Posted: Sun, February 03, 2013 | By: Zeev Kirsch
Asteroid mining memes have been around for decades. Recently, they molted out of their shell of science fiction into talk of technical feasibility. The rub about asteroid mining is that it’s actually a great idea worth your support because asteroid mining is a lie. This article will delve into the cynical underside of a big ‘sell’ only to enlighten you about why futurists everywhere should embrace farcical solicitations when the underlying story supports a practical and necessary futuristic pursuit; Deflecting Earthbound Asteroids.
First, every cynic out there is aware of the preposterous notion of mining asteroids for profit. If you don’t know the little enough you need to about commercial mining to understand why ‘profitable’ asteroid mining is a joke, then google it, or read this. One cannot find an experienced mining investor in the world who would expect to recoup their capital investment by way of the proceeds of sales of mined materials from an asteroid. So, why are Deep Space Industries (DSI) and Planetary Sciences, trying so hard to convince you, or your average Billionaire, that this could be profitable and you should give your political support or spare millions, to get rich off asteroid mining?
The short answer is government money. But the long answers to this question are best understood by watching all 143 minutes of DSI’s recent sales pitch conference (which I did). The meat of the conference is in the Q&A beginning at [1:12]. I’ll give you the play by play. At [1:12] the presenter flat out avoids the question of how mining in space can ever really yield a ‘profit’. DSI knows it cannot land millions of tons of gold from outer space onto Earth’s surface from outer space, even if they could find a golden asteroid. However, the real goal of space mining as depicted by DSI throughout their pre Q&A presentation, is, to build giant things in space, specifically in orbit of the Earth, for the purposes of beaming energy to earth, building mega space stations, etc….[1:15].
Why is this the goal? DSI explains that it’s expensive to get lots of heavy stuff into orbit from Earth. Thus, in our massively awesome distant future, DSI and others will be part of building giant space stations in outer space by cheaply hauling asteroids towards Earth and metamorphizing them with “3D autonomous foundries” into useable material.
This science fiction vision will not replace science reality. Humanity is heading towards better and faster and cheaper launching capabilities to put heavier payloads in orbit at cheaper per pound price. The so-called 3d foundries and miniaturization technologies that DSI relies upon in the narrative of creating an asteroid mining industry are themselves ages from fruition. Furthermore, to the extent they fruit sooner than later, the possibility that these autonomous systems will fully replace man’s presence in orbital space for the necessary purposes of conducting science are increasing, thus decreasing the likely amount of mass we will need to effectively operate in space.
Smarter robots mean less mass necessary to operate in space, not more. Will NASA pay for processed oxygen gas from an asteroid, when the space stations operating in space will have no humans to breathe it? Of course, Space Hotels filled with millions of Harry, Dick, and Jane could change all that, but then so could Santa Claus. Power beaming itself is another silly fantasy when Scientists are getting closer everyday to providing limitless solar-based energy right here on the surface of Earth. At every turn, further examination of space mining to provide materials for Huge outposts in orbit seems like it is getting closer to actually being a secret plan for creating the deathstar. Reaslistically, we are not going to need the asteroids DSI is talking about to build future space stations, because we’ll build them with stuff on earth, if, in fact, we build them at all.
Finally, steering asteroids, or millions of tons of ore, towards towards Earth seems risky. What if it hits Earth? More likely what if a giant bag of ORE rips open and sends the worlds biggest mess of high speed marbles into orbit adding towards the already growing garbage patch that threatens our space station, not to mention our (civilizations’) satellites? Mining our way towards massive space stations is a dumb idea. The future is about smaller technologies not bigger ones, and that includes space stations. And anyways, since when is there a market for space stations? How can DSI make money mining things for customers that do not yet exist? The whole premise of DSI’s business model is that if you build it, they will come. I didn’t get an MBA, but I know Kevin Costner’s field of dreams is not a great place to get a ‘business’ education.
Continuing at [1:17] DSI is asked about how they can justify a supposedly for-profit venture when the economy and investing climate is so depressed. In return, one of their more technical spokesmen puts forth the bald-faced assertion that they are not looking for government money for their ‘initial plans’. This is a ludicrous misrepresentation directly contradicted by Rick Tomlinson, frontman of DSI [goatee sitting at left ] [1:28] when he says “its all about working together [with government]”. The real meat of the Q and A is at [1:28]. Ironically enough, it’s an issue inaudibly presented by a man standing at the back of the room. He asks, where’s the government cheese in all of this!? The entire DSI crew doesn’t want to answer this question but knows full well to be prepared for it. It’s the knuckleball from hell and they all knew it had to come from somewhere, if not from ‘that guy’ in the back of the room. At [1:25], only minutes earlier, Rick had talked about his faith in the ‘free enterprise system’ and that ‘(DSI) will be feeding into [it]’ and ‘distributing wealth around the planet’.
In reality, DSI’s entire business model for the next few years, it’s birth and pupal stage, is entirely dependent upon feeding at the trough of taxpayer public money that does the opposite of feed into the free enterprise system. It takes away from it. Rick basically admits that anyone investing private capital in this venture must get compensated by government somehow. At [1:30] he says the “U.S. taxpayer is actually very generous”. For a sales person, Rick doesn’t realize how bad he looks. He says he will make NASA more “efficient” at spending their money. Earlier in the talk Rick even admits he is planning on having government money being used to pay DSI contractors - private entities - a reasonable profit margin. One is left wondering how much money the DSI private contractors are plowing into the initial Public Relations investment of the DSI front, hoping to get paid back through their profit margin off obtaining construction contracts from NASA. [ if you are going to watch any piece of the video I recommend 1:27 to 1:32 ]
AT [1:34] one of the DSI spokespersons starts finally elucidating the reasons he believes we should encourage the government to give away money to private investors who want to fund micro-satelites to asteroids—-he names the Earth crossing, Mars crossing and non-crossing asteroid groups. Unfortunately at [1:37], another spokesperson for DSI drops the ball when he is finally asked if these missions can be used to prevent Earth from being hit by asteroids. He says that this is not the mission behind the DSI mining initiative. Of course, any technology that can be used to deflect an asteroid is most likely going to be one that can be used to drive this asteroid towards impacting earth. It is understandable that the speaker denies and tip toes around answering the question. There is a huge potential trap of answering this question; DSI may fear that discussing the possibility of deflecting asteroids is not only too far-fetched a sell but they may also be worried that NASA would not fund a pursuit that may make NASA one day look obsolete. Finally, they may fear that the military might pre-empt their contracts should DSI openly aspire towards a capability that may one day be used to threaten Earth by steering an an asteroid into earth instead of away from it. My Occam’s Razor guess is simply that DSI has mediocre PR.
Deflecting asteroids, not mining them, is the primary and essential reason to support privatization of public dollars. Asteroids remain one of the largest threats towards our civilization and NASA just cannot be trusted to do this job alone, if at all. NASA’s successes over the years have proven that asteroids are a huge threat; In particular, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Explorer [ One of NASA’s great laudable achievements known as WISE]—-has shown us that Near Earth Asteroids are extremely plentiful, unpredictable and very very difficult to see. A thorough study of the asteroid literature reveals that only until the last 30 years we were essentially, fully, and utterly blind to threatening asteroids until they were actually hitting us or passing by closely enough to look like fast-moving stars.
It is only in the past ten years we have even begun to squint at them. An asteroid, even a relatively small 30 meter asteroid traveling at over 10km a second, could disrupt civilization by disrupting the global geo-political balance, let alone by hitting a populated or strategically important area. A single asteroid strike could spook a country into using nuclear weapons, having mistaken the asteroid explosion for a nuclear detonation. The story for a KM+ size asteroid would be altogether different. The possibility of a KM+ sized asteroid approaching Earth with little warning seems unlikely, but given that the main asteroid belt is routinely perturbed by many gravitational anomalies, and routinely by Jupiter itself, we know that asteroids of a fairly large size, numbering in the many many millions are actually just waiting to head towards us and are right beyond Mars, not to mention the confirmed existence of many faster-approaching objects tracing less predictably towards us from beyond the orbit of Pluto.
Should a 100 M+, or 1 KM+ sized asteroid give us a significant warning of its impact, what are we now capable of doing to protect ourselves? Nothing Is What. This was the case with asteroid Hayakutake in 1996. (read here if interested). There are a few other key examples in the last few decades where sizeable asteroids were discovered to have traversed Earth’s orbital path after the fact, having been identified as being only days ahead or behind the Earth itself. In any case, we are not going to Nuke the future asteroid from Hell and we have no current capability of even getting people to the asteroid at all. So, No… Bruce Willis will have to stick with Die Hard 9 for his next great adventure. Take a look at this asteroid attack chart below and try not to soil your undergarments. But remember, asteroids are not zombies, vampires or Freddie Kreuger. They’re for real. If the chart below isn’t enough, read up on the Tunguska event. That small little speck at bottom flattened tens of thousands of square miles of Siberian forest, most of it, possibly all of it, exploding entirely in the atmosphere.
Granting that one of the biggest non-man made threats to our sophisticated civilization are Earth-bound asteroids, and that we know space is not an ideal place for manned exploration—-when are we going to start our asteroid-steering quest? When I look at NASA’s first, only, and currently ongoing mission to orbit an asteroid, I’m Fully Awe Struck. Dawn is one of the reasons I love NASA. Dawn has visited Vesta, and taken jaw-dropping pictures from up close. Vesta is considered the second largest main belt asteroid, smaller only than Ceres, (now called a dwarf planet despite being estimated at 1% the mass of the moon). Dawn, as of September 2012, is now on its way hurtling towards Ceres with a rendezvous date of 2015 with this as-of-yet unexplored gravitational body. At over 450 miles across, containing a third of the mass of the entire asteroid belt, and possibly some semblance of atmospheric gas or dynamic frost, Ceres promises to be the most unexpected and surprising mission NASA has going for it in the immediate future (other than the Mars exploration, of course).
Dawn is, of course, unmanned. NASA’s last manned mission beyond Earth orbit (low earth orbit) was over 40 full years ago in 1972, when Apollo 17, the eleventh manned space mission, and the sixth and most recent landing on the Moon, by men. It’s remarkable that human beings have not ventured past low earth orbit for over four decades. Perhaps the reason is because there really is not that much man can do in outer space, let alone low earth orbit. NASA’s as-of-yet uncommitted plan for sending men beyond low earth orbit for the first time in 40 years… is a 2025 planned mission to visit a 200 foot asteroid by parking up besides it, shooting grappling hooks into it, and having the asteroid explorers space-rapell onto a hunk of rock whose consistency will be impossible to determine until it is actually punctured. Sounds like a great plan right? It sounds absurd to me. Man belongs beside the curiosity rover, walking with curiosity around Mars, not floating and rapelling on some space rock as if it were El-Capitan.
Man does not really belong in the vaccum of space for extended periods of time. Besides Space sickness, including osteoporosis, muscle wasting, and gamma irradiation of all parts of the body causing space visual hallucinations… space is cramped. By watching this truly inspiring guided tour of the space station by Suni Williams —-you will get a detailed sense of how difficult it is for even those super-human astronauts with the right stuff to operate for extended periods in space. [ the entire series of videos is over half an hour and sometimes drags on, but I highly recommend watching every second of it, it’s a fun video, especially if you love space stuff as much as I do].
Clearly, I’m telling you that the way to begin the asteroid steering quest is with unmanned robots. But… if NASA is already visiting an asteroid with unmanned technology, why support asteroid mining? My argument rests upon the potentially stretched assumption that even if asteroid mining will never successfully build giant space stations in outer space made out of mined asteroids, let alone yield a profit by selling asteroid material on Earth’s surface, is this—Private Asteroid Mining as a Meme is worth your political support because it will succeed in getting us attempts at steering asteroids. This assumption is much stronger than it seems at first, because it rests upon the relatively poor performance of NASA which would lead us to believe that NASA cannot rise to meet such an important and pressing challenge.
First let’s look at Dawn. All 2700 pounds of her departed our planetary surface on 2007 and took nearly 4 years to make it to a main belt asteroid and will take another 3 to get to Ceres, using slow but steady and efficient ion propulsion, and a 2009 gravitational assist maneuver ‘flyby’ of Mars. Dawn was conceived decades ago, and then tentative plans for Dawn were cancelled in 2003. In 2004, Dawn’s plans were reinstated only to be shelved again in 2005, until March 2006 when NASA revived Dawn. Unsurprisingly, perhaps even deliberately, resulting cost overruns inflated the final mission cost to 446 million dollars for launching Nearly Triple the original outsized estimate; Half a Billion for the first mission in man’s history to orbit an asteroid.
While Dawn is an amazing mission, it took something over 9 years from the first cancellation to the satellite reaching its target. The first planning date of dawn is not clear but it was most likely in the works for at least 7 years. No other NASA mission has stopped at an asteroid or comet for a very lengthy or detailed analysis (numerous comet missions have been flybys including the deep impact flyby which shot an impactor at a comet and watched the results with an oboard camera as the main mission vehicle flew by comet ). NASA, of course, always has money to spare for analyzing its bureaucratic failures [and actual failures] and so you can read about why Dawn, while so successful for science, was such an organizational mess [warning this is deeply boring, organizational case study type stuff]
DSI and others are taking the opposite approach NASA took with Dawn. They are planning on launching multiple microsatellites to one destination (‘to guarantee success’ should sibling-sats fail), for a total cost of 20 million dollars. Even if there are cost overruns, microsatts weigh very little and due to their more risk-loving approach private sector upstarts competing with massive contractors (such as DSI) will go with the most up-to-date and smallest tech out there, piggybacking upon the knowledge gathered from decades of NASA Mistakes. For good measure, another sales pitch in the asteroid mining ‘field’ is Chris Lewiki of Planetary resources… this video shows you the radically smaller scale of projects that these motivated ‘asteroid miners’ are selling as the Dawn alternative.
So what is the lesson? We need to stop asteroids without political and bureaucratic interference. But is Dawn alone, combined with the ‘sales pitch’ of DSI’s alternative approach, enough evidence to come to this conclusion? Here’s more proof. Just this month, NASA was proudly boasting about testing rockets from over 50 years ago, to ‘learn’ from them. I am not joking. See http://www.milkandcookies.com/link/360643/detail/ Perhaps there are few things to learn but the question is: why are we still in possession of ROCKETS from the 1960’s that aren’t in museums? For all the great multibillion dollar headliner projects NASA has accomplished——-They are still using age old technology, and it’s NOT an accident. NASA’s balkanized bureaucracy, culture of ‘safety’, low turnover of employment, political ties to politicians who want nothing more than ensure NASA money gets spent on their private contractors in their districts regardless of whether or not the money is buying 20 million dollar toilet seats. Also, Nasa has a nearly unlimited 18 billion dollar budget, with so much money there is a tendency to waste it. 18 billion is not chump change as many space junkies would have you think. An 18 billion dollar budget is far more than the budget of most small countries in the world.
Finally, The USA military is bar none the biggest single operator in space, their agenda is to control space, and they have no interest in civilian government mission planners doing anything to edge in on their territory—their contracting territory—-comprising the landscape of their loyal mega-contractors. If anyone other than NASA can be blamed for the Defunct Space Shuttle dying without a replacement it is the anticompetitive big contractors. They have milked NASA for Billions, overcharging and under-delivering for decades. They should be ashamed of themselves and we should be ashamed of them enough to support a new set of smaller, more ambitious, and fundamentally more competitive upstarts coming of age in the asteroid microsat mining arena.
Elon Musk, the proven rocket boy of the new generation of private space operators, hits this whole dynamic on the head when he discusses publicly how he built the Space X rocket to successfully use far less fuel and be cheaper to operate than the set of decades old rockets still in use by the existing two or three mega-contractors NASA had become fully dependent upon. Elon Musk had a hard time getting NASA and politicians to listen to his competitive truth as a ring of senators blocked his competitive bidding efforts in order to protect the anti-competitive exclusionary behavior of the NASA/defense contractor cartel. Elon won because he was selling something directly more efficient——-the promise of reuseable rockets to NASA. He also had some very strong backers.
Unfortunately for us, Asteroid Mining looks like it is dead in the water compared to the early beginnings of Space X. The reason is because the people selling asteroid mining cannot tell the real truth, because truth in the American dialogue is now off limits. They cannot say we can stop the asteroids and NASA cannot do it. Especially not while trying to get money from NASA! Meanwhile, asteroid mining ‘entrepreneurs’ are selling a story of profit which is not in NASA’s mission goals, and which NASA will be publicly skewered for being associated with in any way. Its unlikely DSI, Planetary Resources or others will have as convincing a pitch as Musk.
What’s worse, despite Musks genuine success in the face of stagnant government space bureaucracy, “Old Wise Men” who have the ears of the public like Neil De Grasse Tyson can be heard droning on about how ‘privatisation’ of the space field is regressive. De Grasse gives a reasonable but essentially substanceless attack on private enterprise by completely sidestepping the issue of how governments can frequently become hopelessly inefficient at pursuing the great public endeavors that are too risky to attract private capital (his defense would be appropriate to undermining plans to privatize a public water utility, and also ignore that the major Defense Contractors building much of NASA’s hardware are indeed already Private Companies, that privatize public money). Why are great minds like those of Tyson able to overlook the obvious truth? Perhaps because his optimism and trust prevent him from accepting deep level contracting… capture exists, bribery exists, institutionalism exists.
The bigger these giant contractors become, the more they must rely on anti-competitive behavior relative to competitive behavior as a strategy for staying afloat. The very same dynamic exists with the TBTF banks. Big is inherently uncompetitive, whether in banking, or in space exploration. It’s not surprising that many well-minded academics like Tyson, coming from large ivory tower institutions, chronically overlook this dilemma; they are cocooned within institutions themselves. Old timers and hardcore socialists need to start considering the other side to these issues. Civilization cannot afford to wait to protect itself from the space rock menace. Paradoxically, I am arguing in favor of privatization of small amounts of public money, because the public institutions themselves are failing at pursuing the correct path for our most public and common interests with respect to protecting our civilization from rogue space rocks.
In the end, this story isn’t about super-complicated Asteroid Deflection Plans. This story is about the first goal of simply getting to the asteroids, many of them, quickly, repeatedly, and iteratively. A responsible firearms owner of any background will always tell you that if you don’t practice your skills, your tools will be of no use to you when you need them. The best-laid plans are useless without routine practice, educational experience, and without having already learned from one’s mistakes; Learning from Failures is a necessary part of Success. This dynamic applies to asteroid deflection perhaps even more so than most gargantuan tasks. Once we get used to sending our microsats to asteroids quickly and cheaply enough, we can bring our knowledge gained from each direct encounter to bear upon the evolving packages of instruments included with each subsequent microsat visit.
We must begin as soon as possible learning how to routinely visit asteroids quickly, affordably, and with a willingness to fail before the ‘do or die’ mission arrives on humanity’s doorstep decades from now—-[potentially at a time when the geopolitical warfare will prevent us from even addressing such a possibility]. We must begin practicing and we must embrace our space mining salesmen to do it, because this is the fastest and best way to begin the pursuit.
Space Mining - that is to say - the meme which proposes sending cheap microsatts to many asteroids, repeatedly and cheaply, is essential to protecting Earth from earthbound asteroids, not towards establishing moon bases, or towards establishing vast networks of orbiting space cities with power beaming and centrifugally simulated artificial gravity, or essential to some other science fantasticon. To get started down this path expediently we need to take some of our public dollars NASA ordinarily doles out to private contractors to build things for NASA’s publicly managed missions, and instead give the control for the missions, and some of the money of course, to a different set of small competitive and focused private contractors.
In my humble opinion DSI needs to develop a PR initiative to push NASA itself into publicly promoting the public importance of deflecting asteroids, and the importance of the unmanned cheap approach DSI is selling. This is the beginning of making a sell to NASA that you can help them with their core goals. First convince Nasa to take asteroid deflection up as a public matter, because it is one!
If it takes a nice big fib about the reason for going to the asteroids, such as mining metals, that’s fine with me.