The visions we offer our children shape the future.
It matters what those visions are.
Often they become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Dreams are maps.
Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994
This book is a political economic plan for building a large-scale future in space and a discussion of what that future could mean for America and the rest of the world.
There are two questions you should ask right away: What do I mean by scale and why do we need such a plan?
First: What do I mean by scale?
Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX (among other things), speaks of making humanity a multi-planet species which means that one day a million people will live on Mars. Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin (among other things), speaks of millions of people living and working in space in self-sustaining colonies.
By scale, I mean just what they mean: Millions of people living and working in space or on planets like Mars.
Second: Why do we need a plan for this? Why should you care? Is there any public reason to support the kind of science fiction future a couple of billionaires want to have in space?
The answer is, yes, we need a plan because the simple truth is that a frontier in space may offer a vast payoff in public value for our economy and country as a whole and for your children individually and specifically. This is what it could mean:
- Minimum wage jobs that pay $250/hour or more, that come with a 5-year contract, and that end with $1M in personal savings.
- An economy in space that operates at an exponentially higher level of prices and wages (an Economic Conjugate) than our current domestic economy on Earth, which – at large scale – RESULTS in:
- A massive public return on investment (ROI) on public money invested in space collected via taxes and fees on that space economy and its workers, which then DELIVERS:
- A Trifecta Economy on Earth of low taxes, high benefits, and no public debt, which, in turn, also DRIVES:
- A high growth economy that is more equal and has more opportunity and enough prosperity for all and FINANCES:
- The cost of a full transition to a carbon-free, net-zero economy, the elimination of all poverty, and the creation of modern institutions and services from higher education to healthcare that are accessible to everyone and the pride of all.
This is a pretty good future if you can get it. And for the record, I think we can get it.
To win this future, we are going to have to overcome a deep-seated cultural bias against space that is held by a vast swath of the culture, media, and political elites who set the direction and tone for our nation’s politics. It’s not really technology or economics that could hold us back, it’s the acculturated belief system.
Take Misters Musk and Bezos. On op-ed pages across the country essays have been published suggesting that billionaires with dreams of space are acting out infantile male dreams. Saturday Night Live has lampooned the space billionaires to great comedic effect. After Misters Bezos and Branson reached the edge of space in 2021, a broad cultural and media consensus quickly emerged that these flights were the self-indulgent joy rides of tone deaf, out-of-touch billionaires.
The ultra-rich are not always worthy of our sympathy, but in this case the cultural narrative might not just be wrong, but fundamentally self-defeating for us as a nation and for the quest to achieve a more prosperous future for all.
To understand why, you have to start with a more modest sounding problem: The failure of public polling organizations to ask the right questions when it comes to space. For decades they have asked variations on whether we are spending too much on space or too little and whether space is a priority compared to a long list of more earthly needs. In response to these questions, most Americans show modest support for more spending on space and prioritize space exploration below more immediate needs like child care.
But these are biased questions with false tradeoffs. Who would prioritize anything over their children or more immediate needs like healthcare? I know I wouldn’t. I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t either.
If, however, you ask different questions, you get different answers. For this book, I ran a poll through Survey Monkey that asked a small sample of Americans if they would support large public investments in space IF it resulted in a direct return (payback) of all public dollars spent AND it created high paying jobs at home on Earth. A near majority of Americans were willing to bet big on space if it led to economic growth, high paying jobs, and a return on public investment. The positive response cut across political affiliations and gender differences. How many issues do you know that do that these days? The contrast with traditional polling on space is stark. I challenge Pew and Ipsos, Gallup and AP to try it themselves. My survey data is in the appendix. It’s free to test or critique.
If there is a cultural bias against space, even modest efforts at polling appear to show it is not unconditionally shared by the public at large. The big question then becomes whether or not economic growth, high paying jobs, and a return on a public investment are possible from a bolder future in space at larger scale. It could be.
In the chapters of this book, I explore a conceptual model of what ‘millions of people living and working in space’ could mean economically. That starts with the recognition that the cost of living in space will always be exponentially higher than living on Earth (ex. water rains from the sky on Earth for free, you have to pay to get it from somewhere in space). The traditional view is that this higher cost is a prohibitive barrier to development. But you can turn this logic on its head by posing a different question. What if the high cost of living in space is a feature, not a bug?
That line of thinking led me to the idea of an Economic Conjugate. Any future space-based market economy is one that will necessarily be a plural tense of much higher costs to its singular tense Terrestrial twin. In a market economy, wages must follow costs. The implication is that a living wage in space will be dramatically higher than one on Earth. That’s where the idea of a minimum wage job that pays $250 per hour or more comes from. That space-based economy will be a self-contained entity with very high prices and wages (and costs). With exponentially higher income, a space-based economy also has the potential to return a large sum in tax dollars to the public coffers. (One wonders how the public response might evolve were Misters Musk and Bezos constantly pitching a vision of jobs that pay $250/hour, comes with a 5-year contract, and end with $1 million in savings.)
Is it possible to create such a high-cost market economy in space that is self-sustaining? We will need a broader public discussion to find out. The stakes, however, are large. What if an economic conjugate in space could help us create a Trifecta Economy at home on Earth – one with low taxes, high benefits, and zero debt? By contrast, the future barreling down the tracks in our direction right now will likely be characterized by high debt, stagnant growth, domestic and global instability, and fierce fights over competing priorities for public spending. Personally, I would be willing to do a lot to get the Trifecta.
Today, the public discussion is only about small-scale space exploration. Outside of the private musings of Musk and Bezos, the public domain is not thinking big.
Is it even possible to think big? Perhaps not in America, but China certainly is. In 2021, China issued a Request for Information (RFI) on how to build a space ship (a ‘colony’ ship) a kilometer long. Experts in America cited by the press were politely skeptical. They noted the cost of building the International Space Station, which is much smaller, took a decade, cost $100B, and still costs $3B a year to support. They suggested China’s research project was cost prohibitive and a non-starter. These widely cited ‘experts’ were dismissive.
Their skepticism based on cost, however, is problematic. Elon Musk’s SpaceX already has a rocket, the Falcon Heavy, that could lift today’s space station in just 4-5 launches for a total cost of less than $500 million dollars, give or take. SpaceX has brought the cost of launching into space down 96% in just a decade. To build the ISS in space today would be a fraction of the $100B cited from decades ago. And Musk’s SpaceX is building a bigger rocket, Starship, that will bring the cost to launch down even further. The real mystery is this: Why couldn’t our media journalists find someone, anyone, to give that context? Why aren’t we reassessing the art of the possible when the cost of something (anything) has dropped by over 95% in a few short years?
The inconvenient truth may be that America has acculturated a fear of thinking big, a groupthink belief that space is a waste. The question begs: Have we become a nation walking backward into the future, eyes staring only to the past at our failures, our mistakes, our sins, and our fears? This failure of public imagination is breathtaking. We reminisce about making America great again. But it’s not enough to look backwards. It’s about the future and what you do with it. Great nations do great things. While China has the gravitas to dream big, America is falling terribly short on any such vision.
Our politics has become very short-sighted on both sides of the political aisle. We once had leaders that were willing to make big bets on our future. The Louisiana Purchase. The Homestead Act. The Alaska Purchase. The G.I. Bill. The Interstate Highway System. The Moon landings. We were once a country of bold dreamers and thinkers (albeit with flaws). If we want our children to prosper, we are going to have to find a way to be a country that bets big on its own future once again.
We are going to need a new crop of political leaders that can create and share a bolder vision than the current static arguments for progressive redistribution or conservative tax cutting, America First or Everything Free. We can neither redistribute nor deregulate our way to exponential growth. We are going to need a New Frontier Future.
That is what this book is about. This book is a bold confrontation of status quo, static thinking when it comes to space. It offers a new vision and framework to get to that New Frontier Future. It is not meant to be a dreamy-eyed appeal to a science fiction future or a philosophical pitch to our better natures on the virtues of human exploration. It is intentionally focused on the practical political and economic building blocks that must align to create a far simpler and more powerful case for betting big on our own future: Growth, jobs, and economic prosperity. It is meant to capture public value for public benefits rather than cede the future to a small number of the ultra-rich. Those people will still get rich(er). But we need to find a formula in which the public will invest in order to receive the massive public returns needed to build a Trifecta Economy of the future, one that can afford the transition to a net zero carbon economy, create modern institutions, and end social and economic inequality.
For you, this is a shot, no matter how long, at a future where America is coming together, not racing apart, and families like yours are confident that their children will have a future that is bolder and more prosperous than our own. We can have this future. It is possible. But we are going to have to work for it, vote for it, and demand it.
It is time to step up. We need a bolder American future. Our children deserve something better than dystopian.