Commentary | The Inevitability of Extraterrestrial Mining

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I am honored to provide the counterpoint to my esteemed colleague Ambassador Roger Harrison’s negative contention concerning the mining of extraterrestrial materials off of planet Earth

Let’s begin with his ending:

“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. … Asteroids will continue unvexed in their obits, and the Moon too.”

I bring a different quote, from the book “Empire Express,” the story of the intercontinental railroad, from U.S. Army Lt. Zebulon Pike, for whom Pike’s Peak is named: “In various places there were tracts of many leagues, where the wind had thrown up sand in all the fanciful forms of the ocean’s rolling wave, and on which not a spear of vegetable matter existed.” Pike’s visions of sand dunes, pathless wastes and sterile soils were reported, widely read and faithfully believed by geographers. 

The myth became innocently embellished by subsequent visitors, especially those in the party of Maj. Stephen H. Long, who traversed the whole area in 1820. It was reported to be “an unfit residence for any but a nomad population … forever to remain the unmolested haunt of the native hunter, the bison, and the jackal.”

The delicious irony is that Mr. Harrison today lives in the shadow of Pike’s Peak, and the U.S. Air Force Academy where he teaches is in the middle of the confidently prophesied unmolested haunt. 

When Long’s report was written, the Erie Canal across New York was five years from completion and it was another 31 years before the first railroad was completed across the state.

Mr. Harrison’s technical objections are for the most part valid today for his scenario, just as objections to a railroad across the North American continent were valid in the 1820s. However, technology is being developed today that will enable extraterrestrial mining, manufacturing and development just as technology was developed that would enable the creation of the national railroad.  

Mr. Harrison says it is an illusion that we are running out of resources. He is correct. That is not our claim. The claim is that extraction costs of economically viable terrestrial resources are rising dramatically and may soon exceed the cost of extraction from much more plentiful extraterrestrial sources. Today rapidly advancing costs and diminishing returns are rapidly redefining mining due to diminishing ore grades. This fact is developed in a 2012 distinguished lecture by Dan Wood before the Society of Environmental Geologists, “Crucial Challenges to Discovery and Mining — Tomorrow’s Deeper Ore Bodies.” This is a vitally important issue to solve as resource conflict has been the impetus for most wars in human history.  

We live in a global civilization of over 7 billion people, which will expand to over 9 billion before plateauing in mid-century.  While American politicians are not paying attention to what this means, the rest of the world is noticing. Gross domestic product (GDP) growth and increasing global resource demand are addressed in “Iron Ore Outlook 2050,” a report commissioned for the Indian government. The GDP of the major powers (the United States, Europe, China, India and Japan) is forecast to rise from $48 trillion in 2010 to $149 trillion by 2050. The report’s substance is that with this massive increase in global GDP, an intensifying scramble for metal resources is inevitable.

If the trend of resource consumption demand increase continues unabated, there are three likely potential outcomes. The first is collapse, forecast by the “Limits to Growth” school of thought. The second and more likely scenario is fierce national economic competition leading to wars over diminishing resources. The third, and most desirable, is to increase the global resource base by the economic and industrial development of the inner solar system. 

Mr. Harrison uses cost as the primary reason that extraterrestrial mining will never happen by focusing on a straw man argument related to mining asteroids in orbits far from Earth. Just as the U.S. railroad infrastructure began on shorter routes with lower capital requirements and shorter payback periods, asteroid mining can begin with our nearest neighbor, the Moon, where telepresence robotics, high-bandwidth communications and a short three-day trip for humans negate his premise. We know from the Apollo samples that plentiful metallic asteroidal materials exist in the lunar highlands. We also know from several missions that extensive water, titanium, thorium, uranium, aluminum and native iron all exist on the Moon, in easily separable oxide form. Improvements in remote sensing data from current missions and computer modeling continue to increase the amount of potential asteroidal material on the Moon, increasing confidence in the Moon first premise.

The extensive resources of the Moon become the catalyst for an inner solar system-wide economy providing fuel, vehicles and the all-important experience in developing an industrial infrastructure off planet. The asteroids then become the force multiplier of inner solar system development with billions of tons of water, metals and free space energy from solar power. Mars figures in here as well as the second home of humanity, creating further demand for asteroidal resources, and providing something else that is becoming increasingly scarce on the Earth: hope for the future.

The technical barriers that Mr. Harrison points to are being overcome just as those of the 19th century were. New technology developments in 3-D printing, additive manufacturing and advanced robotics are breaking down the final barriers to exploiting off-planet resources and indeed the industrial development of the inner solar system. It is not a question if, it is a question of when, and by whom. 

Just as the Pacific Railway Act of 1862 was a primary catalyst for a century of American economic growth, it should be the role of government to develop policies and concrete legislation to support this development for the continued health of the American economy and the future of all mankind.  

 

Dennis Wingo is chief executive of Skycorp Inc., a company focused on advanced technologies and systems for space exploration and commercial markets.