Space settlements will follow the same rules of economics and logistics that terrestrial settlements follow: in order to be successful they must generate and transfer value. People only settle down in a certain place if they can thrive there. And people can only thrive if they can exchange goods and information easily with other people. In short, before you can build cities, you have to build roads (hat tip to Cake, great band).
We will discuss how settlements will generate value in another post. This post will discuss the roads part: space transportation. Because it’s hard to build a city you can’t get to.
In late 2017, transportation to space sucks. It’s infrequent, unsafe and way, way too expensive to build a space settlement. The poor state of space transportation is a big reason why our most important space station – the International Space Station – cost almost $100 billion to build. And that thing only holds seven people, not a very impressive population. If space settlement is ever going to happen transportation has to be much cheaper, safer and more frequent.
The good news is that space transportation seems to be improving. The price to send both people and cargo to orbit is falling.
If Elon Musk has his way with his BFR super-rocket, the cost will fall even further (bottom rows in the charts above). The way Musk and SpaceX achieve such low costs is through very high launch cadences. So not only will the price go down but, presumably launch frequency will go up as well. And, as anyone knows, the more you do something, the better you get at it so reliability will improve as well (although people may die before we get to airline-like levels of safety).
But Elon Musk is not the only wild-eyed billionaire with plans to improve space transportation. In fact, there are a bunch*:
Achievements to date (2017)
“I think it’s going to be great if people can buy a ticket to fly up and see black sky and the stars.”
Built largest-ever airplane to air-launch rockets to any orbit at any time, increases flexibility to access space
“Our ultimate vision is millions of people living and working in space”
Suborbital rocket reusability, autonomous “robot” rocketships, rocket engine development
[We’re planning for] “…a permanent settlement on the lunar surface.”
Inflatable commercial space station modules
“…we’re going to start a whole new era of sending people into space.”
Crewed commercial launches to suborbital space
[Becoming] “a space-bearing civilization and a multi-planetary species…is the right way to go.”
Orbital rocket reusability, autonomous docking and reentry, lowered price to orbit by $hundreds/kilogram
The goal of the Space Village business plan is to construct the first permanent human community in space. This structure will not be on the surface of a celestial body but instead will float freely in space. It will be an enormous space station. Unlike current space stations, however, it will have everything one needs to have a comfortable, pleasant and productive life. It will rotate to provide artificial gravity, maintain its own life support and even grow most of it’s own food.
The business plan will use the Globus Kalpana design as its goal. Specifically, it will use the smallest, easiest-to-build version of the Kalpana design: one that rotates at four revolutions-per-minute (RPM). A basic description of the structure is below (this text is an excerpt from the upcoming Space Settlement book Al and I are publishing):
The structure itself may be a giant cylinder, 112 meters in diameter (about the length of a football field) and 56 meters long. It could accommodate 500 inhabitants and have a mass of around 8,500 metric tons. Such a structure is comparable in size to a cruise ship or a small town center.
The interior might look something like this. For scale, the trees in the ‘unrolled’ portion at the bottom are about four meters high. (Big thanks go out to Bryan Versteeg for these wonderful images).
This early space settlement is intended to be located in a 500 to 600 kilometer equatorial orbit. Again, an excerpt from the upcoming book:
Specifically, the first space settlement will be in a very close orbit about 500 to 600 kilometers above the equator. This is not that much further away than the International Space Station. At this altitude there is an area of space known as Equatorial Low Earth Orbit (ELEO) where radiation levels are very low (by space standards) and millions of tons of radiation shielding are unnecessary. In fact, perhaps no shielding at all will be required. If less shielding is needed then less mass is needed. And less mass means simpler construction and operation.
So that’s the plan in a nutshell: a cozy, comfy home in orbit for about 500 people. They’ll operate tourist facilities, manage telerobotic manufacturing and be close enough to Earth to telecommute to jobs on Earth. They’ll eat locally grown food, play in zero-gravity and have great views of both Earth and the cosmos. They will be the first villagers in space.
Here are the posts I’d like to write over the coming weeks to flesh out the Space Village Business Plan (in addition to the twoposts already written):
Conceptual architecture of the first village in space: based on the Kalpana 56 meter/4RPM Globus design.
Prerequisite to space settlement: cheap, reliable transportation to orbit. Cost per seat must be less than $100,000 or less. Ideally it will be “full fare economy.” Good news: this will likely happen.
What we can do while we wait for number two above to happen i.e. the incremental path to settlement:
Step 1 on the path (each of these will be at least one separate blog post): ground-based research and marketing of space farm-related products (I’ve already started this part – more to come on this)
Step 2: Market motion sickness reduction training developed by NASA Ames
Step 3: Send a scale model of the settlement to space, spin it around, see how it behaves. Develop wobble control software.
Step 4: Once cargo prices to orbit fall significantly: assemble an uncrewed rotating ring in orbit that others can rent space on for robotic experiments. Uses wobble control developed in Step 3 as competitive advantage. Then, a big jump:
Step 5: Assemble the zero-gee core of the settlement, sell tickets.
Step 6. Assemble the lunar-gee level of the settlement, sell tickets.
Step 7. Assemble the martian-gee level of the settlement, sell tickets.
Step 8. Complete the settlement structure. Test. Then move in!
Step 9. Start the next settlement…
For each step describe what it is, the value proposition for each step, capital needed, expertise needed, competition and obstacles, and market demand. Might need a few posts for each step.
Raising capital – propose pre-selling and crowdfunding as innovative ways to jumpstart the early stages of the business. Discuss financials of ‘Airbnb concept’ for full-up settlement (Step 9).
Discuss need for diversity – why will this business be very explicit about the need to hire and inspire more than just white men (although they’re great too).
Discuss philosophy to government funding – r&d, anchor tenant, etc.
There are two different flavors of human communities. There are the transient places – outposts, work camps, hotels and resorts – and there are the permanent places – homes, villages, towns and cities. People typically go to a transient place for a short time to do a job or have an experience (e.g. vacation) and then they leave and go back home. The structure itself remains but the people in it are constantly changing – as are the relationships inside that community.
A village, however, is where someone goes to stay, possibly forever. It is a home, not a work camp or a hotel. There are many things that differentiate a home from a transient place but the biggest thing is the presence of children. People typically choose to have children in a permanent place rather than a transient one.
Humans currently build space stations. The International Space Station is basically a scientific work camp in orbit. Not a great place to raise kids. Some companies may soon build space hotels. Again, they probably won’t be ideal for children. What is sought here is a space village: a place where people may choose to raise a family, in space.
A Space Village is a place to raise a family, in space.
There are businesses to take tourists to space. To send your payload to the Moon. Even to mine the asteroids. All of these businesses are raising millions of dollars, generating intellectual property and advancing the state of the art. While none of them are profitable (yet) and most will likely fail (just like any new start up) they are real and, most importantly, they are pushing humanity into space.
I am most interested in establishing permanent human communities in space. So why not establish a business to do that?
Why not a business to build villages in space?
The long-term vision of such a business would be to build the first permanent human community in space. It’s mission should be to figure out an incremental development path where each step makes fulfilling the vision easier and more likely to occur. For instance, each step on the path should generate its own revenue and each step should increase public excitement for the vision. Government funding should not be required to fulfill the vision but should be considered if it becomes available. Along the development path the business should seek to increase diversity in the aerospace community.
Ok so I really wanted to title this post “Trump Is Officially a Lunatic” but then this would get all political and bladdy-blah before you know I’ve lost my job. It’s never a good idea to call your boss – however far removed up the chain of command he may be – a lunatic. But, come on, it’s funny!
And, it’s sort of true. No I do not subscribe to the fevered conspiracy theories of cable news types who say our President is mentally unstable. What I’m talking about is space policy, people! Trump made it official: America is going back to the Moon! And what a yuge, big, beautiful, fantastic idea this is. Keep reading below as to why.
It acknowledges reality. Humans are not going to Mars or even an asteroid any time soon. It’s just too hard. We’ll do it someday but not in the next two or three decades. Deal with it.
It’s achievable. We’ve done the Moon before, we can do it again. But this time we need to stay.
It will create jobs. There is a nascent non-governmental (commercial) sector of the American economy that will start hiring like crazy to support the governmental effort of a permanent return to the Moon.
The military loves it. The USAF is (correctly) scared shitless the Chinese are going to somehow dominate the high ground of cislunar space. This new policy will start a space race that the US is well-placed to win due to our strong aerospace sector. Forcing the Chinese to spend their dwindling foreign exchange reserves on a space race they are likely to lose is smart policy.
Now, obviously, a better policy would have been supporting space tourism, highly reusable launch vehicles and a path to orbital settlement. But all that is kind of hard to put on a bumper sticker. Furthermore the Moon is a better policy that a Journey to Nowhere Mars. So I’m all for Making the Moon Human Again!
In the course of doing research for my upcoming space settlement book (co-written with Al Globus) I stumbled across this article from the Fall 1975 edition of CoEvolution Quarterly. I loved it. Here is a neat excerpt:
Give your imagination a Space Colony of 1,000,000 inhabitants, each of whom has five acres of land….Any thoughts about how to organize its economy, politics, weather, land use, education, ‘ culture?