Fishing for asteroids while reaching for the stars

Ideas of going into space have been a dream of many for a long time. Notions of space travel appear in European literature during the 1800s in the verging genre of science fiction. However in the 20th Century, rocket spaceship travel took off in literature with the publication of pulp fiction magazines, and comics. Public imagination was captured and by the 1950s some dared to dream that space travel is possible. With rocket knowledge being limited to a few, private companies started to make a push for space in Britain and USA; Russia’s space programme was state sponsored.

After the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, the United States Government was energised towards the space race. The then British government did not pursue an astronaut space programme, or help British enthusiasts and rocket engineers to establish a national programme. Successive British Governments from the 1960s until 2011 held back from pursuing national space policy, although throughout this period, government space interest existed in space research, European Space Agency involvement and unmanned commercial interests, mostly in engineering satellites and components.

So why are individuals and businesses not encouraged, helped and championed to create businesses for a British-based astronaut programme? Protectionism of certain industries and policies by government at the cost of paying higher taxes, or favouritism for one business venture over another are part of the problem. As is red tape and bad policy decisions by governments: historically the evidence sits before us. One is reminded of this from “This Sceptred Isle, Gladstone’s First Budget,” (Episode 187/216).

With the British Chancellor of the Exchequer’s budget announcement on 21st April 2012, the top rate of income tax will be reduced from 50p to 45p in the pound in April 2013. If the top rate remains at 50p, that 5p could be used to invest in scientific and technological research and development centres, fund innovation and provide infrastructure for a wide range of scientific endeavours. Britain would have a greater competitive edge against the emerging scientific and technological markets of China and India. Knowledge clusters could be built in the UK to promote hi-tech industries, innovation and space exploration.

Protectionism in itself is not inherently bad, choices on what to protect can make a positive outcome. With globalisation, mass communication, information dissemination, and global corporations, some good can come in the form of philanthropy. This can be seen with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Globalisation combined with scientific knowledge and its application in the form of technology and especially information technology, has allowed individuals around the world to break orthodoxy, think of impossible things, and think globally on how to find solutions to some of the world’s problems.

With the recent success of SpaceX ferrying items to the International Space Station, the news of Virgin Galactic‘s space flights and the future proposed moon flights by Excalibur Almaz, interest in space flight has been ignited once again. However with all the recent excitement and success of SpaceX’s first mission to the ISS, one cannot help but feel that many government policies, not only in Britain, but also in the USA, Russia and beyond, are acting like a damp squib, stifling innovation, ideas and dreams of many, compounded with nay-sayers, while pouring an inky mess on progress (or should that be damp squid). This can be exemplified with the struggle engineer Alan Bond has experienced with the Sabre engine and Skylon project.

However the nay-sayers are not just confined to governments, policy makers and think-tank institutions. While many of us live through space exploration in the realms of science fiction and fantasy, there are those who dare to challenge the current orthodoxy that space is too dangerous to venture into, costs too much money and takes 20 – 30 years for a project from conception to actualisation. This has been the existing dogma of space projects, where governments kept tight control of what can be done. However a small number of the new super-rich, many from globally successful IT companies, are confounding past conservative attitudes and notions on space exploration.

These radical thinkers believe that impossible things can be achieved, and achieved not in a 30 year time scale, but in a relatively short period, costing one-tenth or less than existing space administrations spend on space endeavours. A new space race is about to start with commercial enterprises pushing into the frontiers of space. There be a lot of money in them rocks: with the April 2012 public launch of company Planetary Resources, space mining has lifted itself from the pages of science fiction to fact. There are lots of resources obtainable in near Earth objects in the form of asteroids, from platinum, iron, helium, gold, frozen water, through to rare earth metals.

Planetary Resources, composing of mostly ex-NASA scientists, aims to be mining within 10 years, initially using robots. One problem that needs to be overcome is engine fuel. While one will be able to get robotic craft to an asteroid to mine, and utilise solar energy to power mining equipment, getting those mined resources back is going to be a challenge. However I believe that this is something that is achievable by thinking outside of the box, and I have ideas for future propulsion systems that I am working towards patenting. Planetary Resources plan to use elements and compounds, such as ice on asteroids, as fuel sources; this is a good practical approach for solar system exploration.

Launch costs can be reduced by using different materials from the 20th Century conventional manufacture process of space craft. Also with a robotic crew, one can reduce costs further. Thinking differently about getting into space is also needed. Burt Rutan has thought outside the box by using composites for SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo, which are launched from an aeroplane rather than from a ground based rocket system. This sort of thinking is leading to a revolution for space travel.

I believe that it is possible to have a moon base in 10 years time, and a habitation base on Mars by 2035. Governments can help by reducing taxes for start-up businesses which are entering into the space entrepreneurial domain, provide infrastructure, and aid in promoting space ventures through their space agencies. However reducing red tape and unnecessary legislation is also a necessity. I believe Planetary Resources to be the first of many to enter into the space mining race; this exclusive club is set to expand in the not too distant future. Mining in space is basically on a first come, first serve basis, and it is all up for grabs. There is no ownership of rocks in space, as co-founder of Planetary Resources Eric Anderson said:

“Yeah, if you go out into the ocean and go fishing nobody says they own all the fish in the ocean. If you build a boat and go out and catch a fish, you own it.”

I propose that we challenge the British Government to invest and support the UK Space industry, by building the necessary infrastructure and also creating thousands of new jobs in a PPP funded space industry to journey to Mars by 2035. Mining asteroids for resources is more than achievable within 10 years; it is harder to get to the bottom of the ocean at its greatest depths than going into space. There are challenges that need to be over come, but most of these can be swept away by removing nay-sayers and negative thinkers; we have most of the scientific and technological understanding now to meet these challenges, and humanity’s knowledge base is growing exponentially.

Designing an FTL-like spaceship propulsion system is not impossible nor highly improbable. Burt Rutan’s October 2006 TED talk is not only inspiring, but also exemplifies his genius. Rutan not only dares to think outside of the box, but also is a leading and pioneering aerospace engineer. Many nay-sayers believe that one could only get into space from an expensive ground based rocket, Rutan believed differently and has proven so. I believe it is possible to invent an engine that will transport a spaceship to Mars (and back to Earth safely) in a 30 – 90 day period, rather than taking between 150 – 300 days when the Earth is in opposition to Mars, every 2 years. Such near-FTL-like technology many seem like science fiction, but is something achievable within the next 20 years, by using a modified Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) engine. I believe that almost-FTL-like propulsion capable of travelling to Mars (and back) within 3 minutes is also possible within the next 50 years, should humanity have the drive to create such technology. After all, space can be ‘warped’ by not only strong gravitational fields, but also by strong magnetism.

Those who build the modern space-based fishing fleets, will reap the rewards. However I believe that such benefits could be distributed to all of planet Earth’s citizens; there are many more problems to solve. Of course not all people are interested in space exploration, or being the first nation to step on Mars. However for those who what to think big, and believe that technology with new ideas and materials can be created not just in the pages of a science fiction or fantasy novels, but can be materialised into real engineered machines, the rewards will be fulfilling.

For most of us, we can still gaze at the stars and dream of a future better, brighter and more fantastic than what we currently live in. It is time to rekindle that Dan Dare spirit.