Friday, March 15, 2013

A Trip Into Space - The Politics and Economics of a Space Community

In this series about that which has value in space development, I began you on a trip into space.

I have presented the value of a space station in equatorial orbit, understanding motion sickness, and developing the technology to build a modular rotating habitat.

Since then, I left you sitting in an observation room at 0.6 x normal earth gravity, on the inside rim of a bicycle tire in space. The tire is 2 kilometers in diameter, with spokes from the non-rotating hub to the wheel. From your perspective, the non-moving station arches across the top of the sky, while the Earth, moon, sun, and other stars rotate around a full circle every 80 seconds.

You might see "ballast" on the spokes. These are heavy weights that can be pulled up to the center or lowered to the rim. These computer-controlled weights keep the station balanced. They can also be used to speed up the rotation (by drawing them closer to the hub), or slowing the rotation (by dropping them closer to the rim).

How is this community governed?

Political ideologies aside, we already know the form of government that will rule the first space communities. It will be governed like a ship. There will be a captain with near dictatorial powers, answerable to an earth-based authority. That earth-based authority will likely be a nation-state (e.g., China), a company (e.g., Bigalow Aerospace), or an international treaty-based organization. She will command a crew that makes up a substantial percentage of the occupants of the community. Everybody else will be passengers.

The rule of the station will be to obey the Captain in all things - and to obey the crew as they would the Captain. In the end, the Captain will have to demonstrate that there is some sense in which her commands were relevant to securing the safety or profitability of the ship and its crew and passengers. However, she will be given wide discretion in determining how to promote security, but profitability will be determined by the number at the bottom of the balance sheet.

If we are looking for an earth-based analog to what life would be like on board an orbiting station, perhaps the modern cruise ship would be best.

The passengers make the space station possible. It is from their pockets that the money comes to pay the salaries and other bills. "Crew" fits in the category of expense - and there will be pressure to keep the expenses as low as possible. On average, they will have very deep pockets. Space stations will cater to the very rich - people who have the money to do whatever they please. Those who are not spending their own money are spending corporate money on that which they hope to sell to others who have money, or they are spending government money extracted from the taxpayer. Potential items of value will include engineering research, medical research, zero-gravity (or low-gravity) manufacturing, space-based solar power, and communication services.

At this point, we need to introduce another relevant economic fact that is often overlooked. It has to do with the economic effects of differences in wealth.

In determining what type of goods and services to pursue, the space station management organization needs to look at who has - or who can acquire - money that they can be convinced to spend. This involves looking not only at who has the wealth - but who has wealth above and beyond that which they need to provide for the basics of such as food, water, and rudimentary medical care.

While the top 1% may personally own over 30% of the world's wealth, they own substantially more than 30% of that wealth that they can afford to spend after paying for food, shelter, and medical care. Consequently, an orbiting space community (indeed, all economic activity) is best aimed at serving the interests of the wealthiest people on the planet. The effect of unequal wealth distribution is to pull a great deal of economic activity away from serving the interests of those who have more and stronger desires but an inability to pay, and towards the fulfillment of fewer and weaker desires of those with an excessive ability to pay.

I am not saying anything at this point about the ethics of this fact. However, it is a fact. Wealth differences result in an economy that directs resources away from fulfilling the more and stronger desires of those who have less wealth and toward the fulfillment of the fewer and weaker desires of those who have greater wealth. Wealth differences exist. A real-world space station must be built in recognition of real-world facts or it will fail.

To reduce this post to its most basic point - the problems we experience on earth will not vanish above the stratosphere. The orbiting space station will have its own issues to deal with. There will be issues concerning the tradeoff between safety and cost. There will be under-paid and over-worked workers. There will be vast amount of resources devoted to fulfilling the fewer and weaker desires of those with wealth over the more and stronger desires of those who cannot pay. There will be problems with abuse of power. There will be rapes, murders, theft, and abuse.

At the same time we do research on the engineering problems that will be faced in a space station, the social and political problems deserve some of our attention as well.

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