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.

Maneuvers

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

Art by J.T. Lindroos.

Washington

Don Abbot had never been one to hide his emotions well; that he had been able to rise this far within the Administration was widely seen as a testament to his technical abilities and organizational acumen. That it had just as much to do with his knowledge of whose skeletons were hidden in which closets was not as widely known.

As the President and her cabinet filed out of the situation room, Abbot conspicuously remained seated. Tapping his pen against the table, his tense posture and pursed lips broadcast to anyone who bothered to notice exactly how much he was stewing over this latest development.

“Don, you really have to learn to keep that stuff under wraps.”

Abbot looked up to find Defense Secretary Horner lingering by the doorway. He tossed his pen onto the table and pushed himself away. “What’s your point, Hal?” he sighed, knowing full well what the old man meant. “I hardly got a word in edgewise – not that anyone seemed interested in anything I had to say.”

“That, my friend, is the point,” the Secretary said as he pulled up a chair and grabbed the pen Abbot had been tapping away with. “You don’t play poker, do you?”

“Never had the patience for it,” Abbot admitted. “I didn’t care to digest the rules: which hand beats which, et cetera.” Though the few hands he’d played had taught him it was remarkably easy to bluff when you really didn’t know what you were doing.

“Yet you literally wrote the book on spacecraft design,” Horner pointed out. “You’re damn near a genius, Don.”

Near? Abbot thought to himself, realizing too late that he’d just been baited to prove a point.

“See?” Horner smiled. “I just insulted you. The look on your face gave it away. Don’t be so prickly. This is one time the President needs everyone to set aside their personal agendas and do what’s necessary for the mission.”

“What ‘personal agenda’ would you be referring to?” Abbot asked defensively. Was Hal really that gung-ho idealistic? If so, it was an easy way for a man to get rolled in this town.

“Art Hammond,” Horner said flatly. “Maybe I’m more attuned to past history than the others because I bought his planes, but everyone’s clued in to the fact that he’s been peeling away people from your agency for years. It happens, Don. That’s business. Don’t let yourself get so pissed off over it. At least don’t wear it on your sleeve.”

Abbot smiled thinly. The old guy almost understood, if not quite fully. This wasn’t “just business.” Abbot didn’t care so much about the people: they could be replaced, in fact he’d found organizational control to be much easier when there was a steady churn among the middle managers. The really motivated ones tended to have agendas that didn’t mesh with his own; it was best to keep them off-balance.

What had really frosted Don Abbot was the collapse of their human spaceflight program. Having risen through the ranks back when a government ride was the only possible way into orbit, he’d never been able to adjust to the new reality: a gaggle of corporate yahoos hawking rides into space like so many hayseed barnstormers. Where were their standards, and to what purpose? Shouldn’t space exploration be something nobler…more nationalistic? Shouldn’t somebody be in charge of it all?

Of course, as Hammond and his ilk saw it, each was in charge of their own little domain. Which meant that nobody was in charge. It was a recipe for disaster, at the very least a wholesale cheapening of the exploration ideal.

Cheap. That was it. They had cheapened the whole experience as they drove towards the lowest common denominator. Hammond’s spaceplanes could barely get a dozen people into orbit at once; that they claimed to make up for it in daily volume was irrelevant to him. Yet because of that, the ruthless budget-slashers who had overrun Washington with the arrival of this simpleton President had found an easy target in the space agency. And those other companies with their absurd “reusable” boosters…it was a neat trick, being able to fly a rocket back to land right next to its launch pad. Real 1950’s sci-fi stuff, that. But so what? If they could only get ten flights out of the same machine, how much money were they really saving? It wasn’t like you could pull off such a stunt with a serious heavy lifter anyway. The thought of one of his Ares V’s falling back to the Cape and hovering on its thrust over a concrete platform gave him nightmares.

“Hammond’s bunch can fart around in low orbit all they want,” Abbot finally said dismissively. “That ship has sailed. If you want to get anywhere beyond Earth, it’s go big or go home.”

“Sure about that?” Horner said. “They managed to get a couple of moon-orbiting ships up there. Kind of the point of this whole meeting, Don.”

Abbot’s face flashed red with anger. “And they couldn’t even do that on their own! They had to hire their own competitors just to get the major structures into orbit.”

“So what?” Horner asked plainly. “They’re serving completely different markets. When I was at Lockheed, we contracted with Airbus all the time because they had the only freighters big enough to move an entire rocket.”

“Yet none of these yokels could’ve launched Gateway in one shot,” Abbot countered, stabbing a finger into the air for emphasis. “Or for that matter, had the spare ISS modules on hand to build it. We did that.”

“For which you’ll have the eternal thanks of a grateful nation…someday,” Horner said. “I do have to admit it’s a good thing your agency had a couple of those big bastards sitting idle in the VAB.”

What Horner had just offered as conciliation instead had the opposite effect. “And if they’d given us the budget I’d asked for, we could’ve had a whole fleet of them at the ready,” Abbot fumed, “instead of cobbling together some damned fool escapade on a slapdash ‘spaceliner.’ We wouldn’t be having this conversation if Hammond hadn’t been selling rides around the moon in the first place.”

Horner’s face darkened. “You’re not the first to voice that opinion,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to be in Art’s shoes once this is over with. Dollar to a doughnut says Homeland Security will be three feet up his ass just as soon as our guys make re-entry. They’ve already got an agent on site, and from what my contacts tell me the guy’s already had to be reeled in a couple times just to keep this operation on schedule.”

Contacts, Abbot realized. That’s how an idealistic ninny like Horner survived in this town. Information was power, an asset he still needed to develop. “Mark my words,” he grumbled. “Hammond is going to get people killed, on a scale even I couldn’t have imagined.”

SecDef considered his prediction and stretched with an exhausted groan. He’d probably gotten less sleep than anyone else this week. “I hope to God you’re wrong, for all of our sakes.”

Evil Descends

America has not had war – real, society-devastating war – brought to our shores in the modern era. I’m talking large-scale, sweeping invasions. Pearl Harbor, as jarring as it was, is not in Kansas. The Japanese island-hopping campaign into North America never made it past the Aleutian islands. We saved western civilization in WWII but were spared the suffering of Londoners during the Blitz or the despair of the French as they watched Nazi divisions march into Paris. We did not have to endure travails like the siege of Leningrad or the rape of Nanking.

The horror of 9/11 is as close as war has come in our time, and even that was limited in scope. And sadly, for too many of our fellow citizens even that was not enough for them to take our enemies seriously. Our success (thanks to the unfailing devotion of the men and women who work in the shadows against our enemies) has lulled us into a dangerous complacency. Over the last century, our fellow citizens have overwhelmingly remained safe in their homes and travels.

Try to imagine going out for groceries or taking your kids to school or meeting friends for lunch while haunted by the knowledge that at any time, any location, your world could literally explode in your face. Randomly, for the simple offense of your existence. Or that you (or your children) might be kidnapped and dragged through a tunnel into enemy territory to God knows what fate.

Welcome to life in Israel, coming soon to the United States of America. We have essentially abandoned our southern borders so the Democrats can recruit an army of future obedient voters and the Republicans can provide their Chamber of Commerce buddies with an ample supply of cheap labor. In the meantime, the most savage enemies of our civilization have the ability to infiltrate our country in ways they probably couldn’t have dreamed of. So far, it is their only way of projecting power and we’d better be ready for it.

Ironically, our fellow citizens are finally waking up to this threat while our leaders hoped to sweep it under the rug. Thank God there are men like Ted Cruz who get it, perhaps he and the few other clear thinkers in Congress can persuade our Commander in Chief that we can deal with this threat quite readily. The IslamoNazis have finally semi-organized themselves into a stand-up army, a problem which we are really good at dealing with. Out in the open, in the desert. It’s what one might call a “target-rich environment.” But time is not on our side.

This is just begging for an air strike.

This is what happens when we abandon the battlefield. It emboldens our enemies, and now they have the means to bring the fight to us. Whether or not it was a good idea to go there in the first place doesn’t matter: the ugly truth is that once you’re in the fight, you’d damned well better be in it to win it.

As the saying goes: you may not be interested in war, but that doesn’t mean war isn’t interested in you.

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.”