More good news from Perseverance and its sidekick Ingenuity is making headlines across the globe as the amazing duo embark upon their odyssey to explore Jezero Crater on Mars, report back findings, and eventually send home some souvenirs.
And while the awe and wow factors are high the financiers, investors and taxpayers will be supportive, and the funds will keep flowing. But just like every long-term space commitment before Perseverance, sooner or later the money men are going to ask about value for money and a real economic benefit. Admittedly the arguments are different (‘Where’s the return?’ versus ‘Shouldn’t we be spending taxpayer dollars on more immediate issues?’) but the result will be the same: show a tangible worth or shut up shop.
By the late 2020’s we will see the implementation of plans to genuinely bring economic benefit or at least alleviate the economic impact of long-term investment in space. While satellites will quickly deliver products and services that can be monetised, distant missions to the moon and Mars will need to have a plan, and that is likely to come in the form of cost reduction, job generation and strategic benefits that help persuade funders to stick with the long-term view and not sell out.
What resources will help push down space exploration costs? In real terms, anything that can be removed from the packing list on departure from Earth is a genuine saving. Water and oxygen are two essentials to support life in space and they will be the first goal, achieved with a moon-based operation to recover frozen water that will provide both these requirements, though the latter is an energy using process and most likely achieved by using photo catalysts and centrifugal forces in space, or electrolysis on the moon where gravity has an influence.
Many space enthusiasts think the next big goldrush (or diamond rush) will come from space. Indeed, that was the reasoning behind Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries (DSI), raising sizeable chunks of funding to develop the idea of asteroid mining. The thinking was that by capturing an asteroid, a company would not only have immediate ownership of it, but they could sell the contents as useful resource to others and make money. But to make that money there had to be a market, and that is still a few decades away. NASA isn’t going to willingly make one group of financiers’ wealthy unless it sees a real benefit it cannot deliver, and mining ice on the moon is well within NASA’s capabilities and objectives. It knows that America’s deep pockets won’t last forever, so it will strive to reduce costs in preparation for the day funding starts to decline. Being self-sufficient in H20, O2 and H2 cuts a lot away in terms of launch obligations and running costs.
And if it can get a decent manufacturing capacity into space in the form of 3D print technology then it has a real chance at automated manufacture off-world, where it controls a lot of input costs, once it has made the initial investment. So lunar iron ore would give sustainable steel production for deep space vehicle construction, all the design being undertaken back on Earth with plans emailed to space. Of course, the first thing to print would be another printer to speed the process up.
With these four components provided for, Earth launches can move to focus on components needed for turning metalwork into functioning space vehicles. Computers, sensors, delicate instruments would all still need to be manufactured and tested on Earth, but the actual inventory sent into space would be far more concentrated on the details. Plastics and rubber, ceramics, food; cargo of more exacting requirements rather than the basics.
And, maybe, in 30 years’ time we will go and catch an asteroid. And hope not to crash the market in diamonds, or gold.