Space For Sale

As I type, I'm perhaps a month away from finishing Moon For Sale, my second novel in a planned trilogy about Kingsley Pretorius, a South African billionaire who starts his own space program.

The idea for this trilogy is not to predict the future but to offer up a possible future that realistically could happen. I don't believe the plot of these novels will come true. I believe that I have done my research, that these books will never violate the laws of physics, and never sacrifice realism for fake drama. 

Really the germ of this idea came from a perceived lack of near-future science fiction. There's plenty of sci-fi in far-flung futures, with terraforming, human civilizations spread across the solar system or the galaxy. There's also plenty of sci-fi about alien contact, space monsters, space wars, etc.

But both of these types of far-flung futures have almost no resemblance at all to actual space travel. They wave a magic wand and launch massive colony ships. 

Sure, I'm interested in seeing far-future humans spreading across the solar system and galaxy, but I also want to see how we get there from here. What's the first step? When do we get to Mars? When do we go back to the Moon? Who will do it? Will it be a cold-war-like space race between US and China? Or will it be an international cooperation like the European Space Agency teaming up with NASA and RSA? 

Apollo and the early space programs live large in our collective imaginations, and I'm very interested in seeing the next Apollo. Maybe that's a moon base, maybe a base on Mars. But I don't want wand-waving that skips to the supposedly more interesting story of discovering aliens, monsters, alien-monsters, etc., but rather a story like that of Apollo, of real people with limited technology, bravely leaving the Earth, heading out into space, and hoping they aren't lost in space, to orbit the sun for millions of years if the mission fails. 

What comes closest to this kind of premise, from the popular culture that I can remember, are films like Red Planet and Mission to Mars. They both came out in a short period of time, and both portrayed the first attempts at sending humans to Mars. 

But in Mission to Mars they discover that the face on Mars is an alien artifact and they try to solve all the mysteries of life in the last 10 minutes of the film. In Red Planet, they encounter flesh-eating nematodes and their robot companion turns against them. Evil robots, flesh-eating alien monsters....doesn't exactly sound like Apollo does it?

The film Europa Report which just recently came out was supposed to be a more realistic space film (than say Sunshine and it's monsters...), but Europa Report did some very silly things. They send humans to land on Europa before humans ever land on Mars or Ceres. Their ship and mission design make very little sense, and then they run into monsters. There's also Apollo 18, about a lost Apollo mission...where they run into Moon monsters. 

Look, I'm sure there is alien life out there somewhere, but we've had so many alien monsters in fiction...can't we just get one example of space that doesn't include monsters, doesn't include wand-waving that makes orbital mechanics go away (Like the film Gravity which ignores basically all of orbital mechanics...), doesn't resort to the low hanging fruit of space monsters, space-splosions, and pseudo-scientific plot points. 

So with that in mind, I was very interested in writing about the next 20-30 years. Realistically, how do we take the next step? How would we go to Mars? What would that program look like? Apollo on steroids?

I had been thinking about this kind of story for several years, but I didn't have much of an idea about how we would get there. The easy answer seems to be a new space-race against China. Reach a little higher in the creative tree and you might get to massive corporations replacing space programs. There's plenty of sci-fi in which nation-states have been overcome by massive corporations, and that's not all that far-flung an idea. 

But the problem I see with the idea of massive trans-national corporations launching the next space-race is that there's not a lot of profit to be made in just sending people to Mars or Ceres. This is why much of that far-flung sci-fi skips a long period of time and jumps to the time when these massive corporations can be turning profits with space mining and such. But that's a big leap in time. Sure companies probably will be turning profits by harvesting resources from space...but that's not going to be the next step, we have to start actually exploring space before we start sending miners to the Moon or Mars. 

If nations aren't willing to drop hundreds of billions on going to Mars, and corporations aren't going to turn a profit until we've already expanded a good way into do we ever get this period of exploration kick-started?

When I started learning about Elon Musk, at first, like many people, I was skeptical of him. But about two years ago, I realized that he was the real thing. And he provides the answer. Maybe not him personally, but the idea of him...

Sure, it's possible that the US or China or Russia decides to stake their claim on being the world's foremost power by sending humans to Mars...but politicians won't be the ones making the trip, and politicians aren't typically big fans of science fiction or all that interested in space (The US Military budget is something like 40 times bigger than NASA's). Sure it's possible that some corporation will decide they can turn a profit by going to Mars, but I just don't see them making those numbers work...

But what about eccentric billionaires?

We live in a time when there are a few hundred or a few thousand people who literally have the power to go to Mars if they want to. If Bill Gates decided he wanted to move to Mars and had 60 billion dollars to throw at the project, it's certainly possible that he could do it. Eccentric billionaires can put billions into a project that has absolutely no chance of turning a profit, because they personally will profit from the experience. And that, I believe, is how the next step in human space travel will be taken. 

So now that I finally had a vision of space travel that felt both compelling and realistic, I set out to learn everything there is to know about Elon Musk, SpaceX, NASA's plans, and everything there is to know about the near-future in space. 

The direct result is a trilogy of books: Space For Sale, Moon For Sale, Mars For Sale. 

Without going into too many details, you can see the progression of the story in the titles. But if the story I had to tell was nothing but details about space missions, Tom Clancy-like expounding on the specific impulse of the engine, the mass fraction of the rocket, some kind of study or report on the feasibility of a series of space missions, then that would not be a very compelling story. 

These novels are about going to space, about revolutionizing space travel by bringing costs down, about electric cars replacing combustion engines, about congress meddling in NASA, about corruption, about corporate espionage, about space firsts...but they are mostly about characters, people who have dreams and goals and flaws, and some of those people are eccentric billionaires with money to burn.

When you open the world's first space hotel, you're not going to be launching spacecraft filled with boy-scout-like-astronauts who follow orders.We're talking about Russian gangsters with billions to spend trying to avoid prison by living in space and Justin Bieber and his pet Capuchin trashing their space hotel room (which they paid for in bitcoins). We're talking about George Clooney buying spy satellites to spy on genocidal fuck-heads in Sudan and the first ever porn filmed in space. We're talking about things that are both absurd and absolutely realistic. 

That's what these books are about: The absurdity of the reality we actually live in. They're about a dream of making space travel cheaper, and all the obstacles that stand in the way of a bold thinker that tries to make his dream a reality.

I would describe the series as being like Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff. It's funny, it's realistic, and it has authentic space drama. 

The first book is out. The second book is coming in a few months.

Here are some excerpts from early reviews:

-Best 'modern' setting book I've read.

-There must have been a great deal of time spent on the research for this book; I actually feel like I received an education on the history of manned space exploration from this book. With this book, I think Jeff Pollard has done for space nerds what Ernest Cline did for 80's pop culture geeks with Ready Player One. There are tons of nerd culture references scattered throughout the book, and looking for these little Easter Eggs became a meta game for me.

-There were some pretty memorable passages in the book too, and I thought Kingsley's epiphany speech to Caroline was one of the hardest hitting pieces of self reflection I've ever read.

-All in all, I thought this was a really enjoyable read, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in science fiction, space history, Elon Musk, pop/nerd culture, etc.

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