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On @ The 90: How Mission to Capture Asteroid Could Change NASA

Could a new initiative proposed in the FY 2014 Budget Proposal make space exploration a highly profitable endeavor? Image Credit: NASA

Could a new initiative proposed in the FY 2014 Budget Proposal make space exploration a highly profitable endeavor? Image Credit: NASA

In April 2010, President Obama announced a plan that, at the time, received a rather tepid response. This was the president’s announcement that NASA would conduct a mission to an asteroid. The plan, which many assumed had been forgotten, came roaring back into the spotlight last week when Florida Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) announced that not only would the U.S. send crews to an asteroid, but would bring that asteroid back to Earth orbit (more accurately, the orbit of our Moon). If this plan is managed properly, Obama’s vague and poorly-detailed mission to an asteroid could serve as the most powerful, positive catalyst for change for NASA since the Apollo Program.

Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine broke the news about this mission late last month, detailing how $100 million had been set aside in the White House’s NASA’s fiscal 2014 budget request, which would go to get the program started.

Sen. Nelson has stated that we can expect to see the $100 million tasked for this effort to be unveiled in the president’s fiscal year 2014 budget, scheduled to take place around the middle of this week.

According to a press release issued by Sen. Nelson, the plan would go something like this: The initial mission, unlike what the president stated in 2010, would be unmanned. The pre-selected asteroid would be captured, towed back to Earth, and placed in a stable orbit around our Moon.

As it stands now, the mission to collect the asteroid and deliver it to lunar orbit - would be unmanned. Image Credit: Rick Sternbach/Keck Institute for Space Studies

As it stands now, the mission to collect the asteroid and deliver it to lunar orbit, would be unmanned. Image Credit: Rick Sternbach/Keck Institute for Space Studies

After this has been accomplished, astronauts using NASA’s next crewed spacecraft, Orion, would travel to the asteroid and possibly conduct mining activities.

It can be argued that human space exploration is viewed as something that, while interesting to do, does not provide any immediate benefit. Indeed after the announcement was made, this journalist heard a radio station state that the mission was not worth the $100 million price tag. They are correct—it is worth exponentially more, if handled correctly.

The scare produced by the near-miss of Asteroid 2012 DA14 eclipsed the estimated mineral worth of the asteroid—some $195 billion. That amount is according to some industry analysts, with others stating that the amount to mine the asteroid has not been taken into account. To put it another way, the asteroid is worth more than the NASA budget—by a decade (the Space Agency’s current budget is $18.7 billion a year). Other floating space rocks have exponentially more minerals within them. How much more? A report in the Daily Mail places one asteroid’s worth at $95.8 trillion.

The determining factor as to whether or not this can be turned into a possible cash cow is how it is managed. First, the “correct” asteroid must be selected and brought to lunar orbit for study and possible mining. Then, the next part of the problem is determining the least expensive, but safest, way to deliver any mined materials back to Earth.

According to a report in CBS News, the primary purpose of the asteroid mission would be technology development. The devil is in the details, and what other efforts will be pushed for this asteroid remain to be specified.

“This is part of what will be a much broader program,” Nelson said during a recent visit to Orlando. “The plan combines the science of mining an asteroid, along with developing ways to deflect one, along with providing a place to develop ways we can go to Mars.”

Conducting this mission could potentially teach us a lot about how to deflect one of these leftovers from the solar system’s formation if we find one on a trajectory that could impact Earth. In the release issued by Nelson’s office, one other benefit highlighted by having this asteroid in lunar orbit was stated as: “ … testing to develop technology for a trip to deep space and Mars.”  It is unclear how an asteroid would serve as a better test bed for space technology than the Moon it would be orbiting.

The release also touted how Sen. Nelson, along with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), worked to have NASA’s new heavy-lift booster, the “Space Launch System,” or SLS, be approved. This would likely be the launch vehicle used to send the crews to the asteroid by 2021. This would advance the president’s plans to send astronauts to an asteroid by some four years (Obama’s plan was to take place in the 2025 time frame).

NASA would use the duo of the Orion spacecraft and heavy-lift "Space Launch System" to reach the captured asteroid, now in lunar orbit. Image Credit: NASA

NASA would use the duo of the Orion spacecraft and heavy-lift “Space Launch System” to reach the captured asteroid, now in lunar orbit. Image Credit: NASA

Opponents to SLS have complained that the booster has no clear short-term destination/purpose. If the asteroid mission is confirmed, this would negate these statements.

Proposed missions to an asteroid are nothing new. Many plans have been proposed over the years, with one of the most recent being conducted by researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), which produced its study last year. They were joined by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

The study, dubbed the “Asteroid Retrieval Feasibility Study,” looked into bringing a 500-ton asteroid closer to our home world.

As with most government projects, this one will doubtlessly change and develop. Whether or not the possibility of mining this asteroid becomes a focal point for the effort remains to be seen. If this were to take place, if the most “lucrative” asteroid were to be selected, and if affordable means to deliver the resources these asteroids are abundant in are selected? Then this mission could revolutionize how humanity views space.

Why? Simple, the world Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is approximately $70 trillion. If all the “ifs” above are done properly and if the program’s total cost could be kept to say $25 trillion (this amount was selected for a reason—wait for it)? Then this mission could possibly return as much mineral wealth as the planet’s total wealth for an entire year (if an asteroid as abundant in resources as the one described in the Daily Mail article is chosen). Those railing for the death of NASA would effectively be silenced. The space agency would more than earn its keep. However, it is, after all, a government program and there are still a lot of “ifs” between us and this brave new world.

“On @ the 90″ is an opinion-based feature detailing key events in the post-shuttle era.

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54 comments to On @ The 90: How Mission to Capture Asteroid Could Change NASA

  • Karol

    It sounds interesting, and there certainly are numerous “ifs” between here and there, such as if we are going forward with this mission, will it involve only one asteroid or will we be mining more of them? Once the mineral resources are mined out, will the remaining asteroid be left in lunar orbit, or discarded like an empty beer can? Which nation gets to claim the 95.8 billion dollar asteroid, the nation that discovered it, the nation that captured it, the first nation to plant a flag on it? Will America be the first nation to accomplish this, will it be an international consortium, is it “first come first served”? Hopefully the diplomats and international lawyers can dust off the Outer Space Treaty and perhaps modify it as needed. Personally I agree with Eugene Cernan, Harrison Schmidt, et al. who believe that there is so much more to learn and do on the Moon, that we really need to go back. Our robotic explorers have done a fine job on asteroids so far, and they can continue to do so. With a presence on the Moon, human exploration of asteroids could be based there. I recently had the privilege, and honor, to speak to Col. Jack Lousma of Skylab and LM pilot of ill-fated Apollo 20 who earnestly stated that we most definitely need to return to the Moon, only this time we need to stay longer. I may very well be wrong, but I believe that there is still far more enthusiasm in and out of NASA, as well as in the international community, for a return to the Moon than there is for an asteroid rodeo. Thank you for the interesting opinion piece Jason, it certainly raises some interesting possibilities. (Now, if I can just buy some worthless desert land and figure out how to get that 95.8 trillion dollar asteroid to fall on it . . .).

    • Tracy

      No country can “claim” the asteroid or moon or mars only private citizens can and then they can claim only what they phyiscally can occupy…At least that is what I think…

      • Ferris Valyn

        You are right about no country claiming a heavenly body (asteroid, planet, etc).

        It is, shall we say, less clear about individuals. There are arguments that people can claim, that they can’t claim, that they can’t claim but can still use it and make profit off of it….

        It is, shall we say, an area of law that has not been fully developed

        • History has long resolved this issue. The lawyers just want to muddy it up for their own self interest.

          Before nations even existed, property ownership came to be by possession. Had it not, no wealth could exist. All wealth has it’s source in things grown and mined. This makes it morally reprehensible to deny this truth.

          Where land is limited, people fight over it. Land is not limited much in space. There is no need to fight.

          • Ferris Valyn

            Ken, I am sorry, but no. On so many levels, no.

            • That’s non responsive. Could you be as little more specific?

              • Ferris Valyn

                Well, to claim there isn’t a limitation on land in space misses the point that we can’t actually get to all the land in space (and it is not at all clear that all land is inherently equal).

                And the lawyers comment – sorry, but no. Possession and law only works when you have an agreed to legal system. Otherwise, there is no law.

                • Thanks for being more specific.

                  We can get to more land than we would think at first. All land is not equal. Thus location, location, location. Other economic factors are just as universal. People thinking they don’t apply haven’t thought it through.

                  Where ever there are two people you have a legal system. If one is a five year old, many adults lose.

                  Legal systems have limitations. One is jurisdiction. Many legal systems have existed and work is isolation of each other.

                  Legal is not a straight forward concept. People’s will has a lot to do with it.

  • Joe

    I also get the sense that this asteroid mission is not well received by the people of NASA. This seems like a one shot deal just to do something. Going back to the Moon would be a better goal.

    • Tracy

      Interestingly NASA has done well with their robotic missions and yet they are really held back in this area. The recent successes on Mars of MER and MSL points to a high speed nuclear propelled craft to the outer planets using VASMIR…Also ISS needs be split off from NASA with its own budget…IMO

  • Tracy

    Jason,
    Quite the article… Now what I need to know is why does NASA do all of the R&D for this new asteroid mining industry using taxpayer funds only to give this knowledge away and then complain they never have enough funding? Why wouldn’t they sell or license this generated technology to fund their own operations? The space industry is mature enough that they don’t need NASA to do R&D for them as it will also lower the cost dramatically if the private sector does this work themselves. As you said one rock has a $90T minerial value!!!!

    • Tracy,
      I think if NASA were to be able to get such a rock & then mine it. The “shut NASA down” crowd would need to put a sock in it.There is still new tech (rad shields, advanced propulsion & so on) that the agency needs for really deep space missions – the cost of which could be covered by the space “rock” – essentially? NASA would be free.
      The space industry – is not mature enough that NASA doesn’t have to do R&D – there are some aspects of space exploration that have no value to these companies (there’s no business model).
      As to no country being able to claim a thing – you really should open a history book. Countries have been claiming this or that (usually by force) since they were created.

      • Making claims is a natural right. Defending those claims requires some form of force (usually legal force is sufficient.) Nations have the greatest concentration of force which is why in many people’s minds, they are the only ones that can make claims.

        This is not true, but it is a strongly brainwashed meme. People have always made claims and successfully defended them throughout history.

        NASA is not the problem (where did I put those socks?) The government presumption of ownership/rulership of people is the problem.

        • Ken,
          The same accusation “brainwashing” can be directed toward those on the opposite side. While you’ve posted laudable ideals – ideals don’t usually fare very well in the real world (there are folks in Syria, N. Korea, China, Russia, Iran & even the U.S. that would support me on this). The basis of much of your argument is that people have made successful claims against governments throughout history – you’re ignoring how many individuals have failed as well (here’s your sock). Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
          More importantly, this is all quite entertaining but distracts us from the primary point. If NASA were to get a near $100 trillion piece of real estate – it’d belong to the nation (I’d prefer that would be plural). How well would the “anti-NASA” crowd fare then? They wouldn’t. If NASA were to receive a small portion of that amount (say $60 billion annually) – NASA & its partners could accomplish pretty much whatever was laid out in front of them. It’d also mean that the cost to the U.S. taxpayer – would evaporate. I can see how those that have a grudge against the space agency would have an issue with this concept.
          Sincerely, Jason

          • ideals don’t usually fare very well in the real world

            You got that right brother.

            The thing is, claims against governments is not what I’m talking about. I’m referring specifically to ownership claims of reasonable size made by possession. Both history and legal precedent weigh heavily on the side of those making such claims.

            Where governments do come in is in choosing to recognize claims made by individuals or not. If they choose not, that still doesn’t have much impact on the claims themselves. What it does impact is people having a fear of trade. This is what make it morally reprehensible for governments to not recognize those claims.

          • Now let me answer your second part.

            Yes, whatever NASA acquires should belong to those that paid for it, the taxpayers. Should that go to NASA or the general fund?

            I certainly would have no problem with NASA being fully funded from a portion of the revenue. That wouldn’t mean I wouldn’t have issues with NASA priorities because even if fully funded, it’s still taxpayer money. Only if NASA were completely a commercial entity would it be different.

            That’s the point. Being pro business does not make me anti-NASA.

            • Hi Ken,

              Sorry for cherry-picking your points – I have limited time. If, the “pricey” asteroid is selected – a majority of the funds could go to the “general fund” – with, as you suggest, a portion of that funding NASA. Even a partial amount (The $60B amount I posted – is three times NASA’s annual budget). Essentially, the cost of the mission & the startup costs would be covered by the resources mined from the asteroid – as would the significant bump in NASA’s budget. That would still leave an incredible amount of wealth left over. Do, I honestly think something as sensible as that will ever happen? No. This op-ed has been up for less than a day & already folks are suggesting NASA should get nothing – despite the fact that it was the space agency that would bring this “goldmine” to our doorstep.

              The point you’re not highlighting is that while, yes, the ability to get the asteroid is funded by the taxpayer? The profit from which would only be made possible due to NASA – in short? It’s a circle – you can’t have one without the other. Essentially? This would be a win-win for the taxpayer & for NASA.

              I stated earlier that NASA should serve as a pathfinder. When they paved the way – then commercial industries can take over.

              The govt. claim point you made – it’s not a belief – it’s a sad fact. Governments can do what they will & the people be damned. There are a lot of people who don’t want what is currently taking place within our own govt. Right now – we can place all the claims we want – but has that stopped the government from doing whatever they wanted? Again, laudable ideas, ones which governments all-too-frequently ignore. Sorry to be such a wet blanket, but experience is my teacher.
              Sincerely, Jason

              • Never apologize for cherry picking. Your time is valuable (we all have only so much) so when you choose not to ignore, you have honored me and I sincerely appreciate it.

                Iron sharpens iron as the bible says, so when you challenge my beliefs and actually correct them, you make me a better person. I only hope you feel the same way.

                I think we agree as far as it being a win-win for NASA and the taxpayers.

                [Govt. claims] … is a sad fact. Governments can do what they will & the people be damned.

                As Randy Barnett points out, consent of the governed is a fiction and can never actually exist so law must include a presumption of liberty.

                Government is tyranny in all cases, but to a lesser or greater extent in each. Rule of law is supposed to mitigate that tyranny. They can only damn the people when the people choose representatives that ignore the rule of law, which appallingly does seem to be the case as it never was in the past.

                This is what makes it so extremely important that people not concede when the government paints outside the lines by ignoring the law and the rights retained by the people.

                Right now – we can place all the claims we want – but has that stopped the government from doing whatever they wanted?

                But it can. That’s because precedent is a very powerful force in the law. People have always had the right to make property claims. In the past, they’ve had to do it mostly on property claimed by others, usually government ‘public’ property since they tend to claim it all (and other nations then dispute those claims on the edges since they do the same thing.) It’s hard to find, but it used to be very common for individuals to win these fights. Now of course, you do not hear of squatters rights, because the law has worked hard to eliminate them, but they used to be very common with squatters that met the requirements winning in almost every case to the shagrin of property owners that had more property than they could manage.

                Space provides an opportunity that hasn’t really existed before because nobody has a claim on it except in very minor cases. Because governments treat people as their property (the latest being that children belong to govt. rather than their parents. We knew they believed this, but that they actually came out and said it was mind blowing.); It becomes greatly more important than individuals take every opportunity to assert and strengthen their rights at every juncture.

                This is why I promote a set of terms that if people agree to ‘en masse’ will force governments to accept it as legal precedent.

                Individuals must continue to assert property claims, especially where property is unclaimed in space, or liberty will be lost. We can never accept the concept that we are property of the state. ‘Give me liberty or give me death’ should never become a historical relic. If we are not willing to fight for freedom, we do not deserve to have any.

                I promote one square kilometer as a reasonable individual claim size. If everybody agrees to this and by the action of possession does this it will have the force required to counter governmental presumptive force. Now is a pivotal point in history for people to act. If they do not, this rare opportunity will be lost in a morass of legal haggling. The individuals historical rights should not be lost and if this isn’t worth fighting for, what is?

                The second precedent I hope to establish is that a company earns a right to claim property by enable an individual to do so. This is really where the charter come in. Individuals don’t actually need a charter to make their claims. By tying the companies 1000 claims to each one individual claim in a legal contract I call the settlement charter (I’ve only outlined it. A lawyer should actually write it.) It would give legal force to that idea as well and that idea pays for colonizing space completely (but complements other methods making space even more affordable.)

                This has been called nonsense by someone I continue to respect and by people that demonstrate by their comments that they have never put any brain power into discrediting it.

                Please disagree, but to all, with specifics when you do. Expect me to strongly, loudly and continuously champion this concept because otherwise I do believe we are lost with no refuge in the future.

                Rule of law should never become a historical relic. Individual rights must be fought for continuously and by any ans all that still consider themselves to retain any rights.

                Please forgive the long sermon? post.

                • Ken,
                  I do – mainly because of how you say what you’re saying. I’ve had to deal with a lot of people who talk down to, at, insult, lie as their normal means of communication – which means that what you do is very much appreciated.

                  As for what you’re stating about the rule of law. Let me make my point more simplistic. If NASA is directed to do this – fine (although I think delivering an asteroid to lunar orbit but not traveling to/exploring/exploiting the Moon’s resources is stupid). I also feel that, at a minimum NASA should get 1 percent off of each trillion (that is if they’re smart & select an asteroid rich in resources) mined. Why? One percent of a trillion (I believe) is $10B – that’s double NASA’s current budget. Multiply that by 90 & you can see where I’m going with this.

                  I’m certain that the lawyers will get there long before NASA does. Apologize for not responding to all the points you make about property, claims & the like – as I said a while back, I’m just a guy that believes we should be a space-faring species. I’m not one to talk about which I don’t know. I don’t think I called your beliefs nonsense – were you referring to me?
                  Sincerely, Jason

          • The same accusation “brainwashing” can be directed toward those on the opposite side.

            Well of course. Let me clarify. What I’m referring to is the general belief found by so many,that only governments have the right to make claims which they may then make as grants to others.

            Disregarding the OST for a moment, that is certainly how it’s often done. But it’s important for freedom and financial progress that, that untruth not be accepted.

            People can and should make reasonable claims if they have the ability to take possession. They have a moral obligation to do so since this increases the general wealth to the benefit of all mankind.

      • Ben Harrison

        It would be unlikely that NASA would be assigned the role of being some sort of mining agency. Traditionally the government has sold mining rights to private companies, and here on Earth that has been handled by the BLM.

        Even if NASA were to capture and sell parts of an asteroid, all monies go to the general fund unless Congress has created a law that allows them to use funds that they collect. Considering that we have a huge deficit, I would imagine that the vast number of politicians would want any extra money coming in to go to paying for things other than adding money to NASA’s budget. And I would imagine that professional mining companies would lobby Congress to stop the government from doing what private industry has traditionally done.

        • Ben,
          Correct, NASA would not be responsible for the asteroid’s mining. However, it would be rather telling if NASA went through all the trouble of getting the asteroid, bringing it into lunar orbit – and then would see no benefit.
          Also, what companies have off-world mining exploration? To the best of my knowledge – none. NASA would remain a deciding factor in this for a while.
          Sincerely, Jason

          • Ben Harrison

            Do you have an example of another government agency that somehow gets monetary rewards for doing the job they are assigned? Seems to me if government employees do their job they get their paycheck, and if they are lucky they get recognized with a paper certificate of some sort (I’m joking there). But to assume that NASA will somehow claim a share of the ultimate proceeds seems pretty unique. What other government agency has this arrangement?

            For off-world mining, NASA doesn’t have any special experience in doing that. Maybe a week of accumulated time picking up rocks on the Moon back during Apollo, but how does that justify the government doing what is obviously the role for companies that specialize in resource extraction?

            To profit from mineral extraction in space seems to be a lot more than just lassoing an asteroid. Then you have to assay it, and create the mining equipment that will be used to break apart and collect the desired minerals. After all that is done, you have to figure out how to get that large amount of material to market, which likely will be on Earth. All that takes money, and lots of it here on Earth, so unless Congress is going to spend a lot more on NASA to do this, NASA is not the right entity to pursue the exploitation part. Find asteroids, and even move them, maybe. But the rest is what companies do best.

            • Ben,
              No, but it seems to me, if the agency that procured this resource in the first place were be allowed to languish as they have financially for so long – that would be a grave injustice. Essentially you’re saying NASA should do all the work but not be rewarded & continue to suffer monetarily as they have been for decades.

              NASA has more experience off-world than any commercial company to date, in fact these imaginary companies you describe have no experience whatsoever. If NASA takes all the risks they should get at least some of the profits. Otherwise? They should scrub the mission & let private industry do it. As you’re well aware that’d just mean the mission would never happen.

              If NASA didn’t “lasso” the asteroid private companies would have nothing to mine. What you’re saying is that NASA should bring companies the means to make a profit – but not use the funds derived in that resource to benefit the agency that made it happen. Sorry, Ben, but that’s selfish, unfair & completely wrong. I’m surprised anyone could even suggest such a thing.

              NASA gets precious little out of the federal budget. Yet here you are suggesting they should bring a potentially huge profit-generating resource to the private industry while they should feel “happy” to get a paper certificate. I’ve seen some pretty bad anti-NASA statements – but that one takes the cake. Public-private partnerships are all the rage these days – so why shouldn’t a public entity assist the private sector in gaining a valuable commodity benefit in some way for it?

              Imagine if you owned a company, you built the facilities, purchased the vehicles, paid for the employees, the bills & all the other elements to make that company work. You then come up with an idea that could bring in trillions of dollars. You then complete this project successfully – but rather share in the rewards of your labor – all the profits would go to other companies who managed the resource now that you brought it in. They make billions upon billions – but they feel all your company should get – is a certificate of appreciation. That’s what your espousing.

              If the private sector wants this to be the road taken then they should take all the risk. This isn’t what you’re implying. Your comments are pretty “unique” in their biased nature. Sorry Ben, but if NASA/the government is to do all the hard work – then they should be given, at minimum, a share of the profits.
              Sincerely, Jason

              • Ben Harrison

                You used the phrase “grave injustice” in talking about why NASA should be allowed to profit from the proceeds of an asteroid. I’m not weighing what’s fair and what isn’t, my point is that the way the laws of our government are set up NASA does not benefit from what they find any more than the BLM benefits from mineral leases they sell. All monies received go to the general fund, and all operating funds for NASA and the BLM come from negotiated budgets, not from profits from the work they do.

                That could change, but I think it would be such a big change that the agency that is designated to pursue that would not be called NASA. But even before that got very far, the large mining concerns in our country would be lobbying Congress not to create such an agency. And they would be right, since profiteering is the role of the private sector, and having the government be a competitor selling platinum and other minerals is not capitalism.

                An example of how odd this would be for NASA would be that NASA may be able to lasso the asteroid, but mining it, moving the sellable material, and selling it on the open market takes lots of capital, which is what mining companies have to deal with all the time. They either use profit from their current operations or they sell stock to raise additional funding. NASA can’t raise additional capital that way, but only through budget laws, which gets back to the Congress having to do something that they haven’t done before.

                You mentioned NASA having the most skill in space, and you are right of course. But that does not mean they always will, since private companies can hire away the employees with the special skills, and they can hire the same companies that build NASA’s hardware. That is what private companies do if they want to enter a market.

                One other thought, and this gets back to the joke I tried to make (is joking allowed?). All government employees are paid by you and me. We are the ones funding the government, so any found money should go back to us, not the government.

                • Ben,
                  Of course joking is allowed – but given the context of your last post? It was insulting. I agree with you that, however the funds are divided up, those that funded the project should get a lion share of the funds. However, as the budget released today showed – NASA’s funding is a perpetual target, if it continues at this pace the agency won’t be able to do much of anything of merit. So, if NASA were to bring an asteroid with an estimated value in the trillions – to give them nothing while giving others everything would ensure one thing – that NASA would not be able to ever do something like this again. Considering such a concept only hurts those that would benefit from such a mission & therefore should be discarded as soon as considered.
                  If this is “unique” – then the laws need to be amended to make sure that initiatives like this – don’t become so unique as to never happen. While I understand that some dislike NASA & want it to be disbanded, when discussing a concept that could prove lucrative to so many, excluding the agency that made this possible – is nonsensical at best.
                  Sincerely, Jason

                  • Ben Harrison

                    I don’t understand where you think I was insulting. Do you have me confused with another poster?

                    These seem to be the two issues that you are raising.

                    The first is if NASA helps space miners in some way, that NASA should get a cut of any future profits from that space mining.

                    The second is that you indicate that there is a number of people that feel NASA has been singled out over a long period of time by Congress, and that Congress is slowly cutting NASA’s budget to where NASA won’t be able to do much.

                    Is that close?

                    For the first point, it is my view that when we talk about NASA, that we’re really just talking about the government. NASA just happens to be the arm of the government that is organized to do what NASA specializes in, and the President actually runs NASA. Congress funds it, and the President runs it.

                    If the government (NASA) helps American private industry to mine an asteroid, the reward for the government is the tax revenue from the private industry sales revenue and profits. That ultimately benefits us taxpayers, who are funding the government anyways. So my view is that NASA is not special in this whole scheme, as the government (Congress in this case) will provide whatever government assets it feels need to be provided in order to make this happen. Maybe NASA will be directed to provide technology consulting, or maybe it will directed to grab the asteroid and tow it close by. And if Congress wants NASA to do all of that, then they will provide NASA enough budget to do that. That’s what happens now. Do you agree?

                    For the other point, all I can say is that Congress isn’t as space oriented as you and I. Is that bad? As I mentioned earlier, there is not enough money for everyone’s favorite causes, so I don’t think there is a conspiracy behind the funding NASA gets, it is just what it is. Our current debt situation is not going to make it any better either.

                    For this discussion though, I doubt Congress will direct NASA to get into space mining. I think we’ll be lucky if they approve the funding for grabbing an asteroid and then visiting it, but beyond that I think Congress will leave the mining to the private sector.

                    • Ben,
                      Stating that NASA should go through all the effort of getting the asteroid into lunar orbit – but then only receive a paper certificate of thanks? That’s beyond insulting. Your sense of humor could use a bit of common courtesy, respect & humility. Sorry, but I found it patently offensive.

                      No that’s not what I said. I said, if NASA goes out, brings the asteroid to lunar orbit (all the while the non-existent space miners haven’t done a thing) & then assists them in reaching the asteroid & bringing back the materials – then YES they should receive some kind of consideration.

                      I’m not “indicating” that – review NASA’s post-Apollo budgets & see it in black & white for yourself.

                      So the only benefit for giving the (currently imaginary) space miners a gold mine should only be tax revenue? Sorry, but this sounds like the point of view of a lawyer. Your argument is – it doesn’t matter how much time, labor, resources & money an entity puts into an effort – they still get nothing. That screams “entitlement complex.” Sorry, if you don’t work – you shouldn’t get. I think THAT precedent should be the foundation of any off-world mining effort initiated by NASA.

                      In this “scheme” – NASA is special – they’re the ones providing the (currently fictional) space miners with the resource to mine! How can this simple fact be so hard to grasp. Without NASA’s “Special” efforts – you would have nothing. No, I don’t agree. While you attempt to describe things that have precedent, that have taken place before, one simple fact escapes your equation. Dragging a chunk of space rock into lunar orbit has never been done before.

                      Your comment about “there isn’t enough money for everyone’s favorite cause” – in this case – is wrong. If NASA brought in the asteroid worth $95.8 trillion dollars? Guess what? Thanks to NASA, there would be MORE than enough money for everyone’s pet cause.

                      On the last point we actually agree, this whole argument is speculative & given the failings of our leadership, this mission is probably DOA. Given the lack of appreciation paid to NASA, perhaps that’s a good thing.
                      Sincerely, Jason

            • to assume that NASA will somehow claim a share of the ultimate proceeds seems pretty unique

              NASA is a political animal. If they did have a large part in getting an asteroid in lunar orbit that produced wealth. It would be hard to see how NASA funding could not benefit?

              Having said that, I agree that NASA has no business becoming a mining agency… that would be the very definition of mission creep.

              Planetary resources, Deep Space Industries and other private companies should take the lead in actual mining. We should start by congress making a law that any rock small enough to burn up in our atmosphere can become the entire property of any entity taking first possession of it. Keeping law focused and minimal should help move things forward.

              • Ken,
                I’ve already said NASA should serve as a pathfinder, so I agree that they shouldn’t manage mining operations. Having said that, Ben’s advocating they shouldn’t get anything all the while bringing in a resource that could be worth trillions. I can’t disagree with that more. NASA has been getting hosed budget-wise since before I was born (I’m 40). So they should receive some of the benefits of their efforts. Trust me, if there is a way to take all the credit/funds while leaving NASA high & dry exists? Someone will push it (Ben already has).
                I find it amusing that you’ve written expansively about claims, rights, the rule of law & so on – but when it comes to NASA possibly getting nothing from their efforts you just ask how they couldn’t benefit. Allow me to use your words: “…Expect me to strongly, loudly and continuously champion this concept…” In short? I’ll continue to strongly, loudly & continuously champion this – because to not state it will open the door for concepts like the one that Ben has espoused.
                Sincerely, Jason

                • I think we agree. I’m just saying the reality is, if NASA were to bring in the bucks; I don’t see how congress would be able to withhold some of the reward to NASA. This is what I meant by them being a political animal.

                • Tracy

                  Jason,
                  I agree, NASA has a unique opportunity here and MUST take full advantage of it. I would prefer to go the licensing of technology but if they do acquire an asteroid for whatever purpose and dispose of it through sale or lease minerial rights then that money should go back to NASA. My gripe is same as yours with the private sector getting the goods without just compensation to me the taxpayer that ultimately leads to a government that is completely corrupt and owing tens of trillions of dollars to bankers.

                  I do expect that new funding sources has to come to NASA as the asteroids contain high quantaties of rare minerials and China controls 90% of that market and they resently announced they will not be exporting certain rare earth metals to keep for their domestic use. Combine that with the process of mining and the heavy enviromental damage caused and suddenly asteroid mining looks very much like the solution.

                  • Tracy,
                    While I’m putting the cart before the horse – if the U.S. were to accomplish this? What would the return be to the initial investor (the taxpayer). With trillions of revenue possibly coming in? Would we all be millionaires? No, this isn’t a serious thought, just me musing about that much wealth…
                    Thanks for reading!
                    Sincerely, Jason

                • Ben Harrison

                  Just to clarify what I am saying. Let’s say the government decides it’s in the best interests of our nation to bring an asteroid close to Earth so it can be mined, and that it chooses NASA to be the lead agency to do that. The government then opens up to American companies the ability to buy mining rights, just like what the government does today with our natural resources. Any monies received would go to the government general fund, just like money the BLM gets from mining companies today.

                  This all makes sense, although it could be argued that the government is speculating on the value of the asteroid, and that it should be the role of private companies to take the risks. However if the government has decided to take the risk (which it hasn’t), then companies would be glad to let the government do that as long as they get to profit from the extraction and sale of the end product. But the government is risking taxpayer money, not NASA money.

                  What you seem to be advocating for is that NASA should be rewarded in some special sense, and that is the part I don’t understand. I don’t know what precedent there is for that, and if there isn’t, then what kind of precedent does it set? Would that mean the BLM should be funded based on the amount of leases it sells? And if so, is that the right incentive for the BLM?

                  I know you also mentioned that you feel NASA has been under funded for a long time, but isn’t that because Congress doesn’t want NASA to have more money? That is how our government works, even though we all have our own special areas of interest that we wish could be better funded. I too want more money for NASA, as I think we should be doing far more robotic exploration. But I think we should spend more money on education too, and that arguably is under funded. NASA is not alone in that regard.

                  • Ben,
                    What I’m advocating is that any possible divvying of funds – should be fair. If the funds go into the general fund that’s fine. I can’t believe you “don’t understand” that the organization, which has done all of the hard work – shouldn’t see any benefit from their efforts – is a selfish and unfair notion. Sorry, it’s not that difficult a concept, especially when one considers the potential value as being worth more than the entire world’s GDP. Given this, I’m surprised you’re so adamant that NASA should be excluded from benefiting from their own work. As I said earlier, give 99 percent to the taxpayer, the general fund, whoever – but at least give NASA 1 percent. This is what you’ve been opposed to for the last two days. Those that designed, developed, tested & built the process that makes this possible get one percent – those that did nothing get 99 percent. Sorry Ben, but stating that the former gets nothing & the latter gets everything – is just plain wrong.
                    So what if there isn’t a precedent for this. You want to know what else has no precedent? A government agency bringing a giant hunk of space rock & placing into lunar orbit!
                    Jason

                  • Ben Harrison

                    You may have moved on, but I’ll just add one more observation.

                    When you say “those that did nothing get 99 percent”, those 99 percent are the taxpayers that paid 100 percent of NASA’s budget.

                    NASA employees get paid whether the taxpayer gets anything in return or not, so it is the taxpayer that takes all the risks, and you are saying they don’t deserve the rewards.

                    Remember also who paid and paid for many decades for all of the capabilities that NASA will be using. It’s the taxpayer.

                    I admire your devotion to NASA, but we just have different views on how government agencies should work.

                    Best Regards

                    • Ben,

                      As to the taxpayers paying 100 percent of NASA’s – correct.

                      No, I’m not saying that the taxpayer doesn’t deserve any rewards. In fact, I’ve never said that & don’t know where you got that from. What I’ve said (it’s obvious you read it because you mentioned the 99 percent statement I made) is that while, yes, the taxpayer should receive a lion share of any ROI (99 percent) that NASA, who has been forced to work with precious little, should see some benefits too (1 percent).

                      Ben, I don’t appreciate having my words intentionally twisted (“..you’re saying they don’t deserve the rewards”). That takes what I’ve (repeatedly) said so far out of context I have to wonder what conversation you’re reading. Let me repeat (again) my view on this. Give the taxpayer, general fund, whoever 99 percent of the proceeds – but set aside 1 percent for the agency that made it happen. Why? Because they have been cash starved for decades & this would only serve to benefit all of us.

                      You’re 100 percent as to us disagreeing how government agencies should work. I don’t think that private companies should receive a majority of the profits from an effort initiated by a govt. agency while that agency that did all the hard work – receives nothing. I believe such an effort should be fair to all involved – you seem opposed to things being handled fairly under an effort that has no precedent in human history.

                      More importantly, this argument is moot, details about the mission highlight that such an asteroid probably won’t be selected anyway.

                      Sincerely, Jason

  • Karol

    The Daily Launch of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics posted today (9 April) that RIA Novosti reported Lev Zelyony, Director of the Institute of Space Research at the Russian Academy of Science stated that Russia plans on five missions to the Moon, missions to Mars, and a mission to one of the moons of Jupiter with the ESA. They also plan a scientific research base on the Moon by the 2030s or early 2040s. Looks like they’re not very enthusiastic about a mission to an asteroid.

    • Leonidas

      Karol, yes it seems that the international space community has its sights on the Moon, but it also seems that everyone is just dancing around the subject. Who will foot the bill for the dozens of billions of dollars that will be needed for constructing a moon base? Russia? The European Union? It seems that the world has (sadly) other priorities.

      So, it doesn’t strike me as odd that everything will be (supposedly) made in 20-30 year’s time. Since 1990, I’ve been reading that a US manned mission to Mars is 20 years away, and since the 1990s, Russia is making plans for a manned return to the Moon.

      2013 marks 23 years after 1990, and the Moon and Mars are still 20-30 years away…

  • Tracy, I don’t know if you saw where I answered an earlier question of yours.

    This has a huge potential to change everything, balanced on a terrible dichotomy. As Thomas Sowell has pointed out repeatedly (probably just for emphasis of course) wealth pretty much equates to property ownership.

    Some may say government provides the structure for property ownership, but the truth is governments are the chief destroyer of property rights and value.

    The debate over who can own what is a prime example. History has already answered this question. It is resolved, but not in the minds of lawyers mainly serving governments.

    Historically, even things owned can legally change ownership by possession. How much more so for things nobody owns?

    The process is simple. You claim it by possession and legally defend that claim.

    The claim simply has to be of reasonable size and unless another regulatory regime is put in it’s place, possession is the only requirement.

    If many people agree on what a reasonable siz is, that gives it even more legal force. Which is why I have proposed a settlement charter where reasonable size is one square kilometer.

    Asteroids have some different issues of course. I would propose that anything small enough to completely burn up in the earth’s atmosphere be completely claimable by one entity.

    For something bigger, let the lawyers argue it out.

  • Leonidas

    Eventhough I don’t share US’s current sentiments concerning the Moon, (‘being there, done that’), I do agree with Jason, that this type of asteroid mission, if managed correctly, could change everything!

    Conceptually, the mission is solid. With one mission, 3 different goals could be met: advancing asteroid deflection techniques, evaluating the prospect of asteroid mining and helping humans gain more experience beyond LEO for going to places like Mars. Granted, the last goal could be also met through conducting manned lunar exploration, but combined with the other 2 goals, this type of mission is so attractive, (given the timing of 2 near-misses from asteroids) and could be such a win-win for everyone!

    Could it be handled and managed intelligently, and will the US allocate and maintain the proper funding needed to see this mission through? I think that’s the question that should be layed on the table. If the funding problems are solved, I don’t have any doubt that the technical and engineering ones will be solved in time, just like the technical problems of going to the Moon were solved.

    Make no mistake folks: this undertaking would be an Apollo-type one, grand and challenging in scope, that would require the US to show a similar dedication to.

    • Leo,
      That isn’t the U.S’s philosophy – that’s Obama & his appointees policy. Most “spacers” find that thinking myopic – at best.
      From someone who has been dealing with this fr some time, I’d recommend the “show me” philosophy. Once they start doing it – then I’ll believe it. It sounds great – but so did do many other initiatives which are now rusting on the trash heap of history.
      Sincerely, Jason

      • Leonidas

        It’s so sad that you’re so right Jason…
        Thousands of proposals have been drawn for the last 40+ years, and we’re still no closer to anywhere…

        What can I say?

    • Ferris Valyn

      2 points

      1) Trying to recreate Apollo is, at least IMHO, a dead end. Apollo was a unique circumstance. We’ve got to have a strategy that actually matches the long-term US goal in space (which, is not landing on the moon, or going to an asteroid, or even going to Mars)

      2) Unfortunately, the funding problem I don’t believe will be solved. Because we keep selecting plans that are based on getting more money, or things coming in at cost (without real cost controls or margins)

      • Leonidas

        I wasn’t meaning to say that it’s OK to just recreate Apollo, because that would be a dead-end in itself.

        My point was that whatever big and costly plan we say we’d want to undertake in space (be it the construction of fuel depots, asteroid missions or the construction of any other type of interplanetary infustructure) would essentially be an Apollo-type undertaking, meaning that it would require the same steadfast devotion, willingess and funding that characterised the Apollo era (something that is so widely lacking today).

        Without these traits, we’ll continue to look at the past for inspiration rather than the future.

        • Ferris Valyn

          I’d argue we have a “steadfast devotion, willingness and funding.” But its not at the levels that we saw in Apollo. And there are many people who aren’t prepared for it to be at the levels its at, and accept the limitations that imposes (although I will say it does NOT mean that we can’t do anything that is “cool”, even BEO travel)

  • Karol

    This has been a fascinating discussion (I haven’t heard so much Ayn Rand since high school), but the issue may be rendered moot today as posted in the Daily Launch of the AIAA citing the Orlando Sentinel: “the first real test is expected today when the House science committee meets to discuss space policy.” One anonymous House Republican staff member was dubious, saying that it sounded like a “late-night punch line”.

  • Karol

    Jason, thank you very much for examining a topic that has generated so much intense interest. In your research, did the Daily Mail of the U.K. state what minerals make up the 98.5 trillion dollar asteroid? I’m probably wrong, but I thought that most asteroids were composed of iron and nickel, elements which are not exactly rare on Earth. If an asteroid composed of hundreds of tons of gold and silver was inserted into lunar orbit for mining, what would happen to the world gold and silver market? What would then happen to the value of the asteroid? Would it be worth the minimum wage man hours to protect Fort Knox gold reserves? If diamonds were knee-deep on the surface of a 98.5 trillion dollar asteroid, we could always trade flawless 1 caret diamond rings for a cup of coffee at McDonalds. Did the Dawn spacecraft find large deposits of osmium or palladium? Any platinum? Don’t get me wrong. This sounds like great fun. It’s just that I’d hate for us to pin our hopes on an asteroid providing the much-needed and well-deserved funding for NASA, only to have we NASA-loving spacers quoting that esteemed philosopher and meta-physician Charlie Brown: “I got a rock”.

  • Karol

    It might be a bit premature to load up the ol’ pack mule to do some asteroid prospecting. The Daily Launch of the AIAA quoting the Houston Chronicle (11 April): “Rep. Lamar Smith criticized the ‘pet projects’ funded by Obama, saying ‘While getting points for creativity, a proposed NASA mission to ‘lasso’ an asteroid and drag it to the moon’s orbit will require serious deliberation. This mission has never been recommended by the scientific community and has not received the scrutiny that a normal program would undergo.”
    It gives one pause for thought. Perhaps there never was any real intention to capture an asteroid. In the great chess game of the federal budget, perhaps it was just a pawn to be sacrificed to achieve another goal. Given the timing of the asteroid capture mission announcement so close to the submission of the budget, if the administration sensed an upcoming fight over commercial space, an asteroid capture mission might be “reluctantly” given up for more comm space funding. Hmmm, just a thought.

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