Ever since an asteroid blew up over Russia last year, space visionaries have gone crazy with fear and greed. Fear that a major asteroid impact would be the end of us. And greed over dreams of untold mineral wealth locked up in these wandering bits of rock.
Terrifying and tantalising as it all is, it seems to have passed South Africa by like a fireball in the night. While the country’s gold, platinum and other precious mineral reserves are dwindling, and the mining industry is on its knees thanks to strike violence, our corporate mining giants, government and unions are arm wrestling over what to do to save the industry. Have they no vision?
It’s time to get out there with our internationally top-ranked mining technologies and join the race for space riches. The country’s allies in the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) have the rocket scientists and we have the mining expertise. If governments don’t come to the party we can collaborate over pure private sector space ventures. This would provide a big bang comparable to the discovery of gold in 1887, except that it would involve platinum group minerals (PGMs) rather than gold.
There are lots of problems to overcome – technological, economic and political – but did that ever stop human beings from trying something outrageously new? We’ll get there, just as we managed to get down to 4km+ underground. It couldn’t be done, until it was. The subject has been broached in mining houses and government but what is needed now is vision and leadership to get us there.
The only big bang we are seeing right now is strikes on the mines leading to tragedies like Marikana, near Rustenberg, where 44 died in violent incidents and police shootings in August last year.
Put it this way, if our miners do NOT get involved it will not be long before PGMs from space flood the market and knock out our platinum mines permanently. Alternatively, we can create a whole new mining industry – and upgrade the workforce to highly specialised minernauts – by embracing the wave of innovation that is coming.
In my 3-volume Edge Series, a history of SA science, engineering and technology published in 2005, I covered the amazing achievement of our miners at more than 4km depth. This is the deepest humankind has gone into the Earth’s crust, and the conditions are hellish. So much so that from here on down, automated robot-mining is the only way. Human mining has reached its limit at the gold mines Savuka, Tau Tona and Mponeng, all situated at Western Deep levels some 50km from Johannesburg.
Our increasingly sophisticated technology has a place in outer space where machine mining will have to be done. The costs of establishing new deep earth shafts are becoming prohibitive, and comparable with mining in space. Although South Africa does have a lively space programme (satellites, telescopes like SALT and SKA) this is focused on pure research. If we team up with rocketeers, especially in the BRICs, we can score big and maybe pull our mining sector out of its nose dive.