No science fiction writer ever predicted what actually happened when we went to the Moon: we came home and never went back. Why did that happen? It happened because 1) going to the Moon is expensive and dangerous; and 2) after we got there once, there was nothing to gain by going there again.

There are lots of advantages to putting machines in space around the earth: nearby satellites have lots of uses. And indeed there is a thriving business in sending those satellites into orbit. There is very little advantage to putting humans into orbit around the earth, but it is close enough that we do it anyhow. There is a market for space tourism, but it is not clear how large it is. There are enough multi-millionaires to fill up the available tourist launch capacity for now, but how many of them will want to go into space twice?

I think that people should move off Earth permanently (not everybody, just those who want to go). It’s the ultimate environmentalist position (Earth—love it or leave it). It’s the best way to ensure the continuation of the human species. I’d love to go into space myself (but I expect that by the time I could afford it, I will be too old).

The problem is that space is an insanely dangerous environment. You might think that it would be unpleasant to be in a blizzard in Antarctica, but that’s peanuts compared to space. It will never be easy to live in space—it will always be dangerous, and it will always be expensive. That means that people will never move there unless they see some significant benefit.

The benefit might be science, but very few people will risk their lives for science. The benefit might be living space, but the people who are short on living space are not the people who can afford to move to space. The benefit might be exploration, but explorers tend to want to come home.

This is an area that is full of unknowns. Right now, though, I don’t see any potential benefit to moving to space that is nearly sufficient to overcome the risk and expense. I hope I’m wrong.


  1. ncm said,

    June 14, 2008 @ 1:48 am

    Isaac Asimov about got it. ISTR “All the Spaceships Rusting”. Of course in his stories it was a conspiracy by the robots.

    Curiously, Asimov got the internet, too, or maybe Google, although he called it “Multivac”. Back in the ’80s we used to say he got the computer future wrong, having mis-called the microprocessor, but he was just ahead of us.

  2. ilyak said,

    June 14, 2008 @ 2:07 am

    Well, we really need interstellar travel, which isn’t possible yet.

    While I’m sure you can live in solar system besides earth (in space, venus, mars, jupiter moons), there isn’t much point in that. You surely can build huge ships and bases which you couldn’t have lifted from Earth, but if there’s no interstellar Earth is just better. Space have a huge potential for energy production, but it’s very tricky to channel down to Earth while everybody is still here.

  3. jf said,

    June 17, 2008 @ 5:12 am

    ncm: Asimov is a nice catch; a I’m not familiar with that story; but remember a similar conspiracy from The End of Eternity.

    Also, I always found the Asimovian future somewhat unpleasant (but maybe just not as well described) compared to that of other authors, but now as I get older, I find it easier to connect to. Now that I think of it, the Foundation saga has the same setting as the subject of this topic. There, some people just are not interested in getting out to the space (as opposed to the Spacers), and even then, they will be forced to (and become the Settlers). Obviously, in that world, it would seem, it’s not really an question of economy on the level that we face now — which I would find harder to accept these days.

  4. ncm said,

    June 17, 2008 @ 4:54 pm

    jf: Yes, that was it. (I had confused it with Niven’s “All the Bridges Rusting”.) I gather that Asimov avoided every kind of mechanized transportation, although I guess he didn’t mind if others used it.

  5. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    June 17, 2008 @ 9:33 pm

    ilyak: interstellar travel doesn’t seem very likely to me either. Quixotic people will no doubt go some day, but their chances of success seem very low. Obviously radical technological change could affect this.

  6. voidspace said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 7:24 am

    Manufacturing on the moon could be an interesting possibility.

    Lower gravity makes some processes available much more cheaply. If mineral resources are ‘extractable’, and power generation less ‘dangerous’ (nuclear power less socially unacceptable for example) then it could be very useful. Putting satellites into orbit from the moon ought to be much cheaper than from the earth (if the resources don’t first need to shipped there of course…).

  7. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    July 1, 2008 @ 5:51 am

    I’m not sure that really works out once you consider the huge costs of putting people on the Moon, and keeping them alive, and bringing them home again. Automated factories on the Moon might make sense in some cases. I don’t think we have the technological capability for it yet, but it seems foreseeable.

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