The Legendary Ben Bova
Ben Bova’s series of novels about the planets, including his newly released “Mars Life,” has been dubbed “The Grand Tour.” The six-time Hugo-winning author will be making a grand tour of sorts when he comes to Denver this week for the World Science Fiction Convention, where he will receive the Robert A. Heinlein Award.
Among Bova’s book-signing and speaking engagements is an appearance Wednesday evening at C.B & Potts in Westminster for the DaVinci Institute’s “Night with a Futurist” series, a program dreamed up by Louisville think-tank founder Thomas Frey that connects bright thinkers with intimate audiences.
The former editor of Analog and former fiction editor of Omni fielded questions from his home in Naples, Fla., where he and I first connected more than a decade ago. Here’s the first half of our two-part interview. Look for part two on Wednesday, when the talk will focus on Mars. (Bova also was the subject of a story in Saturday’s Rocky Mountain News.)
Q. What do you plan to talk about at the “Night with a Futurist”?
A. I’ll be giving a talk about how to use new technology to ease the energy problems we have and reinvigorate the space program at the same time. These are satellites that collect solar energy in space — where it’s much more intense, where they’re always in sunshine, and you don’t have to worry about clouds or night time – and then beam that energy down to Earth. I’m talking about hundreds of gigawatts of energy. These are very large structures in space, miles across.
It also means that you can get enormous amounts of electrical power without pollution, without loading up the atmosphere with greenhouse gas. This is the kind of power we need to shift away from our dependence on foreign oil … The idea of solar-powered satellites is gaining some credence in Washington.
It sounds like an enormous undertaking, but solar-powered satellites depend on three key technologies that we know how to do – we know how to build solar cells, we know how to build microwave transmitters, and we are learning how to build large structures in space. The international space station is a structure that is about a football field long. And the techniques for building (the space station) will be the techniques used to build a solar-powered satellite.
I always test these ideas by writing a novel about them and see how that works. I wrote a novel a couple of years ago called “Powersat” … about the first people to build a solar-powered satellite and what their problems are, political as well as technical.
Q. Nanotechnology was the subject of a renewable energy conference last month in Colorado. You’ve written a lot about nanotechnology. How would you gauge its coming impact on business, health care and society?
A. I think nanotech has the possibility of changing many industries. We’re talking about building things from individual atoms or individual molecules. Instead of taking a large chunk of iron, for example, and smelting it down and making steel, nanotechnology will allow people to make iron ore and produce better steel than we can produce in bulk today.
There are all sorts of possibilities for nanomachines and all sorts of problems you get with them also. You can think of nanomachines for therapeutic processes. Put them inside the body and let nanomachines rebuild your heart or straighten out the plaque in your arteries and get rid of the fat. But the question is, can you program machines the size of viruses reliably without having them run amuck? That’s why some people are already afraid of nanotechnology and are trying to take steps to control it.
Q. Financing for space exploration is a major them of “Mars Life.” How do you see the role of government and the private sector in funding space exploration?
A. I think exploration – scientific exploration — will be a government thing for long time to come. However, when you’re talking about space development, about building industries in orbit, or building vehicles for tourist to fly into space, that will be financed privately.
I spoke a little earlier about solar-powered satellites — building a solar-powered satellite will be just as expensive as building a nuclear power plant on the ground. But that can be done with private investment if the government is willing to back long-term, low-interest loans.
The big power dams in the West, the Grand Coulee Dam, the Hoover Dam, they were built by private enterprise on long-term government-backed financing. The government has stepped in our lifetimes with loan guarantees for corporations that were failing, like Chrysler or Lockheed.
This kind of thing can be used to promote private investment in building solar-powered satellites and other space developments without taking any money out of the taxpayer’s pocket.