The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Chinese junks illustration
The great Chinese fleets of exploration in the 15th century failed because Chinese leaders saw no ecominc benefit from them. Those advocating new voyages of exploration into space must work to avoid a similar fate. (credit: Mike Boss,

The mission, the business, and the tandem (part 2)

It has only recently been suggested that the first great voyages of government exploration have been forgotten for over half a millennium. The first discovery and rounding of the Cape of Good Hope by ships sent out from an organized, map-making civilization, the first discovery of the Caribbean area and South America, the first navigation through what we now know as the Magellan Strait, the first discoveries of Australia and New Zealand, and the first global circumnavigation, all these were reportedly accomplished by the huge fleets of Chinese treasure junks of the third Ming emperor Zhu Di and his grand eunuch, admiral Zheng He, in the period 1421–1423, as Gavin Menzies argues in his recent book, 1421.

The emperor, though, had overstretched his resources, on this and on other grandiose imperial projects. The purpose of the treasure fleets was not to establish profitable trade routes, but to assert China’s global political domination. In this they closely resembled the Apollo project, begun 540 years after the great junks had sailed from Beijing. Like Apollo, too, and like the programs of manned space exploration now being considered in America and Europe, they were strong on vision and inspiration, but weak on the economic fundamentals.

It should be clear that the most important function of humans in space will be our use of extraterrestrial resources for economic growth.

The Forbidden City was destroyed by fire in one terrible night in 1421, only two months after the fleet had set sail. Sensing weakness, the Mongols refused to pay tribute to China, forcing the emperor to lead a costly punitive expedition into the northern steppes. Meanwhile, the mandarins, who were indoctrinated in the Confucian ethic of rigid social stability and unswerving obedience to tradition, had always been hostile to any kind of new invention, new discovery, or new enterprise. They had always been skeptical of the third emperor’s ambitious visions, and when he died in 1424, still pursuing the Mongols, the mandarins already had the ear of his successor. Exploration and contacts with foreigners were first discouraged, and then prohibited on pain of death. The records of the treasure fleets were burnt.

And so it was that no Chinese junk floated in on the tide to disturb the sleep of the burghers of London, Portsmouth, Hamburg, Venice, Lisbon, Cadiz, or Amsterdam. When globalization began in earnest, it was carried like a virus in the holds of Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, English, and French caravels, seeking gold, spices, slaves, silks, tea, cotton, and many other profitably tradable goods.

There is a lesson here for the “multiglobalization” of the future. It should be clear that the most important function of humans in space—the most significant one on a historical timescale—will be our use of extraterrestrial resources for economic growth.

Linking public and private space

Interplanetary civilization can only be founded on the dynamism and discipline of the market. It needs the market’s broad base, resting as it does on the demand of the whole people, not just the dreams of a visionary elite. The transformation of society from a regional to a global level of organization (say 1500–2000), or from a global to a multiglobal level (likely to be the big theme of 2000–2500), cannot be decreed from above. It must take place as an evolutionary, system-level phenomenon, one in which all parts of society play a role, but where no single part succeeds in controlling the outcome. Otherwise it will not be carried through to completion, but remain a failed project, a grandiose dream—perhaps one whose successes are later doubted, as some people now doubt whether the Apollo astronauts ever really walked on the Moon, perhaps even one whose achievements are completely forgotten for half a millennium or more.

This is not to deny the value of vision, of government leadership. Many voyages of pure exploration were necessary before the routes to the East Indies or the West Indies were able to return a profit. The question that is crucial for the future growth of our own civilization is therefore this: what is the correct relationship between the space agency and private enterprise? How can the space mission and the space business work together, efficiently and creatively?

If space exploration is like the vanguard of an army, advancing into hostile territory, commercial business is like that army’s supply train, generating new wealth faster than the vanguard can consume it. If the vanguard gets too far ahead of the supply train, it will run short of food, fuel and ammunition. It will suffer defeat and be forced into retreat. This is what happened to the Ming treasure junks and to Apollo. It is what threatens to befall Apollo’s successors: in America, NASA’s Vision for Space Exploration; in Europe, ESA’s Aurora program.

I propose that the key to both affordability and sustainability is to ensure that the supply train advances in step with the vanguard. In other words, wherever astronaut explorers go, entrepreneurs, industrialists, adventure tourists, and, ultimately, colonists are never far behind.

The key to both affordability and sustainability is to ensure that the supply train advances in step with the vanguard.

The solar system offers us a graded sequence of problems, like a giant staircase stretching out towards the stars: suborbital space hops, low Earth orbit, high orbit, lunar flyby, lunar landing, asteroid visits, Mars, and so on. Each step has greater energy and life-support demands than the preceding one. On the space agency model, after government explorers have scaled each of these steps, it remains subsequently under the exclusive control of the agencies. They are unwilling to relinquish power or property rights to the market. Private enterprise must be kept penned in on Earth—or maybe, if it is very, very good, it will be allowed to carry out one or two very simple commercial activities in space, but only after many decades more of government research.

The model that I am offering here is quite different.

When horses are harnessed in tandem, or when cyclists ride in tandem, this means that the two are harnessed, or sit, one directly behind the other. They travel together. Like the vanguard and the supply train, where one leads, the other immediately follows. This relationship between the public vanguard, flying missions of exploration, and the private supply train, flying businesses into space, is what is necessary to achieve the goals of an affordable and sustainable space frontier. They must move together in tandem.

It follows that each step of the cosmic staircase should be colonized by the market before the next step is visited by human explorers. Agency astronauts should not be permitted to fly again beyond low Earth orbit until regular commercial access to low Earth orbit has been assured. They should not fly beyond the Moon until commercial access to the Moon has been assured. The space agency should always be in the position of giving a helping hand up to the entrepreneur, rather than making excuses: space is too expensive, too dangerous, or too fragile for any but our highly-trained astronauts to dare to venture out there!

If agency programs of manned spaceflight are to achieve the reasonable goal of making a permanent addition to the material wealth of mankind, the agencies themselves need to be drastically reformed. They must be motivated to work with space entrepreneurs, rather than ignore or even actively frustrate them, as they have been doing in recent years. They must be forced to give up their natural tendencies to monopolize human spaceflight and to suppress innovation.

The ideally-efficient space agency would create manned spaceflight capabilities with the explicit and deliberate purpose of seeing those capabilities taken over by others who can employ them on an economic basis. This is so far from current space agency thinking as to require a revolution in thought. This can only be imposed from outside, by a combination of pressures from governments, exasperated at the waste of money which manned spaceflight has represented up until now; and from entrepreneurs, hammering at the gates of space with all the force of the market’s demand for popular spaceflight and for natural resources from space.

The ideally-efficient space agency would create manned spaceflight capabilities with the explicit and deliberate purpose of seeing those capabilities taken over by others who can employ them on an economic basis.

In this ideal world, the plans for continued astronaut spaceflight—now in preparation by NASA, ESA, and Roskosmos—would only be politically approved and funded when they can demonstrate how they will transfer new capabilities for human spaceflight to the commercial sector within about ten years, to be operated thereafter as profit-making enterprises, contributing to the public exchequer rather than continuing to drain it.

Implementing the tandem

How might this work in practice?

In the near term (2005–2015), governments, space agencies and investors should encourage commercial space companies to exploit three key market opportunities:

  • public access to space (or space tourism);
  • satellite-based solar power, which is infinitely sustainable and does not pollute with either carbon dioxide emissions or radioactive waste;
  • the mining of ice for fuel and life support from the nearer asteroids and comets, creating an economic supply line for the space tourism and power industries.

The principal mission of the International Space Station should now be seen as a destination that will encourage commercial access to low Earth orbit, delivering both supplies and private visitors. This, in turn, should encourage the growth of privately built and operated orbital hotels. The partners in the ISS should offer substantial cash prizes to any private company that can deliver passengers and cargo from Earth on a prototype of an economically-viable reusable spacecraft, or who can supply the ISS with asteroidal or cometary water more efficiently than hauling it up from Earth. Such prizes, in the manner of the Ansari X Prize, should be followed by contracts, analogous to the early transatlantic mail contracts awarded to Cunard and other steamship lines.

The space agencies should also commit themselves to building a prototype solar power satellite, establishing in the process a much needed and almost infinitely expandable clean energy supply for industrial mankind. It does not matter that oil is currently cheaper. The purpose of the satellite will be to prepare for life after oil, two or more decades ahead. It will answer the long-term political needs for a non-polluting power supply, and one that is independent of the Middle East.

At the same time, the agencies should demonstrate the use of asteroidal or cometary water to manufacture the propellants for lifting power satellite components to a suitably high orbit. Although again in the short term this will be more expensive than hauling propellants ready for use up from Earth, in the longer term such a supply line will, once it has been set up, make orbital refueling anywhere in the solar system very much cheaper than at present.

However, again I must emphasize: these technologies should not be used to create new space agency monopolies! They must be planned from the start in terms of a stimulus to economic growth, and should involve private sector investment at the earliest possible stage.

If human activities in space are ever to be genuinely affordable and sustainable, then government pioneers, who consume wealth, must be quickly followed by private entrepreneurs, who consolidate our presence in space by creating new sources of wealth.

Almost all the universe’s natural resources of power and raw materials are extraterrestrial. This fact is inescapable. Therefore almost all our civilization’s opportunities for future growth and wealth creation lie in space and on other worlds in space. These cannot be developed by monolithic government departments. Government can show the way and prepare some of the technology, but only entrepreneurs can turn these capabilities into the profitable businesses of the future, or create an economy as diverse as that which has so enriched civilization on Earth. Only in this way can we assure the taxpayer that his or her money is going towards a sustainable increase in their children’s abilities to create new wealth and guarantee their security.

If human activities in space are ever to be genuinely affordable and sustainable, then government pioneers, who consume wealth, must be quickly followed by private entrepreneurs, who consolidate our presence in space by creating new sources of wealth. The government agency and the private company must travel in tandem at each step of the cosmic staircase.