Before cotton, for America it was sugar from the Caribbean sold to Europe, which created demand for food from America to ship to the Caribbean.

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Very good post. Excellent framing of this question. Sometimes framing is the hardest (most original) thing needed.

What I've wondered about the most is what would it take for space self sufficiency. The analogy here would be perhaps European relationship with American colonies in, say, 1600. Immediately makes me think self sufficiency would be extremely hard. Which in turn means we need to lower the bar. When would a colony in space produce something worth trading for with Earth? So reach a point of economic value (instead of exploration for its own sake, aka, not lose money). In American colony history, it was raw materials like cotton. But I suspect transport would eat that cost. Or maybe another way to look at it is how many factors of 10 in reduced transport cost to space would it take to make trading with space work? Space shuttle was $54,000/kg, Falcon 9 is $2700/kg, Falcon Heavy $1400/kb. And SpaceX Starship is quoting numbers like $270/kg.

Anyway, great post. I think most interesting near term is what price point of launch costs is needed to make economically viable to trade with space. Many historical analogies here with shipping costs over oceans.

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The Expanse is very overrated WRT what’s requested here, but Bryan Caplan reads OB and Bezos reads Caplan’s Twitter and funded The Expanse. Maybe Bezos would fund an Expanse competitor advised by Robin if this thinking was developed further and signal boosted by Bryan’s Twitter?

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You might consider applying for a grant from NASA to study this. They appear to have at interest in at least the near-term economics of space. See, for example, https://www.nasa.gov/sites/...

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Happy to accept these distinctions and this point.

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A couple of points:

First, "space" is not a single domain. There's about five different potential economic domains in space: 1) massive inner-system bodies where energy and heavy elements are easily available, but launch and travel energy costs are high; 2) small inner-system bodies which are the same but with low launch costs; 3) Earth orbit, which is "prime real estate" for things which will directly earn money; 4) icy outer-system bodies which have low launch and travel energy costs, lots of volatiles but few heavy elements, energy must be made rather than gathered, and both travel and communication take a long time; and 5) rocky outer-system bodies which are the same but have otherwise-scarce heavy elements. (The massive outer-system bodies are just too damn big.)


Second, because of travel costs in time and energy, as much economic activity as possible in "space" will be done as information. This suggests two keystone industries: science (which is currently dominant beyond Earth orbit) and virtual tourism. Any other economic activity beyond the Moon, say, will likely start out supporting those two.

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In this post I didn't have ems in mind, just a more general discussion of how econ activity varies with the parameters I discussed.

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Are you expecting people to do this analysis based off what you wrote in Age of EM? Because I don't see humans setting up large sized colonies before we get EMs or AIs. And the transition to EM offworld seems liable to be messy to me, but that's just a gut feeling.

Pehaps just assume that we've got EM civs on other planets and see how EM civs on earth relate to them? Travelling would probably only be done by the slowest EMs. Trade seems like it would mostly be in terms of non perishable resources, and maybe some slow EM cultural goods and services? Of course, we'd be colonising the sun first, so there'd be a LOT of room for ems. I guess we'd have a civ where most activity takes place off earth. That could be fun to look at.

Also I guess it could be interesting to just pretend we won't get those capacities first and see what socities should have been like in the SF of Pournelle or Heinlein's era.

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The chief consideration for a space economy is the extreme cost of moving equipment and people from place to place, especially the cost of climbing out of Earth's gravity well.

As a result, space is for self-replicating robots, and very few humans. A space mining operation needs to construct the majority of its equipment from materials found on-site, because of the cost of moving equipment from place to place. Self-replication may look like: you send a small worker robot, which builds a large factory from on-site materials, which makes more small worker robots.

Humans and their life support systems are too heavy, and space is too hostile to them, to make it profitable to send many.

If we want to get serious about colonizing space, the first step is to build robots that can mostly self-replicate on Earth. We should be holding prize competitions. The prize could be awarded to the smallest-mass "payload" that can be used to construct 100 robots each at a certain minimum level of complexity, using parts and equipment included in the payload and raw materials like those on Mars or the Moon. A lightweight solar-powered furnace for smelting or sintering regolith would be essential.

The competition scoring rules could also involve extrapolating the contestant's methods to find the mass of payload necessary to make 1 million robots. Smaller extrapolated payloads are better.

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