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That is one small step for man, one giant leap for private enterprise

With all the attention being on new private initiatives in space travel hogging the headlines, it is worth noting that there is the real prospect of a new space race taking place between China and the United States, with China planning an eventual lunar landing as a prelude to a mission to Mars.

There would be plenty of people who would welcome such a development, but I am not one of them. As I see it, there is a legitimate role for government funded space programs, but there must be a sensible trade-off between costs and benefits. The Voyager Space probes were sensible investments that produced wonderful results; the Apollo Program, for all the hype, was not something that was worth the immense cost.

I say this because the way that technology is developing, private ventures are expanding in their capabilities quite quickly, and they are much more suitable enterprises to carry the torch of humanity into space. The original space race between the USA and the USSR carried awfully nationalistic and ideological connotations, and a future race between China and the USA is certainly going to have a stench of nationalism about it. Private enterprise ventures have a much greater capacity to bring in international participation.

It cannot be denied, of course, that government ventures are capable of achieving far more, and far quicker, then private ones; having the power of the state to extract wealth from its citizenry, and a powerful will, can cause amazing things to happen. The Apollo Program is a case in point, and so was the Manhattan Project. That does not mean that they are justifiable.

China’s space program is still at a relatively modest stage; they only succeeded in putting an astronaut into orbit in 2003. But if they invested enough money in it, they could progress quite quickly. It is simply a matter of how high that they consider it in their list of priorities. If they give it a high priority they could certainly reach their goals, especially given that Chinese taxpayers are not in a position to object.

How long is it going to take private explorers to get to do serious space travel? That point is no longer moot. From 2004 the progress of private ventures has been impressive, and if this momentum can be continued, it might well be that the first private entrepreneur on the moon might not be that far behind the Chinese and American astronauts. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the first explorer on Mars represented a private consortium?

25 comments to That is one small step for man, one giant leap for private enterprise

  • Recovering Catholic

    I rather think there might be a quite interesting novel (or novels?) waiting to be written about private space exploration, that could do the classical liberal/individualist cause a whole lot of good.

    Or perhaps someone has already written it? I’d like to know as I’ve got a few ideas for such a story myself…

  • Dale Amon

    I do not think the Chinese will get a man to the moon before the 2020’s; NASA might get one there by 2018 if the big stick ever gets built and flown. I suspect private enterprise will be there by 2020 also, so the new Space Race could be private vs state.

    Once we have private access to Earth orbit, the rest of the solar system is in easy reach energetically; as RAH is oft quoted, it is half way to anywhere.

    This is not to say there are not problems due to the long trip times for anything beyond the Moon; but they are issues of construction and provisioning and creativity. I would put private interests on Mars pr at least Phobos and Deimos by 2030.

    When thinking about this one must not forget that the materials revolution keeps rolling on; computers are still getting faster; software is getting more sophisticated; and nanotechnology is already starting to affect industry and will do so exponentially.

    Whether or not you believe the singularity described by Kurzweil and others over the last three decades, we can pretty safely project we will have the equivalent of the entire technological change of the twentieth century occur between 2000 and 2020 and possible another century by 2030.

    Have a look at the Nanotech post I did last night.

  • CountingCats

    I would put private interests on Mars pr at least Phobos and Deimos by 2030.

    Why? What is the point for private enterprise? Surely the asteroid belt makes a whole lot more sense. From there it would be EASY to drop the resources for a major manufacturing industry into L1.

    A cubic mile or two of asteroidal material? That may last a decade or two while a civilisation is built in high orbit and the owners make a fortune.

  • CountingCats

    Seriously, I can understand going to Mars for the science, but why would private interests go there? Other than once or twice for the glory? The place is, in the short, medium and long term, worth nothing in terms of potential profit. And profit is what most private money will be looking for.

    And that is fine with me. Profit, not government altruism (sorry for the oxymoron), is what will create the high orbit civilisation.

  • Nick M


    Computers, check. Materials, check. Power, err… Dale, honestly I think long travel times (months to Mars) etc are not going to be an issue. The only way any of this is going to happen is if something like Bussard Polywell Fusion works and yields a compact affordable extremely energetic power source. Then long travel-times are not an issue.

    I utterly fail to see, other than basing purposes for further expansion, any privately funded reason for the Moon* – well, maybe a 1/6g golf course but… yadda, yadda, yadda. L4 and L5 are where it’s at very much in the William Gibson Freespace idea. And yes, CC, once we’ve got the kit up there they will haul the raw materials from the ‘stroids. I just don’t see Mars being fun to colonize. Life for an extended period under such little gravity would be not very nice, if not fatal.

    It’s the Jovian and Saturnine satellites that fry my onions. Otherwise we’re just playing Abel Tasman. And then the stars but God alone knows how that can be done. My hope is that we open up a galaxy like the one in Elite but… We’re gonna have to get Einstein developing high angular momentum in his grave before that happens. Hell, I almost signed up for EVE until I found out it wasn’t exactly realtime combat…

    And “realtime” is what we need… I dunno an “Ekumen” of isolated planets might be something and it would certainly change the human condition beyond comprehension and I’m sure that change would knock the visions of the prophets into a cocked hat… but…

    I wanna haul contraband from Barnard’s Star to Gliese 581 and fight space pirates (or maybe raise the black flag myself) but, but… I don’t think it will happen and I know I’ll never live to see it. So sad.

    Oh, BTW, I would at this point I would like to recommend my absolute fav Space(ish) trading and combat game, the spiritual successor to Elite, Hardwar. It’s abandonware but has been well supported by a hardcore. This is the place to start.

    *By which I mean, I don’t see any reason other than national pride which is a fairly dismal reason to spend trillions on.

  • Dale Amon

    It depends on whether you look on new lands merely as place to exploit or places to live. There is a large enough body of people who would like to settle Mars that it will happen as soon as the technology allows.

    At bottom line an economy is an interaction between people to deliver the goods and services they can afford. So long as they can afford what it requires to stay alive, they subsist; to the extent they have a surplus they grow.

    I’m not a Mars Society type myself, but I understand those who are. When the time comes there will be thousands ready to take a one way trip and then live or die based on their ability (along with copious technology and advanced nanotechnology) to build a new land and trade amongst themselves… and live or die based on their own efforts and a little bit of luck.

    Personally I prefer the moon short term. Not a big gravity well, lots of useful vacuum and lots of useful resources for building things. Things like the GEO solar power sats we will eventually build to feed the ravening need for cheap energy by the teeming billions of Earth.

    Throw out the Statist concepts of Antarctic-like eternally subsidized ‘outposts’. Replace it with the concept of a local economy that must produce a surplus in goods or services required elsewhere that is sufficient to pay for what is not available locally. Kick start it with investment by billionaires with a long term outlook and individuals prepared to succeed or die.

    That is how the frontier will be opened.

  • Gib

    Out of Mars or the Moon, Mars would be a better place to live. Gravity closer to our own. A near 24 hour day. Something of an atmosphere.

    The Moon’s day is 28 earth days. That’s a long work day. Although I’d like the sleep 🙂

  • Midwesterner

    A question to anybody who has an answer.

    How does space stuff effect solar system voyaging? Presumably the odds of hitting something on a planned route are fairly low, but are they low enough to allow a reasonable expectation of safety? Every time I start daydreaming about traveling in space, I think of the speeds involved and wonder what happens if you hit a maybe even tiny piece of space stuff, micro comets etc.

    I was on my motorcycle once and came within one or two feet at ~50mph of taking a big domestic goose in the middle of the visor. I had to stop and go back to see if I could figure out what the instantaneous white-out was. Wing feathers. A big fat goose ‘hang gliding’ across the highway. Ever since then, the thought of being in a fragile craft and striking something and the kinetic energy have concerned me.

    Would we be peering through hi-tech automated telescopes and shooting stuff out of the way with laser? (A certain James Bond sliding down a railing image comes to mind here.) Or would we be careening through space like a slalom skier? Or is there nothing enough out there so we’ll just fly blind?

  • Dale Amon

    Chances are really low of getting hit… of course if you went through the path of a meteor shower all bets are off… but even then it is most likely going to be dust particles that can be dealt with by a sacrificial foil outer layer.

    You would have to space walk an awful lot to have any chance of getting hit outside your ship.

    You probably would have radar eyes out to look, just to be sure to be sure.

  • Nick M

    I once did a 20 credit module on the Interstellar Medium ( the applied study of what is technically known as “bugger all”). There really is sod-all out there by density but, alas, when multiplied by the enormous distances concerned…

    Within the solar system (within the heliopause) there is a whole lot more.

    It’s a big problem which will (has?) increased the mass of… spacecraft but all that means is we need more power. It’s just power, always power…

  • Midwesterner

    Thanks Dale and Nick. I like my day dreams to be futurist, not fantasist, hence the question.

    One more question (heck, there’s thousands more, I mean one more today), does anybody know where there is a web page with approximate continuous-1g accel/decel times to various places in the inner and outer solar system? Just one more thing to make the day dreaming more enjoyable. IIRC, the voyage times aren’t that much greater than the early sea exploration travel times.


  • CountingCats

    work em out.
    <=> 2S=at^2
    <=> (2S)/a=t^2
    <=> t =root(2S/a)

    S = distance travelled
    a = acceleration
    t = time

    Then, because you have to turn and slow down half way –
    total travel time = 2t

    Work it out just on orbit to orbit. If Earth and Mars are on the same side of the sun the travel time is much less than if they are on opposite sides.

    At 1g, earth orbit to Mars orbit, about 70 million Km, is about one day. If you want to stop there, double that to take deceleration into account.

    If Mars is on the other side of the sun you got to cross about another 300 million Km, and this takes an extra day and a half.

    Basically, if you are going to accelerate at 1g for the whole distance, you don’t bother plotting an orbit. Just point the nose and put your foot on the accelerator.

  • CountingCats

    It’s the Jovian and Saturnine satellites that fry my onions


    Nah, you still got a substantial gravity well, and living conditions that are even more inimicable than orbit.

    For me it is the Jovian and Saturnian rings that turn me on. All that lovely mass already in orbit, just waiting to be raw material. That and the Trojan and Greek asteroids at Jovian L4 & L5.

    Long term, gravity wells are just holes we have to climb in and out of. Far better to build in orbit, where it is raining soup.

  • Nobody

    Recovering Catholic:

    As much as I generally dislike Joss Whedon’s TV productions, his single season Firefly series is as near a libertarian-in-space story as you’ll find. Ignore the movie.

    Not a book, but a pretty cool idea nonetheless which most definitely has a libertarian motif.

    Select quotes:

    Simon: So, does it happen a lot? Government commandeering your ship, telling you where to go?
    Mal: That’s what governments are for. Get in a man’s way.

    Book: A government is a body of people usually notably ungoverned.

    Saffron: In the maiden’s home, I heard talk of men who weren’t pleased with their brides, who…
    Mal: Well I ain’t them. And don’t you ever stand for that sort of thing. Someone tries to kill you, you try to kill ’em right back. Wife or no, you’re no one’s property to be tossed aside.

  • wm

    The Communist regime in China has a very serious interest in selling the view that their policies work for China; their recent success in manned spaceflight has I think been a big victory for them in this respect.

    One thing occurs to me: how will the new private space initiatives be perceived by world governments, if it starts looking like private companies may do what they do, faster, cheaper and better?

    NASA’s tentacles are in practically every congressional district in the nation; while there are obvious ideological threats to the PRC’s narrative from any success by our impetuous entrepreneurs.

    The NewSpace community is already painfully aware of the hazards of crossing – or worse, allying with – NASA.

    I wonder, though, how long it will be before slick articles with variations of the headline, “International Community Aims To Rope In Black Sky Cowboys” begin appearing.

    I’ll sure be interested in following the money behind such propaganda.

  • CountingCats

    I wonder, though, how long it will be before slick articles with variations of the headline, “International Community Aims To Rope In Black Sky Cowboys” begin appearing.

    And I wonder how long after this they declare UDI?

    One smallish asteroid can supply a LOT of heavy element raw materials. And the Earth will not like losing the low mass high value manufactures that would be cut off.

    Seriously though, as soon as the privates reach orbital height we will start seeing weightless and vacuum manufacturing processes being introduced. There will be a lot of investment riding on this creating new vested interests, possibly enough to overcome the interference of the current vested interests.

  • Dale Amon

    As to NASA… they are not nearly the threat to private space they were 20 years ago. I think this is largely because our crowd (NSS) grew up and started taking the reigns of power in the agency. Note that the director of NASA was once an engineer in a hybrid rocket venture called AMROC, I know several other people who are at HQ who are definitely pro-New Space in private; and then there is the new director of Ames who wants to push the open source technique to lower NASA’s costs… and who is also very much ‘one of us’.

    As to other nations, a lot of the top space folk around the world grew up together via the internet, via International Space University and such and are life long friends.

    Now that is not to say that the political crowd themselves are not , or will not become a serious threat.

  • wm

    Dale wrote:

    “As to NASA… they are not nearly the threat to private space they were 20 years ago. ”

    I agree that there are hopeful signs – COTS for one. Michael Griffin appears to have the right idea… I think he’s been forced to toe the party line re: the Shuttle, but it does seem he’s running interference for innovative ideas like COTS.

    Still, it’s heartening to hear that NASA may no longer be the ogre it has been.

    I am not an unadulterated cynic where government activity is concerned. Wikipedia lists 19 space agencies around the world with budgets of $100 million or more (1) – it may turn out that they will be as much customers as competitors (if not both at the same time) to private space adventurers.

    1.) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_space_agencies#Richest_space_agencies

  • Laird

    CountingCats, I’m having trouble replicating your calculations. What are the units of measurement in your formula? In your example, you use kilometers as the measure of distance (70 million Km is given as the nearest distance of Earth to Mars), but is time measured in seconds? And what is the rate of accelleration you used for 1g? (Obviously, dividing 2S by 1 [as in “1g”] doesn’t work.) Thanks.

  • Blacksmith

    Laird, acceleration should be in m/s/s (meters per second, per second) if you’re using metric units. 1g comes to about 9.81 m/s/s that way (and you can get more precision from the web I’m sure).

    Recovering Catholic, if you’re set on it being a book and not a show, then I’d recommend Return to the Moon by Homer Hickam. It’s so-so overall, but as a first novel it succeeds fairly well. Hickam does better as an autobiographer (he’s the guy from Rocket Boys/October Sky) than he does as a Tom Clancy wannabe. The book is mostly hard, libertarianesque SF though, which is good. It’s got just a few elements of soft rubbish thrown in to up the drama.

    Whedon’s show that Nobody mentioned, “Firefly” and its sequel film Serenity, are good soft SF, with a very libertarian bent.

  • CountingCats


    Sorry, you are right of course. Measurements are ISO kms, meaning kilograms, metres and seconds.

    I used kilometres because 70 million Kilometres is a little more meaningful to people than 70,000 million metres.

    So, distance is metres, time is seconds, and 1g is rounded to 10 metres per second squared.

    So t = root(2S/a), meaning – time from Earth orbit to Mars orbit, in seconds, is (square root of (70,000,000,000*2)/10).

    Divide the result by 3600 to give hours. There are about 30 of them in fact.

    If you want to stop at Mars orbit then you accelerate out at 1g for precisely half the distance, and then decelerate at 1g for the other half of the trip.

    ALL these numbers are very rough approximations, but indicative regardless.

  • I like to encourage Samizdata readers who have not seen “Firefly” to do so. I am not the only author on this blog who would happily turn this blog into a “Firefly” fan blog if it wasn’t for our stern Editorial Pantheon.

  • Laird

    Thanks, CC; that helps.

    And I second the recommendation to watch Firefly. (In fact, you should buy the boxed DVD set, as it contains a couple of episodes which were never aired.)

    The movie, Serenity, was OK, but the series is better.

  • Midwesterner

    Thanks CC for answering, Laird for the follow-up, Blacksmith for answering the follow-up and CC again for adding detail. Now I have to think hard in order to day dream. Hhmmm…

    And I am another one of those people who highly recommends Firefly. I bought the boxed set on Johnathan’s recommendation and had to ration myself to avoid watching the whole works clear through. Had I been able to, I might have tried.

  • wm

    I’d never seen Firefly – but then, one night, I saw Serenity. Thank Crom a major chain bookstore was right across the street from the theater; I think I set a land-speed record from my seat at credit-roll to the DVD “box set” shelves.

    Great stuff. And seeing Serenity a second time, a year or so later (when Whedon allowed it to be screened for a charity event), was a special treat.