[ExI] Thoughts on Space based solar power (Dyson & habitat costs)

Paul D. Fernhout pdfernhout at kurtz-fernhout.com
Sat Nov 22 13:28:15 UTC 2008

hkhenson wrote:
> Freeman Dyson killed people doing space habitats on their own.  Read the 
> chapter in Disturbing the Universe on Pilgrims, Saints and Spacemen.  In 
> short Dyson made the case that going into space was 10,000 times to 
> expensive.

Looking at that chapter again right now, writing around 1979, Dyson said the 
price of homesteading the asteroids was potentially comparable per person to 
the colonization of North America by European (from O'Neill's figures).

You are correct in that he brings up a figure of $96 billion for a first 
"Island One" taken from O'Neill's work and says it is "a preposterously 
large amount of money to spend on any single enterprise" and then goes on to 
say it would have to be a government project as a "superhygenic welfare 
state"; presumably the figure would be closer to $250 billion in today's 
dollars with inflation (guesstimate). And that is per person, as you say, in 
the range of 10000X what the other ventures were for small numbers of people.

Dyson does say at the end of the chapter he expects the costs would be in 
the middle.

I'm not going to disagree with you about the politics of the time or Freeman 
Dyson's role in that (I just don't know).  It's true to my knowledge that 
Freeman Dyson can put down in a disrespectful(?) way the people who would 
occupy the first space habitats (though he would say the same thing about 
the early European pioneers). But I can't say he is completely wrong about 
that either or completely right. As a child of immigrants, I can say any 
sort of first generation immigrant is often leaving their home for, at the 
very least, complex social reasons (often for reasons of war or bad economic 

Still, even if everyone interpreted Freeman Dyson's writing in the way you 
suggest, is he is to blame for all of the public's lack of imagination or 
Congress' (especially Senator Proxmire's) lack of imagination?
"To build Mass Driver II would require more funding, but before NASA could 
approve it, Wisconsin senator William Proxmire got wind of O’Neill’s space 
colonies idea. Famed for his “Golden Fleece” awards for government spending 
he deemed wasteful, Proxmire went on television to proclaim “not another 
penny for this nutty fantasy.” NASA quickly pulled the plug on all its space 
colonies projects, including the Mass Driver."
Senator Proxmire seems to have been more of a stumbling block in many ways 
(or NASA's lack of backbone then).

But I do know that around 1984 Gerry O'Neill called *me* a dreamer :-) for 
suggesting to him a push for self-replicating space habitats instead of his 
idea of a slow economic expansion into space based around capitalist 
ideology. A big effort then and we might have had then by now. Instead, I 
gave *him* money. :-) And it is clear that Gerry O'Neill's writings do take 
capitalism as a given, and while he talks in "2081" of abundance, he really 
doesn't go very far down that road of what the possibilities are. If a space 
habitat can mostly self-replicate (as a "clanking replicator"),
the initial cost can be a one time investment for endless space habitats. 
Further, one could possibly construct and launch a self-replicating seed 
factory to the moon for maybe in the neighborhood of a billion or so dollars 
(launch plus construction) -- if we knew how to make one. The thing is, we 
don't know how to make one yet. This 1980 document is still the best we have 
in some ways, and it is very incomplete:
   "Advanced Automation for Space Missions"
Obviously, people have done stuff since, but how much further along are the 
public and free versions of designs?

Once you have an automated infrastructure in space, say, on the Moon, it 
could in theory even ship spacecraft (and even SPS energy :-) to Earth for 
ferrying people from Earth up to space. Although we don't need that.

But, in any case, we are just now spending about $3000 billion on a 
counterproductive war in Iraq. And about a trillion dollars has been 
allocated so far for a "bailout" which is apparently going to questionable 
ends. So there is lots of money sloshing around in the USA for ideological 
reasons. Who would notice $250 billion more at this point? :-)

Also, a flow into foundations of $55 trillion is expected over the next few 

That is two hundred times what it would take using only 1970s technology. A 
couple percent of charity can't go to giving humanity a new dream?

And TV watching is consuming 2,000 Wikipedias per year:

So there is plenty of spare mental capacity.

Maybe things were different in the 1970s, but least *today*, no one should 
seriously suggest the absence of money or time for R&D and deployment is the 
problem for making either Spaceship Earth (Sustainability) or Space habitats 
work for everyone, even at the same time. It comes down to issues like 
ideology and imagination, not "resources".

$250 billion for a first space settlement is only a tiny fraction of these 
financial flows. And even millions of person-years of design effort is a 
small fraction of the idle capacity of humanity over the next decade. What 
is stopping us now, if anything? I'd suggest nothing is stopping us except 
Newtons First law of motion: "Unless acted upon by an outside force, a body 
at rest tends to stay at rest, and a body in motion tends to stay in motion.".

--Paul Fernhout

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