Ben Bova: Mining asteroids? Old news to science-fiction writers

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How many times have you seen a news story about some new discovery or invention that starts with the words, "It may seem like science fiction ..."?

That phrase gets under my skin. It assumes that science fiction is wild, way-out stuff that has no relationship to reality.

Actually, the truth is just the opposite. Science fiction is about the realities we may face in the future.

Almost everything in our modern lives was once material for science-fiction stories. Nuclear power, computers, stem-cell therapy, space flight, organ transplants — you name it, and science-fiction writers were turning out stories about it decades before it became reality.

In fact, the best way to protect yourself from "future shock," from the surprise of startling new discoveries and sudden changes in the world around you, is to read science fiction.

Real science fiction, that is. Not the stuff that Hollywood turns out. Most Hollywood "sci-fi flicks" bear the same relationship to real science fiction that Popeye cartoons bear to naval history.

To me, science-fiction stories are those in which some element of future scientific or technological advance is so vital to the plot that, if you removed that element, the story would collapse. Think of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein": take away the scientific element and there is no story.

Since I was a teenager, I've been writing science-fiction stories. For people who think of science fiction as too weird or too technical for them to understand, I often explain, "Don't think of my books as science fiction. Think of them as historical novels that haven't happened yet."

Because that's what I'm writing: a history of the future. Much of what I've written will never come true, but it might have, if things had worked out a little differently.

On the other hand, lots of what I've written as fiction has actually become reality. We did have a space race in the 1960s, and it did end with Americans landing on the moon before the Russians could. We do have digital books, virtual reality technology, missile defense systems. And we will eventually see solar-power satellites beaming electrical power to Earth, stem-cell therapy and human cloning.

Of all the things I've written about, zero-gravity sex seems to stir the most interest. No one's admitted to having sex aboard the space shuttle or the International Space Station, but it's inevitable. The allure of weightlessness and natural human urges will lead us to that new horizon.

A couple of weeks ago news headlines announced that filmmaker James Cameron and Google co-founder Larry Page have joined a company called Planetary Resources, which aims to mine resources from asteroids. "It may sound like science fiction ..." the news stories all began.

Yeah. Right.

Asteroids are chunks of rock and metal floating in space. A single iron-nickel type of asteroid, no bigger than a Little League baseball field, contains more high-grade iron ore than the world's steel industry uses in five years.

Among the "impurities" in such an asteroid are hundreds of tons of gold, silver and platinum.

There's a new bonanza waiting for us among the asteroids. Getting to them will be costly, though. Existing rocket technology is probably too expensive to make asteroid mining profitable, except for the precious metals.

But what happens to the price of gold if space missions start returning hundreds of tons of the stuff to Earth?

Can a private firm legally mine asteroids? The 1967 Outer Space Treaty forbids any nation from claiming sovereignty over any astronomical body, but space law has not yet tackled the question of utilizing the resources found in space.

Can we develop more efficient rocket systems? Nuclear rockets, perhaps? Will giant corporations go to war in space over the enormous resources to be found there?

I've written a series of novels about such matters. My "Asteroid Wars" series shows how, why and by whom the resources of the asteroids will be brought to enrich the people of Earth. Well, some of the people.

The novels are titled "The Precipice," "The Rock Rats," "The Silent War" and "The Return." They are science fiction — today. Tomorrow they may well be history.

© 2012 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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