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 (its combustion product) being such a strong greenhouse gas? 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: 

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Mars Science Foundation site

Here's a well-produced website that explores one model of settling Mars, with videos and slick graphics.

Edit... since first posting this I've tried out some of the simulations on this site. Be prepared for a difficult ride: the control doesn't seem to work well, making it hard to complete some tasks. Also don't expect total realism... they are using an image of a SpaceX Falcon 9 or Grasshopper rocket for the Mars landing simulation, for example. But oh well, it's free. No complaints!

Friday, 25 August 2017

New crew members!

Annika and Marco are new to the number one SSI Mars crew. Here are two short pieces introducing them. 

As Marco remarks, "If – no, when – a crisis hits, what keeps us calm and pulling together?" What will it take for these four very different people to become a close-knit team who can thrive together on a distant planet?