When Did the Future Get So Boring?

SYNOPSIS: A reflection on the economic uses of outer space -- virtually none

It shouldn't have bothered me when Iridium, the satellite-telephone company, filed for Chapter 11 protection. I have no current plans to visit the Gobi Desert, and my GSM phone works everyplace but central New Jersey. But it did. I grew up believing that I was living in the Space Age. So it's a shame that outer space has been a letdown; 30 years after the moon landings, we now know that it was one small step for man, one expensive photo op for mankind.

Oh, space has its uses. Communications and weather satellites pay their way, the Global Positioning System is nifty, and we all sleep better knowing that our eyes in the sky keep watch on the bad guys. Unmanned probes continue to add to scientific knowledge, albeit at fairly stiff prices. (The Cassini probe, currently on its way to study Saturn's moons, reportedly cost $3.4 billion--more than 100 times the annual National Science Foundation research budget for economics. But I guess from a cosmic perspective, things like global financial crises are trivial.) Still, the future of space travel isn't what it used to be.

What happened to the Space Age? Well, the technology of getting out there has remained disappointingly clunky; 40-plus years after Sputnik, we still need huge, multistage rockets to put even a small payload in orbit. Innovations such as lightweight new materials and more efficient engines may bring down the cost of orbital insertion, but as long as we depend on chemical rockets to get into space--and nobody seems to have a serious alternative--neither Carnival Cruises nor UPS is likely to get into the space business.

Even if space transportation were cheaper, it's doubtful whether many people would be settling the new frontier. Submarines are cheaper to operate than rockets, but the domed undersea cities that I saw at the 1964 World's Fair haven't materialized either. I'm sure they could be built--but who would want to live there? The days when hardy pioneers were ready to tame the wilderness are over--not because we're wimps (although of course we are), but because the economic incentives aren't there.

After all, what motivated the pioneers who opened up the American West or the Australian Outback? They were looking for resources: cheap land for the most part, but also minerals and lumber.

While the modern world still needs resources, it needs only a handful of people to extract them. Indeed, barely 3% of America's work force is engaged in farming, mining, and all the other activities that require people to live where Mother Nature put the resources. For the rest of us, economic opportunity is mainly in the established centers, where the big markets are. In the terminology of economic geography, the "centripetal" forces--the economic incentives to live and work in established centers, where other people are clustered--have become more powerful than the "centrifugal" forces, the incentives to move away. Never mind the new frontier: we're actually retreating from the old frontiers. The Great Plains are emptying, and there are proposals to return hundreds of thousands of square miles to the buffalo.

This retreat from the frontier is one reason satellite telephone systems like Iridium seem to be an idea whose time has passed: Because population and economic activity are increasingly concentrated in dense metropolitan areas easily served by terrestrial cell phones, the market for a go-anywhere system is small. (One of Iridium's big markets was supposed to be workers on offshore oil rigs, but it turns out that even though a lot of oil comes from the deep sea these days, there are only a couple of hundred offshore crews worldwide.) And if few people find it worth moving to the sparsely populated regions of Earth, it is hard to think of any reason we will ever settle outer space. Maybe one of these decades we'll mine the asteroids or something, but the work will be done mainly if not entirely by machines.

If you read the promotional literature NASA circulates or the musings of space-travel enthusiasts, you get a sense that they want to believe that the colonization of space is imminent, but that they are struggling to find reasons anyone would want to be a colonist. The latest idea is that orbital space habitats may be the ultimate gated communities, which wealthy retirees may choose for the low gravity and security.

Maybe--but outer space as the next Miami Beach is not exactly what I had in mind as an adolescent. The truth seems to be that Out There is not a very interesting or useful place. If we want new frontiers, we'll have to find them down here on earth--maybe even in central New Jersey.

Originally published in The New York Times, 9.27.99