Willoughby: Technology, time, and a miner’s undying optimism
Legends & Legacies
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson pondered whether humans would settle Mars. He was responding to a question during the talk show “On Point with Tom Ashbrook.” Tyson speculated that profits to be gained from mining asteroids would take precedence over establishing a colony on Earth’s second-closest neighbor.
I wish Fred T. Willoughby, my father, had been alive to hear Tyson’s logic. Immediately he would have checked out asteroid composition. I feel certain he would have deemed modern proposals to mine minerals from millions of miles away to be rational and necessary. His experience, as well as the challenges faced by our family two generations before him, had felt equally daunting.
E. A. Willoughby, my father’s grandfather, did not travel a million miles during his entire lifetime. But he trekked at the age of 19 across America to reach the Colorado Territory. He undertook this venture during 1859 to seek his fortune in the Colorado gold rush. His gold: to build houses in the new town of Denver, invest in gold mines and other businesses, and provide engineering expertise and equipment.
When Elon Musk pioneers commercial space travel we feel closer to the prospect of mining asteroids and planets. Way back when the Willoughbys first settled Colorado, miners panned for gold. One alternative, driving tunnels through solid rock, seemed fraught with insurmountable problems. But during my great-great-grandfather’s first decade in Denver, new technology enabled mineral extraction on a much larger scale.
In the early days of mining, hemp rope would break when used to hoist loads from shafts deeper than a couple of hundred feet. The innovation of wire rope during the 1860s enabled retrieval from greater depths. Mining hard rock called for a means to blast a path through a mountain. Alfred Nobel patented a blasting cap in 1865 and a form of dynamite in 1868 that revolutionized mining. Around that time the perfection of diamond and mechanical drills eased drilling.
As a young man, Fred T. had heard stories first-hand from miners of his father’s generation. Some of them had joined the Yukon Gold Rush. The journey from Aspen to the Yukon involved a months-long battle against the elements. Most gave up, some died. A ride in a spaceship would have appeared no more crazed to them, and perhaps safer. Most people of the time would not dare risk their lives for a slim chance to obtain a pile of gold. But a few felt compelled by the extent of the possible payoff.
The journey to an asteroid might require a robot to travel for years, a long wait for an outsized reward for engineers and investors. My father and grandfather displayed similar patience and persistence. They dug the Midnight tunnel from Queens Gulch to the area below the Little Annie Mine, a distance of 7,800 feet. Many days they gasped bad air and endured the drip of cold water on their bodies for hours, yet advanced the tunnel only on foot. Their task, interrupted with a few breaks, absorbed a decade.
Those who would set their sights on an asteroid would dream of the riches therein. Similarly, my ancestors anticipated the light at the end of their tunnels: a gleaming body of ore. Some considered their venture a long shot. Others considered it too dangerous. Considering the odds, only a few were willing to invest time and money in the effort. Mining has always enticed the risk takers.
Planetary Resources, a company to mine asteroids, has already launched the dream. The rare minerals, gold, iridium, platinum and palladium will likely continue in great demand, a need that asteroids may satisfy. Perhaps Willoughby grandchildren will fulfill their destinies as asteroid miners.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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