Book Idea — Capital in Space

When will the Earth cease to be a net-exporter and see the value flows reverse to become a net-importer? Or for that matter, when will the first political entities in space come into existence? What does the rocket equation imply about container shipping in space? What kind of insurance will be necessary? And how does micro-gravity affect the optimal size and timeline of engineering projects to maximize rate of returns?

This is the subject-matter of the book I wish had been written. Far and away, it is the most interesting concept I can think of reading. Although there is plenty written about space, there is less about non-fiction detailed possibilities for the future, less still about about true systems or society-wide level thinking, and a vanishingly small amount of this type of content that is truly palatable. As an example of works that share this level of ambition, consider that written by Dr. Forward:

While I love the spirit… it’s a dry read. Even worse, the empirical value isn’t tremendously appealing. It’s a collection of different ideas, and that’s fine, but nothing ties them together, and there’s nothing that grounds it to society as we know it today. The physics-based bits may as well describe an alien space-faring society; humans do not need to be the target subject. When I consider a genuine effort to melt together this Space Cadet stuff with real environmentalist and humanist passion, the last string of works I come up with are from the intellectual heritage of O’Neil.

My take away — it is saying something that the publication dates of these do not extend much past 1980. I think their influence continued after that time into the popular consciousness, and to a great degree into fiction and popular media.

But we’re grown up now. Many people seriously see a return to interplanetary exploration on the horizon, this time, with an eye firmly focused on the goal of colonization, or at least permanent habitation. There is also an economic component to it. People have done market analysis of how many people will be willing to pay $200,000 for a suborbital flight, and how much of an industry it can sustain, and how many will be willing to pay $1M or $500,000 in a longer-term future for a one-way ticket to Mars. We have books written about asteroid mineral value, and so on…

These modern ideas are, nonetheless, lacking a circumspect view to them. I think this is the most compelling and the most forgotten aspect of the message that O’Neil had. In his book, he had graphs of projected human population over time. No, this wasn’t highly scientific and they are absolutely wrong in hindsight. Even his underlying population assumptions were off to the same tune that The Population Bomb (a book of his day) was.

An Economic Network Sorely in Need of Modern Analytics

Many good modern economic books exist which have been demonstrating an ever-increasing precise balance between accounting of national economic product, the murky factors of human nature, politics, and history. Titles I have in mind:

  • Why Nations Fail
  • Capital in the 21st Century
  • Bad Samaritans
  • The Rise and Fall of American Growth
  • The Next 100 Years

You don’t even need to go so-far as to read books. There are volumes of information that can be absorbed watching youtube videos, of which is not only of the same quality of these, but often literally delivered by the authors of such works themselves.

It is a certain type of modern economic discipline that Space Cadets need to so desperately understand, and that the rest of the population needs to read in order to be converted, or at least concede some economic merit to the notion of opening up a frontier.

As for themes, I wish that I could do the idea justice here. But I must recognize that I can’t. There is an ocean of rewarding intellectual pursuits bursting at the flood gates. There are both questions that should be answered, and questions that can’t honestly be answered definitively. For example: What are the energy transitions we will necessarily go through? What type of personas will be the first economic migrants into space?

Additionally, there is more than one era, one scale, and one perspective to be weighed for a genuine account of a human-based space-faring society. A formation of orbital space colonies can exist all around a single orbital point. The economic connections between these will be vastly different from the connections to its nearest formation of colonies, which will be vastly different from its nearest planetary colony, which will be vastly different from other far-flung heliocentric destinations.

In terms of eras of time, there are also multiple scales to be considered, where the (1) first one shows great economic resistance and little economic reward. Consider a (2) second phase, where certain activities (call them “niche”) will be able to be self-sufficient financially at large scales of industry, involving off-world robotics and manpower. As the (3) third phase arises, trade tensions between off-world and Earth reach their nexus as they have dueling magnitudes of wealth and influence. In a (4) fourth and final phase, the economic merit of activities on Earth itself becomes questionable, and ultimately, niche.

Dovetails with current society are also tremendously important. Tax evasion is a major feature of international monetary flows today, and politically autonomous regions in space would present yet another challenge to the authorities. However, this will be of laughable significance in the first phase, and it is anyone’s guess as to whether those political issues still exist as we arrive in the 2nd phase in earnest.

Inequality is also a major feature of our economic system as we dive into the first and second waves. Conventionally, fiction has foretold of the potential for disruption and conflict at the intersection of space development and the economic divide. In particular the manga and anime series PlanetES told a particular compelling version of this narrative. But then again, the divide is no longer a strict dichotomy with the rise of China and other cohorts of the “developing” world, which trivially denotes a transitory state. The core question of space is whether it strengthens or weakens the power of the incumbents.

(fast forward a few decades from the first growing pains)

I feel bored writing those previous paragraphs, because it has been written about before. The themes I’m more interested in are the interplay between politics and physics in the third and fourth phases.

Isolation is inevitable, even on scales of large societies. Even high-energy transfers within the inner solar-system will separate Earth and Mars in a way we have not seen since the early days of the 20th century. In fact, we may be approaching the absolute height of human connectivity in all our history at our present point in history. Travel will become more costly and more socially meaningful. Ambassadors will be a bigger deal. Delegation of power to governors and captains will again become a very serious matter.

Launch-assist systems will come to assist rocket engines, and because of this, the notion of ports (defined by investment and infrastructure) will become relevant again. Mineral resources in-place and land as an intrinsic commodity will become dramatically less economically powerful relative to the control of commercial and industrial hubs.

And eventually, even if we eliminate nuclear power in this century, nuclear will become a political issue again.

More needs to be written. That’s the gist of what I’m saying here.

Obligatory analytical writing, online participation account for Medium. Engineering, software, books, space, constant daydreaming.

Obligatory analytical writing, online participation account for Medium. Engineering, software, books, space, constant daydreaming.