April 24, 2012 is a noteworthy day as Planetary Resources came out with their early details. Thanks to Brian Wang’s NextBigFuture and Al Fin there is a wealth of information scattered about. So lets get those briefs and links lined up for those of us quite interested and curious over the potpourri of the enthused.
The ‘why’ in all of this was found by Phil Plait at the Bad Astronomer who spoke with Planetary Resources President and Chief Engineer Chris Lewicki on the phone. Lewicki was Flight Director for the NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity Mars Rover missions, and also Mission Manager for the Mars Phoenix Lander surface operations.
Like most of us Plait assumed that the motive is profit, and while that’s a very long-range purpose, Lewicki’s answer surprised Plait, “The investors aren’t making decisions based on a business plan or a return on investment. They’re basing their decisions on our vision.”
The name “Planetary Resources” fits – the early investors want to be sure there are available resources at hand to assure a future in space for people. The other motive is to understand asteroids and figure out how to deflect the ones inevitably going to crash into Earth.
Actually it’s more fundamental to the human mind. While many or most are content to be well enough off to be comfy and entertained, a few are simply eager to tackle challenges. Getting a private foothold off planet is a major challenge and it can be done. There are people not just willing but eager to get on with it.
The ‘who’ leading the first private concern being Planetary Resources is Chris Lewicki with John S. Lewis from the University of Arizona joining the advisory board. The founders are entrepreneur and aerospace engineer Eric Anderson and Peter H. Diamandis, M.D. Chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation. The hands on guys are Lewicki and Chris Voorhees. The current advisory board list counts seven, and nine investors have permitted their names to be disclosed.
The ‘what’ of it being about is much more than just mining an asteroid. Diamandis put it best saying “Everything we hold of value on Earth – metals, minerals, energy, water, real estate – are literally in near-infinite quantities in space.” Once folks off planet have this stuff, home for them is “out there”. Some might say it’s the next step, a way out of the confines of life on earth, finally a place where people can live the way they want. The motive is much like the first immigrants to the new world of America. Joss Whedon, the rather famous science fiction creator whose short lived television series ‘Firefly’ and the movie ‘Serenity’ that followed are set in a future where governments overwhelmed the free outposts, predicted the concept. It’s an idea as old as and a response to – “civilization” and the unpleasantness that comes with it.
The ‘when’ is a bit problematic. There are three proposed parts to the plan – survey, prospect and extract. The firm is reported to have already contracted for robotics and worked up a roadmap kind of plan. The first launches are expected in 24 months. Still, the survey will focus on water to start, as water is needed for the extraction step. Once surveys identify high value candidates, prospecting can prove up what is the best first choice.
‘Where’ all this takes place is deep space as compared to close up in earth’s orbit. It’s too soon to say that a certain distance is too far, once asteroids are prospects, one can be sure someone will be willing to put it where it needs to be for a fee. The where does have limits, too close to the sun would be quite uncomfortable and offer heat stress for extra engineering issues and too far would be about the opposite factors. But asteroids are in this solar system for the most part, handily, in the useful range. Asteroids are sure to be moved, but in time the extraction facility will go to them and the products moved where they need to be.
‘How’ is an open question. The first step is destined to be robots doing the survey. From there the plans aren’t firm, understandably.
That leaves us with the problems. Technology is or can rise to the challenge to get it done. Management is much like the situation faced by earlier explorers. One can remember the competition and results in the Amundsen and Scott race to the South Pole where smarter planning won and the best of intentions resulted in disaster.
There are the real risks to the capital and our futures. Just as the earlier and likely these explorers were seeking a life as chosen, government is sure to follow. Governments may not wait – there is a lot of money involved and government’s favorite honey above all others is other people’s money. Fees and taxes, perhaps an export to orbit tariff and other ideas are sure to pop up. Planetary Resources had better figure on millions for lobbyists.
Then there are the legal matters. One can not expect governments to stay out of the way. Some bureaucrats are going to feel threatened as well as seek rents and opportunities. Jurisdiction fights are sure to come up. One suspects that getting living people up there as fast as possible is a crucial to long-term success.
The leaders and investors in this effort deserve our acclaim. The whole endeavor is fraught with risk from every angle – and still they choose to press on.
Its audacity, courage and the human spirit come to life once more in assaulting the next frontier and making it our own. Godspeed to one and all.