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China Racing The U.S. To The Golden Trabant

Asteroid mining
One of the least talked about but most important goals of the space program is the industrialization of space and the extraction of valuable metals, rare earths and other resources from extraterrestrial sources.

According to Daily Caller contributor Mark Whittington, NASA is preparing to launch a probe to an asteroid called “16 Psyche,” also known as the “golden asteroid.” It holds industrial and precious metals worth an estimated $10,000 quadrillion at current market value. The asteroid and similar mineral sources could help NASA change space exploration from an expensive government program to something that could create limitless prosperity.

16 Psyche is not the only asteroid that NASA is exploring that contains a rich deposit of materials writes Mr. Whittington. A probe called OSIRIS-REx is orbiting an asteroid called Bennu, which has an estimated value of $700 million. The Japanese have sent a probe to another asteroid, Ryugu, with an estimated worth of $82.86 billion.

Russian news site RT.com reports Red China has vowed to dominate this race and points out that is an easier game for a country like China that controls all its major natural resource companies and maintains a tight leash on tech developers.

That’s not to say that the U.S. doesn’t have ambitions there. The difference, though, is stark. While NASA is focused on space exploration and scientific missions, China is focused on a space-based economy that is zeroing in on long-term wealth generation.

RT.com labeled 16 Psyche “The golden asteroid that could make everyone on Earth a billionaire,” but as the late science fiction and fantasy writer R.A. Lafferty warned us in his 1966 short story “The Golden Trabant” a world of billionaires is not likely to be the outcome of an extraterrestrial gold rush.

In Lafferty’s prescient story a four-man corporation, following the lead of a murderous space-faring gold-obsessed adventurer, is the first to exploit the golden asteroid he christened “The Golden Trabant.”

To keep the location of the gold a secret, the first mission to exploit the asteroid resulted in the murder of 12 men hired to do the hard work of extracting the gold. In short order the four establish their own country (San Simeon) and begin to mint their own fifty-dollar gold pieces – the San Simeon Duro.

In Mr. Lafferty’s imaginary future, “The appearance of these Duros caused a nervousness all out of proportion to the number of them. It is possible that not more than twenty million of them (that is, a billion dollars’ worth) went into circulation that first year.* That is a large amount coming from a new small country, but it shouldn’t be enough to unhinge the world. Yet it did almost that.”

The reason, said Lafferty, was that “Gold had gotten out of the habit of showing itself in society. For years it had sat at home in vaults, and a multiplier had been used to equate it with credit money. Nobody knew what to make of naked gold returning to the market. And what if this stream should be but the beginning of a veritable river… It [San Simeon] had the hardest currency in the world. Its national game was playing hob with the currencies of the rest of the world.”

Eventually, wrote Lafferty, greed overtook the partners and the first spaceship of gold begat others, meaning that somewhere between fifty and a hundred men soon knew the source of the gold. After that the golden stream became a torrent and first one ship defected and then another – they came back to Earth in other lands than those of their departure and wherever they came down they spawned other ships.

What happens next is entirely predicable to lovers of sci-fi and adventure: “A dozen other countries were in the race by the third year. Now there was privateering and open piracy. The ships became battle boats, death spheres, and the attrition was terrifying. But the inward flood of the metal continued.”

The important part of Lafferty’s tale for our purposes is what happens as the flood of gold crests:

The effect on most people had been marvelous. But there was a small group that had always borne the burden of currency decisions. They were made nervous by this unbridled activity. Their hold was slipping. They took measures.

A small commission of not overly intelligent men found an answer. In their own field they understood cause and effect. They acted in doubtful authority, and they were not of one mind about the action. But they did it.

They irradiated the Golden Trabant and killed the source of the gold.

And, Lafferty predicted, “Things came back to normal in about three years. The shrews killed each other, and the wise rats once more ran the warren. The new fortunes tottered and fell back into the bags of the old.”

Will 16 Psyche spawn space pirates, as R.A. Lafferty predicted in “The Golden Trabant,” or make everyone on Earth a billionaire, as the writers at RT.com seem to hope? Both of those outcomes seem doubtful, but what is quite certain is that the industrialization of space will disrupt the world’s economy as we now know it, and that is too dangerous a power to be handed-over to Red China simply because we Americans lack the will or foresight to be the ones to seize it first.

* Today, [July 7, 2019] the spot price of gold is $1,399.90, it rose as high as $1,668.98 in 2012. Back in 1966 the price of gold was pegged at $35 an ounce and a billion dollars was a lot of money, so if the numbers in Lafferty’s story seem unintimidating, please consider the time span and adjust for inflation accordingly.

R.A. Lafferty’s “The Golden Trabant” is long out of print. It is available secondhand in his book Does Anyone Else Have Something Further To Add? or online through this link to 97 Stories By R.A. Lafferty.

To read Mark Whittington’s report for the Daily Caller click this link.

To read the RT.com article on 16 Psyche click this link.

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