Rupert Neate August 01, 2012
Eric Anderson is hoping to fund his own mission to the moon.
Would-be astronaut says platinum, gold and diamonds are out there - and he can bring them back.
For as long as he can remember Eric Anderson had wanted to become an astronaut. But knew his short-sightedness would prevent him from joining Nasa.
Instead he has made it his mission to take others into space. He kick-started the space tourism industry at the age of 23 - so far his company, Space Adventures, has sent seven people (all multimillionaires) into space on Russian rockets - and is now planning a 17-day trip for two around the moon. At $US125m a seat it will probably be the most expensive joyride ever. "It's more than a theme park ride," he says.
One mega-rich customer has already signed up for the trip and Anderson says he's "pretty close" to publicly announcing who has paid to go on holiday to the moon, within four years.
Anderson, who developed his love of space from stargazing in the Rocky Mountains as a child, would love to go on the trip. But he hasn't, yet, got enough money.
He reckons he's worked out where he's going to make the millions needed to fund his own mission to the moon: space, of course. Turning mineral-rich asteroids into the next frontier of mining, to be more precise.
It may sound like an idea that came to him while watching Bruce Willis in Armageddon, but Anderson, who read aerospace engineering at university, is deadly serious and has got a string of serious businessmen - including Google bosses Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, Titanic director James Cameron, and Ross Perot Jr (son of the former presidential candidate) - to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into his new company, Planetary Resources.
A "$US100bn global mining company", which Anderson refuses to name, has also signed a deal to secure rights to the first minerals the company recovers.
"You say it's impractical, but people thought it was impractical to put private citizens on rockets - and we did that," Anderson says during a visit to the UK to tap up interest among London's growing community of billionaires.
"We send robots five miles below the ocean to pump out oil - that's more difficult than this is," he says.
The first stage of the project - sending up hundreds of rockets with telescopes to find the best asteroids - should be underway within two years. The rockets will piggyback on Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic spacecraft.
Anderson says the asteroids, which range in size from 10 metres to 50km, are full of expensive metals - gold, silver, diamonds - "all that fun stuff".
Of most interest to Anderson are the asteroids' massive reserves of platinum, the world's most expensive metal, in some cases "100 to 1,000 times more concentrated" than in platinum mines on earth.
According to Anderson some of the asteroids contain so much platinum that one 50m-long asteroid could contain "$40bn worth of platinum group metals if you can bring it back to earth".
And that is the difficulty with Anderson's ambitious plan. It will be tricky and expensive to reach the asteroids, and even harder and more costly to bring the metal haul back to earth.
Anderson reckons his team of 40 mostly ex-Nasa scientists and engineers have already worked out how to reach the asteroids.
"15% of them are easier to reach than the moon," he says. "And don't forget you also have to land on the moon - the gravity field of asteroids is so small that you just have to dock with them."
Planetary Resources' chief engineer is Chris Lewicki, Nasa's former Mars mission manager, or as Anderson describes him: "The guy who landed three spacecraft on Mars."
He says: "They've done all this before. Actually, what they did was much harder, they had to land on a planet that's got an atmosphere, is rotating and is hard to see [because of the atmosphere].
"Eventually we would like to bring the material back to Earth, but the very first thing we will do is use the resources on them to create fuel depots in space."
He says ice deposits on some asteroids could be converted into rocket fuel so that future space rockets can refuel and explore deep into the final frontier.
"We'll put gas stations up there to make it a lot easier and cheaper to explore space," he says. "Getting from Earth's orbit is one thing, but if you want to get a rocket to Mars you have to bring all the fuel with you - imagine if you had to drive from New York to Los Angeles and had to bring all the fuel for the trip with you."
The "gas stations" will also greatly expand Planetary Resources platinum prospecting, and the possibilities of getting the resources back to Earth.
Anderson says the value of the platinum from just one asteroid will be enough to cover the cost of the whole project. "All of the platinum mined in the history of humanity would fit in the corner of this room," he says pointing to a small corner of the lobby of the five star Connaught Hotel in Mayfair. "There is so little of it out there [on Earth], and so much up there in space."
However, he concedes that if he is able to bring back huge quantities of platinum it is likely to lead to a crash in the price of the metal.
"If the price of platinum group metals dropped by a 100 times we would still make money," he says. It is currently trading at about $1,400 an ounce.
Another problem his ambitious project could throw up is who owns space and its resources.
"Nobody owns it right now," Anderson says. "If we get to it we basically own it - that's the long and short of it."
But is that really fair on poorer countries that haven't even thought of exploiting space?
"Yeah, if you go out into the ocean and go fishing nobody says they own all the fish in the ocean. If you build a boat and go out and catch a fish you own it."
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