colonizing space, at a profit

How do you explore space and make money? Weird Things brainstorms with science writer Dr. Ian O'Neill.
alien space hub
illustration by Gary Tonge

Weird Things talks to physicist Ian O’Neill, founder of astroengine.com and the Chief Communication Officer of the Mars Foundation (among his other duties) about space exploration and human colonization of the solar system. While many see the task of building habitats and mines on other planets as a multi-generational affair that would take centuries to pay for itself or as a last resort when Earth begins to become uninhabitable in the far future, O’Neill has a much more positive outlook on our profitable future in space…

Q: What got you interested in human colonization of space? What motivates you to advocate it?

A: I’ve been keen on human colonization of space even before I went into physics and being in the field I saw space travel really unfolding and becoming easier and easier. Now you have the private industry also getting into space with Virgin Galactic and SpaceX so we certainly have the technology to get there. Having private companies getting into the game is huge because you can’t rely on NASA to launch people into space, especially since they’re going to wrap up the shuttle and the next delivery system after that will only be in 2015, but that’s assuming that the Constellation project will be on time. The fact is, we only have one planet and we’re at a stage of our evolution where we need to start spreading out to survive and this spreading will be a huge business opportunity.

Q: Moving humans into space requires a lot of money. How would one go about getting all this cash and what would be the time frame for a return on investment? How could we expand into space at a profit?

A: Right now a lot of people are concerned that space tourism is just going to be a fad and that it won’t last. And true, space travel for the average person, when someone like me can go out, buy a ticket and get into space, is a long way off. How sustainable is just launching people into orbit for a lot of money? We need to have orbital hotels and Richard Branson needs to pursue his plans of lunar cruises and beyond to give people more bang for their $100,000, the lowest price of a ticket to space today.

In ten years, space tourism will be a major industry. Ultimately, the goal of corporations should be mining other planets and asteroids for their precious resources and bringing them back. It will be the next big gold rush America experiences. Of course all this will take a while because the companies need time to build a strong infrastructure to support all this so we’re not going to be seeing this for at least the next 20 years.

Initial profits will come from space tourism with first flights hopefully taking off in New Mexico where they have big plans [for the spaceport]. The next stage will come from mining asteroids and other planets. There are a lot of precious minerals and isotopes on the Moon and comets and we should starting thinking about how to get them because we’re going to run out of what we have on Earth.

Q: If you were sitting across from investors with the money to get the projects you’d like to see happen started, what would you say to them?

A: It’s inevitable that mankind will go into space. It will happen. So it’s up to somebody to invest early and become a pioneer to reap the future rewards. For a quick return in five years, I would say invest in space tourism. As the industry really takes off and stabilizes, invest in mining of asteroids and moons. The solar system is an untapped resource that can be used at a profit. A very important point is that when we establish human presence on other worlds, when we have that infrastructure in place, the costs are going to plummet. And space tourism can also be an ongoing industry and it’s going to become tremendously important because NASA could fail and if it does, it could cut off our ability to get into space. Private companies can launch cargo and people cheaper and easier and provide a steady access to space no matter what.

Earth is a very fragile system and we’re damaging it. We know we are. We’re not going to be on this planet for very long and we need to get out of our cradle to survive. If we get hit with one of the asteroids and comets around us, we’re done for. We’ll be back to the stone age just like that so we need to be on more than one planet to survive a possible extinction event.

And think about this. If you were the company to build the first colony on Mars, the planet is all yours for the taking. According to international treaties, planets aren’t owned by anybody and while you have some discoverer’s rights, it’s pretty much yours to do as you like.

# space // business / human spaceflight / space exploration


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