Back when I was a tyke, the “Dick Tracy” comic strip ran an ongoing storyline about mining for gold on the moon. I loved it, but this was the sort of wild science fiction that turned off many of the venerable strip’s older readers.
Fast forward to 2012. A sort of vindication has occurred. According to the Wall Street Journal, a start-up company called Planetary Resources has announced plans to capture and mine asteroids’ natural resources, starting as early as 2025.
With backers including Google executives, filmmaker James Cameron and Ross Perot Jr., Planetary Resources aspires to change the world and ensure the survival of humanity. One of the co-founders, Peter Diamandis (XPrize Foundation CEO ) insists we have a moral imperative to explore space for mineral and metal wealth, instead of continuing to rape and pillage the earth. He sees space mining as a mechanism to “uplift the bottom billion or so of society.” hopes to find iron, nickel, palladium and platinum. (One relatively small asteroid could hold as much as $50 billion worth of platinum.)
Planetary Resources envisions a “gold rush” in space. Of course that’s not the world’s best promotional theme, when you consider that most of the “miner 49ers” wound up empty-handed after the initial euphoria. I wonder what the backup plan is? (“A chicken in every pot in space!” “40 acres and a mule in space!”)
Only part of the resources would be returned to earth. Part of the value of the mining operation would be in its use for orbiting refueling stations to enable deeper penetration into space. The station could provide water, oxygen and all the other necessities for long voyages, but it’s doubtful they’ll find the resources for manufacturing Slim Jims and lottery tickets.
The backers are particularly excited over the prospects of finding large amounts of so-called “rare earth” metals. If “rare earth” becomes “common as hell asteroid” metals, it could mess with China’s ability to hold the world over a barrel. (“How many tons do you need today? How about six pounds? Six milligrams? With six you get eggroll!”)
Many technical questions and uncertainties remain. Mitt Romeny, for one, has expressed concerns about the feasibility of attaching a pet carrier to the rockets that would perform the mining.
Current plans call for the employment of a lot of designers on earth, but the actual mining and hauling is intended for unmanned robotic spaceships. This is a little odd, since one of the investors had commissioned a new version of the “Alien” film poster. (“In space, no one can hear you unionize.”)
Yes, “trickle down” economics promise to make the Third World a better place. Of course before backwards natives make definitive plans for “movin’ on up to the East Side,” they should consider the pesky fact that things don’t trickle down in weightless conditions. (“Sorry, folks. But don’t blame us! Blame that pinko Sir Isaac Newton!”)
Of course the question may become moot if we find out that some sort of Little Green Men have already laid claim to the thousands of asteroids. (“Hello, Dick Tracy? I’ve just shot a couple of trespassing robots. Could you come get them out of my way? And does that two-way wrist TV of yours pick up reruns of ‘My Favorite Martian’?”)