Leadership in space drifting away, leaving private investors to pick up the charge.
When Planetary Resources rolled out its ambitious plans last week, Paul Allen tweeted, “Asteroid mining is an audacious idea and we need more of these.”
Allen’s got cred. In 2004, the co-founder of Microsoft was the sole investor in SpaceShipOne, a suborbital craft that won the $10 million Ansari X Prize competition. He is also behind Stratolaunch, which wants to build a giant aircraft that would be a rocket-launch platform.
Like Allen and many of the company’s billionaire backers, I am a child of the Space Age. We had no doubt that by now humans would be on Mars if not, as Star Trek’s Capt. Kirk said, “on a thousand planets and spreading out.”
Instead, we got two wars, the worst downturn since the Great Depression and the America’s manned-flight program essentially shut down.
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Planetary Resources, headquartered in Bellevue, is the most important effort to come from President Obama’s call for greater private-sector involvement in space exploration. It’s certainly more consequential than low-Earth-orbit “space” tourism.
The company has the scratch, with backing from billionaires such as Google’s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, Ross Perot Jr. and former Microsoft chief architect Charles Simonyi. It’s got star power with film director James Cameron.
Scientific gravitas comes from the likes of planetary scientist Sara Seager, former astronaut Tom Jones and Chief Executive Chris Lewicki, former NASA Mars mission leader. And a starship of space entrepreneurial talent, such as Peter Diamandis, who started the X Prize Foundation.
In other words, Planetary Resources seems like the real deal, not a flash in the public-relations wormhole.
Whether this turns Seattle into the “Silicon Valley of space” is another matter. We’d better get a few billionaires to bankroll a Seattle version of Stanford and bulk up funding at the University of Washington to even make a start. Still, it’s a nice thought, a worthy aspiration if backed by serious actions.
What might it take to make a serious space cluster?
Allen’s space interest adds heft. Although most of his jobs will be in Alabama, maybe some of the brainpower could come here. Also promising is Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, which since 2010 has won $26 million in NASA money to develop a next-generation spacecraft. We also have Boeing, a major space player, and its ecosystem of suppliers and aerospace expertise. More federal research money would help.
But the competition is tough, especially with entrenched space hubs such as Houston and Huntsville, Ala.
The basic business seems possible for very patient money: using robots to mine asteroids for precious metals, such as platinum, palladium and iridium. These costly materials are used in everything from medical instruments to renewable energy.
According to Wired’s science blog, mining a single, half-mile asteroid could produce as much as $6 billion in platinum. Some asteroids are thought to contain as much platinum as is produced on this planet in a year.
And the asteroids are out there. According to NASA, close to 9,000 asteroids bigger than 150 feet in diameter orbit near the Earth. (Wish we were funding an asteroid-protection effort.)
The project contains many uncertainties. What is property or mineral law in space? Could a profit be turned, considering the huge outlays necessary to reach and mine asteroids, much less return the commodities to Earth? Would return on investment ever reach acceptable levels? Could it avoid the busts of the 19th century mining industry? Apparently some very smart people think so.
Planetary Resources and the other entrepreneurial efforts face some big competition filling the hole left by NASA’s drop from warp drive in the 1960s to impulse power today.
Lockheed Martin has studied a project called Plymouth Rock, which would send astronauts to an asteroid, as a dress rehearsal for a Mars mission. Boeing has a space-exploration division based in Houston. Among other things, it is designing a reusable space capsule.
These contractors will want NASA money. But it is in short supply when the government is running a deficit and, more important, run by special interests who don’t care about the human future in space.
In 2011, for the first time China launched more rockets into orbit than the United States. But Russia launched more rockets into orbit than either country.
To be sure, Washington holds a big technological advantage and spends heavily on the defense applications of rockets and satellites.
Defense played a role in the Space Race, but so did the hunger for discovery and progress. President Eisenhower, whose top tax rate was 90 percent, used the Soviet launch of the little Sputnik satellite to embark the nation on a course of astounding leadership in research and science.
President Kennedy famously said in 1962, and Americans believed, “We choose to go to the moon … and do the other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
President Obama mentioned our own “Sputnik moment” in his 2011 State of the Union address. Yet more Americans today don’t even trust science, the space shuttles are headed to museums and there is no vision for U.S. leadership in space.
This is a crippling deficit that private ventures alone can’t overcome.
Private-sector involvement in American space exploration goes back nearly to its inception. Project Apollo required 500 contractors, Boeing being the prime contractor for the first stage of the mighty Saturn V rocket. North American built the second stage and McDonnell Douglas the third.
But market forces alone can’t heal our faltering sense of national mission or common determination. So while Planetary Resources is stirring and even generous, it won’t lead the next phase of humanity’s destiny in space. That may come from China or India.
Often overlooked in Kennedy’s immortal speech is where he said, “The exploration of space will go ahead whether we join in it or not.”
He had the answer: “We mean to be a part of it. We mean to lead it.” He talked about “our obligations to ourselves as well as to others,” requiring us to make the effort to explore and solve the mysteries of space.
But that was another America. When everything didn’t have a price tag.
You may reach Jon Talton at email@example.com.