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NSRC 2023

asteroid mission illustration
Human expeditions to asteroids or other destinations in the solar system require an enabling, sustainable economic path. (credit: DigitalSpace)

Tobacco and beaver pelts: the sustainable path

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In 2009, the Augustine Committee (officially the Review of US Human Space Flight Plans Committee) presented its report to the White House. Media attention focused on the committee’s apparent preference for a “flexible path.” Instead of the Moon as the destination of choice, this path required a new R&D agenda focusing on the development of improved propulsion systems, closed-loop recycling, in-space refueling, in situ resource utilization, and other engineering objectives to enable long duration journeys beyond low-Earth orbit. Oddly, few seem to have notice the commission’s most audacious finding:

The ultimate goal of human exploration is to chart a path for human expansion into the solar system.

What would it take for humans to expand into the solar system? Certainly not another one-off trek to a celestial orb at the expense of fickle taxpayers, who are themselves represented by members of Congress more concerned with preserving jobs than settling the final frontier. And any preordained destination ignores another bit of sage advice from the committee: “destinations should derive from goals” (and not the other way round).

If our goal really is expansion into the solar system, then that expansion must take root just as firmly as Jamestown and Plymouth Colony once did (eventually) in the early 17th century. This, in turn, implies two essential enabling objectives: physical and economic sustainability. These should drive our thinking about destinations.

The goal of human expansion into the solar system implies two essential enabling objectives: physical and economic sustainability.

In April 2010, President Obama embraced a flexible path… to an asteroid, as a stepping stone to Mars. NASA’s new R&D agenda would focus on the first enabling objective, physical sustainability. Unfortunately, in its efforts to preserve jobs, the US Congress has partially gutted that investment strategy in favor of a heavy lift launch vehicle—with very little idea what to lift—to be developed by well-established corporations at the expense of innovative upstarts like Armadillo Aerospace, Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada, and SpaceX.

While this public-private tug-of-war occupies everyone’s attention, no one is giving much thought to the second objective, economic sustainability. Perhaps most people believe it cannot be achieved. So let us say it now: Without a value proposition to attract private investment, human expansion into the solar system will not be sustainable, so it will never happen. Ever. This implies the need for a new R&D agenda to complement the flexible path’s somewhat stumbling focus on physical sustainability.

Difficult? Yes, but we will never find what we do not seek.

Lest we underestimate the power of private industry to tackle difficult feats of engineering, consider that in 2011 alone, the global oil industry will spend $490 billion on new oil wells, production platforms, and other energy infrastructure. Every year the global mining industry extracts billions of tons of raw material from the Earth’s crust worth trillions of dollars. The global energy industry is worth $5 trillion per year, of which $4.4 trillion comes from coal, oil, and natural gas. If the titans of industry had any rational reason to support human expansion into the solar system they would just say, “make it so.”

What in the world (or, rather, out of this world) could we find in space that has economic value here on Earth? At this point, we can only speculate, but that’s why this is an R&D agenda after all. It might involve energy, or metals and minerals, or something we haven’t thought of yet. This is not to presuppose the outcome, but to propose the need for engineering proof of concept studies, careful cost-benefit analyses, and the development of business plans that highlight key R&D challenges that must be addressed to reduce costs and return value.

This is pure speculation, but if the space advocacy community spent a little less time fighting over destinations and hardware, and a little more time gathering evidence of value, we might actually get somewhere. So what does the world need?

For starters, clean energy, climate change mitigation, and strategic material resources. Space-based solar power and sun shields may be worth exploring. As for material resources, there is some evidence that we have already hit peak gold; we may hit peak phosphorus in 30 to 40 years, and may exhaust the Earth’s crust of readily obtainable antimony, zinc, tin, silver, lead, indium, and copper (to name a few) within 50 years (sooner if economic conditions in developing countries continue to improve at anything close to current rates).

With Congress intent on building rockets-to-nowhere, and space advocates fighting among themselves, we seem to have lost our way completely, especially if we agree that destinations should derive from goals and not the other way round.

This is worth noting: all the metals that we mine today come originally from asteroids delivered to the Earth’s crust during the heavy bombardment phase of its formation, so we are already mining the asteroids. As John Lewis pointed out back in 1997, a relatively small metallic asteroid with a diameter of one mile contains more than $20 trillion worth of industrial and precious metals. And that was at 1997 commodities prices.

Mining the asteroids is not an economically viable option today, nor is space-based solar power. The question is what R&D and engineering innovations are needed to make them viable. Peak theory and speculation on dwindling resources are always controversial, but what economic research is needed to clarify the supposedly pending resource crunch, and what do we need to do to prepare for it if it’s real?

Energy independence, climate change and material resources are all national security issues. As the Augustine Committee noted: “Crucially, human spaceflight objectives should broadly align with key national objectives.” These are the kinds of arguments that we need to marshal for Congress and the public. In the real world, such arguments are far more persuasive than dreams of Moon bases, Mars colonies, or O’Neill habitats financed entirely through the generosity of taxpayers.

Unfortunately, with Congress intent on building rockets-to-nowhere, and space advocates fighting among themselves, we seem to have lost our way completely, especially if we agree that destinations should derive from goals and not the other way round. This may seem a low blow, but our current obsession with Mars and the Moon seems to derive more from science fiction fantasies—and perhaps a primitive desire to walk on a flat surface and know which way is up—than from any rational plan. The Augustine Committee itself noted the cost and difficulty of “travel into the deep gravity wells of the lunar and Martian surface.”

So, to achieve the Committee’s audacious goal of human expansion into the solar system, public investment in human spaceflight today should focus on addressing (1) physical sustainability, (2) economic sustainability, and (3) meeting serious national objectives such as material resource gaps, energy independence, and mitigating climate change. If NASA focused on these objectives, it might seem a lot more relevant than it does now. Destinations will follow, determined by the outcome of these investigations.

Finally, let us take a lesson from our own history. The exploration and settlement of North America was driven by private investment. Investors backed one costly expedition after another. Why? Because they obtained royal charters guaranteeing them monopoly rights to any gold, silver, and precious gems they discovered, and the Northwest Passage if they found that too. Sure they mapped the East Coast, but what the history books don’t tell you is that, year after year, they all failed to achieve their real objective, to make a profit.

The value proposition came from unexpected directions through hands-on testing and trial and error.

During Martin Frobisher’s three miserable expeditions to Northeastern Canada in 1576, 1577, and 1578, his men and ships battled blizzards and icebergs during July and August to bring back tons of black rock. The rocks were thought to contain gold. Investors lost their shirts. Jamestown was settled in 1607, but during its first decade colonists died in droves from starvation and disease in part because their energies were wasted searching for gold and silver. Plymouth Colony (1620) fared somewhat better, but began to thrive only after the pilgrims discovered an unexpected way to make their settlement economically viable.

No early explorer of North America (the Elon Musks of their time) or investor in these endeavors ever imagined what would ultimately make these first colonies sustainable: tobacco in Jamestown, and beaver pelts in Plymouth. Dangerous and addictive substances and the near extermination of species aside, the point is that the value proposition came from unexpected directions through hands-on testing and trial and error.

This is why we need to start now to explore sustainable paths toward human expansion into the solar system. Given our current path toward a global population of nine billion increasingly wealthy consumers here on Earth, these two paths seem bound to converge.