In a recent important political movement, President Donald Trump stimulated the efforts to utilize metals and rare earths from non-earth resources (asteroids, Moon, Mars). It seems that the financial interests involved in the current Linear Economy dominant model, at least in the USA, prefer to spend decades or hundreds of billions for finding and bringing back to earth space resources rather than changing their catastrophic linear business models.
President Donald Trump’s proposed 2018 federal budget leaves most of NASA‘s funding intact, with the total budget coming in at $19.1 billion (slightly less than the $19.3 billion approved for 2017). NASA administrator Robert Lightfoot did not seem surprised by the White House announcement in the statement he released. The proposed new budget increases funds for planetary science and continues funding for deep-space exploration while decreasing funds for Earth science and education.
This apparent focus from the administration is notable, as Lunar and asteroid mining has received increased interest from the private sector over recent years, with companies such as Planetary Resources and NexGen Space (the president of which, Charles Miller, is part of Trump’s team) advocating for the feasibility and profitability of such endeavors.
The financial interests involved in the Linear Economy prefer to spend hundreds of billions for finding and bringing back to earth space resources rather than changing their business models
At this point, you might be wondering, what’s out there worth mining? To which a modest answer would be; probably every element known to mankind, in virtually infinite amounts. In 2014, the financial services site Motley Fool estimated the mineral wealth of the moon to be between $150 quadrillion and $500 quadrillion – enough to create 500m billionaires. Add in the rich metal deposits found in asteroids, and the sky is literally the limit. Can American companies just go into space, latch on to an asteroid or the moon, and start hauling back rocks? Yes, they can, thanks to the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, signed by President Obama in November 2015. While the law stipulates that no nation can claim ownership of an asteroid or another heavenly body (in accordance with the Outer Space Treaty of 1967), US companies will be able to extract and own any materials they find in the great beyond.
According to the documents released, the Trump team asked for data and examples of NASA’s “technology development” with the commercial industry and information on whether government-funded developments are disseminated through contracts/partnerships. In short, they wanted to know how NASA helped fund and fuel private industries and how they contribute to money-making enterprises. The administration asked about NASA’s plan to survey the Moon in order to locate potential raw materials and determine how they can best be extracted for mining purposes.
While NASA isn’t new to bolstering commercialized efforts in space, the space agency has subtly tried to point out that its mission isn’t primarily commercial, but scientific. The agency explained that its Science Mission Directorate” works to answer fundamental questions about the earth, our solar system and the universe,” such as “how did our solar system originate and change over time?” and “how did life originate”, and “are we alone?”. One can easily imagine Trump’s administration has lots of interests and a whole bunch of serious questions to worry about, but I guess the origin of life is impossible to be amongst them.
Utilizing resources from space will be both a proof of the great human ingenuity and of the business obsession with Linear Economy
In any case, NASA assured the administration that it continuously searches for appropriate public-private partnerships, expecting the technology that it develops to grow private commercial pursuits such as work in low-Earth orbit. Specifically, they say they are “working with industry to develop innovative cislunar [a region that is equidistant between Earth and the Moon] habitation concepts that leverage existing commercialization plans”.
While NASA is in it for the science, the administration might have other ideas. But will a stronger emphasis on profitability stifle innovation — or help it grow? The benefits of more private operations in space include greater transparency of costs, low-cost execution of launches and exploration, greater access to different vantage points in low-Earth orbit, quick production, international collaboration, and an overall facilitation of NASA’s over-arching goal of achieving human deep-space exploration. Nevertheless, at least for now, space mining is an industry still waiting for its moment. Even with SpaceX and Blue Origin slashing launch costs, sending anything into space remains a radically expensive proposition. While mining companies are planning launches, none is expected to begin extracting anything of value from space until well into the next decade.
The market for raw materials to build moon-bases or refueling stations to enable busloads of Mars colonists has yet to materialize, but no one can say for sure if this requires 5, 10 or 15 years. In any case, it is a more than visible development that will radically reshape the raw materials market landscape. I am afraid that it will also undermine our efforts to move away from the Linear Economy concept. Unfortunately, for all of us, utilizing resources from space will be both a proof of the great human ingenuity and of the business obsession with Linear Economy.