Making Money in Space; The Future of Space Exploration; Scientific American Presents; by Alpert; 4 Page(s)
In 1975 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration sponsored a study to design a commercially viable space station. A team of scientists and engineers proposed the construction of a giant wheel, nearly two kilometers in diameter, orbiting Earth at the same distance as the moon. The station would hold 10,000 colonists in a habitat tube running along the rim of the wheel, which would revolve once a minute to simulate Earth's gravity. The colonists would breathe oxygen derived from moon rocks and eat food grown on the station's 63 hectares of farmland. The study estimated that the station would cost nearly $200 billion in 1975 dollars, which is equivalent to some $500 billion today. But the authors of the study confidently predicted that the station could pay for itself in 30 years through the assembly of enormous solar-power satellites.
Needless to say, the development of space has not lived up to this ambitious plan. The International Space Station, if it is ever completed, will hold only seven crew members and generate negligible income, certainly not enough to cover its $40-billion construction cost. NASA still hopes to strike partnerships with companies interested in manufacturing in zero gravity; the agency is trying to sell research modules on the space station to pharmaceutical, biotechnology and electronics companies. But even NASA officials admit that commercial interest has been cool. So far the only space industry that has proved to be a rousing success is the satellite communications business. Driven by the strong demand for cellular telephone service, companies such as Motorola and Loral Space and Communications are investing billions of dollars in new networks of satellites flying in low-Earth orbit [see "New Satellites for Personal Communications," on page 96].