Kenya isn’t the first country you’d think of to locate a spaceport for launching people to and from the moon, but in “Artemis“, a new sci-fi novel by “The Martian” author Andy Weir, that is precisely the case.
Weir’s tale takes place during the 2080s at Artemis — humanity’s first and only lunar city. It’s a riveting story about a high-stakes heist featuring Jasmine “Jazz” Bashara, a Saudi-born woman and witty smuggler who has lived inside the aluminum bubbles of Artemis since she was a kid.
True to Weir’s typical style, the book is built around real-life science, engineering, and — at least this time around — economics. He says the point of doing this is to make his stories seem more real, and thus engaging and entertaining.
But if that’s the case, why skip an established space center like Cape Canaveral, Fla., and start fresh in Kenya?
“One of the biggest impediments to the commercial space industry right now isn’t technology, its policy,” Weir told Business Insider. “I’ve listened to the things that commercial space companies have said — I’ve been at SpaceX a few times — and the consistent thing that pretty much everybody says is, it is such a pain in the ass to deal with the policies. That’s always their biggest problem.”
Kenya, however, doesn’t really have such rules — which could make it the perfect place to base an enormously expensive lunar-launch facility.
Our spaceflight regulations are out of date
The disdain against spaceflight regulations is not for wont to skip safety rules, says Weir — far from it: A safe track record is one of the most valuable assets of a space business.
What he’s talking about are sometimes strange rules created in the 1950s and 1960s to satisfy the Outer Space Treaty, which curtails weaponizing spacecraft, among other concerns. But it couldn’t plan too much for the rapid advance of space technologies.
“In the US, which is kind of in the forefront of commercial space, we have a whole bunch of really antiquated rules — like 50, 60 years old,” Weir said. “And they’re really, really out-of-date.”
As an example, Weir mentioned the work of Moon Express team, which is trying to win the Google Lunar X Prize by launching a robot to the moon and beaming live video.
“They’ve gotten to the point where they can do it for about $300,000” by shrinking down electronics and hitching a ride in a normally unused part of a powerful rocket, Weir said.
“But one of the rules, one of the laws, is ‘Hey, if you’re gonna launch from from the US, then you have to be able to communicate on these FM frequencies … ‘so that we can monitor it and ensure that you’re not violating the treaty,” Weir said.
These days, however, many smaller, more efficient, and higher-bandwidth radio technologies exist, and Moon Express plans to use one of them to win millions of dollars.
“And so what sucks is that this ball of requirements is … they also have to have this other clunky radio that just sucks their battery dry aboard, to meet this kind of arbitrary and ludicrously out-of-date rule,” Weir said, significantly adding to their spacecraft’s size and weight. “And it’s really holding them up.”
Kenya has launch appeal
That’s why in “Artemis”, Weir routes all passengers and cargo to the moon through the fictional Kenya Space Corporation.
“So what I thought was, there are market forces at play that people haven’t tapped into yet, and reducing policy could bring a space industry to your country,” Weir said. “And so that’s what Kenya did [in my book] — Kenya said like, ‘Hey we have two things that people want: we can set policy to be as friendly as possible for a space industry, and we’re on the equator.'”
Being located as close to the equator for rocket launches is not a new idea. Author Jules Verne had the foresight in his 1865 novel “From the Earth to the Moon” to place a fictional US location for launching a bullet to the lunar surface near Cape Canaveral.
The closer one is the equator, the less fuel it takes to make it to orbit.
“By being on the equator, that makes launching cheaper because you get 500 meters per second of the Earth’s rotational speed for free, which is a big deal,” Weir said. “So within the story the idea is they said, ‘We’ll commandeer the land … We will tax you less than you get taxed anywhere else. You don’t have to worry about union rules, you can do whatever you want…’ Just as pro-business-friendly as they possibly could be. And within the story, that works.”
Weir said he considered other countries for placing his fictional KSC launch complex, like Brazil, but ultimately stuck with Kenya because it seemed more interesting.
“Of the African countries on the equator Kenya it is the most advanced, in terms of economics. They have the strongest economy, they have the most stable government, and so on,” Weir said. “Artemis was built about 50 years from now, so I can say, ‘Oh yeah, things got a lot more stable in Africa.'”
He added that other Cold War-era US rules also made Kenya an appealing location by not applying.
“One of the main things is that every [employee] has to be American citizens … Also, you’re not allowed to cooperate or work with China in any way, which is kind of rough if you want to do some sort of mass-production, right?” Weir said.
“It’s just this huge pain in the ass that’s set up for a world where only governments do space missions,” he said. “So it would be nice if that didn’t exist.