On the Race to Mars and the Economics of Colonizing Space

It is at least a little exciting to see that NASA wants to put a human on an asteroid by 2025 and on Mars by 2030.

Why not very exciting? Because NASA — unlike with the Moon — is not on track to be the first one there. Yes, governments — the largest of which are capable of borrowing, spending and taxing trillions — still have the most economic power of any agency at their disposal. Yet if their plans for space exploration are anything to go by, they no longer have anything like the most ambition.

Elon Musk, by contrast, plans to be on Mars by 2020, and establish a colony he wants to grow to a million humans by 2100. Mars One plans to establish a colony by 2024. Overambitious? Nobody really knows. Sending flesh-and-bone humans to Mars is a pioneering act, not just on par with but considerably more ambitious than the pioneering explorations of Magellan and Columbus. Scurvy, foreign diseases, unpredictable weather at sea and geomagnetic anomalies are one thing. But nobody knows how the human body will respond to multi-year space travel trips across the vast void of space that separates Earth and Mars, nor to life in a metal box on the Martian surface.

Of course, if the private colonists fail — as many are expecting them to do — it is nice to know that the U.S. government will try and get the job done instead. After all, as Stephen Hawking has argued, space colonization is absolutely central to humanity’s future. In our current state as a one-planet species, one stray asteroid, one nearby gamma ray burst, one large scale industrial accident, one explosive supervolcano, or one stray genetic mutation — not to mention climate change, and all the cataclysmic risks we don’t know about — could send us to the edge of extinction. As a two-planet or ten-planet or two-solar system species those risks progressively diminish further.

Simply, we face a choice as a species. Turn inward and remain an earthbound species and face inevitable extinction in the next few thousand years, or possibly even the next few hundred years. Or turn upward, colonize other worlds and human beings — like us, and descended from us — have a chance of still being around one million or even one billion years from now.

Of course, the ultimate viability of all this really comes down to economics. If Musk, Bezos, Branson and the other stargazing private space interests can make space technology profitable, they can fund their way (and our way) to the stars. If not, then humanity’s hopes of colonizing space are tied up with the inward-looking, climate change-denying, and stupefied reality of scientifically and economically illiterate politicians who care more about their 19th century ideologies, election campaigns, and parliamentary champagne than the state of humanity 10 or 1,000 generations from now.

In theory, the resources floating up in space may be the economic fuel necessary to take us to the stars. As I noted last year: “An asteroid less than a mile in diameter could hold more than $20 trillion in industrial and precious metals” at 1997 prices. And that’s in addition to the massive potential of tapping into the sun’s rays as a self-perpetuating energy source. And while abundance may bring down the price of such commodities (including energy) early asteroid miners may reap massive enough rewards to turn themselves into the next Google, Apple, or Facebook, capable of pumping billions or trillions of dollars into research into further technologies.

As I argued last year, those who believe that the global economy may be entering an era of so-called “secular stagnation” clearly have either not thought very much about the potential economic growth possible from growing into space, or they think it a very unlikely possibility. Do you know how much one interstellar spacecraft or large-scale space station could add to GDP? Not just in its construction, but in the huge amount of research and development needed to develop and deploy such a thing? This is a whole new economy.

And while robots may mean that this spending does not create many jobs, and while off-planet tax havens are likely to become a thing, at the very least the technologies will trickle down to the wider public. Already, the widespread availability of the internet is creating a widely accessible and levelled playing field in the dissemination of information, news and ideas. Distributed solar energy and 3-D printers have the potential to create similar effects in energy markets, and in manufacturing and lift billions out of poverty.

But none of this is guaranteed. Even with the recent upsurge in interest in private space industry from titans of industry like Musk and Bezos, uncleared technical hurdles may stymie the development of large scale space industry for decades to come. NASA may still beat the privateers to Mars. But NASA is no longer the tip of the spear. Hopefully, NASA’s exploits will begin to look like afterthoughts.

Another Planet

The losers in elections often take the loss badly. Just as some Gore supporters in 2000 shouted about moving to Canada, some Romney supporters have taken the loss particularly badly too:

And perhaps the most poignant:

All the Republican rage made me think about the origins of America. So much emigration out of Europe to America came out of political and religious or ethnic friction and disagreement with the regimes in Europe (and later, the rest of the world). Many, many Americans are the descendants of Europeans who came to America to practise religion or politics the way they wanted to, and not the way that their nation, or the Catholic church, or a Feudal lord wanted them to.

That same independent-mindedness and the hunger for self-governance was the force that gave the Founding Fathers the chutzpah to finally sever ties with the British Empire in 1776 and strike out on their own as an independent nation.

For those who want to strike out into the unknown in the pursuit of self-governance, such options don’t exist anymore. There is no great sparsely inhabited continent spread out (except perhaps Antarctica which is already claimed-for) for those who want to strike out on their own. Those of a libertarian temperament and with a hunger for self-governance used to come to America. But in the modern, globalised world, where can they go?

Where is the next America? Where is the next land that people seeking self-governance can emigrate to?

One prospective answer has been seasteading — moving out onto floating cities in international waters. Perhaps that will satisfy the desires of a few in the coming years, but not everyone wants to live at sea. It is another frontier, but there are many challenges to overcome. For one thing, governments have navies, and may lay claim to successful floating cities near their waters, seeking new tax revenues. Pirates may pose a similar challenge.

In the much longer term, the answer will almost certainly be leaving the planet. The only uncolonised great new continents left are the ones up in space, on other planets.  There is no more effective or complete way to depart. So it is rather poetic that in the past couple of days a new Earthlike planet in a star’s habitable zone has been discovered.

Via the BBC:

Astronomers have spotted another candidate for a potentially habitable planet — and it is not too far away.

The star HD 40307 was known to host three planets, all of them too near to support liquid water.

But research to appear in Astronomy and Astrophysics has found three more – among them a “super-Earth” seven times our planet’s mass, in the habitable zone where liquid water can exist.

Many more observations will be needed to confirm any other similarities.

But the find joins an ever-larger catalogue of more than 800 known exoplanets, and it seems only a matter of time before astronomers spot an “Earth 2.0″ — a rocky planet with an atmosphere circling a Sun-like star in the habitable zone.

The hunger for self-governance led to the birth of America. It seems highly likely, in the very long run, that the hunger for self-governance will be the force that leads not only to local space colonisation (near-earth asteroids, Mars, asteroid belt, the moons of the gas giants) but ultimately deep space colonisation. The private space industry today is already driven by libertarian-leaning individuals like Bert Rutan, Robert Zubrin and Peter Thiel.

Powerful central government drives nonconformists to find ways to escape it. If the only road to self-governance left is up into space, then that is the road that will be taken. In the end, fury over a lost election may be the thing that drives humanity to the stars.

America’s Wilting Ambition

Regular readers will be aware that while I generally believe more in private industry and the free market than government largesse — mainly because central planning tends to lead to capital misallocation — there are some projects that need to be undertaken that are simply too big for anyone other than government. Space exploration is one example.

Here’s NASA’s budget as a percentage of GDP:

America went to the moon. Then it stopped caring about space, and started caring about spreading itself about the world in military adventurism.

Instead, other nations began racing ahead:

Why does this matter?

Well, resources on Earth are limited, by definition. As human civilisation expands and expands, we need to use more and more resources just to subsist.

And the only place for us to acquire more resources is off the planet.

Furthermore, a presence in space makes civilisation much more robust. If we’re only on one planet, we could be wiped out by a pandemic, or a nuclear catastrophe, or any such black swan. If we’re spread around the cosmos, it is much harder for us to be wiped out. Now, the International Space Station is a step toward that. But it’s hardly where we need to be: a space-faring, space-resources-acquiring species.

Space policy can be frustrating. The lunar missions were funded because they achieved a clearly-defined and obvious objective: put humans onto the surface of an alien world. Governments and populations could understand it. Modern day space programs don’t have such clearly-defined and obvious objectives. The kinds of research that goes on on the International Space Station are important, but obscure.

That’s one reason why it’s hard for spacefaring enthusiasts to push space up government agendas.

But the benefits in economic terms are clear. Stephen Dubner set these out in a fantastic article last year.

From G. Scott Hubbard (professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford University and former director of the NASA Ames Research Center):

The debate about the relative merits of exploring space with humans and robots is as old as the space program itself. Werner Von Braun, a moving force behind the Apollo Program that sent humans to the moon and the architect of the mighty Saturn V rocket, believed passionately in the value of human exploration — especially when it meant beating the hated Soviet Empire. James Van Allen, discoverer of the magnetic fields that bear his name, was equally ardent and vocal about the value of robotic exploration.

There are five arguments that are advanced in any discussion about the utility of space exploration and the roles of humans and robots. Those arguments, in roughly ascending order of advocate support, are the following:

1. Space exploration will eventually allow us to establish a human civilization on another world (e.g., Mars) as a hedge against the type of catastrophe that wiped out the dinosaurs.
2. We explore space and create important new technologies to advance our economy. It is true that, for every dollar we spend on the space program, the U.S. economy receives about $8 of economic benefit. Space exploration can also serve as a stimulus for children to enter the fields of science and engineering.
3. Space exploration in an international context offers a peaceful cooperative venue that is a valuable alternative to nation state hostilities. One can look at the International Space Station and marvel that the former Soviet Union and the U.S. are now active partners. International cooperation is also a way to reduce costs.
4. National prestige requires that the U.S. continue to be a leader in space, and that includes human exploration. History tells us that great civilizations dare not abandon exploration.
5. Exploration of space will provide humanity with an answer to the most fundamental questions: Are we alone? Are there other forms of life beside those on Earth?

It is these last two arguments that are the most compelling to me. It is challenging to make the case that humans are necessary to the type of scientific exploration that may bring evidence of life on another world. There are strong arguments on both sides. Personally, I think humans will be better at unstructured environment exploration than any existing robot for a very long time.

There are those who say that exploration with humans is simply too expensive for the return we receive. However, I cannot imagine any U.S. President announcing that we are abandoning space exploration with humans and leaving it to the Chinese, Russians, Indians, Japanese or any other group. I can imagine the U.S. engaging in much more expansive international cooperation.

Humans will be exploring space. The challenge is to be sure that they accomplish meaningful exploration.

Keith Cowing (founder and editor of NASAWatch.com and former NASA space biologist) adds:

Right now, all of America’s human space flight programs cost around $7 billion a year. That’s pennies per person per day. In 2006, according to the USDA, Americans spent more than $154 billion on alcohol. We spend around $10 billion a month in Iraq. And so on. Are these things more important than human spaceflight because we spend more money on them? Is space exploration less important?

Money alone is not a way to gauge the worthiness of the cost of exploring space.

NASA is fond of promoting all of the spinoffs that are generated from its exploits, such as microelectronics. But are we exploring space to explore space, or are we doing all of this to make better consumer electronics? I once heard the late Carl Sagan respond to this question by saying, “you don’t need to go to Mars to cure cancer.” If you learn how to do that as a side benefit, well, that’s great, but there are probably more cost effective ways to get all of these spinoffs without leaving Earth.

To be certain, tax dollars spent on space projects result in jobs — a large proportion of which are high paying, high tech positions. But many other government programs do that as well — some more efficiently.

Still, for those who would moan that this money could be “better spent back on Earth,” I would simply say that all of this money is spent on Earth — it creates jobs and provides business to companies, just as any other government program does. You have to spend all of NASA’s money “on Earth.” There is no way to spend it in space — at least, not yet.

Where am I going with this? Asking if space exploration — with humans or robots or both — is worth the effort is like questioning the value of Columbus’s voyages to the New World in the late 1490s. The promise at the time was obvious to some, but not to others. Is manned space exploration worth the cost? If we Americans do not think so, then why is it that nations such as China and India — nations with far greater social welfare issues to address with their limited budgets — are speeding up their space exploration programs? What is it about human space exploration that they see? Could it be what we once saw, and have now forgotten?

As such, my response is another question: for the U.S. in the twenty-first century, is not sending humans into space worth the cost?

Human civilisations throughout history are judged by the power of their dreams. Do we have big enough dreams to spread our lineage, spread our DNA, spread our language, our ideas, and our bodies into space?

I hope so.