David Brin on the Moon, Mars & Technological Evolution in the 21st Century

By Tim Ventura | 17 February 2020

An artist’s depiction of a rocket carrying humans to Mars. (Image: NASA / John Frassanito and Associates)

America is going back to the Moon, but we should be pushing further out into the solar system — and we have the technology to do it today. We’re joined by award-winning science fiction author & space scientist Dr. David Brin to talk about his latest novels, the evolution of electric vehicles, and mankind’s future in space.

David, thank you for joining us. Your background is nothing short of spectacular, and it’s truly an honor to speak with you. I’d like to start out by asking what inspired you towards space futurism and a career in science and science fiction?

Well, I suppose being taken to the planetarium at the Griffith Observatory when I was seven and having Sputnik pointed out to me was an influence. It certainly influenced the nation — making us much more determined to be scientific than we had been.

Honestly, though, I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in the sky, space, stars, and galaxies. The question is no longer about whether I can go out there, but how I can contribute to keeping people’s dreams vivid and passionate.

I suppose I do that to some degree with my stories, and I’m also engaged in appraising more plausible ventures funded by NASA’s NIAC and some of the other groups I consult with.

Your novels, such as Startide Rising & The Uplift War, have won numerous awards — but I wondered, if you had to choose, is there any particular novel you’ve written that you hold special pride in? Like being able to say, this is my absolute best work.

If you’re a parent, which is your favorite child? I mean, you know the distinctions, but you try to have pride in all of them. Glory Season is my brave, indomitable, perseverant daughter — very much like my own daughter, Ari. The Postman is my son who fights for justice. Earth is my daughter who reveals the beauty and the danger to the only home we have. Existence is my robot child who transcends layers of reality.

So, you know there are things to be happy with in all of them. I’m just now today going to post an ebook version of my science fiction comedy called The Ancient Ones. It’s my slapstick, manic child who gets the whole classroom in stitches, one hopes.

Many of the themes in your novels involve space, as does your PhD, so I’d like to ask you for some thoughts about today’s space industry — in particular, NASA’s SLS program & Elon Musk’s goal of colonizing Mars.

Well, Elon is a friend and a gift to us all. He has transformed several major industries in positive ways, spurring some of our stodgy dinosaurs into behaving more like agile mammals.

In terms of space, being able to access the resources of the solar system will make our descendants so rich, they won’t even be able to imagine poverty anymore, but at minimum we should get out there in order to prevent surprises like the one that killed the dinosaurs.

Now of course I am known as a contrarian and a bit of a persnickety critic, and there are things happening today, both in space and on the ground that merit criticism.

I think what you said about Elon was right on point. I’m a tremendous fan of what he’s done for electric vehicles, and if he’s able to bring even a small measure of that to bear on the space program, it will be a giant achievement. He’s already inspiring NASA, and indeed the entire world in many ways towards space.

Well, the day he landed his Falcon 9 booster back at the launch pad, folks at Boeing and Lockheed realized that it was the end of an era.

They began scrambling to see if they could do anything like it, and when they realized they couldn’t, they essentially handed their future over to Jeff Bezos, whose reusable Blue Origin system was also capable of returning to launchpad — and with the fundamental aspect that it used different code and different technology than Elon’s.

The partnership between United Launch Alliance and Blue Origin was a forced marriage that benefited both, but it was Elon holding the shotgun.

That’s an interesting way to put it — and it seems to be driving a lot of change already. Would it be fair to say that what Elon is doing at SpaceX is the rising tide that lifts all boats?

Well, that’s what he did with electric vehicles. He basically made it legitimate for agile companies to transfer power to people with vision inside those organizations, which is why companies like Jaguar are starting to produce electric vehicles.

I mean, look, it was obvious to anyone with any sense about 15 years ago that the new rare earth based electric motors had gone through a transformation and combined with computer controls they were capable of taking what had been an absurd world of electric vehicles and turning them into transcendent machines.

Elon’s brilliant notion that his first electric vehicle would be a Roadster utterly destroyed the old notion of gutless, crawling electric cars — you know basically golf carts.

Now prior to the interview, you sent me a paper that makes an intriguing position against an Apollo-style approach to the Moon, predominantly because it would cannibalize efforts for an American program that would “do things only we can do, further out”. Can you elaborate on that?

I think that’s a fair paraphrasing. Let me be clear: I want humanity to go back to the moon — but right now all indications are that there’s no profit to be made from the moon except in one industry, and that’s tourism. Andy Weir, the author of The Martian, says this in his second novel, Artemis.

Landing on the moon is a historic achievement. It’s a major bucket-list item for emerging nations — it’s a way to inspire their citizens, prove technological competency, and demonstrate first world status.

The Chinese are desperate to go to the Moon. The Russians & Europeans would love to go. The Indians are absolutely determined to go there. Even billionaires want to get there. Why? It’s not about the science, it’s about the achievement — and that is the single biggest reason that America went there over 50 years ago. We’ve done it, now it’s their turn.

Nothing will stop the Chinese, Russians, and Indians from going to the moon. What America should do is set up the Lunar Gateway as a space hotel with Artemis landers from Blue Origin & others, rent them out for exorbitant fees and say, “welcome to the Moon — is there anything we can do to make your stay here more pleasant?”

There is nothing to be accomplished by sending US astronauts back to the Moon, especially since there’s no indication that we’ll find anything on the lunar surface except for nasty poisonous dust and some water at the poles. How do we benefit from that? There’s plenty more water on the asteroids.

Now in terms of asteroids, not only will you find water, but you’ll also find every metal & material you could ask for: rare earth elements, carbonaceous materials, and organic compounds. Anything a spacefaring civilization might want is up there, and this last year both the United States and Japan had spectacular asteroid missions accomplishing goals that no other nation could even conceive of doing.

If Phobos turns out to be a captured asteroid, as some believe, then it means there’s already a perfect gas station hovering above Mars that we might be able to mine and refuel Mars spacecraft on their way back to Earth.

Combine that with In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) on the Martian surface, and you can effectively eliminate 90% of the cost of a Mars mission — and suddenly Mars starts to make economic sense, but we won’t know how to do that unless we’ve practiced with asteroids.

So should the United States help our neighbors achieve their own historic firsts on the Moon? Yes, by all means — but there’s no particular reason why we should race to get more American footprints on that dusty poisoned plane. We have bigger goals ahead of us.

Now one of those bigger goals is Mars exploration, but there are some serious health concerns about human exposure to galactic cosmic radiation along with hexavalent chromium in the Martian dust. Will those risks be major obstacles to manned missions or will it be relatively easy to overcome?

Oh, it won’t be easy to overcome, and that’s one reason the most valuable real estate on Mars will be the volcanic caves that have been found. These are lava tubes like they have in Hawaii, but here and there, the roof has collapsed and we see holes showing us the interior. NASA NIAC is funding a program to send a robot to the edge of one of these holes and peek in and see if it is what we think it is.

There are some of these lava tubes on the Moon by the way — and if you find some of these close to water, there’ll be a gold rush to these particular sites. These will make fine underground habitats, where you have an existing cave that’s away from the solar radiation and presumably away from some of the bad dust and bad chemicals.

Solutions like this may ameliorate some of the health concerns, but in order to properly use Mars we’re going to have to develop systems for dust abatement and chemically controlling what the astronauts wind up breathing. It’s achievable, but it’s not going to be easy.

It sounds like there are still substantial challenges with human exploration of both the Moon and Mars. Does this mean that robots will do most of the exploration in the solar system, or is there still a role for human achievement in pushing back these frontiers?

Well, I believe that most of the work in the solar system is going to be robotic. The asteroids will be mined mostly robotically and we’ll bring those resources back to lunar orbit where they’ll be refined. We’re developing the automated technologies to do this for use on Earth already, and they’ll be valuable in the future building marvelous things in space.

If we create the resources that we need using ISRU, say on Phobos and the Martian surface, then we’ll be able to send astronauts to Mars very quickly because they won’t have to carry any of their tools, supplies or vehicles — everything will already be there waiting for them. That will minimize radiation damage to the astronauts, so that means there is a place for organic humans in all of this, but generally speaking, 98% of the solar system is going to belong to robots.

By the way, I don’t think the wonderfully vivid future portrayed in the excellent science fiction TV series The Expanse will come about. I think technologically we’ll reach that point, but the social structures that drive the plot can’t happen, because if we’re mining asteroids as extensively as they are in this TV series, we’ll be so rich that the kind of poverty they exhibit as a plot driver simply won’t be possible.

Does it seem remarkable, that looking back over your career in speculation about the future that technology has moved forward far enough that we’re able to speak in the present tense about robotic exploration of the solar system and self-driving electric vehicles?

Let me go back in time to 1970. I was an undergraduate at Cal Tech and we co-managed the “Clean Air Car Race” from MIT to Pasadena that was covered every night on the CBS Evening news with Walter Cronkite.

Every night, Walter told the country where we were and and what we had done — it was incredible. Life magazine had a centerfold spread showing us with the vehicles in front of the dome at MIT, over on the left of the front row as one of the officials of the race, you’ll see a guy who had a lot more hair than I do now.

That event had the world’s very first hybrid car from the University of Toronto, and it had everything, including regenerative braking, except for computers — it had no computers whatsoever. Instead, there was an engineer sitting in the passenger’s seat who was always vastly busier than the driver fiddling dials and carefully keeping the thing from frying. After the race, it disappeared into the labs at Wayne State University and came out as the Prius many years later.

The most important thing we accomplished with that race was to totally legitimize unleaded gas cars — two of them crossed the country without a problem. That destroyed the narrative of the Ethyl Corporation, that lead was necessary in order not to fry your engine, and within six months, the bill banning lead from gasoline was out of committee.

Now, at my ripe old age, it’s interesting to look back and think that when I was not yet 20, I might have done the most important thing I ever did, and that was participate in that car race that helped get the lead out of gasoline perhaps two or three years earlier than it otherwise would have.

I tell this garrulous story in part because while we were crossing the country and we had reached Oklahoma, the electric cars in the rally had only made it from Boston to Worcester, Massachusetts, where they gave up. That shows you how bad the electric technology was in 1970.

I think by far, that’s not the most important thing you’ve done. Your stories have inspired an entire generation, and helped keep the dream of space alive as well as being a vital part of the imaginative process driving science & technology forward. So on that note, let me close by asking what comes next in your career?

Well, you know, at my age I need to ration the time, right now I’m spread much too thin talking with lawyers about enforcing my patents, for example. We’re about to publish my 16th novel ourselves because publishers are terrified of comedy. Only one in 20 comedies is a success and they can never tell which one. So it’s called The Ancient Ones, and it’ll be available at davidbrin.com.

I’ve also just published my third short story collection, called Insistence of Vision, and of course I have audience pressure to do another Uplift novel. I’m hoping to get all my parenting, consulting, patenting and public speaking under control, and then I can get back to doing the one thing that civilization really thinks I’m good at. So we’ll see if I can manage that.

About Our Guest

Dr. David Brin is an award-winning science fiction author & space scientist who has authored dozens of best-selling novels & short-stories, some of which have been adapted for film & television.

In addition to his literary career, David is a 2010 fellow of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, helped establish the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination, serves on the advisory board of NASA’s Innovative and Advanced Concepts group, and does futurism consulting for diverse organizations including the US Department of Defense, Procter & Gamble, SAP, Google & many more.

David is the winner of numerous awards & honors, including the prestigious Nebula, Hugo & Locus awards for science fiction, and holds a PhD in Space Science from the University of California. Learn more on his website at https://www.davidbrin.com.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Tim Ventura is a futurist, marketing executive and sometime writer with 25+ years of industry experience and a passion for the future. Follow him at LinkedIn and Twitter.

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  1. I am a Musk fan. His ideas were originally like those in a science fiction movie but they are becoming a reality. As he plans to launch about 1,000 improved Falcon missiles, each carrying 100 "initiators", to establish the first settlement on the Red Planet. I hope that day will come soon in my life.


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