The Economic History of the Solar System: The First Explorer Era

This was the stage that as which humanity made the first and most tentative steps into space. In this period, the most valuable thing to be gained from the exploration of space was knowledge and the side effects of the innovation required to get there. Almost nothing physical was collected from space itself apart from a volume of moon rocks. The only real benefit was the acquisition of knowledge. Governments drove this first period for two reasons. Firstly, there was no economic incentive and the exploration was expensive ans only governments had access to the resources required. The second reason was that the first stages of space exploration was an offshoot of the industry to develop more and more powerful ballistic missiles – a purely government agenda.  This era was characterized by low orbit manned missions, unmanned probes, high levels of national pride and a lot of mistakes.  The first targets were based in national pride. First man in space. First person to orbit the earth. First man on the moon. First space station. First man (or woman) on an asteroid then on Mars. Planet flybys were also popular targets though these had a beneficial side effect. The more people learned about other bodies in the solar system, the more questions that were raised with follow on missions generally aimed to answer these questions. This created a succession of unmanned probes to Mars and Jupiter in particular that revealed a lot about the conditions on these two planets.

Although the economic incentive wasn’t yet there, this period is crucial to subsequent eras. The knowledge gained during this period defined the targets for subsequent eras. For example the early period focused heavily of finding volatiles such as water on other bodies such as the surface of the moon.

The main reason this period lasted as long as it did is because of the massive costs of getting things into orbit. It cost of around $5,000 to $10,000 per kilogram to get an item into Earth orbit – more to get the item to another part of the solar system. The reasons for this high cost are getting the item out of Earth’s atmosphere and accelerated to Earth’s orbital velocity of 8km per second. This high cost to Earth orbit will be a significant driving force that shaped the economics of the Solar System ever since. Humanity could never fully overcome this problem despite such fanciful ideas such as space elevators, space tethers and anti-gravity drives.

Escaping Earth has always meant a brute force heft into orbit around our planet.

The next post will look at the first economic incentives, the First Commercial Ventures Era.


This post is part of The Economic History of the Solar System. The background for this series can be found here.

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