“To say I have been a bit of a space cadet all my life is something of an understatement,” says Dr. Mike Ryan, professor of management and chair of Bellarmine’s Department of Business Administration. Dr. Ryan, whose father and uncle flew on a bomber in World War II, grew up in Texas fascinated by flight, particularly space flight. Nearly every inch of his office walls is covered with space-related posters and memorabilia, including an autograph from Buzz Aldrin. Even his trash can is shaped like a rocket.
But rather than become an astronaut, Dr. Ryan went where almost no other researchers had gone before: into the study of conducting business in space. “There weren’t very many people doing that, because it was always ‘20 years down the road,’” he said. He founded Prometheus Press Inc., which published and edited Space Business Notes, one of the internet’s first space business journals; has made hundreds of presentations on the topic; and has written more than 40 scholarly articles. He is a fellow of the British Interplanetary Society and a senior member of the American Astronautical Society.
Recently, he has partnered with Dr. Ida Kutschera, an associate professor of management with expertise in human resources, to write about business possibilities on the Moon and on asteroids. Their most recent chapter, “Business Modalities of the Inner Solar System: Planets with Potential,” which focuses on Venus and Mercury, was published in 2015 in Inner Solar System: Prospective Energy and Material Resources (V. Badescu and K. Zacny eds., Springer International Publishing, Switzerland).
“It has the unique quality of being ‘way out there,’ as it were,” Dr. Ryan said. Here are excerpts.
The idea of considering business opportunities within the inner solar system is clearly speculative. However, the danger with most speculative opportunities is not being ahead of your time, but failing to recognize that virtually all such possibilities may be realized in time. The inner solar system is inherently more challenging in terms of prospective business activity than the Moon, Mars, or even asteroids. The primary inhabitants of the inner solar system, Venus and Mercury, are particularly inhospitable to human life and their utility as business locations or sources of business resources within the bounds of current technology is limited. However, humans are a very industrious and creative species whose engineering and commercial endeavors have repeatedly exceeded what was often initially viewed as sheer fantasy. …
18.4 The Inner Solar System: Limits of Commerce
The patterns of commercial development are not always clear in the beginning, and opportunities frequently evolve over time rather than appear fully developed. Examples abound of business opportunities that were never imagined at the beginning of an era but appeared nonetheless. Whether or not the inner solar system, Mercury and/or Venus, have business potential is, at best, a forecasting exercise that requires speculation, good guesses and foresight. Nothing in the descriptions of either planet suggests that they are massive business opportunities that would attract entrepreneurs, investors or coalitions of companies interested in exploiting resources. Still, the patterns of future development and opportunity are not always evident in the short term. Examining the possibilities of the inner solar system over a longer time horizon within the context of other opportunities, or even a general human expansion outward toward Mars is worthwhile. Business opportunities develop in interesting ways and often in improbable places. For example, various proposals to return humans to the Moon have been accompanied by a variety of lunar business proposals ranging from power production to tourism (Ryan and Kutschera, “Lunar-based enterprise infrastructure—hidden keys for long-term business success,” 2007).
18.5 Unanticipated Business Opportunities
…Opportunities of Distance and Location: Location, distance, and time have always been variables of importance to business. Examples of extreme risk taking to obtain the benefits of specific locations, reduce time between destinations, and conquer previously unavailable opportunities have long been part of business. … Perhaps more appropriately to the issues of business opportunities within the inner solar system is the experience of Pan American Airlines (PanAm) and its Pacific operations. PanAm created and developed a novel approach involving technology (aircraft design) and optimal base construction to overcome the barriers of distance and improve the time it took to travel across the Pacific Ocean to points in the Far East. Since aircraft of the time lacked the range and the Pacific routes lacked the airfields to make land-based trans-Pacific flight practical, PanAm decided to deal with these limitations by a combination of novel aircraft technology and a dedicated program of constructing intermediate bases for these aircraft to use (R. Allen, The PAN AM Clipper: The History of Pan American’s Flying Boats 1931 to 1946, 2000). That these bases used the most plentiful resource available in the Pacific, i.e. water, as their airfields only made the entire operation more ingenious.
Base construction required sending self-sufficient ships and crews to numerous Pacific islands to build infrastructure to support a flying boat network. Facilities for maintaining and refueling aircraft, residential facilities for support personnel, in-transit passengers, and aircraft crews were all built where no infrastructure existed for flying boat service. Areas within protected anchorages were cleared of coral and other obstructions to make landing of large flying boats practical and safe. PanAm had previously become the leader in commercial use of flying boats by creating viable passenger, freight, and mail routes in the Caribbean, South and Central America, and across the Atlantic. The Pacific routes were a more significant challenge requiring equipment, techniques and supporting facilities not readily available. PanAm and Boeing collaborated to design and build the Boeing 314 flying boat, generally regarded as among the best of its type (Allen 2000). A combination of technology and original thinking allowed Pan-American Airways Corporation to build and operate a unique and original transportation infrastructure. … These are exactly the sort of hurdles that commercial use of inner solar system resources will face and that space-based entrepreneurs will have to surmount in the 21st century. …
18.6 Implications of Historical Examples
The coming and going of businesses has become increasingly noteworthy. Firms replete with history such as Sears and Kodak found themselves unable to compete and compelled to fundamentally change or go bankrupt. Other firms, such as Radio Shack, coupled to large brick and mortar operations, found changing customer preferences made their operations unstainable financially. Alternatively, firms such as Amazon developed imaginative operations that have become businesses in themselves capable of generating revenue, supporting employees, and providing a profit or cover their respective costs. Not since the dot com boom have so many unique enterprises been proposed. The more outrageous an undertaking is described as being, the more likely it is that some expert will proclaim that it is impossible and therefore unlikely to provide any commercial opportunity whatsoever. The pages of history are brimming with such examples. Most experts of their day found that their assertions of impossibility frequently failed to discourage those who have a different view of reality. This is not to suggest that unheralded enterprises are not difficult. Almost all start up enterprises are difficult. But where one person sees only difficulty, another sees opportunity. Opportunities trump difficulties with the development of new scientific understandings, new technology, or just a new way of looking at the problem. The noted political philosopher, Machiavelli, observed that no greater difficulty exists than attempting to introduce a new order of things (Machiavelli, The Prince). Postulating opportunities within the inner solar system that await the farsighted business person is speculative, but it is not without a reasonable basis. Many new inner solar system business enterprises may require only extensions of what we know now and can accomplish.
What the Inner Solar System Has in Terms of Potential: One obvious problem with business opportunities on Mercury and Venus is the fact that inhabiting either planet is not practical at the present time. There are no existing technologies that we are aware of that are collectively waiting in the wings, economically viable and/or currently ready for deployment that would make living on either planet possible. It is possible to envision explorers establishing scientific outposts to explore these two planets with proper preparation, transportation, and some innovative breakthroughs. However, the long list of “ifs and buts” makes any business scenario read more like science fiction than a business plan. The potential for both planets is initially more likely to be related to location than resource utilization. By comparison, the Moon provides both location and potential resources that could be exploited using current technology in many cases. This does not take into account the legal issues involved, only that mining on, building with lunar materials, and getting to and from the moon are things we know can be done. Therefore the primary advantage of exploring both inner system planets is at present in their proximity to the sun. Other advantages may be determined once adequate time and attention has been devoted to what is possible at those locations.
Close Proximity to the Sun: Solar Power Production: One possibility for exploiting the proximity of Mercury and Venus to the sun is they could provide a suitable location for collecting solar energy that could be transmitted (Flournoy, Solar power satellites). Current technology does not yet support power transmission on this scale but the potential for collecting energy at those locations does exist and could be quantified. Quantification is an important consideration because it provides a baseline for potential revenue critical to any viable business model. The situation is analogous to the current inability to exploit some known energy resources on earth because of costs or technological limitations. Examples include extensive use of geothermal energy or wave-based power systems here on Earth as alternatives to fossil fuel or as supplements to wind or solar systems. While the technology works, it is not always clear exactly how practical or cost effective it might be. So although the distances are daunting, and the technological challenges seemingly insurmountable, the potential still exists for solar-based power systems proximate to Venus or Mercury (Jones and Baghchehsara, Electric space: space-based solar power technologies and applications). …
Location, Location, Location: Location is important for planets, much as location can be a critical consideration for many other real estate transactions. Inter-planetary trade is a long-established science fiction concept. Trade between planets would operate much like international trade has operated for thousands of years. Space-based enterprises will mirror terrestrial predecessors in their need to move raw materials, finished goods or people from one point to another. The pattern of exchange was based historically on the need for specific things in specific places. The differences in needs, relative scarcity, and comparative importance result in price differences that justify transportation costs. Transportation costs are secondary to the need for some cargo because of the cargo’s inherent value. Supplying off-planet outposts may be critically important for years until the outposts become self-sufficient. Outposts may be able to develop reciprocal trade when the outposts themselves have developed sufficient surplus resources that can be traded for supplies/goods from other locations. Balance of trade discussions will move to a large and previously unknown scale as patterns of trade expand across the solar system.
Port or Way Station on the Way to Somewhere Else: One of the enduring features of space is the distance between places. It is a very long way between planets and few roadside parks, way stations, or amusement parks exist to break the monotony of long distance travel. More critically, no rescue stations, emergency airfields, or the equivalent of a coast guard exist in case of serious emergencies. Short-term and long-term travel for the foreseeable future requires a mindset of “if you might need it, you have to take it with you.” Virtually all proposed space missions from Earth have a fatalistic quality in that not much can be done if things go wrong. The numbers of ships lost in the earth-bound exploration, colonization, or trade may be incalculable. Efforts to reduce risk and minimize loss of life have engendered Coast Guards, satellite tracking, and global communications. And ships and lives are lost when things go wrong, such as the loss of Malaysian Air 370 in 2014. …
A variety of approaches have been suggested to deal with possible catastrophe on long space voyages. Self-sufficiency may partially compensate for the absence of rescue. Self-sufficiency solutions may include traveling in multiple vessels or including large scale onboard 3-D printing capability on board to obviate the need for large parts inventories (Ryan and Kutschera, The Case for Asteroids). These solutions would address initial missions. Longer-term solutions may include development of intermediate destinations for ongoing support and supply where assistance might be obtained.
Direct flights are not always practical to the most often identified destinations of either Mars or various asteroids. More economical orbital trajectories might utilize the gravity of Venus and perhaps Mercury to accelerate or decelerate vehicles transiting to other destinations (Thomson, Introduction to space dynamics). “Starting with Mariner 10, which flew by Venus on its way to Mercury, there have been a series of missions which have taken advantage of the so called ‘gravitational slingshot’ effect to visit other targets (Wiesel, Modern orbit determination).”
Improvements in space transportation technology, including propulsion, radiation shielding and/or operational reliability, could either increase the need for an orbiting Venus location or reduce it. With greater speed or enhanced radiation shielding or both, trips could be made without the need of way stations. It is also possible that those same capabilities would increase the need for way stations much in the way that regional airports make flying to larger hubs more efficient. Either way, having transportation stops within the inner solar system may well make business sense. Delivery of supplies and other goods by way of Venus may be reasonable depending on the respective locations of Earth and Mars. It also may make sense for a facility to be moved into an orbit of Venus that could serve as an emergency port or repair depot should a Mars mission encounter difficulties. …
Prospective Resource or Fuel Depot: Reasonable business or operational arguments based on efficiency, safety, and frequency may support a fuel depot orbiting Venus. Much as ships are unable to carry sufficient fuel or expendables for indefinite periods, space craft will face the same limitations. The ability to resupply or to alter trajectories by replenishing fuel or consumables (as in the case of crewed vehicles) may well be advantageous to any number of public or private ventures. The need for such depots ultimately is a question of whether or not sufficient trips to Venus or by way of Venus to other places represent effective resource utilization. Venus’ atmosphere is primarily carbon dioxide and may be a useful resource if and when accessed. Technology to remotely distill constituent elements from carbon dioxide for a multitude of uses by automated processes may be needed given the difficulties of atmospheric pressure, temperature and other barriers. A corresponding case might be made for Mercury if materials on or near its surface could be mined and transported for use elsewhere. This assumes that the materials involved could not be obtained less expensively or with less difficulty than other options. These approaches are not presently feasible but their current lack of feasibility does not undermine their possible utility that Mercury or Venus or both might eventually have business potential. …
18.8 Points of Departure for Business within the Inner Solar System
Not everything that is possible actually happens. Nor do the events that take place always follow predicted times, locations, or methods. However, broad patterns of historical commercial activity provide foundations for what may happen in the future. The planets of the inner solar system are locations no less than China or the Americas, locations Europeans once viewed as places shrouded in mystery whose potential was often dismissed. The problems of transportation, support and development for a commercial model of the inner solar system are complex, difficult and hard to imagine but not impossible. The implications of what is suggested above have the echo of science fiction but are not outside the realm of current or near-term engineering technology. Possibilities for both Mercury and Venus currently exceed the likely investment envelope for virtually all private sector enterprises. Mercury and Venus may well be untapped opportunities for a considerable period in the absence of an extraordinary financial return or an overall improvement in space technology that would significantly reduce the cost, dramatically improve access, or provide a stronger rationale. Time is not particularly relevant to whether or not business potential exists. The issue is whether the precedent exists to suggest that at some undetermined time Mercury, Venus, or both could have business potential. That precedent exists. Commercial utility does not always correspond to commercial success. Many reasons for the business potential of both Mercury and Venus relate to their utility to another objective, such as Mars exploration, and not to business factors, such as revenue or possible profit. Such factors, while critical to ultimate business success, are difficult to determine in the context of places so far removed from conventional business opportunities. Future business opportunities on or near Mercury and Venus may emerge as technology, capability, and vision permits. Identifying these opportunities remains a challenge for the future.