Chapter 4: L1 Strategic Materials Reserve

In the previous chapter, we saw that the concept of capturing an asteroid is one that NASA is developing  even as private sector missions are actively scaling up.  The engineering challenges look reasonably straightforward and feasible based on the Keck study group findings and subsequent proposal for a NASA ARM mission.  The private sector is pushing forward, jockeying for opportunities and contracts, and riding the hype cycle.  These are not leaps in the dark, but programs being developed and technologies within reach.  These are capabilities in search of a market.

The issue has been one of support and funding.

On the public sector side, Congress has been lukewarm to the idea of funding the ARM mission and this is partly bound up in the politics of differing priorities for exploration with the Obama Administration.  The direction in Congress has been to fund a return to the Moon at a time when the Obama Administration and NASA were focused on achieving different firsts such as a rendezvous with an asteroid and a landing on Mars.  The direction of the new Trump Administration is not yet clear.

On the private sector side, despite the great hype and the reported backing of billionaires behind some of the asteroid mining companies, these firms are not awash in cash.  They are using Kickstarter to offer t-shirts and selfies to raise relatively modest sums ($1.5m), efforts that do not suggest massive funding is being deployed at speed or scale.

Against this backdrop, NASA recently announced it had chosen an approach for its ARM mission.  There had been two competing possibilities in play for a first effort to acquire an asteroid or asteroidal material.  The original Keck study offered two options:  1) to capture and retrieve an entire asteroid or 2) to retrieve a smaller boulder off a larger asteroid as potentially easier and more effective.

In March 2015, NASA announced that it was going with the boulder option.  On the face of it, the rationale was straightforward.  It is easier to pick a larger asteroid to work with that we know, rather than to go through the costly and time-consuming effort to identify and find a smaller asteroid to retrieve.  The mission is both less risky and less expensive (the cost is about 50% of retrieving a smaller asteroid in its entirety).  The technology for grabbing a boulder is potentially also technology that can be used in exploring Mars.  Finally, it takes less time to retrieve a smaller boulder than a larger asteroid in full.  [http://www.space.com/28934-nasa-asteroid-capture-mission-boulder.html]

What you get for the lower cost, of course, is a smaller rock.  Instead of an asteroid in the 7-8 meter size, you get a boulder that will be 2-3 meters in size.  This doesn’t sounds like a big difference, but you also don’t gain practice in capturing and retrieving a full-sized asteroid spinning in space.  Both samples do get returned back to Lunar orbit where astronauts can reach them quickly from Earth and do a little in-space mining and analysis.

Given a paradigm of space exploration and an ongoing need to optimize costs in an environment of limited resources, going small has many virtues and in fact may be the only feasible approach within the context of today’s existing politics and NASA’s known, and limited, ability to garner public resources.

But it also represents a missed opportunity to galvanize the public and go for scale.  The boulder is not bolder.

My goal is to move beyond a public sector that is divided and can’t think at scale and a private sector that talks up vision, but lacks the resources to act independently and needs government contracts to actually get anywhere.  In this respect the ARM mission is a perfect example of the limitations we are imposing on ourselves as a nation and the opportunities for a bolder future that we are missing.

We are failing to think at scale and the result is that we are missing out on an opportunity to achieve a substantial win for the future of America in a way that is fiscally prudent and potentially meets the criteria of a wise investment.  ARM as a mission for exploration, a one-off effort to return a small sample, is merely interesting.  But as a program with the potential to catalyze an industry in space and create Earth-based jobs, applying ARM at scale is much more intriguing.

In this chapter, I will attempt to describe what a program to acquire asteroid material at scale would look like and how it can rapidly bring down the cost of this resource, cement American leadership in space, and create the basis for an industrial economy in near Earth space.  In addition, the net cost to the American taxpayer may well be positive over the long-term, a possibility that, if true, means this approach could offer policymakers the breakthrough to ‘advancing humanity into space’ that they have long appeared to be searching for.

The Proposal:  An L1 Strategic Materials Reserve

I am proposing that the US Congress authorize and the US Government move forthwith to implement a program of open market acquisition of asteroid material to be purchased upon delivery at Lagrange 1 (L1) or other suitable delivery point in near Earth space.  The delivery of said material should be contracted with the private sector, primarily, but not necessarily exclusively American entities, which will be responsible for delivering in unprocessed form at a fixed price per unit of measure a specific quantity of materials at a specific location.  The fixed price will be based on a payment schedule that will decline over time at an aggressive, but predictable rate that provides suitable financial incentive for the contracted parties to make rapid progress.  Upon delivery and payment, said material will become the sole property of the US Government and the American people.

The goal for this strategic material fund would be to acquire in the range of 100,000-250,000 tons of asteroid material over a 30 year period beginning as soon as can be operationally initiated.

I will demonstrate with this proposal that the net economic benefit of the material acquired is greatly in excess of the cost of its acquisition and that moving to purchase at scale will create both an industry of high paying jobs as well as an asset for the American people.  In blunt terms, this program will create jobs at home on Earth for Americans, demonstrate American technological leadership, and open up the frontier of near earth space for both development and exploration.

In simple terms, my big idea for getting to scale in space comes down to this:  A purchasing agreement.  Why this makes sense starts by comparing the cost and effort to do one ARM mission versus the cost of doing many.

ARM 1

At the core of this proposal is a speculative view of the original baseline case for an Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM) in its original form (full asteroid retrieval).

In that original study created by a group of researchers funded by the Keck Institute for Space Studies, the cost of a single mission to capture a single asteroid and return it to Lunar orbit was estimated as $2.647 billion in FY12 constant dollars.  These estimates were based on a first mission to capture an asteroid of between 6-8 meters in diameter which would have a mass of approximately 500,000 kg, or 1.1 million pounds.   The original mission profile estimated that it would take 6-10 years to complete the rendezvous, capture, and return of the asteroid depending on the size and location of the asteroid targeted.  The cost on a per lb. basis for this very first mission would be in the range of $2,400/lb.

This is not cheap, but it compares favorably for the current delivery cost of a pound of material to L1 from Earth.  Today, that cost has been estimated in the range of $40,000-$50,000 per lb (or $100k/kg).

Of course, such a comparison is not a perfect apples-to-apples view since materials delivered from Earth would be processed and higher value than raw asteroid material, but the initial comparison is important and has some validity and I will explain why that is so more thoroughly later.

To understand why this initial estimate is not the final word, we need to explore what makes up the cost at the line item level.  Below in Table 1, there is a breakdown provided by the original design team.

Table 1:  Baseline ARM Mission Budget
Budget Item FY12$M Percent Description
1. NASA insight/oversight 204 7.7% NASA overhead and administration.  Calculated as a percentage of overall contractor cost. Assumes intensive development and coordination with NASA.
2. Phase A 68 2.6% Preliminary analysis and a project plan.
3. Spacecraft 1,359 51.3% Cost to develop technologies, assemble, and deliver the spacecraft.
4. Launch Vehicle 288 10.9% Cost of launching the mission from Earth on an Atlas V rocket.
5. Mission Ops/GDS 117 4.4% Cost of maintaining mission oversight for the 10 year duration.
6. Reserves 611 23.1% Contingency reserves estimated at 30% of total cost.
Total 2,647 100.0% Total cost

 

These costs are significant, but like anything they represent the cost of creating something from scratch the first time.  They are not representative of what it might cost to run dozens or hundreds of similar missions over time.  It is worth looking at each of these elements and speculating about how low the cost could go to launch the 2nd, 10th, or even 50th vehicle.  It is likely that the cost can drop dramatically with operations at scale and we shall illustrate this below.

Let’s take them one at a time.

Line 1 – NASA Insight/Oversight.  Some people skeptical of government support and costs might take a dim view of this line item, but the truth is that the first attempt at an ARM mission will require heavy government support and oversight.  NASA’s engagement will be extensive and it will be expensive as it works to develop and integrate all of the technologies in a first mission together to meet the mission goals and increase the odds of success.  It represents slightly less than 8% of total mission cost.  But once the technology and knowledge are transferred to the private sector, NASA’s oversight should become much less intensive or necessary.  This line item can and should drop precipitously as NASA involvement shifts to more of a procurement function than a detailed development and oversight effort.  It seems plausible that, as operations transition to the private sector and increase in scale, NASA’s cost of oversight can drop by more than 95% to a cost of $10M per mission, and possibly much less.

Line 2.  The line item called Phase A describes the preliminary analysis phase and the development of a project plan in order to demonstrate proof of concept.  This phase details out the specifics of the mission including what is to be done, when, where, and how.   It also includes specifications of what can be bought versus what needs to be built. (source:  http://www2.jpl.nasa.gov/basics/bsf7-1.php)  As the technology and experience for creating an ARM mission is transitioned over from NASA to private sector companies, this development cost should decline dramatically, if not zero out completely.  Private sector firms will still engage in planning for each mission, but they will not be starting from scratch like the original mission.  They will need nothing like the original Phase A budget.  This cost should drop to a nominal sum.  I’ve estimated $2m to be conservative, but truthfully this activity may drop below $1m or even zero.

Line 3.  Spacecraft.  The estimated cost of creating the first ARM mission is $1.4 billion, or 51.3% of total cost of the mission.  Yet the study team suggests that development costs account for nearly $1bn of the total cost of the first spacecraft.  The recurring cost of the spacecraft hardware itself is estimated in the original study as just $336M.  In other words, after you build the first one, the incremental cost of the next one is just $336M, a fraction of the original cost.  In the hands of the private sector and if there is a chance to develop multiple copies and move down the cost curve, one can assume that significant efficiencies can be achieved and this cost will drop from over $300m per unit to something much lower over time.  It is not unreasonable to assume that an aggressive private sector provided with a standard package of technology will vie intensely to compete and deliver the unit cost of incremental ARM missions over time by a large percentage.  It seems reasonable to assume a cost per unit eventually falling below $100M per unit, perhaps even less.

Line 4.  Launch Vehicle.  The cost of launching an ARM spacecraft on its way is currently very high, but we know from the previous chapter that the cost of launching cargo is dropping fast and that SpaceX is expected to bring it down further.  From $288m today, it is probably reasonable to expect a future Falcon Heavy to lift a similar cargo for under $100M and if a re-usable rocket now under development is truly achieved, this cost my drop significantly again.

Line 5.  Mission Ops/GDS.  Mission operations entails the monitoring of the spacecraft over the life of its mission outbound to the asteroid belt, through the capture process, and the return.  A team of engineers will be heavily involved at each of these steps the first time out.  However, when run by the private sector one can assume these costs become more optimized and automated.  One can expect to do this at very low percentage of the cost estimated in the original ARM study, especially if operations are done at scale and the cost of fixed operational coverage can be shared or amortized over multiple missions and automation is put in place.

Line 6.  ‘Reserves’ as a cost represents nearly a quarter of the full cost of the first ARM mission and is essentially a contingency estimate to provide a buffer in the event of cost overruns.  This makes sense in the context of a path-breaking development effort to create or refine cutting edge new technology and put it together in a new way where surprises can easily arise in the development process.  It is not a cost that makes sense in anything like this size when the technologies are more mature and if production runs are repeatedly building units in a competitive environment.  It is also not a cost that NASA would budget for if it is purchasing resources at a fixed price.  For a private sector firm, contingency can be greatly reduced by comparison to the original ARM mission.

None of the cost reductions explored and speculated about will happen instantly or over the life of the first few units, but if a long-term purchase arrangement is created and firms have a chance to compete and deliver, I would argue that the end-state is likely to reach a very low cost relatively fast.

There are other ways to optimize costs as well.  For instance, it may be that we find asteroids closer to Earth which would greatly reduce the cost of capturing and returning them compared to the original baseline study assumptions.  This point has been actively speculated on by the current NASA design team.

ARM N

Below, I’ve extrapolated out some of the cost drivers into a set of scenarios describing how the incremental cost of future missions may change over time and how rapidly the cost of executing a mission and, therefore, the cost of materials delivered, can fall very fast.

Table 2:  Potential Cost Evolution of Multiple ARM Missions

Table 2: Potential Cost Evolution of Multiple ARM Missions

 

These scenarios show a shift in cost over time and it is worth considering their assumptions and the underlying cost drivers.  They are offered not as an expert estimate of exactly how this process will proceed, but as a directional view of what may be possible so that we might reasonably estimate what the value proposition of increasing scale in this sector could look like.

 

Scenario 1.  This is the original baseline cost for the very first ARM mission.  As has been noted, subsequent NASA analysis has suggested that the cost of this first mission can be reduced if a suitable asteroid can be found closer to Earth than the original team considered in their baseline study.

 

Scenario 2.  This case is based on a transfer of the mission technologies created by ARM 1 to private sector companies that can deliver faster and more competitively on cost.  In addition, this scenario assumes little or no additional technology development (new technologies are covered in the original ARM mission) and a significant drop in NASA overhead, mission operations, and contingency reserves.  Further, Scenario 2 assumes a competitive decrease in launch costs as SpaceX and/or other launch firms bring down the cost of launches.  In Scenario 2, the mission cost declines to $546M per ARM and the cost per pound of material delivered to L1 is estimated as falling below $500/lb.

 

Scenario 3.  Scenario 3 assumes incremental cost reductions in all categories as the private sector accumulates experience and drives cost lower.  This scenario assumes as many as 10 launches per year.  In Scenario 3, the cost of each launch falls to $377 million per ARM and the material delivered to L1 is further reduced to below $350/lb.

 

Scenario 4.  Scenario 4 assumes further cost decreases as more units are launched and the private sector continues to launch new ARM missions at a rate of 10 per year.  The cost of each mission declines to $250 million and the material delivered to L1 is further reduced to around $225/lb.

 

Scenario 5.  In the final scenario, a new mission assumption is considered.  In this case, the population of ARM vehicles that have delivered material to L1 has reached over 100 and a significant number of them have arrived at L1.  These vehicles should be designed for refueling and reuse.  Scenario 5 assumes that launch costs drop further and that what is launched is not full-sized spacecraft, but fuel modules for refueling one or more ARM vehicles.  This scenario assumes that ARMs are re-used and re-launched from L1 at a cost below $100 million.  This serves to drive the cost of one pound of asteroid material delivered to L1 down to ~$85/lb.

 

These scenarios are illustrative at best.  They may not reflect how low costs can actually go or how fast.  What they do show is that if we consider operations at scale, the cost of contracting with the private sector to deliver large quantities of materials to L1 will likely witness a dramatic reduction in cost compared to a single ARM mission conceived and run centrally by NASA today.

A one-off is incredibly expensive.  The first time you do anything, it is always the hardest and the most expensive.  Get into a pattern, produce at scale, deliver dozens or hundreds of the same thing and this is what happens:  The learning curve begins to deliver efficiencies and the marginal cost of each incremental unit drops rapidly and significantly.  Think the Liberty Ships and Flying Fortresses of World War II.

Conceptually, what I am proposing is not a single ARM mission, but a Near Earth Asteroid ARM Conveyor comprising dozens and eventually hundreds of vehicles capturing Near Earth Asteroids, de-spinning them, and returning them to a reserve location at L1 where they become the property of the American people.  Given each mission takes 6-10 years to deliver its cargo, the initial impact of vehicles launched into space will seem small, but very rapidly a decade hence, a store of materials will begin to accumulate at a location that is very advantageous for any nation interested in doing something – anything – substantive in near Earth space.  Fifteen to twenty years downstream, and with upwards of a hundred ARM tugs in continuous cycle operations, the reserve of material that accumulates at L1 begins to get very sizable indeed.

We’ll explore what this program looks like in more detail.

The Proposal

An L1 Strategic Material Reserve would be a fund authorized by Congress to conduct open market fixed price purchases of asteroid material delivered to L1.  In effect, this is a strategic purchasing agreement not unlike the National Petroleum Reserve.  It is a program that would rely on the private sector to delivery specific cargo to a specific destination at a specified price.  The materials purchased would become the exclusive property of the United States to administer, lease for exploitation, jointly develop, or sell into the market or bilaterally at its discretion.

The fund would be a multi-year framework agreement administered and supported by NASA.  It would provide a guaranteed purchase price per unit of measure (pound or kilogram) that declines year over year based on the estimated cost it takes to deliver.  In other words, NASA would be deeply involved in the program and in understanding the private sector’s cost to launch missions and deliver material.  It would set an aggressive schedule of declining prices, but one that realistically provides private sector entities with the chance to get a return on investment.  We want to catalyze and build an industry, not hamstring it at the start.

The cost of the materials acquired via the program would be in the range of $50 billion over a 30-year period.  There may be additional costs to develop and expand the technologies and NASA should have access to the funding necessary to aggressively work with its partners to develop technologies that can further cut the costs of missions.  For instances, rapidly increasing the power of the Solar Electric Propulsion modules might allow the ARM missions to capture and return larger cargoes at a cheaper price point, so it is in our interest to support both private sector innovations as well as rapidly develop advanced technology that can be disseminated to our private sector partners to make them more effective.  In addition, there are additional costs associated with a more aggressive survey and mapping effort among the asteroid belt to identify suitable targets for acquisition.  These additional costs should be considered in an overall program.

The program should be designed to purchase materials from companies based in the US or that are US incorporated.  This should not rule out working with joint ventures or the local affiliates of our EU and Asian allies.  However, it seems less prudent to purchase from firms representing countries that are emerging rivals or those that steal our technologies.

The intent of the program is to catalyze larger investment, innovation, and engagement within our private sector by providing targeted support to limit or share development costs and reduce investment and launch costs.  Because of the substantial risk involved, support of the private sector could take additional supportive forms such as providing joint technology development, shared risk (insurance subsidies), and joint ventures.

Once materials are delivered to L1, they become the property of the USG and the American people.  They are available to hold, sell, or develop as priorities evolve.  The most likely and interesting outcome is that NASA, or suitably chartered public body, is authorized to jointly develop and process materials with investing companies using gain-share agreements both for the delivery company, the processing company (should they be different), and the US Government with initial payback heavily weighted to USG purchase cost recovery before investor payout.

As noted earlier, the goal of the program is to create a NEA ARM Conveyor Belt.  A key set of design principals should include modularity, reusability, and networkability.  Each ARM Mission launched by one of our private sector contractors should be designed to be reusable once refueled and the cost of doing this should get lower over time.  The program should witness the creation of a fleet of robotic asteroid tugs that can work steadily to retrieve and return Near Earth Asteroids.

As this fleet matures in size and capability, it may be feasible to use multiple tugs in concert to grab much larger asteroid targets.

Benefits

There are several advantages of a program to accumulate asteroid material at L1 and the concept of implementing a Near Earth Asteroid ARM Conveyor at scale.

Payback.  The first is Return on Investment (or ROI), the idea of payback.  It is very possible that a full-fledged ARM program operating at scale will be capable, over an extended period of time, of collecting and either processing or selling asteroid material for a price that is equal to or of greater value than the cost of the programmatic effort to capture it.

Consider that mere possibility for just one second.

Space exploration is always a cost.  You land.  You plant the flag.  Collect some samples.  Return.  It’s inspiring and you may get some science out of it.  But when it’s done, it is always an entry on the expense side of the ledger without any offsetting revenue.   It is a closed ended outcome unless you are then moving onto ever more distant and expensive missions.

A NEA ARM conveyor program, by contrast, offers the potential to achieve revenue.  That revenue either defers some of the cost, represents the potential for full program recovery, or even, just possibly, a net profit or return on investment for the taxpayer.  Very few other public services can make that claim and so unlike any other space program, an NEA ARM Conveyor cracks open the door to a value proposition that Americans may be willing to support with significantly greater funding.

Leverage.  The other intriguing possibility with regards to a NEA ARM Conveyor program is the potential for funding leverage.  If an L1 Strategic Material Reserve is structured to make full or final payment on delivery and receipt of materials, there is a possibility that such a program may need less federal funding up front.  By this I mean if a viable guarantee can be crafted and faith in that promise is high enough, it may be possible for the private sector to invest significant funds in launching missions.  After all, the private sector invested $1 billion in Webvan.  They are willing to invest substantial sums and take on a level of risk if there is a strong belief in gaining a return on investment and a market with some certainty exists.  Nor does the investing sector mean just venture capital which seeks high rates of return.  The world is awash in cash to invest in bond-grade relatively low return investments if the risk is commensurately low and guarantees are in place.

All this means the asteroid mining companies may not have to rely on Kickstarter to raise modest sums.  They might actually be able to go directly to the financial markets and raise significant resources.  If it’s a choice between selling a t-shirt or a bond, a bond may be a better path if you need to raise big money.

Investors will need some assurance or guarantee of payment and the likely upfront cost will be too high at the start for specific firms launching ARM missions without such guarantees.  It will require some forms of federal partnering and risk mitigation insurance or other forms of subsidies to nurture and support a fledgling industry and set of companies that wish to launch NEA ARM missions, but will face significant investor loss if they go awry.  But what is true is that the full cost of the program may not necessarily have to be funded up front by the taxpayer.  Funding will need to steadily pay out some level of expense, but the full outlay may be deferred until delivery.

Leverage is possible if we show will and intent and provide some level of market certainty and sizing.

Asset.  The potential of asteroid retrieval at scale to create an asset for the future cannot be understated.  The accumulation of material at L1 that can be processed for water, fuel, metal, and leftover slag rock creates the building blocks for something much bigger and more important.

It creates a target for innovation and investment.  With resources suddenly within reach, both public and private sector actors will find ways to exploit these resources.  This program creates a center of gravity with a powerful catalytic effect that will drive innovation to make use of the materials at hand.

If we cannot fully conceptualize how it will be used 30 years from now or how we can afford it, that is of less import than the fact that we have accumulated it and created a pathway for innovation to focus on.  Even today, we are on the edge of significant breakthroughs in the cost of access to space.  What is almost certainly true is that there will be even better technologies available 30 years from now and the cost of everything from getting into space to operating there will almost certainly have declined further.  As these breakthroughs occur, an L1 Strategic Materials reserve will offer a chance to work with a ready source of raw material that can be used, processed, and formed into a viable industry in space.

At home, this will translate into new jobs and new companies many of which may not be around or even imagined yet.  There is an economic case for an L1 Strategic Materials Reserve and it is to that we turn next.

The Economic Case for an L1 Strategic Materials Reserve

No nation today has access to any significant material in space and the cost of doing anything on the space frontier, whether that is sending a mission to explore another planet or building and manning a space station, is extraordinarily expensive when it is entirely comprised of materials lifted from the surface.  Under these conditions, it is, as we have seen, simply far too expensive to consider any real substantive effort on the space frontier.  We are stuck with the Nixon challenge of competing with important national priorities and limited funding.

Cost is at the heart of the challenge of getting to scale in space, so it is worth considering the economic case of an L1 Strategic Materials Reserve, which has been alluded to but not fully detailed out.

A simple model building out scenarios over a 30 year time frame using the scenarios outlined earlier illustrates what is possible in aggregate terms.

In my model, I assume after Scenario 1 (Baseline) that we launch four additional launches over the next two years at an annual cost of slightly more than $1 billion per year.  In years 4-6, we scale to 10 launches per year at a cost per mission of $377 million.  In years 7-15, we launch 10 per year at a cost of $250M per launch and an annual cost of $2.5 bn.  From year 16-30, we move to re-usability and begin cycling the ARM tugs into continuous operation based on refueling at L1, at a substantial cost reduction.

This is a simple model.  A true rocket scientist or reasonably competent economist could do a much better job of modeling out a better set of assumptions with detailed cost scenarios and assumptions.  But as an illustrative model for directional purposes it is worth considering how this program shapes up in economic terms.

In Table 3 below, the average expenditure per year for the life of the program is less than $2 billion, although it peaks closer to $4 billion before declining to below $1bn per year after year 15.  The total program cost at a declining, fixed price/lb. rate is estimated to total out at $51bn.  But this would results in the accumulation of nearly 300 million pounds of asteroid material, or just shy of 150,000 tons.

The cost of lifting this much material today is beyond calculation (okay, it’s in the trillions of dollars today, a number that would make even Elon Musk blush).  But the more important consideration is what this material is worth.

Table 3:  Potential Cost Profiles of ARM Missions over Time

Table 3: Potential Cost Profiles of ARM Missions over Time

 

If you assume the economic value of a lb. of the basest material at L1 is equivalent to the cost of lifting a pound of equivalent material from the Earth’s surface to L1, then the cost of lifting that today is, as noted earlier, in the range of $40-50,000/lb. But a more aggressive calculation would assume that the cost of launching will decrease dramatically over the next 20-30 years.  Let’s assume that cost declines dramatically to as little as $500 to launch one pound of material from the surface all the way to Earth-Moon Lagrange 1, within the near vicinity of the Moon.

Assuming such an aggressive cost reduction occurs, the final cost to accumulate the entire reserve is $51 billion, but the cost to lift an equivalent amount of volume at that $500/lb price in the most optimistic scenario is much higher, at nearly $150 billion.  In my rough model, the cost of launching upwards of 120 launchers over a 20 period of time and then moving to significant re-use for a further 10 years delivers a large storehouse of reserves at L1 at a value this is much higher than the expected cost of lifting the same amount of material from the Earth’s surface.  And without a dramatic and optimistic reduction in launch costs, the value of this reserve increases dramatically.

The economic value of this material can be recovered in multiple ways:  By processing it and extracting some value for local use and/or returning some of the material to earth if it is rare or precious; selling it to other countries; or selling it to the private sector to process or use; or by using it in pursuit of projects that could not be otherwise considered.

The key point is this.  There is a potential that an L1 Strategic Materials Reserve can create a large storehouse of materials that has an economic value and that represents an asset for future generations in terms of economic growth, new industries and jobs at home.

Issues & Answers

There are several obvious questions about the viability and practicality of an L1 Strategic Materials Reserve and we’ll explore a few of them.

 

  1. As a signatory to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 which prohibits “national appropriation” of celestial bodies “by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means” which is broadly interpreted to limit legal ownership or claims to ownership of space resources, can the United States even consider funding an L1 Strategic Materials Reserve that implies taking ownership of resources in space?

 

There have been some arguments made that the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 was a terrible treaty that has limited the economic development of space by restricting incentives in the form of the property rights needed to mobilize private sector resources and entrepreneurial energy in space.

This is absurd.

The extraordinary expense of launching material (or people) into space, much less doing so at scale, is and remains the single, over-riding reason why we have not seized the high frontier.  There is no other reason that is material.

The Outer Space Treaty is not the bogeyman prohibiting us from the economic development of the high frontier.  It is a reasonable treaty crafted at the close of the decolonization period in which stronger states had a record of seizing by national appropriation large swaths of (inhabited) lands based on the fashion of the day.  It prohibits doing so in space.  It also prohibits the militarization of space including deploying weapons of mass destruction, a significant concern in the midst of what was then a Cold War arms race and nuclear brinkmanship.  It codifies the concept of equal access, of space as a common resource for humanity, and of treating astronauts fairly even if they land in someone else’s national space.  The Outer Space Treaty contains some high-minded ideals and valuable principles and it may well have headed off some bad outcomes and significant risks in the 60s and 70s.

That said, there are valid questions about the role of the Outer Space Treaty in terms of the establishment of an L1 Strategic Material Reserve at the scale that I have proposed.  Does not the Outer Space Treaty preclude such an initiative?  I don’t think it does and I believe the Treaty provides three viable strategies for addressing such questions.  Lawyers will argue the merits of these – that is what they get paid and incented to do – but common sense can also be a guide.

First, Article II prohibits ‘national appropriation’ of celestial bodies or claiming sovereignty of swaths of space.  This is true.  I think they meant planting a flag on the Moon and claiming the entire body of it as the exclusive property of one country.  Others interpret this more expansively and believe that any claim of ownership is not valid.  The interpretation and legal basis have not been fully tested in the context of asteroid mining.  Article VIII, however, suggests that the ownership of any objects launched into space “including objects landed or constructed on a celestial body, and of their component parts, is not affected by their presence in outer space or on a celestial body or by their return to the Earth.”  Ownership in such cases remains that of the sovereign state or firm that launched the vehicle in the first place.

I would argue that an asteroid or asteroid material once captured, de-spun and returned to L1 is no longer a celestial body, but a component of the ARM vehicle and subject to Article VIII.  Further, once material from the ARM mission is processed into components and incorporated into any kind of structure or used by any such structure, vehicle, or mission, then it may be argued that their ownership is the same as on Earth and belongs to the nation state or private entity that has created them.  Many will argue that this interpretation is wrong and legal action might well be threatened or filed.  But there is a process to arbitrate said claims and it may well be worth exploring this interpretation and testing the legal process.

But if that does not hold, then a second step is available.

Article XV allows any state or signatory to propose amendments to the treaty.  Amendments come into force when a majority of signatories accept them.   There is no reason that we cannot engage in a diplomatic process to amend the treaty with provisions that allow for full economic development of the space frontier.  It is in the interest of humanity to expand into space.

What is also true is that any such process will inevitably have to balance the interests of all parties.  There are some people that can’t imagine a negotiation like this working, yet, we have proven time and again in recent history that the international community is well capable of managing complex multi-lateral negotiations and agreements and arriving at a reasonably satisfying conclusion for a majority of parties, even despite a contentious and prolonged process.  There is no reason to expect anything different from a process to amend the Outer Space Treaty.  Simply put, we have diplomats who know how to do this and we are capable of acting in a professional manner to achieve much of what we want by finding common ground with the larger international community.  Our default course of action should be to try.

The larger community of signatories to the Treaty may, of course, expect some form of economic sharing of the benefits gained from economic development, especially if the vast majority of states that are signatories to the treaty are not economically capable of direct participation.  I believe this would be a valuable discussion to have.  Some form of gain-share, one that recognizes and prioritizes the substantial up front cost and needs for payback (and profit) of the initiating parties, but that also seeks to create some common benefit from what are otherwise un-utilized assets in space can easily be imagined.  I believe that the international community is capable of finding common ground and amending the Outer Space Treaty in a way that preserves the incentives needed for economic development while sharing some of the benefits with all of humanity, which is consistent with the original spirit of the treaty in the first place.

Finally, if all else fails, Article XVI allows any signatory of the treaty to withdraw from the Treaty with one year’s notice.  There are significant benefits to the treaty and no one should consider withdrawing from it lightly.  But some parties have suggested that it is the force of the treaty itself that has precluded bad behaviors such as introducing WMD or militarizing space and that the threat of such consequences would make withdrawing from the Treaty difficult if not impossible to consider.

I believe this is an over-reach of the value and weight of the Treaty.  Of any treaty, in fact.  One need look no further than the weight that existing international law has had on the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Republic led by Vladimir Putin, the behavior of China in the South China Seas which has been judged illegal by the World Court, or the reckless testing of anti-missile technology in space leading to the widespread hazard of debris in orbit for all (a test conducted by a signatory nation).  International agreements only work as long as all parties are committed to their success (both in spirit and law) and feel that there is a mutual benefit worthy of adhering to said principles or legal agreements.  Events show time and again that this is not always the case and that states with relatively greater power at any point in time are well capable of acting in their own perceived self-interest regardless of international law, treaties, or convention.

Withdrawing from the Outer Space Treaty will not ipso facto immediately condone, encourage, or result in such actions as introducing WMD into outer space.  Likewise, we should be honest about the force of the Treaty in preventing similar bad behavior in the future.  Simply put, staying in the Treaty does not necessarily mean that these actions will not be taken by a Signatory party that is not fully committed to the principals of international law and which sees a material advantage in violating the related Articles.

If we have concerns that the Outer Space Treaty limits our ability to develop the high frontier, we should begin the long-term dialogue of finding a solution that is palatable to a majority of the signatories to the Treaty.  My personal thought is that an Amendment that creates a mechanism for eventually sharing the wealth of space with all nations while respecting the need of pioneering nations and entities to gain an appropriate payback commensurate with their risk is a good and likely outcome.  The alternative of withdrawal after all would mean that the vast majority would get nothing.  In principle, something is better than nothing (a point most rationale parties will note) and so I would advocate we begin the hard work of diplomacy early in order to avoid the outcome of withdrawal that is much less desirable for the vast majority of the international community.

 

  1. What about the recent U.S. law recognizing an asteroid mining company’s right to own what they mine? This law is the U.S. Space Launch Competitiveness Act (H.R. 2262).

 

On November 25, 2015, President Obama signed H.R. 2262, the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act , a law that included Section 401, the Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act of 2015.

This act promoted the right of US citizens to engage in commercial exploration and recovery of space resources in accordance with international obligations.   The law specifically says that United States citizens are entitled “to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained, including to possess, own, transport, use, and sell the asteroid resource or space resource obtained in accordance with applicable law, including the international obligations of the United States.” (Section 51303)

The bill went on to say that the United States does not “assert sovereignty or sovereign or exclusive rights or jurisdiction over, or the ownership of, any celestial body.”

The bill attempts to both secure the right of US citizens and companies to have property rights over asteroid or space resources that they explore, obtain, and mine as well as suggest that these rights are consistent with the international laws that the United States as signed up for, e.g. the Outer Space Treaty.

In effect, this bill attempts to put on a legal footing the position stated earlier, that the Outer Space Treaty does not truly inhibit US companies from engaging in commercial operations and owning the asteroids or space resources they obtain and use.  The bill puts that position on a more formal footing and it is an important step forward.

However, there is no guarantee that other signatory countries will agree with this position and there may still need to be significant work to address and potentially amend the international treaty to provide additional certainty for future asteroid and space resource commercial operations.

Further, this law does not fully address the ability or right of the United States government to own or procure asteroid or space materials either directly or by purchase from private companies.

The law is an important step forward and squarely states U.S. interests, but it is not necessarily a full answer or one that is yet completely accepted by the international community.  We are still likely to need to go through a diplomatic process to resolve any concerns with our international agreements and responsibilities, such as the Outer Space Treaty.

Source:  https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-114hr2262enr/pdf/BILLS-114hr2262enr.pdf

 

  1. Doesn’t the program misstate the true cost because raw asteroid material delivered at L1 is ‘useless’ until it is transformed or processed into material that can be used such as water, fuel, or metals and these activities will cost a lot of money?

 

The answer to this question is both ‘Yes’ and ‘No’.

In this I take a page from NASA’s playbook when it comes to discussing all things related to cost and budget.  I will obfuscate.  On NASA’s part, this is an unfortunate learned behavior driven by past politicization of the budget process and the unwillingness of Congress to consider long-term commitments if they have a big number associated with them.  It has been necessary for NASA to obfuscate on cost, but at the expense of clarity.

The answer for my part is that clearly activities to process and transform asteroid material into useful substances such as water, fuel, metals, and shielding material will require future investments, rocket launches, and cost.  Nor will it be cheap.

But until such materials exist, the investments are purely speculative.  There is no way to estimate what is possible until there is a true focal point of activity in near Earth space and we have a chance to begin planning and experimenting with the material at hand.

It may also be that these operations are much cheaper than we think.  For instance, small, autonomous robotic missions can begin initial processing at very ‘low’ cost relatively speaking.  This is the business model for the private initiatives already on the market.  The difference is that they would be operating much closer, much cheaper, and the market would be that much more likely to be able to afford the development costs.

The role of the private sector in this process is crucial.  Competition among firms will drive innovation up and costs down.  If these firms can compete for contracts and revenue, they will create rapid progress that will propel the program forward.

Finally, what is also true is that the cost of launching any material from Earth to L1 is extraordinarily high.  And yet, we need material for a variety of purposes including shielding against radiation.  Therefore, even unprocessed materials or left over materials, or slag, that have been fully processed of any useful material are still almost literally worth their weight in gold by virtue of the great expense of lifting comparable material off the surface of the Earth.

So will it cost more to process the materials we accumulate?  Yes, of course, but the economic value of these resources may well be much greater than the cost of any viable alternative and technology breakthroughs on the horizon may well significantly reduce the cost of working with them.  At this time, we only know it will be an incremental cost to make use of this material, we cannot reliably project how big or small that cost is.

 

  1. How can we afford this in a time of austerity? Shouldn’t we defer this until times are better?

 

Many will fall prey to such sentiments, but I would propose two simple counter arguments.

First, times will always be interesting and we will always have competing challenges and priorities for time, resources, and funding.  They will come in the form of wars, crises, or just the long-term battle of differing ideologies over the role of government.  Future governments, like our own, will always face the challenge of balancing social programs, defense, saving the environment, educating our kids, caring for our sick, injured, and poor, enforcing our laws, and doing so within the proper balance between the role of government and the role of its citizens, a point that has been continually under ideological pressure and struggle since the dawn of the Republic.

There will never be a convenient time when we are flush with cash and there is consensus on spending it in space.

The second point is that the role of political leadership is not only to balance all of the competing priorities for time and resources, but also, very occasionally, to transcend them in the interest of inspiring or catalyzing something greater than short-term considerations.  In the 1980s, Reagan jump-started the economy by reducing the role of government and the amount of taxes paid, making it possible, along with an explosion in consumer credit, to create higher levels of spending and a trajectory of economic growth that lifted us out of recession at the time.  This change in direction was made feasible by a previous era in which taxes had been high, investments in everything from education to infrastructure had been made and our capital stock as a nation was very mature.

The challenge today is to create new markets, new industries, and new jobs.  Our nation is capable of jumpstarting a great race onto the high frontier, one that will benefit jobs today and for future generations.   We have plucked the low hanging fruit of economic development.  It is time to build taller ladders.

The worst case scenario is that once we collect the material at L1, we cannot find an economically viable path to processing it and utilizing it.  In that case, we would just hold onto it as a true reserve, banked for future generations.  It will remain an asset and at some point, a more sophisticated and technologically advanced society will be able to use them.  Hopefully this will be an American one.

The final rationale, the bottom line, is that this program creates an asset with a future value.  It will create a profit and – at the same time – catalyze an industry

 

  1. Wouldn’t robotic missions to return processed materials be a better approach than attempting to retrieve entire asteroids?

 

For the near term (by which I mean the next 30-50 years) any significant activity done by humans in space will require materials in a variety of forms, whether processed or even unprocessed.  Therefore, we need to accumulate as much material as possible in the lowest cost and most efficient way.  This argues heavily for asteroid retrieval vs. processing farther away.  Even if it is worthless left over slag, effectively gravel, it can still be used for shielding on any future manned outpost in space.

And so every single pound of material will have a use and a value – the minimum of which is the cost of bringing it from the surface of the earth.

For the immediate future, it actually makes much greater sense to capture and return raw material to L1 instead of trying to process it remotely.  This supposition does not preclude building a better mousetrap to process materials at point of capture, but it simply suggests that this is not the most cost-effective or practical approach at this time (based on what I believe to be true at this point in time..).

 

  1. Isn’t this a waste of taxpayers’ money in collecting asteroids that have no use today?

 

No.  It is not a waste.  By retrieving and repositioning asteroids at L1 where they can be collected and processed and useful materials made from them, we have created an asset, even in unprocessed form.   An asset cannot be considered a waste.  As an asset, the value may only be realized in the future, but it will almost certainly be realized.

Conclusion

Achieving scale and sustainability on any frontier requires living off the land.  Yet when it comes to space, the very stuff of life, the materials needed to survive and thrive are not conveniently placed.  In fact, they are extraordinarily expensive to lift from the surface of the planet to a location where they are useful in space.

The establishment of an L1 Strategic Material Reserve and the creation of a fleet of space tugs to capture and retrieve asteroids and return them en masse would begin to solve this problem.  A program to establish an L1 Strategic Material Reserve would result in a massive storehouse of materials that have a strategic value above and beyond their more simple nature.

Long-term it may make sense to return only processed materials.  Short-term there is no doubt that accumulating a storehouse of materials at L1 conveys a strategic opportunity and creates a catalytic effect on what is possible in space.

As a game changer paired with decreasing launch costs and increased heavy lift launch capability, it is possible to change the game of what is possible.

Technically this is feasible.  The engineering is being worked out.  The economics look interesting.  The politics, however, is not aligned.  There are reasons for this, but the big picture is that there is no strategic rationale, no guiding vision, that has been articulated for why we should do this, why anyone should actually bother.

It is time to change that.  It is time to stop dreaming small and squandering a bigger more prosperous future.  What we should do and why is the subject of the next chapter.