Space tourism and precious metal mines on asteroids are not as far off as you might think, Space Adventures’ Eric Anderson told RT. He says within ten years there will be the first hotel in orbit, and eventually, people will live in space.
RT:Your Company [Space Adventures] has been taking people up to space since the 2000s. I remember when I heard recently about the idea of a space hotel – I made a bet with one of my colleagues that there would be no such thing in my lifetime. Now, aside from the fact that I would never live to see the money if I did win, that was the confidence I had – that there would be no such thing. Was it foolish to make such a bet?
Eric Anderson: Unfortunately, I think you probably were. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that there will be a space hotel within the next ten years, in orbit around the Earth.
EA: Because there is an incredibly good business plan behind it, because millions of people want to go to space, and because the technology to provide such a hotel is getting closer and closer every day in terms of it cost effectiveness.
RT: So, there is in theory an impetus there, but at the moment the principle impetus is just the fact of, ‘Oh, let’s go and see what is out there, let’s be a tourist in space.’ Is that really enough incentive?
EA: All the market studies that have ever been done will show you that 40 per cent of the general public wants to go to space in their lifetime. It just has to reach a point where they can afford it and it is safe enough for them to feel that they are not risking their lives excessively do it. But I do think the tourism market is a catalyst. It is not by any stretch the only reason we would go to space. We will go to space for resources: we will mine the asteroids, will get precious metals like platinum-group metals from asteroids. People will live in space, will do pharmaceutical research, will develop new drugs. Space will become part of our economic sphere of influence, but tourism is a fantastic catalyst for that.
RT: The ISS at the moment, being the only platform capable of holding people in orbit, is a working scientific platform. Are you planning, perhaps, to try and make space tourists useful up there?
EA: First of all, space tourism, honestly, is not a great word for what these people do when they participate as private citizens going to the space station. Every single one of them who is flown with space adventurists to the space station has ended in that scientific program, whether it was material science or biological experiments or whatever it was, they have participated, they have paved their own way of course, they have used themselves as a part of the scientific community. Many of them have gone to space with less-than-perfect health and have been great examples of how, for example, laser surgery on their eyes is affected by space flight. They all want to participate in this. They are participating. And the fact of the matter is, quite honestly, when private citizens go to the space station, a lot more people hear about the space station than otherwise. This is just one of those things that capture the public’s attention. Part of NASA’s mission is to encourage to the maximum extent possible the commercial use of space. And in fact showing that there is a market, showing that there are people willing to do this and showing that you don’t have to be career – military, fighter pilot – the right stuff kind of person, that plays a huge role and I think that’s exactly the sort of thing that ends up helping the space agencies of the world as well.
RT: We have just seen the Dragon spacecraft go up to take supplies to the ISS – that was a significant moment. However, it was a small part of what is otherwise a vast state enterprise without state capital. It seems that at the moment no private enterprise could exist.
EA: You can point to companies like SpaceX. SpaceX has a contract for services to deliver cargo to the space station, but the capital that it was started with has come from its founder, Elon Musk, and, so this is an inflection point – this was not always the case. You are absolutely correct that for the first 30 years of space it all was controlled by the government, but we are reaching a point now – in fact I think the flipping point was in the mid-nineties – when private commercial expenditures in space finally exceeded government. And that was of course driven by the satellite, telecommunications markets and things like that. No one would argue that those are successful businesses. But we are reaching a point where commercial enterprise is creating its own space program, and it will stand on its own.
RT: It has been well noted that in the past year and a half there have been a number of worrying mistakes with Russian space programs: a supply rocket up to the ISS fell back to Earth, a mission to one of the Martian moons never got out of orbit and it has cost some high-profile resignations, and will likely lead to a lot of restructuring in the Russian space agency. Serious concerns: Is the technology that is going to take people up there good enough?
EA: The fact of the matter is that despite recent hiccups that may have occurred on different types of launch vehicles, the Soyuz spacecraft and rocket have the best safety record, the best history of being the approved technology for reliably taking people to and from space. In human history there is no other vehicle that comes close. NASA uses this vehicle itself to get to space. So, we have this, and I’m sure and highly confident that the Russian space industry is going to great lengths to make sure those things don’t happen again. Space flight is inherently an activity that is risky, and so the risk is managed, but it is never going to be perfect. At the end of the day I think there are not many people in the world who would want to go to space, who would not feel comfortably flying on the Soyuz. The key technological breakthrough that we need is rapid and cost effective reusability, like flying an airplane. When you land at Moscow airport, when you land at New York airport, they can turn the plane around in a couple of hours and leave.
RT:This is the problem. What you are saying to me – the immediate thing I think of is a shuttle. There is no shuttle, you can’t reuse a Soyuz. We are going the wrong way.
EA: The shuttle was a vehicle that was incredibly high-performing. It was an amazing feat of human engineering, but it really wasn’t reusable. I like to call it rebuildable. Certainly parts of it were rebuildable, certainly some of this was reusable, but there was an incredible number of man-hours that had to go into certifying that vehicle for flight every time, and it ended up being far more expensive and far less reliable in terms of its reusability. That is why I use the word rapidly reusable. So, the shuttle was not a great example of that. However, many of the vehicles that are being built now, including for example the Falcon and the Dragon by SpaceX, are designed… and the CST-100 by Boeing, to be reusable ten times, a hundred times, a thousand times. And those kinds of advances will be the ones, and it’s going to take time. That will yield those price decreases that will eventually enable millions of people to go to space every year.
RT: There is one other cost that perhaps hasn’t been looked at enough at the moment. There is already a lot of criticism leveled at people flying all over the world for the holidays about emissions, about pollution. Not many rockets are being launched at the moment – but they certainly aren’t environmentally-friendly, the ones that have been launched. If that program is going to be expanded, then Earth could bear the environmental cost of such space tourism.
EA: So, when we calculated the carbon emissions of a Soyuz launch, it ended up being something like a fraction of a transatlantic air flight. So it is actually not as much as you think. The fuel on the space shuttle is liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen and the exhaust is water. So these are not the kind of things that are really going to affect our carbon emissions and our environment as a whole, even when we get to the point that there are literally tens of thousands of launches per year, it is a drop in the bucket compared to all the other forms of emissions and pollution.
RT: Sure that is an issue that will take shape in time, and we will see how that one will pans out. The tourism is not the only idea that you have got on the books. You also mentioned earlier mining for asteroids. This seems like a lot more hard-nosed commercial idea. Just try and paint a little picture for us – a lot of people can’t really envisage this. Perhaps from pictures, from animations they have seen asteroid belts. But I don’t think they know any asteroids that close to Earth, because that is the kind of thing people get scared about destroying Earth. So, what kind of distances we are talking about? How would this actually look – a fully running asteroid mining operation?
EA: That’s a wonderful question. So, in the sources, we have literally hundreds of millions of asteroids. The vast majority of those asteroids lay in the asteroid belt. The asteroid belt is between Mars and Jupiter, a hundred million miles away or more. However, there is a small but not insignificant population of what are called near-Earth asteroids. Anywhere between 10 and 20 per cent of the material on them is what we call volatiles – what that means is most of it is water, water-ice. And water is great because when you break down water into its constituent parts you get hydrogen and oxygen, not coincidentally, the same fuel the space shuttle uses to go to and from orbit. And so, we first want to use the asteroids to build propellant depots in space – that is, gas stations. We want to be able to reduce the cost of space exploration by allowing spacecrafts and spaceships to fuel up no matter where they go, and by doing that we will enable a space economy for all different kinds of businesses. This is the second half of the equation of how to reduce the cost of space travel. Once we have the capability of propellant depots in space, moving asteroids around becomes much easier. And then we can go to the more valuable materials, the higher cost per ounce materials, for example the platinum group metals. Now for $1,500 an ounce on average you have platinum, palladium, radium, osmium, iridium – and the asteroids are chock full of these materials. They appear in concentrations in orders of magnitude – better than the best platinum mines on Earth – in the asteroids.
RT: I am sorry to seem like a skeptic. But I think I'm not alone here. The image of us sending out teams to try move asteroids, to try and land on them, is really starting to seem like the realms of science fiction. I mean they managed to recently to land a lander on Mars. But that’s really the very limits of our capabilities at the moment. Is it really a serious proposition? How on Earth would you go about doing something like that?
EA: So, let me be the first to admit, there is a long list of technical challenges and it is going to be very hard. This is something that we don’t know the answers to yet, but we do know is that there is no law of physics that prevents it, that these are pieces of rock out there that, for example, something the size of the International Space Station could be worth $200 billion. So, where there is a pot of gold at the end of that rainbow there will be a way. People 30 years ago thought drilling the hole down into the bottom of the ocean and pulling fossil fuels under the North Sea was impossible, and now that is what we do as a matter of daily practice.