Oh no, space capitalists are coming!

Part of the series on countering misconceptions in space journalism.

A timely reminder that this blog features only my own lousy opinions, but presented in the spirit of asking useful questions, promoting fruitful dialog, and becoming less wrong over time.

A surprisingly common trope in space journalism features a narrative with one or more of the following parts:

  1. Motivated by a base desire for yet more money,
  2. Evil billionaires from Silicon Valley are building
  3. Mines on asteroids/the Moon, or
  4. Post-apocalyptic bunkers on Mars, which will
  5. Ruin everything forever.

While I freely acknowledge the excellent intentions of people who propagate these narratives, I intend to provide a bit of perspective here. Also, much to my regret this post is not about the struggles of space capitalists attempting to twirl their mustaches in a space suit. Similarly, the capitalist/communist battle in the space race is a topic for another time.

1 – Commercial uses of space are peaceful uses of space

Space exploration has always been enormously expensive. I was surprised to learn (from Alex McDonald, now the Chief Economist at NASA) that prior to the invention of the ICBM, space exploration through telescopes was primarily funded by private philanthropy. Neal Stephenson’s apt summary of the invention of orbital rocket technology reminds us that to this day, the driving uses of physical space exploration are funded by military budgets.

But what of the legal status of commercial space endeavors? Unlike my sister Annie Handmer, I am not an expert by any means, but the Outer Space Treaty does allow and protect some (most?) commercial uses of space. Making money in space is a forcing function for peace in space. Indeed, economic interdependence and growth embodied in the post WW2 unification of French and German steel markets was the genesis of the EU and Europe’s subsequent and entirely unprecedented 75 years of peace. Simply put, greed beats violence if business is good.

So when we think of the next Microsoft or Google potentially making billions in space, not only could they do so only by making useful products for regular consumers, which is a nice variation on the usual blank check black budgets kind of business. Not only will they be normalizing peaceful uses of space, they’ll be increasing and distributing the cost of breaking the peace.

2 – Billionaires are an edge case side effect of an economic system that does incredible good

There are about 2600 billionaires in the world. How many can you name? In almost all cases, billionaires are people (usually very old white men) who own chunk(s) of companies (or countries) that have become very valuable, almost always by generating a lot of wealth for their customers. In my opinion, it’s better to tax wealth than to take more drastic measures, such as forcibly nationalizing any company that grows beyond a certain size.

I’m always wary of narratives that begin with an implicit assumption that some kinds of people are inherently evil. It feels divisive. Yes, there are plenty of billionaires (and even some mere centi-millionaires) who exploit their possibly ill-gotten wealth to evade tax and exert outsize influence in their political systems. But for too large a slice of liberal intelligentsia (my people), “Silicon Valley” and “billionaire” are lazy pejoratives that can stymie considered conversation on the actual issues.

So Musk, Bezos, Branson, Allen, Carmack, and a few others want to plough millions of their own dollars into speculative ventures that in some cases actually turned out rather well. Would you prefer they spent their money funding politically extreme think tanks or building giant yachts? Building rockets is a thankless task – literally the best way to turn a big fortune into a small fortune.

3 – Mines are part of life

In an ideal world we’d be immortal geniuses who live on air and sunlight and excrete poetry, but the reality is humans are born ignorant and mewling into a universe that evolved the species terrified and on the edge of starvation. After ten thousand or so generations of early, painful, preventable death we’ve managed to invent technology that largely solves hunger, pain, and tooth decay. But technology needs materials, and so we have to dig holes in the ground.

It is preferable to dig cleaner holes in boring places than to strip mine areas of exceptional natural beauty or biodiversity, and so in developed nations mines are generally developed in accordance with environmental protection regulations.

There are two ways to reduce the demand for newly mined material. One is to de-industrialize and back slide into eternal universal poverty of mind, body, and spirit. The other is to continue to develop manufacturing and recycling technology to improve material efficiency. To build greater wealth with less raw material extracted from the crust. This second approach also has other advantages, like poverty reduction and an open-ended future for humanity.

Indeed, in the developed world per capita resource utilization has fallen about 20% since 2000, a substantial improvement. Due in part to improved fuel efficiency and the 2008 financial crisis, material usage has also been drastically reduced by the ongoing advances of the computer industry.

Nevertheless, if mines must exist, I would prefer they be carved out of some otherwise unremarkable Moon crater than even some boring stretch of the Australian outback. Unfortunately for my preferences on this matter, space mining is a terrible business. Similarly,space-based solar power is a terrible idea. Next generation internet communications satellites are another matter, as I addressed in my previous blog.

4 – The Earth is where it’s at

There are many articles about paranoid rich (and not rich, but still paranoid) people building bunkers in, say, New Zealand, to escape the end of the world. Although I’ve never seen an industry expert advocate for extending this principle to space, it is a subplot of the Christopher Nolan film Interstellar and for some reason the idea that, say, Musk or Bezos or Branson is planning to escape to Mars when the world is ruined is a very common trope in media. Of course they say otherwise but then they would, wouldn’t they?

I reckon that when you join the billionaire club hundreds of High Net Worth Individual Sales Specialists come out of the woodwork and, knowing rich people are just as gullible as anyone else, try to sell you things. These include private security, gated mansions, blood filtration, blood transfusion, bunkers, helicopters, jets, submarines, parties, and so on.

Useless bunkers in New Zealand are a symptom of nothing more ominous than paranoid  rich people who are unduly afraid of their inevitable and probably impending death by natural causes. I mean, there’s a bunker for the family and also one next door for the private jet pilot’s family. No mention given to the necessity for modern supply chains to survive more than a few months.

While New Zealand is actually rather lovely, space is about as hostile an environment as you can imagine. The nicest place in space is so much more hostile than the nastiest place on Earth it’s hard to describe. Living on Mars (in a bunker or otherwise) is more difficult than living on the summit of Mount Everest after walking there blindfolded from Cape Town.

SpaceX has talked about needing more than a million people on Mars, in order to build the necessary industrial base casually omitted by bunker-builders. This can only be done with a healthy and supportive Earth, over hundreds of years!

5 – Blanket pessimism and anger are not your friends

Since the dawn of persistent writing (and probably before then) it has been fashionable in certain circles to predict imminent doom. It pings all the right parts of the amygdala, it creates a feeling of bonding in the face of adversity. It is, as any user of Twitter knows, addictive.

And yet, since we’re in the business of building things and improving the world, I want to emphasize that reflexively finding faults and reverting to anger are not useful states of mind for solving problems.

Any sufficiently gnarly project will require the coordination of at least hundreds of strangers, each specialists in their own sub-discipline. This is so hard for humans to accomplish that something like 75% of projects budgeted at over a billion dollars fail to meet their objectives.

Since we’d rather be part of the minority that succeeds, we have to face the facts. On our team will be a decent number of weirdos with grievous personality defects, not to mention just regular people who make mistakes from time to time. To form a club around pointing out problems and predicting doom is too easy. To suspect, hate, and stovepipe the organization is all too natural. If we want to succeed, we need to find a way to get the best out of each individual, no matter how humanly imperfect they are. We need to get in the habit of approaching problems with “let’s fix this, then the next one” instead of “aww, now we’re screwed”.

In a nutshell, this is the central challenge all organizations face. Nearly everything NASA does is highly collaborative, and an ex-Hubble manager even wrote a good, if slightly weird, book about it. When I read it, a lot of previously confusing professional experience suddenly made sense.

Some popular media derives its power and clicks from feeding this narrative. It needs a difficult problem, an obvious bogeyman, learned helplessness, and most importantly a strong desire to read more of the same – driving engagement. If you read something that makes you feel like this, it might be a good idea to ask why. This applies generally, not just in the slightly obscure case of mass-produced space capitalist hatred.

If the future of humanity is out among the stars, finding ways to generate wealth in space is a good thing.

6 thoughts on “Oh no, space capitalists are coming!

  1. Bravo, well said. Reflexive nihilism is itellectually slothful and therefore the first refuge of Dunning/Kreuger impaired insividual. As you justly point out, we are all imperfect, impaired and impure at both the individual and societal level. However, in the broad sweep of history, by far the gratest damage to human progress and well being has been perpetrated by those who claim to embody the opposite attributes; idiological perfection, unimpaired conception and purity of motivation. This impossible moral triuvirate is implicit in the self righteous criticisms on offer opposing “exploitation” of space resources. Non illegitemati carborundum, ad astra per ardua et si non vultis ire: sede in domo tua.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for another thought-provoking post.

    I’m less sanguine about capitalism, but I don’t see how space makes it any worse. I understand capitalism to be any system where the shareholders and the guy in the corner office get an appreciably bigger chunk of a firm’s output than they would in an Econ 101 model of the world, with a corresponding distortion of incentives and loss of efficiency. But wealth inherently is power, the balance of power inevitably skews negotiations, rent-seeking, and oligopoly in favor of the wealthy. Or at least almost inevitably: there may be a solution, and there may not. If we come up with one that works on Earth, who knows what it will be. Maybe it will work on Mars too, and maybe in cis-lunar space or sun-Venus L2, wherever humans start living.

    The Slate link is interesting, but it describes any game-changer in the launch business as physically impossible. I think (based primarily on the fact that your “is a big deal” posts make sense) that Starlink/Starship has clear potential to be such a game-changer. But not by changing the physics of rocket launch.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. By the way, after some additional reading I’m less pessimistic about ore resources on Mars than I was a couple weeks ago. I think it’s still nothing like the great variety we have on Earth, but I’ve found a couple encouraging things. First, it sounds as though there’s somewhat more intermediate to felsic rock than I thought. Fluids percolating though them can be expected to leach out different sets of elements.

      Second, there have to be terminal evaporite deposits: the stuff left when the last ocean dried up. (Or sublimated away after freezing. I don’t think anyone knows.) On Earth, most evaporite deposits consist of material from basins where some water was circulating, just not enough to keep up with the evaporation. So the water gets concentrated enough for first gypsum and then halite to precipitate out, but it’s still stuff precipitating from liquid water. Gypsum and rock salt are remarkably pure: the potentially valuable trace elements almost all remain in the brine that returns to the ocean, or to the deep groundwater in the case of an inland basin. Some of these elements precipitate out very slowly in the ocean depths as ferromanganese nodules, but that’s not the whole periodic table. Various elements are too scarce to precipitate, too incompatible to wind up in limestone or ferromanganese just stays in seawater, and not very inclined to be adsorbed onto sediment. That stuff can keep accumulating for billions of years.

      On Earth, the oceans are big enough that it’s still there, still dissolved. On Mars, the oceans are gone. The least compatible elements should be highly concentrated in the last material to precipitate. I think rail transport, while not as efficient as ocean transport, will be good enough to join some key mineral deposits, eventually.

      Liked by 1 person

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