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Resources and Development

Dennis Wingo argues in favor of resource discovery and extraction as the proper focus of space exploration efforts:

Starting with water and oxygen on the Moon and the exploitation of high value metallic asteroid impactors on the Moon, we can shift the economics of the hydrogen economy, lowering the cost of fuel cells and delivering thousands of tons of high quality metals for use in building up lunar and space based commercial operations. While Platinum Group Metals (PGM?s), indispensable for efficient fuel cell operation, are known to exist on the Moon in diffuse quantities from the Apollo samples, it is only through prospecting with the right sensors from orbit and follow up Landers that we will expand this resource base.

I’m currently reading John Steele Gordon’s excellent Empire of Wealth, which offers an interesting parallel from American Colonial history. According to Gordon’s account, the initial settlement of the Americas was clustered around three resources, and which resource and who exploited it had effects on the economic development of the hemisphere which linger to this day.

  • First was the purely exploitative colonial efforts of the Spanish and Portuguese, who — instead of PGMs — exploited the gold and silver of Central and South America.
  • Second were the French, who exploited the fur trade of what is now eastern Canada.
  • Third were the British — the second-son aristocrats and their dirt-poor indentured servants — who, having missed out on the gold, silver, and furs, founded the Virgina and Carolina colonies, whose resources were rich soil and a climate perfectly suited to tobacco, the then-new granddaddy of cash crops.

What is interesting to note about these three exploitative modes of settlement, with respect to the future settlement of the Moon and Mars, is that the exploitation of one or another natural resource is great for getting the colonization process going, but eventually the market gets saturated, driving down the price with often catastrophic economic results.

As with the Gold Rush, the real money (and long-term economic viability) is to be had in selling supplies and services…in Gordon’s example, in producing the tools and machinery required by those doing the exploiting, handling the trade in the commodities they produce, and working those commodities into finished goods for export/reexport — the path followed by the comparatively resource-poor “middle colonies” such as New York and Pennsylvania.

It’s not at all unusual to read an essay promoting this element or that isotope as the Sure Thing, the one resource whose exploitation will lead to the settlement of space. Unfortunately, it is exceedingly rare to read about what might come next — the creation of a stable, economically-diverse economy in space, versus colonies devoted merely to the extraction and exportation of raw materials to Mother Earth.

[Hat tip: Rand Simberg]

1 comment to Resources and Development

  • Bill White

    My own long held prejudice is that until we send settlers, who intend to stay forever and bear children out there, we simply will not be a spacefaring species.

    Lunar mining and tourism may “prime the pump” but unless those activities transition into settlement, the real dream remains unfulfilled.

    As any good mother will tell you, in the long run, life is really all about the children. And Mars simply is the second safest place in our solar system to bear and raise children. The Moon? Well okay, but only for practice. /Snark