What is so Great about Space

Some have the opinion that there is no value in colonizing space. Many believe that there is nothing beyond Earth that will be worth the effort to colonize space. For the most part what I have read is a combination of “it is too dangerous”, “robots do a better job” and “there is nothing of value in space”. I will comment on the first two and go into the third in more depth.

The Danger in Colonization

This opinion usually runs that space is much more dangerous than any environment we have previously colonized. First I would comment that though we have yet to colonize it naval submarines spend month at a time in environments at least as lethal as the surface of Mars. Compared to past colonization the relative danger is very much less . We have a very good understanding of the dangers we are likely to face. We also know the sort of technology we need to develop to overcome those danger and a clear understanding of the supplies we will require.

Past colonization and exploration efforts were much less prepared for the danger they would face than we are for the dangers of space today. A good example of this would be the Plymouth Colony, arguably the most famous colony. Just 7 months after setting sail from England almost half the colonist were dead and half the crew of the Mayflower[1]. Jamestown did far worse, losing 2/3rds of their colonist within 3 years in spite of being resupplied twice[2]. The truth is that colonization was much more dangerous than most realize and colonist of the past were poorly prepared and poorly informed about the environment they were headed to. Colonist in space will be much more aware of their environment and more prepared for the dangers it faces.

Robot vs. Man

This argument boils down to the idea that automation can completely replace human activity. The truth is this is not the case and is not likely to be the case any time in the near future. Automation can replace human presence if the tasks to be accomplished can be narrowly defined and up to this point all human activity in space has been fairly narrowly defined. Up to now all activity in space has been related to gathering or handling information. Little that could be seen as material product has come from space. As long as this remains the case the activities will remain narrowly defined and automation will be enough.

Producing material products on an industrial scale will quickly go outside of any narrowly defined tasks. The most automated factories still employ a fairly large staff to maintain the automated equipment. Even with advances in robotics and remote operation a human on site will be more efficient and managing the variety of tasks that will be required to maintain industrial scale operations in Earth orbit or beyond.

Show Me the Money

One of the first ideas that comes up in commercializing space is mining. It is also one of the reasons many think space will never be worth the effort. The fact is that there is almost nothing that can be mined in space that will be commercially viable to return to Earth. The real value of commercializing space will come in the form of manufacturing. What manufacturing will provide that most ideas of mining cannot are goods that cannot be produce on Earth. The key to this is the environment (or lack of it) in space. What will we manufacture in space? At the moment I do not think anyone knows for sure. Many of the possibilities being suggested will either not work as expected or ways to do it cheaper on Earth will be found. It is very likely the most profitable products from space will be something nobody has dreamed of yet.

A Situation of Gravity

Gravity has an effect on everything we manufacture on Earth. In a microgravity environment changes the way just about everything works. The most obvious changes involve how fluids behave. In microgravity sedimentation and buoyancy do not affect fluids so different components of a fluid mix more evenly and say mixed. This can have an effect on how chemicals react and if the components remain mixed when the fluid solidifies. Convection (i.e. buoyant cooling) does not happen in microgravity having an impact on what happens as materials go from a molten state to solid and could help create materials like metallic glasses[3]. In microgravity forces such as surface tension have a much greater effect on the shape fluids take. It could even be possible to use magnetic fields to shape things making “containerless molds” possible to avoid contamination from the surface of the mold. Microgravity may also be the best environment to produce nano-technology also called Microelectromechanical Systems (MEMS)[4].

Many manufacturing methods work better with gravity. This is not a problem for space manufacturing as we know how to produce artificial gravity. In orbit the gravity can be different in different parts of the manufacturing process to accommodate the manufacturing method being used on a product at the moment.

It’s All About the Atmosphere

In many processes the atmosphere we breathe is a contaminant. In space the “natural” environment is hard vacuum. Any atmosphere that exists will need to be managed as closely as the best clean rooms’ atmosphere on Earth. A vacuum is useful in various manufacturing methods including some types of welding and some new types of 3D printing. Clean room environments are important for manufacturing microelectronics and some manufacturing some biological products. As with gravity if the product requires more than one atmosphere in production it can easily be moved from one atmosphere to another as airlocks are already a required part of any human habitation in space.

There is a Lot of Space in Space

The room for space industry is hard to define. It is unlikely we will actually be running out of places to put facilities for industry in the Earth/Moon system for centuries. The Moon’s surface alone is nearly equal to the “usable” surface area of Earth. Also because the environment in space will not limit the size we can build structures that will dwarf anything on Earth. The generation being born today may see factories built in space that have interior volumes measured in cubic miles.

  1. Wikipedia – Voyage of the Mayflower
  2. Wikipedia – Jamestown
  3. Nature – Microgravity metal processing
  4. Space Island Group – Micro Electro Mechanical Systems – (MEMS)

One comment

  1. alsanbalaur · August 30, 2015

    It is interesting that you touch on one of the advatanges of space-based manufacturing and don’t mention the REAL benefot that this can create. Namely how fluids can stay mixed in a microgravity where they do not in Earth. It has long been known that there are possible alloys with titanium or aluminum with heavy metals that would be vastly advantageous in manufacturing BUT are impossible to create currently due to gravity preventing the disparate density of metals from remaining alloyed long enough to cool and harden.
    You are quite correct that manufacturing of esoteric product requiring microgravity and/or altered atmosphere (or the absence of atmosphere) would be the biggest draw to human habitation of space. But I doubt that it will stay to such limited scope.


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