Tag Archive for NASA

Mid-Century Life on Mars

No. 1



Mid-Century Life on Mars

By Doug Turnbull


Sunday, August 31st marked the end of the application period for future astronauts hoping to catch a ride on a rocket to Mars. The project, known as Mars One, is a non-profit foundation established with the eventual goal of using existing transportation and other technologies to arrive at and settle on Mars. As a hard science fiction writer, I have spent some time attempting to envision what life might be like as a settler on Mars thirty-five years from now. If any of the three or four major private sector plans to travel to Mars come to fruition, we may well find out if my predictions are right.

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Exo-Planets 2

In this recent article in the Scientific American, we learn that astronomers have discovered 629 planets outside the solar system.  NASA’s Kepler mission has discovered over 100 in an area of the Northern Hemisphere covering only 1% of the sky. Ten of these exo-planets are terrestrial, that is they are small planets with solid surfaces. I know of at least one of these that appears to have a triple-point temperature range: water can exist as ice, liquid and vapor. This is amazing and sobering news when one considers that we have only just begun our search for such planets and that we are as yet only searching in our own neighborhood.

Our own solar system is ripe for settlement and development. The moon and Mars are the two most likely candidates. The moon because of its proximity and Mars because it has an atmosphere and water. Once methods of interplanetary travel are established, the asteroids and the large moons of the outer solar system will be the next likely candidates. Eventually a space faring culture will develop off the Earth, a culture that sees the cosmos as its habitat. This culture will inevitably look to the stars and to b the many exo-planets as the next logical goals for settlement. Multi-generational missions to settle these new planets would not be inconceivable to people raised in such a culture.

We may eventually develop a means to break the light barrier, the cosmic speed limit postulated by Albert Einstein that nothing can move faster than the speed of light, the way we broke the sound barrier in the 1940’s. If so, these exo-planets will become stepping stones for us to further explore the universe as well a places for us to found settlements. In any case, the discovery of these exo-planets is akin in importance to the discovery that our own solar system planets were more than just points of light in the sky.






Artificial Gravity


One of the methods of developing artificial gravity in a ship traveling on interplanetary journeys lasting many months is to apply spin to the ship.  Studies have shown a practical limit of this method to be that a rotational rate in excess of two rpm (revolutions per minute) will cause dizziness in the passengers. To counter this problem, several engineers have proposed dividing the ship into two parts: a crew section and a service module. A long cable would run between the two parts and they would rotate around a common axis. Using this method, if one were to limit the rotation to say 1 one and a half rpm, the longer the cable, the greater the sensation of gravity, the shorter the cable, the lesser the sensation of gravity.

To calculate how long the tether must be to generate a simulated gravity of one sixth G at one and one half rpm, you need only apply a relatively simple formula:


R = G / ((pi * rpm)/30)2


R is the radius of the circle described by the crew compartment expressed in meters and G is the desired rate of acceleration expressed as meters per second. After doing the math you arrive at a figure of 66.7 meters. That would be the approximate distance from the axis to the crew/cargo section. Since the axis of rotation is located at the center of gravity of the system, the service module would be either closer or farther from the center depending on whether it is heavier or lighter than the crew quarters.

Note: A portion of this explanation is taken from my forthcoming story: Ribbon to the Sky.

A Review of FARNHAM’S FREEHOLD by Robert A. Heinlein

Farnham’s Freehold was copyrighted in 1964 by Robert A. Heinlein and published that same year by G. P. Putnam’s Sons of New York. Initially set in the time in which it was written, at the height of the Cold War, in typical Heinlein fashion, this book starts off with a bang as the main character, Hugh Farnham and his family were blasted 2000 years into the future by a Russian atomic bomb. They survived the event because Hugh had the foresight to build a bomb shelter under his home. How the family adapted to this strange new world of the future constitutes the bulk of the novel.

Staying alive was their first priority and Hugh packed the shelter with everything he thought they would need to live after a nuclear war. But once in the event, it turned out that they needed to improvise-and some of their improvisations were quite ingenious. For example, Heinlein described how they constructed an irrigation canal using a homemade transit of the type employed by the ancient Egyptians to ensure the proper slope; and, how they lined it with clay tiles similar to what the Romans used in their aqueducts. Their 250 ton steel re-enforced concrete bomb shelter had been tilted on an angle by the bomb blast. Using tools and techniques first developed by the ancient Egyptians to erect their monuments, the Farnhams were able to re-level the heavy structure without any power equipment.

Compounding the practical problems, Hugh had to deal with conflicts within the family. In addition to his wife, Grace, Hugh had two children: Duke, his grown son and Karen his college age daughter. There were also two others who were not actually blood relatives: Barbara, a friend of Karen who happened to be staying with them at the time of the attack, and Joe, their African American hired man. Early on, Grace and Duke attempted to gang up on Hugh in a struggle for power. However, everyone else had confidence in Hugh’s leadership, sided with him, and Hugh prevailed. But the conflict remained barely beneath the surface for the rest of the story, erupting on several occasions.

After six months of carving out a homestead, planting and irrigating a garden and successfully working out a division of labor; despite their differences, the extended Farnham household seemed destined to prosper. Heinlein had a surprise for them, however. Unfortunately, their homestead was located in the private game preserve of a heretofore unseen landlord. This landlord was a member of The Chosen, the people who had inherited the Earth after the European and Asian races had all but wiped each other out in the nuclear war, and they were descendents of Black Africans. The Chosen now held the remaining light skinned people of North America in slavery. The landlord, whose nickname was Ponse, had the homestead destroyed and the Farnham clan was carried off into bondage. How this was resolved, I’ll allow readers to discover for themselves.

Heinlein uses irony with great skill in this story. The reversal of the relative status of the black and white races is only the most obvious. There are numerous subtle ironies within this over arching one. The Chosen, who in this story were Moslems, proved to be just as ruthless as the white Christian slave owners were in their time and equally hypocritical in their religious justifications. Joe, who in his own time was a second class citizen, suddenly found himself one of The Chosen, while Hugh, his former employer, became a slave. There are many more such ironies for the reader to discover: some are funny and some are not so funny.

As social commentary, this book is a Heinlein tour de force. He addresses racism, a dysfunctional family, sexual liberation, adultery, property rights, religion, intellectual freedom, methods of leadership in a crisis, the Cold War, and human rights in general. And, despite the doomsday backdrop of the story, he does all of this in a way that leaves the reader feeling optimistic about the future of the Farnhams and of the human race.

Star Trek, Star Wars, or Zardoz?

What is humanities’ future in space if any?

On another list, the question was raised about the future of humans in space and several movie versions were suggested. My thoughts on these follow. If anyone wants to argue, take offense or agree, please feel free to comment.

I think the Star Trek vision is still too Earth bound, too reflective of our own forms and biases. The aliens in Star Trek, Whatever Generation are simply reflections of ourselves. They are not aliens. The Vulcans are simply the logical and rational sides of ourselves; the Klingons are our greedy and rapacious side, while all of the other aliens are simply character actors in morality plays.  It is a great series, but it is not particularly visionary.

Star Wars tries to be big, but ends up being small. It is Shogun in space.  Jedi-Samurai, endless intrigues with double and triple crosses, good guys become bad guys become good guys and so on. It is great fun but visionary about human space flight it is not.

Zardoz is a total downer. This is science fiction at its worst. It is The Sun Also Rises without the happy ending.

I see human space flight, exploration and colonization as the dawn of a new age. Those who go will be optimists. The kind of people who looked at the New World as an opportunity to be grasped rather than a mystery to be feared. We will take all of our faults and foibles with us, of course, but the tip of the spear will be sharp and we will embark on a great adventure. Those new folks, the lunar and Mars colonists, the ones born and raised there, will see the universe through different eyes. Where we see limits, they will see opportunities. I am quite optimistic. The only movie I can think of that captures this spirit isn’t science fiction at all, it is Centennial, a mini-series about the settling of a town in Colorado that begins with the Native Americans who settled there first, to the trappers and mountain men, the cattlemen, farmers and follows through to the present day. That is our future in colonizing the solar system.

Tunnel in the Sky

Tunnel in the Sky

Copyrighted in 1955, Tunnel in the Sky is the 9th of the Heinlein juveniles and it is noteworthy in several respects. First, while it is set in the future and on another planet, the bulk of the novel isn’t really science fiction at all, it is more of a survival tale. Second, while some of the story involves Robinson Crusoe type details on improvising basic technology, a major portion of it is social and political commentary made through the actions and statements of the characters. And third, the protagonist, Rod Walker, is black.

In this future, the Ramsbotham Jump has made interstellar travel as simple as passing through a doorway: on one side you are on Earth, step to the other side and you are on another planet in another star system. This is how Rod Walker and his classmates travelled to another planet for the final exam of their high school course in survival. What they didn’t know was that a fluke in the form of a stellar nova, short-circuited the gate they had just passed through and left them stranded. A trip that should have been several days long, lasted for two years. Heinlein turns how Rod and the others survived their stay on this strange planet into a fascinating tale.

While the clues are often subtle, this is probably the Heinlein juvenile with the most social commentary.  Sex and race are irrelevant to the job of surviving on this dangerous planet and Heinlein treats them that way. After having spent several days alone, and after having been ambushed and robbed by an unknown assailant, Rod met Jack Daudet, who allowed Rod to share his own shelter in a cave. A few days later while hunting, they met Jimmy Throxton who joined them as well. It is after Jimmy was there that Rod discovered that Jack was really Jackie: a girl. Heinlein uses this clever plot twist to drive home the point that men and women are equal, and particularly so in this extremity.

Gradually their colony grew with students similarly stranded until it reached a population of about 75. They constructed a village with a stockade to keep out predators and Rod emerged as the ex officio leader of the group.  At this point it was decided that they needed some sort of government so the group elected a mayor for the settlement. The mayor-elect was an older student who proposed holding the election in the first place. Heinlein uses this micro-society to explore the advantages and disadvantages of democracy and those of the very concept of government itself, while Rod discovered that politics trumps ability every time.

Heinlein treats race, sex and ethnicity as irrelevant in this book.  While this is a diverse group, the surnames of the characters are the only clues we have to place any of them into an identity group. One character, Caroline Mshiyeni, has a clearly East African surname and was seen by the other members of the group as natural girlfriend and possible wife for Rod. In the context of 1955 society, the implication here is clear: Rod must be of African descent himself. At that time, what was termed miscegenation, or interracial marriage, was not only frowned upon by the society that would be reading this book, it was illegal in about a dozen states. Therefore, looking through the lens of the mores of the mid-1950’s, the implication is that Rod is black. To drop a subtle clue like this is typical of Heinlein. He could not state that his main character was black. His editors would have rejected the story out of hand. But he could imply it to the readers sharp enough to pick up the clues. Similarly, as I noted earlier, while he could not state that men and women were absolute equals; with the Jack to Jackie transformation he could show it to be true.

The story also depicts how the young people strived over the two years or so that they were stranded on that planet to build a decent society and civilization. They dealt successfully with outlaws and crime, made the tools and equipment necessary for life, planted and raised crops, hunted in an organized way and married. They formed a government, however imperfect and dealt successfully with an environmental threat that could have consumed them.

This book moves right along and has the constant tension created by the “man on the edge of survival” situation Rod and his fellows find themselves in.  Tunnel in the Sky is an optimistic book about the strength, resilience and basic decency of human nature. While there were villains and low life characters, they were a minority and were ultimately killed or exiled by the strong and decent majority. It is telling that at about this same time William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was published. His book placed a group of young people in a similar survival situation, but with much less exemplary results: they degenerated into predatory animals. Naturally, Golding’s dark book was a success among the cynical critics. On the other hand, if you are looking for an upbeat page turner for the weekend, this is your book.

Review of The Star Beast

The Star Beast was copyrighted in 1954 by Robert A. Heinlein and published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in that same year. This is the first of the juveniles to have no interior illustrations, but the cover art and title page were done by Clifford Geary. Because of the lack of illustrations, for the video montage portion of this review, I will use the some of the cover art of the many editions of this book that have been published. This is the eighth of the juveniles and as it was with all of the previous books, the plot and characters are unique. Set in the 22nd century, the book has two distinct story lines, lines that eventually intersect, and the point of view changes among the several characters that populate these story lines. This is an interesting plot device and allows Heinlein to build suspense as the reader tries to anticipate how and when the two plots lines will meet.

The first story line probably takes place in Colorado, although that is never stated, and has three principal characters. Lummox, the title character, is an alien brought to Earth by the great grandfather of the book’s ostensible main character, John Thomas Stuart XII. John Thomas is a teen aged boy who takes care of Lummox and tries with limited success to keep the beast out of trouble. Lummox, who was small enough to fit in a jump bag when brought to Earth, has grown to the size of a medium tank and is just about as tough. The close relationship of the two and their loyalty to each other is a crucial part of the story. John Thomas also has a friend, Betty Sorenson, who plays an important role in this book, even though the point of view is never centered on her. Like Lummox, Betty is loyal to John Thomas and tries to look out for him, and while John Thomas seems oblivious to the romantic implications of their relationship, Betty is not.

The second story line takes place in the Federation Capital, the location of which is not stated but in other Heinlein books is in Nassau. There are two main characters in this line and both have the point of view at various times. Henry Gladstone Kiku, OBE, Permanent Undersecretary for Spatial Affairs, is one of the most powerful men in the Federation. Sergei Greenberg is his go-to assistant and is assigned all the hard jobs, because he gets them done. As the story develops, the two men are involved in some tricky negotiations with a newly discovered alien race called the Hroshii. I’ll allow the reader to discover how this seemingly unrelated plotline eventually intersects with the one in Colorado, but it is through circumstances that only Heinlein could make believable. As a character, Kiku is especially noteworthy because he is from Kenya and is black. In 1954, one simply did not depict black men in such roles and if this had not been science fiction, I doubt if any editor from a major house would have approved it. Heinlein, always a step ahead, would cross the color line again in another of the juveniles.

The double plot lines make this an intricate novel, more so than the previous juveniles, but with well developed, believable and likeable characters as well as non-stop action, Heinlein carries it off.  The book is readable and never boring. As with his other works, Heinlein does not indulge in the poetic descriptions of scenery and characters that impresses critics and professors of literature. Rather, we learn about the characters by watching what they do. The Star Beast is another masterpiece by the original dean of science fiction.

Future of NASA

I support Mars and Lunar colonies now. But I feel that NASA run operations won’t work. NASA has become too blunt an instrument. We get way too little bang for our buck with NASA. They need to evolve into a much smaller granting and underwriting operation. But no self-perpetuating bureaucracy ever voluntarily shrinks. So it is most likely that it will lurch on into the future, doing fewer and fewer missions while consuming huge amounts of capital that would be better spent in private hands.
As an example of how the NASA of the future might function, suppose the current Mars “Curiosity” mission had been set up as an “X-Prize” type operation, with the proviso that the company or organization that completes the mission as described in the grant also has exclusive exploitation rights to any developments, media coverage, inventions, procedures and discoveries on Mars. If they find diamonds, they have first claim because the territory mapped out by the rover belongs to them. Possibly an generous land grant would be a part of the deal.
The advantages to this type of system are clear and have historical precedent. Charles Lindbergh flew NY to Paris to win a prize. He did it as economically and quickly as possible. If NASA had undertaken this challenge, they would spend five years planning a massive expedition and then after that, might actually begin development of an aircraft. The Parisians would still be waiting at Le Bourget Field for the plane to arrive.