Today I am sharing a Q&A with Daniel Suarez, author of the new science-fiction novel, Delta-v.
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Q: What inspired Delta-v?
A: Growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, I was fascinated by space exploration. I caught every Shuttle launch on TV, inhaled science fiction, and imagined that thousands of people would be living and working in space by 2020.
And yet, as we approach the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landings, we still haven’t expanded human presence in the solar system. In fact, no human being has traveled farther than 400 miles from Earth since 1973.
What happened? Many would say that the cost of space exploration proved too great, but given the existential risks of asteroid strikes, pandemics, climate change, overpopulation, nuclear war, and more, the cost of not venturing off-world could be extinction.
So much popular science fiction is set in the period well after humanity has established itself in the cosmos, but that future is by no means certain. We need to build it. My goal with Delta-v was to bridge the chasm between our present and the sci-fi future in space that so many of us imagine.
Fortunately, through my past novels, I’ve become acquainted with space entrepreneurs here in California and scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Caltech, as well as at NASA headquarters in D.C.. These experts helped me understand the economic and technological challenges we must overcome to finally become a space-faring civilization.
Crucially, I learned there is nothing preventing us from establishing ourselves in deep space except the will to do it—as we did with the Apollo missions. We need only revise our fiscal and political priorities. More sobering, I also learned that the window to expand into space will not remain open forever. Any number of calamities here on Earth could permanently prevent us from making this leap. So we cannot wait any longer.
Embarking human industry and society into space will be necessary if we hope to offer a promising future to coming generations. I wrote Delta-v to inspire the spirit of adventure and exploration for this vital quest.
Q: What does the term, ‘Delta-v’, mean, and how does it relate to the book?
A: ‘Delta’ is a standard notation in mathematics used to show a change in value. The ‘v’ in my title stands for velocity—thus, ‘delta-v’ (∆v) represents a change in velocity.
That concept turns out to be of central importance to space travel because all celestial objects are in motion—which means that to reach anything in space, you either need to accelerate or decelerate. And unlike travel over land, in space, heading directly toward something doesn’t mean you’ll ever reach it. Instead, you need to head where that object will be, not where it currently is. Even then, you need to be going fast enough to catch up – or slow down enough not to whiz past when you arrive.
The title, Delta-v, is also a metaphor. One’s current velocity and vector (direction of travel) defines a trajectory through space, and in writing this book, it occurred to me that humanity needs to accelerate from our current (calamitous) trajectory, to a higher one that brings us to a better future. If we don’t alter course soon, we might miss our chance.
Q: Your protagonists venture into space on the first commercial asteroid mining expedition. Is such a mission possible? Why wouldn’t we just send robots?
A: Several real-world asteroid mining companies have been founded for the purpose of exploiting off-world resources—and some have folded without ever launching a probe into space. Yet, this isn’t uncommon with tech startups in new industries, as first-movers seek to capitalize on an opportunity, whether or not the market is ready. However, all available evidence indicates that space-based resources will be a huge industry – possibly the biggest industry in history.
To entrepreneurs with an appetite for risk, the appeal is obvious: there are literally trillions of tons of metals, volatiles, silica compounds, and water ice (useful for making rocket fuel) contained in millions of asteroids in our solar system. Members of the public often make the mistake of thinking that the goal is to bring these materials back to Earth, but nothing could be further from the truth; most of the value of these asteroid resources lies in keeping them in space—near the top of Earth’s gravity well—where they can be used to build out space-based manufacturing facilities and to refuel spacecraft.
This isn’t science fiction, either: serious engineers are designing probes to chart the precise orbits and composition of near-Earth asteroids. Law makers, too, are taking the issue of space mining seriously; the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015, and Luxembourg’s Space Law of 2017 both allow commercial sale of resources harvested from celestial bodies (though they prohibit ownership of the parent celestial object itself).
However, as of 2019 no commercial enterprise has built and launched the spacecraft needed to prospect for potential mining targets. Neither has any firm yet been able to test robotic mining equipment in space – which means the industry is for the moment hypothetical.
Yet, recent missions of sovereign exploration by NASA, ESA, JAXA (Japan’s space agency), DLR (the German space agency) to the near-Earth asteroids Bennu and Ryugu are beginning to bear out spectrographic data that asteroids contain highly useful resources – samples of which will soon be returned to Earth.
One reason why it would be advantageous to send a human crew along with mining robots—as is the case in my novel—would be to modify the robots if the conditions aren’t as anticipated on arrival. Since robotic mining hasn’t yet been tried, it’s quite likely that not everything will go to plan, and if that happens, it will be good to have humans nearby to correct the problems. Otherwise, an entire mission would need to be abandoned and new robotic probes launched from scratch—which would waste both time and money, neither of which (as we shall see) are in endless supply. In space, speed of innovation will be a determining factor, and humans will be needed to make that happen.
Once perfected, though, I expect most asteroid mining could be partially automated, with humans acting in a supervisory role over the machines, possibly via telepresence from nearby spacecraft.
Q: You met with a variety of people during your research for Delta-v, including space entrepreneurs, NASA scientists, and economists. What were some of the most surprising and/or helpful things you learned? How did they inform Delta-v?
A: When I started researching Delta-v, I had no preconceptions about the path humanity would likely take to become a space-faring species. I wanted to follow the research wherever it led. How would we first establish a permanent presence off Earth? Would we set up a colony on the Moon? On Mars? Somewhere else?
After speaking with experts in and out of government, I was surprised to learn that many near Earth asteroids contain a more useful mix of resources than the Moon, but at certain key orbital windows those asteroids could also be reached with much less energy, as well. More importantly, resources from those asteroids could also be sent back toward cislunar space (the region of the Earth-Moon) with far less energy, and these resources would then be positioned at the top of Earth’s gravity well—a very useful location for establishing off-world industry because it would give us low-delta-v access to anywhere in the solar system.
The fact that certain asteroids passing tens of millions of miles from Earth can be reached with less energy than it requires to reach Earth’s Moon might surprise readers. However, travel in space is sometimes counter-intuitive; distance isn’t the defining factor in how much energy is required to reach an object because once you fire a rocket, there’s no air resistance to slow you down. Instead, you keep going until either you fire your rocket again to slow down or the gravitational attraction of a planet or Moon alters your course (possibly capturing you into orbit).
In the case of our Moon, in order to safely reach the lunar surface, you need to resist its gravity as you descend to land—and there’s no atmosphere to slow you down, either. Likewise, escaping from the Moon’s gravity well back into orbit requires that you speed up from launch to at least 2.4 km/sec—a major energy requirement.
Asteroids, on the other hand, don’t have significant gravity wells. This means you can reach their resources simply by moving alongside them. Departing them is just as easy. All of this led me to the surprising conclusion that near Earth asteroids, though much farther away than the Moon, would likely be the source for much of our initial space-based resources.
Q: Among other themes, Delta-v explores the tension between commercial endeavors in space and sovereign/government exploration. Can you share a little bit about that?
A: Ever since the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War, governments have been the primary players in space. The expense required to develop and operate launch systems was simply too great for commercial entities.
However, as launch technologies matured, private firms like SES began sending up communications satellites in the 1980’s. SpaceX and United Launch Alliance (a Boeing/Lockheed joint venture) are now developing their own human-rated commercial rockets, while Bigelow Aerospace is developing inflatable space habitat systems that have already been tested on the International Space Station.
NASA has made it a goal to delegate most low Earth orbit launches to the private sector so they can better focus their limited budget on deep space exploration. This cooperative arrangement between the public and private space sector could be beneficial to both.
However, this also means that soon private companies are going to be in a position to also land on the Moon, asteroids, and perhaps even Mars. That brings up issues of international law, sovereignty, and even culture. Is the Moon the legacy of all Earth, or can a private space company commence mining water ice on its surface? If they do, what law do they operate under? Can their operations be superceded by a sovereign nation’s claim to those same resources? Who adjudicates disputes?
Likewise, it’s unclear how nations of the world will respond to a private company being the first entity to land on another planet. Would governments even grant the launch licenses necessary to depart Earth? Would sovereign nations instead want to reserve the right of first touchdown for themselves to assert geopolitical status?
Also, where and when can private firms build permanent space stations? Should commercial firms be prevented from ‘contaminating’ planets like Mars with Earth microbes while commencing mining operations, when scientists might want to study those same planets for signs of indigenous microbial life?
These questions and many more will likely be decided in Earth-bound legal cases for the burgeoning field of space law. You’ll know the NewSpace Age is real when lawyers start heading to space.
Q: Colonizing Mars has been at the forefront of pop culture in recent years. However, Delta-v seems to suggest we have other, more pressing priorities in space. What are they?
A: In short: establishing cities on Mars is a bad idea, especially at the moment – and before Mars fans get all up in arms: yes, humans will, of course, venture to Mars. We’ll explore the planet and carry out important science missions there.
However, there are several reasons why colonizing the Red Planet doesn’t make sense—many of them having to do with the planet’s unsuitability for humans; from the low gravity (38% of Earth’s) to toxic perchlorates permeating the topsoil at levels millions of times higher than is safe for human cognitive function and pre-natal development, to radiation, and so on.
But the bigger issue is that prioritizing a manned mission to Mars will draw resources away from dealing with critical concerns here in cislunar space. Let me explain:
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently released a report summarizing the findings of thousands of scientists which emphasized that if humanity does not significantly reduce its carbon emissions within the next twelve years, we will begin to experience catastrophic climate effects. Those effects could include mass extinctions of animals and insects (which many scientists say is already underway), ocean rise, and release of methane from permafrost—which could further accelerate warming. Each of these could precipitate major social and economic disruptions as hundreds of millions of climate refugees seek safety, with a loss of up to 30% of global GDP by the end of this century.
With reduced resources available, global conflict would likely increase, and in the event of hostilities between industrialized nations, one of the first targets would be a rival’s satellite constellations. Destroying satellites creates thousands of pieces of space debris that will likely impact still more satellites, creating still more debris, and culminating in a cascade of collisions that could cause what’s known as the Kessler syndrome—where a cloud of orbiting debris shrouds the Earth, preventing all space launches…possibly for generations.
Thus, at the very moment of greatest danger for humanity, our communication, GPS, and observation satellites could well be disabled—crippling modern society and trapping us here on Earth even as the climate sours around us and heavily armed nations compete for dwindling resources.
What we are facing, in short, is an existential crisis for human civilization—one that could begin to unfold within the next several decades. Spending half a trillion dollars and utilizing the best minds in the space industry to send a few dozen people to Mars would only draw critical resources away from solving Earth’s pressing problems. (And before the would-be Mars colonists complain: half a trillion dollars is a realistic estimate for a manned Mars program. Ten billion dollars is not.)
To be clear: we will still be going to Mars. But all of the systems we’ll need to get there can be perfected in the process of saving our home world—and that effort needs to start now. The good news is this means thousands upon thousands of people will need to go into space. And very soon, indeed.
To do what? To build a cislunar economy, one centered on lifting our most carbon intensive industry—power generation—off the Earth’s surface and into geostationary orbit. With current technology, orbiting solar satellite power stations in constant sunlight can produce 700% more energy than Earth-bound solar arrays (which experience day/night cycles and weather variation). Utilizing existing microwave technology, energy can be beamed to receiving stations on Earth through even heavy cloud cover and reconverted back to electricity with 85% efficiency. By contrast, coal and natural-gas-fired power plants here on Earth lose half their energy in the form of waste heat prior to sending a single watt into the power grid.
This solar satellite plan was detailed by physicist Gerard K. O’Neill and aerospace engineer Peter Glaser back in the 1970’s, and the technology to accomplish it existed even back then. Generating limitless solar energy in orbit could also power new industries uniquely suited to the vacuum and microgravity of space: from ZBLAN optical fiber production, to pharmaceuticals, to growing replacement human organs like hearts, to perfect silicon wafer manufacturing, to exotic metallurgy, satellite racking and maintenance, orbiting data centers, planetary defense, spacecraft and human habitat manufacturing, astronomy, scientific research—the list goes on.
In short, cislunar space holds the key to not only saving Earth’s climate, it can also offer the economic growth necessary to provide a promising and livable future for hundreds of billions of people, and all without further polluting our home world.
A few daring asteroid miners bringing thousands of tons of strategic resources back into cislunar space could be the catalyst that starts it all. That is the story I set out to tell in Delta-v.
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Buy the Book:
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About the Book:
When itinerant cave diver James Tighe receives an invitation to billionaire Nathan Joyce’s private island, he thinks it must be a mistake. But Tighe’s unique skill set makes him a prime candidate for Joyce’s high-risk venture to mine a near-earth asteroid–with the goal of kick-starting an entire off-world economy. The potential rewards and personal risks are staggering, but the competition is fierce and the stakes couldn’t be higher.
Isolated and pushed beyond their breaking points, Tighe and his fellow twenty-first century adventurers–ex-soldiers, former astronauts, BASE jumpers, and mountain climbers–must rely on each other to survive not only the dangers of a multi-year expedition but the harsh realities of business in space. They’re determined to transform humanity from an Earth-bound species to a space-faring one–or die trying.
About the Author:
DANIEL SUAREZ is a New York Times bestselling author whose books include Daemon, FreedomTM, Kill Decision, Influx, Change Agent, and Delta-v. A former systems consultant to Fortune 1000 companies, he has designed and developed mission-critical software for the defense, finance, and entertainment industries. With a lifelong interest in both IT systems and creative writing, his high-tech thrilllers and science fiction focus on technology-driven change.
Daniel is a past speaker at TED Global, MIT Media Lab, and the Long Now Foundation — among many others. Self-taught in software development, he is a graduate from the University of Delaware with a BA in English Literature. An avid PC and console gamer, his own world-building skills were bolstered through years as a pen & paper role-playing game moderator. He lives in Los Angeles, California