Space mining will happen… Just don't believe the timetable

Ailbhe Goodbody attended Robin Ince + Chris Hadfield’s Space Shambles in London’s Royal Albert Hall, which featured astronauts and astrophysicists and touched on space mining
Space mining will happen… Just don't believe the timetable Space mining will happen… Just don't believe the timetable Space mining will happen… Just don't believe the timetable Space mining will happen… Just don't believe the timetable Space mining will happen… Just don't believe the timetable

The Falcon 9, a two-stage rocket designed and manufactured by SpaceX. Photo: SpaceX

Billed as ‘A unique one-off night of space, science, music, comedy and wonder', Robin Ince + Chris Hadfield's Space Shambles on Friday June 15 was the headline event of the Royal Albert Hall's Festival of Science: Space.

Robin Ince is an English comedian, actor and writer who regularly covers scientific issues and topics, and Chris Hadfield is a retired Canadian astronaut who also holds the distinction of being the first Canadian to walk in space.

Included on the evening's programme was a panel discussion chaired by Ince that allowed audience members to submit questions to a panel featuring Hadfield along with the astrophysicists Professor Chris Lintott and Dr Suzie Imber.

One of the questions was how realistic they thought Space Exploration Technologies' (SpaceX) timetable for a mission to the planet Mars is; Lintott and Imber both consider it to be overly optimistic. Lintott commented: "Elon Musk [the CEO of SpaceX] and his crew are great, and they launch brilliant rockets and do all sorts of things, but they're salespeople and so the timetable keeps shifting. They're supposed to be on Mars by now."

Hadfield added that it is important to inspire people, and that overly technical goals don't capture the public imagination. He noted that if companies or agencies working on space travel say that they're going to get to Mars as quickly as they possibly can, but that there are other problems that need to be solved first, then it makes it more engaging for the general public: "The timescale is always going to be a little bit too optimistic but that's ok."

I had the opportunity to ask if the panel had any opinions on space mining, and whether they thought that mining water from the Moon and/or asteroids could aid a manned mission to Mars in the future.

Imber replied: "I think that we will go to the Moon and start mining it; there are lots of minerals on the Moon that are of interest to us that we don't find so much on the Earth, so I think we will start mining the Moon for different resources."

Lintott added: "I think that's right, and I'm sure we'll do it, but I regret that we have to muck up space in order to go and explore. I really don't like the idea of mining companies picking out asteroids. I've got an asteroid and they should leave it alone!"

Making dreams a reality

Rusty Schweickart, a retired US astronaut who is best known as the Lunar Module Pilot on the Apollo 9 mission in 1969, also spoke on stage at the event. He talked with Chris Hadfield about the Apollo programme and his latest work in protecting the Earth from potential asteroid strikes, as well as giving his thoughts on the importance of innovation and making dreams a reality.

Schweickart commented: "Even Elon Musk, who can never get a schedule right; he gets there in the end. He's going to get there with his big Falcon rocket, and that is really where we're headed with the future. He's not talking about flying 8-10 people to Mars, he's talking about flying 100 people at a time to Mars and he's building the rockets.

"It's not a dream any more than the Tesla electric car was at one point a dream - but I'm driving one, a week ago Sunday I took delivery of my Tesla Model 3. He does it; he lands rockets. Just don't believe his schedule."

Hadfield mused: "It takes a lot of different things to make something impossible happen. It takes an early vision; it takes someone who is willing to take a new risk; it takes someone who has got the tenacity to work at it for what seems to be an incredibly long amount of time; but then it also takes decision making, improving operational ability, and the ability to actually do that thing. And all of us need heroes."