- Press Release
- Jun 1, 2023
Space Mining Entrepreneur Discussion
By Eva-Jane Lark: In early May, the Planetary and Terrestrial Mining Science Symposium (PTMSS) and Space Resources Roundtable (SRR) were held for the first time in conjunction with the Canadian Institute of Mining’s (CIM) annual conference. Space mining was introduced to mainstream mining both in the Plenary Session where Chris Lewicki of Planetary Resources was an invited panelist, and in the three day PTMSS/SRR break-out sessions.
Eva-Jane Lark was honored to moderate a panel, conducting this group interview, with the heads of the companies with the most audacious plans, all four declared space mining companies – Planetary Resources (Chris Lewicki), Shackleton Energy (Jim Keravala), Moon Express (Bob Richards) and Deep Space Industries (David Gump). These are the highlights from that discussion.
EVA: Space Mining seems to have two very distinct markets or models. The first is the In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) market, or what I like to call the “Vegas Model” – “what is mined in space, stays in space”. The second is the terrestrial market or the “Back to Earth” model. Can you tell us a bit about your company’s plans with respect to these markets and then who you see as potential customers?
David Gump (Deep Space Industries): In the space business, I think the hardest challenge for most of us has been how do you start? I’ve seen hundreds of business ideas where the opening line is “First you raise a billion dollars, and then…” So the challenge is how do you find something that pays the way for the early years? For our company, there are several revenue streams. There is the prospecting, the data collection. We know very little about most of the smaller asteroids that we will try to return. We have lots of meteorites but they are not representative of virgin asteroids. So prospecting and sample return will be some of our early streams. Another one is doing technology demonstrations for space agencies. People outside the industry may not realize how risk averse even the most adventurous NASA missions are. You don’t want to tank your five hundred million dollar project because you decided to go with a component that is new and untested. So, since both of us (Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries) are starting off with relatively small scale spacecraft (and lots of them), we can lean forward on risk and earn some revenue by doing technology demonstrations. And since we are private companies, we are not constrained by NASA or federal government rules about promotional and media activities. We do not have to give away our really exciting video to anyone who wants to tap in. In economic terms, that’s called the Tragedy of the Commons – when something is available free for all to use, it is usually not used very well because there is no self-interest in promoting and preserving. With our space projects, if you sign up with Fox, then Fox will invest money to make sure that the public knows about what you are about to do, they will feature your video feeds or your reality shows etc. – which they don’t do with a government space program. Because the minute they try to do something, NBC or others will come in with the exact same video.
Those three streams are the early things we can work on. I agree with the “Vegas” approach to space markets, especially for propellant, these are the first ones that I think most of us will be concerned with. Eventually, we will bring even common minerals like nickel and chromium down to the surface of Earth. There are a lot of trade flows now on Earth that you would not have imagined in the old days. When Henry Ford was building cars in Detroit, he mined his ore in Minnesota then it travelled a very short distance to Pittsburgh and Detroit, where it was smelted. Now, scrap metal is picked up all across North America and shipped to China. There it is turned into steel, then shipped back (and all around the world) in the form of washing machines and microwaves. The distance factor has always been shrinking. I think that will eventually come to pass with space. Eventually it will make sense to bring ore down to the surface for some of the higher valued resources.
Jim Keravala (Shackleton Energy): I have a personal heuristic, a theory; that the first 50 years of our activity in space has been about the transportation of bits back down to Earth, in terms of viable space and terrestrial markets. The communications sector has been a viable market. It is quite likely that the next 50 years or so will consist of transport from space to the Earth’s surface of photons, and then the subsequent 50 years and beyond will then be about the transport of atoms, of physical materials. Bits, photons and atoms. Communications, power and then material. Time scales, no one knows for sure, but I think that is a reasonable sequence. However for in-space businesses and services, there will be a very real need, very early on, as soon as supply is available, for both power transmission and material utilization as we build up systems. I think there are very good market opportunities as early as supply will be available.
Chris Lewicki (Planetary Resources): In the general progression, I agree with Jim’s viewpoint. There has been for quite some time now an existing market and that has been information in bits. It has, of course, been primarily with the governments, and the large contractors who have been filling that market; and it has been for scientific and exploratory purposes. We will see, I think, the earliest revenues and the earliest R&D associated with the recovery of resources for in-space use. The first will be in a variety of volatile resources. This is for two reasons, because of the relative ease with which you can detect them both remotely and in situ, and the development of technologies associated to do basic, crudely efficient extraction of them. That is the reason why volatiles are our near-term interest. As things scale up with volatiles, there will be derivative products associated with structural metals, and rare metals along with those structural metals. That is a longer development timeline, as the market develops out. Also, to Jim’s point, and this is something that has been proved out by Bob’s company and by David’s earlier company. With the constraints of trying to start these new businesses, the relatively small, crunched, innovative box that we are trying to operate in is a wonderful environment for innovation and creates a lot of new ideas, new solutions to old problems, and there has been a market for that in terms of technology development. Planetary Resources is generating lots of revenue just off of the creation of new technologies that we will need in pursuing the development of space resources. So, there is the ability to make money on this today, before we are ever recovering or extracting or beneficiating a resource. And there is certainly a lot more to be made in the future when we get to that part of the space economy.
Bob Richards (Moon Express): The economic sphere of space is the ultimate market, absolutely. The short term on-ramp that closes that business case is really the top one. We all have different strategies. Some of these strategies overlap. If we look at the return of data, i.e. information – the bits as Jim was saying – that is really Moon Express’s on-ramp: information. Our first solid customers are NASA and Google. Both of them just want bits carried on those energy photons; data and images taken and sent back to Earth. They are paying for that. So there is no concern about the size of the spacecraft. It doesn’t matter what you send, as long as you send that information back.
That’s not the only early market that we have. We do have some customers who want us to send atoms, organized into devices – one is a telescope. We have about a 50/50 balance, a nice balance of government and commercial – meaning private or commercial entities – paying for the atoms to go and the bits to come back. We also have philanthropic and for-profit, and information based payloads and instruments. So it’s kind of a mix, a very nice micro ecosystem for the first missions.
We are looking at the commercial on-ramps. As David mentioned, technology and transportation has always transformed the economics of production and the viability of resources. We will see that in space. Chris’s company and my company are initially concentrated on very, very small systems. We are both trained in the singularity realm where exponential technology is dematerializing what would previously be considered instruments of hardware and rematerializing into software. So in essence we are sending a platform to the Moon and someone can upload apps to it. That is one of the economics on the part of the apps.
Chris: I think, and this is true of everyone on the panel, if we were to talk about what we are doing in the context of ten or fifteen years ago, space ventures previously were very singularly focused with the one magic business model: that when this closes, it all goes through. With a variety of experiences, not just in the space industry but also the internet and dot.com crash to show us things, there is the realization that it really takes a tight knit fabric of a number of opportunities and that you are leveraging really all of them. And there is no one thing that is the ultimate answer. It’s a little bit of careful diversification I think, the business plan for all of these things in place that you can count on to provide a greater degree of stability.
Bob: As CEOs, we are the Chief Extraction Officers. First it is money from investors, and then it is resources from bodies outside of the Earth. Chris has mentioned a really good point here. It is really about what the culture, the nature of the risk and the interest in investment – and who you are talking to. There are multiple examples, not just in space. I am down in Silicon Valley, trying to fit in to that mindset – the nexus between traditional space and entrepreneurial Silicon Valley thoughts – finding the way through to marry those two cultures with some degree of success. That’s not the only one, but that’s one that’s working for us. There are investors out there who are far more open to having their resources extracted to put up higher risk things like space missions.
EVA: All of you saying that the first resource that will be harvested is information, the second volatiles and then later minerals will to be brought back to Earth… We are at a major mining conference here where the economics of mineral supply and demand issues are very important. What effect do you feel a dramatically increased supply of minerals may have on terrestrial markets and commodity prices?
Chris: Whether you are talking about cobalt, iron ore, nickel or the platinum group metals, the thought is of this large purified ingot coming back into the market on a Thursday afternoon and bedlam following right after. The truth is there has never been one mine that has been mined in a day. This is something that will first be speculated against. People will see the evolution of the activity. This is something that will probably evolve over years, potentially decades, to where there will be some adjustment. That adjustment of course will regulate the rate at which you bring it back. If you are predicting a crash, we will not bring it back as fast. There are corollaries in history and other industries for doing it as well. In the short term, that’s a challenge. In the long term it is called “actions”. Bob and I share ties with Peter Diamandis who has written a book called Abundance. There is a recognition that we really are living in a world of abundance but it is all about accessibility. Being able to take something that is seemingly scarce – whether energy, fresh water, a difficult to access metal like aluminum (which is the most abundant metal in the Earth’s crust) and through technology make it abundant. There is a much larger market for aluminum today than there was when it was the rarest metal known to our society. It was tumultuous times, getting from point A to point B.
Jim: In a similar vein, there is not necessarily a shortage of minerals on the planet but it is about accessibility and economic viability. In terms of separation technologies, these are improving all the time. As Chris said, hundreds of years ago aluminum was seen as a rare metal and now it is considered abundant. In the same way, one particular company springs to mind that has developed a new separation method for titanium that could lower the cost of separation by two orders of magnitude and increase the abundance and the economics of titanium mining. Those principles can be applied to all sorts of other metals as well. We may also find that there are a significant number of technology developments that will allow our terrestrial mining sources to continue to provide for a while longer. But ultimately it is still a closed system. We don’t want to go and completely strip mine every resource we can find on the planet. As soon as it is possibly practical, we would like to get off-planet to access those materials when it makes economic sense.
David: I was speaking to a mining CEO yesterday about the general idea of the accessibility of resources in the future and his emphasis was not so much on the absolute accessibility as the political accessibility and the political risk.
EVA: Or environmental…
David: If you are a big mining operation, you could spend fifteen years putting a mine into place then have the government arbitrarily say “Oh, by the way, we are increasing your royalties. They are now going to be doubled…” Or there is a sacred indigenous burial ground that no one ever knew about that you are going to have to pay a tribute to, or stop operations because of… In some ways, the resources in space have a set of risks that are lower.
Chris: It’s a recognized cost of doing business in the industry today. The costs of doing business are increasing. At some point, that cost will be unbearable and space mining will become increasingly attractive.
EVA: Bob said earlier about being the Chief Extraction Officer in securing funds from investors. One of the key things that bankers and investors consider in their investment decisions are the risks companies face and also the assumptions they make that underlay their business decisions.
Some of you have already touched on risks. Can you elaborate on the assumptions that your plans are contingent upon and what you consider to be the largest risks you face (and so what your investors would face also) and how you are addressing them?
Bob: There is no one business case/plan where it all makes sense. I don’t think any of us can say we have exactly the right plan. Moon Express is following the Silicon Valley model. I didn’t know what that meant before I moved there. There is a very specific way and it is not taught in textbooks. You really have to be immersed in the culture to find out what is expected and how to do it. First and foremost there has to be a big audacious goal, something that is really important. People in that realm of economics, who have had huge exits, are concerned about things that will change the world. Many of our investors ask us “Tell me how this is going to change the world, I’m not interested in a better improvement or percentage point.” They are already rich. They want something that is going to change the world. They are looking for some things that are more important than money: for relevance, and perpetuity of their impact as well. First it is about whether the Moon and asteroids have value in the minds of investors. Then it is about burning down risk in everything we work on every day, as we work towards our goal. In the model of Silicon Valley in particular, it is burning down the right amount of risk, in the right amount of time with the right amount of money. If you raise too much money, it will cause too much dilution. Not enough money and you won’t make the next milestone. So there is a staircase of creating the value and paying down the risks. It doesn’t matter what the risk is: there are a lot of risks and they can be brought down with time, with the right technology… Technical risks obviously exist but there is political (risk). I think what we are all facing – well I don’t know if you all agree – but one of the largest risks that we face is financial risk. It is getting the money to proceed in the first place. In the model, let’s say of Paul Allen and SpaceShipOne, Burt Rutan had a single investor/customer who said “here is the money, go do this”. That’s a very solid model if you can find it. We all have billionaires around us but I haven’t found any who has been willing to put down $100 million.
Jim: That’s because of market risk. The point I am making is that there is critical investor risk when you are trying to raise capital to run and build a business. If we say follow the Rutan and Allen model, leaving market issues aside for now, we have some near term customers who generate some revenue as we build a lot of sophisticated hardware. The big challenge from Shackleton’s point of view (and we are taking a slightly different approach), is that we have an incremental risk reduction structure in our plan and project but we are attempting to build the capital model early on for the full end-user project. That is very difficult to do. It is very hard to do. In that way we are facing market risk. Investors will say “well in addition to regulatory, technical and other risks, you have market risk as well because you are making assumptions about the size of the market and your expectations going forward. Ultimately that adds to the difficulty. In say Burt Rutan’s case, he had a single goal and he didn’t face any market risk as such. He just had to convince a single investor that this was a worthwhile flagship project with greater returns than mere financial.
Chris: In some ways, it is the idea of the expected risk adjusted return on investment versus a donation. In some cases, investors are participating in a manner like playing poker and paying to see the next hand.
Bob: Good analogy. Do I want to up that ante?
Chris: In the early demonstration of new markets, it is making sure that you are not just the only confident person in the room. It is that other people share what you perceive as an opportunity. This is not just about space, it gets back to any other industry or audacious goal or idea, of even people investing in internet stocks: “Well I don’t know if anyone is going to share their financial information on the internet and buy things”, “There are perfectly good stores around now”, “it doesn’t seem like a good sustainable model”… and look how that has developed.
Bob: I think we are demonstrating my point that there is not just one successful model. Jim has explained how market risk is important to his investors. It is not very important to Moon Express and the way our investors think. There could be a completely new market. People say “want a great idea, ask the cab driver; he has a hundred ideas…” It is about the execution of that idea. It is about the way we pull together the right team and the right approach and reduce all the risk to get to the market.
Chris: I want to go back to Eva’s question. You used a particular word “assumptions” and what assumptions are we making? This is a great question because I don’t think I have ever been asked that…
EVA: It is something investors really look at, or for. They look through the business plan, thinking “these guys are assuming this or that” and “how valid are these assumptions?”
Chris: Yes. What are the leaps of faith and how many of them are you making? Hopefully it is just a few. This is one of the first things that I did in coming to Planetary Resources out of the government environment at NASA JPL. For me, it was the assumption about what the big gorilla in the room was going to do. What are NASA’s plans for this? When Planetary Resources was getting started, our U.S. federal agency was still focused on the Moon. They have changed their mind. Now they are not really quite certain of what they are doing. The assumption that we are making is that that federal agency will continue to be indecisive and can’t be counted on to do the things that we are doing. In some ways, that is the reason why the business exists. If the government were going to do it, they would have gotten it done already. So we are making an assumption, as pessimistic as it may sound, that we can’t really depend on any long term vision from NASA. To a better point, I think there are some things we can count on. We are all looking for information on exploration, and trying to find an ore body that we can classify and so reduce the risk. The government has had a campaign and it has provided an enormous amount of information for the Moon, demonstrated amounts of water and mapped the surface. The survey programs for asteroids continue, and the funding for them has been increasing. So finding more targets and sending more missions to categorize those targets is something that is actually a good way for government to invest, doing things that only governments can do, to help set the landscape for businesses. And to summarize what I think we are talking about in terms of risk, whether it is financial, legal technical or economic, I’d like to go back to Bob’s point that the people who are investing in these ideas are in part investing because of the big idea. For some that is the entire reason they are investing. For others, it is a piece of why they are investing. I believe what everyone is looking for, whether that is the reason or they are looking at the financials, is that perception of feasibility however it is demonstrated. If that feasibility is being able to demonstrate near term bridge markets for the next two years or if that perception is being able to demonstrate that it is really not that much of a leap of faith to understand that we have the ability to extract these resources and the marketplace will be created in service and in use of that resource. In a lot of cases they are just looking for that one little nugget – “How does this work? What’s the calculation that shows this is feasible?” What is the feasibility?
Bob: Trust but verify.
Jim: In our case, one of the big assumptions we are making is that the industry and the markets would welcome a reduction in launch costs to low-earth orbit. That is the main assumption. If you have viable access to volatiles which means viable access to propellant in space, in low earth orbit, by consequence you can slash the specific cost of launch of complex hardware to LEO because your propellants can now be located elsewhere from lower gravity wells. That in itself is a first very clear assumption that is certainly verifiable. Even if each launch vehicle cost is still the same, the cost of components you can launch goes up since you are not launching additional propellant. From that base in risk reduction profile, you have a clear pathway to meet that mark.
EVA: And if that type of assumption is wrong, then what follows may be totally invalid. If the assumption is correct…
David: Even before some of these assumptions, first you have to assume space is valuable. When I started LunaCorp in 1990, looking at the photographs of the Moon that were brought back from the Apollo missions, it was very clear to everyone that the Moon was worthless. There was nothing there. It took time and other probes to say “there might actually be resources at the poles that would turn it into a place you might actually want to go to”. The core assumption was of course “if it is worth doing in Space, then NASA would be doing it”. Also “if you are going to do it in space, the costs need to be denominated in billions of dollars”. All those assumptions now have magically, wonderfully changed. There is a much greater assumption that there is something of value in space. Everyone knows now that NASA is not the only player. You don’t have to go to your brother-in-law who knows someone at NASA to get a second opinion on the value of a commercial project. And the cost to orbit is plummeting. As SpaceX has shown, you don’t have to worship the NASA cost-plus model; we can do things in a commercially focused way.
Bob: A big assumption for us is that once we get there and start doing things, there are no tall blue people…
Another is that governments will defend businesses’ rights to operate in space. We are making some broad assumptions and interpretations to existing treaties that were set up by governments in the past. We are assuming that commercial ventures will be allowed and there will not be some kind of international backlash.
EVA: Thanks Bob! That leads in well to my next question… Most terrestrial mining occurs within the borders of a country and mining companies are subject to the regulatory and legal system of that country. Space is different. For those unfamiliar, there is an international treaty, the UN’s Outer Space Treaty, which prevents any country from claiming sovereignty over an extra-terrestrial body. It vaguely addresses property rights but in a manner that is subject to confusing, contradictory and often controversial interpretations.
What, if anything, is your company doing to address this issue, or “assumption” to ensure that favorable property rights will be in place?
Bob: I didn’t mean to dismiss it as an assumption. It is an issue. Chris and I are working on the Space Resources Committee of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) which has a program of actively informing congressional members and senators. David has been working for years to infuse some reason, rationality and information, so when the questions arise, there won’t be any knee jerk reactions, only informed reactions. So we are actively working on those ones.
Chris: There are two basic principles that we have specifically outlined for the Commercial Spaceflight Federation committee. It is looking at the whole landscape of what is both good for the industry as well as what is good for the community, country or the world. The two principles are in essence based on frameworks of how businesses operate today in the resource industry. In particular, the overarching thing is that there is nothing in a treaty or regulation or law that specifically prevents or forbids. Laws don’t work that way, laws control operations, not prevent them. The first principle related to that is that when a commercial company, not a sovereign nation, goes to an object or a resource in space – be it the Moon, an asteroid, Mars, etc – that once you extract a resource and have that resource under your control, it is yours to do with it as you see fit. As long as you do so safely, of course. You have a right of ownership of that extracted resource. That doesn’t say anything about the place you got it from. The other primary principle is that you have a right, as a business, to conduct that activity without interference. I can give two models. One is a lunar crater model, the other is an asteroid model. For the asteroid model, any activity on a small asteroid (especially the ones smaller than Itokawa that we have been to) is inherently a global activity, with respect to that asteroid. If you are going to go in there and stir up a little bit of dust, the effect of that dust is low. You may or may not be potentially interfering with someone who is trying to do something on the other side of that object. In the lunar crater model, if you are both in the lunar crater harvesting ice, one guy may be sloughing materials off the crater walls which interferes with the way the other guy is doing some other technique. In effect, that is where regulations then step in when there is a contested interest in developing some resource. How do we arbitrate who can proceed? There have been systems in place for addressing that with fishing, timber, mining, oil and all sorts of resources here on Earth. We can see these types of things extending from Earth out into space.
Bob: The process has already been used in space, by governments. Governments removed materials from space, from the Moon, (both robotically and by humans) and returned these to Earth and claimed ownership over these materials. They are the property of the United States. People have sold those materials, and replicated them.
Jim: And also transferred them state to state.
Bob: Yes and transferred them state to state, thank you. Also there is the right of non-interference and to conduct operations that has been proven over and over on the space station. We will be doing the same thing, within reason.
Chris: The laws and the treaties that the United States and many other countries are signatory to have plenty of regulation that already exists to give the governments essentially the ability to “pass judgment” on the activities that are about to go forward. These include launch licenses and spectrum licenses through the liability convention. Those have already been thought out a while ago.
Bob: Everyone plays nicely until there is perceived scarcity or interference.
EVA: What about claims structure? Canada has a mining history that started with significant initial exploration by individuals and so formed regulations to protect their claims including criteria about possession and improvement.
Chris: One interesting aspect of particularly Canada’s claims structure is how it takes everything we have just talked about to the next level: incentivizing claim and development, addressing beneficiation and improvement. There is a tax incentive and in some cases what I will call a stagnation disincentive – use it or lose it. This is something that we also may be interested in putting into place, in doing what is effectively a no-cost incentive for the government to do, as David has said “Zero Gravity, Zero Tax”.
David: For a period of time…
Chris: … to let industry get established, as that industry has needs that cost that industry real money, because of regulations. Then we start to pay tax based on revenues that are being generated by a production business. But to incentivize the establishment of that, things like homesteading and what not, where you can provide an incentive to go out to develop, and innovate, to bring these resources to a market.
David: I must say that I am exceedingly nervous about a claims structure. It can be gamed. If you look at the ITU and the assignment of orbital slots for communications satellites; that has been gamed and people have made tremendous amounts of money from spurious assertions that they have a right to a particular slot. I would want to make sure that whatever claims structure might be set up, that you have to do something pretty significant to stake a claim.
Chris: Also the Executive Director of the CSF, Alex Saltman, at the invitation of the State Department has been meeting with them and discussing these principles. Something I have seen is that over the last few years this is a topic that has been taken up by a number of people and explored with serious interest and serious discussions. I was very pleased that in our meeting with the State Department, not only did they listen but that they were also familiar with and very well informed of the relevant issues. This was not just in the context of how these things may apply in space but to the U.S. diplomatic point, they were looking at how this activity relates to other similar activities that were taking place on the planet – whether they be disputes with regards to intellectual property or contesting resources in the seas. They were looking at how to come up with an advisable plan from the U.S. standpoint that could be discussed amongst all of the interested and engaged nations in a way that would be supportable by everyone.
Jim: The other issue is about context. We are talking in the U.S. context, and the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (which is mostly a U.S. membership organization) so far. In terms of the international community and the global take on resource utilization, the majority of the resources utilization companies that have formed to date (the four of us) are all U.S. based companies. So the challenge is also one of communications to other stakeholders internationally through the office of Outer Space Affairs at the United Nations and other bodies. The International Institute of Space Law whose members derive much of these legal arguments on both the left and the right of the issue also have to be brought into the mix of this equation. The challenge that we face is that the industry is able to move forward, develop their projects, develop the businesses, develop the markets available. And as much as we may be able to communicate internally, politically say in the U.S. within domestic borders, we have to make sure we can bring on board the whole context of the international interpretation of the Outer Space Treaty and bring those international stakeholders on board as well. There are a number of signatories to that treaty.
EVA: Clarifying the legal risk and environment is a great example of one type of interaction that you have with government agencies. Bob, you have several relationships with NASA Ames. Can you expand on the interactions you have with governments or agencies. What is their reaction to your plans? Are they supportive of your activities or not? If supportive, how so?
Bob: Just to reiterate, we have had a dual relationship with NASA which is extremely beneficial. One is a partnership, enabled through a Reimbursable Space Act Agreement. This type of Space Act Agreement is where a private entity reimburses or pays NASA. Moon Express pays NASA. This turns the usual scenario upside down. We pay for tech support, for technology and software. In particular we are focused on NASA’s LADEE program, the next orbital program, launching near the end of this year. Much of our spacecraft, our lander, is an adaptation of that orbital vehicle. So we are able to compensate NASA for access to both the technology and the support in understanding that technology as we adapt it to commercial purposes. The other side is that NASA has contracted us, Moon Express and several others, to buy data from us. It’s a COTS (Commercial off the Shelf) like commercial agreement where the government is buying data from us as we execute on our plans. We are not funded to do something, like in a cost-plus contract. But should we succeed in achieving specific milestones, clearly stated in the contract with a pre-designated value, then NASA will buy the data from us. So the risk remains with the private sector, with the investors, with the private company. The taxpayer only pays for success. These are models we like. The risk remains with the private company until success happens. That is one of the real differentiators between the old space model where the risk was with government and NewSpace where the risk lies in the private sector.
EVA: David, your company is the most recently created. Have you had any interactions with government?
David: We have been meeting with and interacting with NASA up and down the food chain at headquarters and various NASA centers. With the announcement of the asteroid retrieval initiative, we are suggesting to the agency that they should take a look at it from a COTS-like basis. The Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program largely funded SpaceX’s develop costs for the Falcon 9. It would be bad if it were carried out as a purely government project and it turns out to cost, say a billion dollars to bring back an asteroid. And because they want to keep the technical challenge as low as possible, they will bring back any rock, they won’t care if it is worthwhile or not. So it could be a double negative proof – it costs too much and the asteroid you bring back isn’t worth anything. We are proposing they do it on a COTS-like basis so companies like Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries could bid to bring something back at much less than they would spend otherwise. And less still because we would actual use the asteroid after the brave astronauts are done practicing with it. That would assure that we have a double positive. The type of retrieval we would create to do that would be very different from the one that NASA would design. We, for instance, would develop a tug that can be refueled using asteroidal resources. It could be used again after the mission was completed to go back out and get more. If NASA were to do it as NASA does things, they would go for the least cost, least risk using expendable spacecraft that won’t have another use once this is done.
Chris: In the case of asteroid retrieval where part of that mission has been tied to U.S. national space policy which is to send humans to an asteroid by 2025, whether NASA chooses to pursue that target themselves or they choose to engage private activity, there are opportunities to engage commercial interests in relatively a low risk way. These have been with COTS and CCiCap (Commercial Crew Integrated Capability) and they serve to show as a proof-of-concept and that there is a market for prospective investors. This is a good method of encouraging proof-of-concept and includes the Centennial Challenges program.
Jim: For Shackleton, being a human spaceflight program, the relationships we’ve developed across governments and industry have been a bit wider. We have had interactions with NASA and we are in coordination for a Space Act Agreement across the agency. We have also been in discussions at the top levels with all of the world’s space agencies regarding the opportunities and the potential of the project. We have also been working with the State Department directly on some of the accesses beyond LEO. One of the issues is that there is no U.S. body specifically defined for regulation beyond LEO. We have been talking to the FAA who is likely to take that up.
Bob: I’d like to go back to what you asked about what we would like to see: There has been a complete absence of regulatory thought, outside of earth orbit – including something as simple as what frequency band are you going to use to communicate with your spacecraft.
Chris: I’d like to make one more comment about government engagement and activity. NASA has often over the years funded activities related to ISRU. That has waxed and waned and it has often been on the chopping block.
EVA: Thus their lack of presence here today…
Chris: Yes. We were going to live off the land, first on the Moon, then it was cut. Now asteroid retrieval has been put out there through the Keck study to go after a carbonaceous asteroid and as David said that has been reduced to “any rock”. We have had encouraging and favorable discussions at all levels of NASA. Many individuals within NASA have said how they would love to come work with us but “they have kids in college and ten years to retirement…” So they are cheering us on and living vicariously through the risks we are taking.
EVA: There are lots of people, even outside of NASA, living vicariously through your actions and cheering you all on, I expect!
All of you come out of the space industry. Can you talk about the mining expertise your company has?
Jim: Shackleton Energy is a consortium of companies and individuals with over a hundred individuals coming from the mining, oil and gas and space sectors. We have partners in the mining and oil and gas exploration sector both in major mining and tele-operations and robotics. One is Greg Baiden’s Team at Penguin ASI in Canada.
Chris: For Planetary, early on we sought out, in terms of space mining, technical expertise from the planetary sciences community. In that regard we have advisors including those from MIT and Tom Jones, an astronaut with a Ph.D. in asteroid studies. What I found to be more important is perspective in terms of operation of the industry, integration with suppliers and venders, regulatory systems and financing models. We have a number of confidential relationships in that area but the one we have recently made public is our partnership with Bechtel Corporation. Bechtel not only has expertise in infrastructure projects (and we will call upon that expertise later) but their expertise in navigating the world environment with mining companies and their suppliers is something that we are engaging with and drawing a lot from their expertise.
David: We also have planetary scientists like Dr. John Lewis. We have Mark Sonter who is active in the Australian mining industry. We also have the former head of Nautilus which is the leader in deep sea mining. They have a lot of parallels in creating a new industry in an unfamiliar environment.
Bob: Like the others, Moon Express has been concentrating primarily on science, and the data. We want to understand what is on the Moon’s surface. Thus our science advisors have been more important to date than our mining advisors but that will turn around and we are building the relationship between space and mining, as is happening in real time at this conference. This is the right time to start.
We in the space industry have a lot to learn as we wade into a territory, mining, that is such a mature historic industry, particularly here in Canada. We have to learn and understand the jargon which is so different from that of NASA. We are humbled by the learning curve ahead of us and this has been a great venue to start that process.
Thank you all so much for a very engaging session. It is seldom we get to hear the thoughts of all the entrepreneurs involved in an emerging industry at this early stage. We want to wish you all the best with your endeavors!
Eva-Jane Lark is a Vice-President and Investment Advisor at one of Canada’s largest full-service investment firms. A passionate observer and advocate of commercial space development, she is frequently invited as a speaker and panelist to offer her keen insights into emerging new space industries and their financing, and on space resource development. She was one of five judges for the recent Space Frontier Foundation’s NewSpace Business Plan Competition where a grand prize was $100,000. was awarded.