Why space travel will have to be a mercantile monopoly, Part 1: It will need perfect software, and it will need to make money

Mercantilism used to be the norm. Countries waged economic war by launching expeditions using state-of the-art vessels (sailing and steam ships) to capture monopoly trade by whatever means possible – bribery, threats, even warfare (like the Opium Wars in China). There was a good reason for this. Countries had the necessary financial resources to fund the expensive and risky expeditions. By throwing all their financial force behind a monopoly holder, they put their eggs in one basket but ensured the maximum impact on distant shores. The Royal Navy of Great Britain worked hand in hand with the heavily-armed merchantmen of the East India Company, and Britain prospered. By capturing trade, they captured relative value and taxes into the treasury—thus repaying the Crown for the risk taken. In these conditions—high risk and high cost, the system made sense.

Space travel will be risky and expensive as well, and we’ll need everything to work right the first time–and that means the computer systems (software) must be spot on. Computers will be needed to run every aspect of your starship. Even our cars are computer controlled now. If you have power steering on a late model car, you probably have drive by wire…it’s a computer telling you how much the wheels have turned, and the motor up front telling the wheels how much to angle themselves. We can make that simple integration work reliably, but as systems are added to systems, the risk multiplies (more on that later). It would be expensive because of the enormous cost in joules to send anything large enough to make a difference across light-years. Add to that the cost of the ship—these will be cutting edge, just like those early caravels that plied the high seas. How many times will you want to send hundreds of people on an expensive arkship to a far-off planet? If you blow it, the huge cost of the trip is gone, and people die. I don’t know how badly folks want to get off Earth in your story arc, but in mine, not that badly.

So, you’ll need to spend a lot of money to create the opportunity. And, in my opinion, it will take a lot of time to get that ship working right. For reasons I elaborate on the following posts, you’ll need a monopoly to build those ships, or they’re never going to be good enough to risk on the journey.

Given a monopoly, you’ll need a motive force: trade. Whatever entity is taking on the risks of interstellar exploration, the benefits of settlement and trade will need to generate a positive return on the investment. An All-Earth Company, if you will, would be required to recapture those costs by trading with the colonists, just like Britain did with the American colonies. Sure, at some point when the technology is mature, you may see that system break down just as it did between America and Great Britain (by then, Americans were building ships as good or better than the British and French).

That’s the foundation for the Pat Hayden Jones universe. What about yours?

About H.W. MacNaughton

Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.
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