My interest in astronomy and all things space goes back to at least the age of four. I read my first science fiction book when I was in third grade. In many of the early science fiction stories asteroid miners, or “belters” scratched out a perilous existence on the hunks of rock between Mars and Jupiter. Gold and silver prospectors had been common in the old westerns and the science fiction authors had simply taken those old tropes and put them out in space.
With the advent of the twenty-first century many aspects of our lives match what we imagined from the Walt Disney broadcasts of the 1960s. But we’ve also suffered the disappointment of not having flying cars and not being able to vacation on the moon.
Every so often, however, something happens that raises the hope that the visions we had of tomorrow might actually be coming to pass.
On April 24, 2012 a new corporation announced its existence: a corporation that plans to do what until that moment had merely been the imaginings of science fiction authors and their readers. Planetary Resources has announced its intention to mine asteroids. In the long term they believe that by creating this new industry, they will wind up contributing trillions of dollars to the Gross Domestic Product. As they explained, their goal is to “expand Earth’s natural resource base.”
One’s first inclination might be to laugh, imagining that such a corporation was some eccentric’s pipedream, with as little hope of achieving its goals as a cow has of leaping over the moon. But it turns out that what the company intends to do is not only technologically possible, their expectations of being wildly profitable are also reasonable.
And the people involved in this new corporation are not wild-eyed dreamers—or should I say, not just wild-eyed dreamers. They are billionaires with the drive and the financial resources to make their dreams happen.
There is Larry Page, CEO and founder of Google, along with Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google. Charles Simonyi is another investor. He was at Microsoft Corporation from 1981 to 2002, where he was Director of Application Development, Chief Architect, and Distinguished Engineer. While at Microsoft, Simonyi hired and managed teams that developed Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel and other software applications. He has twice visited the International Space Station. Ross Perot, Jr, whose father ran for president, serves as Chairman of The Perot Group, which manages the various Perot family interests that include real estate, oil and gas and financial investments. Additional investors include K. Ram Shriram, CEO and founder of Sherpalo, Rena Shulsky David, president and CEO of Shire Realty; Raymie Stata, entrepreneur and former Chief Technology Officer of Yahoo! and Kimberly Sweidy; and John C. Whitehead, former Chair and CEO of Goldman Sachs and 9th U.S. Deputy Secretary of State.
The co-chairmen of the corporation are Peter H. Diamandis and Eric C. Anderson. Peter H. Diamandis is an international pioneer in the commercial space arena, having founded and run many of the leading entrepreneurial companies in the sector. He is Chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation, best known for its $10 million Ansari X PRIZE for private spaceflight. He is also the Executive Chairman of Singularity University based in Silicon Valley. Eric C. Anderson is an entrepreneur and aerospace engineer who has pioneered the creation of the commercial human spaceflight industry since its inception. He is involved in a portfolio of innovative technology and spaceflight companies, including Intentional Software Corporation, Space Adventures, Ltd., and Planetary Power, Inc.
The president and Chief Engineer for Planetary Resources is Chris Lewicki, a project manager with NASA who worked on NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers and the Phoenix Mars Lander. Chris Voorhees, Vice President, Spacecraft Development, has played an integral role in both the Mars Exploration Rover and Mars Science Laboratory projects for NASA.
Those who have invested in and who manage Planetary Resources have the finances and skill set to actually accomplish what they have dreamed. They understand the risks. They understand that full scale asteroid mining will take many years to achieve.
Some critics denounce the project, arguing that it is foolish and impossible. Others decry it as a waste of money: “why don’t they give their money to the poor.”
But if this corporation is successful, the poor will benefit far more than if they were simply given a wad of cash. If successful, Planetary Resources will create jobs and the American economy will grow. Jobs will be created. Consumer goods, medical technology, and commodities will become less expensive. And more will then be collected in taxes, and more will be donated to charities.
I wonder, frequently, at the general lack of knowledge about economics among those who criticize this sort of thing. The money invested in space is not being loaded into barrels and shot into orbit. It gets paid in salaries right here on Earth. The profits made will not get stuffed in mattresses. The rich do not use dollar bills for toilet paper. Profits go into research, and what gets invested gets used by other businesses, to create more jobs, more products, and more profits. It is, after all, the rich, whether individuals or corporations, small or large, who give most of us our paychecks and make possible most of the goods and services we take for granted.