How to Make Money Mining Asteroids and The Moon
There are many ways to make money in the longterm, but we will never get there unless we figure out ways to make money in the nearterm which will minimize the front end cost before cash flow comes in, in order to make lunar and asteroid mining sustainable.
The section on Products and Services has a long list of things we can make and services we can provide, and goes in depth about the items in the list below, but here let's focus on what subset of products and services can be delivered and sold first.
Some of these are money makers for sure, others are up for debate.
The product in greatest demand in low Earth orbit is fuel propellants.
Water retrieved from asteroids or the Moon can be split to make hydrogen-oxygen fuel propellants. Other volatiles such as methane and ammonia can also be used to create fuel propellants. (Oxygen is available everywhere in minerals, and easily extractable.)
Fuel propellants are useful for any and every mission going from low Earth orbit (just above the atmosphere) to higher orbits or deep space. For every kilogram of satellite headed to geosynchronous orbit quickly by chemical rocket, about two kilograms of fuel is needed for a fast mission. For any future missions to the Moon and asteroids, even more fuel is be needed. (There are more fuel efficient methods but they are much slower, and time is money when you have overhead and loss of money-making productivity.)
If there were a supply of fuel in space, then there would be a booster service, to take payloads from low Earth orbit to any desired location. After that, the booster would return to retrieve another payload. (With no supply of fuel yet provided in space, the booster is added to the fuel blasted up from Earth.)
Any human occupied space station needs water, and it is expensive to blast up from Earth. It is currently provided thanks to governments with deep pockets, and it is recycled meticulously. If we are to have space tourism, then we will need a lot more water. Since water is one of the options for fuel propellants, split into liquified hydrogen and liquified oxygen, water can form the dual purpose of fuel propellant and life support.
So, transportation and life support are the first two items in demand. The customers are governments and the private sector, space stations, space tourists, space condos, and potentially any business or government which wants a satellite delivered into a high orbit or deep space.
Precious metals such as the platinum group are abundant in asteroids (unlike Earth) and extractable with relative ease (using the carbonyl process). These can be exported to Earth. A relatively small amount is worth a whole lot of money.
The probes, mining equipment, landers, and other equipment developed for these missions can be mass produced and sold to companies who also want to join the space race, as well as delivered to their targets in space. Optionally, services for operating these miners can also be contracted out to those with experience in the first phase.
The patents developed from experimentation with this material and orbit-based industry will be valuable. Anyone wanting to experiment in industrial processes (e.g., in partnership) will have to pay. Samples of material can be sold.
The real estate itself can be created and sold -- resources extracted and returned to Earth orbit, and products made from them, such as condominium complexes with all the utilities provided -- electricity, water, sewage processing, food grown in space, and so on.
Beyond these first products, we start to get into selling infrastructure, e.g., radiation shielding, structural members for large space stations and surface structures (fiberglasses, ceramics, glasses), multisatellite platforms with power utility, industrial parks, etc., but this is starting to get into mid-term to longterm products and services.
What about "soft" products and services?
Early makers of sophisticated private space based telescopes and probes can sell the data they collect to mining companies and governments.
How about to the wider market of the general public?
Past efforts have proposed things like allowing people on Earth to drive a real rover on the Moon or near an asteroid at an hourly fee. (They can even write their own graffiti, such as their name, in the dirt. Maybe some colorful dust can be provided at the rover for writing with.)
Some have offered to deliver personal memorabilia, even the ashes of deceased loved ones.
The above products and services are provided by robotic, not human missions, to minimize costs.
However, could human missions be profitable?
Many people want to go to space, or for their children to go, and space adventures could sell!
A human mission to the Moon or a near Earth asteroid, populated with couples, could sell a "reality TV" series and TV broadcast rights for high prices! This will require selecting well rounded astronauts, pun intended.
As I wrote in the year 2000: The Sydney Olympics 2000 sold TV rights for $705 million to NBC for the US only. This did not include the money made from other networks and other countries.
Around this same time, for $1.1 billion, U.S. Major League Baseball sold four years of only the World Series and playoff games, to the US market.
The movie Titanic passed the $1 billion mark within a few months of its release and eventually grossed $1.8 billion worldwide. The 1998 space movie Deep Impact (of a comet hitting Earth) was a smash hit, too, grossing $350m worldwide, while Armageddon (of an asteroid hitting the Earth) did even better, making over $500m worldwide. These figures do not include worldwide sales of VHS tapes, DVDs and also video/DVD rentals, let alone other merchandizing like soundtracks, T-shirts, posters etc, which amount to hundreds of millions of dollars in additional revenue.
Then comes branding and merchandising.
Individual sports stars have gotten $10 to $20 million contracts each, for just wearing the logos and using the products of brand names.
Consider the value of making, for example, a car maker into an exclusive partner for a particular space mission, and then letting them use our brand and image in their advertisements and promotions, as well as putting their brand into our space missions. If Mitsubishi advertises the fact that it built part of the roving probe, and names a car after the mission or the asteroid, or just points out that a feature of the car comes from its advanced space technology, that could increase sales.
Additional income can come from licensing trademark rights to use the mission name for toys, computer games, etc., and for product endorsements.
For those of us who were alive during the Apollo program, recall that Tang (powdered orange drink) sales shot sky high when it launched its product with a picture of the astronauts in space using their product. Beef jerky or a similar dehydrated protein product (like the dried seafood commonplace in Asia) are appropriate for space missions, and a common snack on convenience store shelves. Indeed, imagine the ubiquitous 7-11 convenience store chain staking a sign on a space station, perhaps with a small solar cooker for making the first hot dogs on another planetoid, for the astronauts. Or Nike coming out with a stylish asteroid age shoe to be the first private commercial product to set foot on another planetoid, with the footprint in the regolith with logo shown on the commercial. Other commercials can be taken using the crew and the first base. This is really up to the imagination of the advertisers.
Any space colonization and lunar and asteroid mining program to make money would be more popular than still another up-and-down ride on a government space station. The entire private sector project needs to develop an exciting and interesting wholistic image.
The material itself could be sold on Earth. For example, the only verified sample of lunar material ever sold to date, a mere one fifth of ONE GRAM, from the Soviet Luna-24 mission, went for $442,000 via Sotheby's Auction House in New York. Some argued that a more widely publicized media event would have brought more money.
Besides selling material to laboratories, we could sell to the general public, e.g., space jewelry and personal accessories.
The most successful space development company will look at all the potential revenue sources and try a full court press. Some will surely pan out a lot better than others, but most if not all should be profitable nonetheless, and only hindsight is 20-20.
Historically, there have been many studies which tried to identify one product from space to focus on, such as platinum group metals, and try to write a business plan around that one product and how to make a profit from it. That, I believe, is a big mistake. It would be like looking at the software business in 1980, or internet in 1990, and trying to find one application to turn a profit on, while ignoring all the related applications.
Development of lunar and asteroidal resources is going to be VERY BIG, and that's the way we need to approach this new economic sector.