The great explorers did not embark on their best-known voyages in pursuit of glory alone. They did not set sail into the unknown to advance the sum of human knowledge or to restore the bonds of human fraternity that politics had torn asunder. They went in pursuit of profit.
Henry Hudson. Ferdinand Magellan. Marco Polo. Christopher Columbus. All launched their missions to distant lands to discover lucrative trade routes, and their expeditions were commissioned by well-heeled sponsors who were engaged in intense competition with their peers. Many of the world’s greatest cities were first founded as remote colonial trading posts. Singapore, Syracuse, Quebec, and New York City; all were once far-flung and sparsely populated outposts established only to exploit and export local resources. When humanity begins to regularly venture beyond Earth’s orbit, it will not be for the benefit of science or international comity. It will be to lay claim to the abundant resources orbiting the sun and to exploit them for money.
Robert Zubrin is a man of science. He has dedicated his life to making the case for manned space exploration in the terms the government bureaucracies care about most: cost-effectiveness and return on investment. Today, at the dawn of the age of private space exploration, Zubrin is uniquely positioned to crystalize the value of space for commercial entities, and he has done just that in The Case for Space. Zubrin’s new book treats space not just as a frontier ripe for conquest or a venue in which mankind’s common aspirations can overcome Earth’s petty tribal politics. The solar system, in Zubrin’s telling, is a marketplace.
In December 2017, Elon Musk’s SpaceX became the first private enterprise to launch a payload into orbit on a reused rocket. SpaceX has since begun to routinize the process of launching a one-stage rocket and successfully returning them via boosters to a landing pad. Already this year, Musk’s firm sent a massive commercial satellite into orbit on the Falcon Heavy—a triple-booster rocket capable of sending manned vehicles into orbit—and successfully returned two of those boosters to Earth.
Musk isn’t the only entrepreneur in the private space-exploration business. Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, Northrop Grumman’s Orbital, and several other firms are engaged in the race to commercialize space. But Musk’s venture has made the most progress toward that end by developing a reusable launch vehicle, thus driving down the costs associated with achieving escape velocity. For now, this company’s objectives are to resupply the international space station and launch commercial satellites, and there is not yet enough competition in this sector to make low Earth orbit a financially viable field of commercial application. But the demand for access to space is rising, and necessity will compel innovation and make costs competitive.
Americans will soon be forced to think about space very differently from how they’ve thought about it in the past. Zubrin astutely observes that Earth orbit is fast becoming a theater of war. America’s reliance on satellites for communications, reconnaissance, and navigation provides its adversaries with a relatively cheap means of achieving military parity. Knock out America’s satellites, and the U.S. military might soon become far less intimidating. It’s impossible to say how many weapons are currently stationed in orbit since so many orbital platforms are classified as “dual use,” meaning they can be transformed into kill vehicles at a moment’s notice. But all “dual use” vehicles can do is kamikaze themselves into another satellite, and that’s insufficient. The U.S. will have to station anti-satellite fighter vehicles in space, both to deter adversaries from attacking U.S. platforms and to protect the orbital industries that are already in development.
The first taste of space for most civilians will come from the development of reusable orbital-class passenger vehicles that will be able to deliver people from one side of the Earth to the other in under an hour. The two-stage reusable boosters in use now by private firms are already capable of delivering a passenger-filled cabin into orbit. Taking costs and overhead into account, Zubrin calculates that a one-way trip would likely run about $20,000. That’s roughly the cost of a first-class ticket from New York City to Sydney, Australia. Along with speed, passengers will have the added benefit of experiencing zero gravity and a killer view—all while generating millions in gross revenue for the carrier. You can see why firms like XCOR Aerospace and Virgin Orbit are already in the commercial orbital transportation business, and competition will eventually drive ticket prices down.
Space tourism is still a novelty that only the wealthy can afford. But reusable boosters and orbital vehicles will soon make exo-atmospheric sojourns attainable for those of more modest means. The demand for the orbital hospitality sector is already proven. Zubrin notes that several firms are accepting reservations on spec and habitations modules have even been tested in space. Orbital hotels will pave the way for orbital research-and-development facilities, which can offer exclusive features unique to their terrestrial alternatives including total secrecy and isolation, reduced gravity, and near vacuum conditions. The overhead costs on products developed or produced in space at current launch costs are substantial but not prohibitive. “Let’s say that the end use for the product was a drug or computer chip selling retail for $200 for a hundred-gram unit,” Zubrin writes. “In that case, four hundred thousand units would have to be sold per year.” That’s a lot, but it is hardly beyond the realm of imagination.
There are, however, technical limits to what commercial space flight can accomplish. Interplanetary expeditions will be the province of governments in the near term, but getting there and staying there are only the first steps in mankind’s quest to conquer the solar system. The next step will be making the expeditions profitable, and that will be left to private enterprise.
Citing John and Ruth Lewis’s 1987 book Space Resources, Zubrin notes that there is plenty of bounty out there for the taking. The main asteroid belt is replete with millions of tons of nickel, cobalt, and platinum. These and other strategic metals in the belt have profound industrial applications, some of which—like fuel-cell technology—are in their infancy. As those technologies mature, the demand for these minerals will be difficult to satisfy with terrestrial supplies alone. Here, too, Zubrin notes that commercial enterprises have already incorporated, with the mission of exploiting these resources, and Congress would be well served by granting mining rights to groups that survey these bodies just as it issued speculative land rights to territories in the American West. These rights would be enforceable through the imposition of tariffs on U.S. imports made with materials exploited by patent violators, and legislation like this would light a fire under the effort to exploit the resources in the belt.
Carbonaceous materials, precious metals, and silicates are abundant on Jupiter’s less irradiated moons Ganymede and Calisto, and their proximity to the largest gravity booster in our solar system will increase their strategic value as necessary waypoints on the trip to and from the Jovian system. Saturn’s moon Titan has hundreds of times more liquid hydrocarbons than all the known gas and oil reserves on Earth, and its thick atmosphere facilitates the efficient conversion of thermal energy from fission or fusion reactors to electricity. Perhaps the most valuable resource in space that is all but nonexistent on Earth is helium-3, a non-radioactive isotope that is superior in creating a fusion reaction with tritium than dirtier deuterium.
Helium-3 is scarce but harvestable on the moon, and it is abundant in the outer solar system—it will soon become extremely valuable. “A kilogram of gold, at today’s prices, is worth about $40,000,” Zubrin notes. “A kilogram of helium-3,” he adds, “if burned in a fusion reactor using a 60 percent efficiency [magnetohydrodynamic] conversion system, would produce one hundred million kilowatt-hours of electricity.” So, conservatively, a kilogram of helium-3 would be worth approximately $10 million. To realize the value of helium-3, you still need a reliable fusion reactor. And that’s not in the realm of science fiction.
Progress toward reliable fusion reaction made great strides until the 1980s, when the Cold War ended and the competitive impulses fueling innovation dried up. Research was consolidated into one international project, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, which has spent decades trying to innovate by committee, arguing over where to locate its facilities and dedicating itself to achieving thermonuclear ignition at the most leisurely pace. Fortunately, private enterprise has again stepped in where governments have failed, and Zubrin notes that commercial and research facilities are racing toward the development of net energy-generating tokamak reactors in the next decade. “Helium-3 won’t provide us the magnet that will draw us into space,” Zubrin concedes, “but mastery of space will give us helium-3.”
Zubrin modestly observes that the limits of human knowledge prevent us from making accurate predictions about the kinds of resources spacefaring humans will exploit, because we are still discovering and developing new resources on Earth. Two centuries ago, few would recognize silicon and aluminum ore as anything other than rocks and dirt. Crude oil, he notes, was valueless until we discovered its potential. Natural gas was a waste product that we burned off before it became the “bridge fuel” to a cleaner energy future, rendering the United States a net energy exporter. Before the millennium, the potential yields from exploiting oil shale were almost entirely theoretical and cost-prohibitive. The early colonists in the solar system will experience the same drives and limitations that typified the early American experience, in which a labor shortage necessitated radical technological innovations. And like the American experience, the commercial marketplace will flourish in space along with the marketplace for ideas.
Atomized spacefaring communities will be far removed from the institutions that exert social and legal pressure on nonconformists at home. They will develop new methods of social organization. Experimentation will beget more experimentation, and the intense competition to attract immigrants will yield societal transformations. “Perhaps some will be republican, others anarchist,” Zubrin speculates. “Some aristocratic, others egalitarian. Some religious, others rationalist.” And so on. Like the far-flung trading posts that are today’s greatest metropolises, those societies that maximize human potential will flourish. Those that do not will wither. But the most valuable resource at their disposal will be freedom.
Ultimately, mankind will be drawn to conquer the solar system out of an instinct for self-preservation. Humans inherited an evolutionary adaptation that compels them to expand their viable habitat. Scholars have long speculated that the existence of a frontier yields psychological advantages. People do not thrive in stagnation. But Zubrin doesn’t define survival in only abstract terms. Americans are conditioned on a diet of film and television productions that speculate about the ease with which an asteroid on a collision course with Earth could be diverted or destroyed, but such a prospect is currently beyond our technological capabilities. You can’t simply blow an asteroid up with a multi-megaton hydrogen bomb; it would likely reassemble itself with its own gravity. And you can’t nudge it off course without doing so years—even tens or hundreds of years—before impact, when the object is still in deep space and out of reach. Only human crews equipped with advanced technology and demolitions expertise could do the job right.
Ultimately, The Case for Space makes an argument that scientific minds may regard with hostility because the book is, in part, disdainful of the pieties that devotees of pop science revere. But even Zubrin cannot abandon the dream entirely. Substantial portions of his book are dedicated to making the case for interstellar exploration, stellar ignition, terraforming, and colonizing the universe with life, projects that are neither technologically viable nor commercially attractive.
Zubrin is rightly disdainful of the phobias that have kept men earthbound for so long. He convincingly dismantles the notions that cosmic rays, human isolation, prolonged exposure to low gravity, and alien microbes are terrifying barriers to exploring the solar system. He is, however, equally disdainful of NASA’s hidebound commitment to constituency maintenance. He argues that the space agency has subordinated the mission-driven objective of space exploration to the needs of its vendors. That’s doubtlessly true, but NASA remains a critical vehicle for the exploration of space, in part, because pivotal places like Mars have such limited near-term commercial value.
Just as New York City is not known for the beaver pelts it was founded to deliver to market but the financial services and cultural commodities it developed along the way, Mars will one day become a wealthy and innovative hub linking the resource-rich outer solar system to the inner planets. But private enterprise will find the return on investment from early expeditions to Mars decidedly limited. Governments still have an important role to play in the opening of this new frontier.
These are, however, minor objections to what is overall an important narrative. The Case for Space is an argument for a paradigmatic shift among policymakers. It demands that they acquaint themselves with the realities of the marketplace that are already at work creating mankind’s future in the solar system. The age of private space exploration is upon us. It is driven as much by mankind’s instinctual desire to seek out new frontiers as it is by his desire to profit from them. Robert Zubrin is leading the way.