Recently many of the developments in rocketry and launches have been from private entrepreneurs. These, however, have been funded by billionaires who made their money elsewhere (Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson) and they are mainly selling into the well established communications satellites market – and the means to establish this were initially developed by states, with prestige and military considerations uppermost, in the same way that the original internet was developed by the US military.
Making money en route to developing space habitats, will only contribute at the margin. It will be a long and expensive process, before there is any significant return. The only realistic means to do this is with state funding. Even in this short termist age of capitalism and democracy, however, states have other motivations than profit.
I doubt that the first phase of manned space flight, in the 1960s, would have happened without the Cold War. The USSR, very much the second superpower at all times, and with a well developed inferiority complex, gained a huge amount of prestige from both the first orbiting satellite and the first manned spaceflight. It was of course an opportunity for both sides to develop ICBMs, but the main driver was national egos. The American riposte was the Apollo programme, which while it achieved its objective (and no, it wasn’t faked…) cost over $100 billion, adjusted to today’s money values, and the economic value was minimal. After the end of the Cold War the US stepped in to fund the Russian Mir space station, and many nations have now co-operated on the International Space Station – yet manned flight has not really progressed beyond Apollo 11.
Could another Cold War arise, which would drive another round of manned space development? One can construct scenarios, such as tension in the Pacific escalating to the formation of the New Allies (US+Japan+ASEAN) versus the New Axis (China + Russia); certainly the Chinese manned space programme seems to be mainly driven by considerations of prestige, with military aspects probably in the background. A full blown new Cold War seems improbable at present, despite evident tensions, with the main cause of global conflict the Muslim world, which has neither the means nor the desire to establish a space programme.
Fortunately one does not need the extreme and dangerous levels of tension of the pre 1989 Cold War. In an increasingly multipolar world, the normal levels of competition and suspicion between states or alliances of states may suffice. Even between so called allies - a major motivation for the EU to develop the Galileo global positioning system is not economic, but to reduce dependence on the US’s GPS system. All the major powers have space programmes (USA, EU, Russia, China, Japan).
Then there are strategic risks. A salvo of missiles would be enough to knock out GPS – to the discomfort of the world, but to the even greater discomfort of the US military. A space station with an anti-missile system would be a protection against this, but that in turn would need to be protected, leading to a space arms race. While war is the most ghastly human activity it does tend to stimulate technical developments; one must hope that, as in the 50s and 60s, conflict short of global war will do the same.
Thus states will commit to long term space programmes, with motivations beyond short term economics. That does not necessarily mean developing space habitats, although when one country does it, it will spur others “We must not let our enemies dominate space!”. To kick start the process, one needs another motivation, to be discussed in the next post.
A Critical Path