On our show we’ve been looking into the still very new economy of space. But while the space economy might be new to us, science fiction has explored it in great detail. Host Molly Wood talked with Daniel Suarez, the author of near-future sci-fi books like “Daemon” and “Freedom™.” His most recent book, “Delta-v,” is out next week. It’s about a group of asteroid miners recruited by an eccentric billionaire to kick-start the space economy.
Suarez was partially inspired by last year’s United Nations report that said humans only have about 12 years to avert catastrophic climate change. He imagined a near future in which private companies mine asteroids for materials and water to build colonies in space, which is cheaper and easier than moving to Mars. The following is an edited transcript of Suarez and Wood’s conversation.
Daniel Suarez: If what we’re trying to do here is expand human presence, to build a platform in an economy on which we can stand and operate while we perhaps help fix Earth’s climate, that means we need resources up there. Asteroids are already up there. They contain everything from nitrogen, ammonia, oxygen, iron, nickel, all of the resources we need. The false start for many people is that we’re going to bring all these minerals and resources back to the planet’s surface. Nothing could be further from the truth. The benefit is largely where they are.
Molly Wood: To make it crystal clear, if you are already in space mining an asteroid and you only have to take those materials, whether it’s minerals or water, to a colony that is also already in space, that requires less energy.
Suarez: Much less energy because, if you look at it, you have to go 10 kilometers per second to get escape velocity here on Earth, you’ve got to massively accelerate. But once you’re up there, you can easily move hundreds of millions of tons of resources that you find and build enormous, wonderful places to live.
Wood: It still sounds pretty high level even though I know that you’re pulling together strands of existing technology and existing companies. What is it going to take for all of this to become real within this 12-year window?
Suarez: The major obstacle is psychological. If you think back about what we did when we went to the moon half a century ago, it was extraordinary. I think it’s that level of commitment. Many people are familiar with the term “the overview effect,” this idea that when astronauts get into space and look back at the Earth, they are presented with the reality of how fragile and how thin that film is that covers the Earth, that is all of us, that is every human being that’s ever lived, every culture, everything we know. It develops a sense of unity that they care about us all. I think that is what we need. We need more people going up into space experiencing that and then working together to explore and push back human presence in the solar system. Commerce is key to that. Because, again, if we just send robots to mine asteroids without having people living and working in space without establishing new industries there, I don’t think we get the economic growth that we would otherwise.
Wood: You have these six space barons. One is clearly Elon Musk.
Suarez: I’m not saying anything, any resemblance to real-world people is purely coincidental, I assure you.
Wood: I will say there is an existing book called “The Space Barons.” People are really exploring this idea —
Suarez: And these are space titans in my book, completely different.
Wood: Space titans, exactly, that these billionaire space titans are going to push forward this vision.
Suarez: And take tremendous risks in doing so.
Wood: And take tremendous risks in doing so. Is that what it takes? Is there a version of great man or maybe, ideally, great woman theory at work here?
Suarez: Yeah, and to the extent that it’s great man, I think that’s partially a cultural artifact. I think as women increasingly get into positions to do such things, I think it will be equally women. I think it’s an instinct, it’s an ambition that drives certain people to try to change their future, change the world. I think that’s one of the advantages of having commerce involved. As you mentioned before, I really think it is going to be cooperative, partially competitive, but it is going to be sovereign missions of exploration, but also commercial. And there will be some friction between those two things. Let’s face it, a big question to ask is: Would it be OK for a private company to be the first one to land on Mars? In other words, would that upset nations, people, that a company would do it? What about planetary protection, making sure that Mars is not contaminated with microbes? There are many different questions. Would we allow people to mine? These are big legal questions that have to be explored and, of course, what value system, what legal system we bring into space, this is going to be very, very heady territory, and it’s going to happen very quickly. I think it’s going to be the billionaire types who will be challenging all of these accepted conventions. Nations of the world are going to have to get together and come to some determination to hash things out and it will be an interesting thing to watch. And, again, I think these people will be bringing rapid change, and that might be good.
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I talked with Daniel Suarez about how in his book government is almost entirely absent from the conversation, and indeed, private space exploration is a small but growing industry. It’s not just Space-X and Blue Origin, the one owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Earlier this month, an Israeli nonprofit called SpaceIL launched a low-cost rocket toward the moon in hopes of landing and inspiring more private space exploration.
The Beresheet lander unfortunately crashed. But experts say parts of the lander might have survived, like a round reflector that bounces back laser light from a NASA satellite, that could help future missions find the Israeli crash site or even be a beacon for future landers. There’s hope that part of the lander’s payload also survived — something called the Arch Lunar Library, a DVD-like device that holds information about Earth and a full English-language translation of Wikipedia.