In January of this year now coming to an end, I wrote about Rockets and how low-cost access to space will be a game changer. At that time there were no rockets that could fly to space and return safely to Earth, ready to fly again. Today, twelve months later, there are two.
The Blue Origin New Shepard and the SpaceX Falcon 9 are not really in the same league. The Falcon 9 is twice the size, ten times as powerful, flies in a parabolic arc flight path, and (most importantly) is capable of boosting its second stage to orbital velocities. The New Shepard cannot do any of that, and basically just flies straight up like a bottle rocket until it just barely kisses space, and then falls back down. But let’s just put that aside for a moment and think about the fact that two new entrants to the rocket business have in a decade finally done what half a century of Boeing and Lockheed Martin flying spec missions for NASA (and equivalent arrangements in Europe, Japan, and China) have not: advanced the art of what is possible.
To recap from my previous posts, reusability will reduce the cost to reach orbit on a per-unit-weight basis by a factor of 100. Rocket fuel is cheap, accounting for less than $200,000 of the current $60 million price tag, so amortizing the hardware and R&D over many flights will bring prices down a small multiple of that. This will in turn expand the market of space customers beyond the current crowd of military, NASA, and cable TV people. Use cases will expand, including mining asteroids for fuel and valuable resources, private space stations, and cheap satellite internet constellations. The size and frequency of our space missions will increase. NASA could end up have twenty times the number of scientific probes in action as they do today, with the same budget. Companies like Tethers Unlimited could self-fund (without waiting for NASA grants) their own in-space experiments on things like SpiderFab, which would in turn lead more quickly to extremely large space structures for science and communications. And course eventually it could lead to people living on Mars.
This may seem like a bit of a stretch at this time, but I feel we are at an important inflection point in human history. I am reminded of the civilizations that flourished around the Eastern Mediterranean during the Bronze Age, and then collapsed; of the Roman Empire that flourished and then collapsed; of the Islamic Golden Age that came and went; and of the rise of the British Empire and its continued global dominance through its successor state, NATO.
In each of the above cases, there was a time of bright flourishing that was ushered in by an expansion of trade and resources. The larger the network of trade, the more wealth that was produced even absent significant technological change. Basic task specialization and comparative advantage at work. But technological change followed too, from the greater number of people who were having ideas and discussing those ideas with like-minded people. Well space doesn’t have any people to discuss ideas with (yet), but it does have a great deal of resources. The Moon can be mined, and manufacturing operated there, without concern for Earth’s environment. The Sun’s solar power can be captured in space with greater efficiency, and in far greater amounts, than on Earth. (It may seem far fetched at this time, but Google and Facebook moving their server farms to orbit could solve a number of problems in one go.) Further in the future we could start building destinations for colonization, taking the population burden off Earth. And so forth.
When England expanded its resource base ten-fold by colonizing North America, its wealth and influence was permanently increased. What happens when all of Earth taps into the ten-thousand-fold greater resources of the Solar System? It’s of course impossible to know for sure, but I feel confident in predicting that it will be a genuinely good thing for both the entrepreneurs seeking opportunities and the regular folks who trade with them. Let’s hope this golden age doesn’t come to an end too soon.