America needs a vision for space.
The failure of human spaceflight to gain scale and sally forth over the last 50+ years is not due to the perfidy of politicians, the fickleness of our public, or the lack of an existential threat. It is because space exploration is too expensive to fund given what you get in return (a few footsteps in the dust of other worlds and bragging rights about who got there first) and the public is not willing to foot the bill. This problem will not be bridged by aspirational goals, enduring questions of the human spirit, or calls to rally the public from politicians eager for a bounce in the polls or to rhetorically harness a new Sputnik moment. Nor will it be fully resolved even if the private sector makes a breakthrough in launch costs.
Despite what commission after commission concludes, the answer is not about matching ends to means. The answer is to change the ends – and thereby to change the means. The end goal must be a vision that achieves scale. Without scale, volume is low and costs are high. The Catch-22 of America’s space program for a generation has been this: Without volume, costs can’t drop. Until costs drop, there won’t be volume.
Space exploration is an inherently small-scale business involving a few elite astronauts flitting about the solar system, planting flags on other worlds. It is not a business of scale. Therefore, such a program doesn’t allow you to travel down the cost curve. If we truly want to ‘advance humanity into space’, we need a vision for America’s future in space that solves this conundrum. It will need public funding and it must go big.
A valid strategic vision must be one that the public believes is worth investing substantial sums into and for which there is a viable and tangible reward that the public values above the cost. Engage the public with the right vision, strategy, and plan and I contend that a large majority will vote to support a program at scale and, in due course, the politics and funding will follow.
Scale to me is a budget for NASA on the order of $200 billion per year, upwards of 10x what NASA funding looks like today. This is in the range of 4-5% of the federal budget in any normal year. This is an enormous sum by any measure and will be met with justifiable skepticism. My as yet untested thesis is that we are capable of committing large resources if a program can meet foundational tests in engaging the public imagination.
Those foundational criteria to me are:
- It must embody the American Dream. That dream is not dead. It is the simple proposition that binds all of our citizens together in the common hope of a better life for our families and a better future for our children;
- It must draw a direct line to pocket book issues and concerns, namely economic growth, jobs, and wages and offer a viable path to creating a stronger economy for all Americans;
- It must resonate with our history of westward expansion and Manifest Destiny. From the Louisiana Purchase to the Homestead Act, we are a frontier culture and our cultural yearning for space has less to do with inspiration, human destiny, jingoism, or quasi-religious expression than with the historical affinity Americans (regardless of where they come from) have always had for seizing the wide open spaces. The courage to cross the open seas is a virtue and the frontier is, quite literally, in our DNA;
- It must extend beyond the elite. The Frontier cannot be about tourism for a wealthy few, a means to greatly enrich the 1%, or limited to exploration by a tiny cadre of highly trained and exclusively selected astronauts. It must be about the common person getting a chance to grab a new opportunity as a pioneer. A viable vision for scale in space must articulate a roadmap in which there is a potential for a large number of Americans of all stripes and means to participate;
- It must pass the test of stewardship by being fiscally responsible and offer not just a pathway to payback but a return on the investment of public funds that is large enough in scale to help us resolve some of the long-term financial challenges our nation faces, even if said payback takes time to materialize and largely benefits a future generation; and, finally,
- It must qualify as a top priority for the public in a long list of urgent and contentious issues. We must be able to explain to voters how and why the space program is a true national priority and our explanation must resonate strongly enough to fire up their imagination. Here’s a sniff test it must pass: We must be able to explain why funding a larger program in space is more important than an urgent, immediate, and emotionally compelling earthly priority (ex. Lower tuition) if the choice must be one or the other.
Aspirational and practical. Fiscally responsible, yet expensive. A true strategic vision worthy of a great nation must thread a series of seeming contradictions and it must be large enough in scope to meet the test of a ‘great’ nation. We are Americans. We don’t do things by half-measures.
Strategy requires a context and to set a context, we’ll draw on an historical metaphor of America as a frontier. We’ll start by going back to those first early American colonists, the challenges they went through and the advantages they had by comparison.
Most grade-schoolers are well versed in early American history. The simple version goes like this: Columbus discovered the New World in 1492 thinking he had found a short cut to Asia. In the following years, there were a series of expeditions to map out the new continent by the European powers of the time. The first English colonies in America were established in the early 1600s, starting with Jamestown in 1607. The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620. Others followed.
Getting there was not easy. You had to brave the North Atlantic in creaky wooden sailing ships for weeks on end depending on the season, the state of the winds, and the quality of your ship. But the winds that propelled you were free and the wooden ships you sailed on, while state of the art for their day, were built and operated with relatively basic materials and easily obtainable resources. They were reusable for multiple voyages. The expense of the journey was still very high and the early Pilgrims had to get the latter-day equivalent of a corporate sponsor and effectively indenture themselves for seven years of hard work in return for freedom in a new land.
Once you got there, the world in which you had landed had free air to breath, free water to drink, plentiful land for crops, timber and resources to exploit within reach, and the nearby seas were teaming with fish. Not all of these initial advantages could be so easily accessed and the early colonists suffered enormously (starvation and disease plagued the early colonies in their first few years). Despite these hardships, they were able to establish beachheads that grew into self-sustaining colonies. From a handful of settlements at the start of the 1600s, the American colonies grew rapidly to slightly more than two million people by the time of the American Revolution, roughly 150 years later, and to over 315+ million today some 230 years after that. (I’ll also note that there was a severe negative impact on the existing indigenous populations from this foundational story of the American colonies and their growth into a nation, but – no matter how tragic – that is not the salient point of this discussion.)
The space environment is different. Getting there is enormously expensive. Only governments and the very wealthy can afford it and then only as far as LEO which is basically like hugging the shallow bays and shores of the Old World, a modest and rather timid level of adventure.
Assuming you can get into space, you have to build your own destination and bring your own everything (BYOE) including air, water, food, and any material you build with. Step outside your door without the right suit and tools and you die instantly in the vacuum of space.
The economics of working in space are so forbidding that we are forever trying to emulate the early glory days of sending a few astronauts on a short trip back to the moon or onwards to Mars or other destinations. There are, of course, a few entrepreneurs who dream of colonies on Mars or hotels in space, but these are not mainstream visions and they lack significant funding.
Small-scale space travel (e.g. exploration) is enormously expensive, achieves only fleeting, unsustainable glories, and is thus not able to gain significant support as a result. It’s always a cost competing against more urgent, earthly priorities. Against this challenge, the most recent panel of experts admitted that there is no good single rationale for a program of exploration and they ultimately fall back on what every other recent panel has as well: human inspiration in the form of inspiring moments and enduring questions.
For the record, it is my belief that their logic is flawed and their conclusions are wrong. It hasn’t worked for the last 50 years. It won’t for the next 50 either. It’s time to consider something different.
As an alternative to space exploration as a governing vision for America’s space program, I would propose a strategic doctrine of Frontier Dominance of Near-Earth Space as an alternative to human exploration and high-minded aspiration.
I define Frontier Dominance as the creation of a set of basic capabilities in space where human operations in the near Earth space environment are economically self-sustaining and, eventually, profitable. Near Earth Space is the immediate vicinity of space extending out to the Moon’s orbit and associated Lagrange points, an area the space community refers to as CISLunar space. Achieving Frontier Dominance of this region means reducing the cost of living and working in this space by 99.9% or more.
Frontier Dominance as a strategic rationale is about building a destination on the frontier, a fortress on the plains of space, if you will, and providing it with the raw materials of life that we take for granted on Earth all at an economically sustainable price.
The key capabilities of Frontier Dominance are:
- In-Space Production of air and water;
- In-Space Production of fuel;
- In-Space Capability to process raw materials into metals;
- In-Space Capability to machine and fabricate metals;
- In-Space Ability to build structures;
- In-Space Capability to produce food;
- In-Space Capability to produce energy; and, finally, the
- In-Space Capability to produce something of economic use to earth with which to trade.
This is not new. These are not original thoughts. Many more credentialed members of the space community have speculated about these capabilities or made the case for their expansion and seizing a new frontier in space. There are existing organizations dedicated to achieving these ends (ex. National Space Society, Space Frontier Foundation, New Worlds, etc.) and people both in and outside of NASA, industry, and academia that advocate similar points of view. This is not a dazzling, breakthrough insight on my part.
Jeff Bezos regularly talks about millions of people working and living in space with most heavy industry done there. He suggests a future in which Earth might be rezoned for residential and light industry only. I’ve been in a friendly, space-oriented audience where this has been said and yet it was still treated like a (polite) laugh line. No one believes it is possible.
These organizations and advocates (wealthy or otherwise) are pitching policies and programs that will not make the case to the public for going big and therefore they are likely to achieve very little. What they have not done to my knowledge is articulate a governing vision, strategic rationale, and a political value proposition for getting to scale in space and that vision has not become mainstream policy nor been effectively sold to the public.
But that time has now come and it is urgent to start immediately.
Two things have changed to that make the time now.
The tools for lifting large quantities of material into space at a greatly reduced price per kilogram are already at hand. The private sector led by Elon Mush and SpaceX has brought the price of launching cargo to LEO down dramatically, already a 90% reduction with room to reduce further in the near future. Blue Origin may add to this capability in the next several years.
What has also changed is the potential for asteroid retrieval and the ability to bring large quantities of raw material from far away locations to a stable point within the near-earth environment where we can extract usable materials including water, fuel, and metals. The 2012 Keck study for Asteroid Retrieval is a seminal work. Yet, we have stood buy and allowed a newborn industry to wither away and die for lack of vision.
In contrast, I have proposed more than a single science mission to study an asteroid and retrieve two ounces of dust and gravel. I have proposed an L1 Strategic Materials Reserve served by an extensible, scalable, and reusable Near Earth Asteroid ARM conveyor system that delivers an accumulating quantity of material at an appropriate point in near earth space (L1 here as a convenient literary device, but scientists and engineers can determine the actual location). This Near Earth ARM conveyor is intended to deliver ever larger quantities of materials at progressively lower cost that can then be mined and processed into the outputs that are the key ingredients in establishing a presence in space that becomes increasingly self-sustaining. A growing reserve of material in near Earth Space will represent a tangible manifestation of the Frontier to all Americans. Along with a dramatic decrease in launch costs, an L1 Strategic Materials Reserve is a second driver of Frontier Dominance.
This is the crucial point.
A governing vision of Frontier Dominance offers a value proposition that can be explained and measured. Can we get an eventual economic ROI out of government led and commissioned activities? That ROI will be heavily negative in the early years of such an effort goes without question. But if resources can be mined and processed, there is the potential for rapid cost reduction. And if any high-value materials can be returned to Earth at anything like scale and/or if any other economic activities can be developed that create revenue, then it is possible that, unlike virtually every other public agency or expenditure, a significant effort to build frontier capabilities, may indeed generate a positive ROI over time.
Does Frontier Dominance meet the other tests articulated earlier?
A governing vision of Frontier Dominance connects with our historical expansion as a nation and the forces and culture that drive us today. From the Louisiana Purchase to the westward expansion, from the Land Grant movement to the purchase of Alaska, we are a nation that has been expansive and ever moving outwards and onwards, exploring the edges of what is possible. Frontier Dominance offers continuity with our national story and the grand sweep of our historical development. At the close of the 19th Century as the westward frontier came to a close, Frederick Turner proposed his Frontier Thesis, the idea that our national culture was formed by the frontier. Ours is still a culture uniquely suited to the frontier and a new frontier now beckons. I would argue that the call of this frontier has always been at the heart of America’s interest in the space program and there is a deep residual affinity and desire to expand and grow that has simply been waiting for the right tools, economics, and political dialogue. Frontier Dominance will tap into that core stream of America’s cultural (and perhaps physical) DNA. Exploration whets the appetite. Seizing the frontier is what truly resonates.
Frontier Dominance, if it can be achieved, also creates jobs and economic growth. Growth on a frontier always looks small at the start, but if we can establish a beachhead and grow it, then the potential for growth is vast, with a corresponding payback in government revenues and long-term economic vitality. Frontier Dominance takes the focus off a handful of astronauts and puts it on the prospect that millions may one day move onto the space frontier, precisely what Americans have been telling us they want – if we but chose to ask the right questions and listen.
Frontier Dominance offers a vision for a more prosperous nation and connects directly with the American Dream of a better future. If we open up a frontier and make operations that are economically sustainable, much less prosperous, then we have the chance to create a better future for our children. Driving an expansion into space will require pushing the frontiers of science and engineering at an accelerated pace and that will, in turn, foster economic productivity and prosperity throughout the entire economy. All will benefit. This is about a better, stronger, and more prosperous American future, one where we leave our children better off than present trends currently suggest.
Frontier Dominance as a governing vision also has the potential to meet the fiscal challenges our nation faces not only as a program that earns back its investment over time, but for its potential to break open a new frontier where rapid and aggressive economic growth is possible. It is possible to imagine a scenario where the US economy is uplifted significantly a few generations hence by rapid growth on this frontier and our long-term fiscal situation is greatly improved. There is no immutable law that says our trend growth rates have to remain in the very low single digits – if we can harness a vast new frontier with unlimited resources and exponential possibilities.
Frontier Dominance is not the same as day-dreaming about the big colonies in space envisioned by O’Neill. These may well come to pass as an outcome if we are able to achieve Frontier Dominance and if they make economic sense. It’s also true that our presence and capabilities may be heavily robotic. But to fairly test what is possible, we need to dramatically reduce the expense of being in space and then we need a vision of what to build and what it should achieve. We have to build the right capabilities and chase the right metrics.
Building these capabilities is more than a national adventure or an inspiring moment. It’s about creating entire new industries and the jobs that go with them. If a frontier in space can become economically sustainable and produces even a modest return on investment (or dramatically reduces the level of negative ROI for corresponding economic activity), then it can scale and if it can scale, American ownership of these capabilities becomes a material strategic advantage in every way, including economic.
Therefore, it is my contention that we now have a practical pathway towards Frontier Dominance and it begins with bold, scalable programs like establishing an L1 strategic material reserve and a reusable ARM conveyor that begins moving asteroid material in a continuous loop in progressively larger quantities that results in dramatically reducing the cost of raw material at a point in space that is advantageous for near Earth space operations.
I have not attempted to address the significant cost of what it will take to process asteroid materials or build the critical capabilities. This should become a matter of debate and it should be approached as an effort in which the private sector will be harnessed both for ideas and for implementation. We should look at mechanisms that allow private entities to deliver innovation in a competitive environment and to succeed or fail.
This point is this is just one example of what Frontier Dominance looks like in practice. We need to assemble multiple building blocks like this to craft an overall vision and strategy for space.
The private sector has a huge role to play in this effort. There are visionaries in the private sector e.g. Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, that are actively promoting bold visions for America’s future in space. But we should not make the mistake of underestimating the fundamental role of the public sector in rallying the American public and providing funding at scale. It will take a massive effort to create public support, enlist our political leadership, and fund a large-scale space program through the U.S. Congress in order to succeed. The space frontier will only be cracked by enlisting the public directly in the cause and building a strong enough political coalition to win the votes, pass the bills, and fund at scale. And this can only happen if the public believes there is a public benefit, not just a private one.
This is a critical point illustrated by some simple data points. When asked in a survey, Pew Research found that 65% of Americans want NASA to lead America’s program in space, not private space companies. While 44% of Americans believe private space companies will earn a profit in space, just 13% believe strongly that private space companies will minimize debris and pollution in space (a good proxy question for corporate behavior in general).1
The take away is that Americans do not entirely trust space companies and they want NASA to continue to lead America’s space program. The optics of ceding activity in space to any one private space company versus a national mission run by NASA is very dangerous. If a small number of wealthy individuals capture most of the economic benefits or are even perceived to be at risk of doing so, then there will be a public backlash. If those individuals espouse politics or demonstrate behaviors that are not a model for the entire nation, then a very hostile political environment will be created. Promoting a vision for America in space when it is so tightly integrated with private sector gain and individual private personalities, will be that much harder to achieve. Billionaires, above all others, should seek to build public participation and a public agenda and vision. There is plenty of credit, acclaim, and hubris to be earned. Doing so selfishly at the expense of a national sense of mission is dangerously self-indulgent and short-sighted. We must have a public vision and a publicly-led agenda for space
So, are these points merely the rambling of a wild-eyed dreamer (or a crackpot from left field)? Perhaps. The difference between an impractical dream and a vision that can become reality in this context comes down to the practicality of gaining political and public support. At first rub, the natural skeptic will note the heavily partisan environment, the low rates of economic growth, the multiple and overlapping crises from pandemic to economic depression to racial justice, and the deepening strain on our public finances and will conclude that no such political or public support may feasibly be forthcoming for a large new program in space.
I disagree. The deeper irony may be that the relatively more modest aspirations of space exploration are both too expensive to fund and too small to sell, a phrase I have returned to repeatedly in this essay. Conversely, my contention is that a far more ambitious, expansive, and, yes, expensive program could achieve more support and meet the public’s true aspirations for leadership from our nation’s governing class.
Such a vision must be based on three components:
- Strategy & Doctrine
- Ideology & Economics
- Public Will
Strategy & Doctrine – Vision First
I define Strategy and Doctrine as the specific political and technical framework that articulates a vision of Frontier Dominance and describes how to implement it, the language used to describe it, and the specific goals and operational mechanisms used to achieve it. A pathway to scale in space must offer a convincing answer to the cost question and it must lay out a roadmap that demonstrates which technologies will be deployed on what timeframes and in what ways to reduce those costs dramatically.
A roadmap to the future is critical and it must offer a pathway that is politically and strategically possible.
In Chapter 3, I outlined the conundrum of getting to scale in space with a simple illustration of the current economics of transporting an astronaut or passenger to Low Earth Orbit and another table to show what the estimated annual cost would be to support that same astronaut at a Lagrange point.
The costs today are extraordinarily, unimaginably high. Getting to scale is impossible within the current cost profile. But I have also illustrated what the economic costs could look like under various cost reduction scenarios. If we can learn to ‘live off the land’ in space, to leverage the resources that we can acquire in space to support ourselves, then these cost reduction scenarios may be feasible. These were rough models, but they are enough to make the directional point and illustrate the critical challenge.
A strategy to achieve Frontier Dominance will require a roadmap that articulates the specific technologies and applications that will allow for the dramatic cost reduction (on the order of 99%) needed against today’s baseline cost structure in order to achieve Frontier Dominance in the near earth space environment along with a timeline and a plan for fielding them. It must articulate the cost, the value proposition, and the business case that each specific investment or technology will have on reducing the overall cost of achieving Frontier Dominance. This is much more than simply saying we’ll get water from asteroids. A viable strategic plan will need to show exactly what the full lifecycle of water production will look like, what the inputs are and outputs will be, and how low costs can go. The same goes for fuel, metals, and food.
A viable strategy must articulate what such a presence in space would do – and scientific research and human inspiration from enduring questions had better not be the answer. A large presence in space must return economic value to Earth and the American economy in the form of some tangible economic activity, whether that is building solar power satellites (something speculated about for many years), mining high-value resources for Earth, or producing a unique or very high value good that cannot be done on Earth (production requiring zero gravity, for instance). A strategic vision must articulate what these products are and how to build them.
Such a broad strategy must also outline a set of goals for achieving Frontier Dominance or its equivalent and an action plan leading to a sustainable, vibrant, and growing presence on the frontier of near-Earth space.
Ideology & Economics
In Christopher Nolan’s 2014 film, Interstellar, the protagonists must solve an equation for gravity in order to lift humanity off the planet to safety and avoid extinction in a dystopian future. In real life, we don’t need to solve for gravity, we need to solve for NPV, or Net Present Value.
Net Present Value is the current value of all future discounted cash flows resulting from an investment. In the business world, if an investment results in a positive NPV over its calculated life, then it is worth investing in. (At least in the simple version.)
When I speak of the role of economics in achieving Frontier Dominance, I refer to the calculation of the aggregate public costs and public revenue returned in the form of taxes and other cash flows. In other words, can a massive investment in advancing humanity into space pay itself back in part or in whole and can we show that in the form of a positive and public Net Present Value?
Space exploration has no prospect of direct payback. By contrast, Frontier Dominance will return cash flows to the public purse. We need to model what these look like over time. The strategic roadmap is the key input into beginning this modeling effort. It should help us identify what the investments will cost, their corresponding impact on reducing the costs of sustaining a workforce in near Earth space, and the assumptions we need to make. In the near term such cash flows are obviously negative and very large. But over time there are offsetting revenues in the form of taxes, both corporate and individual, and revenue streams from economic activities done directly or jointly with the private sector.
When I think about the challenge of modeling the economics of Frontier Dominance, I think of it in terms of both Microeconomics and Macroeconomics. Microeconomics allows us to explore small interactions and how they impact larger value streams and supply chains. They tell us what the big picture looks like and how it may evolve through extrapolation.
Macroeconomics is the big picture and with it you model not just the public expenditures and revenues, but the impact of private sector investment and activity and how the total mix will add to GDP, tax receipts, and economic growth.
There are intriguing questions at both small and large scale.
What will a cup of coffee cost in outer space?
Coffee is a great test case for the microeconomic analysis of a future human presence in space and what it implies for Frontier Dominance. Imagine there is a future colony at a Lagrange Point and it houses 10,000 people. How will those people live? What kind of environment will they have? How long will they work and live there before rotating back to Earth? What will they get paid?
The coffee illustration sets up a test condition that can be used to model and explain the kind of analysis needed, what it will show, and perhaps what those results imply for the technology roadmap and the viability of an economically sustainable human presence in space.
Here, in rough order form, is what I mean.
The cost of a cup of coffee if both the water and the coffee grounds are shipped from Earth can be roughly calculated as $2,500 per cup (rounded). I’m assuming for this example that the cost of cargo launched by rocket from Earth is $10,000/kg (by the time we are serving coffee to workers at L1) and a ‘cup’ is 8 ounces of water plus one ounce of coffee grounds. This would be enormously expensive – which makes it very interesting.
To achieve Frontier Dominance, we would need to bring the cost of that cup of coffee down to something more ‘reasonable’ and economically sustainable, although it may never be as cheap as walking into a Starbucks on Earth.
Water is the first component of that cup of coffee that can be produced locally from harvested asteroid material or moon regolith. Water represents the bulk of the expense of that multi-thousand dollar cup of coffee. You can probably reduce the cost of a single cup of coffee by 80-90% by producing the water locally from materials in space. The analysis, of course, would need to derive the economic cost of mining and processing the water and every gallon will still be very expensive in comparison with Earth costs.
Then there is the matter of the coffee in whatever form it takes. Can it be grown locally? Or must it be shipped from Earth? How much can be grown on-site given the competing needs for other foodstuffs and the mix of labor and machinery available?
The cost of labor must also be added in. If that coffee is grown locally, and no matter how automated the process is, there still must be people that are involved in the production, harvesting, distribution, and ultimately roasting and serving of the coffee. An entire supply chain must be created even if it is a relatively small one and the cost of every input along the way must be accounted for when contemplating virtually any good produced on the space frontier. It may be that an ounce of freeze dried coffee shipped from Earth is still cheaper than producing coffee locally. The ultimate cost of coffee will tell us a lot about what life will be like on the frontier as humans begin to establish and build scale.
You can ask the same question about olive oil, a pair of pants, an iPad, an electric razor, a big screen television, or a single orange. Will humans living on the frontier of space, even relatively close to Earth, ever have access to these goods and, if so, what is the cost of their production, distribution, and sale?
Each of these goods requires a supply chain and a set of production processes some seemingly simple (an orange) and others more complex (an iPad). These are consumer goods. If we wish to build industrial goods – a rocket engine, for instance – then the end product will in turn require a complex supply chain built up over time. What will it take to build up supply chains for consumer and industrial goods? How can we use new technologies (robotics, 3D printing, etc.) to short-cut the production of goods via long, extended supply chains? What will it all cost in terms of investment, the cost of production, and the evolution of marginal unit cost based on expected volumes?
These are the questions that require analysis. To create a long-term sustainable presence in near-Earth space, the economics of some form of presence must ultimately make sense.
My suspicion is that any analysis will tell us that the cost of living will be very high and the quality of life very Spartan. There will be few luxuries and it is hard to imagine an environment of lush abundance or much by way of consumer choice for many generations. Living in a space habitat may involve a paradox of very high tech accommodations paired with very low tech communal living conditions. The cost of living and the implications of hardship also suggest salaries must be high compared to Earth-based jobs. In aggregate, those high salaries must then translate into some form of economically useful activity that allows for a positive return on investment.
Living on the frontier of space in an economically sustainable way will require resources be used and reused hyper efficiently. I see any kind of significant human presence in space as redefining the very terms environmentally sustainable and serving as a catalyst to drive environmental innovation at scale. Nothing will be wasted, everything recycled and reused.
The high cost of transportation may also imply long-term contracts. These will not be short rotation assignments, but multi-year in duration and potential contract terms in the range of 5-7 years in duration may become the norm. After all, for a long time, perhaps generations, it will still cost a lot to transport a person out to a Lagrange Point (or any destination in space) and so this cost will have to be amortized over as many years as feasible in a productive way that still generates an economic rate of return.
Isolation will be a problem if the community is not large enough and this implies a space station big enough to avoid ‘island fever’ or long-term physical problems and harmful effects.
Achieving Frontier Dominance is going to be harder than it sounds and the implications of even simple microeconomic analysis will likely show that achieving true Frontier Dominance means a working and living environment that is highly automated, extremely Spartan, and highly sustainable.
The microeconomic analysis of a sustainable human presence in space will offer critical insights that can then be aggregated into a projection of what the long-term macroeconomic costs and benefits of achieving Frontier Dominance will be for the sponsoring nation-state(s) at home on Earth. It is there we turn next.
Microeconomics tells us that living in space will be very expensive and the high cost of living implies very high salaries. The high cost of transportation implies long-term contracts. Working and living in space will not be easy, the conditions simple (I don’t buy the business case for luxury hotels). And yet, people will want these jobs and will want this experience.
Macroeconomics, by contrast, tells us what the aggregate flow of cost and revenue implies for our public finances, national income and future economic growth.
Consider the following graph in Table 1:
The assumptions behind this graph are very basic and my intent is to sketch out in rough order estimate form what will be needed in the form of qualified analysis. Simply put, I offer this graph as an illustration of what needs to be done and to describe what might be possible.
This graph portrays a point of view comparing the significant outlays and costs of government expenditure over a sustained period of time lasting 60 years. It offers one scenario for what achieving Frontier Dominance could look like. Cost is the blue, or negative, line.
The cost line assumes we as a nation choose to make a very large investment for an extended period of time lasting decades, peaking out at around $200 billion per year. To put this in context, our current Federal budget is nearing $4.5 trillion per year (in a normal year) and we argue over every penny spent.
In my simple model, it takes 10 years to ramp up to that full annual expenditure rate and then the $200 billion per year is maintained for 20 years before it begins to ramp slowly down to zero by Year 54.
The investment of $200 billion per year is the cost of building out according to the Strategic Plan a set of capabilities to make living in space economically sustainable. It suggests an investment over those 60 years on the order of $8-$9 trillion dollars. Mind you, when a price tag for space exploration has been tossed around in the past with much smaller numbers ($500 billion over 30 years), a mere pittance compared to what I am proposing, the answer has always been that such requests are dead on arrival at Congress’s door.
But here is why this time is different: The red line.
The red line represents public revenue. Space exploration has no revenue to model and the benefits are indirect at best. Frontier Dominance, in contrast, assumes that we begin to achieve some form of public revenue from a human presence in space. We begin to build a space-based economy with activity that drives taxes. And that is where it gets interesting.
As economic activity increases as a result of a massive investment of public resources and a workforce in space begins producing something of economic value, the government begins to collect revenue in multiple forms (income taxes, corporate taxes, public-private gain share, etc.). At first, these revenues will be very modest and relatively small. But they will grow.
In the simple graph I’ve created, I’ve assumed a modest growth rate of 15% per year in public revenue. This model assumes that it takes many decades for the revenue to build enough to begin scaling back the input of public funding.
In numbers, my simple model assumes the local space economy is zero at the start and grows at 15% annually. The tax rate is a flat rate of 20% on all income and economic activity. The model assumes after 10 years the size of that space based economy is barely $4 billion and tax revenue is less than $1 billion. Progress is slow. By Year 20, the space economy is just over $16 billion and tax revenue is $3.25 billion. It takes until Year 50 for the space economy to cross $1 trillion in size and the tax revenue is just over $215 billion. By Year 60, the space economy, continuing to grow at 15% per year, is $4.3 trillion in size and tax revenue is nearly $900 billion.
This model assumes that after a massive cumulative rate of investment over an extended period of time, that a significant, dynamic, and growing presence in space is rapidly building and that an economic ‘take-off’, a point of self-sustaining ignition, has occurred. At the point, public revenue from the space frontier matches public funds being invested and we have achieved a sustainable and growing economy in space that is creating a rapidly increasing sum in tax revenue.
What’s also true is that it probably won’t happen like this. I’ve been as conservative as possible. I’ve modeled an economy that starts at zero and grows at 15% a year. More likely is that a space-based economy will start bigger and grow in rapid burst or step jumps in the early years that may double or triple the size of the economy in a single year. Eventually, when it gains some size, the rate of growth will slow to something approximating 15%. What that means is the blue line might be shorter and shallower than it looks and the red line may leap higher much faster.
For some this is pure science fiction, but I’m not the only one that has speculated at how fast economic activity may grow on the space frontier. Chris Impey, author of Beyond: Our Future in Space and a Distinguished Professor at the University of Arizona, has written that the space economy could match the terrestrial economy in size within 100 years. His forecast suggests it could be equal by 2115 assuming significant growth takes off on the space frontier in the very near future.
This is not wildly implausible when you consider that to expand into space will require acquiring and processing resources at large scale, building out infrastructure from a starting point of nothing, creating entire supply chains in space for both consumer and industrial goods in order to become self-sustaining, and creating entire cities where none exists today. It will require a massive build out of every kind of economic activity, a huge volume of factor inputs from resources to labor. Growth, if it can be financed at the start in a sustainable way, will be extraordinarily fast. That 15% annual growth rate I use in my very simple model is probably ridiculously modest.
Nor is this entirely new. We’ve seen this story before on Earth – it’s called China over the last three decades. (Or America a century earlier.)
This kind of growth engine has far reaching implications. In aggregate terms, the intriguing possibility is that the most important export back to Earth for the next 100 years in space may simply be: Tax Revenue.
The true importance of this can be seen in my illustration of the red revenue line at the far right of the table. Revenue is growing very fast and begins to drive a Return on Investment (ROI) for the public as a whole. The red line means not only complete payback of all public funds invested over time, but also an increasing contribution to the US Federal Budget in the back half of the century.
Imagine a future where there is twin US economy in Near Earth Space that is just as big and has a flat tax of 20% on all economic activity. If that economy were $17 trillion in current dollar terms (roughly the size of our economy today), the tax revenue would be $3.4 trillion, roughly equivalent to all Federal tax receipts today. Of course, a portion of those public funds will be needed to support public services in the space economy, but given the demographics, education, and high income of that community, it is easy to imagine relatively modest needs, resulting in a large surplus returned to Earth for a very long time.
In addition, that space-based economic twin may be growing at double digits (even triple digits early on), limited only by how many terrestrial-based inputs we can add (re: people, machinery, etc.). Combined, the US economy, terrestrial and space, may begin to achieve accelerated economic growth rising from a low 2-3% forecast to high single or even double digits for an extended period of time.
Table 2 is what that future may look like in graphic form:
In the graph, the net revenue reflects the cumulative program expense (that $200 billion per year) as well as the impact of the tax revenue over time. It takes a long time for the space-based economy to grow and begin providing significant taxable revenue to offset and eventually drive down the public funding. The cumulative picture shows a deep negative trough that hits nearly $6.7 trillion dollars before significant tax revenue begins to enter the picture. Then as the tax revenue grows rapidly in lock step with a rapidly growing space economy, the cumulative picture changes dramatically. Tax revenue begins to pay back the cumulative expenditure and crosses the line to a net profit in Year 60. After that it grows rapidly each year and the cumulative picture represents a net contribution to the US budget from then on.
It’s that net contribution in public funds that is the jackpot we should be playing for. Winning it changes everything. If this scenario is even remotely feasible, it has the potential to reshape our perception of the future and what is possible on all sides of the ideological spectrum. And it does so not just for America, but for humanity as a whole.
In American terms, if scale is possible and a net positive return on investment becomes very large over time, then there is potential to drive lower taxes for Americans on Earth while delivering long-term sustainability to our current fiscal outlook. Republicans dream about this kind of thing, but there are serious challenges in delivering this agenda in an economically and politically sustainable way in the low growth economy we have today. Likewise, Democrats dream about addressing inequality with greater government expenditure and using government to address many economic injustices. There are also challenges in meeting these aspirations and obligations given the economic assumptions today about future growth and revenue. Yet, the scenario outlined above may help square this circle for both sides. It suggests the possibility that currently grim views of our long-term fiscal situation just might be wildly off base. The analysis we need now is to what extent this may be possible and what the funding flows, both positive and negative, look like.
Given that our current annual budget is nearing $4.5 trillion per year (in a normal year) on spending and I am proposing we invest $200 billion annually at full run rate, I believe this is a modest proposal for a potentially large payback. Put another way, the total outlays in non-inflation adjusted dollars in my admittedly unsophisticated model are roughly $8.3 trillion and phase out by Year 55. By Year 65, the total cumulative tax revenue is $13.4 trillion and the net ‘profit’ is over $5 trillion and growing. In Year 65, the space economy adds $1.7 trillion in revenue to the budget and it is expanding rapidly
But my model is very simple and the growth rate is very modest. Its assumptions are debatable. Even so, the implications are profound. Why should we bother to build up a space frontier? Because the right-side of that graph potentially helps us solve many of our Earth-based problems. If we can create a source of rapidly growing taxable income, a fountain of perpetual budgetary surplus, it changes the outlook of our future – and for humanity as a whole. In a world growing towards a population of 9-10 billion, we are going to either have to reallocate the wealth of the global economy that we have on a global scale to meet the ever growing needs or we are going to have to create a new source of wealth, an economic machine capable of supporting so many mouths to feed.
Here’s how to make it practical. I would propose that we put competing teams of true economic experts paired with a technology roadmap to produce a set of credible studies that map out what a forecast of the economics of Frontier Dominance would actually look like if we make significant investments and attempt to achieve scale in space. My model is simple and illustrative. Let’s get some real economists on the job building a forecast for what the future could look like.
These teams might also address several other intriguing questions at the macroeconomic level as well.
Purchasing Power Parity (PPP)
Another way to view this macro-economic construct and its potential ramifications is to consider Purchasing Power Parity (PPP). Consider, if you will, the cost differential of a worker that travels from Dhaka, Bangladesh to Los Angeles, California today, right now.
The cost of a meal, housing, basic supplies or services such as a haircut in Dhaka are a tiny fraction of the cost of many of these same goods and services in Los Angeles. The wages workers in Dhaka get are a tiny fraction of the American minimum wage. Despite these differences, workers in both locations may share similar levels of consumption, if not similar environments and similar choices.
Economists use the concept of Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) to compare the relative value of income and spending across very different places. For instance, a seamstress in Dhaka may make as little as $.50 per hour compared to a similar seamstress in LA that makes $10 an hour. But both may be able to buy a bowl of noodles for the same proportion of their hourly wages. In this respect, they have similar levels of Purchasing Power Parity, but the worker in LA will be able to spend and save more in absolute dollars, even if they are spending and saving a similar portion of their income in PPP terms. If the seamstress in LA visits Dhaka, they might marvel that a cup of coffee is 10 cents. However, the seamstress in Dhaka might be appalled on a similar visit to find that a cup of coffee in Los Angeles is $3.00 at the local Starbucks, and prohibitively expensive. When it comes to paying taxes, the worker in LA will pay what looks like a small fortune in taxes to the worker in Dhaka in absolute terms, even if they wind up being relatively similar in PPP terms.
Where these concepts get interesting and need analysis is when it comes to the space frontier. In a near future where there is a significant human presence in space, the question is whether wages, prices, and the supply and demand of goods and services will be controlled and set centrally (the astronaut model we operate under today) or if market mechanisms will be allowed to manage supply and demand. In the centrally controlled astronaut model, the astronaut receives their Earthly pay at Earthly wage rates and all goods and services they consume in space are centrally allocated and rationed, usually free of charge or included as part of their mission. This model does not allow goods and services to find a market clearing price that reflects actual costs and that means it does not encourage innovation and entrepreneurialism. It misses a huge opportunity when you think at scale.
In the market economy example, wages and prices are set by actual costs and are market driven by supply and demand. In space, costs are going to be much higher than they are on Earth. That cup of coffee will never be as cheap to create in space as it is on Earth. If all goods and services find their real value, then wages will also. That means that what a worker makes in space compared to Earth may look very much like the difference between Dhaka and LA. The Earth-based worker is in a fundamentally different environment, one of earthly abundance and relatively low prices. The space-based worker is in a situation of scarcity where all goods and services are extraordinarily expensive.
I can imagine a minimum wage that looks incredibly high in space compared to our Los Angeles example.
For instance, what if a true ‘minimum’ wage in space is $250 per hour and an average worker makes $450k per year in dollar terms? In PPP terms, they may be able to spend and consume no more than an average worker in LA. But in space, the cup of coffee they drink may cost $100 and the bowl of noodles they eat may cost $200. At a flat rate of 20%, they may also pay $90k per year in taxes and save an equally large sum (while also paying an astronomically high monthly rent expense).
A market-based economy in space that reflects true costs probably implies very high wages matched by an extraordinarily high rate of innovation and productivity growth.
These are very speculative examples, but they highlight the need to begin modeling what a space-based economy looks like, how it will be managed in terms of market economics, the relationship with the terrestrial sponsoring economy, and what it will take to become fully sustainable. What are the implications to our terrestrial economy if workers on long-term contracts in space, having saved upwards of a million dollars each, begin to circulate back home after their tour?
This is merely interesting if the numbers are in the thousands, but the impact is much larger and more far reaching if the number of people participating in this economy begins to climb into the millions by the back half of the century.
Here’s yet another conceptual way to think about this.
If you carry out our metaphor a little further, imagine that Bangladesh, a very poor country of 167 million people with a GDP of $225 billion and an average income of less than $1,400 per person, actually owned a slice of Los Angeles today (an economy over three times larger as a metropolitan area). Let’s say they owned 50% of today’s Los Angeles economy, could claim a flat tax on all individual and corporate income as well as a few joint ventures in the local economy, and a large number of Bangladeshis worked and lived there on 5-7 year contracts before returning home.
The revenue back from the Bangladeshi colony of New LA would not just be in the form of individual remittances to specific families, but in the form of direct tax revenue that could be used to pave roads, build schools, and finance pensions at home. The Bangladeshi government would have a surplus to invest in public services from health care to law and order. Such revenue would significantly change the outlook for the entire population of Bangladesh. They would not need foreign aid or external help. They could build a society that is prosperous entirely on their own. And it would be debt free.
In this illustration, America, of course, is the notional form of Bangladesh. And the ‘New LA’ metaphor represents a space economy of the future that has scaled and become self-sustaining.
That economy is what I think of as an economic conjugate, a copy of our own domestic, Earth-based economy operating at an exponentially higher level of prices and wages – a plural tense to our singular tense. If a twin economy can be created in Near Earth space and it operates at a fundamentally higher level of wages and prices with a vastly higher level of automation and productivity, then it can potentially deliver back a surplus in public and private revenue that may alter debates on everything from inequality to productivity to the potential for economic growth.
This doesn’t just have to be an American story either. If we can conjugate our own economy, then we can potentially help every other country in the world do the same with theirs. We can build a template for other nations to replicate. And if that is possible, then the benefits of the space frontier are not exclusively American, but open to every nation on Earth and could potentially rewrite the future for all of humanity.
The bigger point is we have not begun to seriously grapple with or sketch out the potential size, scope, and growth of a near-Earth space economy and its impact on our domestic growth and economic development. Yet this is potentially strategic in every way. We need to start this effort as an urgent priority.
Creating a set of economic baselines of what might be possible is a core requirement for beginning to rally public support. It also tells us a bit about the implications for our political landscape.
Many of our greatest political battles are fought over how much government should spend, what its priorities are for spending, and the appropriate balance between the private and public sectors. This is a national argument that has been going on since the founding of the republic and it has lasted this long precisely because both sides have valid points, something both sides frequently forget.
Today, there are significant concerns about the long-term direction of government programs and our nation’s long-term liabilities. We are fighting many of these battles against a backdrop of austerity, reduced rates of economic growth, and fears of long-term secular stagnation which are now amplified by the political and economic impacts of a global pandemic. There is even a growing debate over whether the golden age of American economic growth is over, a possibility that very modest economic growth is the best we can hope for in the future.
Yet, an economic analysis of what a sustainable economy in near-earth space looks like as well as what it returns to a sponsoring government may change our assumptions about the future. The macro implications for the American economy, assuming it were the primary sponsor, might potentially look something like the illustration in Table 1 in the preceding section.
The cost at the start is very high, but over time it begins to return cash flows that grow exponentially. When you consider the long-term outlook of our economy with our fiscal and demographic challenges just highlighted, this begins to get interesting.
The implications for both sides of the political spectrum are potentially profound. A vigorous and expansive effort to achieve Frontier Dominance and achieve an expansive and sustainable presence in space could materially recast the long-term trend for our economy. They are:
- Creates the potential for sustained, rapid economic growth at rates well above the long-term trend of 2-3% and potentially in the range of double digits.
- Creates the potential for new and significant flows of public tax receipts.
- Potentially rewrites our understanding of our public finances and their long-term solvency in the second half of this century.
This means the long-term outlook may not be as bad as it currently sounds. It suggests that it makes sense to increase public expenditures significantly now as long as there are offsetting cash flows in the future. It means that unlike any other government program, a vigorous effort to achieve Frontier Dominance could result in economic payback in large measure to both the public and private sectors.
This does not necessarily change bedrock ideological assumptions on either the right or the left. For Republicans the mission will be to control discretionary and non-discretionary spending in order to channel significant funds to an accelerated space program, but it may imply something anathema to the right as well: higher taxes and bigger government (or empowering a more vigorous IRS to collect the taxes that are actually owed). For Democrats it speaks to a significant role for government and investments that lead to greater economic growth, but it probably cannot be achieved without significant sacrifices and a grand bargain or two across the aisle in constraining costs in areas Democrats have traditionally defended aggressively.
Both sides will have to make some tradeoffs in what are currently rigid ideological stances. For many this will seem impractical, but I would suggest that this is precisely why there is a third component to the strategy: Public will.
Public will is the third leg and the most strategic in achieving Frontier Dominance. The other two (strategy, economy & ideology) provide the raw material for the broader public discourse that will be necessary to gain traction and increased public support.
Public will is not set in stone. It is malleable and it changes over time. Al Gore is fond of saying that ‘public will is a renewable resource.’ His point is right, of course. In the context of space, there have been periods where public perception and support have shifted in small but significant ways and it is important to understand how and why that has occurred.
Roger Launius of the Smithsonian has noted that after the release of Apollo 13 in 1995, there was a significant and extended increase in public interest in human spaceflight. Between 1989 and 1995, when polls asked the public if they favored robotic missions to explore space compared to human missions, the answer came back consistently favoring robotic missions. In 1995, the public suddenly shifted its point of view to favoring human missions and it has stayed that way since. This profound transformation is thought to be linked to the impact of the movie Apollo 13 and its depiction of a NASA mission gone awry and the heroic effort to recover it successfully.2
What the existing data suggests is that public opinion can change when presented with either new information or new opportunities or with new ideas that have better packaging, the latter being the basis for an entire industry called advertising and marketing. There is another related industry called political campaigning that is also built on the assumption that public interest and desire for change can be shifted and channeled over time.
Shifting public opinion and translating that into public will to fund a political vision for America’s role in space and to fund it at scale is the key to success of a vision to advance humanity into space.
I would argue that what the Pew Research Center surveys of what Americans think is possible 50 years hence are rough indicators of a desire on the part of the American public to engage in a more meaningful way and to find a more compelling vision. But the Pew surveys are merely touch points in the dark about what the public may be thinking or willing to consider. They do not really explore deeply or broadly the contour of public interest in the concept of getting to scale in space.
I believe there is potentially a great hunger for the Frontier in our population and deeply embedded in our culture than we may realize and a possibility that we may have missed it entirely. It is possible we have been asking the wrong questions and have failed to capture a full sense of what the American public is willing to support. It is possible that the Pew questions are not simply capturing an idle interest in science and technology or a common view of what may be possible, but rather instead a sense of what people want and are potentially willing to fund. At the very least, we need to ask some different questions. In the grand scheme of things, this is not terribly expensive and would offer a first proof or test point of my thesis of Frontier Dominance.
Here are a few examples of the kind of questions we need to ask:
- Would you support a large increase in NASA’s budget if it meant we could sustainably station thousands of people in space doing something that would pay for itself over time?
- Would you be willing to invest $10 trillion dollars over 50 years in a NASA program to build a large presence in space engaged in asteroid mining if, over the course of that 50 years, the program would become profitable and pay back the entire investment several times over for future generations?
- Would you be willing to make a massive investment in a NASA program to open a new frontier in space if it meant normal people might one day work and live in space profitably?
- Would you be willing to increase NASA’s budget today from $20 billion to $200 billion per year for 30 years if it meant that NASA could create a self-sustaining human presence in space that creates high paying jobs both at home on Earth and in space and that returns most if not all of the investment to the taxpayer over time.
- Would you be willing to invest in a transportation system for humans into space that lowered the cost of a ticket from $70m to $250,000 and made it possible for normal Americans to travel into space for either work or tourism?
- Would you invest $10 trillion in taxpayer funds over a period of 50 years if that investment would return $30 trillion in taxpayer revenue over that same period of time?
Professionals can craft better questions than I can and these are overly redundant. But some form or variation of these questions is necessary to begin establishing a baseline of what Americans really believe is possible and to explore the full scope of their willingness to make a major strategic investment in the high frontier. (Here’s a spoiler alert. I’ve tested this hypothesis and I believe my thesis is correct and the polling industry has missed it. As the elections of 2016 and 2020 abundantly demonstrate, it wouldn’t be the first time.)
With this information as a starting point, we then need to convince a hundred million or so of our fellow Americans that it is possible and desirable to achieve scale in space and that doing so is a critical necessity for future generations and a worthy cause of a great nation. This effort will take time, but it is the basis, the critical foundation, for getting to scale in space. It cannot be a fringe movement of a few thousand people. It must be an effort and message that resonates with tens of millions which then translates into votes.
Is that possible? Can we make developing the frontier of space a mass movement?
There are two contemporary examples of mass movements in today’s politics that are worth considering for context: The Environmental movement and the Conservative movement. Both have been reshaping domestic US politics dramatically over the course of a generation even as they come from polar opposite sides of the political spectrum.
Both movements offer lessons on how to establish a narrative, build a movement, and achieve a desired result. Both are valid examples no matter what side of the political spectrum you come from or are currently on. Both have weaknesses and lessons to learn from. Both are traveling towards the political center and both have hard opposition that may be intractable. Both are supported by a network of grassroots organizations and an historical narrative or narrative story that is powerful and has resonance with a large number of people.
Building a similar movement for space is going to be hard, come with its own challenges, and may take a generation. But it also has a couple of advantages that neither Environmentalists or Conservatives started with or have today.
First – It starts from the political center.
There is an enormous residual pride on our heritage in space and the fact that we, as Americans, were the first and so far only country to land astronauts on the moon. That pride is why no politician would consider shuttering NASA today. Starve it for funds and constrain its growth for a lack of a governing vision and strategic vision, yes. But cut it back drastically and close out the American story of venturing into space? Not a chance. Our space program is on par with Mom and Apple Pie. It is closely intertwined with the American Dream and there is a reasonable narrative that can be created that a bigger future in space is also our best shot at a more prosperous, high growth future that benefits all rather than a winner-take-all economy that rewards a relative few.
Second – It is less ambitious.
As ambitious as a massive increase in funding for space is, the scope of it pales to insignificance when compared to the much larger financial implications of either the Environmental movement or the Conservative movement.
Environmentalists want to reshape the entire energy industry by converting to renewables (solar, wind, etc.) and ramping down massive legacy investments worth many trillions of dollars, making an entire industry obsolete in the process. They want to achieve a culture change with quasi-religious and spiritual implications to current behaviors. They seek to shift the common psychology of voters at a fundamental level. Mind you, I am personally sympathetic to the scope, scale, and ambition of the Environmental movement and, fair disclosure, support it in most every respect. Saving the planet is a personal value for me as well. But I offer this description as comparative context at just how ambitious the Environmental movement really is from a political and social scope, how far it has come in a generation in achieving these ends, and how far it has yet to go. The Green New Deal is just the latest narrative theme and it is instructive to see how challenging it is to implement it.
Conservatives are equally ambitious. They wish to have an impact on our national politics and fundamentally reshape the public safety net, how much government spends, and the size and scope of what the federal government does on a daily basis. Conservatives seek to reshape, reduce, or eliminate spending programs that total several trillion dollars each year. They also seek to achieve very large philosophical, cultural and behavioral changes in how citizens behave and engage socially and economically. There are some virtues in this agenda and some of the ideas are worthy and worth considering regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum. But the bigger point is that as a movement, it is hugely ambitious.
I’ll simply repeat the obvious. Even a massive effort to create a new frontier in space is not as ambitious as either the Environmental movement or the Conservative movement.
Third – It will have less opposition.
Opposition is likely to be much less limited and hostile to an enhanced space program. In many respects, a vastly larger effort in space comes at less political cost and provokes fewer established industries and interests than the much larger and more ambitious examples of Environmentalism and Conservatism. Of course spending more in one place threatens expenditures elsewhere, but a ramp-up in funding for space does not create an existential threat to entire industries or bedrock values. The opposition, therefore, will not be as impassioned, intense, or organized. It will have opponents, but some of them are relatively small or do not clearly realize their own self-interest.
In fact, we might be able to enlist many larger movements and interest groups. I’ll offer some examples.
Business community. Companies across many industries today are sitting on cash or paying out to shareholders rather than investing in future products. There is a great uncertainty over demand and no compelling reason, no great need, to build or invest. A new frontier that promises unlimited scale for growth also opens up growth opportunities and expectations. Growth trumps everything. A credible business case for a massive expansion that creates greater demand within the American economy has the potential to enlist broad support from the business community.
Science community. The science lobby has traditionally seen human engagement in space as a win-lose proposition that reduces spending on science. Astronauts are expensive. If you are a scientist, your self-interest is in fewer astronauts and more robotic science missions. A much greater scale program in space, however, would mean a massive infusion of funding for science. Once a credible political vision that includes more science is articulated, the scientific community can be enlisted.
Environmentalists. The space frontier offers the potential to get our Earth-based ecosystem to 100% renewable energy, the potential to move 50% or more of industrial activity off planet, and to reduce the human footprint on Earth through migration rather than apocalyptic catastrophe. Such possibilities may take centuries to realize if we start now, but if we move at scale over the next 50 years, it opens up another, complementary path to long-term sustainability and creates a laboratory for innovation at scale that will return new technologies and processes to Earth. Our best pathway to saving the planet and returning it to a much more natural state is to divert the drive to grow off planet. Such possibilities create the potential for enlisting environmentalists to support an expansion of the space frontier.
Ironically, this is the exact line Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame has been saying. He suggests we move heavy industry off Earth and rezone the planet for residential and light industry. He gets a polite laugh when he says this, but this is coming from one of the most successful entrepreneurs America has ever seen. And he is serious. We should be listening.
Conservatives. We are divided nation split between two great traditions – Hamilton and Jefferson – on the role of government. This has been the case since the republic was founded and will last as long as the republic exists. Space offers the intriguing possibility of creating like-minded colonies that can experiment with a purer form of conservatism in smaller self-sustaining communities. This might imply I’m suggesting we send conservatives into deep space, but I mean this quite seriously (although the humor is not lost on me). Political utopia may be best achieved when people can sort themselves out and live and experiment with a variety of political forms. Political sorting in a democracy is not a virtue. Doing so in space may well be so and offer a chance for freedom and liberty that is defined by the people that choose to associate in more self-sustaining communities of like-minded citizens bound together in a looser confederation with ties to the home world. Today’s Pilgrims may need the outlet of space.
The point of this quick review of potential sources of support is that there is likely to be less opposition from major movements in American political life and potentially many allies.
Fourth – It has a powerful narrative story with broad reach.
Most efforts to create a supporting narrative story for America’s space program focus on the themes of exploration, human inspiration, and enduring questions of existential existence. These are the least powerful narrative themes that can possibly be deployed with the least power to change behaviors and rally support to spend actual money that I can possibly imagine. Their failure to rally political support has already been described and has been proven across the decades over and over and over again.
A narrative story focused on jobs, growth, and creating a bigger, bolder future for our children and their children on a frontier that will lift our entire nation to a higher level of growth and prosperity over the next 100 years is a powerful story that has yet to be communicated at scale. The mere possibility that we could potentially banish the economic cycle and win prosperity for a 100-year run of sustained, rapid economic growth, making America a beacon of hope for the entire free world is powerful. That’s the narrative we must offer. It directly responds to the voters today who are rejecting the status quo in the search for a better future. They are telling us what they want. It’s time to finally listen.
This narrative already has an established foundational interest, a bedrock instinctive baseline, and it can be built upon at scale to establish political support and deliver votes. We need to align the narrative story of American’s journey in space with our historical story of American expansion and the common aspirations for better jobs, higher wages, and the desire to achieve the American Dream individually and for our children and future generations.
There are contemporary examples in American politics of large movements reshaping the political agenda. Two have been highlighted: Environmentalism and Conservatism. While each is able to connect with people at a visceral level with a powerful narrative story, the two highlighted above also come with powerful baggage and implacable opposition.
By contrast a vastly large effort in space has the potential to start from the middle and capture people’s attention in a bigger and bolder fashion and with less resistance than current efforts suggest.
There is one more example worth highlighting.
The Scottish National Party won a resounding election victory in 2015, effectively wiping out the traditional majority Labor Party in Scotland.
Here is what happened: In 2013, the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) held just 6 Scottish seats (out of 59) in the British Parliament, which was still the highest number since 1979. Britain’s Labor Party held the other 53 and had an effective lock on political representation in Scotland. The Nationalists ran an unsuccessful referendum on independence, losing narrowly. But they didn’t stop there. Following this defeat, they went on to the General Election of 2015 to nearly annihilate the Labor Party in Scotland and achieve overwhelming dominance, winning 56 of the 59 seats to the British Parliament. They managed to do this by making the Labor Party (the established left wing party in the UK) look right-wing by comparison and out of touch with the desires and aspirations of Scottish voters. The loss of the referendum on independence set up a strategic win a short time later. The referendum had given the Scottish Nationalists a chance to change people’s mindset and established the Nationalists as a party with a strong brand and set of messages.
While this example is from another country, its issues are different, and there is a longer back story and history specific to Scotland, it is worth telling as an example of the scope, scale, and speed of political change and how fast voter opinion and voting behavior can change.
Our situation isn’t so different. The political narrative of Scottish independence versus an American Space Program at scale may seem very different at first rub, but both have an ability to tell a story and inspire a vision that can resonate with voters. Both have an ability to connect with fundamental aspirations and values and portray a different future. The Scottish Nationalists were dormant for a long period until they achieved a remarkable breakthrough, rewriting what everyone thought possible. The lesson here is that anything is possible, no matter how implausible it sounds at the start.
Public will is up for grabs. The future is always a jump ball.
American politics has a void in the center. There is a giant hole of reduced expectations that neither party is currently catering to effectively, leaving an opening for populism and extremism from either side of the political spectrum to exploit. The right offers a wall to keep immigrants out paired with trade barriers to supposedly protect American jobs. The left offers everything free, taxes on the rich, and (also) trade barriers. Neither side has a viable path to a more prosperous future.
We can offer a narrative story to both sides of the political spectrum (or anyone) that squares our current political dilemma.
The question is how to connect tangibly. We will need an action plan to drive change at scale and speed. That is the subject of the next chapter.
Elon Musk plans to establish a Mars Colony of one million over the next 20-25 years.3 Given Elon Musk is the founder and owner of SpaceX and is putting real engineers behind this effort with a target of bringing the cost of travel to Mars down to $200,000 for a trip, I think this is a remarkable and credible vision and it warrants serious consideration.
Of course, having just written a lengthy essay focused on a very different vision that does not speak to Mars at all, the question that should immediately come to mind is to what extent the Mars Colonization vision is a competitor or compliment to the Frontier Dominance of Near-Earth Space?
The first obvious point is that if SpaceX can reduce the travel cost to Mars to just $200k roundtrip, it not only makes travel to Mars feasible, it makes the economics of Near Earth Space even cheaper than anything I have imagined in this essay. Getting to Near Earth Space is, by definition, cheaper than going all the way to Mars. If SpaceX can really get the cost of travel to Mars in the range of $200k per person, then the economics of Near Earth Space are a slam dunk. Thank you, SpaceX!
Here’s the second thing. Musk and the folks at SpaceX reportedly talk about the tiny area of overlap between two circles: A big blue circle representing people that can pay for a ticket to Mars and a big yellow circle representing people that might want to go to Mars. One illustration shows a tiny overlapping space that represents the number of people that would be willing to cash out their homes and savings and actually make that move to Mars. Of course, as the price comes down and a true Mars colony gets established, both circles get bigger and the overlap does as well.
But there is another possibility to consider. If you want to find people with an adventuresome, can-do spirit that can quickly travel the learning curve of working in the space environment safely and effectively, you would probably look for people already on the frontier of near earth space. People that have spent a good period of time in the space environment will be trained and experienced and the leap to Mars will be a smaller step to contemplate. They will also probably have had a good opportunity to accumulate the savings needed to afford the ticket. It seems obvious that a vibrant society in Near Earth Space enables the Mars adventure and makes it a done deal. Near Earth is a stepping stone to Mars and the circle of people that can both afford it and the overlap with those that would want to go is likely to be a large portion of the total in Near Earth space.
My point is simply this: These visions are complementary and Musk’s passion for Mars may enable a much bigger human presence in Near Earth Space if, indeed, he can break the cost curve in getting people launched into space.
At the end of the day, however, we are trying to solve two different problems. Musk is trying to make humanity a multi-planet species (guaranteeing our survival) and enable a new level of human adventure. These are noble and high-minded aspirations – the very top of Maslow’s Hierarchy when applied at the level of an entire civilization. I have confidence Musk will make this dream a reality for the benefit of us all. His vision is an important one.
I’m trying to solve a different problem, more low-brow by comparison. I want to solve the dilemmas of wage stagnation and a declining middle class while ensuring our children have decent jobs, incomes, and prospects well into the future even in a world of increasing globalization, automation, Artificial Intelligence, and rapid technology change. I’m working at the lower tier’s of Maslow’s Hierarchy.
At the end of the day, I want to find a viable means for people in the middle class to build the kind of savings necessary for that ticket to Mars and make it something all Americans can both aspire to and that our jobs and incomes can pay for (without having to cash out the house and the life savings).
The vision of a vibrant economy in Near Earth Space at scale is one that I imagine helps resolves some of those challenges. And if I’m right, it also gets us Mars by default. These are very compatible visions.
To get to a vision of one million people on Mars, I think we need four million colonists in near earth space who have learned to live in space and have the dynamism, confidence, and spirt to settle Mars in large numbers. Those people will be different than we are today. They’ll be bolder, more confident, possessed of unlimited can-do spirit. They’ll be more like our forefathers than us. Hit the milestone of millions living in Near Earth Space and Mars is a slam dunk along with the rest of the Solar System.
With this section, I have argued that we are pursuing the wrong vision for America’s space program. Space exploration is an inherently small-scale business that cannot achieve scale or connect with the public in a sustainable way and we have failed to rally funding or public will for the better part of two generations. It has not worked for the last 50 years and it will not work for the next 50. It is time to try something different.
I have offered an alternative vision of Frontier Dominance, which entails a focused, large-scale effort to reduce the cost of living and working in Near-Earth space by 99% or more. I have argued that such a program will require funding for NASA in the range of $200 billion per year and that it is a program and an aspiration that can fundamentally connect with bedrock American values including:
- It embodies the American Dream and narrative story of a better life for our children in a bigger and bolder future than current trends suggest today;
- It draws a direct line to pocket book issues and concerns, namely economic growth, jobs, and wages and offer a viable path to creating a stronger economy for all Americans;
- It resonates with our history of westward expansion and Manifest Destiny from the Louisiana Purchase to the Homestead Act and connects with the historical affinity Americans have always had for seizing the wide open spaces;
- It goes beyond a small elite of astronauts and the wealthy to offer a vision in space that potentially every American can participate in;
- It passes the test of stewardship by being fiscally responsible and offer not just a pathway to payback but a return on the investment of public funds that is large enough in scale to help us resolve some of the long-term financial challenges our nation faces; and, finally,
- It passes muster as a top priority for public funding against a long list of a long list of urgent and contentious issues because it can help us gain the economic growth, jobs, and wages that we need to support all of those other urgent priorities.
How does Frontier Dominance do against the five reasons that constrain space exploration? I would content it overcomes them handily. Let’s take each in turn.
- It’s too expensive. Compared to space exploration, Frontier Dominance is much more so, yet it offers a better value proposition. It offers a chance of direct payback and potentially a return on investment.
- Earthly priorities are more important. Earthly priorities will always trump high-minded aspiration and the desire to explore and gain knowledge. In contrast, Frontier Dominance is aimed directly at critical earthly expectations: jobs, wages, and economic growth.
- There’s no direct payback. Frontier Dominance offers a means to collect revenue directly and traceably and to eventually pay back the entire investment of public money.
- There’s no blank check. We are going to ask for far more funding than space exploration ever did. Yet with the possibility of payback and the potential to increase prosperity on Earth, it is possible that no check is really too small, a proposition voters may agree with.
- It’s an elite sport. Frontier Dominance is about forging and bending steel at scale. It is not a game of the few exploring on the behalf of the many, but a game of the many working to make the frontier real for all.
Frontier Dominance as a governing strategic rationale meets and exceeds all of the critical constraints that have held back space exploration for a generation.
Achieving Frontier Dominance requires acting on three dimensions to establish:
- Strategy & Doctrine
- Economics & Ideology
- Public Will
I’ve attempted to both describe what these three programmatic dimensions are and how they inter-relate. Together and in synergy, they are the key components of a vision for achieving scale in space.
The next chapter proposes an action plan for how to make it happen.
It is time to get to specifics.
- ____, “Majority of Americans Believe It Is Essential That the U.S. remain a Global Leader in Space,” Pew Research Center, June 6, 2018, https://www.pewresearch.org/science/2018/06/06/majority-of-americans-believe-it-is-essential-that-the-u-s-remain-a-global-leader-in-space/
- Launius, Roger, “Public opinion polls and perceptions of US human spaceflight”, Elseveir, 2003, page 8, URL