Mars, Our First Outpost on the Final Frontier
James Fallows talks with space entrepreneur Eric Anderson about the next wave of space exploration.
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.
In 10 years or so, what we’d really like to do is get robotic exploration of space in line with Moore’s Law [the tech-world maxim that the price for computing power falls by half every 18 months]. Remember, asteroid mining doesn’t involve people. We want to transition space exploration from a linear-growth technology to one with exponential growth, and create an industry that can flourish off of exponential technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning.
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.