This month, a company called SpaceX plans to launch a commercial spacecraft into orbit where it will hook up with the International Space Station. If everything goes according to plan, after SpaceX’s Dragon attaches to the station, the astronauts onboard the ISS will open the spacecraft and unload the cargo it is carrying. This would be the first time in Earth’s history that material handling and logistics technology was used in outer space for a business endeavor.
Lest you think this is just some space-pie-in-the-sky whim, consider that less than two years ago SpaceX was the first company to launch and recover a space capsule from orbit. To say that SpaceX did this entirely independent of any government funding would be grossly overstating the case, since the company’s efforts are being funded largely by NASA, which awarded SpaceX a $1.6 billion contract in 2008 to transport cargo to the ISS. Nevertheless, SpaceX is largely an entrepreneur-based endeavor, with founder Elon Musk (who made his fortune when he sold PayPal to eBay) the driving force behind the company.
If successful, SpaceX could end up ushering in a new era of extraterrestrial freight transportation. While SpaceX’s initial efforts will be unmanned, future plans include manned cargo delivery flights to the ISS. Musk, with his eyes squarely on the prize, has even offered an estimate of how much a typical cargo mission to the ISS will cost: $133 million.
Musk is hardly the only billionaire willing to invest in outer space logistics. A group of well-heeled entrepreneurs, including “Avatar” director James Cameron and Google co-founders Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, have lent their names and part of their fortunes to Planetary Resources, a startup that shares SpaceX’s ambition of creating demand for a service that nobody is currently offering right now. In the case of Planetary Resources, the untapped market is as vast as outer space itself. Setting its sights somewhat more modestly than that, the new company is designing spacecraft that can locate and ultimately mine asteroids for various precious metals, minerals and water.
Believing that “there’s platinum in them thar ‘roids,” Planetary Resources believes that space mining could become a multi-billion dollar industry. One 500-meter platinum-rich asteroid, it is thought, could very well contain the equivalent of all the platinum group metals mined on the Earth to date. Of course, there is the slight problem of actually getting to the asteroids, not to mention the transportation and material handling costs.
Eric Anderson, co-founder and co-chairman of Planetary Resources, has a three-point plan to open up the resources for the solar system:
➤ “First, we’re going to identify all of the most valuable near-earth asteroids—where they are, what they’re made of and how to reach them.” To that end, the company is developing a deep-space prospecting spacecraft called the Arkyd 100.
➤ “Second, we’re going to develop the technology and the capability to transform those resources into valuable materials.”
➤ “Third, we’re going to deliver those materials to the point of need, whether it’s a fuel depot orbiting the Earth or elsewhere in space.” A more advanced spacecraft, the Arkyd 300, will retrieve the minerals and deliver them to the ISS or other spacecraft.
It’s probably far too early to start speculating on the types of equipment and technology that will be necessary to move raw materials in zero gravity from the core of a floating rock to an orbiting vessel. And no doubt, some government agency right now is hard at work revising the jurisdiction of the DOT, OSHA and the Labor Department… and, of course, the IRS… to ensure that the long arm of the law reaches all the way into space (imagine, if you will, the Hours of Service regulations for extraterrestrial freight haulers). But even so, it’s fascinating that the kind of stuff we could only read about in comic books and science fiction back when I was a kid is now coming very close to being a reality.
Follow me on Twitter @supplychaindave.