The Economic History of the Solar System: First Commercial Ventures Era

The period in which governments monopolize space exploration quickly came to an end. By the early twenty first century, a number of private companies were focusing on ventures in space. Although some of these were spectacular (and fanciful) such as Elon Musk’s desire to set up a colony on Mars, most had viable commercial ends in mind.

There were two main areas of commercial interest, the space tourism industry and the booster industry. Of the two, space tourism was the sexier and more visible. Space tourism focused on providing the well off with a space experience. The first target for commercial space tourism innovators was the simple launch of a small compliment of tourists past the Kármán line allowing a view of the curvature of the Earth and a short period of weightlessness (along with the bragging rights of having been in space). These developments created the basic technology for launching groups of people into space but ultimately the stand alone space tourism industry was a dead end never fully progressing past the stage of taking paying passengers past low Earth orbit.

The problem that beset the industry was the increasing difficulty of getting tourists to each new stage. Getting past the Kármán line was one thing, getting the same sized group into orbit was something else. With each new target, the costs increase exponentially along with the risk – the higher the orbit the more complex and challenging the re-entry becomes. In spite of the vision of early science fiction authors, it was never feasible to get a paying group to the moon and return them to Earth – not as a stand alone venture. The benefit that the space tourism industry did provide was efficient and reusable means to get a group of humans into low Earth orbit. It was only later, once the development of permanent platforms supported by resources mined from space that the true value of this could be exploited.

The other major area of development was on launch vehicles. Government involvement was always historical, with the first exploration era based entirely on government owned launch vehicles. This made sense as the first launch vehicles were simply re-purposed ballistic missiles. The commonality of purpose between the needs of the ballistic missiles and boosters was short lived. With the miniaturization of nuclear warheads, ballistic missiles only needed to carry a modest payload for a relatively short distance but be ready for deployment within minutes. Boosters to put equipment into space demanded ever increasing throw weight and range and launch windows were usually well defined. Without the defence dollars driving innovation, it opened the field for the commercial launch industry who caught up with and then surpassed the government. The advantage the commercial launch industry had was focus on innovation in two specific areas. The first of these was cost to orbit and with its focus on payback, the private industry soon found and leveraged those efficiencies to bring down the cost to orbit. Innovations included reusable launch vehicles, reusable booster stages, and more efficient engines including hybrid engines that could convert from jet (requiring air) to rocket (using own oxidizing agent) operation. The second area of focus was on reliability. This was important to attract better paying customers and to reduce insurance overheads.

With private industry providing efficient and reliable transport to orbit, the government owned booster industry came to a close. Even the largest launch vehicles were commercial ventures. The remaining government involvement was that government subsidized and supported their own national carrier to ensure that their own military and intelligence agencies did not become reliant on launch vehicles from other countries. Each major space exploring nation (the U.S., Russian and China) had a healthy, though subsidized national provider of launch services. The launch industry always remained divided with stiff competition for the dollars of non-military customers who needed equipment launched into space.

This separation of ownership of the launch vehicle and payload was a crucial step in the race to explore space. It took the complex and risky task of getting items into space away from the government sector enabling them to focus on the actual exploration of space itself.


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

Self publishing and Insults

Every now and again there’s an article or something published that just screams for a reply.  Here’s one that argues self publishing is an insult to literature

Gatekeepers have existed in many industries and usually gatekeepers add one of two values: (1) marketing (2) access to otherwise expensive infrastructure (production and/or distribution). The e-publisihing trend affects (2). To compare: Recording companies were gatekeepers, especially in the age of LPs and CDs.  Physical shops were gatekeepers for clothing and fashion. Books are following that trend. Essentially Amazon (and Co.) reduce production and distribution costs to near zero.

This leaves (1) and it seems traditional publishers are their own worst enemy here. I hear so many accounts of books being published but not being marketed.

If production and distribution are free (that value has gone) and marketing is not provided  (that value never arrives) then what is the value that traditional publishing brings.

Quality? Really? I’ve read some traditionally published books that have very poor plots and flat characters. Spelling and grammar.  Potentially, yes. Traditional publishers may do a better job of enforcing spelling and grammar.  But if that’s the argument why self publishing is an insult to the written word, it’s a very weak one.

Besides, there’s another way to judge works according to their quality, let the market decide.

Traditional publishing also has a lot to answer for. The limited space for published work versus the high volume of submissions has created a side industry exploiting their clients. It’s so bad that there is a mini industry just to expose these abuses.  For every site listed here (http://pred-ed.com) there is at least one (and probably many more) author who has been ripped off. That’s the sort of issues that a traditional publishing model creates.

Apart from the significantly higher commercial and legal risks you face when publishing traditionally (see you really going to sue yourself for missed earnings?) the main difference between the two is on where the slush pile resides. In the traditionally published world, it exists within the office of the publisher.  With self-publishing, it exists online. Amazon and other retailers provide a look inside, a ranking system and a robust and monitored review process to allow the slush pile to exist alongside the more successful works and some people who have seen it says something amazing work resides in the slush pile.

Ultimately the ease and cost of doing business in the world of written fiction has plummeted. The barriers to entry have significantly reduced. That’s something that almost every government aims for.

What I struggle with is why people are so dead against the democratization of the publishing world. It’s hardly as if the existing structure of traditional publishers have any robust regulation to protect those in the industry  (http://pred-ed.com).

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.

The Economic History of the Solar System 

It’s my intention to write some science fiction.  Near future, hard science fiction based on tech that we can believe in today. To do this, I create some serious constraints for myself.  No faster then light travel. No artificial gravity. No aliens or, even, alien artifacts. No laser blasters and no spaceships zooming around like WW2 era airplanes.

But, to make these novels workable, I need conflict and stakes.

So I will look to that most ancient and human source of conflict and stakes – economics.  This means I need an economic history for my setting. NASA and its probes will unveil the Solar system as it is and create the physical setting. I need an economic history to complete the human setting.

These posts are my attempt to create a believable economic history to the settlement of our Solar System.

Update: I have decided that the posts will be written in past tense. It just makes it easier. I’m speculating but just down a single line of thought and it’s a lot easier to write in past tense.

The (growing) outline is as follows:

The Early Period:

Links

For those interested, here’s some of the links that I have used as inspiration for this fictitious history.

Economic History of the Solar System: Links

Author Interview: Heather Hayden

Augment by Heather HaydenAuthor Interview of Heather Hayden

As a motivation for myself, it helps to look at others that are putting the work in and getting results. Here’s an interview with Heather Hayden, another Science Fiction author, one who provides some excellent advice (DON’T PROCRASTINATE).

Which writers inspire you?

Heather: This is a difficult question to answer. It’s like asking me what my favorite book is! I’ve been told by readers of my earlier books that I was influenced by Brian Jacques (too much time describing food…I’m not writing about Redwall Abbey!) Later books avoided this, though, and my writing style is definitely my own. However, my imagination has been stirred by many different writers and worlds, ever since I was a child first learning to read. I couldn’t pick a specific writer any more than I could pick a favorite book, but I can say that my influences are definitely a conglomeration of Jacques, Cherryh, Asimov, Novik, Colfer, Beddor, Jones, Collins…just to name a few.

From the Stories of OldHave you collaborated with other writers? If so, why did you decide to collaborate and did it affect your sales?

Heather: My first collaboration was released earlier this month, on the seventh! Myself and a group of other wonderful writers have put together an anthology of fairy tale retellings called From the Stories of Old: A Collection of Fairy Tale Retellings. Our goal is to reach new readers and hopefully publish more anthologies (some science fiction-themed!) in the future.

Do you have any tips for writers on what to do and what not to do while writing?

Heather: Don’t procrastinate. Seriously. Sometimes your brain will even try to convince you that those dishes Must Be Washed Now. Don’t listen to it. Pin that muse down by whatever means necessary, then apply butt to chair and fingers to keyboard (or pencil, pen, typewriter, brush, whatever your preferred medium.)

Do let your creativity flow. That doesn’t mean allowing your characters or plot to go haring off in every direction, but it does mean letting the story flex a bit if it needs to. (Pantsers may find this easier than plotters, or conversely more difficult.) Ignore that inner editor until you’ve gotten the first draft down on paper.

How do you relax?

Heather: I’m an avid gamer, so I do spend some free time gaming with friends—Minecraft is a current favorite, although I play MMORPGs at times, and 4X strategy games, and just-for-fun RPGs. I’m an even bigger bookworm, though, so I’ll frequently curl up with a good book and a hot cup of tea (or iced tea in the summer). Walking on the beach in the summer is also a great way for me to relax—I love listening to the ocean.

Do you remember the first story you ever read? What kind of an impact did it have on you?

Heather: That’s difficult to recall. I know I was reading by the age of five, because when I was in kindergarten I took books out of the school library. However, I don’t remember much of that year, or anything from before that. I do recall my favorite book from that time period, though—The Unicorn and the Lake by Marianna Mayer. It had beautiful illustrations and told the story of a benevolent unicorn and terrible serpent who end up doing battle. The story fascinated me and I read it over and over. A few years ago I tracked down a copy to buy—that’s how much I loved that book.

I definitely think it had an impact on me, as I grew up loving fantasy, and, later, science fiction (though one could argue that science fiction is simply another kind of fantasy!) I also recall wanting to be like that unicorn, so brave and selfless and beautiful, so it influenced me as a person as well.

***

Heather Hayden IconAbout Heather

Though a part-time editor by day, Heather Hayden’s not-so-secret identity is that of a writer—at night she pours heart and soul into science fiction and fantasy novels. In March 2015 she published her first novella, Augment, a YA science fiction story filled with excitement, danger, and the strength of friendship. She immediately began work on its sequel, Upgrade, which continues the adventures of Viki, a girl who loves to run, and her friend Halle, an AI. Her latest release is a short story “Beneath His Skin,” which is part of an anthology her writer’s group put together called From the Stories of Old: A Collection of Fairy Tale Retellings. You can learn more about Heather and her stories through her blog and her Twitter, both of which consist of equal amounts of writerly things and random stuff she’s interested in.

 

Surreal

The Chancellor of a Germany warns incoming U.S. President to respect human rights.

“Germany and America are bound together by values: democracy, freedom, respect of law and respect of people regardless of their origin, the colour of their skin, their religion, gender, sexual orientation or their political beliefs. On the basis of these values I I am offering to work closely with the future President of the United States, Donald Trump.”

If you don’t thing that things can change completely in one lifetime let this be a lesson to you.