Mining the Sky, John S. Lewis

Addison-Wesley, 1996, 274 pages, C$36.00 hc, ISBN 0-201-47959-1

In her early-nineties pop-song “Sleepless Satellite”, singer Tasmin Archer wondered “Did we go to the moon too soon?” When hit records begins to ponder the fate of the space program, it’s a sign that things have really gone to waste.

And, looking at 1999’s NASA, we can only wonder how we’ve gone from the moon to a few overpriced, timid expeditions in low Earth orbit. By any means, we now should have landed humans on Mars, established a base on the Moon and seeded our skies with space stations. Instead, we go nuts over a teleguided rover on the surface of Mars. Whatever.

Maybe we did go to the moon too soon, argues John S. Lewis in Mining the Sky: That the whole initiative was a purely political battle against the Soviets and nothing more. There’s certainly historical validity to the argument. The challenge then become to find a worthwhile reason to go back into space. As Lewis announces early on, “if we are to return on the moon, it will be because there is some visible relationship between that endeavor and [our] future material well-being.” [P.ix] Mining the Sky is a book-length treatise on the practical advantages of space exploitation.

It begins close to home, and eventually moves to the stars. We see how we could harvest oxygen from the moon, power from the sun, minerals from asteroids and fusion fuel from Neptune. We see why we should move into space as soon as possible, from stopping civilization-killing meteors to restoring ecological balance to Earth.

Lewis is no newcomer to the space business. He advances dollars as readily as chemical reactions. While this often becomes obtrusive, it brings an extra layer of credibility to the book, making it unusually convincing.

Among the great moments of Mining the Sky is the monetary evaluation of an ordinary asteroid: NEA 3554 Amun, the smallest known M asteroid is “only” two kilometers in diameter and weights thirty billion tons. “Assuming a typical iron meteorite composition, the iron and nickel in Amun have a market value of about $8,000 billion.” [P.182] Including the other metallic elements expected in this type of asteroid, Amun’s tag price climbs up to 20,000 billion dollars. Not bad for an object likely to smash into Earth sooner or later.

Another great moment comes when Lewis tries to represent how much iron is accessible in the asteroid belt: A> 825 quintillion tons, B> four hundred million years of present-day consumption, C> Covering Earth’s entire surface in 800 meters of iron, D> Seven billion dollars’ worth of iron for everyone alive on Earth today. That’s only considering iron and excluding the other metals. And the fact that there are even more Trojan asteroids in Jupiter’s orbit!

Given Lewis’ intent to write a more-rigorous-than-usual vulgarization book, it’s reasonable to warn any prospective reader that Mining the Sky is more of a serious argumentation than an easily accessible “fun” book. The style can get very dry in spots, though Lewis’s unflagging enthusiasm more than does enough to pull us in.

True, Mining the Sky is a great work of unbounded optimism. But ask any space enthusiast, and they’ll tell you -like Lewis does-, that Space Exploration is not for gloomaniacs. It’s a lot like putting money aside now to ensure a comfortable life later. It’s the logical way to go. It’s the ultimate adventure. It’s where no man has gone before. And in any case, it’s better to go to the moon too soon than get there too late.

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