Seattle could profit from the rush for resources in outer space much as it did during the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s: by selling goods and services to the fortune-seekers.
At least that’s the vision laid out by entrepreneurs who are laying the groundwork in Seattle — and in space — for what they hope will be a multitrillion-dollar asteroid mining industry.
“I do believe that the first trillion is going to be made in space,” Peter Diamandis, one of the founders of Redmond-based Planetary Resources, said via video during a Seattle Space Entrepreneurs reception at Kirkland’s Marina Park on Thursday.
Chris Lewicki, the company’s president, noted that Seattle became a boomtown because of its location as the “Gateway to the Gold Fields” in Alaska. The city’s merchants made their fortunes by provisioning tens of thousands of would-be miners for the outward journey.
He and Diamandis told Thursday’s gathering of about 150 entrepreneurs and space geeks that Seattle is in a similar position today — not so much because of the region’s geography, but because of its intellectual resources.
“Seattle is becoming an intersection of extraordinary tech talent — data sciences, virtual worlds and an amazing place to live, and a much more affordable place to live than Silicon Valley,” Diamandis said. “That’s bringing a lot of incredible space talent.”
Seattle also has a few billionaires who have spent some of their dot-com fortunes on their space aspirations, including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (who founded Blue Origin), Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (who bankrolled SpaceShipOne and Stratolaunch) and software executive Charles Simonyi (who has gone into orbit twice and is one of Planetary Resources’ backers). The area also boasts some long-term players in aerospace, such as the Boeing Co. and Aerojet Rocketdyne.
Alex Pietsch, director of Washington state’s Office of Aerospace, told GeekWire that the state’s space industry takes in about 30 companies and 2,000 jobs, not including Boeing employment. He said a survey conducted this spring by the Washington State Space Coalition suggested that employment would rise 12 to 13 percent over the course of the next year.
One example is Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries, which recently announced a $20 million financing round and expects to double its workforce from around 50 to more than 100.
“This is an industry that’s growing super-fast,” Pietsch said.
Planetary Resources is part of that growth: Its first prototype mini-satellite, Arkyd 3, was deployed from the International Space Station last month and is providing engineering data for future prototypes, Lewicki said. The next prototype, known as the Arkyd 6, is being assembled in Redmond and should fly on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in early 2016 under the terms of a contract with a Spaceflight Industries subsidiary.
The Arkyd 6 will test technologies for taking Kickstarter-funded “space selfies” and carry a mid-wave infrared imager for Earth observation. That imager is designed to look for the spectral signature of water — which is the key ingredient in Planetary Resources’ business model.
Within a decade or so, the company wants to start mining ice from near-Earth asteroids for conversion into fuel, drinkable water and breathable oxygen. If that business model is correct, water could be more valuable in deep space than gold is on Planet Earth. “Water is $60 million a ton if you want to ship it to lunar orbit, or on the way to Mars,” Lewicki said. (Gold currently sells for $33 million a ton.)
One killer app could make an industry: For Seattle in the late 19th century, the killer app was selling supplies to gold miners. For aviation in the early 20th century, it was government contracts for airmail delivery. For spaceflight, it could be connecting the entire globe to the Internet via satellite, or setting up low-gravity filling stations beyond Earth.
“We may have found that killer app for space, and we’re implementing it right now,” Lewicki said. “Or maybe not.”
Either way, the fortune-seekers will need to build and test hardware, develop and deploy software, and they’ll create technological spin-offs in their wake. All those earthly opportunities may provide the most reliable ways to strike it rich. That’s the lesson of the gold rush, and the space rush as well.