There's a New Age Dawning

Editorial introduction


The world is no more closed than it is flat.
Dr. Krafft Ehricke

We've just about used up this planet; time to go find another one.
—Robert A. Heinlein

The 1970s were the years of limits to growth, of ecological pessimism, of doomsday printouts. The experts of the Club of Rome and their transmission belt of liberal environmentalists managed to convince many of us that earth is running out of resources, strangling on its own effluents, and being inundated by too many people—with the only solution to accept new forms of government control.

The realization that these speculations were wrong has dawned slowly, but it is finally beginning to penetrate into the recesses of our culture. In the first place, in making their projections the doomsday theorists vastly underestimated the role of invention and innovation; moreover, they generally ignored the way that free markets can cope with shortages by rationing out dwindling supplies and making it profitable to develop substitutes.

But the most exciting news, as Peter Vajk points out in this issue, is that even if the doomsayers had been right, mankind still has a magnificent way out. For the 1980s will mark the dawning of the age of space industrialization—the time when man can start living in, working in, and exploiting outer space. The implications of this move are so profound that science writer G. Harry Stine has coined the term "the third industrial revolution" to describe it.

Up till now space has been a realm solely for exploration. One-of-a-kind, virtually hand-made rockets have put a few men and some equipment into orbit for short periods at a cost of up to several thousand dollars per pound. Even with the Apollo/Saturn system the cost was nearly $1,000 a pound, in today's dollars. But the new reusable Space Shuttle to be launched this fall will cut that cost to around $250. A more advanced version, with both stages reusable, will cut the cost to $100-$150 per pound. And more advanced design heavy-lift launchers, now on the drawing boards, could cut the cost to $50—using technology that already exists! With launch costs this low, it will be economically feasible to move from exploration to exploitation of space.

And what is there to exploit? Initially, small-scale space manufacturing is likely to concentrate on taking advantage of the unique physical properties of outer space—zero gravity, vacuum, absolute zero temperature—to make products that can be produced nowhere else. Fairly substantial markets appear to exist for a variety of space-produced semiconductor materials, optical products, vaccines and other biologicals, and unique metallurgical products such as superconductors and perfect ball bearings. Studies by General Electric, McDonnell-Douglas, TRW, and Science Applications, Inc., have estimated markets of up to several billion dollars a year for such items.

The next move is likely to involve space mining. Studies of moon rocks and remote sensing of the lunar surface indicate significant quantities of metal ores, including titanium. Spectral analysis of asteroids, confirmed by sampling of meteorites, indicates high quantities of iron and nickel. Calculations by two MIT professors indicate that a large-scale space mining operation could supply all the world's nickel and half its iron—without pollution and at a profit.

The ready availability of metals in space will make possible the construction, in orbit, of large-scale space factories and habitats, without the expense of lifting all the material from earth. Virtually limitless solar energy is available, undiffused by earth's atmosphere, all the time. These considerations have led Princeton physicist Gerard O'Neill to develop designs for permanent space colonies. Among the economic rationales for such colonies is the construction and operation of massive solar power satellites, selling energy to earth.

Notice the common denominator in all of these examples: profit. Throughout the '70s we grew accustomed to thinking of outer space as theater. The Apollo landings, the Viking Mars missions, planetary fly-bys—all were interesting entertainment, both for the TV-watching public and the publicly supported scientists who designed the on-board experiments. But the scientists and engineers planning the space projects of the '80s speak the language of the entrepreneur—rates of return, payback periods, cost per pound—as well as that of the technologist.

Commercialization is already well advanced for several types of earth satellites. The communications satellite industry is a thriving commercial venture that has already lowered the cost of long-distance voice, data, and video communications and is poised to open up many new types of services (including Dick Tracy-style wrist radios offering worldwide range—probably within 10 years). The remote-sensing business is well on the way toward duplicating the process, building on the success of NASA's Landsat as a device for mineral prospecting, mapping, and the like.

What we're seeing, in short, is the beginning of a historic transfer of space operations from the public to the private sector. To be sure, NASA is not about to just close up shop and go home, nor are aerospace firms going to tell Washington tomorrow morning that they can get along fine without the taxpayers funding their space R&D for them. But there are some provocative straws in the wind.

The same Science Applications study that reported major markets for space industrialization recommended that NASA phase itself out of operating the Space Shuttle, turning that over to private enterprise to be operated commercially, like an airline. Soon thereafter, reports began to circulate through the aerospace community that Boeing is interested in taking over Shuttle operations—not just contracting to run it, but actually acquiring ownership.

Last year we reported in these pages on the operations of an innovative West German firm, OTRAG, that is developing, without tax money, a low-cost booster rocket from off-the-shelf components (REASON, July 1978). Despite financial and political difficulties, the firm made two more tests of single-stage rockets in 1978 and plans tests of two-stage rockets this year, according to the Space Information Center in Belgium. If all goes well, 1980 will see the first orbital mission, with a three-stage booster.

Elsewhere in this issue we report on the progress of the Space Freeport Project—a completely private, international effort to develop one or more nongovernmental launch sites, open to all peaceful users, both commercial and governmental. The considerable interest shown in this project provides yet another indication of the growing awareness of the commercial potential of space operations.

Even popular culture is picking up the trend. Witness the success of the new TV show Salvage I, whose pilot episode was about a private mission to the moon to salvage discarded NASA hardware—at a profit!

That the transition to private enterprise has begun can also be gleaned from several recent Washington developments. For one thing, NASA has confirmed its interest in privatizing the Shuttle. Last fall a NASA official connected with the Shuttle program, Chester Lee, told the Los Angeles Times that operating a space transportation system is not compatible with the agency's charter or its desire to remain an R&D organization.

A month later when President Carter released his detailed statement of space policy for the next decade, it included not a single new proposal for major space projects—no new Apollo or Shuttle-style commitments. Clearly, if space factories or solar power satellites or space colonies are to be built, it's going to have to be private industry that builds them.

Finally, the December issue of Government Executive carried a two-page article on the future of the US space program. Raising the question of whether it's now time for the government's role to wind down, the article devoted nearly half its length to discussing an earlier version of this writer's article (p. 24 of this issue) on why further government involvement in space exploitation is unwise. Taking this message mostly to heart, it urged that the government avoid creating a space version of the Interstate Commerce Commission.

Times are changing. In this special issue we hope to give you a better understanding of the whys and wherefores of the coming age of space.