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Authors explore future of space exploration in new book from ASU center

December 21, 2017

Collection of stories — supported by NASA grant — imagines space futures interwoven with economic, social, legal perspectives

Why should we go to space?

To learn more about the universe and our place in it? To extract resources and conduct commerce? To demonstrate national primacy and technological prowess? To live and thrive in radically different kinds of human communities?

These forking paths are at the heart of "Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures," a new collection of stories and essays about the near future of space exploration from Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination. The collection, which was supported by a grant from NASA, envisions space futures shaped by partnerships between public and private institutions, as well as new constellations of citizens, consumers and investors. These visions of the future were developed by collaborative teams of science fiction authors and experts in fields ranging from history and economics to astronomy, physics, engineering and even botany.

Cover of the book Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities
The collection of space stories is available for free download.

"Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities" takes readers on gripping, occasionally mind-bending journeys to low-Earth orbit, Mars, far-flung asteroids and uncharted exoplanets. We caught up with one of the book’s editors — Ed Finn, director of the Center for Science and the Imagination and an assistant professor in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering and the Department of English — to discuss our changing consciousness about space, the nature of our motivations for going there, the evolving economics of space expeditions and Elon Musk’s Martian retirement plans. 

Question: What were your motivations for putting together this project? What are you hoping that these new stories and essays will accomplish?

Answer: The stories that we tell about space are changing. We have moved from a series of totally novel technical challenges, like building rockets that can carry payloads to orbit and keeping humans alive in space, to a set of much more familiar challenges. The big barriers to our future in space are now social, legal, and economic — who’s going to pay for this stuff, how will it be insured, and why are we doing it? The essays in this collection tackle those questions: the intersection of space science, policy, commerce and society writ large.

We hope these stories can illuminate the future with a set of technically grounded science fiction stories that also draw inspiration from the past. Put aside the rockets and habitats and you see that humans have been solving similar challenges for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, from funding scientific expeditions to grappling with the ethics and politics of building new communities. To make the next steps in space exploration, we need to address these “why” questions, and we hope this collection offers some possible answers in its exciting, technically detailed space futures.

Space vehicles in an artist illustration
One of the book's illustrations by Maciej Rebisz.

Q: Asteroid mining has been a big part of most recent conversations about building a functioning economy in space. Do you think that’s the most promising direction? 

A: The writers in this collection explored a whole range of possibilities, from nanobots breaking down asteroids to tourism in low-Earth orbit. Asteroid mining is certainly one major focus of space industry attention right now, and it makes sense that long-range expansion into space will depend on “in situ” resources, including the water and minerals on asteroids that can be converted into fuel and equipment.

But the asteroids are far away, and in the short term, we’ll be relying on established technologies and stuff we lug up the gravity well from Earth, so it’s good to speculate about other economic models. In his story, Karl Schroeder imagines that the development of human settlements on Mars will happen largely via robots controlled in virtual reality, and that the economics of space exploration will take a surprising, decentralized turn. Vandana Singh imagines a mission to an exoplanet funded through crowdsourcing. And two of our writers, Steven Barnes and Carter Scholz, think it will be the rich who get there first, creating businesses in Earth orbit that are really just extensions of the Earth economy.

Q: During the Cold War, the U.S. invested in space as part of a competition for national power and technological preeminence. What is driving our efforts in space today?

A: In a lot of ways this is the central question of an increasingly commercial sector. When we launched the Apollo program in the 1960s, it was a heady mix of hope and fear. Optimism and national pride on the one hand, as the U.S. came into its own as a global superpower after World War II. But also anxiety about military rockets, nuclear weapons and losing the technology race to the Soviet Union. Getting the first man on the moon was a race not just for prestige but to master this new arena of technology, making space another battleground in the Cold War.

Of course, companies aren’t in it to plant flags, and I think there are a number of groups hunting for the right business model. Today we are at one of those inflection points where something that used to be very hard is going to become significantly cheaper and easier. The details of how that shakes out will play a major role in determining what the new space economy looks like, as well as the new symbolic economy around why we are investing in space exploration, and what it means for people back on Earth.

Q: Elon Musk has famously proclaimed that he’d like to retire on Mars. Why is that such a provocative statement? After all, he’s not really talking about mind-blowing scientific discoveries or whiz-bang new technologies.  

Illustration of various vehicles and pods on a red alien planet
One of the book's illustrations by Maciej Rebisz.

A: What I really like about Musk’s retirement plans is that it’s not just a technical challenge, but a social and economic one. Sure, we’ll need to build some bigger rockets and solve some new problems, but retiring on Mars means much more than setting foot on Mars, or simply surviving there. It means creating a way of life, establishing a home, maybe planting a garden … dwelling there in a meaningful way. That is really cool because (pulling it off) will require answering all kinds of cultural and social questions about who goes to space and why most people aren’t even thinking about that right now. Several of the essays in this collection really delve into these economic and social consequences of building human communities in space.

Q: What works of science fiction influenced your work on "Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities"? What kinds of stories about space exploration did you want to edit and publish for the book?

A: One major inspiration for this book is Kim Stanley Robinson, our writer-not-in-residence this year at the Center for Science and the Imagination. We were especially pleased to link this project with the 25th anniversary of his seminal novel "Red Mars," which we’ve quoted from in a series of epigraphs throughout this new collection. Robinson has been writing technically grounded, optimistic visions of humanity in space for decades now, and we were hoping for stories that follow his example. And, of course, I was hoping for weird new tales that are unlike anything we’ve seen before. I’m happy to say there’s something rich and surprising to me in every story in the collection, from movie-buff AIs to plant pheromones that can hack human DNA.

“Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities" is free to download in a variety of digital formats. Print-on-demand copies are also available for purchase, at cost, for $20.90, plus sales tax and shipping. Visit csi.asu.edu/books/vvev to learn more.

Top image: An illustration of one of the stories featured in "Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities." Image by Maciej Rebisz

Joey Eschrich

program manager , Center for Science and the Imagination

480-442-2682

 
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Climate chaos and real estate speculation ... in 2140

September 12, 2017

ASU real estate expert responds to scenario in novel by Kim Stanley Robinson, who will deliver Sept. 20 'Comedy of Coping' lecture

In Kim Stanley Robinson’s most recent novel, “New York 2140,” climate change has reshaped the United States. More than 120 years into the future, sea levels on the Eastern seaboard have risen 50 feet, submerging some of the country's most populous cities and scrambling politics and culture.

Twenty-second-century Manhattan has become a “SuperVenice” where canals have replaced paved streets and skyscrapers have transformed into nearly self-sustaining ecosystems with their own farms and water-purification systems.   

In a time — back in the real 21st century — when monster hurricanes ravage communities and public discussion about the effects of climate change is becoming more urgent, the author brings his willfully hopeful view of the future to Arizona State University’s fourth annual Imagination and Climate Futures lecture on Sept. 20 at the Phoenix Art Museum.

In the lecture, “The Comedy of Coping: Alarm and Resolve in Climate Fiction,” Robinson will urge the audience to renounce dead-end apocalyptic thinking and instead think about ways that humans can work together to survive in an increasingly chaotic environment. This faith in collective action and altruism animates “New York 2140,” and it’s integral to Robinson’s entire career, which spans more than 20 books.

But “New York 2140” is about more than climate change and sea-level rise. In a recent interview, Robinson framed the novel as a drama about real estate and financial speculation — energized by drastic environmental upheaval, but also projecting the drivers of the Great Recession and today’s rapidly escalating housing prices in major U.S. cities into a chilling climate future.

Mark Stapp, director of ASU’s Center for Real Estate Theory and Practice and the Master of Real Estate Development program in the W. P. Carey School of Business, shared his expert perspective on “New York 2140’s” vision for the future of real estate in a drowned world. 

One of the major characters in the novel is Franklin Garr, a Wall Street day trader who invents the Intertidal Property Pricing Index, or IPPI, to enable financial speculation on “intertidal” real estate properties that are sometimes submerged and sometimes above water, depending on the daily tidal fluctuation.

Mark Stapp

According to Stapp, in the climate-changed world of “New York 2140,” a financial instrument like IPPI “doesn’t seem far-fetched at all.” It’s an attribution model, built along the same lines as many current indexes designed to predict prices and trends for real estate and in other markets. In fact, Stapp is involved with a similar project to use an attribution model to map and predict real estate price changes as a result of the Valley Metro light-rail project in the Greater Phoenix area. 

What Stapp liked most about “New York 2140” was the sentiment that “New York is going to be New York,” even in the wake of Earth-rearranging flooding. New systems are required for dealing with the massive influx of water into the city, but older systems and constructs — from the money and culture of Wall Street to the neighborhood associations and cranky building superintendents — are still in force in this radically changed portrait of the Big Apple.

“People still work, still go to bars, still hang out with friends,” absorbed in their daily routines even as their lives are powerfully shaped by the sea-level rise, Stapp said. “New York is a resilient place, and it is not the buildings or the streets or parks that make the community; it’s people that make the community, and they adapt.” 

The novel parallels a recent shift in real estate thinking toward resilience, which the Stockholm Resilience Centre defines as “the capacity of a system … to deal with change and continue to develop,” and the ways that “humans and nature can use shocks and disturbances like a financial crisis or climate change to spur renewal and innovative thinking.”

For Stapp, a key element in the resilience of a place is the strength of its social systems: In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, neighborhoods with strong social supports like churches and community groups tended to recover more quickly than neighborhoods with less well-developed networks. In “New York 2140,” simple, low-tech innovations such as community dining rooms inside the densely populated skyscrapers and hyper-local farming to improve food security in particular caught Stapp’s attention because they are technological changes that meet basic, universal human needs and build community ties. 

One key point in “New York 2140” that gave him pause was the stubbornness of New York’s denizens and of government to retain density in the city.

“I would assume that the city’s population would disperse throughout the surrounding area, especially to the north in the Hudson River Valley,” he said.

After all, Franklin Garr’s IPPI shows that even as city residents struggle to survive in the intertidal zone, real estate in New York City remains pricey in 2140. Stapp pointed out that, contrary to popular belief, more than 80 percent of U.S. Millennials who own homes already live in suburbs. Some people are irresistibly attracted to big cities, but a majority of Americans are willing to relocate to suburbs, especially in the face of rising housing prices. Affordability, access to employment and quality of life are and will remain important determinants to settlement.

Stapp believes metro Phoenix is a particularly resilient city, precisely because it is not subject to cataclysmic natural disasters like hurricanes or earthquakes. However, with a decades-long drought showing no signs of abating, even desert dwellers will have to adapt to a future that might leave many homeowners underwater.  

Kim Stanley Robinson will deliver his lecture “The Comedy of Coping: Alarm and Resolve in Climate Fiction” at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 20, at the Phoenix Art Museum. To learn more and RSVP for the free event, visit https://comedyofcoping.eventbrite.com

Top image: The cover of Kim Stanley Robinson's novel "New York 2140," showing New York City after a 50-foot rise in sea level.

Joey Eschrich

program manager , Center for Science and the Imagination

480-442-2682