The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or Daniel Suarez. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is Daniel Suarez. He’s a best-selling author of sci-fi and techno thrillers. I’ve actually been a fan of Daniel’s for a long time, all the way back to his first novel, Daemon, and its follow up, Freedom.TM. I’m not going to say much about them, but they are really good. So if you like this show a bit, you want to start early in Daniel’s collected work, start with those two. They’re really, really good. More recently, I read his two sci-fi novels, Delta-v and Critical Mass, about an imagined early period of space exploration. Welcome, Daniel.
Daniel: Oh, thanks for having me, Jim.
Jim: Yeah, I’m really looking forward to this. As our regular listeners know, I don’t do a lot of fiction. I’ve had on Cory Doctorow, David Brin, Gary Bengier. Who else? One or two others. I don’t even remember. All science fiction writers, even though, frankly, I read more literary fiction than science fiction. But in each of those cases, well, we covered the plot loosely enough for people to know what’s going on. We dug more deeply into the ideas, and it was based on the ideas on why I asked them to be on the show, the same as here. Daniel’s two books are great sci-fi adventure thrillers, but I was particularly taken by the detail and plausibility of his imagined world and the tech that supports it. So why don’t we start there? Why did you decide that 2032 and an early imagined start to human space exploration was such a good idea for two novels, and how did you do the research?
Daniel: Yeah, okay. It was quite a journey, I’d say probably eight or nine years from the beginning of thinking that I wanted to do this story. And this story is originally envisioned as a trilogy. So I’d say I’m two-thirds of the way through that trilogy at this point. And what interested me was the idea. And I’d always been interested in sci-fi from a young age, reading even High Frontier, Gerard K. O’Neill’s nonfiction book, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. All of that stuff really fired my imagination. Read dozens and dozens of hard sci-fi books, Ringworld, all of that stuff, Asimov. And those visions for the future fascinated me. And then, we all experienced what happened after the space shuttle, this sort of fallow period where we thought, at least I did, and many others thought that we were going, that space was going to be big, at that time. And then we sort of crashed down to earth, both figuratively and in reality, 40% of the space shuttles.
And I started comparing that to the sci-fi that we see on a routine basis, these visions of the future, four, 500 years, where we have a fully established celestial civilization. And I started thinking, how do we actually make that happen? I mean, really, from where we’re standing here in the present, how do we go step-by-step-by-step to make that happen? How do we cross that chasm? How do we bridge that chasm between our reality and that more expansive future, that more possible future, and no hand-waving? And so I set about doing the research to see what that would take. I didn’t bring a lot of preconceptions to that. I didn’t know whether that would take the form of Mars colonization or what have you.
And fortunately, because I’d written a number of books that scientists and engineers and entrepreneurs and others really enjoyed, that gave me access to some really interesting people, both in NASA, government, Silicon Valley, many places. And so I was able to ask some of these folks their opinions on the subject and start canvassing it, gathering what would be the most possible, most likely route to start to go step-by-step to that future. And that’s really how I came upon the general arc of the narrative for the Delta-v trilogy.
Jim: That’s great. The other thing that love to get your thoughts on this, too, is clearly the path that you envision… And Delta-v was published what, 2019? So it was probably written in 2017.
Daniel: April, 2019. Yeah.
Jim: So it’s probably written in 2017, 2018.
Jim: You envisioned a world where private space was the main driver.
Daniel: Yes. Yeah, and part of that has to do, again, with risk-taking. During the research, I talked to a number of people in NASA, and you can see that in my previous books as well. And I have a pretty good feel for NASA culture. There’s a lot of people who have great ideas in NASA, but of course, it is a bureaucracy, and the way it’s funded makes it very difficult to take a lot of risks, because, of course, the funding mechanism is such that if you’re going to do a multi-year project, and every year NASA’s budget gets reviewed with possible cuts in mind, any project has to be distributed across many different congressional districts. It’s sort of a pork barrel spending thing, and the scientists don’t really have any control over that.
And so, if you want to take these focused and considered risks, right now, the entrepreneurial private space, that’s really the way to push things forward quickly. And of course, we see that manifesting now. In some ways, I think it’s the beginning of a renaissance of private space.
Jim: Yeah, it turned out you were right. Right? The vision you had, back when you were putting this together, I think, at least so far, has turned out to be right, I mean, how quickly private space has come on despite the fact-
Daniel: Yeah, and I think this is just the beginning. I think we really are at the beginning of a very interesting period. I mean, I guess you can just go take a look at the webcam that’s focused on Boca Chica to see something that’s bigger than a Saturn V, just sitting there. And that’s just one small corner of what’s going on with private space exploration right now.
Jim: Yeah. You draw some fairly vivid characters, at least a couple of which I could say, “All right, this looks like a Elon Musk character, and this one looks like a Jeff Bezos character.” But again, you-
Daniel: I have no idea what you’re talking about.
Jim: You tarted them up pretty good, but then you also added some other characters.
Daniel: We’ll call them a composite. Right?
Jim: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
Daniel: And you’re right. I do add my own billionaire character, Nathan Joyce. Again, I’d say the missing link in what we’d see here is a character. You and I have previously discussed history and the age of exploration a little bit, and talked about the colorful characters that populated that whole milieu. Normal personalities do not open frontiers. They’re typically big personalities, people who, with all their flaws, take bold visions and go forward. And that’s sort of what we need right now.
Jim: Yeah. That was a very interesting stake in the ground because Nathan Joyce, in some sense, the dark star that organizes this whole constellation, this black hole.
Daniel: Yeah, he’s the billionaire in my novel. Because you got to have a billionaire, right?
Jim: Yeah. And yet, by objective measure, he’s a pretty despicable guy. He lies, cheats, steals, seems to be a sociopath.
Daniel: And yet-
Jim: And yet. Right? Talk about kind of the wrestling match you made with yourself on how despicable he could be and still be the driving force of the story.
Daniel: Well, this went into a bit, since I’ve read widely in history… again, going back to historical figures and the people who do open up frontiers… frontiers are wild and wooly places. It’s where people have to really force issues and have a bold vision and accept a… Let’s call it an elevated level of risk. And that elevated level of risk, in many cases, involves putting people in danger. And it’s whether those people are fully informed or not, is the question. And I would argue, for the people involved in Delta-v and Critical Mass, they are fully informed. Are laws broken? Yes. And then, that brings up the question, which I also explore in the books, of what is the reach of laws? For example, the Outer Space Treaty and the Moon Treaty and the Artemis Accords, all of these, there’s a big discussion of law and space. And of course, in reality, it’s theoretical.
So in other words, what is to stop or prevent? How do you enforce laws? I wanted to unpack all of those assumptions because, of course, I also brought authoritarian systems into those books.
Jim: Yeah, and it’s kind of interesting that, yeah, buccaneers like Joyce allowed you to probe on the edges, right, and beyond the edges, which is [inaudible 00:08:33].
Daniel: And I didn’t want to shrink away from that discussion. I think, recently in particular, sci-fi has been reluctant to, let’s say, give up markets like China. It’s like I wanted to really unpack that. Again, I have nothing against Chinese culture or the people. Authoritarian governments, I have a problem with.
Jim: Yeah. You did not pull any punches there, I will say.
Daniel: I did not, no. And I wouldn’t do that for our system or theirs. I really wanted to examine the future because, of course, whatever value system we bring into space… And of course, this is an accelerating push to space. It involves many countries of the world and many private companies. Whatever value system we bring there is going to create an inertia that will redound to affect thousands of generations to follow. So I really wanted us to have a conscious discussion of that. I wanted to have characters addressing, “What are we doing up here? What legal system are we building, what framework, what economy, what technological standards?” All of that.
Jim: Yeah. Again, these kinds of choices, choice-making at the beginning, has always interested me. I’m going to jump ahead a little bit in my outline and talk about the kinds of people that Joyce and his operation chose to recruit to the first mission, the first big mission, which we’ll talk about where it goes later, so let’s not. We won’t quite give that away yet.
Daniel: All right.
Jim: But you obviously gave some really careful thought to the ensemble of people that were chosen.
Daniel: I absolutely did.
Jim: Yeah. Give us your process and what conclusions you came to.
Daniel: Sure. Some of my advice on this, later in the manuscript, came from Jim Logan. He used to be a flight surgeon for the NASA space shuttle program. And he dealt with teams of people, and I was very interested in his advice on that. But the key for me was, the people who do these types of things, explorers, I think the gene is the DRD4-7R gene. It’s called the wanderlust gene. This gene is prevalent among people who enjoy novel experiences, which is a sort of polite way of saying, “They’re a little crazy.” These are the types of people you see base jumping off of cliffs, and climbing mountains, and diving deep into caves, doing incredibly risky things when they do not need to.
One of the postulates I had in this story, and I have in real life, is that we have always had explorers among us. And throughout our history, we have always had a frontier, some area beyond the map that these people could go, and they could push out that frontier, and that would redound to the benefit of all of humanity, ultimately. And then, in recent years, we have fully explored most of the earth. Yeah, not the oceans, but the areas upon which we can live, we have largely explored and mapped, even the seabed. And so these people, they spend a lot of time doing things like risking their lives and filming it, and perhaps putting it on Instagram, but they keep doing these things, climbing mountains, racing cars, and whatnot. And I think that there is an evolved purpose for these people.
And that’s what I had my Nathan Joyce character, through the advice of his psychologist and others, realize, was that they wanted to find people who were going to risk their lives anyway, who thrived in unsettled, very dangerous environments, who, in many ways, had difficulty fitting in a normal, everyday life. And that’s really the cast of characters that I’ve built here, who crew the Constantine, which is the asteroid mining vessel in the first book, Delta-v. These are not the best and the brightest, in the sense that they went to all the Ivy League schools and excelled in all the standard establishment ways. They are very unusual people, that they are deep sea divers. They are geological, petroleum engineers who do deep sea exploration, things like that. Mountain climbers, a base jumper.
Jim: Yeah, it was quite amazing bunch. Now, kind of reminds me of the early days of NASA, where they heavily over-selected on test pilots.
Daniel: Test pilots.
Jim: I have been lucky enough to actually know three test pilots of the Greatest Generation variety.
Daniel: That’s a breed apart right there.
Jim: Man. Those are some people. I’m a bit of a risk-taker, but man, talk about these guys. And the thing I find so amazing about the test pilot personality is they are… well, at least the ones that I know, because they survived, right? Is that they are-
Daniel: That’s right. That’s why you know them.
Jim: … totally wild people, yet totally competent and calculating at the same time.
Daniel: Well, there was a great… I think it was Bill Stone. He’s a cave explorer, cave diver. He was one of the models for some of the cave divers in the book Delta-v. One of the things that he said, through a friend of mine who dove with him and caved with him, was that it really isn’t about an adrenaline thrill. It’s almost a zen state to get in to go to the edge, where one wrong move can kill you, but you’re in control. You are competent. You are mastering the variables. And if you are panicked, then something has gone terribly wrong. And yet, they’re in a very dangerous environment, but they’re keeping themselves safe through careful application of experience. I think that’s really the key thing.
Jim: Yeah, as they say about flying, there are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.
Daniel: Research for this project was always wonderful. I mean, it was thrilling. I eventually had to make myself stop. And of course, now that I’m researching the third book, it’s great fun again. But one of the stories from Neil Armstrong which really struck me, and you probably know this one as well, is when he was flying, I guess it was called the flying bedstead, this simulator for the lunar lander that simulated 1/6 gravity and, again, is a very clever application of engineering by the engineers at the time. But here’s a guy who gets on board this thing, and it is loaded with incredibly flammable, explosive fuel, and he crashes the thing, and I think he jettisons at just the right time, and then he goes right back to flying another copy of it as if it didn’t happen. He almost died, and he made notes about that, and then he goes right back to it. And that’s a very different type of person, a person who just digs in and does the work necessary.
Jim: Yeah. I’m assuming… I haven’t really tracked it… that the current crop of NASA astronauts no longer fit that profile.
Daniel: Well, I think there’s a common thing that I read about, and that is that the perception of acceptable risk has really shifted far, far, far into the safety margin. Now, still, it’s much more dangerous than average people would entertain. But again, if we’re talking about a real frontier and opening it up, and this is where, I guess, the point I bring up climate change. If you take the fuse of climate change burning, and if we feel that it is also urgent that we provide economic opportunity for billions of people in a world that insists on developing, let’s say in the developing world, we really have got to move things more quickly. We have got to start building an off-world economy that originates new resources and energy without further despoiling the Earth. And I think that’s a time fuse that is burning quite fast.
I’ll add into that the risks of the Kessler Syndrome. That is these large constellations of satellites that are being lofted, not just by Elon, but I note that Jeff Bezos wants to put up thousands, as do other countries, OneWeb and others. And then there’s governments that want to put up more and more of these satellites in low Earth orbit. And in the event of a conflict, one of the first things that will happen is rival nations will attack each other’s satellites, and anti-satellite weapons are proliferating quite quickly. And if that happens, and you have a cascade of debris in orbit, that could prevent us from gaining access, safe access, to orbit for a generation or more. So again, we have these urgent sort of time lines that I think we really should move quickly to try to avail ourselves of space and build out that off-world economy before circumstances on Earth make it difficult or impossible.
Jim: Very good. Now, one of the plot devices early in Delta-v is you introduce an economist. Sankar Korrapati, I think it was.
Daniel: Right. Dr. Doom.
Jim: Yeah, Dr. Doom. And he educates us and Joyce a bit about monetary theory and how money really works.
Daniel: Fractional reserve banking in particular.
Jim: Yeah. And in fact, he does a brilliant job of it. And as I was mentioning in our pregame, it’s an area that I study, and listeners of the show know that I have strong opinions about this, and he does a much better job than usual in fiction of-
Daniel: Thank you. Thank you.
Jim: … accurately describing our monetary system. However, I had one… But again, that’s the advantage of being a novelist, not a politician.
Daniel: That’s right. That’s right.
Jim: You are allowed one assumption. Right? And this was that Korrapati basically just pooh-poohs and waves away the possibility of replacing our debt-based monetary system with a non-debt-based monetary system. And that, essentially, is kind of the core motivation for Joyce to do all these crazy things to build a frontier economy, again, to save fractional reserve-based monetary systems when the other alternative is to get rid of them and replace them. In fact, as all my listeners know, I’ve designed such a system. I did so before Bitcoin, and I would say my system is better. And those who want to check it out, check it out by searching on YouTube for “Jim Rutt, Dividend Money.” And I just wanted to point out that was one that, while brilliant in the exposition, was a casual wave of the hand saying, “Ah, nothing we can do about it. We’re kind of stuck with our fucked-up fractional reserve system.”
Daniel: Ha. Well, I will say this, that that character was brought in particular by the Erica Lesowski character. I like to think of Korrapati as a sort of a high priest, brought in to give absolution to a billionaire like Nathan Joyce, who had built an empire that was a mountain of debt, a very tremulous mountain of debt that was teetering on the edge of collapse, and sort of encouraging him to understand, “It’s not your fault. It’s the system. And you, by really going for the bleachers, really try to hit a home run, that’s the only way to save it.” And that was in an effort to urge him to push it to the limit.
Jim: Yeah. And I saw that. That was the ethical motivation, “Not only save yourself, but save the world.”
Daniel: That’s right. And that’s why it’s called The Billionaire Whisperer, that particular chapter.
Jim: Yeah, [inaudible 00:19:36].
Daniel: Yeah. And by the way, the idea that we could replace our existing system, certainly, we could. I always look back, though, at how people actually behave in the real world, which can be very frustrating at times.
Jim: We have replaced our monetary system-
Daniel: We have.
Jim: … multiple times in history, so it is possible.
Daniel: Well, yeah, I always point back to people in the 1800s, the fractional reserve banking system. There were so many different banks and currencies in the early days of the United States. It’s amazing. A lot of people forget that.
Jim: Yeah, the free banking period, where any bank could issue its own money.
Daniel: That’s right. And that’s before you had gold standard. Then you had the Granger movement in reaction. You had all these economic movements in sort of proto-economic systems. So it was very much designed. Right? It’s not just a fact. People actually built it. They argued and debated over it and built it, and then it became the established system and accumulated all of its deficits and other problems.
Jim: Yeah, and in fact, if people want to learn more about this, Milton Friedman wrote a brilliant book called The Monetary History of the United States, from 1863 to present. I think it ends in the 1980s maybe, or ’70s. But he goes through that whole middle period of free banking, greenback, silver, gold, and then, of course, the two big ones, the Federal Reserve in 1913, and Bretton Woods in the aftermath of World War II. And-
Daniel: Doesn’t it seem a bit familiar in the sense that we do see a lot of these experiments with money? Digital money, otherwise you’ve got central bank coins, all of this other stuff. And it seems like we’re starting to go through this period again where people are experimenting. I guess I would describe it, and it has been described by others, as a triple-entry ledger, this idea instead of a double-entry ledger, you have that transparency of the blockchain as a new innovation. I do think it’s intriguing.
Jim: Yeah, very much so. Now, another thing [inaudible 00:21:32] love to get your thoughts on. You basically have a bunch of these asshole billionaires and their ass-kissers strutting around. And I got to say, when I see those things, I say, “We really ought to get the guillotine out and just lop these fuckers’ heads off.” These people really are nasty, bad people. Was that your intent or what?
Daniel: Wow. Hang on. Let me turn the volume down on that a little, just in the sense that I guess what happens is when you get billions and billions of dollars, what that does is it amplifies your personality. And to borrow a line from, I think it’s Richard Pryor, it’s like, “If you’re an asshole, that’s just going to amplify it.” And then, of course, there’s all the people who may not say no to you because you present a huge opportunity to them. We do have a lot of gigantic personalities striding the landscape right now, for good or ill. And yet, it’s interesting. I like to think that the balance between them… That is, let’s say government and these multi-billionaire entrepreneurs trying to break new barriers, break into new frontiers, some of them doing very foolish or shortsighted things, and sometimes the same person doing some good things and then some foolish things, it’s been my experience, as I’ve had an opportunity to meet a great number of these billionaires.
I guess I’ll give you a good example. I was at an event, and since it was a private event, I won’t say which billionaire it was, but I spent a couple of hours walking with this billionaire, who was a fan of my books, at a closed event. And at the end of that, I was exhausted by the sheer number of people who approached the billionaire with ideas for companies and for patents. And it just did not stop. And this was a closed event. And I remember thinking that it must be very difficult to try to just keep your mind focused on one thing when you have people coming at you from every single direction. So I factor that into it. Yes, there are some outlandish people inflicting their egos upon all of us. Again, the opportunities in space are so manifest that I think that that’s a great place for them to spend their time, because the idea of a billionaire redesigning our social systems here on earth without much input, that is especially frightening.
Jim: Yeah, I will agree. As, in some ways, repulsive as they are, the dick-waving contests about who’s got the biggest rocket at least is probably beneficial for humanity, as opposed to other things they could be doing.
Daniel: Yeah, at least in the short term. And of course, I would quibble with a lot of the idea of, let’s say, using a massive starship to do point-to-point travel on earth. It’s just a ludicrous idea, to me. You’d blow every single window out of every downtown, not to mention the upper atmosphere and all the carbon you’d be putting into that. However, having a very useful, large, heavy-lift rocket, super useful. And again, the government is subsidizing a lot of this. I think a lot of people don’t fully appreciate that, when it comes to SpaceX or others. A lot of these companies are being funded by the largesse of the government, whether they want to face that or not. So it’s not quite picking-
Daniel: Whether they want to face that or not. So it’s not quite picking winners and losers, it’s like the government is trying to foster innovation in this area and we’ll see where it goes. I think ultimately people, that is governments, will have some say in it, and I think that is also important, because we do not want to have an off world economy that is entirely ruled by one person or two people. We do want to have some input.
Jim: Yeah. Let’s go back here to the characters, the core focus team.
Jim: James Tiegh, that was spelled… It was pronounced Ty, but it was spelled what? T-I-E-G-H?
Daniel: Yeah, Welsh name.
Jim: Okay, cool. Cool. Well, he’s sort of the main character, but the rest of them are kind of interesting too. As we said earlier, extreme activity people, a fair number of them were also people on the outs with their families. Was that by design?
Daniel: It was very much by design. And it’s partly these are people who are misfits or outcasts or adrift who are not readily understood by the people in their lives. And in talking to a lot of extreme cavers and others, now many of them are fully functional, but a lot of them are difficult to understand by people in their lives. And whether that, and this is my own personal belief, I think it’s that a lot of these people do things that are so exceedingly dangerous that it’s anguish inducing for the people in their lives. And then of course, I’ve met people who have spent many years caving and other expeditions and weren’t present for key aspects of their family and grew apart. So I wanted to show these characters as prime candidates for an expedition where they would be asked to go away for four years, and in this case, the case in Delta V, because the period for this asteroid Ryugu to come around again is about four years on average.
And so they had to go away for this trip for four years. And you didn’t want somebody who was so heavily rooted into the social life here on earth that they would be greatly missed, because of course, this is an unsanctioned asteroid mining mission in Delta V. It is not popularized, it’s not celebrated, it’s illegal, and it’s being done without permission, completely illegal. And that’s the thing though. So many people perish climbing Mount Everest, falling off cliffs, doing free solos, in diving accidents. And the thinking that that’s fine, we don’t bat an eye at that. But the idea of eight people going and doing a dangerous, very, very dangerous space mission and possibly altering the entire trajectory of civilization for the better, if these people were going to go off and risk their lives doing wind suit jumping anyway and they want to do this, why should we stop them? And it was an interesting question for me. And honestly, I haven’t received a lot of pushback about that.
Jim: I thought that, again, look at the historical equivalence back in the age of exploration. Magellan’s voyage took three years around the world. And I was mentioning in the pregame, I did find the name of the book, I recently read a very interesting book called Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire. And if you took one of those annual ships from Portugal to India, it was a minimum two-year commitment. One year and then the next year you could come back. That was the earliest. But most people ended up staying.
Daniel: They were the spaceships of their day, and they were at the very edge of the technology. And that’s what pushed the technology forward too.
Jim: And again, there are some amazing rascals in that book, right?
Jim: Even Nathan Joyce looked like a choir boy, right?
Daniel: Well, also, let’s wonder, I think it’s about 1600.
Daniel: [inaudible 00:28:50] age of exploration. Well, I’m thinking when the corporation first rears its head, it’s around that period. This is the first time in history when private mercantile individuals had to raise sufficient capital to build fleets of these ships. Prior to that point, if you weren’t doing long sailing, that would be a much smaller and more logistically simple exercise. But if you’re going to go all the way around Africa and all the way to the Spice Islands on the far side of the world, you’re going to need to marshal some capital. And so creating a new economic forum in terms of the corporation, the East India Corporation, the Dutch East India Corporation, things like that, starting to rival the power of monarchs and then eventually exceed it. Because I think at one point the East India Corporation had a larger fleet than the government they were part of.
Jim: Yeah. And of course some very interesting financial innovations like insurance. Insurance was pushed way ahead with maritime insurance. That was some of the cutting edge finance of its day.
Daniel: So this is what I was trying to do here with this book is I really wanted to roll all of that together. The economics, the geopolitics, the astro politics, the chemistry, on and on, the technology.
Jim: All right. Yeah. Let’s actually go into some of that. But before we do, one of the great set pieces in Delta V is the confrontation at a conference of some sort of the boy billionaires. And I thought one of the most interesting and probably controversial components was the argument about asteroids versus Mars. Why don’t you tell us that story?
Daniel: Yeah, okay. So this is a chapter called the Potlatch or Potlatch, and it dramatizes a debate between the reigning billionaires in private space development. So one can imagine all of the billionaires you think of when you think of space getting onto a stage and debating their various approaches in a very bare knuckle sort of debate, a very honest debate, which was encouraged by the Erica Lazowski character, I’d say even spurred on, and also spurred on by my fictional Nathan Joyce billionaire, who’s sort of a, oh, I don’t know, a spoiler trying to get this to occur. And the key thing I was trying to get at there was a lot of times I’ll run into solutions of what we should do in space. For example, Mars colonization, really pushing for that as if it’s a absolute priority that we make that the number one thing we should be doing.
And in all the research I did for these books have really come to the definite opinion that that is not the very next thing. That should not be the important thing we’re doing next. That doing a flags and footprint mission to Mars, we have much, much more urgent priorities in near space, cislunar space, which is to say the neighborhood around the earth and the moon, the earth moon system going about 60,000 kilometers beyond the moon to L2. It’s very important that we start to build an off world economy, an industrial infrastructure there, as opposed to investing, let’s say half a trillion dollars in 10 years of our times to go to Mars to send six people there. And that’s really what that chapter is exploring. And I wanted to have an honest discussion of the drawbacks of Mars colonization. And this actually came out of, again, I was having a discussion with a billionaire who will remain nameless, but this was a real life billionaire.
And the discussion I was having with him, he had read Damon early on, he was a fan of it. So he welcomed me to come and talk if I ever had questions. And I had some questions about space. He asked what my book was about, and I told him it was going to be about asteroid mining. And he took exception to that, thought it was a stupid idea. And we started to have a discussion about why I thought it wasn’t a stupid idea, and the lack of a gravity well for example, all of the arguments that were in the Potlatch chapter. And we really started to have quite a vigorous debate. And some of the employees in the area kind of poked their head up above their cubicles, like who came here to argue? And it really wasn’t meant to be an argument. But after I left that place, we left on amicable terms just fine.
I started thinking that that conversation that I had just had, that debate really needed to happen publicly, not just between myself and him, but between the billionaires and their different ideas about what the priorities are for humanity and space, what we’re doing there, when we should do it, what technologies, all of that should be pulled out into the light and talked about, not just in a fawning way by let’s say one media outlet or another that’s trying to maintain access, but really a bare knuckle discussion of it. And that was the purpose of that chapter. I wanted readers to come away with a real honest assessment of what the opportunities and the risks are. And that’s why I gave a fair assessment of the pro Mars crowd versus other. In other words, I used the real arguments they used. I wasn’t trying to create a straw man. I was trying to really explore this terrain so that people come away with a good idea.
Jim: Yeah, and you did a great job because I went and did a little bit of research and everything you said in there is real.
Daniel: Well, a lot of that with the perchlorates on Mars came from Pete Warden. And again, Pete Warden used to be the head of NASA Ames. And I remember I was sitting in a… Again, this is another event, and some presenter got up, a scientist, and started talking about Mars colonization. And afterwards, Pete really, he took exception to it because he said that the perchlorates on the surface of Mars would preclude that type of thing. And he just said, it’s just so seldom discussed, and I began to ask him more and more questions about that. And of course, that’s just one element of what’s concerning.
Jim: Cool. Okay, another very interesting examination is the contrasting theories of robots versus humans on the early missions.
Daniel: Yeah. This is the other thing that I think a lot of depictions of space, they show people out in spacesuits doing all these things cavorting around the surface of the moon and Mars. And again, when we really dig into the radiation environment, both galactic cosmic rays and solar radiation, micro [inaudible 00:35:09], it is a very, very, very, very dangerous environment for human beings. For creatures with DNA and cellular activity, these particles coming in at relativistic speeds can really tear through your DNA pretty well. And so the idea of using telepresence, that is virtual reality computers, or I should say robots, just like an atlas. One for example, the Boston Dynamics one that we see doing back flips. You take a robot like that and you put it on the lunar surface with a really good volumetric light VR headset and a low millisecond lag and you can start to get some real work done on an ongoing basis, not just eight exhausting hours in a pressurized suit where just closing your hand in those gloves is exhausting.
I mean, if you read the accounts or if you speak to astronauts who’ve done EVAs, it is an exhausting and dangerous thing. The other thing I wanted to dig into was the fact that with our existing spacesuits, people do need to pre-breathe for two hours before they go out. I think that is not fully appreciated when people watch sci-fi. They think people just throw a helmet on and they duck out. If there’s an emergency, it’s much more involved and if we can have really capable tele-operation humanoid robots on the surface, we could get a hell of a lot more done.
Jim: Yeah. And yet on the other side, you make the point in the story that as the time lags get larger, it may not actually be practical to have robots be the ones who can solve the problems in real time way out at the cutting edge.
Daniel: Well, that’s the old all or nothing thing. I think it’s LOC/LOM is the phrase that NASA uses, loss of crew, loss of mission. If you are sending out a mission, let’s say remote probe, and anything unexpected goes wrong, anything, it’s typically a full loss of the mission. Now, sometimes NASA can save it by using fail safes or getting very creative, but if you have a robotic unit that the environment doesn’t meet what was expected or something unexpected happens, that entire thing could be a loss. And the great thing about humans is we can adapt, we can iterate. And I think that was one of the key things I was trying to get across is that in this asteroid mining, the reason they bring people is not so that they go out there with a pick and shovel and start picking away at the asteroid. That’s not the goal.
Mining is very different in a near zero or microgravity environment, but so that they’re there to fix things when the unanticipated occurs. And of course you recall from reading Delta V, a great many unexpected things occur. Because people are present onsite, they can innovate, they can improvise and make it move forward. And I feel that I succeeded in that when a robotics expert contacted me to say, that is a really great thing. If we were able to do that, we could advance things so much more quickly. If we had a person within let’s say the region, because of course in the book, they’re not out there right next to the robot. They are within a cocooned area shielded from radiation, remotely controlling the robots, and on rare occasions they have to go out and fix it. And I’m not sure, you might want to bleep this out, but I believe the expression from the book was, please go out there and unfuck that equipment. And that’s essentially what they do.
Jim: As all our listeners know, fuck is one of my favorite words. So we will definitely not be bleeping that out. Of course, the other thing that you make a considerable, a good and very interesting distinction is the speed of light lags, right?
Jim: And it’s also a big deal in the second book Critical Mass where you can do certain kinds of things via remote access from earth to the moon, but that’s three seconds round trip plus or minus, right?
Daniel: Yeah, it depends on what you’re doing. Yeah. If you’re trying to control a robot that’s digging around on the surface of the moon from earth, that’s problematic. But if you have less than a second lag because you’re up in orbit, you’re in lunar orbit, if you have sufficient mass shielding you, you can through tele-operation have a very realistic realtime experience with especially a high quality VR headset. You could do a lot of work on the moon, and then you could switch, you could sort of do a hot seat rotation like you’re done with your shift and somebody else gets into that seat and continues. Whereas if you’re doing an EVA, limitations on air, limitations on radiation exposure and so on, exhaustion, that kicks in.
Jim: Yeah. I like that you basically define this sweet spot between humans and robots. So it’s as you say, it’s not all or nothing.
Daniel: That’s right. We work together.
Jim: Doing humans in space suits doing all the work, not so practical or too dangerous.
Daniel: That’s right.
Jim: Try to do it from earth, speed of light. That’s the law boys, you can’t violate that one.
Daniel: And I tried to bring the commercial incentive in it because again, if you have some companies that are willing to send people and those people want to go and they want to have that experience, take that risk, perhaps get a share in the enterprise, they can advance much more quickly than those people who are more timid about it. And then that creates that space race. Sure. But any frontier is going to be like that. And I really wanted to explore both, again, all of the real opportunities and the real risks so that people could explore that. The readers could really see what is at stake. And it has been gratifying to get the emails back from people saying, I had no idea that all of this technology existed and have been researched in the ’60s and ’70s, and this goes into critical mass a bit through mass drivers and solar power satellites, and also that some of these are being prototyped now and are real. These are real technologies.
Jim: I didn’t find anything in the book that was a complete magic. Some of them were a little ahead. We’ll get into some more of these. Now let’s go into this next thing. And I will say, man, you have corrupted my brain in that once I finished reading Delta V, whenever I read anything about space, the first thing I’m saying is, what’s the Delta V between A and B? Right?
Daniel: Oh, that’s great. My work is done. That’s wonderful.
Jim: Is that bullshit or not? Right? I try to do a rough back of the envelope calculation and I go, wait a minute, that ain’t going to fucking work, or that’s pretty clever. Could you explain-
Daniel: And for the listeners, the issue here is, again, for profit and loss, if you are doing commercial space, Delta V has to do with acceleration or deceleration, basically shifting your rate of movement. And that requires propellant and that requires mass, and that brings in the rocket equation. So essentially the lower the delta V for something, the more cost effective it is, and that helps to determine, so if you were to take a look at a sea chart from that age of exploration you and I were talking about, one might look at the trade winds and avoid the doldrums, whereas in cislunar space, you would be looking at the Delta V between various points in orbit.
Jim: And we have a pretty sophisticated listenership here. Think of it like a scientific American level listenership. So is it fair to describe Delta V as something like the amount of fuel per unit of mass it takes to move something from A to B in a unit of time?
Daniel: I would say that is a close description of it, except I would say it goes back to the amount of propellants you need to cause or the expenditure of energy you need to slow down or speed up to achieve a certain trajectory that results in you arriving at the right location at the right time. So it’s a calculation. An operative definition of delta V would be a change in velocity, like a measure of the impulse needed to reach an intended trajectory. So that typically involves how much propellant you would need, or there’s different types of engines, some are more efficient than other, but basically it’s how much energy is required to be at a certain location at a certain time, to reach a certain point in space. And so if you were to take a look at cislunar space as a commercial map, you would want those Delta Vs that you’re going back and forth to to be as low as possible.
And this is actually why, you mentioned at the beginning, why was 2032 chosen as the beginning for Delta V? And that partly had to do with the asteroid Ryugu, near earth asteroids. The trajectory that’s in that book is an actual trajectory, it’s I believe December 13th, I think it’s 2033, is the trajectory. And of course, the asteroid miners needed a year or so to train. That trajectory and the Delta V required to reach Ryugu on that date is less than the energy it would take to reach the surface of our own moon. And it would only be 28 days to cross that gulf, that area of space. And once you’re there, you’re at an asteroid that has one 60000th of the gravity, and it is essentially a rubble pile. So you just tease boulders away from the surface, and it has a rich store of resources, that’s recently been confirmed by the Hayabusa team from Jaxa.
They found nitrogen and cobalt and titanium and iron and nickel in the actual sample that was returned from the Hayabusa two probe. I was very happy about that because of course, I wrote this book before the Hayabusa two team got their probe to Ryugu, and I was thankfully in touch with them through a liaison with NASA who put me in touch with them so I could communicate with them as they literally brought that asteroid into focus. I was really amazed that I didn’t have to change too much in the story. So I had written all that part, and I was right about it being a rebel [inaudible 00:45:15]. The one thing I did have to add was that equatorial ridge that the asteroid actually had. And so I made that a part of the story as well. But other than that, the spectral analysis, all of that stuff was really real. And so you have a very low Delta V on that date, December 13th, 2033 to go to the asteroid Ryugu, and that’s why I started the story then.
Jim: And just to add a little bit of nuance on Delta V. The short route to do it in 28 days has a higher Delta V than some slower looping routes might have.
Jim: You go into it in both books on-
Daniel: Yeah. Yeah, they do that for the robo tugs, the robotic unmanned tugs that they send back from Ryugu every year or so. They will go for two, two and a half years to get back into a distant lunar retrograde orbit, but they can take their time because there’s nobody on board.
Jim: Got you. Then again, this is this multi-dimensional analysis of how this might evolve, right?
Daniel: Yeah, exactly.
Jim: I love the fact that you thought this stuff through, right?
Daniel: But again, I think it was Cyrus Foster from NASA Ames, he developed this tool called the Trajectory Browser that had hundreds and hundreds of thousands of trajectories for various objects, near earth objects and other objects. And I poured through that for a long time until I settled upon Ryugu. So Ryugu was not chosen by chance. It was the best mix of resources, the most easily accessible, and that’s real.
Jim: Yeah. To give people a sense of its size. I looked it up on Wikipedia and it said it has about a half mile diameter.
Daniel: Yeah, it’s about a kilometer. And this is ridiculous that I know this off the top of my head, but it’s 450 million tons. So it’s a chunk.
Jim: And also, it’s orbit, it goes around the sun, but its orbit overlaps that of earth for a portion. Not a huge portion, but not a trivial portion either. So it’s one that we could run into one day and at half a mile, it’s not quite a dinosaur killer, but it would knock the hell out of our advanced civilization for sure.
Daniel: And that was part of Nathan’s calculations in terms of being sued for exploiting it, thinking, well, if it’s going to possibly hit the earth and do damn near irreparable damage to our civilization, maybe somebody won’t sue me for mining it.
Jim: Interesting. Interesting. Now that gets us into the area of law. Another interesting bit that you put in both books is the nexus of Luxembourg city, and I did do just a tad of research, enough to see that Luxembourg has actually implemented a fair bit of space law. Is that something that’s actually happening yet in Luxembourg city?
Daniel: Yeah. I believe the original law was 2017. I think they simply called it the space law. So again, I base that in reality that Luxembourg wanted to make itself the most advanced space industry friendly company on earth. The idea being that if you did harvest and process resources in space, how do you benefit from that here on earth? In other words, how do you return the benefits of that to an earth economy? And so they wanted to be able to set up space companies that could exploit resources in space. And of course, they’ve joined the Artemis Accords.
The United States followed pretty quickly after that with their own space law, again, to encourage commercial development of space. And of course, there’s a number of caveats around that to try to make it reasonable to try to work through this so that it’s not a gold rush where people are just going crazy and grabbing things and claiming things. There’s still the concept that you cannot own celestial bodies or completely control them, but they also don’t want to stop or prevent people or companies from developing these resources. So it’s non-interference, both when you’re doing it, but also non-interference with others who want to do it as well.
Jim: It was just quite different than the age of discovery where people put their flags down and tried to own the territory and exclude others and do very mercantilist economics and those kinds of things.
Daniel: That’s right. And thankfully, there’s no indigenous people to worry about this time around. So that takes at least that particular factor out.
Jim: Yeah, not that we seem to have worried about them too much, unfortunately.
Jim: No. Interesting.
Which that brings us to another character. I don’t know how you’d pronounce his last name, Lucas Rochat. How would you pronounce-
Daniel: Lucas Rochat.
Jim: Last name. Lukas Rochat, how would do you pronounce …?
Daniel: Lukas Rochat.
Daniel: Yeah. He is the space lawyer character, and I would say he is sort of the Saul Goodman of space. He is a guy who starts out, quite desperate to get his legal practice working, in space, and he very quickly finds Nathan Joyce. And Nathan Joyce finds him useful.
Jim: Yes, with a nice little interlude in between where he gets thrown out of a helicopter, right?
Daniel: There’s a bit of a disagreement, yes. But yeah, these things happen.
Jim: I love it. All right, let’s move on. Another, I thought, very nicely envisioned thing. Maybe in short, you can talk about your vision for the mining tech that the folks apply once they actually get to Ryugu?
Daniel: Yeah. The optical mining technology they used is based upon a real company. And, oh my gosh, I think it’s TransAstra? Hang on, I got to make sure to get this right.
Daniel: Yeah, TransAstra is the company. And the funny thing is, because I live here in Pasadena, near Los Angeles, so many space companies are starting here because, of course, the Jet Propulsion Lab is close by, Caltech is close by. So, when I started doing a great deal, and I mean a great deal of research on asteroid mining technologies, imagine my surprise when one of the companies that had, I think, the most promising approach was just six or seven miles from where I live.
It’s very convenient, and it allowed me to sit down and speak with them, and Joel Sercel, the founder, quite a bit, and really understand what it is they were doing. What’s fascinating, they’ve already received several NASA contracts, they’ve proved their spalling technology. Essentially what they do, and I really dig into this in the Delta-V book, you can’t use a great deal of physical violence, like you would in normal terrestrial mining when it comes to mining on an asteroid. Because remember, think of it like a gravel pile that is in free fall in an absolute vacuum.
And so, if you start wielding a pick or in any way impacting it or using explosives, you’re going to scatter that stuff all over the place. And so, you have to figure out a way to mine it. You have to completely reinvent mining, so it’s nothing at all like terrestrial mining.
And so, TransAstra had conceived of this idea of taking it, completely bagging the asteroid material and using focused sunlight to spall the surface. That is, you can focus that intense sunlight and cause very high temperatures, and what it will do is it will both boil off the volatiles and shatter the surface, and powder it. And then from there, you can start the process with the regolith.
And I go into considerable detail on that. I do not do any hand-waving. I don’t pull the focus. As a matter of fact, many people have said that you could basically follow it as a roadmap or a blueprint on how to process asteroid regolith.
Jim: Yeah, and I learned something new, something that I’d never even heard of, which was this carbonyl metallurgy.
Daniel: That’s right.
Jim: And I looked it up and it turned out that was real!
Daniel: Now, isn’t that mind-blowing? So, you’re a knowledgeable person, and so many sci-fi readers too, read hundreds and hundreds of hard sci-fi books. The idea that this was news to many of them, gaseous carbonyl extraction, metal carbonyls, all of this stuff, it blew me away. Because again, I did a great deep dive on this, I talked to many different scientists, chemists. This is a tremendously cool technology, and I want as many people as possible to understand it.
Jim: Why don’t you give a very quick description of it?
Daniel: Sure. It is a way that you can turn metal into a gas, is the best way to describe it. It is a process by which you would take the raw regolith of the asteroid, and you would put it under a great deal of pressure in a certain carbon monoxide mixture. It’s a very, very specific atmospheric situation, or condition, to cause aspects of the metal to start to turn into a gas and accumulate and become a metal carbonyl, which is a form of the metal that is … It transitions from a liquid and a gas, and various types of it, I believe cobalt for example, turns more into a powder than a liquid.
But it allows you to store the metal in a liquid form that you can then pump around your space station, or your processing facility, without it having to be molten. And that was the other thing, is you do not want, in a microgravity environment, to be creating molten metal. It’s exceptionally dangerous. It requires a great deal of energy.
And so, this was a means to process the metal and put it in a convenient form that you can then later use. You can bring it back into metallic form by doing what’s called deposition. And this type of deposition is used very often in silicon wafer manufacturing here on Earth. You have basically a vacuum, and again, you create certain conditions that cause the metal to depose out of the air, from a gas onto a surface. And from that, you can form metallic components that are so pure that the iron will have difficulty rusting.
It’s really incredible. It creates this really terrific crystalline lattice, of iron, or nickel, or cobalt, titanium, many different types. So, I go into that process, but again, my goal being to explain these things in a way that shows these tremendous benefits and these characters doing it within this story, so that you absorb it at the same time that you are really interested in, and invested in what they’re doing.
Jim: Indeed. And I will say, that actually helped me make this feel more believable, that we could actually build stuff in space. It was one of those … It actually lowered the barrier of the willing suspension of disbelief to get the story going.
Daniel: That makes me feel good, because again, you Googled that afterwards, or DuckDuckGo’d it, whatever you choose to use. But the point is, it inspired you to go search, and then by searching it, you’re like, “Huh, this is not bullshit.”
Daniel: This is a real thing. And so, you start to stack up those various technologies and it starts to really present a compelling case of an opportunity. We’ve had, for example, the Mond process, which is partly what that is based upon, has been around since the 1890s. And that kind of blows my mind, that we’ve had technology like that. We’ve had technologies for mass drivers and ideas for designs for solar power satellites, for decades and decades and decades.
Jim: Yep. Indeed, indeed. Well, let’s kind of wrap up Delta-V without giving away too much of the plot, other than to say various things happened that put the crew at risk, at great risk.
Daniel: That’s pretty simple.
Jim: They deal, sometimes successfully, sometimes less so. Shit happens. The aftermath of Joyce’s bankruptcy produces some nasty characters that do bad things to the ship by remote control, yada, yada, yada. But nonetheless, three of them are able to build their own ship using that metal technology and head on back to Earth, but two get left behind.
Daniel: Who choose to do so, yes.
Jim: Yeah, choose to do so, correct. And again, some hair-raising adventures on the way back to Earth, but hey make it. And that’s essentially the end of Delta-V. And then the next book, Critical Mass, starts on, the best I could calculate, March 20, 2038.
Daniel: Yes, indeed. So, that’s years later. Not since they got back, so this is shortly after they return. And of course, they have a self-appointed mandate that they have got to be prepared to encounter the asteroid Ryugu again, next time it has a close approach to Earth, so that they can rescue their colleagues. And that gives them about four years’ time to do a much more difficult task.
Now, when you mentioned, with Delta-V, the idea of them building their own ship, let’s bear in mind that once you’re out in space, building a ship, it’s not like building an aerodynamic craft necessarily that has to ascend out of our atmosphere. Now, they did build partly, a lifting body for doing some aero breaking. But in general, the booster phase, it doesn’t have to deal with the atmosphere at all. And so, it doesn’t have to worry about aerodynamics or anything like that.
The concern for them is that the distances they have to cover and the speeds they’re using to try to encounter Earth at that point, just a few microradians of mistake, in terms of the direction of their trajectory, could leave them to miss Earth entirely. And that’s part of the reason why two of the people had to remain behind, is to help them correct their course using more advanced computers that they had on the main ship.
Jim: Yep, and there was issues about, they were late getting off with respect to the window, it was definitely a good thrill. I don’t want to give away all the thrills.
Daniel: All right, cool.
Jim: So, starting in Critical Mass, we start seeing a little bit more of this mysterious woman behind the curtain, Erika Lisowski. Tell us about her.
Daniel: Yeah. Erika is, to me, a character, I imagine her as sort of a composite of the many people I’ve met at NASA, people who are well-meaning and want space to happen, they have dreams about the future. And yet they’re constrained by the system they’re in, by the bureaucracy they’re in. And so, I wanted to imagine a character, again, who was inspired by her grandfather, who worked on the Apollo program, remembered those great days and wanted to make that future finally happen.
I’ll just say she thought out of the box. And she realized that, in her role … And of course, I based her role on a real character, a real person at NASA. This person, of course, in real life doesn’t behave like this. But a NASA administrator, or a manager who goes to these various events that these billionaires go to, and so has access to speak with them. And of course, they’re very interested in NASA contracts, and sort of whispers ideas into their minds. When I say “whispers”, sort of plants into their mind, opportunities that they might not have thought about.
That’s partly why the Erika Lisowski character introduces the economist Korrapati to Nathan Joyce. It’s to try to catalyze something. And it’s partly why the company is called Catalyst, to try to get things moving in a way that she could not possibly get moving within NASA, to sort of inspire these individuals to take these ridiculous risks.
And that’s the role that she takes. And also, to be there at certain key moments to try to help out when things go disastrously wrong, as they inevitably do.
Jim: Great. So, let’s give our audience an update. What’s happened in Earth moon space in the couple of years that have ensued so far?
Daniel: Oh, you mean in the story, or now, in present day?
Jim: Oh, no, in the story.
Daniel: Okay. So, I guess if you were to think about it, the first book is really this disconnected story where these risk-takers go out into deep space for four years. And you see their very difficult journey, all of the things that they face.
And of course, while they’re gone, things are happening on Earth, and some of those things reach out and affect them. But the characters coming back, Critical Mass is … The title derives partly, in fact, from the critical mass of public opinion that we need, the critical mass of material that we need in space to start to make this happen. I would say the second book is really where the impact of that first journey starts to make its presence felt. It’s where the public is first made aware of what is actually going on out there.
And so, at the time that Critical Mass begins, climate change and its effects are starting to kick in. We’re starting to see economic disruptions, we’re starting to see uncontrolled migration becoming an increasing issue. Species extension, a number of different things are starting to build to a head.
And that’s partly why I brought fractional reserve banking into this, because again, I don’t think many people understand, and this always amazes me, understand why growth is really a requirement of our current banking system, why it is not okay for things to just stay constant or to shrink. Deflation is kind of a major disaster in such a system. It depends on how much you want me to go into it, but suffice it to say, the way money is created in such a system, it is originated from commercial loans and other loans, and they have to be paid back with interest.
And so, the money supply has to continually grow, especially when you’re talking about a mortgage. The principal that will eventually be paid back with interest is much bigger than the original loan, so you’re constantly having to grow the money supply. And it’s that requirement, running into the face of climate change, that is restricting the growth of economies. Then you’ve got all these developing nations, let’s say India and China, who want to deliver better living conditions for their citizens. They can’t be constrained because, well, we’ve already used up this or used up that, so they’re going to try to push their development.
It’s all of these competing priorities that are building to a head on Earth when my protagonists first get back to Earth and are trying to mount this mission. So, the resources that they have brought back to the edge of Earth’s gravity well, and we’re talking about 6,000 tons or more, they are of prime interest in the growing space race competition between China and the United States in the beginning of that book. Because both of those countries are aware of the presence of those resources, and although they may not have approved of, or even admitted they knew about that mission, they are very interested in those resources because they are strategically important.
Jim: Yeah. And a very critical point, that they … Again, this discussion of Delta-V and gravity wells, the fact that they’re in orbit around the moon, actually, is very, very important, and makes their value much higher than if they were anywhere else.
Daniel: Yeah. I like to point people to these maps that you sometimes see, and Carl Sagan used to demonstrate this too. You have sort of a stretched or a taut sheet into which you’d put a bowling ball, and that would show the representation of what gravity looks like. It’s like a deep depression in time-space.
And that is, let’s say, Earth. It’s a gravity well. And of course the moon has a smaller gravity well. But they’ve managed to put these resources at the very edge of that gravity well, of the Earth moon system. And from there, you can much more easily reach the rest of the entire solar system. You can reach other near-Earth asteroids. You can reach Venus, you can reach Mars, much less Delta-V required to do that from there versus launching out of Earth’s deep gravity well.
And so, that’s why it is a strategic location. Certainly, no one has anywhere near the tonnage of resources that the characters do in the beginning of this book, at the edge of Earth’s gravity well, and especially in such a refined form. We talked about the metal carbonyls. This is a form where you could turn it back into precisely-shaped metal parts, components, and also they have quite a bit of propellant, because they have 3,700 tons of water.
That level of propellant and metal material is, strategically, absolutely critical to these other nations in their competition. Not geopolitical competition, but astropolitical competition, which I think is coming quite soon.
Jim: And if Delta-V, the story, was significantly about Joyce and his co-conspirators, kind of avoiding the grasp of government, in Critical Mass, suddenly the superpowers are all over it.
Daniel: Yeah. And that, of course, it’s a minor spoiler there, but that might not have been widely apparent. I believe in the first book, Joyce explains it that he is not a permit kind of guy. And of course, the powers that be, some of them knew what they were up to, but didn’t prevent them from doing it. And I think there’s many, many examples in history where governments did the same thing.
And by the way, I’d like to point out that this is a really common mistake that I think people make, or at least, let’s say, a misjudgment, that asteroid mining is all about bringing things back to Earth. Nothing could be further from the truth. The major value of these resources is keeping them at the edge of Earth’s gravity well so that you don’t have to lift all of those materials back out of Earth’s deep gravity well.
We have plenty of iron here. We have lots of titanium and nickel and all that other stuff by comparison. It’s getting it up into space that is the enormous expense. And so, you take 6,000 tons of such material and you put it at the edge of Earth’s gravity well, and that is worth many billions of dollars, because that’s what it would take for you to bring a comparable amount of material up from Earth’s gravity well.
Jim: Yeah, I’m glad you made that distinction, because I occasionally read these things about, oh, yeah, there’s a asteroid of solid nickel, just look how much that would be worth here on Earth.
Daniel: Right, or the platinum thing. People always bring up the Psyche asteroid, which is essentially a planetary core, and if you could only bring all that platinum back on Earth. It’s like, well, okay, first of all, we talked about how much Delta-V, how much propellant would you have to expel to take hundreds of thousands of tons of platinum and bring it here, only to accomplish crashing the platinum market and making it as cheap as tin? But, you know.
Jim: Yeah. I love the fact, actually, that you understood and drew, very vividly, this kind of abstract concept of value based on position in gravity wells. And that really, the road forward is doing a set of things such that we start a number of processes which build up usable material in space, not here on Earth. And that that is the road up for humans to move into space.
Daniel: Yes, and that’s why I start with the epigraph of Archimedes. “Give me a place upon which to stand, and I can move the world.” That idea that, by building a Clark Station type place beyond the moon, where it has spin gravity, it has pressure, it has life support, all of those things, it can become an economic engine to start to move things forward. Because suddenly, people, innovators, entrepreneurs in space do not have to provide everything. They don’t have to create their entire atmosphere in which they’re going to work. Instead, there is a location they can go to, to execute on a business plan for space.
Jim: And talking about business plans for space, one of the things that’s happened in the intervening years is that there are now some mining operations on the moon.
Daniel: Yes. Well, that’s the plan. I’m not aware of mining operations. Oh, you mean in the book? Of course.
Jim: In the book, in the book.
Daniel: Yeah, I was going to say, “Oh?”
Jim: Yeah, yeah. Forget the real world. We’re talking fiction.
Daniel: In the real world, okay. So, yes. In the book, there are mining operations going on. I have a brief explanation of what’s going on. This is 2038 after all, when Critical Mass begins. Both the Chinese and the Americans, and the Europeans, have bases, proto-bases, near Shackleton crater, near the peaks of eternal light. And they are trying to avail themselves of the water that is believed, as you and I sit here right now, to be there.
I think the best guess from the scientists that I talked to is that there may be significant overburden, what’s called overburden, with regard to that ice. That is, it would be sublimated within regolith, and there would need to be some processing, and of course, they’d have to start experimenting with how to do that. They need to do that by going down into this very dark area.
Shackleton crater is really incredible. I would advise your listeners, if they can, to explore some of the tools that NASA has online. When you check out the 3D representation of Shackleton crater, it’s really incredible. It’s about 21 kilometers across, and it’s quite deep. And it is dark, dark, dark, which means it’s going to be damned near absolute zero. So, this is an extreme operating environment to start mining things in. Now, for good or ill, Ryugu, at least it does spin somewhat, so it is not constantly at absolute zero. There’s some challenges there with Shackleton.
One of the key challenges, of course, is that astropolitical race we were talking about, that competition between China and the United States. Or let’s put it more broadly, between authoritarianism and free enterprise, and representative democracy, all of that stuff. That is a fraught environment, where there’s military risk, political risk. And my protagonists seek to avoid that area entirely, for that reason.
Jim: Yeah. Now, it’s interesting, I don’t know if … I suppose that Shackleton is so interesting for the fact that it may have water and CO2 down at the bottom of it. It was also the nexus of, I think, the second year of the TV series For All Mankind.
Jim: Similar, though this was much more focused on the battle for the crater, essentially. But it’s interesting that two thoughtful teams came up with the same nexus for early exploitation.
Daniel: Well, I think that’s a reality. In other words, there is going to be an attempt to explore and exploit whatever resources are found in Shackleton and other nearby craters. And then there’s also some aspects of the lunar north pole, which are interesting, but I think the focus right now is for the lunar south pole. I know that there is a probe going there soon, I cannot for the life of me remember it off the top of my head. But I believe it’s a private rover that’s going to land there. I think it’s Japanese.
But the idea that I wanted to get across also, for Critical Mass, by them going to the lunar equator, was that to some degree, spectrographic analysis shows that there’s a small amount of water in just about all lunar regolith. Now, they’re trace amounts, but it’s not the only place. And of course, near-Earth asteroids, they also provide a great source of water propellant potentially as well.
So, the advantage that my characters had was, because of the Delta-V book and the Ryugu expedition, they were bringing in 3,700 tons, and that’s just initially. Much more comes later. So, that they had ample propellant, and so they didn’t have to avail themselves to Shackleton crater and all of that geopolitical competition.
And again, I think one of the key things that I am trying to get across in Critical Mass is the benefit to Earth. I wanted to connect what they were doing to Earth, so that what’s happening in the second book, Critical Mass, is they’re not just trying to rescue their friends, their colleagues. What’s occurred is that they’re starting to appreciate the disruption, the suffering that’s going on in dealing with rapidly-changing climate, and also economic conditions that are getting quite dire on Earth.
And there’s also the geopolitical competition. So, down on Earth, the risk of Kessler syndrome from war, and all of these things could be addressed by really growing the economy, by creating off-world energy, solar power satellites, and originating resources in space to get economic activity and growth going out there, which can benefit the Earth. Again, not with bringing all those materials back to Earth, but by creating the jobs and the activity in space to benefit Earth, to bring energy to bear, to, say, pull CO2 out of the atmosphere, to try to correct the problems with Earth’s atmosphere, among many other opportunities.
Daniel: The problems with Earth’s atmosphere, among many other opportunities.
Jim: And so, the characters and their confederates managed to construct a pretty cool space station orbiting the moon.
Daniel: Yes. And the thing about that space station is, again, I have explored various ways to illustrate it. And really, what you come down to is it looks a lot like… A lot of these space stations resemble what you saw in 2001, because this is… You go back to Wernher von Braun’s torus. You have a spin gravity space station that unlike the spin gravity ship in Delta-v, this is a continuous ring. It is a continuous metal ring, an enclosed, pressurized envelope in which they can work. That is much more robust, has much more reliable energy, and can serve as a launchpad, if you will, for all of the operations that they want to do on the moon surface.
And being located in [inaudible 01:16:01] U orbit out at L-2, it is close enough that they can do teleoperations on the surface of the moon and they can have robots down there working, they can work 24/7 and try to execute on a business plan that they’re doing there, again, to avail themselves of much more resources, which they can then process on a refinery at the station to then start to build out this economy. Because again, it’s going to require millions and millions of tons of refined material to really get things going. And I explore that a bit early in the book, what it takes to really get this renaissance in space started.
Jim: Yep, and one of the technologies that you bring to bear again is space-based solar energy. I used to be a skeptic about that, but I recently got connected through a VC to a company that’s actually working on it. And I now have penciled it out saying there’s still some things that need to be improved, but it’s within our grasp probably.
Daniel: Is it. And I think that will only become more so. Again, imagine if you had hundreds of thousands of tons of refined material and you had robotic units and a modular robotic system that allowed you to build these systems concurrently. And so you didn’t have to have a whole bunch of humans in space suits welding things as one typically sees from the 1960s illustrations. But instead you had these hexagonal components that could build these things from small, easily manufactured components against, with deposing metal from metal carbonyls. You could rapidly start to build these.
Now a 7,400 ton solar power satellite, John Mankins, he has a design, it’s called SPS-Alpha. This is a two gigawatt satellite. It could create two gigawatts of electricity. And once more, in this book, I do not hand wave at all. I think having read the book, all of the math and all of the economics, I just lay out there in a debate around a dinner table between two opposing groups who have differing views on whether solar power satellites make sense, whether they make sense to help out the earth, the atmosphere and what they are capable of. And honestly, having done a great deal of research on this, I think they are incredibly promising.
Jim: Particularly if we can find ways to accumulate the material in space, launching it at…
Daniel: Launching it, very tough.
Jim: Very tough, though this venture back company, if you project out the cost of the heaviest stuff from SpaceX, maybe we’re approaching it in five or 10 years, but if you can accumulate the materials in space as you point out, very different economics.
Daniel: And a mass driver as well. And again, here we’re going all the way back to 1976 in Gerard K. O’Neill’s, High Frontier, which I reread once a year at this point because it’s really an incredible book. I would recommend it for people. This is a non-fiction book. This was going back to a time when NASA was seriously considering this in the public conversation here in the US at least, was that this was a real possibility. Now, back then, a two gigawatt satellite was 20,000 metric tons at least. And so, of course they’ve really slimmed it down with improved technology, but they were seriously thinking about it.
Now in 1998, NASA did another economic study on this to say, okay, look, does this really makes sense? And they had a payback time of about six months. Now, that’s only if you manage to get the materials up there. And then of course there’s all the transmission conversion issues, the loss of efficiency there. The number that people keep coming back to is that it’s 9% efficient to send by a microwave energy from orbit to the surface of earth where it will be received by what’s called a rectenna.
And yes, it’s 9% efficient, but I would always point out to people that right now solar panels are about 23% efficient. And if you have a thermal plant, let’s say a gas powered power plant, it’s about half of the energy radiates away in terms of heat. And the last thing I would say about that is a solar panel in orbit, let’s say in geosynchronous orbit, is about seven times more productive than one here on the surface. Because of course you have night, you have higher latitudes, you’re going to get less incident light and so on. I think you can produce about a thousand watts per square meter at noon on a sunny day on the equator. And in geosynchronous orbit it’s 1348 watts per square meter on a fairly constant basis.
Jim: And you don’t have to deal with weather, et cetera.
Daniel: That’s right.
Jim: And even as it turns out, when you really run the numbers, a massive solar farm, say in a desert, there’s a non-trivial expense keeping the dust off the cells.
Daniel: Exactly. And I think I remember at one point having a discussion with an official about this, and I think where I really changed his mind was, let’s not forget unfolding potential economic and political chaos here on earth. If you’re talking about using areas of the world where you’re going to put in big wind farms, they might be wiped out by hurricanes or wildfires. Solar power arrays have valuable materials in them if people start to cannibalize them and rip them apart and sell the parts. If you have chaos going on on the surface, it’s going to be much more difficult to maintain and keep building out these systems. So you could have these challenges.
So one of the virtues is that by having these solar power arrays at a geosynchronous orbits, it’s like 22,000 miles up. The rectennas are cheap to build. They’re easy to fix. And a lot of people don’t realize that if you… They look like a netting. You could put these above crops. You could put these even above solar panels. So you could have grazing land and you could have this circus net almost above animals grazing. And they’re easy to replace in case they get damaged, and yet they could receive a great deal of energy and pump it right back through our existing transmission lines to wherever they need to go.
Jim: Yep, and an interesting point that this new wide area rectenna concept, the energy density is sufficiently low, that’s actually safe for humans to walk under it.
Daniel: Yeah, there was a presenter that I was trying to find a link to his video, but he used to do these presentations where he would give his presentation, the entire time he was giving it, he would have one of these microwave transmitters focused on him while he was up at the top. And at the end he would of course reveal that he was… It’s like I’m soaking in it type commercial here. But the idea that it’s going to roast birds and stuff like that, that it’s a death ray from space, that is not the case when it comes to… I think it’s like 100 watts per square meter, 230 watts per square meter used to be the OSHA standard, and I think they reduced it. But death ray is the usual claim that people say now. And I can think of anything more difficult to do because you’re talking about a very large object in space that is completely visible, so everybody could watch what’s happening on it. It’s not like somebody could secretly turn it into a death ray.
Jim: Yep, that’s a good point. Now, you talked earlier about how the space economy could help the earthbound economy. And now the coupling, one of the main couplings that is hypothesized in the book is through essentially monetary systems where pretty much what you’d call a DAO is created, one of the more interesting characters. Raymond Marin is a super techy and super crypto geek.
Daniel: He comes from Venezuela, which has its own economic convulsions in real life.
Jim: He learned the lesson, commie is not so good.
Daniel: Not a fan.
Jim: Not a fan of communism. Very, very interesting character, one of my favorite characters in the books. And so talk a little bit about the vision of the cyst lunar commodity exchange and the related financial thingies going on there.
Daniel: Sure. And for that, I’ll go back a bit to Damon and 2006, 2008. I actually first finished that book in 2006. It was republished by Dutton in 2008. And that book talked about cryptocurrency. And this is of course before Bitcoin was really starting to take off. The idea of monetary systems being done cryptographically as opposed to a fiat currency by a government. That always intrigued me. That idea that money is a construct, it’s a mental construct. It’s what we believe in. And of course you want to base it on something intrinsically valuable wherever possible. And this is why the gold standard was always interesting to me. But of course, gold has the issue that you can’t just instantly originate a whole bunch of it in case the economy’s growing. And so you can have these perverse situations where people want to hold onto their money because it’s increasing in value all the time.
And so that was part of the Agrarian movement. I remember the underpinnings of the Granger movement in the 1890s where you would have farmers that would apply for a loan for their seed, and by the time they planted it and everything else, money was worth much more, and they were screwed no matter what they did. So cryptographic systems for money interest me, and they’ve become a third rail in some quarters because there’s been so much froth and so much, well, let’s say malfeasance to some degree. There are some bad actors, there are some good actors, there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on. But it is a wild and wooly territory. You and I talked, I think before we started recording here, a bit about the banking system in the 1800s in the United States and all these different currencies that were being experimented with at the time. This is before the Federal Reserve.
And so that was also a wild wooly period. And recall that that was at a time when America was really getting on its feet and starting to exploit the resources of the continent. SO it’s a very similar situation to what we’ve got now. And yet here when it comes to space, we’re trying to figure out how to marshal all of human activity in space and have us build out a legal and economic framework without turning it into a Cold War 2.0 or some shooting war in space. Basically a pissing match between whose currency we use. I think that can be a really, really dangerous element. And so that’s what I was trying to explore in this. How do you set up a new economic system that incentivizes people to go into space, gives them a comfort level in terms of a legal framework, some sort of legal recourse and smart contracts figure in here. It’s basically a trustless environment. And trustless systems like those in cryptocurrency I find could really be useful in addressing that.
Jim: Yeah. Though I must say, this is where, again, a little skepticism came in my mind, because one of your characters actually says, you are confusing money with wealth. And this happens all the time. When I talk to people about money and finance, I call it the reification problem. Someone says, Bitcoin is worth market cap of 500 billion dollars or something. And I go, well, yeah, maybe if somebody will actually exchange it for actual wealth.
Because the other thing I also like to point out is that even if a monetary system disappeared, the wealth is still there. And there’s actually several historical examples where that happened. Most famously in Germany, Austria, Hungary in the early 20s where a hyperinflation took the value of the marks [inaudible 01:28:27], one in a quadrillion, essentially zero. The economy ground to a halt. The German government said, all right, all the old money’s gone. We’re starting a new money, put it back into circulation. And literally within a week, the economy restarted. And the reason is… People say, that seems very strange. I say, well, the reason is because money is not wealth. It’s only a pointer and a signaling modality. In reality, wealth is factories, it’s trucks, it’s farms, it’s human skill.
Daniel: People with money in a mattress got screwed. Or people who do real estate.
Jim: Or bond holders got screwed. In Germany, people who own stocks lost about half. People lost in real estate, lost about 25%. People in government bonds lost 100%. People with money in the mattress lost 100%. And so I do think that there’s a little bit of hand waving there in that…
Daniel: Well, one of the things that I really emphasize here is that the Luna, and of course I call the coin the Luna, even though in reality the Luna coin was just a fiasco. But I look at it this way, there is no better name for a crypto coin on the moon than Luna. But anyway, that aside, it is based not upon cryptographic. It’s not based upon stake. It’s based upon intrinsically valuable materials. So in other words, they are originating and bringing into this economy new sources of energy and physical resources, titanium, iron, nickel. And what they’re doing is they are growing the money supplied based on that. So intrinsically valuable things that, like you said, were this Luna coined to fail, those materials would still be around and would be reassigned by some other system. But the point is, you don’t want to have a system that is based upon just, let’s say, a proof of work like a Bitcoin would. When you’re growing the amount of resources and energy, that’s obviously the thing that you’re going to focus on is the store value.
Jim: Yep. And that part I did like. When you do some pencils, you say, well, how valuable are the things being created in space at this point in time? And the answer is, they’re way down in the 0.01 percentile range of the global GDP. So it’s hard to see how they manage to save the day in the short term, at least.
Daniel: Well remember also that people in a shrinking system, so in what’s envisioned in critical mass is that you are having essentially deflation, you’re having tremendous disruption. There’s little confidence in the future, the near future, simply because there’s so much disruption. Even if countries themselves are still able to produce crops and factories, they’re dealing with a whole bunch of refugees or they’re caught up in a conflict and wars are very costly. The idea of having something out of the fray, something that you can invest in, which is not just stable but reliably growing and will continue to grow for quite some time. One can imagine that were you to be an early investor in a cis lunar industry, let’s say a refinery, that 20, 30 years later your stake could be worth vastly more. So really it’s a vote in that future is really what it is.
Jim: Yeah, I think that’s a very good point actually. And particularly if back here on earth we’re in a what seems like a downward spiral, even a relatively modest, but in the short term, but eventually potentially gigantic wedge of growth could actually be very, very good for both morale and at least to some degree for finance.
Daniel: Well think of this, some of the estimates that were given when I was doing the research for this, and I think it was in High Frontier, that at a very torrid rate of growth, around a really high level of growth, if you started to build out an economy off world in our solar system, you could expand for 12,000 years at that same very high growth rate before you even start touching resources within the planets. This is just from asteroid and other material and moons. It’s just an incredible rate of growth. In 12,000 years, we could solve a hell of a lot of problems, economics and medical and technology-wise during that time that would help us get to the next level in that 12,000 years.
But just imagine that also a growth where you’re not feeling guilty, you’re not despoiling the Rockies, you’re not befalling our atmosphere. In fact, you’re helping it because you’re bringing energy to bear that can be used to help preserve the earth, our home world. Help benefit everyone on it. Not just us, but people straight around the world. We could deliver economic growth to everyone that would only help to preserve the peace. And again, having people invest in the future, I think is the best way to have a preserved peace is because people have things to look forward to.
Jim: Yep, I like that a lot. And as you say, 10,000 years is a very long time, particularly when you consider humans have only actually had control or I’d say a reasonable approach to reality for about 350 years, right?
Daniel: Yeah. Well, I think agriculture is 10,000 years.
Jim: Yeah, but science and logic, well, not logic. Science and the ability to actually verify information, it’s only 350 years old.
Daniel: That’s right. The enlightenment.
Jim: Yeah. That’s amazing that how far we’ve come, but we’re rushing so fast at the wall also that we have to pull back. It’s a very complicated maneuver that humanity has to do to not kill itself from exponential growth, not put itself into a nose dive. And I like your vision about how space can be one of the vectors that help us get over this end of the 21st century barriers. Actually very invigorating.
Daniel: I think we need to factor it into Drake’s equation, quite frankly, because I think it’s an obvious step in the process. I wouldn’t even call it a release valve, because the funny part about this is, if you really think about it, are we going to avail ourselves of the vast entirety of the enormous universe around us, or are we going to stay here on this rock? And it seems an obvious question of what we should be doing.
Jim: And I will say, personally, I believe the whole point of humanity is to bring the universe to life.
Daniel: Well, there you go. And I completely disagree with people who view life as a cancer. And I’ve heard that described. We would spread into spoil the… That’s ridiculous. I mean, spreading life to me is, like you said, that’s the impetus of all life, is we expand life and it creates a rich tapestry. And I think that’s a vast improvement.
Jim: And life is just so much more interesting than dead matter. I mean, as far as we know, this is one of the great… I talk about this on the podcast all the time, the Fermi paradox. It was Enrico Fermi at Los Alamos, hearing some young physicists chatting about the Drake equation said, well, if there’s so many of them out there, where are they? And I’ve spent years reading everything I can about the Drake equation, going out to the [inaudible 01:35:32] Institute, talking to other knowledgeable people. And I think the honest answer is, we just don’t know. We might be it. When I was 14, of course…
Daniel: My God.
Jim: And so people find that depressing. I find that amazingly empowering, but also scary. We don’t want to fuck up if we’re the only one. If there’s 100,000 other civilizations in the Milky Way, and we blow it and roast the planet, oh well. Frankly, at the scale of the history of the universe. But if we’re the only ones, we have an amazing duty not to blow it until we know one way.
Daniel: [inaudible 01:36:05], right?
Jim: Yeah. It’s huge. And until we know, I believe we must practice the precautionary principle and not put, I guess what I would call it, general intelligence at risk by doing stupid ass shit.
Daniel: I would agree. And by the way, this gets to the planetary chauvinism versus free space. And really, this is something that I try to dig into in these books, and that is the debate between the people who think we should settle Mars. And I’ve had this debate with quite a few people that we need to be a multi-planetary species. And the exception I take to that is that by going to a place like Mars, a different place, it is going to have different conditions, 38% of gravity, for example, slightly less than 1% of the pressure of our earth. And these are very different conditions.
And this is why I really think building in free space, building our biosphere, using yes, millions of tons of refined material to create vast spinning like O’Neill cylinder size habitats to build… Learn how to build our own biosphere, our own soil from scratch, learn how to be stewards of these complex ecosystems so that we can better care for all life. I think that is one of our absolute primary responsibilities. But by learning how to do that, we guarantee what you just said, which is the continuance of life. By going to settle Mars or some other place, we’re changing it such that we have all these little pockets that are vastly different. And I’m not sure in 5,000 years we would even recognize each other.
Jim: And I think that’s okay too, frankly. I think we should try it all. But I do think there’s… You guys make a good case in the book that for instance, artificial gravity versus low gravity. Very interesting.
Daniel: We don’t know what the minimum dose of gravity is. We don’t know what we need. And that’s an amazing thing in 2023 that we don’t know that.
Jim: Interesting. Well, there’s so much more we could talk about here. And we didn’t do much justice to the plot and critical mass, but let me tell the listeners, it’s really a thriller and a lot goes on and it’s well worth reading. So if this at all picked your fancy, I strongly recommend reading Delta-v, which I reread about two weeks ago after I read it when it first came out. And then I read Critical Mass when it came out, which was sometime this winter. I don’t quite remember when. And I’d recommend both of them. And they’re available on Kindle or at your favorite, probably not at your favorite bookstore, but you could probably…
Daniel: Depends on the store.
Jim: You could get them to order it. Well, I just wanted to thank you very much, Daniel Suarez for writing so many good books and for being such a good guest here on the Jim [inaudible 01:38:51] show.
Daniel: I appreciate it, Jim. And it’s so fun to be on.