Planetary Resources introductory promotional video below. Obviously there are lots of technical hurdles (as well as financial ones), but this is great stuff.
I wasn't sure until their announcement, but it seems that this endeavor will be solely robotic in nature. (In the Q&A, they did say they may collaborate with NASA on future manned asteroid missions. Indeed, the entire venture is proposed as a public/private partnership.) But if they are successful, Planetary Resources will establish the infrastructure that will enable a fuel depot strategy for human exploration of points beyond. Getting whatever metals they may be able to produce for the Earth market will be very costly to return given current technology. Billions of $$$ of platinum metals back on Earth would be phase two (and tricky). Harvesting water, electrolzying that into hydrogen and oxygen to create fuel depots is highly likely to be the major part of PR's initial phase of their business model. PR would be able to provide gas and water to NASA and others in cislunar space, and human spaceflight will become vastly more economic.
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — By doubling its investment in NASA, the U.S. government could recapture the public’s Apollo-era fascination with space travel while spurring new inventions that energize the economy, celebrity astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson said April 17.
In 1961, when then-U.S. President John F. Kennedy issued his bold challenge to land an American on the Moon by the end of the decade, the national appetite for science, invention and exploration was palpable. It seeped into nearly every corner of the culture, from sci-fi movies to car fins mimicking rocket ships. “Everybody was dreaming about tomorrow,” remembered Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium, author and opening speaker of the 28th National Space Symposium here.
In the 40 years since the manned lunar exploration program ended, however, dreams shifted and the public’s enthusiasm waned. But it can be resurrected, Tyson insisted. The challenge for today’s space industry, amid deeply divisive politics, federal budgetary woes and an unconvinced public, is to try to recreate excitement but to also understand that not everyone is going to share the vision. “Non-space people don’t feel the same way [we do],” he acknowledged. “The old arguments are tired. We need new arguments.”
A crossover sensation of part science geek, part rock star, Tyson has carved out a unique place in today’s pop culture landscape as he spreads the message of space travel everywhere from “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” to a cameo on the sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.”
In his signature fiery yet amiable style, Tyson firmly rejects the prevailing wisdom that the economy cannot support renewed space travel and that NASA is merely an outdated vanity special-interest project. That thinking needs to be combated at every turn, he said. “This is not a handout but an investment,” he said. The industry must do a better job of reminding the public how important space technology is to our everyday life, from GPS in our cars to weather forecasting. “You talk about ways that space matters to people who don’t care about space,” he said.
An impressive group of entrepreneurs and investors led by Peter Diamandis and Eric Anderson and including Google's Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, director James Cameron, Charles Simonyi, and Ross Perot Jr. will hold a press conference next week to announce a new extraterrestrial mining venture called Planetary Resources, Inc. The presser will be on April 24 at Seattle's Museum of Flight.
The Planetary Resources press release says that
the company will overlay two critical sectors – space exploration and natural resources – to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP. This innovative start-up will create a new industry and a new definition of ‘natural resources’.
If successful, the venture would extend the Earth's econosphere beyond geosynchronous orbit into cislunar, lunar, and deep space. Technology Review speculates that this endeavor
...sounds like asteroid mining. Because what else is there in space that we need here on earth? Certainly not a livable climate or a replacement for our dwindling supplies of oil.
Peter Diamandis gave a TED talk in 2005 on the desire for wealth being the next great motivation for space exploration. He specifically mentions asteroid mining and notes that "everything we hold of value on this planet — metal and minerals and real estate and energy" are available in "infinite quantities" in space.
My plan is to actually buy puts on the precious metal market, and then actually claim that I'm going to go out and get one. And that will fund the actual mission to go and get one.
Nickle-iron resources would certainly imply asteroids, but he also makes a slightly tongue in cheek reference to wanting to "make a beeline for the moon and grab some lunar real estate". So pace Tech Review's comment, that could mean helium-3 (fusion energy) or platinum group metals (hydrogen energy). Or eventually some combination of those.
Note however that the technical challenges of mining an asteroid are very high. The very low gravity conditions are riskier and require untested methods than similar kinds of proposed mining endeavors on the moon. We've been to the moon, it has gravity. We haven't been to an asteroid, and stuff floats around. At the ILRP Summit Meeting last year I had a conversation with someone from NASA Ames about a proposed concept to essentially put a big bag bubble over a small asteroid to allow processing its minerals without stuff flying off and becoming a hazard to the spacecraft. Mining the moon would seem much more feasible in the medium term, although an asteroid would largely avoid the international kerfluffle that is likely to surround a property/resource claim on the moon.
My first take is that asteroids are still NASA-level stuff, but A. I would love to be wrong or B. perhaps they're envisioning this as some sort of NASA-private partnership. We shall see. But what a fascinating and unexpected announcement. Given the caliber of the individuals involved in this venture, this is exciting stuff. Tickets are available, and I will be there at the streaming.
A couple of thoughts on the last post (which re-posted Doug Messier's notes - HT to Doug) on Robert Bigelow's speech at the ISPCS 2011.
China is still a long way away from being able to land humans on the moon. They've still yet to master orbital rendezvous (which is the whole point behind their Tiangong program). This isn't to question China's capacity to do either, it's just that it's not quite so easy or going to be so quick that the rest of the world is going to wake up with a Sputnik surprise one day. China is moving slowly, methodically, and strategically. They've got definite momentum, but they are also very concerned about not moving too quickly and having a disaster that would be a major loss of face. (In Asian cultures, "losing face" is one of the worst things that can happen.)
To those who point out the role of China's army (the PLA) in their country's space program, that's a legitimate point. PLA involvement bears scrutiny. But America's military certainly benefitted from NASA programs. Although NASA is civilian, the U.S. Department of Defense has worked with NASA since its inception as well. All space technologies are dual-use. Once a human spaceflight program becomes a more distinct endeavor than just mastering rocket/LEO technologies, the dual-use factor becomes progressively less important (though never goes away completely). Despite what people may think from previews of the upcoming sci-fi movie Iron Sky, you can't launch an army from the Moon to invade Earth.
In a separate post I'll have some comments about it, but for now I will re-post Doug's summary of Bigelow's remarks (everything it italics is from Doug's post):
Space business is about to change….a new gunslinger in town, he’s not American, and he’s aiming at Solar System monopoly….he’s started to play the game, but we’re not even aware it’s happening… In about 15 years, that game will end…
America has become weaker, not stronger, over the last 20 years….we will spend the next five years trying to recover from the recession…Are we weaker than we were in 1969, how close are we to being relegated to the number 2 position in the world across the board…
Who will be in the charge as the dominant force? China.
Musk's statement (see previous post) addresses a question that many people have about SpaceX: can their cost structure really be that much lower than the other traditional big launch operators, and if so, how? If Musk is right, then we have been getting overbilled on a massive scale for decades.
SpaceX promises the dream of low-cost access to space. As Fox Mulder would say, We Want To Believe, but the promise almost seems too good to be true. While the SpaceX track record thus far includes some launch delays, as Doug Messier points out, that's common and indeed expected. NASA's early days of rocket testing didn't exactly inspire confidence. (Anyone care to go over the history of Space Shuttle launch delays being the norm rather than the exception? Didn't think so.) The fact that SpaceX joins a list of just three other entities (USSR/Russia, the U.S., and China) in launching a capsule into space and returning it safely is not something to sneeze at. This is rocket science, and if you haven't heard, it's, well, rocket science.
The author Neal Stephenson recently wrote, in a riveting (no pun intended) essay in on the current and future state of rocket technology in Slate.com, that:
...our current proficiency in rocket-building is the result of a hill-climbing approach; we started at one place on the technological landscape—which must be considered a random pick, given that it was chosen for dubious reasons by a maniac—and climbed the hill from there, looking for small steps that could be taken to increase the size and efficiency of the device. Sixty years and a couple of trillion dollars later, we have reached a place that is infinitesimally close to the top of that hill. Rockets are as close to perfect as they're ever going to get. For a few more billion dollars we might be able to achieve a microscopic improvement in efficiency or reliability, but to make any game-changing improvements is not merely expensive; it's a physical impossibility.
Arthur C. Clarke apparently believed America's smartest people were wasting their time on banking, law, and insurance instead of the space program:
...I came across a searing indictment by Clarke on the American capitalist system. After observing that the structure of American society may be unfitted for the effort that the conquest of space demands he continued, "No nation can afford to divert its ablest men into essentially non-creative and occasionally parasitic occupations such as law, insurance and banking". He also referred to a photograph in Life Magazine showing 7,000 engineers massed behind a new model car they had produced as ‘a horrifying social document’. He was appalled by the squandering of technical manpower it represented.
Especially in light of the post-mortems of the 2008 global financial meltdown, when it became apparent that the best and the brightest mathmaticians out of Harvard et al. were being hired by Wall Street to engineer extremely complicated algorithms for derivatives trading, it's kind of hard to argue with his point. In the early 1980s there was a strategic shift in America away from manufacturing and towards the so-called FIRE (financial, insurance, and real estate) sector. More complicated than we need to go in here, but this obviously had profound consequences (both good and bad). There is certainly a very compelling case to be made that this strategic shift needs to be corrected for the general health of the American economy, and not just because it would benefit U.S. human spaceflight.
There was a very interesting article in Harper's Magazine a couple of years ago on this (FIRE) subject, but the gist is that we have misallocated our human capital towards relatively non-productive (but get-rich-quick) sectors like finance, in order to achieve what was putatively thought to be a more efficient allocation of resources in a global economy. In other words, this was the first stage of Globalization: we do the white collar stuff and let the Less Developed Countries manufacture stuff. If we want to change strategic direction, we should do it for other reasons and not just because we want to build cool spaceships that go to Jupiter.