On May 25, 2008, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter satellite transmitted a grainy image back to Earth. It showed two white dots – the Phoenix Mars lander and its parachute – descending against the backdrop of the planet’s vast Heimdal impact crater. Chris Lewicki, the Phoenix mission’s manager, hadn’t seen the lander since its launch on August 3, 2007, on board the Delta II rocket that carried it into space. The Phoenix landed 20km from the huge crater, kick-starting its search for microbial-friendly habitats on Mars.
For Nasa, this was the beginning of another successful mission, but to Lewicki, things began to feel repetitive. He had first become obsessed with space at the age of 11, when he saw images of Nasa’s Voyager mission, the space probe that captured images of the Solar System’s outer planets. He studied Aerospace Engineering at the University of Arizona and, in 1999, joined Nasa, where he rose through the ranks. In 2003, at the age of 29, he oversaw the landing of the Spirit and the Opportunity Mars Rovers.
Those missions were the fulfilment of his childhood dream. Now, with the Phoenix – his third mission to Mars – he began to feel restless. “A lot of my friends were working on the next big robot project, Curiosity,” he says. “But that felt like the easy thing to do.” So he started casting around for a new job.
That’s when he received a call from an old friend, Peter Diamandis, a man best known for creating the XPRIZE Foundation, a $10 million (£7.7m) award for the development of the first reusable space rocket. Lewicki had met him at an international astronomy organisation called Students for the Exploration and Development of Space, set up by Diamandis in 1980 to promote interest in space exploration. Lewicki had built its website, helped set up its offices and even written letters to Congress. “We’d been in and out of each other’s spheres since then,” he explains.
During that phone call, Diamandis told Lewicki about his new startup. It had an ambitious goal: to mine asteroids for their natural resources. Diamandis was looking for a CEO. Was he interested? “I just told him he was fucking crazy,” says Lewicki.
In the days after that conversation, however, the more he thought about it, the less crazy Diamandis’s project seemed to be.
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