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How Far and Fast Can the Commercial Space World Grow?

Soulskill posted more than 3 years ago | from the in-direct-proportion-to-the-benjamins dept.

NASA 159

coondoggie writes "The development of the commercial space industry has in the past been slow and deliberate, but that seems like it's about to change with a whirlwind of developments that could shape or break its immediate future. Today the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics is holding a hearing to go over the Federal Aviation Administration's 2012 budget request, which includes close to $27 million — nearly a 75% increase over 2010 — in the budget for the group tasked with overseeing commercial space development. They're also evaluating the need for a longer regulatory ban. Also this week the Government Accountability Office issued a review of the issues the commercial space industry and the FAA face (PDF) going forward "

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Sky is the .... (5, Funny)

W1sdOm_tOOth (1152881) | more than 3 years ago | (#36052444)

Oh, wait....

Re:Sky is the .... (2)

molecule1 (1752394) | more than 3 years ago | (#36054458)

this business is really taking off. opportunities are out of this world.

A real question: Who the fuck is Matt Welsh? (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36052448)

Who the fuck is Matt Welsh, and why the fuck does his question appear at the bottom of every Slashdot page?

Re:A real question: Who the fuck is Matt Welsh? (2)

c0d3g33k (102699) | more than 3 years ago | (#36052620)

Ah, young padawan AC.

You should know Matt from his O'Reilly book: Running Linux (now in it's 5th edition).

If you want to know more, go to http://www.eecs.harvard.edu/~mdw/ [harvard.edu]

Re:A real question: Who the fuck is Matt Welsh? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36054196)

How come people like you, calling themselves "c0d3g33k" and all kinds of other leet names can master every last bit of arcane trivia about every single language, OS and fad out there; but the simple apostrophe owns you all the time? It's means IT IS. That's all you need to know. The smallest symbol on the keyboard and you can't master it?

What will commercial space companies do? (4, Interesting)

petes_PoV (912422) | more than 3 years ago | (#36052450)

So far the only areas commercial space outfits have been able to turn a profit is communications and TV satellites. There's not a whole lot in the way of raw materials they've been able to exploit. Not that much in terms of tourism/leisure - apart from a few bored billionaires. And no space-based manufacturing or processes that would come close to break even.

So the speed of development seems to be limited by companies' ability to find things in or about space that can be commercially exploited. It's still not clear what else there is out there that would be a profitable venture.

Re:What will commercial space companies do? (1)

swanzilla (1458281) | more than 3 years ago | (#36052574)

I think navigation and weather satellites are paying the rent as well. Your argument is still very valid with those included, however.

Re:What will commercial space companies do? (1)

Wyatt Earp (1029) | more than 3 years ago | (#36052686)

Both navigation and weather satellites are government programs, funded and maintained with government money.

Re:What will commercial space companies do? (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36052928)

Commercial communication satellites have been very marginal in terms of profit for years. There is a glut of manufacturing capability compared to the demand.

(AC because I work in the industry)

Re:What will commercial space companies do? (2)

jafac (1449) | more than 3 years ago | (#36053100)

Yes. This was a hard-sell item to Queen Isabella, too.

Nor was Spain able to monopolize all the profits. Can you imagine how to even calculate what the "value" of those profits is? We're talking about the "New World".

Now - this is not going to happen in our "Isabella" lifetimes. Whether we ever break Faster Than Light travel or not.
But multiply that above "value" times tens, or hundreds of thousands of worlds.

The word "Profit" seems trite.

Re:What will commercial space companies do? (2)

khallow (566160) | more than 3 years ago | (#36053276)

The word "Profit" seems trite.

It means you get more out of an activity than you put in. The moral connotation is just a distraction.

Re:What will commercial space companies do? (1)

ArsonSmith (13997) | more than 3 years ago | (#36054630)

you have a pretty liberal, brain washed, view of profit. It means you have added value to something. whether you've taken raw materials and refined them into something of more value and sold it, or you brokered a deal that allowed someone else to get something they wanted.

investment + labor = value add = profit

With your line of thought then everybody in the world is ripping off companies every day because they get more in their paycheck than they put into the company ie ~$0.

Re:What will commercial space companies do? (2)

khallow (566160) | more than 3 years ago | (#36053176)

It's worth noting that both SpaceX and Scaled Composites both earned profit on designing and flying new launch vehicles. There's also a growing imaging satellite market.

Re:What will commercial space companies do? (1)

Teancum (67324) | more than 3 years ago | (#36054340)

In addition to navigation, and telecommunications, reconnaissance is also a huge field (of which weather satellites are only a very small part). Google Earth is but another example of this kind of survey system that absolutely depends upon satellites to function, not to mention how businesses like farmers or mineral exploration companies use satellite information to map the surface of the Earth to find mineral composition and "mass concentrations" in the Earth that might yield profitable mining operations. Those are all very profitable.

The one new thing that has changed in the past decade is the opening up of commercial tourism to spaceflight, which is a genuinely new area of profitable enterprises that until now hasn't really seen its full potential. It is also very much price sensitive in terms of a price/demand curve that expands exponentially as you can drive down costs.... something these other areas of profitable business. For the most part, a telecom satellite costing a couple billion dollars to build can fly on a rocket that costs $20,000/kg to launch into orbit or more, so prices points really don't matter. Military and other government satellites or even the big fancy deep space probes are also in a similar position and don't require cheaper rockets. Pretty much the only current activity which will expand significantly if you can get spaceflight down to about $100/kg is tourism. At that point, it isn't billionaires flying but mere millionaires or even folks who won big at the racetrack. The range of people who can afford a ticket expands considerably. It would be much easier to justify spending $500k on a ticket to a Bigelow habitat if you can spend a week in space and in orbit, as opposed to a mere 4-10 minutes in something like SpaceShip Two flying with Virgin Galactic.

As for other ventures in space, mineral extraction and solar power farming seem like fairly good bets.... provided you can get launch costs down considerably. At the moment they aren't profitable and won't be with current costs, but if you can lower those costs to some reasonable threshold and be able to generate fuels in space from extra-terrestrial sources (like the south pole of the Moon), it may be possible to be able to send stuff to the Earth at a more reasonable price. That will take a whole lot of infrastructure development and will be extremely costly as well as labor intensive to put together before any of that can happen.

For solar power farms, one interesting application that may be profitable right now is for remote power sources for military operations. For example, bringing truck loads of diesel fuel into Afghanistan is a nightmare for many reasons (snipers along the route alone are a problem) and simply throwing that away for running electrical generators might be replaced by an antenna array that is much harder to interrupt by some insurgent group. Paying $100/kWh seems more reasonable when you look at it in that context, where even defensive arms can include things like rail guns or other electrically powered devices that are cheap in terms of the logistical re-supply of those materials in a combat zone. Some al-Queida folks getting to a crate of rail gun bullets would find them useless, for example. Such devices simply aren't even possible at the moment at an air base because of a lack of power, and this particular "military application" could provide at least the initial capital to get power satellites started. For civilian purposes, remote outposts like a mining operation in a wilderness area far from existing power grids might serve a similar role. Throwing an antenna grid on top of a deep off-shore oil drilling platform might be a practical and cost-effective way to supply energy to that platform, to give yet another example.

Some other potential operations could be to mix exotic metals that normally couldn't be made on the Earth... due to gravity normally getting in the way to separate those mixtures into their base metals. Some pharmaceutical processes have also been speculated, and if they prove to work out can certainly be profitable even with the current price of spaceflight and would also experience increased profits from lower prices on an exponential basis.

The real trick is simply getting to low-Earth orbit at a reasonable price. If you can get that accomplished, the rest of the Solar System opens up. Worrying about economics is a big deal, however, and you are correct that it is a tough nut to crack to prove there is a commercial business case to be made in space.

It should be noted that one of the reasons why some business opportunities have not really been studied is in part due to the fact that research groups have not even had the chance to go into space... even if they had the desire to do so with the money to pay for the flight. There has been a huge promise with the International Space Station, and until recently you couldn't even get a slot up there for a research project even if money was no object. Ditto for the Space Shuttle, where commercial flights pretty much stopped with the destruction of the Shuttle Challenger (not to mention Columbia). President Reagan felt it wasn't worth sacrificing the lives of astronauts for some commercial space flight activity until something came alone that was safer than the Shuttle. I agree with that statement.

BTW, I said Reagan, which shows both how old that policy is and how long it has been since reliable commercial access to space has been in terms of more complicated experiments that might need a human touch when in orbit. Some stuff can be done with robots, but often you do need a person in the loop, or at least some sort of vehicle that can both go into space and return without burning up in the atmosphere. Besides the Space Shuttle, the only vehicles currently in "flight status" which can do that is the Russian Soyuz spacecraft and the SpaceX Dragon capsule. You can't book on the Shuttle any more, and the Soyuz spacecraft are literally booked up for more than a decade. The Chinese aren't selling either.... which only makes money for Elon Musk & Company. That is precisely what the Dragon Lab flights are all about, with one of those flights scheduled for next year.

Still, all of that is right now just R&D to see if any of these ideas are possible where scientists and engineers who designed some of the original experiments have burned out going elsewhere or simply hit retirement age and left the companies when the big push for commercial exploitation of space first happened. Young engineers and scientists were discouraged from getting into the business because it was seen as a dead-end job of mainly frustrations where nothing could realistically be studied and pretty much end your careers if you studied stuff in space that could be used for a commercial purpose. Perhaps that will change, and I hope it will. Having the current commercial enterprises involved with spaceflight might just let that happen where it couldn't before.

Re:What will commercial space companies do? (1)

rtb61 (674572) | more than 3 years ago | (#36054820)

Yes, not much out there at all, just the rest of the universe. Columbus, Cook and Marco Polo all had a hard time at getting funding too. You know what, we all have very little idea about what we can do up there, basically because we aren't really up there yet but, given time people just like you will use hind sight to claim credit for all the things eventually done up there.

Why would you live in a colony in space, well assuming your life in measured in hundreds of years and not tens, you avoid all the inevitable calamities that befall homes bound to the earth, tornadoes, wild fires, hurricanes, blizzards, earthquakes, floods and, various venomous pests. The only real question is given the opportunity is whether people will participate in a human adventure in space. If greed is your only motivation then can you be considered truly human or are you technically alien.

The real catch with space development is pollution, the more that goes up there and more the commercially greed driven it is, the more minute fragments there will be whizzing about in orbit at high speed waiting to eventually strike something or for it's orbit to decay, often taking many years.

Re:What will commercial space companies do? (1)

houghi (78078) | more than 3 years ago | (#36055416)

Commercial spaceflight? I can see it now. 3 weeks between a fat guy and a crying kid on your way to Mars.

But why? (4, Interesting)

MrQuacker (1938262) | more than 3 years ago | (#36052452)

The real question is why do we need to go up there in the first place?

Communication and physics research satellites seem to be the only thing people are launching. Until more tech that is space-only is developed, we really have no reason to go up there.

Supply and demand. We have no demand, so therefore there is no supply.

What we should be focusing on is how to create the demand.

Re:But why? (4, Insightful)

h4rr4r (612664) | more than 3 years ago | (#36052486)

Tourism is a huge demand. You get it down to $10k and I will take a ticket right now. Lots of other folks would be buying at $100k.

Re:But why? (3, Interesting)

0123456 (636235) | more than 3 years ago | (#36052568)

Tourism is a huge demand. You get it down to $10k and I will take a ticket right now. Lots of other folks would be buying at $100k.

One of the space tourism guys was saying recently that there's a surprising amount of demand for spaceflight in the million-dollar range, where people who could afford to fly on Soyuz can't afford the time required for the training (AFAIR Soyuz passengers have to train as crew, whereas a true tourist flight would only take a small amount of training).

Re:But why? (1)

dicobalt (1536225) | more than 3 years ago | (#36052656)

Ok so you will pay $10K. That isn't totally unreasonable, but how many times are you willing to pay 10K to visit space? If there aren't enough sustained customers they will not be able to stay in business. Then you have the question of safety.

Re:But why? (2)

h4rr4r (612664) | more than 3 years ago | (#36052740)

There are probably millions/hundreds of thousands willing to pay that price. Safety is not an issue for many. I am willing to take the same risk as a soyuz trip presents at that price.

Re:But why? (1)

spaceplanesfan (2120596) | more than 3 years ago | (#36053028)

I would for sure.

Re:But why? (1)

hedwards (940851) | more than 3 years ago | (#36052782)

One of the ideas I've seen floating around is actually traveling far distances by going into space and then dropping down where you're wanting to go. I think that's the most likely application for this, at least in the near term. The other one being an orbiting hotel.

Re:But why? (2)

FatLittleMonkey (1341387) | more than 3 years ago | (#36054974)

90 minutes, from anywhere with a space-port to anywhere with a recovery team. $10k a seat would be an easy sell.

Re:But why? (1)

FatLittleMonkey (1341387) | more than 3 years ago | (#36054986)

That isn't totally unreasonable, but how many times are you willing to pay 10K to visit space?

Apparently most of the pre-booked flights for sub-orbital flights are researchers. That's a market where they'd go up regularly.

Don't get hung up on the word "tourist", it just means "not crew".

$10k is (2)

FatLittleMonkey (1341387) | more than 3 years ago | (#36055054)

Lamely replying to myself....

Commercial vomit comet flights are $5000 per person (plus tax.) For a couple of minutes of interrupted zero-g (15 parabolas of 30 seconds each, spread over an hour.)

$10k for a ten minute sub-orbital flight would sell like hotcakes. $10k for 90 minutes in orbit would have a waiting list of years.

Re:But why? (2)

14erCleaner (745600) | more than 3 years ago | (#36053404)

If 10,000 people go at $10K each, you've almost recovered the costs of development. Personally, I don't think the market is that big, since the tourism guys aren't really talking about going to "space", just to 100 kilometers sub-orbital. Coincidentally, the first American sub-orbital flight was 50 years ago yesterday. Not exactly a cutting edge accomplishment.

Re:But why? (2)

youn (1516637) | more than 3 years ago | (#36054076)

I think it is actually that big... they are just creaming the market... why charge 10k when you have enough people willing to pay 200k to get you started and test out the system... when you have grown enough, decrease price gradually... it is a more sound business plan... if you ask me though, if they can get the price to $100, it is even is better :)

Re:But why? (1)

Teancum (67324) | more than 3 years ago | (#36054362)

So far, the only "space tourists" that have gone up past the Kármán line have all been customers of Space Adventures.... and they've all gone orbital. Every single last one of them, including docking at the International Space Station.

While I think there will be more sub-orbital tourists than the orbital variety, and that is where the talk is coming from, where the action is happening instead of the talk it is all orbital spaceflight.

That sort of blows your whole point away, and it will be several years to perhaps a decade before Virgin Galactic is able to post ticket sales that exceed the amount Space Adventures has procured from its orbital space tourism business. I wouldn't doubt that orbital space tourism might even stay ahead of the sub-orbital variety in terms of both absolute amount of money brought into commercial spaceflight as well as the amount of profit made from that activity. So far, Sir Richard Branson has yet to send anybody into space, so what exactly is the complaint about?

Re:But why? (2)

Americano (920576) | more than 3 years ago | (#36053630)

"Space tourism" is not a sustainable market. Once you've shot your wad and everybody with the money and interest to pay 10k for a couple hours in space has gone (and I think you'll find that the number of people both interested & wealthy enough to do this are much smaller than you seem to think)... what then?

There's still nowhere to go up there, it's a joyride. Yay, you went WAY UP IN THE AIR, got a couple lovely panoramic views as the craft inverted, and then came back down. Now what? How many people will do that more than once? It's a small fraction of the people who would do it once for the novelty of seeing it. So you built out this fleet of spaceships... and launched them a thousand times... and now... we're back where we started, with maybe a few launches a year to cater to the sustained demand - and at a few launches a year, you can bet that the price of each ride is going to go right back up into the hundreds of thousands of dollar range.

If the observation deck of the Empire State Building were the only thing to do in New York City, they'd have a lot of trouble keeping their hotels filled.

Re:But why? (1)

khallow (566160) | more than 3 years ago | (#36054186)

"Space tourism" is not a sustainable market. Once you've shot your wad and everybody with the money and interest to pay 10k for a couple hours in space has gone (and I think you'll find that the number of people both interested & wealthy enough to do this are much smaller than you seem to think)... what then?

Well, how do you explain the enduring popularity of tourism markets in general? After all, if you've spent a couple of hours on Mount Everest or Paris, does that mean you've "shot your wad?" I imagine that space tourism operators would vary their routines, come up with new trips, build interesting destinations, and do all the other tricks that normal tourism operators employ to create repeat business.

Re:But why? (3, Interesting)

Americano (920576) | more than 3 years ago | (#36054698)

The enduring popularity of tourism markets in general is the fact that there are things to do and see once you get there. There is none of that in space, and we are long, long years away from any sort of "cruise ship in space" experience. If you have no destination to go to, and nothing to do while you're there, "space tourism" is simply not sustainable. Even if-and-when there are "private space stations" the economics of building living facilities in space will keep it a novelty experience for the ultra-rich. Just like you and I don't get to stay in the penthouse of the Trump Tower for 3 months at a time when we visit New York, we'll find that "2 hours of flight with 15 minutes of zero g and the opportunity to take some photos of the earth from orbit" are the tourism experiences that will be within reach of the "common man" - and by "common man," I mean upper middle class.

Re:But why? (0, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36054718)

"Well, how do you explain the enduring popularity of tourism markets in general? "

The fact that there's, uh, you know, a DESTINATION? You can GET OFF the airplane? Breathe the air? Have WEATHER? Meet PEOPLE? (I realize this is probably not a selling point for the average Asperger's Space Whackjob though) Eat food that wasn't freeze-dried? Look, do I REALLY need to explain this to you? Have you EVER been anywhere that didn't involve a game console? Jesus Christ!

"After all, if you've spent a couple of hours on Mount Everest or Paris, does that mean you've "shot your wad?""

No one considers Everest "tourism". Even if it is, it's still orders of magnitude easier and cheaper and safer. And guess what? You can WALK. You can't WALK into space. There's no Nepal in space, no sense of walking where others have treaded.

And there are more cities than Paris out there. Again I can't believe I have to explain this to you! Are you twelve!? And you can go to Paris ten times and still not see everything! Once you've floated in a farty, cramped tin can, well, what then? What else can you take pictures of? "Wow, this time I ate the freeze-dried Mac and Cheese and only puked once! Then I pooped into a Ziploc! Only 10000$!!!"

"I imagine that space tourism operators would vary their routines, come up with new trips, build interesting destinations, and do all the other tricks that normal tourism operators employ to create repeat business."

You're delusional. You can make the same arguments for bottom of the ocean tourism... What is the deal with space? When I had a CRT, I didn't have the irrational urge to visit the vacuum inside.... You guys are nuts. Completely irrational and utterly misinformed on the nature of space. It's just not that great. So there's a few millionaires with egos. How does that translate into the fantasy-levels of space technology you think we have?

Re:But why? (1)

Teancum (67324) | more than 3 years ago | (#36054378)

What happens if you stay in orbit for a week? A month? A year? Are you sure that you can't do that again?

How many people do you think would like to be part of the first hundred folks who have gone past the Moon in a circum-lunar flight (re-creating Apollo 8)? How about being named the "first person in the 21st Century to orbit the Moon"? There certainly are some folks have egos that large, and even bank accounts to afford it.

It is far more than simply a joy-ride up into the sky, hanging around for a couple of minutes, and then coming back down. While the barnstorming level of playing around with sub-orbital flight certainly is more of how space tourism is currently being marketed, that is merely only the beginning. Folks have been into orbit through purely private efforts (non-subsidized by government agencies) and it will continue. It won't be just for the view.

Re:But why? (3, Interesting)

Americano (920576) | more than 3 years ago | (#36054760)

What happens if you stay in orbit for a week? A month? A year? Are you sure that you can't do that again?

Pray tell, what will you do in orbit for a week? A month? A year? What wonderful sights and experiences will you have while you're there, and where will you have these wonderful experiences - on your launch vehicle? For a month? I'm really hard-pressed to think of anybody who would consider a year floating in circles above the earth in a single seat in the space shuttle to be much of a "vacation".

How many people do you think would like to be part of the first hundred folks who have gone past the Moon

Not enough to make it a sustainable market.

How about being named the "first person in the 21st Century to orbit the Moon"?

Not enough to make it a sustainable market.

There certainly are some folks have egos that large, and even bank accounts to afford it.

Exactly, there are some folks with egos & bank accounts. Those folks will never be numerous enough to make "space tourism" a sustainable venture for regular folks. "Space tourism" is, and will continue to be - barring signficant advances in the economics of survival in space - a novelty marketed to the very wealthy. The ONLY "space tourism" that will be within reach of the "regular" people (i.e. upper middle class, nobody below that will ever be able to afford it) will be the couple-hour joyride with some photos and a few minutes of zero gravity.

Folks have been into orbit through purely private efforts (non-subsidized by government agencies) and it will continue. It won't be just for the view.

Yes, it will be just for the view. What else is there to do up there, for a "tourist"? Float around in zero-g for a month? That would appeal to about 30 Slashdotters, and I'm pretty sure that doesn't make a sustainable market. Space tourism is simply a big "Observation Deck," and unless you make significant changes in the economics of survival in space, that's all it will be. And as I said, if the Observation Deck at the Empire State Building was literally the ONLY THING you could do in New York City as a tourist, then NYC would have a lot fewer tourists.

I get the feeling reading these comments that people think we're going to be launching to some massive space station in earth orbit which is some sort of Battlestar Galactica-style pleasure ship, complete with blue-skinned Alpha Centaurian courtesans. There IS NO facility in space for tourism to be anything more than "up, look around, down." Anything else will have to be built, i.e. launched from earth and assembled in space, and constantly resupplied and operated for YEARS with perfect safety while handling a steady stream of cargo & human traffic moving to it from the earth's surface.

The ISS, designed for a crew of 6, has an estimated cost of between 35 and 160 billion dollars. How many tens or hundreds of trillions of dollars will it take to build something that could handle an operational crew of 20, and 20-30 guests at a time? And you think this is somehow a feasible economic reality within the reach of a large market of people?

Re:But why? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36054230)

> You get it down to $10k and I will take a ticket right now.

I hope you weigh less than 5 pounds.

Re:But why? (1)

microcentillion (942039) | more than 3 years ago | (#36052518)

What we should be focusing on is how to create the demand.

Promise hot blue alien sex. You'll have more demand than you can handle.

Re:But why? (1)

webmistressrachel (903577) | more than 3 years ago | (#36052570)

Hey - how do you know Andorians will like you any more than your pink counterparts, slashdotter? :-P

Re:But why? (1)

MrQuacker (1938262) | more than 3 years ago | (#36052608)

Our fleshy appendages arent barbed.

Re:But why? (1)

webmistressrachel (903577) | more than 3 years ago | (#36052762)

:-) Cats!!

Re:But why? (1)

camperdave (969942) | more than 3 years ago | (#36053932)

You say that as if it's a positive thing, Earther!

Re:But why? (3, Insightful)

c0d3g33k (102699) | more than 3 years ago | (#36052672)

The real question is why you don't have enough imagination to figure out reasons why we might want to go up there. We wouldn't have those satellites in orbit at all if people approached things with your attitude. The opportunities always seem obvious in hindsight, but it takes a pioneering spirit to seek new ones out and make them real.

Re:But why? (1)

calmofthestorm (1344385) | more than 3 years ago | (#36052742)

This, though in my opinion the biggest tech advances to come out of Space exploration are right here on earth.

Re:But why? (2)

khallow (566160) | more than 3 years ago | (#36054146)

Because that's where the money is. Doesn't mean it'll always be that way.

Re:But why? (2, Insightful)

DerekLyons (302214) | more than 3 years ago | (#36054922)

The real question is why you don't have enough imagination to figure out reasons why we might want to go up there.

No, the real question is why buzzword filled drivel like yours gets modded insightful. The OP made a valid point - which you failed to address at all.
 
Jingoism is no substitute to actual thought.
 

The opportunities always seem obvious in hindsight, but it takes a pioneering spirit to seek new ones out and make them real.

Hogwash. LEO is a physical place just like Manhattan or Des Moines. We know to a fair degree what physically can or cannot be done there - and how much it costs to get there to do what can be done. The calculations to determine if money can be made from those activities, given the known inputs, are something any first year accounting student can do.
 
Yet despite all the years the input data has been done, and all the years a lot of people have been thinking about the data... the best we've got is blind jingoism. To any rational person that indicates that there is Problem with a capital 'P'.

Re:But why? (5, Insightful)

VortexCortex (1117377) | more than 3 years ago | (#36052834)

http://xkcd.com/893/ [xkcd.com] -- note especially the alt text:

The universe is probably littered with the one-planet graves of cultures which made the sensible economic decision that there's no good reason to go into space--each discovered, studied, and remembered by the ones who made the irrational decision.

I mean -- its not like our space faring civilization will ever just build itself us.

I mean -- It's not like theres ever been another dominant life form that's now utterly extinct due to one or two slightly above average asteroids striking the Earth -- You can be complacent because you're ancestors were not dinosaurs... I suppose you believe Mammals are impervious to extinction events since we're so prevalent and adaptable (tell that to the anaerobic life that was killed off in the great origination catastrophe --- hint: our oxygen levels drop a bit more, we won't be having this discussion, it'll be the anaerobes' turn again).

In short: Life on Earth finally got decent brains! Let's not flippin' waste them due to insignificant BS and artificially important economic issues -- Anything less than advocating space exploration is burying your head in the sand (and ignoring the fossil record found there).

Those that don't know their history are doomed; There is no second chance to repeat it for some species.

Re:But why? (1)

Runaway1956 (1322357) | more than 3 years ago | (#36053448)

Right on. Keep preaching, I'll sit here in the choir!

Re:But why? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36053986)

This is the first time I've felt compelled to comment on slashdot. You're absolutely correct. There's nothing else so important right now, as woking out how we can be sustainable in space.

Re:But why? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36053988)

There is no evidence that the dinosaurs did not have space flight... Think about it!

Re:But why? (1)

khallow (566160) | more than 3 years ago | (#36054156)

There is no evidence that the dinosaurs did not have space flight... Think about it!

They aren't around now, well aside from birds who survived things the hard way.

Re:But why? (2)

CRCulver (715279) | more than 3 years ago | (#36054894)

You're assuming that the longterm survival of the species is a strong motivator for the average person. While an catastrophic asteroid is a possibility, the probability of it happening in our lifetime, our children's lifetime, or our great grandchildren's lifetime is small. Beyond the immediate next few generations, I don't think people care so much. What matters is our immediate happiness. So why is space so urgent? Slashdotters often speak as if the conquest of space is inevitable, as does much of the science fiction canon. But I increasingly suspect that an intelligent race would more likely not go into space. Interesting possibilities I've heard speculated are that it would ultimately commit mass suicide, feeling existence is pointless, or withdraw into a virtual reality world on its own planet, which has its own opportunities for exploration and longer lifespans without the unprofitability and dangers of space.

Re:But why? (1)

SilasMortimer (1612867) | more than 3 years ago | (#36055134)

The problem with all of this might be a lack of imagination and might be simple arrogance. Who's to say that a creature that had some desire or need to go into space wouldn't find a way to make it trivial? My own problem with sci-fi in general is that it assumes too much. "We did things this way, therefore any sentient being would do things this way."

Of course, maybe they are all oxygen-breathing humanoids with fucked up foreheads who speak English. It's possible.

You're assuming that the longterm survival of the species is a strong motivator for the average person.

It doesn't need to be. The average person is an individual who relies on the group and it's the group that's interested in long term survival. I was recently discussing intellectual laziness with a friend and made a conjecture: Thinking intellectually requires more effort than the average person is willing to spend, therefore few do it; however, if every one of those few in a culture or society was wiped out, there would be a few who would rise from the masses to think more intellectually. Makes sense, doesn't it? We seem to have evolved in a way that we naturally delegate things socially, but if the tribe loses its main hunters, other tribe members will step up to become the main hunters. It seems to me to be a function of the group. Not everyone can take on every role at once, but those roles are important to them.

We didn't need to leave Africa to spread across the world. We didn't need to commit ourselves to the agricultural revolution. We didn't need to build cities or kingdoms or empires. We didn't need the Industrial Revolution. And we sure as heck didn't need to go to the moon. It's kind of silly at this point to say that further exploration is unimportant to humanity, doesn't it?

Re:But why? (2)

CRCulver (715279) | more than 3 years ago | (#36055192)

We live in a democracy. The purpose of leaders is not to "think intellectually" but to carry out the will of the people. If voters feel that space exploration is not an important issue, then government cannot pursue. Private industry cannot bring humanity into space yet -- or possibly ever -- so massive government subsidy is the only option, and society just doesn't want it. Comparing space exploration to humans leaving Africa is risible. Slowly following game through a succession of same or similar climates is trivial compared to getting out of Earth's orbit and surviving in a total vacuum.

Re:But why? (1)

SilasMortimer (1612867) | more than 3 years ago | (#36055260)

You missed my point. If I expected our leaders to "think intellectually", I'd be shit out of luck on this planet. The will of the people, like it or not, will always go with further exploration unless they're convinced otherwise and that will always be for a short time. You yourself might feel it's unimportant, and that opinion is just as important as the opposite in keeping things within the realms of reality, I suppose, but the tendency for people to say, "Society is against this," simply because they are against it is wearying.

If you were not yourself alive to witness public excitement when we first went to the moon, ask people who were. You could also read accounts - they're numerous and easily available. Documentaries have been made ad nauseum about how crazy for space exploration the United States became after that. (I was about to make a comment about little boys trading cowboy hats for astronaut helmets, and that made me think of "Toy Story". Cool. I'd not thought about that correlation before.) The moon is "old hat" now, but when the next big and novel thing comes along, people will be just as excited. In general, people do know that it takes time and effort to reach that next big and novel thing, but they also know they'll appreciate it when it gets here.

Going back to my point (of which the "intellectual thought" discussion I had with my friend was only an example), anything beyond continuing to function (and possibly raise children) is something that not every person in society is going to do, but often they can still generally agree that it needs to be done. Few people putting effort into something does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that many disagree with it. Furthermore, if those few stopped doing it, it would be likely that others would take over.

Your position appears to be, "It's difficult, so screw it." The thing is that what's difficult today won't be difficult down the road because people are working on it. Why are people working on it? Because a lot of people are interested. A lot of people see benefits, real or imagined, and more importantly, we have a drive to spread out and expand. Engage in nihilism if you want, humanity as a group wants it. It really doesn't matter what the individual wants. If we can do it, some way, somehow, we will.

Re:But why? (1)

CRCulver (715279) | more than 3 years ago | (#36055302)

After the first couple of moon landings, public support for space exploration fell quickly. Any ample history of the Apollo program will note how the last missions drew very little attention from the public. I disagree that humanity as a group wants space exploration. In a democracy, pubic support would mean real progress, but NASA has drawn less and less funding as time goes by, and polls regularly show that Americans would rather their tax dollars be spent on something else. You personally may be all rah-rah about space, but it is not the only possible future of our species.

Re:But why? (2)

DerekLyons (302214) | more than 3 years ago | (#36054936)

I mean -- It's not like theres ever been another dominant life form that's now utterly extinct due to one or two slightly above average asteroids striking the Earth -- You can be complacent because you're ancestors were not dinosaurs..

I'm not complacent - but I'm also not ignorant. Going into space today to escape a dinosaur killer is like walking into an auto body shop to buy a pizza. It's not only pointless, it's stupidly silly - because it's going to be centuries at best before anything off planet has sufficient infrastructure, population, and capital to survive the loss of Earth.

Re:But why? (2)

Orange Crush (934731) | more than 3 years ago | (#36053506)

Launch costs are the killer right now. Com sats and government funded programs are the only things that can afford to get there right now. If SpaceX and others like it really manage to cut launch costs down to $1,000/lb, it opens the doors for a LOT of interesting uses that never would've been funded at today's costs to orbit.

Re: How to create the demand. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36053568)

How 'bout an "X Prize" for the first Moon Base?

Re:But why? (2)

Confusador (1783468) | more than 3 years ago | (#36054190)

I think there's a critical mass of technology that is required before we can effectively create the demand, and that is what these companies are working on (launching satellites to pay the bills in the meantime). Working backwards here: I don't think that we're going to be able to do much in space manufacturing (etc) until we close the life support loop; sending supplies up constantly is just too expensive. Bigelow is working on that problem, but are currently constrained by launch costs. SpaceX, Virgin, Armadillo, et al are working on lowering those costs via various strategies. Once we get launch costs low enough, we'll be able to do more testing on life support, and once we have that we'll be able advance other technologies to sell back here on earth.

These companies are making a long bet, but it's not irrational.

Re:But why? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36054426)

If only I had the money...

I'd send a probe out to the asteroid belt. It would be made to land and take-off from asteroids in microgravity, and do some surface ablation and spectral analysis... The more "interesting" asteroids would be tagged with transponders. This would be the start of a prospector service of sorts. If such a mission were successful, it would create another market for spaceflight on its own.

If you can figure out a way to get a way to get sizable chunks of "rare earth" metals that may exist in asteroids back home, the first ones to do it will reel in some serious big bucks.

Re:But why? (1)

OrigamiMarie (1501451) | more than 3 years ago | (#36054546)

Oh I don't know, maybe:

Solar collectors that beam down concentrated energy so we can power the world without burning stuff.

Getting out to the asteroids, pulling some in, and doing all of the messy, nasty refining in space so Earth can be clean.

Go read some sci-fi! There's lots of neat stuff, and some of it has really high start-up costs, but other stuff is relatively cheap and would be a license to print money (which would make some people rich, and also fund the more expensive stuff).

Commercial space industry will not happen until... (1)

dicobalt (1536225) | more than 3 years ago | (#36052616)

someone finds a way to replace rockets with something much more sustainable, reliable, and safe.

Re:Commercial space industry will not happen until (1)

spaceplanesfan (2120596) | more than 3 years ago | (#36052886)

Exactly.
However, laws of physics are somewhat against us. Its damn hard to bring anything to Mach 25.
Its not even about gravity, Heck, using plain cannon [wikipedia.org] , you can reach 180km, well above edge of space.
Take a look for example at skylon [reactionengines.co.uk] about which I posted in this thread.
It seems more or less possible, and already there are many investors. When they complete demonstration program, they will be given a lot of cash.
It about the fact that rockets are just the only proven way to access space, and we always will want a better horse, especially due to the fact that creating the 'automobile' of space is damn expensive.
If one were to prove that you can build the space elevator, launch loop, a space gun or whatever, regardless of costs it would be built.
Maybe a true spaceplane will be one.

Re:Commercial space industry will not happen until (1)

drinkypoo (153816) | more than 3 years ago | (#36054602)

You're thinking about it all wrong. Massive space tourism, you're right. But unmanned mining robots, possibly partly remotely operated, could be preparing packages which get sent back to Earth so that we don't have to do crap like mining here. Power generation could also be moved offplanet to avoid crap like coal and nuclear plants spewing nuclear waste into our atmosphere.

Humurous comments aside (3, Interesting)

Colourspace (563895) | more than 3 years ago | (#36052622)

I have worked in the electronics (and space qualified electronics) industry for some time, from the component to the system manufacturer level, for some time now. I have seen a lot of progress in the FPGA sector in particular. Silicon now seems to be running 'out of steam', though I don't doubt Intel and the like will continue to squeeze the tech for some time and continue to amaze us. On a personal level I wonder how close I am to my (hypothetical granddads) level when steam was close to its dying days, I don't know. But space really seems to be on an upward curve now. Only yesterday I sent my closest friends links to the Virgin Galactic site as although I have been no fan to date, the pictures I saw yesterday actually made me think that our long promised space age might finally be getting here. I hope so, we need to get off this rock. (and nuke it from space, it's the only way....)

Re:Humurous comments aside (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36054390)

Who's "we", and in what way is the Earth a "rock", and in what way are the other planets in the universe not also rocks? You're delusional. "We" are staying right here in our atmosphere protected by a magnetosphere, on a nice planet with all the conditions we need for life... And in what way was a "space age" *promised* to you? The Space Age was a confluence of WWII technologies and Cold War missile programs with a bit of icing/misdirection on top in the shape of Apollo. Big whoop.

Who promised you anything at all? Do you realize how childishly deluded and naive you sound? I was "promised" a leisure society with a four hour work week. That's trillions of times easier than the delusional Gerard Kitchen O'Neill nonsense and THAT never happened either.

As a matter of fact, we've completely inverted the Space Age fantasies. Instead of cheap space travel, we have cheap computer power. That's the total opposite of what they expected!

Doesn't that tell you something? That our physical technology and energy sources peaked a long time ago, but processing information takes very little energy!

As long as your belly is full thanks to the oil economy, you can continue to transform bits into food. Not for too much longer though.

Offtopic message of the day... (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36052630)

In case anyone wonder...

N sryybj obhtug n arj pne, n Avffna, naq jnf dhvgr unccl jvgu uvf chepunfr. Ur jnf fbzrguvat bs na navzvfg, ubjrire, naq sryg gung gur pne ernyyl bhtug gb unir n anzr. Guvf cerfragrq n ceboyrz, nf ur jnf abg fher vs gur anzr fubhyq or znfphyvar be srzvavar. Nsgre pbafvqrenoyr gubhtug, ur frggyrq ba na anzvat gur pne rvgure Orypunmne be Ornhznqvar, ohg erznvarq va n dhnaqel nobhg gur svany pubvpr. "Vf n Avffna znyr be srznyr?" ur ortna nfxvat uvf sevraqf. Zbfg bs gurz ybbxrq ng uvz crphyneyl, zhzoyrq guvatf nobhg hetrag nccbvagzragf, naq jrag ba gurve jnl engure dhvpxyl. Ur svanyyl oebnpurq gur dhrfgvba gb n ynql ur xarj jub uryq n oynpx oryg va whqb. Fur gubhtug sbe n zbzrag naq nafjrerq "Srzvavar." Gur fjvsgarff bs ure erfcbafr chmmyrq uvz. "Lbh'er fher bs gung?" ur nfxrq. "Pregnvayl," fur ercyvrq. "Gurl jbhyqa'g fryy irel jryy vs gurl jrer znfphyvar." "Hauuu... Jryy, jul abg?" "Orpnhfr crbcyr jnag n pne jvgu n erchgngvba sbe tbvat jura lbh jnag vg gb. Naq, vs Avffna'f ner srznyr, vg'f yvxr gurl fnl... `Rnpu Avffna, fur tb!'" [Ab, jr JBA'G rkcynva vg; tb nfx fbzrbar jub cenpgvprf na bevragny znegvny neg. (Gnv Puv Puhna cebonoyl qbrfa'g pbhag.) Rq.] % Nyvdhvq zryvhf dhnz crffvzhz bcgvzhz aba rfg. % Qre Ubevmbag ivryre Zrafpura vfg rva Xervf zvg Enqvhf Ahyy -- haq qnf araara fvr vuera Fgnaqchaxg. % Rtb fhz raf bzavcbgraf. % Sbefna rg unrp byvz zrzvavffr whinovg. % Ubqvr anghf rfg enqvpv sengre. % Ubav fbvg yn inpur dhv evg. % Xyngh onenqn avxgb. % Zvrhk inhg gneq dhr wnznvf! % Divq zr nakvif fiz? % Enssvavreg vfg qre Ureetbgg nore obfunsg vfg re avpug. -- Nyoreg Rvafgrva % Ertanag cbchyv. % frzcre ra rkperghf % FRZCRE HOV FHO HOV!!!! % fvyyrzn fvyyrzn avxn fh % Fhnivgre va zbqb, sbegvgre va er. Fr aba r ireb, r ora gebingb. % Fhz dhbq revf. % Gbhg pubfrf fbag qvgrf qrwn, znvf pbzzr crefbaar a'rpbhgr, vy snhg gbhwbhef erpbzzrapre. -- N. Tvqr % Ireon ibynag, fpevcgn znarag! %

A fellow bought a new car, a Nissan, and was quite happy with his purchase. He was something of an animist, however, and felt that the car really ought to have a name. This presented a problem, as he was not sure if the name should be masculine or feminine. After considerable thought, he settled on an naming the car either Belchazar or Beaumadine, but remained in a quandry about the final choice. "Is a Nissan male or female?" he began asking his friends. Most of them looked at him pecularly, mumbled things about urgent appointments, and went on their way rather quickly. He finally broached the question to a lady he knew who held a black belt in judo. She thought for a moment and answered "Feminine." The swiftness of her response puzzled him. "You're sure of that?" he asked. "Certainly," she replied. "They wouldn't sell very well if they were masculine." "Unhhh... Well, why not?" "Because people want a car with a reputation for going when you want it to. And, if Nissan's are female, it's like they say... `Each Nissan, she go!'" [No, we WON'T explain it; go ask someone who practices an oriental martial art. (Tai Chi Chuan probably doesn't count.) Ed.] % Aliquid melius quam pessimum optimum non est. % Der Horizont vieler Menschen ist ein Kreis mit Radius Null -- und das nennen sie ihren Standpunkt. % Ego sum ens omnipotens. % Forsan et haec olim meminisse juvabit. % Hodie natus est radici frater. % Honi soit la vache qui rit. % Klatu barada nikto. % Mieux vaut tard que jamais! % Qvid me anxivs svm? % Raffiniert ist der Herrgott aber boshaft ist er nicht. -- Albert Einstein % Regnant populi. % semper en excretus % SEMPER UBI SUB UBI!!!! % sillema sillema nika su % Suaviter in modo, fortiter in re. Se non e vero, e ben trovato. % Sum quod eris. % Tout choses sont dites deja, mais comme personne n'ecoute, il faut toujours recommencer. -- A. Gide % Verba volant, scripta manent! %

Why the fuck that thing is on slashdot?

Lets all hope for Skylon (1)

spaceplanesfan (2120596) | more than 3 years ago | (#36052652)

The new (well anything new is well forgotten old) Skylon [reactionengines.co.uk] could really turn the space tourism in reality.
To be honest I am still sceptical of their plan, but who knows, that might succeed.
They say that only new technology they will use (and it increases performance of the engine enabling it) the precooler will be tested this June, and that they passed independent reviews by NASA and ESA.
Peoples also thought that won't be able to fly until sufficiently powerful engine (internal combustion) was developed.
Then it didn't take Wright Brothers long to create an airplane.

Re:Lets all hope for Skylon (1)

nebaz (453974) | more than 3 years ago | (#36052816)

Really, Skylon?

I'd never trust a bastard stepchild of Skynet and the Cylons.

Re:Lets all hope for Skylon (1)

spaceplanesfan (2120596) | more than 3 years ago | (#36052980)

Really, that could be it. I discovered that project about month ago, and its seems promising.
Besides its like our last hope to have real access to space.
I am also a fan of SpaceX, but I somewhat don't belive that they will be able to recover the first stage.
It flies too fast at staging and has no wings, thus it bound to hit earth fast. I understand that parachutes will slow it down but not
much to keep the delicate tanks from cracking or even bending.
Until now it didn't even come to earth in one piece (at least that is more or less what I think they mean).
Space elevator maybe? but that needs huge counterweight. How to launch one is beyond our abilities. Skylon is probably easier to built.
Using an asteroid is not feasible because you need more delta-v to slow it down than to launch the same mass from earth.

Re:Lets all hope for Skylon (1)

0123456 (636235) | more than 3 years ago | (#36053030)

Really, that could be it. I discovered that project about month ago, and its seems promising.

Skylon's problem is that it's too expensive to develop and not cheap enough in operation. There's no known or predicted market large enough at its predicted cost per kilo to justify the $10,000,000,000+ development cost.

It flies too fast at staging and has no wings, thus it bound to hit earth fast. I understand that parachutes will slow it down but not
much to keep the delicate tanks from cracking or even bending.

Generally speaking, tanks are cheap, the engines are the expensive part. Being able to reuse the whole thing would be nice, but if you can only reuse the engines that's still a substantial win.

And NASA looked seriously at reusing Saturn rocket stages in the past. It hasn't really been tested yet, but no-one seems to think it's impossible.

Re:Lets all hope for Skylon (1)

spaceplanesfan (2120596) | more than 3 years ago | (#36053120)

Really, that could be it. I discovered that project about month ago, and its seems promising.

Skylon's problem is that it's too expensive to develop and not cheap enough in operation. There's no known or predicted market large enough at its predicted cost per kilo to justify the $10,000,000,000+ development cost.

In fact thats is not a big deal. The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer [wikipedia.org] that Endeavour will launch costs $1,500,000,000. Heck, the ISS costs about 100 Billion (and rising). Its all about feasibility of it.
Even spaceX despite their uber low cost model already spent 0.8 Billion on their rockets.

It flies too fast at staging and has no wings, thus it bound to hit earth fast. I understand that parachutes will slow it down but not
much to keep the delicate tanks from cracking or even bending.

Generally speaking, tanks are cheap, the engines are the expensive part. Being able to reuse the whole thing would be nice, but if you can only reuse the engines that's still a substantial win.

And NASA looked seriously at reusing Saturn rocket stages in the past. It hasn't really been tested yet, but no-one seems to think it's impossible.

Yet if that engine hits the water, its bound to be damaged, and so repairing it probably will cost more.
A engines that jettison and land separately might be a good idea though.

Re:Lets all hope for Skylon (1)

speederaser (473477) | more than 3 years ago | (#36053828)

If the Skylon ever begins flying it will never be man-rated for one simple reason: engine unstart (hammer shock) is a safety of flight issue. This is one of the problems that killed NASP.

If one of the engines ever unstarts, it will suddenly become a drag producer instead of a thrust producer. With massive drag way out on the wing on one side of the aircraft and massive thrust way out on the wing on the other side, the Skylon will snap sideways to the airflow and be torn apart by aerodynamic forces.

The way the Skylon is now, I wouldn't invest in it and I wouldn't get in it.

Re:Lets all hope for Skylon (1)

spaceplanesfan (2120596) | more than 3 years ago | (#36054954)

Interesting.

A few ideas? (1)

Dyinobal (1427207) | more than 3 years ago | (#36052790)

How about asteroid mining with solar pumped lasers, or gas mining the gas giants for hydrogen (or maybe helium if we ever figure out fusion). There is a lot of possibilities but we are lacking some very fundamental things to really make space exploration viable. Like a better propulsion system to leave the gravity well of a planet.

Re:A few ideas? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36053214)

Helium has other useful applications besides fusion. Probably anything we could sift off a gas giant would be useful.

Re:A few ideas? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36053240)

Any technological progress along those lines would automatically mean every other technology on Earth will be better too. Then what do we need space for?

Re:A few ideas? (1)

Dyinobal (1427207) | more than 3 years ago | (#36053296)

The quantity of metals you could mine from asteroids versus normal mining we do here on earth is vastly different, by several orders of magnitude. Plus you can avoid all those pesky environmental problems. Generally in space you can do everything bigger. Plus some micro gravity experiments have shown there are some materials that can only be made there. Besides that sort of attitude would of kept anyone from trying to sail across the Atlantic.

Re:A few ideas? (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36053350)

Well, the "pesky" thing about mining in space is that we can't. Good luck to you, but I garantee that in ten years, or a hundred, we'll still be here, using nasty old Earth elements. You know, the periodic table of elements is the same everywhere. Unless you don't think so? The problems of mining in space are several orders of magnitude more complex than you imagine. You've never thought it through I'll bet.

Re:A few ideas? (1)

Americano (920576) | more than 3 years ago | (#36053688)

I have a feeling that the people you're responding to have a raging case of PHB syndrome: "Look, coal mining is done by a bunch of blue-collar high school dropouts, how hard can mining really be? The hard part is clearly just developing a rocket to get there. We can make robots at least as smart as high school dropouts, GAWD."

Re:A few ideas? (1)

Strider- (39683) | more than 3 years ago | (#36053602)

Problem is that if you bring that quantity back to earth, you'll depress the prices to the point where it isn't worth going out to get them. Even with a 10 fold reduction in launch costs, such as what SpaceX gives us, there aren't any elements or materials in existence and of sufficient value to mine in space and return to earth. The only possible exception is Helium-3, but that assumes we can develop He3 fusion any time soon.

Even if you were to find an asteroid made from pure platinum, by the time you bring sufficient quantities home to pay for your mission you'll have depressed the platinum prices to the point where it wasn't worth going to get it in the first place.

Re:A few ideas? (1)

Teancum (67324) | more than 3 years ago | (#36054422)

When you mention launch costs, you are presuming that the price point includes sending fuel up on those rockets and shipping that fuel from the surface of the Earth to some asteroid and then trying to get a conventional rocket designed for flying off of the surface of the Earth to be able to return with that fuel barely making it back to the Earth.

That is a whole lot of assumptions that I think simply are false and misleading when being discussed about the economics of extracting minerals in space. Yes, a one liter bottle of water in LEO costs $10k for a cheap one and as much as $100k or more when you consider how it got there in the first place. But how much would it cost to extract water on the Moon or from an asteroid and be able to fill tanks for a return flight? That really changes the arithmetic. What about if you could build "Von Neuman" machines or at least a spacecraft factory on an asteroid so you didn't have to ship that metal there in the first place? It would cost an initial investment that might be huge, but the recurring costs might be considerably less.

I certainly haven't gone over the numbers, but it may be possible to cheaply refine some metals like Platinum, Gold, Silver, or other relatively rare metals on an asteroid and be able to cheaply send that back to the Earth (or elsewhere) for a price that is less than its value per ounce. You just have to make sure you aren't bringing the propellant from the Earth to do that.... which is where the logic fails when trying to point out how expensive it is to do stuff in space.

If you drove an automobile from New York to Los Angeles and back, how much more do you think it would cost if you needed a fuel tank towed in a trailer behind your car to make the entire trip without hitting a refueling station along the way? I don't even think such a vehicle would be legal without a DOT commercial license and hazardous materials handling endorsements. That is precisely the logic being used to explain why it is impossible to cost-effectively mine extra-terrestrial bodies.

Re:A few ideas? (1)

Americano (920576) | more than 3 years ago | (#36053694)

Why? Are these asteroids magical Asteroids of Infinite Ore? Do they have a super-fast bugged respawn rate that allows us to spawn-camp them, getting enough ore to finally corner the auction house?

You are trying to gloss over a huge number of practical economic issues, which makes it clear you haven't actually thought this premise through to its conclusion.

Re:A few ideas? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36054488)

Why? Are these asteroids magical Asteroids of Infinite Ore?

Pretty much. You've got basically a planetary core without all the pesky overlying rock.

Re:A few ideas? (1)

Americano (920576) | more than 3 years ago | (#36054814)

Yeah, and you're also missing all the pesky overlying atmosphere which is sort of required by the people mining this magical rock. Oops.

Re:A few ideas? (1)

Americano (920576) | more than 3 years ago | (#36053668)

Why would we mine asteroids, or gas giants, when we have the technology to mine all those same elements right back here on earth?

You realize that the elements available here are pretty much the same as you'd find anywhere, right? Like, Hydrogen here on earth is the same as Hydrogen on Jupiter? Considering that 70% of the earth's surface is covered, in some places miles deep, with a compound of hydrogen and oxygen, I'd say extracting hydrogen and oxygen right here on earth would be a lot more economical than building a fleet of starships and setting up a supply line to a mining operation on Jupiter or Saturn.

(And let's consider, just for a second, the fun times to be had shipping a container full of Hydrogen from Jupiter through the stresses & heat of re-entry into earth's atmosphere. If you thought the Hindenberg was a spectacular disaster, just imagine what it'll look like the first time one of those tanks ruptures! Oh the humanity!)

Re:A few ideas? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36054026)

It is futile to engage Space Nutters in rational discourse. I've tried. They have a religion with absolutely no basis in reality whatsoever, therefore you can't argue with them. Facts won't sway them, physics won't stop them. Let them continue to hoot and holler and drool. Reality doesn't care. One day they'll wake up old and tired and they'll wonder how come no one ever worked seriously on life extension and anti-aging technology.

Re:A few ideas? (1)

R3d M3rcury (871886) | more than 3 years ago | (#36054040)

Agreed. I'd also point out that, as you increase the supply, the price goes down so it has to be even cheaper than you think.

Imagine running across a solid gold asteroid. You'd be rich! But when you brought it back to Earth and started to sell lots of it in order to pay off the costs of actually getting it, you'd end up making less money because you'd drive the price of gold down. That would be true for anything that's available on Earth.

The real reason for mining astroids, etc. is to provide an infrastructure outside of the Earth. The Earth is a wonderful place, but it's kind of tough to get things off this rock.

Suppose I want to build a "luxury spaceliner" that'll support 2500 people. Well, it would cost me lots of money to build. Because it would be big and heavy, I'd probably have a hard time landing it back on Earth, so I'd also need to build a space port to house it. So I'd assemble it outside of the Earth. But I still have to lift all the materials up from the Earth and that would be expensive. Or I could build it on the Earth and design a really big rocket to get it up there.

But imagine if somebody was already out there mining asteroids and making worthwhile metals out of them. Why, I could buy my supplies from them and not have to deal with the expense of getting things out of the gravity well that is Earth. The person who mines the materials would also make money that I pay him for the materials. If there was enough interest in building "luxury spaceliners," supplying the materials could be good money.

But, again, there's that nagging chicken or the egg thing. Why should I mine asteroids if there's nobody to buy my ore? Why should I create space-based ore processing if there's nobody to buy my metals? Why should I build anything in space when all the materials have to come from Earth anyway?

Re:A few ideas? (1)

Teancum (67324) | more than 3 years ago | (#36054472)

When the California Gold Rush happened in 1849, there were hoards of people who traveled to San Francisco (or overland) for the chance to "make it rich". Some fairly wealthy people spent the modern equivalent of a million dollars or more to make the trip too. Furthermore, in spite of being able to claim they were rich (and many did become quite wealthy), the price of gold did drop considerably compared to almost all currencies world-wide because that hoard of gold ended up flooding the world commodity markets at the time.

In other words, everything you are worrying about here has happened before, and indeed multiple times. Some people perhaps might be bit by the "gold bug" but if there is profit to be made, there are some folks who will take the chance to make that profit.

Also, there is no chicken-or-egg problem. If you have some ore that can be used to extract some sort of element that is particularly hard to obtain, it doesn't matter how you get it, the markets to buy the stuff already likely exist. Even Helium (He-3 and He-4) have existing markets for the stuff if only you can get it to the buyers. That is the problem, not trying to create the market in the first place.

The real issue is who is going to stick their necks out to make that initial investment, and what would be the most profitable initial enterprise to begin doing once you get there. For myself, I think ordinary water will be the material of choice in terms of its value in space for mining operations... but clearly that isn't really needed here on the Earth in terms of owning a bottle of lunar water. Its value is going to be how it is used in space for space applications.

Re:A few ideas? (1)

Americano (920576) | more than 3 years ago | (#36054808)

Here's the problem with your comparison to the Gold Rush: San Francisco isn't millions of miles away in a vacuum that is completely inhospitable to human life, which requires hundreds of millions of dollars just to reach, much less extract minerals from, and ship them back to earth.

By contrast, during the gold rush, a few tens of dollars would get you set up to prospect. Some chisels & hammers, sifting pans, shovels, and pickaxes were sufficient. And yet, about half of the miners [wikipedia.org] ended up losing money, and only a small number of prospectors made more than "modest" profits. Do you know how valuable those asteroid minerals would have to get to make flying out to the asteroid, extracting them, and shipping them back to earth even a break-even operation?

And for your comment about Helium: Helium-4 makes up well over 99% of the helium on earth, since Helium 4 has 2 protons, 2 neutrons, and is the stable, standard non-radioactive isotope of helium. I don't think it will *ever* be economically viable to go retrieve helium-4 from space, since, you know, we have tons of it (literally) down here on earth already. Helium-3 is certainly more difficult to obtain, but if you think building and maintaining a supply line to Saturn is easier and cheaper than developing enough Tritium breeder stock to guarantee a constant supply of He-3... well, think again.

space elements (1)

priceslasher (2102064) | more than 3 years ago | (#36054416)

The obvious reason you would want to mine elements in space is so you can have elements in space without having to bring them from earth. To make spacehouses with or whatever.

Re:A few ideas? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36055418)

No, no and no.

First of all, not all heavenly bodies were created equal. Hell some weren't even created in the original coalescing of the Solar System (e.g. the Moon). Not to mention the varying distances from the Sun cause heavier elements to migrate towards the center.

Secondly, not all atoms of elements are created equal. There's a little thing called isotopes that tend to affect the nuclear characteristics of said atoms. For example, Helium-3 is considered to be the best fuel for fusion reactions but 99.999% of the Helium found on Earth comes in the shape of Helium-4. The Helium-3 to Helium-4 ratio is much better on the moon or even the gas giants you mentioned..

The only thing worse than someone who knows nothing is someone who thinks he knows it all..

Meaningless growth (2)

wcrowe (94389) | more than 3 years ago | (#36053286)

As someone pointed out recently, our brightest minds in computer science are laboring at ways to get more people to click on links. Similarly, the commercial space industry will develop quickly, but it will be focused on putting enormous ads in the sky, or something equally useless.

Re:Meaningless growth (1)

ShoulderOfOrion (646118) | more than 3 years ago | (#36054720)

Someone mod the parent insightful.

rockets are holding us back (1)

currently_awake (1248758) | more than 3 years ago | (#36053620)

Chemical rockets are the limiting factor, the tech is so marginal that only extreme efforts allow spaceflight with such poor tech- and that means tiny safety margins and huge flight cost. Human space travel will never be more than a curiosity until we advance our to orbit launch capability. Guns of one sort or another (gun powder, rail gun, electromagnetic catapult) are the only available tech that will give us affordable space flight within our lifetime.

Re:rockets are holding us back (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36053818)

Might as well say "never". Anyone with even the tiniest connection to reality understands this. If there were such a great commercial market to see the Earth from high up, bring back Kittinger's balloons. What's that? No one cares? Only some megalomaniacal millionaires? Oh, so it's not commercial then... Once they've blown their loads and a few thrill-seekers will have tumbled around low-Earth orbit in fragile, but brightly-colored tin cans, it'll be over.

The thing about space is that there's no "there" there. What are you going to do there? You can't go outside. You can't touch anything. You can't breathe. Your body starts to fall apart the minute you're weightless. It's utterly empty and hostile.

Re:rockets are holding us back (1)

cbhacking (979169) | more than 3 years ago | (#36054952)

Space elevators are theoretically possible with modern material science, and that science is still advancing. There are other problems to be worked out, of course, but they are *being* worked out already.

I'm not saying I'm sure we'll see a space elevator in my lifetime, but I wouldn't bet against it. There's a huge technological advantage to having one; every other option requires either lifting all the power to get out of the gravity well with you (and nothing short of nuclear energy will do that with sufficiently high energy density to move beyond the "marginal" category that rockets are in), or requires providing all the energy necessary to escape gravity in an extremely short time (the guns you mention).

Inconsequentially... (1)

dreamer.redeemer (1600257) | more than 3 years ago | (#36054298)

...compared to the rate of growth of everything space related after the construction of the first space elevator. The way I see it, every rocket that isn't on a space elevator building mission is a waste of time/money.

Regardless of how it eventually happens, (1)

IronDragon (74186) | more than 3 years ago | (#36054906)

Space will be settled by the impatient.

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