By Nicholas Haberling and Lexor Adams
For the last century space has captured the imaginations of people across the world, with the recent resurgence in interest driven by private companies like Space X and Blue Origin. Our current era isn't one of an outer space in the distant future filled with cheap pointy eared aliens or epic lightsaber duels (Wars > Trek), but an era with the potential for the first spacefaring civilization (that we know of heh). In this series we will look at the difficulties humanity has to overcome in the quest to reach the stars and examine some of science fiction's most popular space civilizations. Buckle-in because before we can save colonists from a Xenomorph infestation we need to figure out how to leave our own rock.
Space Travel: A Brief History
As with most endeavors there is a cost to space travel which has served as an economic barrier to further development. To have an idea of what's next and the barriers to progress we need to examine space flight's recent history and cost.
As many of us know, the history of manned spaceflight began before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon; but, we won’t be looking at those early years today. The official reason for this is that until the moon landing it looked like the communists in the Soviet Union were going to win the space race and, as good capitalists, we can't bear to examine a planned economy beating a market economy (jokes of course). Unofficially, it’s been difficult to find individual launch costs for the Mercury and Gemini mission programs. Most of the material we’ve been able to find are estimates for the entirety of the programs. While a simple way of getting around this might be dividing the program cost by the launch cost, that doesn’t seem to be an honest assessment since the launch vehicles appear to have been adopted by NASA rather than actually built for manned spaceflight. We're not historians; but, our research indicates the Mercury and Gemini programs borrowed ICBMs from the US Military and put a pointy tip on them big enough to house a person.
"That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." – Neil Armstrong
If there was a Michael Jordan of manned spaceflight it would have to be the Apollo Program. It has the greatest highlight reel of all time and no one has come close to it since the program ended in 1972. The reason for shutting down the Apollo Missions is a combination of loss of public interest and cost. Rather than seeing the Apollo Missions as a stepping stone to explore more of the Solar System, the American public took the ‘W’ from landing on the moon first and called it good. To be fair the Soviets also accepted the loss and didn’t try to push the Space Race further (perhaps influenced by their collapse). It's interesting to consider where we would be at in terms of space exploration had the competition of the space race continued: many speculate humanity would have stepped foot on Mars already. Without the enthusiastic support of the American people the Apollo Program and its Saturn V rockets began to look like an unnecessary cost. In 1971, each Saturn V rocket, which could not be re-used, cost 110 million dollars. Today that’s 676.8 million dollars gone for every launch.
It was clear that in order to reduce spaceflight costs some method of reusability would have to be developed. This was the genesis of the Space Shuttle Program. While each individual shuttle had a price tag of 1.7 billion dollars, the reusability reduced launch costs to 450 million dollars per launch. Though the Space Shuttle Program does take flak for limiting the range of manned spaceflight, it did set in motion work toward reusability as a way of reducing the cost of space exploration. It should also be noted the space shuttle program contributed powerfully to science in the form of support of the International Space Station and other programs like the Hubble Space Telescope.
That brings us to today’s modern space program. At the moment, SpaceX is everyone’s favorite posterchild for the exploration of space. They have a contract with NASA to carry supplies to the International Space Station and CEO Elon Musk actively talks about their goal to send people to Mars. But, what sets them apart from their competitors is that SpaceX has demonstrated it can launch rockets and recover them for reuse. This has resulted in a launch cost of 62 million for the Falcon 9 and 90 million dollars for the Falcon Heavy. While neither of these include the cost of launching a human into space yet, it is clear that re-use introduces extreme cost savings. SpaceX's solutions (and re-usable rocket technology in general) are far more affordable than the legacy space program's.
What's the Point?
Some of you may be thinking, “This is an interesting history lesson; but, what’s the point?” A space economy relies on humanity being an interplanetary civilization and, in the more extreme science fiction cases, interacting with other advanced species. This leads to the question: why are we not an inter-planetary species right now? In our opinion it comes down to the oft-repeated axiom of cost vs benefit.
This could be put as the following equation, saying the number of space missions conducted is a function of the existing technology (which determines the cost) and the perceived benefits.
Space Exploration = ƒ(existing technology, perceived benefits)
If humanity was desperate for resources or facing impending doom, the perceived benefits of space exploration would increase, and launching shuttles and mining vehicles into the stars for half a billion dollars might be a worthwhile endeavor. But, governments and private citizens have decided up to now the costs outweigh the benefits. Until the economic (or science/humanitarian) benefits of going to space are greater than the costs, it's unlikely significant moves in space exploration will be made. That said, reusable rockets are rapidly shifting the numbers in this equation. As the existing technology increases and corresponding costs decrease, it's more likely space exploration and travel will be invested in.
There's an element of positive feedback here. The research done in propulsion, re-usable rockets, and other fields will greatly reduce the cost of space flight and in turn increase the potential for gain...which will generate more research interest toward space travel and exploration, leading to further reduced costs. We are at a point where the ball has started rolling and the cost will increasingly decrease and more research dollars will be put into space exploration. The fact that in the last 10 years we witnessed the end of the Space Shuttle program (the last launch was Atlantis on July 8, 2011) and the private development of re-usable rockets routinely carrying payloads to the International Space Station is astounding. It shows that as government interest and the perceived benefits of space travel has waned, private interest has picked up at an even greater rate.
We hope this article has piqued your interest. In summary, the cost of space flight has been prohibitive until our current time. While it's pure speculation, asteroid mining and other space ventures could be economically viable in our lifetime. It's also plausible that in our lifetime the cost of space travel will decrease to the point the perceived benefits from a scientific or environmental perspective outweigh the monetary costs.
This sets the stage for the potential of humanity to become a multi-planet civilization, and perhaps in the distant future, inhabit planets around the galaxy. This series will be wide ranging, at times concrete, examining the state of space exploration today. At times more abstract, looking at practical considerations of a galactic economy a la Star Wars or Star Trek: addressing topics like currency, exchange rates, and governance of multi-planet civilizations. (Teaser: tariffs and smuggling may be addressed...any Han Solo fans? And yeah, if the Han Solo movie isn't good we're closing the website. Not really.)