Space exploration accelerates now after decades of boringly intermittent progress, driven by private corporations setting up new industrial business lines. SpaceX and Virgin Galactic show us brilliant successes and dramatic catastrophes as they race to commercialize space and to make a lot of money from it. Boeing leads the race to provide new commercial crew transport systems for the International Space Station. Specialized space companies also proliferate to support, supply and service these efforts.
The serious side of space commercialization focuses on industrialization and manufacturing. The idea is to make stuff in space from other stuff we find there, and then sell it to folks back on Earth. Deep space is where the raw materials are to be found and where the mines and factories will be built. “Deep Space” spans the volumes above near-Earth orbits and reaches out to the edge of Jovian interplanetary space. It includes the Moon, Mars and the Asteroid Belt.
Space exploration and development will become increasingly automated and
roboticized. Space workers will always be necessary, however. One reason is to minimize communication time lag during construction, teleoperation and troubleshooting tasks in deep space. Some tasks just require personal attention. But who will be the new astronauts?
Astronauts, mission directors and mission specialists are currently chosen from candidate pools on the basis of meritocracy. That is, only the “best and brightest”, or perhaps in some cases the richest, persons ascend to space worker roles. This makes a certain amount of good sense, considering the cost and complexity of the systems being operated by these people. But will this practice continue to provide a ready pool of qualified labor needed for large scale deep space development?
Think of all the tasks and organization needed to build a new city, mine or factory. Buildings and structures will be constructed, water and atmosphere must be generated, food must be grown and prepared, communication networks must be set up, rovers will be driven, and waste should be removed. Even if you feed workers with 3D-printed pizza, for instance, food service workers will still be needed somewhere in the chain of social interdependency. In order to establish a going concern in deep space, you will need many people having many different special skills, coming from all backgrounds and different education levels. So it’s plausible that the future astronaut corps will show a more egalitarian mix than it does today.
Big ideas require big labor resources. Labor must be trained to be skilled. Space exploration and development is a huge endeavor, attempted so far only by big governments with huge resources. A sufficient skilled labor pool has yet to be educated, however, for long-range undertakings like space commercialization. Innovation is needed.
The key factor is to employ new educational technologies as they emerge and mature. Examples include Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and online games and simulations. Advance planning is also essential: defining space worker roles, establishing curricula and delivery systems, and defining certification and accreditation criteria. Developing a trained space workforce will be the limiting factor along the critical path to deploying deep space systems, so we should begin now.
Space entrepreneurs might consider implementing training systems modeled after the US military. The US military training commands do an excellent job of assimilating massive numbers of entry-level personnel from extremely diverse backgrounds and educational levels into a unified workforce having the necessary skills variety to competently accomplish every task defined for each individual. After essential skills training, individuals may advance into other areas based on capability, drive and aptitude. Senior workers are encouraged to follow advanced education to further their personal aims in life. The whole system is scalable to respond to rapid expansions or contractions in force strength.
To be worthwhile, an enterprise as big as deep space commercialization must be self-sustaining. It needs to last a long time to earn enough to cover costs, reinvestment, and profits. It must also be survivable, returning workers home to Earth safe and sane.
Developing sustainable deep space operations will require the hardest work is, accomplishing the most complex tasks; but it also contains the most opportunities and rewards. The big tasks include building infrastructures, supply chains and logistics to move raw materials to manufacturing, and products from manufacturing to markets. One reason this will be difficult is that no one has yet set up a self-sustaining enterprise employing human beings in space, with the possible exception of the International Space Station.
Trillionaires will make their fortunes in this arena, and quadrillion-dollar corporate revenues will be generated. The greatest risks and rewards will be realized here. This is all going to be very, very competitive. There may be blood. Counterintuitively, perhaps, there should also be enough opportunity to share all round.