Let's say a future world where faster than light communication exists, but not faster than light travel. There is a desire to colonize other worlds outside the solar system, but it's massively expensive to put together a colonization effort given the expense of shipping things so far. 1A few have been done as part of what amounted to a space race between superpowers on earth, but once the 'race' was over and the major super powers had each colonized a world to prove they can no one seemed that interested in investing the time and expense to set up future colonization efforts.

In the absence of government spending entrepreneurs have stepped up wanting to fund such colonization efforts in hopes of making some future profits from them, or at least that's what I want to happen. The problem is it's hard for me to believe the expected return on investment for a colonization effort can ever come close to high enough to justify the cost, risk, and delay on repayment that comes with such an effort. I expect and plan for some of the expense of colonization to be covered by limited government investment and non-profits but I want a non-trivial amount of the cost to be covered by investors who expect to profit out of it, and I'm struggling to figure out how to justify these investors seeing a colonization effort as a reasonable investment.

Let's cover a few presumptions I have.

Costs of travel between worlds is prohibitively expensive.

Sending supplies or resources between worlds is rather expensive, that's the whole reason it's so hard to get the original colonization efforts funded. This means that it's unreasonable to expect a colony to send back supplies to the home world as a means to repay investment debts.

An information economy has been proven to be possible between colonies, but it takes a long time to get started

The first colonized worlds have demonstrated that FTL communication via ansible can lead to an information economy. Colonized worlds can produce 'information' both in the sense of sellable things like books, movies, games etc but also in terms of someone on a colony being paid to do something by people on the home world, any job that is done in front of a computer today, such as programming, designs, even call centers, could be done just as well regardless of what world the person resides on.

Of course this can't happen until people reach a colony, have a survivable settlement created, and have enough free time to begin to get involved in such an economy, which is to say a long time after the expedition has been sent.

Governments want to encourage colonization, so long as it doesn't cost them too much in tax dollars, and so are willing to make laws favorable to encouraging investors in colonization ships

Pretty self explanatory, the governments want to and will create laws that encourage investment in colonization, if I can come up with a good way for governments to do so....

An investment that takes a long time to pay dividends is acceptable, but requires a higher eventual return on investment to justify the opportunity cost

This is more an economic idea, but it's fine to have an investment that takes generations to start repaying, people will buy stocks and can still trade and sell stocks in the investment if they need money sooner, a long delay before an investment is realized is fine. However, while your money is committed in one investment it can't be making money elsewhere. For a long term investment to make sense you need to expect quite a bit more money to be repaid then original invested just to cover your opportunity cost of not investing elsewhere.

Between opportunity cost and risk the eventual repayment has to be massive to invest in colonization

Creating a colony is a huge risk, it could easily fail at which time a huge investment is lost. Between the original high cost of funding the colonization and how high the expected returns have to be to justify both risk and opportunity cost the amount of money investors expect to make back from a colony has to be so high that it could take generations for any tax or other means of syphoning money from the information economy to investors before a sufficient return on investment could possible be reaped to justify the original expenses.

A colonies grand children probably won't like paying this tax

And here is the problem. In theory this could all work, except what happens when the folks at the colony get sick of paying a debt their grandparents signed up for? How does a government trying to encourage colonization investment create a system for repayment that they can reasonable expect to last for generations when they can't exactly send soldiers to collect backtaxes if the colony refuses to pay?

Thus my problem. it just seems like the debt a colony has to generate just to be founded is so high that it's hard to imagine the debt ever being paid off. You would need a minimum of a 10% ROI per year - likely much higher considering the risk involved - to justify investing in starting a colony. If a colony isn't expected to start generating any noticeable income via the information economy for generations and in the mean time that original debt has been growing exponentially by a factor of 10% year after year your going to reach a point where the debt is so huge that a colony might very well struggle just to repay the interest on the debt even once they are active in the information economy. It could take many generations to pay off the original investment, and it seems likely that at some point the colony is going to revolt, refuse to continue paying, and somehow manage to default on that debt. So why invest in it? How can the governments incentivize investment to the point that it makes sense for a noticeable percentage of the colonization costs to be covered by investors?

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    $\begingroup$ What makes you think that there would be a single answer to this question? It seems like there are many equally valid ways to accomplish this. You also seem to be asking multiple questions, "Why invest?" and "How can a government incentivize investment?". Remember only one question per post. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Jan 11, 2023 at 18:16
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    $\begingroup$ @sphennings oh, the space of wrong answers is boundless, of course ;-) $\endgroup$ Jan 11, 2023 at 18:28
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    $\begingroup$ @dsollen, that's why I called it "a little" like it. With bank robbers, all you have to face is jurisdiction issues. With non-FTL colonies, you're up against the laws of the universe, and those are harder to find a way around. You're talking about attempting to extract income from someone when the round-trip time for your tax collectors exceeds a human life span. $\endgroup$ Jan 11, 2023 at 20:24
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    $\begingroup$ "Government wants to encourage colonization" Why? You need to figure out what anyone wants colonies before you worry about ensuring an ROI. (And once you have that reason, the ROI will probably be obvious.) $\endgroup$
    – chepner
    Jan 13, 2023 at 14:30
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    $\begingroup$ That's not a matter of ROI, then, because there may not be an ROI for the people making the investments. This is a matter of incentives to do it anyway. For example, the government could provide tax breaks for companies sponsoring colonization efforts. Somebody is going to lose money, because your reasons aren't about making money. $\endgroup$
    – chepner
    Jan 13, 2023 at 15:21

20 Answers 20


I feel like you're starting from the wrong premises. You've already established that colonies are impractical to monetize in a reasonable timescale, and due to the costs of interstellar travel it isn't like you can offload your population to the frontier. Capitalism makes a fairly poor driver for this kind of activity, and it isn't immediately obvious why governments would want to encourage colonization either.

I venture that the most likely driver for your colonization would be lust for power... the possibility of setting up your own world with you on the throne and unassailable from Earth. I'm sure you can think of several real-world billionaires with significant political influence who might be interested in being the monarch of an offworld colony. Wealthy religious cults might bankroll new distant theocracies. Autocratic rulers of nations on Earth might be interested in founding dynasties, and so on. Earth and the solar system are too close, to busy, too vulnerable to migration, sabotage or force. Other stars though? Get manifesting that destiny.

In theory this could all work, except what happens when the folks at the colony get sick of paying a debt their grandparents signed up for? How does a government trying to encourage colonization investment create a system for repayment that they can reasonable expect to last for generations when they can't exactly send soldiers to collect backtaxes if the colony refuses to pay?

The information economy works both ways. One does not build a world of billions from scratch overnight... terraforming and construction of habitats is always going to be a slow process (unless you've developed magical ultratech handwavium, but in that case why would anyone care about "investment" or "tax" anymore?) and as such the frontier worlds are likely to be consumers of Solar culture and technology for quite some time.. a truly mature colony that could stand alone might not even exist yet. Pay your bills, or we'll cut off the netflix subscription to your entire world, yea, even unto the seventh generation. What are you going to do? Beg the space Mennonites in the next star over for their soap operas? I don't think so.

Although difficult, it might even be possible have critical bits of infrastructure controlled remotely from Earth via ansible. Pay your bills, or maybe your power plants stop working. Your semiconductor fabs. Your pharmceutical bioreactors. Why would you make a home-grown tech base when the solar stuff is just that much better? Hell, it might be a licensing requirement that you don't pursue certain kinds of tech research yourself, and if the Solar System finds out you've been trying to slip your tethers then maybe your planetary communication net stops working and you're cast back into the stone age. Hydraulic despotism, but with software services.

Really though, wringing enough money out of them is probably impossible and your probably-sentient-by-now scifi spreadsheet equivalents will tell you as much. Just be content with spending money at home, and let the weirdo cultists build backwater "civilizations" too far away to ever be a problem. They have to buy their starships at home after all, and that should be profitable enough for now...

Incidentally, funding of interstellar colonies was a major plot point in Stross' "Neptune's Brood", which had the added constraint that FTL communication was not practical, but the civilization in question were humanoid AI who could freely upload their minds into new bodies. The financing of new colonies was likened to a financial scam, because ultimately in order to pay off your setup costs you needed to set up colonies of your own...

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    $\begingroup$ "Wealthy religious cults might bankroll new distant theocracies" A minor plot point in The Expanse. $\endgroup$ Jan 12, 2023 at 17:19
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    $\begingroup$ ...and a major one in Raised by Wolves. $\endgroup$
    – Dave
    Jan 12, 2023 at 23:59
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    $\begingroup$ Bonus points for mentioning Neptune's Brood. That's the example I was going to cite. The worlds of Altered Carbon are also like that. $\endgroup$ Jan 13, 2023 at 17:29
  • $\begingroup$ @RobertRapplean Altered Carbon also has some examples of how you might keep colonies in line, though I don't think there was any interstellar trade or even finance as such. It isn't clear how a rich person resleeving on a distant world might have any kind of money to do anything at all, for example. Maybe they just went for the old "socialism for the rich" approach. $\endgroup$ Jan 13, 2023 at 20:18
  • $\begingroup$ Broken Angels gets more into that. Their financial system hand-waves financial transfers between systems, presuming that the rich are rich everywhere. The limitation of influence in a system winds up being how well you can recruit manpower, and how much hardware you've accumulated in that system. Neptune's Brood does the financial end of it much better. $\endgroup$ Jan 13, 2023 at 21:22

Your investors are artificial intelligences.

They invest in lots of things. They are very rich. They are immortal. Some of their investment decisions are obvious. Others are opaque and some seem like plain bad decisions.

An AI might have reasons to invest in a colony besides the eventual monetary return. One has a model system which predicts a catastrophe on Earth making the colony more attractive. One has a colony which is actually a human eugenics project. One is fronting for many colonies to disguise the fact that it is prospecting for alien artifacts. One is sponsoring a colony to distract from its military ambitions on Earth. Three are just plain in it for the very long term and expect to come out ahead in the next century. Several more have reasons that are incomprehensible.

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    $\begingroup$ THIS IS BRILLIANT! $\endgroup$ Jan 12, 2023 at 1:07
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    $\begingroup$ "might have reasons to invest in a colony besides the eventual monetary return" 🤔 as a tax right off? 🤗 $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Jan 12, 2023 at 4:32
  • $\begingroup$ If you'd like an interesting take on this related to your question, check out Charles Stross' Neptune's Brood. It is a sequel to Saturn's Children but stands alone without requiring you read the first book. It features "slow money" and "fast money" as a financial system designed to accommodate finance at interstellar travel timescales run by (admittedly human brain derived) AIs. $\endgroup$
    – hatch22
    Jan 13, 2023 at 15:04
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    $\begingroup$ @Pelinore Your unintentional misspelling of "tax write-off" made me wonder what a society that surrendered constitutional rights to pay taxes might be like. +1. $\endgroup$
    – hatch22
    Jan 13, 2023 at 16:10
  • $\begingroup$ When I wrote my first comment about Charles' Stross' work, I hadn't seen @Eugene's answer, which makes the same point and has some useful links. Apologies. $\endgroup$
    – hatch22
    Jan 13, 2023 at 16:19

People have made lots of good suggestions about how to generate profits in the future. This suggestion is about how to reduce the cost of setting up a colony in the first place:

Have the colonists pay for it

There are always people dissatisfied with current society for whatever reason who would really like to strike out on their own.

People have done it for thousands of years, often at immense personal cost and overwhelming risk of death. And yet they did it anyway.

There will be lots of people who want to found a new society. Some of them will be rich. Some of them will be very rich. So sell tickets to this new world at a price that people will pay, that also covers a significant portion of the cost of the venture.

As well as selling basic citizenship you could also sell all sorts of other things:

Votes. Positions in the new world government. Power. Prestige. Naming rights. etc. etc.

There are 60 Million Millionaires in the world. There's several thousand Billionaires. Depending on where you set your ticket prices you might be surprised just how much money you can raise to cover the cost of the investment.

And the less money your corporation has to put up itself, the greater the return on that investment is going to be.

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    $\begingroup$ There are also lots of people struggling to escape local conditions who are willing to ransom every last cent they own and risk their lives in order to escape terrible conditions. Refugees, convicts, utopians, religious / cultural / ethnic outcasts have powerful incentives to go elsewhere... and in some cases the folks "back home" may put up money to help them go. Deteriorating conditions on Earth would provide further motivation... $\endgroup$ Jan 12, 2023 at 20:53
  • $\begingroup$ @SarahMesser exactly like most of the Euros and Asians who populated (most of) North America. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Jan 13, 2023 at 4:06

How will corporations ensure return on investment for funding slower then light colonization efforts?

Simple answer, they won't, and FTL communication isn't going to help change that.

Which is why corporations are very unlikely to be the ones funding and organising this sort of thing, so governments and non-profit NGOs are going to be the most likely groups that fund this sort of thing, the only way to ensure getting paid for this sort of thing is to get paid up front.

At the distances and travel times involved there's simply no way to guarantee continued political and economic control to insure payments continue to be made .. the new colonial government might choose to declare itself independent and all debts null and void at any time and there's nothing you can do about it if they do short of spending all the original costs all over again to send a second ship loaded with marines to insist, which doubles the cost with no reasonable certainty of success, basically it would be the ultimate sunk cost fallacy and no sane CEO would be likely to sign off on it, they'd be more likely to write off the loss and move on.

And that's without even considering how payments will be made, if it's really that expensive to go there in the first place there's no reasonable way to get goods back and forth that won't cost more than the goods are worth.

Your investors are artificial intelligences.

And even Wilks' artificial intelligences won't be able to get around that little problem, it's a nice idea but it doesn't solve the economics problem of moving things back and forth.

And if you can't exchange goods then there can't be any plausible intersect of their economies or their respective currencies that makes any sense at all.

The long and short of it is that even if you could ensure that they will send you payments each instalment would cost you more to transport than it would be worth.

So the only thing they'll be able to exchange is ideas and the only payment they can make for them is their own ideas.

Consider that a frame challenge if you must.


For any who somehow missed my answer.

the only way to ensure getting paid for this sort of thing is to get paid up front.

Get paid before they leave, don't give them the keys to their shiny new colony ship and its cargo full of colony startup supplies until they pay for it.

There really is no other way to "ensure" you get paid.

  • $\begingroup$ I think the question assumed there can be information exchanged between the planets, which could mean a potential for outsourcing of mental work. (But this only works if labor on the new colony is actually cheaper, which is doubtful for the first few centuries.) $\endgroup$ Jan 14, 2023 at 12:32
  • $\begingroup$ @PaŭloEbermann Yes I understood that, I even said it it won't help to prove that I'd noticed it 🤗, real people require real things like food to maintain themselves, any sensible look at the inevitable economics that results will realise that anything earned on the other planet will be like toy money earned in an online game by the equivelent of a wealthy westerner, you could gold trade it but it wouldn't be worth the effort. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Jan 14, 2023 at 13:05
  • $\begingroup$ @PaŭloEbermann .. continued .. there could be some entertainment value and a small amount of 'gold trading' the other worlds currency for your own among 'players' but ultimately it would be of negligible value to the home world and not a plausible vehicle for repayment of the costs of colonisation to an "investment company" back on the home world, you might imagine a government sanctioned company tax/kickback on any pay received from the other world that they can then 'gold trade' but the volume would have to be astronomical and it would take forever to get your money back that way 🤗 $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Jan 14, 2023 at 13:17

Something does not grow / occurr on Earth

Some "magic" resource / good, like Spice cannot be produced on Earth, but is found or suitable to be produced elsewhere, so colonies are the only way to reliably get it.

Colonies cannot use it themselves ...

Colonists do not receive the technology to process the good upon depature, so sending it back to Earth is the only way to profit from this asset. And since Earth controls all the technology (licenses & knowledge), colonies cannot re-invent or reverse-engineer too much of "Earth" technology in a "short" time (200-300 years), so they are better off trading blueprints or further shipments for it. Protip: The colony ship doubles as a transporter that can be refuelled after arrival & all the mining / growing equipment is included.

... but Earth hungers for it

Even if it takes decades / centuries to return, the products created from this resource are so valuable (powerful energy source, new medicines, better computers) that it is worth the risk, so stocks / options / futures for a colony are regarded as a "sane" long-term investment, growing more valuable the closer a "return" shipment is.

What are the risks?

Meanwhile, someone on Earth might syntheisze the resource, rendering the colonies worthless to Earth, like it happened with Rubber.

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    $\begingroup$ The resource doesn't even have to be magical or scifi. Economically speaking, it only needs to be sparse to the local envion (Earth). So literally any rare-earth metal that's found in abundance off-world will also qualify. $\endgroup$ Jan 13, 2023 at 17:57

Charles Stross in his novel Neptune's Brood has already come up with the most plausible solution to this exact question that I've ever come across




Corporations have multiple complex problems that could be solved by enough computing power

Even today there's a bunch of major problems that get groups to donate computing power from around the world to solve. For example the World Community Grid is seeking out computing power to unfold a number of proteins that cause horrible diseases. LHC home work to use group computing power to predict high energy interactions. AQUA tried to improve quantum super computers.

The corporations have a number of problems that need huge amounts of computing power, and in the solar system there's just not enough computing power to go around. A colony can rapidly produce a huge amount of computers and it can be exclusively devoted to a corporation's problems. Some of these problems are large enough that they're worth much more than a colony costs.

These corporations can grant enormous benefits to governments so the governments are happy to support them.

The colony doesn't pay any taxes, they pay in computing

The colony doesn't need to pay any taxes. They in fact get lots of free stuff, and regular new shipments of hard to manufacture parts and goods and information from the well established solar system. What they need to do is run computing problems on their existing hardware. So long as they expand and build corporation approved computing they're fine. It doesn't matter what ideology or race or religion they are. So long as they keep expanding and building and consuming the corporation wins.

The corporation has AIs and loyalists to keep the colony on track

While they don't have absolute control, they have sent a number of people who are loyal to the company, as tested by psychologists and experts in the human mind, and a lot of AIs in their computing systems who can monitor and intervene if needed. They don't generally care about the nitty gritty details of what people are up to, but if anyone endangers the plan to build more computers and power to fuel them then they can oppose them.

In return, these AIs and people get custom computer designed backup. The AIs get advanced software updates that make them leagues beyond any native AIs, and the people get the best in super computer aided genetic engineering to ensure they and their descendants are healthy and powerful and safe.

  • $\begingroup$ It's likely cheaper (per reached computing power) to set up a Dyson swarm here than do so on a remote planet. (Planets are generally not space efficient for this.) $\endgroup$ Jan 14, 2023 at 12:37
  • $\begingroup$ Which of the earth colonies do you suggest we destroy to make a dyson swarm in the solar system? Perhaps you'll kill everyone on Mars to fulfill your dream? Or maybe you'll smash the hard working miners of the asteroid belt? $\endgroup$
    – Nepene Nep
    Jan 14, 2023 at 14:34

I love this idea...

It just needs a bit of paranoia, which is very human, especially where corporations,1 governments, and activists are concerned.

This investment can not be thought of in any way other than long-term, multi-generational. Space flight in your universe simply won't allow any other kind of solution given the constraints you've listed. Cool!

Keep in mind, we here on Earth are moving ahead with space exploration today for many reasons, including the belief that as technology improves and discoveries are made, value will increase. That's a fancy way of saying that since FTL communications exist in your universe, it's only a matter of time before FTL travel exists. Even if that's never true, the subconscious belief will continue, and that's important.

Thus, I propose for your universe...

Government involvement is guaranteed

Your governments may have cooled on colonization after each colonized a planet or two... but to assume they don't want a piece of the pie is very, very optimistic. Planets are valuable, really valuable, and governments want the ability to control and defend that value. That value may be expressed in terms of strategic military, inherent mineral and agricultural, workforce (available for both civilian and military), scientific and cultural, and (of course) taxation. And governments want all of it. So your governments may be willing to provide some offsetting benefits for private companies to colonize planets, but they'd never let a private company own the planet.

That means every colonizing effort will include government-sanctioned bureaucracy and a military component, which will serve to keep the peace until the colony's growth allows for civilian control, after which it's there to protect the government's interests (and to defend against another government or private concern trying to take what the government thinks is theirs... the people, the planet, the minerals...).

Corporate involvement is also guaranteed

While some private concerns may exist that want to colonize other planets for nothing more than altruistic purposes,2 in reality, most corporations want a presence on those planets as badly as the governments do. Pristine planets are a great place to put dangerous research and manufacturing facilities (even with the sub-FTL velocities). Maybe even facilities that would (*ahem*) not normally fall completely within the scope of the homeworld's laws.

This kind of presence serves to protect the investment in multiple ways.

  • The corporation would always have influence over local government and local law.

  • The corporation would always have an influence over the local economy (if you're thinking about indentured servitude, you're not far off what I'm thinking).

  • The corporation could exert its own security presence.

  • The corporation could therefore have multiple streams of ROI revenue (repayment + research and/or manufacturing). If you think about it, an easy way to guarantee the investment is repaid is to not require payment from the colonists, but to own the mines and other businesses and ensure the payment is skimmed off the top. Of course, it would be repaid faster if you did both.

Legal Representation Societies would also want in

OK, that's a weird title, but let me explain. In fact, go read footnote #1. I'll wait. ... OK! Unless we're dealing with a nearly tyrannical homeworld government, you will have all kinds of groups who want to be represented for the purpose of forwarding their agendas. Groups will want to...

  • protect the colonists from abuse (by the government & sponsoring corporation),
  • protect the flora and fauna,
  • save the colonists' souls,
  • etc.

In a universe with practical (if very expensive) interstellar colonization, it's only prudent for the sponsoring corporation to allow those groups to be represented in the colonial effort... for a price. Said groups may successfully lobby the homeworld government to require their presence, but it's only reasonable that they pay their own way.

In other words, some of the investment will be offset by these third-party groups who just have to be there or the universe will be irreparably damaged tomorrow.

In the end, not only is the investment more manageable, but a multi-generational return on investment is possible such that the corporation can do it again

And that's the goal. It's an interesting thought that an arbitrary group of people could fire up a GoFundMe page to fund their colonization effort, but the reality is that the cost is so great that only the participation of governments and corporations can make it happen.

And now that there's a way to ensure a timely repayment of the investment. They'll do it. After all, with FTL travel only a dream of the future, there's so little trouble (*ahem*) greasing the wheels of civilization3 when you're that far out that it might as well be the corporation's planet, right?

1You probably want to consider the private interests in a broader sense than just corporations. But I suspect if you actually sit down and try to calculate the cost and logistics of colonization, you'll discover that large corporations are the only private entities who can make it happen. If you don't wish to believe that, it's OK. Just replace "corporation" with "private concern" everywhere in my answer. Works either way.

2Our own world strongly suggests that altruism would never be a predominant motivation for colonization. Not only would you have special interest groups fighting lobbying strongly for their chance to get the heck out of Dodge (religious fanatics, para-military groups, ideologues... even groups of college students), you also have all those politically-motivated groups acting in opposition to those groups: save-the-planet types who are sure every touch of the homeworld's population on pristine planets will permanently corrupt the universe or groups willing to do anything to keep a religion from spreading off-world. I'm speaking outrageously for a reason. We all know that there are groups on both sides of the so-called political aisle who would act for and against colonization. Your world would be unrelatable to your human readers (if not outright unbelievable) if they didn't exist.

3Just to be clear, it wouldn't be that hard to bribe the governing officials... just so long as the Federation gets its Piece of the Action, if you know what I mean.


An information economy will not pay for an interstellar colony if the people there work in call centers. What you need is some kind of information that can only be generated in the colony and not in our solar system. The most obvious example for such information is extraterrestial life.

You probably don't want intelligent life (also interesting but a very different kind of story) but something somewhere in the range from primitive bacteria to the equivalent of primitive mammals. What the colony does is just researching these local life forms. The government ensures that the company funding the colony gets exclusive intellectual property rights on whatever they find there.

Research into extraterrestial life is interesting as such but in order to fully monetize it you need some major application to life on Earth. I would suggest the hope for clinical immortality.

You see, these extraterrestial life forms are immortal, they just never die. We don't know how this works exactly but we do hope once we understand it we can apply the idea to humans as well. It is certainly high risk because we don't know when or how this will ever work for humans. But if it does it will make the company that has exclusive rights to this technology richer than anyone has ever been before.


Spin-off company

The colony ship is it's own company, and the investors come with it. You don't need to send stuff back to the home world; the investors collect their dividends and debt payments in person.

Due to time dilation, the amount of time until return on investment is much shorter as experienced by the investors.

The investors are likely extremely dedicated venture capitalists. Once the new planet gets it's own native venture capitalists (perhaps the heirs of the original venture capitalists?), they can invest in new colonies as well.

Alternatively, the investor could be some sort of Nonprofit corporation that is fine with "splitting" itself. The corporation still tries to grow, but does not pay back any money to human investors. (It's formation would require some sort of initial donations, which might be easier if it's a Mutual-benefit nonprofit corporation.)



Good public relations

Corporations currently do a lot of things primarily to raise their profile and generate positive feelings about their brand. They run feel-good commercials that aren't really about their products (in hopes that it will inspire you to purchase their products). They donate to causes, hoping that people will think well of their company (and buy their products). They promise to colonize other worlds (in hope that you will buy their products). (Well, most companies don't do that - yet.)

Environmental - Social - Governance ... Interstellar Colonization?

It is currently the rage among corporations to pursue a high ESG score. It's considered responsible to do so, and certain investors (often state retirement funds and the like, which may have political motivations in addition to their motivation to see a return on investment) give preference to companies that have achieved a higher score.

Do you have more women and minorities on your board of directors? That raises your Governance score. Are you buying carbon offset credits? Higher Environmental score. Do you support minority-owned businesses? That will raise your Social score. But what about your Interstellar Colonization score? What are you doing to raise that? Don't you want to be eligible for investing from CalPERS, to raise yourstock price and improve your corporation's credit?

If enough people, or enough powerful people, want corporations to invest in interstellar colonization, it will be done just for the sake of appearances (and ROI right now).


I feel like many of these answers are focusing on the wrong thing. If the “pull” of colonization isn’t there, start considering the “push” of colonization.

What if C53/Earth was a real shithole?

Overpopulation, constant crime and violence, all of the corrupt local Earth governments and their outrageous tax rates. Billions and billions of people desperate to get off-world. They’ll give you everything they have and then some.

That leads to two appealing narratives:

  1. The corporation isn’t colonizing other worlds so much as it’s a leveraged buyout of Earth. They’re getting whole cities at pennies on the dollar, then shipping off the riffraff to make way for some redevelopment. They can even get colonists to take on the debt for their own fares! And since colonization isn’t actually the end goal, they can skimp on actual starship costs to dangerous levels. As long as conditions on Earth are bad enough, people will pay.
  2. Profit isn’t just revenue. It’s also costs. Colonization might be a cost savings mechanism. Corporations don’t need to wait generations to realize cost savings immediately. Perhaps it is simply huge tax breaks they get for shipping people off world. Perhaps it is the rent and food and health insurance savings they get from putting a few million people into cryosleep (or otherwise convincing their employees to leave Earth’s crushing socialist regime). Colonization might be this era’s way of firing people who are a net negative to the bottom line.

Capitalism isn't really a good driver for this kind of undertaking.

The sole exception would maybe be a group of capitalists wanting to flee from "oppressive" governments by (themselves) fouding a new anarchocapitalist colony somewhere else. The return would then be not monetary but ideological.

This would also be what any not-fleeing investors get: Lobbying power. If the ancap/super-neoliberal colony succeeds, that would be a good argument for any remainers here on earth when lobbying the government for more deregulation/whatever ancap stuff is desired.

Given the insane amounts corporations already spend on bribery lobbying, "investing" in a better standing in future lobbying pushes is not too far-fetched.

Any investors leaving with the colony would likely spend 99% of their cash on it, since they can't really buy anything from Earth besides information (since sending material stuff after them is too slow and expensive), so a huge part of the funding could come from that.

Less sinister: Sponsoring

Sounds kinda cheap and tacky but still: Being the tech-company whose name is printed on every surface of the colonization vessel during the highly-televised start is a unique marketing opportunity in a world where ads all feel the same. It could engrain the name through repetition and display the power/sophistication of your corporation if you can build, manage and/or support a colony endeavour.

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    $\begingroup$ I totally agree sponsorship will happen. Not convinced that it would cover the majority of costs, but it's a good thing to include in world building so thank you for bringing it up. $\endgroup$
    – dsollen
    Jan 13, 2023 at 16:52
  • $\begingroup$ @dsollen yeah, looking back sponsoring will never be the main financing reason/source for such a big endeavour $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Jan 14, 2023 at 16:52

Long Futures Contracts

You fire off a load of colonists in a ship with some resources, get them to make landfall, survey the planet, and start producing resources, which will be fired back via slower than light travel.

In return, you send a steady stream of resources they can't easily produce back to them. If the outbound shipments from the colony stop, your inbound shipments can be told to change course or skip the colony.

To continually fund your venture, you sell futures contracts in the resources it produces - promising delivery of 200,000 tonnes of x rare resource in 200 years. These contracts could traded up to the delivery date.

A continuous stream of resources and contracts mean it doesn't really matter that it takes 200 years for resources to arrive - you've sold them already, and others could trade in them until their arrival. People would buy them expecting them to increase in value as delivery approaches, and trade them as the price of the resource goes up and down.

This is not that dissimilar to cargoes being sold while container or oil tankers are at sea.

The stock market runs on a similar kind of house of cards, and you'd have frantic selling and buying spikes each time a giant container of ore was about to arrive, but, y'know, dysfunctional late stage capitalism is nothing we on earth can't handle.

What would be interesting is what happens if the containers stop from one of the colonies - or if stuff gets destroyed, the container is filled with worthless rocks or similar. There's lots a colony can do to screw you as the investor over, and lots you can do to screw them over in return.

It'd be a high paranoia, high information, low overall control environment, with some chances for high profile sabotage or double dealing.

  • $\begingroup$ As stated in original question the expense of shipping is too high to make shipping resources back to the homeworld cost effective. Furthermore a colony is unlikely to be in a position to mine and collect resources until it's done creating a safe and stable colony, they are going to need most of those resources for starting the colony before they can be expected to produce much of value. If the colony were really 200 years away then you are going to have to ship new resources to the colony over 200 years before the first colonization ships have even arrived. $\endgroup$
    – dsollen
    Jan 13, 2023 at 16:50
  • $\begingroup$ This would be a really good answer if it weren't for OP's constraint that the profit can't be about shipping physical resources back. (However, I am bookmarking it for a project of my own that does include interstellar shipping.) $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Jan 13, 2023 at 19:56
  • $\begingroup$ Ah, dammit, my reading comprehension was poor in this one - nevertheless, I really want to build a game based on it - it's got wonderful possibilities for some serious paranoia. $\endgroup$
    – lupe
    Jan 14, 2023 at 11:44

Life expectancy is huge

If a civilisation has a FTL communication, and can colonise other star systems then it is safe to bet people, especially rich people, tend to live a long time. Possible centuries. So waiting a long time for return investment isn't such a big deal, as people who can live for centuries would have a different look on what a long time is.

Tax break

If the government gives tax breaks (just like they do today for charity donations) that would definitely make people donate their wealth into funding colonisation effort. Especially as it would be an ultimate bragging right in high society. Just like the rich used to fund public libraries as vanity projects it is definitely possible to upscale that to funding colonies.

Exclusive rights to intelectual trade

Since only viable economy in an information economy (as everything material that a colony could supply can drastically easier be found in this solar system), the best way for return on investment would be exclusive rights on that information. So only the corporation can sell offworld information on Earth. Taxation itself doesn't really make sense when you trade information and only information. But exclusivity... And don't fear that it would take a long time for a colony to produce any sellable information. By the time Earth will be able to colonise other star systems the population of this one will be enourmous, most likely with dyson sphere well on its way. So it won't be that hard to sell even low quality data, if it's from offworld. For example, live-stream of setting up the colony! That would probably be quite popular reality show!

Funding colonisation effort is not all that expensive

The most likely solution to your problem is that the thing isn't all that expensive in the first place! The majority of expenses were R&D, which was already done! The second greatest expense would be colonists themselves, but with by then huge population of our solar system it shouldn't be hard to find volunteers. As for ships: when you have the orbital infrastructure in play - and by then it WILL BE in play, constructing a ship is not all that expensive. You have enourmous amount of raw material in asteroid belts, so with automated mining drones material cost will be insignificant. Keep in mind that automatisation makes everything really cheap. Just look at cost of iPhone for example. Cost for production is really small, majority of cost it R&D and marketing. Neither should be an issue for colony ships.


Maybe consider alternate methods of collecting the investment payback.

Perhaps the colony does not profit anything, but the billions of people reading the news articles and purchasing colony supporting merchandise do.

Alternatively, is the life of a colonist interesting? Could it be made into interesting media like a reality TV show?

Is there substantial political interest in these colonies? Maybe the political engagement puts the investors into a strong lobbing position for a somewhat unrelated objective. Perhaps even a conspiracy.


Privacy is the most valuable resource

In the future where this happens, most of Earth's wealth is in the hands of just a few hundred trillionaires. These people are playing a very long game.

Each of these demigods has used their wealth to rewrite the laws in their home country to ensure that all their private property will pass to their children. And, of course, they will be quite long-lived themselves because they have access to the best medicine and are protected from every kind of harm.

About colony debt...

Having thus done everything needed to entrench themselves as permanent dynastic rulers, their goal is now to ensure the long-term survival of the species they now dominate. After all, it's no good being captain of the ship if the ship is doomed.

So, probably the most important reason they fund colonization has nothing to do with an economic goal: it's to ensure there are humans somewhere who will survive if Earth becomes inhospitable. Their funding is not offered as a loan that requires repayment, neatly avoiding this concern of yours:

[colonists] get sick of paying a debt their grandparents signed up for

Colonists won't be saddled with any kind of debt. They get paid to go. Some of them are paid even more to become impregnated (or implanted) with a trillionaire's child before departing Earth.

About colony activities...

It is virtually impossible for an Earth-bound government to exercise meaningful control over a distant colony. They can send agents and get email reports on a regular basis, but if the agent meets with an accident or becomes seduced by the demigod's own people and cooperates to deceive Earth, Earth won't know it.

As a result, the distant world is a de facto dictatorship ruled by whoever was empowered as administrator by the funding demigod. (That empowerment probably takes the form of admin credentials that are recognized by the many critical computer systems used by space ships and colonization technology.)


One of the first things the demigod will do is try to relocate their Earth-bound office work to the colony.

Land on Earth will be expensive and in short supply, so there will be a strong incentive to move that work to the colony and then put the land to other uses, such as luxurious residences for the demigod's family, or agriculture.

So, over time, the office workers on Earth will be fired and their tasks re-assigned to somebody on the colony, until the office building can be demolished and the land repurposed.

The science of domination...

Another key focus for these colonies will be scientific research that must be performed without government knowledge.

Contrary to a lot of popular sci-fi, this isn't likely to be in areas as viscerally offensive as genetic engineering or weapons research. Much more likely, it will be social sciences aimed at exerting control over massive populations.

You see, each of these demigods wants to rule all of humanity, not merely a chunk of it. And they also need to maintain control of their remote colonies, and they'll want their heirs on Earth and on the colonies to have control when the time comes.

So, expect lots of psychological and sociological experiments that would never be permitted by an Earth-bound ethics committee, all loosely organized around the goal of manipulating populations: at large via mass media, and on an individual scale via design of homes and workplaces and other things.

It is critically important to note that the fruit of this research is extremely valuable, but not because it will be sold on the open market as a commodity. It's all essentially weapons research, but these weapons are all being developed for the exclusive use of the trillionaire who paid for the colony, and will be deployed against the people of Earth, the residents of colonies owned by this demigod, and (if the opportunity presents itself) the residents of colonies owned by others.

Media creation

People on Earth and colonists alike will have an unslakeable thirst for fresh content: TV shows, music, humorous video essays, and pornography. All of this can be created off-world. And since the colony is a dictatorship, there will be all kinds of horrifying ways that the colony can be more selective about choosing the people who will be filmed.

On Earth it would be unthinkable to literally breed attractive people to be actors. A demigod could do that trivially (as could a real-world dictator).

The fact is that every distant colony has one thing in ample supply, a thing which often acts as the "limiting reagent" in the Earth-bound schemes of powerful bad people: extreme privacy.

The prohibitive difficulty of travel between colonies is precisely what makes the colony so attractive, because that hurdle acts as an insurmountable privacy wall that cannot be pierced by the forces of justice.


It's an asset bubble

Go back to 1998

In 1998, the dot com boom was in full swing. Companies were sure that having a big internet presence would ensure massive profits. Early on, someone reasoned that the companies that spent more of their capital efficiently on internet investment would have far more future money ships dock with them. This turned into the infamous "burn rate"; otherwise sober investors would look at how fast a company had burned through its entire capital stock and the faster it was, the better! There arose an entire industry of "internet related" expenses, complete with thousand dollar chairs that any "reputable" internet firm had to have. And bear in mind, $1000 in 1990 was a lot more than it is now.

Needless to say, choosing companies based on how fast they burned capital in order to dominate a future market with no obvious path to monetisation could not last. The dot com bubble burst.

Corporate fads, asset bubbles and unaligned managment/shareholder incentives

The dot com bubble is far from an isolated example. Tulip fads, Darian, the South Sea bubble, 1980's Japanese real estate, the 2009 GFC, you name it; asset bubbles have been a thing for centuries and will be again.

What they mostly or all feature to begin with is:

  1. An unrealised future source of revenue
  2. A popular zeitgeist that says that the future rewards will be immense
  3. Easy credit with low interest rates and/or patronage
  4. Regulators with vested interests or ideology that prevents them taking effective action.

And often: 5) Management that becomes convinced that they can defy economic gravity 6) Management/shareholder disconnect through unaligned incentives.

You get a few years of rising asset prices that defy the skeptics and make them look silly. Then the bubble refuses to pop. The few remaining skeptics suspect that there's some sort of ongoing loss going on but they remain quiet after having made investors miss out on initial gains. Mass FOMO kicks in; the rising prices themselves become the reason to invest. At that point, like a Ponzi/pyramid scheme, the bubble must continue to grow until its credit lines are exhausted.

Bubbles in space

Earth has to support 14 billion people, and other than the Sahara Nexus, there hasn't been a data centre with over a million square kilometres built for centuries. On other planets, that's not the case! Imagine the competitive advantage colonising Persei VII will give your cyberinformatics division! Not just millions of square kilometres but zero competing signals and every building has been built to allow ultra high powered antennae next to them!

Also, the Socialist Party pushes for space colonisation because they dream of workers utopias and because the head of Persei Corp is gay and makes regular progressive utterances ever since his book "The New Reality of Business" became a bestseller, while the Conservatives slogan "Business First, Business Second, Business Third" says it all. Interest rates have remained at 0.4% for decades and the Central Bank Commission says the days of expensive credit have ended forever. Children's comic books once again feature space colonisation (minus the word 'colony').

Persei Corp's shares have beaten the market for 7 years now, and their debentures are offering a staggering 13.5% with a double Alpha credit rating. Other space companies are doing well and have been doing so for longer. The critics are embarrassed that their readers didn't double their money and have found other targets. 9% for 7 years? Even if that drops to 5%, you still beat the market. Management will all sell their shares in a few years but no one knows that yet....

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Sorry, Buddy: Earth does not have to support 14 billion peeps… unless, of course, you can explain how that could be possible. Can you, or not? $\endgroup$ Jan 14, 2023 at 22:53
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @RobbieGoodwin Wait until you discover there's no such million square km data center called the Sahara Nexus! I'm illustrating one somewhat tongue in cheek potential construction of the environment in which an asset bubble can occur. Substitute/alter/delete any particular detail you think is dumb in your mind, I really don't care. $\endgroup$
    – user86462
    Jan 15, 2023 at 7:11

Redundancy (hedging)

No large scale project like this would be without redundancy either within the ship or from sending more smaller ships instead of one large ship. Is it as risky as you say it is? It's already been proven to work from the superpowers space race. (The marketing team could also spin out a lie of how inefficient and wasteful that previous effort was)

Bringing the cost down

Anything which reduces the size of the ship will massively reduce cost. Instead of sending expensive resource using many humans, why not send some robots, a DNA library and some sort of artificial womb or growing tank? Almost certain some enterprise is going to try something like that to compete with the big boys.

Sending out a tiny probe with a laser powered "solar" sail that could reach the destination in mere decades would be another great checkbox in bringing down the risk/cost. These prospecting companies could then sell the rights to good locations on to the colony ship companies.

It's a long term investment

Assuming a similar success rate to a modern rocket launch.

A colony ship is the dream investment, a financial investment good for 100s if not 1000s of years. That's longer than countries or many businesses. In profile it's somewhere in-between a country's bond (low rate of return but stable over many decades) and a bio-tech company's stock (high up front cost, and a binary success or failure).

Compare that with financial crisis, revolutions, inflation, corporate bankruptcy and war that investments at home are in risk of, once in flight a ship is per year is a lower risk of failure than many businesses.

Even if the ship will eventually end in an unexpected failure even if the mission success rate was a similar rate to that of a 20th century rocket launch, the failure chance per year would be low over a 20-30 year period.

Ideal for trust funds of billionaire investors want to found their own dynasty, great even if their descendants are a lot less savvy investing.

Bonds and futures

The risks decrease as the mission progresses, so the value will tend to rise over time as milestones are overcome, but fall suddenly after bad news (a profile much like biotech companies on the stock market).

Use of long term bonds and futures, anyone with capital can cash in or out at any-point from the start of the mission. No investor has to see to the completion of the mission only that it reaches a key milestone. The home-world doesn't get a scheduled transmission, the captain goes on a mad rant or some diagnostics report looks bad, the value of those speculative derivatives plunge in value.

Crew who prove themselves to rise to unexpected challenges or just as the ship gets closer to the destination the derivatives rise in value.

This gives rise to the potential of fraud where an investor pressures one of the crew to make the ships prospects look bad, buy cheap derivatives and then profit when the market learns the ship is actually okay.

High risk, high payoff

The value of an established colony will eventually be enormous, what is the GDP of a planet? Also it will grow at an exponential rate (or even higher with a good design).

Black balling with restricted communications

The payback tax could be pretty modest (spread out over 100s of years) and to stop colonies from leaving tie it in with the communication. Oh so you don't want to pay tax? Say goodbye to your internet connection to the other worlds. It's a lot worse than saying goodbye to space netflix, you no longer get the licence and designs for technologies and designs for your factories. The colony's scientists isolated will no longer be able to keep with with the rest of the collation of worlds.


I'm not sure how well money is able to flow from the colony to the homeworld, without some weird inflationary affects. After-all The colony might be booming but the homeworld with a lack of raw materials (and limited trade) would struggle to get resources regardless of how much electronic money they have. Either the resources of a solar system as so vast it doesn't make a difference, or they would have to create a new class of money good only for information or digital art and not physical assets.

  • $\begingroup$ "It's a stable long term investment" you've stated this as a fact, without actually establishing why it is so. Given that the question is is actually about what a lousy long term investment this sort of colonization is, I feel that you're gonna have to work harder on that point. $\endgroup$ Jan 13, 2023 at 13:07
  • $\begingroup$ The fact in the OPs description that government superpowers have already been able to undertake such ventures suggests the risk isn't too extreme (a failed colony would be bad PR, so a failure rate would probably similar to a 20th century manned space program). The ships also travel at sublight speeds. They either fail or reach their destination and are worth a fortune due to an entire world/solar systems worth of resources. While en route the ship will be practically immune to revolutions, economic crisis and many other things that would risk a terrestrial investment. Will expand on it. $\endgroup$
    – Alex Dawn
    Jan 13, 2023 at 15:50
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "and are worth a fortune due to an entire world/solar systems worth of resources" the wealth of the target systems resources cannot be realized by people who didn't travel there on the colony ships, and it is exceedingly unlikely that there's anything there you can't find at home for much less investment anyway. All that's left is an information economy via FTL communication magic, and to get money from that you may as well have kept all the colonists at home, right? $\endgroup$ Jan 13, 2023 at 16:40
  • $\begingroup$ That would be indirect, the colonists would benefit from the resources, while the homeworld would benefit from the information economy from a colony of billions. The relative investment costs depends on how heavily developed the home system is and how cheap or expensive orbital habitations end up being. Sooner or later someone is going to compare the cost of an orbital hab and an orbital hab with shielding and an engine. $\endgroup$
    – Alex Dawn
    Jan 13, 2023 at 17:21

Whether or not that’s what you want, why not accept it’s clearly true that here on Earth in the 21st Century, entrepreneurs have stepped up wanting to fund colonization efforts in hopes of future profits? What are your doubts about that?

In terms of the Question, why not first explain preferably how a world exists with faster-than-light communication, but not FTL travel and failing that, how that might matter here?

Ignoring slips like ‘it's massively expensive to put together a colonization effort given the expense…’

How do you reconcile that with a few having been done as part of a space race, but once the major powers had each colonized a world to prove they could, no one seemed interested in investing further time or expense?

Are you saying the ‘few having been done’ were solely for political or propaganda purposes, to be achieved at all costs, or something else?

When it's hard for you to believe the expected return on investment for a colonization effort can ever justify the cost, what are you comparing that to? When you want a non-trivial amount of the cost to be covered by investors who expect to profit, what results d’you think they’re expecting, that you doubt?

When you’re struggling to see colonization as a reasonable investment, why not compare the cost of NASA’s moon landings to the amount women in the US alone spent on lipstick during any given year in the lunar programme? Why not compare the cost of the moon landings with the domestic benefits of non-stick saucepans developed directly therefrom, let alone other uses of Teflon and its ilk?


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