Crusty old space prospectors mining the asteroid belt for valuable minerals have been a staple of science fiction since the 1930s. In fiction they tended to fit the stereotype of the Klondike Gold Rush veteran: grizzled, fiercely independent, surviving in a patched-up old spaceship while searching for the one big strike that never comes.
Well, the space prospectors are here, and they're considerably more well-groomed. Planetary Resources, Incorporated is hosting a press conference today at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, where they're going to announce a new company which aims to begin mining near-Earth asteroids for valuable minerals within a decade. Among the backers are Microsoft tycoon and space tourist Charles Simonyi, X-Prize founder and serial space entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, space tycoon Eric Anderson, Google moguls Eric Schmidt and Larry Page, Titanic director James Cameron, and a number of other tech bigwigs.
These are serious people with serious money and serious expertise. If they think there's at least a sporting chance of making money on this venture, I'm inclined to belive them.
So does this mean the old science fictional stereotype will come true? Crusty old prospectors cruising the asteroids? Yes: but they'll be crusty old robots, not humans. If they do become ornery and independent-minded, things can get very interesting indeed . . .