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Economic Benefits of In Situ Resource Utilization in Near Term Space Exploration


NASA and US Government-sponsored research established the baseline working knowledge and systems for space exploration, and continue to make important contributions to US National and to worldwide space exploration activities. We are in a transition period now, where private commercial interests and public-private partnerships are assuming more of the leadership in space activities and in research to support all aspects of space business. It is important to recognize the historically critical importance of NASA and US sponsored research, but the expansion of private activities following NASA initiatives is becoming more important. As an example, the support of the International Space Station by private supply missions illustrates the expansion of private industry into this once exclusively government task. How has private industry leveraged this activity to expand their capabilities, and how will this opportunity be leveraged by private industry to create a broader-based commercial space sector? We examine, from a qualitative standpoint, the various activities that are being driven by actual and planned commercial space activities, and then provide an initial quantitative assessment of returns for private businesses. The scope of this assessment begins with publicly announced efforts to return commercial quantities of rare earth elements and precious metals from metallic asteroids, and then focuses on the “found” value of supporting materials such as ice, building materials such as iron and regolith such as dust that can be used as shielding and formed into bricks for walls or mass for shielding. Incidental to the high-valued opportunities related to metallic asteroids, our initial conclusions indicate that ice acquisition and use in situ for life supporting atmosphere, fuel supply and production of energy from uninterruptable solar energy collectors may be as important as focusing on capturing metallic asteroids. As a comparison with historical precedent, consider the businesses that supplied the gold mining efforts in California during the 1800s; more consistent and long-lived businesses were established from providing supplies to the miners that was made by the miners.