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Asteroid mining concept
Just as prospectors in the 19th century found riches that made it worth the effort and risk to travel to California, the promise of resources in near Earth asteroids is compelling to some companies today. (credit: Planetary Resources)

Expensive, difficult, and dangerous


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Most people, when asked their opinion about moving into space, may say the money and effort spent on that could better be spent dealing with Earthly concerns. At least that seems to be the prevailing assumption of the governing classes of America. People will often say going into space is not only too expensive, but also too difficult and too dangerous. Of course, the American people, according to polls and other indicators, have always viewed NASA and the space program favorably, but the truth is also that space policy has never played a major role in American elections, which is probably why the most politicians tend to ignore it.

That could change quickly if companies like Planetary Resources begin to succeed in bringing extraterrestrial resources into the human economy. Then, governments around the world will feel the need to regulate and control the spanking new wealth—and no doubt claim a part of it in the name of their people.

The story of the California Gold Rush is chaotic and energetic, triumphant and tearful, destructive and creative. It is, in short, one of the great human stories.

We are essentially talking about human nature—and California. In 1848, California was among the most difficult areas in the world to reach. Asians and Australians had to sail the Pacific. Europeans either had to sail around South America and up the Pacific coast, or cut across cross fifty miles of disease-infested jungle in Panama and then sail up the Pacific coast, or cross the Atlantic and then travel overland across the breadth of the North American continent. Americans east of the Mississippi had to cross that big river, the Great Plains, the Rockies, the deserts of the Great Basin, and the Sierra Nevadas. Getting to California was expensive, difficult, and dangerous.

For those reasons and others, most people didn’t succumb to gold fever. Yet, despite those factors, many people from around the world risked everything to get to California and transform their lives and their families’ lots. Inevitably, many who accepted the challenge weren’t up to meeting it, and some of them lost everything. Others who went, however, found a strength and a determination nobody back home would have believed. The story of the California Gold Rush is chaotic and energetic, triumphant and tearful, destructive and creative. It is, in short, one of the great human stories.

When the outside world learned of the discovery of gold in California, humanity as a whole did not note the discovery, coolly assess the rigors involved in getting it, and decide, even though that added wealth would be extremely useful, not to pursue it. Instead, some individuals accepted all the risks, set out for California for a myriad of personal reasons, and ended up setting the world on a different course. California gold was instrumental in funding the Union effort through the American Civil War. The huge new state was a magnet for westward migration of Americans, and immigrants, seeking a new start and a better life. Today, California is one of the easier places to reach. Airlines from around the world fly there. Huge ports host ships from around the world. The interstate highway system ties California firmly to the rest of the nation. On its own California would be a major global economic power.

If there’s an economic model to turn a profit in space, some entrepreneur will find it. >At that point, the role of government becomes important. Will it facilitate, or obstruct?

Critics of moving into space for economic reasons might do well to consider California’s upward sweep, and what fueled it: neither gold nor sunshine, but instead human nature. Many humans are born risk-takers with the innate ability to manage tough situations. Our species would not have made it out of Africa otherwise. If there’s an economic model to turn a profit in space, some entrepreneur will find it. There’s every reason to think such models exist now for businesses beyond the communications and Earth observation satellite industries, or will exist soon.

At that point, the role of government becomes important. Will it facilitate, or obstruct? There will no doubt be some governments that will seize the opportunity to shape the future, and others that will hold back. The US government is certainly poised to be a shaper, but there is no guarantee. The moment awaits the leader. Hopefully, that leader will understand some of the lessons of California.


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