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NASA official tells sci-fi writers that they're creating a path to the future

ASU Interplanetary Initiative holds Space Economy Camp for Writers

Alexander MacDonald, chief economist for NASA speaking to participants at the ASU Space Economy Camp for Writers
November 13, 2023

Stories about a future in which people live and work among the stars can be speculative fiction, but one NASA official sees a straight line from storytelling to real life.

Alexander MacDonald, chief economist for NASA, addressed a group of writers at the first-ever Space Economy Camp for Writers, sponsored by the Interplanetary Initiative at Arizona State University.

The purpose of the three-day camp was to support the 20 established writers as they imagine space worlds with new economic models.

“This is why you all are so important not just to space flight but to imagining in general,” MacDonald told the group.

“We don’t go to space because we have the machines. We go to space because we have a culture of people who are inspired to build the machines.

“The narratives create the future.”

MacDonald said that one of the first known stories of space flight was in the 16th century, when it was speculated that people could harness flying geese to ride to the moon.

Edgar Allan Poe wrote a story about a bell-maker who uses his knowledge on how to condense air to keep himself alive on the way to the moon.

“That was the first spacecraft components list in history, and his character gets to the moon,” MacDonald said.

Poe inspired Jules Verne, who wrote “From the Earth to the Moon,” a novel that was set in Baltimore as an ode to Poe. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a Russian and rocket scientist, was inspired by Verne and theorized the science of spaceflight in the 19th century.

MacDonald said that Robert Goddard, an American engineer and physicist who invented the first liquid-propelled rocket, was inspired by “The War of the Worlds” by H.G. Wells.

“He decided to devote his life to spacecraft. It’s a direct continuity from the goose machines,” he said.

“We told stories for hundreds of years of people building machines to go the moon and then we did it.”

MacDonald told the writers that to create a realistic speculation of space economics, it can help to look to the past.

For example, the concept of raising private money for space flight rather than relying on government funding goes back to Goddard, who received donations from the Guggenheim family.

MacDonald showed a photo of President Lyndon Johnson watching a rocket launch in the 1960s.

“One of the most important documents to think about in terms of the non-exploitation of space is the Outer Space Treaty,” signed by the 114 countries, including the U.S., Russia and China, he said.

“It essentially commits the nations of the world to not appropriate the moon or any of the celestial bodies,” he said.

“To this day, the Outer Space Treaty is the principle treaty of international accord in space. If that’s not a radical act, I don’t know what is.”

MacDonald told the writers that he doesn’t see a commercial payoff any time soon in moon rocks or space tourism.

“There are no runaway commercial markets,” he said. “It will be a much longer process.”

The writers also heard from author and camp facilitator Mary Robinette Kowal, who described methods of world building. She explained the importance of thinking out different aspects of life in space.

“World building is research that you make up, so the same rules apply as to historical fictions,” she said.

“Work in layers. Come up with broad general strokes to develop an idea, then refine areas you’ll dig into.”

Kowal told the writers that they’ll hit a point at which they have to determine whether a certain technology exists.

“Bracket it and come back later. Either the technology exists or it doesn’t and you’ve identified a component that people will need to invent.”

The writers were divided into groups to create worlds based on different locales: Mars, a low-Earth-orbit space station, the moon and an asteroid belt.

Kowal gave a long list of questions to consider.

“How will you compensate for different day-night cycles from Earth?” she said. “Why are they deciding to live in space? That will affect the culture.”

The ASU Interplanetary Initiative is a transdisciplinary project to imagine a sustainable future in space. This year, the initiative is investigating the current and near-future state of the space economy and space property rights.

The Space Economy Camp was led by Joffa Applegate, assistant research professor in the School of Complex Adaptive Systems, the Biosocial Complexity Initiative, the Center for Behavior, Institutions and the Environment and the Center for Social Dynamics and Complexity.

Other partners in the event were The Breakthrough Initiatives, 100 Year Starship and Space Prize, an initiative that works for gender equity in space.

Top image: Alexander MacDonald, chief economist for NASA, gave a talk to participants at the ASU Space Economy Camp for Writers titled "The Narrative Origins and Future of Spaceflight" on Thursday, Nov. 9, at Skysong, the ASU Scottsdale Innovation Center. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

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