As an economist, what interested you most about “Periapsis”?
I think the story is an interesting perspective on how economic activity might evolve in the solar system. Cambias presents an array of different factors that might play a role in that evolution. You have the emergence of diverse cultures in different environments – you have a distinct Mars culture and a very different Deimos culture, for example. You also have a refreshing perspective on what a different economic future for Earth might look like: a world where Deimos, Jakarta, and Mexico City are the main urban magnets where ‘smart, ambitious and attractive’ people flow to.
Mentioning the “Cavorite Club” in the story was also a great callback to H. G. Wells, as well as a nod to the role that non-profit, amateur societies have played in the historical development of spaceflight. The very first rocketry development club in the US – the American Rocket Society – was a wellspring of technical ideas and experimentation. Recognizing the contributions of amateur technical virtuosos as an important component of space development struck me as relevant and reflective of how we see new ideas and initiatives emerge in the space industry.
In what ways does “Periapsis” connect to your own research?
The competition in “Periapsis” is an interesting feature of the Deimos community. You have all of these competitors freely offering up their intellectual property, simply for the possibility of living there. And, of course, some of these ideas are profitable – even if people aren’t selected for residence, their ideas still get used by the Deimos community to make money. It’s a sort of space-idea fishing expedition – which certain institutions in our contemporary space community are famous for – except at a grand scale.
And then you have people who know it’s an idea-related fishing expedition, and so have counter-measures to deal with that – like Reinette, who offers up a very profitable idea to the Deimos community, but already has her own counter-idea that will supercede that one should she not get accepted. So the story takes into account some of the competitive and exploitative dynamics in space development that I spend some of my time researching and trying to understand and account for. I also liked the recognition by Ying, the protagonist, that ideas can be genuinely valuable and sometimes you do have to protect them because there are entities in the world that don’t have your best interests at heart and are better positioned to capitalize on your idea than you are at the moment. The reality of the space business is it’s not an all-for-one/one-for-all kind of enterprise, and the story has captured that – there is a sense of the precarious reality of the business and economics of spaceflight embedded in the story.
Is “Periapsis” a dystopian or utopian story? Or both?
I don’t think it’s purely dystopian or utopian, it’s a mix – and having that mix is valuable. It’s important to show the potential of something positive that is theoretically possible – like the idea of living on Deimos as part of this incredible creative community – but also being explicit and clear about the ways that we could imagine human creativity being exploited in that context. It’s interesting that the story presents a sort of utopian micro-community out near Mars in the context of a larger, more dystopian view of humanity’s future on Earth.
Alex MacDonald is an economist working in the Civil and Commercial Space Division at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He was the founding program executive of the Emerging Space Office at NASA Ames Research Center and a former research faculty member at Carnegie Mellon University. Alex received his doctorate from the University of Oxford; his dissertation examined the economic history of American Space Exploration.