Category Archives: Space IRL

The Future that Never Was

This post originally appeared on the blog of Brad Cameron, author of the Zeke Proper Chronicles.

I want to talk about a different type of mythology. I’m getting away from dictionary definitions here, because what I want to talk about has nothing to do with sacred narratives or ancient heroes striding into conflict with gods and titans. Rather, I want to talk about a far more recent past and heroes both more and less down to Earth.

This is a hilarious pun, as you’ll see in a moment.

When Neil Armstrong died on August 25, 2012, he was mourned by the entire world. He represented everything that was good about the USA: he was capable, but humble. Strong, but circumspect. He was a celebrity because of his scientific accomplishments, something that very few men (and perhaps no women) have ever achieved.

People in the spaceflight and planetary science communities mourned him for all these reasons, of course. They’re still people. But they also mourned him because of what he represented: a space-faring future that never was.

In retrospect, once we had beaten the Soviet Union to the moon, political will to power evaporated. We got the Space Shuttle, which was still impressive but felt like a step backward. Skylab was short-lived. Mir was only headline news when it broke. And yet, there was always hope, dimmed though it was, of the glory days of Apollo returning, where the future would once again stretch out before us to an impossibly distant horizon.

Armstrong’s death changed nothing concrete, of course. He’d been largely out of the public eye for years and had a minimal effect on policy. And yet, in the minds of people still yearning for Mars bases and space hotels and day trips to the moon, his death seemed in an instant to turn from all that from possibility to mythology.

Let us take a moment to admire an example of what we might have had.

My personal favorite is this design for a US Air Force space warship. She would have carried hundred of bombs, not as weapons, but as its propulsion system. Every five seconds, a bomb would explode behind the ship, propelling it forward like gunpowder propels a bullet. And she was armed to fight the ships that other nations like the USSR would invariably launch. I’m glad we don’t have warfare in space, but we’re not much closer to having the engineering expertise to build one of these than we were in 1970.

A more peaceful and realistic plan was to use leftover resources from the Apollo program to send astronauts on a yearlong mission to Venus and, at somewhat greater distance, to Mercury. This would have been by far the longest time men had spent in space, and would’ve taken them tens of thousands of times farther away than their lunar-lander comrades. Unlike the Air Force warship, we had the technology to do this, but we don’t any longer–much the knowledge required has been lost through the decades. We’re better at putting people in space for a long time, but not necessarily much better at getting them up there.

Here’s the real kick, though, and the reason why I find all of this so interesting: the future that it describes could still be ours. All we need is the will to make it. Neil Armstrong won’t live to see it, but if groups like SpaceX and the Planetary Society have their way, there’s no reason why you and I won’t. That’s why this is my very favorite bit of mythology: it didn’t happen…but it still could.

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Progress…and Soyuz

Get it? HAR!

Week one of the revision is drawing to a close, and, while I’m not thrilled with my progress, I am at least satisfied that progress is being made. There’s always an adjustment period when switching between projects, and I’m just starting to overcome that. You all saw my list of things that I wanted to get done throughout the novel; I’ve converted a lot of that to more specific suggestions to myself for specific chapters, and I’m just starting to put my nose to the grindstone.

One lesson I learned from my first revision phase is to start at the beginning and work in a roughly chronological order through the rest of the story. That’s doesn’t mean that I can’t touch chapter 2 until chapter 1 is finished or anything like that, it just means that I want to work on one plot element and all that it entails at a time, in order. Last time, I wrote a lot in Part III and Part IV without even re-reading Part I and Part II, and it gave the novel a really disconnected feel that I had to spend additional time fixing.

Also, I had a few extra, boring minutes, and I made myself a cover mock-up. Let me know what you think in the comments! All images/fonts are licensed under Creative Commons or are in the public domain.

Cover Mockup

As pretty much every American knows, the last Space Shuttle flight just ended, and already the Russians are saying “it’s our space age now.” Sure didn’t take them long to start crowing, but it’s their right. SpaceX has said in the past that they could go from government approval to flying astronauts in three years, but that approval hasn’t yet arrived. Boeing’s CST-100 and others are even further behind.

I have nothing against the Russians, mind; their space program has been much more consistent than ours has, if more single-minded. You certainly don’t hear about Russian robots visiting other planets; NASA and ESA have the market cornered there. It’s not as though the egg is entirely on our face.

And the good news is, once the new ships start to arrive, we’ll have lots more options, and once the rockets that will carry those ships are ready, we’ll be able to put even more things in orbit. NASA might not be looking so good right now, but, in the grand scheme of things, spaceflight is doing okay.

Oh, except for the James Webb telescope. Every scientist ever wants it. Will Congress let them have it?

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m getting back to work. See you on Monday.

Earth is Spaceship-tastic!

Horrible evening so far – I came home to discover that the dog had, at some point in the preceding hours, experienced uncontrollable diarrhea in his kennel. And my wife was in class. So, guess whose job it was to clean the crate, clean the dog, and sanitize our entire apartment? Yours truly, of course.

But let us not dwell on that, disgusting and fascinating as it is. Instead, let us talk about spaceships. What follows is an elementary introduction to the current “state of the art” of space travel – if you don’t know anything about it, then this will be a great place for you to start.

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Friday Link Salad

Happy Friday, everyone! Very much looking forward to the weekend? That makes two of us. I’m still tooling away on my most recent short story while finally getting around to editing Fugitives from Earth. That’s such a huge freaking project that I can barely wrap my head around it right now, but I’m hoping that I’m able to get over that a bit by the weekend.

Since there’s nothing exciting going on in my life, here’s some stuff from other people’s:

  • Kepler Mission results – The Kepler observatory orbits the sun between Earth and Mars. A space telescope kind of like the Hubble, Kepler spends all of its time monitoring just a very small section of the sky with the specific goal of finding planets in other solar systems. To say the least, it’s been successful. Earth-like planets? Yes, please.
  • Robert J. Sawyer on science fiction – Even though I love science fiction, and I’ll be the first to argue its literary qualities, it’s hard to avoid stereotype that it’s nerdy, Star Trekky wish fulfillment by people who can’t write real literature. Fortunately, even if people won’t listen to me when I argue that, they’ll have a harder time with this well written and well thought out article by one of the genre’s stalwarts.
  • Gaming and changing the world – I love playing video games. Even when they involve hard work and deep thought, I go crazy for them. Jane McGonigal, video game designer and future PAX East keynote speaker, argues that there is something special about video games that makes hard work seem not so hard. If we can apply that certain je ne sais quoi to real life problems, what would be beyond our reach?

Fun note: McGonigal will be speaking at an OMSI Science Pub this Monday, which I fully plan on attending. I love listening to smart people talk.

So, good weekend, and good reading and writing.

Mars to Stay

I just happened to find this cool Wikipedia article while doing completely unrelated research. The idea of Mars to Stay is that the best way to establish a persistent colony on Mars – and prevent politicians from chickening out – is to send the first people over there without a way to come back. Bizarre, you say? Well, I kind of like the idea.

The idea isn’t that it’d be a suicide mission, even though it would be considerably dangerous. Instead, older astronauts would be selected with the idea that, already having a full life on Earth, they wouldn’t mind spending their last twenty or thirty years on the red planet paving the way for future colonists. They would receive regular shipments of supplies and additional colonists while they worked to develop the infrastructure for in situ resource utilization. They’d extract water from the soil, mine exposed metals, grow crops, and dig habitats for what would hopefully be a continual influx of new colonists.

Once the colony reached thirty or forty people, they would have a sufficiently stable genetic pool that they could start to grow themselves “the old-fashioned way.” Maybe in vitro fertilization would help here; I’m not sure of that.

I’m like 90% sure that this will never happen, just because it makes a terrible sound bite. Who would have the political will to send people to another planet to die? Not in this Congress. Never mind the fact that you would probably have thousands of volunteers, and even if only one tenth of one percent of those turned out to be suitable you’d have crew for a dozen missions.

Anyway, there’s cool stuff in that article, so I’d recommend checking it out and reading some of the editorials it links to. This is really what space travel is all about – humans will have to leave the Earth eventually, and daring exploits are needed to get the job done.

Should We Fear the Aliens?

I once heard a great quote that went something like this: “Humans are either alone in the universe, or we are not. Either way, it’s a wonderful thing.” Not everyone agrees.

Specifically, one of the headline articles – “Study: If We’re Not Alone, We Should Fear the Aliens” – at Space.com last week believes that unless humans are alone, we are should be afraid. Very, very afraid. Needless to say, I don’t agree with the sentiment. Continue reading

Knowing is Half the Battle

As I wrote recently, I recently spent an evening plotting out my story all the way to the end, scene by scene. I did this to give myself a feeling of direction and, if I’m honest with myself, to put off writing a draft that seemed interminable.

But I am so freaking glad that I did it. I always hated the idea of doing scene outlines before because it seemed to take all of the joy out of writing. Like, rather than experiencing the story, you were just recording it, and that seemed like work rather than fun. But ooh boy, was I wrong.

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