Tuesday, 13 September 2022

Navigating Mars - early peep!

Here is a sneak preview of the opening scene from a new story I started writing recently. It's a sequel to Building Mars and takes place about 22 years afterward. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!

 Hebes Chasma - Mars Year 15 - Earth Year 2055

“Do you ever feel you could get lost out here, Raf?” murmurs Viv Completa, as she raises herself easily onto the balls of her feet and allows her gaze to wander over the cliffs that fall from the far side of Hebes Chasma.

It was the middle of the afternoon during their prescribed break from work, and the shadows among the scree slopes and spurs still lay meagrely. She was a determinedly fit fifty-three, with carefully short bronze hair and animated features. She still found it a stretch to believe that she was living and working on Mars – she’d finally made it, against all the odds! – even after almost nine Mars years out here.

Raf Vascones barely raised his head from the e-reader that held his attention. He was in mid-collapse into one of two sofas which resembled giant marshmallows in shape and colour. “Whadya mean?” he eventually managed in reply, bouncing gently to a stop. He hadn’t kept in shape quite as well as he thought he had, his stomach beginning to strain against his work suit. His Latin good looks, though, made him look much younger than his fifty years.

One end of her lips curled upwards at her own thoughts, and her eyes shone. “Well, like, imagine someone gets dropped into a huge landscape like this. Forced landing maybe, unexpected. Like there’s no way back home. Like time is suspended and we’re back in the Early Hesperian. Something like John Carter.” She shook her head and sighed at the view. In her head she knew that the floor of the massive canyon was thousands of metres out of sight below, and the furthest slopes lay almost 100 kilometres across the chasma due north, but the clarity and scarcity of the air made it look like a few hours’ hike. The thousand shades of chocolate cream, cinnamon and rusty ochre, the way the unnumbered ravines could have been gouged by huge talons, the elusiveness of the maybe-violet tinge on the horizon and how it all changed with the Sun’s swinging, despite the million, billion-year timescale of geological creep: it left her almost speechless every time. But deep down she caught a glimpse of the still-jagged frustration of that talk with the SSI committee at Pasteur Base.

Hebes Chasma, from Google Mars, colours adjusted.

“Ahh, you still thinkin’ about the rescue scenario, Viv?”

She chuckled. “Raf, you know me so well.”

“Urrr… not sure about that.” He studiously didn’t look up from the quantum computing paper he was reading, but she’d won a quick, uneasy grin from him. She realised he was uncomfortable with the implied intimacy. He had earned his reputation as a man with women on his mind, but she was glad not to be on his must-get list. They worked a lot together. Perhaps that had something to do with his reluctance.

“Well… maybe I was,” she went on. “Thinking, that is.” Just now the sun was signalling, probably off some rare faces of quartz, halfway across the chasma where the mensa’s flat top tailed down eastwards to the floor. She imagined walking there, picking up billion-year-old shards of igneous crystal. Instead she spent most of her time inside, fixing battered rovers and drones and tweaking the life support systems. “You must admit, if all the bases would cooperate on the essentials, we could all make so much more progress.”

Raf grunted and shifted on his sofa. Silence took up the conversation. No – not quite silence. She was aware of the air circulation like a long-drawn-out sigh, and the distant rumble of the base’s pumps and waste processors that kept them all alive. There was the arhythmic ticking of thermal expansion in the structure above the ceiling in the girders that held up seven metres’ depth of rock and dust. Somewhere back in the base, further away from the vertiginous cliff face from which the lounge window peeped, someone started talking in a monologue.

Almost soundlessly, Ellen Hewitson walked into the lounge and stood behind the long food counter to prepare herself a meal. Her earbuds were firmly in. Viv could now just make out the whispering of Ellen’s music, and noticed that she’d cropped her gold-blond hair even shorter than before. They exchanged nods and smiles. Raf didn’t seem to be paying attention.

Viv looked out again through the triple-thick window. The mood in the lounge had shifted, tightening her stomach with anonymous unease. What was it? Certainly it wasn’t Ellen, with whom she had always been on easy terms. She couldn’t pin down what had changed. It was nothing. With a shrug, she whispered to her collar pickup. “Overlay. Profile cache. Ascendant Corporation, resource claims.” In her eyes the resulting augment to the view was sharper than her old contact lenses had allowed. Huge swathes of the landscape were painted in translucent blue hatchings, with demarcation lines running down the slopes to meet, forming kilometre squares. Textual details jumped out at her as she focussed on each square. She hadn’t looked at this in a while, and the extent of the spreading blue alarmed her. She cancelled the overlay. “Hey, Raf, you know Ascendant’s made more claims? Gotta be all across the chasma floor now. Didn’t you tell us they were gonna aim more for Marineris?”

The Argentinian-American engineer finally gave her his full attention. His dark wave of hair and goatee could veer towards good looks when he was in a gregarious mood – which was usually – but now he grimaced. “Firstly, to me they will always be New Space – call a cobra a rabbit and it will still strike you – and secondly, I still despise them with all my heart. No doubt they will consume Marineris when it suits them.” Disturbed, he dropped the e-reader on the sofa and stared out the window.

Viv could no longer rest in the lounge. Her bed was calling – there was still a quarter of an hour before the shift resumed. She stood and made her way around the collection of sofas and coffee tables to the open door.

The passageway leading to the atrium first passed by two doorways, the store on the left and the C & C room on the right. The door to Control & Communications stood open – as usual – she vaguely recalled that Ellen had been instructing Dawid in the protocols – and as she passed it she realised that the voice she’d heard in the background had its source here. Glancing in, she saw no one seated at any of the four crew positions around the monitors and controls and nobody standing around the datascreen walls. The voice, insistent and relatively clear despite waves of static, came from the comms desk. She looked up and down the passageway. Was someone in the middle of a conversation with Pasteur Base? Apparently not. It was standard procedure to keep a radio monitoring channel on like this. Who could the speaker be?

She steps into C & C and bends over the comms desk with its old-school desk microphone, and headphones plugged into a jack. She very much doesn’t want to be in here when she could be lying on her bunk listening to something airy by Lacaze or Zubel. Now she can make out most of the words, floating in a tone that borders on tired irony. …Chasma, calling all stations, respond please. Unable to roll it back … Rover Four-Four-Two-Delta, calling…

It sounded more and more like a distress signal as she listened and her breathing accelerated. Was this the disturbance she’d felt just now? She found herself in the comms seat, dialing for a little more gain and squelch and flipping the ‘send’ button. “Rover 442 Delta, this is SSI Hebes Chasma base. Receiving you loud and mostly clear. Please repeat message slowly.” She released ‘send’ and got a grip on her racing thoughts. Yes. While the distant caller was absorbing her message, she opened the general base channel and spoke rapidly. “Everyone, we have a radio caller somewhere in the Chasma, seems to be in difficulties. I’d appreciate company at C & C. Out.”

She glanced at the intel screen to her left to find out what identifying code this rover was sending in the sideband of its signal. Blinking hard twice, she saw there was none, and no APS location. By this time Rover 442 D was answering in a voice so calm and level that Viv for a moment felt that this must be some sort of exercise. “SSI Hebes Chasma, very glad to hear you. We’re in a pretty bad – uh – Situation is that we rolled the rover, sustained damage, can’t flip it back. Batteries are low, satcom got crushed against the slope, as did one suitport. The other suitport’s against the ground. No injuries. Rover frame is buckled but pressure vessel not, repeat not, compromised. Urgent need rescue, two people only. How soon to our position, over?

Ellen and Raf hovered in the doorway a few moments then came in. Raf stood behind Viv’s left shoulder and Ellen took the seat opposite her. “Who are they with?” asked Raf. Viv shook her head and gestured at the intel screen with a shrug. She was the first responder and SSI protocol was for her to proceed as main contact with the caller.

“442 D, what is your position please? Coordinates? We’re not getting anything from your sideband.”

The process of dictating and checking the longitude and latitude took a couple of minutes. Raf jumped into the seat to Viv’s left and brought up the mapping system. He soon looked up. “Seventy-five kay roughly east of here, halfway down the slope.” He glanced up at Ellen. By this time the remaining base crew had entered the room – Dawid, built like a muscular teddy bear, with cropped black beard and sharp focus; Mei Lin, short and ballet-lithe, burning nervous energy and self-confidence; and the lone base areologist Michael Ravindran, grey headed and slightly stooped, perplexed frown, casting looks left and right. Mei Lin, as the current base commander, stepped forward, saying, “Viv, please ask how long their oxy reserves and battery.”

Viv nodded, relayed the question, learned that they had perhaps three to four hours of oxygen in their reserve. They couldn’t access the battery monitor. She pushed back a little and looked around the room. The muscles of her limbs and stomach contract, and it’s like someone’s opened a freezer door nearby. Stay calm! “So we can make it, if we leave asap. I volunteer.” Realising exactly what she’s just said, she pulls a long breath and holds it. This is very sudden. Am I really willing to stick my neck out for all that talk about crisis response?

Several people started talking at once. Mei Lin motioned for quiet. She extended a slim finger towards Raf. “Raf, can we use one of the prospecting copters to bring them oxygen?”

He fingered his short goatee. “Nope,” he said after a few moments’ thought. “Not nearly enough payload capacity. Those things are all sensors, right? And the drone rovers are too slow. I think Viv’s right – “

“OK,” went on Mei Lin, “it’s the rover, two crew. We start prepping. I’ll take…” and she looked around the room at each of them.

“Excuse me, Mei,” said Viv, “it ought to be Raf and I. We’re the mechanics around here, and there are obviously mechanical issues with this stranded rover.” She grinned. “Sorry to steal all the fun from the geologists.”

Mei Lin drew a loud breath, the tension in her short frame palpable, and nodded once, sharply. Again the finger-point. “Right. Go. We’ll back you up here and prep the second rover.”

Viv turned and flicked ‘send’ one last time. “442 D, SSI Hebes Chasma. We are sending a rover as soon as ready. Will be with you in…” She looked around at the others, appealing for a quick estimate. Raf held up three fingers, waved a fourth. Michael shook his head, raising his eyebrows, and held up two. “We’ll try our best to be there within four hours,” Viv finished, throwing a quick conciliatory sidelong smile at Michael. “One more thing – who are you with? New – er – Ascendant?” That was her best guess. Ascendant rovers and drones were prospecting all over this part of Mars where the science predicted the most mineral deposits the nearest to the surface.

All six of the base crew hung on for an answer, one beat, two, three. They needed to know which corporation or space agency to inform. Then: “SSI, Rover 442, so glad to hear you will be on your way. Please take care on the slopes. Out.


“See, I told you…. we need a rapid response unit! Larger drones with basic supplies, first aid, tools. Faster rovers, with one always prepped. And spacecraft, or at least sub-orbital capability, maybe reconditioned landers.” She glanced at Raf as they eased into the rover’s cockpit to run through the pre-drive checklist. “There – I’ve said it. That’s all you’ll hear from me on the subject for now.”

Raf grunted an acknowledgement and started powering up the rover’s life support and comms. “You’re not wrong,” he said gruffly, “but now is not the time. Hand me that cloth, please.” With the cloth he wiped condensation from the dashboard and windscreen. Both wore their snug skinsuits which could quickly be sealed with a helmet in the case of an EVA. Raf’s suit was patterned with yellow-black bee stripes. Viv’s swirled with purples and pinks.

Viv ran the diagnostics on the three axle-mounted motors. They continued, hardly needing the checklist after their previous experiences of the process. She felt Raf straining to speed up each step, from the speed at which he rattled off each call-response check, and the way he frowned at nothing in particular as they had suited up earlier. When they reported their readiness to the base C & C, forty minutes had already passed since Viv had first heard the signal. But finally they could undock the rear of the rover from the base hatch. “Take care out there,” came Mei Lin’s voice in their ears. “If there’s any doubt, don’t risk it.

“Copy, base,” said Raf. Ahead, the underground parking area was well lit all the way to the gentle ramp that sloped up to the surface. The long, shallow ramp, lined on either side by orange LEDs, always made Viv think of a birth canal. Raf had invited her to drive first. As she engaged the motors and edged the rover forward and onto the ramp, they could see the glow of sunlight ahead at the mouth of the ramp’s tunnel. She gripped the wheel as firmly as she dared without letting Raf see the strain in her knuckles. She’d locked her arms – tried to relax them a little. Please, please let us be in time! was the thought pounding through her head. “Let’s go,” said Raf, as though relishing the outing.

Ball of the foot touches the accelerator – gently! – and the rover begins to race up the ramp, into the dusty light. “Whoa!” murmured Raf, more out of adrenaline than alarm, she hoped. The gentle sky glowed the palest orange-grey, laced with a few high cirrus-like strands and lazy spirals. 

Evening clouds photographed by NASA Curiosity Rover

Friday, 8 April 2022

Awe And Wonder

Isn’t technology a many-sided riddle?

What got me thinking this most recently is when I was watching Elon Musk’s February presentation video showing a simulation of SpaceX’s massive, sleek Starship rocket and booster rising majestically on its way to Mars.

Starship to Mars Simulation


Starship launch: a still from the SpaceX video

What a contrast to my everyday life – dodging car-battering pot-holes that the slow thaw has uncovered, shovelling heavy slush, getting damp socks, staring at this screen for eight hours a day.

This presently evolving breakthrough in rapidly reusable space launchers is a unique moment, but just one in a long series of uniquenesses. Household electrical power, mass-produced automobiles and affordable air travel were just three in a string of technical revolutions. Then we slowly woke up to the toll fossil fuels are taking on our planet. I wonder what pitfalls lay ahead as the space sector gears up for massive change.

SpaceX is rapidly bringing down the cost of launching payloads. Musk predicts (optimistically?) that Starship costs will be a few million dollars for 100 tons, or perhaps $100/kg. What new initiatives will this allow?

How does SpaceX and their cleverly-engineered Raptor rocket engine fit into history? From the times of the Enlightenment, when rational thought was trumpeted as the final and only judge of everything worthwhile, and human beings were obviously on an ever-ascending trajectory, science and its many products were welcomed with increasing optimism. But then the World Wars and many other twentieth-century ‘aberrations’ delved some deep questions into the humanist project.

And here we are, decades of faltering and contradictions later. Post-modernism is the attempt to progress beyond the concept of inevitable human progress, to synthesize an approach to the universe that says ‘we cannot know everything; in fact, reality is ultimately unknowable’. Instead there’s the subjective, intuitive side to explore. Are more and more people ditching science as a reliable guide to the physical universe around us? Is there a third way, not defined by pro- or anti-science, but by recognising that science is valid within its realm of observations and conclusions about the material world around us, while other tools are just as valid in their own domains?

Our politicians’ public dependence on the advice of medical experts during the pandemic suggests that in a crisis we still reach out for an authority with an objective answer. We still want a solid rock to stand on.

 And that may shed some light on why I felt such attraction to the vibes of Musk’s rocket video, and why I then looked at my reaction in suspicion. Every minute of that presentation projects a feeling of awe and splendour that is pretty common among the space-loving online community. Perhaps it’s been growing on us ever since the era of Apollo launches, Stanley Kubrick’s production of Arthur Clarke’s Space Odyssey and the decades of entertaining science fiction that followed,

The Saturn V vehicle (SA-501) for the 
Apollo 4 mission in the Vehicle Assembly 
Building at the Kennedy Space Center, 
1967. Image credit: NASA

but more recently as SpaceX is undoubtedly erasing more and more of the ‘fiction’, its followers grow wide-eyed and enthusiastic. Everyone needs some hope in life, and a little excitement, and it’s a potent shiny cocktail of techno-Enlightenment-future-rock ‘n’ roll-humanist-space exploration that’s splashed on our screens when SpaceX’s CEO takes the stage. He really does seem to mean well. He would dearly love to save humanity from the dangers of species extinction, founding a self-sustaining civilisation on another planet. And as an engineer he is convinced that there is an engineering solution to our problems. At the same time he's aware that a large engineering project can have its own aura, can turn heads when it’s presented right.

As Starship rises with grave majesty from its tower, and as the thunder fills the sky, and the smooth, subdued soundtrack informs our unconscious that this is awesome and numinous, and the synth-angelic voices begin to sing their chorus of ‘ahhhh’, it’s obvious that this vision of progress and the gleaming city on Mars is filling a gaping void in many people’s souls.

It's a very similar function, I believe, to the place that was taken in medieval times by such colossal architectural feats as cathedrals: spires, domes spun high in the sky, causing us to bend up our necks and make little circles of our mouths, make our eyes open wide, and our hearts sing a glad song. Whether the ordinary people back then were drawn to see their Creator in a new and more worshipful light, or whether they felt admiration for the builders and the funders of the edifice, or simply were filled with wordless awe, I can’t say. But I think tourists to these places still feel an echo of that, a sense that we’re part of something greater, that we little people can build structures that outlast the centuries and express in their forms a thought that we don’t quite understand.

Interior of a Gothic cathedral, Toledo, Spain
Image credit: commons.wikipedia.org

Are there now modern or post-modern people who are essentially worshipping this vision of progress among the stars, longing to travel in glinting spacecraft and to live under glistening Mars domes? Of course that’s not the only denomination in this broad creed: there are the space solar power people, the asteroid mining fraternity, and the interstellar starship builders, to name just a few. And far be it from me to claim that I have never been drawn towards their altars, but there’s always a fundamental clash of ideas that repels me. I’d love to go there too, but I refuse to pack all my hopes onto that rocket.

 There are many dissenting voices to this space-technophile vision. Some protest that increased numbers of space launches will be terrible for the environment just when we should be fighting climate change. Others talk about a waste of resources and that only billionaires will profit from this while the poor will grow poorer. And there’s much truth in those voices that needs to be heard. This article by Tim Jackson spells out much of what I’ve been vaguely thinking, ending like this:

“Let’s dream of some “final frontier” by all means. But let’s focus our minds too on some quintessentially earthly priorities. Affordable healthcare. Decent homes for the poorest in society. A solid education for our kids. Reversing the decades-long precarity in the livelihoods of the frontline workers – the ones who saved our lives. Regenerating the devastating loss of the natural world. Replacing a frenetic consumerism with an economy of care and relationship and meaning.

Never have these things made so much sense to so many. Never has there been a better time to turn them into a reality. Not just for the handful of billionaires dreaming of unbridled wealth on the red planet, but for the eight billion mere mortals living out their far less brazen dreams on the blue one.”


My take on SpaceX and the draw of their glittering vision of the future is that technophiles are placing their money on the wrong horse altogether. I am glad to admit that their horse can race, and perhaps even win a few ribbons in the races, but every horse will eventually have its day, stumble, fall. Every leader with ambition in whom we place our trust is a flawed human being. The few inspiring, messianic leaders in modern times who did not end their careers in mass murder, corruption, disappointment or disgrace were probably those who were assassinated before they could get that far. It’s not hard to poke holes in Elon Musk’s character; what’s harder at this point is to predict how SpaceX’s dream will hit a pot-hole: how it will eventually shatter or become soiled, bought or perverted.

What we’d all love is a leader without flaws, one who would lead us towards integrity, a healed world finding balance and moving away from the myth of unfettered growth, where abstracts like truth and justice become embodied in the established order. Someone who leads by example, who isn’t afraid to come down to our level and mix with ordinary folks, even suffer alongside them, lay his life down for them something like President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine appears to be doing. Elon Musk is working hard towards becoming the saviour of the human race – who’s going to let him know that the position’s already occupied?

History whispers, sometimes in rhyme, nagging at us. As the psalmist has it:

 Don’t put your confidence in powerful people;
    there is no help for you there.
When they breathe their last, they return to the earth,
    and all their plans die with them.

(Psalm 146)

We live in the shadow of Babel’s ruined tower. But we turn our backs on its telling wreckage and talk up our tech, making out that it’s the only show in town, the only way to save ourselves, the only dimension. How much we come to depend on our own inventions! How badly I would fare at wilderness survival. I believe that there is danger of driving right into all the ethical potholes of expanding into space by being caught up in the awe and wonder and hubris. There have been many papers written from an ethical & legal perspective, but who reads them, and how many robust international and interplanetary agreements will result from them? Spacefaring nations are slowly getting to work on the details of treaties on everything from the demilitarisation of space to planetary protection, of which the latter is concerned with the microbes which can so easily be carried from one planet to another with potential for contamination of an ecosphere.

NASA's Mars2020 Rover in the clean room of the Spacecraft Assembly Facility at JPL, July 2019
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Wherever we go we humans seem to carry not only gifts of greatness but also the seeds of our own corruption, so I hope those voices of sanity contribute strongly to the formation of the new world out there. Based on how history reads so far, a more accurate prediction of how space civilisation might look one hundred years from now would be the backdrop of grime and despair in Alien and Avatar, not the orderliness and pressed uniforms of Star Trek. This means that we have every reason to strive for binding treaties covering the treatment of employees in space, the trade in goods and information, the stewardship of off-Earth places and resources, and much more besides.

If there’s one thing I don’t wish on our descendants, it’s the despairing chore of  metaphorically shovelling up the mountains of slush and toxin that we have left them.

Saturday, 16 November 2019

A Theatre For Denial?

This blog was for a long time about what it would take to live on Mars, to explore deep space, to live outside of this ecosphere and bring a little piece of it with us. I could imagine setting up in a self-contained habitat on a distant dusty plain with a small crew, tending the greenhouse, maintaining the life support system and sending back optimistic reports to Earth while feeling lonely or existentially fragile. There's a sense of making history while barely holding it together as a human being. That's part of what I wanted to get across when I wrote 'Building Mars'. In so doing, perhaps I was churning through my own thoughts about existing here in northwest Ontario, stuck firmly on this one world, not especially making history, gazing up wistfully at the stars and planets occasionally.

One good part of owning a house is that you often end up doing some land management. In my case it's on a micro scale – little more than cutting bushes down to size and mending drain pipes. Then there's the occasional rise of flood water and how to prevent it from inviting itself in through the basement windows, but that's another story.

A few weeks ago when I had some hours free on Saturday, I went to war with the back hedge and chainsawed it down to just above waist height. You must understand that this is a prolific and villainous lilac hedge, probably mutated by strong doses of radiation of the type used by Lex Luther, and its goal in life is to vertically outgrow every other living thing and I think it longs to wrap its leafy tentacles around the electrical and phone cables coming to our house about fifteen feet above the ground. My mission: to thwart the forces of chaos and restore order to our little universe in the back yard. It wasn't too difficult, but the clear-up and hauling the brush to the dump was another whole Saturday. Now just looking out the back window gives me a strong sense of calm and satisfaction.

Today was Saturday again, with no outdoor jobs looming, and after a cooked breakfast Robin and I went out to hear two people we know dialogue in front of an audience about their lives and what they've learned from their mistakes and hard times. They have worked as youth pastors in churches, one was a pastor of the church of which we are now members, and the other has lectured in comparative religion. They had some reflections on the ups and downs of the road they've been on, together with some pointers on where the church stands at present.

I found it helpful because their experiences echo some of my own, since returning from the Middle East eight years ago rather unexpectedly and trying to find my way. These days I have a steady job, Robin is teaching, our sons are doing well, but I often find myself wondering what my purpose here should be. I've been able to write a few novels of speculative fiction, and even try my hand at writing rock songs, but what bigger picture do those fit into?

The growing world crisis that we appear to be living through demands a response from us all, world citizens that we are. And I've known for most of my life that the Creator, the Higher Power, the Person who gave us each our personhood, beckons us into partnership with him. He is intent on bringing his new life into all the dark places of the world, and I can be a part of that. But what part exactly? Conscience is a great alarm bell, but that vague feeling of 'I ought to be doing more to help people' isn't a very reliable road map. I'm glad whenever I read about a project that shows some hope, like engineering bacteria which could eat up PET plastic waste inside bio-reactors. There was a great article in the Guardian Weekly estimating that if we planted about a trillion trees, repurposing unused land and so on, together with serious action to cut carbon emissions, the worst of the coming catastrophe might be averted. That's only about 150 trees per person on Earth! Is that doable?

What might be the place of space exploration in all of this? How will it contribute to carbon emissions that dozens more launches of kerosene-powered rockets are being scheduled to bring satellite internet on a global scale? Is liquid hydrogen a cleaner fuel, with water as its combustion product? What about SpaceX's upcoming methane-fueled Raptor engines? Are these commercial space projects actually being globally responsible and thinking these things through or just putting on a show? It's not a subject I've researched much until now, but I intend to. There's the whole little-understood subject of upper-atmosphere ozone depletion from an increasing number of rocket launches that leave trails of alumina and soot.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket taking off from Vandenberg Air Force Base 
 Image: SpaceX

The wider picture I'm seeing might be this: is space mainly a theatre for denial? Is it an impressive method for not thinking about the tragedy that's picking up speed every day down here? It's a sharp-edged question, because some of us invest ourselves in space science, science fiction, the Curiosity rover and so on, and I believe that for many it's a way of escape – not just some light relief but an avoidance of this painful reality. If there were no existential threat to humanity right now, it would all be a worthy pursuit. In a nutshell: how can it be right for people to spend billions on these efforts while we haven't even remotely solved the problems plaguing twenty-first century Earth? Or is Elon Musk correct in his priority to make humanity a multi-planetary species in order to save us from possible extinction?

I think I have some answers to all that - for one thing, it would take an unimaginably violent and unlikely catastrophe to make Earth less habitable than Mars is now - but it is good to at least be asking some of the right questions and stir up thought and healthy debate.

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

'Building Mars' - published on Amazon

My new science fiction novel, 'Building Mars', is now published on Amazon as a paperback. 
The name changed from 'New World Rising', in part because the new title makes it clearer what the story is about.

You can see it (and buy it) here:
Building Mars on Amazon

As usual, I'm not putting much effort so far into marketing and publicity, but that may change. There should be an e-book version eventually, and perhaps even an audiobook / podcast one day.

Saturday, 2 June 2018

Writing History

I've now published a short new section of the New World Rising story. In the background I'm toiling away on the next part of the main storyline, but for some context we are skipping back millions of kilometres to Earth, and to a U.N. conference centre, where we eavesdrop on a couple of conversations.
Nowal No'man Saiid, the CEO and majority shareholder of Sabir Space Industries, is acting as a delegate at the negotiations to update and re-write what is known as the Outer Space Treaty, or more formally as 'Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies'.
You can read the actual treaty, which was developed through the 1960s, on this U.N. website. The initial page is a summary and introduction, but the first link in the text should give you the complete text. It's not light reading!
The legalities of what is and isn't allowed above the Earth's atmosphere is a real concern. There is even an International Institute of Space Law.
In this short piece of writing, I imagined what it would be like when this treaty is finally updated to align with the present realities of space exploration.
Here it is; it will be followed fairly soon by a much larger amount of writing, following the SSI team on the surface of Mars. So far, you can access these pieces via 'History Makers'.

History Makers

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Falcon Heavy: Hard Work Pays Off

I watched the Falcon Heavy launch yesterday with bated breath, half-expecting an accident on launch of the type they jokingly call a 'rapid unscheduled disassembly event'. But it went almost like clockwork.

If you missed it and want to watch this historic moment, here's a link.

My personal favourite moment: the 2 Falcon 9 boosters touch down noncholantly after their few minutes of glory

If you watched the whole thing, did you see the shots from a camera mounted just outside the viewing area of SpaceX's Mission Control room? See the large crowd of excitable SpaceX fans? Well I'm pretty sure that most of them were actually off-duty SpaceX employees. The Mission Control and most of the fabrication facilities (as far as I know, which isn't far) are in Hawthorne, California. Can you imagine having worked your knuckles off for months, labouring long hours in a workshop or lab, testing hundreds of components, striving to measure up to Elon Musk's almost fanatical standards... and then, finally, watching on a screen as your handiwork roared off the pad and into the sky?

No wonder they were cheering so loudly. I imagine they were incredibly relieved that the huge new rocket didn't explode or fail in some other way. I imagine they went home feeling like they had contributed something meaningful to the world, that they were making history.

That's a great way to live - a life of meaning, getting involved in something larger and more significant than yourself. But you don't have to work for SpaceX to get that buzz - the opportunities are all around us.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018


Here are the short pieces following the launch of SSI's first Mars mission. The point of view swaps between the four characters involved.

Monday, 15 January 2018


Briefly, here's part of the new short story, again from Marco's point of view. And it's only a few weeks until launch.

It's called: Doubt

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Coming soon.... ?

Just in case anyone thinks that I've given up on this blog, I can announce that sometime in the next couple of weeks I hope to post another portion of the New World Rising story. So watch this space ;)

Meanwhile, you could go over to the SpaceX site and see how quickly fact is catching up with fiction. The intrepid rocket engineers are hoping to carry out the first test launch of a Falcon Heavy rocket, along with all the complications that come with strapping three Falcon 9 cores together. That is a lot of thrust happening. Will the FH make it to orbit? Will the 3 cores fly back to Earth to be reused? And what was the idea of launching a red Tesla Roadster into deep space?

Here's a link where the webcast should eventually appear: