Rocket Men

NPR ran a story this week on a new “space mining” program at the Colorado School of Mines, which turned out to be misleading. In reality, it is “The first program in the world focused on educating scientists, engineers, economists, entrepreneurs, and policy makers in the developing field of space resources.”

CSM’s intent is to bring together, under the general rubric of “in situ resource utilization,” fields such as “remote sensing, geomechanics, mining, materials/metallurgy, robotics/automation, advanced manufacturing, electrochemistry, solar [‘It’s always sunny in space’] and nuclear energy, and resource economics.” Students will earn a post-baccalaureate certificate, MS, or PhD.

CSM and potential students are responding to free-floating commercial interest in space that goes beyond assisting NASA or the military. The American Security Project says, “If commodities can be produced in space at a much cheaper cost, a variety of business opportunities could be opened up—including space-based solar power. [For example,] Shackleton Energy envisions a sort of ‘industrialization’ of space as a result of their ability to profitably extract resources from the moon.”

Jeff Manber, CEO of the space company Nanoracks, said this year, “There are [space] races but it’s not a monolithic race,” he said. “It’s not to get the first human to the moon or back. We want to be part of a society moving to space.”

Even The Motley Fool is bullish on space, though much of what it recommends are investments in companies that will build the spacecraft, or satellites for earthly broadband, or that will offer “space insurance”—not in mining concerns on distant planets or asteroids.

What is all this? A belief we have exhausted and ruined one planet, so we need to find new ones to ruin? Or an innocuous next step in humankind’s empirical search for knowledge, which will lead us to peace and prosperity? Is it all so premature it can only be seen as a marketing/PR hustle? Or is there an actual grab for a new and infinite bottom line?

The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies—commonly called the Outer Space Treaty of 1966—says “the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind [and] not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means ….”

The wording does not strictly prohibit the use, occupation, and benefit from space by commercial interests, which would sidestep “national.” But every gold mine needs its army, as they say. Who will protect the interests of corporations registered in and taxed by specific countries? Who will keep the Chinese People’s Liberation Army out of Mos Eiseley?

For a brief shining moment, interest in American space commerce seemed to cross trajectories with that for a force to protect it. Any writer would be accused of overworking the trope if they suggested that long rockets (filled with soldiers, Marines, or seamen) would thrust into space to watch others drill the moon. But a writer does not need to suggest it. Enter President Trump at the third meeting of the National Space Council, June 18, 2018.

“I’ve always said that rich guys seem to like rockets,” Trump says. “So all of those rich guys that are dying for our real estate to launch their rockets, we won’t charge you too much. Just go ahead. [A]s long as he’s—as long as it’s an American rich person, that’s good.”

“Before we came in,” he says, “I will tell you, they didn’t have such big plans for space. Now they have plans. And it’s great, not only in terms of jobs and everything else; it’s great for the psyche of our country … so important for right up here—the psyche. We don’t want China and Russia and other countries leading us. […]

“My administration is reclaiming America’s heritage as the world’s greatest space-faring nation,” he says. “The essence of the American character is to explore new horizons and to tame new frontiers. But … it is not enough to merely have an American presence in space. We must have American dominance in space. So important.”

With that, the idea of Space Force was born.

“Once more, we will summon the American spirit to tame the next great American frontier. […] You’re very important people. […] You will go out there and you will take that frontier…. And what you’re doing is so important—remember—economically, militarily, scientifically.”

“Our nation of pioneers still yearns to conquer the unknown, because we are Americans and the future belongs totally to us,” he says.

You got a nice interstellar void there. It would be a shame if somebody bivouacked in it.

I contacted Dr. John Logsdon, Professor Emeritus and Founder of the Space Policy Institute, Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University, to ask if we are anywhere near a future in which a Space Force enables cosmic Rotarians.

“The Space Force debate is about how best to organize current national security space activities,” he said flatly, “which are part of U.S. ability to fight and win wars on Earth. It has essentially nothing to do with defending (so far non-existent) private sector activities in areas such as space mining. We are nowhere close to needing military in space to protect industrial activities there. Those activities remain in the realm of speculation, as has been the case for the past four decades.”

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