Raise a Glass to the Brave

Given yesterday’s anniversary, there’s only thing I can write about.  Only one thing worth the words, or the sentiment: Yuri Gagarin.

Now, the first iteration of this post moved past Gagarin and became a piece about the divides of nations that have prevented that brave, brave man from achieving the level of recognition he deserves.  It became about the rivalry and adversarial relationship between the US and Russia.

It became, in the end about the futile waste and foolishness that saw a brave, brave man ignored by two-thirds of the world.  Oh sure, that man was named a Hero of the Soviet Union…but who in the US or Western Europe, or that vast majority of Asia that lies outside of old USSR borders, remembers jack shit about him?

“Yuri who?” is all you’re likely to get if you bring up his name to the next person at the bar…

For those who have forgotten — or who never knew — let me remind you: a full month before Alan Shepherd flew Freedom 7 on a fifteen-minute-ish suborbital flight, Yuri Gagarin became not just the first human into space, but also the first to orbit the Earth.  A US astronaut would not follow into a similar orbit for damned near a year, when John Glenn flew Friendship 7 through three full orbits.

Today, we make far too much of “firsts.”  The first left-handed tailor to use right-handed scissors.  The first idiot to piss on an electric fence.  We celebrate the most trivial of firsts like they were the first summit of Everest…

…or the first human into space.

Just put your mind back into that morning: Thousands of tons of highly explosive fuel were set to propel a basically untested craft into an environment completely and totally inimical to life.  The courage of that first man to strap himself into that thing…

The courage to put aside thoughts of his wife and kids…

The courage to nod and give a thumb’s up, knowing death rode just a few feet behind him…

Look, let’s be honest: the Soviet Union is not a country folks look back to for inspiration or reassurance, or competence, even.  But the Russian men and women of courage?  Those who — in the terms of one of my favorite books — had the Right Stuff?

Raise a glass, then, to Yuri Gagarin.  Raise a glass to one of those few men so brave — or so crazy — that they extended the boundaries of our entire species.

Oh and, by the way, if the first human-crewed ship we send to Mars is NOT named the Gagarin, there’s something freaking wrong with us!

Turning The Geekiness To 11

Hey, sometimes a guy has to give in to his dark side!

I dusted off one of the greatest video game series of the last 10 years recently.  Even though the second in the series came out last year, I haven’t yet played it.  In fact, it has been four or so years since I played the first in the series, so I decided to run through that one again just to reimmerse myself.

Why the hell are you talking about this, you unreconstructed geek?!

First — stop yelling at me!  And second, I’m talking about it because this game — one of the best and most cinematic stories ever told in modern gaming — was far too unintentionally prophetic for me to let it pass without commenting.

Take a virus that turns people into uncontrollably violent lunatics, add a dash of Lord of the Flies style “I have the conch!” politics, and leaven it all with some vintage Stanley Kubrick visuals and you end up with…well, the US today.

You also end up with one of the greatest games ever made…

Okay, digression over.  Ahem.

The rest of this post, I should probably tell you, is even geekier than the bit above.  You have been warned.

There’s been a certain amount of noise in the news lately about Elon Musk wanting to begin his desired push for a series of Mars expeditions — leading to colonization — in the next few years.  Now, the first thing to mention is that expeditions to Mars get my science nerd nerves tingling even more than they do my science fiction ones.  When I was young, I could never figure out what was the problem with sending ships to the Moon and Mars.  “Why is it so hard?  Just get it done!” my adolescent self would scream.  “All it takes is the will to do it!”

High school naivety aside — sorry, high school kids — there is a lot more to the story than merely following the Nike path of “Just do it!”

Now, I love the addition of SpaceX and Blue Origin and other private space ventures to the (pardon the pun) constellation of launch operators.  In the early days it was important to have governments — through NASA, the ESA and Roscomos — run things because the costs were far too high, and the ROI far too low, for any private venture to be practical.  Still today those agencies, along with the increasingly capable Japanese, Chinese and Indian agencies, are vitally important because of the costs.  No private venture could afford a mission like the coming Europa Clipper, let alone a truly “impossible” one like New Horizons.

With that being said, there is simply no way humans will effectively expand into — or, arguably, effectively use — space without the participation of private enterprise.  The ingenuity, creativity and pure talent that such private ventures can and will bring to bear are quite simply unmatchable by any government agency.  No offense to NASA and the like, but bureaucracies have never been the most efficient way to do, well, anything.  One of the greatest-ever movie lines comes from Armageddon: “You know we’re sitting on four million pounds of fuel, one nuclear weapon and a thing that has 270,000 moving parts built by the lowest bidder.”

Boiled down to basics, once someone has learned to effectively make space pay, humanity’s boundaries are going to grow.  A lot.

Is Elon Musk the guy to lead that charge?  Err…

Look, Musk has undeniable charisma, and a strangely Midas-like touch for backing the right venture at the right time, but that makes him far more of a Howard Hughes* figure than a Werner Von Braun.

*Musk’s increasing nuttiness is pretty damned Hughes-like, too…

Let’s get one thing straight about this whole discussion: space is hard.  I mean, it’s, like, freaking rocket science

Wanna know how hard?  Go spend twenty bucks and play Kerbal Space Program for a few hours…you and the wonders of rocket science and orbital mechanics will get acquainted real darned quick.  Hell, even NASA likes that game.

To get to Mars is an engineering problem rather than a physics one, yes.  But it’s one hell of a engineering problem!  Just ask the Russian space program — every single probe they sent to Mars failed.  Every single one.  Finally, they gave up and just went to fucking Venus instead.*

*Yes, as a parenthetic aside, it actually is somewhat “easier” to go to Venus…until you get there.  Once you’re there, you want to send down a probe?  To a planet where the surface pressure is equivalent to 3,000 feet underwater?  Where it is hot enough to melt lead?  Oh, and where the air itself consists of sulfuric freaking acid?  I believe the “record” for survival of a landed probe is something on the order of two hours…

The real question, in regards to the stories about Musk, is this: Are we ready to send actual expeditions to Mars?  No.  No we’re not.

Launching things just into low Earth orbit costs money.  A godawful lot of money.  It costs a lot because it costs a lot of fuel to accelerate something up into those orbits.  To get up to the higher orbits — and far worse, to get to the Moon — means you have to go faster, for longer, which exponentially increases the costs in terms of fuel and engine technology.  As a matter of fact, to this day, the US cannot come anywhere close to matching the lift capacity and endurance we had with the Saturn V rockets from the Apollo program.  Nor, sadly, can we build them again, since we allowed all of the necessary infrastructure and ability not just to lapse, but to literally disintegrate.

Yes, there are plans and programs on the drawing boards for new heavy-lift rockets, both from NASA and from the private companies, but those have all been ten years away for twenty years now…


To get a ship to Mars that is capable of bearing humans is going to take more mass than we have ever before used for a spacecraft.  I mean a lot more.  Even if you posit enough improvement in constant-thrust propulsion technologies to make them practical for this — we have done well with low-power ion drives so far, but only for very small, intentionally low-mass probes — you are still looking at a trip that will take roughly six months.  One way.

Do you have any idea just how much food and water you need for, say, three people for a trip of six months?  Very likely, you would need to plan for at least two years in order to account for the trip to Mars, then enough time at the Red Planet to explore…and to let the orbits re-align in to a point where a return trip lasts another six-ish months.

Even keeping things to the bare minimum for long term survival, you are looking at 2-3 liters of water per person per day, and probably a pound or so of food per person per day.  Then you have the air they need.  That ain’t free, you know.  You can’t just crank open the window to get a nice breeze going.  Oh, and you have to have a certain amount of living space.  You can get by mostly with a small common area, yes, but you will also need at least some token private space, if only to keep the three from going insane and killing one another from sheer cabin fever.

Okay, so as of now, with engines and environment systems and food/water and crew space, and the structures needed to support and tie all that together, we are probably in the neighborhood of a million pounds (the mass of the current International Space Station).  Oh, wait…those ion engines will be needing a nuclear reactor to power them!  The system we use for unmanned probes — called an RTG — will not provide anywhere near enough power for this, nor will solar panels.  And those ion engines, while they use electricity to function, they still need propellant to do anything!  So let’s double that total to about two million pounds, then.


Hang on.

There’s a lot of radiation in space.  Our hypothetical Mars ship will receive far more radiation, on a trip out from beneath Earth’s magnetic field — our radiation “shield,” if you will — than anything in orbit will ever experience.  Unless you don’t mind the thought of sending corpses to Mars, that means shielding.  Lots and lots of shielding.  Yes, we can use the water tanks to provide some of the protection we need, but nowhere near enough!  Crap, that’s at least another hundred thousand or so pounds, then.

We’re up to something around a thousand tons, by my count.  I am, by the way, being extremely conservative with my weight/mass estimates.  The reality of current engineering, and safety, says we should probably double my guesstimates.  If we do, we end up with something that is roughly the same size as a freaking WW2 destroyer.  For three people.  Launched from the surface of the Earth and assembled in orbit.  Piece by piece.  Rocket by rocket.

Space Battleship Yamato, here we come!!

I absolutely love the thought of human bootprints in the Martian dirt, but we ain’t there yet.  We honestly aren’t even close.  Maybe we should focus on what we can accomplish first, huh?

SpaceX and Blue Origin and any new players that come onto the scene can — arguably should — focus first on making operations in orbit financially practical, while continuing to refine and improve the engineering.  The step after that is not a trip to Mars, by the way.  No, the step after that is a base on the Moon that is financially practical and effective.  If that base could produce even ten percent of what a Mars expedition would need, it would make the task of launch, assembly and supply vastly easier.

The high school me is screaming, by the way.  “Shut up and just do it!”

So Long, And Thanks For All The Dirt

IMG_0720A life of adventure and exploration.

A life of travel and learning.

A life well-lived.

I don’t know about you, but those are the things to which I aspire.  And when someone passes who has achieved those things?  That is a life to be celebrated.  A life to be appreciated…although not without a certain hint of envy.

So, a toast, then, to MER-B…better known as the Mars rover Opportunity.

“Wait, what?” you scream.  “You’re leaving a drink on the bar to a freaking robot?!”aHR0cDovL3d3dy5saXZlc2NpZW5jZS5jb20vaW1hZ2VzL2kvMDAwLzEwNC8yOTUvb3JpZ2luYWwvY3VyaW9zaXR5LXJvdmVyLmpwZw==.jpeg

Yes.  Yes, I am.

Astro-nerds everywhere know by now that the little rover has finally died.  Now, many of the news stories I saw about Oppy’s death were pretty damned shallow, not to mention inaccurate.  Some were even faintly mocking: “NASA’s $400 million dollar probe killed by dust!” and shit like that.


Let’s get some facts, shall we?

Opportunity, and its twin sibling Spirit, were both designed to travel a few thousand feet, to live a “life” of just a shade over 90 Earth days.  Those were the official goals when they landed on Mars in 2004 (pay attention, now, there’ll be a quiz on this later!).

190213150035_1_540x360Spirit (MER-A) died first, in 2009.  Well over five years later, for anyone not counting!

Opportunity, however…

Opportunity didn’t die until 2018 – a life of over FOURTEEN YEARS!!

Of all the rovers the various space agencies have landed on Mars and the Moon — including Oppy’s big brother Curiosity — not one has traveled farther than Opportunity.  The little robot-who-could ran a literal marathon; over those fourteen years, it travelled 28 miles.

mars-opportunity-rover-dies-1That’s 28 miles in terrain that would be considered harsh and destructive even here on Earth, let alone in a place where the nearest mechanic is well over six months away, where commands have to be sent minutes and hours in advance due to light’s travel time.  That’s traveling with nothing more than solar panels for power…and still spending the bulk of each and every day performing science.  Testing and sampling … digging and analyzing … and photographing.  Oh hell yeah, Opportunity photographed the shit out of Mars.

A few random shots, in collage form:

And, just to bring a tear to your eye, I’m adding the very last photo Oppy’s took as death finally came:


So raise a toast, folks, for the little robot who never gave up, never surrendered*.  Raise a glass, also, to those engineers and designers and planners who turned a tiny budget — in space-probe terms — and turned it into 14 years of absolutely killer science.

*Ahem…of course I had to have a “Galaxy Quest” reference!  That movie still cracks me up…



Our Place in the Universe, or How We’re Not-So Not-So-Special

nerdalert_091412So I promised, a while back, a two-part post about astronomy and sci-fi.  I’m finally following through on that promise!

This post is — finally! — the first part of that “series.”

Now, as I’ve mentioned before, I am an astronomy nerd.  Hell, I just bought a couple of new college textbooks solely because my old ones are getting somewhat out-of-date.  By the way, if you want a little light reading before bedtime, hit the chapter on the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram.  You should probably leave the excitement of the section about dark energy for some afternoon reading, however…

Anyway, I wanted to tackle a bit of “Our Place in the Universe” before I got into the second post, the one about how I try to include that in my sci-fi writing.

First off, a bit of background that I’ll call the “Nothin’ Special Principle.” Most astronomers hold and adhere to the idea that neither the Earth, nor the Solar system itself, is special in any way.  They look at our little neighborhood as completely “average,” and build theories and assumptions from that starting point.

The problem is, that principle is looking less and less true.  There are a number of “special” things about our system, and about Earth itself.  Now, before I list those things, there is the one big thought/question that comes to mind: are we here because of those “special” things, or in spite of them?  The answer to that one is out of my paygrade, by the way…

Okay, so to the “specialness” that kinda, sorta sets us apart…

First off, it’s the age of our Sun.  In order to have complex life — let alone intelligence and development — you have to have metals*, and a lot of them.  You have to have things like carbon and oxygen and iron and copper and potassium and the all the other crap we take for granted.  Hell, even before we got around to using those metals to make tools, we had to have them as integral parts of our biology.  And the only way in the universe you get elements heavier than hydrogen and helium is through the life cycles of large stars (birth – rapid growth – death by supernova).

*A quick explanation: words in astronomy are generally different than they are in chemistry or, indeed, in real life.  In astronomy, any element heavier than helium is a “metal”.

Our Sun is either a 4th or 5th generation star (thoughts and opinions differ on precisely which).  That’s pretty normal, by the way, for a mid-sized, main sequence star.  But, the simple fact is that we as a species needed those previous generations of stars in order to have the planet and solar system that we call home.  No first generation star still exists (long, different story on that), and the 2nd-3rd generation ones that are still around just don’t show the metals required for life.

The important deduction from that is that any star that is able to support the development and evolution of life has to be around the same generation star as our own in order to have a sufficient level of “metallicity.”  Now, our Sun is currently about 4.5 billion years old — pretty much middle-aged for it’s size, generation and composition — and the Earth is something like 4 billion.  If we guess that similar stars/planets are about the same, or younger, that would put any intelligent aliens in another system at about the same level of development as us (give or take a few millennia).  We might, when you get right down to it, be the first — or among the first — example of intelligent life in the entire galaxy…or even the entire universe.

Okay, so that’s the “specialness” of the Sun.  What about our solar system itself?  We used to think it was pretty much normal and average….then we started discovering planets and systems around other stars.  The more planetary systems we find, the more we understand that there really ain’t no such thing as “normal.”  In fact, our system is looking more and more like an unusual outlier than the norm.

Four billion years ago, when the Earth still had that new-planet smell, the solar system was a very different place.  Most of the planets’ orbits were different, and there were something like 4-5 times as many planets and bodies running around.  It was also a shooting-gallery, with all those bodies smacking into each other on a regular basis.

Why does that matter?

Two reasons: the gas giants, and Earth itself.  Jupiter and Saturn were, back then, in resonant, mutually supporting orbits that kept either of them from migrating closer to the Sun through the inner solar system and, well, screwing everything else up.  Those two also “adjusted” the orbits of the other planets into the stability we see today, along with either eating or ejecting from the solar system an awful lot of “extra” bodies.

As for the Earth itself…well…one very specific part of that shooting gallery made all the difference.  The Earth, Mars and Venus really aren’t all that different, when you get right down to it.  Similar sizes, similar compositions, and roughly similar orbits.  So why is Venus a hellscape, and Mars cold and dead, while the Earth is what it is?  Why is the iron core of the Earth almost twice as big (in relation to overall planet size) as the cores of the other two?  Why do we have a moon that is almost a quarter of our own size, when they have none (Mars’ two tiny captured asteroids don’t really count).  Why?

Because we got smacked.

We got smacked hard….and it made all the difference.

Not too long after the Earth formed, another planet — about the same size as Mars — hit us.  Now, getting hit by another planet would usually be considered a “bad thing,” but this one hit us just right.  It hit at an angle shallow enough that it didn’t just shatter the shit out everything, but deep enough to merge the two bodies together…and to create our helpfully large moon in the process.

The real key to that merger is that the Earth kept the other planet’s core, in addition to our own.  That “second” core gave us a natural magnetic field that is much stronger than we “should” have.  That stronger field is why we still have an atmosphere, where Mars has almost none remaining (about 1% of ours).  No extra-large core, and very, very likely there is no life on Earth bigger than bacteria…if we even got that much.

And the water we have…  Oh, the water…  We have too much.  Okay, so it’s not really all that much, not when compared with places like Ganymede and Europa, but it should have all boiled away while the sun was still an angry teenager and flaring like mad.  It probably did boil away, in fact, but we got more…and no one is sure how.  Asteroids and comets, most likely, but no one really agrees on any one mechanism for that.

So, it all worked out for the best in the end, but do you have any idea of the odds against all that working out?  The right amount of metal…two gas giants not doing what most of the other giants we can see have done…a collision that added rather than destroyed…oceans and lakes for swimming and boating and, oh yeah, growing life…

We beat the odds as a species — and that’s pretty damned cool — but there is just no way in hell you can argue that we are average.  We kinda need to consider the possibility that Our Place in the Universe, or at least Our Place in the Milky Way, comes down to one word: alone.  We might be it, we might be all there is when it comes to intelligent life.

That thought is depressing as hell.

Okay, okay…if you want a bit of hope that the entire freaking Universe is NOT culminating in Trump, Pelosi and the Kardashians, here it is: there are something like 300-400 BILLION stars in our galaxy, and something like 300-400 BILLION galaxies in the observable universe.  That is roughly an astronomical shit-ton of stars.  Out of all those stars, there has to be at least one that also beat the odds!