How to save the world with space travel

The title of this article might sound provocative and reminiscent of Interstellar, but it’s much simpler than that. Apparently.

Today I’m summarising the paper published in Acta Astronautica by Patrick Collins and Adriano Autino (full reference and link at end of article).

The authors argue for the development of an industry based around passenger space travel, arguing that is could be economically and socially very beneficial. It would create a use for half a century of technological development and sharply reducing the cost of space travel by creating economies of scale, making other activities in space cheaper and even profitable. The paper rather boldly finishes the abstract with the following statement:

The paper discusses the scope for new employment, stimulating economic growth, reducing environmental damage, sustaining education particularly in the sciences, stimulating cultural growth, and preserving peace by eliminating any need for “resource wars”.

Wow, all that just by creating a space tourism industry? Let’s back up for a moment.

The authors argue that if German rocket development continued as it had at the time of 1942 when they achieved first successful spaceflight, fully reusable sub-orbital passenger flights could have been feasible using reusable, piloted spaceplanes by 1950. Under this scenario, passenger travel services to and from low Earth Orbit would have been feasible by the 1960s. Instead, rocket development was primarily focused on producing thousands of long-range missiles during the cold war.

Because of this, launch vehicles were based on rockets, rather than passenger vehicles as aircraft had been. This focus meant that launch vehicles had safety and cost/passenger more aligned with missiles than passenger vehicles.

Slightly related, check out this video compilation of early rocket failures I’ve been itching for an excuse to share.

The mobile phone is used as an example of faster than predicted uptake of a new technology, and the argument seems to be that therefore space tourism and travel will take off faster than expected. But not all technology works like that (one only need look at the Segway for a technology that went in the opposite direction).

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It is argued that even a small government investment into the personal spaceflight industry would yield high returns, and with investments of around 1% of what governments give to space agencies. This is “utterly negligible compared to the trillions that they have given to banks during 2008-9.

Starting from today, in order to achieve the scale of activity shown in Fig. 1 over the next 30 years, government funding [required is] equivalent to about 10% of space agencies’ budgets, or some € 2 billion per year… Thereafter most of the funding would come from private companies, just as airline and hotel companies finance their own growth today.” I’m always suspicious of anyone who says ‘It wouldn’t cost that much money to fund, and the benefits are huge!’ If that were the case, there must be good reasons governments aren’t doing this already. Sure there are vested interests, which is partly why it has taken so long for governments to get on board with renewable energy, but there must be some reason.

Cost estimates from several sources indicate that once the space travel industry grows to 1 million passengers/year (no small figure!) prices could fall to € 5000 for sub-orbital flights and € 20,000 for orbital flights. Much cheaper than it is now, to be sure, but I still wouldn’t be signing up for leisure trips at these prices. Sure, some will, but I wonder if it will still be the domain of millionaires who have a bit too much money on their hands. And if so, how will the industry grow to 1 million passengers/year?

Don’t get me wrong, this would all be great, and as the authors say, “orbiting hotels seem likely to create the first market for non-terrestrial materials like ice, water, oxygen and hydrogen…”, which, as an asteroid mining researcher, sounds pretty good to me. I’m just sceptical and playing devil’s advocate a little.

I’ll skip over the employment and economic growth sections to get to the areas I’m more familiar with. “Economic development in space… could contribute greatly… to solving world environmental problems.” This is proposed through a space-based solar power (SSP) supply (which would become much cheaper with lower space travel costs) and carbon-neutral space travel (utilising the SSP).

The use of solar power satellites for reducing the severity of hurricanes… In the extreme case… SSP might even include a role in the stabilisation of climate.” I haven’t heard this form of geoengineering proposed for Earth (similar ideas are proposed to terraform Mars, see my article here), but it seems awfully reminiscent of spraying particulate matter into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight and other extreme geoengineering solutions to climate change for 2 reasons. One, we don’t know what the potential negative implications are, and two, these types of solutions should really be a last resort in case we can’t get our shit together and mitigate climate change by just reducing greenhouse gas emissions. I’ve heard it argued that having geoengineering solutions as a backup may make people and policy less motivated to act now to stop climate change.

There is something to be said for having more humans look at our planet from a new perspective. One of my favourite quotes is by astronaut Edgar Mitchell who said “From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’

The authors also argue that having a space based economy would eventually mean that more of Earth’s industry would operate outside the biosphere. I’m not so convinced that there would be enough industry in the near term for that to make a difference, and surely an expanding space economy would equal an expanding ground-based economy.

Flying past education, more space travel means more young people fascinated by science, technology and engineering, yes of course… Culture benefits… Ah, world peace and preservation of human civilisation.

The major source of social friction, including international friction, has surely always been unequal access to resources.” The argument is that if we expanded into space and tapped into the vast resources available there, we wouldn’t need to have ‘resource wars’ on Earth. I’m iffy about that. It’s a nice idea, and would most likely reduce wars, but even if everyone had equal access to resources, someone would want more than their equal share.

The final argument is that having a thriving space economy not just around Earth, but on the moon, on Mars and even beyond would reduce the chance that humanity is wiped out by a single catastrophic event. I agree with this completely, and this is what Elon Musk is working towards with his plans to colonise Mars. Given the vast potential future number of human lives, it would be selfish to not try to reduce existential risk. Neil Bowerman from the UK who I met recently in Melbourne is working on various forms of existential risk, and his website is worth looking at if you want to read more about that.

I’ve been purposely pessimistic throughout this article, but I truly hope for all of the arguments for a space economy that I’ve mentioned come to fruition. It’s one of the reasons I am a space science researcher; it’s what drives me to work every day.

Until next time.

Reference: Collins, P. & Autino, A. 2010, What the growth of a space tourism industry could contribute to employment, economic growth, environmental protection, education, culture and world peace, Acta Astronautica, v. 66, pp. 1553-1562.

Unfortunately the article may be behind a paywall if you are not affiliated with a research institute or paying for a subscription. Welcome to science!

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