Islands in Space
Do you remember the first time you felt a special connection to a favorite author? Not just the moment you realized you really liked what he or she wrote, but more than that. Discovering, for instance, that not only was she a great writer, but that she grew up in your town. Or maybe finding out that he used to go to the same beach or park as a kid that you enjoy visiting now.
For me, that sense of special connection came with the March, 1974 issue of Analog, in the fact article “Bigger Than Worlds” by Larry Niven. That was the fifth issue of Analog I ever laid my hands on, and in those days I was fourteen and would read the magazine cover to cover as soon as it hit the mailbox. I had already loved Niven’s “The Hole Man” from the January issue, and knew of him from Ringworld though I had yet to read it. But in that particular article, which discussed possible large, constructed things for people to live in or on in space, Niven mentioned the book Islands in Space by Dandridge M. Cole and Donald W. Cox. He described it as “a book of scientific speculation” and referred to it in the context of turning an asteroid into an inside-out world, which humans might inhabit in the future.
I remember thinking at the time that Islands in Space was an exciting but obscure book I had read “a long time ago,” which means I read it when I was eleven or twelve. Looking back on it now I’d probably read it twice by the time I came upon Niven’s reference to it. My local library was none too big and Islands in Space was unique for it’s time—there was nothing else like it. And that’s what made it so special. Here was a book written in 1964, long before we had even landed on the moon, which talked about mining and inhabiting the asteroids. Here was a book, a science book, which gave me the same sense of wonder that science fiction stories did. It actually spelled out explicitly how we could do this, and provided the rationale. Well, damn! By the time I’d finished reading it, I thought mining and colonizing the asteroids was not only possible, but also inevitable. And in my lifetime!
And right there in the pages of Analog I found that this famous writer named Larry Niven had not only read the same book I had, but took it seriously and used it to help build his own fictional universe. This simply solidified the case that the asteroids were ours and we would soon have them.
Alas, the future we got was not the one that was supposed to be, but maybe, just maybe, it still lies ahead of us. There is reason for optimism, not from some burst of Government sanity, but from the entrepreneurial sector, just like Heinlein thought it would happen. But more on that later.
For the last ten years I have debated writing about Islands in Space as another entry in my occasional series on “Forgotten Classic Science Books that Every Science Fiction Writer Should Have.” But I could never convince myself that every science fiction writer should have it, forgotten and classic as it is. (Unless he wants to write about the history of speculative space futurism. Then it’s a must have.)
The full title is Islands in Space: The Challenge of the Planetoids. Written by Dandridge M. Cole (who was a Space Program Analyst for GE’s Missile and Space Division) and Donald W. Cox (a writer and lecturer, frequently about space issues), it also includes a Foreword by Willy Ley. Published in 1964, it was one of the first books I obtained used from an online seller back when doing so was just taking off. I bought it for the same reason I picked up used hardcover copies of all the Heinlein juveniles. Although it wasn’t science fiction, it did everything for me then that the best stories of the grandmasters did, setting my soul on fire for the future that could be.
Much of what you find in the book is what you’d still find in it if it had been written five years ago instead of fifty. It is with a mixture of humor and sadness that I wonder if the authors ever thought that in the second decade of the twenty-first century it would remain necessary to explain to the average person what an asteroid is. Randomly ask someone off the street to define “asteroid” and his brain may go into lock. The ones that do manage an answer might get it somewhat correct if they don’t go over two sentences. Deeper questioning might reveal that he’s picturing a scene from Star Trek or a Star Wars movie.
Several chapters pose and then answer questions about why we should claim the asteroids. Had the vision they set forth been realized one would hope those chapters could be left out in a new edition. Unfortunately, those of us who think of moving into space as the next logical, even inevitable, step in the great drama of human progress, must still deal with naysayers who honestly do not understand that dollars used on space activities are spent on Earth.
There is a chapter on tools used for hunting asteroids. In a modern edition this is a chapter that would need to be greatly expanded and thoroughly updated. We have gained huge amounts of new data on asteroids, now have a far better understanding of what they’re made of, and have added hundreds of potential targets for human visits that were unknown in 1964. We’ve sent probes and taken pictures, but one thing we have not discovered is a reason why Cole and Cox were wrong about going there and using them. Indeed, the “land” is as rich and flowing in milk and honey as they claimed, perhaps even more so given our ever-increasing need for rare metals.
The reason why this is not a must have book is because the visionary outlook the authors brought to this work has since been revisited many times by others. In 1976 Gerard K. O’Neill published The High Frontier, which discussed building colonies in space at great length. What he said there was familiar to those of us who read SF, and much of it was re-echoed in the SF works that came later. That book spawned the L-5 Society and O’Neill’s own Space Studies Institute, among others.
Unfortunately, despite the serious work put into space resources and space colony studies by the space activist crowd, lay and professional, we still have no space colonies. We still have no solar power stations beaming juice down from the heavens. And the U.S. currently pays the Russians to take our astronauts to a space station we put up there in the first place!
But as I alluded to earlier, there is a new hope that the future so many of us have craved may soon begin in earnest. Back last spring a company called Planetary Resources (http://www.planetaryresources.com) announced that it intends to make gobs of money by mining the asteroids. Or, as they put it in their Vision statement: “Planetary Resources is bringing the natural resources of space within humanity’s economic sphere of influence, propelling our future into the twenty-first century and beyond. . . .”
Discussed in detail on their website are all those things they want to do and the means by which they expect to achieve them, and I recommend that all of you take a look. On the home page you’ll also be given the opportunity to participate. I personally have agreed to help spread the word (which isn’t why I wrote this particular column although it does also fit that bill).
An article with the science-fictional title “Robots, Platinum, and Tiny Space Telescopes: The Pitch for Mining Asteroids” was published by The Atlantic last May (http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/05/robots-platinum-and-tiny-space-telescopes-the-pitch-for-mining-asteroids/256523/.T812qhL3bnp.email). This is the mainstream taking the idea very seriously, just as Colliers did back in the 1950s. I provided a link to this specific article because I found it unusually well written and highly informative about other benefits that may give a severely needed boost to the academic space science community.
The bulk of the piece is an interview with Sara Seager, Professor of Planetary Science at MIT (http://seagerexoplanets.mit.edu). About the interview, author Ross Andersen says: “[This] is my conversation with Seager about what asteroid mining might do for commercial space exploration, and what that could mean for the future of space science.”
I recommend reading the interview closely as it is well worth your time. The reason for why this particular academic space scientist is working with Planetary Resources she herself explains succinctly early in the interview: “But what got me excited about this project was the tie in to the commercial space industry, because I want to help them find a way to have a sustainable imprint in space. The bottom line is that NASA is not working the best that it could for space science right now, and so in order for people like me to succeed with my own research goals, the commercial space industry needs to be able to succeed independently of government contracts.”
Islands in Space discussed manned trips to the asteroids in the 1970–80 time period without a blush. When we consider the NASA of today (Curiosity rover aside), we’re more likely to hear news not of what to do next, but of what program will be cancelled soon, or never funded in the first place. Despite the early successes of large national space programs, they are no answer to our long-term expansion into the final frontier. It’s time to give the profit motive a chance.
It’s worked before.
If you will indulge me for a couple hundred words, I have a few personal things to say.
I want to thank Rick Lovett for pinch-hitting for me by writing the November Alternate View. I do not yet know what he wrote about, but I hope it gave him the opportunity to discuss an “alternate view” of his own that he might not have been able to find a home for elsewhere. I also want to thank Stan and the staff at Analog for being so understanding in letting me attend to a singularly unpleasant task.
You see, my mom died. She went into the hospital on Easter Sunday complaining of difficulty breathing. They found fluid in her chest and put in a drain while searching for the cause. The cause turned out to be advanced pancreatic cancer, so advanced that my two sisters and I were immediately put in touch with a hospice care agency.
Without need to discuss it, my sisters and I knew what mom wanted (she was in no condition to ask). We took her home to the house our dad had built for her and nursed her 24/7 for what turned out to be only eleven days. She slipped away quietly in the wee hours of April 25, asleep in her own bed, just the way she wanted it. At the funeral, beside the grave, the final minutes were filled with my daughter Ashley playing “What A Wonderful World” on her viola, one of her grandmother’s favorite songs. I will never be more proud of her than I was at that moment.
Regardless of your religious views, it is a wonderful world. Death is ugly. Embrace life.
Copyright © 2012 Jeffery D. Kooistra