A bright future for space travel reflects bleaker trends for us on Earth
The case for space travel is often made with appeals to such noble motivations as the search for knowledge. But history suggests that less lofty aspirations were the trigger for exploration. Fortunately for space enthusiasts, three global trends may encourage a new space race over the coming decades, while not improving life on Earth: great power rivalry, concentrated private wealth and increasingly scarce natural resources.
Historically national rivalry played an important role in funding the early stages of European exploration. Spain funded Columbus in part to cut off Portugal. Afterwards, European powers scrambled to grab what they could of the New World before others did. That pattern later repeated itself in Africa and Asia. Super-power rivalry was the primary motivator for the twentieth century space race. The peace and prosperity that followed the end of the cold war saw waning funding for space travel. But those days are over. Now China and India see a space program as part of their coming of age as world powers. It is no coincidence that President Trump wants the US to return to the moon by 2024 and has announced the creation of the Space Force.
Private investors also played a role in early exploration, but only because a select few had fortunes large enough. Sir Walter Raleigh and friends personally funded the first failed attempt at an English colony in America. Later joint-stock companies were founded to pool the investments necessary to establish new colonies. Over the last decade private funding has also started to play a role in space travel. The existence of massive personal wealth has helped the new space industry get going. Billionaires Bezos, Branson and Musk have personally funded space enterprises. Besides launching satellites, one of the most immediate opportunities for new private space enterprises is tourism, which requires a rich clientele.
Whether it’s funded by public or private money, large scale space travel to the moon or beyond will bring little benefit unless there's something out in the solar system that we lack here on Earth. For early European explorers it was gold and silver that topped their list. Silver mines in the Americas were the basis of Spanish power and wealth in the 16th century. Spain mined so much that the price of the stuff in Western Europe declined substantially. Because gold and silver were money, that meant the general price level rose sixfold over a century and a half. More importantly, colonization helped Europe relieve its ecological constraints after it had been largely deforested and all agricultural land was in use. Similarly, Earth’s population continues to expand and use more of its finite resources. But there are vast amounts of precious and industrial metals in asteroids in our solar system. Even though the cost of space travel will have to go down substantially to make bringing them to Earth profitable (especially as bringing the stuff here will also lower the price of it) private companies have already been established with the goal of mining asteroids. The fact that they are actually attracting funding says as much about the expectations investors have of space travel as it does about the future of life on Earth ...