Response to VVEV: Section III – Asteroids

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series Visions, Ventures, and Escape Velocities

VVEV is illustrated by Maciej Rebisz

This is Part 3 of a six-part response to Visions, Ventures, and Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures, which is available for free from Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination thanks to a grant from NASA. I say “response” and not “review” because I intend to engage with the ideas presented from my own point of view.

Section III of VVEV is entitled Asteroids, and contains two short stories and two essays:

  • The Use of Things, by Ramez Naam
  • Toward Asteroid Exploration, by Roland Lehoucq
  • Night Shift, by Eileen Gunn
  • Rethinking Risk, by Andrew D. Maynard

This blog post contains spoilers!

I’ve gotta say, The Use of Things really fell flat for me. The story consists mostly of infodumps about the Newtonian mechanics of spacewalking, how robot swarms might work to assist explorers, and the multifaceted importance of water, all embellished with excessive italics, perhaps in an attempt to make the content more interesting.

The narrative is perfunctory at best. The protagonist — Ryan — experiences neither agency nor real change, the only thing resembling a conflict (Ryan is thrown off the asteroid by a random systems failure) is solved linearly and deus ex machina (literally) by the robot swarm which simply pushes him back to safety, and the only other named character serves merely to provide a flat counterargument to Ryan’s belief that humans are actually worth sending into space at all. In terms of narrative, there’s hardly a story there.

These complaints aside (and I’ll quit it with the italics now), I do think that the main issue Naam raises is well worth thinking about: why send human at all into space when robots are so much cheaper, and don’t need to come back?

  “Ryan, getting you there in one piece, all your food, your water, your air, your triple-redundant safety systems, it’s twenty thousand kilos! Think about all the instruments we could pack in that payload instead! And it’s billions of dollars. Just for you!” She started gesticulating then, waving her arms about, agitated.    “Yeah, you can do a few things no robot can. But thousands of them can do a whole heck of a lot more useful work than you. And with the money spent on your trip, we could close whatever capability gap there is.”
He grimaced, breaking eye contact. “You’re saying I’m useless.”
“No,” Beth said the word slowly, like she was explaining calculus to a child. “You have your uses. But the price is way too high. A heck of a lot higher than your value. You’re a net liability to the mission.”
“Worse, then. Worse than useless.” He looked back up, met her eyes, dared her to agree.
She sighed in exasperation. “Stop pouting, Ryan. This isn’t about you. It’s about the mission.”
He grew impatient with her, let it show. “Dammit, Beth. We’re out there figuring out how to build habitats! We’re out there building a road. We’re out there figuring out how to get men and women living off-planet! Crewed missions have to be part of it!”
She stared at him for a moment, studying him, her eyes roving over his face. “You’re half-right. We do need to get our species off this planet, out of our one little basket. Space is for humans …”
“So why …” he tried to interject.
She slapped a hand onto the table. “Because the fastest way to build that road into space for our species is not to send you on this mission!”

[I know I said I’d quit the excessive italics, but this was a quote you see, so it’s not my fault.]

I’ve blogged before on the question of Why Space?, and I think my conclusions there stand up well here in the context of The Use of Things. If your goal is purely science, exploration, and/or observation, it’s very hard to make a rational argument for human spaceflight. Sure, there are some judgments that present rovers find difficult or impossible to make in real-time, and a human on-site may speed things up in some cases, especially for distant worlds where communication lag is greater. But in the big picture, it’s indeed very hard to justify that expense and risk (and the two are directly connected).

However, if the goal is national prestige or claiming resources, it certainly helps psychologically to have a human face planting the flag or setting up shop. And if the goal is human space settlement, then obviously humans need to go at some point along the way, if at least to develop the systems and understanding needed to keep them alive permanently off of the world for which they are exclusively evolved.

Asteroid exploration and exploitation will no doubt play a large role in human space settlement, for the pure and simple reason of resource abundance and the economics of supply, as pointed out in Toward Asteroid Exploration, by Roland Lehoucq:

Any industrial development in space requiring more than about a thousand tonnes of structural mass or propellant per year will necessitate the use of NEA materials, as the cost of launching that mass from the Earth’s surface would likely exceed $20 billion. Retrieving raw materials from non-terrestrial sources could alleviate this high freight cost, as it would require significantly less energy to return material from many of the possible NEA targets to a space-centered outpost than to launch similar quantities of those materials from the surface of the Earth or the Moon.

The cost driver in space transport is not distance, but ΔV (“delta-vee”), representing the amount of change in velocity (and thus propulsive energy) needed to travel from Point A to Point B. On Earth, friction and air resistance provide nearly constant opposition to movement, and energy must be spent overcoming that resistance if a traveling object is to stay in motion. But in space, the biggest drivers of your energy expenditure are going to be 1) how much mass are you moving, 2) how fast do you want to move it, and 3) how much of your journey is spent fighting a gravity well, either climbing out of one or slowing down as you fall into one. For an operation in Earth orbit, it seems counter-intuitive that resources tens of millions of miles away in the asteroid belt could compete on cost with resources just tens or hundreds of miles away on Earth’s surface, but tremendous amount of energy needed to climb out of Earth’s gravity well indeed makes this potentially the case.

What is out there that is useful in an orbiting pile of space rocks? Lehoucq explains:

Many materials that are useful for propulsion, construction of life support, metallurgy, and semiconductors could be extracted and processed from NEAs. Volatiles such as hydrogen and methane could be used to produce rocket propellant to transport spacecraft between space habitats, Earth, the Moon, and asteroids. Metallic nickel-iron alloy could be used to manufacture structural materials. Rare earth metals will allow the production of solar photovoltaic arrays, which could be used to power space or lunar habitats. These solar cells could also be used in space solar power systems in orbit around the Earth in order to provide electrical power for their inhabitants. Precious metals such as platinum, platinum-group metals, and gold are also available. These materials have all been identified either directly in meteorites, or spectroscopically in asteroids and comets. But the main material could be water, which can be split into (liquid) hydrogen and oxygen to produce rocket fuel. Moreover, water and oxygen can be used to feed space habitats.

So how do we get there? I agree with Lehoucq’s proposed pathway to making use of asteroids:

in my opinion, the best way to attain asteroid mining is twofold: tackle the asteroid deviation problem (which leads to retrieving small NEAs to put into Earth or Moon orbit) and develop an in-space high power generator (which will help solve the asteroid deviation issue). Developing our capabilities to protect humankind from an NEA impact could provide the social and political momentum that is necessary if we are to proceed further. And it is that social and political momentum in which science fiction’s speculative futures, too, play an important part.

Developing the capability to construct systems in space that never need to be launched or landed on a planet will be key to large-scale human expansion into space. The enormous expense of launching mass from Earth’s surface into space makes construction of large-scale infrastructure effectively impossible without utilization of space resources. If such systems and infrastructure are to be built at all, then effective exploration and redirection of asteroids is almost certainly the most economical approach to gaining access to a large swath of the needed raw materials.

Unfortunately in my opinion, NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission, developed under the previous administration, was cancelled in June 2017 by the current one. Politically, there are many reasons for this, but at the risk of getting seriously side-tracked, I’ll save that discussion for another post. Private companies such as Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, however, see enough potential in the idea to put serious engineering effort towards such missions within the next few years.

Night Shift, by Eileen Gunn continues the thread started in The Use of Things about robots and AI being just plan better at so many things that humans have a steadily narrowing role to play in the exploration and building up of space, besides just living there when its ready. The concept of nanobots to automatically land, self-replicate, and process the useful molecules out of an asteroid is interesting, and certainly in line with the engineering trend towards biomimicry in advanced systems. Humans have known for millenia that nature is incredibly good at efficient solutions to problems — birds flying without vertical tails or engines, photosynthesis to convert and store energy, and brains capable of sentient thought while running on a few watts for starters. Modern materials technology is finally making it possible to mimic or even modify these natural systems, with exciting (and unnerving) consequences on the horizon. The least that can be said is that such systems will revolutionize many industries, including spaceflight.

Though it starts as a story exploring the way bio-inspired, AI-directed nanobots could help humans exploit asteroid resources, in the final third of the narrative, Night Shift rapidly veers out of spaceflight and into questions of sentience, emotional attachment to machines, and shades of the Singularity problem. While all interesting topics, I felt that, in the end, it was hard to tell what the story was really about from a character perspective. The only conflict involves a potentially runaway AI that, while causing momentary panic in the protagonist, is swiftly reeled in by someone with more authority. On this account, Night Shift certainly does a better job developing its characters than The Use of Things, but I’m still left unimpressed from a story perspective. I’m sure I’ll spend more time on this thought thread in Part 5 when I get to overall conclusions.

On the positive side, the final component of the section is one of the best essays I’ve read in a long time: Rethinking Risk, by Andrew D. Maynard. I’d only dilute his message by attempting to summarize it, so I’ll simply present the following extract and exhort you to go read the whole thing:

What emerges is a complex risk landscape, where the risks include threats to dignity, integrity, and relationships. Within this landscape—one where someone will suffer no matter what is done—simply characterizing thinking and actions as “risk-averse” is not helpful. Instead, we should consider the degree to which individuals and the group as a whole are willing to contemplate and ultimately accept the consequences of actions, both to themselves and others. Risk in this instance is not a danger to be avoided, but an inevitability that reveals what the primary value is within a complex landscape, and what it is worth risking to sustain that value.

The word “space” doesn’t occur once in that paragraph, but I promise that this essay gets more to the root of thinking about future human spaceflight and space settlement than almost anything else we could discuss. Maynard’s essay manages to be philosophical, personal, and grounded in concrete examples all at once, and I’m glad the dimension of risk was included in this collection.

And now, onward to the Exoplanets…

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