I finally got around to watching Jeff Greason’s ISDC talk last night (youtube link here), and it has got me thinking. In an effort to actually get some blog posts going again, I’m going to break this up into chunks to try and keep things short.
Jeff made the point that you can look at space policy from a framework that has Goals at the top, with Strategies that help you achieve those Goals, Objectives that provide you measurable steps to gauge your progress at those Strategies, and then Tactics that determine what tools you use for meeting those Objectives. I really like this framework, and in fact it helped me clarify my thinking about Altius’ corporate goals and strategies (but that’s a blog post for another time, and probably over on the ASM blog).
After giving a few analogies (WWII military policy and the Space Race), Jeff then made the argument that “space settlement” was actually the policy of the United States. For me, my motivating goal for space development is a very closely related but slightly different focus–tapping the resources of space for the benefit of mankind here on earth. Now, there are challenges for both of these goals. As Jeff right pointed out, there are many who are afraid of openly proclaiming goals like these, because they are afraid that they might not actually be realistically achievable. In the case of settlement, there are questions of whether humans can actually reproduce outside of a 1g field, or if we can ever get to the point where we can economically support life indefinitely off planet. In the case of tapping space resources for humanity’s benefit, there’s the “minor technical detail” that most of these resources are extremely subeconomic right now.
I actually discussed the topic of subeconomic resources back in the early day of this blog, but I figure a revisiting of the topic is worthwhile. To recap, a subeconomic resource is one that you can’t profitably extract and sell under current conditions. Pretty much all space resources currently fall under this category. While you hear a lot of comments on space forums about the importance of better space property rights, the reality is that even if there was a clear way you could homestead a chunk of the Moon or a NEO or Mars, and sell anything you could harvest for it, I still don’t think you could actually close an honest business case around resource extraction today. With how much it would cost and how long it would take to go from where we are right now to the point where you could actually sell your first kg of lunar platinum or put the first drop of lunar derived LOX or LH2 into a customer’s tank in LEO, there’s no way you could actually make the ROI work for doing that privately, stand-alone. In fact, I’ve even got a certain coblogger who has made the argument that it’s impossible to ever mine a resource in space and send it back to earth for a net profit.
While I’m pessimistic on the current economics of space resource extraction, I think my friend is wrong. The point I made in my previous article on the topic and that I wanted to remake today is that resources that are currently subeconomic don’t have to stay that way. What got me thinking about this was actually reading a sign at the Hogle Zoo last week while on vacation. One of the donors for the zoo was the Kennecott Copper Mine, a major open-pit mine located in the mountains on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley. While this mine is one of the most productive mines in the world, there was still a time in the not-to-distant past, where even if you knew exactly how much gold, silver, copper, and molybdenum there was in there, that it wouldn’t have been possible to economically exploit that. But as transportation systems became more mature, affordable, and reliable, commerce spread, and eventually mines like it or deep-sea oil rig operations also became feasible and even profitable.
Now don’t get me wrong, just because it’s possible for some subeconomic resources to become economic over time, that doesn’t guarantee that a specific resource will do so. Personally, I’d be really surprised if anyone ever harvests Helium-3 from the moon for use in fusion reactors, for instance. But I think there’s a reasonable case that a space program run with the goals I mentioned earlier (settlement and resource utilization), and with a suitably well-thought-out and implemented strategy, can enable at least some extraterrestrial resources to become economically extractable for mankind’s benefit.
Imagine for a second that the White House actually proposed such a goal, and a strategy like Jeff’s “planet hopping” strategy, and found a way to get Congress on-board with such a strategy, and NASA to competently execute it’s part of that strategy long enough to get us past our first two major objectives (depots in LEO and L1 and a working lunar ISRU operation capable of delivering respectable amounts of LOX/LH2 to L1). Also imagine that the idea of prepping these new capabilities for a handoff to commercial operations was built-in from the get-go instead of being an afterthought like it usually is. By that point, we would have already started some virtuous cycles. By providing an anchor tenancy need for propellant in LEO, you’ve now provided a large enough stable market to close the business cases for several lower-cost launch providers. You’ve also helped establish infrastructure and systems to allow sending large amounts of crew, cargo, and other materials to the lunar surface. You’ve also established the first market for propellant in L1 (servicing missions both to the Moon and also to NASA’s next steps in the “planet hopping” strategy). If the price point of propellant in L1 from lunar sources really is cheaper than shipping it from home, you’re also getting the start of a transportation system that has a made a lot of progress towards being able to extract and ship home Lunar PGMs at an economically useful price point. While you might not yet be all the way there, you’ve now lowered the amount of additional work that has to be covered by a lunar PGM extraction business plan substantially, and also removed a lot of content and time between fundraising and when that first bar of platinum can be sold on earth. Also, by providing steady demand for propellant in L1, NASA has also provided an economic incentive for people to improve the cost of delivering stuff to L1 (say by improving the reusability of lunar landers, building a small lunar mass driver, rotovator, launch loop, sling, or a lunar beanstalk). By providing an anchor tenant for LEO and L1 propellant, NASA has also made it easier for other people with business ideas to factor those into their company’s plans, or their country’s space program.
To summarize what has now become a much longer blog post than I intended, I think a properly done settlement/resource extraction goal with a “planet hopping” strategy could actually start making lunar resources economically extractable even before we’ve managed to put a human foot on Mars, even if such resources are currently nowhere near economically feasible today.