which is true).' According to the Conference organizers (the bad guys), the purpose of the space import-export levy is not only to reduce the citizen tax burden in those nations who've subsidized space utilization for the past fifty years, but also to aid the world's non-space nations who don't benefit yet from space industry and power(lies, all lies).'

The scene cut to a view of the chairman of the Conference making a speech, but the reporter continued voice-over, "The reaction of other Conference delegates was swift. Not only did Vamori's walk-out precipitate an early acceptance vote of the proposal, thereby short-cutting what might have been prolonged debate over minor points of difference, but also resulted in the acceptance of an amendment which imposes a boycott against non-signatory parties. Thus, Vamori's own actions have back­fired on the United Mitanni Commonwealth and the profitable Vamori Free Space Port. The success of the boycott remains to be seen. It cannot help but reduce the activity at Vamori-Free Space Port which now handles more than forty percent of the world's space commerce. Gran Bahia, the world's other free pace port, obviously stands to gain, but Banian spokesmen had no comment when Weltfenster queried…"

Ali switched it off and sat there. He said nothing.

I broke the silence. "They set you up."

"We knew that was going to happen," Ali replied with apparent calm.

There'd been nothing on telenews about any Commonwealth amendment to the Santa Fe space tariff agreements.

"We should have realized that the Conference was held on the home ground of the Tripartite Coalition," Ali continued. "They knew where everyone was quartered in Santa Fe. They could establish communications easily any time they wanted, whereas I had difficulty reaching reps from other countries who'd given us indications of supporting our free trade amendment. The Tripartite obviously made a prior arrangement with the PetroFed and probably also the Socialist Hegonomy. They had everything worked out long in advance. The Conference was intended only to put official approval on the tariff agreement by the governments involved."

"They don't really believe the Commonwealth legislature is going to change the basic laws of this nation and install tax collectors at Vamori-Free Space Port, do they?" the Commonwealth President wanted to know. "Even if the legislature managed to do it, the Board of Jurisprudence would rule it unconstitutional the first time somebody brought it before them."

"We'd bring suit immediately," Captain Kevin Graham of the League of Free Traders put in from his space port office. "Vamori-Free is absolutely essential to the continued operation of free traders in space. In fact, the League itself—to say nothing of other traders—wouldn't exist without Vamori-Free and the free-ports in space."

"Was the Conference made aware of the internal problem of the Commonwealth in implementing the Santa Fe tariffs?" asked Vaya Volkatu Delkot, manager of the Vamori-Free Space Port who would have looked more at home in the high fashion studios of Paris, Beverly Hills, or Tokyo.

"Very few people in high-tech understand the Commonwealth," General Vamori said. "The Tripartite and other power groups probably didn't believe their own evaluations, projections, and intelligence sources. That's been their history. They've lost a lot of conflicts because of it, but they've won more over the long haul because they control capital. They don't control ours and never have. Fifty years ago, we made sure they couldn't. It didn't bother them then; they wrote us off as an impractical experiment that couldn't succeed in the light of the history of this continent. We were an impossible institution; therefore, we wouldn't continue to exist. We did. And, as we anticipated, our success threatens the foundations of their power."

"And we'll make it insofar as international trade and foreign exchange go, too," Wahak Teaq added to his wife's statement, anticipating what would have been my next question. But he admitted, "It might hurt us a little if the Tripartite had a tight land, sea, and air embargo, but I don't think it would last very long. We export grain to brokers in Madras and Hong Kong, and they deal with the Indian subcontinent, southeast Asia, and China as drop-shippers. When those people got hungry, an em­bargo would be expensive to maintain. The Yellow Peril would certainly ignore it. A space commerce boycott won't hold, either, because Vamori-Free Space Port is a true free port. We don't collect taxes or duties on any input or throughput because they create secondary spending. Space commerce may drop thirty-eight percent, but our tourist trade won't suffer even if the Tripartite countries invalidate passports."

I was glad to know the skalavans (combat spacecraft) were available but I hoped we'd never need them.

But then again, we might. We watched and waited, and a strange thing began to happen:

The activity at Vamori-Free Sport Port went down to 64% of the pre-embargo level, then began to increase.

During our daily staff telecon, I questioned this data. "Why?"

Wahak went through his usual ritual of checking the hard copy data on the table in front of him, then reported, "Kevin Graham at the League says it's because of the imposed duties at the other space ports. All ships belonging to members of the League of Free Traders are registered in the Commonwealth because our fees are low to cover only the computer time for logging, and nearly all the League ships are now using Vamori-Free. We're starting to handle ships registered in countries such as Annam, Sri Lanka, Liberia, Echebar, and Surinam. Even some Chinese manifests have gone through Vamori-Free. As long as we keep it open to space, we'll get tonnage, especially from those who want to avoid the Santa Fe tariffs."

"This can't go on," I pointed out.

"Why, Sandy?" Vaivan asked.

"Someone will try to plug the leak before it gets worse. Wahak, run a projection forecast. How long before we can expect one-hundred percent at Vamori-Free again, based on the trend of the data you now have?" I asked him.

(ed note: the Tripartite Coalition puts together a group of mercenaries disguised as a Commonwealth military coup (the "Freedom Army"), and attempts to overthrow the government. They are only partially successful. Protagonist Alexander Sandhurst Baldwin "Sendi Boldwon" plans and leads the ground and space assault to liberate the country)









The Commonwealth malcontents and outlander mercenaries who made up the Freedom Army (mercenary army the bad guys assembled in order to destroy the good guy nation) had neither the legacy nor the will to withstand such an onslaught. They were worthy adversaries but couldn't match people who even in peacetime carried iklawas (small scimitars) at their waists.

As CIC and Spaclmpy commander, my missions were the recapture of Vamori-Free Space Port followed by the Topawa (capital city) assault. I planned to move fast and alter plans in the face of new situations. That's the classic formula for winning a battle or a war. I wanted to git thar fustest with the mostest men.

Holding and defending a space port had never been done before, and the Freedom Army consisted of land warriors whose only experience with vertical envelopment had been with armored aerodynes (basically slow helicopters, not high-Mach spacecraft). They planned to defend Vamori-Free on the ground and moved in a few shoulder-launched SAMs to defend against low-level tacair (tactical aircraft). They didn't know how anyone could attack and invade a space port from space.

I did.

A space port is mostly space.

Vamori-Free Space Port covered more than 7,500 square kilometers and stretched more than 150 kilometers along seacoast (must be about 50 km wide). It was larger than some nations. During normal operations, 25,000 people lived and worked there.

We mounted a two-pronged effort against the Vamori-Topa objectives. Pahtu's river offensive would pin down Free Army forces at Topawa. Moti's Northern Impy would to hit the western edge of Vamori-Free by following the power transmission lines from Oidak.

Then my space contingent would strike Vamori-Free and land.

It sounds easier than it was.

I first had to sanitize the threat of a couple hundred SAMs at Vamori-Free, then force the Freedom Army to keep their head down. Omer would command our eight skalavans on low level passes at high mach numbers too fast for SAM reaction, ear-busting shock waves would spread confusion among warriors who'd never experienced anything like it before—and at time, nobody had because Omer had developed it while he was having "fun" letting it all hang out on high-Mach low-leveled tree-breaking flights.

Omer's skalavan sweeps would be followed immediately tacair strikes to reduce the SAM threat. This operation was critical and had to be coordinated carefully with Moti's AirImpy squadrons because skalavans and tacair aerodynes moved vastly different speeds.

Military C-cubed—command, control, and communications was our biggest headache, as it always is in any battle, comm frequencies would be spotted quickly. But a number different forces would be operating on this mission—Pahtu's Southern Landlmpy sweeping toward Topawa, Moti's Northern Landlmpy racing toward Vamori, Dati's Airlmpy tacair squadrons supporting them, and my Spacelmpy dropping from the sky in two elements: Omer's skalavan squadron, and Ursila's landing assault group. We used multiplex communications: each group working its own frequency and monitoring the other four. It would be difficult for the enemy to monitor all five channels simultaneously and sort out intragroup and intergroup messages and commands. It didn't buy us secrecy, but it did buy us time.

The tacair strikes were to be followed by a second pass of Omer's skalavans to cover the landing of Ursila's packets and free trader ships manned by as many swat teams as we could put together from Citlmpy people in space. Some had to be flown by a single pilot because we were short of pilots. There was no ground power for landing aids at Vamori-Free and shipborne radars don't have the precision necessary for landing, so Omer had the crucial task of dropping a landing beacon on his second pass.

With Ali's family in danger, it would have wrong to have kept him in L-5 in spite of his emotional condition. I didn't want him in a command capacity, but he could fight. We were short of pilots, so Ali flew the Tomi.

When the landing assault force hit dirt, most of the enemy SAMs should have been out of action and most enemy troops in confusion or pinned down by Moti's land attack on Vamori-Free's western edge. We'd then operate from behind.

Once the Vamori-Free Space Port was consolidated, our combined forces would turn southwesterly and pincer the final objective, Topawa.

From MANNA by Lee Correy (1984)

Government Incentives


A Modest Proposal for Harnessing the Profit Motive for the Conquest of Space

     A principle to live by: a state should not be permitted to use taxation to modify the behavior of its populace, because such power will inevitably be abused, and so corrupt both the state and the people.
     This I believe …

     Well, they say that everyone has a price, and I guess that I've found mine: peace and freedom for all human-kind. No, really.

     Today we are trapped in a place where the majority of us are mired in the most incredible poverty, and the race itself is under constant threat of extinction, both from its own activities and from cosmic chance. One “serious” nuclear exchange, one moderately large asteroid impact, and our species can bend over and kiss its only dirtball goodbye. But it need not be ever so, and indeed need not be so for much longer. Our children can know the freedom of the spaceways. All it would take is a teensy-weensy bit of tax policy…


Phase I

     First we kill NASA.

     Now that may seem a bit extreme. Even if NASA is about as eflicient at delivering space as the Post Ofiice is at delivering mail, surely it is better than nothing? Well, maybe so, but some people think that NASA has had a negative effect on American space achievements—that there would have been more progress with NASA simply factored out of the equation—not replaced with some other government entity that works better—just factored out.
     Consider: Would our mail be delivered more slowly if the U.S. Post Ofiice were to disappear? What then might the several hundred billion dollars and tens of thousands of our best and brightest engineers soaked up by NASA have accomplished in the private sector? Would you really want to stack up any government organization against Apple, or IBM, or Federal Express? Would you bet stock on it?
     Certainly not on anything remotely resembling a level playing field, you wouldn’t. But there is another downside to NASA: it doesn't like level playing fields—or competition under any circumstances, for that matter—and, being a government agency, what it doesn’t like it has the power to squelch. Who can say what opportunities have gone undiscovered because our government has virtually banned private enterprise in space? What if it were to subsidize private enterprise in space instead?

     Let me share an insight given to me by one of our most brilliant missile engineers. Consider for a moment what NASA-style management of commercial air trafiic would be like. First, twelve thousand technicians per transcontinental “launch” (that’s what the Shuttle has had) don’t come cheap. Because of that expense, “launches” would be infrequent—ten or twenty per year? Two or three? Because there would not be much call for vehicles, the industry dedicated to their production would be marginal (each jumbo jet would be quite literally hand-crafted) and utterly dependent on its governmental masters.
     The price of a ticket? Well, a shuttle launch runs about forty million and the vehicle is good for twenty-five to fifty flights; call a “fare share” of the vehicle cost another thirty million. Plus throw in something to amortize R&D; a small part of what an accountant would consider reasonable brings the launch price to one hundred million dollars. (Newsweek in a recent article put the price at two hundred million.) Divide the total among a hundred passengers and you get a million dollar ticket. Not much call for air transport at that rate. In contrast, certain space entrepreneurs claim they could make good money selling one-orbit “joyrides” for ten thousand dollars…
     Remember the movie, “The Right Stuff,” and Chuck Yeager’s disdain for “spam in a can”? Some, say that if it weren’t for NASA smothering its funding, Yeager's program would have produced an orbit-capable hypersonic rocketjet, a “Gipper Clipper,” by the mid '70s. What we got for a hundred times more money was the Shuttle. Do I believe all that? I have no doubt that others could mount persuasive counterarguments, but clearly there are grounds for at least arguing that NASA is better dead, and many space professionals secretly wish that it were. On the other hand, I am not here to bury NASA but to rob it…

Phase II

     Now that we’ve killed NASA we have all that lovely money to play with! Oh, in the normal course of things NASA’s funding would disappear like mist in the morning sun, but that’s where The Plan kicks in:

     Lets’s take NASA's average yearly budget and give it back to the people—but only to spend on pure space enterprises. I.e., every individual and corporate tax-payer would receive a 100% tax writeog for “pure space” investments up to two percent of their taxes otherwise due (NASA’s approximate share of government revenues over the years). Not the world. Less, in fact, than IRAs or many other current deductions—and anyway, we traded in NASA for it.

     Individuals and corporations could both play by simply investing in “pure space” activities and by investing in Mutuals dedicated to pure space stocks. Megacorporations could also play by spinning oil their own space-only divisions. To fulfill the criteria for being “space only” an enterprise’s only profit would have to come either from activities carried on in space, ground-based support activities, or from developing, building and/or operating space transport systems. (I suppose we would need a—small!—government commission to keep a list of eligible companies.)

     As for objections, aside from those offered by the inevitable infinitude of nattering nabobs of negativism, I see two that might be argued on the merits:

     1. Won’t this tax policy result in swarms of investment shelter scams and “moondoggles” galore?

     Answer: Why should it? True, the invested money represents funds that would otherwise simply be handed over to the IRS, but income from such investments would be perfectly real. Investors would have every incentive to maximize returns. High-risk players looking for astronomical returns might take a flier (so to speak) on Gary Hudson's space transport company. Folks looking for maximum security might prefer stock in Comsat, or Charles Shefiield’s Earthsat Corporation. Others might go for one of the Space Mutuals (U.S. Space Power and Minerals is a good one), and leave the thinking to professionals. Me, I think I might invest in GM's new Heavy Space Division. (Think of it: billions of dollars looking for the best possible space investment!)

     2. What about all the decent hardworking folks at NASA—not uppity Top Management, but engineers, scientists, and laborers—many of whom got involved in the first place because they wanted a piece of the Dream? We can’t just throw them away as if they don’t matter any more.

     Answer: indeed we can't. How’s this: for the first year after dismantling, all unemployed ex-NASA employees will get their full salaries, pending transfer to other government work at the same level. After the first year those that have not found other work or been transferred will receive half the previous amount until they find work equivalent in income and prestige to what they were doing.
     Even if we were to wind up supporting a large portion of the ex-NASA personnel roster forever, it would be cheap at the price (Postal Reformers take note!), but as The Plan kicks in we are going to see a space boom that will make the Europeans sigh, the Russians whimper, and the Japanese slaver. In such an environment experienced space-oriented workers and scientists are going to be in the catbird seat. How many of them will want to stay on the dole? None who are worth their pay, surely.

     So there it is: A modest proposal for commencing the true Age of Space and freeing humankind forever from the bonds of gravity. If you believe that the markets invisible hand will point the way to whatever profits there may be, this is the Plan for you!
     So what are we waiting for? Let's kill NASA today!

From THE PURE SPACE ACT OF 1989 by Jim Baen (1988)

      Pain, rage, and trauma. This is a cry of pain; one of rage, too, and certainly one of frustration. The world is not doing what I want it to, and I don't like it.
     In late January 1986, I flew out to JPL to be present at the Voyager-2 encounter with the Uranus system. It was a wonderful event, filled with new discoveries. I flew back to Washington on January 27. The next morning, January 28, the Challenger exploded.
     At the time my first reactions were like yours: shock, horror, distress, and little rational thought. But when the hearings of the Rogers Commission began in February my feelings changed.

     I know the critical moment for me, exactly. It came on the morning of Tuesday, February 25, when I was on WAMU, the radio station of American University. I was there to explain to the audience the significance of the testimony of witnesses called before the commission. There were, inevitably, lengthy discussions of O-ring seals, of weather conditions, and of testing procedures that were or were not observed.
     Allan McDonald, an engineer with Morton Thiokol, was a completely persuasive and poignant witness. He had recommended that the launch be postponed, for three distinct reasons: the temperature was well outside the range where the O-ring seals were rated safe (it was 20 degrees Fahrenheit, and the O-ring recommendation was for no launch below 53 degrees!); there was ice on the spacecraft, with icicles two feet long; and the weather in the ocean recovery zone was terrible, with 30-foot seas and gale-force winds.
     McDonald added in testimony: “I made the direct statement that if anything happened to this launch, I told them I sure wouldn't want to be the person that had to stand in front of a board of inquiry to explain why a launch was outside of the qualification of the solid rocket motor or any Shuttle system.”
     McDonald's recommendation to postpone was over-ruled by Morton Thiokol and NASA management. Then, as the final insult, he was asked to sign off in writing, to OK the launch. He refused.
     As he said in testimony to the commission, the accuracy of his statements was not challenged. It was simply that his statements were ignored.

     His testimony was horrifying. But it was when the NASA officials appeared before the commission, and produced lengthy and self-serving statements justifying their actions, that my problems began. If I said what I thought, live on radio, I would probably be faced with libel suits. Because what I wanted to say was that NASA was done for; the gargoyles had finally taken over the cathedral. The long history of engineering excellence was winding down—into a mass of tepid bureaucracy.

     I don't want to give the impression that this was the first time I had wanted to criticize NASA. Quite the opposite. I had been saying bad things about them for years. But that had been for their conservative approach, their grey engineering excellence, their poor sense of public relations. This was different. When risks are taken consciously and knowingly, by brave men and women who know their chances, that is one thing; and it is not a bad thing. It’s another matter when crews don't know the odds because the engineers have been ignored by the managers.
     I was as forthright as I dared to be on radio, and I probably shocked the WAMU lady who was passing me listeners’ questions. What I didn’t realize was that I had not gone nearly far enough.

     To go far enough, it is necessary to put both those January events together: Voyager, and Challenger. They fit. And when we put them together, and look at their aftermath, we find that in January 1986, the United States Space Program passed through a great transition point—one of the “singularities of the timeline” that I have analyzed in earlier issues of this publication. And that singularity spells trouble to anyone who believes that this country needs a strong civilian space program.
     To make my point, I want to reproduce, verbatim, the text of a keynote speech that I made ten years ago, at the San Francisco annual meeting of the American Astronautical Society. (A memorable meeting for other reasons. It was the first time that I met Joe Haldeman and Jerry Pournelle; prior to that, Jerry and I had been limited to writing each other rude letters.) The theme of the meeting was the industrialization of space. The text that follows is an unedited transcript of an actual speech, so there are a few warts on it. But here it is, just as it was given:


     A little more than twenty years ago, the then-Astronomer Royal of Great Britain, Richard Woolley (now Sir Richard Woolley) came to give a speech to the Cambridge University Astronomical Society. He prefaced that speech with a rather peculiar statement, thus: "After my talk I will be happy to answer general astronomical questions on any subject—with two exceptions. The other subject is the expansion of the universe, about which I know nothing.”
     This cryptic pronouncement made good sense to the audience, and we all laughed. A few months earlier, Woolley had made a statement that was widely reported in the press: “Space travel is utter bilge.”
     Woolley is a respected astronomer and astrophysicist. He has done major work in both practical and theoretical astronomy. So it is ironic that he may well go down in history as the Astronomer Royal who made a curiously ill-timed remark, at the very moment that the Space Age was born.
     As we all know, Sputnik was launched in October 1957, and we are now able to look back on twenty years of accomplishment that would have seemed incredible to even the boldest and most optimistic in 1957. Yet, in some ways, Woolley was right. I worked at the Royal Observatory for two summers in the late ’50s, as a summer student, and had a chance to hear in more detail what Woolley had meant by his remark. (I did hand calculations, for months. Looking back on those efforts, and seeing today’s electronic calculators, is enough to make me weep. We used machines that were mechanical or electro-mechanical, and looked up our trig functions in big volumes of tables. I estimate that I could now do those calculations, using a $50 calculator, between fifty and one hundred times as quickly. However, the progress in computers, though not unrelated to the progress in space exploration, is not today’s topic of discussion.)

     In what sense was Woolley correct? Remember, before the space program got underway, “space travel” referred to the very small body of factual writing about rocketry and orbital flight, and to the very large body of fiction. Science fiction had been happily exploring the universe for half a century and more, even if we discount such earlier writers as Kepler or Dean Swift. The ways they chose to handle the problem of space travel were (and are) various. Space warps, faster-than-light drives, hyperspace gateways, matter transmitters—they all tended to have one thing in common. They were easily developed, and they opened up, instantaneously and effortlessly, the whole universe for our exploration.
     Woolley was a hard-headed and practical man, well used to the problems of something as “simple” as installing a large reflector here on Earth. He objected to the notion that we would easily explore space—not only the solar System, but the stars too. I’m afraid I agree with him.

     Are such things as space warps and faster-than-light drives impossible? It would need a rasher man than me to assert that they are. Less than a hundred years ago, respected scientists had proved that mechanical heavier-than-air flight was impossible. Theories change. Although relativity seems to be doing very well, and although the limits that it seems to impose are daunting, we don’t know that the FTL drive will remain beyond our reach.
     Are such things improbable? In the near future, the answer to that question is easier. In terms of our current understanding of the universe, there is no “royal road” to space. Unless some other civilization comes to see us, and tells us the easy way to do it (and that would be at best a mixed blessing) we'll have to do it the hard way. It will be the usual mixture: some inspiration, a lot of hard engineering, a lot of pushing both for and against by special interest groups, and an overall stimulus that ranges from the desire to make money, to the desire to understand the heavens.
     The universe is a big place, and the word “space” encompasses everything that is not the Earth. More than anything else, space exploration in the larger sense of interstellar movement is going to take a long time. To mentalities that are geared to rapid results, with everything fitted into a few (fiscal) years, the timescale for stellar exploration may seem intolerable. We are talking centuries, and millennia, of time (perhaps much less subjective time—here relativity can help a good deal, but that takes me too far astray). It is very hard for us to accept things that occupy a natural timescale much longer than our own lifetimes, or if we accept them we can’t seem to get too interested in them.
     This problem is arising in other fields, also. In the Leonard Schiff Memorial Lecture given this year, Sir Denys Wilkinson tackles the same problem in the field of theoretical physics. In a beautiful paper with the intriguing title of “The quarks and Captain Ahab,” Wilkinson talks of the need for dynastic experiments, in which a scientist cannot hope to see the result himself, but must settle for the knowledge that his distant descendants will one day have the answer, and can incorporate it into their theories. Needless to say, most scientists would not be prepared to spend their life in such a mode, unless they were also to be in on the final stages of some earlier experiment.

     Fortunately, there is plenty to do, and plenty of places to go, even if we confine ourselves to “near space” and stay within, say, six light-hours of the Sun. Here we are looking at timescales that we can comprehend and live with, particularly since we will be involved in a progressive program, in which most of our money and resources will go into the first few light-seconds from Earth. Now we are talking of the next twenty years, say up to the year 2000.
     What propulsion system will be most widely used in that time frame? It is hard for many people to accept the idea that the vehicle that will take us into space will be anything as unromantic and unappealing as the chemical rocket. No denying it, the chemical rocket is an unattractive animal: noisy, wasteful and unaesthetic. No one would choose to launch a spacecraft with a chemical rocket—just as no one would choose to begin space exploration at the bottom of Earth's deep gravity well. Unfortunately, right now there is only one game in town. In space, or on the Moon, we have other launch propulsion systems as options, but here and now we have nothing that can compete with the chemical rocket for Earth-launch. In the same way, it is no use complaining about the inefficiency of Earth as a starting point for space exploration. The old farmer, who, asked the way to Newbiggin, replied, “If I were going to Newbiggin, I wouldn’t start from here,” is accurate but unhelpful. We have to start from here, although the sooner we can get some launch capability in a more shallow potential well, the happier we will all be.

     So far as the romance is concerned, that’s a function of the times. What was romantic to one generation was often the bane of an earlier one. In the 1840s, Wordsworth wrote a sonnet objecting to the introduction of the steam railway (“On the projected Kendal and Windermere railway,” composed October 12, 1844—he was in his seventies, and it isn’t a sonnet you would particularly recommend to your friends—but it is worth reading because of the point it makes). Now, steam locomotives are considered part of the romance of the past and there are groups of enthusiasts who love steam trains. Remember, too, how people mourned the passing of the clipper sailing ships, when steam made them non-competitive. I have no doubt that in a hundred years we will look back nostalgically on the good old chemical rockets, and despise the functional and new-fangled ones powered by the intermediate vector boson or Kerr-Newman black hole drives. On this subject, as on many others, Rudyard Kipling said the final word, in the poem beginning “Farewell, Romance” (title: “The King,” composed in 1894).

     We can expect developments in chemical rockets, and we can expect ion propulsion and perhaps solar sailing and nuclear to help out on the long hauls. These tools, already, are quite enough to allow us to do many things—if we want to, and are willing to apply the resources. There are no engineering obstacles that we can see between us and a lunar colony, or a solar electric power satellite, or a colony at L5. Right now, if we wanted to, the United States could initiate a manned Mars program, and I am confident that it could be completed in the next decade. We have those tools, already. So why don't we do it? Well, the conventional answer is that we have other priorities. For myself, I regard the space program as the only major effort that the United States had undertaken in the past twenty years and succeeded in. The war on crime, the war on drugs, the increased expenditures on education, on welfare and on energy conservation—all these, looked at realistically, have failed. Not to mention the war in Vietnam, which took an incredible amount of our resources.
     Some would answer the implied criticism of government thinking in the previous paragraph by saying, “Technical goals are easy to achieve, social goals are more difficult.” A true statement, I think—but while we are trying to decide how to do the things we don’t know how to do, why not spend more money on the things we can do successfully?
     I won’t belabor the point, since I suspect that I am preaching now to the converted.

     In any case, I don't happen to regard space exploration as of lesser social importance than the other activities that currently occupy a big place in Federal thinking. To my mind, we need to move off-planet in significant numbers, sometime in the next hundred years. This is not particularly because of a Doomsday feeling about Earth, although it is hard to deny that we have spoiled large parts of it in our (successful) search for higher living standards. It is also undeniable that when I say “we” I am really speaking for the “haves,” rather than the “have-nots.” On the other hand, it is the “haves” who also possess the weapons to make the end a bang rather than a whimper, so this is one reason for a feeling of urgency. I don't think we have any real long—term alternative to moving out and expanding, and no one knows how urgent that need may prove to be.
     There is an alternative view, quite popular at the moment, which decries technology as a solution, and emphasizes thinking small, conserving and contracting. I like two of those three very well. I would prefer to rephrase “think small” to “think the appropriate size,” and I agree completely with “conserve.” But I think that “contract,” as a philosophy for the human race, is fatal. I can think of no example in which an organism has advanced up the evolutionary scale by decreasing its area of influence. The unwritten biological rule seems to be “expand and thrive”—almost, “expand or die.” It may be dangerous to regard the human race as a whole as a single organism. Analogies of that type can certainly be misleading. On the other hand, to quote Samuel Butler, analogy may be misleading, but it’s the least misleading thing we have.

     Accepting this view of analogy, and being careful not to stretch it beyond reason, can we learn anything from earlier “expansion periods” of the human race, during which the unknown was beyond the seas, rather than out in space? What can we learn from the Polynesians, the Phoenicians, the Vikings, and the Spanish and Portuguese navigators?
     Less perhaps than we might hope. The role of technology is so central to our current exploration, and was apparently so much less important in earlier efforts, that in this case analogy may well be misleading. A visit to the Greenwich Maritime Museum quickly convinces us that the determination of longitude, and hence of position, was central to British exploration. But the Vikings were much less worried by navigation—or else they had methods of navigation that have not been handed down to us. And if this is true of the Vikings, it is truer yet of the Polynesians, who sailed the Pacific using navigation methods that we can scarcely guess at.
     Can we learn nothing, then, from this analogy? Well, consider the question of motivation. The motives of the Vikings are a little mysterious, and undocumented. They seem to have been driven by the need to get away from their own women folk, and the desire to indulge in a little rape, pillage and arson in foreign parts. On the other hand, the Spanish and Portuguese, while less flamboyant in their goals, had motives that we can easily recognize and relate to: religious zeal, and financial zeal (specifically, gold and silver).
     Religious zeal may seem at first sight to be far from our modern interests, unless we realize that the religious wars of the 15th century have been replaced by the ideological wars of the 20th. Thus for religious zeal, we should substitute ideological zeal. Now do we see a familiar pattern emerging? Would Armstrong have walked on the Moon in 1969 if Sputnik had not flown in 1957? In short, the entire impetus of the U.S. space program, for its first ten years, was the ideological war with Russia. Without that, there would have been little or no U.S. space program.
     More recently (since 1969, to be precise), the ideological thrust has diminished. Politically, the Russian lead in space has disappeared, and the U.S. drive to move ahead fast into space has gone with it. What has replaced it? Balboa, Pizarro, and Cortez could answer that for us, if we could find any way of asking them. When religious zeal diminishes, financial zeal takes over. But where in space are the equivalents of the treasures of the Incas, the Aztecs and the Mayans?

     I wish I knew. NASA, with a shrinking budget, is looking hard for the treasure of the Incas, and is turning more and more to Applications—the profit motive—as the best answer that can be offered. As ideological drive lessens, the profit drive is taking over—just as it did in developing the Americas. Now, for the first time, industry can play a changed role in space development.

     You see, as long as the thrust is ideology, industry can’t do too much. Only a federal government can initiate and carry through a space program that has as its main raison d’être an ideological war. Industry comes into its own when the second stage ignites and the thrust becomes financial, based on profit objectives and subject to the rational scrutiny of cost-benefit calculations.
     That, in my opinion, is where we stand now. At the crossroads, where U.S. policy for space development shifts from religious zeal to planned profit.

     Many people who were active in the early days of the space program bemoan this change, this loss of public interest. They pine for the good old days, when budgets looked unlimited, and they are saddened by the lowly position that the space appropriation occupies in the Federal budget. Personally, I think this is a good thing. (I should no doubt be burned as a heretic for this view—but we are past the age of religious zeal, so I am safe.) A good thing, because space development needed to move beyond the gee-whiz stage, to the dull, boring stage of routine development, before it could amount to anything important. If the public yawns at Apollo-Soyuz and sleeps through the Shuttle while flocking to see "Star Wars,” that is fine. It means that we are past the stage where a successful launch is a surprise, where even a rendezvous and docking is an unusual event. The prologue is over. We are ready for the real, routine work in space.
     That stage had to come. It is not enough for perfect physical specimens to be able to take space travel. The day of people who can take ten gee without wincing must end. Space must become accessible to people like me—people with one good eye, who feel dizzy in high-speed elevators, who suffer motion sickness on a water-bed (in the right circumstances).
     This new day will not arrive, until the commercial spirit can replace religious zeal. Wouldn’t it be nice if the Federal expenditures on space were irrelevant— because the private investment was so large?

     Could it happen?

     The theme of the conference is the Industrialization of Space. This can be interpreted as the movement of the space program from the public to the private sector. in this context, we have clearly a long way to go. We have one small example, but an important one: the communications satellite business—and even this happened only with a strong boost from the U.S. government. Other examples still seem to be a long way off. There is no sign that the government is ready to get out if the weather satellite business, or the earth resources satellite business. Perhaps it is simply too early—or perhaps, as I rather fear, the process of public management has become so entrenched that industry will now be hard put to force the transition from public to private control.
     One final word is in order. All new developments— technological, artistic, spiritual or scientific—are led and promoted by a small fraction of the human race. Thus we should be neither surprised nor alarmed if discussions of this type occupy less space in the newspapers than Jimmy Carter's haircut or Elizabeth Taylor’s tenth marriage. Bread and circuses have always been the opiate of the masses. If you are reading this, and feel discouraged by an inability to communicate to others your own feelings about the importance of an active space development effort, comfort yourself with this thought. If you want to be on the leading edge of anything, you have by definition to be a couple of standard deviations away from most people. That makes you an oddball. The trick is to learn to accept it, then to like it—and keep on making lots of noise for what you believe in. That’s the only way that a minority group will be heard. END.

     I couldn’t deliver that talk today. There are too many built-in assumptions that have proved to be invalid and optimistic. Thus:

     1) "… we can expect ion propulsion and perhaps solar sailing and nuclear to help out on the long hauls.”

     Can we, indeed? Today we have no program in ion propulsion, a negligible expenditure on solar sails, and the very word “nuclear” is frowned upon. We have, if anything, gone backwards in the past ten years on space propulsion systems.

     2) "… the United States could initiate a manned Mars program, and I am confident that it could be completed in the next ten years.”

     Today the United States could initiate a manned Mars program—we show no sign of wanting to do so— and I am confident that it could not be completed in the next ten years. Did you know that NASA says it would take us longer to return to the Moon than it took to go there after Kennedy’s original announcement of the Apollo Program? Again, we seem to have gone backwards.

     3) “There is an alternative view, quite popular at the moment, which decries technology as a solution…"

     Truer than ever. The average citizen sees technology as the source of multiple ills, and discounts the huge and varied benefits. Talk to Congress, and you find that the Science and Technology Committee is a shadow of its old self. It’s not the fault of the committee members or their staffers, it's a reflection of public distrust in technology, which is equated with Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Bhopal, and Love Canal. Technology, the American people seem to argue, is something for the Japanese, Koreans, Taiwanese and Europeans. Oddly enough, those other nations agree.

     4) "…the profit drive is taking over—just as it did developing the Americas … we stand now at the crossroads where U.S. policy for space development shifts from religious zeal to planned profit.”

     If only that were true! We are still waiting for a private launch capability and commercial space services. Most companies are interested in the potential of space only if the risks are underwritten by the Federal government. The one commercially successful activity of l977—communications satellites—remains the solitary example. Commercial operation of the Earth resources satellites is in trouble, with the failure of the government to provide promised transition funds to move it from public to private ownership. Transfer of the weather satellites to private ownership was dropped three years ago because of public protest.

     5) "… I rather fear the process of public management has become so entrenched that industry will be Bard put to force the transition from public to private control.”

     I feared it then, and I'm more convinced of it now. The brave new world of an industrial space program is farther away then ever. All space launches are government-controlled, and will be for the foreseeable future— see Harry Stine's articles, in Far Frontiers V and VI, if want to see how unwilling the government is to let U.S. industry operate freely in space. As Stine says, this country may have given away the Solar System.

     Problems and Pessimism. There could be other explanations as to why I couldn’t give that 1977 talk today. For one thing, I am ten years older; with increasing age comes, as a general rule, increasing pessimism.
     The pessimism of age is curiously limited. It is a general pessimism, a conviction that things are not as good as they used to be and are still getting worse. And yet it is a conservative pessimism, which cannot bring itself to believe how bad things might become. World War I would never have started, had the generals and politicians been able to imagine how horrible the combat would become. World War II would have begun years earlier if people had realized that Hitler meant exactly what he said. The principle of limited pessimism convinces me that all-out nuclear war is quite likely, simply because most people are reluctant to face up to what that would do to the world, and therefore do not take action to make that war impossible. And now I have to worry that the future I see for the U.S. space program may not be bleak enough.

     However, I really don’t think the problem is pessimism on my part. I think we have just been through a time of fundamental change. In 1986 we crossed a watershed, the great divide of the United States space program, and the landscape on the other side of it is quite different and less hospitable than it used to be.
     The Voyager Uranus encounter, like the Jupiter and Saturn encounters before it, was a marvellous scientific feast. In some ways Uranus was best of all, because we knew less about that planet than we knew about its sunward neighbors. It was a three-day high at JPL, with unexpected treats like the off-axis magnetic field and the startlingly active satellites, while the expected (but still new and magnificent) images streamed in every hour or two.

     But the euphoria was already beginning to fade on the flight back from Los Angeles to Washington. I found myself looking ahead to the rest of the '80s decade—and finding a great blank in space sciences. On that flight, I happened to be sitting across the aisle from Geoffrey Briggs, who runs NASA’s planetary science programs. We couldn’t help comparing the ’70s and the ’80s. The Voyager-2 Uranus encounter looked more and more like a watershed event, separating a period of dynamic activity from one of stagnation.
     In the ten years from 1970 to 1979, we saw Pioneer spacecraft visit Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn, with Pioneer 10 heading right out of the Solar System. We had Moon landings, Skylab, and the Apollo-Soyuz space hook-up. We had the Viking Orbiter and Lander, exploring Mars from close orbit and on the surface. And we had Voyager-l and -2, launched in 1977 on the long journey of planetary exploration that Voyager-2 is still engaged in.
     And for the 1980s? One major scientific spacecraft—the Infrared Astronomical Satellite—and that will be it, for the whole decade. No Halley's Comet mission, of course; we missed our chance there for the next seventy-six years. Fortunately, the Europeans, Japanese and Soviets seized that unique opportunity. In the 1980s we will see no Galileo, and no Hubble Telescope, while other missions, such as the Magellan Venus Radar Mapper, the Comet Rendezvous/Asteroid Flyby, the Mars Observer, and the Ulysses solar polar mission (which the European Space Agency may now undertake alone) look even farther off. The Galileo mission, by the way, is still officially scheduled for a November 1988 launch. You can believe that date if you want to, but I am very skeptical. I bet it will not be launched before 1990 (it was launched in 1989).
     We have moved from the Golden Age of planetary exploration in the 1970s, to the Age of Austerity in the mid-1980s. To quote more (and better) Wordsworth: "To be a prodigal's favorite, then, worse truth, a miser’s pensioner—behold our lot!”

     Meanwhile, the USSR is preparing its Phobos mission, to the inner satellite of Mars, probably with two spacecraft and four Phobos landers. This will be followed, according to reports, by a Soviet Mars mission in l992 with a lander, balloons, and an orbiter, and then a Mars surface rover two years later.
     Like it or not, we will sit on the sidelines and watch. Even if we were given a go-ahead today (which will not happen) new programs cannot be designed and launched in a few weeks. When Geoffrey Briggs was asked, later in 1986, what someone ought to do in order to work on U.S. planetary sciences programs, he said: “Stop smoking, live cleanly, and exercise regularly.” It sounds funny, but it is not a joke. And people like Briggs, who care about the U.S. planetary science programs, are, driven apoplectic by public apathy and governmental inertia.

     In NASA’s mind the 1980’s was to be remembered, fifty years from now, as the decade of the Space Shuttle and Space Station. Then came Challenger, and the plan for the ’80s began to fall farther apart.
     In retrospect, the Challenger explosion was more a symptom than a cause. For the real problems go far deeper than a single accident, which every sane person knows must happen sometime, somehow, to some unfortunate crew.

     More Problems. Last week, it was announced that the cost estimate of the Space Station had increased. Increased? It doubled—to sixteen billion, up from eight billion. The main reason given by NASA is delay. Shortage of immediately available (appropriated) funds, plus the effects of the Challenger explosion, mean that the station will not be up by 1992 as originally planned, but by 1994.
     On the face of it that may sound reasonable. But look at it a little more closely. Why does a two-year stretch in schedule imply an increase in cost?

     Inflation? No. The calculations are all done in 1984 dollars, which means the new cost in current dollars will be even higher. The stated reason is “more comprehensive methods of accounting.” The earlier estimates ignored such things as ground-based support for the station, test facilities, simulators, crew training, ongoing operational costs, shuttle flight costs to assemble the station, and the cost of experiments run on the station. In other words, the eight billion was for hardware alone, and not all the hardware at that. Any corporation that presented its future cost estimates in such misleading fashion would be liable to stockholder suit.
     The new station cost figures tell me a couple of things. First, the original numbers for the cost of the space station were severely and deliberately underestimated—because NASA desperately wanted the program to start. Once started, it would have its own inertia and be harder to stop. Second, the development of the space station is being undertaken with no emphasis on tight, lean operations, and no emphasis on moving at maximum speed. For many in NASA, the first U.S. space station is not a dream come true; it is a ten-year guaranteed meal ticket. The longer NASA takes to complete the station, the better those marking time toward retirement will like it.

     Bureaucratic placidity does not encourage good engineering, either. The same forces that permitted the Challenger launch against the advice of the technical specialists are now slowing progress on the space station.
     If you really want to build a station, and you want it done fast and well—and maybe with some risks thrown in along the way—then you take it out of government hands as fast as you can. Because the first rule of a good government employee, the bureaucratic Prime Axiom, is this: never allow yourself to be associated with risk or failure. High-speed, high-intensity programs are by their nature dangerous.
     How do you build it? Easy. You grab a couple of people like Ted Turner, of CNN, or Ross Perot, of EDS. You tell them what you want and when you want it, and you ask them if they can do the job for ten billion dollars, fixed price. If they say yes, you give them the money and get out of the way. You don’t tell them how to spend the money, you don’t ask them how they are going to manage the project, you don’t ask them for endless reports on what they are doing, and you don’t tell them how to do the job.
     Why pick those two, or someone like them? That’s easy, too. You need someone of proven management competence with a big ego, someone who will succeed or die trying. When James Webb was running NASA, he commented informally that Wernher von Braun was exactly the right man for the Apollo project, because his ego was too big to allow him to fail.
     One reason for von Braun’s success is that he never quite realized that he worked for the U.S. government. When he wanted a piece of equipment, he had it delivered and then let his assistants fight the battle of the paperwork. When necessary, he himself was suitably contrite to his bean-counters (“It is easier to obtain absolution than permission”) but he never let rules get in the way of actions. And Apollo took us to the Moon, ahead of schedule.

     That’s not the way you do it in today's NASA, or in the Pentagon. If you want a hammer, you don’t go out and buy one. Still less do you go around to other people, trying to scrounge the use of a hammer somebody else has and isn’t using.
     No. You start filling in forms, and sending them off through the “proper channels.” And then, if you didn’t miss a form, and you are lucky, six months or a year later you may have your hammer. By then you may have forgotten why you needed it.
     It’s a terrible thing to say, but the space station now looks like the biggest boondoggle in NASA’s history. And what a shame, when so many space enthusiasts worked so hard to save it when it was in funding trouble. In the long run, we must have a permanent occupation of space. But the way we are going, we will find ourselves with a white elephant of a station, completed about 1997, at a bloated cost of twenty-five to thirty billion dollars. Or we will find the project being cancelled, around 1990, because no one in Congress will be able to find any public support for the idea.

     Paradoxes. If you have been reading my articles in New Destinies and Far Frontiers, you may have noticed recent contradictions. In “Running Out” and “On Timeline Singularities,” I said that the space program is vitally important to human affairs. But “Do You Really Want A Bigger U.S. Space Program?” argued that you can only achieve a bigger program by moving this country to the left; and this column seems to be saying that the government space program is in such a shambles that the last thing we want is more public participation in space.
     I believe all those statements. What I’m suffering from is antinomy (one of Spider Robinson’s favorite words, which is probably going to be mis-typed along the way as “antimony”). Antinomy is the simultaneous holding of strong but contradictory impulses, and it applies perfectly to this situation.

     Here are three statements which, taken together, are antinomian:

     1) A strong space program is vital to this country.

     2) Private industry and the people of this country won't put up the money for a private space program, so the space program has to be a public effort.

     3) The U.S. space program is in a disastrous condition, because it is being run by an uninspired government bureaucracy.

     Unfortunately, I believe all three.

     Looking For Solutions. What do those three statements tell us? Well, maybe they tell us that space will be developed, and in this century; but not by the United States—rather, by Europe, Japan, and the Soviet Union. Its tempting to say, if you want to work in space, that you should learn French, because it’s the easiest of the foreign languages that will be used in space.

     That’s an answer I can’t live with; that is why I said at the beginning that I am filled with anger, pain, and frustration. However, emotions do not solve problems. We need a positive agenda for action.

     To guide us to that agenda, I return to something that I noted in 1977: the analogy between space development activities and particle physics research. The two are similar in many ways. Each requires multi-billion-dollar investment of funds, each is incomprehensible to many citizens (space has a definite edge here—try explaining a quark to your mother), and each is the subject of considerable international activity and competition.
     There is at least one significant difference. Despite budget cuts and setbacks, the particle physics community keeps rolling along. President Reagan has just approved the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) with a $4.4 billion price tag. What is being done right in particle physics that is being done wrong in space? (ironically the SSC was cancelled in 1993 due to budget problems) One thing, and one thing of paramount and central importance: the centers for particle physics research are run and managed by first-rate scientists. NASA certainly has many excellent scientists of its own, competent, innovative, and hard-working. Unfortunately, they are not running the show. If they were, the whole agency would behave very differently—because the scientists want to see those payloads flown, as soon and as safely as possible. They are waiting for data to come back so they can begin their analyses. The scientists are mostly in mid-level jobs. But NASA needs at the top its best research scientists and engineers, people who are the very antithesis of bureaucrats.
     Suggesting such a change to NASA is much easier than making it happen. The pro-space community knows how to fight for a particular budget item or program these days. It followed the lead of the environmental movement and the special-interest lobbying programs, and now has the political process fairly well understood. But how do you accomplish a needed internal restructuring of a government agency? That is much trickier, because there is no analogy to aid us.
     I don't know of any attempt to do it successfully. There were many who wanted to get rid of the egregious James Watt as Secretary of the Interior, but nothing happened until the man put his foot in his own mouth.

     Here are my suggestions, and they are no more than that: work on the scientific aides to the House and Senate. Make sure they know where the competence lies in NASA and who are the best people; make sure they are thoroughly briefed on the best scientific programs, and make sure they know why those programs are important.
     It is less useful to work on the Congress itself. Other Factors place too many demands on a senator’s time to permit a full and detailed briefing of scientific issues. If you get the chance, certainly bend his or her ear. But remember that the aides, to a large extent, steer the House and Senate on questions of science.
     Work the problem, but don’t think you will get results quickly and easily. For we crossed the Great Divide, a little more than a year ago, and the things that used to work to advance the space program won’t work now. Somehow I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more.

From ACROSS THE GREAT DIVIDE by Charles Sheffield (1988)

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.

from the user known as "mk"

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)

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. 


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.


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)

     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.”


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)


There are some things that laboratories have to study, but which are hideously dangerous, e.g., radioactive elements and lethal plagues. Such things are studied in specially equipped labs, like atomic energy and Biosafety level 4 laboratories. These labs are commonly sited in remote locations. Naturally the quality of life for residents living downwind of the lab will plumet if there is a breach and something nasty escapes.

In a science fiction future the threat level increases, e.g., Grey goo planet devouring nanotechnology and large scale production of antimatter. The point being that at these levels "downwind" means "the entire planet" and "lowered quality of life" means "everybody dies."

So the logical thing to do is site the lab somethere really remote, like off-planet in deep space.

This is an opportunity to be MacGuffinite, but alas the same kind as mining. That is, 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.

In the RocketCat science fiction universe, the example is the TerraCo Military Isolation Lab. This is an area where the military develops technologies with hazard ratings approaching Existential Threat level. That is, things that if they escaped control could make the human race extinct.


      "I just turned twenty when I went up (into space) for the first time," Pete said in answer to one of Dyer's questions. "Must have been almost exactly ten years ago. It was on the P2Q Project. Ever hear of that?"
     "P2Q?" Dyer frowned at his drink while he swirled it back and forth in his glass. He'd heard something about that, he was sure. "Wasn't it some kind of controversial research thing?" he said slowly. "Ah yes … wait a minute. Something to do with viruses, wasn't it?" Pete nodded.

     "The aim was to manufacture a virus strain that would attack cancer cells selectively. The problem was that it only had to come out a little bit wrong and you'd wind up with something really lethal. If it wasn't selective enough for some reason and it got out …"
     Pete shrugged and allowed Dyer to complete the rest for himself. He took a swallow of his drink and went on, "Anyhow there was a big fight about it that went on for years. What it boiled down to was that nobody could guarantee a failproof way of making sure it could never get out into the atmosphere with a lot of worst-case 'what-if?'s … not one that would keep everybody happy anyway. So the whole thing was vetoed … until somebody had the bright idea of doing it away from Earth completely—right outside the atmosphere. So they shipped the scientists and all the equipment up to a purpose-built satellite and did it all there. That was what P2Q was. In fact the satellite is still there but it's running different projects these days …. I don't know what they call it now. I think it's just got some general name … Isolab or something like that."

(ed note: The AI researchers want to experiment with a computer program that could turn into SkyNet and exterminate the human race. They use the Isolab concept. The experiment is moved to a space colony with no radio links to Terra, surrounded by military spacecraft with itchy trigger fingers and intersperse the civilians with soldiers.)

From THE TWO FACES OF TOMORROW by James Hogan (1979)

(ed note: the question was how to safely analyze bits of technology from alien civilizations)

Since you're dealing with an unknown technology, and artifacts/lifeforms potentially engineered for purposes you're not aware of, you'd have to be REAL danged careful how you handled them. A special-purpose handling lab with a gigaton-nuke auto-destruct and remote-control handling gear would seem to be a minimal safe procedure, and you'd also have to dope out some way of picking up the pieces with no risk, and preferably no physical contact with your own ships and artifacts. Remote-control handling ships that scoop up parts, deliver them to the analysis lab, and then dive into the nearest sun, might be a good approach.

David G. Potter aka "Gharlane of Eddore"

(ed note: keep in mind this story was written five years before Hiroshima. A few of the details about atomic power were not quite correct, but still were remarkably accurate for a time when the specifics were ultra top secret. In the story the power company has one huge reactor supplying the energy needs of the entire United States. Things will turn ugly fast if the power is cut off, but if the technicians make one little mistake the resulting atomic blast will erase all life on Terra. Then an expert from the US Navy appears with some disturbing information.)

      "Yes, and no. Probably you gentlemen think of the Naval Observatory as being exclusively preoccupied with ephemeredes and tide tables. In a way you would be right-but we still have some time to devote to research as long as it doesn't cut into the appropriation. My special interest has always been lunar theory.
     "I don't mean lunar ballistics," he continued, "I mean the much more interesting problem of its origin and history, the problem the younger Darwin struggled with, as well as my Illustrious predecessor, Captain T. J. J. See. I think that it is obvious that any theory of lunar origin and history must take into account the surface features of the moon—especially the mountains, the craters, that mark its face so prominently."
     He paused momentarily, and Superintendent King put in, "Just a minute, Captain—I may be stupid, or perhaps I missed something, but—is there a connection between what we were discussing before (the problem of the nuclear reactor) and lunar theory?"

     "Bear with me for a few moments, Doctor King," Harrington apologized; "there is a connection—at least, I'm afraid there is a connection—but I would rather present my points in their proper order before making my conclusions." They granted him an alert silence; he went on:
     "Although we are in the habit of referring to the 'craters' of the moon, we know they are not volcanic craters. Superficially, they follow none of the rules of terrestrial volcanoes in appearance or distribution, but when Rutter came out in 1952 with his monograph on the dynamics of vulcanology, he proved rather conclusively that the lunar craters could not be caused by anything that we know as volcanic action.
     "That left the bombardment theory as the simplest hypothesis. It looks good, on the face of it, and a few minutes spent throwing pebbles in to a patch of mud will convince anyone that the lunar craters could have been formed by falling meteors.
     "But there are difficulties. If the moon was struck so repeatedly, why not the earth? It hardly seems necessary to mention that the earth's atmosphere would be no protection against masses big enough to form craters like Endymion, or Plato. And if they fell after the moon was a dead world while the earth was still young enough to change its face and erase the marks of bombardment, why did the meteors avoid so nearly completely the dry basins we call the seas?
     "I want to cut this short; you'll find the data and the mathematical investigations from the data here in my notes. There is one other major objection to the meteor bombardment theory: the great rays that spread from Tycho across almost the entire surface of the moon. It makes the moon look like a crystal ball that had been struck with a hammer, and impact from — outside seems evident, but there are difficulties. The striking mass, our hypothetical meteor, must have been smaller than the present crater of Tycho, but it must have the mass and speed to crack an entire planet."
     "Work it out for yourself—you must either postulate a chunk out of the core of a dwarf star, or speeds such as we have never observed within the system. It's conceivable but a far-fetched explanation"

     He turned to King. "Doctor, does anything occur to you that might account for a phenomenon like Tycho?"

     The Superintendent grasped the arms of his chair, then glanced at his palms. He fumbled for a handkerchief, and wiped them. "Go ahead," he said, almost inaudibly.
     "Very well then —" Harrington drew out of his briefcase a large photograph of the moon—a beautiful full-moon portrait made at Lick. "I want you to imagine the moon as she might have been sometime in the past. The dark areas we call the 'Seas' are actual oceans. It has an atmosphere, perhaps a heavier gas than oxygen and nitrogen, but an active gas, capable of supporting some conceivable form of life.
     "For this is an inhabited planet, inhabited by intelligent beings, beings capable of discovering atomic power and exploiting it!"
     He pointed out on the photograph, near the southern limb, the lime-white circle of Tycho, with its shining, incredible, thousand-mile-long rays spreading, thrusting, jutting out from it. "Here…here at Tycho was located their main atomic plant." He moved his finger to a point near the equator, and somewhat east of meridian—the point where three great dark areas merged, Mare Nubium, Mare Imbriwn, Oceanus Procellarum—and picked out two bright splotches surrounded also by rays, but shorter, less distinct, and wavy. "And here at Copernicus and at Kepler, on islands at the middle of a great ocean, were secondary power stations."
     He paused, and interpolated soberly, "Perhaps they knew the danger they ran, but wanted power so badly that they were willing to gamble the life of their race. Perhaps they were ignorant of the ruinous possibilities of their little machines, or perhaps their mathematicians assured them that it could not happen.

     "But we will never know…no one can ever know. For it blew up, and killed them—and it killed their planet.
     "It whisked off the gassy envelope and blew it into outer space. It may even have set up a chain reaction, in that atmosphere. It blasted great chunks of the planet's crust Perhaps some of that escaped completely, too, but all that did not reach the speed of escape fell back down in time and splashed great ring-shaped craters in the land.
     "The oceans cushioned the shock; only the more massive fragments formed craters through the water. Perhaps some life still remained in those ocean depths. If so, it was doomed to die—for the water, unprotected by atmospheric pressure, could not remain liquid and must inevitably escape lit time to outer space. Its life blood drained away. The planet was dead—dead by suicide!

     Well, we've got something to show for it, all tied up in pink ribbon. It's the greatest advance in radioactivity since Hahn split the nucleus. Atomic fuel, Chief, atomic fuel, safe, concentrated, and controllable. Suitable for rockets, for power plants, for any damn thing you care to use it for."
     King showed alert interest for the first time. "You mean a power source that doesn't require a pile?"
     "Oh, no, I didn't say that. You use the breeder pile to make the fuel, then you use the fuel anywhere and anyhow you like, with something like ninety-two percent recovery of energy. But you could junk the power sequence, if you wanted to."
     "Wait a minute." Lentz had the floor. "Doctor Harper…have you already achieved a practical rocket fuel?"
     "I said so. We've got it on hand now."
     "An escape-speed fuel?" They understood his verbal shorthand a fuel that would lift a rocket free of the earth's gravitational pull.
     "Sure. Why, you could take any of the Clipper rockets, refit them a trifle, and have breakfast on the moon."
     "We will take your new fuel, refit a large rocket, install the breeder pile in it, and throw it into an orbit around the earth, far out in. space. There we will use it to make more fuel, safe fuel, for use on earth, with the danger from the Big Bomb itself limited to the operators actually on watch!"

From BLOWUPS HAPPEN by Robert Heinlein (1940)

Sitting out in the middle of the New Mexico desert there is (or was until a few years ago) a large steel tank, a monument to our species’ attitudes toward the risks and benefits of a new technology.

The tank, which is a little smaller than a railroad boxcar; was constructed during the mad rush to get a working atomic bomb to cover one end of a particularly grotesque spectrum of contingencies. When work started on the bomb, there was ai rather large area of uncertainty as to just what would happen when the masses of plutonium were squeezed together. The highest probability assumption was that they would explode with an enormous bang. But the continuum ranged from nothing at all to initiating a chain reaction that would sterilize the planet.

The tank was built to cover the low reactivity end of the spectrum. It would contain the force of the conventional triggering explosion, and allow the scientists to scrape the plutonium off the inside so they could go back to the drawing board without the expense and effort of having to produce all new plutonium.

And what was the plan for handling the high reactivity improbability? The one that said the bomb would destroy all life on Earth?

There wasn’t one.

The scientists working on the project regarded the universal chain reaction scenario as unlikely from the outset. They decided to cross that bridge when they came to it and ignored the possibility in order to get on with the job. In any event, there was an explosion of properly satisfying proportions. As theoretical work went ahead on the bomb, it became apparent that both the pessimistic and “optimistic” predictions of reactivity were wrong, and the high probability outcome was in fact correct. (Of course it’s also true that the night before the test, Enrico Fermi was taking bets on whether the explosion would destroy all life on Earth—much to the disgust of some of his colleagues.) When the first bomb was tested in New Mexico, they didn’t bother to use the tank. It was left to rust slowly as an awesome and slightly forlorn relic of the birth of the Atomic Age.

To modern man, circa 1980, the awesome thing about the whole episode is the truly cavalier disregard of that low probability chance that the world would end on July 16, 1945, at Alamogordo, New Mexico. There was a war on, of course, and war tends to push humans to take risks they would otherwise shrink from. But beyond that, our attitudes toward the kinds of risks we are willing to accept has changed.

As the world has grown smaller, our backyards have become bigger. Technology shrinks the world with better transportation and communications at the same time that it expands our immediate surroundings by showing us just how interrelated everything is.

For the first A-bomb tests the New Mexico desert was sufficiently far away to be “safe.” When we set off the first H-bomb just a few years later, we picked an isolated island halfway around the planet. Today we don’t feel it is safe to test bombs anywhere in the atmosphere.

Experience and new measuring techniques have made us more sophisticated about the consequences of our actions. On both the scientific and personal levels we are increasingly aware of the basic unity of our world and the multiple effects of our actions. Our response is to focus on the risks, actual and possible, in a way that earlier generations never did.

This is nothing but common sense given the ever increasing power at our disposal. If you have the kind of power We now have, you’d better make it a habit to think your actions through very carefully.

As our power grows, we have to make decisions about how we will use it and what restrictions we will put on it. One of our difficulties is that we must make those decisions earlier and earlier as our technologies get more and more powerful. Increasingly, the question is not whether we should apply a technology, it is whether we should develop it at all.

Now we are entering an era when we must question the advisability of doing the experiments which will define a field at all.

For instance, there isn’t much argument that we should continue to develop and test new pesticides in the laboratory, no matter how much disagreement there may be over their use. But there is a great deal of disagreement over developing a supersonic transport or a fast breeder reactor and even more disagreement over doing some basic recombinant DNA experiments.

The classic method of assessing the risks of something new is to try it out on a small scale and test the small scale version to its limits. We are getting to the point where that may mean testing some things beyond our ability to endure the consequences. These new enterprises may have enormous risks, so we don’t dare test them exhaustively. But since we haven’t tested them exhaustively, we cannot make accurate and unarguable assessment of the risks.

Since we cannot make precise assessments, any attempt to test them exhaustively will face strong opposition and long delays. The resulting debate is bitter, interminable, and largely sterile.

The most obvious example of this process today is the question of nuclear safety, especially safety of nuclear power plants in the event of loss of coolant to the core. The possible consequences range from merely damaging the reactor to killing hundreds of thousands of people. Not all the consequences are equally probable, and some of them may not even be possible. The debate focuses on the relative probabilities and possibilities.

We have attempted to meet this challenge by doing very sophisticated simulations and computer studies of the problem. But simulations are always open to debate or questions about the underlying assumptions. Without experimental data it is very difficult to refine the model to an acceptable degree, particularly where important questions are concerned.

We could solve the issue once and for all by building some test reactors and deliberately cutting off cooling to the core under various conditions. But the worst case scenarios for cooling failure involve introducing more radioactive material into the environment than most atomic bomb tests. There is nowhere on Earth where such experiments would not pose a risk of undesirable consequences to the whole planet—particularly not if it is true that any increase in environmental radiation produces an increase in the incidence of cancer, a widely held belief in some circles.

An even more striking example of the difficulty of intelligently assessing risks from limited data is the debate over recombinant DNA research. The possible risks were so obvious that many of the pioneers in gene splicing turned the field into a national issue by calling for a moratorium on some kinds of work until the risks could be assessed and considered.

It’s important to understand that these debates, or the intelligent parts of them anyway, focus on risks. A risk is the probability that a given undesirable outcome will occur. To estimate a risk you need to know two things: 1) Is this outcome possible? 2) How likely is it? The scientists who asked for a moratorium on some recombinant DNA research couldn’t answer those questions, so they called for a time-out while they looked for acceptably accurate answers.

The point is worth emphasis because a lot of people confuse a risk with a danger. A danger is what you have when an undesirable outcome is both possible and fairly probable. There is a risk you will be killed in an airplane crash every time you fly. You're not in danger of dying until the engine falls off the wing.

There is another side to this question, one that usually gets lost as we go round and round about the possible risks of new technologies. That is, benefits we can gain from them.

In most cases what we are offered ranges from merely sizeable benefits to enormous and desperately needed benefits. We need mass-produced hormones and other sophisticated biologicals; we need dependable, inexpensive energy; we need food crops that fix their own nitrogen; we need a cure for cancer. There are hundreds of things these new technologies can give us, and we need them so desperately that the future of humanity may well tum on whether, when, and how we get them.

So far we have been able to do the necessary research and avoid the horror-show scenarios. But science is churning out discoveries at an ever increasing rate, and these keep getting potentially more powerful all the time. Atomic power may be safe, but how about antimatter or cold-catalyzed fusion? If we keep on making new discoveries, at least some of our bad dreams are going to come close to reality. The whole process is rapidly getting too hot for us to handle.

What do you do when something is too hot to handle? Throughout human history the most common and effective strategies have been to get a longer pair of tongs or thicker insulation. In modern terms, distance and containment.

Distance as a protection started breaking down around 1945 with the development of long lasting pesticides and large amounts of artificial radioactivity. Today pure distance on Earth can no longer buy a sufficient measure of safety for some of the work we want to do. Containment has been more effective, but as the risks increase, containment must be made every more stringent. At some point the relation between added cost and added protection stops being linear, and you must pay ever increasing amounts for each small increase in protection.

The Calculus of Risks

The questions of risks and benefits may be -new to science, but they are old to lawyers. ln a classic article in the Harvard Law Review in 1915 , five criteria were set forth to determine if a risk is reasonable or unwarranted:

  1. The magnitude of the risk: How likely is it to cause harm?
  2. The value or importance of what will be exposed to risk.
  3. The value or importance of the collateral object—that which is to be gained by taking the risk.
  4. The probability that the objective will be obtained by taking the risk.
  5. The probability that the collateral object (objective) would have been obtained without taking the risk.

Lawyers sometimes speak of the “calculus of risks” in discussing their cases. You can sum up this calculus in the pseudomathematical formula:

( B * (Pr - Pw)) / (M * V) = Acceptability Factor

Where B is the benefit (collateral object), Pr is the probability of gaining it by taking the risk, Pw is the probability of getting it without the risk, M is the magnitude of the risk, and V is the value of what is at risk.

Obviously this is more metaphorical than mathematical, but the basic relationship holds at least broadly.

The sticky part of this formula in the cases we are considering is the denominator. We aren’t sure of the value of M, and the value of V is very large. That means the payoff has to be huge to produce even a marginal acceptibility.

The magnitude, M, is hard to reduce because we don’t really know what it is. Typically, one of the purposes of the experiments is to find out. That leaves us with V, the value of what we are risking. If we can reduce that from “all life on Earth” to “some expensive hardware and maybe the lives of a few volunteers,” the acceptibility of this kind of work goes way up. We can pursue lines of research that sane consideration would completely prohibit otherwise.

We can do this by moving work in risky or uncertain fields off the surface of the planet and out into space. There we will have all the distance we need and a degree of containment unattainable on Earth. There the most dangerous experiments we can now contemplate can be carried out with a degree of risk we can easily accept.

Space labs make sense in several ways. They make sense as part of the drive for space industry because their product information fulfills the stringent requirements for profitable production in space. They make sense from the standpoint of the problems posed by new technologies. They also make sense from a political/philosophical standpoint that we’ll leave for last.

Anything that will repay the huge costs of space production is going to have to be either unique with no good substitutes, or incredibly expensive to make on Earth. Diamonds, for instance, probably don’t qualify. Their cost is mostly the result of an artificially restricted supply and the expense of cutting and polishing them. However, the right kind of information is one of the most valuable commodities that humanity produces. Information that cannot be safely gathered on Earth is a unique product as well.

The benefits of space labs for developing new technologies are outstanding. With proper design, a space lab can provide an absolute guarantee that risky or dangerous experiments will not contaminate, damage, or destroy life on Earth. (Or as close to an absolute guarantee as we can get, anyway.) The work will be isolated from Earth by hundreds or thousands of miles of hard vacuum. Access to the facility will be limited in a way that no Earthly security system can match. The labs will be designed from the skin in for their role, and the designers will have far more control over their parameters than they do on Earth. The very nature of a space habitat means that fail-safe systems will be piled on fail-safe. systems. If it is desirable, the lab can be located in a place where nothing will fall back to Earth even if the lab blows up.

Potential Projects

The ability of any industry, even a research industry, to sustain itself in space depends ultimately on economics. It has to create more values than it consumes, at least in the minds of the people who pay the bills. Are there any research programs which might repay the costs of taking them into space? A quick scan of our present technologies not only says yes, it provides a number of obvious candidates. Here are some of my favorites:

Genetic Engineering

Genetic research and development is a prime possibility. The basic material is small and light, the returns are so huge as to be nearly incalculable, and the nature of the research objects means they can pose a threat if some kinds of work are done on Earth.

Probably the most spectacular short term payoff would be developing, and possibly producing, hormones, enzymes, and other biological materials we now must obtain by laborious and enormously costly extraction from human and animal organs.

Urokinase is a powerful drug for treating blood clots, but currently it costs about $1,500 a dose because it must be extracted from kidney material. Production is nowhere near the needed 500,000 doses a year. An anti-cancer drug called L-asparaginase costs about $10,000 for enough to treat a single patient. There are other things, like interferon, or the human growth factor for treating dwarfism, or the clotting factor for treating hemophilia victims, that could be produced cheaply and in quantity by recombinant techniques.

The recombinant cultures could be developed in space and thoroughly tested there. Those compatible with the Earth environment could be returned here for production, and. the others could be produced in orbital factories.

Besides safety, there are several other reasons why we might want to produce recombinant material in space. One of them is the risk of reverse infection. Recombinant cultures are almost always less efficient than their unmodified relatives since they have to use extra energy to produce the products the foreign genes code for. If such a culture is contaminated by wild microorganisms, the carefully developed hybrids can be supressed by differential competition. This may not be as threatening as having a dangerous hybrid escape, but it is expensive and frustrating.

Another advantage to space production is that most microorganisms are more efficient under no-gravity conditions. Convection currents and gravity don’t act on them, so each cell gets more nutrients. (Microorganisms are small enough to be moved around by Brownian motion in a liquid medium, so their immediate surroundings don’t go stagnant.)

Extraction of the end products can be done more efficiently as well. One of the most sophisticated and precise extraction techniques we have is electrophoresis, but on Earth you need some sort of supporting medium to counteract gravity. We generally use filter paper, or a gel for really fine work. In space there’s no problem with gravity, so we could apply electrophoresis directly to liquids. That makes it much more efficient and turns a lab technique into a commercial-lot proposition.

We could also produce special strains of microorganisms for industrial and agricultural purposes and thoroughly test them before releasing them into the biosphere.

In September, 1966, Analog ran a story by Hal Clement called “Mechanic” that dealt with genetic engineering. The plot turned on a crash of a large hydrofoil caused by a strain of artificially produced iron-concentrating bacteria. A colony of the bacteria got smeared on one of the hydrofoil’s struts, attacked the metal, and caused the strut to fail. A strain of bacteria that could extract iron would have a lot of uses, but as the story pointed out, it would also need some built-in safeguards.

Microorganisms that could reduce the viscosity of crude oil would give new life to pumped-out oil fields, but you wouldn’t want these agents working on the asphalt in your parking lot. Strains of bacteria tailored for methane production would let us replace natural gas with biogas, but you definitely would not want them growing in your digestive tract.

(ed note: not to mention the plot of Mutant 59: The Plastic Eaters. )

The problem of producing new organisms via genetic engineering is two-fold. First you have to tailor the organism to do what you need done, and then you have to disable the organism so it won’t do it outside its planned environment. This isn’t necessarily difficult, but you do have to test thoroughly to make sure that natural selection won’t undo what you have done. The job of space labs would be the development and testing of the organisms.

Not all genetic engineering will have to be done in space. Better than ninety-nine percent of it will be done on Earth using conventional laboratory precautions. But having bioengineering labs in space would give us an important option in cases of special danger or unassessable risk.

Space Zoos

The last death from smallpox occurred in September, 1978, well after the World Health Organization reported the last case in the wild.

The victim was Janet Parker, a photographer at Binningham University in England. She contracted smallpox from a culturekept for research purposes in a university laboratory.

Cultures of dangerous organisms are important tools in medical and biological research. Any organism which can cause illness in a human being has something to tell us about the nature of our bodies. For example} to be dangerous, organisms must have a way of getting through our immune defenses. By understanding how they do that, we can learn more about our immune systems and their workings.

On the other hand, a dangerous culture poses a risk. This is especially true of a disease like smallpox which is highly contagious and which most people no longer have antibodies against.

Some of the diseases which are most interesting are extremely serious but geographically limited in the wild. Some of them we still can’t cure, and many of them probably wouldn’t be recognized by the average doctor in time.

About five years ago an Arizona cowboy somehow contracted bubonic plague while working the range. It took the doctors nearly two weeks to figure out what was wrong with him, and he nearly died in the interim. Mind you, plague is a disease that responds readily to modem antibiotics (although not the common ones), and there is a case of plague every three or four years among Arizona’s Indians. Since the doctors didn’t know what they were dealing with, they wisely took extreme precautions against infection. If they had been less careful, if the disease had been less well-known, or if it was something that was more difficult to cure, the whole state could have had a problem.

If the state had a problem, it would have needed cultures of plague bacteria quickly—to produce vaccine.

Countries with major medical research programs have microbiological maximum security zoos where dangerous organisms are studied. The United States’ zoo is at the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia. At the present time, the CDC and similar facilities in London, Tokyo and Moscow are the only places in the world that are supposed to have smallpox cultures. The safest place for those cultures is in space. We can keep and study them there with far less danger than anywhere on Earth.

Nuclear Research

If we are going to make manned flights to the outer planets, we are going to need a nuclear rocket or something like it. Currently our nuclear rocket program is dead, in large part because there was no way to test the engines without releasing some radioactivity into the atmosphere. Anything that puts out radiation is very unpopular with Congress these days and isn’t likely to get funded.

Since nuclear rockets are space vehicles anyway, the logical place to develop and test them is in space. That way we can have the benefits with almost no risk to Earth.

A similar situation exists with new types of nuclear power reactors. There are a lot of designs and concepts that haven’t been explored adequately, and some of them look extremely promising. Considering the increasing restraints placed on atomic work on Earth, it might be cheaper to build and test new reactor designs in space. We could get the experience we need with new designs with a minimum of risk.

If we wanted to, we could test our conventional designs to destruction off Earth to find out what does happen. That information alone would be worth billions.

It would probably take an elaborate series of tests on Earth and in space to get the answers we need.

Test reactors could be built in space and their cooling interfered with. The results of these tests could be used to refine tests done on Earth with dummy reactors where chemical reactions duplicate the effects of reactor failure. The results of the Earth tests could be used to refine the next series of space tests. Ru'n through this cycle enough times and you can achieve any desired degree of accuracy.

This is more complicated and more expensive than it sounds. The big engineering challenge would be to design a reactor that would respond in space the way a conventional reactor does on Earth. Hence the successive approximation technique.

For instance, what do you do about the absence of weight in space? The obvious answer is to imitate it with centrifugal force. But that raises the problems of allowing for coriolis forces, the difference in "gravity" between the top of the reactor and the bottom, and several other relatedthings. It would undoubtedly take several successive designs to get the answers we need.

Our major need is to know what goes on inside the reactor during. a failure. The interaction of the results of a meltdown with groundwater, wind, soil and so forth are important in assessing the ultimate results of a catastrophic reactor failure, but these processes are better understood and easier to model satisfactorily. If we know the characteristics of what comes out of the reactor—if anything—we can predict the interactions with the environment.

Other Possibilities

As we develop new technologies, there will be other risky experiments to be made. We may want to explore the properties of large masses of antimatter—say a gram or so. The CERN nuclear research facility in Geneva was able to store a small quantity of antimatter for 85 hours in magnetic confinement. If we are going to work seriously with antimatter, we’re just about going to have to do it in a vacuum and far, far away from anything else.

A much more speculative possibility is developing cold-catalyzed fusion power: hydrogen fusion without plasmas, electron beams, super-magnets, or any of the other complex gadgetry that has bogged down research in the field for the last 35 years. (See the Feinberg reference in the Bibliography.)

We have known since 1957 that if you replace one of the electrons in a molecule of deuterium with a heavier negatively charged particle, say a muon, the hydrogen nuclei will fuse spontaneously. The muon acts as a catalyst and can cause fusion reactions as long as it is in contact with deuterium. However, muons only last about two microseconds. That’s why the seas don’t boil from catalyzed fusion power.

If we can discover a reasonably stable negatively charged particle at least as massive as a muon, we will have the potential for useful catalyzed fusion. There is no really good reason to believe such a particle does not exist, but theory says, if there is such a thing, it will require enormous energies to produce. We are only now beginning to build particle accelerators able to reach the energy levels needed to create these hypothetical super-muons.

Within the next decade or so we’ll know whether super-muons exist. If so, we will still have a lot of development work between us and our first cold fusion power plant.

We had better do that work where there is no possibility of super-muons coming in contact with deuterium —which means keeping them away from all water, since there is a little deuterium .in almost all water. Potentially, these particles are even more dangerous than anti-matter. True, they won’t affect anything besides deuterium, but unlike anti-matter, they won’t be destroyed in the reaction. They will keep on catalyzing fusion as long as they are in contact with water.

Design Considerations

Broadly, there are three possible locations for space labs. The first such facilities will probably go into nearEarth orbit (NEO) since this is the easiest and cheapest part of space to reach. This is a lot better than doing the work on.Earth, but it doesn’t offer maximum safety.

Near-Earth orbits are deep in the planet’s gravity Well and material in those orbits will eventually be pulled back into the atmosphere. Witness Skylab. In the event of an accident which destroys the station, debris would fall back to Earth. Small items would probably bum up on re-entry, but that isn’t much help if you’re dealing with radioactives. If especially dangerous biological material was involved, NEO might not be considered secure enough, either. Working at the L4 or L5 points would be considerably safer. Material escaping into space at one of these points would tend to stay there, held in place by the balance of the pull from the Earth, sun and moon. The biggest problem with the L4 and L5 locations is that they are considerably further out, and the expense and effort of getting there is greater. They would be the locations of choice for programs involving radioactives, such as nuclear rocket research and experimental reactor design.

Using the L points for space labs doesn’t close them off to other uses. These “points” are actually large areas that are more-or-less tadpole shaped. Anything we put in them is going to have to be armored against radiation from solar flares and hermetically sealed anyway. A combination of good “zoning” and careful design would minimize any potential problems.

The moon and its immediate vicinity offers a third possibility. If a lab is put in lunar orbit, anything that escapes will end up on the moon. That might be unaesthetic, but not dangerous. For experiments that need gravity, the moon’s surface would be the location of choice.

Of the three locations, the moon and the space around it is the hardest to reach. It will probably be the last to be exploited.

For the rest of this century, the major vehicle for getting men and equipment into space will be the Space Shuttle and its follow-ons. This will pose constraints on size and weight of items that can be taken into orbit. In the long run, these won’t be too limiting. One of the projects already on the Shuttle’s experimental program is work on building structures in space. The project can be adapted to building space labs if need be.

In the short term, any structure put into space will probably be composed of modules built on Earth and assembled up there. Most likely they will be adaptions of designs already on the drawing boards.

One design that has a lot of potential for adaptation is Spacelab, the European Space Research Organization’s modular laboratory design that fits into the Shuttle’s cargo bay. Available modules include a series of cargo pallets, a short manned module, and a long manned module which is seven meters long and four meters in diameter. A series of biological experiments is already being planned for one of the flights of the long module.

In addition, North American Rockwell, the prime contractor for the Shuttle, has done a series of studies over the last decade on building space stations from Shuttle-ferried modules. The cargo bay on the Shuttle can carry a payload up to about 18.5 meters by 4.5 meters in diameter, so the modules could be about twice as long as the long Spacelab modules.

Probably the quickest and cheapest way to build an orbital lab would be to adapt the Spacelab modules. Purpose built space station modules would undoubtedly come later.

The Rockwell concept envisions a central core containing power supplies and life support systems. The modules for living and work would radiate off from this. Since Spacelab isn’t designed to function away from the Shuttle, the Spacelab station would also need a power and life support core.

One of the most intriguing Rockwell studies calls for using laboratory modules that would literally plug into the life support core. The modules would be prepared on Earth, carried up to the core in the Space Shuttle or a follow-on vehicle, and attached. They could be brought back in the Shuttle later for resupply or reconfiguration. This gives the maximum flexibility at the lowest dollar cost, although it wouldbe somewhat less secure than a lab that stayed in space.

Seven meters by four meters isn’t much space by Earthly standards, but Skylab showed us you can use space much more efficiently in zero-g. For one thing, “eye-level” means something quite different when you can float to a convenient height.

Compared to a groundside facility, the orbital labs will be pretty spartan. Only the dangerous parts of research programs will be carried out there, and everything else will be done planetside. The labs will be linked to their parent facilities by elaborate communications nets and such functions as data analysis will be handled on Earth. Every possible ounce will have been shaved off the payloads and not so much as a pencil will be sent up if it can be spared.

Research programs will be mapped out carefully and aimed at getting specific answers as quickly as possible. The scientists will probably work to schedules as tight as those imposed on the Skylab astronauts.

The first space researchers will work very closely with their colleagues on Earth. They will probably be glorified lab technicians, carrying out experiments under the supervision of Earth-bound scientists. Of course, they will be the most highly qualified and best trained group of lab technicians the world has ever seen. The prestige involved in getting a space post will be great, and the competition for slots on the labs will be ferocious.

The size of the labs will vary with the function. All of them will be capable of many kinds of experiments. It would be most economical to gradually construct a few large space stations for research, but dangerous projects require small facilities to spread the risk. The first labs will probably house three to six people and would weigh in the neighborhood of 40 to 60 tons on Earth. Some of them will never get any bigger because the work is so risky. Others may eventually house 100 or more workers.

This is likely to produce some rather interesting side effects. The work will be highly structured and the living conditions pretty crummy, but intellectually it will be the promised land. All the non-scientific pettifogging will be done on Earth. Up in space will be a community of first class brains in a variety of fields who will be in constant formal and informal communication. (Research facilities will be close together in each area of space to facilitate resupply and mutual aid in case of trouble, so there will be a low-power radio net to keep everyone in touch.) That kind of intellectual ferment and cross-breeding is the stuff of which break-throughs are made. We can expect to see a lot of serendipity coming out of space.

The problem of shipping potentially dangerous material into space will require some special thought. In the case of genetic engineering the problem won’t be too severe since the recombinant work will be done on the satellites. Radioactive material poses a more serious problem, but this is one area where we already have a lot of experience. For over fifteen years the United States has been sending radioactives, primarily plutonium, into space as the active elements of the SNAP series of isotope power sources. We have found ways to package such material so it will survive any kind of spacecraft accident from an explosion on the pad to reentry.

In 1968 a Nimbus weather satellite with SNAP 19 on board crashed into the Santa Barbara Channel off the California coast when the launch vehicle malfunctioned. The generator and its cargo of plutonium was recovered intact from the sea floor a few months later.

Will We Do It?

The benefits we can derive from space labs for dangerous work are immense. In some cases they would make the difference between exploring new technologies to reap the rewards and passing them by as too dangerous. In other cases they will make it possible to do things quickly and expeditiously that we would only do slowly and hesitantly on Earth. Within two decades of the first launching, these labs will probably be seen as essential in the same way communication satellites are today.

Of course we will purchase these ben- efits at a cost. The expense of building and launching labs into space will run into billions of dollars. Given the present attitude toward space exploration, will they ever be built?

Probably, but they will not be our first priority in space. The first space labs will be for research into the nature of the space environment, astronomy and other “space” sciences. Presently there are no plans to launch labs for the sole purpose of doing dangerous work.

Yet once we do launch them, we will find the benefits will go far beyond the obvious results of the research programs. One of those benefits is the political/philosophical one alluded to earlier. In the long run it may be the most important benefit of all.

Increasingly, the most worrisome questions in our political life have scientific overtones. The questions are worrisome because we don’t have the information we need to resolve them. We are stuck in the middle, and reasoned debate gives way to bickering and hysteria.

Again, the best current example is the debate over nuclear power. The preponderance of opinion isthat the nuclear power plants are safe and cost-effective, but there is no real consensus because there are too many unanswered questions. The present situation is satisfactory to no one. Neither side can really muster the support it needs to prevail, so the infighting, redesigns, lawsuits and protests drag on. Better information wouldn’t convince everyone, but it would convince enough peoplc so we could lay the issue to rest and go on to something else.

A similar debate rages over pesticides, food additives and other chemicals. Largely it is a debate over cancer. Again, neither side is able to win a clear consensus because of the dearth of information. If we knew more about cancer, we could determine what, if any, are the acceptable dose limits for these chemicals.

These are the sorts of questions that potentially dangerous research can answer for us. Without that research we will spend an increasing amount of time arguing them. With it we can reach decisions satisfactory to most of us.

Considering the cost and complexity of the modern political process that may be the biggest economic benefit of all.


Ehricke, Krafft A; Large Space Stations, American Astronautical Society, Science and Technology Series, Vol. 33, P. ll, 1974.

Feinberg, Gerald; Lepton Power, Galileo, Vol. II, #3, p. 12.

Groves, Leslie R.; Now It Can Be Told, Harper & Row, N.Y., 1962.

Jones, Lawrence W.; High Energy Physics, Encyclopedia Britannica 1979 Yearbook of Science and the Future, 1978.

New Scientist; various issues from September, l978 November, 1978 London.

Rogers, Michael; Biohazard, Knopf, 1977.

Terry; Negligence, 29 Harvard Law Review, 1915 p. 40.

Wirts, Gunther; Spacelab, American Astronautical Society Advances in Advances in the Astronautical Sciences Series, Vol. 37 , Part I, 1978.

Zechell, Alexander P.; National Meeting on Aerospace Nuclear Application April 28-30, 1970, American Nuclear Society.

From TOO HOT TO HANDLE by Rick Cook (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 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

[This is an entry to the 2019 Adversarial Collaboration Contest by Nick D and Rob S.]


Nick Bostrom defines existential risks (or X-risks) as “[risks] where an adverse outcome would either annihilate Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential.” Essentially this boils down to events where a bad outcome lies somewhere in the range of ‘destruction of civilization’ to ‘extermination of life on Earth’. Given that this has not already happened to us, we are left in the position of making predictions with very little directly applicable historical data, and as such it is a struggle to generate and defend precise figures for probabilities and magnitudes of different outcomes in these scenarios. Bostrom’s introduction to existential risk​ provides more insight into this problem than there is space for here.

There are two problems that arise with any discussion of X-risk mitigation. Is this worth doing? And how do you generate the political will necessary to handle the issue? Due to scope constraints this collaboration will not engage with either question, but will simply assume that the reader sees value in the continuation of the human species and civilization. The collaborators see X-risk mitigation as a “​Molochian​” problem, as we blindly stumble into these risks in the process of maturing our civilisation, or perhaps a twist on the tragedy of the commons. Everyone agrees that we should try to avoid extinction, but nobody wants to pay an outsized cost to prevent it. Coordination problems have been solved throughout history, and the collaborators assume that as the public becomes more educated on the subject, more pressure will be put on world governments to solve the issue.

Exactly which scenarios should be described as X-risks is impossible to pin down, but on the chart above, the closer you get to the top right, the more significant the concern. Considering there is no reliable data on the probability of a civilization collapsing pandemic or many other of these scenarios, the true risk of any scenario is impossible to determine. So any of the above scenarios should be considered dangerous, but for some of them, we have already enacted preparations and mitigation strategies. World governments are already preparing for X-risks such as nuclear war, or pandemics by leveraging conventional mitigation strategies like nuclear disarmament and WHO funding. When applicable, these strategies should be pursued in parallel with the strategies discussed in this paper. However, for something like a gamma ray burst or grey goo scenario, there is very little that can be done to prevent civilizational collapse. In these cases, the only effective remedy is the development of ​closed systems​. Lifeboats. Places for the last vestiges of humanity to hide and survive and wait for the catastrophe to burn itself out. There is no guarantee that any particular lifeboat would survive. But a dozen colonies scattered across every continent or every world would allow humanity to rise from the ashes of civilization.

Both authors of this adversarial collaboration agree that the human species is worth preserving, and that closed systems represent the best compromise between cost, feasibility, and effectiveness. We disagree, however, on if the lifeboats should be terrestrial, or off world. We’re going to go into more detail on the benefits and challenges of each, but in brief the argument boils down to whether we should aim more conservatively by developing the systems terrestrially, or ‘shoot for the stars’ and build an offworld base and reap the secondary benefits


For the X-risks listed above, there are measures that could be taken to reduce the risk of them occurring, or to mitigate against the negative outcomes. The most concrete steps that have been taken so far that mitigate against X-risks would be the creation of organisations like the UN, intended to disincentivize warmongering behaviour and reward cooperation. Similarly the World Health Organisation and acts like the Kyoto Protocol serve to reduce the chances of catastrophic disease outbreak and climate change respectively. MIRI works to reduce the risk of rogue AI coming into being, while space missions like the Sentinel telescope from the B612 Foundation seek to spot incoming asteroids from space.

While mitigation attempts are to be lauded, and expanded upon, our planet, global ecosystem, and biosphere are still the single point of failure for our human civilization. Creating separate reserves of human civilization, in the form of offworld colonies or closed systems on Earth, would be the most effective approach to mitigating against the worst outcomes of X-risk.

The scenario for these backups would go something like this: despite the best efforts to reduce the chance of any given catastrophe it occurs, and efforts made to protect/preserve civilization at large fail. Thankfully, our closed system or space colony has been specifically hardened to survive against the worst we can imagine, and a few thousand humans survive in their little self-sufficient bubble with the hope of retaining existing knowledge and technology until the point where they have grown enough to resume the advancement of human civilization, and the species/civilization loss event has been averted.

Some partial analogues come to mind when thinking of closed systems and colonies; the colonisation of the New World, Antarctic exploration and scientific bases, the Biosphere 2 experiment, the International Space Station, and nuclear submarines. These do not all exactly match the criteria of a closed system lifeboat, but lessons can be learned.

One of the challenges of X-risk mitigation is developing useful cost/benefit analyses for various schemes that might protect against catastrophic events. Given the uncertainty inherent in the outcomes and probabilities of these events, it can be very difficult to pin down the ‘benefit’ side of the equation; if you invest $5B in an asteroid mitigation scheme, are you rescuing humanity in 1% of counterfactuals or are you just softening the blow in 0.001% of them? If those fronting the costs can’t be convinced that they’re purchasing real value in terms of the future then it’s going to be awfully hard to convince them to spend that money. Additionally, the ‘cost’ side of the equation is not necessarily simple either, as many of the available solutions are unprecedented in scale or scope (and take the form of large infrastructure projects famous for cost-overruns). The crux of our disagreement ended up resting on the question of cost/benefit for terrestrial and offworld lifeboats, and the possibility of raising the funds and successfully establishing these lifeboats.


The two types of closed systems under consideration are offworld colonies, or planetary closed systems. An offworld colony would likely be based on some local celestial body, perhaps Mars, or one of Jupiter’s moons. For an offworld colony, the X-risk mitigation wouldn’t be the only point in its favor. A colony would also be able to provide secondary and tertiary benefits in acting as a research base and exploration hub, and possibly taking advantage of otheropportunities offered by off-planet environments.

In terms of X-risk mitigation, these colonies would work much the same as the planetary lifeboats, where isolation from the main population provides protection from most disasters. The advantage would lie in the extreme isolation offered by leaving the Earth. While a planetary lifeboat might allow a small population to survive a pandemic, a nuclear/volcanic winter, or catastrophic climate change, other threats such as an asteroid strike or nuclear strikes themselves would retain the ability to wipe out human civilization in the worst case.

Offworld colonies would provide near complete protection from asteroid strikes and threats local to the Earth such as pandemics, climate catastrophe, or geological events, as well as being out of range of existing nuclear weaponry. Climate change wouldn’t realistically be an issue on Mars, the Moon, or anywhere else in space, pandemics would be unable to spread from Earth, and the colonies would probably be low priority targets come the breakout of nuclear war. While eradicating human civilisation would require enough asteroid strikes to hit every colony, astronomically reducing the odds.

Historically, the only successful drivers for human space presence have been political, the Space Race being the obvious example. I would attribute this to a combination of two factors; human presence in space doesn’t increase the value of scientific research possible enough to offset the costs of supporting them there, and no economically attractive proposals exist for human space presence. As such, the chances of an off-planet colony being founded as a research base or economic enterprise are low in the near future. This leaves them in a similar position to planetary lifeboats, which also fail to provide an economic incentive or research prospects beyond studying the colony itself. To me this suggests that the point of argument between the two possibilities lies on the trade-off between the costs of establishing a colony on or off planet, and the risk mitigation they would respectively provide.

The value of human space presence for research purposes is only likely to decrease as automation and robotics improve, while for economic purposes, as access to space becomes cheaper, it may be possible to come up with some profitable activity for people off-planet. The most likely options for this would involve some kind of tourism, or if the colony was orbital, zero-g manufacturing of advanced materials, while an unexpectedly attractive proposal would be to offer retirement homes off planet for the ultra wealthy (to reduce the strain of gravity on their bodies in an already carefully controlled environment). It seems unlikely that any of these activities would be sufficiently profitable to justify an entire colony, but they could at least serve to offset some of the costs.

Perhaps the closest historical analogue to these systems would be the colonisation of the New World, the length of the trip was comparable (two months for the Mayflower, at least six to reach Mars), and isolation from home further compounded by the expense and lead time on mounting additional missions. Explorers traveling to the New World disappeared without warning multiple times, presumably due to the difficulty of sending for external help when unexpected problems were encountered. Difficulties associated with these kinds of unknown unknowns were encountered during the Biosphere projects as well, it transpired that ​trees grown in enclosed space​s​ won’t develop enough structural integrity to hold their own weight, as it is the stresses due to wind that cause them to develop this strength. It appears that this was not something that was even on the radar before the project happened, while several other unforeseen issues also had to be solved, the running theme was that in the event of an emergency supplies and assistance could come from outside to solve the problem. A space-based colony would have to solve problems of this kind with only what would be immediately to hand. With modern technology, assistance in the form of information would be available (see Gene Kranz and Ground Control’s rescue of Apollo 13), but lead times on space missions mean that even emergency flights to the ISS, for which travel time could be as little as ten minutes, aren’t really feasible. As such off-planet lifeboats would be expected to suffer more from unexpected problems than terrestrial lifeboats, and be more likely to fail before there was even any need for them.

The other big disadvantage of a space colony is the massively increased cost of construction, Elon Musk’s going estimate for a ‘self sustaining civilization’ on Mars is $100B – $10T, assuming that SpaceX’s plans for reducing the cost of transport to Mars work out as planned. In order to offer an apples to apples comparison with the terrestrial lifeboat considered later in this collaboration, if Musk’s estimate for a population of one million for a self-sustaining city is scaled down to the 4000 families considered below (a population of 16000) our cost estimate comes down to $1.6B – $160B. Bearing in mind that this is just for transport of the requisite mass to Mars, we would expect development and construction costs to be higher. With sufficient political will, these kinds of costs can be met; the Apollo program cost an estimated $150B in today’s money (why the cost of space travel for private and government run enterprises has changed so much across sixty years is an exercise left to the reader). Realistically though, it seems unlikely that any political crisis will occur to which the solution seems to be a second space race of a similar magnitude. This leaves the colonization project in the difficult position of trying to discern the best way to fund itself. Can enough international coordination be achieved to fund a colonization effort in a manner similar to the LHC or the ISS (but an order of magnitude larger)? Will the ongoing but very quiet space race between China, what’s left of Western space agencies human spaceflight efforts, and US private enterprise escalate into a colony race? Or will Musk’s current hope of ‘build it and they will come’ result in access to Mars spurring massive private investment into Martian infrastructure projects?


Planetary closed systems would be exclusively focused on allowing us to survive a catastrophic scenario (read: “zombie apocalypse”). Isolated using geography and technology, Earth based closed systems would still have many similarities to an offworld colony. Each lifeboat would need to make its own food, water, energy, and air. People would be able to leave during emergencies like a fire, ​O​2​ failure or heart attack, but the community would generally be closed off from the outside world. Once the technology has been developed, there is no reason other countries couldn’t replicate the project. In fact, it should be encouraged. Multiple communities located in different regions of the world would actually have three big benefits. Diversity, redundancy, and sovereignty. Allowing individual countries to make their own decisions allows different designs with no common points of failure and if one of the sites does fail, there are other communities that will still survive. Site locations should be chosen based on

  • Political stability of the host nation
  • System implementation plan
  • Degree of exposure to natural disasters
  • Geographic location
  • Cultural Diversity

There is no reason a major nation couldn’t develop a lifeboat on their own, but considering the benefits of diversity, smaller nations should be encouraged to develop their own projects through UN funding and support. A UN committee made up of culturally diverse nations could be charged with examining grant proposals using the above criteria. In practice, this would mean a country would go before the committee and apply for a grant to help build their lifeboat.

Let’s say the US has selected Oracle, Arizona as a possible site for an above ground closed system. The proposal points out the cool, dry air minimizes decomposition, located far from major cities or nuclear targets, and protected and partially funded by the United States. The committee reviews the request and their only concern is the periodic earthquakes in the region. To improve the quality of their bid, The United States adds a guarantee that the town’s demographics would be reflected in the system by committing to a 40% Latino system. The committee considers the cultural benefits of the site, and approves the funding.

Oracle, Arizona wasn’t a random example, In fact it’s already the site of the world’s largest Closed Ecological System [CES] It actually was used as the site of Biosphere 2. As described by ​acting CEO Steve Bannon:

Biosphere 2 was designed as an environmental lab that replicated […] all the different ecosystems of the earth… It has been referred to in the past as a planet in a bottle.. It does not directly replicate earth [but] it’s the closest thing we’ve ever come to having all the major biomes, all the major ecosystems, plant species, animals etc. Really trying to make an analogue for the planet Earth.

I feel like I need to take a moment to point out that that was not a typo, and the quote above is provided by ​that​ Steve Bannon. I don’t know what else to say about that other than to acknowledge how weird it is (very).

As our friend Steve “Darth Vader” Bannon points out, what made Biosphere 2 unique, is that it was a Closed Ecological System where 8 scientists were sealed into an area of around 3 acres for a period of 2 years (Sept 26, 1991 – Sept. 27, 1993). There are many significant differences from the Biosphere 2 project and a lifeboat for humanity. Biosphere 2 contained a rainforest, for example. But the project was the longest a group of humans have ever been cut off from earth (“Biosphere 1”). Our best view into what issues future citizens of Mars may face is through the glass wall of a giant greenhouse in Arizona.

One of the major benefits of using terrestrial lifeboats as opposed to planetary colonies is that if (when) something goes wrong, nobody dies. There is no speed of light delay for problem solving, outside staff are available to provide emergency support, and in the event of a fire or gas leak, everyone can be evacuated. In Biosphere 2, something went wrong. Over the course of 16 months the oxygen in the Biosphere dropped from 20.9% from 14.5%. At the lowest levels, scientists were reporting trouble climbing stairs and inability to perform basic arithmetic. Outside support staff had liquid oxygen transported to the biosphere and pumped in.

A 1993 New York Times article “​Too Rich a Soil: Scientists find Flaw That Undid The Biosphere​” reports:

A mysterious decline in oxygen during the two-year trial run of the project endangered the lives of crew members and forced its leaders to inject huge amounts of oxygen […] The cause of the life-threatening deficit, scientists now say, was a glut of organic material like peat and compost in the structure’s soils. The organic matter set off an explosive growth of oxygen-eating bacteria, which in turn produced a rush of carbon dioxide in the course of bacterial respiration.

Considering a Martian city would need to rely on the same closed system technology as Biosphere 2, It seems that a necessary first step for a permanent community on Mars would be to demonstrate the ability to develop a reliable, sustainable, and safe closed system. I reached out to William F. Dempster, The Chief Engineer for the Biosphere 2. He has been a huge help and provided tons of papers that he authored during his time on the project. He was kind enough to point out some of the challenges of building closed systems intended for long-term human habitation:

What you are contemplating is a human life support pod that can endure on its own for generations, if not indefinitely, in a hostile environment devoid of myriads of critical resources that we are so accustomed to that we just take them for granted. A sealed structure like Biosphere 2 [….] is absolutely essential, but, if one also has to independently provide the energy and all the external conditions necessary, the whole problem is orders of magnitude more challenging.

The degree to which an off-planet lifeboat would lack resources compared to a terrestrial one would be dependent on the kind of disaster scenario that occurred, in some cases such as pandemic, it could be feasible to eventually venture out and recover machines, possibly some foods, and air and water (all with appropriate sterilization). While in the case of an asteroid strike or nuclear war at a civilization-destruction level, the lifeboat would have to be resistant to much the same conditions as an off-planet colony, as these are the kind of disasters where the Earth could conceivably become nearly as inhospitable as the rest of the solar system. To provide similar levels of x-risk protection as an off-planet colony in these situations, the terrestrial lifeboat would need to be as capable as Dempster worries.

While Biosphere 2 is in many ways a good analogue for some of the challenges a terrestrial closed system would face, There are many differences as well. First, Biosphere 2 was intended to maintain a living, breathing, ecosystem, while a terrestrial lifeboat would be able to leverage modern technology in order to save on costs, and the cost for a terrestrial lifeboat is really the biggest selling point. A decent mental model could be a large, relatively squat building, with an enclosed central courtyard. Something like the​ ​world’s largest office building​. It cost 1 billion dollars in today’s money to build, and bought us 6.5 million sq ft of living space. Enough for 4000 families to each have a comfortable 2 bedroom home. A lifeboat would have additional expenses for food and energy generation, as well as needing medical and entertainment facilities, but the facility could have a construction cost of around $250,000 per family. The median US home price is $223,800.

There is one additional benefit that can’t be overlooked, Due to the closed nature of the community, the tech centric lifestyle, and combined with the subsidized cost of living. There is a natural draw for software research, development, and technology companies. Creating a government sponsored technology hub would allow young engineers a small city to congregate, sparking new innovation. This wouldn’t and shouldn’t be a permanent relocation. In good times, with low risks, new people could be continuously brought in and cycled out periodically, with lockdowns only occurring in times of trouble. The X-risk benefits are largely dependent on the facilities themselves, but the facilities will naturally have nuclear fallout and pandemic protection as well as a certain amount of inclement weather or climate protection. Depending on the facility, There could be (natural or designed) radiation protection. Overall, a planetary system of lifeboats would be able to survive anything an offworld colony would survive, outside of a rogue AI or grey goo scenario. But simultaneously the facilities would have a very low likelihood of a system failure resulting in massive loss of life the way a Martian colony could.


To conclude, we decided that terrestrial and off-planet lifeboats offer very similar amounts of protection from x-risks, with off-planet solutions adding a small amount additional protection in certain scenarios whilst being markedly more expensive than a terrestrial equivalent, with additional risks and unknowns to the construction process.

The initial advocate for off-planet colonies now concedes that the additional difficulties associated with constructing a space colony would encourage the successful construction of terrestrial lifeboats before attempts are made to construct one on another body. The only reason to still countenance their construction at all is an issue which revealed itself to the advocate for terrestrial biospheres towards the end of the collaboration. A terrestrial lifeboat could end up being easily discontinued and abandoned if funding/political will failed, whereas a space colony would be very difficult to abandon due to the astronomical (​pun intended​) expense of transporting every colonist back. A return trip for even a relatively modest number of colonists would require billions of dollars allocated over several years, by, most importantly, multiple sessions of a congress or parliament. This creates a paradigm where a terrestrial lifeboat, while being less expensive and in many ways more practical, could never be a long term guarantor of human survival do to its ease of decommissioning (as was seen in the Biosphere 2 incident). To be clear, the advocate for terrestrial lifeboats considers this single point sufficient to decide the debate in its entirety and concedes the debate without reservation.

by Scott Alexander (2019)

      Perhaps the story (“Murphy’s Hall”) you have just read has shocked you, coming as it does after others that are generally optimistic. If so, I’m glad. It’s supposed to.
     Some of these tales have not been exactly cheerful. However, until this latest, they have all presupposed that humankind will survive and, more than that, as William Faulkner said, prevail. We will suffer our individual sorrows and shared troubles, but we will keep going, and on the whole it will be toward greatness. Over and far above the growth of knowledge and power will be the growth of the spirit.

     One would like to believe that.

     Liking is not enough. Belief is not. More civilizations are down in dust than are alive. More kinds of creatures are. The universe did not come into existence in order to bring forth Western man, or Homo sapiens, or life on Earth. It does not continue in order to maintain them. Survival is up to us.
     There have been cries of crisis and divinings of doom as far back as written records go, and doubtless further still. Most have been exaggerated, or outright frauds. Most of those we hear today are. Some, though, have been true. Some today are.
     Often, probably oftenest, the disastrous mistakes have occurred well before the catastrophes. The consequences have worked subtly and pervasively until it was too late, the society was too far gone. Thus, the Hellenic world never developed a polity appropriate to its scope, and things went from bad to worse until the brute simplicity of the Roman universal state came as a relief, for a while. Once brilliantly inventive, China slowly strangled itself with its own bureaucracy; stagnation and ultimate disintegration appear to have become inevitable after an imperial decree in the Ming dynasty banned maritime enterprise. The fifteenth-century conciliar movement in Western Europe failed to reform the Church, with consequences including Protestantism, the wars of religion, and the rise of absolute monarchy. The United States of America—but this is not supposed to be a partisan document.

     Let me simply declare that among all the dire warnings we hear these days, two or three do concern things that could destroy us. To give up our endeavor in space would be one of the quiet and all-devouring mistakes.

     “Limits to growth” is an utterly pernicious doctrine. Along with much else, it embodies cruel racism, in that it would condemn most of humanity to perpetual want. “Appropriate technology” is a slogan by which a few demagogues, some of whom must know better and are therefore consciously lying, rouse hordes of ignoramuses who can’t be bothered to learn a little elementary science. Nevertheless we are using up this planet at a rate which has become terrifying. There are right and wrong ways to provide for our needs, and turning Earth into a single slurb is not among the right ones.
     Look up. Space begins about fifty miles above your head. Yonder are all the materials, energy, elbow room, and wonderful discoveries to make that our species can ever require. Whether or not we reach stars (and we can eventually, with or without Einsteinian speed limits laid on us, if we really want to) the Solar System holds more than enough.

     It is my considered opinion that, without access to space, without opening space for people to use, industrial civilization does not have much longer to live. At best, our near-future descendants will revert to the norm of history, which Alfred Duggan described as “peasants ruled by brigands;” and it won’t matter if the brigands retain a certain amount of high tech. At worst, our species will go the way of the dinosaurs—who enjoyed a far lengthier day and left the globe in far better shape.
     Oh, conceivably, something in between could be achieved, new technologies employing low energy and lean resources. It’s highly improbable, but it is conceivable and I’ve even speculated about it in fiction. Of course, first the vast majority of us, four or five billion living individuals, must die in various ghastly ways.

     “Murphy’s Hall” is a parable about our failure in space. It is unrealistic in assuming that we will get so far as to send off a starship before the night falls over us. Yet history does tell of magnificent efforts that in the end came to naught.
     Will it set the American space program in their number? For too long, now, that endeavor has been fumbling and faltering. The Soviets proceed methodically, and perhaps on that account tomorrow belongs to them. Or perhaps not; this, and the more recent entrants, seem fragile baskets in which to lay our hopes. Should Americans not once again carry their share, and so earn a say in what shall happen?
     You can help, you who read these words, help more then you may realize. Uphold the dream. Speak to your friends. Write to your legislators, your newspaper, the White House. Offer to arrange displays in your local schools and public library. join an advocacy organization. What you can do is limited only by what you truly wish to do—just like human achievement in the starry universe.

From COMMENTARY FOR "MURPHY'S HALL" by Poul Anderson (1989)

(ed note: Hadfield is the chief executive in charge of developing the Mars colony. A writer named Gibson has arrived to do some articles about the colony, and Hadfield hopes to enlist his aid.)

      Hadfield leaned across the table and clasped his hands together with an almost feverish intensity.
     “We’re at war, Mr. Gibson. We’re at war with Mars and all the forces it can bring against us—cold, lack of water, lack of air. And we’re at war with Earth. It’s a paper war, true, but it’s got its victories and defeats. I’m fighting a campaign at the end of a supply line that’s never less than fifty million kilometres long. The most urgent goods take at least five months to reach me—and I only get them if Earth decides I can’t manage any other way.
     “I suppose you realise what I’m fighting for—my primary objective, that is? It’s self-sufficiency. Remember that the first expeditions had to bring everything with them. Well, we can provide all the basic necessities of life now, from our own resources. Our workshops can make almost anything that isn’t too complicated—but it’s all a question of manpower. There are some very specialised goods that simply have to be made on Earth, and until our population’s at least ten times as big we can’t do much about it. Everyone on Mars is an expert at something— but there are more skilled trades back on Earth than there are people on this planet, and it’s no use arguing with arithmetic.
     “You see those graphs over there? I started keeping them five years ago. They show our production index for various key materials. We’ve reached the self-sufficiency level—that horizontal red line—for about half of them. I hope that in another five years there will be very few things we’ll have to import from Earth. Even now our greatest need is manpower, and that’s where you may be able to help us.”

     Gibson looked a little uncomfortable. “I can’t make any promises. Please remember that I’m here purely as a reporter. Emotionally, I’m on your side, but I’ve got to describe the facts as I see them.”
     “I appreciate that. But facts aren’t everything. What I hope you’ll explain to Earth is the things we hope to do, just as much as the things we’ve done. They’re even more important—but we can achieve them only if Earth gives us its support. Not all your predecessors have realised that.”
     That was perfectly true, thought Gibson. He remembered a critical series of articles in the “Daily Telegraph” about a year before. The facts had been quite accurate, but a similar account of the first settlers’ achievements after five years’ colonisation of North America would probably have been just as discouraging. “I think I can see both sides of the question,” said Gibson. “You’ve got to realise that from the point of view of Earth, Mars is a long way away, costs a lot of money, and doesn’t offer anything in return. The first glamour of interplanetary exploration has worn off. Now people are asking, ‘What do we get out of it?’ So far the answer’s been, ‘Very little.’ I’m convinced that your work is important, but in my case it’s an act of faith rather than a matter of logic. The average man back on Earth probably thinks the millions you’re spending here could be better used improving his own planet—when he thinks of it at all, that is.”

     “I understand your difficulty; it’s a common one. And it isn’t easy to answer. Let me put it this way. I suppose most intelligent people would admit the value of a scientific base on Mars, devoted to pure research and investigation?”
     “But they can’t see the purpose of building up a self-contained culture, which may eventually become an independent civilisation?”
     “That’s the trouble, precisely. They don’t believe it’s possible—or, granted the possibility, don’t think it’s worth while. You’ll often see articles pointing out that Mars will always be a drag on the home planet, because of the tremendous natural difficulties under which you’re labouring.”

     “What about the analogy between Mars and the American colonies?”
     “It can’t be pressed too far. After all, men could breathe the air and find food to eat when they got to America!”
     “That’s true, but though the problem of colonising Mars is so much more difficult, we’ve got enormously greater powers at our control. Given time and material, we can make this a world as good to live on as Earth. Even now, you won’t find many of our people who want to go back. They know the importance of what they’re doing. Earth may not need Mars yet, but one day it will.”

     “I wish I could believe that,” said Gibson, a little unhappily. He pointed to the rich green tide of vegetation that lapped, like a hungry sea, against the almost invisible dome of the city, at the great plain that hurried so swiftly over the edge of the curiously close horizon, and at the scarlet hills within whose arms the city lay. “Mars is an interesting world, even a beautiful one. But it can never be like Earth.”
     “Why should it be? And what do you mean by ‘Earth,’ anyway? Do you mean the South American pampas, the vineyards of France, the coral islands of the Pacific, the Siberian steppes? ‘Earth’ is every one of those! Wherever men can live, that will be home to someone, some day. And sooner or later men will be able to live on Mars without all this.” He waved towards the dome which floated above the city and gave it life.

     “Do you really think,” protested Gibson, “that men can ever adapt themselves to the atmosphere outside? They won’t be men any longer if they do!”
     For a moment the Chief Executive did not reply. Then he remarked quietly: “I said nothing about men adapting themselves to Mars. Have you ever considered the possibility of Mars meeting us halfway?” He left Gibson just sufficient time to absorb the words; then, before his visitor could frame the questions that were leaping to his mind, Hadfield rose to his feet.

From THE SANDS OF MARS by Arthur C. Clarke (1951)

Seize The High Ground


There are really only four sources of wealth in the world: agriculture, minerals, energy and people.

People represent labor, and everyone gets the same twenty-four hours in a day. Sure you can develop a lot of power if you get enough people working for you, but people are notoriously fickle; they aren’t there because they like you, they’re there because they need to be, because working for you allows them to fulfill their own needs. If those needs change, or they get a better offer, they’re gone.

Agriculture is a tremendous source of power, but to control it you have to control the land that people live on, and because food is so important the agricultural industry is highly regulated. If you try to apply food as a source of leverage people quickly get desperate, and you wind up with civil war.

Power generation and minerals are where the real keys to wealth lie—if it cannot be grown it must be mined, and modern civilization wouldn’t last a week without electricity. Anyone can have a backyard garden, but no one can make their own steel. Before the hydrogen fuel cell and the vortex cell windmill the root of power in the world was oil—at once a mineral and a fuel, it was the ideal product and once upon a time the world’s biggest business. Finding it and getting it out of the ground required resources far beyond any individual, and it was available only in certain highly limited areas, easy to control. It was tremendously versatile both as a raw material and as a fuel, and it was fundamentally nonrenewable. Whether burned for power or processed into plastics, the demand was insatiable. Rockefeller could have ruled the world, if he’d developed crude consumption as well as he did production, but the real petroleum economy only developed after he died—and now that era is over.

So my plan is simple, and it works like this. Space is completely beyond the control of any nation on the globe. Those few who even have the capability to get there limit themselves to space because, ultimately, they are focused on the ground. Earth orbit just serves to give them the big picture, for communications, for geosurvey and for navigation. Build the infrastructure up there and you’ve built yourself a new nation. Base your economy on the provision of metals to Earth’s surface cheaper than they can be dug up and sheer economics will drive ground-based mining to extinction. It will take ten years to restart primary production once it stops, reopening mines, rebuilding refineries and extraction plants after they’re abandoned—and that’s where power comes in to play. Every nation on the planet’s surface will depend on me for the raw materials to drive their economies, and given self-sustaining habitats in space, I will be completely beyond the military and economic reach of any Earthbound power. My space mining infrastructure will become the core of a new nation, and it will rule not just the planet but all of Sol System.

And I will rule it. Call me crazy if you like. If I’d met you in college and told you I was going to be worth twenty billion dollars in fifteen years, you’d have called me crazy then, too. So now who’s flying the Learjet?

From THE CUTTING FRINGE by Paul Chafe (2004)

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)

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).

Sad news, on November 8, 2017, XCOR filed for bankruptcy.

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.

Evolutionary Advantage


There is no point in exploring——still less colonizing—a hostile and dangerous environment unless it opens up new opportunities for experience and spiritual enrichment. Mere survival is not sufficient; there are already enough examples on this planet of societies that have been beaten down to subsistence level by the forces of nature. The questions that all protagonists of spaceflight have to ask themselves, and answer to their own satisfaction, are these: What can the other planets offer that we cannot find here on Earth? Can we do better on Mars or Venus than the Eskimos have done in the Arctic? And the Eskimos, it is worth reminding ourselves, have done very well indeed; a dispassionate observer might reasonably decide that they are the only truly civilized people on this planet.

The possible advantages of space can best be appreciated if we turn our backs upon it and return, in imagination, to the sea. Here is the perfect environment for life—the place where it originally evolved. In the sea, an all-pervading fluid medium carries oxygen and food to every organism; it need never hunt for either. The same medium neutralizes gravity, insures against temperature extremes, and prevents damage by too intense solar radiation—which must have been lethal at the Earth’s surface before the ozone layer was formed.

When we consider these facts, it seems incredible that life ever left the sea, for in some ways the dry land is almost as dangerous as space. Because we are accustomed to it, we forget the price we have had to pay in our daily battle against gravity. We seldom stop to think that we are still creatures of the sea, able to leave it only because, from birth to death, we wear the water-filled space suits of our skins.

Yet until life had invaded and conquered the land, it was trapped in an evolutionary cul-de-sac—for intelligence cannot arise in the sea. The relative opacity of water, and its resistance to movement, were perhaps the chief factors limiting the mental progress of marine creatures. They had little incentive to develop keen vision (the most subtle of the senses. and the only long-range one) or manual dexterity. It will be most interesting to see if there are any exceptions to this, elsewhere in the universe.

Even if these obstacles do not prevent a low order of intelligence from arising in the sea, the road to further development is blocked by an impossible barrier. The difference between man and animals lies not in the possession of tools, but in the possession of fire. A marine culture could not escape from the Stone Age and discover the use of metals; indeed, almost all branches of science and technology would be forever barred to it.

Perhaps we would have been happier had we remained in the sea (the porpoises seem glad enough to have returned, after sampling the delights of the dry land for a few million years), but I do not think that even the most cynical philosopher has ever suggested we took the wrong road. The world beneath the waves is beautiful, but it is hopelessly limited, and the creatures who live there are crippled irremediably in mind and spirit. No fish can see the stars; but we will never be content until we have reached them.

There is one point, and a very important one, at which the evolutionary parallel breaks down. Life adapted itself to the land by unconscious, biological means, whereas the adaptation to space is conscious and deliberate, made not through biological but through engineering techniques of infinitely greater flexibility and power. At least, we think it is conscious and deliberate, but it is often hard to avoid the feeling that we are in the grip of some mysterious force or zeitgeist that is driving us out to the planets, Whether we wish to go or not.

Though the analogy is obvious, it cannot be proved, at this moment of time, that expansion into space will produce a quantum jump in our development as great as that which took place when our ancestors left the sea. From the nature of things, we cannot predict the new forces, powers, and discoveries that will be disclosed to us when we reach the other planets or can set up new laboratories in space. They are as much beyond our vision today as fire or electricity would be beyond the imagination of a fish.

Yet no one can doubt that the increasing flow of knowledge and sense impressions, and the wholly new types of experience and emotion, that will result from space travel will have a profoundly stimulating effect upon the human psyche. I have already referred to our age as a neurotic one; the “sick” jokes, the decadence of art forms, the flood of anxious self-improvement books, the etiolated cadavers posing in the fashion magazines—these are minor symptoms of a malaise that has gripped at least the Western world, where it sometimes seems that we have reached fin de siècle way ahead of the calendar.

The opening of the space frontier will change all that, as the opening of any frontier must do. It has saved us, perhaps in the nick of time, by providing an outlet for dangerously stifled energies. In William James’s famous phrase, it is the perfect “moral equivalent of war.”

From time to time, alarm has been expressed at the danger of a “sensory deprivation” in space. Astronauts on long journeys, it has been suggested, will suffer the symptoms that afflict men who are cut off from their environment by being shut up in darkened, soundproofed rooms.

I would reverse this argument; our culture will suffer from sensory deprivation if it does not go out into space. There is striking evidence of this in what has already happened to the astronomers and physicists. As soon as they were able to rise above the atmosphere, a new and often surprising universe was opened up to them, far richer and more complex than had ever been suspected from ground observations. Even the most enthusiastic proponents of space research never imagined just how valuable satellites would actually turn out to be, and there is a profound symbolism in this.

But the facts and statistics of science, priceless as they are, tell only a part of the story. Across the seas of space lie the new raw materials of the imagination, without which all forms of art must eventually sicken and die. Strangeness, wonder, mystery, and magic—these things, which not long ago seemed lost forever, will soon return to the World. And with them, perhaps will come again an age of sagas and epics such as Homer never knew.

Though we may welcome this, we may not enjoy it, for it is never easy to live in an age of transition—indeed, of revolution. As the old Chinese curse has it: “May you live in interesting times,” and the twentieth century is probably the most “interesting” period mankind has ever known. The psychological stresses and strains produced by astronautics—upon the travelers and those who stay at home—will often be unpleasant, even though the ultimate outcome will be beneficial to the race as a whole...

...We now take it for granted that our planet is a tiny world in a remote corner of an infinite universe and have forgotten how this discovery shattered the calm certainties of medieval faith. Even the echoes of the second great scientific revolution are swiftly fading; today, except in a few backward regions, the theory of evolution arouses as little controversy as the statement that the Earth revolves around the Sun (ed note: Clarke wrote that in 1961. Unfortunately currently in 2016 there are still far too many backwards regions where the theory of evolution is controversial. And there are too many who believe Earth is the center of the universe). Yet it is only one hundred years since the best minds of the Victorian age tore themselves asunder because they could not face the facts of biology...

...Perhaps if we knew all that lay ahead of us on the road to space—a hundred or a thousand or a million years in the future—no man alive would have the courage to make the first step. But that first step—and the second—has already been taken; to turn back now would be treason to the human spirit, even though our feet must someday carry us into realms no longer human.

The eyes of all ages are upon us now, as we create the myths of the future at Cape Canaveral in Florida and Baikonur in Kazakhstan. No other generation has been given such powers, and such responsibilities. The impartial agents of our destiny stand on their launching pads, awaiting our commands. They can take us to that greater renaissance whose signs and portents We can already see, or they can make us one with the dinosaurs.

The choice is ours, it must be made soon, and it is irrevocable. If our wisdom fails to match our science, we will have no second chance. For there will be no one to carry our dreams across another Dark Age, when the dust of all our cities incarnadines the sunsets of the world.

From SPACE FLIGHT AND THE SPIRIT OF MAN by Arthur C. Clarke (1961)

Moral Equivalent of War

Many have noticed that war is not healthy for children and other living things, and former president (and five-star general) Dwight D. Eisenhower warned about the dangers of the military–industrial complex. Back in 1911 William James wondered out loud if mankind's drive for war could not be turned towards something more constructive, a "Moral Equivalent of War".

Sir Arthur C. Clarke and others has noted that space exploration and colonization would be a perfect Moral Equivalent of War.

This does sound a bit utopian, but science fiction authors might find the concept useful for their novels anyway. After all just because space exploration, industrialization, and colonization got started for the highest motives doesn't make the process immune to corruption by politicians with jingoistic motives and/or being in the pocket of the military-industrial complex. Which makes for a much more interesting novel than one about Martian colonists sitting in a circle singing Kumbayah and hymns to St. William James. The MacGuffinite just has to work long enough to get things started.


By the late 19605, the civil endeavor of space exploration seemed to offer just this kind of “moral equivalent of war” toward which the United States could direct its trernendous energies and resources rather than toward increasingly terrifying modern warfare.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh, for example, rehashed (William) James’s argument for the Space Age. expressing the hope that “space exploration safely absorbs man's aggressive and competitive instincts,” since “those noble qualities of man—heroism, self-sacrifice, dedication, comradeship in a common cause—which are tragically brought out in war, are evoked in many phases of the space development.” Like James, she also believed “these qualities must continue to be aroused in some fashion, or man will cease to be all that man can be?“

Wernher von Braun agreed, though in his hyper-masculine reformulation of James he inadvertently infantilized his beloved endeavor. “At last man has an outlet for his aggressive nature,” he enthused. “Unless you give a small boy an outlet to vent his energy and his sense of contest he’ll come home with black eyes. Then you can either chew him out and make a sissy of him or channel his energy into sport or skills. That’s the way it is with space.”


Yet peace is not enough. We need excitement, adventure, new frontiers. (That, hopefully, is one aspect of human nature that will never change.) Although there are problems enough in today’s world to absorb all our energies, listing them is likely to evoke yawns rather than enthusiasm. Of course we need more hospitals, more food, more energy, better housing. less pollution. Above all, We need better schools and teachers. I hope it will not be too late for the United States to undo the damage wrought on its educational system by fundamentalist fanatics, Creationist crazies, and New Age nitwits. Such people are a greater menace to the open society than the paper bear of communism ever was.

Many pundits (starting, I believe, with William James) have stressed that mankind needs a substitute for war. Sports, especially as exemplified in the Olympics, goes part of the way, but even American football and Canadian ice hockey do not provide all the necessary ingredients.

However, there is one activity which, almost as if it were divinely planned, fully utilizes the superb talents of the above-criticized military-industrial complex. I refer, of course, to the exploration—and, ultimately. colonization—of space. Many, and some of the most pressing, of our terrestrial problems can only be solved by going into space.

Long before it was a vanishing commodity, the wilderness as the preserver of the world was proclaimed by Thoreau. In the new wilderness of the Solar System may lie the future preservation of mankind...

...We have to clear up the gutters in which we are now walking—but we must not lose sight of the stars.

From SCENARIO FOR A CIVILIZED PLANET by Arthur C. Clarke (1992)

Yet no one can doubt that the increasing flow of knowledge and sense impressions, and the wholly new types of experience and emotion, that will result from space travel will have a profoundly stimulating effect upon the human psyche. I have already referred to our age as a neurotic one; the “sick” jokes, the decadence of art forms, the flood of anxious self-improvement books, the etiolated cadavers posing in the fashion magazines—these are minor symptoms of a malaise that has gripped at least the Western world, where it sometimes seems that we have reached fin de siècle way ahead of the calendar.

The opening of the space frontier will change all that, as the opening of any frontier must do. It has saved us, perhaps in the nick of time, by providing an outlet for dangerously stifled energies. In William James’s famous phrase, it is the perfect “moral equivalent of war.”

From SPACE FLIGHT AND THE SPIRIT OF MAN by Arthur C. Clarke (1961)

And even if one wished, it was no longer possible to plan a large-scale war. The Age of Transparency had dawned in the 19905, when enterprising news media had started to launch photographic satellites with resolutions comparable to those that the military had possessed for three decades. The Pentagon and the Kremlin were furious; but they were no match tor Reuters, Associated Press, and the unsleeping, twenty-tour-hours-a-day cameras of the Orbital News Service.

By 2060, even though the world had not been completely disarmed, it had been effectively pacified, and the fifiy remaining nuclear weapons were all under international control. There was surprisingly little opposition when that popular monarch, Edward VIII, was elected the first Planetary President, only a dozen states dissenting. They ranged in size and importance from the still-stubbornly neutral Swiss (whose restaurants and hotels nevertheless greeted the new bureaucracy with open arms) to the even more fanatically independent Malvinians, who now resisted all attempts by the exasperated British and Argentines to foist them off on each other.

The dismantling of the vast and wholly parasitic armaments industry had given an unprecedented—sometimes, indeed, unhealthy—boost to the world economy. No longer were vital raw materials and brilliant engineering talents swallowed up in a virtual black hole—or. even worse, turned to destruction. Instead, they could be used to repair the ravages and neglect of centuries, by rebuilding the world.

And building new ones. Now indeed Mankind had found the “moral equivalent of War," and a challenge that could absorb the surplus energies of the race—for as many millennia ahead as anyone dared to dream.

From 2061: ODYSSEY THREE by Arthur C. Clarke (1988)

Preserving Culture


As a longtime sf fan, one of the toughest realizations I ever came to is that Space settlements will never happen for economic reasons.

In part, the costs of getting to space are too high. Charles Stross has discussed the costs at great length here. To get one person to the Moon, bringing along the life support he needs for the trip, using advanced versions of the rocket technology we have today, would cost about US$400,000 as an optimistic estimate.

That’s far too expensive for anything except government boondoggles or multimillionaire’s larks, i.e., the current state of space travel.

Things get worse as go further in the solar system, even keeping in mind Heinlein’s comment that “Earth orbit is halfway to anywhere.” The cost of travel to Mars or any other place in the solar system would be even higher than $400,000, for at least two reasons: (1) you have to carry the fuel for the return trip, and (2) you have to carry more life support infrastructure for the years of round-trip travel time forced on you by Hohmann transfer orbits.

Interstellar travel? Alpha Centauri is about 250,000 times further away than Mars. The energy cost to get a solitary explorer there in less than one lifetime (at 0.1 c, 40 years in transit) is comparable to the yield of all nuclear weapons ever built, or the energy consumption of the entire world for a couple of weeks. Generation ships are even worse: the energy savings from their slower speed (call it 0.01c, 400 years in transit) is offset by the mass of hundreds of people and the infrastructure needed to keep them alive and safe for four centuries. And we haven’t even touched on the individual and social psychology issues these avenues would bring up. How well would you do living in your car for four decades?

So nevermind settling the solar system; the idea of normal people going into space is so expensive, it’s a non-starter.

About now, a reader might protest, “But what about nanotechnology? Advanced materials and cheap energy production will lower all those costs dramatically.”

I read Stan Schmidt’s mid-’80s Analog editorials on nanotechnology, and K. Eric Drexler’s Engines of Creation. Although I think Drexler is intoxicated with his ideas, I completely agree that some of the fruits of nanotechnology–the super-strong, super-light materials and cheap energy referred to above–are entirely possible, and are in fact likely to appear somewhere on Earth in the coming decades. Yes, those advances will make space elevators and fusion-powered torchships possible. Yes, nanotechnology would greatly lower the costs of space travel and space settlements.

But. Nanotechnology would also greatly lower the benefits of space settlement, leaving the prospect as uneconomical as it is today. More on that point in my next post.


Previously, I talked about why space settlement, using current technology, would cost too much to ever happen. But what if the costs were to drop enough, through nanotechnology or some comparable magic wand?

Simple: the price of goods sold by space settlements would be too low to pay back even those new, low costs. Why? The same nanotechnology that lowers the costs of space settlement would lower the cost of finding or making those same goods on Earth.

Consider the Niven/Pournelle dream of asteroid mining. (I cut my teeth on Pournelle’s science fact essays collected in A Step Farther Out.) All it costs to bring thousands of tons of highly pure iron or nickel to Earth from the asteroid belt are the capital and operational expenses of round-trip travel and smelting. At current nickel prices, those expenses would have to be less than about $9/lb of delivered nickel to pay off. For iron, those expenses would have to be closer to $0.10/lb of delivered iron to pay off. (Remember, using current technology, the expenses would be at least $1000/lb, if not much more).

Let’s assume nanotechnology can lower those expenses 10,000-fold. It would do so by making both the machines to do the travel and smelting work, and the energy to drive that work, much cheaper than today. So nanotech-using miners could settle the asteroid belt, ship nickel or iron to Earth, and make a profit, right?

Except for one thing. Those lower expenses for smelting machinery and the energy to run it would also apply to Earth-based mining. Reduce the costs of Earth-based mining by, let’s say, just 1000-fold, and iron and nickel deposits that today are too marginal to pay for themselves would become immensely profitable. For that matter, mining landfills and salvage lots for the iron and nickel in junked appliances and cars would become immensely profitable. I haven’t run the numbers, but I suspect it would be profitable under those conditions to extract iron at its baseline abundance of 5% in Earth’s crust.

Comparable reasoning would apply to essentially any element or compound. Regardless of the state of technology, there’s nothing useful to Earth’s economy you could find or make in space you couldn’t find or make more cheaply on Earth.

But, but, strangelets! Stringlets! Magnetic monopoles! Unobtanium! Yes, there may well be exotic matter out there, but no one’s going to spend a large sum of money hunting for it. What economic value would it have? And if it had any, would it be cheaper to substitute for it using terrestrial materials? The answers very much seem to be “none” and “yes,” respectively.

So, Raymund, there will never be human settlements in space?

I never said that.

But you spent the last two posts stating that human space settlements make no economic sense and never will.

True. But that doesn’t mean human space settlements will never happen. I’ll get into the reasons why they might happen in my next post.


In the first two installments of this series, we discovered:

  1. Using foreseeable technology, it would be too expensive to go to space, stay there, find or make valuable things, and send those things to Earth.
  2. Any technology that would lower those expenses would lower the cost of finding or making those same things on Earth, meaning space settlements couldn’t compete no matter how low it cost.

From that, we conclude that space settlements will never happen for economic reasons.

But that doesn’t mean space settlements can’t happen. Human history is rife with examples of settlements founded for non-economic reasons. What do the original US states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Maryland have in common? Not ringing a bell? Maybe Utah? The Transvaal Republic? The modern state of Israel? Not to mention smaller examples, the Amish, New Harmony, the Amana Colonies, post-1848 German atheist-socialist colonies in central Texas, and post-1960s hippie communes in the US; Hutterites in western Canada; and odd colonies scattered across Latin America. All these places were founded as havens for religious* communities.

(* I use “religious” as a shorthand. The US states listed above had explicitly religious origins, providing havens for Puritans, Baptists, Quakers, Catholics, and Mormons. But Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, had little if any religious motivation, and instead sought a home for the Jewish people as defined on ethnic and cultural dimensions. Likewise, the Voortrekkers felt their way of life threatened by British customs, language, religious practice, and government policies. So “way-of-life” or “cultural” communities, or “communities dedicated to something greater than the individual” might be better descriptions than “religious.”)

This also explains the mystical overtones that advocates of space settlement tend to use. “We need to get off Earth in case a disaster destroys the planet.” Nevermind that in terms of cost, it would be cheaper to protect 1 billion people on Earth from a massive disaster than to set up 1000 people in a self-sufficient colony on Mars, Luna, or the asteroid belt. The spread of Earth-life across the solar system and beyond is seen as something greater than the individual, and rational discussion stops.

Or take Tsiolkovsky’s famous quote. It sounds motivating and galvanizing: “The Earth is the cradle of mankind, but one cannot live in the cradle forever.” The hard-headed, economically-literate sf fan knows the intended conclusion only follows if we let the metaphor cloud our thinking. Why not remain on Earth? We evolved for this cradle. Climbing over the crib walls doesn’t get us into the rest of the house. Instead, it gets us into a frigid, irradiated, airless environment, with no food or toys. But for someone caught up in the religious fervor of Tsiolkovsky’s quote, those economic objections are irrelevant.

Further, to the truly fervent, high costs and low rewards are not a bug, but a feature, of space settlement. Making an investment that will never pay back shows one looks beyond crass economic calculation. If anyone can make a buck in space, then our lunar colonies, asteroid colonies, terraformed planets, etc. will soon be overrun with salesmen and tax collectors.

So if the only motivation for space settlement is religious, along what lines would space settlements develop? We’ll get to that next time.


Now that we know religious sentiments will be the only rationale for space settlement, how can we expect space settling to unfold and what will space settlements look like? Here are some initial thoughts.

1. Space settlements will be founded by colossally wealthy individuals

As we discussed previously, the costs of space settlement will be extremely high in the near term. At $400K to put a person on the Moon, and assuming a person requires 10x his mass in initial infrastructure and 1x his mass in replacement infrastructure every year, a lunar colony of 150 people would cost $660 million up front and $60 million every year.

In the farther term, even though the absolute costs might drop thanks to nanotechnology or the like, the relative costs (in a purchasing-power-parity index) will remain very high. So only very wealthy individuals will have the money to pay for these costs.

Given that individuals who amass immense wealth tend to be committed to their work and immune to fanciful, fanatical ideas (e.g. Henry Ford, Sam Walton, Warren Buffett), few of the founders of space settlements will be first-generation billionaires. (Bill Gates is one of the few to walk away from business and devote himself to charitable work). More likely, second- and later-generation billionaires, with inherited wealth, without the pragmatic business-building drive of their ancestor, and a craving for meaning in their lives, will be the primary population of space settlement founders.

1b. …not corporations or governments

Although these entities have the colossal wealth, they lack any religious motivation. Corporations are driven solely to profit. Governments are driven solely to amass the social capital equivalent of profit–support from the powerful, acquiescence from the masses, and deterrence of potential foes. (Government space programs are the equivalent of Mayan stelae, ostentatious displays designed to show foes the power of the government so the foes don’t challenge it).

While both classes of entities are willing to use the religious sentiments of their customers/subjects, they themselves are immune from it. They would still have roles to play in the space settlement process. For example, corporations may profit by providing transport for space settlements, on the principle of “in a gold rush, the only man who gets rich is the shovel salesman.” Governments may provide the impetus for space settlements–consider local governments in Illinois and Missouri supporting vigilantism against the Mormons, or the French government’s alliance with anti-Semites during the Dreyfus Affair as reported by Herzl.

2. Most space settlements will be undertaken by Westerners

There are two reasons why. First, in the near term, most billionaires of the recent past have lived in the US or other Western/Westernized countries, so most of their heirs will too. For the foreseeable future, the world’s new billionaires will come disproportionally from these same regions. Amassing great wealth requires a large number of prosperous customers, which in the near term means Western/Westernized countries. Developing countries may have faster economic growth rates then the US and EU, but the developing countries are starting from a lower base and will have slower growth as low-hanging productivity fruit are picked. Thus, the West will have the lead in large numbers of prosperous consumers for many decades yet.

Second, Western cultures seem more susceptible to intense religious fervor than many others. Perhaps this is a product of the West’s greater individualism and loss of faith in traditional things-greater-than-oneself. The US has long held the lead in inventing new religions (the Great Awakening, the Latter-Day Saints, Scientology, UFO cults, etc.). Europeans spent a century and a half, from the French Revolution until the fall of fascism, devising secular ideologies that filled the same psychological need. The West also has had decades of a high material standard of living, with resulting Affluenza. The developing world hasn’t had enough wealth for enough time to suffer the same ailment. So even if the wealth to build space settlements is amassed in the developing world, the needed fervor is likely to be missing.

2b. …but not necessarily white people

The industrialized West has tens of millions of persons of color, many of whom have imbibed the cultural traits discussed above. African-American history has prominent examples of ethnic solidarity rising to the level of religious belief, culminating in separatist urges. Marcus Garvey, Rastafarianism. (Bradbury wrote sixty years ago about African-Americans escaping prejudice by settling Mars). The growth of evangelical Protestantism and Mormonism in Latin America indicates eruptions of religious fervor could happen among Hispanospheric peoples and cultures, especially those with the most exposure to the US.

3. Space settlements will be established by fanatics

Whatever their skin color and their belief systems, space settlers will have beliefs so intense and/or out of the mainstream and/or confrontational that space settlement–a prodigiously expensive and dangerous undertaking–will seem the best option for them to preserve their way of life. They will be in contrast to average people, folks who go along to get along and adapt their beliefs to life in their home culture on Earth. ‘Fanatic’ seems a good label for the minority who won’t.

4. Space settlements will stay fanatical longer than religious settlements on Earth did

Most of the settlements founded for religious reasons that we discussed last time have evolved over time to have few, if any, beliefs outside of the mainstream. (Today, the descendants of the post-1848 German atheist-socialists who settled central Texas go to church and vote Republican no less than their neighbors). Pressure, and especially economic pressure, from the outside world ground down the sharp edges of strange beliefs and practices. The Latter-Day Saints’ dropping of polygamy just happened to remove the last obstacle to gaining the benefits of US statehood for Utah.

Space settlements built using foreseeable technology, where settlements would be dependent on Earth for imports of specialized goods and spare parts, would be exposed to those same pressures. But under foreseeable technology, space settlements will be uncommon for reasons of cost.

Nanotechnology, or comparable magic wand technology, changes that. If space settlements have nothing to import from Earth, then they can ignore the threat of economic sanction for sticking to their beliefs, as well as the carrot of economic reward for moving to the mainstream. Also, they will have little, if any, exposure to travelers, traders, and other strangers bearing different beliefs. Thus, space settlements can maintain their fanaticism. (Eventually, the fanaticism will erode for internal reasons. I have a character in New California say “The passion of youth turns into the settled habit of middle age.” But the absence of external pressure will slow the process).

5. You would dislike most space settlement cultures

Remember, space settlers will be fanatics who can’t or won’t fit in with the mainstream of their native culture on Earth. If you’re part of your culture’s mainstream, then space settlers will seem like heretics or madmen. And if you’re a fanatic, you’re probably a different sort of fanatic, and think of all other fanatics as your enemies.

This poses a challenge to an sf writer: How do I make likable a character from a fanatic culture?

But note, what we think of as our cultural mainstream is likely to seem primitive and barbaric to the cultural mainstream in the medium to far future, when self-sufficent space settlements may be possible. An sf writer could write a satire in which a culture thinking all the things we’re supposed to think (democracy is the best form of government, church and state should be separated, markets should be generally free but regulated for the common good, every child should go to college and then work a white-collar office job for the next fifty years) is made up of deranged fanatics who self-exile to escape the Earth of 2100.


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