As our global population swells, it exerts more pressure on our finite natural resources. Before we reach our planet’s carrying capacity, perhaps it’s time to consider alternative resources. Mining in Space is about to move from the realms of science fiction to reality.
The First Industrial Revolution was made possible in part by the enormous amount of raw resources offered by the New World. Lumber from Brazil was shipped to Europe to be elaborated into furniture, sugar was combined with cocoa to produce those famous Belgian chocolates, cotton from the American colonies fed Britain’s textile industry and ships loaded with gold and silver bullion financed countless European economies.
Future Industrial Revolutions won’t be any different, and will also require immense natural resources to drive technological advancement and societal development.
On a planet where fossil fuels are almost gone and overpopulation is becoming a real threat, humanity is being pushed to find new sources of energy and more space to live.
And space, it seems, is exactly the answer. Asteroids, moons, comets and other planets are all brimming with natural resources like elements and metals that are required for heavy industry and manufacturing.
But, is Space Mining possible?
According to NASA, the idea of mining in space is feasible. In releasing a lengthy proposal detailing how the process might be carried out, NASA researchers like Dr. Phil Metzger not only essentially admitted that the idea is viable, but also stated that space mining would be beneficial.
If Space Mining is possible, why aren’t we doing it?
Before we start sending Armageddon-style drilling crews into the Asteroid Belt, there are three main impediments to space mining that we must address: the technology, public support, and adequate funding.
Tinkering with the Technology
Dr. Metzger notes that to start space mining, humans don’t necessarily have to go into space. He envisions kick starting the project by sending about 12 tons of self-replicating robotics equipment into space. Considering that the first lunar lander alone was 16 tons and NASA successfully sent it to the moon in 1969, 12 tons should not be so difficult today. While self-replicating robotics technology is still in its infancy, research and development are making notable strides.
Garnering Public Support
Dr. Metzger, along with some of his colleagues, believes that public skepticism may kill the idea. Part of the reason that the US space program was so successful during the Cold War is precisely because of the Cold War. Americans equated supporting launches like the Apollo missions as a civic duty, as a demonstration of patriotism and American ingenuity again the Soviets. This mentality meant that Americans were willing to funnel their time, hopes, dreams and– most importantly–tax dollars into beating the Russians. A few decades later, expensive space programs like Reagan’s “Star Wars” sent government defense spending supported by tax revenues through the roof, and public opinion shifted from the possibilities in stars to the realities on the ground. Unemployment was rising, roads needed to be repaired and next all of these real world concerns, space exploration got put on the back (rocket) burner.
Now, with so many wars, debts and issues here on Earth, some Americans might ask why should their hard-earned tax dollars go toward…Space Mining? The lack of public support could limit the amount of funding that governments are willing to allocate to space mining projects, and since extraterrestrial mining is likely to be a very expensive endeavor, committed public funding is key.
Securing Adequate Funding
Dr. Phil Metzger believes that funding is likely to erect barriers to NASA-sponsored space mining. Aside from the costs of getting the necessary equipment into space, he estimates that it would take several decades to operationalize space mining and the cost would amount to 3-12% of NASA’s current annual budget. While these percentages seem small, recent funding cuts to NASA. Private initiatives like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin offer alternatives to publicly funded projects and opportunities for collaboration with NASA. However, the astronomical costs of mining in space and government interests in how resources are controlled will mostly likely require some degree of government funds.
From the conceptual groundwork laid by NASA’s recent report and Dr. Metzger’s discussion thereof, it seems that the era of Space Mining is underway. Challenges in public opinion, technology and funding remain, but at least we have a clear view of what to do and how to get there. If we can get the self-replicating robot kit into space, we can conceivably start mining space for resources.