Interplanetary Dividends

Article No. 14 in a study of the Solar System

by John W. Campbell, Jr. (pages 44-51 of July 1937's Astounding Stories)

IT'S TRUE ENOUGH that a space ship can coast forever in empty, frictionless space, without expending an ounce of fuel. But it cannot coast up a hill two billion, seven hundred and eighty million miles high, fighting the ceaseless, tireless drag of solar gravity. Somewhere out in space, at the top of that inconceivable climb, lies Neptune. The discovery of that planet, by brilliant, mathematical research, was of immense importance to the science of astronomy, as was the subsequent discovery of Pluto. But in the interplanetary civilization we believe is to come, what practical worth, measured in dollars and economic sense, will these outposts offer? Or, in the same bitter terms, what value will the other nearer planets of the solar system have?

Once before in history a new world was discovered. That discovery is usually reported to us as the triumph of a great idea, the ultimate proof of long studies, and a wonderful, romantic voyage to other side of the unknown. To Columbus it wasn't. To Ferdinand and Isabella it wasn't. Neither of the interested parties was fighting for the greater glory of human knowledge. Isabella put up hard cash money (gained by the economic process of borrowing on personal property, and the payment of interest) in a gamble of success -- and that didn't mean successful proving of an idea. It meant bringing home the economically valuable goods of the Indies: spices and gold.

And Columbus went for expenses and ten per cent of the profits, as guaranteed by contract. Because he failed to find the Indies, he died a badly cheated man.

Our times are a little different, though not much, fundamentally. To-day, scientific work for the sake of knowledge can find backers, men who will give the money needed. Byrd's antarctic expeditions were financed by philanthropy. But before any one would contribute, even for this definitely, conclusively non-dividend-paying expedition, some sound benefit interpretable into terms of economic good, had to be shown.

Some day, in the not-at-all-remote future, philanthropists are going to be asked to contribute to the first expedition to the Moon. The first question they will ask will be, "Why do it?" and "What good will it do in a practical, economic way?" Pure glory does not pay, and has no sense. A man might contribute for "glory" in the financially sound form of advertising, but that is the nearest thing to a pure idea value that will bring backing.

Commercial life alone permits human life to continue. No one lives in Antarctica, but let some man find there a commercially profitable deposit of some sort, and human life can then and only then become permanent. Before Luna or Mars can become a stable, settled colony of Earth, there must be products of these worlds for sale in the unromantic streets of New York at lower prices than competing items originating in Newark, N.J., and Chicago, Ill.

When commercial colonization of the planets does come it will spread out from Earth in widening ripples -- first Luna, then Mars, then Venus and perhaps Mercury. Some of the basic rules of this quickening expansion can be laid down now, though the full story will not be known for centuries to come, long after the worlds are colonized, just as the United States did not reach its present stature till long after 1492.

BEFORE any commercial exploitation of other worlds can take place, the ship must come. That is not too distant now, atomic-powered though it must be. Already, in laboratories, the first small increments of atomic power are being released and put to work. But one vital question seems fairly settled: atomic fuels will be cheap. Present work has shown that atomic power can be released safely, and under control, from sand, limestone, or iron, under the influence of duetrons from "heavy hydrogen."

Since one part in some 3,000 of ordinary water contains the heavy-hydrogen atom, the seas of Earth constitute an inexhaustible supply of one of the needed substances, and probably the same ratio holds over all the planets. Silicon is one of the most common of universal elements; it is the silicon of sand that reacts to yield energy.

The fuel that must power the ship is cheap. The engines applying that energy will not be cheap, nor will they last forever. The ship built around them will be enormously costly and comparatively short-lived. Some means of defense against meteors must be assumed before we begin to consider the economics of interplanetary dividends. The ship will cost somewhere up in seven figures; probably between one and ten millions of dollars for a commercial, practicable machine. Oh, the first one will be smaller, but not enormously cheaper, because those early ships, while containing less material, will carry the heavy financial load of developmental work.

The cargo-passenger ship, ready to take off for the exploitation of Lunar mines, then, will represent something like five millions of dollars as a minimum. The insurance premiums will eat enormous sums. The interest on that investment, and the additional investment on landing facilities, repair shops, business offices and so forth are all waiting for their share in any earnings the ship can bring in.

Finally -- the crew, the pilots and engineers. They must be men of absolutely dependable judgment, wide experience, technically trained to the ultimate degree, a strange crossing of airplane pilot, astronomer and atomic technician. Their salaries will be high.

And higher than you would think to-day; perhaps the equivalent of $100,000 a year, for this atomic power that makes possible the ship has done other things in the world markets. It has made machine power cheaper and the cheaper mechanical power becomes, the more expensive is human labor. The human beings, remember, must purchase and consume the enormous output of the cheap, nonconsuming machine producers.

On the Moon, what type of cargo will await the ship? First, we don't know the Moon's minerals, of course, but we can make provisional considerations. Imagine that, miraculously, there exists there a mineral deposit favored by the gods indeed. In this strange deposit exist neatly stacked and sorted bars of metal, already refined and waiting merely the process of throwing them on the ship. Now, under those insanely favorable conditions, what could be brought to Earth to sell in competition with those products of Newark and Chicago and Pittsburgh?

Pittsburgh wins, hands down. Even native, metallic iron on the Moon could not compete with Pittsburgh's refineries. Pittsburgh is powered by bursting atoms, too. That makes iron far cheaper than ever before, and the cost of the ship, its insurance brokers, its mortgages and financing charges and its crew prevent dividends on even pure, metallic iron.

BUT COPPER? Silver? Lead? They might pay. Our stacked bars would, of course; that served merely to show the first difficulty Lunar Transport, Inc., intended for profit, would meet. Before practical silver, copper, or lead deposits can be worked, they must be found. That is going to be expensive, and prospecting is going to be devilishly difficult. Not until a number of profitable mines have been opened can the individual "desert-rat" type take up the work, and those first mines must be found by organized, expensive expeditions.

The mines, when found must pay not only the cost of operating the ship, but also for the work of those prospectors. The copper, say, (which is to sell as cheaply as the metal produced in Arizona) must be mined by high-priced miners, operating under unfamiliar circumstances on a world other than Earth, which they will not like. The copper must compete with metal mined in a natural atmosphere (instead of under domes) where oxygen is in costless abundance for the roasting process that changes the common sulphide ore to copper oxide and sulphur dioxide. Flotation processes for concentrating the ore mined won't work, because Lunar gravity is too low.

Evidently, if we are going to mine ore on Luna, it must be a mighty rich ore, or else the ore of a mighty expensive element -- say iodine for a nonmetal or silver, platinum of iridium for metals.

But Luna has some advantages as an extraterrestrial source. It is very near; the trip would require only twenty-four hours or so. The loaded ship would go from a light world to a heavy, where air-friction would ease the machine to a halt, saving fuel and wear on those costly engines. The high-salaried pilots and engineers would make a round trip in seventy-two hours, and would never be long away from home. Therefore, their wages would not be quite so costly. Better yet, the ship, which is forever eating its head off in insurance, finance charges and depreciation, can make hundreds of trips each year, spreading the costs over a great many cargoes.

Beyond the Moon lies Mars. The Moon is the natural stepping-stone; it is far easier to go from Luna to Mars than from Earth to Luna, so far as the stresses and strains go. But the stresses and strains of finances meet different problems here, some eased and some made more difficult.

Transport has become a terrific problem, because the length of the journey means, even at the best of times, a longer time in transit, and hence fewer trips per year. Insurance cost and financing are on a yearly basis and, therefore, greater burdens on each cargo. Depreciation is greater per cargo, not only because of the greater time consumed, but because the rocket engines must force the ship against the drag, first of Earth, then for at least 50,000,000 miles against solar gravity. Finally, very few trips could be made in a year, due to the short period of favorable position, and the tremendously increased cost of the long journey across Earth's orbit and out to Mars when that planet is on the far side of the Sun. Thus, a ship could not pay if used only for Martian traffic; work must be found for it during the idle period when Mars is too distant. Venus and Mercury offer possibilities here.

But Mars offers certain offsetting advantages; first, the refining of ores is far simpler, since there is sufficient atmosphere, sufficient oxygen, for this purpose. Mars' air probably contains considerable ozone, so that copper or lead ores could be converted to oxides merely by allowing them to lie crushed in the open air. Atomic power makes the reduction to the metal cheap.

Prospecting is much easier here, also, for an atomic-powered car could traverse great areas, and the men could breathe compressed Martian air. Food supplies could be planted on Mars, under domes made of glass (from Martian sand) and metal (from Martian ores). Technique now developed on Earth would permit an entire city to be fed from a few acres of potted plants, growing in water solutions of nutrient chemicals.

On Mars, lower-grade ore could be successfully worked. Further, since a large community could maintain [ed maintain] itself on purely Martian supplies, a domestic market could develop wherein Martian goods would not compete with Terrestrian items. So far as supplying Earth with new forms of plant life goes, a peculiar situation arises. America gave Europe cotton, the potato, many other forms of plants. Mars might well supply yet other forms, but they would not grow on Earth normally, due to the vastly different conditions. However, the same technique of domes that makes Earth life possible on Mars, would acclimate the Martian vegetation to Earth, and more cheaply than space ships could import the products.

MUCH the same considerations apply to Venus, save that while all of Mars is more or less habitable for man, Venus would be bearable only at the poles. Cooling is possible, but fearfully expensive. It requires elaborate and massive mechanisms, for although atomic power makes heating easy, cooling remains a hard nut to crack. Venus, then, would be hard to prospect, except in the very limited region of the poles. Further, while shipment of metal from Mars to Earth involve carrying the load from a light to a heavy world, in the direction of the solar pull, the Venus run would make the heavy load on the Earthward trip from a heavy world, against the Sun's gravity. Greater use of rockets would bring about more rapid deterioration.

Mercury is in the even less favorable position, for solar gravity at the range of 40,000,000 miles is a deadly force. Further, only half the world could possibly be inhabited, even by miners in sheltered domes. Prospecting would be inordinately expensive and difficult, while space men would hate the blasting heat of the run so near the Sun. Mercury is in the even less favorable position, for solar gravity at the range of 40,000,000 miles is a deadly force. Further, only half the world could possibly be inhabited, even by miners in sheltered domes. Prospecting would be inordinately expensive and difficult, while space men would hate the blasting heat of the run so near the Sun.

However, these two inner worlds might be developed partly, to pay for the development of Mars, since ships unable, because of the planetary position, to make the Mars run could, at times, make the Venus or Mercury trip. The colonization of Mercury, however is a long, long way in the future; insurance companies will not like executives who order ships so near the heat and attraction of the Sun.

Beyond Mars, the giant planets lie, in immense steps up against the dragging solar attraction. The planets themselves cannot be visited, nor developed, because of the stupendous atmospheric pressures. The moons, however, can be visited, and will be, for purely scientific purposes. Their commercialization is doubtful, however, since all the large and commercially attractive satellites lie deep in the gravitational fields of the gigantic Jupiter or Saturn.

Meteoric material would constitute a menace, even with deflector screens, in the neighborhood of any such cosmic vacuum sweeper as Jupiter's gravitational field. Stray rocks falling toward the Sun at 20 miles a second would be deflected toward Jupiter, to form a perfect screaming hail of death. Saturn, further, has its rings which do not simply stop at a predetermined level; they probably wander vaguely, and treacherously, another 100,000 miles or so into space.

Those satellites will not even be prospected for perhaps centuries after the development of Mars. Enormously costly and elaborate expeditions would be required. There will be no one-man space ships, or even ten-man ships capable of these billion-mile climbs for long years to come.

Space ships, for centuries hence, will be in a cost class with the steam yachts of to-day. Even comparatively small ones will strain a millionaire's purse for operating expenses, and millionaires generally have more entertaining and lucrative things to do.

COLONIZATION will pass by the uniquely huge Jupiter, the uniquely ringed Saturn, and Uranus of the unique and savage climate. And Neptune, last of the true, giant planets? Neptune has even less to offer. It is a frozen, desolate waste of howling, white wilderness, terrifically cold, surrounded by a deep, frozen atmosphere consisting almost exclusively of hydrogen and helium, with faint traces of methane. Since practically all other things are frozen out, the methane bands in Neptune's spectrum are very prominent; they, in fact, give it the sea-green color that lead to its being named for the old sea god. But at the temperature of this planet, methane is a solid, the feeble concentrations of the gas in the atmosphere being only the amount in equilibrium with the solid phase at a temperature near -220° C.

Perhaps, though, an expedition could reach the surface of Neptune, alone of the giant planets. It would require a ship specially braced for strength, even then, if such a ship could climb so far against solar gravity. The very cold has frozen out most of the atmosphere. But, if an expedition did reach the surface, it would find nothing but an endless, wind-swept plain of drifting white, illuminated fitfully by a tiny, distant sun in a black sky. A dim ghost of a moon would float across the heavens.

To an Earthman, the Neptunian landscape might seem like some far vision of a future time on Earth, when the Sun was dying to a contracted, white, dwarf Sun -- a tiny, glowing coal, low on the horizon, heatless almost, shedding a light sufficient for sight, but little more. To a distant horizon, the white plain of frozen gases stretches out, under a keening, screaming wind of utter cold. The white halo of an almost-familiar moon, looking very like our own, swings slowly across the sky. The surface gravity even seems familiar, for though Neptune is 17.16 times as massive as Earth, the 31,000-mile diameter weakens the gravity at the surface so that it nearly equals Earth's.

Though one of the greatest of the solar system, that dim moon remains officially unnamed, though Triton has been suggested. Only two of Jupiter's greatest satellites exceed it in size, and Saturn's 2,600-mile Titan is barely its equal. Only this one huge satellite is known to circle Neptune; but from the frozen surface of the planet others would, in all probability, be visible. Satellites too faint to be seen, in even our greatest telescopes, must surely circle that bleak planet.

But the expedition would find nothing on Neptune worthy of effort. Only the hundreds, probably thousands, of miles of thick blanket of frozen methane, covering every mineral or deposit of conceivable value. That giant moon might offer something: bare rocks covered with a white rind of frozen gases. But there would not be any great dividends in exploiting that distant world's mineral.

Of Pluto, yet more distant from the Sun, we know very, very little. But this much is certain: Pluto is not a major planet. It is small, probably not more than 5,000 miles in diameter, and its mass is comparable with that of Earth. But, curiously, Pluto may one day be one of the most important members of the economic system within the solar system! Mercury, Venus, Luna and Mars will be exploited eventually, perhaps, and then no world will be colonized till bleak Pluto, most distant and harshest of the planets is reached.

PLUTO is cold. The temperature probably runs near -230° C. Now, ordinary cold is no asset, but such super-extraordinary cold becomes a positive, real virtue, and, for that fearful climate, Pluto may become important. This is a small planet, and as such is unburied by the immense atmosphere of a typical giant world. Here alone of the outer planets, a rocky, mineralized surface is attainable, for Pluto must have lost its hydrogen, its light gases, in the same vast proportions that Earth and the other small worlds did in that time when they cooled from the heat of creation.

Frozen on the surface rocks, must lie vast glaciers of water ice and solid carbon dioxide, perhaps a little free oxygen rendered utterly inactive by the paralyzing cold. The planet will have seas in deep valleys and vast basins, seas that froze long ages ago when the planet cooled. The last snows feel then, and welded to form glaciers that moved slowly down the valleys for a brief time, eroding the rocks for the last time before they, too, froze forever.

Since that day -- a time before the first protozoan life stirred on Earth -- Pluto has been locked motionless. No sweeping plain of white here, but the black, jagged teeth of cragged mountains thrusting through thin white veils. The rocks and minerals of a brand-new world, uneroded in its cold storage since the day of creation, await the exploration of geologists, or perhaps one should say Plutologists, and the exploitation of the miner.

But, most important of all, there will be a faint, thin trace of an atmosphere of hydrogen and helium, with traces of the rare, inert gases -- the only things not entirely frozen on that utterly frigid world. These gases -- that atmosphere of idescribably cold matter -- are Pluto's richest store. It is a vast, inexhaustible absorber of heat, with all the vast, cold mass of Pluto as a reserve to draw on.

On Pluto, chemical plants will be established, plants taking advantage of impossible reactions, things that cannot happen on Earth. Atomic power will permit the warming of human habitations, but in the chemical plants reactions will take place within a few degrees of the absolute zero. On Earth the production of these low temperatures, say 1° absolute, is a tremendously difficult and costly proposition.* Experiments at these temperatures have seldom been attempted. But here, the production of those lows will be a simple matter, where direct cooling fins can throw off unlimited quantities of heat to a whole atmosphere, the rocks of a whole planet at -230° C.

What type of chemical operation could pay for that immense journey of 3,000,000,000 miles against the Sun's gravity? In the first place, remember that by the time a ship has passed the orbit of Saturn, the hill is leveling off, still climbing true enough, but at 1,000,000,000 miles even solar gravity is loosing its grip.

True, the journey would take years for the round trip. Costs would be high, enormously so. But -- suppose the product carried on that return trip, the result of that years-long stubborn battle with solar gravity weighed only 5 or 10 pounds? 5 or 10 pounds, perhaps, of some glandular extract, synthesized under conditions that make impossible oxidation reactions easy, unheard-of condensation processes normal. Where metallic sodium is an inert substance from which reaction chambers may be constructed, if desired!

Those chemical plants wouldn't be making hundred-ton lots of sulphuric acid, or carload shipments of calcium acetate. They would specialize in the production of the finest of fine chemicals: hormones such as those that can cure a hæmophiliac almost miraculously, or plant hormones that can stimulate growth to a monstrous degree, when present in such dilution that only the infinitely sensitive life chemistry of the plants themselves can detect its presence.

One pound of such stuff might sell for a million, five million dollars, yet be an economic, wealth-producing factor of economic civilization. Divided among half a billion purchasers, it would still be a potent, valuable substance, the stuff that living animals produce in billionth-gram lots.

Or the laboratories there on ultracold Pluto might at last produce the strange molecules that, on Earth, are so sensitive and strangely unstable that they are known as life. The secret, sensitive proteins that make and are life could exist as stable molecules in laboratories chilled far, far below the temperature of liquid air.

To dissolve tissue for toxicological examination, the chemist uses concentrated nitric and sulphuric acid, and requires twenty-four hours. The dog's stomach employs no such vicious reagents, and accomplishes the solution, not by mere destruction, in two hours. Man is handicapped by the very power of his tools. At those temperatures, where his too-clumsy reagents are stilled down to workable agents, reactions differ.

Perhaps, in days to come, Pluto, the ultrafrozen world, will be the new incubator of life -- synthetic life.

So much more
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