Not a Sun Rise, But a Galaxy Rise

While I sometimes like to make myself happy by thinking of Newt Gingrich as something from another planet entirely, of late he's been making it easier than usual. In various speeches and debates, Gingrich has apparently been pushing the idea that his administration would make Luna the '51st State' (conveniently ignoring various treaties and agreements that would legally prohibit the US from unilaterally claiming the satellite), and even that he would push for a manned Martian expedition. It's a pretty shockingly out-there policy for a Republican, who generally can't get their policies back within the borders of the United States fast enough. Thankfully, Warren Ellis is around to explain exactly what's going on here and, surprise surprise, it's all about votes and job creation.

But let's put aside Newt, and I'll wait for the collective cheers to subside on that idea, because Ellis says something that I think is far more important. Namely, that the idea of space exploration backed by private concerns is a complete non-starter. As Ellis puts it,
"The thing about private spaceflight is that private industry isn’t terribly well known for doing things that don’t have a big fat profit at the other end. And human spaceflight isn’t something that tends to come with a profit function. Mining the moon without, at the very least, the industrial structure at this end to use the mining product for anything is retarded."
It's difficult to understate how right he is. Corporations are guided by profit, indeed in many areas they are legally required to make as much profit for their shareholders as possible, and ninety-nine times out of a hundred a corporation will take a guaranteed twenty tomorrow over a thousand dollars five years down the line. There's very little room for long-term planning in the present corporate environment, and that's a problem when it comes to private space exploration (or exploitation) because there's really no way at all to make money fast out there. Yes, there might be money in all that helium-3 on the surface of Luna or in the elements and ores in the asteroid belt, but there's no way to get it, and use it, in anything like the span of time corporate governance would require. No board of directors is going to authorize the absolutely staggering start-up costs on a venture like that, nor should they, really. Corporations aren't Captain Kirk; risk isn't their business.

But risk is a package deal with exploration, and it always has been. And that's why, even when there were private entities who could theoretically perform such actions, it's always been government agencies and public institutions going boldly into the unknown. Exploration is so expensive, so uncertain and so infrastructurally-intensive that it will always be a matter of public institutions harnessing a civilization-wide agreement to go out and do a thing; there's just no other way to really make it work. And of course, once states have done the exploration, and established the basic infrastructure, and figured out just how to make it all work, the corporations will come along. They just won't ever go first. Which is why it's so important to realize that private industry can not take us to the stars. If we rely on them, we'll never get there; if we wait for it to be profitable to leave our planet, our species will still be here when the sun goes out.

If we're lucky.


  1. I disagree with the notion that corporations won't do something first, or indeed that they aren't in the risk business. Because business is about managing risk. Every time a company, including corporations, privately-held interests, partnerships, etc, invests in infrastructure, employees, research, and so on they are taking a risk.

    You are correct that the start-up costs involved in space exploration go beyond the capabilities of any corporation (though possibly not outside certain state-capitalist entities), but that's because, as a general trend, as the payoff for doing something increases, so does the risk of not seeing a return.

    Which is why places like Canada were settled by the first corporations such as the Hudson's Bay Company because they were given a royal charter to massive resources. The risk was incredible, but the rewards far outweighed anything that space exploration may return in the near one hundred years.

    Basically the start-up costs currently outweigh any reasonable expectation of return within the lifetime of any investors, which is a lousy risk assessment for any business.

  2. While corporations are in the 'risk' business, it's a very, very different level of risk. Apple's biggest risk is that it will lose some market share if RIM really manages to get its act together on the PlayBook, a far cry, I think you will agree, from sending huge amounts of money and human lives out into the unknown, with no special guarantee that you'll ever recoup your investments.

    Yes, the HBC played a prominent role in British exploration and exploitation of northern North America, but they didn't discover it, and they didn't really settle it (large numbers of settlers being anathema to their business model). And of course, the HBC was basically one of those law-unto-themselves MegaCorps dystopian science fiction writers love so much. It was less a private enterprise and more a subsidiary state of the British Empire.

    But yes, the start-up costs of private space exploration and exploitation are too high, as nearly every major paradigm change in human history has been. Private industry is great at managing and improving infrastructure, but it's almost always the job of the state to come up with the funds to actually lay the roads, or the rails, or the wires in the first place. Which means that, if we abandon state-backed space exploration and, eventually, colonization, we're pretty much abandoning the solar system, because if private enterprise has to foot the enormous bill, and concomitant enormous risk, of going out there first we're never going to leave this planet again.

  3. Actually corporations are about the business of risking enormous amounts of money and lives, particularly the businesses of mining and resource exploitation.

    In fact, you could say that corporations are more inclined to risk lives since they aren't using state-coercion, they're using volunteers, and their officers have limited liability. There's a reason so many corporations are perfectly willing to use cheap and expendable labour, because they aren't responsible to that labour beyond the agreed compensation structure.

    The reason why we're never going to get off this planet is unfortunately more simple than "big corporations won't take risks" which is plainly false if you're at all familiar with point of corporations, which is to enable individuals to limit their liability, and thus their exposure to risk. The reason is that there isn't anything worth it out there.

    It's the same reason that China didn't colonize the rest of the world, and it's the same reason the space race has ended up as a joke fit only for politicians to make a laughing stock of themselves. It's simply not worth it, for anyone, governments included. That's why the space race pettered out. It's barely worth anyone's time to put communications satellites in orbit, let alone lunar orbit.

  4. Ah yes, the mining and resource sectors; after the agricultural industry, one of the most monstrously profitable and simultaneously most heavily subsidized industries going. Yes, so much 'risk' there.

    The reason the space race petered out is because it was billed as exactly that, a race. Once America beat Russia to the moon the race was won, and once you've won the race that's it, it's over, everyone goes home. If it had been billed as the first step in human expansion out into the solar system it might have been a different story, but it wasn't, so it isn't.

    As for your example of China not colonizing the world, that's a strange choice; through colonialism and imperialism the relatively tiny states of north-west Europe grew strong enough to push China around for hundreds of years, and one of their direct descendents, America, is arguably still doing so (though China pushes it around as often as not, now). Had the Chinese not scrapped their plans to head to North America at the last minute, it's entirely possible that the resources the 'New World' contained would have enabled China to dominate the world for the entirety of the 'modern age', something I suspect the Chinese, who still can't even get Taiwan back, probably wouldn't object to.