This is a somewhat lengthy piece. It also tends to ramble. You have been warned. If the lack of pretty pictures disturbs you, can i remind you that this is not a picture book.
Space, as a general rule has been unpopular in recent years, for a whole variety of reasons. If i had to nail it down to two, it’s that the Space Race is over, and suddenly various countries were no longer prepared to dedicate the quite substantial funds to it, but more importantly there’s been a massive shift from the 70s onward about how we view space, and space exploration in general.
It’s called the Deep Green movement. The rhetoric surrounding environmentalism on earth somehow managed to infect the space debate, and suddenly the entire concept of space travel, and perhaps more importantly, space colonisation got called into doubt. Suddenly the question became not if we could go to moon, but rather if we should. If we should inflict the curse of humanity on the rest of the solar system. You began to get these weird extrapolations of Environmental rhetoric, like these guys (http://www.space4peace.org/) on a side note, sorry my link function broke again.
The fact that all the quite legitimate concerns which the environmental movement capitalised on in the 70s have little to no grounding beyond a few hundred kilometres up hasn’t stopped them. I won’t even detail the absurdity of attempting to ban nuclear power in an environment where you are slowly being roasted by a colossal nuclear fusion reaction, or the cause to preserve the “environment” of space.
The fact that the moon for example, is just a giant rock devoid of anything even remotely resembling life doesn’t seem to factor.
The entire idea of progress which was the spirit of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century basically got axed in the 70s, and its been in poor health ever since. But the rallying cry of all of space’s multiple and detractors is the expense card.
So that’s what i’m going to talk about. Really, at the end of the day, how much money does it cost to get into space.
Well first of all we need to define exactly what money is.
Money is two different things, either standalone or a hybrid. It’s either a rarity value- that this is for example gold, and due to their being a limited supply but a rather larger demand. The rarity factor gives something value. Makes it worth money.
The other, and ultimately more important factor is that Money is also a representation of human effort. Why does a laptop cost more than it’s requisite materials? because of the amount of time and effort the people involved in digging up that material, refining it into something useable, shipping it to people that turn those materials into a product, shipping that product to you and then the effort of the guy who sells it.
That is what money is. People often say that time is money, and it literally is. Money means that rather than have to go out there are plant your own wheat crop, harvest it, grind it up into flour and then bake bread to eat, you can just go down to the local bakery and pay for it.
JFK famously said “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard” in his Rice Speech, and in this world, something being hard literally translates as something being expensive. The two ideas are fundamentally the same.
However, there’s this idea that money spent on anything by big governments- especially ones that don’t have an obvious turn around, like a war, like space exploration, are bottomless holes that have no benefit to the nation in question. First of all this is not true. This isn’t true because of the way which modern capitalist-democracies work.
Saying “all that money would be so much better spent getting homeless people off the streets” isn’t quite good enough. Because especially regarding space exploration, all that money goes straight back into the economy. During the sixties, NASA and it’s suppliers literally gave jobs for thousands for domestically developed space craft. That way, you clear up unemployment, and rather than paying people without a return, you pay them to produce.
Democracies need a national project. Something to focus their energies on. Briefly it was space exploration in the late fifties and early 60s. But for the majority of the time, it’s been warfare.
America is the best example. In the 20th century, America’s economic golden ages happened during the two biggest wars in history. Unemployment virtually vanished, the economy boomed. America thrived on the cold war, on the competition and the enormous markets offered by the US Armed Forces. America runs off war- it thrives off it. It’s a pivotal aspect of its economy, and has basically dictated it’s national policy for the past 70 years now.
The Cold war ended 23 years ago now. In those 23 years, America has been at war in major deployments overseas (Iraq (twice), Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, ect) for about 15 of them. And the American economy, for the first part at least loves it. You take millions of youths with relatively poor employment options and put them in uniform, you uphold millions of American households by providing a business for not only the massive defence companies like Northcorp Grumman and so on, but also for the logistic companies that supply the millions of deployed troops overseas.
From a Corporate perspective, the massive costs of the war don’t make sense. From a military one, the way which America fights a war looks horribly inefficient. Just take a look at the amount of ordnance dropped on Vietnam- 7 million tons. But all this stems down to the fact that the US isn’t obliged to run a war in the most efficient manner, but rather in the way that provides the most amount of money for the national companies involved. Money spent on domestic companies stays in the system. Every bomb dropped is a another bomb that needs to be bought. It’s not exactly morally attractive, but it’s business.
War, like space is a driver of the economy. It is a mammoth task that occupies the time and effort of the nation in order to give the economy something to do. Another interesting example of this phenomena is Prisons in the US, which cost 32 billion dollars per annum or so. And of course, providing for the 2.6 mililion people in prison, by way of food, bedding and so on is a big business.
And of course as conspiracy theorists would say, making sure that there are people to populate those prisons is also part of that business.
America is nearly out of Afghanistan now. After this particularly long war, there might be a greater than normal cooling off period. But within another decade or so, America will find another target to get embroiled with, and the cycle will begin again.
That is, unless of course America decides to focus it’s national efforts a tad more constructively.
Currently 0.47% of the National budget is spent on NASA, with an annual budget of about 18 billion dollars (standardised to 2007). Compared to what NASA gives to society, and the world as a whole, that’s tiny. Compared to the amount of money which the US spends on Veteran benefits and Prisons, it’s miniscule.
It’s ten percent of how much the US spent (in percentage of the budget) on NASA in the mid 60s. So let’s say you do. What could NASA do with a budget of 180 billion dollars per annum. This is still somewhere between a third and a quarter of the amount of money that goes into the military every year.
It’s hard to tell how much NASA would be able to do, because At no point in NASA (or any other space exploration agency’s) history has even a sixth of that sum of money been granted to a space agency (in real terms). But for comparison, The Mars One project to go to mars is estimated at costing about 6 billion dollars over at 10 year period, with potential cost blow out. At 180 billion dollars, NASA could fund that mission at a mere 1/300th of it’s annual budget. 0.3%.
But what could you. What is every space enthusiast’s wildest dream?
Well you would probably start by Setting up a city on the Moon. We might get hyped about Mars, but the simple fact is that when push comes to shove, the Moon is actually much more appropriate for near future human habitation than Mars. It’s closer, it doesn’t have a annoying gravity well to deal with, solar power is much more powerful due to closer proximity to the sun, infinite sun light (on the souther pole) and a lack of dust storms (like the ones that crippled the Opportunity and spirit rovers for months at a time), and it’s closer to earth.
A moon settlement’s role would be mostly agricultural and recreational. Because, provided that we don’t manage to find a way to recycle our own excrement into new food perfectly, we’re going to need a place where we can grow enough food. Growing crops in zero 0 is a tricky business, and lifestock even more so, but it’s possible on the moon, not easy mind. In order to sustain a population of any size, it would require constructing massive green house structures out of material mined on the moon itself, but with the proper production methods (read 3D printing) and robotics, it wouldn’t actually be the most challenging trick in the bag. Remember robots don’t need to get paid.
More importantly, during and from that point, you could send out dozens of robotic spacecraft to NEAs (Near Earth Asteriods) and knock them into Earth Orbit with a few well placed nukes. What would you do with a dozen or so multi megaton asteriods in orbit?
Well this brings me to a personal favourite of mine. This is actually something you’d probably want to do before rather than after any big trips to Mars and the Moon.
I’ve explained how they work in previous posts, (along with the applications of 3D printing in space) so you can look there. The point is, once you develop an efficient way to manufacture Nanotubes of sufficient length, fast (which we can’t currently do. They’re working on it) from the actual asteroids themselves, you can begin to role out Orbital elevators, just like the ones you see in Halo.
The upshot of all of this is that the first orbital elevators are estimated to cut the cost of getting into space by a factor of 100. And That’s just when you can only send a cable crawling car carrying a few hundred tons payload up the elevator at a time, whne it’s a four day round trip. Ideally, you would have multiple maglev trains running up each elevator simultaneously.
That itself opens up to the second phase of space exploration. Colonisation.
And since the annual population growth of the world was 78 million in 2011, in order to even make a dent in that number by colonising the solar system, let alone counteract that, we’d need to literally send hundreds of thousands of people up the elevators each day.
Which is difficult. It would require dozens of elevators, massive amounts of energy to power the trains necessitating massive He3 mining on the moon to power Fusion Reactors and expansive orbital solar arrays, huge orbital construction operations to create the stations and habitats in earth orbit to house them, even temporarily, and an even larger construction projects on the moon for more permeant construction. We’d need to break out literally thousands of interplanetary and inter-orbital ships that can bear thousands of ships between the planets, on shipyards in Earth Orbit and on the Moon.
It would require the construction of a huge amount of ancillary infrastructure to support this movement of people, both on the ground and in space. Space-born factories that produce everything from Laptops to personal spacecraft would need to be produced, to cater to the colonist’s wants and needs.
But what i’m describing here is a booming economy. Funny about that isn’t it. The question that we should be asking in this increasingly crowded world isn’t the cost of going to space, but rather the cost of staying on the earth.
It will be hard. As such it will be expensive. But at the end of the day we need to question, what do we really want to put our effort towards. What do we want to strive for? In 50 years time, what contribution to the history of man kind does western society want to leave behind- a collection of futile and pointless wars, or something more? JFK summed it up pretty well, 51 years ago this year.
“Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, “Because it is there.”
Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.
–JFK, 12th of September 1962.