“The year is 2062,” Angel Abbud-Madrid declares. “One of the children of your children is about to go up on a mission to a space rock — an asteroid, one of hundreds passing close to Earth every year.”
The Colorado School of Mines professor pauses to make sure the audience is following along. From his position at the forefront of the emerging field of space resources, Abbud-Madrid recognizes that, at least for now, most people need some help understanding exactly what this field covers. He has a solution: He leans on storytelling to spark the imagination, as he does during the opening segment of his 2016 TED talk.
Gesturing animatedly, the bespectacled professor continues narrating his tale, describing how the hypothetical grandchildren fire a spaceship’s boosters to reach 40,000 miles an hour, at which point their craft matches the speed of its target, an asteroid hurtling through space. As they approach the asteroid, they use a giant, magnified mirror on the spacecraft to focus sunbeams onto its surface, super-heating a concentrated chunk of the space rock until it becomes so hot that it explodes outward in a vaporized combination of gas and water.
These elements, now floating in space, are collected by external instruments on the spacecraft. The water is particularly valuable, since it can be used for drinking, growing plants, extracting oxygen for breathing...and fueling spaceships.
“Water, once heated, produces steam and can propel that rocket for up to four years,” Abbud-Madrid says excitedly. “Think of [the asteroid] as a celestial gas station, with a convenience store attached.” He smiles, then adds, “Oh, thank heaven!”
While the professor’s story about future astronauts making a pit stop at an asteroid on the way to more distant cosmic destinations may be fictional, it’s hardly implausible. In fact, Abbud-Madrid’s example is merely one way that humans are anticipated to utilize vast quantities of untapped resources in space.
But for all the Star Trek imagery and Dad jokes that Abbud-Madrid likes to employ during his public addresses, he forgoes the sci-fi shtick when he’s with students or peers. In the increasingly large community of scientists, entrepreneurs, politicians and academics already sold on the idea of space resources, there’s an intense focus on funding and developing technologies to harvest everything from frozen water on the moon and Mars to vast quantities of such metals as platinum and nickel in asteroids circulating our solar system.
Abbud-Madrid’s more academic side is on display at the Space Resources Roundtable, an annual gathering at the Colorado School of Mines that draws scientists from government agencies, aerospace industry representatives, economists and businesspeople from around the globe to discuss the latest developments in the commercial use of space. As host and organizer of this year’s event, Abbud-Madrid is once again before a large audience on June 12, giving the introductory speech:
“Welcome to the nineteenth Space Resources Roundtable. Yes, my name is Angel Abbud-Madrid. Yes, that unpronounceable name that has been keeping your inbox flooded with requests and abstracts,” he says, earning laughs. “This is truly an exciting year in the era of space resources. It’s worldwide. It’s not just one country. Or one mission. … So let’s review what’s happened during the last year.”
His recap name-checks recent space missions, as well as projects that various countries have planned to explore celestial bodies including asteroids, the moon and Mars. Abbud-Madrid also gives a nod to the burgeoning number of players in the private sector, such as Elon Musk with his ambitious SpaceX. And he alludes to ongoing international discussions at the Hague about how nations will regulate future commercial activity in space.
But there is one piece of news that hits closer to home, and Abbud-Madrid holds it until the end of his welcome.
“The very first program dedicated specifically for space resources is being launched right here at the Colorado School of Mines!” he proclaims. “[It will] educate scientists, engineers and policy makers, offering three degrees: a certificate, a master’s and a Ph.D.”
The program’s first official semester starts this fall (applications to join the inaugural class are open until October 1). The school is hoping that it will help students learn — and pioneer — ways that humans can set up mining operations or extract resources in the types of otherworldly landscapes only fantasized about in sci-fi books like Dune or films like Armageddon and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The payoff could be tremendous. In 2014, Neal DeGrasse Tyson, of Cosmos fame and the closest thing the space-resources field has to a celebrity, made headlines by claiming, “The first trillionaire in the world will be the person who mines asteroids.”
Abbud-Madrid and other members of the Mines faculty are well aware that they’re on the cutting edge of an industry that could not only generate riches, but open up space to further exploration — even colonization. And because the Front Range already has a robust aerospace industry, the new graduate program at Mines is part of an aggressive bid to turn Colorado into the world’s epicenter for space resources, which could completely transform the state’s economy.
In his role as director of the Center for Space Resources, Abbud-Madrid has become a globally important figure in his field. At 57, he may never have a chance to leave Earth’s atmosphere himself, but he knows where mankind’s horizon lies.
The entire world was riveted by space exploration when Angel Abbud-Madrid was born. His birth, on April 28, 1961, fell just sixteen days after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human blasted into space, and a week before the United States sent its first astronaut, Alan Shepard, beyond Earth’s atmosphere, on May 5.
“I like to joke that because of my birth date, I was destined to work on something related to space,” Abbud-Madrid says today. “At the same time, I was born in Mexico. And not being in the U.S. or Soviet Union back then, there were not a lot of opportunities.”
Still, Abbud-Madrid was very aware of the latest feats in space exploration; his parents made sure of that. He vividly recalls the events of July 20, 1969, when his parents woke him and his three sisters late at night in their house in Chihuahua so that they could watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. Abbud-Madrid remembers wondering whether any alien monsters would suddenly pop up in the grainy picture on the black-and-white television his family crowded around in their living room, and whether the aliens would eat the American astronauts live on camera — a possibility that his elementary-school classmates had discussed at length in the schoolyard.
Although the monsters failed to show and the highlight seemed to be when Armstrong muttered something in English about a small step for man, Abbud-Madrid and his sisters were enthralled. “It was quite a moment, even though I didn’t fully grasp the significance of it at eight years old,” he says. Already obsessed with airplanes, after the moon landing Abbud-Madrid made the not-so-giant leap to being obsessed with spacecraft and astronauts.
By the time he was finishing high school and applying to universities, though, Abbud-Madrid had learned that there weren’t any great aerospace programs he could attend in Mexico, so he settled on engineering, figuring it had a lot of crossover. College and maturity further tempered his expectations of working in aerospace. Upon graduating the Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey in 1983, he knew better than to turn down a practical offer to be an engineer at a gold and silver mine in the Sierras of northern Mexico.
Working at the mine was almost like being on the moon, anyway. The open pits were so remote that workers had to be flown in to a small airstrip or take a 72-hour truck ride from the nearest village along extremely rough mountain roads. The mine, which dated back to the 1930s, had been reopened after chemists discovered an economically viable way to take gold and silver tailings from shafts that had already been pick-axed and use a cyanide solution to recover leftover particles of the precious metals. At the mining camp, Abbud-Madrid was completely isolated from the outside world, living with other workers in a barracks, having access to a doctor only once a month when one was flown in, and being careful not to eat through his stock of food before each re-supply.
Abbud-Madrid saw a chance to challenge himself in this spartan environment, honing his engineering skills with scrappy ingenuity. “I realized you have to be quite creative, learning to work with the minimum,” he recalls.
The mine’s remote location and high elevation did have one bonus: At night, it offered a magnificent view of the stars. Abbud-Madrid spent his evenings lying on his back, learning the constellations, tracking tiny satellites moving across the sky. “It reconnected me with my love for space,” he says. “At the time, I didn’t know working at a mine would later inform my understanding of space resources as well.”
He would have a chance to put that understanding to work after he applied to universities in the United States for graduate studies, and received an acceptance letter from a small campus in New Jersey: Princeton. There, one of his Ivy League professors approached Abbud-Madrid one day and asked, “Would you be interested in studying combustion phenomena in microgravity?”
“What in the world is that?” Abbud-Madrid remembers responding before blurting, “Wait, is that in space!?”
The professor’s answer was a bit of a letdown. “Well, there are ways to reduce the effects of gravity here on Earth…”
Abbud-Madrid accepted the research opportunity, even if it meant staying grounded. He traveled to Cleveland to conduct experiments at a research center on how flames behave in zero gravity; it turned out that they tend to appear as spheres, rather than rise and take an elliptical shape. He first observed this phenomenon using drop towers, tall structures in which experiments are dropped — hence the name — and undergo a few seconds of weightlessness. But the drop towers were not giving him enough time, and Abbud-Madrid suggested that using the center’s modified KC-135 parabolic aircraft might help. The zero-G aircraft could allow for up to thirty seconds of weightlessness, creating an approximate simulation of what it’s like in space.
Abbud-Madrid recalls the exhilaration of his first flights, the aircraft shooting up at blistering speed along a steep ballistic curve to its apex, first hitting one G, then two Gs, at which point his weight was doubled, his feet pressing into the floor. Then, toward the top of the parabolic curve, “very suddenly you just go to zero,” he says. “Your eyes try to adjust. There are no windows, so it’s hard to know where you are. You start sweating. And it is the greatest thing, to experience thirty seconds of weightlessness and not only conduct your experiment, but float along with it.”
In the aerospace industry, parabolic airplanes are often referred to by the nickname “vomit comets.” But for Abbud-Madrid, exhilaration overcame any nausea.
And doing up to forty zero-gravity repetitions a day on the vomit comet turned out to be Abbud-Madrid’s ticket to Colorado. In 1991, he was accepted into a Ph.D. program at the University of Colorado Boulder to study how metals burn in zero gravity. This time, the experiments he designed were carried out on actual space flights — space shuttle Columbia flights 83 and 84 — by astronauts whom Abbud-Madrid trained personally at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. That experience was ideal for a new research project Abbud-Madrid heard was happening right down Highway 93, at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden. “I found out that the school was going to do its first space experiment on a shuttle,” Abbud-Madrid recalls. “And I was excited, because it’d mean a chance to start an experiment all the way from scratch. Since I had already done a shuttle experiment, I also knew the terminology.”
After getting his Ph.D. from CU, Abbud-Madrid was hired as a research professor at Mines. There, he and a team of students started designing a series of experiments to figure out the best way to extinguish flames using water rather than chemicals corrosive to the O-Zone layer. They would pass flames through suspended water mist in zero gravity, allowing them to determine the optimal droplet size to extinguish the flames. The project took nearly five years: designing the procedure, building testing instruments, writing procedures and, finally, training a flight crew of NASA astronauts on how to conduct the experiment and collect data during their space flight.
But the actual trial was delayed again and again; other experiments kept taking priority during Columbia’s flights. “So it meant we kept having to retrain the flight crew, and we got to know them really, really well,” says Abbud-Madrid.
Finally, in 2003, Abbud-Madrid received confirmation that the experiment would be carried out on space shuttle Columbia flight STS-107. Excited, the whole team traveled to Houston to be at NASA’s Mission Control Center to help guide the astronauts. The long wait paid off; the astronauts successfully conducted the experiment, and all the data was stored on hard drives aboard the shuttle. At that point, most of the Mines students traveled back to Colorado, but Abbud-Madrid decided to stick around until the shuttle’s scheduled return to Florida on February 1.
That morning, he was in the control room, watching a dot representing the shuttle show up on a screen with a giant map of the United States. After the shuttle re-entered Earth’s atmosphere, it traveled across California, then Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Texas. … Suddenly the dot stopped moving. Mission Control could no longer reach the shuttle crew by radio. The room grew tense, although no one outwardly panicked. Abbud-Madrid kept to himself, not wanting to get in the way of any NASA operators. He knew that the shuttle was supposed to land in Florida at precisely 9:16 a.m. Eastern Standard Time.
He watched the clock. Minutes passed without radio contact from the flight crew.
Then Abbud-Madrid heard someone exclaim, “Lock the doors!” That was part of an emergency protocol when evidence must be preserved for an internal investigation.
Once the clock passed 9:16 a.m. and the shuttle did not appear at the landing site in Florida, Abbud-Madrid realized that it would never appear. “And the way that it hit me was this,” he remembers. “The shuttle is lost. Then you think about the crew. And only later, you think that the experiment you worked on for five years is totally gone.”
Later that day, President George W. Bush addressed the nation. “This day has brought terrible news and great sadness to our country,” he pronounced. “The Columbia is lost; there are no survivors.”
Eventually, NASA would determine that during takeoff, a piece of foam had broken off the external fuel tank and struck a wing of the shuttle, compromising its heat shield and causing the whole craft to break apart during re-entry. Seven crew members lost their lives. “And these were friends who are gone,” says Abbud-Madrid. “It was a pretty big blow for the school and the students. It reminds you that there are risks in space, and as soon as things start feeling routine, going up and down, you realize it’s not.”
Ultimately, though, the Columbia tragedy only strengthened his resolve to finish the experiment.“The students and I made a commitment to say, ‘This is important data. Our friends’ lives were lost. We have to go on in their memory,’” he recalls.
A few months later, the Mines team received a phone call from investigators who’d sifted through Columbia’s wreckage and found part of the experiment data on a hard drive recovered from a field in East Texas. In 2011, NASA called on Abbud-Madrid and his team to use that data to upgrade an old fire-suppression system on the international space station. The agency gave Mines three months to produce working prototypes of its water-mist extinguishers. Abbud-Madrid and his team delivered.
“So our extinguishers are now the ones safeguarding the lives of astronauts on the space station,” Abbud-Madrid says. A part of him believes that the astronauts who died on Columbia would take comfort in knowing that their contributions to space exploration live on.
Space exploration certainly lives on at Mines, which established the world’s first Center for Space Resources two decades ago. After working for NASA for 25 years, scientist Mike Duke had moved to Colorado and approached the school with an intriguing pitch. As Abbud-Madrid, who had just recently moved from CU to Mines, recalls, “Mike told us, ‘I think you could be a leader in space resources. You have all the expertise. Just think: the same thing that you’re doing on Earth, you could do in space.’”
Mines was persuaded, and Duke soon founded the Center for Space Resources at the school. In 1999, he organized the inaugural Space Resources Roundtable, bringing together experts from around the world. Abbud-Madrid quickly got involved in both. Over the years, the number of faculty members and students affiliated with the center has continued to grow, and the center gains prestige with each new Roundtable. When Duke retired in 2006, Abbud-Madrid became the director of the center, a title he still holds.
“And during this time we’ve realized, when you start looking at resources in space, it’s pretty much endless,” Abbud-Madrid explains. “Any metal you can think of that we depend on — iron, nickel, platinum, copper — you can find in space in abundant quantities. An asteroid the size of the School of Mines has more platinum than has ever been mined on Earth.”
But there’s a major hurdle to collecting those elements. “All activities in space resources are based on economics,” Abbud-Madrid notes. “It’s always great to know that there’s a lot of platinum on an asteroid. But does it make sense to bring it here compared to the cost of extracting platinum on Earth? No. At least not yet.”
Much of the work done at the Center for Space Resources, such as designing a lunar ice extractor, has been framed by cost-benefit analysis — whether going after certain elements in space could pay off, given the expenses involved. With some elements, including those that could be mined from asteroids, such efforts will have to wait until a mineral like platinum is too rare, expensive to obtain, or environmentally damaging to extract on Earth.
Still, the dawn of the space resource age is fast approaching...and may already be here. Wired magazine called 2012 “the year of private space,” as companies such as Mars One talked of colonizing the Red Planet and Silicon Valley capitalists poured money into ventures like Planetary Resources Inc. and made bold pronouncements about obtaining water and metals from asteroids. Interest has only proliferated in recent years.
Elon Musk has his own Mars colonization ambitions and has discussed extracting water there, and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, not wanting to miss out on the space action, has talked about going to the moon.
Two countries — the United States and Luxembourg — revved up this new, privatized space race after each nation passed legislation allowing businesses to commercialize space. But other governments are also preparing missions to “prospect,” or map out, available space resources. In the next few years, the European Space Agency, India, South Korea, China and Japan plan to send probes or orbiters around the solar system to do just that.
With so many players entering the field, there are growing concerns about whether commercial activity in space should be regulated, and whether it could result in increased global inequality if poorer nations can’t afford to send rockets, humans and specialized equipment out beyond our planet. There are grimmer scenarios, too. For instance, what’s to stop an irresponsible nation or private company from tipping an asteroid toward Earth in order to ease the transport of mining extracts — but in the process dooming the entire planet by setting the asteroid on a collision course with Earth? (In real life, Bruce Willis probably can’t save us.)
These are the types of questions and hypotheticals being discussed right now at the Hague, by a working group that includes Abbud-Madrid. Representatives from a host of nations are beginning to outline what an international legal framework for commercial activity in space might look like. The group, formed in 2017, is considering a range of issues, from how claims should be staked to how income generated from space resources could be spread to developing nations.
Most members agree that it’s time to revisit the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, the landmark document ratified by 107 countries that forms the current legal framework for outer-space law. The treaty stipulates that celestial bodies don’t belong to any particular country and are for the benefit of all humankind.
“That was great [in 1967], but now that you have the possibility of actually extracting resources, it’s time to revisit the treaty,” explains Abbud-Madrid.“That’s what we’re doing at the Hague, coming together as a community to look at how we’re going to create a new legal framework that’s fair for everyone.”
Abbud-Madrid kicks off the second day of this year’s Space Resources Roundtable with his signature humor. “Good morning,” he says from the front of the auditorium. “Mars is misbehaving today. There’s a big storm, so let’s hope it doesn’t shut down those rovers…like, forever.”
The sixty or so people in the audience, most of them men and more than a few with thick glasses and ill-fitting clothing that match the nerd stereotype, chuckle; they know they’ll have plenty of serious things to consider later that day. Among the presentations on the agenda: “Using CT Scanning to Examine Lunar Regolith Porosity as a Function of Grain Shape and Depth” and “Methane Production From Carbonaceous Chondrites Using Electromethanogenesis.”
Many of the programs focus on water, generally understood to be the most economically viable space resource at this time. The studies don’t dwell on water for drinking purposes; astronauts already recycle more than 90 percent of the water on their spacecrafts using special machines, essentially allowing them to drink their own urine. The real future value of water could be as a propellant in space.
Rick Davis, a representative from NASA headquarters, begins the morning session on June 13 by describing how NASA is trying to complete detailed water maps of Mars by April 2019. He shares the agency’s calculations that a four-person crew living on Mars for 500 days would require about 25 tons of water.
“The bottom line is that we need lots of water,” Davis says. But if water can be obtained in space and separated into oxygen and hydrogen-based fuels, future missions won’t have to take 100 percent of their rocket fuel from Earth. There are already buyers for that water, if someone would just step up and build the first celestial gas station.
One of those would-be buyers is the Colorado-based United Launch Alliance (ULA), which began as a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, and turned heads at the Space Resources Roundtable two years ago by laying out the first serious offer to purchase propellants in space, oxygen- and hydrogen-based fuels derived from water obtained on the moon. ULA had already designed its next generation of upper-stage rockets, which it uses to move satellites between different orbits, to be refueled in space. Now it was ready to buy 210 metric tons of propellant in the low Earth orbit for $3,000 a kilogram. The total contract was worth around $630 million.
Abbud-Madrid remembers the room falling silent when George Sowers, ULA’s chief scientist and vice president of advanced programs, announced the deal. This was the first time that serious money had been put on the table to incentivize private companies to go after lunar ice. By lunch that day, groups of entrepreneurs and scientists were huddling together and discussing startup ideas that would meet ULA’s offer.
So far, none has. “Lifting things from Earth is extremely expensive,” says Sowers, who’s now on the Mines faculty, teaching in its graduate program. Based on recent numbers, using a rocket to launch something into Earth’s lowest orbit costs about $5,000 per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of fuel. That number increases to $16,000 a kilogram to reach Earth’s geosynchronous orbit, where most communications satellites are located, and it costs $35,000 a kilogram to go to the moon. “Think of it this way,” he explains. “If you took a car trip to San Francisco from Colorado and had to take all your gas with you when you left Colorado, that would pretty much involve towing a tanker behind you. That’s what we currently do in space.”
At this year’s Space Resources Roundtable, people are still cooking up plans for the ULA project. And there are some new, younger faces at the gathering: students angling to be part of the School of Mines new space-resources graduate program.
Adam Marcinkowksi, a 24-year-old who grew up in upstate New York, recently transferred to Mines to study space resources. Like many in the field, he got hooked on space when he was a kid. “I’m a Star Wars fan, for sure,” Marcinkowski says. “Growing up and seeing the Death Star and Star Destroyers and all those things amazed me. Then I started watching geeky TV shows, like a lot on the Science Channel, and I fell in love with the idea of lunar and Martian colonization. When I watched a special on asteroid mining one day, it clicked, like, ‘Holy cow, this is how we get people living and working in space.’”
Initially, Marcinkowski decided to pursue a career in space by taking the classic path outlined in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. He was accepted into the Air Force Academy, but midway into his sophomore year, he read an article about Abbud-Madrid and another Mines professor, Christopher Dreyer, receiving a NASA grant. Marcinkowski was surprised to learn that a nearby university had a center for space resources, the field he wanted to join.
“When I had the opportunity to transfer, Angel [Abbud-Madrid] was the very first person I talked to at Mines, and he was a large part of the reason I moved here,” Marcinkowski recalls. “Angel is great. He’s very personable and invested in you as a student. You can tell he really cares.”
When he transferred to Mines in early 2017, Marcinkowski didn’t know that a graduate program was in the works. “It was like a surprise birthday party,” he says, adding that he plans to apply for the program next year while finishing up his undergraduate studies.
Abbud-Madrid admits that it’s been daunting to put together the first-of-its-kind curriculum. “When you’re launching the very first program in the world and there’s nothing to compare it to, that’s a challenge,” Abbud-Madrid says. “We also wondered: Who’s going to come study a field that’s not even developed?”
Plenty of people, it turns out. Since last summer, Mines has tested a couple of online courses that will be part of the space-resources graduate program, and drew interest from around the globe. Among the two dozen or so participants was a student in Poland who didn’t mind tuning into the live webcasts at 2:30 a.m.
“We wanted to see how diverse the students would be, and we got interest from five countries, including people from space agencies, aerospace companies, entrepreneurs, financial analysts and economists,” says Abbud-Madrid. “That’s great, because this field is multi-disciplinary, and what this school offers is all aspects of space resources — everything from identifying the resource to extracting and drilling, processing, legal aspects and policy.”
According to Art Maples, a director of NASA’s Strategic Partnerships in Colorado for the Space Technology Mission Directorate, programs like the one at Mines “will play an important role in NASA’s future exploration of the moon and Mars. Programs such as the one at the School of Mines will help prepare the next generation of engineers and scientists to tackle such challenges and help NASA push the frontiers of exploration. NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate recently selected Mines for an Early Stage Innovation (ESI) research grant to develop an intelligent drilling system that could be used to characterize material on the moon or Mars.”
Mines is also heralded by Congressman Ed Perlmutter, who is on the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. Perlmutter says that he and other members of the committee are advancing the cause of space resources by pushing NASA to start its own space resources institute. Support for such an institute was included in a NASA reauthorization bill that recently passed out of the committee, and Perlmutter expects it to reach the House floor late this year or in early 2019. “Personally, I think Colorado is the perfect place to have an institute like that,” Perlmutter says. “My real thrust is to get our astronauts to Mars by 2033, and these are the kinds of things that put building blocks in place to do that. Colorado is a great place for an institute of this kind, given the capacity we have, with fantastic private-sector partners. A space-resources institute would be fun, it would be exciting, and it’d mean lots of new jobs.”
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Abbud-Madrid agrees that the Front Range would benefit from a NASA-led space-resources institute. “If the School of Mines is the place for space resources, Colorado is the state to have something like this. We have the second-largest aerospace economy in the United States, and the number one per capita,” he says. “All these large companies are here: Lockheed Martin, Sierra Nevada, United Launch Alliance. Plus we have hundreds of small companies.”
And one day there could be a spaceport that would offer once-a-week flights to space from Adams County. The Federal Aviation Administration is reviewing the application for Spaceport Colorado, which includes an analysis of potential sonic booms and noise levels, and is expected to issue a decision on the proposal by August 19.
The sky’s the limit for the space-resources industry in Colorado. But with those advances come more questions.
“As we go to space for resources, we have to learn from the lessons of the past down here on Earth,” Abbud-Madrid cautions. “We need to act responsibly and sustainably. Because this time, there is no excuse. We are a mature species and have gone through a lot. If we’re going to expand into space, let’s do it right.”