The Oil and the Glory

Asteroid.com

Peter Diamandis, chairman of the X-Prize Foundation, single-handedly popularized his vision of a commercial space industry. He is an unmatched titan of Silicon Valley-networking, pulling together high-tech goliaths into enterprises and initiatives with great vision. No one will ever accuse him of failing to think big about truly important problems. But can I be the ...

Stephen Brashear/Getty Images
Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

Peter Diamandis, chairman of the X-Prize Foundation, single-handedly popularized his vision of a commercial space industry. He is an unmatched titan of Silicon Valley-networking, pulling together high-tech goliaths into enterprises and initiatives with great vision. No one will ever accuse him of failing to think big about truly important problems. But can I be the only one who thinks that his latest idea -- mining asteroids -- is stretching the acceptable definition of entrepreneur?

Diamandis, who plans to do his asteroid mining over the coming decades through a company he has just announced called Planetary Resources Inc., might reply simply that his business partners and advisers are Larry Page, Eric Schmidt and James Cameron (pictured above, his co-founder, Eric Anderson, at the announcement). He might cite the straight-faced news coverage of his new venture, and the commentary on Twitter, hundreds and hundreds of admiring tweets and reports, including the phrases "risky," "daring," and "truly amazing."

On the other hand, there is also a pretty good blog called Do the Math, written by Tom Murphy, a physics professor at the University of California at San Diego, who in a post last October did said math on the subject of asteroid mining. Take a look. (For those lacking the patience to wade through the advanced math, Murphy's conclusion: "The resources of space are effectively stranded in place.")

Peter Diamandis, chairman of the X-Prize Foundation, single-handedly popularized his vision of a commercial space industry. He is an unmatched titan of Silicon Valley-networking, pulling together high-tech goliaths into enterprises and initiatives with great vision. No one will ever accuse him of failing to think big about truly important problems. But can I be the only one who thinks that his latest idea — mining asteroids — is stretching the acceptable definition of entrepreneur?

Diamandis, who plans to do his asteroid mining over the coming decades through a company he has just announced called Planetary Resources Inc., might reply simply that his business partners and advisers are Larry Page, Eric Schmidt and James Cameron (pictured above, his co-founder, Eric Anderson, at the announcement). He might cite the straight-faced news coverage of his new venture, and the commentary on Twitter, hundreds and hundreds of admiring tweets and reports, including the phrases "risky," "daring," and "truly amazing."

On the other hand, there is also a pretty good blog called Do the Math, written by Tom Murphy, a physics professor at the University of California at San Diego, who in a post last October did said math on the subject of asteroid mining. Take a look. (For those lacking the patience to wade through the advanced math, Murphy’s conclusion: "The resources of space are effectively stranded in place.")

Not accepting just Murphy’s word (nor my own regular common sense), I also recalled that it required George Mitchell two decades to figure out how to economically mine shale gas under earthly conditions. The entire rare-earth mining industry went out of business because of high costs and pollution, except for China’s, which managed to thrive only using the usual slave labor and ignoring the environmental disaster. Mongolia is a nightmare for miners.

Believers quote a study by Cal-Tech that an asteroid-mining venture could be financed with a mere $2.6 billion. Folks, the proposed 1,200-mile South Stream natural gas pipeline through Europe is currently estimated at $21 billion.

As the dot.com era demonstrated, put some flashing lights, gizmos and large numbers in front of people, and they can lose their sense of balance, open their wallets, and lose everything.

I leave with some of the very (did I say very?) few tweeters who have kept their equilibrium:

@Charlie_Boston: We live in a time when a search engine company can announce plans to fund an asteroid mining project and have it not be a joke. Crazy.

@MHiggy1221: Asteroid mining..? #shitcrazy

@JasonPelley: Asteroid mining will lead to the 1st carbon nanotube space elevators to be made for bringing resources back to earth. You heard it here first.

<p> Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of The Oil and the Glory. </p>

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