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

Air & Space Smithsonian - - Air & Space Interview -

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.

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