БƗƗҚ.15 // Falling Around Earth

Reflections on the International Space Station and a $10,000 quadrillion asteroid

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Not too long ago, I was having a beer after work and happened to look up at the evening sky and see the International Space Station pass directly above me. It being one of the last warm nights of the year, I checked out AstroViewer and verified that the ISS would likely be visible again on its next pass about an hour and twenty minutes later. So I sat outside and followed its progress: it took only 25 minutes for it to pass over Kenya, and another 20 minutes to reach New Zealand. I watched it make its way over the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean and then come back into view over my western horizon a bit further to the north, zipping over Canada but nevertheless clearly visible.

Screenshot from my phone of Astroviewer. NASA also maintains a website that allows you to set alerts for when the ISS will be visible from your area.

Until recently, I lazily assumed that astronauts experience weightlessness aboard the ISS due to a lack of gravity, but this isn’t the case at all: they experience weightlessness because they are in a perpetual state of free fall. Only about 200 miles up, gravity outside the ISS is 90% of what it is on Earth. Orbit, therefore, isn’t some perpetual state of cosmic suspension but rather a precise speed of sideways travel (17,500 miles per hour for the ISS) which ensures that an object falls around, rather than down. From NASA’s middle school learning resources

If a person throws a baseball, gravity will cause it to curve down. It will hit the ground fairly quickly. An orbiting spacecraft moves at the right speed so the curve of its fall matches the curve of Earth. Because of this, the spacecraft keeps falling toward the ground but never hits it. As a result, they fall around the planet. The moon stays in orbit around Earth for this same reason. The moon also is falling around Earth.

Understanding orbit as a perpetual state of free fall has stuck with me, primarily because of the cognitive dissonance I experience when comparing serenity of weightlessness and the rudimentary violence that I now understand sustains it. Floating is just when everything around you is also falling, and to be in orbit is to no longer need to know the difference. 

The ISS passing in front of the Moon on October 4, 2020. Both objects are falling around Earth. (Source: @AJamesMcCarthy via Twitter)

A CNN headline caught my eye recently that I found both compelling and repugnant: “Psyche, an asteroid believed to be worth $10,000 quadrillion, is observed through Hubble Telescope in new study.” Basically, there is an asteroid out there the size of my home state of Massachusetts, and scientists have determined that it’s composed primarily of nickel and iron. At current market rates, that much metal would be worth $10,000 quadrillion, which, as the article points out, is “more than the entire economy on our planet.” I was alarmed by the brazen reduction of an asteroid to a nonsensical yet discrete sum, and for the precedent it set for how we talk about outer space. Minimum wage is still $7.25 in the richest country on Earth and yet I now am asked to also grasp $10,000 quadrillion.

Asteroid mining has come in and out of vogue since the space race began, primarily as a way to mine metals that are rare on Earth and as a potential source of refueling for longhaul space flight. Lyndon Johnson raised it as a conversation topic at the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle, and it was a popular trope of mid-century futurism, alongside the idea that asteroids could be hollowed out and inhabited as some sort of agro utopias. 

Illustration of the interior of an asteroid by Roy Scarfo from the 1965 book Beyond Tomorrow: The Next 50 Years in Space. The white light is some sort of artificial gravity rod. (Source: PaleoFuture)

While the ideas behind asteroid mining aren’t new, the money is. Venture capital has been pouring into asteroid mining ventures over the past decade or so, to the extent that the MIT Tech Review recently declared that the space mining bubble had burst before it even began. The Colorado School of Mines has even started a space mining degree program, which combines engineering, science, economics, policy, and entrepreneurship classes to support a new generation of astropreneurs. So which asteroid will be mined first? Your guess is as good as mine, though you can bet that it’s probably included in Asterank, a database visualization that estimates the profit margins of mining some 600,000 known asteroids. 

The hopes and dreams of asteroid miners—and the private space industry at large—hinged on the passing of the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015, which outlined a “finders keepers” approach towards space mining, granting American companies unfettered rights to keep anything they found in space that wasn’t alien life. The SPACE Act was met with substantial criticism from the international community, who believed that it infringed on the concept of “common heritage of mankind” that has thus far guided international space law. I’ve always found it suspicious though that the Moon, which has hosted 12 humans for a total of 80 hours of playtime, has ostensibly more progressive human rights laws than Earth, which has hosted about 100 billion humans over two million years. So what I like about the SPACE Act is that it finally says aloud what has been tacitly understood all along, that the lofty “all mankind” rhetoric of burgeoning space law would last only as long as convenient to United States business interests and that, so long as imperialism and extraction is the defining logic down here, so will it be up there.

“It’s easier for a white person to vote from space than for an African American or Latino to vote in their home zip code in the United States.” (Source: @Carnage4Life via Twitter)

Orbit has a non-scientific meaning as well, basically meaning a sphere of influence. And over the past few years American companies have consolidated their spheres of influence around a private vision for outer space. On the one hand, I’ve watched the SpaceX web presence transform from starry eyed excitement of teaming up with NASA to just another mundane service provider hawking galactic shipping solutions (“If your payload is delayed, apply 100% of monies paid toward the cost of rebooking on a future mission, subject to a 10% rebooking fee.”) On the other hand, I’ve also seen an uptick in TV commercials for previously-Earthbound companies that now feature outer space: Microsoft, Apple, and Goodyear are each pitching their products as functional and desirable in low Earth orbit.

I don’t think I necessarily take issue with whether or not astronauts are wearing Apple Watches, but I do wonder what we are being conditioned to accept when we are spoon fed this almost daily normalization of a privatized outer space. Perhaps after not too long, mining $10,000 quadrillion asteroids won’t seem so out of orbit. 

Thanks for reading,

-- Grif