Last December, a small object entered the atmosphere and streaked across the night sky over Australia before deploying a parachute and landing in the remote desert. Within hours, a team from Japan’s space agency had recovered the object, a capsule detached by the Hayabusa2 spacecraft containing samples collected from the asteroid Ryugu in 2019. Scientists regard the gravel, dust and gas in the capsule’s collection chambers as the rarest of treasures.
The value of the score—at least in scientific terms—derives from the uniqueness of the achievement. The Ryugu mission is the first truly successful sample-return mission from an asteroid. And the pace of sample-return missions to celestial bodies is picking up. NASA is awaiting the return of a sample capsule from its OSIRIS-REx mission to the asteroid Bennu in late 2023. The United States, Russia, China and Japan all have missions to the moon, Mars and other objects with a sample-return dimension in progress or in the advanced planning stages.
Robert Zimmerman, independent journalist, author and creator of the space technology website Behind the Black, calls such expeditions “Lewis and Clark missions,” wherein the government selects or approves spots for scientists (or their robotic avatars) to go and provide some understanding of what’s out there. “Right now, most of the research tends to focus very much on what the science goals are,” he says, adding that this is appropriate to the stage of space exploration we are in, with governments writing the checks. “But the scientific missions also are helping to blaze the trail for entrepreneurs. Free people will follow, aimed at the profit centers. They will look for what’s good if you give them the freedom to do it.”
For example, Elon Musk, founder and CEO of private launch powerhouse SpaceX, is using the data pouring in from a multitude of Mars missions in progress—most usefully from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter—to select candidate landing sites for his planned mission to the Red Planet, the culmination of his company’s Starship rocket program. According to Zimmerman, at least one of the potential landing sites has features that indicate the presence of glacial water ice under the surface. Access to water will be the key requirement to any extended human presence on Mars.
The pace of research and private technology development is enabling a new generation of entrepreneurs to piggyback on the work of NASA and other government-run space programs to conceive of their own space programs for their own purposes. To put it another way, after the age of exploration comes the gold rush.
From Larry Niven’s “Known Space” books to James S. A. Corey’s The Expanse novels and TV series, the concept of “belters”—people who make their living mining the asteroid belt—has long been a staple of science fiction. Almost any mineral found on Earth can be found in space, perhaps in staggering quantities given the sheer number of potentially minable objects in the solar system in the form of moons, planets, comets and asteroids. 16 Psyche, one of the earliest asteroids observed, is thought to be the stripped core of a planet that didn’t quite make it, and it alone is popularly calculated to be worth $1,000 trillion in iron, nickel, gold and other metals. Of course, this is before the crash in prices that would inevitably occur if the minerals on Psyche were successfully exploited and brought back to Earth, due to the law of supply and demand.
One of the main reasons mining the moon, planets and asteroids for raw materials might seem so far-fetched is because it is. Or at least it is in the context of incorporating those materials into the Earthbound economy. When people say there will never be asteroid mining, as Bloomberg’s David Fickling asserted in a recent opinion article, they are probably correct in the historical gold rush paradigm of discovering a motherlode and bringing it back to build a fortune.
“We don’t know what the real gold is going to be,” Zimmerman says, adding that the early colonists came to Virginia looking for gold but the successful ones eventually ended up making money from tobacco, which nobody had ever heard of before. “We don’t know what the tobacco is going to be. I mean a lot of the resource talk is about water because the profit centers in space are not going to be profit centers for us on Earth. They are going to be profit centers for other people in space, like water. You can make money providing water.”
While the tobacco of the new frontier might conceivably be something exotic and unobtainable on Earth, such as Helium-3, an isotope created by the solar wind in the absence of an atmosphere and thought to be useful for fusion power, in all likelihood it will be mundane yet critical raw materials for the interplanetary economy. Just as it is prohibitively expensive to fetch even the most valuable materials across deep space to Earth, so the reverse will be true—particularly if the desired items can be acquired with less energy expended. As Zimmerman points out, the most promising market for space-sourced materials will be people living in space.
SpaceX’s Musk has spoken often and extravagantly about establishing colonies with a million settlers on Mars in his lifetime. Regardless of the timeframe, a human presence on Mars in some form is no longer as outlandish as it once seemed. Not to be outdone, Jeff Bezos, founder and owner of launch company Blue Origin, says he would like to see all of Earth’s heavy industry moved off world with the planet itself zoned for light industry and human habitation (and presumably conservation). Once all or even some of the factories are in space, the economics of getting raw materials from space improves.
Interestingly, while both deep-pocketed space visionaries see people living throughout the solar system, one seems to envision a voluntary scheme while the other a coercive restructuring of human civilization. Nevertheless, however humanity manages to populate celestial bodies or space structures beyond Earth, the suppliers of their needs and wants will follow.
This century, a number of entrepreneurs have tried to form companies to go after that extraterrestrial lucre, if not from 16 Psyche initially. First off the ground was Planetary Resources in 2012, followed closely by Deep Space Industries. The companies generated a lot of enthusiasm across the political spectrum, from Bezos to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Space mining became a real thing, and it attracted investors. Early goals included mining near-Earth asteroids for water ice, the key to future off-world activities in terms of propellant, drinking water and breathing. Yet, despite engineering talent from NASA, fundraising and marketing stars (including X-Prize founder Peter Diamandis, who also co-founded Planetary Resources), and policy people lobbying Congress for helpful legislation, the companies have since burned out and faded away after running out of investors.
The fate of these firms and other early space ventures comes down to the formidable barriers to entry—first and foremost, the high cost of access to space. A quote attributed to science fiction author Robert Heinlein, “Once you get to Earth orbit, you’re halfway to anywhere in the solar system,” speaks to the titanic and expensive effort needed just to get off the ground. Getting into Earth orbit, let alone out of the confines of the gravity well into cislunar space and beyond, has until recently been the preserve of governments, contractors and heavily subsidized private companies.
The next barrier is identifying some commodity or service worth venturing after that people are willing to pay for. Having done so, the would-be space prospector will have to acquire the means to travel to the resource-rich body, extract the desired materials, and move these to a place where somebody is willing to pay for them. Finally, there are a vast number of legal constraints and regulations to overcome, from local ordinances on launching rockets to international treaties governing exploitation and ownership of celestial bodies.
Thus, 16 Psyche still plods along in its lonely orbit between Mars and Jupiter, untapped, tantalizing. However, it may not remain lonely for long. NASA has planned a mission to the asteroid currently scheduled for launch in 2022. In February 2020, the agency announced it had awarded the launch contract for the Psyche mission to SpaceX, a singular success in the ongoing story of private space ventures. Granted, NASA is seeking scientific treasure of the sort Japan has secured in its sample-return mission to Ryugu. However, the fact that a private company will provide the launch vehicle for that venture says a lot about how mankind’s future in space will actually evolve.
Deep Space Needs Deep Pockets
There is a good line from the 1983 movie “The Right Stuff,” where the nascent Mercury astronauts are negotiating with the pragmatic engineers over the capsule design and presentation: “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.” At the time, the bucks were in the form of congressional funding. And a manned space program was popular with the constituents because the astronauts themselves were popular.
This is no longer the case. One of the signs of the success—or at least routineness—of manned space programs is that the general public has no idea who is now on the International Space Station (ISS). At the same time, virtually everyone knows who Elon Musk is. That’s in part because we are at least vaguely aware that his company, SpaceX, has for years been successfully launching rockets and, even more amazing, returning boosters and capsules to Earth so that they can be reused over and over again.
Most recently, Musk and Space X made the news when the company reestablished the ability for the United States to launch people into space from our own territory, rather than relying on the Russians, as had been the case for nearly a decade after the Space Shuttle retired. The reason SpaceX has placed itself in the role, which is merely a stepping stone to larger ambitions off world, is because Musk has deep pockets in addition to a vision of the future. His vision may not be everybody else’s vision, but he is closer to achieving it because he is willing to pay for it. Money or vision or opportunity on their own will not get humanity into space in a sustainable way; you need all three and maybe some luck besides.
In 1982, Houston-based Space Services Inc. of America (SSIA) became the first private company to reach space. Its Conestoga I rocket, developed from a Minuteman II booster, deployed a dummy payload of about 1,000 lbs. on its suborbital flight. SSIA founder David Hannah aspired to provide commercial launch services, and his company designed and built a series of more complicated designs. However, the company failed to attract much business, and the catastrophic failure of its Conestoga 1620 rocket in 1995 spelled the end of the venture’s space launch ambitions.
Contrast this with the crash landing and total loss of SpaceX’s Starship prototype on Dec. 9. The vehicle performed a number of maneuvers in flight and crashed while attempting to land on its tail back on the launch pad. Musk professed to be delighted with the overall test flight, tweeting, “Mars, here we come!” The debris has been cleared for the next prototype to have a go. Musk has the finances necessary through his own deep pockets and contracts to survive failure, even to mine success from crashed prototypes.
Indeed, SpaceX’s first three launches of its inaugural Falcon I rocket design failed in the mid-to-late 2000s and nearly bankrupted the company. Musk’s determination and resources kept him going back to the launch pad. These early failures ultimately gave way to the commercially successful Falcon series, which has fueled the company’s growth and led to technological innovation and improved efficiencies. It essentially created the modern private launch market.
Behind the Black’s Zimmerman says the United States is well into a revolutionary transition from the era of government-directed space activities to one that is driven by private enterprise. His report, Capitalism in Space, describes how free enterprise has essentially reshaped the global launch industry, bringing access to resources in space—from raw materials from asteroids and planets to energy from the sun—that much closer.
“Musk came along at a time when the American launch industry was a complete failure and had not done anything to try to improve the launch capacity of the United States,” Zimmerman says. “We almost had no launch industry at all. The private contractors working with NASA were not looking to make more money; they just simply were trying to get money from the government. And the government had worked very hard for decades to squelch any competitive services. They were very much hand in glove with the big contractors.”
At this stage of development, launch services are foundational to any effort to explore, let alone exploit, space. For the time being, that means rockets. While it is tempting to consider rockets a rather mature technology with few revolutionary improvements left in store, Zimmerman says the private sector is breaking new ground all the time in developing more capable, more efficient and cheaper rocket technology. In addition to SpaceX, he cites the following:
- Relativity Space is using 3D printing technology to build rockets rapidly in integrated factories;
- Rocket Lab is developing a technique to recover its spent boosters in midair as they descend on parachutes;
- Sierra Nevada Corp. is developing its Dream Chaser reusable spaceplane for shuttling cargo to and from low-Earth orbit, including the ISS; and
- Blue Origin is test-flying its reusable New Shepard capsule for suborbital flights, while also developing its orbital New Glenn rocket with a reusable first stage, similar to SpaceX’s.
Zimmerman says opening up access to space is giving future entrepreneurs the means to actually go after what is of value to them. This is the conceptual difference between what Glenn Reynolds, professor of law at the University of Tennessee and author of America’s New Destiny in Space, calls the “command-economy” phase of spaceflight—the era of NASA and Cold War superpower competition—and the “sustainable” phase we are entering, where private enterprise sets its own goals and develops and markets goods and services in space according to opportunities it perceives.
Free Enterprise to Go Boldly
The profit centers in space remain those that point to Earth, so it is going to be a while before there is enough space infrastructure to sustain an economy based on space-sourced raw materials. Nevertheless, there are activities in space that directly benefit the Earth’s economy. The United States in particular has become dependent on a space-based infrastructure of satellites that affects nearly every aspect of modern life, such as GPS navigation, communications and weather forecasting. This dependence has led to the creation of the U.S. Space Force as an independent branch of the armed forces tasked in part with protecting these vital assets.
One of the main threats to this infrastructure comes in the form of debris from previous launches and dead satellites remaining in orbit. Some entrepreneurs see potential profit in removing or mitigating the effects of space junk. Last December, the European Space Agency signed a $100 million contract with Switzerland-based startup ClearSpace SA to demonstrate a space debris removal system.
While not as glamorous perhaps as mining the asteroid belt, activities with a direct benefit to Earth—like clearing space junk—will attract the new generation of space entrepreneurs. SpaceX has said its Starship spacecraft could be useful in the debris removal role. As with providing launch services, governments may point out and even initially fund the early opportunities. “This is a case where satellite companies and launch companies should actually be teaming up with the government to finance private operations to clean up the junk,” Zimmerman says. “Everybody in the industry should agree to something like a road tax to finance the private companies to do this.”
Another potential space profit center with direct earthly benefits is protecting against potentially devastating impacts from comets and asteroids. In the wake of the asteroid that blew up in the atmosphere over Siberia in 2013, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson was quoted as saying, “Asteroids are nature’s way of asking, ‘How’s that space program coming?’” As launch and spacefaring capabilities increase, missions to examine, categorize and even manipulate near-Earth objects that may cross our path one day become almost mandatory. Once you are prodding asteroids in self-defense, doing so for profit becomes the next logical step.
There are still significant technical obstacles to an extended, if not permanent, human presence in space. At this point, the only way people can live in space is in shifts, as is being done on the ISS. The long-term physical effects of microgravity and the psychological impact of being in a tin can are one thing. Radiation received outside of the Earth’s protective atmosphere, not to mention magnetic field, is another. Nevertheless, scientists and engineers are working to solve or at least mitigate these challenges.
While the government-contractor model of space technology development is still producing ambitious—and over budget and behind schedule—programs, such as NASA’s Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket and Orion crew module, it is no longer the only game in town. The SLS-Orion combination is how NASA proposes establishing and maintaining its planned Gateway lunar orbital station and ultimately enabling its Artemis moon landings. Meanwhile, SpaceX is moving forward with its Super Heavy launch system and Starship combination to reach Mars.
The twin sister of Apollo has also given her name to the so-called Artemis Accords, under which like-minded signatory nations will be free to extract and use resources from celestial bodies under the auspices of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, meaning that nobody will declare sovereignty over them. In April 2020, President Donald Trump issued an executive order committing the United States to a similar legal framework that establishes procedures for spacefaring nations and private entities to use the resources that are out there without getting in each other’s way.
The action builds on the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law in 2015. The law is seen as a rejection of the so-called Moon Treaty of 1979 that sought to keep all celestial bodies off limits to any sort of development or exploitation unless it was under the supervision of an international organization. The treaty only has the support of 18 nations, none of which has an independent space program.
The U.S. law includes the following passage:
A United States citizen engaged in commercial recovery of an asteroid resource or a space resource under this chapter shall be entitled to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained, including to possess, own, transport, use, and sell the asteroid resource or space resource obtained in accordance with applicable law, including the international obligations of the United States.
The fact that an approach to space exploitation found firm support from both the Obama and Trump administrations speaks to the potential value of outer space ventures. The Artemis Accords are a legal instrument to enable lunar expeditions from many nations to make use of local resources without running afoul of each other and existing international law. Unlike the Moon Treaty or the international laws governing the use of Antarctica, the accords acknowledge that individual space activities will need to extract resources from the moon, Mars, asteroids and comets to be successful over time. They also encourage signatories to make their own laws similar to the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act and to extend “fair use” protections to their citizens and private interests.
There was a time when space enthusiasts waited on taxpayer-funded space programs to realize their dreams of routine spaceflight and humanity’s expansion into the cosmos. It’s been a very long wait. Now, privatized launch services are opening up access to space. A new wave of exploration missions is widening human knowledge of the solar system. It’s only a matter of time before entrepreneurs, particularly those with deep pockets, figure out how to make money out there.
Humanity’s future in space is one of private enterprise and people moving and living there for their own reasons. And if the number of people currently interested in doing so are a distinct minority, visionaries with their own space programs like SpaceX’s Musk and Blue Origin’s Bezos tell us there are still many of them. The solar system is there for the taking, and unlike historical frontier-pushing colonial expansion, there are (probably) no Indigenous peoples to displace or oppress.