If Jeff Bezos needs a blueprint for building a space station beyond the moon with ore from an asteroid, he just might want to start with “Critical Mass,” a newly published sci-fi novel by Daniel Suarez.
The 464-page book describes in detail how entrepreneurs, engineers and astronauts take advantage of a cache of material mined from an asteroid to create a giant, ring-shaped space station, a space-based solar power system, a mass driver for delivering resources from the moon and a nuclear-powered spaceliner.
To add to the drama, they’re doing all this in the midst of a global climate crisis in the late 2030s.
Building space outposts and moving heavy industry off-Earth to preserve our home planet’s environment is an overarching theme in Bezos’ long-term space vision. “We want to go to space to save the Earth,” he said in 2016. “I don’t like the ‘Plan B’ idea that we want to go to space so we have a backup planet. … This is the best planet. There is no doubt. This is the one that you want to protect.”
Suarez agrees with Bezos’ sentiment, but not because the billionaire founder of Amazon and Blue Origin came up with the idea. In the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, Suarez points out that Princeton physicist Gerard K. O’Neill, Bezos’ space mentor, had the idea first.
“This is the idea of settling deep space by re-creating our biosphere in free space as opposed to settling another planet,” he says.
With “Critical Mass” and the other books in his Delta-V trilogy, Suarez aims to do what O’Neill’s 1970s-era mix of science fiction and fact, “The High Frontier,” did for the likes of Jeff Bezos. Suarez aims to get people thinking about how a space-based society could work.
“I want more people who aren’t interested in space to become interested in space, and to recognize that it has a direct impact on their lives, and it can help them.” he says. “In order to safeguard Earth, we must, some of us, go to space. That’s really what I’m trying to get across: that it’s not a wasted effort. It’s not a hobby, or a billionaire’s fun vacation. It can be so much more.”
It’s important to stress at this point that “Critical Mass” is a novel, not a textbook. The story follows up on an asteroid mining expedition that’s the focus of “Delta-V,” the first book of Suarez’s yet-to-be-completed trilogy.
The expedition crew runs into trouble at the asteroid Ryugu — which happen to be a real space rock that was sampled by Japan’s robotic Hayabusa 2 spacecraft. Only three astronauts are able to return, and they waste no time working with their support team on a risky plan to rescue two of their crewmates who are stuck on a deep-space outpost.
The plan involves setting up a new type of cryptocurrency, based on the value of in-space resources that have been secretly stockpiled and sent from Ryugu to Earth-Moon L2, a gravitational balance point just beyond the moon. Material mined from the asteroid is used initially to build that giant space station at L2 through additive manufacturing, and then to set up a robotic lunar mining operation with a mass-driver delivery system.
Suarez doesn’t stint on the details, including just how fast a mass driver would have to sling blocks of compressed lunar material to send them to L2 (2.38 kilometers per second.) He also works in references to real-world technologies that were pure science fiction in O’Neill’s day.
Even asteroid mining isn’t all that far out of a concept: A decade ago, a Seattle-area venture called Planetary Resources looked as if it had a chance of turning the technology into a trillion-dollar industry. But by 2020, Planetary Resources’ asteroid ambitions had fizzled out, along with those of a different venture called Deep Space Industries.
Suarez argues that those startups failed mostly because they started up too soon — and draws a parallel to the dot-com crash of 2000.
“Multibillion-dollar companies went bankrupt,” he recalls. “At the time, quite a few pundits were saying that the internet was over. And as we know, it was not over. The biggest stage was yet to come.”
In the same way, advances in space technology are on track to make the pipe dreams of the past more achievable, Suarez says.
“Also, the urgent need, the burning fuse of climate change, increasing conflict, species extinction — all of these things are pressing us to try to relieve the burden of the modern world on our Earth,” he says. “To try to lift polluting and heavy industries into space, to avail ourselves of new energy and resources without further impacting the planet.”
Suarez says the key to unlocking space resources is to develop methods for in-situ resource utilization, or ISRU. It so happens that Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture recently announced a significant advance in ISRU technology: a process called Blue Alchemist that promises to turn lunar soil into components for solar cells.
Space-based solar power is another key technology: If researchers can develop a way for spacecraft to capture the energy from sunlight and beam it safely to the surface of Earth or the moon, that could open up a new energy frontier. It so happens that the technology is getting serious attention from academic institutions such as Caltech, from companies such as Northrop Grumman, from the European Space Agency and from the U.S. military.
Yet another frontier has to do with robotic additive manufacturing, otherwise known as 3D printing. It so happens that Relativity Space is getting set to launch the world’s first 3D-printed rocket, while ventures including Bothell, Wash.-based Tethers Unlimited are testing 3D printers and recyclers that are optimized for zero-G.
The novel’s bag of technological tricks also includes CRISPR-enabled genome surgery that has the potential to put cancer cases into remission, and cycler spacecraft that could offer a more efficient way to send payloads and people to the moon (or Mars).
Suarez is well-placed to write about the frontiers of technology — not only thanks to his background as a software developer and systems consultant, but also because of the research he’s done for a string of techno-thrillers written over the course of the past decade and a half.
“I got a pretty good reputation with scientists and engineers and other people — innovators, entrepreneurs, people in Silicon Valley, Wall Street, defense, all sorts of places where I could go to talk to people and ask them questions about how things work,” he says.
“Critical Mass” and the book that preceded it, “Delta-V,” also feature tech titans you can immediately recognize as stand-ins for Elon Musk, Richard Branson and, yes, Jeff Bezos.
“These are composites,” Suarez says. “They of course compete with one another, and what this has created is almost a space race in a way similar to the one between the Soviet Union and the United States. Except it’s literally individuals doing it, which I guess is progress, but it certainly makes it interesting.”
Suarez turned up the dials on your typical space billionaire to create one of the central characters of the book series, named Nathan Joyce.
“I wanted to examine if somebody were to, say, go just a little further and actually send people to do something quite dangerous,” Suarez says. “Not without their permission, but to go talk to the types of people who climb mountains or dive deep in caves and risk their lives, really just for the thrill of it, or for the experience of it, or to see around the next bend.”
Suarez points to research suggesting that the willingness to take on an adventure may be linked to a genetic variant known as the “Wanderlust Gene” — and he speculates that explorers on the space frontier may well be more likely to possess that variant.
“There might be an evolutionary basis for this, in that we have societies that are settled, and occasionally among us there’s a rare few who are not satisfied and have to go find the edge. And this is what helps us grow as a species and expand,” he says. “I think they’re still among us.”
Today, such risk-takers may satisfy that urge by taking up base jumping, or racing fast cars, or flying high-performance jets. But when the space frontier beckons — perhaps with an assist from a billionaire like Nathan Joyce or Jeff Bezos — Suarez believes they’ll heed the call.
“Their existence is our great hope,” he says. “They can help push that frontier back.”
Daniel Suarez’s website provides more information about “Critical Mass” and the real-world science behind it.
My co-host for the Fiction Science podcast is Dominica Phetteplace, an award-winning writer who is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and currently lives in Berkeley, Calif. To learn more about Phetteplace, visit her website, DominicaPhetteplace.com.
Check out the original version of this item on Cosmic Log for bonus reading recommendations from Suarez and the Cosmic Log Used Book Club. And stay tuned for future episodes of the Fiction Science podcast via Anchor, Apple, Google, Overcast, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts, Radio Public and Reason.