Those of us who’ve been waiting patiently — for years, and years, and years — for the United States to get back into the manned space exploration mode have always thought that perhaps crass commercialism might be the impetus. If governments aren’t spurred by noble thoughts of advancing into the final frontier and exploring for the benefit of all mankind, maybe they’ll be motivated by cold hard cash. With a compelling case for a serious financial return from exploration, modern governments might — like the European nations exploring the western hemisphere during the 1400s and 1500s — be willing to commission a few ships, set sail, and see what they can find.
We’re about to get an answer to that question, because in a few years NASA will be launching a mission to a solitary asteroid orbiting between Mars and Jupiter that — all on its own — would seem to make space exploration fiscally worthwhile.
The asteroid, called 16 Psyche, is about the size of Massachusetts and has been battered by meteor strikes. It’s composed primarily of nickel and iron. The vast quantities of metal on the asteroid is a kind of treasure trove that causes NASA to say that 16 Psyche is worth about 10,000 quadrillion dollars. How big is a quadrillion? Well, apparently there are about one quadrillion ants on planet Earth. Multiply that mind-boggling number by 10,000, and you get the value of 16 Psyche. Even Bill Gates would be impressed by that sum.
Of course, we might not want to cart all of that metal back to Earth, because that would be pretty expensive. We might decide that the treasure trove would be better used to build settlements on Mars, or to manufacture space stations or space craft, or for any of countless potential uses of metal in space. And it’s all out there waiting for the first intrepid country, or group of countries, that is willing to go out and get it.
So — why not get back into space, already? We’ve twiddled our thumbs long enough, and you can tell that private enterprise is starting to look pretty seriously at space as an investment and development opportunity. In fact, some people are arguing that, with private enterprise leading the way, we could be back on the Moon, permanently, in four years, and then moving on to other planets in the solar system thereafter. Who knows? Maybe a President who talks about “the art of the deal” couldn’t resist trying to lay claim to a titanic treasure.
With all of the bad things happening in the world these days, it would be nice to turn our eyes skyward. I wouldn’t mind a little greed for $10,000 quadrillion if that’s what it takes to motivate us to get back into space to stay.