Imagine someone plans to build a gas station far out in an isolated desert. They plan to sell gas and snacks to the truck drivers who come out to deliver gas and snacks. Want to invest?
No? How about if they also sell gas and snacks to passing explorers, out there to signal toughness? Yes, explorers won’t look as tough if they buy gas and snacks from your station. But if the station can lure enough not-so-tough explorers, maybe you’d want to invest.
How about if they also plan to dig oil wells and an oil refinery to make the gas they sell, and a hothouse farm and food processing factory, to grow food for the snacks they sell? How about if they plan to run all this entirely by robots? This plan would make me even less likely to invest. After all, you’d need even more customers to justify a larger scale operation, and I had doubts about enough explorer customers to justify a simple gas station.
This is my reaction to the recent news that some famous investors will spend millions trying to mine asteroids (see here, here, here). Their first product would be rocket fuel to sell to passing NASA rockets. I’m skeptical that NASA wants to buy enough fuel to cover their costs, and I don’t see a flood of other customers eager for robot space gas stations. This new firm also talks about shipping metals like platinum back to Earth, but that seems even crazier anytime soon.
To explore this general issue, let us imagine Tube Earth. While our Earth is a sphere of rock with a 40,000 km circumference, Tube Earth is a very long cylinder of rock with a circumference 1/6 as large, to give it the same surface gravity as Earth. Tube Earth also rotates 24 hours in a day, and has a sun nearby. The closest spot on the tube to the sun is its “center,” which has Earth-like average surface temperature and seasonal variation. There would be less local temperature variation, as all nearby parts of a tube get the same sunlight.
A length of this tube about twice Earth’s circumference would have about the same surface area as Earth. Imagine that an area of this size held a mix of land and water similar to Earth’s continents. Imagine also that more such clusters of continents are spread all along this tube, spaced roughly twenty Earth circumferences apart. In between is mostly open ocean, with a few small islands.
The tube slowly gets colder millions of km from its center, as those places are further from it sun. Life is spread all along the tube, but so far humans and civilization have only evolved on one near-center cluster of continents. It would take an old style (~12 knot) sailing ship about 4 years to travel in a straight line from one cluster to another, and it would take a jet airliner about 40 days to fly there. Both would need refueling along the way.
My big question here is: how would history, and economic growth, have played out differently on Tube Earth? With all that land out there to colonize, how much more activity would be dedicated to spreading out across the tube? How far would be the furthest flag, subsistence farming town, and modern industrial city at any one time?
My guess is that Tube Earth would look a lot more like our Earth than most space colonization fans expect. Explorers would not have even reached the nearest other continent cluster until the 1800s, and even now there’d be only a few small colonizes there, mostly practicing subsistence agriculture. A several year shipping time would make it very expensive to import modern equipment, and greatly discourage the shipping of mining minerals or farmed food back to the central cluster. Mostly they’d work harder to get more minerals and food from nearby mines and farms.
By 2010 Tube Earth would be lucky to have one monthly airline flight to the next cluster, and a very expensive but welcomed internet connection. Lots of stories would take place there, and it would offer an escape for well-off religious or political refuges. But overall it wouldn’t matter much, because of its huge transport costs.
The key point to note here is that other continent clusters on a Tube Earth are vastly more hospitable and easier to reach than the nearest asteroids or the Moon are from Earth. And the rest of the solar system is even worse. So if other continent clusters would by now matter little for a Tube Earth, asteroids aren’t going to matter much on Earth for a long time to come.
Added: Karl Smith calls it “Invest for Prestige/Get Conned”