The men behind Google and Avatar want to mine asteroids. Elon Musk, a co-founder of PayPal, is scheduled to send the SpaceX Falcon 9, the world’s first commercial launch vehicle, to the International Space Station (ISS) on May 7. Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos has a rocket company of his own. Hotel magnate Robert Bigelow is developing inflatable space habitats for use by private companies and government agencies. And the chief executive of Virgin Group, Sir Richard Branson, has booked everyone from Stephen Hawking to Angelina Jolie on his latest venture, Virgin Galactic, which aims to begin suborbital flights in space in 2013 – provided you can pay $200,000 for a ticket, of course. Meanwhile, the federal government has turned the space shuttles into museum exhibits and made no realistic plans for replacing them. Only one thing is certain: this ain’t your daddy’s space race.
The announcement last week by the space startup Planetary Resources, Inc. that it wants to extract minerals and water from near-Earth asteroids might sound like science fiction – or a joke – until you consider the big names, the brains, and the billions of dollars that are backing this project. Peter Diamandis, a key figure in private spaceflight, is joined by Google founder Larry Page, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, filmmaker James Cameron, former astronaut Tom Jones, and a host of other high-profile investors and advisers. These are serious people with serious aims; they want to mine near-Earth objects for high-value resources like platinum-group metals and rare earths, and they want to make money doing it (just one asteroid could contain trillions of dollars’ worth of resources). But you’re still skeptical, as you probably should be. Planetary Resources could go bust. Well, so did the Virginia Company. So did most of the first transcontinental railroads. Advancing a new frontier can be costly, but it’s ultimately worthwhile. And if Americans with money and ambition can’t do it, then no one will – in this decade, anyway.
You see, the United States is no longer alone in space. We have a huge lead in most measures of space technology, we have most of the commercial ventures there, and we are militarily dominant there, but these are all just reflections of the fact that we got there first. Innovation, investment, and geopolitical imperative have all been lacking – no more. The dot-com space entrepreneurs are only the beginning because while the federal government is content for now to let the American space program stagnate, it will not be able to do so for much longer.
The great white elephant in the sky – the ISS, as you probably know it – may appear to be the focus of America’s efforts in space, but nothing could be further from the truth. Neither are unmanned scientific missions the main avenue for showcasing America’s lead above and beyond Earth’s atmosphere. The real key to space, as with Earth’s oceans before it, is power projection. Without satellites in orbit, the communication, navigation, precision-guided weapons, intelligence, and surveillance capabilities of the United States would disappear. The control of space is thus the keystone of American military strategy – without it, the rest falls apart, and the importance of satellites will only increase as the American way of waging war become more reliant on electronics of all kinds and computer networks in particular.
I am not an engineer, and I am not a military officer. But in my view, the economic, technological, and political trends on this issue are quite clear. As more nations (and more companies) gain access to space, the United States will feel (understandably, to a point) that it is losing its edge in space. It will begin to act. I cannot impose a precise timeline on this process, but watch the progress of other space-faring nations, watch for the proliferation of anti-satellite weapons (cyber and physical), and watch for the development of hypersonic missiles and aircraft. The fear of American vulnerability will be translated into a massive engineering effort to reclaim the United States’ dominance in space, not just militarily, but commercially.
The federal government will need affordable and regular access to space – and private space ventures will try to deliver. The startups of today may fail, or they may become the transcontinental railroads of our time – private companies granted enormous concessions by the government in the name of national interest. The dot-com dreamers that aim to mine asteroids and beam solar power to Earth from orbit may be wasting their money, or they may be the first comers in a new cycle of boom-and-bust speculation that will drive the development of space to unforeseen heights. Against a backdrop of resource depletion, ecological exhaustion, climate change, crashing birthrates, and the resulting geopolitical competition, all fueled by the unchecked rise of global capitalism, no one will any longer struggle to explain the importance of space in national and international affairs. Rather, the struggle will be to keep the peace.
Let’s try and keep that peace. I really want to survive long enough to make it to Mars.