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.

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