Asteroids: How Love, Fear, And Greed Will Determine Our Future in Space (2021), by Martin Elvis, is a thorough and wonderfully detailed exploration not of asteroids as objects (which he does do to some extent), but of the possibility of our interacting with them in order to a) prevent them from killing us off as one did (maybe) to the dinosaurs, b) exploit them for resources, and c) use them as a stepping stone for further exploitation of space. If you thought the idea of asteroid mining belongs only in the realm of science fiction, Elvis will (probably) convince you otherwise.
Elvis opens up with the required concise overview of just what asteroids are: what their composition is, the different types, where they are found, etc. He then divides the book into three sections: Motive, Means, and Opportunity. Each broad category is then subdivided into a further three subsections. The motives, for instance, as the title indicates, are love, fear, and greed. The love refers to humanity’s curiosity, our drive to explore. Fear is our sense of self-preservation. Anyone who has read anything about dinosaurs, or seen Armageddon or Deep Impact, knows the concept of the “killer asteroid” or an “extinction-level event.” Greed, of course, refers to the (potential) money to be made through space mining.
The Means section goes into more detail with regard to the motives, moving from the abstract “how will they drive us to do more” to more specific explanations of just what we might do and how. For instance, after explaining how we would go about identifying potentially massively destructive asteroids, he describes several potential methods for dealing with them. If that seems fantastical, he notes how “slowing a would-be killer asteroid down by just a few millimeters per second will make it miss us a decade later.” And if we ever find one heading our way, what can we do about it? One possible defense (of four described) is “the hammer” — throwing something hard and fast at it (NASA already has a test plan set up in a few years). Another is the Armageddon scenario — use some nukes, preferably buried inside (but not too deep), which would reduce our needed prep time since they pack a bigger punch. Third is a tractor, though not the Star Trek version. Instead, one would use a “gravity tractor … [where] you just put the biggest mass you can to one side of the asteroid and let the gravity of that mass pull on the asteroid.” This is, Elvis points out, already within our capabilities, though again we’d need about two decades’ worth of warning. Finally, the last technique is a version of the hammer, but instead of sending the hammer from Earth, we use one already out there. Elvis calls this “space billiards” and it involves knocking “one of the plentiful house-sized asteroids so that it is deflected to hit the threatening stadium-sized ones.”
If we can avoid the asteroids killing us, maybe they can enrich us. This is a much more complicated scenario, involving a whole lot of calculations regarding figuring out what asteroids are worth mining, the expense of getting to the ones that are, the method of extraction (you can’t just do what you do on Earth), the expense of getting it back, and the market that may (or may not) exist for whatever you do bring back. None of these are simple and most are, for now, beyond our current capabilities. Though not insurmountably so.
Finally, in the last section, Asteroids goes into the cost of getting into space, the balance needed between government and private industry, the current private companies doing space work (Musk and Bezos, of course, but others as well, such as a trio planning on orbiting their own space stations), and the need for new/expanded laws (Elvis even gets to use the phrase “space pirates” and c’mon, how often can you do that in a science book?).
I haven’t come close to covering everything Elvis goes through in the book; as noted this is a thorough, detailed coverage. But it’s also user friendly. A mere handful of actual equations get referenced and Elvis is clear and methodical in explaining why they are important and how they are used. He eschews arcane terminology (did I mention “space pirates”?), and while he covers a lot of material, the book is well paced so that it never feels overwhelmingly dense, as can happen with some popular science books. Elvis is also quick to note when he enters an arena where his knowledge doesn’t suffice, and then brings in more expert opinions, as for instance when he delves into economic, legal, or engineering details.
I did a lot of highlighting in Asteroids, which is always a gauge for me as to how informative a non-fiction work is. As for style, the voice is always lucid and engaging, with scattered bits of humor, some pop culture references, and some personal notes peppered throughout. It’s a good “popular science” vocabulary and tone, more plain-spoken and removed than some, not aiming for lyricism, not using many metaphors, and not inserting the author’s personality too overtly into the text. I doubt I’ll see asteroid mining in my lifetime, but Elvis makes me think my son will. After decades of reading about it in science fiction, it’s nice to imagine it not too far over the horizon.