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.

3 thoughts on “On the Race to Mars and the Economics of Colonizing Space

  1. Pingback: On the Race to Mars and the Economics of Colonizing Space « Financial Survival Network

  2. The optimism regarding general space travel and the trip to Mars especially should be compared to the euphoria after the first moon landing. That euphoria faded quietly away into desinterest after the initial excitement. The story to the mars will not be much different. The future is in robotic space exploration. Humans will forever be stuck to planet earth because our body is not designed for space travel. It is designed for living on this planet. One day it may be possible to build robots with an intelligence exceeding human intelligence. Then we may abolish our bodies and continue to live consciously in the CPU of a highly intelligent robot. It is not clear at all where technology might take us. Linear extrapolations of past trends rarely prove to be correct. Lifting millions of tons of matter into space is very expensive in terms of energy and mineral resources. Once in space these mineral resources are forever lost for recycling. Space travel ultimately depletes the planet of its mineral resource base. Space travel on a large scale is a suicide mission for humanity. Indeed, there are proposals for trips to Mars
    to be one way trips without a chance of ever returning.

  3. I agree with Mr Happek. Lots of optimism and a very big enticing picture leading to much euphoria.. The reality of colonising the moon let alone Mars is another thing altogether. Most missions into space with current technology will probably become one way missions for so many reasons.

    The temperature fluctuations on our moon are greater than at the North Pole which is pretty darn cold itself (with an annual mean temperature of -70*C ). No animals to hunt, no fish, not even water, but the real bummer is no breathable atmosphere. Since most humans die within four to five minutes of not breathing this leaves a perilously wafer thin margin of error with our current re-cycling technology. Any breakdown would lead rapidly to the undesirable condition the military refer to as ‘FUBAR’.

    The logical choice for space exploration will continue to be better robots. We are infants in space and private trips to Mars will be one way trips for the foreseeable future. Simply surviving in a tin can for eight months travelling to Mars itself and landing there safely would be a major achievement. Then the real problems would begin in earnest.

    If I was planning logistics for a Mars mission, I’d send robots and supplies first with triplication of all essential- to- life systems and lots of spare parts before I sent the first people.

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