This past week the X Prize Foundation announced it had resurrected the Lunar X Prize. This announcement was unprecedented in the X Prize Foundation history. Combined with the increasing interest in asteroid mining we thought it useful to present this interview by Eva-Jane Lark with X Prize Foundation founder Peter Diamandis which first appeared in Space Quarterly Magazine in June 2012.
From the X Prize to Mining Asteroids
Eva-Jane Lark interviews Peter Diamandis, co-founder of the International Space University, Singularity University, Space Adventures Ltd, the X-Prize Foundation and Planetary Resources Inc.
Eva: Welcome Peter, thank you very much for taking the time to talk with Space Quarterly and to share some of your space adventures so far with our readers.
Rocket racing, universities, space associations, space tourism, major prize competitions and now asteroid mining – you’ve created a very diverse ecosystem of organizations! Can you tell us more about these space companies and organizations – how they relate to each other and what is still missing and in need of creation?
Peter: Opening up space both privately and commercially is the underlying goal. Governments are an important part of that equation and really started all this but ultimately what we are looking for is not to rely on government revenue, on government funding dollars, but to be driven by commercial needs. Because it is commercial practices that are able to really drive these over the long term.
Eva: The universities you have co-founded (International Space University (ISU) and Singularity University) and the associations for students interested in space (Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) and the Space Generation Advisory Council), these aren’t really commercial endeavors. What you are doing is developing the people to create the future commercial industries, correct?
Peter: Yes, you are basically right. We are trying to identify the strongest players in the market place, who are the smartest people. How do we identify them, how do we educate them, how do we bring them together and allow them to innovate among themselves.
Eva: Which of the organizations that you have created are you so far the most proud of?
Well, that’s kind of hard to say. I am proud of them all. I think International Space University has done an extraordinary job in its growth. Singularity University is a follow-on. I’m very proud of it. It’s changing the world. It’s changing how we think about technology and how we really focus on solving the world’s biggest problems. And then of course, X-Prize, I am very proud of and I am still its CEO and Chairman and where we are really focusing on attacking the world’s grand challenges. I’m proud of them all.
Eva: Is there anything in particular you have learned from some of your less successful ventures that you have incorporated into the newer ones?
Peter: Sure. First of all, I have had a number of failed efforts. That’s important to realize, that failure is an important part of learning. When I did not succeed in International MicroSpace, which was one of my first launch companies, realizing how hard it was allowed me to focus on creating the X Prize. One of the notions of Silicon Valley is to fail often, fail early, so failure is an important part of real innovation and learning. The thing I learned most is – don’t try and build something big and complex and then go to market. The better idea is – build something small and test it. And then the notion of fail often, fail early – do serial iterations. You may know the general direction to go in but you may not know what the customer ultimately wants and that lets the customer help you build what you will ultimately provide them.
Eva: Planetary Resources is making mainstream headlines and getting more news coverage than some government space missions and creating a lot of excitement and some skepticism. I have a number of questions about your business model. Could you start by outlining it for us?
Peter: The business model is not sufficiently articulated at this stage for anyone to criticize it and I don’t fully have it. This is a long term venture. It will be very difficult. It will be fraught with risk. All we are talking about right now is the first stages, which are super low cost, earth-orbiting telescopes which are able to detect asteroids. We know of less than one percent of the asteroids that are out there. Ultimately our goal is to be able to detect them and to discover the lowest hanging fruit, the ones that are the closest to the Earth energetically, that come by the Earth most frequently and that have the make-up and materials that we are most interested in. Once we are able to identify them (and we know less than one percent of the asteroids that are out there), we hope to be able to go out and dock with them and do remote sensing, place a beacon on them and eventually figure out how to extract materials from them. But that’s the long term and we aren’t really talking about that. First term is identification and remote sensing of them.
Eva: Remote sensing and terrestrial geological surveying companies have several business models. Some use the data they collect for their own prospecting purposes and others sell the data to others. Some do both. Will you be selling the data to space agencies and/or other extraterrestrial mining companies should they be formed?
Peter: The government will be a customer for the data, we hope. We would be pleased and honored to partner with mining companies who want to go after these resources with us. It’s a big, bold adventure and it is going to take a lot of involvement and support. Our goal is really to create a new generation of satellites that are coming in at two orders of magnitude less cost, at one-hundredth the cost. We aren’t building satellites that are one hundred million dollar category satellites, they are coming in at one million or less than a million dollars. We are creating new architectures for deep space.
Eva: Some of the future scenarios that you and Eric Anderson mentioned in your press conference after the remote sensing activities were about potential initial discoveries of water ice and platinum group metals. Do you see Planetary Resources as a supplier to propellant depots or are the plans to act like an integrated oil company and become the supplier and operator of the depot?
Peter: I would say, we don’t know yet. Propellant is one of our first markets that we have identified. Propellant is a low hanging fruit. There is a definite market. It is very useful as mankind expands its efforts beyond the Low Earth Orbit. Ice is useful both for propellant and for oxygen and water for humans. That’s a critical market for us.
Eva: And if independent depots were created would you also supply them? Are you looking to build your own depots?
Peter: There is such a huge opportunity here that there is enough for many players. Ultimately we will play this by ear and figure it out along the way.
Eva: The next markets you mentioned (in press releases) are Platinum Group Metals (PGMs) and Rare Earth Elements – describing the market as a trillion dollar market. Has Planetary Resources done or had done any projections on what the effect of a dramatic increase of supply of PGMs would have on the market value of say, platinum?
Peter: If you are familiar with my book Abundance, I discuss the notion that we are transforming the world to create a world of abundance where the things that were scarce before are now made more available for us to be able to continue with the growth of the technology we are having. We need additional resources of strategic metals – platinum group metals to whatever they might be and at the end of the day, as I open up with in the story of Abundance – aluminum used to be worth more than gold or platinum until technology made it accessible in mass. My goal is that if we are able to dramatically bring down the cost of strategic metals – so much the better.
Eva: Why the asteroids and not the Moon, Peter?
Peter: It’s like saying why South America and not North America? Asteroids are one target, one area. There are advantages to both asteroids and the Moon. The Google Lunar X Prize teams are going after the Moon and obviously that would be somewhat of a conflict for me and for the folks at Google and so we are focusing on the asteroids. They are both great prospects.
Eva: Your announcement has also brought back to the forefront the uncertainty over the treatment of private property rights in space. The Outer Space Treaty addressing this seems to be subject to widely divergent interpretations. Do you have lawyers or lobbyists on your team to look at this? What are your expectations for the future?
Peter: We have some top lawyers who are looking at this. We will work on that over the years ahead. We’ve had our first conversations with the State Department, with the White House, with NASA. It’s unlike the Law of the Sea or unlike terrestrial rights where there are limited resources, space is infinite. There are a near infinite number of resources out there.
Eva: 2012 has also been exciting for you with the release of your bestselling book “ABUNDANCE: Why the Future is Better Than You Think” that you mentioned earlier. I was surprised how little you mention Space in the book, Peter. Is there a reason for that?
Peter: I debated and discussed whether I wanted to focus on Space. Abundance was really a book focused on terrestrial grand challenges. With all that was going on with the company, with Planetary Resources, I was not at liberty to disclose that in the book yet, so I just kept in under wraps.
Eva: One of the things you mention in Abundance and in the Planetary Resources is the increasing importance of small groups of experts and of “hobbyists” or DIY – Do It Yourself teams. What are some of the ways you recommend for interested space-focused individuals to take action and participate in this trend?
Peter: That’s a good question. It is something I am not able to talk about right now. It is something I am thinking about and working on but I am not able to say much about it right now.
Eva: The X-Prize Foundation – Some of your prizes have been won. Have you done any post-prize evaluations to determine the impact – economically or socially of the winning technology or of that of the participating teams?
Peter: We have, and I don’t have the stats in front of me so it is hard for me to answer that. For the Ansari X Prize, we have documented well over a billion dollars invested in the commercial spaceflight market. Following the Ansari X Prize, a number of companies are out there viably selling tickets, chief of which is Virgin Galactic but there is also Space Adventures and others.
Peter: The Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE Competition was very successful. We have the winning teams already producing technology for the oil companies – so it has been great. Our goal is always, when we launch a competition, is to create an industry after it is won.
Eva: And that is starting to happen in at least a few of the cases?
Eva: Do you think the Google Lunar X-Prize will be won by the deadline?
Peter: Actually I do. Or at least I should say that attempts will be made. I am very hopeful that they will be able pull it off. It will be transformative. I think there are a handful of teams that are aggressively working to raise the millions to buy the launch contracts. I think they have a shot at making viable attempts.
Eva: Is there any chance the deadline could be extended? Especially if launch capable of reaching the Moon is not yet available.
Peter: That is up to Google. Possible, sure – it’s their call.
Eva: The X-Prize Foundation has been very innovative in terms of its approach to philanthropy. Are you having philanthropically inclined individuals approaching you now to design prizes that mesh with their life’s goals and meaning?
Peter: We do have a number of top philanthropists connecting with us, and working very aggressively with us. My mission is to reinvent philanthropy and give them the means to achieve their goals plus a lot more efficiently, in a very highly leveraged fashion.
Eva: So we should expect to see a number of new prizes be developed in the near future?
Peter: We are on track this year to launch – we’ve launched one so far, the Qualcomm Tricorder X PRIZE – and we are on track to launch at least two more.
Eva: Has your innovation lead to imitation?
Peter: I would say we have had a number of organizations, everything from the U.S. government to other groups, who are beginning to design and launch competitions. And that is great. Part of our mission has been to really prove the means forward. Some are being well done. Some are being not as well done.
Eva: Creating prizes seems to be something that sounds very easy but actually is very difficult to execute…
Peter: You are exactly right.
Eva: Where do you want to go from here, Peter?
Peter: One of my personal ambitions is that I would love to be one of the first private explorers on the Moon. I have had the pleasure of helping folks like Dennis Tito and a number of other clients get to the Space Station – which is fantastic. One of my goals is to set foot on the surface of the Moon during my lifetime. I’d love to be one of the first private explorers of there.
Eva: Do you still have a copy of the Man Who Sold the Moon (by Robert Heinlein) in your pocket?
Peter: (laughing) I still have plenty of copies in my office.
Eva: Thanks so much Peter! Best of luck with these exciting endeavors.