• April 12, 2020, 11 p.m.

    I have a deep concern about the near future that I'd like to see addressed. Perhaps anyone else here feels the same?
    Suppose all government funding around the globe for space exploration dries up in our post-Covid19 world, leaving the private sector as the only means to advance humanity's presence into space. What will this entail?
    -Continued research and development into space-access technologies that are cheaper and safer than anything we have now. 
    -Crowd-funding. Perhaps much of it may be earmarked for space-access to build a "highway" for thousands and eventually millions of us to emigrate from Earth. (heck, I'd certainly contribute to that endeavor!)
    -Exploration programs will be focused on how the moon and asteroids can be exploited rather than on learning for the sake of knowledge itself.
    -The establishment of off-world mining and manufacturing infrastructure may take precedence over Mars exploration and settlement.

    Has anyone else asked these and related questions? I'm hoping Isaac Arthur can devote perhaps a whole series to this possible scenario.

  • April 17, 2020, 12:52 p.m.

    I too am concerned over the depleted budgets of governments world-wide, and the pressure (and inevitable further funding cuts) on space programs.

    However, I think the era of sole-government funded programs and projects is receding, and already there is a transition either to public / private partnerships or further to full private. The global trend to privatisation is unstoppable and COVID-19 (and it's consequences) I foresee merely accelerates this due to upcoming public debt.

    It is not all bad though, private enterprise has much to offer, in many ways more than government could. There just needs to be a commercial imperative behind everything. Space X is in a way already a direct result of NASA budget cuts, with many NASA engineers now simply working for Space X. Space X has the advantage of being lightweight, lean and optimised for a market.

    Opportunity exists where governments are actually a customer, not a supplier. This is already sometimes the case. Smart companies see future value in this field, and may actually see more government customers as a result of COVID-19 as governments seek to outsource capabilities to reduce debt rather than do them in-house. This may actually be a 'golden era' for private space development and exploration.

  • April 18, 2020, 2:29 p.m.

    I have a feeling that the private sector will be more broke than the governments. The private sector is much more dependent on short-term profit, especially in a depression, and there's nothing short-term about space investment.

    That said, if I were a private business trying to start a space revolution, I would want my operation to pay for itself as quickly as possible. Few investors are willing to take big risks in a bad economy. You will have to start small and grow big, and cut expenses by maximizing efficiency.

    Small and efficient means robots first, people later.

    First cash in on the existing space economy through telerobotic satellite repair. Keep a portable 'garage' in orbit that maintains satellites for a fee, and accumulates a junkyard of dead sats as raw material for eventual in-orbit meltdown and remanufacturing.

    A second, or parallel business model is robotic sample return from the Moon and asteroids. You may scoff, but how much would you pay for a box of raw Moon dirt, sealed in its original vacuum? I would pay $50 for a gram of real Moon rock in a glass paperweight, which alone makes it as valuable as gold, multiplied by thousands of customers. Beyond that though, if you were a corporation interested in prospecting, or a university interested in science, you might pay a lot more for a lot more dirt. It would be a business of just scoop and return. No refining, construction or life support.

    In both of these models the spacecraft can be cubesat-sized, which puts launch costs in the crowdsourcing range, and makes occasional failures survivable.

    After profits, self-invest and start developing on the Moon. Melt and refine regolith, launch bricks of material into low Earth orbit and build absurdly large satellites for cheaper than ever in history. Harvest power, support human life, or whatever else your imagination can dream up.

  • May 16, 2020, 7:30 a.m.

    If the Covid-19 economic down turn becomes so severe that government funding for space exploration ceases, you won't care because you will have much bigger problems on your hands. I'm not worried about space funding ceasing. Economic down turns usually only last a year or two. We will learn to live with Covid-19 and people will go back to work. During the downturn governments are going to be interested in keeping people working. Cutting funding to NASA or canceling the ISS would be counter productive to that end. Stimulus programs might even expand funding for space exploration(write to representatives and tell them you want to see people put to work exploring space!).

  • Feb. 9, 2021, 3:33 p.m.

    If there is no government support, then only things that can bring profit will be sent into space.
    At the moment, these things are telecommunication satellites and some other satellites.
    People would no longer be delivered to space.
    That's all.
    If there was a possibility that something could be mined on other planets profitably, then someone would have done it already.

  • Feb. 11, 2021, 8:21 a.m.

    There is a profit to putting humans in space. It's called space tourism. Once launch costs go down a bit, it does stand to be a multimillion dollar enterprise. Yes, it's not an industrial presence, but it DOES count. Additionally, servicing astronauts is also a way to make money - be they governmental OR private contractors from another company.

    Things are not so simple as that. True, we had the capability to launch enough astronauts and equipment via nuclear propulsion or just a lot of contemporary rockets, but we didn't NEED to, in the case of using chemical rockets. Plus, doing so would cost a lot. In the modern day, and in the near future, the game will change. Robust launch systems like Starship and future technologies should allow for, at first, robotic mining missions, followed by manned ones after the infrastructure is sound enough to support humans. All of this could easily be done by the megacorps of today -- it's just that the tides of chnage are slow. If anything, private companies have more interest in going to space than governments, since they stand to gain the most from mining and the like. Also, compared to governments, many start-up companies would also be compelled to take risks, something that the aerospace industry benefits from. Simply put, if all governmental entities disappeared tomorrow and the world was ruled by cyberpunk-esque megacorps, you may find that not much changes, but a more aggressive policy to space exploration develops based on the needs of the market. The riches in space are incalculable. Sooner or later, a corporation will take note.

  • Feb. 16, 2021, 4:04 p.m.

    As far as I can see now, the main purpose of most launches is to launch satellites into orbit. And any other launches are perceived as a challenge or something similar.
    As for nuclear engines, they have not been implemented since the beginning of their development about 50 years ago.
    Despite the fact that the development of nuclear rocket engines is regularly renewed, it is unlikely that we will see them in real use.

  • Feb. 17, 2021, 7:18 p.m.

    I think that private corporations are usually even more risk-averse than governments, because they are more nervous about their bottom line. So I also don't see privatization in itself as a magic bullet.

    But the big picture is that technology is changing. Even if launch costs remain frozen and institutions remain timid, miniaturization and AI are going to make Moon and asteroid mining increasingly cheap and easy, until potential profits exceed the needed investments.

    So who wants Moon metals? Our existing satellite industry. As long as launch costs are high, building satellites in Earth orbit from in situ materials will make economic sense, once remote control is capable. Northrop Grumman has already developed Mission Extension Vehicles, basically robot sats that fly around repairing other satellites, and there is no reason this won't evolve from repair to fabrication as things get more advanced.

    This creates an economic spiral. More working robots in space means more mining and materials in space, lowering the per-kg cost of objects in space, and more materials means more robots and raw hardware.

    Finally: what good does this do humans? When the launch costs of building a space habitat or ship approach zero, launching a human drops to just the cost of sending his/her flesh. All food, oxygen and shelter are already up there, waiting to be inhabited.

    Also, if the satellite industry creates wealth multipliers on the ground (solar power? rare elements? exotic jewelry?), even more humans will be able to afford to go on top of that.

  • July 31, 2021, 1:50 a.m.

    I feel a lot better about it than government sponsored space travel to be honest. The only places governments have ever gone to stay in space were space stations which having fee crew members at any time and producing a lot of things that can’t have a monetary value easily assigned to them are probably cheaper to ré supply one earth at least on paper. This doesn’t terribly matter because that’s what has been done whether it was cheaper or not.

    A commercial interest will be sending people to stay. Just like an oil rig or remote mining camp while your crew might rotate in and out on a regular basis, the number of people permanently living and working there is constant most of the time. Even on a place as close to the moon this presupposes a need to replicate at least all the services you might find in a small town since any help is three days away whereas a helicopter in an out of one of these locations on earth puts you within a few hours of a major city. Now some things can be done by people wearing two hats so that maybe someone runs a barber shop on the side, but you’ll probably have cafeteria workers, farmers, a doctor, and so on which begins to raise your population quickly. In short order (maybe 20-40 years) you have a town or towns each supporting several camps where the ostensible “real work” is being done.

    Now here’s where things get interesting. A lot of these people aren’t coming back to earth, and the company probably doesn’t want them to anyways since moving stuff in space is still expensive. To keep them happy and more inclined to stay people with significant others and children can probably get all them passage on the company dime. The adults can fill some of the more general purpose jobs even if they have low skills, and the kids will necessitate more adults at the town to run schools. This also ensures that in short order you’re going to have a native population (maybe even a boom but let’s not get distracted). Now your town begins to have its own need for manufactured goods made locally.

    Now okay we need a reason for all this. Helium 3 has been thrown out before, but even regular helium is starting to get pricy because the supply on earth is being run through fairly quickly. Asteroid mining wouldn’t be a bad one because your environmental issues basically go to zero, and while each kilogram might not be worth much even a small asteroid would have vast amounts of kilograms.