Stirrings

One of these is not like the other! Art by J.T. Lindroos.

Art by J.T. Lindroos.

peri·lune: the point in the path of a body orbiting the moon that is nearest to the center of the moon.

- Merriam-Webster Dictionary

. . .

Colorado Springs, CO

It had been an uncomfortably silent trip down Interstate 25 (small talk being difficult when apparently everything is classified) when the driver of their black government SUV pulled onto a side road that meandered into the hills around Cheyenne Mountain. They wound their way past nondescript suburbs until arriving at the mountainside entrance to NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense command. They drove past a parking lot which was notable for its complete lack of any cars. It had apparently been turned into a hasty landing pad which was now filled with heavy-lift helicopters and tiltrotors. A camouflaged military policeman kept one hand wrapped around the pistol grip of his M4 carbine as he checked ID’s and waved them through the open blast doors. The massive steel slabs were designed to shield the underground base from every conceivable threat, up to and including a nuclear strike.

Ryan had always harbored doubts about that, but then again the men who’d built it had presumably known what they were doing. So everyone had hoped. Walking through the corridors and anterooms as they descended deeper into the facility, he was struck by its collection of Cold War anachronisms – the place might have been updated over the years, but there was no escaping its origins. For decades, America had been prepared to wage World War III from this location while fully expecting to have been directly targeted by multiple Russian warheads. What a thought to know that somewhere in the world there was a nuclear bunker-buster with your name on it.

As they continued down into the mountain, he realized it would’ve had to be one really big bomb with plenty more coming after it. Supposedly the entire underground complex rested on gigantic shock absorbers – he could only imagine how that ride would feel as nukes plowed into the mountainside.

His thoughts turned to the neighborhoods they’d driven through on the way up: nearly all were base housing, filled with the families of the people who worked here. And the city not far away – all civilians, all living under the threat of unspeakable destruction that could have been visited upon them within thirty minutes of Ivan pushing the proverbial big red button.

His body coursed with involuntary shudders. He was continually amazed at how his perspectives had been turned inside-out by simply having a family. Every experience was now judged against its effects on Marcy and Marshall, and he found himself going through life with his head on a swivel. I’m turning into my dad, he found himself thinking more often than not. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but he dreaded the day when he’d inevitably blurt out “Because I said so!” in exasperation.

Ryan had barely paid attention during their quick courtesy tour. Once again he’d let his mind wander, another byproduct of being a rookie parent.

. . .

Penny was caught up in her own mental meanderings. As they went deeper into the complex, she couldn’t escape noticing that a tremendous number of collapsible shipping boxes had been stacked up along the corridors. She recalled that NORAD had supposedly been relocated to more civilized facilities in town years ago, while Cheyenne Mountain was supposed to have been maintained as a fallback site.

Somebody had decided it was time to fall back. Why?

They passed another hallway with a “crew briefing rooms” sign hanging above it. She sidled up to one of their escorts and gently grasped his elbow. “I’ll catch up in a second,” she whispered, flashing an embarrassed smile. It was all too easy for an attractive woman to throw a young man off guard, middle-aged or not. “I need to find the ladies’ room. Too much coffee on the way down.”

The sentry caught the attention of one of his partners and pointed down a side hallway. They soon found a restroom – latrine, she corrected herself – and she paused at the door. “You’re not following me in, are you?”

The young airman’s face flushed red. “No, ma’am. But I’ll have to wait out here for you.”

“Thanks. Sorry for the trouble,” Penny said, and shut the door behind her. She took a quick look around and was grateful to find another door across the room. As expected, things hadn’t changed all that much since her time in uniform – every facility seemed to be designed the same way. She pressed an ear against the metal door, listening for any noise on the other side. Hearing none, she inched it open into a crew locker room that was blessedly empty. She poked her head inside and quickly found what she was looking for: a good old-fashioned message board hung on the wall.

Penny ducked inside and rapidly scanned the postings for anything about unit deployments or other mass movements. As expected, there were lots of references to Cheyenne Mountain: schedules, pickup times, planning meetings…so they had been moved back recently. The mountain had been kept open under the assumption that they’d have time to ramp up operations after Cold War tensions had faded into a distant memory. It had always struck her as a foolishly optimistic move, but that was politics for you.

It looked like NORAD weren’t the only ones going to ground. She found references to other strategic sites being reactivated: old underground missile facilities in Montana and the Dakotas that had been mothballed for years. No information about warheads or missiles, which she wouldn’t expect to find on an open board anyway. But an awful lot of logistics and headquarters squadrons were on the move – big shots and their stuff.

Penny flipped another stack of papers over and found a penciled-in reference to coordinate something with Greenbrier. Greenbrier? Back in the bad old days it had been Washington’s fallback bunker, a duplication of Capitol Hill offices constructed underneath a mountain resort in West Virginia.

So the whole national command and warfighting structure was digging in?

Raucous voices erupted from the other end of the room; another door had opened as an outbound crew entered from an adjacent briefing room. Crap. She spun around and was relieved to see two solid rows of lockers between them and her. She stepped quietly back to the latrine door and slipped through with her back to them.

Safely on the other side, Penny leaned against the door and caught her breath. So what does this have to do with us? She quickly straightened her hair, then flushed the toilet and ran the sink for effect before stepping back out. She almost ran into her escort standing squarely in the doorway, about to knock.

“We have to hurry, ma’am; briefing starts in five. The President doesn’t take kindly to stragglers.”

Something Big is Coming…

So there’s this:

Art by J. T. Lindroos

Art by J. T. Lindroos

 

 

There’s still some minor (I think) artistic tweaking left but overall this is pretty sweet, as all of J.T.’s work has been. I had been a little iffy on the title until seeing it in the cover art, but now I’m stoked.

Yes, this means the Perigee sequel is in the home stretch. In the meantime, if you haven’t read the first book yet then follow the link and get yourself over to Amazon. It’s on a $0.99 Kindle Countdown Deal and the clock is ticking.

In the meantime, here’s a sneak peek at Perilune:

PART ONE: Vectors

Keep breathing.

Human nature is to take the body’s exchange of oxygen for granted, at least until that most fundamental task threatens to become impossible.

Simon Poole could now barely think of anything else, despite spending much of his adult life at the mercy of the machinery that protected his fragile body and provided for its needs. He’d learned how to escape from a crippled submarine and practiced surviving rapid decompressions in space, but through all of that the simple act of breathing had always been something he just did.

Until now.                 

Poole’s skin burned from a million needle pricks, his capillaries warning against the rapidly evacuating air. His lungs burned—once the pressure differential became low enough, trying to hold his breath would rupture them like overinflated balloons. He’d have to will himself to exhale past the reflexive panic that would surely come as his brain began to ache for air, before hypoxia set in. Before he became delirious.

He just hoped his eyeballs didn’t freeze first.

He struggled with the release clamps surrounding the airlock hatch and cursed the engineers that had made them so overcomplicated. What a damned stupid place to store the emergency patch kits in the first place…more items for his flight debriefs once they returned to Denver—whenever that might be.

The compartment walls behind him fluttered and rippled as the supporting air escaped. The hab was essentially a big Kevlar balloon surrounding a central tunnel, and it now threatened to collapse like a child’s birthday decoration. The cylindrical walls began to fall around him, something his vacuum-addled mind strangely welcomed. It was getting awfully cold. Maybe this would be warmer.

Keep breathing.

A sudden, piercing headache sharpened his focus. Poole braced himself against the lip of the hatchway and gave the lever one final, frantic twist. The stubborn portal sprang open violently and he felt a stinging blow as it connected with his arm. With normal air pressure on the opposite side, the simple act of breaking the seal was enough for the hatch to release as if it had been kicked open by some invisible giant.

No matter. Poole had to keep going, and so he ignored the throbbing pain to push ahead into the welcome rush of air. As the compartment emptied into the encroaching vacuum behind him, he inhaled deeply and finally risked holding a breath. The headache mercifully disappeared with it.

Thinking clearly again, he used his good arm to reach back and pull the hatch shut. It was much harder work, pulling against the torrent of air flowing out. Grunting from the strain, he finally felt the hatch seat itself against the rim and heard a satisfying whistle taper off as the pressure stabilized.

Peering through the door’s small porthole, he watched as the hab module finally collapsed around its central structure. Fully exposed to space, it rippled aimlessly like a loose sail in doldrum seas. The blood stains that had pasted the sleeping compartment bulkheads were shaken loose, and he saw globules of his first officer’s vital fluids undulating across the voided chamber.

Simon Poole twisted away from the window and numbly took stock of his surroundings. There wasn’t much to inventory: some emergency rations and a first aid kit were about it. And therethe emergency patch kit. Fat lot of good it’d do now.

After another luxurious lungful of air, he exhaled with a sigh. This tiny compartment was likely to become his sarcophagus. As the ancient Egyptian kings had once commanded their servants to face eternity buried with them beneath the great pyramids, so would he spend it in this small aluminum cylinder, doomed to forever circle the Moon.

Keep breathing.

1

Polaris AeroSpace Lines

Denver, Colorado

Two hours earlier

Audrey Wilkes could have sworn her watch was running backwards: hadn’t it already been two A.M. an hour ago?

The Omega Speedmaster on her wrist, a ladies’ version of the classic astronaut model, had been the one indulgence she’d allowed herself from the signing bonus Arthur Hammond had offered when he’d hired her away from NASA. She’d kept it meticulously synchronized with the Naval Observatory’s atomic clock from the moment she’d removed it from the box. She never took it off, save for her habitual morning trail runs through the foothills after work.

Night shifts had become an inescapable fixture of her existence, though she was forced to admit it was where they needed her most. The boss still wanted his lead flight director on duty during the critical phases of each mission – cruise, she corrected herself. And those were driven by physics and the needs of the passengers; at times it was hard to tell which was the more exacting. In this case, flying paying customers into lunar orbit had been a constant balancing act between the two and her presence was probably the only reason Hammond hadn’t been haunting the ops center in the middle of the night. He had to be here during the day to run the company, which was a bit of shame as the Big Guy usually brought plenty of food to share with the night crew.

He’d practically lived here while they had run their first proving flights into lunar orbit, until the FAA’s new Office of Space Transportation had been satisfied that they could safely pull off something more than a simple free-return trajectory. That Art had managed to also keep a handle on the rest of the business through all of that micro-management reminded her of why she preferred to stay in ops.

This trip had felt as demanding as all the previous ones put together: a multi-national expedition bankrolled by a planetary scientist who’d been keenly interested in personally surveying the lunar surface from low orbit. His team had lugged enough gear with them: optical telescopes, laser interferometers, even a compact mass driver…as she understood it, they were prospecting for new resources to exploit. It made perfect sense to her, as that region’s grip on the world’s oil supply had steadily weakened while a new economy was taking root beyond Earth orbit. Hammond’s engineers weren’t the only ones working on landers; when the time came they just might be able to do something with whatever might be find in the lunar regolith. Up there, water would be more precious than petroleum had ever been down here.

Glancing up at the control room’s giant wall screens, she checked the mission clocks against her copy of the flight plan and impatiently tapped a pencil along the edge of her desk. Behind her, a gaggle of flight controllers and technicians kept tabs on the company’s fleet of suborbital Clippers. Having finally placed most of the world’s major cities within two hour’s reach, the spaceplanes had become as close to routine as they probably ever could. And “routine” didn’t carry much meaning around here. Hammond always seemed to have another big idea waiting in the wings: his life’s goal had apparently been to amass enough wealth to finally build all of the fantastic machines he’d conceived since childhood. Men and their toys…

Everyone had assumed the “Block II” orbital Clippers would be his last venture. Sharing the original model’s same stubby wings and wedge form, their upgraded engines and external drop tanks allowed regular flights to orbit from the old shuttle landing strip at Cape Canaveral. Instead of ending there, Hammond had in turn plowed the profits from those contracts into his next venture: the Caravelle orbital liners.

The Caravelles were surprisingly less complex machines than the Clippers that serviced them. A barrel-shaped inflatable module held enough living space for less than a dozen people and was capped at either end by docking ports, one was surrounded by a cluster of tanks, antennae and solar panels. On its own this could host people in orbit for weeks, but when joined with a separate command and propulsion unit it could be pushed into a permanent orbit between Earth and Moon. The flight module was a fat cylinder of carbon fiber and aluminum, festooned with tanks, thrusters, and a bulky cluster of larger orbital engines at its rear. The tapered front end featured two large oval windows above its own docking port, looking for all the world like a dog’s snout. It was no coincidence they’d nicknamed the flight modules Snoopy and Spike.

She’d been skeptical of filling a big Kevlar balloon full of people and sending it off into the void, but enough tests with various projectiles fired from a high-velocity cannon had finally convinced her the complex could survive several micro-meteor strikes. The first liner, Shepard, had successfully been proving the concept for almost a year now. Once the second ship, Grissom, had finished its checkouts they would be able to take a new group of travelers on a leisurely swing around the Moon every other week. When word got out that they were testing landing skids and descent thrusters for taking the flight modules down to the surface, both mineral exploration groups and small countries with big ambitions had begun clamoring for their own private charters.

A call from Audrey’s trajectory officer interrupted her contemplation. “Loss of Signal in five,” he calmly reminded her. “Gimbals are right on for their burn vector.” As “Big Al” fell tail-first around the back side of the Moon, its main engines would slow them just enough to let the Moon’s gravity capture the ship into orbit. This was a big enough event; that it would happen after they had slipped behind the far side (and into radio blackout) didn’t make it any easier for her to project calm.

“Copy that,” she said dispassionately, simultaneously chiding herself for letting her mind wander. She had to find a way off the graveyard shift one of these days.

. . .

SS Shepard

Simon Poole had been around the world many times over, though the depths he’d navigated as a submariner had kept him from enjoying much of a view – or many of the world’s more exotic ports, for that matter. So far, this job was more than making up for it. Remarkably similar as it could be to life on his beloved nuke boats, he relished the differences of life aboard a spacecraft. Windows, most notably. Everyone at home always asked about the zero-g experience, which he found surprising: wouldn’t everyone want to come up here just for the view?

His position as Captain afforded him the opportunity to see a good bit more. While docked, the flight module’s forward windows were dominated by the hab’s outer skin. Fortunately, the command deck was topped with an observation dome which afforded him and his small crew an expansive view. The dome placed the entirety of their Earth-Moon transit into view at once for a stunning demonstration of the distances they traveled and the yawning gulf beyond.

Poole stole a glance over the pilot’s shoulder to get his bearings before poking his head up into the dome. The ship was oriented tail-first in the direction of its orbit, so he spun about for a look at their destination. The darkened moon loomed outside like a hole in the roof of stars. The crescent sapphire of Earth looked terrifyingly small as it was about to slip beneath the horizon, once they fell into shadow and utter isolation.

He turned at a rustling noise from beneath. A stocky man in a company-issued jumpsuit floated into the control cabin. Poole recognized their lead passenger right away by his neatly-trimmed goatee. “Good evening, Dr. Drake. Still having trouble sleeping?” They turned down the interior lighting every twelve hours for the sake of continuity, but night and day quickly had a way of becoming irrelevant out here.

“Afraid so,” he replied. “It’s rather difficult to get used to. And I’m afraid Dr. DeCarlo is too excited for everyone. He’s forever fretting over his instruments and talking to himself.”

“We stock plenty of sleep aids for that problem,” Poole offered with an empathetic smile. Adjusting to long-term weightlessness was often harder than expected, and having to deal with other people’s noise made rest all the more difficult. He’d been exposed to both during his previous stint on NASA’s space station, but could never say he’d become truly accustomed to either. The sensation of freedom wore off the moment he tried to sleep. There was much to be said for having a soft bed to settle into at the end of a long day.

Drake braced himself against a handrail. “They’re narcotics, correct?” he asked, politely waving away the suggestion.

“Of course, Doctor,” Poole said. Most of their passengers held to strict religious preferences. “My apologies.”

Drake’s own smile was disarming. “Think nothing of it, Captain. The truth be known, it’s doubtful that I’d rest regardless. I’m a bit anxious right now.”

Now it was Poole’s turn to wave away his concern. “Don’t worry yourself. We’ve done this before.” Once. He’d never let on that it still made him nervous as hell. Falling towards a giant ball of rock at three thousand miles per hour, aiming themselves just ahead of the thing, then slowing down just enough to get flung into orbit without first crashing into the surface wasn’t nearly as bothersome as getting out of it. With my luck, the engines will work fine the first time and go tits-up the second. Which was when it really counted, of course. Otherwise, there would be no return trip home – at least until the company could expedite the other liner out to meet them. Depending on where they were in relation to each other, that could easily take a month thanks to the peculiarities of orbital motion and the limits of chemical rockets. Neither ship could just “turn and burn” and hightail it up to lunar orbit.

“Thank you, Captain,” Drake said. “Would it be possible for me to observe from up here? The view is so much better than from my room.”

Poole was tempted to oblige but the safety rules were strict: no passengers in the control deck during critical maneuvers. There weren’t very many of those: entering and leaving orbit or rendezvousing with a Clipper were about it. “I’m afraid not,” he said after a moment’s hesitation. “There are a few times that we must insist everyone be buckled down, and this is one of them.”

Drake actually looked somewhat relieved. “I understand of course,” he said, taking one more look around the control deck. “I’m surprised your entire crew isn’t up for this.”

“All but one. Mister Brandt is off duty in his quarters.” Either Poole or his First Officer were always at work in the control deck or resting in the crew compartment.

Drake appeared satisfied. “I see,” he said. “Then I shall leave those matters in your capable hands. Good night, Captain.”

Poole nodded with a polite smile as Drake pushed off through the open hatch. When the control deck was clear, he floated forward and pulled himself down into the observation seat. Its position, centered behind the pilot’s stations, had turned it into a de facto Captain’s chair during his tenure. As he’d played a major role in the initial layout, it wasn’t entirely by accident. “Sorry for the distraction, fellas,” he said. “Have to play nice with the payload, don’t we?”

“We’d get that a lot on the Clippers too,” one laughed. “Our advantage was the passengers didn’t have as much time in zero-g. It kept the exploring to a minimum.”

“The hardened cockpit doors didn’t hurt either.” Poole unlocked a touch-screen control panel in the ceiling and rotated it down in front of him. He called up a countdown timer from the flight computer. “Just in time, looks like. Anything change while I was socializing?”

“Negative,” the senior pilot said coolly, not turning away from his own instrument panel. “Just finished the LOI checklist with Denver. Loss of Signal in…thirty seconds, burn is two minutes later. Propellant is stirred and settled but we’re keeping the blowdown fans on for good measure.”

“Good idea, but keep an eye on the temps.” Poole snapped into the four-point harness and snugged down into the seat. He pulled his headset microphone in close and thumbed the intercom switch. “This is the Captain,” he announced quietly, hoping not to disturb any light sleepers. “We are two minutes from lunar orbit insertion. You’ll feel light gravity for a few minutes while we’re doing our braking burn, so please strap in and secure any loose items in your sleeping berths.”

The copilot had finished their final checks with Denver just as Earth slipped beneath the moon’s limb. The reassuring buzz of their radio’s carrier wave abruptly stuttered into emptiness. Their tenuous link to home was replaced by an eerie hiss: the background noise of the universe.

Poole watched as the pilots busied themselves with final checks, purposefully tuning out that too-audible reminder of their isolation. Satisfied their orientation and velocity was spot-on, he finally reached up to kill the volume. It was utterly silent but for the hum of air circulation pumps. Outside was pitch black, being fully in the Moon’s shadow underscored their sense of isolation. Free-return trajectories had felt a little less harrowing; simple physics ensured there was no way they wouldn’t emerge from blackout an hour later.

As the flight computer ticked down to LOI, Poole watched a computer-animated version of their ship trace a curve around a computer-generated Moon. A pulsating dot floated just ahead, a graphic depiction of an otherwise empty point in space which held the utmost significance. The main engines fired as soon as they reached it, pushing them into their seats and filling the ship with a reassuring rumble as its rockets fired steadily at their backs. The lead pilot spoke up over the new noise. “Nominal chamber pressure, nominal propellant flow. We’re solid –”

Crack.

Poole whipped his head around. “You hear that?” He’d long ago become familiar with the ship’s odd creaks and shimmies: random noises that eventually settled into familiar patterns. This was distinctly foreign, the snap of a tree branch in still woods. A barely-perceptible draft tickled the hair on his arms. Air movement. Not good.

Before he could mention this latest sensation, a bang echoed from deep inside the passenger hab, maybe the supply compartments…or the aft airlock. “I don’t like this one bit,” Poole announced, punching the quick-release on his harness and slipping out of his seat. He twisted down to grab an access ladder embedded in the deck and steadied himself against the fraction of gravity from their furiously burning engines. Heading aft, the draft became noticeably stronger as a klaxon blared to life. The copilot began stabbing feverishly at the overhead life-support panel.

“Pressurization alarm – cabin differential’s dropping fast!”

. . .

When Republics Fall

…they start to look a lot like this:

The Ferguson, MO, riot police. Oh, wait…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wrong photo. Here are the actual Ferguson, MO, police in action:

One could be forgiven for confusing the two.

I don’t cite this because I’m against law and order. I cite this because the militarization of our police forces has frightened the hell out of me for a long time. This is just the latest and most egregious example.

Let’s have a quick mental exercise. When people who already have tremendous power over our lives start tooling up like SEALs, what kind of mentality do you think they’re going to adopt:

1) Serve and Protect?

or

2) Kick Ass and Take Names?

My money’s on option 2, and current events are proving that choice correct. Let’s recall that this whole sickening episode began with what appears to be a completely unjustified shooting of a black college kid by a police officer. It’s tragic, it’s outrageous, and it’s becoming all too common. Trigger fingers are getting too itchy out there and cops are forgetting that OUR safety is supposed to be their priority, not their own. In some cases, they put their own convenience above the safety of the citizens they’re supposed to protect.

Like journalists. While they as a group largely deserve most of the scorn heaped upon them, they do not deserve to be arrested for doing their jobs. Nor do homeowners deserve to be tear-gassed in the face for standing in their own front yards because the police don’t like being yelled at by an angry populace.

A cop shoots an unarmed kid in the back, so people protest. It would be understandable if it had ended right there. But naturally, protests turned to riots because too many people behave like they just came out of a Jerry Springer audience rather than the progeny of a nation built on liberty enabled by rational thought and sober debate.

So the people riot and the cops overreact because, hey, we’ve got all that cool Spec Ops kit out back so we might as well put it to good use. Right?

So the cops overreact, and the people riot some more.

And now the federal government sticks their nose in it, declaring the area a no-fly zone because the police claim one of their helicopters was shot at. Which is absurd on its face: what good will a no-fly zone do for that problem unless the people are sending up their own air-to-air interceptors?

It’s a farce, of course, as the real targets are undoubtedly the news helicopters which would otherwise be happily recording everything.

Our nation is a tinderbox surrounded by fools playing with lit matches.

11 plus 45

cropped-apollo-121.jpg

 

Forty-five years.

Neil Armstrong is dead now, as are many of the men who followed in his footsteps.

Those of us who, as children, experienced the grand spectacle of NASA’s greatest achievements grew up expecting even greater things. Those of us who continued to follow it closely into adulthood grew perplexed at the notable lack of achievement.

For a while, we believed the PR that projects like Skylab were the natural evolution of our expanse into the solar system. Everyone intuitively got that Mars was a very long way away, so if we were going to send people there it would be wise to get our arms around real long-duration spaceflight. There was even supposed to be a second Skylab, in orbit around the Moon, that would give us a strong foothold at the edge of deep space as we pushed on to Mars.

That was cancelled, of course. The massive Skylab II module now resides in the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. You can even walk around inside of it and imagine what it would’ve been like to live in it while orbiting the Moon.

Everything at NASA became focused on the Space Shuttle, which we were promised would be the key to reliable space access and the first essential step to building the kinds of massive ships that would be needed to venture beyond the Moon. The idea made sense, but the execution never did. Shuttle became a victim of mission creep, needing to be all things for all users. In the process, it became so big and so over-complicated that economic access would be impossible.

The International Space Station was conceived as a necessary destination, and then it got turned into a make-work program for unemployed Soviet engineers in order to keep them from selling their skills to, say, Iran.

But think about that for a minute: the shuttles were built to service a station which ended up being there to give the shuttles something to service. And now we have no shuttles. Just as well, really, since they turned out to be inefficient death traps – because that’s what happens when you try to make an experimental vehicle your workhorse.

Through this time, the space agency we all grew up in awe of flailed around. We were told it was because they had no defined goal, no destination like Apollo. That made sense for a while, as we really had no other experience to judge it against. A few “voices in the wilderness” cried out that there were better ways to do it, but nobody really listened since everybody knew space was Dangerous and Mysterious and Expensive, therefore it could only be done by a big government program using big government rockets bankrolled by big government money.

Thankfully, this paradigm has begun shifting in the last few years.

But I didn’t sit down at the keyboard today to sing the praises of SpaceX and XCOR and Blue Origin and Orbital Sciences. I am here to lament what could be happening right now with NASA, but never will because of myopic bureaucrats and idiot congressmen who can never see past their own reelection.

Rand Simberg points to a series of Houston Chronicle essays about the state of our space program, the most recent installment of which is alternately depressing and infuriating. It describes a study commissioned by NASA which determined we could pretty readily be sending people back to the Moon to do useful work within the next few years. And we could do it with existing launchers (Delta IV-heavy, specifically).

It wouldn’t be possible to throw everything up in one launch, instead needing several. But the bulk purchases of launchers would start to drive the costs down, and we frankly have plenty enough on-orbit construction experience now that it shouldn’t be that much of a stretch. The real enabling technology to be developed would’ve been long-term propellant storage and on-orbit refueling, which is technology we desperately need anyway (and is a proper R&D role for a government agency).

But that common-sense, low-cost approach ran afoul of the hogs at their troughs in Alabama, Florida and Texas, all of whom prefer a great big government rocket program:

The plan used the commercially available Delta IV Heavy rocket to conduct a steady stream of missions to the lunar surface, allowing humans to begin tapping into the moon’s resources.

“We briefed it to all the key NASA human spaceflight centers, giving them a chance to challenge the conclusion,” Miller said. “I thought it was a tremendous result for human spaceflight. We could have a plan that flies early and flies often.”

NASA never published the study and Miller’s contract wasn’t renewed.

Congress didn’t want radical change and instructed NASA to build a big rocket, the Space Launch System or SLS.

Much as I’d love to see a Saturn V class launcher again, it would make a lot more sense to use the tools we already have. But we all know government doesn’t work that way.

The Moon is there for us to use. Water ice has been detected, which would be the single most precious resource for a spacefaring society. Besides its obvious life-giving properties, it can be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen. That is, breathing air and rocket fuel.

NASA will not get us there. I wish they would, as it would make things much easier for the businesses who are ramping up to follow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What I Did On Summer Vacation

2014-06-15 11.23.21

WHEEEEEEE!!!

Flew a Stearman. Not just rode in it, mind you, I flew that sucker. With what looked like a hefty butter churn for a control stick, it was incredibly well-balanced and responsive (especially compared to the mushy Cessnas and Pipers I cut my teeth on). One should expect no less from a bird that took grand champion at Oshkosh, beechez.

Went whitewater rafting with the family through the New River Gorge. Highly recommended.

Spent a lovely afternoon and evening boating on a stunning mountain lake. More than two hundred feet deep in spots and surrounded by Appalachian cliffs, it’s the clearest inland water I’ve ever seen. Interesting side note: the dam which formed the lake would’ve normally been named for the town it was situated nearest, which in this case was Gad, WV. But since the locals didn’t care for naming their new landmark “Gad Dam,” they were content with letting the Corps of Engineers slide up the map and pick the next town in line, Summersville.

Again, all highly recommended. We’ve traveled through West Virginia countless times but this was our first visit as a destination, and our first real family vacation in far too long.

By now you’re probably wondering (at least I hope you are), “that’s nice, but when’s the next book coming out, slacker?”

Funny you should ask. Or that I should presume you’re asking. Whatev.

I’ll be blunt: the Perigee sequel is on hiatus because it’s a hot mess. It has the seeds of awesomeness, but the words just aren’t flowing like they should be. At this point, I’m just flailing around within the story instead of it carrying me along. A good story does that: even when you’re the one writing, it’ll surprise you. Bottom line is if I’m not happy with it, you guys certainly won’t be. Just know that it’s not dead, it’s resting.

This doesn’t mean I’m sitting idly about with a broomstick between my knees pretending it’s that gorgeous Stearman (here’s the WWI flying ace on dawn patrol, searching for the Red Baron). People often ask (not necessarily of me, but I’m sure they ask it of somebody), “where do your ideas come from?”

The answer is, they just happen. It’s the curse of a too-vivid imagination. Bottom line is I write because it’s the only way to make the voices in my head shut up. Sometimes the ideas hit you so powerfully that you have to drop whatever you’re doing and write it all down before they fly back to whatever mental crevice they came from.

Happily enough, that happened a few weeks ago. The story concept had formed much earlier, but I couldn’t think of a compelling way to connect the dots and close the circle, so to speak. It was just an idea…a really freaking cool one, but still just an idea. Without a “why should we care?” ribbon to tie the whole package together, it wouldn’t matter.

Until one day last month as I was driving home from work…it seems like the best ideas either come while I’m driving or sleeping. Either way, inconvenient. But the missing why should we care element, the keystone, all of a sudden exploded in my head. It was so compelling that I had to find a place to pull over and write it all down. After scribbling several pages, the story arc blew me away. I hadn’t been this excited about something in a long time, so when I got home I opened up a new file and banged out the first chapter that night.

It’s been like that ever since. At the rate it’s going, it’ll be a readable draft in a matter of weeks. The working title is Frozen Orbit, and I think ya’ll are gonna like this one. It’s straight-up science fiction (grounded in the present) and hopefully like nothing anyone’s done before. And I promise you won’t realize that until the end; not if I do my job right.

The idea came from a couple of “what if” questions (as all good stories ought to); one clearly fantasy, the other philosophical. I’ll share the fantasy one and keep the philosophy to myself, as this is a spoiler-free zone.

This time next year, a piano-sized probe called New Horizons will fly by Pluto on its way to the Kuiper Belt (which is where a lot of comets are thought to come from). How the mission came to be is interesting enough; there was a time crunch that not many people appreciate. Because of its eccentric orbit, it’s believed that Pluto’s thin atmosphere will freeze and collapse around the planet* within the next few years. Once that happens, it’ll remain that way for the next two hundred years. So you can understand the urgency: this will be our first opportunity to get close-up, high-def imagery of the tiny planet and our only opportunity for about ten generations to study its atmosphere.

The pictures alone will be enormously interesting. If you’re old enough to remember the first close-ups of the gas giants and outer planets from Voyagers 1 & 2, this will be our chance to relive that excitement.

What might make that even more interesting? What if New Horizons spies something that shouldn’t be there? Perhaps something artificial, hiding in orbit among Pluto’s tiny moons?

Cool as that idea may sound, it’s not even the one that blew up in my head and made me pull over and hack off all those drivers behind me last month. That one’s saved for the book.

*At least it was a planet when they launched the probe. Still is, far as I’m concerned.

 

 

 

Here Be Dragons

SpaceX finally unveiled DragonRider last night, otherwise known as Dragon V.2:

Credit: SpaceX

Love the fins (though I’ve no idea what they’re for) and that the solar panels wrap around the trunk. And being a bizjet guy, I particularly like the Gulfstream-style oval windows. There’s lots of them, too, which seems entirely appropriate for a 21st century commercial spaceship. I freaking love saying that.

Beyond the awkward humility Mr. Musk displays in the video (the guy’s a real-life Tony Stark after all), what strikes me most is the pure beauty of the thing. Admit it, a lot of perfectly fine air and space vehicles are kind of funny looking if not butt-ugly. Think of the A-10 or the Apollo LM.

But this…this is what a brand-new spaceship ought to look like. They clearly didn’t throw out their aesthetic sensibilities while also building in features like propulsive landing and reusable heat shields. And check out the front office:

Credit: SpaceX

The pull-down flat screen control panel is a pretty slick way to save room and weight; making all the essential emergency controls hard-wired buttons is likewise a very smart touch.

Much more here, plus a nice roundup from Alan Boyle at Cosmic Log.