Want to Learn How to Mine in Space? Theres a School for You

Hunter Williams used to be an English teacher. Then, three years into that job, he started reading the book The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. The 1966 novel by Robert Heinlein takes place in the 2070s, on the moon, which, in this future, hosts a subterranean penal colony. Like all good sci-fi, the plot hinges on a rebellion and a computer that gains self-awareness. But more important to Williams were two basic fictional facts: First, people lived on the moon. Second, they mined the moon. “I thought, ‘This is it. This is what we really could be doing,” he says.

Today, that vision is closer than ever. And Williams is taking steps to make it reality. This year, he enrolled in a class called Space Resources Fundamentals, the pilot course for the first-ever academic program specializing in space mining. It's a good time for such an education, given that companies like Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources are planning prospecting missions, NASA's OSIRIS-REx is on its way to get a sample of an asteroid and bring it back to Earth, and there's international and commercial talk of long-term living in space.

Williams had grown up with the space-farers on Star Trek, but he found Heinlein’s vision more credible: a colony that dug into and used the resources of their celestial body. That's the central tenet of the as-yet-unrealized space mining industry: You can't take everything with you, and, even if you can, it's a whole lot cheaper not to—to mine water to make fuel, for instance, rather than launching it on overburdened rockets. “I saw a future that wasn't a hundred or a thousand years away but could be happening now,” says Williams.

So in 2012, he adjusted trajectory and went to school for aerospace engineering. Then he worked at Cape Canaveral in Florida, doing ground support for Lockheed Martin. His building, on that cosmic coast, was right next to one of SpaceX's spots. “Every day when I came to work, I would see testaments to new technology,” he says. “It was inspiring.”

A few years later, he still hadn't let go of the idea that humans could work with what they found in space. Like in his book. So he started talking to Christopher Dreyer, a professor at the Colorado School of Mines’ Center for Space Resources, a research and technology development center that's existed within the school for more than a decade.

It was good timing. Because this summer, Mines announced its intention to found the world’s first graduate program in Space Resources—the science, technology, policy, and politics of prospecting, mining, and using those resources. The multidisciplinary program would offer Post-Baccalaureate certificates and Masters of Science degrees. Although it's still pending approval for a 2018 start date, the school is running its pilot course, taught by Dreyer, this semester.

Williams has committed fully: He left his Canaveral job this summer and moved to Colorado to do research for Dreyer, and hopefully start the grad program in 2018.

Williams wasn't the only one interested in the future of space mining. People from all over, non-traditional students, wanted to take Space Resources Fundamentals. And so Dreyer and Center for Space Resources director Angel Abbud-Madrid decided to run it remotely, ending up with about 15 enrollees who log in every Tuesday and Thursday night for the whole semester. Dreyer has a special setup in his office for his virtual lectures: a laptop stand, a wall of books behind him, a studio-type light that shines evenly.

In the minutes before Thanskgiving-week class started, students' heads popped up on Dreyer's screen as they logged in. Some are full-time students at Mines; some work in industry; some work for the government. There was the employee from the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, an office tasked, in part, with making sure the US is obeying international treaties as they explore beyond the planet. Then there’s Justin Cyrus, the CEO of a startup called Lunar Outpost. Cyrus isn’t mining any moons yet, but Lunar Outpost has partnered with Denver’s Department of Environmental Health to deploy real-time air-quality sensors, of the kind it hopes to develop for moony use.

Cyrus was a Mines graduate, with a master’s in electrical and electronics engineering; he sought out Dreyer and Abbud-Madrid when he needed advice for his nascent company. When the professors announced the space resources program, Cyrus decided to get in on this pilot class. He, and the other attendees, seem to see the class not just as an educational opportunity but also as a networking one: Their classmates, they say, are the future leaders of this industry.

Cyrus, the FAA employee, and Williams all smiled from their screens in front of benign backgrounds. About a dozen other students—all men—joined in by the time class started. The day's lesson, about resources on the moon, came courtesy of scientist Paul Spudis, who live-broadcasted from a few states away. Spudis, a guest lecturer, showed charts and maps and data about resources the moon might harbor, and where, and their worth. He's bullish on the prospects of prospecting. Toward the end of his talk, he said, "I think we'll have commercial landings on the moon in the next year or so." Indeed, the company Moon Express is planning to land there in 2018, in a bid to win the Google Lunar X Prize.

Back during Halloween week, the class covered the Outer Space Treaty, a creation of the United Nations that governs outer-space actions and (in some people's interpretations) makes the legality of space mining dubious. The lecture was full of policy detail, but the students drove the ensuing Q&A toward the sociological. Space mining would disproportionately help already-wealthy countries, some thought, despite talk in the broader community about how space mining lowers the barrier to space entry.

In this realism, and this thoughtfulness, Dreyer's class is refreshing. The PR talk of big would-be space mining companies like Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries can be slick, uncomplicated, and (sometimes) unrealistic. It often skips over the many steps between here and self-sustaining space societies—not to mention the companies' own long-term viability.

But in Space Resource Fundamentals, the students seem grounded. Student Nicholas Proctor, one of few with a non-engineering background, appreciates the pragmatism. Proctor studied accounting as an undergrad and enrolled at Mines in mineral economics. After he received a NASA grant to study space-based solar power and its applications to the mining industry, Abbud-Madrid sent him an email telling him about the class. The professor thought it would be a good fit—and Proctor obviously agreed.

After Thanksgiving-week class was over, students logged off, waving one-handed goodbyes. Williams had been watching from the lab downstairs, in a high-tech warehouse-garage combo. There, he and other students work among experiments about how dust moves in space, and what asteroids are actually like. Of course, they're also interested in how to get stuff—resources—out of them. An old metal chamber dominates the room, looking like an unpeopled iron lung. "The big Apollo-era chamber is currently for asteroid mining," Williams explained, "breaking apart rocks with sunlight and extracting the water and even precious metals."

While Williams closed up class shop downstairs, Dreyer and Abbud-Madrid hung out in Dreyer's office for a few minutes. Dreyer, leaning back in his well-lit chair, talked bemusedly about some of the communications they receive. “We get interest from people to find out what they can mine and bring back to Earth and become a trillionaire,” he said.

That’s not really what the Space Resources program is about, in part because it’s not clear that’s possible—it’s expensive to bring the precious (to bring anything) back to Earth. The class focus—and, not coincidentally, the near-term harvest—is the H2O, which will stay in space, for space-use. “No matter how complex our society becomes, it always comes back to water,” said Abbud-Madrid. He laughed. “We’re going to the moon,” he continued. “For water.”

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