Asteroid Monetization

“We could just kill him.” John held up his fingers, pointed like guns. “Bang!”

Alice crossed her arms. “Don’t even joke about that.”

“Who’s joking? Do you know how few murders ever get solved?”


“It’s less than half! And that’s the number for your average dumbass criminal. If the three of us put our heads together, there’s no way we’d get caught.”

Alice hesitated for a moment. She didn’t know John as well as I did. “Your average dumbass criminal,” I said, “gets caught because they do stupid things like telling their friends they’re thinking of committing a murder. Or, even worse, planning to murder their former boss the day after they’re fired. So, yes, John, surely you’re smart enough not to make obvious mistakes like those.”

John rolled his eyes. “I could have a new job tomorrow. Signed by Monday, maybe. And you two wouldn’t turn me in, would you? I guess maybe you would.”

“I still say we should go to the papers,” Alice said, instead of indulging him. “Tell them everything.”

John shook his head.

“They’d listen,” Alice continued, voice speeding up. “They’d have to.”

“Of course they’d listen. Startup founder goes insane, fires all his employees, evil plan? They’d eat it up. But we have like a week here, tops, to stop this. We don’t have time for a media circus.”

We’d already tried the normal authorities. Local police, the FBI’s public phone number. They’d said they’d look into it. I was sympathetic – we must sound like lunatics – but they were moving too slowly. Like John said, we were on a tight timeline.

It was understandable that Alice was having trouble coming to grips with things. For her, this whole debacle had started yesterday afternoon. John had known a little longer. He’d figured out what was happening last week. But arguably, the whole thing had started five years ago, with an excess of enthusiasm for a an ultimately doomed startup.

Five years ago, someone managed to convince the press that asteroid mining was right around the corner. The idea was simple enough for people to understand, but futuristic enough to capture their imaginations.

The idea is that humanity finds some asteroid rich in platinum or whatever that’s going to pass by earth. We send out an unmanned ship, position it reeeeeeal close to the asteroid, and over the course of months the gravity from the ship nudges the asteroid onto a new path, putting it into a stable orbit. If we get to the asteroid while it’s far enough away, we only need to cause a very small angular deflection, and we have a lot of time to do it.

That means the ship can be fairly small, small enough that a sufficiently well-capitalized group of nerds could put some thrusters on a metal box and pay SpaceX to haul it up out of Earth’s gravity well. It’s more complicated than that, but not by much.

So five years ago, our illustrious founder realized there was an opportunity. Interest rates were low, and there was a lot of capital sloshing around. He recruited a famous astrophysicist to call himself cofounder, raised an absolutely disgusting sum of money in an oversubscribed round, and started hiring people like us to make it actually happen.

Do you see the problem? Even if everything went off without a hitch – which it mostly did, much to everyone’s surprise – you still need to get actually mine the platinum from the surface of a giant rock in orbit.

When the company started, this didn’t seem like a huge concern. It was five years down the road. The company was way more likely to die from something else before we got there. The plan was basically to wait and see. When the asteroid was on its way to orbit, we’d price out the mining operating with whatever tech was actually available by then, and raise a new round of funding to go get the platinum.

The asteroid was about a year away when we started speccing out stage two. We did a press blitz, drank champagne for a week in the office, went home with big cash bonuses, and come back after the weekend ready to take over the world.

Only one little issue. The economics didn’t work out. Not with currently available tech, not with tech anyone could plausibly promise within the decade. Not a single part of it worked out. The capital costs were too high. The marginal costs were too high. It just wasn’t going to work. And without a plausible plan, there was no second round of funding on the way. Suddenly we had less than a year of runway.

Now, if you’ve worked for the sort of person who starts a company like ours, you probably know it didn’t end there. A traditional business type might have shrugged, paid themselves a fat bonus, and looked into liquidating the rights to the asteroid after it was in orbit. A scientist might have tried to pivot to a research project, getting government grants to do basic science on the rock, or just donating it to the international scientific community.

Instead, our founder started getting creative. He priced out extracting ice from the asteroid instead, and using it to make fuel that didn’t need to be shipped up to space. He tried rebranding the rock as space real estate and selling plots. He tried launching AsteroidCoin, which somehow did actually make money, but not enough to keep the company running.

Then, a few weeks ago, he just stopped. No more 3AM emails with crazy ideas. No more sudden requests for data analysis on some wacky material property of the rock. No more surprise all-hands meetings where he stood in front of us with his tie half-off and explained his newest plan.

Instead, he started coming around the orbital mechanics department. He asked us to explain how we did our calculations. Wanted to understand the whole pipeline, start to finish. We even let him talk to the ship, make an adjustment to the asteroid’s path and then fix it, to show how we were correcting for the small gravitational effects of other bodies we passed. It was gratifying, in an end-of-an-era sort of way, to spend time with him doing ordinary startup things for just a little longer.

John was the one who caught on. I don’t know what tipped him off, or if it was just the sort of thing he would have thought of. But he pulled me in to help investigate. There was a week of incompetent cloak-and-dagger work, until yesterday morning, when we’d gone to Alice to try and talk her into giving us a copy of the admin logs. She had, quite reasonably, ratted us out.

The entire engineering department was fired yesterday afternoon and escorted off the premises.

John’s phone buzzed. He took a break from arguing with Alice to glance down at it. Then he sat up straight, reading it again. “Fuck,” he said.

My heart sped up. I craned around to look at his screen, almost bumping into Alice, who was doing the same.

John had already clicked through whatever message he’d gotten. We were watching a livestream, now, apparently from a laptop webcam. It showed our founder, sitting at a crappy ikea desk on what looked to be a yacht. An bottle of scotch was open next to him. As we watched, he swallowed heavily, loosening his tie until the knot fell to his third button.

“People of earth,” he began. He swallowed again, staring off into the middle distance. “People…” He sounded a little drunk.

“Oh no,” Alice murmered under her breath.

“He must have thought we were having more success than we are,” John said.

“Or the police called him,” I added.

“This is great!” John leaned his phone against the screen of his laptop, turning up the volume. “Problem solved. Someone else can take care of it.”

“Yeah.” Alice said. “Great.”

“People of earth!” The broken man in the video rallied himself, making eye contact with the camera. “This is an ultimatum. Life as you know it is in peril. An asteroid is on a collision course with earth, and only I have the power to stop it. Here are my demands:”

Written on January 14, 2021