What's the Big Idea?
Just as explorers during the Age of Discovery established new trade routes in pursuit of resources such as gold, silver and spices, the future explorers of space will be chasing unimaginable riches. As Peter Diamandis told the International Space Development Conference, “There are twenty-trillion-dollar checks up there, waiting to be cashed!” These cosmic cash cows are so-called Near-Earth asteroids that contain a wide range of precious resources.
Sure, this may sound a lot like the movie Avatar, in which the RDA Corporation mined the mineral unobtanium on the planet of Pandora. But this is no pie-in-the-sky idea. Twenty trillion USD is the estimated market value of a relatively small metallic asteroid that was first calculated by John S. Lewis in his book Mining The Sky: Untold Riches from the Asteroids, Comets, and Planets. Lewis argued that "using presently available or readily foreseeable technologies, we can relieve Earth of its energy problem, make astronomical amounts of raw materials available, and raise the living standard of people worldwide."
Peter Diamandis, who founded the non-profit X Prize Foundation to create a rewards incentive program to bring about "radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity," believes the enormous financial opportunities in space will spur innovation. He notes that everything we hold of value, "the things we fight wars over," such as metals, minerals and real estate, exist "in infinite quantities in space."
What's the significance?
While the idea of mining space for resources is not a new one, we are closer than ever today to realizing that reality. As NASA is set to retire its space shuttle fleet and get out of the business of developing and operating its own spacecraft, it will rely on private companies to transport its astronauts to the orbiting International Space Station. Already this has created an enormous opening for commercial space enterprises. In the coming decades, according to Diamandis, we will see "private companies and private teams making b-lines for the moon."
Bretton Alexander, President of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation noted the historic change that is expected to happen later this year. After the final space shuttle mission of the Endeavor, "the next vehicle to carry astronauts into space from Florida's Space Coast will be a commercial spacecraft," he said.
Diamandis sees a promising price improvement curve as what used to take one billion dollars and twenty thousand people to get a space shuttle into orbit can now happen with "a team of twenty people funded by a single individual." In the evolution of space travel, he says "the military industrial complex of Boeing, Lockheed and NASA are the dinosaurs" and today's entrepreneurs are "the furry mammals."
Why Should I Care?
Asteroids represent a dual threat and opportunity for humanity. In the starkest terms, an asteroid collision could lead to the extinction of the human race, as presented in this terrifying computer-simulated video. And yet, asteroids also represent an opportunity for the salvation of the human race. Asteroids contain a wide range of resources, including nickel-iron metal, silicate minerals, trapped or frozen gasses, and water, which could be utilized by a spacecraft's steam propulsion rocket for a return trip to Earth. Asteroids have also been thought of as a possible site for the colonization of space. After all, it was the impact of asteroids that transformed life on Earth and may have made human life possible in the first place.
As Peter Diamandis has noted, there are many motivations for going to space. It was curiosity that drove NASA's budgets for fifty years. Another fundamental motivator to go to space is to back up the biosphere. Diamandis suggests that we "record all of the genomes on this planet, all the works of art, and back it up off earth."
Twenty trillion dollars isn't bad motivation either, and the drive to create wealth from space may very well prove the key to human survival and our future prosperity.
Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @DanielHonan