It was the very last question at the news conference announcing Planetary Resources’ plans to find mineral-rich asteroids, pull them into near-Earth orbit, and mine them. Did science fiction play a role?

The response was an accurate, but unsatisfyingly vague, “Science fiction is fiction right up to the point that it’s science fact.”

Greg Bear

The Seattle area, which hosted the official Planetary Resources unveiling and is home to the new venture, is no stranger to science fiction with its healthy fan community and significant concentration of New York Times-bestselling, award-winning writers in Seattle and the broader Washington State.

So why not ask the writers themselves what role they think science fiction played?

As a one-time minor short-story writer and former secretary of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), I accessed my memory cube and sent messages through the aether to a half-dozen established writers. What did you think when you heard the announcement? Did you think it was well-past-time, right on time, or earlier than you expected? What immediate science-fiction precursors come to mind, in literature or media?

On the last, the response was near-universal. Brenda Cooper, novelist, futurist and CIO for the City of Kirkland, summed it up: “Asteroid mining is a standard science-fiction trope.”

Writer Greg Bear, whose 1985 novel Eon is actually about attempts to claim an asteroid that moves into near-Earth orbit, suggested precursors such as Poul Anderson’s earlier “Tales of the Flying Mountains and the various asteroid mining stories from folks like Larry Niven.”

Kay Kenyon

Not all the top-of-mind precursors were necessarily positive. “The first thing (ominously) I thought of was the spaceship Nostromo from Alien,” acknowledges Kay Kenyon, author of ten novels including the science fiction quartet, The Entire and The Rose.

Other first reactions varied — and perhaps reflected the early fascination many had with the genre. Seattle’s Vonda N. McIntyre, well-known for the Starfarers novels and the classic Dreamsnake, says hers was simply, “They should hire me.” And when pressed, “They should hire me. Really.”

Novelist Louise Marley was a bit more philosophical. “I thought: why is everyone so surprised? All the news outlets were carrying this story, but in my community — the SF community — this has been expected for decades.”

But the overwhelming first reactions from the writers of what-if was delight. “I thought I had fallen into Act 1 of a novel,” says Kenyon. “After all the NASA cutbacks and governmental dithering, now comes this private venture talking about mining the resources of space. I just love these guys.” Cooper’s reaction was similar, an “enthusiastic screeched-out Valley-girl ‘sweet!’ I’m still happy about it. And then I thought, ‘how can I help?'”

William C. Dietz ((Credit: Joseph Walsh Photography)
William C. Dietz

Several, including William C. Dietz and Kenyon, thought the timing of the announcement was perfect in terms of turning science fiction into science fact. But Dietz, author of more than 40 novels, was already thinking ahead. “What if this wild array of space buccaneers succeeds? What will it lead to? Space oligarchs? Operating in a vacuum that’s empty of both oxygen or laws? Still, given the choice, I say go for it.”

Only one question remained for all half-dozen fiction luminaries. During the Planetary Resources announcement when asked about the derivation of the spacecraft name “Arkyd,” the team said its roots were in science fiction, and that “real” sci-fi fans would know.

Perhaps illustrating that creating futures isn’t quite the same as recalling them, not a single one of the writers did.

Frank Catalano is a consultant, author and veteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies whose GeekWire columns take a practical nerd’s approach to tech. He tweets @FrankCatalano and consults as Intrinsic Strategy. He’s writing this while spending a week immersed in the nerd news flow at GeekWire HQ.

[Dietz photo by Joseph Walsh Photography]

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  • Troy Morris

    It’s not surprising. SF writers tend to pay attention to the human condition and general societal motivations. Those tend to be highly economic and, as such, many knew space exploration would be spurred by the need to mine finite resources off our planet for our home planet. The ultimate goal would be a base/colony on another planet/moon, but first comes those big, slow, easier rocks.

  • Joseph Malovich

    Troy Rising. That is all

    • Pixel I/O

      Agreed, Troy Rising has some really great ideas like building solar mirror arrays for melting asteroids and using centrifugal force to separate the melted material by density.

  • Keith Curtis

    This stuff is interesting, but you’ll notice they aren’t talking about cost / pound. I don’t believe you can via rockets ever make mining economical. It currently costs about $10K / pound to get to low earth orbit. Even assuming you can lower costs, there are limits because rockets are basically not reusable, and have 6% mass payload, so this prevents large-scale efforts into space.

    These people can survey and play around, but it will require a space elevator to make any of this practical. Brad Edwards, who lives in Seattle, has written a book explaining why a space elevator is doable. I’ve written a paper explaining why we can build one in 7 years: I’m making a movie that will also cover this:

  • Head Coach

    About damn time!

    The asteroid 16 Psyche is believed to contain 1.7×1019 kg of nickel–iron, which could supply the world production requirement for several million years. A small portion of the extracted material would also be precious metals.  We could use solar energy and not pollute the Earth’s surface in refining these metals.  There was a long ago (30 years) about an automated mining facility that extruded I-beams into low asteroid orbit.  Then 5 years latter a ship arrives with the raw materials to build several star ships already tumbling around in orbit.

    Bring it on! 

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