Iain Cairns’ story in Rocket Science, ‘Conquistadors’, most definitely features rockets. It also harkens back to an essay on exploiting asteroids for their mineral wealth in Jerry Pournelle’s A Step Farther Out, which I remember reading back in the very early 1980s. Happily, Iain’s take on the topic is very much 21st century…
I was first tipped off about Ian Sales’s Rocket Science anthology last July by Michaela Staton, who runs the Cola Factory speculative fiction writing group in London.
Checking out the website for the project soon convinced me that Rocket Science was a real labour of love for Ian. The theme of the anthology, realistic portrayals of space travel, really excited me. I had been thinking about the subject for quite a while anyway…
When I was a kid in the 1970s, there still seemed to be a lot of public interest in space exploration, as a noble and worthwhile venture for all Mankind. Apollo had ended, but the Space Shuttle was new and exciting. Being an astronaut still seemed like a viable career option. I had a book with a projected timeline of space exploration, and I looked forward to a steady stream of milestones in my lifetime, including the first Mars base being established in 2012.
By the 1980s, however, it seemed like the optimism had faded. The huge financial cost of space exploration that had killed Apollo now loomed over the Shuttle. After the Challenger disaster, sudden awareness of the potential human cost dampened the general enthusiasm even further.
Through the 1990s, the Shuttle kept flying and there were other high-profile space projects like Hubble and the ISS, but it became increasingly clear there would be no return to the Moon in the near future, let alone manned missions to Mars or beyond.
In SF, space exploration began to seem like a rather old-fashioned, even far-fetched subject. The internet, virtual reality and cyberpunk were the new frontiers to explore. If you wanted to tackle space exploration seriously in the hard SF of the 2000s, you had to deal with the mundane realities. No faster-than-light travel with warp drives, wormholes or hyperspace. You’ll never get to Alpha Centauri in your lifetime, and even if your great-grandchildren arrived there on the generation starship, there’d be no fascinating alien cultures waiting there. Major SF buzz kill!
The main thing I kept wondering about was what the real driver of future space exploration might be. Cynically, I didn’t think the ineffable human need to slip the surly bonds of Earth and touch the face of God was enough on its own. It seemed like most major phases of human exploration and expansion are motivated by the hope of personal betterment or an improvement of circumstances. Sometimes that has been escape from oppression, but often it’s the promise of economic wealth or strategic power. The conquistadors went to the New World for many reasons, but the promise of silver and gold was a major one. The US went to the Moon, not just because it was hard, but also because they didn’t want the Soviets getting there first and painting it red.
So for Rocket Science I wanted to write a story of space exploration that was authentic not only in terms of science and technology, but also economics and motivations. If governments are now reluctant to pay billions for space missions, who will? The oil, gas, mining and minerals industries seem to be well placed to solve huge engineering challenges, conduct exploration in hostile environments, and invest billions in the hope of even greater returns. Where would a commercial space mission go for profit? Perhaps to a near-Earth asteroid that contained valuable metals and minerals. And would such a project face the same kind of ethical and environmental issues as on Earth?
Researching the details of the story reignited my interest in space exploration, and made me aware that, even though we still have no Mars base in 2012, this is the perhaps the most exciting time in the history of space exploration. The entrepreneurs leading the new commercial space race may partly be motivated by lifelong dreams of being astronauts – but it’s their outstanding grasp of economic business realities that gave them the billions to make their dreams a reality. SpaceX, led by PayPal’s Elon Musk, will launch the first private-sector mission to the ISS in April, and has just announced plans to offer $500,000 tickets to Mars in 2013. Richard Branson’s space tourism venture Virgin Galactic will start suborbital test flights this year. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin will test launch its latest all-reusable VTOL rocket this summer. Even Google’s founders are getting in on the act with their Lunar X Prize competition to encourage robotic Moon missions. It even struck me that the first thing I see every morning when I exit Old Street tube station is the headquarters of Inmarsat – a business generating billions in revenue from the exploitation of space. Now, more than ever, we’re living in the space age!
So I’d like to thank Ian for accepting my story ‘Conquistadors’ for Rocket Science, and for his brilliant editorial guidance in the polishing process – including teasing out a subtle Adam Smith reference to bolster the space economics theme! But I must also thank him for relaunching my passion for space. I may not get to Mars in 2012, but in 2013 – who knows? Now where did I put that $500,000…