Mining Space: Whither NASA?

By Leonard David
Senior Space Writer
November 11, 2000

While the "pickings" might be good for mining the Moon or crushing up asteroids, creating markets and making money on the space frontier currently is more prophet than profit.

NASA may be the linchpin in the equation that describes the mining of space resources, said some international space experts who met this week at the Colorado School of Mines for a Space Resources Round Table. Participants are taking a short-term and far-future look at utilizing the abundance of available space resources scattered throughout the solar system.

NASA is on the cusp of introducing a new strategy for supporting human space exploration, said John Mankins of NASA's advanced projects office.

The agency is readying a 21st-century step-by-step plan to first push human crews to special locales far from Earth tagged libration points, then initial missions to the Moon, Mars and asteroids, Mankins said.

"First we will go into Earth's neighborhood, then interplanetary, and then, eventually, for sustained presence in locations such as Mars," Mankins said.

The hope is to find common ground between a space agency wish list of human exploration projects and initiatives that foster the commercial development of space, Mankins said.

The strategy is to unfold over the next five to 10 years, Mankins said. "Some might be disappointed with the pace, but it's a way of getting off zero," he told the workshop audience.

Mankins said the strategy includes new monies to spur "technology for human exploration and development of space" -- or THREADS for short.


NASA's roster of technology needs, said Mankins, centers on six themes: Space resources development; space utilities and power; habitation and bioastronautics; space assembly, inspection and maintenance; exploration and expeditions; and space transportation.

While encouraged about the NASA plan, Jim Blacic, research scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, said that the country has moved little over the years in terms of space-resource utilization.

"We're more or less treading water. The main problem is that we don't have a market," Blacic said.

"We need the primary customer, NASA, to step up and create a demand for the product. Commercial customers will follow. However, the key roadblock, as always, is the high cost of space transportation, especially Earth to low Earth orbit," Blacic said.

History in the making

Moving into space mimics the forces that shaped historic mining frontiers -- that is, going into a wilderness to exploit resources, said Dale Gray of Frontier Historical Consultants in Grand View, Idaho.

His research has found that there is a direct link between the speed of frontier development and the height of the "launch bar" -- the amount of money needed to reach the moment a first product is sold.

"The higher the bar, the slower the frontier will develop," Gray said.

"Currently, space is a transportation frontier. It is similar in many respects to historic ocean-crossing or transcontinental transportation frontiers. To my knowledge, no frontier transportation system has ever come on line, on budget, and on time," Gray said.

But as transportation costs drop, space will become a source of resources needed on Earth. "Ultimately, there is no way to predict what ‘killer application' will pull our civilization off the face of the Earth and into orbit," Gray said.

People payloads

Markets have replaced governments as the engines of technological change throughout the world, said Gregg Maryniak, executive director of the X Prize Foundation in St. Louis, Missouri.

The X Prize is a competition between worldwide teams vying for a prospective $10 million purse in the hopes of kick starting suborbital space tourism.

Maryniak said that space planes that routinely rocket back and forth from Earth orbit, like airline traffic of the day, will likely happen in the future. "But to have airline-like space operations, you need airline-like payloads, which is people," he said.

Some 500 men and women have now traveled into space, with surveys showing a large and eager public ready to follow. More importantly, they appear ready to plunk down cold cash for a space-travel ticket.

First, tens of people, then hundreds, followed by thousands of individuals are expected to cruise the orbital highways, Maryniak said.

Over time, space hotels and habitats will dot near-Earth space. This, in turn, will create a market niche for life-support products, radiation shielding, as well as artificial gravity, Maryniak said. Space resources can be supplied on an economic basis to spur and maintain this space-tourism market, he said.

Lure of lunar ice

Space resource experts continue to be intrigued by the prospect that water is stashed at the Moon's poles.

Tucked away in craters that never see sunlight, water would have been primarily brought to the lunar surface via impacting comets. If there, water could be processed to yield both rocket fuel and oxygen. That would be a resource bonanza, workshop participants said, ideal for supporting future Moon bases and other human space exploration goals.

NASA's Lunar Prospector spacecraft that orbited the Moon in 1998-99 did spot rich fields of hydrogen. While some scientists infer from the probe's data that water had been detected, others contend that Lunar Prospector measured deposits of hydrogen implanted there by blasts of solar wind washing across the Moon's crater pocked face.

"The question of what's at the permanently shadowed craters on the Moon is of great interest," said Gerald Sanders, a space resources expert at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. "Is it hydrogen, or water, a combination, or something else? That one answer could totally shape how we progress going back to the Moon," he said.

Tons of water

"I suspect that we have found water ice," said Alan Binder, director of the Lunar Research Institute in Tucson, Arizona. He was Lunar Prospector's principal investigator.

Lunar Prospector found numbers of "cold traps," Binder said. These are small expanses of lunar surface that he believes hold water-ice crystals mixed in with surface materials. "What we are probably seeing in the data is water ice," he said.

Binder told that he estimates on the order of 300 million metric tons of water is available on the Moon. But more knowledge is needed about where and how large permanently shadowed regions are, he said, as are lunar landers to conduct up-close-and-personal look-sees into those resource-laden spots.

A strong proponent for a commercial return to the Moon, Binder said that the low-cost Lunar Prospector -- about a quarter the cost of other space-exploring probes like it -- produced a high scientific return, opening the doors for private lunar ventures and showing NASA it can be done for much less.

"To wait for NASA to get us back to the Moon is futile," Binder said.

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