Welcome to SpaceX City: The Ultimate Startup

How the private space industry will reinvent economics, exploration, and humanity.

By Evan Dashevsky

The rise of the private space industry may be what’s needed to kickstart humans’ journey to the final frontier; the pursuit of profit is often a fantastic spur for innovation. Just how this will all play out is anyone’s guess, but the wheels are most definitely in motion.

In September 2016, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk took the stage at the annual International Astronautical Congress conference in Guadalajara, Mexico, to outline his vision for invading Mars. The plan — a combination of technical specificity and operational vagueness — would make us a multi-planetary species by pre-stocking Mars via unmanned supply missions that leave Earth every 26 months when the two planets align in their respective orbits.

These initial one-way trips will take around 80 days with today’s technology, but Musk believes they can eventually be shortened to 30-day voyages. Once Mars is properly supplied with a bounty of necessary Earth stuff, humans will blast off for the Red Planet. If all goes according to plan, SpaceX’s first robotic landers will touch down on Mars in the early 2020s.

Musk’s interplanetary blueprint received a lot of attention, but it’s not exactly unprecedented. In the last century, earthlings have proposed space colonization plans of varying degrees of seriousness. In the 1960s, Wernher von Braun, the father of rocket science and first director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, predicted that a future incarnation of the Saturn rocket would begin sending humans to Mars by the 1980s.

Elon Musk of SpaceX

Around the same time, the Soviets were developing plans to construct a moon base known as “Zvezda,” also by the 80s. Then the Cold War lost its urgency, and those theoretical missions collided with economic reality. Since then, a few private space organizations have formulated colonization plans of their own, but they’ve resulted in little more than a few sparsely attended conferences here on Earth.

Yet even after all those decades of space disillusionment, Musk’s plan feels refreshingly tangible. Perhaps it’s because he has a well-earned reputation as a closer, an industrial-scale macher who sets bold goals and has the technical, financial, and operational prowess to make them a reality. But space colonization is starting to feel less like inconsequential space-nerd pondering and more like something that can be turned into a viable space-nerd business.

Given the majesty of discovery and the fact that colonization is our best insurance policy should the Earth get into a bar fight with an asteroid (just ask the dinosaurs — oh wait, you can’t), it might seem odd to focus on space’s economic promise. But when it comes to making money up there, the sky is literally not even the limit. Space is the ultimate technology platform, teeming with opportunity and ripe for ethically uncomplicated exploitation. Some have predicted that it will be the first industry to produce self-made trillionaires. The privatization of space and the establishment of private outposts far from the watchful eye of mother Earth might prove to be one of history’s most important developments.

The Startup Space

SpaceX isn’t the only organization going to Mars. NASA has scheduled a manned mission to orbit ol’ Red in 2033, followed by “boots on Mars” in a subsequent but as-yet-undefined mission.

Credit: NASA/KSC

The agency’s Martian plans haven’t received nearly as much attention as those from SpaceX. This is probably because NASA’s post-Apollo record of manned exploration has been an evolving disappointment, with timelines shifting from administration to administration and budget to budget. But perhaps that lull was just part of the process the science had to go through before it got real.

Trailblazing scientific inquiry (which NASA has spent the last half century absolutely crushing) doesn’t come with the expectation that it will immediately result in anything useful — pragmatic applications built on scientific discovery typically come later, sometimes decades down the line. Nobody could have guessed that quantum physics would one day bring about the iPhone, or that networking research computers over telephone lines would eventually lead to Twitter.

Of course, in order for a science to become a business, it needs to make money. And lots of money will be necessary to get to Mars. A recent Wall Street Journal expose questioned SpaceX’s finances and its ability to pay for the Mars project (the company was dealt a serious blow following a pair of launch failures in June 2015 and September 2016). But that same report revealed SpaceX’s plans to supplement the costs of its “Interplanetary Transport System” by becoming a satellite-based ISP. The company has also entered the space tourism game with a deal to launch a pair of unnamed space tourists around the moon next year for an undisclosed (but surely hefty) fee.

It’s a viable plan; over the past 16 years, various people of means have paid tens of millions of dollars to Russia’s Federal Space Agency for tickets to the International Space Station, including video game pioneer Richard Garriott, Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte, and the man responsible for Microsoft Office, Charles Simonyi (twice).

Musk has promised to reveal more about how the company will fund its Martian aspirations soon. But to be sure, there will be lots of ways to make money in space — most we probably haven’t even imagined yet. A more pressing question is who will get there first.

Blue Origin launch

Like SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin aims to slash the cost of launches by developing reusable rockets and supplementing the effort through tourism. Richard Branson’s tourist venture Virgin Galactic was recently joined by a sibling B2B company Virgin Orbit, which will launch small satellites into orbit. Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch Systems recently unveiled a 385-foot wingspan plane from which it will launch rockets from high altitudes, starting in 2020.

Like traditional aerospace powerhouses (Orbital ATK, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin), many of these new space startups depend on contracts from NASA, the Department of Defense, and other public agencies. But unlike those old-school aerospace titans, these new startups have an aura of urgency, innovation, and gleeful disruption. It’s perhaps not surprising that many have been seeded by libertarian-leaning Silicon Valley money monsters looking to stake their claim in this most disruptive of technologies (it also doesn’t hurt that this particular technology has the added allure of being super sci-fi cool).

Given the current state of space tech, imagining anything resembling A Space Odyssey coming about in our lifetimes may be difficult. But history shows that big technological paradigms — home computing, the internet, mobile tech — have similar origin stories: They quietly emerge from the ether as glorified science projects no one really takes seriously before finding their groove and exploding exponentially.

The rush of space startups already amassing concrete engineering accomplishments suggests that we may be witnessing the beginning of one of these exponential ascensions, albeit at a slower pace. Space is the hardest and most dangerous technological barrier humanity has ever had to overcome, but there’s very little reason to think we won’t get there. The lure of history and potential for obscene profit are just too tempting for someone not to figure it out.

There’s Water Ice in Them Thar Asteroids

Planetary Resources is a Redmond, Washington–based startup with a unique business model: mining asteroids for profit. The company has been seeded by a cadre of Silicon Valley elites (Google’s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, as well as X-Prize co-founder Peter Diamandis, among them) and already has plans to send a swarm of unmanned, river-tube-size “Arkyd 200” satellites to a nearby asteroid in 2020 to prospect it for desired materials.

The company stays afloat via corporate and government contracts and licensing of its proprietary technology. In addition to developing prospecting satellites, the company is working with partners on space-based 3D printers that will shape construction-grade metals like iron, nickel, and cobalt, which are abundant in asteroids. These theoretical printers will be able to build machines, tools, and possibly even habitats and ships directly in space, therefore avoiding the great expense of shipping the materials from Earth.

But perhaps more important, Planetary Resources will be prospecting for water. Once water is mined from an asteroid or comet (probably in solid ice form), electric currents generated by space-based solar panels can break it down to its atomic building blocks. The hydrogen and oxygen can then be recombined into a powerful propellant (i.e., rocket fuel), establishing a network of celestial gas stations and making the solar system a lot smaller.

Planetary Resources takes advantage of technology previously designed for scientific missions, but it is an unabashedly for-profit enterprise.

“You start an asteroid-mining company with the support of a lot of visionary people who have the capacity to take some risk in their business ventures, but it was certainly their demand that we create a business — not just something that is spending money for a very long time,” CEO (and former NASA engineer) Chris Lewicki told me last year. With the Arkyd 200 expeditions, “We’re not trying to figure out how old the solar system is or find out how we all came to be; we’re asking a very simple business question of, ‘Is there enough water on this asteroid for us to go back?’”

That question becomes particularly interesting when you consider the potential windfalls. In 2015, President Obama signed into law the Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act, (which passed with assistance from lobbyists working on behalf of Planetary Resources); it states that any citizen has the right to engage in the “commercial recovery of an asteroid resource or a space resource” without any interference from the US government.

Lewicki believes some precious metals excavated in space will be so valuable that it will be worth the cost to bring them back home. The company’s future will mostly take place far from Earth, though, servicing a not-yet-existent space industry and the humans who work, live, and play in the outposts that support them.

Like ‘Northern Exposure,’ But in Space

Space — getting there and living there — isn’t easy. We haven’t even touched on how future Martian colonists will go about protecting themselves from solar radiation (there’s no protective ozone layer on Mars), securing sources of oxygen and water (the good news is there are indications of reserves of water just below the Martian surface), or grow their own food (Matt Damon’s character in The Martian resorted to planting potatoes in his feces). These first pioneers will have to be a hearty bunch.

Elon Musk thinks a ticket to Mars can be brought down to around $200,000 — close to the median home price in the US today — via a system whereby workers would pay off their debt over many years or even decades.

“Not everyone would want to go. In fact, probably a relatively small number of people from Earth would want to go, but enough would want to go who could afford it for it to happen,” Musk writes. “People could also get sponsorship. It gets to the point where almost anyone, if they saved up and this was their goal, could buy a ticket and move to Mars — and given that Mars would have a labor shortage for a long time, jobs would not be in short supply.”

Terms like “indentured servitude” don’t land very well on contemporary ears (which is probably why Musk opted to use “sponsorship”). But is it really all that different than going to work every day to earn money to repay a mortgage? This model is analogous to how some of the first English colonists in North America covered the cost of their intercontinental journey — by agreeing to become indentured servants with contracts that lasted anywhere between three and seven years. (Or perhaps it’s like Dr. Fleischman’s service-for-education agreement on the TV show Northern Exposure, if that’s how you roll.)

For some, the promise of adventure in a new world — no matter the cost — will be reason enough to make the interplanetary leap. But for others, Mars’s endemic labor shortage might be the motivating factor. There’s a very real possibility that in the future, we won’t have enough jobs for people on Earth, thanks to automation. Mass “technological unemployment” is far from universally accepted gospel, but a number of people will be willing to leave the Earth to work in SpaceX City — possibly for the rest of their lives.

These space pioneers will lay the foundation for a literal whole new world, but they might also play an important role supporting those of us who remain here on Earth. Civilization is under threat from asteroid impacts, global warming, and nuclear war; but it’s also facing increasing pressure from a few centuries of unprecedented human progress. And colonization might be just the key to keeping it all going — on this planet and the ones that follow.

Mars, Save Us From Our Own Successes

Mars Mount Sharp: photo courtesy of NASA

While cable news traffics in war, terrorism, and tragedy, the world is actually quietly enjoying a golden age.

Consider the following: Despite some troubling hot spots, we are seeing some of history’s lowest rates of war deaths around the globe. According to The World Bank, childhood mortality — defined by children under 5 who die per 1,000 live births — has fallen from 182.7 in 1960 to just 42.5 in 2015; and last year, for the first time ever, the percentage of people living in extreme poverty (those living on less than $2 a day) fell below 10 percent.

That last one was a very big deal that didn’t receive nearly enough attention. Not only has extreme poverty plummeted to historic lows, but it happened in the blink of history’s eye. The World Bank also reports that extreme poverty plummeted from 37 percent of the globe in 1990 to just 9.8 percent last year, which is even more remarkable considering how the global population has continued to balloon since the Industrial Revolution.

There’s little reason to think these trends won’t continue, which leads to a very interesting problem: How will the world respond when communities that have finally risen above mere subsistence begin to expect (if not demand) things like nutritious food, clean water, electricity, access to information, and maybe even McMansions, SUVs, and bountiful backyards?

While technology helps us do more with less, a proliferation of middle class societies will place additional stress on a planet that is already long overdue for a vacation. Throw into the mix the prospect of a swelling population, climate change, and increased job competition, and you can see how things might get messy fast.

One possible countermeasure is physical expansion. Past expansions have managed to boost parent and colonial societies. “If you start moving people from where land is scarce and costly to where it is abundant and cheap, you’re going to raise their standard of living and also generate a growing output per capita that will benefit the economies of both societies,” explains Jan de Vries, professor emeritus of history and economics at the University of California at Berkeley. “One is benefited by less population pressure on their resources, and the other is benefited by high productivity for the new arrivals — and trade allows them both to become better off.”

According to de Vries, in order for the motherland (or mother planet, in this case) to see any real economic benefit, the “transaction costs” have to come down. Mars is far away, but history shows that it’s well within our abilities to shrink barriers that once seemed insurmountable. It took a couple of months for Columbus to cross the Atlantic; by the 1830s, the steam engine sliced the time to five days; and a century later, Charles Lindbergh flew from Long Island to Paris in just 33 hours.

Our ability to shorten the gap between Earth and its outposts will become increasingly consequential — we need only look to the revolutionary founding of this country to understand why. After Europe’s expansion into the New World, the two societies remained physically close enough to facilitate trade but were far enough apart that the colonies eventually began to think of themselves as something else. That philosophical break cleared the way for experimental forms of self-rule, which eventually had an impact on both sides of the Atlantic. We can only speculate about the impact of a similar interplanetary break.

Let’s Speculate

Colonialism is a potent force that has the power not only to build new nations but to transform existing ones. The post-Columbus colonial expansion fueled the rise of powerful nation-states in Europe, which ousted the volatile feudalism that ruled the continent since at least the 10th century. The European nations that benefited the most in the Age of Discovery were those with access to the most advanced maritime technologies; but in the Age of Discovery 2.0, those with the most advanced space technologies probably won’t be European, American, Russian, or Chinese. They might not be nations at all; SpaceX City could represent the beginning of a whole new political paradigm.

Nobody can predict how it will all shake out at this point, but consider the prospect of billions and trillions of space bucks flowing unfettered into highly organized corporate structures that — not to get all #FeelTheBern on you — have spent the past 30-plus years untangling themselves from government oversight. (As mentioned above, we’ve already seen the private space industry successfully lobby US regulators to loosen control over the nascent extraterrestrial economy.)

It’s not difficult to imagine how a corporate-run outpost far from the Earth might trend dystopian, but there’s reason for optimism as well. Absent a global calamity leading to widespread desperation, there’s little reason to believe that people won’t continue to expect certain unalienable rights. Any authority that attempts to tell them otherwise will have a fight on its hands.

In fact, human dignity’s best chance for survival in space is a multitude of colonies that are close enough for trade and travel but far enough apart that they don’t directly compete for resources. In this scenario, if you didn’t like the way things run in SpaceX City, you could make a case of your usefulness to Planetary Resource’s floating armada to buy your contract (like what T-Mobile will do today to get you out of your contract with Verizon). Once your debt is paid, you’d be free to try out Blue Origin Town on the moon of Europa. Or if you’re feeling entrepreneurial, maybe even go out and start your own homestead. Just like a marketplace of nations.

Once a multitude of peacefully coexisting outposts is established, some intriguing possibilities arise. Just as the European colonies in the Americas ran real-world experiments featuring new forms of government, future space colonies would be free to experiment with novel societal models of their own. Some of these models will fail and some will flourish, but they’ll all have the ability to learn from each other’s missteps and improve over time. Free-market kumbaya.

On the other hand, anyone suckered into moving to space might be enslaved by an AI-infused uber-Musk that inhabits a giant kill-bot made from repurposed Falcon Heavy rockets. The colonists will be forced to do his bidding as he wages an unending galaxy-wide war against an army of Bezos cyborg clones.

Humanity’s future in space is too far away to predict with absolute clarity. But it’s close enough that it’s worth our time to carefully observe it as it takes shape. And it’s worth our collective effort to make sure it gets done right.

Read more: “10 Creepy Sounds Recorded in Space by NASA

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Originally published at www.pcmag.com.