Space Colonization

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December 4, 2014 by NS

The other day Jeff Bezos said something about space colonization in an interview. In particular, he said:

“I want to see millions of people living and working in space.”

This is a pretty interesting topic to me, but more in a sci-fi way than in a practical way. Am I wrong that this kind of situation is probably more than a lifetime away? It seems to me that there are a bunch of big obstacles:

(1) It’s really expensive to get anything off the Earth.

Right now there’s about a 5% chance of your rocket exploding or crashing. The energy cost of a launch is enormous. The Internet says that the weight of the ISS when fully assembled will be 450 tons and the approximate cost was $150 billion. For comparison, a typical bus weighs 20 tons. A blue whale weighs 200 tons. The largest submarines weigh about 20,000 tons. Right now the cost per ton just of getting stuff into low Earth orbit is about $3.5 million. So, either it has to become way cheaper per ton to get stuff into space, or we have to do the construction up there, using resources available up there.

One possibility is that advancement in materials science would make some kind of space elevator or mass driver possible. Supposedly the cost to get cargo in orbit via such means is much lower than that of rockets. But although futurists like to talk about how great a space elevator would be, if it was likely to be economical in the next 10 or 20 years, someone would be working on it already. I guess Elon Musk wants to do the Hyperloop, which would probably involve a lot of technological development that would also be helpful for a mass driver.

(2) It takes a long time to get things from place to place.

The Mars rovers took about 6 months to get from the Earth to Mars. The nearest asteroids are around Mars’ orbit, but more than half of them are 3x further from the Earth than Mars (measured in radial distance from the Sun). I’m not sure exactly what effect that has on travel time, but if we’re talking about performing mining in the asteroid belt and then sending intermediate or finished products back towards Earth for use, a travel time measured in years is probably prohibitive. Even the longest shipping routes on Earth take only weeks. Think of how much things can change in 2-3 years, especially if we’re talking about a distant future with even faster technological development. So, the second challenge is that we need engines that can get ships going fast enough to make these trips in reasonable time.

(3) It’s hard to make complicated stuff that works in space.

This is the most vague problem, but anyway, based on the argument in (1), it seems like we’ll need to do a lot of the basic manufacturing and production in space. For example, it’s unlikely we’d want to constantly ship food up from Earth, so we’d need to have food production going in space. This might mean manufacturing Soylent type stuff (out of human waste!) rather than traditional farming, but whatever. Also, if we’re going to get raw materials by mining, we have to develop mining and factory equipment that works in space. Then we have to get it all up there and over to where the resources are.

(4) Living in space is going to suck a lot compared to living on Earth.

People think of living in space as something probably awesome. Actually, unless we find some crazy solution to #1, it’s going to be a long time before it’s possible to get even the most basic luxuries in space (except things that are light). Suppose it cost $1000 per pound to get stuff to your space station. So, everything you normally use costs an extra $1000 per pound. Roll of toilet paper? $500. Better make every sheet count! King size candy bar? $250. Dieting will be easy. Condom? $5. Hey, at least safe sex is relatively affordable!

Anyway, one option, as I mentioned before, is to manufacture stuff in space. But on Earth, every thing of that type is generally made in its own separate factory with its own separate supply chain. Also, products made of organic materials won’t make sense to manufacture in space, unless you can make them out of waste that’s being produced by existing life in space (there are hydrocarbons on Titan, but that’s pretty far away).

It may be the case that by the time this sort of thing is an issue, most products, even high end ones, will be manufactured largely automatically. However, to the extent that anything requires skilled labor, that’ll also be difficult to get in space. Presumably it will be expensive and unpleasant to live in space, so the only way someone like a masseuse would want to live in space is if they could charge an exorbitant amount for their services.

So, are there technologies on the horizon to solve these problems? I can see sending out robots that try to collect some stuff and bring it back to Earth. Mining really high value resources He-3 or rare earth elements to bring back for use on the surface might be economically feasible in the next 20 or 30 years. But probably these missions would be unmanned or involve single digit crew, and wouldn’t involve establishing significant permanent structures in space.

If I’m wrong about this, I’d love to learn about what stuff people are working on that might come to fruition during my lifetime!

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