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Why Would Anyone Invest in Interstellar Travel?

Alien, Avatar and Passengers are science fiction blockbusters with one thing in common. No, it’s not the earnings of the lead actors but the business model that underpins the plot. Each movie has a premise that involves long trips into space to transport something to or from Earth. In Alien the crew of the ship is towing a refinery back home. The refinery has been stocked with materials extracted from another planet. The concept of resource exploitation is revisited in Avatar, where the exomoon Pandora is mined for a mineral that has enormous value on Earth. Passengers has a related theme—a company called the Homestead Corp. operates spaceships that transport thousands of people on one-way trips to colonize new planets. Although science fiction aficionados will have no problem suspending belief about the technology imagined in each of these films, fans with a keen eye for profit may be left scratching their heads. The reason is simple. Each of the journeys in these films—and others that share a similar plot—is presumed to take decades. In Passengers, for example, each one-way trip takes 120 years—and herein lies the issue. With time frames like this, the business model that is the foundation for these movies—and many others like it—is unlikely to be viable because of the delay involved in paying back any initial investment in the venture. This is important because it starts to throw light on how interstellar exploration is likely to evolve. To understand this further, I talked with filmmaker James Cameron, who wrote, directed and produced Avatar. Cameron says the movie is more of a fable about how humans have treated Earth, and the plot hinged on the premise that the mineral mined on the planet was so valuable it made economic sense to transport it back. In reality Cameron says, “the best thing to bring back would be data—about new genomes, materials, etcetera.” He makes a valid point—sending data to Earth could simultaneously create tremendous value and negate the need for a ship to transport physical materials. Even financing a project that returns data rather than tangible cargo, however, has investment horizons that would make hardened long-term investors uneasy—even more so in an era where corporate longevity is declining. This is because since 1970 the average life of a company in the U.S. has nearly halved. If this trend continues, will any organization in the future survive long enough to be able to invest in projects that will outlast the average company? Leslie Hannah, professor [of Economic History at the London School of Economics and Political Science, points out that today it’s even hard to fund projects that have a 20-year payback. Hannah acknowledges there are some businesses operating today that have survived for hundreds of years. In the finance sector one of the largest of these is the British banking firm Barclays, which can trace its origins back to 1690. Read More: Scientific American Blog Network

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