A few weeks ago Planetary Resources, a start up company founded by millionaires and billionaires Eric Schmidt, Larry Page, James Cameron and similarly endowed friends, announced plans to take its first steps into the realm of commercial space exploration and resource exploitation. Their initial aim was to strike it rich by mining asteroids in near Earth orbit. This announcement is novel, exciting and old hat: we have been here before.
The announcement by Planetary Resources of its aim to commercialise space was exciting
Christopher Colombus spent seven years looking for financial support for his trip across the Atlantic Ocean, to the rich spice lands of east Asia, China and Indonesia. Undeterred by the prevailing scientific consensus that the world was both bigger and Eurasia was smaller than he had calculated, Columbus went west not in search of fame but rather fabulous financial wealth. When Constantinople, the last hold out of a Roman Empire that had lasted in various guises for over 2,000 years, fell to the Turks in 1453 along with it went the easy and lucrative overland route to the east. No more spices and no more silks for rich Europeans.
Columbus was also in search for gold when he persuaded his investors to fund his expedition
Prices shot up as trade routes to the east, mainly silver, and to the west, mainly portable goods like spices and silks, stalled. For forty years canny explorer / entrepreneurs looked for ways to go around the Muslim stranglehold on trade. They looked south, to get round the tip of Africa, and some thought of going directly west. Among those was Columbus. Eventually, he found a pair of equally mis-informed and scientifically-challenged financial investors: the twin monarchs of Isabella of Castilla and Ferdinand of Aragon, recent victors over the last remnants of Islamic occupation in the Iberian peninsula. Perhaps their new power and wealth gave them the confidence to back crazy ideas, for they invested a significant amount in supporting Christopher Columbus’s ideas.
Flush with investment, Columbus set sail in three tiny ships, the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria. He did not land in the Indies, despite naming the locals “indios” and the islands of what is now know as the Caribbean were poor in both resources and people. His failure, however, burst the dam of a gush of European energy, creativity and emigration. In his wake came the conquest of central and south America and eventually the colonisation of North America.
His failure set the stage for an uncorking of a gush of European energy, creativity and emigration.
Some of the early American-Spanish trade was both lucrative and de-stabilising. Mexican and Peruvian mines produced silver, and to a lesser extent gold, on scales never before seen in history. China, a prime buyer of silver in exchange for its manufactured goods, became at first wealthy and then weak thanks to this inflation causing influx of precious metals. Planetary Resources is also in search of valuable metals. Its introductory web video highlights the value of platinum available close to Earth as being in the billions of dollars.
It was ultimately emigration, not treasure, that resulted the greatest source of wealth for nations facing the Atlantic shore.
It was ultimately emigration, not treasure, that resulted the greatest source of wealth for nations facing the Atlantic shore. Once, they had been peripheral states on the far western edge of a Eurasian civilisation. Now, they sat in inner circle seats at the greatest show of new wealth that the world had seen. This wealth was created by trade and the creation of entirely new markets and products, and not just shiny metals hacked out from the bowels of the Earth.
As with Columbus, Planetary Resources will probably result in failure. But we can also hope that this likely failure will result in a new age of exploration and colonisation. In a later column we will discuss why the freedom to expand into new territories is so important for mankind. In the meantime, watch the video from Planetary Resources below:
For more information go to: Planetary Resources – The Asteroid Mining Company.