The Extraterrestrial Commodities Market
A visionary scientist says that asteroids and comets can be the foundation of a lucrative space-based economy.
The chief scientist at Deep Space Industries, John S. Lewis is a longtime proponent of asteroid mining and space-based manufacturing of propellants and life-support materials. He is a professor emeritus of planetary science at University of Arizona. Lewis spoke with Associate Editor Diane Tedeschi in July.
Air & Space: Is asteroid mining something a single corporation can do?
Lewis: Our company has principals spread all over the world. We have people from Australia, Germany, and Latvia. We think of ourselves as functioning on behalf of the human race rather than on behalf of a single company. And we are entirely welcoming to collaboration from anyone in the research or space-launch community.
What are some of the steps that need to happen before we get to the point of actually harvesting from either an asteroid or comet?
The first step is to develop and demonstrate the ability to build small spacecraft, to launch them, and to learn from their performance in space. We are in the process right now of designing and building our earliest generation of spacecraft. Then we need to have reliable and fairly broad scientific data on the more accessible asteroids—the ones that are called the near-Earth asteroids.
Would it be profitable to mine minerals from an asteroid and then returning them to Earth?
The transportation and extraction costs are sufficiently high so that there are very few commodities in space that would be worth returning to Earth. So the market is not on the surface of Earth. The market may well be in low-Earth orbit. It’s quite possible that we can bring water and propellants down to the altitude, say, of the International Space Station at less cost than it would cost to lift them off the surface of the Earth. Any scheme which is based on going into space to retrieve platinum-group metals and bring them back to Earth would be an economic flop. But—and here’s the big conditional—if we develop an industrial capability in space such that we’re processing large amounts of metals to make solar-powered satellites, for example, then as a byproduct, we would have very substantial quantities of platinum-group metals, which are extremely valuable. So if you have a market for the iron and the nickel in space, that would liberate the precious metals to be brought back to Earth. So the scheme is not based on the idea of retrieving platinum-group metals—that is simply gravy.
Regarding your work with Deep Space Industries, what project or field are you most excited about?
Well, I’m sort of the father of this field. I wrote a book on the subject back in the 1990s called Mining the Sky. And the people who’ve started these other asteroid mining companies have all pretty much based their ideas on what I discussed in that book. And needless to say, these companies are populated by friends and former students of mine, so they’re not exactly enemies. They’re friendly competitors. The vision I have is that in the short term, we concentrate on extracting hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen—volatile materials from nearby asteroids to make the propellants and life-support materials. And once we have that demonstrated, then the propellants that we manufacture can be used to move any other commodity we’re interested in—including people—around the solar system.
Are you happy with the pace of manned space exploration undertaken by the United States?
I think it’s fair to say that when I heard that Congress had approved the space shuttle program, I tended to view that as being the end of space exploration for decades to come—human exploration of space. All the exploration that has been done since then has been done by unmanned probes. But the space shuttle was so intrinsically limited because of design compromises that went into making it palatable to both NASA and the Air Force. That you pretty much could conclude that it would play no role at all in expanding the sphere of human exploration of space. And that’s how it worked out. So for years, we sat there with this enormous budgetary albatross of the space shuttle around our necks, being unable to afford anything that would give real meaningful advances and capabilities.
What do you think of Elon Musk and SpaceX?
I think it’s wonderful what you’re seeing in SpaceX and in several other companies right now: The emergence of a genuine private launch industry. The driving principle behind a manager in a government agency usually is to say, well, my prestige depends on the size of my budget, so I’m going to do everything I can to make the thing I’m doing as expensive as possible. This is unfair to some people in the government, but it’s a pretty widespread phenomenon. When private companies are competing to put tourists in space, for example, minimizing costs is right at the top of the list. The economics will be driven not by the fact that you have a sole contractor that the government is paying to build a booster, but by competition between multiple competitors with different designs and plans, who will have to fight it out on the battlefield of economics in order to be successful.
Do you see any evidence that the Chinese have learned from analyzing our manned space program or that of the Russians?
I happen to be a regulator commentator for the last 10 years on China Central Television for all Chinese manned spaceflights. In essence, what the Chinese did is they looked over the shoulder at the Russian space program. They certainly had no lack of knowledge of the American space program because everything was in the public domain and they built accordingly. Their booster rocket is by no means a copy of a Russian booster. Their spacecraft is based upon design principles that were pioneered by the Soviets. Wouldn’t it be stupid to try to start again from scratch and design something when you know that there are things up there that already work? So their spacecraft is a little heavier than the standard Soyuz spacecraft, and it’s a parallel design. Generally speaking, it’s a somewhat derivative program, but it’s highly independent also. If the border between China and Russia were sealed tomorrow, the Chinese space program would go right along.
Do you foresee another space race?
Let’s be frank and objective about what the Chinese capabilities are at the moment. And then try to be equally frank and objective about their plans. They are roughly, in terms of their achievements, on a par with what we were doing in 1965, 66 in the Gemini program. That’s a heck of a long time ago. But they have a very real program for developing the capability of sending a crew to the moon. They’re building two generations of new large boosters. They are talking about a manned visit to the moon on a relatively short time scale: the early 2020s. And they have put in motion as far as I can tell everything that they can do at the present time to enable that goal to be achieved. So I take it very seriously. They are essentially progressing from Gemini-level technology to Apollo-level Earth orbit technology to Apollo-level lunar technology in an orderly manner. Taking no huge chances. Making no giant breakthroughs, and they’re doing it using 2015-era technology, which makes everything so much easier to do. They don’t have to put up with 1965 clunky computers and things of that sort as we did.
China never talks about racing with anybody. The United States, at least the informed people I’ve talked to, don’t talk about racing with China. There are a lot of scare stories about the Chinese space program, and it doesn’t have much to do with NASA-type activities. The scare has to do with military-type activities. The frequency of launch of military spacecraft by China has gone up and up. And they’re now launching great numbers of military spacecraft. They’ve actually demonstrated the interception and destruction of a satellite in space by a ground-launched interceptor some years ago. There is a vast gulf between the Chinese civil space program and the Chinese military space program.
Why do you think science and religion have often had such an inharmonious relationship?
Ignorance. Ignorance each of the other. I’ve written fairly extensively on this. The sequence of events described in Genesis is very similar to the sequence of events described by evolutionary biologists. The only thing at issue there is that of the time scale, whether it took place in seven days or whether it took billions of years.
The idea that you have to be a true believer in science or a true believer in the literal interpretation of the Bible, and there is no middle ground—I flatly reject that. I think that a science-based society that has no ethical foundations is doomed. And I think that a Biblical literalist society that pays no attention to science is constantly going to be making gigantic policy errors. I much favor the union of the two.