What Makes You Want to Invest in Interstellar Travel?

28th January, 2022.      //   Space Travel  // 
Little boy drawing a huge rocket on the wall.

Little boy drawing a huge rocket on the wall.

With one thing in common, Alien, Avatar, and Passengers are science fiction blockbusters. The plot is based on the business strategy, not the wages of the principal performers. Long excursions into space to deliver anything to or from Earth are crucial to each film’s plot.

The ship’s crew is pulling a refinery back home in Alien. Materials from another planet have been stockpiled in the refinery. In Avatar, where the exomoon Pandora is mined for a material that has immense value on Earth, the topic of resource exploitation is explored. A firm named the Homestead Corp. maintains spacecraft that transport thousands of people on one-way flights to populate other planets, and Passengers has a similar idea.

Although science fiction aficionados will have no problem suspending belief about the technology imagined in each of these films, fans with a keen eye for profit may be left scratching their heads.

Simply put, there’s a cause. The trips in these films, as well as others with comparable plots, are thought to take decades to complete. Each one-way voyage in Passengers, for example, takes 120 years, and here is where the problem lies. Because of the time it takes to repay any initial investment in the endeavor, the business model that underpins these films—and many others—is unlikely to be feasible in such a short period of time. This is significant because it sheds light on how interstellar exploration is likely to develop in the future.

I spoke with filmmaker James Cameron, who wrote, directed, and produced Avatar, to learn more about it. The plot rested on the assumption that the mineral mined on Earth was so precious that it made economic sense to send it back, according to Cameron, and the film is more of a parable about how humanity have treated Earth. “The best thing to bring back would be data—about new genomes, materials, etcetera,” Cameron adds, and he’s right—sending data to Earth could provide tremendous value while also eliminating the need for a ship to deliver physical items.

Even financing a project that returns data rather than tangible cargo, however, has investment horizons that would make hardened long-term investors uneasy—even more so in an era where corporate longevity is declining. This is because since 1970 the average life of a company in the U.S. has nearly halved. If this trend continues, will any organization in the future survive long enough to be able to invest in projects that will outlast the average company?

Leslie Hannah, professor of Economic History at the London School of Economics and Political Science, points out that today it’s even hard to fund projects that have a 20-year payback. Hannah acknowledges there are some businesses operating today that have survived for hundreds of years. In the finance sector one of the largest of these is the British banking firm Barclays, which can trace its origins back to 1690.

Despite the existence of such organizations, Hannah “cannot think of a historical precedent” for the investment cycle that would endure a payback cycle with the duration imagined in popular science fiction movies. The closest parallel he cites is building the Suez Canal, which was entirely privately funded. The structure of the Suez deal meant the project would provide small returns over a long time frame, but shareholders had a relatively fast payback. When pressed about government funding, Hannah says that although nations can borrow at very cheap interest, there have been “lots of ups and downs about the fashion of investment of governments.”

Currently one of the most forward-thinking government investors is Singapore, which regularly considers long-term investment cycles. Gareth Wong Wei Han, a group director in Singapore’s government-linked portfolio company, Surbana Jurong, one of Asia’s largest urban, industrial and infrastructure consultancy solutions providers, says that even with this mind-set, “80 years is a really long time horizon.”

Given this, is it feasible to assume that space exploration in the future will take a form that’s favored by Hollywood?

Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal (among many other prestigious roles), expects this century will see a golden age of space exploration by small robotic ships that cost relatively little. He maintains, “the practical case for manned spaceflight gets ever-weaker with each advance in robots and miniaturization.” Cameron agrees that small, self-replicating machines are likely to be the model that succeeds for travel into deep space.

Regardless of the physical form of space exploration—and whether or not it includes humans—the timescales are still daunting. For context, in 2017 a series of Earth-size planets were discovered. Astronomers considered these to be relatively close. But even so, a ship traveling close to light-speed would have an 80-year round trip. Travel at this speed would require a fundamental change in the laws of physics. But with the current pace of technological development, it is far more likely computers would become as capable as a human brain before light-speed travel is (if ever) perfected.

Artificial general intelligence (AGI) machines that can “think” might be ideal for interplanetary travel. They would probably be lighter than humans and would not be concerned about the long-term viability of space flight or the maintenance of life-support systems. However, this begs the question of why an artificial intelligence would desire to go on a mission that benefits humanity in the first place. Incentivize spacefaring computers by giving them a stake in the earnings, according to Cameron.

That sounds like a fantastic plot for a sci-fi film.

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