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.