02 April 2017

Talking about asteroids

From Esquire, an article by George Pendle about some serious risk-takers:

The headquarters of Planetary Resources sits in a business park in the city of Redmond, Washington, fifteen miles east of Seattle, Washington. This is Microsoft country, and the lobby is just like that of any tech start-up. There's the obligatory life-sized statue of Boba Fett to greet you, a pool table, beer on tap, vintage arcade games, and a group of twenty- and thirty-somethings working on laptops and nurturing stubble.
Given the company's stated mission— landing probes on asteroids tumbling wildly through space and mining them for natural resources with solar-powered robots in nearly zero gravity— the place is remarkably unremarkable. Until, that is, you get to the bright, glass-walled, antiseptic space in the center of the office, where masked engineers in white overalls, white surgical masks, and hair nets pad softly around two tiny satellites.
Everyone is going about their business as if this were not all completely insane. It seems almost unkind to be here, like watching the denizens of some asylum scratch out intricate patterns on the floor of their cells, but no one seems to have told any of them. And when you spend a few minutes talking to Chris Lewicki, the company's youthful-looking, 43-year-old president and CEO, you start to wonder if you might be the crazy one.
It helps that Lewicki has an impeccable scientific résumé. Having served as flight director on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover missions (a job he landed before he turned thirty), Lewicki knows the special challenges of transporting a remote-controlled robot three hundred million miles and then getting it to do a whole bunch of science on an alien surface. "I know how hard space is, and it's harder than I think," he says. "But I also know it's possible."
Lewicki larded his board of advisors with MIT physicists, NASA scientists, retired generals, and, for good measure, Avatar director James Cameron, who has become a sort of patron saint of the unbelievable. More impressive still, the company's early investors include Larry Page, the cofounder of Google; Bryan Johnson, the founder of Braintree; Tencent, a Chinese tech giant; and a bunch of venture-capital groups not normally considered easy marks. Last year they collectively invested over twenty million dollars in the company.
Although it hopes to be mining asteroids within ten to fifteen years, Planetary Resources wants to profit from the steps along the way. First off, it plans to create a constellation of small satellites like the two I saw in the clean room. Little bigger than a family-size cereal box, these "cubesats" will eventually be used to look for the right sorts of asteroids to mine. But to begin with, their sensors will be trained on Earth, where they can process infrared and hyper-spectral data that can be beamed to whoever wants it, all at an affordable price. Think of a personalized, constantly updated Google Earth. Oil companies could inspect pipelines and discover leaks. Land managers could spot forest fires. You could probably even get them to check up on your marijuana operation while you're on vacation.
"It's like the space program. We set out to put a man on the Moon, but in the process we created so many valuable things," Lewicki says. "If we're very successful, we'll achieve parts of our mission and vision. If we're merely successful, we might be a profitable business doing interesting things in space."
A quick word about asteroids. Those potato-shaped boulders hurtling through our solar system at sixty thousand miles per hour are, according to scientists, rich in water, iron, and precious metals. These resources could be used for building space structures, fueling passing spaceships, or simply blinging out your space suit with platinum trim. Asterank.com, an asteroid- ranking database bought by Planetary Resources in 2013, has estimated the potential value of more than six hundred thousand of them. Some, thanks to their size and proximity to earth, are thought to be worth more than a hundred trillion dollars. These near-earth objects, or NEOs, are the prize.
The goal of turning a profit in space is a relatively recent one. Dr. John Lewis was one early advocate who literally wrote the book on asteroid mining. In Mining the SkyLewis argued that whole cities and life-support systems could be built in space. He calculated that the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter has enough resources to support "several tens of quadrillions of people. They would pay me a pittance and use my name, and would I please shut up and not bother them about detail. I was aiming the book at teenagers," says Lewis, who is now seventy-five. "People who have open minds, who haven't already settled upon a groove." One of his pupils at the University of Arizona was Chris Lewicki. Lewis was originally courted by his former student to work at Planetary Resources, but negotiations soured. "They would pay me a pittance and use my name, but would I please shut up and not bother them about detail," Lewis says. He is now the chief scientist at Deep Space Industries, the other major player in the field. A representative for Planetary Resources says simply that "We respect Dr. Lewis and his body of work."
"NASA is not interested in making money, ever," Lewicki says. "People don't go to work for NASA because it's a good job. They go to explore the galaxy and expand our knowledge." Asteroid mining's big-money investors and promise of untold riches make it particularly attractive to scientists used to fighting over the scraps of NASA's government funding. Sara Seager, a world-renowned astrophysicist, joined the advisory board of Planetary Resources in hopes of making enough money to independently finance her extremely expensive quest for another Earth. Such entrepreneurial tendencies are typical of the burgeoning industry known as NewSpace.
Less hierarchical, less bureaucratic, and less traditionally punctuated than Old Space, NewSpace features smaller teams often working on reusable technology with off-the-shelf parts. Planetary Resources, for example, is currently testing a component for one of its satellites that is normally used in hospitals for intravenous-fluid regulation. "It's reliable because someone's life depends on it," Lewicki says. "When NASA wanted something like this, they hired a team of two hundred engineers to design it from scratch. The pharmaceutical industry has already done that for us. We're just stealing."
Elon Musk laid the foundation for NewSpace with SpaceX, his rocket company, founded in 2002. NASA now contracts out to SpaceX its cargo-resupply missions to the International Space Station, and the company has an estimated valuation of fifteen billion dollars. "The better Elon does," Meagan Crawford, the COO of DSI, says, "the better the whole industry does."
Dick Rocket (yes, that's his real name), the CEO of NSG, a NewSpace analyst firm, estimates that the annual worldwide revenue of NewSpace ventures is between five and ten billion dollars, and predicts there will be ten thousand NewSpace companies created in the next ten years.
It wasn't just Musk., of course Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and the owner of The Washington Post, has similarly grandiose plans. He founded his own NewSpace rocket company, Blue Origin, in 2000. The world's fourth-richest man, Bezos has said that he wants "millions of people living and working in space".
On the one hand, these pioneers want to be seen as pragmatic businessmen; on the other, their business plans are filled with apocalyptic visions straight out of a fire-and-brimstone tent revival. After announcing last year that he wanted to send a million people to Mars to establish a self-sustaining city, Musk sought to reassure the crowd: "I don't have an immediate doomsday prophecy," he said. But he also noted that "history suggests there will be some doomsday event."
For any of these NewSpace visions to become reality, asteroid mining has to be a success. It seems to be the only way of physically and economically sustaining any prolonged exploration or occupation of space. The cost of carrying fuel, water, and building materials into space from earth (around five thousand dollars a pound on a SpaceX rocket) is too great to be cost effective. Once mined, asteroids could be turned into the equivalent of gas stations and lumberyards for outbound spacecraft.
An international treaty signed at the height of the Space Race prohibits nations from claiming ownership of "celestial bodies", but made no mention of private individuals or corporations. Cue the US Space Act of 2015, a bill that made it lawful for any American citizen to keep whatever they dug out of an asteroid. For the first time in history, a government was officially allowing its citizens to plunder the heavens. An early version contained language drafted by asteroid miners, who lobbied heavily for the final bill, suggesting that a company could call dibs on an asteroid just by showing "reasonable" activity. This could mean that a company with a fleet of satellites— like the ones Planetary Resources is developing— could simply point them at any asteroid they like and claim legal rights to it. This language was eventually removed and, for the record, Planetary Resources strongly denies that this is what it plans to do. Already, however, some space lawyers are working out loopholes to exploit, arguing that, if an asteroid is small enough to be moved by a spacecraft, as NASA's Asteroid Redirect Mission is set to do, it should no longer be classed a "celestial body" and, therefore, could be appropriated in its entirety.
So far, however, these visions have been exactly that: visions. Planetary Resources has put only one test cubesat into earth's orbit, after one was destroyed in a launch explosion. There has been nothing close to a private asteroid landing yet. What there has been is hype, and lots of it. Jim Logan, a twenty-two-year NASA veteran and cofounder of the Space Enterprise Institute, a nonprofit analyst firm, warns against "space cadets" in the industry who look too far ahead. "It's not that they're hyping the possibility," he says. "They're guilty of simplifying the solutions."
Of course nobody wants to be like The New York Times, which published a 1920 editorial stating that it was a physical impossibility for a rocket to function in space. But has any business in the history of the world started with such faraway objectives? Everyone involved believes so fervently in what hasn't happened yet that it can drive you a little crazy. But finding a doubter in the NewSpace community is like trying to find a tell on a poker pro's face.
Admittedly they do have some reason for optimism, largely thanks to the efforts of those working in Old Space. In 2001, NASA landed the NEAR Shoemaker probe on an asteroid, while the Japanese space agency managed to bring less than a milligram of asteroid material back to earth in 2010 aboard the Hayabusa. In 2014, the European Space Agency's Rosetta landed on a comet—an icy variation on an asteroid— but it bounced on the surface, fell into a fissure, and failed to do any drilling.
Late last year NASA launched OSIRIS-REx, a spacecraft named after the Egyptian god of the dead, to visit an asteroid and return up to two kilograms of material to earth by 2023. An even more ambitious billion-dollar proposal is its aforementioned Asteroid Redirect Mission, which seeks to grab a multi-ton boulder off an asteroid and place it in orbit around the moon, although funding is proving more elusive for that.
Of course, these missions were all bankrolled by governments, not private investors expecting a return. But this has not stopped the asteroid miners from attracting capital from some unusual quarters. You can imagine the surprise when Luxembourg announced last year that it had become a major investor in asteroid mining. The man behind this unexpected bid for intergalactic glory is Étienne Schneider, the deputy prime minister of Luxembourg as well as its minister of the economy, minister of internal security, and minister of defense. (It's a small country.) Sitting in his office atop an unprepossessing block in Luxembourg City, Schneider explains the decision with all the flair you would expect of a Mitteleuropean bureaucrat. Originally one of Europe's largest providers of steel, Luxembourg rebranded itself as a financial hub when the mining economy collapsed in the 1970s. "At the time, people thought a financial center in Luxembourg makes no sense," Schneider says. "But we did it, and now we're quite successful." This is an understatement: Luxembourg has the highest per capita GDP in the world. (The US is eighth.)
Seeking to diversify once more, Luxembourg has spent twenty-five million euros for ten percent of Planetary Resources. The country also signed a memorandum of understanding with Deep Space Industries. Around these two businesses, Schneider hopes to create a Luxembourgian Space Agency, as well as a NewSpace investment fund. "We will not do research for the research alone. We really want to do research that will have a direct impact on the business development."
Unlike everyone else I met, Schneider has no personal interest in space. He never watched Space Shuttle launches or wanted to become an astronaut. He doesn't read science fiction or quote Star Wars. While he believes asteroid mining will attract other NewSpace business to Luxembourg and eventually become a major industry in its own right, he is forthright that for the time being his investment serves another purpose. "Now we are on the board of an American company," says Schneider. "I met Jeff Bezos. I met Larry Page." For Schneider, asteroid mining is a terrific networking opportunity.
A two-and-a-half-hour flight northwest of Luxembourg lies an even tinier tax haven that also wanted to jump on the NewSpace bandwagon. It too was heralded as a farsighted patron. But today it's less a blueprint for success than a cautionary tale.
The Isle of Man— thirty miles long by ten miles wide, population eighty-eight thousand— sits in the middle of the Irish Sea like a lost apostrophe. It's not part of Ireland, and it's not really part of the United Kingdom. The island's flag (above), three armored legs joined at the hip, bears the motto "Whichever way you throw it, it will stand", which seems devoid of any deeper meaning beyond the benefits of having three legs.
When you ask the lads at a local pub in the island's mildewed capital of Douglas whether they know anything about the space program, they shrug. "Asteroid mining?" one says. "You're havin' a laugh." If you want to escape gravity they suggest Magnetic Hill, a mysterious stretch of road that cars roll up, in seeming defiance of natural law. It's a strange place. And when Manannán's Cloak comes rolling in— the thick sea fog that is said to hide the island from unwanted visitors— you can well imagine you're on another planet.
Chris Machin, the seventy-two-year-old president of the Jurby Transport Museum, which houses the program's remnants amid a bunch of vintage buses and trams in an old aircraft hangar, admits, "My colleagues aren't too keen on it. If it doesn't have four wheels and ninety-seven seats in it, they begin to chunter."
At the museum, I squeeze by Model T Fords and vintage Buicks, and then I see it: Tucked between a Leyland double-decker bus and an old Velocette racing bike is a pristine cone-shaped space capsule in racing green, festooned with the flags of the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, and the Isle of Man. This capsule, and a giant module from a Soviet space station that sits under a tarp at the other end of the island, are the property of a man named Art Dula. 
Dula is a larger-than-life character in the annals of NewSpace, which is saying something. Back in the 1970s, he became one of America's first space lawyers, a tireless booster for the benefits of extra-planetary free enterprise. He's the literary executor to the estate of legendary sci-fi author Robert Heinlein, and was also a trailblazing space entrepreneur. In 1982 he helped launch the first private US space rocket, the Conestoga, and set up a company to sell launches on Soviet rockets to buyers in the West. (It sold one.) The businesses may not have been great successes, but Dula was way ahead of the curve when it came to monetizing the cosmos, and this made him something of a celebrity in space-obsessed Houston Texas, home of NASA's Mission Control Center, during the 1980s. However, none of these ventures were as audacious as the plans he hatched on the Isle of Man in the mid-2000s.
Dula wanted to leverage his contacts in the Russian and American space programs to set up asteroid-mining and space-tourism businesses at precisely the moment that the Isle of Man— like Luxembourg today— was looking to diversify its economy away from financial services. With a nascent satellite industry already in place, the Isle of Man was all too happy to host Dula's company, Excalibur Almaz.
Dula planned to buy four reusable space capsules and two massive spare Soviet space-station modules. He hoped to use these Russian cast-offs to launch the first private commercial prospecting mission to an asteroid, and to fly wealthy Earthlings around the Moon. It was an auspicious time to be seeking financial backers. Space tourism was on the world's front pages, thanks to the Ansari XPrize competition, which awarded ten million dollars to SpaceShipOne for building the first privately developed reusable manned spacecraft, and the financial crisis of 2008 was still a few years off. Takafumi Horie, a wealthy Japanese Internet entrepreneur, agreed to buy three-quarters of Excalibur Almaz for fifty million dollars. Dula found a minority investor on a cruise ship. When the spacecraft were shipped to the Isle of Man and Dula's plans were announced, the tiny island was besieged by the press and soon ranked by Flight Ascend, a space-industry analyst, as the fourth most likely nation to land on the Moon, ahead of India.
Unfortunately things began to go wrong almost immediately. Dula blames the grounding of the Space Shuttle in 2011 for destroying his business model. Demand for the Russian rockets quadrupled overnight. At the same time, however, he was hit with two lawsuits from his investors, claiming that his sci-fi sales pitch was a scam. One case was voluntarily withdrawn, but he is fighting the other, bigger one brought against him by Horie. Dula won't comment on this except to say, "New activities that can really change the future in a big way are always misunderstood and risky." Horie, who has been convicted of stock fraud himself, says he will invest whatever damages he is awarded in his own NewSpace venture, Interstellar Technologies.
Craig Malisow, a reporter who covered the saga for the Houston Press, has expressed skepticism about Dula's optimistic projections. "If it's true that, in space, no one can hear you scream," he wrote in 2016, "then, in NewSpace, no one can see your bullshit." Jim Logan prefers to put Dula's failure down to "overpromising".
Most people who know about Dula's ups and downs are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. He's always been pushing the boundaries of what's possible. But when does a visionary become a con man?
It's worth asking, because Art Dula has numerous ties to the current crop of asteroid miners. One of his earliest customers was Eric Anderson, the cofounder of Planetary Resources, who paid Dula $200,000 for an asteroid-mining feasibility study. Rick Tumlinson, a founder of Deep Space Industries, gave Dula a "Pioneer of NewSpace" award through his Space Frontier Foundation in 2010. Dula himself, in his role as literary executor to the Heinlein estate, has personally presented six-figure awards to Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Peter Diamandis (the other cofounder of Planetary Resources) in recognition of their "accomplishments in commercial space activities".
"I don't think anyone within that community likes to be critical of anything," Malisow says of this tangled web of NewSpace acquaintances. "And no one wants to speak openly, even if they do feel that way. So it's incredibly easy for people who are dreamers or just full of hot air to stick around in perpetuity." He pauses to find just the right analogy. "It becomes one giant circle jerk."
Not everyone, however, is convinced that there is gold in them hills. Martin Elvis, a senior astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, published a paper in 2014 stating that there may be as few as ten asteroids that could be profitably mined. "I found the starry-eyed nature of the asteroid miners a little too much," he says. With the recent improvements in rocket technology, he thinks that number has since increased, but he remains skeptical of the trillion-dollar appraisals. Determining the composition of an asteroid is largely based on rudimentary spectroscopic readings of what's on an asteroid's surface, so any valuation based on such superficial data "is a bit of an assumption," Elvis says. He believes the technology to mine an asteroid is within reach, but "whether the economics will fall together or not, I don't know. I hope they will".
Everyone I spoke to— from both NewSpace and OldSpace— believes that asteroid mining's technical challenges, while considerable, are solvable through a mix of public and private innovation. Some say the bugs could be worked out in as few as fifteen years. But the success of this enterprise depends on more than just effective equipment. It requires a second leap of faith.

Chris Lewicki, speaking at The Museum of Flight:
For asteroid mining to succeed, the practitioners not only have to believe that the asteroids are ore-rich, and reachable, and that they can be mined cost-effectively, and that no legal obstructions crop up before they blast off; they also have to believe in the Jetsonian visions of Bezos and Musk. If in fifteen years there are no Martian homesteaders, who will be their market?
Lewicki believes such pessimism shows "a lack of vision". But the asteroid miners' go-to historical analogies—the discovery of the New World, the opening up of the Frontier— cut both ways. Treasure ships sank and were plundered, frontiersmen starved and were scalped, some places were just too inhospitable to settle, and that's not even considering the fact that rockets go boom in a way a covered wagon never could. As the asteroid miners raise more funds and issue ever loftier pronouncements, it's enough to make you wonder whether we're witnessing the birth of a new gold rush, or the search for a nonexistent El Dorado.
Rico says that, if they pull it off, they'll make millions. If not, it'll make for a great History Channel series...

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