Planetary Resources Guy Says: Space Resources Will Save Us All

Video Caption: You care about the future of our planet. You traded in your gas-guzzling SUV for a Prius and your Keurig for a Coffee Maker — and if enough of us do that, we’ll save the Earth, right? Well, we are dangerously close to collapsing our own ecosystem and we are running out of time.

In this persuasive talk, James Orsulak argues that the only way to really make a difference is to look up. James Orsulak serves as the Director of Business Development at Planetary Resources, an asteroid mining company that has embarked on the world’s first commercial deep space exploration. The company focuses on technologies such as rocket propellant, water for life support functions, and construction materials sourced from asteroids.

Previously, James spent a decade developing industrial-scale fueling stations on Earth. He is an avid gardener who lives in Denver with his amazing wife, 2-year-old twins and a rambunctious Goldendoodle named Waffles. This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community.

Editor’s Note: Found out about this video from a Tweet by Peter Diamandis, who founded Planetary Resources. He praised the talk by one of his employees.

But, the whole thing is confusing. Peter’s been running around promoting his book Abundance, which posits that things are getting better all the time and that the exponential technologies that lie at the heart of the Singularity University he co-founded are making life better for all. His whole position is one of techno-optimism bordering on techno-euphoria.

Yet, this talk posits that Earth and humanity itself is doomed without asteroid mining. What if it doesn’t turn out to be the panacea that they claim it to be? What if it’s not profitable enough to ensure the investment required? Are we all still doomed?

 

  • Aerospike

    What if it’s not profitable enough to ensure the investment required? Are we all still doomed?
    I think this is impossible. If we really are “doomed” unless we mine asteroids, then no investment will be too high and profitability will be ensured by the pressing demand for the mined materials.

  • Tom Billings

    “Yet, this talk posits that Earth and humanity itself is doomed without asteroid mining. What if it doesn’t turn out to be the panacea that theyclaim it to be? What if it’s not profitable enough to ensure the investment required? Are we all still doomed?”

    No.

    From the talk, “We have converted 43% of the available land on Earth”.

    This is like something I heard from Club of Rome in 1975. The “available” land he speaks of is about 5% of the Earth’s surface.

    I am disappointed in PR for sending someone out with this point of view. He uses the standard view of the Green Ghouls that technology on Earth will not progress, and resources are fixed, as long as we stay on Earth. For the Green Ghouls, this is used to argue that we must hand control of resource allocations over to politicians. In fact, this simply is not true. It is yet another argument to reverse the basics of the continuing industrial revolution. Those basics were first stated by the economist Arnold Toynbee: “When a society moves from allocating resources by custom and tradition (moderns read here, by politics) to allocating resources by markets, then it can be said to have undergone an industrial revolution.”

    The excuses PR uses in this talk are not true. It is not true when the beneficiaries are politicians, and it is not true when the beneficiaries are Planetary Resources. I really doubt this was thought out too well. The absolute best I can say about it is that they probably assumed that the people they were talking to were so indoctrinated with greenie propaganda that they would listen to nothing else but something with this sort of basic assumptions. PR will be profitable in providing in situ resources for settling the Solar System.

    What settling the Solar System will save us from is not resource depletion, but from freedom depletion, which is what each wave of reaction against the industrial revolution has sought to bring about, in order to preserve or rebuild social hierarchies here on Earth.

  • ThomasLMatula

    I agree 100%! It’s the same environmental attitude that put the resources of the Sea Floor and Antarctica out of economic bounds. And tried to do the same for space resources with the failed Moon Agreement.

    Environmentalists also forget the resource base of a society is a function of its technology. Coal was just a burning rock used in the pottery industry and as a poor smelly substitute for wood until the Steam Engine transformed the world and freed England from a Malthusian decline.

    The real purpose of space settlement is to allow the “creative minority” Arnold Toynbee described to be free to create the new technology needed. The Challenge and Freedom of space settlements will be just the right mix to take civilization to a higher level and to the stars.

    The payoff for Earth will be the technology that will multiple the resources already available on it. The killer app for PR will not be to replace resources on Earth but to provide the resources for space settlement.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Exactly – market forces will address the need as it always has done when politicians and regulators have stayed out of the way.

    In the late 1800’s folks were worried about running out of fertilizers, now they say farmers use too much because technology and free markets made it so cheap and abundant.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    Yes, the free market will save us all – just as soon as the taxpayers give us pots of money to fund our work.

  • Chandra Winata

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  • redneck

    It can, has, and will, though not with taxpayer funds. Major difference between crony capitalism/regulatory capture and free market.

  • OldCodger

    I am all in favour of a free market economy, we really must try it one day!

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    There’s no such thing as a free economy. If you don’t empower a government to create the rules of the market, the dominant enterprise will just fill in the power vacuum and create rules for the market that favor that one enterprise, or cartel. Look at how the petroleum industry started out as a wide base of start up wildcaters who, within a generation were consolidated under standard oil. Space is going to be a great adventure, however politically, it’s going to be as disaster. Given the toxic environment, the prospects of monetizing of the most basic requirements for life set up the prospect for great abuses and maximal extraction of wealth from the population to the owners of those basic resources, be they private or government. Here in Az we have a little town cute as can be called Bisbee and the local mine had such a lock down on the basics such as food, housing and water that as soon as times got tough the population plummeted as life was impossible if you were no longer of any use to the mine. Bisbee, in its day of mono-culture economy was thought to become the second city of Az after Phoenix, and Tucson with its already diversified and individualized ownership based economy was smaller and with less prospects. Tucson became the second city of Az led in part by the public investments in a rail-switch yard, and a university. Then in the 20th cen an Army Air Force field. Space is going to suffer from ‘the company town’ syndrome in the American settlements. All you have to do is look at the work habits of the employees at Space X and ask yourself if you really want to be a colonist in Musk City on Mars? If I were in a legislature looking into the future, I’d propose a law requiring that any colonial enterprise has to allow a minimum set of time for individual development of individually owned land. And that employees of a colonial enterprise cannot be prevented from leaving a settlement to strike out and develop habitats and settlements of their own, even if that settlement will directly compete with an individuals employers. If not regulated, I’d put money on the prospect that Musk City on Mars will be run like a FoxxCon factory complex.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Yeah who needs that darn Antarctic treaty? Certainly not all those nations that had overlapping claims. That can just be fought over can’t it? So what are your thoughts on the Spitzbergen Treaty? If you’re not familiar with it, give it a look, I think there’s lots of real world lessons in how the Svalbard Archipelago was not fought over, yet is still competed for.

  • Jeff2Space

    Companies like Apple are sitting on billions of dollars in cash with seemingly nothing “innovative” to invest in. For example, iPhone X is only a tiny bit better than 8 which is a only tiny bit better than 7. US corporations are not at all lacking in cash to invest in such a venture. That’s not the problem. The problem is the giggle factor. When someone says we’re going to solve the earth’s problems by mining asteroids, comets, and other planetary bodies, people start giggling. It’s simply not taken seriously.

    Hopefully seeing things like SpaceX boosters landing and being reused will start changing the minds of investors. Until SpaceX, launch vehicles were largely the play things of the US Government. Big US companies like Aerojet Rocketdyne wouldn’t even develop a liquid fueled rocket engine they knew was needed (to replace the Russian RD-180) unless the US Government ponied up the cash to do so. And unfortunately, “investments” in building new (expendable) launch vehicles was always in the billions of dollars. Every launch vehicle the government has designed and flown (Ares/SLS included) have been prime examples to investors that “space is hard”.

    On top of that, since the US Government has been is the primary investor in new launch vehicles since the start of orbital spaceflight, who in their right mind would want to compete with the US Government? The likes of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are quite often mocked for doing just that. One poster in particular likes to call Falcon 9 Musk’s “hobby rocket”. Considering how good 2017 was to Falcon 9, that’s one heck of a “hobby”.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    I have no problem as long as they do it with their own funds and mine the asteroids where they find them. We don’t need the resources badly enough to allow strip mining in Earth orbit.

  • Tom Billings

    Ok, Andrew. Now how does that translate to asteroid mining? The talk we were discussing was using the same old inane Green Ghoul propaganda about Earth resources to flog PR, when that is not needed, except in front of audiences already dosed with such propaganda to the point they accept it as the norm. Are we really at the point where you cannot talk about large scale human endeavors without ceremoniously bowing before the altar of “Gaia”????

  • Tom Billings

    “Companies like Apple are sitting on billions of dollars in cash with seemingly nothing “innovative” to invest in.”

    No Jeff. They *WERE* sitting on billions, held outside the US, because the US was being turned into a place where the taxation and regulation combined would make those resources less productive. That is changing as we speak. In the next 2 years that will change drastically.

    “The problem is the giggle factor.”

    The giggle factor is 20 times less than we found it in 1990, much less in 1979, when SSI first tried to move commercial spaceflight forward and was undercut by NASA Turf Warriors in a whispering campaign. Yes, as reusables fly many times each, it will drop off by more orders of magnitude.

    ” One poster in particular likes to call Falcon 9 Musk’s “hobby rocket”. Considering how good 2017 was to Falcon 9, that’s one heck of a “hobby”.

    Yes, from the Lexington Institute to Gary Church to others more hidden, the dependents of Congress are fighting to keep from being submerged in a rising tide of commercial success. That does not mean they will last out the next 12 years.

  • Tom Billings

    Terry, the idea that mining an asteroid will be done in Earth Orbit is futile. There will be no market justifying hauling an entire asteroid to Earth. There will be plenty for mining it where it is, and bringing to High Earth Orbit the smaller useful amounts of propellant and raw materials needed to build spaceships that never touch the Earth. They will be settlers’ spaceships. I favor EML-1 as the best such orbit.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Tom, if you actually educate yourself on the Spitzbergen Treaty and the history of Svalbard, I think you’ll see that it’s a real world solution to the problem of mining resources outside of politically settled borders with overlapping claims. Before you dig yourself into a deeper hole, I highly suggest you do a little reading of what’s already been attempted and how it played out in the real world. You know Tom …. History, not theory.

  • Tom Billings

    “Space is going to be a great adventure, however politically, it’s going to be as disaster.”

    Only for those that believe that having many short small hierarchies replaced by one large hierarchy will benefit the humans out there. Hierarchies will suppress the productivity of industrial networks wherever they can. That is why singular large governmental hierarchies are so much less productive than competing multiple smaller hierarchies.

    Granted, the exemplum of a freer market out in the rest of the Solar System will be a disaster for the current political hierarchies here on Earth.

    “All you have to do is look at the work habits of the employees at Space X
    and ask yourself if you really want to be a colonist in Musk City on
    Mars?”

    When has Musk ever said he wants to build anything for Mars other than a transportation company? If you begin by *assuming* monopolies, then all analysis will guarantee monopoly or collapse. Tautologies seldom enlighten us, however.

  • Tom Billings

    Not what the TED talk was about, Andrew. Not interested today.

  • ThomasLMatula

    The only claims that were overlapping were on the Antarctic Pennisula. But placing the entire continent off limits to resource development as a preserve for science wasn’t related to those national claims which still exist.

    The Svalbard Treaty (1920) was a workable solution, and worked mostly because Russia was too weak to fight it, but it failed to address the issue of the continental shelf they are still fighting over.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    You can keep it theoretical and ignore history all you want. It’s your little world Tom.

  • Jeff2Space

    Agreed that in the past some within NASA and the existing contractors would sabotage investment by reinforcing the perception that only NASA has the knowledge to do things like this. But that’s absurd since knowledge is inside engineers’ heads and you can easily hire the talent you need.

    I do think a lot of this has to do with optics and perception. Seeing SpaceX land first stages 20+ times will hopefully open the eyes of investors to the applications made possible by reusable rocket powered vehicles. In other words, if SpaceX can do this repeatedly on earth, why not the moon, asteroids, and etc?

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, the free market worked. When there was no more work the workers excerised their free market solution to leave. Unlike North Korea there were no border guards to prevent them from leaving. A mobile workforce is one element of free market capitalism. And of course those that stayed found other work to do, again a free market solution.

    Corporations developing space won’t be using “slave” workers, that privilage is held by governments like China and Vietnam. They will have the same freedom other workers do in terms of contracts and rights. And they will be free to accept or reject those contracts as they wish.

  • ThomasLMatula

    The key point is that in a free market economy SpaceX was free to try out its idea. This is opposed to NASA where a committee of experts has to agree an idea will work before they do it. Both the Shuttle and the failed X-33 programs were examples of that type of committee approach to design.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Even more important will be that the factories he talks about will actually go to the astroid, as per modern logistics strategies, and only finished goods and fuel will be sent to Earth orbit.

    Also the spaceships won’t be built in Earth orbit, they will be also be built at the asteroid and just travel to Earth.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    I think the Antarctic Treaty was based on the American policy of the day. We make no claims to Antarctica, and we respect no claims by others. Yet we occupy the pole. And as you pointed out in your paragraphs above technology changes the need and worth of resources. In the early 20’th Cen Americans and others made a go at economic extraction of Coal from 78 deg North (Svalbard/Spitzbergen read up on John Munroe Longyear), but as technology advanced that economic model went away as more continental coal fields were made available. Later the Russians took to using a unprofitable mine as the means to occupy contested lands on Svalbard/Spitzbergen during the Cold War. That use of economic means as a front for political posturing happens, and turning that off in Antarctica while pushing the US to the front of the line was just good diplomacy.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    No Tom it did not. A town on a trajectory to be Arizona’s second city lost out to cities that used government force to built a wider economic base than a pure private model could.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Yes of course if the colony is run on a company town model with the basics of life under company control I’m sure those workers can negotiate perfectly in their own individual interests from a position of power. I don’t think anyone here misses the joke you made in all seriousness. You realize this has all be done before. In fact one of the places was called … Uh.. Svalbard. They rioted over sausages (there were several riots over food during the company town era), think about what the Martians will riot over.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    When I see more than one company or group of people lining up to found a colony, I’ll grant you a lot of your arguments above. However, if colonization goes forward, my bet is they will be monopolies running company towns. I think we’ll see various versions of The Dutch East India Company. And that can go really really wrong.

  • duheagle

    You repeat the standard canards about the rise of Standard Oil that are now canonical on the left. At no time was Standard Oil a monopoly. It was the dominant player in petroleum refining and marketing (at a time when the main product was kerosene, by the way, not gasoline) because it was efficient. As with pretty much every major government-led anti-trust case since, the charge against Standard Oil was led by ideologically motivated Progressives who wished to subjugate industry to their social engineering ambitions with a motley crew of disgruntled would-be competitors who couldn’t meet Standard’s competition providing cover. So-called “monopolies” are always accused of “predatory pricing.” The working definition of the later seems to be “prices I can’t match without going broke.” This was true of Standard Oil, and it was true of similar moves against IBM and Microsoft generations later. But there were always other petroleum refiners. And neither computers nor software have become monopolies despite the government having failed to break up IBM or Microsoft.

    Your fear of “company towns” in space seems groundless. Company towns in America happened where the company, in question, became the local government as well as the local employer. Given that the Outer Space Treaty prohibits claims of sovereignty outright, it’s difficult to see on what basis state-type powers could be legitimately asserted by corporate entities.

  • duheagle

    Seem like the entity based on government force was the company town.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    So by your reading of The Outer Space Treaty there can only be a company town because any public sector is outlawed? By your reading. I think nations need to be able to claim territory, this is one of the reasons I propose Svalbard/Spitzbergen as a example. Because the root of the treaty allows for national claims (Norway is sovereign), however it allows for private and public economic development and property rights by signatory powers and individuals of those states. I think that’s a real world solution, and it’s been tested against 20th and now 21st Cen history.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Given the rise in the standard of living that happened in the United States after “Progressives who wished to subjugate industry to their social engineering ambitions”, I’d say the progressives did a darn good job until American corporate boards could run to Communist China and exploit their un-organizable captive labor force, and obtain state mandated land, factories, and of course the most important part of any business plan, the profitable exit plan. Yeah, given the history, I’ll take the Progressives world, 2nd half 20th cen America rocked compared to the husk of America the free marketeers gave us. You guys are great.

  • ThomasLMatula

    But that is exactly how markets work. There are winners and losers. Bisbee did not expand or build a sustainable base so it lost. The West, and even the East, is filled with similar examples of towns that lost. Some are company towns, others were not.

    Tucson had a larger base supported by tax payers and was on the South Pacific mainline. It won. Markets allow multiple models to be tried and allow the best to win. But it’s also flexible. The model that wins not may not win in the future. Look at Flint Michigan or even Detroit as examples.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    I’m not in disagreement with much of that, in fact I agree with a lot of it. I’m not a Communist, however as American market Capitalism acts as a internationalist market type in partnership with foreign economic nationalists, European style Social Democrats with their protectionism and rising standard of living and intact industrial base looks better and better. I’m all for a balance of forces. The private business sector is by far a superior curator of the short term interests of the human enterprise. And can do a type of R&D that the public sector cannot do. But I think the past 30 years have shown that the Libertarian experiment is dismantling the United States. What did Detroit in? Mexico and now China. My gosh can you imagine the unmitigated gaul of those factory workers not realizing that the stock holders needed them to take a cut in pay in exchange for higher returns on the stock price? It’s a good thing those Mexican and Chinese workers understood the needs of the stockholders. It all works out, right?

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Oh, and forgot to ask this …. Since you have a different take on the issues of monopolies, do you have a historical source I should reference for the alternative POV? You don’t expect folks to just take your word for it? And I do read history, not just texts, but biographies, and autobiographies. I’m also capable of detecting political slant in a narrative. So if you have a text, or set of texts, you think I should read, I’ll give them a look.

  • redneck

    Detroit did Detroit in. Detroit was building crap until they had competition, and then had trouble competing. Number one cause was short sighted management. Complacency from America dominating world auto production led to lousy management practices.

    A very close second was union greed. When a non-skilled factory worker is making several times the American national average, there will come a reckoning, especially when that worker is not highly productive.

    The customers that could purchase a higher quality car for less cash acted in their own best interest, and Detroit suffered for its’ sins. Stockholders suffered most. Blaming others is a losers game.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    I have a close co-worker who retired from Ford after 20 years, he was in management. Yes Japanese industrial policy hurt, and the big 3’s response to it made it worse. As for going to Mexico and China? With Mexico it was just to make more profit. Market penetration in Mexico was complete and making them in Mexico would not enhance that. It was company policy to to bypass the union whenever they could even if it meant spending more money up front. With China (Ford had yet to go there, in fact I think GM is the only US auto manufacturer to celebrate the Chinese revolution), it was to become a Chinese company. When we met in the 90’s after his retirement, he told me GM was going to do that. It was policy 20 years ago.

  • MzUnGu

    The combined mass of the whole asteroid belt is that of 0.05% of that of Earth, and 4% of the Moon. spread over vast dark open spaces that cost $ to travel…. Enuf said. 😛

  • redneck

    And there are millions of cubic miles of iron concentrated just a few thousand miles from you in the Earths’ core. Since it is so close and concentrated, why don’t you just go get that?

    Try calculating tonnage out there compared to tonnage used on Earth for an answer opposite of yours. There’s vastly more water in Lake Superior than in my 4″ well, which is meaningless because my well is where I need the water. Asteroids are a resource for use in space.

  • redneck

    If I had a company with union workers getting a $50.00 an hour compensation package at a time when American average was $10.00 an hour, and foreign average a fraction of that, I would be doing everything I could to get away from the extortion as well. Excessive wages are only sustainable in a monopoly business, which is a huge part of the Detroit fiasco.

    Blaming others for bringing a better game is a bug, not a feature. It is akin to blaming the other team for your loss, technically true, strategically disastrous.

  • Jeff2Space

    Agreed, but the fact that NASA “experts” would discourage potential investors in start-ups like SpaceX arguably delayed innovation in the industry by decades. It’s part of NASA’s charter that they’re supposed to support the US aerospace industry.

    As an example, VTVL was demonstrated by DC-X program (which ran from 1990 to 1995). DC-X was proof, at least to engineers, that liquid fueled rockets could repeatedly take off and land vertically safely and reliably. Well, except for that last time when NASA was flying DC-XA and a technician forgot to reconnect one of the hoses on one of the landing gear and it didn’t deploy during landing causing it to tip over, catch fire, and burn up on the landing pad. Oops.

    I remember all of the launch start-ups that failed during that time frame mostly due to lack of investment. That was a wasted opportunity for the US.

  • MzUnGu

    The thing is…. those asteroid are not closed to anything…not even to themselves. Delta-V or distance wise.