Back in July 2009, in a post “Industrialize the Solar System,” I laid out the economic “case for space:”
(1) Space development will catalyze economic development in general, which always enables higher environmental consciousness and greater resources to address environmental challenges.
(2) Living in space requires recycling technologies for water and air that are many times more demanding than on earth, and these technologies will have applications that will improve water and emission treatment technologies on earth.
(3) Zero gravity manufacturing and manufacturing off the planet can eventually allow us to do potentially hazardous work in space where there is no danger to the earth’s ecosystem.
(4) There are benefits in terms of earth observation and ecosystem management that we have only begun to realize through a presence in space.
(5) We may build satellite solar power stations and beam the energy they produce back to earth.
(6) We can access minerals on the Moon, Mars, other terrestrial moons, and the asteroids that eventually can take pressure off resources on earth.
To this sixth point, a fascinating comment recently surfaced on a post by Walter Russell Mead entitled “Top Green Admits ‘We are Lost‘,” where the writer quantified the amount of minerals likely to be recoverable in a relatively small (1 km diameter) asteroid. Here is an excerpt:
“A 1 km metallic asteroid (90th percentile iridium richness), mined at a rate of 1 million cubic meters per year, could provide us with the following minerals (as a multiple of our nation’s annual consumption, according to USGS):
That asteroid, at that specified level of consumption, would last us 500 years.”
Mead’s entire post is worth reading, along with the comments, because he discusses a recent admission by uber-green pundit George Monbiot (here is Monbiot’s original post), who has now admitted there is no shortage of fossil fuel reserves here on earth, nor the likelyhood they will be more expensive to extract than renewable alternatives any time soon.
What is fascinating about space industrialization, however, is it offers a way out of multiple conundrums:
To the extent it is government financed, it represents Keynesian stimulus that not only creates jobs, but preserves and enhances the technological prowess of whatever nation makes this investment.
It yields strategic dividends eventually, in the form of new and relatively inexhaustible sources of critical mineral resources.
It presents an opportunity to build orbiting solar power stations that may eventually deliver cheap and abundant power to cities on earth, which, along with abundant other minerals extracted from the asteroids, will potentially eliminate resource scarcity.
Like the discovery of the spice islands during the previous great era of human exploration and discovery, it creates new outposts for human civilization and vast new sectors for economic growth.
All of this occurs off the earth’s surface, taking pressure off of the relatively finite and environmentally sensitive terrestrial sources of minerals and energy resources.