By David Pring-Mill
The following text has been excerpted from the Policy2050.com analysis “The NewSpace Economy: Preparation and Risk Management,” which is available as a free download. To support this innovative research or contribute to future papers, join our Deep Tech membership.
The current space era is characterized by self-landing (VTVL) rockets and proliferating satellites that service increasingly robust connectivity. Yet even this is underwhelming compared to the “optimistic scenario” established in a 1970s report by the Hudson Institute, commissioned by NASA, according to which “asteroid miner” should already be an occupation (perhaps even one of the identified “skills gaps” defining the labor market).
The Hudson Institute authors can be forgiven for entertaining this scenario prematurely, given the euphoria of a moon landing just under a decade prior to their publication, the sociopolitical criteria they laid out, the “optimistic” classification, and the perhaps innate tendency of our species to err wildly when dealing with predictions or probabilities. Ironically, though, the report began by differentiating its own hypotheticals from “relatively undisciplined” science-fiction premises and asserting that fanatical or “pie in the sky” speculations might even be counterproductive.
Some science-fiction writers maintain that they’re on the same page, more or less, contending that their genre offers the most utility, beyond entertainment, when it’s analogous to a thought experiment – a technique that surfaced some of Albert Einstein’s most brilliant revelations in theoretical physics, no less. Scientist and science-fiction writer David Brin argues that great science-fiction ponders the possibility that conditions might deteriorate despite our sincere best efforts or that we might succeed despite active malevolence. This draws upon the patterns of human history in a manner that could be labeled “speculative history.” Such conceptualizations allow us to probe the path we’re heading down with the walking sticks of our imagination, he suggests, so that we may detect any landmines, traps, or disasters strewn ahead. George Orwell’s “1984,” for example, caused people to gird themselves against the realization of a dystopian “Big Brother” scenario. What unknown dangers lay among the stars, and what’s the best pathway?
Opposition, Wrong Turns, and an Underachieving Tech Sector
Prior to the 1969 moon landing euphoria, social activists and even some scientists, especially those whose R&D domains were bound by gravity, opposed or only tepidly supported the space program because it increased and diverted government expenditures. The emergence of a commercial space industry also brought about opposition and ambivalent views on specific players as well as the risks and merits of privatization in space.
In 2010, Neil Armstrong and other esteemed astronauts suggested that a bipartisan, carefully developed plan for NASA was wrongly abandoned in favor of a new one, with Armstrong testifying: “a plan that was invisible to so many was likely contrived by a very small group in secret who persuaded the President that this was a unique opportunity to put his stamp on a new and innovative program.” Armstrong subsequently felt that the intentions behind his criticisms were mischaracterized by the media. More recently, in 2022 and 2023, SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet constellation gave mercurial billionaire Elon Musk leverage over how Ukraine defends itself against an illegal Russian invasion. Despite these controversies, the Pentagon was able to work out a contract with undisclosed terms.
As is well-known in Silicon Valley, SpaceX founder Elon Musk is connected to Peter Thiel through their mutual involvement in PayPal. Thiel, an outspoken billionaire venture capitalist, has addressed the issue of an under-achieving tech sector relative to previous, quite literal, “moonshot” ideas. In fact, he turned his phrase “we wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters” into a tagline at his VC firm (a reference to Twitter’s brief status updates).
At a Stanford Business School guest lecture in 2022, Thiel rallied for reform. He suggested that technocratic benchmarks could be imposed on the university system, but hyper-specialized academic disciplines restrict who is able to, or allowed to, critique progress or lack thereof. He noted the retraction from futuristic scenarios sketched out in the 1960s, when the phrase “technologies” conjured up impressions of computers, yes, but also rockets, supersonic aviation, the green revolution in agriculture, underwater cities, new medicines, etc. He remarked, “And when we use technology today, it just means information technology, and I think that’s kind of a tell that we have a narrow cone of progress around the world of bits.”
Technological stagnation and diminished enthusiasm could be attributed to excessive regulations or economist Tyler Cowen’s theory that the figurative low-hanging fruit has already been picked. It might also be linked to cultural and psychological changes that include rampant anxiety, social isolation, and passivity. Thiel views the “dystopian turn” and “dual nature” of science and technology as a particularly impactful restraint. “Change” has developed negative connotations. It can be hard to separate creative and destructive powers, as epitomized by nuclear technology, which is a concern now seeping into the AI/AGI space, rapidly turning even transhumanists into Luddites. However, reining in technological progress through totalitarianism could pose the greater danger.
Thiel dismisses optimism and pessimism as representative of “bad forms of psychotherapy” on which society has “overdosed.” Forecasts of one extreme or another tend to overshadow human agency. Thiel dismisses the humanities as “ridiculous” but suggests for the sake of “a relative argument” that at least it’s a predictable prelude to being unemployable as opposed to the highly competitive, under-resourced sciences, which might lead to more career jolts.
From a lack of pandemic preparedness, in terms of public health but also foundational layers such as EdTech, to the looming threat of climate change, the fundamental under-achievement or misalignment of the tech sector has become increasingly conspicuous, even as its pace accelerates. And yet, in his lecture, Thiel seemed more concerned with critiquing academia than another possible causal factor: investors themselves, investment structures, and the fiscal policies that shape relative opportunity.
For instance, in “The Flaw,” a documentary that conducted a post-mortem on the 2007–2008 financial crisis, including the role of predatory lending, economic historian Louis Hyman suggested: “The reason why the money, this capital, gets allocated into consumer debt and gets allocated into mortgage debt is because it actually pays, has a better return, than investing it in businesses, than investing it in factories or things that make things. And it’s this simple banal calculation that’s behind all of this. It’s not some greedy Wall Street banker. Wall Street bankers and all capitalists are always greedy, that’s the basis of our entire system. It’s that the opportunities for investment are different than they used to be. And that a dollar put into credit card debt, or into mortgage debt, makes you more than a dollar put into a factory.”
As space technologists, working in new capacities, create new tools and infrastructure to explore or monetize “the final frontier,” probable timelines and even regulatory authority will remain elusive or disputed. With emerging technologies and startups scanning the NewSpace economy, identifiable technical risks, such as on-orbit collisions, can be mitigated. We can glean insights from past space programs and launches, as well as the “walking sticks” of our collective imagination.
The full analysis, titled “The NewSpace Economy: Preparation and Risk Management,” is available in our open-access section.