A 1981 article in Canada’s Globe and Mail, for example, describes how a joint project from Princeton University and MIT, has built “a working prototype of an exotic new propulsion machine” that could be used to capture and mine asteroids. The article opens with a description of how a final design could look: “The solar-powered metallic tube several kilometres long is surrounded by thousands of huge copper coils. It collects valuable minerals and uses waste material for propulsion.”
The “mass driver” as it is known, could “accelerate a one-kilogram (2.2 pound) payload to a speed of 800 km/h (500 mph) in less than one-fortieth of a second.” There follows a baffling description of the device – also known as an electromagnetic catapult – that we are told would be “powered by gigantic solar panels as it launched material from the moon to orbital industrial structures, or provided the thrust for a mining expedition to the asteroids.”
By August 1984, other similarly ambitious concepts were reported, including a Nasa proposal which included “a manned moon base, extraction of oxygen from moon rocks for rocket fuel and mining of asteroids – all by the year 2010.”
Another story from two years later from United Press International reported on the predictions of Nasa astronomer Robert Nelson who said that in the following century” astronauts will be able to land spacecraft on the asteroids, mine raw materials and take them back to space stations, which will be maintained as independent communities in space.”
Many of these ideas came from large, government-backed organisations, like Nasa. However, in the late 1970s a remarkably prescient piece by the Associated Press described how the future of asteroid mining was private. It cites the views of John Kraus, director of the Ohio State-Ohio Wesleyan radio observatory.
"Just wait until it's demonstrated that you can use solar power to mine an asteroid for profit," he said. "Then everyone will want to be in on it."
He says that until that point, space exploration had largely been the domain of major governments “because of its exorbitant cost”. But he envisaged that the 21st Century would see “private enterprise moving into space to establish mining programs”.
"You won't be able to keep them out once you turn a profit in space," he is quoted as saying.
It is a view reemphasised in the decades that follow. The 1981 Globe and Mail article that outlined the “mass driver” suggest government budgets would not be able to foot the bill for such expensive operations. “Fortunately, space industrialisation has the possibility of being highly profitable for those companies willing to accept the risk of venturing into the unknown,” it says. “Free enterprise could provide the financial energy necessary for tapping into the boundless energy resources of the solar system.”
It ends with a quote from Gerard O'Neill, a physics professor at Princeton University and then president of the Space Studies Institute. "This whole business is much too important to be left to the federal Government," he says.
We will soon know whether he will be proven right.