New Federalist Papers

Why Do We Need Cheap Access to Space?

Many people assume that space exploration is now a "dead end." That is, we have done all we need to do, and there is no reason to continue. However, history reveals this to be false. Space exploration has contributed to our understanding in many areas: water purification, insulation, computing and miniaturization, and rocketry. It has created whole new industries, such as satellite communications that create billions of dollars in economic output each year.

The reason we have not seen as many advancements in recent years is that we have not developed cheaper access to space. Using the best rockets available, it costs approximately $2000 to get 1kg of payload into space. However, there are systems that can be built which can reduce this to as little as $1/kg. What would access to space for $1/kg mean? Let's examine two areas, solar power from space, and asteroid mining.

Space-Based Solar Power



Solar panels are more efficient when placed in space. The main reason is that solar panels on earth only operate when the sun is shining. Thus, they provide no power at night, and less power when it is cloudy. Real world solar systems tend to operate at only 20% of their total capacity if they were constantly being flooded with sunlight. When solar panels are deployed in space, they have access to the sun almost all of the time, leading to utilization from perhaps 70-99% (depending on the specifics of the system and where it is placed).

Another reason space-based solar panels produce more energy is due to greater efficiency of the system. Space is much colder than earth, which means there is less resistance in the circuits. Transmission wires to send the power back to earth will also be more efficient, meaning less power is lost on the way to the surface than would be lost with earth-based transportation lines. The power could be transmitted wirelessly (as shown in the image), but you lose more energy doing this, so a wire is better.

Economics of Space-Based Solar

All of this has been known for decades, and NASA was considering space-based solar power in the 1970s. The only problem is launch costs. In order for space-based solar power to be cost competitive with other forms of generation, launch costs need to be a few hundred dollars. So what will it mean when we can payloads into space for $1/kg? It will enable us to produce space-based solar power for around 1/2 cent per kilowatt hour. In comparison, coal and natural gas plants run around 5-6 cents/kwh, current nuclear plants run at around 8c/kwh, and advanced nuclear plants are estimated to start off around 3c/kwh and drop over time.

In economic terms, what will electricity for .5c/kwh mean? Worldwide average prices for electricity are around 17c/kwh. If we undercut the market a bit and sold for 15c/kwh, this will mean:

  • Investments in solar satellites will pay for themselves in 1-2 years
  • Climate change from electricity generation can be halted because clean energy is so much cheaper
  • We can sell power to nations that cannot afford their own power plants
  • Massive economic growth as energy-intensive industries grow worldwide, especially in remote areas
  • Water desalination becomes economically viable for areas without fresh water
  • Growing food indoors becomes viable, as grow lights are cheaper
  • Indoor farming eliminates farm runoff, pesticide use, and reduces starvation due to poor soil quality

As soon as we develop cheaper access to space, the nation can start deploying solar satellites as quickly as we can build them. All of this can be financed at low interest rates by the Federal Government borrowing money through bonds. Assuming a conservative 2-year payback, this means a 50% return on investment after 2 years:

  • Invest $50 billion, get $25 billion per year starting in year 3
  • Invest $1 trillion, and you get $500 billion per year, almost eliminating the federal deficit
  • Invest $10 trillion, and you get $5 trillion in year 3, enough to eliminate the deficit, all taxes, and create a basic income of $5000 per person

Can you name any politicians that have a coherent plan to eliminate the deficit, cut your taxes to 0, create a basic income of $5000, solve climate change, and save millions of lives around the world every year?

Asteroid Mining

Asteroid mining is another area that offers incredible financial returns in a short period of time. There are asteroids that contain materials that are extremely rare, and thus extremely valuable, on earth. These include gold, platinum, nuclear isotopes, and rare earth metals. The problem, of course, is launch costs.

In order to engage in asteroid mining, you need large ships that can venture deep into space. Any large asteroid mining vessel would have to be sent up in pieces, and assembled in space. All fuel for the mission to the asteroid and back would have to be sent up to orbit by rockets. As a result, proposed missions cost $100 billion or more, and assume large financial risk in the process. With cheaper launch costs, the same mission might cost $1 billion, and offer a financial return of hundreds of times this investment.

There are estimates that some individual asteroids contain as much as $20 trillion of materials that could be mined and brought back to earth. Put differently, America might be able to completely retire its national debt with a single asteroid mining operation.


What Is an Orbital Ring?

An Orbital Ring is a type of Space Elevator that was invented by Nikola Tesla, and can be built with current technology. Other designs stretch tens of thousands of miles past geosynchronous orbit, and require extremely strong materials, such as graphene or carbon nanotubes. These materials are only in their infancy, with lengths of a few centimeters, so making a tether that is tens of thousands of miles long is not feasible yet.

The Orbital Ring uses a short tether of only 1-200 miles, so it can be built with materials like kevlar and steel that we already have. The system is a ring around the whole planet, which spins through the use of electromagnets. This spinning ring is held in place and stabilized by tethers, which are cables stretching down to the surface. Once the system is in place, payloads can be sent up the cables and into space.

According to Paul Birch's papers from the 1980s, the whole system can be built for a cost of about $13 billion. For just $13 billion, we will create trillions of dollars per year in income, solve climate change, create double-digit economic growth with cheap energy and new materials, and create a new era of peaceful cooperation with the world.



Paul Birch's Papers:


Further Reading: