Over the past few months, a host of startups and projects looking to raise money in novel ways have settled on crypto and NFTs as their solution. Who can forget MoonDAO, which believes it can go from buying a seat on Bezos’ next low-Earth orbit rocket to a colony on the Moon with the help of NFTs, or FrontierDAO, which aims to fund research into commercial spaceflight with NFTs and “explore the alchemy" between art and science?
Exploration Laboratories LLC, or ExLabs, isn't a bunch of crypto traders in a Discord, however. It's an e startup developing asteroid mining tech with staff who previously worked at NASA and SpaceX. ExLabs announced on Tuesday that it is pursuing “unconventional” additional seed funding as it strives to create vehicles that could someday extract resources from space: NFTs.
In an interview with Motherboard, chief engineer Miguel Pascual and head of operations Matthew Schmidgall emphasized that the NFTs were a side project; they're a means to an end.
"We're an aerospace company first doing an NFT project,” Schmidgall said. "We aren't a company that's built around an NFT project. Our main focus isn't in figuring out how to solidify and corner all of the elements of the NFT ecosystem―we want to be a part of it and help it evolve into a format that actually works and is trustworthy."
Pascual said that the NFTs will both generate revenue and cultivate a community from which talent and ideas could be pulled.
“The whole point of embarking on this side project is to be able to scale our engineering. And so, if talent exists within the community, specifically to contribute to the project on a significant level, we want to speak with those individuals directly,” said Pascual. “We have an opportunity to create some awesome artwork with really talented artists and share that vision for what that's going to be. But really, we just hope to be, you know, inspirational the same way SpaceX has been."
This NFT collection will be the first of three, aiming to let holders "experience what it would be like for humans to be out in space, off the planet, conducting industry research, and mining riches from space." As of right now, the firm has not announced the mint date, price, or token supply. ExLabs will also launch an "Exploration" token on Ethereum and distribute them as rewards for NFT holders.
“Holders of the first Explorers Club NFTs will automatically become members and get 10 Exploration Tokens per day. The tokens can be redeemed for exclusive benefits including launching the holder’s name into space, advising on future company designs and community decisions, placing art on next-generation task vehicles, and possible ownership of actual asteroid fragments,” the press release reads. “Explorers Club members will be part of a community that supports an important advancement, and will witness the ambitious yet attainable goals of utilizing the limitless resources space has to offer come to life.”
Although it might sound absurd, NFTs and tokens might just be a perfect fit for asteroid mining, which itself is a highly speculative venture.
The industry's bubble seemed to burst years ago. Major ventures such as Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries once led the hype cycle surrounding asteroid mining, raising tens of millions of dollars and recruiting NASA talent in the early 2010s. Those firms went defunct in less than a decade as they restructured their visions to abandon asteroid mining, were acquired by telecommunications companies, and had their assets sold or released to the public. But ExLabs believe the time is now riper than ever before, due to developments in rocket technology that have already occurred or are underway.
"A lot of the technology over the past 10 to 20 years has been forced to develop around a smaller payload volume and weight ratio in order to get these task vehicles into space,” Schmigdall said. “And now, with some of the new super heavy lift vehicles that are going to be coming into the market—not the current ones, but you know the next generation, that changes the game as far as what the limitations are around what can be built and spent into space."
Costs have come a long way: since the Space Shuttle first took off in 1981 to the Falcon Heavy launches starting in 2018, the cost to take a kilogram into low earth orbit has plummeted from $65,400 per kilogram to $1,500 per kilogram. Asteroids, however, are not always in low-Earth orbit, and so part of ExLabs’ announcement also said the company is working on “bringing asteroids into a usable orbit.”
In 2013, NASA announced plans for such a mission to pull an asteroid into the Moon’s orbit then have asteroids set foot on it, but it was eventually scrapped in 2017. Some of the developed technology was repurposed for a recent NASA mission to test whether kinetic impact can slightly redirect an asteroid’s motion.
Still, that doesn’t seem to have deterred Exploration Laboratories from trying to revive that dream again, or from using a new speculative asset to raise funding for the old speculative venture.
"We're taking web3 to space. Capture a real asteroid with your spot on the #ExplorersClub pre-sale list," the company tweeted in promotion of the coming NFT collection.