The Challenge of Space Commerce

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright November 2017


Mankind has sought to fly among the stars since prehistoric times. In many cultures their ancient founding gods descended from the stars to come live on earth.

As mankind's technology has improved over the centuries the prospect of returning the favor and visiting the stars has become more and more likely. A "giant leap for mankind" came in 1969 when humans reached the Moon and walked on its surface.

But the Moon is not a star. It is not even a planet. How much further along on this dream will we proceed over the next century? That is the topic of this essay.

The driving forces for exploring: hobby and commerce

There are two styles of thinking that foster exploring: hobby-style curiosity and money-making commerce.

Hobby Style

The hobby style thinking is the curiosity one feels about what lies over the next hill? Should I take the time and effort to go climb that hill and find out? The time and effort can be small -- a day's hike -- or it can get large and elaborate -- mounting an expedition to reach the South Pole. After the Renaissance took place this curiosity has often been mixed with science -- the expedition becomes billed as a science expedition. Reaching the Moon and the South Pole are classic examples of this. But at the root of this style of exploring is the emotion of curiosity.

Commerce Style

Commerce style exploring is based on money making, as in, "Is there profit to be made from taking the trip to that distant land? If so, I'm in!" The classic example of this is Europeans exploring the Americas after Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci discovered this "new world" and their followers then demonstrating that there were riches to be made taking goods, people and ideas across the Atlantic.


One big difference between hobby style and commerce style is the magnitude of the activity. Hobby style remains small scale while commerce style grows to something enormous in comparison.

What's coming for space?

The hobby style of exploring space has begun. It started with Sputnik back in 1957. The commercial style started shortly thereafter with the launching of communications satellites in the 1960's. Now thousands of flights to space have happened pursuing both hobby and commerce goals. The difference between hobby and commerce style is as evident in space as it is on earth. The commercial activities such as satellite communication, GPS and satellites monitoring what is happening on earth have produced lots and lots of space launches and lots and lots of satellites orbiting earth. The hobby activities, such as putting people on the moon and the Mars Rover on Mars, remain much smaller in magnitude, but much larger in people's imaginations.

As of now, this difference between commercial activity in earth orbit and hobby activity beyond earth orbit looks likely to continue indefinitely. At this point I can't foresee anything material that will be profitable to move from the various bodies orbiting in the solar system to Earth -- no equivalent to gold, silver and rum coming to Europe from the Americas -- and there is only one thing I can see that will be profitable to move from Earth to any of these bodies orbiting the sun, and that is tourists. (Interstellar is even more so because the costs and journey times are a thousand-fold those of voyages around the solar system.)

So, interplanetary commerce will be based on space tourism. How big an industry that will become is difficult to predict. It will depend a lot on how pleasant and exotic the experience is, as in, how different will a real space vacation be from a VR space vacation experience?


I foresee that space exploring will continue, but beyond earth orbit it will continue to be a small scale hobbyist oriented activity. It will be small scale and robot-centric. The only activity likely to become commercial beyond earth orbit is space tourism.

Conversely, earth orbit activities are likely to continue to be commercially oriented and the activity in the earth orbiting realm is likely to continue growing steadily. As a result one of the emerging challenges will be getting rid of the "space junk" -- obsolete satellites that continue to orbit.



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