Thursday, April 26, 2012

Everything We Hold of Value

The company Planetary Resources, and their plans to mine asteroids for gold, platinum and water, have been all over the news and the blogosphere the past few days. Now that I've stopped jumping up and down in excitement, here are a few thoughts I've had.

I) This is yet another piece of evidence to counter Tom Murphy's idea that the space age is over. As such, it's also another piece of evidence against his idea that growth must stop.

II) The announcement came just days after the space shuttle Discovery's last flight over DC on her way to the Smithsonian, and while the other shuttles are still being sent out to their final resting places. I can think of no better timing-- and indeed, maybe this was intentional-- to symbolize the transition from public to private. Space exploration is no longer the sole domain of government. As the private sector takes over, the industry will grow like never before.

III) The venture very well may fail. As the New York Times notes, it wouldn't be the first time a company had aimed to mine asteroids only to fail before getting there. That kind of thing happens in the private sector. It also happens in the public sector, with one very important difference. When Solyndra failed, it took with it my money, as well as yours, if you're an American taxpayer. The continuing failure of the United States Postal Service keeps taking taxpayer money with no end in sight. But if Planetary Resources fails, the only people who will lose money are those who are running it.

IV) One piece of evidence cited by reporters and bloggers as a reason they'll fail is NASA's upcoming OSIRIS-REx mission, which is spending a billion dollars to bring back just two ounces of material from a near-Earth asteroid. If they succeed, it will be an amazing example of the private sector's ability to do the same thing government does only cheaper. And even if they fail, they will surely develop some technologies along the way that will make things easier and cheaper for NASA's next asteroid mission, as well as the rest of the private space industry.

V) If they succeed, the added supply of gold will wreak havoc on any country using gold as a base for their currency. Anyone who still wants to go back to the gold standard needs to convince themselves that Planetary Resources-- and any successor companies-- will fail.

VI) In related news, a Canadian company recently got its first customer for material mined from the bottom of the sea near Papua New Guinea, with what they say is the "world's first commercial sea-floor mine." They're planning to begin operations in 2013. With mining on the bottom of the sea and in space, in a couple decades everything we now think is rare will be plentiful.

I'll close this with a quote from Peter Diamandis, one of the billionaires backing this enterprise: "If you look back historically at what has caused humanity to make its largest investments in exploration and in transportation, it has been going after resources, whether it's the Europeans going after the spice routes or the American settlers looking toward the west for gold, oil, timber or land. Those precious resources caused people to make huge investments in ships and railroads and pipelines. Looking to space, everything we hold of value on Earth - metals, minerals, energy, real estate, water - is in near-infinite quantities in space."


  1. You beat me to a post about Planetary Resources... cool stuff! I hadn't heard about the sea-floor mining, either.

    The only thing I want to add to the discussion about public/private space innovation is that this is just the latest (and by far the most ambitious) in a growing line of private space initiatives, from Elon Musk's SpaceX (scheduled to launch to the ISS on May 7, I believe) to Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin. We seem to be entering an interesting phase where the rich get richer... and the rich use their wealth to fund ambitious space projects that have the potential to benefit all of humanity.

    I'm not placing my expectations too high on some of this stuff, as the odds seem enormous, but I'm very much excited for every development.

  2. You're absolutely right! I think it's all very exciting, even though SpaceX keeps hitting delays on that launch you mentioned. There's also the ongoing Google Lunar X Prize competition which I think will lead to some new innovations once it's won.

    And then there's my personal favorite, Copenhagen Suborbitals, a nonprofit building a rocket to send a human to space on a budget of tens of thousands of dollars rather than tens of millions.