Moonshot entrepreneur Elon Branson funds a migration to space. Instead of spending billions of developing safe space technology, he instead finds volunteers and shoots them in to space with no plan to get them down. If they can figure it out, they become a new civilization, if they can't they die. Being superbly human, and very interested in survival, the colonists cling on for years before mastering their environment and thriving.

The technological situation is this:

  • There has been no great advance in space launch technology.
  • Rockets are still very expensive, its hard to get things into and out of space.
  • The colonists are almost completely self-sufficient by now.
  • They drag small stray comets and asteroids to industrial stations for materials.
  • They build habitation and agricultural stations, mostly in the vicinity of Earth (HEO, Moon orbit, Earth-Moon L-points) using the materials from the comets and asteroids.

Details on capabilities

The colonists have perfected the engineering of plasma rocket technology like VASMIR or MPD, and developed effective, lightweight deep space radiation shields. They can make space tugs with ~10kN net thrust and a delta-v of over 100 km/s; they can move 1000 tons between Earth/Mars in about 200 days, to Saturn in about 2 years. They use 0.75g gravity by spinning habitation stations, and most of their agricultural/industrial production is done by robots.

Other than the stuff mentioned above the technology level is mostly the same as today. Computing power is greater but, having reached the limits of Moore's law, is not exponentially greater than today. The numbers of the colonists are in the hundreds of thousands. Habitat stations are in the 100m-1km range with a few thousand at most living inside. Most live in stations around earth, but colonists are spread around the solar system on various expeditions. They stay out of gravity wells, and try to avoid building/fueling the chemical rockets needed to get off even medium sized moons. Their industrial capacity is advanced, with lots of cutting edge 3-d printing technology. Their agriculture is self sufficient, but expensive to expand (since it means building more stations)

The questions

Launching things into space is expensive, as is sending things from space down to Earth (in way so that it survives its descent). In light of this:

  • What trade would actually occur between the colonists and the Earthlings?
    • What would the colonists most want from Earth?
    • What could the colonists make/obtain more cheaply than could be found on Earth?
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    $\begingroup$ Adding lots of numbers and specs does not add anything to a question like that. It just obfuscates it with facts that are irrelevant to the question. Just sayin'... $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 14:11
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    $\begingroup$ The numbers are to bound any potential answers. I want people to be able to extrapolate from a few numbers to get a better gauge of the technology level we're talking about. Some of them are extraneous, but some are useful. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 14:15
  • $\begingroup$ No they are not relevant, not when the rest of the question is adequately confined. And do note that it is for your benefit I am saying this. Mucking up questions with conditions and restrictions that do not add relevant information to the question leads to less and/or worse answers. :) $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 14:19
  • $\begingroup$ So...if some dude figured out how to cheaply shoot people into space, I would imagine we can also apply that to things. And if I'm already in space, I think building part of a shuttle craft for re-entry only should be relatively cheap (but I'm no rocket scientist, maybe one can comment). What am I missing? $\endgroup$
    – Pork
    Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 15:25
  • $\begingroup$ @Pork The premise is that people are not being shot cheaply into space, a few were shot up in the beginning, established a society, and anyone who can come up with $250,000 can migrate up to join them. Sending things to earth on a shuttle is not cheap either. Each shuttle is a one-shot vehicle since its too expensive to re-launch, and each shuttle could only carry a couple hundred tons, I think. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 15:29

9 Answers 9


What can the colonists offer?

  • Rare/expensive resources: Fancy-sounding metals, materials that can only be made under zero-g/vacuum conditions, ect. For example, solar panels are very difficult to manufacture on earth because they require a vacuum chamber to be forged in. Importing cheap panels via drop-pod would make sense.
  • Space-services: Satellite construction and repair, observation time in observatories, scientific experiments, the works. Not hard to imagine them getting a multi-trillion dollar contract to maintain and upgrade our satellite network.
  • Scientific outsourcing: Earth-borne researchers can request experiments to be run in space-borne labs. Compared to today, the experiments would be cheap, easy, and far more numerous because of their availability.

But what can earth offer the colonies?

  • Information: New patents, Programs, basically anything you can send in an e-mail. Earther engineers can't build the ships, but they can design them. Earther programmers can make the software that runs the colonies ships and stations. Instead of outsourcing IT to another country they can outsource it to another Planet.
  • Entertainment: Movies, music, games, TV shows, and VR tours of national parks. Basically anything to distract you from the fact that you live in an air-tight tin can. Constantly being on-guard for life-support or power-plant failure means spacers won't have the free mental energy to do this for themselves.
  • Luxury food: Livestock farming just doesn't make sense in space - you can't afford to feed a cow 500 pounds of grain for 1 pound of meat. Spacers will probably pay a premium for delicacies with exotic names, like "Scrambled eggs" and "Beef"
  • $\begingroup$ "Space Services" might also include a space junk cleanup service -- we've got tonnes of random bits of junk (broken satellites, rocket parts) whizzing around in orbit. Clearing it all up is far fetched because no-body can justify the cost of launching a bunch rockets just to collect worthless scrap, but it is a problem - A recent cracked window on the ISS was caused by a stray fleck of paint. Your spacers could do the job without all the launch costs. Plus they get get keep all that scrap metal. Bonus! $\endgroup$
    – Simba
    Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 15:12
  • $\begingroup$ To my way of thinking they'd do the cleanup out of self-interest so their habitats don't get holed by Apollo debris. Still, I can see them getting paid to do it. $\endgroup$
    – UIDAlexD
    Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 15:20
  • $\begingroup$ @UIDAlexD Very interesting about the solar cells. Reading a couple articles, it seems another advantage is that toxic materials used in solar panel deposition process can be more easily disposed of in space. And solar cells would definitely be mass produced in orbit since they'd be the primary power source. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 15:27
  • $\begingroup$ Cows convert feed (not grain, feed) to meat at a ratio of 25 lbs feed to 1 lb edible weight according to Smil.. Isn't great... but not as bad as you have listed.... Chickens do it at a rate of 4.5 to 1. $\endgroup$
    – Questor
    Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 23:43

Well, they have a literally astronomical amount of resources, but here goes:

1) Space Porn (extremely profitable). Space sports, such as Spaceball is also a decent moneymaker. (Remember, the enemy's gate is down).

When energy is abundant, when resources are sold by the megaton, people's attention will be the most valuable commodity. And space sex&sports are cool, we're hard hardwired evolutionary reasons to care for sex and "our" team. Heck, even uploaded emulations will probably want to watch sports!

2) A few megatons of gold, platinum, iridium (you name your rare material, it's abundant in space), with proper regolithic heat shielding and designated drop zones etc. One proper asteroid can supply Earth's current consumption of various metals for thousands of years. (turns out these cubic kilometers are big). For most metals, it's not profitable to export back to Earth, but they can be used in the Spacer industries to make solar panels, and the marginal cost of bringing 10000 megatons is only marginally larger than bringing back 1 ton (simplifying a bit, but you get the idea).

3) Microwaved Solar Array technologies for power supply. The sun is (as it turns out) always shining in space. The sun outputs $3.8\times10^{26}$ J each second, and virtually every Joule of it is wasted. We have but to reach out and partake of this glorious bounty.

4) Science & Industry! Without the Earth's gravitational influence (well, or at least when in freefall around Earth or Sun), and without the obnoxious (and useful) 100km of air, new scientific miracles become possible. New manufacturing technologies, space observatories beyond the dreams of Earthlings, all become easy.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ How about space whale reproduction documentaries ? $\endgroup$
    – Kaël
    Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 14:26
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ #3: a joule/second is a watt. $\endgroup$
    – user23110
    Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 19:08
  • Rare Earth Metals and other rare elements. Today China supplies Earth with 95% of its need of REM.

  • Rare isotopes. Deuterium, Helium-3 and similar that form easily in space when there is no pesky atmosphere blocking all the neutrons and other cosmic radiation that makes such isotopes form.

  • "Glassy" materials and crystals that grow easily in zero gravity and vacuum. Glass metals and glassy carbon for instance have some pretty awesome qualities.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ But China only supplies Rare Earth Metals because they are exceptionally cheap. Other countries could mine them, just at greater cost. They're rare but not impossible to find. $\endgroup$
    – Brythan
    Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 14:19
  • $\begingroup$ @Brythan by 2020-30s almost all of earth's easily accessible reserves would end. $\endgroup$
    – Chinu
    Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 14:20
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ What's your point? We still need these materials, especially for electronics and photovoltiacs. Just because we can find them on Earth at great cost does not mean we don't want them from space. Especially so considering how dirty the mining of these materials are. $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 14:24
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ The point is, if you follow my link, they do not have a great cost on earth. Here are some prices. With the exception of scandium, the rest of the rare earth's have prices about the same as nickel or copper. According to Wikipedia demand exceeds supply by about 5 tons per year for scandium. I'm just not seeing profit the justifies the cost of delivery from space. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 14:41
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Helium 3? That's ours. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 21:40

There was a similar question related to trade with a Mars colony. That covers many of the easy trade items like knowledge and media. Also unique items like asteroid rocks (part of a genuine asteroid from the asteroid belt!). So the real question is what things might be profitable to ship from a space station that weren't profitable from a planet.

expensive, as is sending things from space down to Earth (in way so that it survives its descent).

I think that you overestimate this. If you maneuver something to relative rest compared to the Earth, you can just drop it with a parachute. The big problem that a meteorite has isn't the gravity induced speed but the relative velocity prior to entry.

The reason we don't do this is that currently we send space ships up and down. They already have engines and it is easier to reuse the engines than to switch to something else. But note how much more fuel and engines we use to send a space shuttle into space than back down again. Not only do we add two extra engines, we also attach a gigantic fuel tank that when full was six to seven times the weight of the space shuttle orbiter. On reentry, all the fuel is carried inside the orbiter.

The hard part is not dropping the stuff down. It's moving stuff around the solar system so that it's in position to drop down. I would think that the best way to do that is with a solar sail, but you put new technology out of scope of this question. If you think of a solar sail as existing technology, then that's the natural solution. The argument in favor of that is that we have a decent understanding of the theory behind solar sails. What we're missing is the need to actually use them. That's because we only ever go into orbit with manned vehicles. And unmanned vehicles only send back data, not themselves.

If solar sails (and ramjets, catapults, etc.) are not available, the obvious option from technology in use now is rockets. Rockets need fuel though. Where do you get that in space? Our current method is to bring it up from Earth with us. But that's so ridiculously expensive that the only things we do in orbit are experiments and satellites.

The kind of slightly improved rockets that you describe would move some luxuries into the realm of possibility. Some because they're better; some because they're marketed better.

  • Alien Monster Cables, made with microgravity-enabled perfection.
  • Space wine may not taste better, but its rareness justifies its expense.
  • Dirty processes like smelting can just shoot off the pollution towards the sun.
  • Giant space mirrors to block sunlight to counteract global warming.
  • The next supercollider.
  • Awesome telescopes.
  • Maintenance of satellites. And new satellites. Don't lift up from the gravity well. Drop off in space.

From answers to the Mars question:

  • Contracted research. Some things just can't be tested in a gravity well. Also, it's much easier to maintain a vacuum in space.
  • Tourism.
  • Movies. Don't simulate zero-g; use the real thing. Also low-g fight scenes with their seemingly impossible leaps. May be cheaper than green screen animation.
  • Prisons. Try to tunnel out of a space prison.
  • Prison colonies. Low security prisons could instead become prison colonies. Everyone who lives there is a prisoner or a prison employee. Prison employees would cover needed jobs that the prisoners don't have the expertise to do. E.g. doctor or teacher. Want off the sex offender list? Go to a prison colony instead.
  • Immigrants. Make new immigrants to space supply enough Earth credit to buy the things needed to support themselves. Every ticket into space includes a ticket out of space.
  • $\begingroup$ Parachutes do seem to be pretty cheap, but it seemed to me that they had limited payload. The biggest thing that that I can think of that has gone from space to land without power is the Apollo command module a about 6 tons. I'm not sure of a method or device to deliver a heavier load. Plus the heat shielding for re-entry would be expensive (though not nearly as expensive as launch). Ultimately, you are still doing a several km/s delta-v for re-entry, though you are doing it with friction instead of rockets. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 15:40
  • $\begingroup$ "If you maneuver something to relative rest compared to the Earth" - that's a very, very expensive thing to do with existing technology. The cheapest is to drop your velocity enough to skim the atmosphere and use an ablative heat shield to drop the rest of your velocity, or use some future technology like a Momentum Exchange Tether. That orbital velocity cost you a huge amount to attain, it'll cost a huge amount to get rid of too. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 9, 2018 at 12:35

Sell the future.

You are living in space, and have pulled it off in a relatively short time frame. This means your ability to grow is substantial, as suppiles for 100,000 people where not lifted on heavy-lift rockets.

The limits of that growth is large. If you manage to colonize the asteroid belt, there is enough cubic there generate living space for 100s of billions of people.

Finding unique things to export to the Earth is reasonable. But a society of 100s of billions is going to have huge amounts of export capacity even without unique things to export to Earth: just selling culture and science will do it.

You sell the future by somehow selling shares in that venture. An exponential robot-driven industrialization of the asteroid belt together with a population explosion among the existing 100,000 citizens places the 100 billion population point at about 300 years away. If you simply manage to maintain current wealth and export capabilities, that is a 4.7% annual growth rate.

So sell shares. Shares in asteroid belt robot factories, shares in colony factories or colonies. Dividends of those shares then shares in the next generation produced by the first.

Then use the money from the sale of shares to import needed goods from Earth.

You have a greenfield industrial revolution. In 1670 the USA had 100k people. By 1970 it was a world superpower. It did this on the backs of immigration, but much of its growth came from the fact there was an entire continent it managed to exploit over that time.

Now, that is not the only way to do it.

You can export goods down to Earth. Aerobraking is quite reasonable, and it should scale, so you can send materials down to Earth far cheaper than the other way around. If you are accepting a rough landing (say, you are sending ore), it would be far easier.

The expensive part of rockets is the rocket equation.

Then there is technology. The technology you are describing is impressive, which implies that the orbital population is high-tech. They can sell technology and innovations. Now, as a small population, they won't generate much, which leads into the above exponential growth plan.

Other information, like entertainment, will have a limited amount of value. However, the space societies demand for Earther entertainment is going to be large as well, and ditto for technology, so this will probably be a net loss.

Next, they can sell security. They have the military high-ground, quite literally. Ground based societies will have to engage in a huge amount of heavy-lift technology to reach MAD, let alone counter it.

Imports from Earth are going to be expensive, unless you manage to boostrap to a T1 or T2 civilization. There is no way around it barring massive technological progress (space elevator etc).

Zero-G manufacturing may be useful for some purposes. With air-braking, exporting to the ground will be modestly expensive. You'll have little competitition: maybe it will turn out that mass manufacture of some wonder material in zero G is well worth the cost of heavy-lift.

You can sell the right for Earthers to become Spacers. Anyone joining you is going to have already spent a 1/4 million: the value of a functioning biosphere is whatever the market will bear.

You can sell satallite building and maintenance services. Not having to lift from Earth will reduce the price and increase use by Earthers. In effect, the current lift from Earth should almost completely belong to you, as you provide better service for less price which should increase total value of the demand. They pay you in 5 tonnes of Earth material lifted to orbit in exchange for 100 tonnes of satallites.

More conventional things, like services, can also be an export. But those will be overwealmed by your wish to import services from Earth.

Almost all of these problems are problems of scale. You can make up for your per-unit losses by volume. Grow, and sell growth.

  • $\begingroup$ I think you're looking too far into the future. It takes a long time to turn 100k to 100 billion people, an a long time to mine out the asteroid belt. My question is more aimed at what is viable in the short term. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 18:52
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    $\begingroup$ @kingledion That section is about selling the future. There are companies that make no profit yet are worth a lot. Why? Growth, future potential. In 300-odd years you can reach about 100 billion people with a reasonably fast reproductive rate. Well before that you can get much, much larger. The beauty of selling growth is that for anyone who doesn't need resources right now, the regress is near-infinite, and people who do need resources in the short term can buy, wait, then sell to people who don't need immediate resources when they do. $\endgroup$
    – Yakk
    Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 18:56
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I understand now. Selling stock in yourself as an investment, like Twitter being worth $10 billion to investors despite burning half a billion dollars a year. Pay me in rocket launches and you can own 10,000 shares of Space Colony Alpha. Since this is basically the game plan for Silicon Valley it jibes pretty well with the premise of being started by a wealthy entrepreneur. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 19:22
  • $\begingroup$ @kingledion Reworded and flipped! $\endgroup$
    – Yakk
    Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 21:00

Hardly anything. The other answers to this question enthuse about materials and access to space, but the economics is against them all. Even space porn.

The reasons couldn't simpler or more cost effective. It would be easier and cheaper to launch robots into space to secure materials and minerals, to make products in micro-gravity, to conduct research in automated laboratories. Ditto space services. Robots would be able to create the technological infrastructure to do all the things listed in the other answers.

Maybe not space porn. However, a combination of advanced CGI and rotoscoping would be able to supplant even space porn. Unless there's a global revival of hard-line puritanism, it's doubtful if space porn will be commercially viable, let alone profitable.

Squishy, soft organisms like human beings are not space-ready at the best of time. Hard radiation, vacuum, physiological failures due to micro-gravity, and the mass of payload wasted on life-support.

The economics of space technology dictate the resources of the solar system will be harvested by corporate and government robots, drones and automata. One-way space migrants paying a reasonable fraction of a megabuck to be shot into the wild black yonder to magically build a space-based civilization in no time at all, why they haven't got a chance of competing.

As for winning the race to settle space and make it economically successful, the spacers would be better off if they'd kept their feet securely planted on the surface of the Earth. Where else will be the launch pads and control rooms for the robots actually colonizing space be located? On Earth, of course.

Back in the days of yore Jerry Pournelle published an article "Those Pesky Belters and Their Torchships", originally in Galaxy and reprinted in A Step Farther Out (1979), analysing asteroid based civilization. One things came as a surprise when he worked out where was the best place to put the centre of a society of inhabited asteroid settlements. It turned out to be good old planet Earth. Expect the same to be true for any spacer civilization too.

Also, expect Elon Branson to be arrested and charged for the scam of defrauding the gullible and space-happy of their millions or parts therefore and subjecting them to the cruel and unusual fate of being shot into space where they have to survive with scant resources. If they do happen to acquire the resources to build their space-based society and its attendant economy, where and how will they get them? From publicly funded space programs naturally. After all, what other institutions have the capacity to do so?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Robots are better for exploiting space if you are an Earthling. Similarly, trappers and gentlemen adventurers were better for pulling a profit out of the furs/gold of the New World. But despite the fact that Plymouth offered thin soils and starvation, Puritans were still eager to go there, about 20,000 between 1620 and 1640. There are plenty of people today who want to be anywhere but here, and some of them might be educated enough to survive in space. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Commented Aug 5, 2016 at 11:38
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    $\begingroup$ Trappers, adventurers & Puritans could live off the land in the New World. Spacers can't. They will have to wait until the technological infrastructure has been created. That means robots first. The Earthlings will cash in, claim the territory, & charge for transport. The New World was built on indentured labor & slavery. Robots will be better at that in space. I'm pro-space, it's just I'm not blind to the problems of getting & staying there. I wish it was easier. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Commented Aug 7, 2016 at 11:51

The allure of mining asteroids is the availability of rare minerals. Access to expensive materials and a zero-g environment allows experiments that would not be possible on Earth.

OP is halfway to the answer by recognizing these colonists would need to develop advanced technology to survive. What is the source of that technology?

When you know how they get to be so advanced, you know what products they can offer Earthlings.

Now, were all the colonists on board with getting themselves marooned in order to test themselves against Darwinism? My guess is there would be a prevalent strain of resentment against Earthlings for forcing them to live in exile, especially among younger colonists. For their part, the Earthlings would resent the prosperity of the colonists. Something to think about.

  • $\begingroup$ There are a lot of people on Earth who might want to leave. The economic fate of the Syrian doctors and engineers who are waiting in refugee camps in Austria is grim. Sure they are only thousands among millions, but you can only send thousands to space, not millions. This is why I mentioned paying \$250,000 to head up there, Syrian migrants are paying \$3,000 out of pocket as it is. Just as the Quakers were happier in Pennsylvania, and the English were happier without them, I don't think there is resentment since this works for everyone. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Commented Aug 5, 2016 at 11:43
  • $\begingroup$ Also, I'm not sure we need ANY technology more advanced than the current to survive in space, excepting working full scale models of the propulsion systems I mentioned. With those systems you can move small near-earth asteroids for materials in ~2 years. Melting them into usable parts is either mirrors, lasers, or both. 3-d printers already make cars and houses. Radiation shielding and heat dissipation are problems, but one solvable through trial and error. Sure some people die, but if you really want off earth, then the 75% fatality rate over two years in Jamestown might not be so bad. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Commented Aug 5, 2016 at 11:50


So you could sell insurance against horrible things like asteroids falling on cities. Could happen, you know! Especially if you calculate their trajectories and then nudge them. By accident, of course! If only spacers had been motivated to make sure accidents like that didn't happen by having to pay out insurance premiums. Such a waste...

This wouldn't work as well if the spacers actually depended on earth for something, but the question stated they're self-sufficient.


Donald Rumsfeld, one of America's greatest philosophers, famously said:

  1. There are known unknowns.
  2. There are unknown unknowns.

Rumsfeld's legendary quote

(1) The known unknown is that they will almost certainly find rare earth elements (but which ones?) and discover new elements with unknown properties and in unknown quantities.

(2) The unknown unknown is analogous to the German theoretical physicist in the 1920s. They just explored physics. And something amazing came of it. They changed how war is fought and energy is produced. The colonist might change the world forever, or nothing world-shaking will come of it. But you won't know if you don't try.


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