Predicting the Future

There’s always another project buzzing around in my head, always a new series. Something I’ve been planning for a while has been to try another science-fiction series, and I’ve been struggling for ages to come up with something that wouldn’t be too similar to the adventures of the Battlecruiser Alamo - and given that I intentionally designed the setting to be able to accommodate a wide variety of stories, that has proven rather difficult. Nevertheless, I’m actually beginning to make some progress now, and as a result, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking…

Something that sparked this off was a story I saw on the news a few days ago, about an apartment in New York that had sold for $100 million - a large part of which was based on the view of Central Park. (I admit I was slightly underwhelmed, though the idea of spending that sort of money on an apartment boggles my mind.) What it did tell me was that one of my beliefs for the future is going to come to pass.

We’re going to colonize space. And soon.

Privately-operated orbital spaceflight is coming by the end of the decade. Sooner, if Congress gets its act together. (So, the end of the decade it is, then.) That’s going to unlock a hell of a lot of possibilities, notably the Commercial Space Station. Right now, in orbit, there are prototype modules floating around, and at the moment the primary hold-up is the lack of a means to get there. Very soon, that’s going to be solved. I’d guess that the first commercial space station will follow the first commercial launch within twenty-four months - after all, there has to be somewhere to go to!

Initially, we’re talking tourism. Spend a week in orbit for millions of dollars. That won’t last long. If someone is willing to spend $100 million on an apartment in New York, someone will be willing to spend the same amount of money on an apartment on a space station - and there will be people willing to buy it. Octogenarians hoping for a better quality of life, places where you don’t have to pay tax (has anyone worked out how that’s going to work, incidentally? Who owns a commercial space station? Be interesting if the first Commercial Space Station flies a flag of convenience…) ex-dictators seeking sanctuary…

Science-fiction? Today, but not tomorrow - and I almost mean that in a literal sense. All of this implies a significant infrastructure, of course, and that will follow immediately. Cooks, cleaners, hell, escorts. How many hotels have permanent residents? I can see that happening on the first commercial space hotel, and I can see soon after facilities where that is permanent. (Did I mention security? Where might be a safer place for a billionaire’s kids to grow up than a space station with rotational gravity?) Hell, don’t rule out prestige!

One of the key problems with the exploitation of space has been the lack of a maguffin, for want of a better word, but we’re getting to the point that it is now right there. The ability to have a self-contained world that is secure, protected, and tax-free. (I don’t think the IRS can afford its own space shuttles.) The cost will be accessible only to billionaires - at first - but that will change quite quickly. We’re not far away from true spaceplanes, and that takes the cost down by an order of magnitude. Cost savings from bigger orders of launchers, manufacturing larger numbers of station modules - the price will go down quite quickly.

Looking forward fifty years, I can see a surprising interest in space. Stations in LEO serving the asteroid mining companies, research (Harvard has an endowment of $36 billion-plus. Twenty years from now a space station will cost a tenth of that - and make its money back by selling access rights to companies and small universities. Someone will do it.) Others simply for habitation - people who don’t want to go back to high-gravity. It doesn’t even have to be zero-gravity. Rotating space stations are a lot easier at Martian or Lunar gravity - enough to work with, to mitigate problems, without exposing the residents to any problems zero-gravity poses.

The Space Age has not yet begun, not yet. We’re totally dependent - don’t make any mistake on that - on the orbital satellite constellations. Without the comsats, we’d have a disaster, to say nothing of GPS, weather satellites, a thousand others. (I’ve another theory on that - I think that Clarke’s notion of three big stations in GEO could happen yet. Makes a lot less space junk than the current system, and man-tended facilities could solve a lot of problems, especially if they are servicing a lot of satellites.) Nevertheless, we’re only on the fringe of things at the moment

For me, the tipping point will be the spaceplane. Or at least a truly reusable launch system, something you can run like an airline. The heavy booster is going to be with us for a long time yet, but the ability to book a flight into space is going to make all the difference. You aren’t cut off from Earth if you can be back home in a week. Or a day. That’s coming, at long last - even if Skylon isn’t it, it’s pointing the way. Shuttle was an idea a couple of generations ahead of its time.

Glorious days ahead, then. Unless you are an SF writer worried that the future is about to leave his books behind, of course!

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