2191 100,000 in Space

100,000 people live in orbit, on the moon and in interplanetary space.

Many work to extract raw materials from the moon and from near earth asteroids. Their work being dangerous, not everyone returns.

Actually, modern technology made working in space much safer. It protects against the deadly radiation outside the earth's magnetic field. Life support is much more compact and reliable than 200 years ago during the first "spacewalks". The spacesuits are also much more damage resistant due to new materials. However, in the asteroid mining business, there are so many risk factors that accidents still happen. Taking serious efforts many risks could be reduced, but this would amount to extraordinary costs. So, companies trying to provide a perfectly safe work environment would not competitive.

Human spaceflight has always been a trade-off between safety and cost. Absolute safety is not possible. Though the risk can be reduced with investments in equipment and personnel. The actual cost depends on the risk of failure that the stakeholders are willing to take.

In the early days of spaceflight, when the media closely followed all manned missions, attempts were made to limit the risk of fatal accidents to 1%. That means one dead astronaut on 100 missions. To achieve this goal early space organizations had to invest about 500 million dollars for each astronaut. 200 years later that much is no longer necessary. With 100,000 people in vacuum jobs it would not be possible either.

Despite much better technology and scale economies which make everything cheaper, vacuum applications are still expensive if certain safety standards are to be met. Safety and costs are still to be weighed against each other. 200 years after the first clumsy steps in orbit, missions have become safer, but a job in orbital resource extraction is still orders of magnitude more dangerous than other jobs.

At the end of the 22nd century a mission risk of 0.1% can be achieved at reasonable costs. The term "mission risk" is defined as a stay in orbit for several weeks with some external work, as it was 200 years before. This 0.1% risk is nominally 10 times better than in the early days of space travel. In practice this number is deceiving because the job description has changed. The first astronauts conducted three missions on average. In doing so, they accumulated a total risk of 3%. That was considered to be justified by the dream of travelling into space as an astronaut.

Now, modern vacuum workers are more likely to have 10 such mission assignments per year. Extra vehicular activities are a lot more numerous often being the normal daily work after all. The missions are not as precisely planned as they were in the early days and the performance demanded per shift has increased. On the other hand, workers staying in space for a long time, there is no need for risky ascents to orbit on slow-burning 1000-ton bombs and no less risky meteorite-like landings.

The advantage of not being subjected to dangerous ascents and descents is offset by the fact that vacuum workers have to risk their lives in EVAs every day. Over time, their total risk may amount to 10% or 20%, and for some even 30%, depending on equipment, training, and work ethics.

While the space agencies of Earth’s governments and the military in close Earth orbit keep standards reasonably high, the situation in commercial asteroid mining is somewhere between problematic and precarious. Asteroid mining companies basically have to find a balance between security costs and replacement costs, ultimately between the cost of keeping workers alive to do their jobs and the cost of bringing in new trained workers from the Earth's gravity well. The lives of the workers themselves play a secondary role in their calculations.

Among the 100,000 people in the vacuum are tourists, military personnel and orbital construction workers. Only about one-tenth are on dangerous resource extraction jobs where accidents are commonplace. A full fifth of those vacuum workers does not return alive. The job is correspondingly unpopular. On the other hand, it is highly paid. Salaries do not play a major role compared to all the other costs of space operations. Morale is low. Everyone knows that the job is a kind of Russian roulette. They either return rich or they don't return at all.

At the end of the 22nd century prices for orbital raw materials sink due to increasing competition from more mining companies. With shrinking margins investments go down, worsening the security situation even more. It then becomes almost impossible to recruit enough well-trained engineers for asteroid jobs. Only people who have no choice, who are heavily indebted or, for whatever reason, want to disappear, still volunteer for these jobs. That is why some states and companies resort to recruiting prisoners serving long term sentences.