Is Space an Industry?

With NASA’s space shuttle program on indefinite hiatus and political pundits attempting to make a case for space travel in the future, some have turned to the numbers and asked if the numbers add up for space travel in the future.  Is there big business in space?  Are we looking at the end of an era of reaching for the stars to turn our attention to more terrestrial affairs?  Or is the space race just beginning?  There are a few space based industries we’ve no doubt heard of, and still more we haven’t.

Space has often been depicted as that final frontier where mankind will find itself free from tyranny and the threat of nuclear war.  It’s understandable that interest in space would come at a time when apprehension on Earth about the future was at an all time high . In the shadow of World War II as nuclear arsenals grew and fear of experimental forms of government and social contracts became mainstays in the media, humanity finally broke from the gravitational pull of Earth and reached terminal velocity toward its future.

With the first footfalls on the moon came the promise of a better future to be found among the stars.  Enemies were decreasingly portrayed as human and the alien menace became the new “bad guy” to be obliterated across the silver screen in technicolor.  NASA was seen in the west as the greatest hope humanity had of survival, except in Russia where the Soviet Space Program (now Rocosmos) was its equivalent.  Throughout the world, ingenious scientists and organizers joined the race toward the heavens

But as with so many exploratory ventures in the past, eventually the burden of sustaining the programs was offset by the expenses involved.  Columbus was offered his ships only when he promised the venture would be profitable.  Magellan’s journey was funded by Charles the I after political pressure required a new spice route.  Adventure and discovery may have brought about exploration, but funds were always needed as its fuel.  And it seems the space race may be no exception.

For years advocates of space travel have proposed that space tourism may help fund exploration efforts.  While it is a motivation to develop cheaper, safer, and more efficient rockets, we may still be some ways away from making space tourism an industry that most people can enjoy.  At the moment space tourism carries a price tag between $20 and $35 million dollars per passenger.  But if that’s out of most peoples’ price ranges, in future decades it is proposed to plummet quite a bit as the infrastructure is built for more efficient trips.

Additionally, mining is an option for space industries.  While mineral resources on Earth are locked down and privatized, asteroids made of precious metals zip past Earth.  Unfortunately, the infrastructure to bring them back to the planet’s surface after mining may require an incredible investment, but the end payoff may one day exceed the investments companies would make.  While it’s difficult to tell the figures involved, and space mining may be a few decades away, asteroids like 443 Eros, with its massive gold deposits, still float in orbit around Mars.

Unfortunately, one of the biggest incentives is to the defense industry, which would amass a fortune by developing space based weapons technologies.  Of all the options for future space industries, this one is -according to many- the least desirable.  Is there a future in space?  Possibly, but it will require a great deal of interest – and invention – first.