Commentary | Belaboring the Obvious
Platinum miners in South Africa struck last year over job cuts and wage reductions. The strike turned violent, and 34 strikers and police were killed before tentative order was restored. While this was going on, two companies in the United States announced plans to mine for minerals, on asteroids. Popular Mechanics officially blessed the idea in its August issue. Along with these announcements came a graphic artist’s conception of a monstrous device, all coiled girders and pipes, fastened like an intestinal fluke to some unidentified hunk of cosmic rock. It is a truism, of course, that graphic artists can put anything in space (not to mention in Popular Mechanics). But supposing it became reality, what could this wonderful machine suck through its umbilical that would amortize the cost of putting it there, with perhaps a little profit into the bargain? Platinum was mentioned, but would platinum pay? The experience of those South African miners has something to tell us about that.
On Earth, minerals are available to anyone able to dig or bore a hole in the ground. There’s an old Roman copper mine in an isolated wadi leading down to the Dead Sea where you can see a hole like that, and pick up a piece of slag a Roman slave dropped 2,000 years ago. Things are a little more complex now, but the rules of profitable mining remain the same: Keep costs low and variable, refine as closely as you can to the source, sell when prices are high, and shut down when prices are low.
All this is necessary because raw materials like copper, nickel, platinum or tin — the sorts of things you might find on asteroids — are commodities. Commodities trade on markets; prices vary, sometimes wildly. It was a drop in platinum prices that brought the job and salary cuts that caused those South African miners to strike, but even with Dickensian labor practices, platinum mining on Earth is not a hugely profitable business. This is true though terrestrial mine owners operate in the most favorable circumstances imaginable: air to breathe, cheap labor to exploit, markets close by and an ozone layer to protect humans and machines alike against destructive radiation.
Miners of asteroids would have none of these advantages. Their infrastructure would be staggeringly expensive, their costs fixed, their machines of necessity built to work at zero gravity in extremes of radiation and temperature that can’t even be simulated on Earth. Before the first ounce of platinum, chromium or tin issued forth from their extraterrestrial refinery (for they, like those Roman copper miners, would have to refine on the spot), they would have spent many hundreds of billions of dollars, with many billions more on tap to operate and maintain their machines in the toxic sea that is space.
Then there are shipping costs. Like the fairy tale Jack with his cow, miners of asteroids would have to get their product to market, and that means back to Earth. NASA plans an asteroid sample-return mission to bring 60 grams of material back from an asteroid. Cost per gram: more than $13 million. Imagine an operation 1,000 times more efficient. Now your cost would be $13,000 per gram — and that’s just to get your product to where you can sell it.
Director James Cameron had his little joke about that kind of cost structure in the movie “Avatar.” What paid for that heavy-metal, mechanized invasion to dispossess the gentle tree people? Why, “unobtainium,” of course, the stuff dreams are made of.
How about the scarcity argument? Aren’t we running out of things? In 1980, Paul Erhlich bet Julian Simon that we were, and that the price of copper, chromium, nickel, tin and tungsten would be higher in 10 years. He lost. All trended down; tin continued to fall for another 10 years. Nickel went up after 1990, then dropped off a cliff, falling from $52,000 per metric ton to $10,000 from 2007 to 2009. Platinum, chiefly used for the prosaic purpose of cleaning automotive exhaust, was as high as $2,000 per troy ounce in the last decade, but went to half that before recovering to $1,500. There are abundant supplies of all of these things in Earth’s crust, and great amounts would become economical to mine (or reuse) at prices far below those you would have to get to make your asteroid-sourced materials profitable.
Remember the energy crisis? If you do, the scarcity argument should give you pause.
Perhaps abundant new supplies of whatever you harvest from space would increase the demand for whatever it is. That worked for the British in the opium trade with China. It worked for aluminum too, but only because aluminum is extremely versatile, and technology reduced its price many fold. The business plan for asteroid mining, by contrast, depends on the price of its products skyrocketing astronomically. If that happened, demand would fall and substitutes would appear. In the technical jargon of the dismal science, the miner would “lose his shirt.”
Yes, but how about helium-3? There is some, but not much, on Earth. More is supposed to exist in strata on the Moon. It would be very useful in commercial-size thermonuclear reactors, and the latter would create power — as the old nuclear industry slogan goes — too cheap to meter. But there are problems. First, there are no thermonuclear reactors, and none appear to be on the horizon; the technology is beyond us, and getting no closer. Second, most research into thermonuclear reactors assumes deuterium as fuel, and there is a lot of deuterium within the atmosphere. That leaves helium-3 to fuel what it is best at fueling, which are fantasies about mining operations on the Moon.
Mining in space for use in space is a final possibility. In theory, that might be cheaper than bringing the same things from Earth. But that’s only in theory, since no one really knows, or will find out for many generations to come. In any case, it isn’t a way to make money, only to spend less of it.
The conclusion is inescapable, though liable to be escaped, i.e., that raw materials will never be mined in space and sold profitably within the atmosphere or anywhere else. There are plenty of things of interest in space beyond geostationary orbit, but nothing of economic value. Thus, asteroids will continue unvexed in their obits, and the Moon too, if we’re lucky. Generations now unimagined will be able to look at our celestial partner in wonder, without seeing a strip mine. That is a very good thing. As for our species, we will be confined for our sustenance to those things already present on this wonderful planet we’ve been given, trusting in human ingenuity to supply our wants — and perhaps spiritual wisdom to moderate them. But there is a group that will profit. There will always be a dime to be made in space by graphic artists.
Roger G. Harrison is publisher of the journal Space and Defense and a former director of the Eisenhower Center for Space and Defense Studies at the Air Force Academy.