Nov 3, 2016

3 min read

Manned Spaceflight Will Forever be Unprofitable Unless these 2 Criteria are Met

So you want to go to Mars? Is that for science, adventure-ism, or for a new future of abundance, brought about by a vast new frontier? If your goal is the former, you have a problem. Manned spaceflight has no sign of turning a significant profit absolutely anywhere in the foreseeable future. What will it take for that to change. Two things:

  • Significant presence in a micro-gravity environment
  • Material abundance

While this might seem simple, these two components clearly identify a certain kind of agenda, and a political affiliation within the world of space advocacy. For starters, a surface colony Mars can not be the end-all-be-all in order to become something that’s profitable, or something ultimately more desirable than living on Earth by an objectively rational person. But that’s okay. Mars is highly synergistic with a space-based society in a way that few people give credit to. It has material abundance, and it has it at an acceptable level of accessibility to locations where are micro-gravity.

We don’t yet know what kind of profitable industries can exist in micro-gravity. More importantly, we don’t know what kind of relative efficiency gains they might make compared to manufacturing in gravity. One idea which has long-since go out of vogue was that near-perfect crystals could be grown in a micro-gravity environment, and that large settlements could be based around such a production venture. Another idea which has, since then, enjoyed its moment in vogue was mining Helium-3 from the moon to deliver back to the surface of Earth where it could be used for fusion power. Both concepts lack some kind of central pillar that the real titans of micro-gravity industry will be built upon.

For crystal growth, using the current scientific activity on ISS and other to disprove its viability falls victim to several fallacies at once. For one, micro-gravity will have no substantial comparative advantage for making “small” things. The idea is compelling, indeed, because the mass economies of orbital travel are so restrictive. However, if you assume that material scarcity will never be overcome, then you effectively assume that human presence will forever be non-viable. Secondly, in order to get the perfectly-constant fields the atomic-precision will require, you’ll not be able to do those operations in micro-gravity. Even pico-gravity might still be too turbulent to disrupt extremely fragile crystal formation that otherwise can’t happen. To drive one more nail in the coffin, that particular bottom-up approach to molecular manufacturing has yet to actually pan out.

Next, the thing that Lunar mining and a Mars surface colony neglects is the fact that micro-gravity is useful. Otherwise, why would we be going into space in the first place? If you can not buy into any comparative economic advantage of activities in orbital locations, then you automatically fall victim to the naysayers who question the merit of going into space at all. A frontier must promise tremendous riches in order for it to be worth dreaming about.

Instead, let’s accept the dream of heavy industries. Let’s dream of massive, strong, structures build by tiny and meek robots. Also, the definition of accessibility must be partially redefined. Access means access to many different things. Access to Earth is a requisite of a certain sort, but some people still dream of a life in space so prolific that Earth becomes backwater, and that there are more important things in other locations in space, which are all mutually extremely accessible from other orbital locations. The hook in all of this, of course, is the ability to build big things in a software-defined manner.