Asteroid mining: what's in the stars for it?

Mining has been a part of civilization ever since there was such a thing as civilization. And even before manned space travel moved from the realm of speculation to reality, science-fiction writers were imagining mines on Mars or asteroids, and how things might go right, or more typically, wrong.

As part of an exhibition on the future, the Smithsonian Institute recently sponsored some science-fiction writers to come up with brief stories about future technologies, and author Madeline Ashby chose the topic of asteroid mining. I will leave the artistic judgment of her work to those more qualified than I to assess such things. But the story she wrote touches on some issues that are only going to get more serious in the coming years, as commercial space flight gets cheaper and asteroid mining becomes a real possibility.

In 40 words or less, Ashby's story describes the return of a woman to the artists' colony where she was born, and where her father invested some of the colony's money in an asteroid-mining venture that paid off 20 years later. Right there, we can stop and say something about what would be needed if such an eventuality could occur.

First, we will need to establish property rights in space. Currently, the issue of who owns a piece of extra-terrestrial land is, shall we say, up in the air. If you launch a satellite or manned vehicle into space, you own what you launched. And I suppose the US government holds practical title to the moon rocks that the Apollo astronauts brought back with them. (As a side note, it seems we haven't done a very good job of keeping track of those rocks, as Wikipedia has an entire article on stolen and missing moon rocks, especially the ones that President Nixon gave away to foreign countries.)

But the manned moon landings were about as far from a money-making operation as you could get. When it becomes economically feasible to mount exploration and extraction operations for valuable minerals in space, nobody is going to want to spend the billions necessary to do that unless they can be reasonably sure they will get their money back, and then some. And the only way that can happen is if there is a stable and predictable legal framework in place to guarantee such conditions, or at least make them reasonably likely.

The way humanity has handled this sort of thing in the past is by getting there first and either claiming the property by force or buying the minerals from the people who were mining it already. In space, we assume we won't find little green men wearing mining helmets, so the first case seems to be more likely.

Ashby's story imagines the enactment of a universal "right-to-salvage" law in space, and something like this will have to be agreed upon by all interested parties before serious space mining can occur. Depending on how valuable and critical to the world economy space-mined products become, the legal framework of space mining could become a major threat to world peace if something goes wrong.

Turning the problem over to the UN might help, but the UN's track record of settling major disputes is not exactly stellar, so to speak.

Rather than get tangled in policy issues that would take many pages to thrash out, I think I will close with just two examples of how resource extraction can go very wrong, and at least moderately right.

Ivory and rubber are not minerals, but in the 1890s they were both highly valued and to be found mainly in Africa. In 1885, King Leopold of Belgium managed to convince an international conference to grant him personally a large tract of land on which lived some 30 million people, and which became known (ironically) as the Congo Free State. Leopold, who never visited the colony, ran it as his personal fiefdom, driving his colonial exploiters and supervisors to grab whatever they could, at whatever human cost, to the point that failure to meet production quotas on the part of native workers often led to amputation of a hand.

After two decades of literally hellish conditions, courageous reporters and writers brought the miseries of the Congo to the attention of the world and the worst excesses were stopped. But to this day, valuable minerals such as coltan, from which the tantalum in electronic devices is extracted, continue to be extracted under hazardous, illegal, and exploitative conditions in Africa.

Some analysts blame these conditions on something called the "resource curse," which is a pattern shown by some countries with rich natural resources that paradoxically have worse health, economic growth, or development outcomes than neighbouring countries without such resources. The resource curse is not an inevitable effect of mineral wealth, however, and I will close with my example of how things can go better.

When oil was discovered in West Texas in the 1920s, it created an unexpected windfall for Texas A&M and the University of Texas. Along with the founding of these institutions in 1876 and 1883, respectively, the State of Texas made grants of land to the schools, as (uniquely among states joining the Union after 1776) Texas retained ownership of public lands, instead of ceding them to the federal government. For decades, these grants didn't pay much in the way of dividends except for property sales to the occasional rancher. But with the discovery of oil, money began to flow into the university coffers in the form of what became the Permanent University Fund, an endowment that as of 2021 amounts to some US$32 billion.

While we can have a debate some other time as to the wisdom of extracting all that oil, the fact remains that a good bit of that oil money has wound up paying for the preservation and extension of knowledge, which is what universities do at their best.

I have no idea where the future of asteroid mining lies, but most likely its consequences will fall somewhere between the two extremes of heartless exploitation and generous beneficence. Let's hope for more of the latter and less of the former.

This article has been republished with permission from the Engineering Ethics blog.


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