§ 7.2.3 Don't Wait for Cheap Earth Launch
Many people in the commercial launch industry say that we need to wait until Earth launch costs come down before we can embark on asteroidal and lunar resources utilization. There has emerged an acronym for this, called Cheap Access To Space, or CATS.
I disagree that CATS is a prerequisite, for several reasons.
- When you do the math, the cost of space resources utilization is not all that much using today's launch costs. It's comparable to large offshore oil and gas projects. The actual launch costs of the equipment to go out and mine an asteroid will not be the main cost item in the project budget.
- The high cost of Earth launch drives up the market price and profitability of asteroidal and lunar resources. The cost of products and services is determined by demand and supply, and competition, not by actual costs. If Earth launch costs come down, then the price of products and services from asteroidal and lunar resources will also come down, and so will profitability.
- There are no Earth launch vehicle projects currently under development which will dramatically reduce the cost of launching from Earth. Some cost reductions will occur by getting more private ventures into the market and with volume demand for launching communications satellites. (Offshore competition from Russia, China and India drives down the market price a bit, but the price is not based on cost but on market price.) However, there are no fundamental new technologies being developed. There is no dramatic reduction in Earth launch on the horizon. There hasn't been for the 40 years since Sputnik first went up. The PERMANENT website covers all the significant Earth launch projects currently under development, to the best of our knowledge. If you wait for a major reduction in Earth launch capability, you may be waiting for a long, long time, and someone will beat you to the resources, the patents and the market.
- Space resources utilization will have a shorter payback time than many projects of the same amount of investment on Earth, at current Earth launch costs.
Many of the people who think we should wait also think that one of the driving factors for space development will be space tourism by ordinary people. I think that significant transport of people into space will happen only when there's somewhere to go. Asteroidal and lunar resources can be used to make decently sized and featured hotels and permanent habitats, much less expensively than blasting them up from Earth. The economic as well as market benefits of having a good hotel in space is discussed in chapter 5.
Many think we should "focus our efforts" on Cheap Access to Space (CATS) by Earth launch. (Many outspoken people in this issue are already investors in those projects.) I don't think that "uniting" for a particular private sector cause is either realistic or the best thing to do. We need diversity. That's what the private sector is best at. There's no one "critical path". (It's the same argument made in the government sector -- to focus on the International Space Station (ISS) and not talk about funding other manned space projects until that is finished. Further, the ISS is not designed for support of utilization of space resources. Space stations are not all the same.)
These arguments will all be moot and quickly forgotten when the first major investor embarks on asteroidal or lunar resources utilization. People's opinions don't matter except in trying to sway investors and money to particular projects. What does matter is who develops space resources first.
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