Drilling for ice on Mars (NASA)

Astropreneurs Meet the Space Resources Program at Colorado School of Mines

Recently, the Astropreneurs sat down with the Co-Founders of the Space Resources Program at the Colorado School of Mines, Angel Abbud-Madrid, Research Associate Professor, Program Director and Chris Dreyer, Research Assistant Professor, Research Initiatives for a wide ranging interview about their new program and this exciting new industry that is beginning to take shape.  If you haven’t heard of them already, you will want to take note and possibly even join them. Innovative startups and future leaders in Space Resources are sure come out of this cutting edge program!

Astropreneurs: Thanks for speaking with us today. I wanted to cover two broad areas in the context of space entrepreneurship:

  1. I’d like to hear about the space resources program, how it started, where it is now, and where you see it going.
  2. Your perspective on the broader cislunar economy, entrepreneurial landscape, and how you see space resources fitting into that kind of framework.

Astropreneurs: You’ve both been involved in this subject for a while, how did this concept get started?

Angel Abbud-Madrid: The Origins of the Center for Space Resources – The involvement of the School of Mines with space resources goes back to the late 1990s when this field was still in its infancy. We were introduced to it by one of the pioneers of space resources, Dr. Michael Duke. Mike was a planetary geologist at the NASA Johnson Space Center and the first curator of the Apollo Moon rocks. He got involved with some of the early study groups on space resources. After retiring from NASA, he came to Colorado and founded our Center. He immediately started writing proposals for economic and technical feasibility studies of space resources. One of these studies became the first economic analysis of a commercial lunar-ice mining operation to produce rocket propellants, which Mike conducted with graduate students.

Later on, we realized that the school had all the right disciplines to contribute to a field like this: from mineral economics, geologists, and geophysicists to all the important engineering fields, such as mechanical, electrical, and mining, and we started getting faculty involved in all aspects of this field.

Dr. Michael Duke

Interest Accelerates – In 1999, we established the Space Resources Roundtable, the first conference of its kind that included space professionals, the mining and metals industry, financial analysts, and legal and policy experts. This conference has been held every year ever since. In 2012, we started having private companies such as Planetary Resources, Deep Space Industries, Moon Express, and Shackleton Energy coming to our meeting. Suddenly, there was increasing participation from the private sector, which took everybody by surprise. After that we started having other countries involved: South Korea, Japan, European participants, Russia. In the last five years, we’ve seen a tremendous increase in the interest in this field.

Astropreneurs: How has the Space Resources program evolved since you first conceived of it and where do you see it now?

Angel Abbud-Madrid: As a concept, we’ve been playing with the idea for a while and the more people we saw getting involved, the more we realized the need to educate professionals from space agencies, the private sector, and even entrepreneurs on this field. We knew we had the right expertise in our center and across all of our departments to teach this multidisciplinary field. So, we decided to launch it in July 31 of last year.

The Response – We were quite surprised by the level of interest worldwide. First, we thought we’d offer regular classes in a physical classroom. Then, all of the sudden, we got requests from all over the world. People at different stages of their careers and all sorts of professional disciplines. That’s when we realized we had to go online. It was important for us to not only teach the class material, but also provide a forum for rich discussion among all students and start forming this new community of professionals focused on space resources.

A Global Reach – We started with a pilot course in the fall of 2017 and admitted students from a variety of professions. Chris taught the very first class of 12 students, which has doubled this semester to include students from three continents and five countries making a synchronous, real-time class a bit challenging for participants on various time zones. But, you can truly tell the high level of interest and motivation, when students from Europe sign in to the class at 2:00 in the morning!

Angel Abbud-Madrid: Breadth of Professions – We have policy analysts, economists, entrepreneurs, scientists, and engineers from various space agencies, aerospace and mining companies, at different stages in their careers.

Chris Dreyer: Growth Exceeds Expectations – Early on we put together our justification for the program and the number of students we thought we would have per semester and it turned out that by the second semester we were already where we thought we’d be in three years.

Angel Abbud-Madrid: The Opportunity to Create a Whole New Field – What this is telling you is that it’s not only the field of Space Resources itself, which is an exciting one, but that there is incredibly strong interest in a new era of space, which extraterrestrial resources will enable. This is a new phase of exploration and commercial opportunities beyond what we have achieved in the first 60 years of venturing into space.

You’ve probably seen it on Astropreneurs.space. New transportation systems, new space architectures, bases on the Moon and Mars. Robotics, which opens up a whole new way to conduct operations on planetary surfaces.  And at some point, having humans on these surfaces for weeks and months at a time. These are the new possibilities responsible for this high level of interest.

Astropreneurs: You mentioned the interdisciplinary aspect of the program. How important is it to be interdisciplinary for this topic?

Chris Dreyer: It’s very important to be interdisciplinary. Any individual needs a wide range of knowledge to work in this field. From an understanding of what the planets are composed of, why there are resources, where they are located, to the engineering of devices that would acquire them and process them. But also, you need to understand policy and law and need to put it all in a broader context of economics and business planning. No one part dominates. There’s a place for some people who have broad knowledge but maybe not great depth in any one area. And, there are places for people with depth in a particular area, but they have to also be aware of the rest.

Angel Abbud-Madrid: In the class discussions, we have some students fascinated by science: what asteroids are made of, possible resources on the Moon and Mars and even on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. But you also have students who ask, how long is it going to take to get us there? And the economists who ask if plans make economic sense. It is this rich and engaging conversation that gives us a good perspective of the many interconnections between the various disciplines.

Mines team at NASA Robotic Mining Competition (CSM)

Astropreneurs: To round up the discussion of the space resources program itself, what is your ultimate vision for the program? And how might it position Colorado as a hub for this industry?

Angel Abbud-Madrid: We are offering three options: professional certificates, Master of Science, and PhD degrees. We’re covering the whole range: training for professionals who want to get a panoramic view of the field all the way to students interested on developing new technologies and conducting scientific studies.

By offering the first program in the world in space resources, the field gains academic validation. A rigorous scientific, engineering, and economic approach provides the necessary structure to a new, developing discipline. We think this is very much needed at this time of widespread rapid evolution in this area.

Why Colorado? – Colorado is already the second largest aerospace economy in the US and the first in per-capita number of private jobs in this industry. So, this is a natural place to start a program like this.  While we don’t have a NASA center in the state, we [do] have academic institutions, a large number of national laboratories, several of the largest aerospace companies and launch providers, and all sorts of small and medium size companies involved in aerospace.

From a historical perspective, ask yourself, why was it than in 1859 thousands of people flock to Colorado from the east? Because of resources. Gold discovered just two blocks away from our school, in Clear Creek with other minerals and metals later extracted from other parts of the state. That’s why we have one of the most thriving economies in the nation. And now, when extrapolating the expertise on terrestrial resources to space is needed, Colorado is undoubtedly the right place to make it possible.

Astropreneurs: I’d like to shift gears a bit and get into some of the questions an Astropreneur might have in thinking about the opportunities in Space Resources. How similar do you expect space resource utilization to be to the economics of the terrestrial business as well as the technical aspects and other areas?

Chris Dreyer: Think About Mining Functions – Not Specific Techniques There are some techniques that would be directly applicable, but it’s most useful to think in terms of terrestrial mining like functions, different operations that you do in mining and in developing a mine site that are directly applicable to space. The technology that would be applied might look quite different, but it might serve a similar function.

To develop a mine, you have some reason why you’re going to that location and you do a series of prospecting type of activities, then like pilot plants and pilot tests of the mine. In developing technology, you have to decide on the type of mining operation. For example, maybe some subsurface ice fields on the Moon or Mars could be acquired via drilling. So, you think through what is there and the different approaches you might take. Then you have to acquire the material and process it.

You should rethink the process, rethink the technology itself, based on the environment where you’re operating. If it’s microgravity around an asteroid, there are really only a few things that could work. Without gravity, the process changes significantly relative to what we do on Earth. So, there are a lot of functions in mining that can be transferred into thinking about how you develop space resources, but the technology should be largely re-thought in terms of the natural environment you have in space.

Drilling for Ice on Mars (NASA)

Astropreneurs: And what about the economics of it? How similar will it be?

Angel Abbud-Madrid: Here on Earth, a mining operation only makes sense if there is an attractive return on investment. The same justification applies in space. It is only if the business case closes for a space resources activity that will make economic sense and will make it a reality.

Chris Dreyer: Right. Fundamentally, some of the economics are the same, but the economic environment is different. It’s harder to define the benefit of creating a new business. On Earth, you’re most likely creating a business that fits into an economic environment that is well defined.  The space economic environment is less well defined and it’s going to be evolving.

Angel Abbud-Madrid: Investor Appetite – In terms of investors, theoretically, they may be willing to wait for 10 years to develop a space-mining operation. On Earth, similar time scales and associated costs apply. In addition, risks must enter the economic analysis.

Chris Dreyer: It is often mentioned that a terrestrial mining development has a similar timeline and similar total costs to space development. There’s one big difference though, on Earth we know that if everything lines up right, you’re going to have a profitable mine after a decade and billions of dollars of investment. We don’t know that for space yet.

Astropreneurs: It just hasn’t been done yet.

Angel Abbud-Madrid: Getting the First One Done and a Path to Follow – Indeed, it hasn’t been done yet. Many hurdles remain before we see the first resource extraction plant in space.  However, more focused business plans are starting to take shape considering all the basic and necessary elements to develop that first operation.  These include selection of easy-to-access destinations, prospecting techniques, and establishing priorities for resource extraction and utilization, such as water and oxygen for propellant production, developing a cislunar space infrastructure of propellants depots to lower transportation costs, etc.

If you take this careful step-by-step approach, investors might be more amenable to back up companies entering this field.  Early demonstrations, such as landing on the Moon, mapping its resource potential, and testing extraction technologies can go a long way to build confidence in the investment community.

Bucket wheel on the Moon (NASA)

Astropreneurs: How critical do you think government funding and involvement is going to be? Has the commercial aspect moved far enough along now that it’s sort of taken on a life of its own?

Chris Dreyer: Government as Enabler and Accelerator – It’ll move along a lot faster with government help, and probably the best way is via a government offer to purchase things [from the private sector]. But, I think it could [also] come about without government involvement. However, without government involvement, there always be the question, “why isn’t NASA looking to use this approach? Why aren’t they purchasing these systems from some business?” That could be a drag on a purely commercial, independent group.

Angel Abbud-Madrid: That’s why it’s important for the government to see the benefit of using resources. If the cost of a trip to the Moon or Mars can be cut in half or by two thirds, enabling exploration and even building bases on their surfaces, space agencies can be become customers and promote even more involvement from the private sector. We have seen this public-private partnership model work on Earth for several large endeavors. Such has been the case for railroads and aviation.

Astropreneurs: In that vein, when you look at the global landscape for space resources, do you see any one legal jurisdiction being particularly advantageous for an entrepreneur?

Angel Abbud-Madrid: This is one of the challenges that is just starting to be addressed. Space has become an international activity, so we need a legal framework that sets a level playing field for all nations. Right now, the US stepped in first with the SPACE Act of 2015, followed by Luxembourg last year.  Others countries will surely follow, but an international agreement would make it easier for everybody to participate and to benefit from utilizing space resources.

Chris Dreyer: Regarding the Outer Space Treaty it likely doesn’t need to be revised, it needs to be clarified. I think one thing happening internationally is that space agencies around the world and others like Luxembourg are looking at more commercial ways of doing things.

Astropreneurs: For entrepreneurs trying to get into this area, what do you see as the biggest hurdles or challenges that they’re going to run into?

Angel Abbud-Madrid: Getting capital and credibility are going to be hurdles. That’s why having an academic program educating both entrepreneurs and investors on what’s possible and what’s not will help on reducing these obstacles.

Astropreneurs: On the flip side, what do you think is the biggest opportunity for an entrepreneur trying to get involved in space resources? Is there an area that seems particularly attractive?

Chris Dreyer: Strategy for Near-term Business Supporting Long Range Goal – I don’t know if it’s an area as much as a strategy. It is necessary for a [space resources] business [to have] a broad, long range goal. That’s the nature of this. But you need a profitable near-term business case that is also part of that big long-range goal. A couple of years ago we were seeing companies that were just long range with the hope that it attracted an investor who’d give them a lot of money to then develop something. Now, we’re seeing more businesses that are being set up to have the long-range vision but go to investors with a near term goal that has something they can develop that is going to be profitable in a matter of years and not decades.

Angel Abbud-Madrid: The big opportunity here is that we are seeing a completely new economic activity. The space resources field is wide open. The moment a group of bold entrepreneurs and smart engineers demonstrate in space the first technologies for prospecting and extraction of resources, it will be like 1859 in Colorado, but this time beyond Earth.

Lunar operations (NASA)

Astropreneurs: And do you think that going through the program that you have set up is a good way for somebody to get what they need to try to go after that? To get that credibility with investors?

Chris Dreyer: I think our program is set up to provide people with the background and education in this area that will get them to the point where they can be successful.

Angel Abbud-Madrid: Our program is intended to educate professionals interested in expanding their knowledge and skills into the exploration and utilization of resources in space.  Learning the core knowledge in this field, developing sound design practices and realistic economic studies, and establishing connections with fellow students with a wide variety of professional backgrounds will surely help to gain credibility when presenting business plans to the investment community.

Your Astropreneurs website is an example of providing a platform to educate and connect like-minded individuals with interest on space-related topics. In your case, if you provide people with exciting new space topics to think and talk about, opportunities immediately open up. The space resources field is one of those topics covered in your website that will surely get readers excited and coming up with ways to contribute and leave their mark.

Astropreneurs: That’s great. The whole thing is very exciting to me, of course. And, being involved in space resources with my own business idea, I really feel like, as you were saying, it’s a new area that’s totally open field for people to go into. And, like most new economies that have opened up in the past, in the beginning it is usually going after resources of some kind when you’re going into a new area and humanity is expanding out. So it’s kind of the core, or one of those foundational pieces to enable that new vision to become a reality. It’s really great that you guys have created this program to move this idea forward.

Thank you for your time and the candid discussion. You have been very generous with your time and we appreciate it!

Useful Links:

Visit the Colorado School of Mines Space Resources Program website to learn more and secure your place in building a sustainable future for humanity in Space!

US SPACE Act of 2015: https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/2262

Luxembourg SpaceResources.lu: http://www.spaceresources.public.lu/en.html

How to live off the land in space | Angel Abbud-Madrid | TEDxMileHigh

Posted by Gary Calnan