Home » How to live off the land in space: Angel Abbud-Madrid at TEDxMileHigh (Transcript)

How to live off the land in space: Angel Abbud-Madrid at TEDxMileHigh (Transcript)

Angel Abbud-Madrid – TRANSCRIPT

I would like you to join me as we look up to space in a completely different way. Not just because of its beauty, or the mysteries that it holds, but because of the value that it represents for the future of humankind.

The year is 2062. One of the children of your children is about to go up on a mission to a space rock, an asteroid I know what you’re going to tell your grandkid “Darling, why did you pick such a boring dry destination in space?” “Well, think again, grandpa. Watch me go, grandma.” And there goes your grandkid on a one-month trip to an asteroid the size of this stage, one of hundreds passing close to Earth every year.

As it accelerates up to 40,000 miles an hour, the spacecraft finally catches up with the asteroid, turns a magnifying glass, focuses the energy on the surface of the rock, heating it up until gases and water come spewing out of it. Water that can be collected for up to a crew of four astronauts for drinking purposes. Also, to grow plants that they can serve as food. To extract oxygen from the water, so they can breathe inside their capsules and their spacesuits.

Water, that once heated turns into steam, that can propel that rocket to other destinations for up to four years, to other asteroids, to the Moon, and even have enough fuel and supplies left to bring the crew back to our planet, 50 years from now, to exactly the same place where we are all gathered here, today, so that that your grandkid can deliver the master talk at the TEDxMileHigh 2066 event.

And what would be the title of that talk? “How I learned to live off-the-land…in space.” So grandma, grandpa, next time you see a boring dry rock like this, think of it instead as a celestial gas station with a convenience store attached to it. Oh, thank heavens! What your grandkid has done is to extract resources to live and work in space, cutting our dependence from Earth, from where we have sent all the fuel, supplies, and equipment for the thousands of rockets since the beginning of the Space Age in the 1950s. We depend 100% from the resources of our planet to explore space, and that is obviously not an efficient or sustainable way to explore.

It won’t get us very far. It is also not an economical proposition. Tons of fuel are needed to power a spaceship to overcome gravity that wants to keep us firmly on the ground. 90% of the weight of a rocket is fuel that is needed to launch that tiny little capsule where the astronauts, and their materials, and supplies are housed. It costs more than $10,000 a pound to send anything into space. 2 million dollars alone are necessary to launch me up there, nearly my weight in gold. And let me tell you, I’m a bargain.

Because of all the extra weight of hair that I don’t have to carry around. We know from our experience here on Earth that on the long cross-country trips, we don’t take all the fuel, or all the food that we need. No! We use resources where we find them.

And if you want to know what this strategy has allowed us to do to explore our planet, let’s now go back in time, to circa 124,000 BC, to meet not your descendants in space, but your ancestors, the homo sapiens, who, after years of drought, and environmental degradation, and population growth, left their birthplace, their cradle in Africa, for other parts of the continent, to Europe, in all sorts of regions in Asia, looking for basic survival, food, and water.

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And in the process, they learned how to control certain technologies, control fire, and to preserve food. Then, about the time they crossed to the Americas, about 15,000 years ago, they discovered agriculture, that allowed them to settle in first villages, then towns, and then cities. Then on the second wave of exploration, in the 15th century. Once they learned how to navigate the oceans, the search was for more exotic elements that were important to society back then: gold, silver, spices, silk.

Then in the 19th century, it was about drilling for oil all over the planet, which has become our main source of energy. And just 20 years ago, the search has been for those rare elements in the periodic table that are now part of your cell phones and the cars that you drove up here today. So resources are what drives our economy, our society, our very existence. And as you can see, this insatiable search for resources has allowed us to live off the land in ever more extreme environments, to explore every corner of our planet, and to dig as deep as possible, searching for anything that can be of use to us.

So, where to go next? It’s time to look up to space. Premature and economical, science fiction you might say. Not really. In fact, the process has already started 50 years ago, we pierced our atmosphere for the first time and left our planet. Yes, first for political reasons, the US versus the Soviet Union on their way to the Moon. Then for scientific purposes. But something happened on our way to heaven. We realized that space had value, that it could be useful to us, and without noticing it, we have become increasingly dependent on space’s first utilized resource, our ability to look at our Earth from up above.

This is giving us weather forecast, and global communications, and a GPS network that allows us to pinpoint every location on the surface of the Earth with extreme accuracy. Not only that. The view from above has given us a view of the fragility of the Earth, and also to assess the damage that we’re causing on this relentless quest for Earth resources. So space is already an integral part of our lives, our society, our economy. And we have only just begun.

Just a quick look at what lies beyond our Earth, and one soon realizes that space resources are practically limitless. From the view from above, low gravity and low vacuum in space where we can process new materials on space stations, to abundant solar and nuclear energy, to gases, minerals, and metals on the Moon, asteroids, and Mars, space truly represents the next frontier on resource extraction and utilization. Now, some might say, “Why go to space?” We don’t need those resources, that we have plenty of them here. We have renewable energy sources, we can recycle, we can decrease our population growth, we can even get rid of our need, our demand for materials.” True, and we’ll continue to do that for many years.

But no matter what, we live in a closed system with limited resources, bound by a thin atmosphere, and sooner or later, we’re going to have to look at the possibility of expanding our frontier, and look at the possibility of bringing space resources, to relieve the stress that we’re causing on our environment and to continue the expansion of our species. Just like we have done here on Earth. If we learn how to live off the land in space, that would allow us to continue further and further, and then, at some point, develop an infrastructure, based purely on space resources. Yes, with all gas stations, and convenience stores, and fuel depots that would allow us to expand our economy, our ecosystem, our presence in space. And probably, we may even bring those resources to Earth if extracting it from our planet becomes, at some point, economically or environmentally not affordable.

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30 years ago, as an engineer, fresh out of college, I ended up working in one of the most remote silver and gold mines in the Northern Sierras of Mexico. This place was as far away from civilization as I have ever experienced. Far from paved roads, no TV, no telephone, not even telegraph, let alone Wi-Fi. This was in the 1980s. For all I know, I could have landed on an asteroid, just like your grandkid.

But there I realized what it takes to extract the resources which are so precious to our society. To look on the rocks and try to identify where the metals were hidden. To drill and extract, to move that material, and then treat it chemically, so finally we could extract the precious silver and gold, metals that I would see going out on trucks, across mountains towards civilization, where it could actually be used in the myriad of applications. That happened to be my day job. But at night I would look up to the most beautiful dark skies that you can see away from city lights and civilization, and there I would constantly wonder if there could be a connection between space and Earth, between the hundreds of objects that I would see up there and what I was doing on my daily routine: mining for Earth resources.

Forward 30 years, and interacting with dozens of engineers and scientists from NASA and other space agencies around the globe, and the private sector that have been thinking the same things I have for decades, and we’re about to embark in the next phase of exploration. This time, mining space resources. How are we going about this? We’re following the same steps that we have followed for hundreds of years here on Earth, except for more advanced technologies. Just like I learned to see those metals in those rocks, now we have several satellites going around the Moon and Mars with advanced cameras that can see what your eyes can’t, and that actually can identify the type, the location, the quantity of resources. The same machines that I used to excavate are now being turned into more able equipment that can practically mine on every planetary location, at different gravity levels and different atmospheres.

That chemical plant where I used to extract gold and silver has been miniaturized and automated to now extract any resource other than metal, such as oxygen, gases, water. Water that we can use wherever we want to go – Moon or Mars – and even export it. Not with trucks across mountains, but with rockets to our civilization in space, to refuel spacecraft, and satellites, and fuel depots that we will have in strategic places around our planetary neighborhood. How far have we come along? The process is well on its way. The same machines that we design here on Earth and test here are now being turned into equipment.

They are about to go in a couple of space missions, in a few more years, in the 2020s, to extract from the carbon dioxide atmosphere of Mars precious breathable oxygen. And not only that; the possibility of extracting carbon, the element that makes gasoline, and natural gas, and plastics. In around the same time, we’re going to have a mission that is going to the Moon, to the dark, deep craters of our nearest satellite, to drill for ice Ice that can be turned into rocket fuel and into drinkable water, for the first time obtaining the vital liquid from another celestial body other than Earth. The private sector is not sitting idle.

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They are about to send a swarm of satellites around different asteroids to look for their content of iron, or platinum, or water, on the very same bodies where your grandchildren will be making a pitstop 50 years from now, as they refuel on different destinations to space, and as they teach us how to live off the land in space. However, just like here on Earth, not all the challenges are scientific and technological. Extracting space resources will entail addressing economic and legal issues, societal concerns, ethical questions, political and international decisions. Who owns the space? Who gets to extract and utilize these resources? How would the wealth be distributed? What type of environmental problems are we creating on our way out? Hopefully, after millennia of using, and, yes, many times abusing our resources here on Earth, and their extraction, we should be in a much better position to utilize all space beyond Earth in an efficient and responsible way. Let’s do it right this time.

Because space resources hold the secret to unleash an unprecedented wave of exploration by fully utilizing the potential and value of space. They promise to give us not only an incremental knowledge of our Solar System, but, if done right, they will give us access to abundant material wealth for millennia to come. So, as we embark in this new era of exploration, let’s depart with the words of the grandfather of rocketry, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who said, “The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but humankind cannot stay in the cradle forever.” It’s up to us, humans, here on this rock, our Earth, to make this promise a reality. In the meantime, let’s all keep looking up.

Thank you.

Question: Thank you, Angel. What a fantastic start to the day. So, a quick question.

Angel Abbud-Madrid: Sure.

Question: All of us are probably wondering when will we finally have someone living on Mars?

AAM: Huh Okay. If you had asked me that 5 years ago, I would say, “Whenever NASA says so.” But the landscape has changed drastically. Not only NASA is saying, “We’re going to be there in 20 years, about the 2030s, but now you’ve got China, you’ve got India, you’ve got Europe, you’ve got Russia, all of them rushing to go to Mars about the same time.

But not only that. Just two weeks ago, Elon Musk from SpaceX says, “I’m going to cut that by 10 years. How about the mid-2020s?” So I would say, how about if we combine the private and the government efforts with some of the international help, and cut a little bit more, and even make it much better than that? And no matter what you do, the plans are to utilize water on Mars, because we can just not carry it from here and sustain our people there for as much as they are going to stay there.

Question: Great. We look forward to it.