A new space-mining project may reignite space exploration as a unifying goal.

Share story

A project to mine asteroids in space, announced here this week, reminded me how necessary dreams are to shaping our actions.

I thought about a couple of books by local author Greg Bear that involved asteroids, and called him Wednesday to talk about inspiration and exploration.

Bear is a prolific and respected science-fiction writer whose starting point is often the latest in real science. He picks the brains of scientists, and sometimes they pick his.

A few years ago, he said, “I was wondering, seeing all these people in Seattle who had a fair amount of money, when they would get involved in spaceflight.”

They have done that in a big way since then.

Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos set up Blue Origin, which is developing a manned spacecraft. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s SpaceShipOne achieved the first private manned suborbital spaceflight. His Stratolaunch Systems is working on more advanced space vehicles. And they are not the only ones.

Seattle has just been celebrating the 50th anniversary of its futuristic World’s Fair — and feeling like a base for making some of those 1960s dreams come true.

Bear knows many of the people associated with Planetary Resources, the company founded to mine asteroids.

He first talked with John Lewis in the early 1980s when he was doing research for the novel “Eon,” which involved an asteroid in near Earth orbit.

Lewis, a University of Arizona professor emeritus of planetary science, is one of the advisers to Planetary Resources.

“I like what I’m seeing,” Bear said. “Their game plan is the realization of what has been talked about for the last 50 years.”

He said science fiction didn’t so much foresee the future as help to make it by putting forth ideas that people think about and try to make real.

Bear recalled a 1929 German film, “Woman in the Moon,” which inspired rocket clubs in Germany — and the boys who would grow up to develop the V-2 rocket.

He likes that the asteroid project is business driven, which is much better than having scientists’ work attached to a war.

“Dreamers want to do space exploration,” he said, but sometimes the people who foot the bills want other things from science.

This time he sees potential for the common good beyond business.

“This is what we need right now,” he said, “because we are a nation of pioneers. All of our political stuff gets pushed down into weirdness because we don’t have an outlet.”

You know we wouldn’t be fighting among ourselves so much if we had a unifying mission, a direction in which to channel our energy and focus our attention.

We are by nature a restless species and it’s important for us to have goals. There are no boundaries on what people pursue: wealth; conquest; beautiful music; making ideals like freedom and justice real; curing diseases.

Around here, we have a number of very wealthy people who were inspired by science fiction when they were young. Now, as adults, they have the means to pursue their dreams and help shape our future.

Planetary Resources is one of the latest and boldest.

What its founders and funders want to do isn’t doable yet, so they will have to push the frontiers of science to make the business possible.

They are taking the kind of risk only governments used to take. But the investors are wealthy enough that they can afford to go for it.

Maybe this is the beginning of a renewed engagement with space. If they can make it work, they’ll develop new tools that could jump-start exploration.

We still have earthbound problems to solve, but having something to cheer, and sharing a broader perspective, might help down here, too.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.