Future Tense

The Proper Role of NASA

The space agency supports exploration. After that, private businesses should take over.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket makes its first successful upright landing on the Of Course I Still Love You droneship on April 8.

NASA via Getty Images

The U.S. government has long funded missions of exploration to seed future growth. Famously, Lewis and Clark were sent to explore the American West to make maps, find suitable land to settle, and find routes. Eventually, these would help in the creation of railroads, which could be used to ferry people, goods, and services. These, in turn, would eventually spur new businesses (or even whole new industries) in what was then uncharted territory.

When railroads came into being, they were owned and operated by private corporations, all of which were poised to make a hefty profit. But they were helped by government involvement. The government’s role was primarily to do the exploring, to do the risky upfront work that needed to be done to pave the way for industries that made use of the abundance of open space and natural resources. It took very smart and innovative thinking to figure out how to harvest and process these resources to create sellable goods and services.*

Today, thanks to NASA paving the way, this process is happening in space. There are already opportunities in the telecommunications and satellite image–analysis markets, but we are just on the edge of understanding the wealth of natural resources that may be available to us.

NASA and commercial sectors are not new to collaboration. From the 1950s to the early 1970s, as we entered the Space Age, government contracts supported commercial companies that—after figuring out how to do it in the first place—sent hundreds of satellites into Earth’s orbit. Together, NASA and commercial enterprise became experts at building rockets, launching them successfully, building satellites, communicating with them, and processing and understanding their data.

NASA and commercial space have continued to work hand-in-hand, and we are just starting to see visionary entrepreneurship from companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and Planetary Resources, just to name a few. But how do we enable this market to grow? Should NASA get out of the way or continue to provide a helping hand? It may help to look back at exploration and the creation of new markets throughout history.

When Lewis and Clark were exploring, it was pretty clear how—and even that—money could be made, railroads could be built, industries established. But when we look at the moon or an asteroid, there isn’t much that makes our human brain scream “Gold mine!” It’s taken planetary science, the Apollo program, and the study of meteorites to really tell us what we’re even looking at.

The most promising commodities seem to be hydrogen and platinum group elements. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in our solar system, and it’s most often bound up with oxygen in the form of water ice (not to be confused with the water ice found in Philadelphia). Although water ice doesn’t sound like a hot commodity, it’s extremely valuable once it’s in space. It costs a lot of money to launch yourself into Earth orbit, and toting along extra fuel to maneuver around and water for humans to drink will cost even more. It’s extremely beneficial to have the equivalent of a refueling station somewhere already in space. Hydrogen can be separated from water to produce energy for fuel or other activities, and water can be used to keep us humans alive in space. It’s potentially one of the most valuable commodities in space exploration.

Meanwhile, platinum group elements, or PGEs, have the potential to provide untold wealth for us humans stuck back on Earth. They are already valuable in Earth markets, and if we can return them from space in massive quantities, there may be significant profits to be made. The problem is that, right now, we don’t exactly know exactly how much hydrogen or PGE you’d even collect if you were to grab a rock from a random asteroid’s surface: We need to do a bit of prospecting first. A wealth of data tells us hydrogen is in the moon, in larger abundances in permanently shadowed craters and, in albeit smaller quantities, bound up within the lunar soil itself. PGEs may be tougher to find, but commercial space should open up new and greater opportunities to keep looking for them.

We have to be smart about where we go looking for resources. And laying the groundwork for this approach is Planetary Resources, a company that intends to search the skies for mineable asteroids using a series of telescopes launched into low-Earth orbit. That is exactly the job for a corporation—just as oil prospecting is the job of the oil industry. And surely we can imagine a future in which “Space Lewis and Clark” find a PGE-rich gold mine asteroid and Planetary Resources sets up shop there. In such a world it’s easy to imagine Planetary Resources taking short hops, skips, and jumps to prospect around for nearby treasure troves, but that’s not yet the world we live in.

The market for PGEs is fairly well-established, but taking a sample on another world and analyzing its composition is exceedingly challenging. We’ve done this for only six planetary bodies using a variety of different techniques—none of which are particularly sensitive to PGEs. So there are a few technological steps required before it would be reasonable to start a business based on it. It will certainly be possible, but it’s going to take time. Planetary Resources is planning to explore—basically, picking up where NASA has left off. NASA is clearing the weeds in interplanetary space and making sure that private industry has everything they need for low-Earth orbit.

And the private industry is, if you’ll excuse the pun, taking off. Virgin Galactic plans to offer passengers on its SpaceShipTwo an experience of about six minutes of weightlessness and views of the whole of the Earth. It has also developed a lesser-known space vehicle, called LauncherOne, that will soon be available for deploying satellites and experiments into low-Earth orbit. SpaceX, as you probably know, has had many successes and is quickly emerging as a leader in providing reliable, low-cost launch systems to Earth orbit. Although SpaceX aspires to eventually send humans to the moon and Mars, it is quickly becoming a key provider of reliable launch capabilities for Earth-orbiting payloads.

There are other players in this space as well, and some are seeded by private investments, some by NASA. The landscape is rapidly changing, and we’re seeing the beginnings of a real industry. Smaller companies are sprouting up to fill the needs of the bigger players, and still others are working on longer-term industry goals by creating large-scale service satellites, robotic landers, telescopes, and other exploration vehicles for prospecting.

NASA exists to answer questions about our solar system and our universe that we don’t yet know the answers to. NASA also funds technologies, mission concepts, and other enabling systems that will, eventually, allow robots and humans to venture out into the solar system without NASA’s help at all. Now its job is to blaze a path to the outer reaches of our solar system, exploring in detail our nearest neighbors like Mars and the asteroid belt, and tell us what to expect when we get there.

*Correction, March 24, 2017: This article originally misstated that Lewis and Clark were to, among other things, look for railway passages. Their trip predated railroads, so that was not part of the mission. (Return.)

This article is part of the new space race installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Each month, we’ll choose a new technology and break it down. Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate.