Belt Life – Chapter 1

I wrote a little science fiction for fun. It’s about a rag-tag crew of space miners who stumble upon a mysterious artifact which leads them on a rollicking adventure. The setting is the Asteroid Belt in the distant future. In this world, humanity lives in enormous self-sustaining space stations scattered throughout the Belt that were made generations ago. But our crew lives aboard the Free Mining Ship Melchior. In the meantime, a militarized totalitarian empire calling itself the Royal Solar Commission is on the rise and trying to exert control over pretty much anything while their insane leader is searching in vain for a way to live forever, causing all sorts of problems.  Check it out, let me know what you think:

Chapter One

It’s not easy being an asteroid miner.  Equipment failures, boom-bust cycles, dealing with your crew.  Yep, it ain’t easy is right. But it sure makes for some good stories! Like that time we avoided getting enslaved by the totalitarian government seeking to dominate the entire Solar System…

Jason sighed.  “It started out as such a good day,” he thought. “Now this.”

Cam shouted, nervously, “It’s getting closer!”

“Take it easy,” Jason replied, glancing at the scopes, “and keep your voice down. Gramma Chen is working.”

Gramma Chen was plugged in, as usual, piloting the ship via augmented reality.  And doing whatever it is she does while basically living inside a computer. Jason grimaced at the sight of her.  Petite, ancient, gray hair back in a severe bun. Muttering to herself and gods-know what else in her world. Back here in this world she laid in a full-motion chair, spinning about, with enormous VR googles on her tiny head.  Gramma Chen had been on his crew for a while now and he still wasn’t used to having an information addict aboard. And a Riskie at that.

“Ten thousand kilometers,” Cam intoned.  She had regained her composure. Well, as much composure as a lanky teenage algae farmer from the backwoods of Island Three can have.

“Acknowledged,” Jason said. To himself he thought, “Ten tons of PGMs! Ten! Gone! Because some gods-damn Riskie patrol had to stumble into this patch, of all the clumps of rocks in the whole stinking Belt, it had to decelerate and snoop around this one. Of course only I would have such crummy luck.”

Nine thousand kilometers,” Cam said, her voice rising, “and closing!”

Perhaps a little too quickly Jason snapped, “Is he pinging?!”

“No.” Sensing Jason’s raised eyebrow Cam hastily repeated herself, “No, sir!”

PGMs are also known as platinum group metals. Platinum group metals are more valuable than gold.  More valuable than silver. More valuable than even water. They make civilization run out here. Life support, fusion core modulators, laser grinders – they all need PGMs to operate.  They are essential and very, very rare. And very, very lucrative. Especially to an asteroid miner down to his last diamond drill-bit set.

And this morning, while extracting some humdrum volatiles, the crew of the Melchior stumbled upon a thick vein of PGM wonderfulness.  More than ten freaking tons of it. You know how many drill bits you can buy with ten tons of PGM? A lot

Cam spoke. “He’s…he’s slowing down.” Her combination of high-strung tension and puzzled intrigue annoyed Jason.  “Where is he, Cam? What’s he doing? Remember, details, girl, details! I’m not a mind-reader like Gramma.”

“Ye..Yessir.  He’s..uh..” Cam double-checked her screen, “he’s eight thousand kilometers out.  He…appears,” checking again, then blurting out with joy, “Sir! He’s dropping buoys!” Relieved and happy as a puppy, Jason’s apprentice first-mate said, “It’s probably just a navigation patrol, sir! We should be fine!” Then, suddenly serious, “We’ll be fine, right??”

Despite himself, Jason cracked a wry smile and said, “Yep, looks like it.” Cam turned away, happy again. The bridge was silent, except for Gramma Chen’s chair, whirring and clicking away.  After a few seconds, Jason cleared his throat and asked, in an official voice, “First-mate, status report on our payload.” Cam’s face fell, suddenly realizing their predicament. Ten tons of PGMs…gone! Cap isn’t gonna be happy!

Jason repeated himself, “First-mate, what’s the report on our payload? As well as our operating condition?” Cam, in her best professional voice, reported, “Sir, life support is nominal. All non-essential systems are inactive. We are drifting slowly north of the ecliptic. We’ve jettisoned nine point eight metric tonnes of pulverized ore material which is currently enveloping the Melchior in a visual and electromagnetic smokescreen. Pilot Chen is manipulating the magnetic echos of the fusion core to maintain the smokescreen.  It appears that the diversion worked and the RSC patrol did not detect us. They fired up their primary reactor and the ship is accelerating out of the vicinity. The crew awaits your orders.”

Jason nodded. “Thank you first-mate. Pilot Chen, prepare to reactivate our thrusters.”

Roused from her digital reverie, the senior citizen shouted, “Eh?!”

Rolling his eyes, Jason said, louder, “Gramma we’re going back to Kalpana!” 

“Ok ok you don’t have to shout!” she shouted back at him. She went on, quietly this time, “You know, Jason, we’re going to lose these PGMs as soon as we redirect our magnetic echo flux…”

He thought, “Thank you Captain Obvious!” But then he realized she can sense that kind of thing. So, instead, forcing himself to be calm and captain-esque, he said, “Thank you Pilot Chen. Please refer to me as Captain. And please plot a trajectory back to Kalpana.  We’ll sell the 200 kilos we still have to the foundries there.” Turning to Cam, he said, “First-mate you have the bridge. I’m going to my quarters to get some rest.” 

And, in his head, thinking, “But mostly to figure out how to keep this boat flying…”

FAQ About the Space Village Concept

I recently pitched the Space Village Company to a friend of mine in the commercial space world. He had a lot of very basic but very good questions. Here are the answers to his questions, plus a few more he didn’t ask:

What are the dimensions of the first Space Village? How big is it?
A cylinder 112 meters in diameter and 56 meters in length.
There will be ten concentric cylinder decks. Most decks will be spaced about 5 meters apart except for the inner most decks. The gravity at the outermost cylinder (deck 1) is equivalent to Earth gravity (1g). Gravity decreases the closer one moves to the center of the Village. Deck 8 has Martian gravity, Deck 9 has lunar gravity and Deck 10 is basically a big gymnasium-sized room with zero gravity in the center.
Screen Shot 2018-01-14 at 10.19.25 AM
I’m planning for an atrium that cuts through the residential and green space decks (2 through 6) to give it some more airiness.
How many people will it support? 
The first Space Village will have a capacity for 500 human beings.
Roughly 230 of them will be ‘crew’ necessary to maintain the facility. The remainder can be revenue-producing occupants. Maybe tourists, researchers, manufacturers, hotel operators, etc.
The 230 number is derived from research into the cruise ship industry. The average crew-to-passenger ratio on cruise ships is 46%.
How much will it cost to build the first space village?
$1.5 billion. At 17 metric tons per person, the entire structure will mass 8500 metric tons.  At $70/kg to LEO, launch costs alone will be $595 million. Round up to $600 million and double it to account for construction/fit-out/start-up costs. Then add a 25% contingency factor.
R&D costs (as well as about a million others costs, like financing) are not included in this estimate because it’s assumed the R&D will be paid for separately by commercializing R&D as its created as well as other sources (e.g. govt partners and perhaps other strategic partners).
The $70/kg price is derived from SpaceX ITS launch estimates. SpaceX estimated it will send one kilogram to the surface of Mars for $140. I took that number and cut it in half to estimate the cost to LEO.
Obviously this is all very hand-wavey. On the other hand…SpaceX, Blue Origin, the Chinese and a few others all seem deadly serious about dramatically lowering the cost to orbit. Price to orbit will continue to fall. If or when it hits $70/kg, I couldn’t say.
The 17 ton per person number is derived from Al Globus’ research. That number as well as more detail into all these numbers, will be chronicled in our upcoming book. Stay tuned.
How will you make money? What is the value proposition?
Free space settlement will be a real estate business. The Space Village Company will be both a developer (selling condominium units inside the settlement) and a landlord (renting space it keeps). At first the Space Village Company will maintain the common areas (as well as common services like life support, waste recycling, port management, thermal control, orientation, etc) but eventually something like a condominium association or a business improvement district may take over these essential duties.
The Space Village Company may also retain the earlier revenue streams (that supported R&D before the settlement is built) or it may spin them off to focus solely on construction of settlements.
How might an investor make outsize returns?
Because the Space Village Company will be a real estate business it will have the ability to pre-sell residential living units (and commercial offices/workshops) at a drastic discount to early, accredited investors. Or, similarly, it might pre-sell a portion of time – say a week’s vacation – at a drastic discount to an early adopter. Let’s see how this might work.
If transportation to space gets really inexpensive – e.g. about $70/kg to LEO or “full fare economy,” as Elon Musk predicts – then there will be demand from hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people to travel to the Space Village. The Space Village Company will sell at least 250 single-occupancy living units or ‘space condos’ (or some combination of single and multiple occupancy units with a total capacity of 250 people). The Company will retain ownership of 20 single-occupancy space condos and rent them out to provide an ongoing revenue stream for the Company itself.
If the total cost to construct the Space Village is $1.5B, that means each of those 250 units must sell for at least $6M for the Space Village Company to break even on construction costs. Note that this does not include sales of commercial workshop space or other areas on the structure that could also generate revenue. For now I focus just on the residential units.
If a buyer pays $6M for a single occupancy space condo their monthly mortgage amount (at 7% for 30 years) would be about $39,000. Assuming a $30,000/month condo association fee (to pay for life support, etc.) that’s $69,000/month carrying cost for the living unit. Note: The condo association fee is a rough guess at this point. Also, I don’t expect early adopters to get a mortgage; they’ll probably be uber-rich folks who pay cash. I just use the mortgage numbers as way to illustrate what the cost might be.
The owners of these units could rent them out to recoup their investment. It currently costs about $45,000 to climb Mount Everest. This seems like a comparable price point for a week’s vacation in space. If lodging for the space vacation costs $39,000, then a person “airbnbing” their space condo could make $156,000/month revenue or 87,000/month profit. If the total cost to the traveler is $45,000 then their ticket to travel back and forth to LEO is $6000, which is pretty close to $70/kg or Musk’s “full fare economy.”
Where do the outsize returns come in? The Space Village Company could pre-sell a number of space condos, or chunks of time in space condos retained by the Space Village Company, at a steep discount. Once the Space Village is up and running these discounted products could later be sold at a high profit. For instance, instead of selling a space condo for $6M, early on the Space Village Company might sell it for $6000. Once the Space Village is built and operating, the investor would then sell their $6000 investment for $6M, making a 1000% return. Or, instead of selling a week in space for $39,000, the Space Village Company might sell it for $100. The investor could then sell that week in space later on for the regular price of $39,000, setting herself up for a potential 390% return.
Obviously, these early adopters will be taking an enormous risk. It would probably be best to limit those allowed to invest to accredited investors who understand the challenge and are willing to take a risk on an untested idea. Building in space is extremely difficult. Nothing on the scale of the Space Village has ever been built in orbit. In fact, there is no guarantee at all that transportation costs to orbit will fall to the point that the Space Village will become feasible. Therefore, it is very possible an early investor will lose their money.  Caveat emptor.
Another thing: this discounting process will not raise really big dollars. It will probably only raise hundreds of thousands to a few million dollars, depending on how many space condos and chunks of time the Company is willing to sell at a discount early on. The Space Village Company will need traditional angel/VC/equity/debt investments, as well as government contracts/partnerships, to be truly successful.
The Space Village Company will also likely develop new technologies and other intellectual property that may become quite valuable on their own.

Transportation is Key and the Lock is Turning

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.

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Price/cost to send one kilogram of cargo to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), in 2017 USD. Bottom two rows are not yet real. See here for source information.


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Price/cost to send one person to orbit, 2017 USD. Shuttle, CST-100, Dragon 2 all assume 7 seats. Bottom three rows are not yet real. See here for source information.

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)

Paul Allen “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
Jeff Bezos “Our ultimate vision is millions of people living and working in space” Suborbital rocket reusability, autonomous “robot” rocketships, rocket engine development
Robert Bigelow [We’re planning for] “…a permanent settlement on the lunar surface.” Inflatable commercial space station modules
Richard Branson “…we’re going to start a whole new era of sending people into space.” Crewed commercial launches to suborbital space
Elon Musk [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

Since so many billionaires are so committed to opening up the cosmos to humanity, it is inevitable that space transportation will greatly improve in the coming years. When exactly and whether it will improve enough to enable settlement remains to be seen, but I’m cautiously optimistic. You don’t drop a billion dollars a year on something if you’re not serious about it.

*This chart is an excerpt from the upcoming Space Settlement Book. The source information for these quotes and information will be in that book.



What will the first Space Village look like?

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).

56mL-section Ca

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.


What is a Space Village anyway?

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.


“Pioneers of the Cosmos” Credit: Adrianna Allen,

Imagining A Space Village Biz Plan

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.

It’s Official: Trump Says Back to Moon

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.

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  1. 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.
  2. It’s achievable. We’ve done the Moon before, we can do it again. But this time we need to stay.
  3. 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.
  4. 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!

Free Space by Stewart Brand

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?

What would you do with your five acres?