Issue 37, 1 November 2008 -- 39th Apollo Anniversary Year

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(1) Will there be a Space Industrial Revolution?

by Stephen Ashworth

We have clearly entered a prolonged season for prompting some hard thinking about humanity's future direction in space.

Thirteen months ago we had the 50th anniversary of Sputnik [note 1]. More recently there was the 50th anniversary of the establishment of NASA. Next year the 40th anniversary of the first Moon landing will certainly attract much attention. In just two years time, 2 Nov. 2010 should see ten full years of continuous occupation of the ISS, the first space station to achieve this (the record for continuous occupation set on Mir was 9 years 354 days). And on 12 April 2011 we will have completed 50 orbits of the Sun since Yuri Gagarin flew a single one around Earth.

Meanwhile the British Interplanetary Society has embarked on a special study (in which I am a participant) of where spaceflight could be in 2033, the centenary of the foundation of the BIS. This continues the theme of its one-day symposium last April, "Next Steps for Space Infrastructure" [2].

As I think about where we could or should be a quarter century and more from today, I want to contrast two paradigms of future development: Business As Usual versus the Space Industrial Revolution.

The 18th-century Industrial Revolution began in Britain, with the adoption of the factory method of production by Arkwright, the revolution in steam power introducted by Watt and Boulton, and accelerating global trade in cotton, sugar, furs, spices and other commodities. There was what economists regard as a "take-off into self-sustained growth" [3] -- not just simple economic expansion, but a whole variety of factors acting in concert through positive feedbacks to propel society through a quantum leap from one level of activity to a qualitatively different, vastly more active and more complex, one.

Could an analogous transformation of society happen through enterprise in space?

Clearly, a vast resource base of power and raw materials exists in space. And just as global trade and colonisation both demanded and stimulated the new technologies of steam, the telegraph, and ultimately the jet engine and the satellite, so Solar System colonisation will proceed in tandem with maturing technologies in rocket propulsion, life support, and mining, refining and manufacturing in low gravity and vacuum.

I like to think that, whereas the 18th-century Industrial Revolution was characterised by accelerating production of coal and iron, so the Space Industrial Revolution will see accelerating production of solar power and asteroidal water -- these will be its two key strategic industries.

But notice the stark difference with the Business As Usual model espoused by space agency thinking. The peak of the ambition of the Global Exploration Strategy is focused on astronaut exploration of the Moon and Mars -- i.e. on reflying Apollo. The rockets and spacecraft will be bigger, the ultimate target is further away, and the theme will be international collaboration rather than a race, but it is still fundamentally Apollo revisited.

Considering the recent surge of interest in Mars, Alan Bond believes that by 2033 there will be an attempt to get to the Red Planet, as well as a permanent base on the Moon [4].

Well, sorry, Alan -- it would be nice to believe this, but you see the problem is that there are so many distractions on Earth. Governments just don't think of flights to the Moon and Mars as being very important in comparison with issues like energy, climate change, terrorism or social security.

When the demand for more oil and coal runs up against fears of climate change, when a new rogue state or terror gang challenges the West, maybe this time armed with nuclear weapons, when the USA is no longer the sole superpower but merely one among a dozen great powers jockeying for advantage, or when the baby boomers retire and demand pensions and health care, then how much money will be left for the Moon and Mars?

The space agency quandary is aptly illustrated by ESA's recent announcement that ExoMars will be delayed once again -- yet this is a single robotic probe, not remotely approaching a manned exploration mission in size. NASA, too, is being squeezed off the ISS by the gap in prospect between the last Shuttle and the first Orion, and by worsening relations with a reassertive Russia. The idealistic visions are being forced to confront political and economic reality.

Under the Business As Usual pattern, we can expect more grandiose projects of exploration with no practical utility -- modelled on the science, spinoff, inspiration and prestige paradigm -- which are virtually certain to suffer loss of political support and ultimate cancellation. If we are lucky, they will be cancelled after achieving their initial goals, like Apollo or the ISS. If unlucky, they will go the way of the X-33, the Hermès spaceplane, or Buran. But either way, their ultimate impact on the development of civilisation will be minimal.

Isn't it all too plausible that around 2060 a majority of the public will believe that the first manned landings on Mars, which actually took place 30 years earlier, were nothing more than special effects and computer graphics, and that the astronauts never left Earth?

The Space Industrial Revolution pattern is quite different. Here, we envisage projects which tap into terrestrial mass markets for tourism and energy. Tourism on the edge of space at less than a million dollars a head should be demonstrated by Virgin Galactic in a year or two's time -- but note Alan Bond's serious and well-informed reservations about whether SpaceShipTwo will be safe enough to avoid a fatal accident, one which could bring the infant space tourist market juddering to a halt [5]. Meanwhile, space solar power has been extensively discussed in AE this summer.

Assuming that such industries eventually get off the ground and into space in a sustainable way, with space hotels in low Earth orbit and on Earth-Moon transfer orbits, and solar power satellites in geosynchronous orbits, these will create a growing large-scale demand in space for rocket propellants and radiation shielding.

Water is an ideal feedstock for both these applications, and is also likely to be the easiest material to mine from the near-Earth asteroids. Once an asteroid supply line has been set up, launch requirements from Earth are greatly reduced, making both space tourism and space energy cheaper. Turnover goes up, deliveries of asteroidal water accelerate, and extraterrestrial populations in orbit and on the Moon multiply.

Obviously, this only makes sense in a situation of rapid growth, hence the need for mass markets.

At an average growth rate of 20% per annum, a lunar base with four people will grow to a township of a thousand in about 30 years. Another 38 years later, the lunar population will pass the one million mark -- so, starting for example in 2022, this takes us to 2060.

While this timing is perfectly possible -- in the unlikely event that the space agencies reform and decide to collaborate with private industry in opening up spaceflight to mass markets -- a more likely scenario is one in which astropreneurs have to do all the work themselves, delaying the take-off into self-sustained growth to mid-century.

Why should this be so important for the rest of the world?

The fundamental point is that there is enormous room for the expansion of human civilisation in space, provided that asteroidal and planetary materials can be used for space construction and provided that sustainable human life in space can be made possible [6]. There are therefore vast opportunities for exercising human creativity, expanding our resource base (particularly as regards energy) and securing civilisation against even planet-scale wars and natural disasters. Investment in space should pay dividends to the home economy on Earth.

In fact, I would argue that the present state of society should be understood as being half-way through a long-term transition from a low-tech order of life, based on the village and on muscle-power, to a high-tech one, based on the space colony and on nuclear fusion. However, this will get me into trouble with biologists such as Stephen Jay Gould, who assert that there is no direction to evolution ...

If this transition is going to be completed, we will need to see rapid and sustainable growth of industrial output and population sizes in space and on the Moon and Mars.

The next time anyone proposes a lunar or Mars mission, the key question to ask that person will therefore be:

"What growth rate will this programme support, and how will that growth become self-sustainable?"

Meanwhile, this December sees the 40th anniversary of Apollo 8's lunar Christmas, which for a confused teenager called Stephen Ashworth is where it all began. Enjoy.


[1] See a review of Michael Griffin's "Next 50 Years in Space" in AE 21(4), 1 June 2007.

[2] See report in AE 30(1), 1 May 2008, reprinted in Spaceflight, July 2008, p.277-278.

[3] Phrase coined by Professor W. W. Rostow and discussed in Peter Mathias, The First Industrial Nation (Routledge, 3rd edn 2001), p.2.

[4] "A visionary British engineer", Spaceflight, Nov. 2008, p.420-424, on p.424.

[5] "A visionary British engineer", p.423.

[6] See AE 36(3) and (4).

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