Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Economics of Life In Space

For mankind to move into Space, it must be

  • Affordable in the short term
  • Profitable in the mid term
  • Self-sustaining in the long term

Each of these should be analyzed in more detail, even if they are self-evident to the optimists among us. Even the definition of short, mid, and long term are subject to discussion, but for these purposes the points above are self-defining.

The long term will begin when Earthbound civilization is no longer necessary for a space faring humanity. By not necessary, I don’t mean not useful: I expect that the cradle of mankind will always be an important part of humanity’s heritage. But at some point the continued expansion of humanity will no longer depend upon Earth resources. This has happened to every expansion of humanity (or a branch of civilization) at some point or another. For example, when Europeans colonized the Americas, the new territories may have initially profited by sending goods to the home country and depended upon tools and technologies created there, but eventually the continued expansion of the frontier no longer depended upon the Motherland. This may take longer (perhaps much longer) in space than on Earth, because the environment is hostile, a high level of technology is needed to survive there, and technological civilizations are complex. It may take tens of thousands of people living in space, or it may take tens of millions to replicate all of our technology. But it will happen.

The mid term will be the period when Earth profits from investments in space, and in some sense this will be a Golden Age of immense profits, rapid growth, unbridled enthusiasm and optimism. Many people have proposed many different potential sources of profit, but two stand out: tourism and Solar Power Satellites (SPSs).

Space Tourism is perhaps an indirect Earth profit generator. As long as launch costs are high (even as cheap as $500/pound), it will only be affordable by the wealthy. But most of the expenses are Earth-bound, and every million dollars spent on Space Tourism will contribute perhaps $2.5M to the Earth’s economy, supporting 25 to 50 families on Earth.  Remember, you can’t spend money in space; every dollar spent on the space program is ultimately spent on Earth, and will continue to be until a space civilization can thrive on its own.

Space-Based Solar Power (SBSP) would directly benefit civilization on Earth, in multiple ways. Not only through stable, low-cost, zero pollution electric power, but also since the construction of Solar Power Satellites and the construction of Earth receiving stations would stimulate the Earth’s economy. Note that SBSP can provide cheap power to remote areas, including many of the poorest nations on Earth. Note that, as with space tourism, every dollar spent on SBSP (both construction and operation) is a dollar spent on Earth. The fact that a large-scale SBSP network would be enormously profitable for some corporations or nations in no way reduces its value to the Earth’s economy. And low-cost reliable power directly contributes to the wealth of the recipient. In a sense, reducing the use of fossil fuels (and the resulting global warming) is only an indirect benefit of SBSP.

Also note that SBSP would be expensive to build and launch from Earth; it will likely be affordable only when we can use space-based resources to build Solar Power Satellites (see my post, Capturing Apophis). But once built, Earth’s civilization benefits for the indefinite future.

The short term is the period – however long – when Earthbound civilization must invest in space. This includes the period when we are beginning to build a network of Solar Power Satellites, or space habitats for living, or space hotels for tourism. While any long-term space-based habitat is likely to produce its own power, food, water, and oxygen (recycling wastes in a closed cycle), most other needs must be met using tools and technologies imported from Earth, including LED’s for lighting the farms, computers, communication equipment, high-technology space suits, VASIMR rocket motors, vitamins, pharmaceuticals, medical equipment. The list is endless, although the relative need and value tails off rather quickly.

More importantly, the Short Term is the period while the costs of launching people, tools, and bootstrap resources into space exceed the profit derived from space-based enterprises, primarily SBSP. But the cost of bootstrapping a space-based civilization is an investment, pure and simple, yielding enormous profits for those clever and resourceful enough to make that investment.

The revenue from a single SPS is of the order of $1 Billion per year, suggesting that an investment of even $100 Billion to build and deploy a hundred SPS’s would be wildly profitable. Yet it would cost a fraction of that to capture an asteroid such as Apophis into Earth orbit, and to launch sufficient people and tools to turn that asteroid into a habitat and a factory to build Solar Power Satellites. Note that Apophis is too small to build more than about a dozen SPSs (assuming half of its mass is reserved for habitats). Yet it is more than large enough to bootstrap the process and support the ongoing space-based resources needed to capture additional asteroids to build thousands of SPSs and habitats for millions of people.

Let’s estimate some numbers:

  • $2 Billion: Commercialize the technologies to capture an asteroid (large-scale VASIMR, long-duration space flight)
  • $2 Billion: Launch the capture equipment and team. This will result in the capture of an asteroid such as Apophis into a highly-eccentric Earth orbit after a period of a year or two.
  • $2 Billion: Develop the processes and tools needed to mine, smelt, and process asteroid material into steel, oxygen, and hopefully CO2 and water. Other valuable materials are a bi-product. There are many unknowns, including the raw materials themselves, and zero-gravity smelting, and recycling of effluent gases such as carbon dioxide. Nothing should be vented / wasted.
  • $2 Billion: Launch the solar smelters, mining equipment, and tools to process iron ore into steel plates, girders, cables, etc.. Part of this is launching a small fleet of VASIMR tugs, fueled by excess oxygen from the smelters and using solar power for energy, to boost cargo and people from LEO to the HEEO of the captured asteroid. To a degree, this is launching the tools to build the tools to build the tools….
  • $2 Billion: Launch the people and habitat resources (LED lights for farms, solar panels for power, initial supplies of oxygen, food, and water, pumps and recycling equipment, ….)

Okay, so I used nice round numbers to get the total cost around $10 Billion. It may even be accurate to within a factor of two. In reality, I’d expect on-going costs of continuing launches of additional people and resources, perhaps $2 Billion per year for the 5 years I expect it would take to build the infrastructure and that first Solar Power Satellite, but then you get another one built every year, and the continuing influx of people and resources builds additional SPSs every year after that.

My expected cost to get that first habitat and first solar power satellite operational is of the order of $20 Billion. But then the investment starts to multiply, and by the time you’ve invested $30 Billion, you’d have 30 Solar Power Satellites in production and your investment ROI is 100% per year (ignoring ground-based costs of receiving and distributing the power, which might be as much as another billion per satellite). Actually, by the time you have two SPSs (ignoring ground costs) or four SPSs (assuming $1B/satellite in ground costs) in operation the operation is self-sustaining and doesn’t require additional capital investments, yet the profits continue to grow.

Assuming the chosen asteroid is Apophis (but see A Choice of Asteroids), the first $10 billion would be spent by 2030, the first SPS operational in 2035 (after spending another $10 Billion), and the entire operation is wildly profitable by 2040 (by which time you’ve invested $30 Billion but your satellites are earning you $30B/year). It sounds like a great investment for my IRA.

A lot of research is needed, and a lot of talent. We need to solve these problems:

  • Farming in Space (total closed-system recycling)
  • micro-gravity mining
  • zero-gravity smelting of ores using recycled reducing agents and probably direct solar power
  • zero-gravity refining (separation of metals, slags, and effluent gases into valuable component parts)
  • zero-gravity rapid capture and separation of gases from iron and steel production (we can’t afford to waste that carbon dioxide).
  • zero-gravity metal forming (turning steel into girders, rods, plates, cables, etc.)
  • Welding of large structures in space.
  • Low-cost, human-friendly space suits (ie, skin suits) for hard-working people.
  • VASIMR (or similar rocket technologies) to use the excess oxygen from the production of iron as a rocket fuel for in-orbit shuttles and to capture asteroids. Oxygen is the primary bi-product of steel production from ore (other than slag, and assuming recycling of carbon), with a ton of oxygen freed for every three tons of iron produced. Thus the 75,000 tons of steel needed for a habitat for the first 8,000 people yields 25,000 tons of oxygen. Building each 180,000 ton SPS (4 km on a side) yields 60,000 tons of excess oxygen. That’s a lot of rocket fuel.
  • Low-cost launch to LEO. Part of this may be the economy of scale, as very large heavy-lift rockets are much cheaper per ton to orbit than smaller rockets. I believe this entire operation is highly profitable and sustainable if the launch cost to LEO is $1 million per ton or less. While NASA and the Space Shuttle (or its proposed replacements) can’t approach this cost, commercial private-sector efforts can. And the scale of this project is large enough to justify those investments.

There are a myriad other problems to be solved, but most of them are engineering efforts, not R&D projects. They will still require a lot of talented people, and many more people will be needed to work in space – thousands of them, of every persuasion. Miners. Steel workers. Welders. Electricians. Plumbers. Mechanics. Farmers (lots of farmers). Doctors and nurses. Pharmacists. Cooks. Wait staff. Bartenders. Construction workers. Janitors. Barbers and cosmetologists. Massage therapists. Truck drivers & bus drivers (but we’ll call them space ship pilots). Clerks. Accountants. I suspect a lot of movies might be made in space, so add actors and all those people listed in the credits for your favorite movie. And where lots of people go, families happen. So we’ll also need day care workers. Teachers. Playgrounds. Schools. Police. We might even need a manager or two. Counselors. And a divorce lawyer.

If you have a skill, you’re probably needed in space. Welcome to the future.