Our first missions, for asteroid reconnaissance, will be launching in the next two to three years. For these missions, we’re going to launch small swarms of spacecraft. When I say small, I mean we’ll send three or four spacecraft, and each one of those spacecraft may weigh only 30 pounds. But they will have optical sensors that are better than any camera available today. They will send back imagery, they’ll map the gravity field, they’ll use telescopic remote sensing and spectroscopy to tell us exactly what materials are in the asteroid. It will be possible to know more about an ore body that’s 10 million miles away from us in space than it would be to know about an ore body 10 miles below the Earth’s surface.
We’re really not talking about if; we’re talking about when.
JF: Apart from the practicalities of asteroid mining, what is it going to mean in spiritual and philosophical ways for people to leave the Earth? I guess this is taking us back to the science fiction of the ’50s and ’60s, but what do you think?
EA: I’ve thought a lot about that. The interesting thing will be to see why the people who go to Mars, or to a colony on the moon, or to an asteroid, decide to go there. Will they go there because they’re escaping something? Will they go there because they’re curious? Will they go to make money?
Throughout history, most of the frontiers that we have had on the Earth have been opened up because people were seeking land—new hunting grounds, or fertile locations for cattle—or mining for gold or precious metals. But occasionally they would go somewhere new because they were seeking religious freedom or some other kind of freedom.
So I don’t actually know why people will go. Will the Earth be so ravaged by war, or catastrophic climate change, or whatever else, that people will want to leave?
JF: About the environment: Are you thinking space could be not just an escape from a ravaged Earth but a way to save the Earth?
EA: There’s a huge environmental cost to mining on Earth. But there are lots of strategic materials and metals that we can get in space and that will be necessary for us if we want to create abundance and prosperity generations from now on Earth. We sort of had a freebie over the past couple hundred years—we figured out that you can burn coal and fossil fuels and give all the economies of the world a big boost. But that’s about to end. Not only do we have to transition to a new form of energy, we also have to transition to a new form of resources. And the resources of the nearest asteroids make the resources on Earth pale by comparison. There are enough resources in the nearest asteroids to support human society and civilization for thousands of years.
I’m not suggesting that we’re going to start using resources from space next year. But over the next 20 years, resources in space will most likely be used to explore our solar system. And eventually we’ll start bringing them back to Earth. Wouldn’t it be great if one day, all of the heavy industries of the Earth—mining and energy production and manufacturing—were done somewhere else, and the Earth could be used for living, keeping it as it should be, which is a bright-blue planet with lots of green?
This is the latest installment in a series of conversations about the future, moderated in alternate issues by James Fallows and Alexis Madrigal. For an extended transcript of this and other conversations, visit theatlantic.com/thefuture.