Coal miner's son and ex-NASA engineer Homer Hickam is skeptical of plans to mine asteroids but thinks we can mine the moon for elements like Helium-3.
WASHINGTON – There’s been a lot of talking lately about mining asteroids for precious metals like platinum. A group of space entrepreneurs recently announced the formation of a company called Planetary Resources to pursue that ambitious goal.
“I looked [at Planetary Resources’] advisory board and I did not see a single mining engineer. That’s a big mistake,” warns Homer Hickam, whose escape from the coal mines of West Virginia to a career at NASA was chronicled in his 1998 book, Rocket Boys, and the 1999 film, “October Sky.”
Working below the Earth’s surface, then training shuttle astronauts to work in space gives Hickam a unique perspective on the question of space mining and whether we have the technology to actually do it. “When you start digging in the dirt – I don’t care if it’s on an asteroid, or the moon or West Virginia – you’d better have a mining engineer on board,” Hickam says. “It’s not as simple as you think it is.”
Even if an asteroid contained huge deposits of valuable metals like platinum or nickel, Hickam continues, “How are you going to carve that [metal] out of there? You are going to create a huge amount of debris in the process. And asteroids essentially have no gravity so it’s all going to go flying around.”
Instead, Hickam advocates mining the moon first for rare elements like Helium-3 that could potentially be used as fuel in fusion reactors. “At least you’ve got some gravity there,” he notes.
Hickam is not a mining engineer (he earned a BS degree in industrial engineering from Virginia Tech in 1964 before serving in the Army infantry in Vietnam). But he did spend plenty of time working in the coal mines in his native Coalwood, W. Va. The biggest problem miners would encounter on the moon or asteroid is dust – lots of highly abrasive dust. Lunar dust “is really nasty stuff” because there is no erosion of soil surfaces, Hickam says.
Others, like Apollo 11 command module pilot Michael Collins, think the moon represents a “technological briar patch” that should be bypassed while we aim for Mars. That view makes sense, a lot more sense than trying to extract minerals from distant asteroids.
Hickam nevertheless thinks we have the technology to at least mine Helium-3 on the moon, and that lunar mining will require human labor, not robots. “There will be guys [up] there with a shovel and a pick because that [lunar] dust is going to get up in the conveyer belt, it’s going to get up in the machines, and somebody’s going to have to be going in with a pick all the time and knocking this stuff out. It’s going to be labor intensive.”
Mining also was labor intensive in Hickam’s hometown when the mines were still producing (Coalwood is now a virtual ghost town). “I come from a mining town. [Mining] was very labor intensive and the people there were proud of themselves, they felt like they were of value to society,” Hickam recalls with obvious pride.
The fiscal reality is that we are probably a long way from actually being able to return to the moon much less mine it.
Perhaps the well-heeled space entrepreneurs at Planetary Resources have deep enough pockets to someday identify, fly to and mine asteroids. But they really could use a mining engineer on their advisory board to fully understand the scope of such an endeavor.
Interestingly, one of the investor/advisers at Planetary Resources is James Cameron, the film director who of course made a historic dive to the deepest part of the Pacific several weeks ago. Hopefully he hedges his bet on space mining by at least mapping the ocean floor.
What relatively pure rare materials exist in the ocean depths and what is the true cost of extracting materials such as platinum on earth? As soon as the money and technology are invested in obtaining these materials from outer space, the holders of the assets here on earth will be motivated to sell from their mines at a slightly lower price. Certainly the production pipeline is much shorter here on earth. I don't think I'd risk my capital on the space mining ventures.
NASA already has the first robotic space miners. They have a very good design to build from. Personally, I think we need a first generation of under sea mining. We have three quarters of our planet completely unexplored and unexploited. Why go to space when we have untapped resources just off our shores?
Thanks for posting. I had the pleasure of spending about an hour with Homer Hickam on the Opening Day of the USA Science & Engineering Festival. I believe we could have talked all afternoon if his schedule had allowed. As it was, he was whisked off to his next interview at PBS at the end of our hour together. In my 30 years of covering technology, I do not recall meeting a more well-rounded individual with interests ranging from rocket engines to high school education to T-Rex skeletons on the plains of Montana. We're lucky to have folks like Homer Hickam.
Homer Hickam's argument is that a mining engineer sitting on Planetary Resource's advisory board could help begin the process of figuring out how to mine on an asteroid with little or no gravity. That is going to be a big problem. Based on this scenario above, it's going to be a long time before Planetary Resources actually needs to hire mining engineers. The problems of identifying and actually reaching near Earth asteroids look daunting, as does the proposition of actually moving such a large object. If we are going to mine the solar system, and I'm not convinced for the time being that we should be, why not focus on a relatively stationary target that is within the reach of current technology? Namely, the moon.
I would take Hickam's advice. I have heard in the past that the abundance of Helium-3 on the moon could put to rest fears about mankind's future energy needs. But a quick web search reveals that there appears to be some debate about its true value.
Planetary Resources doesn't have a mining engineer yet because they don't need one for about a decade. The first job, which they are pursuing with their small telescopes, is to *find* the Near Earth Asteroids. We only know about 9% of the ones larger than 100m in size. Next after that will be some close up missions to the promising candidates, which will take several more years.
Once you have some detailed information on your likely mining locations, *then* hire a mining engineer or ten to help design the equipment. A precursor mission might be to haul back a very small asteroid (~500 tons) and try out various mining methods on it, before attempting to visit a larger (100m diamter, 1 million tons) one and do serious excavation on it.