The Economic Value of Space

I hear people complaining about the cost of space travel. The money we spend on NASA might be used to stimulate the economy or raise awareness of environmental issues. These are difficult people to argue with because they don’t want to admit that every person that NASA hires is one that isn’t collecting a welfare check and, I dislike mining companies that turn lush forests into slag piles too, but awareness isn’t going to solve the problem when all that most people actually do is complain about it in their comfortable chairs while maybe wearing a solid gold wedding band that came from those mines. However, you could probably look up all the NASA spinoffs that the average American can use right this minute. The same mining companies that create ugly slag piles and toxic runoff don’t seem to realize that their days are numbered. The asteroid belt is going to be where most of the action is at in centuries to come if profit-minded space enthusiasts have their way. We’re talking about rare-Earth elements in amounts that make modern-day mines look about as productive as the dirt I could dig up right now if I want to get my fingernails dirty.

Did you know that the typical asteroid that is only a mile in diameter might contain $28 trillion worth of metallic ore? This is enough to pay off the U.S. national debt as of today (8/5/2014) and have enough left over to do a truly creditable job of colonizing Mars. We’re looking at a rock that could be dangerous if it lands in the wrong place on Earth, but if somebody were to intercept it before that happens, that person would be, basically, wealthy beyond anyone’s wildest dreams if he or she is simply smart enough not to flood the market with metals like nickle, iron, gold, and platinum group elements.

The thing about that asteroid is that it’s only a big space rock until somebody intercepts it. We’ve only gotten close-ups of asteroids when unmanned spacecraft like “Dawn” did some exploration of the asteroid belt. Dawn has visited the asteroid named Vesta and is headed towards the dwarf planet Ceres, which would make a decent base for a mining operation if we can keep it supplied. NASA is working on a manned mission that will plant boots on an asteroid. Quite frankly, I’m not holding my breath even though I liked the looks of that spacecraft they would have used to capture an asteroid. It’s nothing against the engineers working for NASA and its contractors. They just have to put up with a fickle Congress that might cancel the whole thing without warning. The private company Planetary Resources thinks they can solve this problem and move major mining operations off Earth once the technology is where it needs to be. Planetary Resources may or may not actually get off the ground, but these are the people to watch if you want to know what a (prototype) Space Age mining company might look like.

Obviously, we’re talking about some serious money here. Typical NASA budgets run into the billions of dollars and many aerospace insiders say even that isn’t enough to do anything serious like build the Space Launch System in any kind of a reasonable time line. It becomes obvious that space is no longer for government types who can’t do any planning beyond the next Congressional election. Kennedy scored his political points and now it’s time for private industry to start building the infrastructure they’ll need to build on the work of the Apollo and Space Shuttle generations.

This should be enough to interest any capitalist who is savvy enough about making a profit to make the Ferengi Grand Nagus proud. However, this is not going to be easy. Considering the high start-up costs involved in any space project, this is going to require investors who can look beyond the next few quarterly reports long enough for visionaries like Elon Musk do their work. This may mean doing without the heinously expensive watches and choosing an eternity ring that is actually quite affordable on the average middle-class income if you must buy one at all. However, if you can imagine owning one of the first eternity rings made using palladium from the asteroid belt, you can see why this might be worth it.

Of course, these rich investors aren’t going to do all the difficult and dangerous work of mining the asteroids themselves. Think of all the people who extract their annual salaries’ worth of precious metals every day. These are people who might see the value of taking lucrative offers from space mining operations in the form of extra hazard pay. They would basically be doing the same job of extracting valuable ore, only they’ll be doing it somewhere in the asteroid belt. This is a place that will be as unforgiving of sloppy work as mines on Earth often are, if not more so. However, the pay the miners will receive when their contracts are up – or their families will receive if they disappear for good somewhere in the asteroid belt – could make the risk worth it to people who might have seen very few good career options.

Self-made billionaires did not make their fortunes by being stupid. Most of them are probably going to drag their feet until they see where this is going. It’s like watching Bitcoin grow from this funny little curiosity in 2009 to being seen as a potentially disruptive technology in 2014, in a way. Some people are going to take the lead and the rest will be smacking their foreheads wondering how they could have been so stupid. Like Bitcoin, the exploitation of space resources is something to keep an eye on because, when you total up all the asteroids of all sizes in the asteroid belt, you could be looking at quadrillions of dollars in untapped value. That’s just the asteroid belt. You’ll notice that I never got into real estate values on Mars or the benefits of terraforming Venus at all. If you aren’t afraid of taking risk and sticking with it for the long haul, you can make some serious profit. We’re talking about an economic bonanza that could serve the double purpose of creating jobs and getting the majority of mining operations off the planet.