Tuesday, March 13, 2007

North Sea Oil and Space

When you talk about investing in space, with public funds or private, you really have to take the long view. It's true that there is no market for lunar helium-3 now - in fact there's no proof that there will ever be a way to mine it and return it to Earth economically, and there's no fusion reactor that can use it as fuel anyway. All of that may change, or it may not. I find it hard to believe that in 200 years (assuming we survive) that we will not be exploiting the resources of much of the solar system for the benefit of humanity. But what will the curve of space progress look like over that time? Maybe we'll do nothing but make PowerPoints and send a few rich people to space for 150 years, then master it all in the last 50 years with AI engineers who can lay it all out in an hour or two. But I think the slope is already greater than zero.

Here's an analogy or thought experiment that was written by "Weightless" in a post in the Orbiter Forum on January 7. Of course this doesn't prove anything either, any more than the 1903 Wright Flyer proved that 747's would be carrying hundreds of people from New York to Tokyo seventy-some years later. But I found it thought provoking and wanted to share it (this is just the first part of his full comment - he goes on to relate this to the possible benefits to humanity of investing in space development):
Imagine that you could go back in time to the year 1930. World economies were starting to depend on oil, but oil was scarce (the great Saudi fields would not be found for another 20 years). So imagine that you went back in time and you told someone that they should research ways to drill for oil in the North Atlantic.

Undoubtedly, they would laugh at you. I mean, just think about it. The North Atlantic, one of the roughest seas in the world, full of icebergs in the winter months, not to mention the fact that it's deep. From their perspective, it would be impossible to actually drill for oil out there. It would be the stuff of science fiction.

So, if you went back in time and suggested it, the objection you would get would be this: "even if it was technically possible to drill for oil in the North Atlantic, it will never be economically viable - you will spend more energy (and money) getting the oil than what the oil could possibly be worth."

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