By Sylvain Rochon | 25 January 2020
Church and State
We have plenty of problems on Earth, so why bother with space exploration? Is space exploration a luxury for the curious and an expenditure best left to a time when we have resolved the many problems we have on the planet Earth?
You may have asked yourself these questions many times, or perhaps not. I think it is important to describe how space exploration has impacted our lives. We forget that a lot of inventions we use were first developed to make space exploration possible. Here is a list of 20 things we wouldn’t have without the efforts of space exploration organizations like NASA:
- Camera phones
- Scratch-resistant lenses
- CAT scans
- LEDs (light-emitting diode)
- Land mine removal
- Athletic shoes
- Foil blankets
- Water purification systems
- Dust busters (handheld vacuum cleaners)
- Ear thermometers
- Home insulation
- The Jaws of Life (a tool to free people from car wrecks)
- Wireless headsets
- Memory foam
- Freeze-dried food
- Adjustable smoke detector
- Baby formula
- Artificial limbs
- Computer mouse
- Portable computers
These inventions are only the tip of the iceberg. We created many more in our attempts to understand and conquer space: lasers, cochlear implants, aircraft anti-icing systems, chemical detection, air-scrubbers, solar cells, powdered lubricants and more.
Our engineers had to solve problems we didn’t have feet solidly planted on the ground. They had to figure out how to fend off the dangerous environment that is space, surviving escape velocity, and build special tools that could work without gravity and in extremely confined spaces. Finding solutions to those problems have driven whole areas of commerce and have spurred a new era of productivity for our society since the 1960s.
Probably the most notable direct result of space exploration is satellites. Once we could position a ship in orbit and take telemetry, we knew we could place unmanned pieces of equipment there and just let it orbit, running on its own, while receiving orders from the ground. From those satellites, we have created a global communication system and the global positioning system (GPS) that powers most of our communications capabilities today. What can bring peace and harmony on the planet more than our ability to communicate with each other beyond geographic and political boundaries? These technologies have been enhancing and saving for years.
Thanks to orbital technologies, we could explore the surrounding universe through orbital telescopes and the International Space Station (ISS). We have been studying the universe through lenses unhindered by the atmosphere. We’ve sent drones to explore the moon, Mars and other astral bodies in our solar system. Just like in the early space race, our engineers found yet more solutions that will improve our Earthly lives.
That is the legacy of space exploration. In 2019, NASA only received 0.49% of the American federal budget to do what it does best. A small amount of tax dollars for a huge return over generations. It’s just not that obvious to most people.
It is very human to explore and seek to understand the unknown, so naturally, some of us are keen to spend this money to push farther and explore. However, what drives innovation is when private companies find a reason to get involved.
Private Companies in Space
Speaking of which, several private companies, most notably Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, are working on plans to send equipment and passengers to the Moon, and later Mars as soon as 2023. Make no mistake, private companies are doing it because they think it’ll pay off huge and quickly. They expect companies and governments will use their systems and equipment to transport and operate bases outside of Earth gravity. The reason private companies are interested in this now, is because we’ve advanced our understanding of rocket propulsion and the solar system enough (thanks to NASA and other space agencies from around the world) to make these ventures profitable. Space exploration is still very, very expensive. In 2019, the cost of sending one kilogram of cargo in low-Earth orbit was $1,000. When the Space Shuttle launched, in the early 80s, the cost was over $85,000/kg. NASA’s goal and that of private companies working in tandem, is to reduce that amount to tens of dollars per kilogram by 2040. Leaving Earth gravity costs a little more than that but once in low-Earth orbit you’ve already spent most of the energy needed to get to outer space.
Today, the cost is still $1,000/kg therefore only companies and very wealthy tourists have the means to pay that bill. But it always takes a few to get the innovation cycle going, reducing costs. 20 years from now, it would cost me about $10,000 to travel to the moon which is a bit more expensive than flying Business Class to Tokyo. As more people fly into space, costs will go down, and even more private companies will get interested in flights to space, spurring more innovation, and encouraging prices to fall, etc. It won’t be long until the cost of traveling in space will be about the same as traveling by aircraft today, assuming there people have a compelling reason to go to space, and as you’ll read below, there may not be many reasons to do exactly that. We shall see within our lifetime.
We can satisfy our curiosity in safety using virtual reality and cameras. Is there a case for space tourism? The truth is, space is very, very empty and everything is very far away from the Earth. Most of the solar system is empty. The distance between the Earth and the moon is 363,104 kilometers, which is a 3-day trip using today’s equipment. The closest other planet to Earth is Venus, which is 179,89 million km away (at least 3 months travel time), assuming you visit when Venus is closest to the Earth, which happens only every 584 days. At the speeds we fly in space right now (the fastest humans have ever gone in space so far is almost 40,000 km per hour), that’s a lot of time looking at darkness with stars, and the Sun, and very little time looking or exploring planets.
The beauty of the Earth and the Moon may be the only sightseeing most of us would ever want to experience ourselves until space travel becomes orders of magnitudes faster and safer.
So tourism to Moon orbit may become a thing, but private companies are being more practical and perhaps more sustainable.
Blue Origin is working on faster terrestrial point-to-point travel at suborbital altitudes. The idea would be to reduce the time to travel from one point on the planet to the opposite side to about an hour. That would be very useful and I’m sure many “high flyers” would pay for that kind of speed and convenience. In 2019, Blue Origin has announced an additional project called Blue Moon Lander, a lunar lander capable of carrying several tons of equipment and cargo to the moon. According to the website, the aim would be to support a sustained human presence on the Moon by ferrying cargo from Earth to the Moon and back. Make no mistake, Blue Origin think there will be a demand for both these projects. Regarding the suborbital flight concept, safety and cost per passenger will determine demand. If the price is low enough, people will pay it. Regarding the Blue Moon Lander project, the assumption is other companies and governments will want to put a sustained presence on the moon, and their lander can facilitate this. In 2019, the Trump administration have declared plans to put people on the Moon by 2024 through NASA, so that may be a Blue Origin client. The Chinese seem to compete with the US in a new space race to the Moon by the 2030s. So perhaps there is hope for Blue Moon Lander to rake in the cash serving these national interests.
Governments want to go to the moon to claim bragging rights (ex: Apollo missions) or for pure scientific exploration (most NASA missions), but companies want to make money. The Moon is bare, but it has minerals of interest to us on Earth. However, we can find every element on the periodic table on Earth. Going to the Moon to access more does not make economic sense. Therefore, the purpose of putting people on the moon to build anything would be to help with more space exploration starting from gravity only 10% that of the Earth. If we could launch missions from the Moon, it would be much cheaper to explore the rest of the solar system, and that means being able to manufacture what we need on the Moon itself and have an established human presence there too. That implies using the Moon’s minerals to build everything one needs, and therefore the need for landers like the one Blue Origin has built to build a fully autonomous base.
SpaceX has similar goals to Blue Origin but with more of an eye to the far future. According to their website, SpaceX’s goal is to “ … design, manufacture and launch rockets and spacecraft…. to revolutionize space technologies, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.” The company monetizes its venture by putting satellites in orbit. They are getting good at it too, and cheaper than most other companies, too. SpaceX has another plan to monetize that operation: to build a global wireless internet, called StarLink, providing Internet coverage over the whole globe. They should have it completed within the next 10 years. SpaceX’s rockets are used to deploy StarLink, a constellation of 42,000 micro-satellites. Long term, Elon Musk wishes to use his technology to start a human colony on the Moon and Mars, and help other companies leave Earth gravity economically along the way. There is no money to be made by colonizing either the Moon or Mars, but if Musk can monetize this bold adventure by profiting from putting satellites in orbit, why not?
I’ve started this article by saying that there are very real, long-term benefits of all this activity in space. We’ll find lots of new applications for each technological advancement developed by these efforts to bring tourists, business tycoons, researchers and engineers to other astral bodies in our Solar System. For us on Earth, we’ll definitively benefit from all this space activity.
Just to be clear, the Moon has no materials that we cannot gather in Earth more economically, and it is the same for all planets and most moons in our Solar System. Most astral bodies have the same elements and minerals, in slightly different quantities. However, there may be a reason to exploit other astral bodies.
Anything Good in the Solar System?
In fact, valuable heavy metals like Platinum, Iridium, Palladium and Ruthenium are present in very high concentration in some asteroids and some moons who used to be asteroids (captured by planetary gravities when the Solar System was formed millions of years ago). Heavy metals are naturally found near the center of planets and asteroids are bits and pieces of ancient planets and suns. Some of those bits used to be, way back when, parts of the center of planets, and therefore full of these heavy metals near their surface. Since we use these heavy metals along with others in more than half of our manufactured goods (catalysts, advanced materials, cancer treatments, electronics and more), they are quite pricey here on Earth in the concentrations we can find near the surface.
Therefore, once the price of going to space goes down a bunch and we develop drones that can mine asteroids remotely companies could start mining these things for their heavy metals. The materials could be brought back to a station, like one on the Moon, on Mars or in Earth orbit. Then we could start seeing a new business of asteroid mining leveraging the previous work made by space agencies and companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX.
There is nothing more of value in the solar system to our economies, except for spinoffs of these efforts to conquer space, frivolous ventures, exploration missions or other.
So yes, there may be some value in exploiting asteroids for resources, but most of the value derived from space exploration is strictly in derivatives from the scientific (or ego-based) effort to move through it and to better understand it.
I for one am excited at the prospect of traveling in space. I love the idea of leaving the confines of our big blue planet for a trip. However, since the Earth has everything we need, and space is cold and the most inhospitable environment possible to humans, after that first trip for kicks, I’ll enjoy exploring space through a virtual reality headset instead.
Reprinted with permission from the author.
— Church and State (@ChurchAndStateN) November 7, 2019
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