191. INDUSTRIALIZING SPACE - PART ONE: AN ECONOMIC FRONTIER
We've discussed of the importance of developing space to ensure long-term industrial sustainability and continued prosperity. To be clear, this isn't an immediate solution to solve economic problems caused primarily by oil depletion, nor is it a long-term plan to one day get civilisation back on its feet following some fantasy apocalyptic oil disaster. It's a way to ensure new economic growth and true sustainability in the near term, probably within the next couple of decades, possibly even sooner. So it won’t prevent the problems of peak oil, but it will trigger economic recovery shortly thereafter.
The idea is basically that the industrialisation of space could end the peak oil recession (depression?) in a similar way that the industrialised military movement for World War II was the catalyst for the end of the 1930's depression. But assuming that humanity can wake up to the urgency of the need for space development, how exactly are we supposed to make it happen? I can hear the sceptics: “Progress lately has been less then impressive, we are looking down the barrel of an energy and economic crisis, and now we are supposed to set up industrial processes in space to ensure long term survival? HOW!?”
Here are a few ideas on how to encourage space industrialisation:
1) We re-prioritise our purpose in space.
To date, the vast majority of space missions have essentially served two purposes: science, and political grandstanding. Both of these are important and have their place. Many important and useful scientific discoveries have been made, and many technological achievements have come about thanks to some grandiose promises from politicians. However it's time to get serious about our future in space and focus all of our space related efforts towards providing a long-term future for humanity. We can think about awe-inspiring manned missions to Mars later, we can even hold off learning more about the solar system – after all, it's not going anywhere for a long while. Right now though, we need to focus on keeping advanced civilisation prosperous, and that won’t happen by wasting efforts on political statements in space, or even by focusing on learning about the galaxy around us purely for science's sake. It will happen by establishing space-based facilities to harvest resources from space. By building a new economic infrastructure not based on pulling resources out of the ground, but by pulling them out of the sky.
2) Space needs to be largely privatised.
Treating space development as a pseudo military endeavour is not the way to encourage growth. Government space agencies aren't set-up to be profit spinners. For prosperous economic sustainable development, space must be developed largely by the private sector. The nature of the free market means that private enterprise could achieve space projects far more cost effectively them government agencies. All that is needed is investment in the initial infrastructure.
3) Governments need to provide incentives to encourage private enterprise.
A recent example of steps in the right direction was the Ansari X-Prize, which resulted in the winning team, Scaled Composites, scoring a deal to build space craft for the first commercial space tourism enterprise, Virgin Galactic. Another X-Prize competition with more prize money should encourage further breakthroughs, and NASA is following the innovation prize concept. Here’s a thorough statement by Molly Macauley, a senior fellow at Resources for the Future, on encouraging innovation through prizes to encourage growth in both the private sector and in NASA. The following quote from the article demonstrates the importance innovation prizes had in establishing the aerospace industry:
Another notable and frequent use of prizes - and much of the inspiration for the X-prize -- was in the early history of aviation. Between roughly 1908 and 1915, the heyday of privately sponsored competitions for distance, elevation, and speed jumpstarted the aviation industry. Three dozen or so individual prizes during this period - at roughly the rate of four or more annually - fostered innovations that decidedly gave birth to the industry.
Innovation prizes, as well as possible tax incentives, can greatly help grow the fledgling space industrialisation process.
4) Governments should make key areas of knowledge public domain.
Government space agencies will certainly play an important role in industrialising space. The world’s space agencies all have important plans of their own for the future, but also have valuable knowledge and technical know-how from years of experience that would be of considerable benefit to growth in the private sector. A huge challenge for the private sector is overcoming problems that government agencies have long since solved. Sharing information would mean that private enterprises would not have to reinvent the wheel, which would go a long way towards opening up space for industrialisation.
A more specific explanation of what industrialising space will entail will be covered in part two of this post, however for a really detailed and explanatory analysis of the plan for the private sector to harvest resources from space and create a new industry, check out PERMANENT. (Projects to Employ Resources of the Moon and Asteroids Near Earth in the Near Term). From their site:
We can do this NOW with present-day technology and a philanthropic investor
All that's necessary is a minimal amount of initial, reusable infrastructure to be designed in coordination, manufactured, launched and emplaced in the remote reaches of space to bring the first asteroidal and/or lunar materials to high Earth orbit. From that point on, more than sufficient revenues will come in, the infrastructure can be expanded, risks are lowered, and the payback times shorten dramatically for additional ventures.
The key is getting the first "seed" industry going.
Industrialising space isn't science fiction. It's completely possible right now with current technology and can be done with limited human space flight, confined mostly to Earth orbit. Most importantly, it offers the best post peak oil potential for maintaining and growing advanced civilisation. The only thing unrealistic about space industrialism is people's limited perceptions of it.
Debunking doomer concepts
The concept of post peak economic growth through space industrialism debunks several popular doomer concepts, or at least amends them with optimistic outcomes. There are two important ones that I'd like to address.
The first is a statistic that is popular with many doomers: “One in six U.S. jobs are related to the auto industry. When the auto industry crashes, so does the economy.” Perhaps this will be true, perhaps not, but it certainly does not account for the possibility of other industries replacing these jobs in a post peak economic recovery. If space industrialism is embraced as a source of economic recovery, especially if the industry begins pre peak oil, then maybe the statistic will be one in six jobs are related to the space industry? And no, I'm not fantasising about one in six people living up there with captain Kirk, I'm talking about a thriving new source of employment through new economic growth. The post peak space industry won't consist mostly of astronauts and “rocket scientists” but of an extensive range of professionals covering a diverse range of disciplines such as engineers, construction workers, human resource officers, mining equipment specialists, accountants, public relations experts, project managers etc as well as a host of jobs that nobody has even imagined yet. An entire new industry with the potential breadth that space offers would offer a broad and eclectic range of job opportunities to everyday people living everyday lives here on Earth. These will be similar kinds of everyday jobs that the auto industry currently offers. The death of oil dependant industries, especially the auto industry, would likely mean economic recession. But these industries and the jobs they once offered will eventually be replaced by something else, and that something is likely to be the space industry.
Another doomer concept that space industrialism debunks is the shortsighted idea that goes something like: “For well over one hundred years civilisation has been entirely based on an oil infrastructure. In all this time with all the technology developed, we still haven't made any changes at all to our underlying oil-based infrastructure, and we won't be able to change this ancient infrastructure in a hurry.” It is true that it will indeed take a long time to make a transition to a new infrastructure. But unbeknown to most people (because they disregard the potential of space as mere science fiction), we have actually been making the transition to a new infrastructure for close to a century now. If wide-scale space industrialism is to be the bases of our infrastructure for the future, then we can consider a very large portion of the past 70 or so years as efforts towards making a transition towards our future infrastructure, even if we weren't consciously striving for this transition at the time. We can consider all of the considerable technological developments needed for the space industry as steps towards our future infrastructure. From the earliest developments in flight and aerospace, through to the latest advances in electrical engineering, it all is a necessary part of our transition. The transition to the new infrastructure also includes some of the considerable advances made in parts of the old infrastructure; for example advanced mining techniques employed today throughout the world will be crucial in cost effectively mining the same or similar resources in new environments. Doomers frequently argue that we don't have enough time to make a transition. They aren't seeing that we've unconsciously been making the transition for a very long time.
Peak oil will not be the end of economics, but an economic transformation where current jobs become obsolete to later be replaced by new jobs in new industries. Space-based resources are the sustainable infrastructure of the near future, and it's an infrastructure that we've naturally been moving towards since the very beginnings of the current infrastructure.
-- by Omnitir