Sunday, January 27, 2013

Asteroid Mining for Fun and Profit

Editor's Note: This is Andy Tisdel, proprietor of Tisdel's Tirades, talking. This post probably has nothing to do with FEMA Corps, and does not reflect the opinions of a majority of FEMA Corps Team Summit 5; it is nothing more or less than an ordinary blog post.

It's official: as of January 22nd, 2013, there are two separate companies with a plan to mine near-Earth asteroids within a decade. The unambiguously named Deep Space Industries wants to "build a fleet of robotic ships to extract resources for fuel and to mine valuable minerals from asteroids" by 2016, while Planetary Resources wants to have a space-based fuel depot by 2020. The stated goals of each company are pretty much the same: scout out profitable near-Earth asteroids, send robots out to take samples and then mine them, ship the resources back to Earth. If you find water, you have hydrogen, and perhaps you can use that to refine fuel for a depot that satellites and NASA vehicles and so forth can use. 

All well and good. But I want to think bigger. 

As pointed out, one cannot simply ship boatloads of valuable minerals back to earth without their prices crashing. Getting enough to make a profit, but not enough to wreck the market, would be really difficult. I'm no economist, but it would seem to me that you'd need a demand commensurate with the supply of what you're getting. Rare earths, gold and platinum will get you the most bang for the cost of shipping it back, but materials that can be used to make spacecraft or fuel--products usable in space--might be the biggest moneymakers.

That's where orbital manufacturing comes in. Way down in the Deep Space Industries article, they mention a "microgravity foundry" 3-D printer that's capable of manufacturing goods in space. That's the real ticket to both a profitable enterprise and an ever-expanding space industry. The biggest problem to putting things in space is the enormous fuel and monetary costs of getting out of Earth's gravity well; you have to resort to stacking your cargo atop a gigantic, expensive rocket, or else piggybacking off a 747. Manufacturing in space--say, solar panels or spacecraft parts--cuts down on the mass you have to lift, which slashes your costs. Now, with sufficiently advanced manufacturing technology, you can make satellite, spacecraft and space station parts and equipment in space, for your clients on the ground. All they have to do is send you the blueprints and pay a fee. If you can bring home sufficient resources, you might even start to turn a profit. 

Orbital manufacturing can't solve every problem, of course. You still need cheap, reliable spaceplanes--ground-to-space delivery craft--for the space tourism industry, and some components will prove difficult or impossible to fabricate in space. Getting a viable, self-sustaining (if incomplete) space-based economy is, however, a major step on the journey of humanity moving further and further into space. 

This post doesn't really have an overriding thesis, but it does bring to mind a few things I've read over the past year or so. There's a school of thought out there that successfully landing on the moon was the worst thing that could happened to NASA; without a huge, sexy, competitive goal to go after, the agency has been withering ever since. There's only so much political capital for an agency like NASA, which fiscal critics who fancy themselves clever could deride as 'throwing money down a black hole', and that places a cap on how much they can do. National governments can only throw so much money at something that doesn't directly benefit their people (although there are plenty of indirect benefits). 

That's where the profit motive comes in. I've been reading a book called Freedom's Forge, a very business-friendly account of how American businessmen overrode a weak, fumbling FDR and his New Dealer henchmen to give America the tools to win World War II. While the book makes no pretense towards being fair to its topic, the picture that does filter through the author's biases is one of the irresistible power exerted by a profit motive. Bottom line: the past sixty years of government-only exploration of space have been slow, halting, costly, full of some brilliant successes but maddeningly ready to waste time and money, or cancel projects halfway through that take years to develop (see: Constellation). The foreseeable future of space exploration will be through private investors, and if there are ways to actually make some money out there, it can only be a good thing for our hoped-for expansion out into space.

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