Thursday, May 14, 2009

Final Frontier 6: Low Earth Orbit Economics

I am arguing this week that human survival requires the development of space, and that a love of adventure in and exploration of are virtues that we have many and strong reasons to promote. Without them, the human race itself is at risk.

As a part of this, I am offering some descriptions of what life in space will be like. We already know that it will be different than what most people imagine. It makes little sense to inspire a younger generation to reach for the stars if we do not give them a somewhat accurate idea of what they are reaching for. In fact, false expectations could well be counter-productive, leading to disappointment and disillusionment.

In the last two posts I have gotten a character into space and onto an orbiting space station. I have offered some description on what the laws of physics will demand from us in building this station. However, the laws of economics will be just as important as the laws of physics. Businesses will become concerned with costs.

Space farers will soon adopt the policy that, "What goes up must stay up." It takes a lot of energy to accelerate a given unit of mass to speeds above 17,000 miles per hour. And heat shields and rockets have a lot of mass. Once you have put all that energy into getting this material on the 'top shelf' (in orbit) there is good reason to want to keep it there.

For example, one of the things our main character will likely see is that the ship that brought her into space is not going back to Earth. It was built to stay in space, where one of three things will happen to it.

1. It will become a passenger craft for ferrying people around in space. Our low-earth-orbit station may be the only facility in its general area, but it will not be the only facility in space. After all, our main character still needs to get to her final destination – a station in low earth orbit.

2. It will become a module on an existing space station - living space or storage space or a new laboratory. These ships will be designed to be easily converted by removing the seats and installing equipment relevant to its new use.

3. It will become mothballed and stored in high orbit, It will stay there (indefinitely) until used.

We cannot leave things in orbit now because residual fuels become unstable and explode, contributing to the already dangerous cloud of orbiting space junk Our low-orbiting space station will have a crew that will enable us to stop that wasteful practice.

The biggest demand for return trips will come from tourists. Naturally, people who pay to come to the station for a week of rest and relaxation will want to return home when the week is done. There will still be a demand for return trips. However, this does not change the fact that, wherever possible, three are good economic reasons to kaap what has been sent into space in space.

Our station will almost certainly have a couple of pods devoted to agriculture – the growing of fresh fruits and vegetables. These can be raised in controlled environment free of pests and with permanent access to sunshine so that a plot of land can be used year-round. A couple of these pods devoted to farming will produce a lot of food all year round.

Agriculture will be part of a recycling process whereby the pod produces food which is used to feed the people, whose waste products are returned to the agricultural pod to grow the next crop of vegetables. It will also turn exhaled carbon dioxide into oxygen, and be used as a part of the process for recycling water.

One thing that we already know about a space society is that it will not be a “disposable” society. There will be a huge economic incentive for recycling technology. That technology, used and developed in space, could be of tremendous value to the people living on earth as well.

The cheapest commodity to import to and export from a space station is, of course, information – little bits of data that can be packaged up and sent either up or down with very little energy. This will give data streams a significant comparative advantage over material goods. There will be no difficulty importing music, broadcast entertainment, software, or instructions into orbit.

As a result, people who can make a living on the manipulation of data can live in space. Writers, stock brokers, lawyers, graphic artists, game designers and programmers, many business executives, can all find a home in space and stay there, making money the whole time. Data-manipulators will likely be a disproportionately large percentage of the community, and are the types of people who can make a permanent home for themselves in space.

Another commodity that the space station can provide is a safer way to research communicable diseases. Currently, we store batches of some of the most potentially fatal diseases on Earth to study. There are a number of safeguards to prevent these diseases from escaping into the population. A few more safeguards would not hurt. An isolated station in space may provide just such a safeguard.

Of course, there will be the engineers and maintenance crews, the ‘farmers’ and others who will work to keep the place functioning smoothly and growing the station.


Tommykey said...


It looks like you left out #2.

Of course, the problem of space debris will have to be dealt with before we can further develop these ideas.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

But (2) WAS there, I promise! It has been resurrected.

Orbital debris is a problem that will affect design. It is not something that 'will have to be dealt with before we can further develop these ideas.' It is one of the background facts that we will have to deal with - like air and water pollution on earth. It is not a show-stopper, but is something that does require regulatory and punitive action.