A Harvard graduate, with a doctorate from Columbia and a post-doc from Princeton, Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson is a certified smart guy. So when I heard Dr. Tyson had a new book coming out, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, I ran out to pick up a copy, thinking there might be some good information in there for investors looking to profit from the surging space industry in America.
Turns out, I wasn't alone. Astrophysics for People in a Hurry is already a New York Times best-seller, and the No. 1 best-selling book on Amazon.com.
And now I see why.
After reading his book, I called up Tyson to see if he'd be willing to expand a bit on some of the ideas related to the business of space exploration, and how individual investors should be thinking about the big issues of our time: Elon Musk's planned Mars mission, the Trump administration's cuts in NASA funding, and asteroid mining, among others.
Here are a few insights into these matters, courtesy of America's favorite astrophysicist.
Thoughts on Mars
Tyson recently joked on Reddit that before going to Mars himself, he'd want to see SpaceX CEO Elon Musk send his own mother there -- and bring her back alive. And so I asked him: Exactly what objections does he have to the idea of Musk undertaking a manned mission to Mars? As it turned out, his concerns were primarily of the economic variety.
"History tells me there is no business model for" a private individual exploring a new world without government backing, explains Tyson, because "there are too many unknowns." Citing the original example of New World colonization, Tyson points out that "the British East India Company didn't discover America. Columbus did."
For the East India Company to try to explore the New World before Columbus blazed the trail, says Tyson, "would have been an unwise investment," because they didn't know "where the trade winds are, and where are the hostiles and where are the friendlies." It was only after a government had provided the financing for Columbus' expedition, and he had returned with some hard facts on the New World, that private companies could develop a plan to profit from it. Tyson expects the colonization of Mars to follow a similar path.
"If [Musk] thinks that he, or SpaceX, is going to build a ship and be the first man to go to Mars and have no government money involved, I don't buy that," argues Tyson, qualifying that, "if he does I will be surprised and shocked." The more likely scenario, says Tyson, is that Musk might build spaceships for NASA to use for Mars exploration -- hopefully cheaper than the ones that Boeing (NYSE:BA) and Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT) are trying to build. SpaceX might even take on the entire project as a contractor to NASA, running missions to Mars for a fee. But Tyson has serious doubts about SpaceX's ability to foot the bill for landing humans on Mars all on its own.
(And I have to say, after learning what we have this year about the state of SpaceX's finances, Tyson may have a point.)
Exploring the solar system in a time of deficit
Of course, depending on the U.S. government to finance a trip to Mars gives rise to a whole new discussion. With the federal government in deficit and in debt, and with increasing amounts of what little money we bring in going to pay interest on the debt we've already racked up, it's debatable whether the government can afford a trip to Mars -- or even afford the International Space Station.
Tyson touched on this point in Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, musing how, when contemplating the universe, one can sometimes forget that "uncounted people walk this Earth without food or shelter, and that children are disproportionately represented among them." And so I asked him: Is President Trump's proposal to cut NASA's $19.3 billion budget by approximately $200 million necessary to balance social spending against discretionary funding for space programs?
His reply: "If by taking NASA's $19 billion we could solve all of poverty, then I would say, 'Go ahead. Do it.' But it's not. And if that $19 billion were half the budget, then I would agree that half is too much to spend on NASA. But it is actually less than half of one 1/100th of the budget. Just fourth-tenths of one penny on your tax dollar goes to NASA."
Thinking long term
What's more, Tyson highlights the risks of focusing too narrowly on immediate problems at the expense of longer-term solutions. He put it to me this way:
Imagine a group of people who live in a cave, and in that cave they have problems. There's a shortage of food. There's a need for firewood. Outside the cave, there's a valley, and within that valley there may be edible plants, there may be trees. So one day a cave-dweller asks: "I wonder what's outside the cave?"
But elders of the cave reply: "Before you go exploring outside the cave, first you've got to solve the problems inside the cave." And that could be a problem if the solutions to the cave's problems all lie outside the cave. Tyson wonders if this is the situation we face in America today.
"We wage wars over resources on Earth," he says. "But the universe is a limitless source of resources. There are asteroids in space where these resources are not rare. They're common." Folks who insist we can't invest in space exploration are like the cave elders. They say we can't look to the stars for solutions, because we've got to "keep looking down at our Earth problems and solve those first."
What's outside the cave?
Here, Tyson touches on another idea of interest to investors. The center of an asteroid, says Tyson, could be a literal gold mine of rare-earth elements, of gold, of platinum, of iridium. If we could capture an asteroid and crack it open, says Tyson, we might find 1,000 pounds of precious metals inside, and bring those resources back to Earth -- and that would be very valuable.
In fact, Tyson declares: "The man who first learns to mine asteroids and bring back their minerals to Earth will become the first trillionaire. There's no question about that in my mind."
For that matter, he suggests, "It may be that what we're doing in space is a much simpler and valuable use of resources found in space than bringing them back down to Earth." For example, it costs NASA $10,000 a pint to carry water from Earth to space. But if you can harvest water from an asteroid, which is already in space, then every pint of water discovered in space saves NASA $10,000.
"There's a huge business case to be made here," says Tyson.
Tyson also sees a case to be made for the space tourism initiatives of folks like Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson and Blue Origin founder (and Amazon.com CEO) Jeff Bezos. Observing that well-heeled tourists have already proven willing to pay $20 million for visits to the International Space Station, Tyson wonders what might happen once someone offers to put tourists in orbit for $5 million, "or for $1 million, $500,000, or $100,000."
"I think there is a marketplace there," muses Tyson.
"Space is hard." So is investing in space
Tyson sees multiple ways that the space industry could interest investors here on Earth, but, as the saying goes, "Space is hard." In a note hearkening back to Alan Greenspan's admonition about irrational exuberance, he does have one important warning for investors: "I worry that a profitable space industry may be farther away than people think. Space is expensive and it is dangerous," and profits are not guaranteed -- especially to early adopters.
Nevertheless, he says, "I admire the visionaries who are moving this market forward. They will pull humanity's center of mass in the direction of exploration."
Speaking of which, for fans of Tyson's television show StarTalk, the good doctor confides that filming of season 4 has already begun, and the show returns to the National Geographic Channel in the fall. Luckily, with Astrophysics for People in a Hurry in hand, investors have a lot of new ideas to mull over while we wait for him to return to the airwaves.