Most space geeks agree that the best way to build large structures in space – like, say, a huge settlement – is to use space manufacturing to build them from raw materials found in orbit. Common knowledge says this method will be cheaper and more efficient than how we’ve built space structures in the past: by just launching everything up from Earth.
But what if the common knowledge is wrong? What if it now makes sense to launch everything up from Earth?
Many people embraced space manufacturing because launch costs were previously way too expensive to launch something as big as a space settlement into orbit.
But launch costs are dropping. With the Space Shuttle, it used to cost about $10,000 to send one pound into orbit. SpaceX can do it today for $2,200 per pound. Increased competition and developing technology mean these decreases are likely to continue. Both SpaceX and the United Launch Alliance are testing renewable launch technologies. Billionaires Paul Allen and Jeff Bezos are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into advanced launch techniques. In the next five years we may break the $1000-per-pound-to-orbit barrier.
What will that mean for space settlement? If launch costs drop to $1000 per pound (or lower) could we manufacture space settlements on Earth and launch them up? Rather than having to wait to develop mining and manufacturing in orbit?
What if launch costs fall to $1000 per pound? Or lower?
This Orbital Life acquired the designs for a conceptual ‘next generation of space stations’ that is, essentially, a proto-space settlement. An e-book will be released shortly outlining the details of this space settlement (stay tuned for that!). However, for the purposes of this article, this design is a good proxy to test the idea of launching space infrastructure from Earth rather than building it in orbit. This first generation space settlement will mass 2,548 metric tons. At current rates, a structure of that size will cost $11.9 billion to launch. At $1000 per pound, it will cost $2.6 billion to launch. At $100 per pound, the price drops to $255 million to launch.
Considering it cost about $35 billion to launch the $100 billion International Space Station, we can (very roughly) estimate the cost to build the design described above at $32.6 billion, including $1000 per pound launch costs. Or, to use the price estimate in the forthcoming e-book, this space settlement will cost about $60 billion. Could the space manufacturing strategy do it for less? And in less time?
Could we build and launch a small space colony for less than $60 billion?
What’s likely to occur is a combination of both strategies. Some space structures will be launched from Earth and some portions of future space stations will be derived from orbital raw materials. Exactly how that balance is struck remains to be seen, but it’s nice to have more than one option as we continue to build up the human presence in outer space.