Space Water is the New Gold: The Subversive Prediction of Science Fiction
“In science fiction, we dream. In order to colonize in space, to rebuild our cities, which are so far out of whack, to tackle any number of problems, we must imagine the future…” (Ray Bradbury).
Science fiction writers may be the originators of our collective dreams about the future. We now enjoy satellite communication, videophones, 3D-printing, and self-lacing shoe laces. The idea of these gadgets seemed outlandish, even juvenile. Ray Bradbury, famed author of novels such as Fahrenheit 451 and the Martian Chronicles, remembered “When I was a young writer if you went to a party and told somebody you were a science-fiction writer you would be insulted. They would call you Flash Gordon all evening”. Makes you wonder, who knew our current world would be considered laughable?
Dreaming about the future, despite our seemingly-inert reality, takes courage — and a plan.
One of the greatest testaments to the human imagination may be the moon landing of 1969. That took plenty of planning. 7 years, more or less. Not to mention a global “Space Race” that involved world superpowers. The mid-20th century witnessed scientists from the United States, Russia, Japan, France, and China rushing to build tools to land, cultivate, and conquer the moon. The dreams of writers alchemized into satellites, rockets, and men flying in outer space. Holy Superman Batman!
In imagining the future, science fiction often provides speculative technology as a response to real-world problems. One of the genre’s most reoccurring themes centers on the issue of water. The collection, sharing, and planning around water can be found within the stories of Frank Herbert’s Dune or George Lucas’ Star Wars. Water often provides the backdrop to human existence, on this planet or the next, this galaxy, or one far, far away.
Here and now, water remains the lynchpin in the forthcoming explorations to Mars. In NASA’s three-fold process in exploring the Red Planet, the search for water is at the core.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX mission statement states: “Our aspirational goal is to send our first cargo mission to Mars in 2022. The objectives for the first mission will be to confirm water resources, identify hazards, and put in place initial power, mining, and life support infrastructure.” To repeat, water remains the core of not only governmental interests in space exploration, but Elon Musk's top priority.
It does not take much imagination to understand why NASA and a billionaire CEO prioritize the search for water. With that knowledge, they could:
- better comprehend the formation of the planet itself - they may use it to find reservoirs of water for human use - they could optimize how to “terraform” or colonize Mars
Humans need water in the most existential manner — more so than Instagram Likes or Taco Tuesday. If aliens landed on Earth and took control of our resources, our first plea in broken Descartian would be, “I human, therefore I water”.
Fortunately extraterrestrials have not taken over — as far as we know. We’ll be soon sending out technology to collect and take captive the abundance of space’s own resources. Asteroid mining (dialing Ridley Scott!) refers to the extraction of valuable metals and minerals found in asteroids. It also includes — in no inferior manner — the exploitation of extraterrestrial water. The resources found in these asteroids would not only be used for space exploration efforts, but could be transported back to Earth for use.
The lure of resources in the form of precious and platinum group metals, minerals and water has governments and private companies salivating. This is understandable. One asteroid could contain as much as 7,500 tons of platinum, totaling a value of more than $150 billion. Gold, osmium, ruthenium, and rhodium are also amongst other money-making metals found on asteroids. Before our eyes water with cartoon dollar signs, we must return to fiction.
The characters in speculative fiction often have no choice but to fight over resources. However this kind of reaction to dominate resources is not found only in fantasized stories, but in history books: the Crusades to the use of slaves. We need to ensure conflict over newly-mines resources are avoided, yes. We do also need to safeguard that space resources are standardized, regulated, and democratically dispersed. Otherwise, we drag our inability to organize into space exploration as well — an activity that leaves little room for error.
We do have laws regulating asteroid mining and other space activity. The Outer Space Treaty was created in 1967 — the same era that forbid interracial marriage. We need an update — stat. For example, Article IX in the Treaty requires that nations “avoid their harmful contamination…and, where necessary, shall adopt appropriate measures for this purpose.” No one has updated Article IX to state what "appropriate" exactly means. The laws of the 1960s no longer fit the new technologies and globalized economy that has developed since. The health and survival of the human and extraterrestrial worlds depends on updating, unglamorous protocols.
If not, asteroid mining and other activity could be in danger of causing serious contamination. Landing in a new land that has no exposure to terrestrial pathogens or microbes could cause calamitous effects on the local asteroid, planet, or moon. It could also work inversely. Think Mexico’s Aztec population in 1545–80 percent of the population wiped out after exposure to germ-carrying, European colonizers.
Moreover, we’ll be accelerating the movement towards conflict over resources, like water. 2 billion people depend on water from a shared water resource. An estimated 60 per cent of the world’s international river basins lack any type of cooperative management framework. Commercial companies and governments prioritize the mining of precious metals for profit. Similarly, extraterrestrial water mining and its democratic dispersal need also be addressed. If not, the current trajectory of the space exploration is as follows: private interests > public good.
To shift the trajectory, governments can begin revamping the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. Like all relics, a starting point is never the final destination.
Firstly, nations need to standardize protocols, not allow relative meaning to certain rules. Secondly, space exploration needs to more inclusive in its encoding of democratic rights to resources mined. Water is arguable the most precious resource to be found — after all, billion-dollar platinum didn’t save Matt Damon on Mars (The Martian). For countries that are both water-poor and developing countries, extraterrestrial water may be a valuable resource if water would be transported back to Earth. Even if resources are not physically delivered, developing countries should have the opportunity to take part in the resulting space resource economy.
Advocating for proper legislation around space resources may seem far-flung, stranger than fiction. Yet here we are. Orchestrating a cooperative framework around space travel, mining, and other activities has become a modern necessity. Maybe that's why space laws in the 20th century were vague: they weren't planning on fiction manifesting into truth. But now, on the precipice of planning our future amongst planets and asteroids, it seems truth is stranger than it used to be.
*** Special thanks to David for his work in human alchemy ***