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Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Reading List: Delta-v

Suarez, Daniel. Delta-v. New York: Dutton, 2019. ISBN 978-1-5247-4241-6.
James Tighe is an extreme cave diver, pushing the limits of human endurance and his equipment to go deeper, farther, and into unexplored regions of underwater caves around the world. While exploring the depths of a cavern in China, an earthquake triggers disastrous rockfalls in the cave, killing several members of his expedition. Tighe narrowly escapes with his life, leading the survivors to safety, and the video he recorded with his helmet camera has made him an instant celebrity. He is surprised and puzzled when invited by billionaire and serial entrepreneur Nathan Joyce to a party on Joyce's private island in the Caribbean. Joyce meets privately with Tighe and explains that his theory of economics predicts a catastrophic collapse of the global debt bubble in the near future, with the potential to destroy modern civilisation.

Joyce believes that the only way to avert this calamity is to jump start the human expansion into the solar system, thus creating an economic expansion into a much larger sphere of activity than one planet and allowing humans to “grow out” of the crushing debt their profligate governments have run up. In particular, he believes that asteroid mining is the key to opening the space frontier, as it will provide a source of raw materials which do not have to be lifted at prohibitive cost out of Earth's deep gravity well. Joyce intends to use part of his fortune to bootstrap such a venture, and invites Tighe to join a training program to select a team of individuals ready to face the challenges of long-term industrial operations in deep space.

Tighe is puzzled, “Why me?” Joyce explains that much more important than a background in aerospace or mining is the ability to make the right decisions under great pressure and uncertainty. Tighe's leadership in rescuing his dive companions demonstrated that ability and qualified him to try out for Joyce's team.

By the year 2033, the NewSpace companies founded in the early years of the 21st century have matured and, although taking different approaches, have come to dominate the market for space operations, mostly involving constellations of Earth satellites. The so-called “NewSpace Titans” (names have been changed, but you'll recognise them from their styles) have made their billions developing this industry, and some have expressed interest in asteroid mining, but mostly via robotic spacecraft and on a long-term time scale. Nathan Joyce wants to join their ranks and advance the schedule by sending humans to do the job. Besides, he argues, if the human destiny is to expand into space, why not get on with it, deploying their versatility and ability to improvise on this difficult challenge?

The whole thing sounds rather dodgy to Tighe, but cave diving does not pay well, and the signing bonus and promised progress payments if he meets various milestones in the training programme sound very attractive, so he signs on the dotted line. Further off-putting were a draconian non-disclosure agreement and an “Indemnity for Accidental Death and Dismemberment” which was sprung on candidates only after arriving at the remote island training facility. There were surveillance cameras and microphones everywhere, and Tighe and others speculated they may be part of an elaborate reality TV show staged by Joyce, not a genuine space project.

The other candidates were from all kinds of backgrounds: ex-military, former astronauts, BASE jumpers, mountaineers, scientists, and engineers. There were almost all on the older side for adventurers: mid-thirties to mid-forties—something about cosmic rays. And most of them had the hallmarks of DRD4-7R adventurers.

As the programme gets underway, the candidates discover it resembles Special Forces training more than astronaut candidate instruction, with a series of rigorous tests evaluating personal courage, endurance, psychological stability, problem-solving skills, tolerance for stress, and the ability to form and work as a team. Predictably, their numbers are winnowed as they approach the milestone where a few will be selected for orbital training and qualification for the deep space mission.

Tighe and the others discover that their employer is anything but straightforward, and they begin to twig to the fact that the kind of people who actually open the road to human settlement of the solar system may resemble the ruthless railroad barons of the 19th century more than the starry-eyed dreamers of science fiction. These revelations continue as the story unfolds.

After gut-wrenching twists and turns, Tighe finds himself part of a crew selected to fly to and refine resources from a near-Earth asteroid first reconnoitered by the Japanese Hayabusa2 mission in the 2010s. Risks are everywhere, and not just in space: corporate maneuvering back on Earth can kill the crew just as surely as radiation, vacuum, explosions, and collisions in space. Their only hope may be a desperate option recalling one of the greatest feats of seamanship in Earth's history.

This is a gripping yarn in which the author confronts his characters with one seemingly insurmountable obstacle and disheartening setback after another, then describes how these carefully selected and honed survivors deal with it. There are no magical technologies: all of the technical foundations exist today, at least at the scale of laboratory demonstrations, and could plausibly be scaled up to those in the story by the mid-2030s. The intricate plot is a salutary reminder that deception, greed, dodgy finances, corporate hijinks, bureaucracy, and destructively hypertrophied egos do not stop at the Kármán line. The conclusion is hopeful and a testament to the place for humans in the development of space.

A question and answer document about the details underlying the story is available on the author's Web site.

Posted at July 2, 2019 14:17