How Space Won't Be Commercialized
Space commercialization is currently being discussed at The Laughing Wolf. I have wondered if technical progress might have caused the collapse of the classical dream of space commercialization (asteroid mining, etc.). In classical scenarios we need asteroid mining to deal with resource shortages. It has turned out to cheaper to use materials more efficiently and extract them from lower-grade ores. If technology had stayed at a 1960 level, we would use more minerals, extract less, and see major shortages. Asteroid mining might pay for a few materials and that would create economies of scale. At the same technology level, many of the communications, weather, or spy satellites would have to be manned. It might be cheaper to supply them from space so asteroid mining might pay even for common materials. The power supply would have to be nuclear and we might even have an orbiting fast breeder reactor similar to “Blowups Happen.”
On the other hand, in this timeline it's cheaper to extract minerals from the six hexillion tons of Earth, satellites don't have to be manned, and the people who might have given us the planets have given us the Internet etc. instead.
I'm reminded of the following quote from “Bounded in a Nutshell” by Charles Sheffield:
The first stars were coming out, twinkling softly through the mellow haze. Somehow they looked a little dimmer and farther away than before.
There are alternative scenarios for space commercialization. Space services are sometimes profitable … except they don't currently call for much human involvement. Space experience (e.g., tourism) are likely to be slow to develop and highly unpredictable. Worst of all, they are likely to involve mundanes.