It’s an exciting time for space buffs. Private space flight appears set to significantly decrease the cost of space travel and inaugurate the age of space tourism; developing nations are sending probes to the moon and to Mars; people are skydiving from space; and, in a development that I find the most exciting, a startup company is actually planning to mine asteroids. That company is called Planetary Resources, and while it might seem easy to dismiss such a business venture as ludicrously far-fetched, the whole thing seems surprisingly plausible. The company has an impressive list of managers and investors, such as Google’s Eric Schmidt and Larry Page; Peter Diamandis, founder of the X-Prize, and Eric C. Anderson, who has already been involved in commercial space-flight. These people are clearly not idle dreamers, and true to form, they’ve developed a plan that seems fairly realistic. Currently, they’re kickstarting funding to develop a kind of space prospecting telescope which will observe near-earth asteroids as well as being hired out for private use. Once the telescope is established, they intend to send survey probes to map asteroids that are strong candidates for mining. With that accomplished, I wouldn’t be surprised if they find their door knocked down by eager investors wanting to help them develop a way of actually mining the asteroids.
What’s good about this plan is that it operates by a very well-thought out process of niche accumulation. Planetary Resources will gradually gain both funding and credibility as it moves from the relatively simple task of providing space telescopes for hire, to conducting early tests, to actually mining asteroids. According to Planetary Resources, there are over 15,000 asteroids that are easier to reach than the moon. While there are some very interesting technical challenges and some far more interesting non-technical ones (Some very clever lawyers will have to figure out who owns mining rights to asteroids, for example), my official opinion on Planetary Resources is that their mission is entirely plausible. We just might be mining asteroids within my lifetime.
This has some very exciting implications. If minerals from space can compete in the market with minerals mined on Earth, then we could completely eliminate the need for environmentally destructive terrestrial mining. Even more exciting is the implications for the minerals we leave in space. If we sent up some fabrication technology, such as a few specially designed 3D printers, then it suddenly becomes possible to undertake construction projects in space without having to launch the materials up there first. This would make space stations and larger space ships much, much cheaper than they currently are. If planetary resources are successful, then it is possible that the only things that we would really need to send into space would be instructions for our orbital robotic workforce, and in return we could get minerals, space hotels, interplanetary ships, and even food. This is all very far in the future, of course. And it depends on Planetary Resources’ plan being economical, which is a pretty big if. But it is in the realm of plausibility at this point.
While I hope that Planetary Resources are successful, however, I think we need to recognize that there is a danger in placing too much stock in the potential of extremely futuristic projects such as space mining. The history of technology shows that excitement about radical new technologies often serves a somewhat destructive social function: It reassures the public that they can continue to enjoy their present lifestyle without having to worry about the problems it causes. The renewal of interest in electric cars emerged during the fuel crises of the 1970s, for example, and why they are popular among some environmentalists today. Electric cars still contribute to urban sprawl, however. They will still kill people, and will still have to get their energy from somewhere. An adoption of the electric car, or even an expressed preference for electric cars as the solution to the environmental problems of the current transportation system, would represent at best a compromise on sustainability: We would be placing our faith in a technology which promises only a partial solution to the problems that confront us. And by placing our faith there, we undermine support for more radical proposals, such as car-free cities. And that’s even if electric cars are actually viable in the long-term! The other possibility is that excitement about electric cars will simply be a kind of fig leaf makes people feel better about driving their gasoline cars.
Technophilic environmentalists haven’t yet started pointing to space as a solution for our environmental woes, but if Planetary Resources’ telescopes work, then we can expect them to start to do so. When this happens, we should be wary. I propose that we maintain a stance that I call “critical enthusiasm” in respect to things like Planetary Resources, geoengineering projects, or fusion power. We can be excited about these projects, and we can support them. But we can’t let that excitement or support get in the way of a practical and realistic plan for a sustainable economy. If these projects are ultimately successful, then that will be great. But if we put our faith in those things and they don’t come through for us, then we will be in big trouble. We don’t have to be cynical about new technologies, but we also have to keep our options open, and resist the temptation to think that investing our hopes in futuristic sustainability technologies like Planetary Resources will absolve us of the responsibility to fight for a more sustainable world in the here and now.