Some people liken space travel to Columbus’ voyage to the New World. Once he found the Americas, it wasn’t long before people were lining up to get there. While space travel also has the potential to open up new worlds, there’s a big difference.
When early explorers found the Americas, they found it full of riches. Exotic plants like cocoa and coffee, rich fishing grounds, and plentiful construction materials in the form of wood. The soils were fertile and ready to be planted as soon as the ground was cleared. The new world was a virtual supermarket with everything marked “free.”
Space, on the other hand, is more like a supermarket with bare shelves. There’s nothing there to take, and, by the way, there’s a multimillion dollar cover charge just to walk in the front door. The Boston Globe quoted Olivier de Weck, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, as saying that the price to lift one pound of cargo into space is $10,000. Passengers, of course, cost even more still, since they won’t go without extra luxuries like air to breathe, a heating system to keep them from freezing, toilets that work in zero gravity, food, and lots of elbow room, among other amenities. Not to mention the promise of a safe return…
The Americas also held allure as a new start for many people who felt they didn’t fit in, or lacked opportunity in the old world. Colonists saw the New World as a place to establish a community based on their own ideals, without big government (or the monarchy, in most cases) telling them what to do. Of course, with the bounty of the Americas, they had some hope if surviving once they got there – not a guarantee, and it wasn’t easy by any means, but they had a chance.
For now, at least, space doesn’t offer this chance. There are no livable facilities anywhere in space except for the ISS which is a government outpost that needs to be constantly resupplied from Earth. The cost to establish any kind of a base on the moon, for example, would be prohibitive expensive and beyond the means of any person or group, save for the government of a top industrialized nation. Even then, the cost is too high for any government to absorb.
Yet, the appeal of space travel is so strong that there are private companies that are designing and building spaceships, actual spaceships, to take tourists into space. Companies like SpaceX, Scaled Composites with its companion, The Space Ship Company, and Space Adventures are among those gearing up to offer joyrides into space for those customers rich enough to be able to pay the hefty ticket price. This is almost certainly a precursor of how space will eventually open up commercially.
Some enterprising company will come up with the funding to build a small outpost on the moon. The establishment will be an exclusive hotel getaway for the rich. People able to pay millions of dollars for the flight to get there, and millions more for the stay, will be ferried to the moon’s first permanent base as paying guests. Perhaps, there will eventually even be a casino there, free from the oversight of any terrestrial government. The company will, of course, be required to pay many millions of dollars to some government or group of governments for the privilege of setting up shop. That goes without saying, but once enough money is involved, no government will stand on principle to refuse the offer.
Such a lunar outpost can only come into being when the safety of the transportation there and back again has been perfected to be as safe as commercial airliners are today. That’s still a few years off, but not perhaps as many as one might think. I am convinced that there will be a permanent privately funded base on the moon within my lifetime. The discovery of water in meaningful quantity under the surface of the moon’s polar caps may hasten this eventuality as the harvesting of resources from the moon itself can help lower the cost of maintaining a moon colony, although even with that help, it will still be almost entirely reliant on regular resupply from Earth.
While theoretically possible, even with technology that exists today, we are still a long way off from any lunar colony becoming self-sufficient. The cost of growing food and maintaining life support systems for plants and or animals adds another huge layer of expense and complication to such an enterprise. It will not be until the second or third generation bases are built that this is even attempted.
The conquest of the moon, when it happens, will not be a scientific endeavor, though scientists may be invited along for the PR value. Instead it will be driven by the desire for monetary gain, just like Christopher Columbus’ historic voyage in 1492. Those who dreamed of going into space from their earliest memories will pay whatever it takes for a ticket to the moon, and others will do whatever it takes to collect that money from them.
Sean Teehan. “Space viewed as a frontier for business.” The Boston Globe Online. Retrieved from boston.com/business/articles/2009/10/01/space_viewed_as_a_frontier_for_business/ on October 2nd, 2009.