Most media have overlooked the space journeys of billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson as a race among business moguls to see who will send the most tourists into orbit.
What we have just witnessed in the last few days is much more important than that.
Judging by what Virgin Galactic founder Branson told me in an interview a few years ago – and what I’ve heard in recent days from several astrophysicists and aerospace engineers – this is the start of ‘a new era they call “the space economy”. And it’s going to have a huge impact here on Earth.
It will be a conquest of space, driven by the private sector, of which tourism will only be the first step. Soon it will expand into space mining, then space fabrication, space construction, and space colonization.
It might happen like this:
First, Blue Origin from Amazon founder Bezos, Branson’s Virgin Galactic, Space X from Tesla founder Elon Musk and other space tourism companies will be sending increasing numbers of tourists to space.
As spaceships get bigger and reusable rockets make these trips less expensive, prices will drop from the current $ 250,000 per ticket, and more people are likely to sign up. Blue Origin is already planning to send two more rockets with paying tourists into space this year.
“In the next 10 or 20 years, prices will become much more affordable, and instead of expensive spacecraft that will only carry the very rich, a lot more people will have the opportunity to go to space,” I said. Branson said in 2013.
The next step, as the novelty of spending a few minutes of weightlessness in space wears off, will be that more and more people will want to spend days, or even weeks, in space, rather than a few minutes. .
This will require building hotels in space, or at least stations where tourists can spend long moments contemplating the Earth.
After that, there will be a growing space mining industry, as space hotels will need water, food, and building materials which will be very expensive to ship from Earth.
“If you have astronauts in space or if you have tourists and space hotels, water is easier to extract from an asteroid, and in the long run, it’s cheaper,” says Jacob Haqq- Misra, astrobiologist at the Blue Marble Institute of Science.
In addition, asteroids contain precious metals, such as gold and platinum, as well as rare earth elements that are essential for our smartphones and computers, Haqq-Misra said.
Later there will be a rush to build manufacturing plants on the Moon or Mars. Shortly after returning from his July 20 space trip, Bezos told CNN that we need to “take all of the heavy industry and the polluting industry on Earth and move them into space.”
And then there would be human colonies in space. Tesla’s Musk has long worked to create what he says is a colony of 80,000 people on Mars.
Of course, there are many moral and legal issues surrounding space exploration by these billionaires and others.
Should they devote more of their resources to solving problems like hunger and disease on Earth? Perhaps. Should they pay more taxes than they are now? Absoutely.
There are also legal issues as to who will own anything found or built in space.
Under a 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty, nations cannot claim ownership of the exploration and use of outer space, “including the moon and the other celestial bodies “. But the drafters of the treaty did not envision private companies conquering outer space. We could soon see great legal battles over space resources.
But be prepared: what we’ve seen in recent days marks the start of a huge private space industry that will most likely reshape the global economy in the decades to come. There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about this, but I think it’s the most exciting thing we’ve seen since man landed on the moon over 50 years ago.
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