Thursday, July 8, 2010

Economic Bubbles in SPAAACE !!!

The 'Local Bubble'
A fundamental challenge for large scale space development, and a singularly unwelcome one, is that no one has yet managed to come up with a fully convincing economic rationale. The one that came closest was the first, Arthur C. Clarke's 1945 proposal for a space station to serve as global communications relay and weather observation platform. Everything Clarke predicted has come true, except that it is all done by unmanned satellites - a great idea come to grief because of too much technical progress.

All other prospects remain problematic at best, dubious at worst. Burt Rutan and Virgin Galactic may yet make a go of suborbital tourism, but however cool in its own right (especially for those with $200,000 to spare), this falls at least an order of magnitude short of providing orbital capability, the precondition for going anywhere else.

Space based solar power faces the problem that once solar cells are competitive at all, it is probably cheaper to make more of them and install them on the ground. The classic space industry in SF, mining, is so profoundly speculative that it is a bit iffy even in the context of Romance.

But a discussion over at SFConsim-l led one poster to offer a brilliantly simple workaround: Who needs economic rationality? After all we have had recent and impressive evidence that human beings can be deeply irrational when they see a glint of profit. The amount of money poured into bad real estate investment in the years leading up to the Great Recession is surely in the trillions. You could develop some impressive space hardware with that kind of money.

(The real credit for this conceptual innovation apparently belongs to SF writer Alexis Gilliland, who developed it in his Rosinante novels.)

Speculative economic bubbles are as old as capitalism. The first classic instance was the Dutch tulip mania of the 1630s; at the peak of which a single tulip bulb sold for ten times a skilled worker's annual income, in modern terms about half a million. England's South Sea Bubble, which gave this phenomenon its name, peaked in 1720, and the 'South Sea' (which meant the Pacific) is richly evocative of outer space.

Among the suckers who got taken to the South Sea cleaners were the Bank of England and Sir Isaac Newton, who ruefully observed that "I can calculate the movement of the stars, but not the madness of men." The South Sea Company also spawned numerous imitators during its brief heyday, including one that offered a prospectus for the ages: A company for carrying out an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is.

The project that launches the bubble does not need to be plausible, it merely needs to sound plausible. Helium 3, anyone? Wonder drugs from Mars or Europa? Luxury condos in orbit? The possibilities are limited only by greed, naïveté, and imagination. You as a writer need only supply the imagination; your characters, ably assisted by human nature, will provide the greed and naïveté.

Even a bubble needs something to bubble up from, which for this purpose would likely be a foundation of technical progress. From that point bubble psychology takes over. A vast space infrastructure is built built, and keeps being built so long as the promise and profits seem endless.

But eventually the market realizes (belatedly, for most investors) that the profits will not in fact be forthcoming, at least not as big or as quickly as expected. Everyone rushes for the airlocks; most will not make it. (I mean this figuratively, but a literal instance might be part of the larger drama.) The bubble pops and collapses ... and a lot of space hardware ends up on the second hand market, selling for pennies on the dollar.

And thus you get cheap spaceships. As was noted in a recent comment thread, the cost models I use all deal with overall average cost, which is by no means the same as what an individual customer pays at a given moment. A ship may have cost my standard $1 million per ton to build, or a lot more, but in the aftermath of a bubble it may sell for an awful lot less as the owner ditches it in the aforesaid rush for the airlocks.

Bubbles all have a rather similar life cycle, but they vary in their aftermath. Sunny quarter acres in Florida swamps or California deserts may never be worth much of anything, but new technology investments can end up being worth quite a lot, even if it is too late for the original investors. The Internet bubble of the late 1990s really did transform the Internet, and a space bubble really could transform the Solar System, as all those ships that sold for pennies on the dollar end up being put to useful work, profitable to their new owners.

There is in fact an argument that bubbles are intrinsic to technical progress, an argument that has been made specifically about Apollo - not an economic bubble in the classical sense, but a 'societal bubble' of cultural enthusiasm, out of proportion to any near term payoff. When technology creates entirely new possibilities, no one knows at first just how much those possibilities will be worth, and the time and effort needed to do the previously impossible can easily be underestimated.

(I'm indebted to a commenter whose own blog or profile linked the above - I can't give due credit, because I don't recall whose comment it was, and haven't managed to find it again in the comment threads. If it was yours, don't hesitate to comment on this post, to claim due credit.)

So, pour some champagne and raise a toast to bubbles!

The image above, from Astronomy Picture of the Day, is of course not an economic bubble, but represents our galactic corner, including the Local Bubble. This is a region of space, in which the Sun currently resides, that has been largely cleared of interstellar matter, perhaps by an ancient supernova. (Which, among other things, kind of spoils Bussard ramjets.)


Thucydides said...

It is funny what will entice people into investing, or for that matter, what will incite "manias, panics and crashes". I once sat in on a presentation (given at some SF convention, forget which one), where the presenter made a seemingly plausible pitch for selling "just" moon rocks, more or less the way you might buy quartz crystals or fossils at a roadside stand. Some "value added" ideas were possible (for example carving the rock into a watch or clock casing). Costs would be relatively "low" compared to processing the rock for value added products (solar cells, 3He, titanium etc.), but I think in the "real world" the novelty value of such keepsaes would wear off rather quickly.

Perhaps more interesting would be the story of what happens to people on corporate planets, asteroids and facilities in free space when the owning company goes bankrupt? There is the ultimate example of what can go wrong when the bubble pops and would be rescuers are probably not coming for reasons of charity, but more likely as scavengers looking to salvage valuables and maybe get some cheap labour out of the deal (indentured servitude anyone?)

Anonymous said...

How about panic bubbles, legacies, and pop culture?

Y2K preparations employed a lot of people - for awhile. They often cost a ton of money to repair something old that could've been rebuilt much more cheaply - but total costs and disruption of retooling everything may have been more expensive, even if the new software was cheaper. The web bubbles have been based much more on hype, marketing, and celebrity than the actual underlying technology.

An 'all our eggs are in one basket' panic could open the floodgates, especially if there was a simultaneous alignment of development subsidies, a tech breakthrough, and some sizable disaster that put fear into the average person. But then the threat might just fade out. The earth might start cooling again, or the asteroid cluster might pass uneventfully.

Legacies and luxury antique value could send people to space for things depleted on old Earth, even if they're not really needed anymore. Electric vehicles may become cheap, fast, and powerful, but oil from Titan could still be worth a lot. The key to a large legacy market is customers with a large sunken cost and existing infrastructure that wouldn't want the disruption and delays of having to retool everything, and might even be able to get the expensive imports cheaper than retooling.

Hype alone could run a space program for quite awhile, even with zero revenues and large negative profit margins. Just needs someone to make it the hottest, hippest, coolest thing that everyone wants in on.

Ian Wright said...

@ Thucydides: "Want a trip home? The door is open but the ride ain't free."

A bubble is a great way to build a story-setting in space. It includes all aspects of a society (Government, economic speculators, mom and pop investors), can happen in a ludicrously short period of time, and leaves a lot of paranoid and angry people looking for scapegoats after the bust. And it has the advantage of being plausible.

Just remember that if your story is set during the bubble, you'll have to include more drugs, alcohol, and short-sightedness than you think are remotely plausible. Not kidding here. I live in an oil & gas city, and it's insane how much crap people will consume when the money is flowing.

A guy walks into a wine store and says "I've got five thousand dollars and five minutes to spend it," and there's no punchline. Another guy in a $300+ jacket and shoes that cost even more walks into an alley to smoke meth. Someone with no shirt or shoes, torn jeans, and covered with bruises from the boot-f#%^ing he got the night before walks down the same alley grinning because he knows he'll have a job and cash by the end of the day. Kids who refuse to work for less than $15 an hour because there's no-one else you can hire. Engineers go out for lunch and don't bother going back to their office because they've found a higher paying job over lunch.

At the end of it all, bumper stickers and posters that read 'Please God send us another oil boom. We promise not to piss it away like we did the last one.'

Booms are interesting times to live through, but God they're exhausting.

David S. F. Portree said...

I think that we need to regard the exploration of space the way we do the arts. That is, it is inherently good for our society, but not necessarily inherently profitable in a monetary sense.

Space is not the U.S. West, a fact that some enthusiasts miss. It has more in common with the ocean abyss or Antarctica, neither of which are high on anyone's list of places to settle. All can be visited and studied, but there isn't much incentive to settle them.

Apollo was not a bubble; it was indicative of a Cold War battle front not too different from Vietnam. In a world of nuclear weapons, superpower rivalry is by proxy. Apollo enabled us to show the world that our technology was superior to that of our rival, the USSR. Alas, once we had demonstrated that, and once it had become clear that the USSR was far behind us, there remained little incentive to continue to prove our superiority.


destop said...

This concept of bubble is a very interesting approach; if I understand well, exraordinary enterprises would not result from a logical stepwise evolution of technical progress and economy but would be the sudden convergence of societal factors: a bubble in history where the right men are at the right place at the right moment in the right environment.
This theory sounds pertinent. I must say that I always feel a bit uneasy at reading some economic prospects justifying long-term visions of the future: they are based on too many assumptions.
However, when we propose a space mission, it is critical to plan the budget and to justify it: we cannot explain that a bubble will come and fund the project. Space economy is still challenging and daunting. But if we could better understand the mechanisms at stake behind the birth and development of such bubbles, it would make us possible to nurture the right conditions for its creation and would help to better grasp the everlasting financial problem of justifying the space missions.

Anonymous said...

An economic bubble that isn't strickly economic? How about (for story purposes), you have a new space launch technology coupled with a 'rush' to discover and explote exo-organisms on various planets and moons. A frantic demand for cheap interplanitary craft spurs a massive explosion of spaceship construction factories (they sprout up like mushrooms)and brokers that sell the ships to individuals and hastily formed companies that go out to prospect for these half-mythical E.T.s and the few that go out to make a buck off the prospectors. Of course, the factories over build, the in-space construction companies produce an over abundance of infrastructre, and the brockers have over sold the ships; the biocompanies have over sold their stock and now the few useful species that they do find don't provide enough profit to keep most of them in business; The thousands of people that went into space (spending their life savings, or having borrowed someone elses' life savings to do so), now have to either go back to Earth and face finacial ruin or stay where they're at and scratch out a living working for minimum wage for the rest of their lives; maybe they sell their ships to help pay off debits, and then other people buy those second-hand ships and use them to take tourists, supplies, and what-have-you to and from these new colonies and orbital habs. A decade long bubble would pop with quite a rattle to the economy back on Earth, but would completely change the rest of the Solar System to such an extent that it would resemble a 1950's Sci Fi novel...


Hugo said...

Didn't we already see a space bubble of sorts with Iridium? A vast amount of money spent on launching low orbit comms satellites, and even at the time it wasn't very clear why anyone would pay to use them.

And it worked out reasonably well for everyone except the original investors, IIRC the US Dept of Defence bought the network for pennies and still runs it.

Citizen Joe said...

I did a setting that was based on cyclic bubbling. Prospects from some new technology open doors that cause another rush. The market then collapses but the infrastructure remains. Then the next big thing shows up and the existing infrastructure just makes it easier. Eventually, it involved magi-tech (FTL and gravitics) but by then there were alien space battles so all the flashy effects would distract you from the plausibility.

I could liken this to the frog in the pot of water. If you throw a frog into a boiling pot, it will jump right out. If you slowly raise the temperature, it will sit there until it cooks. Bubbles can be used to raise the plausibility threshold so that the next leap isn't so hard to swallow.

ElAntonius said...

Another good example might be Sirius/XM Satellite Radio.

A huge, massively valuable orbital infrastructure, that never seems to monetize the original investment well because the product (radio) isn't worth enough to enough people to recoup the original investment.

This combination of valuable property with lack of easy monetization means that Sirius/XM are practically doomed to a continual cycle of (near) bankruptcy and buyouts, and every time it happens the buying company is able to cut down the original cost a little more, until such a time that they can simply be profitable.

I can picture an environment where the "pioneer" companies all go broke pioneering, and the subsequent companies see opportunity in buying the equipment cheap and therefore can form a successful economic model on buying up failed colonies and then extracting a profit.

That can even be fuel for the rebellion scenario: a colony fueled by some sort of idealism, the original backers go bust, the new backers come in and change things in an effort to monetize it, and the colonists resent the changes and fight in a misguided effort to go back to the old way (of course, blind to the reality that the new backers may be the only thing keeping their colony sustainable).

A nice parade of failure that leads to war. Fairly poetic, if you ask me.

Anonymous said...

That idea of a colonization bubble followed by takeover followed by rebellion could lead to a Firefly-type setting, if all the money was spent on terraforming leaving none for industrial development. In fact, it could quite easily fit into the Firefly universe itself. The Independent settlers move away from Alliance control, go bankrupt, are forced to go to the Alliance for money, resist when it becomes clear that the price of aid is accepting Alliance rule, then lose the war, and in the end are worse off, since the Alliance would rather exploit their worlds' resources than improve their infrastructure.


Citizen Joe said...

Sounds like there are a bunch of different types of bubbles. You've got your exploration/pioneer bubble. Then you've got your colonization bubble. Then the exploitation bubble. And finally you've got a war bubble. I think I actually used all of those to some extent in my setting.

Rick said...

Welcome to a couple of new commenters!

David Portree's point is one I strongly agree with so far as the real world is concerned. The real future of space will probably have very little to do with the SF vision, which has its roots in (the mythos of) American colonization and the Wild West. But for purposes of Romance the latter is exactly what we want.

This blog walks a narrow and perhaps rather tipsy line between the two! That's a large part of the reason for this post - bubbles are a great way to put a lot of resources into projects that wouldn't actually stand up to green-eyeshades analysis!

Jim Baerg said...

"Space based solar power faces the problem that once solar cells are competitive at all, it is probably cheaper to make more of them and install them on the ground."

OTOH ground based solar power faces the problem of night & cloudy days requiring either energy storage or backup power.

Since solar power is interupted only relatively briefly in space it is usually the most practical option for powering anything in space. However, the minimum size of several km across for power beaming antennas, regardless of the number of watts transmitted is an overwhelming impediment to space solar power being used on earth even if launch & solar cell costs drop drasticly.

It looks like nuclear power for planteary (& lunar) surfaces & solar for most freefall facilities.

Citizen Joe said...

The lack of power generation during night isn't the problem. The problem is energy storage during the down time. You could always double up the number of collectors to double the input during the day. However, they are working to overcome this problem by storing heat rather than electricity. The newer molten salt solar stations focus the sun on salt to melt it and then store the heat. That hot molten salt is then pumped through a heat exchanger and steam turbine to make electricity on demand. In that case the day night cycle is less important than the seasonal changes in overall daylight.

These economic bubbles go back to the whole plausibility thing. If you're working on a setting, start with what you want to be out there. Then figure out what is needed in order to make that feasible. Then figure out what would make that precursor feasible. Use various bubbles to push the thresholds around until you get back to something that is currently plausible. Remember, back when telephones were invented the idea of a cell phone, let alone something like the modern iPhones would be completely unfeasible... and yet here we are.

Rick said...

The underlying problem for space is that there are no real technological orbit lift game changers on the horizon. Our ability to build Big Things That Go Fast ended its Moore's Law phase around the middle of last century.

A game changer could appear, but almost by definition it would not be Realistic [TM], because it would not be something we can extrapolate from what we know now.

Citizen Joe said...

I wouldn't say that. We've gotten the ISS up there. The drawback is monetary, not technological. Figure out the justification for spending so much on lifting stuff into orbit and you're golden. That whole bubble could collapse later, but the infrastructure would already be in place.

Anonymous said...

SSTO concepts like the Skylon spaceplane and the Liberty Ship closed-cycle gas-core nuclear thermal rocket could be game-changers if they could be built to function as promised. Even if they proved too expensive in the long run, they could still start an orbital lift bubble that could establish an orbital infrastructure for freefall manufacturing, interplanetary missions, and perhaps space-based solar power.


Thucydides said...

Generally tech bubbles start with the introduction of new tech. Possibilities are hyped to the sky while the potential negative implications are poorly understood by investors and often by the developers and salespeople until it is too late.

A second tech bubble is also bubbling in the background, as the legacy tech is pushed to the limit in order to compete with the new. China Tea Clippers are a fairly obvious example of sailing ships designed to be competitive against steamers, but unless the tech is fundamentally new and not a direct replacement for something, there will be a final flowering of the old tech. In the rocketpunk setting, I would imagine momentum transfer (via mass driver or tether) would be the spur, leading to super efficient SSTO launchers, ultra low cost "Dumbo" boosters with pressure fed engines etc. as legacy aerospace companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin fight to retain market share.

In that scenario, there will be a huge over investment in momentum transfer devices as well as a building boom of cut rate "rocket" launchers, eventually outstripping the true market demand for launch services. Space will be littered with orbiting mass drivers or tethers, and lots of launchers will be sitting idle on the ground (as well as factories to build these items). After a pause of several years to a decade, the lure of cheap launchers will start a second wave of investment (although now there will be additional costs [and a mini boom]) to refurbish this hardware after being idle for a long time).

Albert said...

Wonderful! Wonderful!
This is even better than my own (far-fetched) theory of "rich men that want to be the coolest men on Earth build a big orbital hotel with NEO resources and then the enterprises that worked at their project will offer their services at a far lower price to anyone else to survive".

I just want to add a thought.
When orbital space reaches enough infrastructure to be sufficiently indipendent from the ground, the two may easily become two different "civilizations", separated by the gulf of Earth's gravity well (and by lack of will to intermingle with each other after a few generations).

Only the economic bubbles were able to pay for the lifting costs, and after yet another crash, most ground-side investors lose interest in space enterprises, but the majority of people already in space lived there for years or even more and they don't want to leave their "home" to become beggars on Earth.

After a generation or so of hard times (and a few orbital habitats evacuated), you have a Space Civilization that will live on its own with limited planetside interference.


Rick said...

I agree that the drawback IS monetary. Space launch is a mature, well established tech, just with very high freight rates.

A 'stranded' space population is a classic SF trope, but being stranded by the collapse of a space launch cost bubble is a new evil twist!

Post bubble, space launch technology and cost might revert to essentially what we know now - multistage rockets - simply because no one sees any reason to pony up the trillion or so it would cost to rebuild the bubble era infrastructure.

Ian Wright said...

Let's say there's no really New Tech, but instead a whole lot of re-engineering. This re-engineering resembles what Eon Musk and other launch-entrepreneurs are doing - Taking old technologies and optimizing them for commercial launch, and redesigning the launch-support facilities for commercial launch.

This re-engineering gets launch costs down to, say, $300 a kilogram. Expensive, but plausibly low enough to allow for all sorts of commercial development of space.

Let's throw in a mix of interests supporting solar power platforms in space: Solar panel developers, green technology venture capitalists, direct-energy systems engineers, and of course just plain space enthusiasts. Their initial investments are low, but they also have some support from various governments pursuing a new strategic resource. Toss in advanced battery manufacturers, trying to sell their power-storage systems as an alternative to beaming the collected energy through the atmosphere. It's a plausible mix of interests understandable to current SF audience.

After ~5 years of these guys building up launch resources and experimenting with different space platform designs, enter the Helium 3 enthusiasts. Mine the Moon for energy! Build your Lunar base out of Moon dust and aluminum! Cheap electricity for everyone and their dog! Again various governments are interested in this, for two reasons. One is that if He3 fusion works, it's a complete game-changer. Two is that the Moon is specifically designated as international territory and part of the commons of all humanity (Read, it's a huge potential resource and no one country wants to let any other one country dominate it). After much screaming, threats, and gnashing of teeth a deal is struck that allows for development of Lunar resources under international monitoring.

We're now about ten years into the whole thing and so far no bubble. The Solar Power Satellites (SPS) haven't paid off yet, but launch costs have crept down a bit and the technologies are starting to stabilize around a few common designs. There's a new group of players about to enter the scene - Lunar economic expeditiary forces - And the big money players on Earth are starting to look seriously at space investments.

The thing about big money players is that they're not stupid. They're not going to jump head-first into this scenario without some guarantees up front. Their plans are modest, they're working with various governments (And the new international monitor) to make sure their risks aren't too big, and their investments are in proven technologies.

(Part One)

Ferrard Carson said...

Ooo boy, this is all brilliant - I am so glad I dropped by this blog one day in the past.

It's interesting that not many writers think of tech and society advances as bubbles, but rather as a rather sedate and unnaturally calm timeline. It always confuses me when someone puts as background, "It took 2000 years for someone to develop this, it took five millenia after that..." as though human society stays the same for even more than ten years.

To use the Wild West analog that Sci Fi is so secretly enamored with, this would be the prospectors looking for rare minerals. They go out thinking they'll strike it rich on the gold in the river or in the silver mines of Nevada, and maybe for a while they do. Entire towns grow around them, and then everything goes prompt-critical and you're left with ghost-towns, abandoned railroads, and a ton of people in the boonies with no purpose or aim.

Helium 3 would be the obvious "plausible" choice for Space Gold (with the added bonus that after the bubble collapses, it's a lot easier for one or two big conglomerations to swoop in and become the BP or Shell of Space [and right before, during, and after the collapse, He3 will be dirt cheap, meaning the only hurdle to jump costwise is building a cheap reactor to use it]).

~ Ferrard

Ian Wright said...

(Part Two)

But they are there, and that means the money is there, and now other people smell money and are moving in.

Enter the boom technologies. Someone somewhere is exaggerating, or outright lying. Maybe it's a solar panel manufacturing consortium hyping their panel efficiencies or development costs. Maybe it's a fusion development company that claims to have lowered the costs involved in He3 fusion. Maybe it's a launch company that has found a way to bury its full costs in tricky bookkeeping, all the better to attract investors. Maybe it's the battery manufacturers, claiming that their high energy-density low-weight powercells are competitive with beamed power. Probably it's some combination of two or more of these, combined with the enthusiasm of all that fresh new money that just entered the game. Regardless of the details - BOOM!

Everyone smells profit or some advantage over their rivals. And the investors want it soon, because at this point it's been over a decade and they're still not making as much money as they'd like. People - Venture capitalists, corporations, governments - want their payoff. And they're willing to hype their developments, exaggerate their potential, and outright lie about the payoff, if it means attracting more money to their projects.

So now the home investors jump in on it, because they believe the hype and lies. The pension funds jump in, because they believe that with those large corporations and the government backers in place this are stable investments. And the dishonest salesmen and fraudsters move in, pushing more groups to invest so they can skim money out of the froth of investments.

And tourists. With launch costs down and all that mass being thrown around in space, actual real-space space tourism is now a going concern. The view from the Crystal Palace is spectacular.

How much money are we talking about? The Gross World Product of 2000 was 41016.69 billion dollars ($41 016 690 000 000), but not every nation and not every industry is involved in the new space race. And the majority of people working the stock markets will probably not put a lot of money into a relatively new investment sector. I'll error on the side of caution and say that 1/2 of 1% of GWP goes to space yearly.

That's still $205 083 450 000. Most of that money is backloaded. The initial yearly investments were relatively small, but in the past five years space investments have skyrocketed. Spread out over the fifteen-year period of this development, it works out to 205+ billion dollars a year. Just a bit over three trillion dollars, most of it spent in the past five years.

Ian Wright said...

(Part Three)

A lot of that is in human mass - Consumables for life support, workers shuttling to and from home to space, government inspectors, accountants, etc. But a lot of that is also infrastructure - Solar power satellites, Lunar structures, shuttlepods, drones and robots, monitor satellites, anything needed to support the SPS network and experimental Lunar mining systems. Robotic or remote-monitored infrastructure probably represents 2/3 of the investment, or close to $2 000 000 000 dollars of hardware zipping around in various orbits.

And a lot of it is really shoddy infrastructure. It's a bubble. People are in a rush to make money, and they've been cutting corners all over the place. Workers are undertrained - Or often working in positions they have no training for - and badly stressed. Some of them are high or drunk on the job to deal with the stress. Safety inspections are lax, because detailed inspections take time and cost money. There are rumours about all this, and some truly horrific accidents, but the money flows faster and the hardware goes up faster than the regulators and inspectors can follow.

Eventually someone sits down and does a really detailed analysis of all this hardware, and accountants wade through the numbers, and one of them notices something off. Maybe it's the numbers from the experimental He3 reactors (The iridium magantomic ball bearings wear out faster than expected), or a couple of launch companies have hidden their true costs to boost their profits (Of course it's unsustainable, but the executives responsible figure they can hide it in such a way that someone else will take the fall), or maybe the efficiencies haven't really paid off in solar panel or battery technologies. Throw in some fraud from a hedge fund investing people's pensions in these technologies, and you've got a lot of scared people.

Scared people make for a bust. One of the big investors pulls out of a project that involves a technology recently revealed to be shaky, and the project collapses completely. The other groups involved with the project were heavily leveraged and depending on this project to pay off their creditors. A couple of them go bankrupt, others are torn apart by their competitors, and in the ensuing investigations a whole lot of investments are revealed to have been built on sand.


Ian Wright said...

(Part Four)

So how many people work in space? I already assumed that 2/3 of the money spent on mass went to robotic or remote systems, so that leaves ~$1 000 000 000 000 dollars* of human mass. 2/3 of that is lifesupport consumables, work and emergency equipment, and carry-on luggage (Porn, mostly. Space is a lousy place to work). So that's $300 000 000 000 spent on tossing people into orbit, at $300 a kilogram. Assuming that human + supplies + seating comes out to about a ton, that's $300 000 per person launched. So there are about 1 000 000 people working in space, monitoring or building or repairing about $2 000 000 000 000 worth of hardware.

One million angry rig pigs, stranded tourists, government inspectors, service workers, corporate accountants... All stuck in platforms that may or may not be fully functioning, their rides home dependant on companies that have just gone belly-up, screaming for help from governments that probably don't have the capacity to help them...

Bad times, but an interesting setting.

* Note: I dropped '000' from one of my earlier posts. This is why I'm not an engineer.

Citizen Joe said...

That million people stranded won't really have much need for the Earth money system. That means a shift to some sort of barter system as the various clumps of orbital groups try to decide what they need and what they can trade for other stuff. That sort of creates a [i]Waterworld[/i] scenario.

Ian Wright said...

Waterworld had a built-in regenerative lifesupport system. The people in this scenario still need consumables. This is less Waterworld and more SeaQuest DSV.

Citizen Joe said...

The analogy would be that the vacuum of space = the sea. If you had the right gear, you might be able to get something from there. So rather than gills, maybe you have a ship that can salvage some of the orbital debris. You have to recycle everything. Regenerative life support, like a small tomato plant, is very valuable. Solar power is like the wind turbines, but you could also throw out the big solar sail for 'fast' travel. Perhaps there is a huge tanker out there with remass but now even that is getting depleted. No, it isn't a perfect analogy, but much of the plot could follow... unfortunately, that wasn't a terribly good plot. Nice boat though...

Ian Wright said...

Another thing I just thought of: Not all space workers will be onsite at the same time. But even assuming 2/3 of them are on Earth at any given time, that leaves over 300 000 of them in orbit during the crash.

That makes things a little more manageable, especially when you consider that they are citizens of various nations. One organization won't be responsible for rescuing all of them all at once. This will put the rescue operation for any one nation onto about the same scale as the Canadian evacuation of Lebanon during the 2006 Lebanon-Israeli War.

Of course, this means you have a half-dozen different nations struggling to rescue their citizens during an economic collapse, protect their space-based assets from occupation by other nations, seize assets backed by their rivals, and identify which sections of the infrastructure are sound, all while trying to investigate corruption and rules-breaking by the corporations running the assets. And some of those corporations are shell-companies run by government offices or sovereign investment groups.

Good times all around.

Ian Wright said...

Aaaand my numbers are all over the place. This is what I get for not working this stuff out beforehand. Oh well, the basic point still holds. In the space of fifteen years we've gone from a scenario that looks like our current-day orbital space, through a slow period of build-up followed by a massive economic expansion, to a bubble and crash scenario that leaves massive amounts of hardware circling the Earth.

You could start this scenario in 2025 and by 2040 have as much hardware floating around as in any overly-optimistic 1950s Solar System. But now the hardware has the added cyberpunk features of unclear ownership and potential for catastrophic malfunction. Push the start-date forward to 2050 so you don't date the story too quickly, and you've still got a crowded-space setting by 2065.

Toss a generation-long economic recovery in there, with some limited expansion built over the boom infrastructure, and you have a stable spacefaring society by 2065-2090. Not bad.

Rick said...

A trillion here, a trillion there, and pretty soon it adds up to real money.

I started to run my own set of numbers, then decided to move them to the front page!

Winchell said...

There was an amusingly similar suggestion for interstellar trade in The Economics of Interstellar Commerce by Warren Salomon. (originally in ANALOG magazine May 1989, but collected in Islands In The Sky: Bold New Ideas for Colonizing Space, ISBN: 0471135615)

It is a little complicated, but it boiled down to corporate magnates flying around in STL starships, utilizing time-dilation in order to cleverly game the economic system.

In a latter editorial (in ANALOG magazine December 1989), he theorizes that the lack of alien STL starships is because aliens never invented the bizarre wall street instruments that we did, so they never had a compelling economic reason to invest in STL travel.

I coined the word "MacGuffinite" to denote some magical ultra-valuable resource only available in outer space, that would suddenly make space travel a paying proposition.

Albert said...

screaming for help from governments that probably don't have the capacity to help them...
I think I have a problem with this.
All the busted companies and busted whatever else are selling everything. Spacecrafts will be dirt cheap.

Also, If the people up there are citizens of some nation, the government should have the moral obbligation (if not actually legal) to save them all.
(like that US thing about bringing back each and every soldier or its remains. But may only apply on armed forces personnel, don't really know.)

Another thing a governemnt can do and a company can't, is to build up ludicrous debts and don't pay them for a while.

Hell, if need be, martial law can be declared (mostly for kicks, martial law is soo cool in Romance) and the equipment and crews needed to save the citizens requisitioned with force.

Another twist on the Economic bubble:

Why does the economic bubble need to be linked to space exploration at all?

I mean, let's say the average Evil Mastermind piggybacks an economic bubble of something else (like with the sub-primes and whatever caused the last bubble nowadays), and makes a few billions in that.
But let's say he is cool and manages to get 10 billions and run with the money without getting caught.

This Evil Mastermind has always loved space, so chooses to openly invest his ill-gotten gains into something space-related (still without getting caught).

If a few more of such people exist, the thing should work.

And another one:

What about bubbles only in space-related fields that before crashing manage to give enough funding to get something useful working.

Like a Solar Panels or Rocket or Laser or Fusion Economic Bubble.

I think that this last is much more plausible than a full space economic bubble like Ian Wright describes.

But as life teaches, when mankind is involved the most mindboggingly complex solution is usually the truest. (i.e. probably a realistic scenario will have all three, the two of mine that pave the way for the space-oriented one)

Btw, superb example Ian!


Citizen Joe said...

I just made a suggestion a couple topics back about the Mars cyclers. If there is a Mars rush, using cyclers as means of getting people there with artificial gravity, those cyclers then shoot off into the asteroid belt for many years before returning to Earth/Mars. Even if the Mars rush goes bust, those cyclers will still be out there merrily orbiting in their cycles. That would allow for pre-capitalized cyclers that would be able to service the asteroid belt.

Anonymous said...

The bubble will start when the lander enters the monolith on Phobos and takes a picture of it's hollow inside!

jollyreaper said...

That can even be fuel for the rebellion scenario: a colony fueled by some sort of idealism, the original backers go bust, the new backers come in and change things in an effort to monetize it, and

That's a hell of an idea right there. And it has the proper touch of failed human dreams to go with it.

The idea I keep coming back to is space-based religions growing popular. Humans love to believe irrational things. If we go with the scientific explanation of the abduction phenomenon, there is a real flaw in human brains that can create sensations of dissociation and terror and we humans desperately seek to frame the experience with some sort of explanation. In the past we blamed boggies and faeries and the like. We're too sophisticated to believe in those things now so aliens fit the bill.

If we extrapolate from that idea, what if our religious thinking remains irrational but becomes rather unconventional? Bring in ancient astronaut ideas and we could end up creating the idea that we no longer wait for the rapture, we have to prove ourselves by journeying to the alien gods for salvation instead. We know they orbit Sirius B, it says so right here in the scripture handed down to us by the Xenopope. So let's build our Space Ark and head off on our voyage of salvation!

We've become so used to the pragmatic evil of businessmen and bean-counting that we can sometimes forget humans do crazy things for other reasons. Space Ark as a pointless squandering of society's resources on par with the Pyramids.

jollyreaper said...

A lot of that is in human mass - Consumables for life support, workers shuttling to and from home to space, government inspectors, accountants, etc. But a lot of that is also infrastructure - Solar power satellites, Lunar structures, shuttlepods, drones and robots, monitor satellites, anything needed to support the SPS network and experimental Lunar mining systems. Robotic or remote-monitored infrastructure probably represents 2/3 of the investment, or close to $2 000 000 000 dollars of hardware zipping around in various orbits.

Why would humans be needed on-sight? That's the biggest question I've been wondering about. Telepresence seems like the real game-changer. A scenario like Avatar makes humans in space make sense -- lightyears from Earth, you need decision-makers on the spot. But if we were talking about mining asteroids for materials, would we be able to do everything remotely? Just how smart will our bots get? Current rovers aren't really autonomous -- we program everything they do, they don't drive themselves. But once we work out the kinks of asteroid mining, it would make sense for the robots to direct themselves. They know how to prospect, they know how to mine, they can call for help when they find a nice, big 'roid. Self-maintaining machines would be the game-changer. What would humans add to the mix?

jollyreaper said...

on-SITE. *facepalm*

Rick said...

Well, that is a really big question. The history of space travel so far is that robotic systems can do all the jobs Clarke assumed would require a space station crew.

Really, at this point there is no strictly practical reason to send people into space except to learn how to live and work in space Which is a bit circular, but presumes we'll eventually be doing more.

But I really don't see reason to send people into deep space just to run mining operations. Surely we can develop expert systems that can handle a round trip time lag on order of an hour, typical of the asteroid belt.

jollyreaper said...

Unmanned belt mining is just the start of this problem. If you think about where AI's would realistically progress past the mid-future and the complexity of spaceships, the logical end point would be something along the lines of the Culture. Their ships are run by AI's, have no need for a human crew, baseline humans are just kind of like pets.

So you might ask the question of why people would want to remain baseline humans. It gets down to the question of whether or not one can expand a living mind or whether the very process of growth and change would involve the destruction of what once was.

Gets me back to a famous old quote, "the adult is the corpse of childhood." Despite what developmental psychologists say about our basic personalities being set by the time we're five and not really changing, there are real differences psychologically between our child selves and our adult selves. A loss of innocence, a loss of wonder, a growing appreciation for the inability of our dreams to be made reality. And to a parent watching the child grow, the sweet young child may as well have died when contemplating the angry, hostile teenager now living in that same room.

Perhaps some baseline humans wouldn't want to upgrade the mind for fear of losing personal identity. The Orion's Arm setting posits that there's a whole spectrum of human-based life ranging from those who deliberately embrace paleolithic living to those trying to replicate a rustic farm life with a few modern medical amenities all the way up to people who were born as baseline humans and wanted to grow into AI gods.

But both settings, the Culture and Orion's Arm, they're clearly in the realm of Clarketech.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...


jollyreaper said...

From the spam post to this thread:

All and sundry knows that the people riding on the backseat in hack oftentimes allow themselves to move away true insubordinate if that the cab driver doesn’t descry them. Splendidly, what would you mark of a hansom cab equipped with a agent cam aimed entirely at the backseat? There is joined taxi cruising the hamlet like that – the ride getting filmed for Taxi Shadow Video!

Now I know what it would look like if Cylon hybrids wrote erotica. lol

Jim Baerg said...

I'll just note that there is element of space bubble to the series of books by Eric Flint & Ryk E. Spoor that starts with _Boundary_.

So far I have only read the 1st 2