Tech April 2013

Mars, Our First Outpost on the Final Frontier

James Fallows talks with space entrepreneur Eric Anderson about the next wave of space exploration.
Patrick Leger

In 1998, two years after graduating from college, Eric Anderson co-founded Space Adventures, which, for ticket prices of $20 million, sold seats aboard Russian space flights. Today, he also heads a programming company, Intentional Software, and a third company called Planetary Resources, which plans to extract minerals from near-Earth asteroids.

James Fallows: Space exploration seems to have lost its hold on the public imagination, compared with a generation ago. Why should people be excited about what lies ahead?

Eric Anderson: In the next generation or two—say the next 30 to 60 years—there will be an irreversible human migration to a permanent space colony. Some people will tell you that this new colony will be on the moon, or an asteroid. In my opinion asteroids are a great place to go, but mostly for mining. I think the location is likely to be Mars. This Mars colony will start off with a few thousand people, and then it may grow over 100 years to a few million people, but it will be there permanently. That should be really exciting, to be alive during that stage of humanity’s history.

JF: I have to ask—really? This will really happen?

EA: I really do believe it will. First of all, the key to making it happen is to reduce the cost of transportation into space. My colleague Elon Musk is aiming to get the cost of a flight to Mars down to half a million dollars a person. I think that even if it costs maybe a few million dollars a person to launch to Mars, a colony could be feasible. To me the question is, does it happen in the next 30 years, or does it happen in the next 60 to 70 years? There’s no question it’s going to happen in this century, and that’s a pretty exciting thing.

JF: Apart from the cost of transport, what are the challenges in making that a reality? Are they cost and engineering challenges, or are they basic science problems?

EA: I think it’s all about the economics. There is no technological or engineering challenge.

One key to making all this happen is that we need to use the resources of space to help us colonize space. It would have been pretty tough for the settlers who went to California if they’d had to bring every supply they would ever need along with them from the East Coast.

That’s why Planetary Resources exists. The near-Earth asteroids, which are very, very close to the Earth, are filled with resources that would be useful for people wanting to go to Mars, or anywhere else in the solar system. They contain precious resources like water, rocket fuel, strategic metals. So first there needs to be a reduction in the cost of getting off the Earth’s surface, and then there needs to be the ability to “live off the land” by using the resources in space.

JF: Again—really? To the general public, asteroid mining just has a fantastic-slash-wacky connotation. How practical is this?

EA: When [co-founder] Peter Diamandis and I conceived of the company, we knew it would be a multi-decade effort. From history, we knew that frontiers are opened by access to resources. We would like to see a future where humans are expanding the sphere of influence of humanity into space.

To make asteroid mining viable, we need spacecraft that can launch and operate in space considerably less expensively than has traditionally been the case. If we are able to do that, then asteroid mining can be profitable—very much so. When you ask “Is it viable?,” I’ll be the first one to tell you how risky this proposition is, and how there is a significant possibility that we could fail in a particular mission or technology, or fall short of our goals.

But we have found ways to reduce the cost of space exploration already. For example, our prospecting mission to a set of targeted asteroids will use the Arkyd line of spacecraft. The first of that series, the Arkyd-100, would have cost $100 million, minimum, in the traditional aerospace way of business and operation. But with the engineering talent we have, and by using commercially available parts and allowing ourselves to take appropriate risks, we’ve been able to bring that cost down to $4 million or $5 million.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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