Category Archives: Science

The Mars Plan

spacex-mars-interplanetary-transporter-launchTo say that I was excited about SpaceX’s mars plan announcements last month would be an understatement.  Their plan is ambitious and exciting and my first thought was: “where do I sign up?”

For those of you who haven’t heard at this point, they want to transport people, 100-200 at a time, to Mars to found a colony and they want to begin doing it in 2024.  SpaceX’s goal is to do this in eight years.  Eight years.  After they get the tech ironed out, they want to have a real colony, planning on a million residents.

To say this is a big effort would be a massive understatement.  Can they really do it in this period of time?  I have no idea. There’s so many regulatory and technological hurdles, that I wouldn’t be surprised if they run into delays.

But all the same, I’m hopeful.  Over the past twenty years, it seems all that governments have done with space is to say “we can’t.” I’m excited because SpaceX is trying.  It’s going to cost them ten billion dollars… but if they pull it off it will be incredible.

Still, that leaves me with some comments on their plan.  They’re going to use liquid oxygen and methane for their ITR.  It makes sense, they can probably produce both on Mars once they have a colony up and running.   I can’t help but feel nuclear propulsion, that is, using fission processes to heat water or gas and then ejecting it out a rocket nozzle,  would be a more viable alternative.  It’s far more fuel efficient and when you’re going to be reusing a rocket anyway, it seems like a better alternative.

Granted, that might limit the rocket’s use to space due to the general public’s terror of all things nuclear and radiation.  Still, build it on Earth, get it into space, and then use it as a space-taxi to service all your needs.  Maybe in a few years, huh, guys?

My other thoughts: assuming this does get off the ground, it’s going to be huge.  We’re not talking a visit and that’s it, we’re talking a million people living on another world.  Our technology now makes that a long voyage under the best of times.  This will be our generations’ Plymouth Rock (Hopefully not Roanoak).  This is the start of something new, something amazing… and we need to do our best to make sure it succeeds.

I tip my hat to Elon Musk… and I’m glad he continues to dream big, especially when so many other people are looking at the ground.  I’ll finish this with the first question I asked: Where do I sign up?

 

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Boundless Optimism: Tomorowland Movie Review

Disney's TOMORROWLAND
Disney’s TOMORROWLAND

I just saw Tomorrowland yesterday.  This is a statement where the tense is correct but your brain pauses and says, “Wait, what?”

The movie has become one of my must-haves as far as DVD/Bluray.  Yes, it was that good.  In Tomorrowland, they’ve built a movie which manages to look at the future in a way that is both critical and optimistic.  It’s highly entertaining, with the main character being both humorous and inspiring.

Why is it so good?  Because the main character challenges everything.  When confronted with harsh reality, she challenges people to make it better.  When offered literally no hope, she refuses to believe that there is no hope.  She takes on the hopelessness and nihilism that society seems to have buckled under and her very energy and drive makes it clear how silly we are to have given up already.  She’s challenging the other characters in the movie, but she’s also managing to challenge the audience: don’t give up hope, don’t stop dreaming about a better world.

Does Tomorrowland have flaws?  Of course it does, but it was enjoyable enough that I didn’t care.  This was a movie that after you leave the theater, you want to talk about with your friends.  There were a ton of details with homages and references and it’s a movie that my wife and I spent hours discussing.  It’s a movie that was able to simultaneously represent hope for the future and still fit in a cautionary tale… one which doesn’t bludgeon you over the head with messages and themes, but instead invites you to set back and enjoy the ride.

Second Star to the Right: Interstellar Movie Review (Spoilers)

From Interstellar: A black hole eating a star
From Interstellar: A black hole eating a star

I’ll preface this by saying that Interstellar is the best movie of 2014 that I nearly didn’t see.  Why did I nearly decide to discount it?  Well, the trailers did a terrible job of telling me what the movie was about.  The trailers made it out (with me reading between the lines) that the movie was about how terrible mankind was that we had destroyed our only home and had to go to space to survive.  Heavy on a message of doom and gloom and without any real ounce of hope, with the thought being we were destined to repeat the process as celestial locusts.  This was not the type of movie I wanted to watch.  Luckily, it wasn’t the movie I got to see.

You see, Interstellar is nothing less than a movie about discovery, adventure, and exploration.  The crew that goes to the stars in this movie are people chosen to do that most dangerous exercise: go someplace new and come back to tell everyone all about it.  They are also the last, best hope for humanity’s survival, so no pressure.  The movie has a slow, building pace where weight is added to every decision and the protagonists are struggling against that most certain enemy: time.

The science of the movie is excellent as well.  Yes, there are liberties taken, but there are also elements and plot twists taken from science and enough ‘what if’ that any science nerds will probably be on the edge of their seats.  Visit a planet in close orbit around a black hole and have time dilation wipe out twenty three years in an hour.  Also, get to see the tidal effects upon that lovely ocean planet, and that the woman sent ahead ten years ago died only minutes before your arrival, and just right after her own arrival.  Playing with time is something this movie does incredibly well, along with hints and peeks not only at the movie’s plot, but also at the great potential to be found in humanity.

Some of the best lines in the movie are about human nature and nature itself.  At one point, the characters in space argue about what they might find being more or less dangerous than what they bring with them.  Later on, they are both proven correct when one man is killed by the waves on the first planet they find and another is killed by a human scout sent ahead, who was willing to do anything necessary to ensure his own survival, even if it meant dooming billions of people back on Earth.  The movie manages to capture the stark beauty of space, with apparently scientifically accurate depictions of both black holes and wormholes (see this interesting article).

And too, this movie does very well in capturing the spirit of exploration.  The characters pause in wonder at the sights, caught up in the wonder and excitement of doing and seeing new things, and while they’ll take the time to mention the why or the how, that doesn’t rob the moment of it’s beauty.  The characters are very much explorers, having little idea of what they’re going to discover, building upon what they learn and finding ways to use that knowledge to survive.  They are forced to make decisions based off of their supplies and equipment as well as their limited amount of time.  The weight of those decisions is upon them all and each choice they make is one that comes with a cost.

The movie does have its faults, I’ll admit, and several of them are in the plot-driven variety.  The voyage to the wormhole takes a meager two months, which is incredibly impressive given chemical-powered rockets.  My assumption was that they used a nuclear powered drive and just didn’t want to discuss it in the movie.  The ‘blight’ that seems to be affecting the crops is more of a mysterious force than anything else, though depictions of it as breathing nitrogen suggests either a very odd metabolism or just hand-wavium.  Why this terrible stuff doesn’t follow the evacuees from Earth is another question I asked myself.  Contamination is sort of a given for colonization and transportation.  I mean, we can’t even stop rats from getting to remote islands, how can we stop an apparent super-microorganism that has adapted to attack all manner of food crops?  Also, what did people eat if it killed everything else while they were waiting for their star ships over fifty-plus years?

What the movie does very well is to get it’s point and message across with painful brutality.  The ‘teacher’ at the beginning criticizing the pilot about believing in the moon landings.  The quotes: “Man was born on Earth.  It was never meant to die here.” and “We used to look up and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.”  These are statements that paint a bleak (and unfortunately accurate) picture.  We don’t look up at the stars with hope.  Too many people are far more concerned with ‘fixing’ problems here rather than expanding out there.  There will come a day that we are forced to choose between staying here and dying and going out to the stars and surviving.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie and I highly recommend it.  It’s a great movie, with gorgeous effects, a powerful theme, and a spirit of wonder that still gets me excited thinking about it.

Orion and Getting Back into the Space Race

Orion Space Capsule Concept Image
Orion Space Capsule

The Orion spacecapsule has returned successfully after it’s first real test… and I’m excited.  Yet at the same time, I can’t help but feel it’s a hand-wave.  The Orion is incredible… yet it is still feels like too little, too late.

Paul Bertorelli wrote an excellent article (below) that matches a lot of my feelings on the subject.

http://www.avweb.com/blogs/insider/Orion-Glacial-Pace-Space-Dawns-223201-1.html

The private industry is trying, too, but as seen by the recent setback with Virgin Galactic, they are not quite where we might hope they could be.  The problem, quite simply is money.  Space expansion and exploration requires a lot of money, and even with very wealthy private investors, such as Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson, they have far lower budgets than NASA could have, in theory.  But NASA doesn’t have the money, or focus, to make manned exploration (much less expansion/colonization) a priority.  Part of that is politics.  Space isn’t a priority to the average US citizen, because the media (movies, news, etc) focus on the expense, the danger, and the cost.  The recent movie, Interstellar, garnered a lot of criticism, not because of its plot, but because the theme was stay and die or get out into space and propagate.  A note of how much certain people hate our own race where a message of expand our horizons or die was criticized in that survival was seen as the wrong choice.

Against that measure, Orion is a step in the right direction… a very slow step, but still a step.  But what can you and I do to improve this?  Talk to your friends, your family, have the discussions about the potential and importance of space travel.  Fight the dialogue that says that space is a waste.  Fight the people who think that ‘we need to stay here and not ruin the stars’ and rubbish like that.  Make it a topic of conversation, make it important to other people, light that spark… or else we may never take that next step, we may never go back to the moon, much less to other worlds.  That, I think, would be a great tragedy.

April Writing Update

Now that Renegades: Origins and Renegades: A Murder of Crowes are out on schedule (more or less), I have to move on to the next projects. I say projects, because I’m working on multiple tasks and I’m going to be really busy over the next few months. My writing goals for the next four months are to write the sequel to The Fallen Race, write a YA novel, and to edit a couple other novels and . That’s a lot to work on and really not much time to do it.

My preference, honestly, is to work on new stuff. The sequel is something I’ve wanted to write for the past seven years, ever since I originally finished The Fallen Race. I finished the novel in a place that still left the human race in dire straits. The sequel, which I’m currently titling as The Shattered Empire, takes place only a few weeks after the Third Battle of Faraday. I’ve had it outlined and even partially started for over seven years. Understandably, I want to finish it.

The YA novel is somewhat harder to explain. It is set in a wholly different universe from The Renegades and Shadow Space Chronicles. I’ve already written a novel in that universe, though it isn’t YA. I’m currently dissatisfied with a lot of the YA Science Fiction and Fantasy that is available. Much of it is more fantasy than science, and a lot of it is post-apocalyptic in a fashion that implies that the good times are over… that young adults have little or nothing to look forward to in the future. My goal is to write something a little inspirational and exciting and something that shows that science, exploration, and the future are all things that can be great… with a little hard work.

Editing is something that I’m more hesitant to work on. On the one hand, I really want to get more of my novels out there. On the other… some of them will require a lot of work. More than that, editing is a multi-step process where I revise and deliver to my alpha and beta readers… and then they have to find time to read. For some, that’s a quick turn around. For others, well, it can take a few months (or years). I want to get my backlist out and available… but I want them done right. And really, sometimes it is easier for me to start over from scratch and write something new rather than going back and editing, revising, editing, revising, and tweaking until it is almost but not quite where I want it to be. That said, the novels Fenris Unchained and Echo of the High Kings are both on my list for getting to a publishable state.  I’d expect EHK out soonest, but probably not before the end of summer 14.  Fenris Unchained requires less edits, overall, but is a lower priority.

I’ve got a lot on my plate. But, ideally, you should see something new from me in the next couple months. Also, if you don’t yet follow me on Facebook, I’ll begin posting my writing progress there, both as something of a guide stick and a way to encourage myself. Assuming that all you fine digital people like that sort of thing, I might even post some samples there.

Robocop Movie Review

I am not, as a general rule, a huge fan of movie remakes.  Now and again, however, I’ll be pleasantly surprised.  When I went to see it, I expected it to be a simple action flick.  Lots of shooting, some explosions, and robots and bad guys getting mowed down left and right.  What I didn’t expect was a surprisingly deep (for Hollywood) action movie with political and ethical questions.

Without giving too much away, let me say this: the movie has a rather murky and mixed message.  In some aspects, actors come across as almost caricatures and in others, you might feel almost like you’re being preached to… but you aren’t really sure what the message is supposed to be.  At the same time, there are moments in the movie where I was nodding my head at a reveal… or chuckling at a bit of satire.  The politics of security versus freedom was touched upon.  There was a good bit of character growth for a doctor, which I found interesting, while he fought between his ambition and his medical ethics.  There was also some decent discussion of the ethics of using automated weapons on American citizens…  Messages were there, but they were sometimes open ended, almost as if the director or actors didn’t want to agree with the conclusion.

As far as the action itself… by and large it was impressive.  There were some excellent firefights… if you could get past the ‘shaky cam.’  I don’t know about most viewers, but I don’t like leaving the theater feeling dizzy.  There were a couple of scenes where it was literally too much, where my brain just kind of went into shut-down because there was strobing lights, dark backgrounds, and a shaking, spinning camera.  To top it off, even the the moments where the main character was literally getting pounded, it was hard to have any dramatic tension… I mean, the moment of drama was solved before we really had any anticipation of danger.  There wasn’t enough build-up, I suppose.

The movie looked good, though.  And despite the nausea inducing shaky-cam, it was mostly fun.  In my opinion, it was a better movie than the original, which is a good thing.

The Romantic Pessimist’s Argument for Space

I consider myself a romantic pessimist.  I hope for the best… and plan for the worst.  That said, I’m also a dreamer and most of my hopes and ambitions are tied to space.  Not surprising, then, that I write science fiction, eh?  I’m writing this post as something of a dialogue, a hope that we continue to look out and push the boundaries.

So what do I think of space right now?  Well, to be honest, I’m afraid.  There is a very vocal percentage of Americans who seem to think that space is something that we should avoid.  Their arguments run a gamut of points.  Some are the simple ‘we need to fix things here before we worry about that stuff.’  Some are economic ‘it’s too expensive, we don’t get anything out of it.’  The most insidious, I think, are the people who seem to feel that humanity is somehow a corrupting influence, that we have polluted and destroyed our world and will go out and do the same elsewhere.

I’ll tackle those arguments, since they’re the ones I hear the most.  The first one, the one about fixing things here on Earth, is at its heart, an illogical argument.  What exactly are we supposed to fix here on Earth?  Poverty, crime, war, social injustice, sad puppies… the list goes ever onward.  The truth is, there will always be things that need to be fixed.  Humanity, is at its nature, imperfect.  We can never fix things here on Earth entirely, not without unlimited resources and a fundemental change in human nature.  Poverty is an effect of limited resources, economic factors, and supply and demand.  As wealth increases throughout  a system, it trickles down to others.  This is the free market… which can be imperfect and can be distorted, but that’s a can of worms I’ll open another time.  Crime is caused by a variety of factors, many of which stem from a society plagued by poverty, social inequality, corruption, and a failure of society to enforce the Social Contract.  War is another event triggered by limited resources and economic factors.  Add in perceived injustices and nationalistic fervor.  Sad puppies we can address at another time.  These are big issues, many of which do not have easy or simple solutions, no matter what some politicians say.  Most of them, short of a perfect world, cannot be fixed by us, they have to gradually shift over time.  Are we to focus all of our efforts upon these issues and any others, we still may not change them.  Indeed attempts to end poverty have often shown to make things worse, instead of lifting people up, they pull the rest of us down.  Attempts to end war, peacekeeping, is often a band-aid, which prevents violence while peacekeepers are present but fails to achieve long-lasting solutions.  Saying that we need to fix something first is akin to the man who says he’ll go look for a job… tomorrow.  Putting off a serious investment in space is not allowing us to focus more resources on problems, merely to offset the cost of space exploration to the future.

The economic arguement against space exploration and development is, in my opinion, the most spurious.  People said much the same about expeditions to the New World in the Age of Exploration.  Yes, many of those expeditions bankrupted people and others brought back only meager returns.  Exploration and development is not something that pays off instantly.  It, horror of horrors, requires hard work.  Space requires us to travel further, experience a harsher environment, and to put ourselves at risk… but in return we will gain access to resources and options far beyond what we now possess.  It will require the development of new engines, the construction of a space elevator, and yes, it will cost in lives lost in the effort.  Space is far harsher an environment than any place on Earth.  People have died in explorations of lonely mountains and remote polar regions here… but they expanded our knowledge and they died doing what they dreamed of.  It is far better to die doing something grand, in my opinion, than to live a life where you never accomplish anything.  And yes, I’m someone who lives and may well die by that opinion.  The resources we can harvest in space make our current resources laughable.  A single nickle iron asteroid could meet our steel requirements for a year.  Energy shortage?  A solar array in space could have more surface area than anything we could build in space, be dispersed, and still provide us with power, either directly beamed down in the form of light or converted to microwaves and transmitted down in that fashion.  No, these are not things that will come right away.  These are things we’d have to work for and work hard at… but hey, poverty’s one of those issues we want to fix, right?  Booming industry in space, lots of people needed, trained people.  New jobs created to train them and build the training areas.  New jobs created to provide them with support and services.  Going back to the previous argument, let’s fix the environment.  Don’t care for all those nasty coal plants?  Really like solar power, but you don’t like the nasty chemicals that solar plants produce?  Building it in space won’t contaminate our planet and if we’re smart about it, we could provide power to the entire world.  Cheap power for the entire world.  How’s that for fixing some problems down here?

The last argument is one of philosophy and outlook rather than one of reason and logic.  Some people seem to think that humanity is, at its core, a vile and wretched thing.  These people point out that wherever we go, we bring war, bloodshed, destruction.  Movies such as Avatar make me sick to my stomach.  Because under all that pretty CGI and ‘big dreams’ there is black withered heart that hates itself and wants to make you hate yourself too.  Those poor oppressed people who don’t really exist and those nasty military-industrial complex types who want to tear their planet apart.  It’s a movie with a message about how horrible people are… and how technology is evil and the only people who want to go out there to the stars are nasty, greedy, self-serving, types.  Why?  Why should we beleive that message, brought to us by Ferngully In Space?  Why should we look back at history and see only the negative… white Christian settlers slaughtering the peaceful Native Americans.  What about the Declaration of Independence?  What about great American artists and writers?  America the Beautiful, the National Anthem, Edgar Allen Poe.  What about the American Industrial Revolution that brought about the rise of the first real free society in the world?  What about standing up to the Soviet Union and showing that a free society is a match for a totalitarian regime any day?

There are people who honestly are plagued by such guilt that they would rather see humanity huddling naked in caves than happy, prosperous, and long lived.  This nihilistic tendency is a nasty, virulent ideology that upholds that people are bad… and all to many of them seem to think that the best thing anyone can do is to take themselves out of the picture.  They hate themselves, and they want us to hate ourselves too.  Rather than conservation, they want nature to remain immaculate, untouched, perfect.  They have some image of the world without people as being pristine.  This would, by necessity, lead to the removal of the human race.  And in, their hearts, they’re glad for that, because not only do they hate themselves, they hate you too.  The very thought of us polluting ‘untouched new worlds’ and the construction that would allow us to reach them causes them emotional agony, not just from the thought of what we might do out there, but also because we might expand, live, prosper… and show that their beleif structure is flawed.  If we succeed out in space, we show them that humanity is not bad and we show the potential that we hold in ourselves.

We have in us a desire to go forth, to see what lies beyond the next horizon.  To pent that up, to reject it, is to reject ourselves… to reject our very nature.  Our past is here, our home is Earth.  Yet in the nature of all children, as we grow up, we must take those first steps away from home, to find our own path.  That path lies in space… and the sooner we begin that journey, the sooner we continue our growth to adulthood.

Here’s some interesting links, people who say some good things… and people who argue the opposite.  Feel free to link anything in that you think pertinent.  Thanks for reading.

http://accordingtohoyt.com/2014/02/07/a-radical-notion-a-guest-post-by-james-cambias/

http://debatewise.org/debates/137-space-exploration-is-a-waste-of-money/