The Truth is Out There

Pluto awaits. Photo credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab/Southwest Research Inst.

To those of you who’ve waited so patiently for me to finish FARSIDE, thank you. If you’re wondering how long a wait there might be for the next book, don’t worry. I’m on it. In fact, I’ve been sitting on this one for a long time and have been anxious for the right time to share it with you. That would be now…

NASA’s New Horizons probe has been in the news a lot, as it’s now finishing its nine-year journey to Pluto. I’ve been fascinated to see what discoveries will come of it as we’ve never had clear photos of our Solar System’s most distant planet (okay, so it’s not technically a planet anymore but it was when the probe was launched).

Having an overactive imagination, I couldn’t help but wonder what might happen if they found something totally unexpected. As in not natural.

And with that, I give you the prologue to FROZEN ORBIT:

* * *

July 2015

As the decades passed, men would hotly debate whether the chance encounter had been one of divine providence or blind luck. After nine years of sailing across the solar system, faster than any other machine flung by humans from Earth’s gravity well, the nuclear-powered New Horizons probe had finally entered Pluto’s fragile sphere of influence. It was to be fleeting, for despite carrying the hopes and expectations of so many, the event amounted to not much more than a cosmic one-night-stand.

At least that was the cynic’s view. After a whirlwind of begging and pleading, a small yet determined horde of scientists and engineers had prevailed upon the politicians to fund their little mission before it was too late. At almost literally the eleventh hour, they had managed to convince the Budget Committee that Pluto’s tenuous atmosphere—barely detectable from Earth—would collapse onto the tiny planet’s surface within the next decade, frozen into crystals by their host planet’s unstoppable migration away from the Sun.

“How long until it reappears?” one Senator had asked.

“Two hundred years,” a planetary geologist had replied. But since he was a geologist, the Senator had to ask the physicist seated next to him, who in turn had to produce a meteorologist who could verify their assumptions. Despite his protests of not knowing a single thing about extra-planetary atmospherics, the meteorologist agreed that, yes, the thin envelope of gases would indeed turn to ice and fall to Pluto’s surface. And no, it would not reappear for another two centuries. Only after he’d cited sophomore-level physical science to support his reasoning had it finally been enough to satisfy the gathering of political scientists.

And so, New Horizons had been put together largely from off-the-shelf components meant for other (cancelled) missions. It resembled nothing so much as an ambitious grade-schooler’s concept of what a space probe might be: about the size and shape of a grand piano, but covered in gold foil with a massive dish antenna and sporting a radioisotope generator at one end.

After a quick pass by Jupiter to steal the energy from some of that giant planet’s gravity (which it wasn’t going to miss, after all), the little probe went into hibernation until being awakened by its masters back on Earth. That it would be in position to capture such amazing images and data after such a long sleep, so far from home, was a stunning enough technical feat. That it was further able to capture the image that had triggered so many arguments was indescribable.

Some had called it miraculous. Others, carefully adhering to their notions of detached objectivity, simply marveled at the luck and explained it with mathematics. In private, they whispered among themselves that it was indeed stunning, phenomenal, and extraordinary.

That this golden radioactive piano, the first to encounter the solar system’s most distant planet (as it was still called back in 2006), zipping past at nearly forty thousand miles per hour, would be in a position to see what it saw (and that what it saw was in a position to be seen to begin with) was difficult to describe as anything other than, well, miraculous.

If this was a game of cosmic billiards, it was a blindfolded double-reverse bank shot. Once the masters had removed the blindfold, what they saw was beyond anyone’s ability to describe: there was Pluto, its prime moon Charon, and the two minor moons discovered along the way. All of them appeared in full color, high-definition detail, imagery of a depth and quality that the probe’s masters could scarcely have hoped for.

Yet it was those things which they didn’t expect to find that were the most breathtaking, such being the nature of exploration. In this case, it had at first appeared as an unexpected source of gamma radiation in orbit around Pluto. Just a trace, it was nevertheless odd as it would have normally been associated with some kind of high-energy source: a faraway supernova, maybe a black hole. On Earth it could have only emerged from the violent fusion reaction of a thermonuclear bomb.

The strange radiation signature only became noticeable during the final weeks of New Horizon’s approach, and was at first thought to be the result of instruments in dire need of calibration after being asleep for six years. When the probe was two weeks from its closest approach, the radiation trace disappeared.

That made it all the more surprising when it reappeared three days before New Horizons’ closest approach, leaving its masters on Earth with barely enough time to adjust their aim. As the tiny probe swept past its long-awaited target, its cameras were briefly trained on a point in space from where the gamma emissions appeared.

The first image showed only a pinprick of visible light reflected from the distant Sun, but it corresponded to the weak radiation and even weaker thermal signature.

Energetic and warm—not what anyone had expected from a tiny moonlet orbiting a minor planet. Some wondered if it was volcanic like Io, though the lack of Jupiter-sized tidal forces ruled that out. Nonsense, others argued: we’d been convinced that Mars was devoid of water for decades, remember? The atmosphere was simply too thin to keep it from evaporating, until we discovered a naturally-occurring antifreeze below the surface. Just because a phenomenon doesn’t line up with what we’ve come to expect doesn’t make it impossible.

The next day’s imagery caused more consternation for the masters. That point of light had grown larger as the object followed its own orbit while the little probe flew closer. But this time the light had taken on a more definitive shape: irregular, yet roughly symmetrical. One commented that it looked like a dragonfly.

If the second day had created turmoil, the final day had uniformly shut them up. The dragonfly had resolved itself into something completely unexpected: faded green, with metallic highlights randomly dotting the surface and ungainly ebony protuberances clustered around one end. Startlingly familiar, there could be no mistaking it for a natural object.

To a chorus of groans, one wag in Mission Operations had nailed it: that’s no moon; that’s a space station.

For all of the mystery surrounding this unexpected find, it was perhaps the markings that surprised them most: CCCP, the Cyrillic acronym for the long-extinct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

 

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Preorder FARSIDE Now!

FARSIDEx2700BYes, I’m finally confident enough that it’s ready to throw a date out there: Oct. 1st. A surge of pre-orders on Amazon obviously helps sales after release day, so please consider hitting that button.

Not sure what you’re getting? Check out the preview link above.

I plan to keep it exclusive to the Zon for the first three months, then put it out on the other distributors (Apple, B&N, Kobo, Google Play). Sales have been pretty dismal with those outlets in the past, but now that I’ll have more than one book out there it’ll be interesting to see if that changes.

Offensive Tactics

One of these things is not like the others. Question: does this image offend you?

How about this one?

Maybe this one?

The correct answers are:

a. Yes

b. Probably

c. Hell No and get a life.

So what’s different about them if our cultural elites have decided we’re all of a sudden enlightened and mature enough to take down rebel flags wherever they may be found?

Context, that’s what.

Flag (a) is the infamous banner above the South Carolina confederate memorial on Statehouse grounds in Columbia. Until a few years ago it actually flew atop the dome, after being placed there in the early 60’s by Gov. Fritz Hollings. Who, by the way, was a Democrat who did it to thumb his nose at the burgeoning civil rights movement. It’s been there ever since because Tradition and Heritage.

Bull$#!+.

Flag (b) hangs in Charleston inside the cadet chapel at my alma mater, The Citadel. It was given to the school by some nice lady from a Connecticut yacht club in the mid-1930’s. It’s a replica of the Confederate naval ensign which was replaced (along with all the other flags in the chapel) in the early 80’s. So not even the original, which itself wasn’t even original. Again, still there because Tradition and Heritage. And again, I call B.S.

Flag (c) is from an image I culled at random from a Google search of Civil War reenactments, where one would expect to see lots of rebel colors. What are they gonna carry, rainbow pride flags? Then again, maybe that’s where we’re headed…

So back to my point on context. (A) has clearly outlived its usefulness and deserves to be removed, considering why it was raised in the first place. It took a hundred years to finally throw off the last remnants of state-sanctioned racism, and for my home state to keep flying a banner erected in defiance of what was clearly a just cause really pisses me off. Gov. Haley was right to demand its removal.

(B) was not hung in such a fashion, but considering all it has come to represent I think it’s best to remove it from such a prominent position at a place of worship. I wish things were different, but alas they are not.

If you have a problem with (C), then you need to have your head examined. The people I know who do these reenactments take their roles quite seriously – and I don’t mean the play-acting (though there is that) – I mean their drive to present history in a way that’s far more powerful than a classroom lecture or third-rate drama on the History Channel. To expect them to fly anything else is just absurd.

When I was a young man growing up in South Carolina, rebel flags were everywhere. We’d get the t-shirts at Myrtle Beach and put the plates on our front bumpers. And not a single damned one of us thought of it as a way to rub black folks’ noses in it.

Unfortunately, that’s precisely what we were doing. Doesn’t matter now that we didn’t intend it that way. To us it was a “southern and proud of it” symbol, back when thousands of Northern hordes were moving down our way, driving up property values and pointedly informing us of exactly how stupid and backwards we all were.

I am not kidding.

So, ya’ll don’t like Charlotte? Then move back to Newark or whatever other blue-state Yankee nightmare you came from.

Yeah, I didn’t think so. So why don’t you shut up about how much better hockey is than NASCAR or ACC basketball, and just have some more BBQ and sweet tea? Bless your heart.

Southern Pride is a funny thing: eccentric, like so much of the South can often be. Seriously, have you ever read any Pat Conroy? I used to wonder if the dude wasn’t hiding in our attic, taking notes.

But enough about my childhood dysfunction: back to our national dysfunction. The ugly truth is that the rebel flag has always made certain segments of our populace decidedly uncomfortable. I honestly think a lot of blacks tolerated it because they knew most of us didn’t intend it as a White Power Nazi Skinhead symbol. But the sad truth is that over the past few decades it has been fully co-opted by exactly those types of racist militant douchebags. And that sucks.

The Nazis didn’t invent the swastika, either. So think of it like this: if you saw one in a museum or at a WWII reenactment, would you be offended?

No? Then what about at a Neo-Nazi march?

Exactly my point. There is a difference between recognizing history and using a particular image to rally your troops, so to speak.

The Citadel endured a similar family spat several years ago. When I was a cadet in the mid-1980s, rebel flags were still prominent at home football games. And with good reason: Citadel cadets actually fired the first shots of the war (I dare any pantywaist civilian fratboys to match that prank). But over time, we couldn’t escape just how much that flag was becoming associated with some pretty unsavory groups. It was eventually replaced with this:

That’s “Big Red,” our battle colors during the war. Seems to me a quite appropriate and hopefully inoffensive replacement. But there’s just no satisfying some people. And if that offends you…too bad.

Here, have some BBQ. Bless your hearts.

The End In Sight

FARSIDEx2700BI can now say that whole “Second Novel Curse” thing is for realz, ya’ll. It defies explanation – for if I could that would mean that I understood it and could thus avoid the whole problem – but one would think after all of the work that goes into finishing a first novel, it would be no big deal to finish the second one…right?

Right?

Ha. HA. BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAA!

Silly human. Don’t you realize that your brain immediately purges itself at the end of the creative process, leaving you a state of near-helplessness not experienced since your infancy (but without the wet diapers and boobies)?

Other writers warned me that the first novel seems to arrive almost fully-formed in your mind; your task as an author is to figure out how to tell the story. It’s all there bursting to get out and just waiting on you to prepare the way. The second novel is the reverse: now that you know how to do it, you have to scratch and claw your way to actually finding the story you want to tell in the first place.

There’s a difference between what happens in a story and what the thing’s actually about. I’m not afraid to say that every step in this process has been a struggle for a number of reasons. Some were of my own doing, many were not. Some were due to the fact that I have teenagers at home who needed more attention than I could have given if I’d instead devoted that energy to finishing this book two years ago. I can always write more but those boys will only grow up once. The world already has enough unprincipled yahoos in it, ya’ll don’t want me letting a couple more loose.

Just deciding on the title was a struggle, and in this case one where time was on my side. Back when I thought this would be ready in 2013, the title I’d planned on ended up being used by a much better-known author. While not necessarily subject to copyright, to me it seemed like very bad form to use the same title. Fortunately, enough time has passed that I’m now comfortable with it again.

So yes, the Perigee sequel is actually complete. Not “finished,” mind you, just “complete.” That means I’m in the midst of polishing the manuscript before sending it off for editing and book formatting. This is the fun part, too: things like settling on a title and finalizing cover art are good at providing a much-needed kick in the @$$.

FARSIDE will be available soon for pre-order on Amazon.

That Escalated Quickly

Blue Origin finally lifted the curtains late yesterday:

This has taken a lot of industry observers by surprise as most of the reliable space news sites haven’t even picked up on it yet. They’ve been very secretive and now we can see why: when not busy running the worldwide juggernaut that is Amazon, Jeff Bezos has been building his own personal space program. What’s amazing to me is just how close to the vest he’s been able to play this: they’d announced test flights would start this year, but danged if they didn’t go and start with an all-up test of the full vehicle all the way to space.

The difference between their approach and that of the better-known Virgin Galactic is clear, and it goes beyond vehicle design. Bezos waited until he was satisfied they were ready to put on a real show with close-to-operational hardware instead of stringing people along and taking their money during the unpredictable development process. This is in stark contrast to Virgin, who Doug Messier reports is still flagellating over their final choice for an engine.

This is also a useful lesson in how the very wealthy go about creating entire industries that no one could have anticipated. After revolutionizing commerce and publishing with Amazon, Bezos used that wealth to pursue his real passion and is applying similar foresight to opening up space for the rest of us. History will regard men like him and Elon Musk in the same way we look back at Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Ford.

If you want more, Blue Origin’s formerly bare-bones website is now updated with lots of cool videos and other imagery, so head over there to service your nerdboner. Because cool as it is, there’s no getting around that it looks like a flying…

Virgin Territory

His name was Mike Alsbury, may the Lord rest his soul. Not yet forty years old, with a family, and no doubt with the future literally in his hands.

I spent much of the weekend scouring the space blogs for this news, as I served in the Marines with one of Virgin Galactic’s pilots and feared it might have been him (it wasn’t). It’s not like we were great friends, but like a good teacher he was one of those officers who left a lasting good impression.

This had to happen eventually, just as airline accidents are going to happen. Flying is inherently risky, something too many people lose sight of thanks to decades of learning how to mitigate those risks. Every now and then, the holes in the swiss cheese line up and something nasty falls through.

Spaceflight is even riskier and less forgiving. Machines are often performing at the edge of their capabilities, both the craft which have to withstand tremendous aerodynamic and gravitational forces, and their motors which contain (and release) enormous amounts of energy.

The nexus of these forces is something called Maximum Dynamic Pressure, or “Max Q,” a function of air density and velocity. If you’ve watched any space launches, you’ve probably heard this term. Put simply, it’s the point at which an aircraft or rocket experiences the greatest aerodynamic stress. Think of it as the normal static air pressure being amplified around a speeding vehicle; the air squeezes harder as the vehicle accelerates.

This generally happens around Mach 1, the transsonic flight regime. This is also the speed at which SpaceShip Two’s reentry feather was deployed, according to NTSB. They say it’s normally supposed to be unlocked at M 1.4, which makes sense. Standing shock waves and related compression drag are Max Q’s ugly sisters, and I wouldn’t be surprised if NTSB finds the tail booms were overwhelmed by them once unlocked.

Tail booms feathered for re-entry. This is not supposed to happen at Max Q.

It frankly doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how that would be very bad thing at Mach 1 while still down in the relatively thick air at 50,000′.

I’m alternately relieved and concerned that they’ve already figured this out. To be released this soon, it must have been face-poundingly obvious. While this is currently a “finding of fact” and not a “cause” there’s plenty of reason to think it’ll eventually end up that way. “Root cause” is a whole other matter, something that could easily take a year to determine. Ignore the credentialed talking heads on TV, as they’re certain to be talking out of their collective ass.

There was an awful lot of early speculation that this had something to do with the already-troublesome hybrid motor, but the oxidizer tank and solid fuel core were both found largely intact and appear to have functioned as expected. That’s only a partially good thing, as hybrids are reputedly difficult to scale up in size and this motor has a lot of development work left in it. I’ve seen them used frequently at amateur/high-power rocket launches, but am told that N2O starts to behave in strange ways when it’s pressurized at the kinds of volumes SS2 needs to use. Then there’s the fear that a chunk of solid fuel breaks off during the burn and clogs the nozzle. So yes, there’s lots of ways for a supposedly “safe” rocket to go boom (back to my point about containing enormous amounts of energy).

The problem is the airframe was designed around the shape and mass properties of the motor, so it’s not like they could just walk over to XCOR’s hangar and buy a couple of their liquid bi-prop rockets (or substitute the liquid motor Virgin’s working on separately, either). It’s created a pretty nasty sunk-cost trap, and this accident may be the only way VG can break free of it.

What little solace there may be here is found in the knowledge that it happened during testing and not on a revenue flight with paying passengers. One can only imagine how infamous (especially considering their clientele) that would be. What frightens me for the industry is that it almost certainly will happen at some unknown point in the future – the question is whether space tourism is far enough along that it can recover. Think about it: how many ocean-crossing passenger blimps have there been since the Hindenburg? A similar horrific accident during the early stages of passenger spaceflight might doom this new industry in the same way.

I’ve been to the NTSB Academy and seen their reconstruction of TWA 800, the 747 that exploded off of Long Island several years ago. It is a creepy thing to stand in front of that big open nose, stare down the empty rows of shredded passenger seats, and contemplate what those people went through as they continued to climb before falling out of the sky with the entire front end of the airplane blown off. I don’t envy the go-team that has to pick through this, but in the long run I have high hopes that whatever they find will benefit the whole industry.

Some investors and ticket holders are predictably starting to bail, and we can only hope Mr. Branson’s commitment to the project is enough to see it through this tragedy. It took the Apollo 1 fire to uncover latent problems with the program, and one can make a pretty good argument that we might not ever have made it to the moon without it.

Here’s hoping Mr. Alsbury is remembered with the long list of other test pilots who have given their lives to open up previously-unknown frontiers for the rest of us.

I Was Told There Would Be No Math…

Said every journalism school graduate everywhere. I don’t want to hear another damned word about Fox News’ presumed stupidity:

No one can accuse the Scots of not giving this 110%…

Just keep thinking to yourself, “THIS IS CNN,” in your best James Earl Jones voice. And while we’re on the subject:

“What is ‘Your Ass or a Hole in the Ground?'”

That is not an SNL skit, it is a real screen-cap of real CNN anchor and pompous empty haircut (but I repeat myself) Wolf Blitzer, on the real Celebrity Jeopardy in 2009.

We now return you to our regularly scheduled blogging.