Forget the World Wide Web, space travel could be the next “big thing.” Every once in a while, a technological era begins that launches economic development into a new phase. Whether it was the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution, or more recently, the information revolution, each era has unlocked new and unforeseen potential for humanity. But with the digital revolution slowing down, what is next?
Since the 1960s, the internet and the information revolution have been a major driver of economic growth and productivity. It has also been a catalyst for social change. In the early 1990’s, when the internet was just beginning to grow outside of universities and government, few could have imagined the profound ways that the information revolution would change the world. And yet, there is evidence that Moores law, which underpins this revolution, is slowing down. If humanity is unable to seize upon a new source of growth, we could find the future to be one of slow socio-politico-economic decay. Luckily, there could be a new revolution emerging.
Spacex and other companies have already proven the ability to reduce the cost of getting into space by 50% by using innovative manufacturing methods on rockets (3D printing…for example). Spacex is also demonstrating that partial rocket reuse is possible, and others are following. With partial reuse, we can cut the cost of getting to space by about another 50%. Further breakthroughs, such as the success of the Starship rocket, promises to reduce costs by as much as an additional 80% by being fully and rapidly reusable. As launch costs drop, the economics of space access drastically changes.
Its hard to imagine where this could lead. Space would not seem, on the surface, to be a massive jobs creator or economic growth engine. But there is some very real potential in the heavens.
1) Satellite Communications
Satellites have long been about the only successful space-based business. This business is growing more rapidly as launch costs have plunged. The next “big” thing in space is already happening with Starlink.
2) Scientific Research and LEO Limited Industrial Production
There are some kinds of research that are best done in a micro-gravity environment, including some medical research. As launch costs fall, a small research space station could do this kind of research more cheaply than can be done today. These same stations could also make precision parts, such as ultra-precise ball bearings, that cannot be made on Earth.
This is one of the most obvious areas that space could be profitable. As ticket prices fall, it may become possible for the upper middle class to enjoy trips into orbit. Long term, there is potential for lunar cruises, and even trips through the warm atmosphere of Venus.
4) Resource Mining
Asteroids in space can be treasure troves of resources. Trillions of dollars worth of metals such as iron and nickel, can be mined from a single asteroid. This material could be used on Earth, but long term these materials could be quite valuable in the construction of space stations and space-based colonies.
New Frontier, New Beginning
While the space revolution is far from certain, it would behoove humanity to begin making large investments into the infrastructure and technology required for affordable access to space. There is simply too much potential for job creation and economic growth. In the post pandemic world, new sources of jobs, growth, opportunity, and hope is sorely needed.