Monday, September 11, 2017

How To Fund Space Settlement - Where Does The Money Come From?

Regular readers will know of my enthusiasm for the settlement of humans in space. Last year, I wrote a book ( about unsolved technical problems connected to Mars. Here I'm going to take a slightly different tack and talk about the financial question. In a previous post ( I talked about launch cadence and shipping for industrialization of Mars on a rapid timescale. This discussion is oriented towards that problem, but I hope will be general enough to be useful for any other potential destination, including the Moon, asteroids, deep space, low Earth orbit, or beyond.

Aspects of this discussion often take on a religious tone. Here, my only goal is to explicate various options and perhaps list the strengths and weaknesses of each proposal - certainly no single approach is adequate to the task. It is clear that this is a problem that can consume extremely large sums of money!

How much exactly? It is difficult to know for sure. Using the industrialization text as a start, I propose that a population of 10,000 people can be reached on Mars in 20 years with a steadily growing launch cadence, requiring the construction of a new giant rocket every year, with re-use gradually becoming more widespread. The construction of this vehicle, plus tech for the ground, could run into the billions of dollars per year. Therefore I will baseline assumptions that a Mars settlement program will require billions, but perhaps not many tens of billions, per year for the indefinite future. This sounds like a lot of money. This isn't the place to justify expenditure of huge quantities of treasure on a project that will benefit practically no-one alive today, and maybe no-one ever. I will state merely that it is of the order of NASA's current budget, or slightly less than the cost of air conditioning in military bases in Afghanistan. It is also comparable to national expenditure on cosmetics, or a medium scale infrastructure project such as maintaining the interstate system.

In the following I have split various proposals into a few subheadings, but there is substantial crossover.


Broadly speaking, finance-backed concepts draw on the only limitless resource on Earth - human greed - and try to provide a mechanism for a big payday down the road. Generally speaking, any Mars-related investment could probably get better returns in less time on any other project on Earth. In particular, most very wealthy people don't have 50 years to wait for their money to grow! This is the primary obstacle to finance-based funding methods. Nevertheless, the quantities of money being spent, and the outrageous scarcity of certain key resources along the way, make for many business opportunities with shorter timescales for ROI. No-one doubts that settlement of space won't make a lot of people very wealthy, but the overall source of wealth is another question entirely!

- Value capture. As space transport tech improves (as it must), the value of assets in space increases disproportionately. It is possible to hedge this increase in value by, say, buying options on likely sources of key resources on Mars and holding the paper until someone needs to buy it. The primary weakness of this approach is that ownership of resources in space may be very hard to enforce, and existing legal frameworks are still very underdeveloped. Certain strategic materials or manufacturing know how on Earth has already proven to be a good bet.

- Arbitrage. Similar to value capture. Find a way of pricing some asset that has a lot of uncertainty in its future valuation, or is significantly undervalued in the market, and place a bet. Financial instruments surrounding insurance were key components of both the Dutch East India company and the 2008 financial crash. There's plenty of money available if one can figure out how to direct it.

- Triangle trade. This will be useful down the track, where Mars will be the obvious staging post for asteroid mining in the main belt, if there's ever a need for that. The Mars settlement has to get to a certain size before this is possible.

- Media rights. It may be possible to control the flow of information to and from Mars well enough that selling the media rights provides enough capital to keep the program going. This was the idea behind Mars One, and I doubt it would produce enough revenue, at least after all the middle men on Earth have taken their cut.

- Blockchain. Never say never. A Mars currency ICO? Or space-resource backed currencies more generally? I can imagine blockchain-based technologies becoming part of a collaborative design and manufacturing effort, but I doubt there are enough users and buyers of crypto currency to provide the steady stream of money needed.


There is a long history of philanthropic space exploration. Indeed, since the invention of the telescope by Galileo, nearly all major telescopes have been funded by wealthy donors of one sort or another. Why? There's an industry devoted to discovering ways to get the rich to part with their money, but many of the 19th century industrialists who funded the famous instruments of Southern California wanted to contribute a positive legacy.

- There are people who are so rich they have nothing to spend their money on but more money. Or a space program! At the most basic level, if each California billionaire bought the naming rights to one big rocket for a billion dollars, the problem would be largely solved. Who doesn't want to name a gigantic rocket in honor of Steve Jobs?

- Crowd funding. Relatively small contributions by some large number of people can raise stupendous sums of money, as the IRS has shown.

- At a more general level, space tourism could be a source of revenue, much as a handful of enthusiasts can get flown to the south pole or space station for absurd sums of money. The only other way to go is to be a professional, and that's more time consuming! I think the number of people who can afford to go to Mars and want to go will be quite small for quite a while though.

- There are companies with enormous and partially idle engineering resources. Caterpillar, AECOM, and numerous others have the technical might to solve corners of the problem without breaking a sweat. But why would they? It could help them compete for talent, provide prestige, training, brand development, or could form part of an incentives package with policy support.

Open Source/Volunteer/Collaborative Venture

This approach is very underdeveloped. Part of funding the space program is about finding ways to make it cheaper. There are tens of thousands of qualified engineers out there who could contribute their time after hours, if only there was a mechanism, platform, or more precisely, a protocol to form the method of exchange. While few in number, there are some prominent success stories borne of this approach, including the Linux kernel and open source software more generally. Applying OSS/Agile/SWE techniques to hardware engineering is an area of active experimentation. But finding a way to tie together any program that must involve more engineers than can fit in a meeting with something better than the status quo - reams of paper - is a goldmine in itself. If a hardware-oriented project management mechanism became the defacto standard, like git etc. has in software, then this provides an additional incentive for large companies to contribute resources to the problem.


Policy or law is the biggest stick with which to hit this problem by far. It's also the hardest to motivate, though perhaps a first move from a private company could see multiple governments reactively entering the space.

- Revision of the outer space treaty can enable a land grab or resource race. There are precedents for the governing body to issue resource or access licenses preferentially based on contributions to the central task. Either way, there needs to be well developed mechanisms for ownership, disposition of risk, dispute resolution, and evolution of the standards as new problems manifest.

- Jobs program. Just spend a whole lot of money in key districts and states. Not the best way to minimize costs, but probably the best way to mobilize public money.

- Social movement. Oriented towards planetary defense or fear of losing ground to a rival nation.

- Restructuring of defense budget. This is the biggest slice of the pie by far, and most of the same companies would be making the money. Would require a broad consensus, so hard to do in a proactive way.

- Bailout/rescue of failing private mission. Perhaps private space development needs additional investment to rescue the sector or safeguard strategically important technology. There is a precedent for this in the resurgence of the Russian space program in the 1990s due to strategic foreign investment.

Industrial capture

Many of the above approaches place a lot of control or uncertainty beyond the realm where it can be definitively controlled. A more direct method is to directly create wealth and then use it for whatever you want, as long as that is space settlement. At its core, all wealth is created the same way. Create demand, then control supply. The more of each, the better. Creation of whole new classes of things to own, or whole new markets, are surefire ways to create the opportunity for fabulous wealth.

- Technology. Invent a magic widget everyone wants. Or find a way of generating something (eg energy) more cheaply. Defend the IP. Bank the difference.

- Capture an industry. Is there a big industry out there with lots of revenue, lots of profit, and low competitiveness? Time to disrupt. SpaceX seems to be making a play towards satellite internet (a whole blog post in itself) and large infrastructure projects. The Boring Company seems poised to exploit a lot of latent demand for reduced travel time in congested cities.

- Space mining/resource exploitation. If it was possible to mine certain strategic resources in space and find a market for them, then an industry devoted to that could be financed or bootstrap. The main obstacle to this concept is the sheer cost of doing anything in space. It may even be cheaper to supply the moon with anything it needs from Earth, rather than to obtain it locally. Mars will need local resources, but it's hard to imagine something valuable enough to be worth shipping all the way back to Earth, except passengers and functional spaceships.

Exotic/Enabling tech

One way to reduce the required sums of money dramatically is with advanced or even exotic technology. I'll rank these roughly by level of plausibility.

- Re-usability and in situ resource utilization. This alone can reduce current costs by a factor of 100 or more.

- Space power. There is probably no way to make money selling space-based solar power to the ground, but space nuclear reactors for use on Mars or gigantic mirrors for terraforming are an interesting concept.

- In space manufacturing. One driver of space costs is launch costs. Launch a factory once and make everything in space (from asteroids, say) and that problem can go away. It's not clear to me what the critical size of this industry is, but I'd estimate somewhere north of a million tonnes produced per year before launching from Earth becomes bottlenecked somehow. Note that self-replicating robots lower costs on Earth too!

- Advanced propulsion. Anywhere from nuclear thermal rockets to warp drive. There's no reason why such concepts can't be developed in parallel with existing methods, but I don't think it's a good reason to wait.

- Life extension. Perhaps during my lifetime we'll solve aging and humans, freed from their four score and ten will think about problems on a longer time scale. I think life extension is probably key to very long space voyages, and may unlock ways to avoid possible space-related illnesses. But I'm not holding my breath.


What do you think? Which of these sources will prove to be the most enabling?

1 comment:

  1. Any enjoyable read. I figure a key aspect is how to break the process of colonization down into much smaller steps, each of which could be or is profitable - such as the way SpaceX or Planetary Industries is doing, both effectively vehicles for billionaires to achieve a vision while also having a short term profit motive.


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