“Where we are at the beginning of this century is where Star Trek begins,” says Alan Stern, the NASA researcher who was one of the architects of the New Horizons mission to Pluto.
In an age where science fiction is rapidly becoming a simple fact, Stern says moon mining, extra-terrestrial energy generation and space tourism are just around the corner. As the colonization of space progresses, Stern says that moon mining will be one of the first applications of our burgeoning commercial space industry.
“Platinum is abundant on the moon and other rare earths that we have to strip mine on Earth,” Stern said on the Next Stage at TechCrunch Disrupt SF. “It’s lying there waiting for us on the moon. It’s a tremendous opportunity to quit mining the Earth and instead take advantage of the tremendous resources that the solar system presents us.”
Mining may be one of the early commercial applications of the new space industry, but it’s certainly not the only one.
“We need to think of the next decade of space as the Roaring ’20s,” says Stern. “Access to space for humans is still rare, but that’s going to change.”
The NASA scientist himself has already bought three tickets on Virgin Galactic to enjoy the marvels of space for the first time.
Indeed, space tourism has been a thing in the space industry for a while — albeit one that was haltingly adopted by the masses. It started in the 1990s when Helen Sharman was flown to the Russian space station. But Stern predicts that next year will launch the industry in earnest.
“Beginning next year we should see companies like Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic start flying sub-orbital flights,” Stern says. “I hope to see sub-orbital tourism flying at least once a day by the early 2020s.”
And with new startups reducing the costs of space travel, the pace of launches for the space industry should increase exponentially, Stern says. “I want to see not a launch a week, not a launch a day, but a launch an hour. We ought to be able to use space to reduce travel times to 45 minutes anywhere in the world.”
Companies like Relativity Space, Vector and others are developing new launch technologies that could compete with the established giants like Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and the leading space launch company of the moment, SpaceX.