It’s no shocker when several people loudly threaten to leave the country if an election doesn’t go their way. Yet it’s hard to go anywhere this year, with a pandemic locking most people in place. Will the time come when we hear promises to bolt the planet?
“Will the election make some people want to leave the planet? Probably. I’ve already seen some friends on Facebook say so,” said Glenn Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and author of the new short book America’s New Destiny in Space.
According to Reynolds, it won’t be too long before people can make good on that threat. Because of the work of SpaceX and other private space exploration companies, the price per kilogram (or per pound) of getting people and materials into space is plummeting like a meteor in the earth’s atmosphere.
Previously, it cost about $55,000 to get a single kilogram into orbit. Now, the price has fallen to about $2,700. It is projected to fall further with the next generation of rockets, going down to $270 or lower. As the price falls, many more things become financially possible.
Reynolds’s book claims that not only will space travel and habitation become more affordable, it will also be sustainable, meaning the economic activity outside the earth’s atmosphere will eventually pay for the ride and the construction of new environments to support humans.
Sean Higgins is a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute with academic training in history. He has some doubts.
“I believe [living in space] will only happen if there is a way to harvest resources like, for example, energy or minerals. Historically, the driving force behind most colonization was the search for resources: Find a place that had something of value, and stake a claim to it, then have people relocate to that place to ensure that the claim holds,” Higgins told the Washington Examiner.
“The problem with space is that it is, by definition, empty. It’s right there in the word ‘space.’ So there’s not much there to exploit, which is a problem because living in space is itself resource-intensive. Colonizing another planet is theoretically possible, but again, it would have to have a lot of resources to justify the effort,” he added.
The extraplanetary economic opportunity that is most often touted is asteroid mining. Some asteroids are known to have deposits of ores and minerals that would make them incredibly valuable, in the trillions of dollars, at current market rates.
Yet Reynolds points out some economic hiccups with harvesting asteroids. It would cost a lot of money to get the equipment there to do that. The resources would still have to be brought back through Earth’s punishing atmosphere. And even if the resources could be brought here in large quantities, their value would drop sharply because scarcity is keeping the prices up.
Tim Schumann is an occasional technology investor in the Seattle area. He thinks asteroid mining will not be an incredible gold rush but that it could create new opportunities. “It opens up possibilities to do new and interesting things with metals that used to be prohibitively expensive,” he told the Washington Examiner.
Energy is another story. Earth’s atmosphere filters out much solar radiation and other cosmic interference. That encourages life here. It also means that solar panels capture far less energy on this planet than they could, unobstructed, up in space. The capture in space and transmission to Earth of large amounts of energy could significantly reduce humanity’s future reliance on fossil fuels.
Reynolds, 60, foresees a combination of space tourism, clean energy generation, and resource extraction, creating an economy for significant human habitation outside Earth’s atmosphere. Does he see himself living in space in the future?
He said he could see himself living in a controlled environment made possible by what is called an O’Neill cylinder for a time. However, he added, “In a pioneering moon or Mars settlement? I’m probably a little old for that, alas. When I was younger, I would have said yes, and I thought I might even have the chance. Now, it seems likely that I’ll visit space, if at all, only as a tourist.”
Schumann, in his 30s, is slightly more optimistic about his options to blast off. Asked if he would like to live in space, he joked, “Well, I’d prefer it to dead.” He said he thinks he and many peers will likely end up “working in outer space for short periods of time” and that future generations will probably venture further into space and stay longer.