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7.2.1 Private Sector History and Issues

Before any investor will invest, you need a business plan. Talking and handwaving won't do. This book is just a first step, reaching out to experienced and skilled people around the world, leading to a business plan to come as a result of further development of these concepts.

There are several formal companies and organizations listed in the Missions and Scenarios section (chapter 8) whose purpose includes development of asteroidal and/or lunar resources. However, with the exception of SSI, none of them discuss anything near the range of products and services from space resources as covered by PERMANENT, and none have put forth a business plan to the public for developing space resources as covered by PERMANENT, to the best of my knowledge.

To hatch a good business plan with a solid technical and economic basis, one needs to meet the right people. Right now, there are a few organizations and associations which can offer excellent contacts, as discussed below. However, the best way to put together a good venture is to attend one of the key conferences or workshops to establish relationships with the best technical people, many of whom are independent.

It is very useful to know both the history in the field as well as the present landscape.

There have been countless other groups without a webpage who have announced that they have a plan to develop space resources, but none have come forth with a substantial business plan. Some have had a plan, but it's been so basic and handwaving that I would judge their claim to having a plan as misleading. The technical community is very weak when it comes to business as well as politics.

The hard research and studies to date have been funded mainly by NASA, plus a few private organizations like SSI, but often at the researcher's own expense. The leaders in the field of space resources are mostly scientists contracting to the US government.

The first substantial private sector initiative I know of was led by physicist Dr. Gerard K. O'Neill, an academic from Princeton University. In response to the daunting political problems with government funding, Dr. O'Neill wisely founded the private but not-for-profit Space Studies Institute (SSI) to continue this work regardless of the politics in NASA and the government. The Space Studies Institute relies on private donations, memberships, and jointly funded research with others. Since SSI is a nonprofit organization, this support can be tax deducted. Its goal is to develop the fundamental building blocks for the infrastructure required to use lunar and asteroial materials in Earth orbit, which can be used by private companies. Focus is on critical elements for which there is no work to date, and no planned work, by the government. This has been a more fruitful focus of time and energy compared to the previous efforts to persuade the government to provide and sustain funding.

A landmark SSI report, entitled "The Low Profile Road to Space Development", portrays a 1983 bootstrapping scenario for private development of space. The results of a workshop, it was a rough business plan showing that a purely private scenario was feasible. The leaders of that workshop were the late Dr. Gerard K. O'Neill, founder of the Space Studies Institute , and Dr. Charles Rosen, founder of a company specializing in machine intelligence and teleoperation. They came up with a rough sketch of equipment to be delivered to make a small, minimal lunar base on the Moon and a small space industrial facility in high Earth orbit which would process the lunar material into fuel propellant and other basic products sellable in orbit.

A weakness of this report is that it depended upon a "Mass Driver" to transport lunar material off the Moon and to the space manufacturing facility in orbit. The Mass Driver is a device which Dr. O'Neill and his colleagues had invested much time, energy and money in over the years, and SSI had a working laboratory version of the accelerator tube of the third generation model, but potential investors probably saw it as too risky a device. There is much resistance among SSI people to using chemical rocketry instead of the Mass Driver, and I'm not aware of any alternative SSI scenario using chemical rocketry, which would change the scenario quite a bit. (I cover the Mass Driver in the chapter on transportation.)

SSI funded research and development in a large number of other areas, as reported within their website.

SSI hosts and co-sponsors (usually with the AIAA -- American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics) a series of bi-annual conferences, the proceedings of which are published. The conferences between 1979 and 1985 were the largest, resulting in many hundreds of pages of high quality technical papers each time. In later years, the conferences started tapering down in size, partly as a result of other sponsors arising to give conferences, e.g., a group from the NASA Johnson Space Center discussed elsewhere.

Dr. O'Neill came down with leukemia in 1985, and SSI started to wane as well. Dr. O'Neill had to stop his heavy workload and subject himself to the rigors of the medical treatment for that disease. After a long bout, Dr. O'Neill succumbed in 1992.

In the mid-1980s, SSI supporters also became consumed in a private global positioning satellite system venture on the side, called Geostar, based on a patent by Dr. O'Neill. The ultimate purpose was to use money made from this venture to fund subsequent development of space resources. However, unlucky technical glitches, combined with some bad management decisions, killed this project. The rocket that was launching the first satellite to geosynchrounous orbit failed during its flight. A second satellite failed in space.

The main criticism of SSI today is that they're too academic in nature, and not assertive enough in the venture capitalist and political circles. (As a nonprofit organization, they cannot embark on a venture themselves.) There's also a common criticism that there is too much O'Neill worshipping which holds back the necessary transition to following and empowering contemporary leaders within their organization. Some people in the ranks are more worried about saving the past than moving into a different future, and are territorial. Still others complain about the ivory tower nature of some of the academics in power. Many of the directors are big name people, but busy as they are in many other areas, SSI decisions and progress go slow. Nonetheless, SSI continues to fund key technology development in many areas which nobody else is funding, and solid progress is being made at a good rate for a non-for-profit organization supported by donations.

I have not dealt with SSI much for many years, but I must say that I find Executive Director Bettie Greber to be a dynamic and positively helpful person, Dr. John S. Lewis one of the best leaders in the field, and George Friedman a dynamic influence in the SSI conferences.

The conference which has eclipsed the SSI conferences in size since 1988 has been the Engineering, Construction and Operations in Space conferences, led and published by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) but with a long list of sponsors, both government and private. These are discussed in the section on Paper References (Chapter 10). The ASCE conferences attract more technical papers and people than the SSI conferences, but are less focused than the SSI conferences, e.g., the ASCE conferences have many papers on Mars and purely technical items like robotics and large space structures, though they are focused mainly on lunar and asteroidal materials utilization. The SSI conferences are almost entirely focused on asteroidal and lunar materials utilization.

Notably, the SSI Princeton conference of 1999 will be offering conference scholarships and research funding in connection with the conference.

The NASA Johnson Space Center conducts workshops which are excellent places to meet people as well. In fact, such workshops have become an adjunct to the ASCE conferences.

As mentioned before, certain subdivisions of the NASA Johnson Space Center have been the key government sponsors of research and development in lunar and asteroidal materials utilization. Some of the excellent people who have provided this leadership include: Dr. David S. McKay (of Martian meteorite fame -- he discovered the Martian meteorite when studying meteorites in general), Dr. Mike Duke, Dr. Wendell Mendell, Dr. Kyle Fairchild, and Dr. Barney Roberts. While their main focus is on a government-sponsored lunar base for scientific purposes, they are very helpful to those wanting to promote private commercial ventures.

There have been a few conference events sponsored by various companies and organizations, but none have caught on nearly as well as the above two. One interesting effort was by a group of financers from the American Maglev Company in the late 1980s. I spent quite some time talking with them. They conducted a large conference near their company in New Jersey, getting joint sponsorship with JSC and with very heavy duty marketing. However, their company's fortunes took a bizarre downfall when they lost a contract on a major train projects which they should have kept in the bag (due to some major blunders on their part, contrary to common sense), and in the resulting chaos they split up and were never heard from again. Indeed, it was an ordeal just to get the conference proceedings published. After that experience, government conference organizers cooperating with the private sector have become more cautious.

In any case, nobody has been able to put down significant capital to date or attract much capital from others, or put together a Board of Directors of experts in the field in a for-profit company.

This book is an effort at outreach beyond the current small community of conference participants, more or less, for experienced business people for formation of a Board of Directors, e.g., to join Permanent Space Resources, Inc., as discussed at the end of this book.

In looking for people to join forces with regarding mining and manufacturing using asteroidal and lunar materials, one should go outside of the traditional rocket scientist community and talk with traditional Earth mining and manufacturing experts. Mining and manufacturing people are more relevant than spacecraft specialists when it comes to development of space resources. Many (but not all!) spacecraft specialists also tend to be too government contractor minded, and not very venture capital competant.

The position of PERMANENT towards companies with just a few owners/stockholders, little starting capital, and an NTMU business plan is that it's probably premature to set up an overly secretive, proprietary business plan. It's better to put a reasonable amount of your plan out into the open on the World Wide Web to attract investors and establish relationships with technical and nontechnical people who would have a stake in and can play roles for the eventual company that is founded. It is highly likely that the best people met this way will be invited to join up with any competant group which makes serious steps to launch a pilot payload. Many people will be required, and proven team players will certainly be preferred for the long haul. A substantive proprietary plan should be developed only after a capable and committed team has formed.

It's also premature to get paranoid about competitors. Most entities that could be seen as competitors may later be seen as potential joint venture partners, subcontractors, or primary contractors. Good business relationships take time to develop, and being overly secret can mean not developing the necessary working relationships.

Notably, any major investor is likely to do their homework before committing such a sum of money (or, at least, have one of their analysts do research). This will include finding alternative opinions and sources on today's World Wide Web.

Ultimately, I choose people based not just on their skills and knowledge, but largely on whether they have a personality for complete quality and proactivity in everything important they do, and how well they get along with a diversity of other kinds of people. I prefer a diverse, complimentary working group.

Formation of a company to, say, bring back the first asteroidal or lunar materials will take several steps. The first steps are reaching out to potential participants, development of relationships, forming an alliance of people, and formulating a general business plan. When a company is formed, which should not be prematurely, it is important that active participants be given a stake in the company, either as Directors (e.g., the most highly competant, committed and dynamic people plus those putting in their own money) or as stockholders. I would prefer the Board of Directors be a democratic process which no one person could dominate (myself as well) unless they are putting dominant and very large amounts of their own money on the line. Well known "big name" people, e.g., famous astronauts, writers, and academics who are not active or who have too many unrelated projects going on should not be Directors but should instead be Advisors. Too many organizations have appointed such big name Directors only to ossify. A substantial share of privately owned stock should be created and set aside for later, for offering to active members who invest much more of their time, energy and resources into the company, and for key people who come along later. People with a breadth of contacts to those experienced in the industry and who are good marketing people should be sought out and intimately involved.






PERMANENT.com > Law, Governments, and Private Sector > Private Sector > History and Issues




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