On the way to new space locations and the use of commercial opportunities there – A realistic vision of the future or a perspective that can hardly ever become reality?
In recent months, commercial entrepreneurs for flights into space generated quite a lot of furor: after decades of disappointment due to the lack of progress, various private sector groups have in recent years managed to bring space travelling back to the forefront. In fact, many financial analysts now believe that commercial developments in the space industry are on the verge of launching the biggest resource rush in history: mining on the moon, Mars and asteroids. Is this really something that is already upon us in the next few years (investors‘ horizons rarely go much further)?
Indeed, different private companies like for example Tesla founder Elon Musk’s company SpaceX have finally (for the first time since the end of the space shuttles) launched American astronauts into space from American soil – the Kennedy Space Center – if only for a few minutes. The revolutionary thing about it was that the astronauts were in part ordinary people, i.e. not top-trained astronauts. Somewhat more discreetly, another large private space company called Blue Origin is funded by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos at the level of a billion dollars a year (he can easily afford this, as he is considered the richest person in the world). This company also briefly flew ordinary people into space, including Jeff Bezos himself. And a third company, founded by another billionaire, Richard Branson, has also been able to send tourists – equally including Richard Branson himself – on short suborbital flights: Virgin Galactic. Incidentally, Virgin Galactic is the first space company to be listed on the stock exchange and reached all-time highs between February and June 2021 with valuations of around 13 billion US dollars, before plummeting to almost a tenth of this value in less than a year – thus reaching the all-time low for the recent years. Many investors are asking: Is this perhaps already the end of the excitement about the new private space vehicles?
The excitement generated by Musk, Bezos and Branson about these flights is only the spectacular and publicly marketed part of using their rockets. In fact, private rockets fly into near-Earth space every few weeks to supply the space station or launch new satellite systems, since governments hardly ever fly rockets any more. There are currently about 5’700 active satellites orbiting the Earth, more than 10’000 have already retired and are now (not entirely harmless) space junk floating around the Earth (every now and then one crashes back to Earth). Since this is anything but spectacular, it is hardly talked about publicly. But this is exactly how the private rocket companies earn their money.
Yet the three billionaire’s companies are only three among many providers. Companies like the United Launch Alliance of Lockheed Martin and Boeing or the European Ariane Space also offer their services on this market. In addition, new providers emerging are crowding ever new launch sites around the world. A large part of the satellites launched by the rockets collect data in near-Earth space, a few hundred to one thousand kilometers away, for example for online maps that can be used to track our movements on our mobile phones down to the meter, for weather observations and forecasts, for collecting environmental data and even for espionage. This can generate a total turnover of 400 billion dollars per year, which is expected to increase dramatically in the next few years. And it looks like there will soon be another several thousand mini-satellites with the size of a coffee machine and increasingly specialized capabilities such as functions to monitor farmers‘ fields for fertilizer and water. However, all these have very little to do with the more distant space travel that entrepreneurs like Elon Musk so excitingly postulate.
What does promise to be another business is near-Earth tourism. The view of the earth from space alone is spectacular. But can one really expect so much here? The price of such a trip is likely to remain very high for many years and even decades to come, as the expense of the flight, the food and the necessary preparations of the tourists to move in the gravity-free environment will remain at extremely high levels for the foreseeable future. It still costs tens of thousands of euros for every kilogram that has to overcome the Earth’s gravity! Moreover, rocket launches into space have never been a routine operation until today, like launching an airplane. There are still significant risks involved with each start.
But in the meantime, the necessary financial resources for space travel are increasingly being invested by private hands in private space companies. Whereas in 2009 the financial resources stood at just under one billion dollars, ten years later it was already six billion dollars. 40-60 years ago, the governments, especially the respective military complexes, were still the only investors in space travel. Today, private space enthusiasts are already talking about projects on the moon in order to be permanently present there and to prepare further flights from there, first to Mars, the planet closest to Earth, but then perhaps further (it takes many months to get to Mars, even when he is closest to us, and the same amount to come back; are people able to stand through manage that?).
Interesting on the moon that astronauts already stepped on are commercial features such as the presence of rare earths and helium-3. The latter is an isotope of regular helium that could be interesting as a basis for the possible energy source of the future – nuclear fusion. In fact, three private companies have already been contracted by NASA to develop a human lunar lander: SpaceX, Blue Origin and Dynetics (part of Leidos, formerly known as Science Applications International Corporation). Another obvious mining target for rare materials are asteroids, which race through the solar system carrying varying amounts of rare earth metals and other materials. However, most of these lie between Mars and Jupiter, quite a bit further than Mars and therefore certainly out of our reach for quite some time. Furthermore, most planetary mining targets in space have little or no atmosphere and are therefore subject to extreme temperature fluctuations between shade and sunlight. This makes mining there dangerous, both from unrestricted solar radiation as well as from cosmic rays that threaten electronics – not to mention human health. Concerning asteroids, they fly very fast and are thus only accessible for short amounts of time.
If we take a closer look at technological developments in recent years, we see that space designers have made rather little progress in rocket technology compared to the technology of the 1960s and 1970s. The big breakthrough to massively reduce the current cost of a commercial launch is hardly in sight. While in today’s economy we are used to everything becoming cheaper when it becomes a widely used standard product, the costs of space travel are dominated by a variable that will not change in the future: the Earth’s gravity. This does not know any discounts that kick in over time. The 1000th flight into space needs just as much energy as the first. So what is required is a revolutionary new technology to get into and through space sufficiently cheaply to make the expansion of space technology attractive. But there has never been such a thing in space travel in its 60 years to date. Here, technology has moved extremely slowly towards lower costs until now.
Could the „New Space“ projects of billionaires like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos or Richard Branson have far more to do with the Earth’s environment than the name suggests? Yet in 2016 Elon Musk said with optimism for life on another planet and pessimism for life on Earth:
„There are two fundamental paths. One path is: we stay on Earth forever and then there will be some eventual extinction event. (…) The alternative is to become a spacefacing civilization, and multi-planetary species. I hope you agree with me – that is the right way.“
This is somehow strongly reminiscent of illusions that already existed in the 19th century. In his 1865 novel „From the Earth to the Moon“, for example, Jules Verne described a spaceship in which two Americans, a Frenchman, two dogs and various chickens reach outer space. And as early as the early 17th century, Johannes Kepler spoke of a trip to the moon to promote the scientific truth of the Copernican world: In 1608, the father of astrophysics described in his story „Somnium“ how the Earth should appear from the Moon. But it was already clear to Kepler that it would take a tremendous force to overcome earthly gravity.
Today, man-made space probes (without passengers) have flown around every planet in our solar system to increase our knowledge of the universe. At the same time, their near-Earth siblings have long become indispensable in our daily lives. We can no longer imagine life without the benefits of satellite technology. But does this automatically make it easier to reach distant planets? There is a reason why a common joke in the space industry is that the best way to become a millionaire in space travel is to start as a billionaire. But with all the challenges today, one has to ask: Besides the various challenges, is space mining – along with the associated exploration and industrialization – not coming soon anyways? For that to happen, we would need a massive technological leap. The past in so many areas shows us that such development can indeed happen.
(There will be a modified version of this text at the company The Singularity Group, https://singularity-group.com/, of which Lars Jaeger is advisor and has access to expert talks on subjects and gets exposed to interesting views of the status quo and likely future of various technologies. This article, however, rests on publicly available data)