Yesterday, the great Andrew Leon wrote a blog post about why we have to move out into the solar system. It’s a post about dreaming big, and about cats - but lately most of his posts involve cats in some way. Of course that reminds me of the story of John Scalzi and his experiment of combining the two largest internet memes for a post by strapping a bunch of bacon to his cat and taking pictures.
So, I think Andrew is trying to get the cat people engaged in space exploration – well played, Andrew, well played.
Now, as I’ve lamented in the past, I don’t really have the time to blog properly, well, I do have time I suppose, but that is time that I tend to spend doing other things, reading, writing, artsy stuff, whatever. I think I’m proving with each and every post that I could never be a journalist, or columnist, or reviewer.
But I can be a rambler. No links, not citations, just me saying stuff. Yes, that is my call in this world.
So, where what I? Oh yes, our call to action. To dream of the stars.
I’ve spent a lot of my time in the past decade or three thinking on this topic. Of reading on this topic, and here are my thoughts:
We will never get off our planet in a meaningful way. Ever.*
Why? The bottom line is that it’s all about money. Even with a fortune in minerals out there locked up in Near Earth Asteroids (should be enough iron, gold, nickel, etc., to wreck virtually every market we have here on earth) there is the startup costs of getting out there. Right now it’s in the neighborhood of $2,000 or $3,000 per pound for SpaceX (about $10k per pound in the space shuttle days) just to get something into low earth orbit. Doing some quick math means that getting mining equipment (and workers) to something that might be millions of miles away (instead of 220) is going to cost well into the billions, and possibly into the trillions, of dollars. Since the first moon landing the U.S. has stopped throwing unlimited resources at space exploration. That well has all but dried up.
Cost to get here? Many Millions of Dollars
And what company is going to put up tens of billions or more in startup costs for something like this? Not any publicly held companies, that’s for sure. No private companies have the capital even if they wanted to. We may get orbiting hotels made meteor resistance balloons, and other one-off events from corporate endeavors, but real cutting edge exploration… I doubt that we’ll ever see it done without governments subsidizing the thing.
That leaves governments. The U.S. spends almost nothing on space exploration,** when compared to social services or defense, you can’t even see the NASA budget on a graph. Yet they are on the chopping block every year as ‘pork’ that needs to be cut out of the budget.
Cost of Getting Here? GAJILLIONS of Dollars!
That means they spend year after year making ludicrous promises as to what they can deliver and giving projections for spending that is a fraction of what they actually need. The space shuttle was a total disaster from the beginning if you look at what they promised, a launch per month at a cost per pound that was unheard of, you’d see why folks in congress don’t like NASA accountants very much. Something similar happened with the ISS (International Space Station), the U.S. committed to it internationally, then got stuck funding it later when other nations *coughrussiacough* decided not to. Add to that the cost overruns that were billions and billions of dollars, and we have this huge floating money pit in space.
And NASA has done this with almost every project it’s been a part of since Apollo. They seem to be hoping that congress will engage in that gambler’s mentality of being so financially committed that they don’t stop the funding for fear of losing everything.
And the budget gets cut almost every year, it’s not like they’re fooling anyone.
So I don’t think the governments of the world will enable us to be living in L5 habitats, or domed cities on Mars, or floating cities over Venus. If there is a hope, it’s that within the next 50 years that we can build a space elevator. We don’t have the materials science down to actually build the darned thing, but we’re close. If the world could have a joint location that they agreed upon and all the powers that be contribute to defray costs, then we might have a way to reach orbit cheaply. From there, the rest is easy.
Then, the dreamers that Andrew talked about can have their chance. Then we get the old west type of land grants and such that makes exploration and migration really possible. Much has been made of how China once had a naval fleet that was the envy of the world, then within a generation they dismantled it and spent the next few centuries looking inward and dealing with problems at home. When the europeans rolled in much later they found folks that were a mere shadow of their ancestors. I think I’ve made the comparison here on this blog myself and won't belabor the point. Instead, I'd like to put a positive spin on it - I’d like to think that we went to the moon before just to see if we could, but the next time we go, we’re not pulling a stunt, but will be going to live.
*I didn’t mean that.
** Alastair Reynolds, my favorite sci-fi author, states that we spend more on chocolate than we do space exploration. We get an astounding bang for our buck with NASA, the ESA, etc., I don’t mean to give these guys too hard a time, I’m generally shocked at the awesome missions that are completed by them – mostly robotic – but that is beside the point here, which is HUMAN exploration.