“Mining the Sky” by John S. Lewis

“Mining the Sky: Untold Riches from the Asteroids, Comets and Planets” by John S. Lewis is the story of how every human being on Earth and their descendents can live like kings if we only try. The book opens with a quote from William Jennings Bryan:

Destiny is not a matter of chance—
it is a matter of choice.
It is not a thing to be waited for—
it is a thing to be achieved.

That, quite simply, is a summary of where we are today. Just as we chose to “go to the Moon and do the other things”, we can choose to expand the horizon of human existence beyond this one blue marble and bring the riches of the solar system to our feet, or we can stay outside the store looking through the glass at the toys we will never have.

I’ve been interested in space exploration since I watched the moon landings as a small child and I’ve been reading books about space exploration off and on for three decades. When I was in college, I was reading the usenet newsgroup sci.space in order to track the latest developments of the US space program and track the thoughts of others about the future of space exploration. Within that community of ardent space enthusiasts I was exposed to new ideas about space exploration. The future wasn’t supposed to be about hand-picked test pilots performing flashy missions for political gain. The future was supposed be what we saw in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 – A Space Odyssey: moon bases, rotating space stations and humanity reaching out to the edges of the solar system.

Its generally agreed that Apollo was a mission born out of politics, but instead of the future containing less politics and more exploration, it contained less exploration and more politics. Instead of Kubrick’s vision, we threw away the Apollo hardware and created the Space Shuttle: an inherently political beast with its construction doled out evenly among congressional districts in order to perpetuate its funding. Instead of leveraging the Mir, the Russian space station, we had to build our own, while requiring the Russians to destroy (de-orbit) theirs first.

So what are those alternative visions of the future of space exploration? Ironically, one of the first alternative visions I read about was from NASA scientist Gerard K. O’Neill who studied space colonization at NASA from 1975 to 1977. Gerard’s studies were in response to a 1972 book called The Limits to Growth which put forth a fundamentally Malthusian view of the future consisting of dwindling resources and a subsequent crash of human civilization due to scarcity. O’Neill realized that the supposed limits evaporate once you stop considering the Earth to be a closed system and expand the range of human endeavour to include space exploration and colonization. In O’Neill vision, existing launch technology is used to bootstrap a lunar processing station. Lunar processing stations turn lunar ores into raw materials that serve as a means of bootstrapping a constuction process in order to create solar power satellites which beam electrical power to the surface of the Earth via microwave. The sale of the generated electrical energy becomes the self-sustaining mechanism that allows the whole process to move forward in creating more solar power satellites as well as space colonies. His vision of a space colony was a rotating structure capable of easily supporting 10,000 or more persons in comfort, not the cramped “man in a can” approach we see in the station designs of Mir and ISS.

In many ways “Mining the Sky” can be thought of as an updating of that original vision by O’Neill. Lewis lays out an organized plan and outlines the means by which resources beyond Earth can be utilized to support the expansion of civilization beyond our big blue marble. Like O’Neill, he doesn’t posit the invention of new technology in order to achieve his plan; instead he points out that its all very doable using todays technology, even if bootstrapping the whole thing is more expensive than anything undertaken so far by investors. However, consider that there was a time when the construction of deep sea oil rigs was seen as so expensive and complicated that it couldn’t possibly work or couldn’t possibly find the financial backing to succeed. Ditto for the NASA Apollo program itself.

In space, its not the euclidean distance to an object that measures the difficulty of putting it to use, but the amount of energy required in reaching it. When seen from this perspective, its understandable why O’Neill’s plan was to use lunar resources to build the first solar power satellites instead of lifting them from the surface of the Earth. The amount of energy required to lift mass from the surface of the moon is much smaller than the amount of energy required to lift the same amount of mass from the surface of the Earth. (You may recall that the Apollo Lunar Lander was a very lightweight and flimsy craft compared to the Saturn V rocket needed to get the crew off the surface of the Earth.) Lewis spends each chapter examining different raw materials at different locations (and thus energies) and what it would take to use them as raw materials for an expanding civilization. One interesting twist is to consider near Earth objects as possibly being more attractive and easier to exploit than lunar materials.

Lewis extends his analysis from near Earth objects and the moon outwards throughout the solar system. Subsequent chapters attack the questions and problems facing plans to utilize resources of Mars, the Martian satellites Phobos and Deimos, the asteroid belt, and finally the outer planets. Each chapter begins with a piece of speculative fictional narrative set in the future where the expansion of human civilization has already been realized. Sometimes these fictional pieces look back at the present day as if to talk about the past. This was the only weak part of the book for me, as I didn’t really much care for mixing in the speculative fiction with the rigorous analysis of the problems from the perspective of the current day. I believe it was Lewis’s attempt to spark the imagination of the reader with a detailed vision of a possible future to help motivate the subsequent analysis. However, I believe that would best be accomplished by a full-length fictional novel and doesn’t work in these little speculative glimpses. They are easy to skip over as they are demarcated from the rest of the text by being typeset in an italic font.

One can consider these analyses to be “worst case” scenarios as they are all discussed within the confines of existing technology and disruptive technologies like nanotechnology are only mentioned briefly at the end of the book. This is similar in style to O’Neill’s studies in which no new technologies are assumed and only (then) present day technologies are used to calculate costs and return on investment. Lewis’s studies are a welcome update to O’Neill’s vision of a viable long-term expansion of human civilization beyond the surface of our planet.

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