The Coming Age of Space Colonization

In the next generation, will humans be mining on the moon and living on Mars?

A crescent earth rises above the lunar horizon. (NASA/Reuters)

Our new issue — yes! subscribe! — contains a two-page Q&A I conducted with Eric C. Anderson. He has had  a variety of tech and entrepreneurial identities, but I was speaking to him in his role as chairman and co-founder of Space Adventures, which has made a business of sending customers into space.

The subject of our discussion was the future of space travel. Below is an extended-play version of the interview, with extra questions and themes.

James Fallows: Space exploration seems to have lost its hold on the public imagination, compared with a generation ago.

Eric Anderson: I think absolutely they are right to feel a little bit disappointed. On April 12, 1961, the first human being, Yuri Gagarin, goes to space. Then, July 29, 1969: We're on the moon. If you and I were doing this interview on July 30, 1969 and you had asked me what space exploration would be like in the year 2013, I would've told you it would be far more advanced than it is now.

So I think the reality is that space was unnaturally accelerated by this Cold War conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union during the 1960s. Then, in the early part of the '70s, that sort of slowed down. The latter half of the '70s brought terrible economic trouble in the U.S., which really set the space program way back. In the '80s, it was the reverse. The Soviets basically ran out of money and then the Soviet Union collapsed. Then in the '90s we were sort of figuring out how to re-set ourselves in a post-Soviet world. It was in the mid-'90s that commercial revenues in space started to eclipse government revenues—that was mainly for communication satellites and things like that.

So that part of the industry has gone pretty well. Every day we use GPS and DirecTV and get the weather , and that sort of stuff. But human flight has just been totally crimped. The number of people going to space, and the missions they were doing, went down. The Space Shuttle was so much over budget that it just was impossible for us to really do any real exploration. That's a long-winded answer, but yes: There's every reason for people to be disappointed with where we are now, particularly with regard to human space flight.

JF: Why should people be excited about what lies ahead?

EA: 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 or $5 million dollars.

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 technology into an exponential one, 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: In addition to the forces you mentioned, over the last half millennium or more, the search for new territory has been powerfully driven by national rivalries. The French, the English, the Spanish and others were seeking new territory in which to spread their influence. Do you imagine the national rivalries on Earth being soothed by space exploration? Or rather being aggravated by space exploration, the way the exploration of the New World was?

EA: I think it's an excellent question, and I think it's inevitable. The Outer Space Treaty, which was signed in 1967, basically says that no nation can claim a celestial body for its own sovereignty. And it also says that anything that is launched from a particular nation, that nation is responsible for, if it crashes into another nation or something like that. But I don't see the Outer Space Treaty living another 100 years.

I think that history repeats itself, and all the same things that happened in our history over the last thousand years will happen in one form or another in the next thousand years. Nowadays things are accelerated, it won't take as long for those cycles of history to happen—because we have faster means of communication, faster democracies, faster governments. The consequences of action, of economic and political and social drivers, can be felt and reacted to faster than they have been in the past.

But those same things will happen. If the first colonists going to Mars are all American, what kind of system do you think they're going to want to set up on Mars? And how are other countries going to feel about that? And at what point will the Americans just pull out of the Outer Space Treaty? Or maybe it'll be the Chinese—the Chinese could get to Mars long before us. Who knows? But being there is 99 percent of it and I think that when the dam breaks and it's possible to travel at a reasonable cost in space outside the Earth's very-near vicinity, all sorts of things are going to change.

And one of the other tenets of the Outer Space Treaty is that space will not be weaponized. I hope that lasts for a long, long, long time, but I mean, who knows, it seems like a pipe dream to think that would last forever.

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?

JF: Here's my last question. When I was a kid in the Baby Boom era, there was a genuine national excitement about space. Do you think that mood in the United States needs to be recreated for the populace as a whole? With an overall national excitement or sense of mission about space exploration, like in the 1960s? Or, on the contrary, is this something that should and can be left to people who see a business or scientific opportunity?

EA: If you look at polls, about half the population says that if it were at a price they could afford, and it were safe, they would go to space themselves. They would love to see the Earth from space. I don't know what that means in terms of gauging support. But clearly the more people are interested in and supportive of space exploration, the faster the industry will grow.

I think spending a half a percent of GDP on space, on space exploration, would be a very wise investment, whether that investment comes from the government itself or from just private industry. There are few things that inspire human engineering, human ingenuity, and the human spirit more than space exploration. Kids love space, and they love dinosaurs, and they love all those fantastical things that can happen when you push the boundaries. It's the same reason that, when my little one crawls out of her crib at night, she peeks around the corner to see what's there. This is curiosity.

We have enough perspective on ourselves and the universe to know that we just inhabit this tiny little corner of the universe. Humans are curious; so to say that we're not interested in space would put us [at odds with] the very core of our being as humans, in a world where we've defined a limit that we can never go beyond.

We obviously have huge problems on Earth, and nobody's saying that we should try to go develop space in lieu of solving our problems on Earth. But the fact of the matter is that we should always be doing things that inspire our youth and ourselves, and try to bring out the best parts of human nature.