Early science fiction authors tossed around the idea of mining the asteroids near Earth decades ago. Asimov, Heinlein, Pournelle, and other sci-fi luminaries wrote the concept into their stories of robots and space-bound pioneers since the 1940s. As with many of those authors’ ideas, we’re on the edge of fiction becoming reality.

Companies such as Redmond-based Planetary Resources plan to send robot harvesters up to the asteroids, likely within a decade, to extract water and rare minerals. CEO Chris Lewicki told me they are already in the prospecting phase, sending satellites to probe for likely mining candidates. The conference room where we met has a large window into a clean room, where their engineers prepare the next satellites.

“I think we are closer to extracting water off of an asteroid than we were to the launching of the iPhone,” he said.

As Lewicki talks, he illustrates his discussion not with pictures, but with meteorites scattered on the Planetary Resources conference table. Rocks such as these have crashed all over Earth, like an almost 20-kilogram iron mass found a few miles from Pullman in 1993. They provide clues to what we might mine from asteroids.

One of the unassuming samples on the table is a dark slice of rock with light flecks. It’s similar to the type of asteroid, a carbonaceous chondrite, that might provide ice—and thus oxygen and hydrogen for fueling rockets and water to keep people alive when the time comes for further human spaceflight.

Asteroid mining is just one aspect of the rapidly-developing private space industry. Rocket launches, space tourism, and space planes are already here—with Washington at the forefront. The Washington State Space Coalition is a recently-formed group of Washington companies that builds on the state’s long history of aerospace innovation from Boeing and others.

Research at WSU on meteorites, propulsion systems, and other aspects of space exploration can help Washington move toward that future. Just as crucial, WSU trains engineers and others who will work in this growing field. Dozens of alumni already work for outer space companies such as Blue Origin, Planetary Resources, Aerojet Rocketdyne, and SpaceX. They’re working not on sci-fi dreams, but real efforts with a universe of possibilities.