After Andy Weir’s first book, The Martian, was turned into a Oscar-nominated movie, scientists weighed in on a few parts of the plot where Andy Weir had taken some fictional liberties. The storm that blows Mark Watney away from the rest of his crew? Totally illogical given the thin Martian atmosphere.
So when Weir set out to write his second book, Artemis, he spent a lot of time working out the science–and just as intriguing: the economics that will fuel space travel in the next decades. Although Weir tells Fast Company, “I don’t want to bore the reader with economics, I want to bore them with physics,” he did write an entire white paper about how he the monetary system on Artemis operates. The result is a book that will appeal to both space infrastructure nerds as well as economy wonks.
Sci-fi readers may not be as satisfied, as reviews of the book have been mixed at best. The AV Club said it should be “shot into space,” Entertainment Weekly described the characters as “chatty lawn-mower manuals with physics degrees,” and The New York Times called it “a 300-page film pitch.” Yes, the story has already been optioned for the big screen. And if the screenwriters can make the characters a bit less shallow and more believable, Artemis could be turned into an entertaining space caper.
But the details of the moon colony itself are thought through with an engineer’s precision. The mundane job of putting out fires in such a closed, highly oxygenated environment become fairly riveting in Weir’s telling. But before laying out how humans would build such an outpost, Weir says he set out to answer a more fundamental question: Why would anyone invest time and resources into establishing a lunar colony in the first place? “Artemis is a city,” he says. “The only time a city shows up is if there’s a significant economic reason for it. The right place on a river. The intersection of two major valleys.”
Or a tourist destination.
After a short rocket ride, visitors to Artemis get to look at some moon rocks, check out the original Apollo 11 landing site, buy a few trinkets, and experience life on a lunar outpost. Artemis offers destination packages for a mix of price points that appeal to travelers the world over.
As with any international tourist hotspot, you’ll have to exchange some of your currency on the way in. On Artemis, the money comes in denominations known as slugs, which is slang for S-L-G, or soft-landed grams.
What’s a slug worth? To figure it out, Weir started by assuming that the commercial space industry eventually drives the cost of space travel down to the point where it is as efficient as air travel. This is a fair assumption, since the first tourist flights are expected to cost around $250,000 and at least one former astronaut thinks that in the next decade suborbital flights will drop to around $15,000 a pop.
The cost of fuel, often assumed to be the costliest part of getting into orbit, is not that expensive. It’s the rest of the rocket, along with the facilities needed for launch and landing, that make the numbers begin to add up. For long-haul airline flights, Weir found that 16.5% of the ticket price goes to fuel, while 83.5% goes to everything else. It is safe to assume consumer space travel will achieve similar levels of efficiency over the next few decades.
Some back-of-the-envelope math means that it ends up costing around $7,000 per person to go into low Earth orbit, and $35 per kilogram for freight. Add another $160 per kilogram to soft-land on the surface of the moon.
Add it all together, and the cost per gram for getting something–a person or an object–landed on the moon can be calculated as an SLG. The conversion rate would be about 6 slugs for one 2015 dollar, at the time Weir did the research. That means a once-in-a-lifetime, two-week trip to the moon–staying at the fabulous Buzz Aldrin casino and hotel–would cost around $70,000 dollars in today’s money.
Artemis, however, is set six decades in the future. If you just can’t wait that long, there’s a Catalonian billionaire who is building a space-based “Galactic Hotel” right now. The cost of a three-day stay is estimated to run $4 million.
Which companies, I wondered, were most likely to achieve the vision set out in Artemis? Blue Origin, says Weir, has “what I consider the first viable economic model for putting humans in space.” While SpaceX is moving ahead quickly as well, they are mostly focusing on the commercial side of things. If Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin can get the price down into the thousands then they’ll have a mass commercial market, and can use the profits to fund development of the next generation of rockets, he says.