Entering the Space Age
While I absolutely agree with FuturePundit that we are not yet in the space age, I do disagree with him about what it will take to get there.
We entered the jet age decades ago. To enter a space age in the same sense in which we entered the jet age would require much cheaper energy to power the rockets, better propulsion systems for moving between planets, and an assortment of technological advances to make a space colony viable on another planet or moon. So we aren’t in the space age yet.
No, I’m not sure that we do need any of these technologies. At the $100 per pound price point that he describes earlier in the article, a lot of things already begin to change. The energy systems we have are actually incredibly cheap. The propulsion technology that we have is fine. We basically have most of the tech that we actually need to make colonies viable on other planets.
What we don’t have at all is space infrastructure. I hinted at this some with a few throwaway lines in “The Fourth Fleet,” but there’s a whole lot more detail that could be had. As Robert Heinlein famously said, once you’re in orbit you’re halfway to anywhere.
To put it more simply: the amount of energy it takes to get into low Earth orbit (LEO) is staggeringly huge. But once you’re there, it takes a whole lot less energy to go anywhere else. Note that the same general statement applies if you’re leaving any other planet or moon.
At $100 a pound, a lot of things become economically feasible that haven’t been in the past. And some of the most important things that become feasible are infrastructure. Right now, there is absolutely no infrastructure for doing anything outside of LEO – and there’s not really much infrastructure in place for LEO, either.
Start with LEO, where there actually is some infrastructure. NORAD is there to track everything around you and alert you to dangers. In a sense, there’s a kind of rudimentary “air traffic control” there. But it’s very rudimentary, and that’s not really it’s mission. Existing GPS units probably don’t, but one could build GPS receivers that provide adequate services in LEO. The GPS satellites orbit in geosynchronous orbits that are far higher, so you’d still be able to work the math out right. And there’s at least one orbital space station up there right now, even though its capacity is trivial.
Outside of LEO there’s none of that. No orbital stations, no navigational systems, no traffic control, no debris tracking. Nevermind all the other infrastructure you’d want for true solar system exploration. What kinds of things would you want?
- Navigational systems, as I mentioned above. Ideally you’d want satellites in position to give precise navigation throughout the entire solar system. That’s not happening for a long time, though. In the shorter term you’d want an array of satellites that would provide accurate positioning on the moon, Mars, and the moons of Mars. Something that could give you accurate positioning between Earth and the moon, and also between Earth and Mars would also be nice – although the latter would be far more ambitious than the former.
- Orbital stations. These are essential. You’d need them for refueling and resupply (more on this in a minute), transferring to other vessels (more on this in a minute, too), layover stops, and even tourist destinations in their own right.
- Regular supply runs to the orbital stations. Remember, you don’t have to carry everything you need with you on the same vessel that you leave on yourself. To borrow FuturePundit’s own analogy, why take your food with you on your space shuttle when it would be far cheaper to ship it up separately on cargo-only supply vessels? Anything that doesn’t have to be human rated is going to be far cheaper to launch.
- Specialized Ferry Vessels. Continuing that thought, why would you travel all the way to the moon on the same vessel you used to get to LEO? You wouldn’t – that’s not efficient at all. What you’d want to do is use a booster of some kind to get up to an orbital station in LEO, then you’d transfer to another vessel – say, an Earth/Moon ferry – for the trip to another station orbiting the moon. Need to land? You’d change vessels again to shuttle down to the surface. Specialized construction of the vessels makes them a far cheaper to construct, test, build and launch.
- Orbital Construction Yards. Why build it on the Earth and then launch it? You run into massive size restrictions as you hit maximum capacity of existing boosters. And with all current tech, there’s a certain size booster that hits maximum price efficiency for a launch. Use those boosters and launch the raw materials. Manufacture the craft in space. But to do this, you need orbital construction capabilities.
- Non-Terran Supply Sources. Why get all your supplies from Earth? Blasting ten tons of fuel up into LEO is expensive! Why not go mine some asteroids and process the fuel in space? If you run unmanned vehicles out and use them to haul the asteroids back for processing, the amount of fuel necessary is far less than trying to launch it from here. But again, you need regular suppliers out there doing it. And you also need…
- Orbital Processing Facilities to process the raw materials you harvest from asteroids into usable substances like water and fuel.
- Orbital Food Production. If you have water and energy, you can grow your own food in space or on colonies. No need to ship it from Earth.
None of this has happened yet, but all of it could happen with currently existing tech. We don’t need any major science breakthroughs. The only thing we’re really missing is the key to all of it: reliable, regular, and affordable transit to Low Earth Orbit. $100 a pound is still expensive. But it’s a price point at which some or all of the things listed above will begin to be built, because there will be a market for them. As more of the things above come online, more entrepreneurs will step up to begin creating the others – and charging for them.At $100 a pound, a person could take a trip to LEO for about the price of an average car. That’s a price that’s still too high for people to take regular trips. But an awful lot of people – not rich people, but moderately affluent – would pay to make that trip once or twice in their lifetimes. And remember: the key to cheaper LEO transit is not the propulsion technology. Fuel is a very small portion of the cost of a rocket launch. It’s primarily human factors. As the launches become more frequent, they will also become cheaper. This was the original promise of the Space Shuttle – a promise that was never delivered upon. But this wasn’t a flaw in our current engineering capabilities or known science. It was the fact that government employees and contractors, given the chance, always opted to make everything more expensive rather than cheaper. As for-profit businesses become sustainable, they’ll be looking for every way possible to cut costs.I don’t expect to see all of the above items in my lifetime. But I do expect to see at least some of them forming. As FuturePundit notes, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 should get the price point down to $250 per pound. I suspect that within 10 years that price will cut in half again – if not by SpaceX then by somebody else. And again in another 10 years.Key point: the technology industry didn’t witness massive price/performance changes because tech was improving so fast. OK, that was part of it. But the bigger reason was that it started out as an incredibly immature industry. Look at what Ford did to the price of automobiles. Space is likewise an immature industry. When it begins to grow, look for it to explode