John S. Lewis
The chief scientist at Deep Space Industries, Lewis is a longtime proponent of asteroid mining and spacebased manufacturing of propellants, life-support materials, and other commodities. He is also professor emeritus of planetary science at University of
Is asteroid mining something a single corporation can do?
Our company has principals spread all over the world. We have people from Australia, Germany, and Latvia. We think of ourselves as functioning on behalf of the human race rather than on behalf of a single company. And we are entirely welcoming to a collaboration with anyone in the research or space-launch community.
Would it be profitable to mine minerals from an asteroid and then return them to Earth?
The transportation and extraction costs are sufficiently high so that there are very few commodities in space that would be worth returning to Earth. So the market is not on the surface of Earth. The market may well be in low Earth orbit. It’s quite possible that we can bring water and propellants down to the altitude of, say, the International Space Station at less than it would cost to lift them off the surface of the Earth. Any scheme which is based on going into space to retrieve platinumgroup metals and bringing them back to Earth would be an economic flop. But—and here’s the big conditional—if we develop an industrial capability in space, processing large amounts of metals to make solar-powered satellites, for example, then, as a byproduct, we would have very substantial quantities of platinum-group metals, which are extremely valuable. So if you have a market for the iron and the nickel in space, that would liberate the precious metals to be brought back to Earth. So the scheme is not based on the idea of retrieving platinum-group metals—that is simply gravy.
Are you happy with the pace of human space exploration by the United States?
I think it’s fair to say that when I heard that Congress had approved the space shuttle program, I tended to view that as being the end of manned space exploration for decades to come. All the exploration that has been done since then has been done by unmanned probes. But the space shuttle was limited because of design compromises that went into making it palatable to both NASA and the Air Force. You could pretty much conclude that it would play no role at all in expanding the sphere of human exploration of space. And that’s how it worked out. So for years, we sat there with this enormous budgetary albatross of the space shuttle around our necks, being unable to afford anything that would give real meaningful advances and capabilities.
Do you see evidence that the Chinese have learned from our human spaceflight program or that of the Russians?
I have been a regular commentator for the last 10 years on China Central Television for all Chinese manned spaceflights. In essence, what the Chinese did is they looked over the shoulder at the Russian space program. They certainly had no lack of knowledge of the American space program because everything was in the public domain and they built accordingly. Their booster rocket is by no means a copy of a Russian booster. Their spacecraft is based upon design principles that were pioneered by the Soviets. Wouldn’t it be stupid to start again from scratch and design something when you know that there are things up there that already work? So their spacecraft is a little heavier than the standard Soyuz spacecraft, and it’s a parallel design. Generally speaking, it’s a somewhat derivative program, but it’s highly independent also. If the border between China and Russia were sealed tomorrow, the Chinese space program would go right along.
John Lewis has an academic background in space sciences and cosmochemistry. He is the author of Mining the Sky.