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.


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

Art by J.T. Lindroos.


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.


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.


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 –”


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?


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.