Thursday, 31 October 2013

Robert J Sawyer plays the Blues!

Just got my ticket today for the International Festival of Authors, to be held this Sunday at a local hotel here in Thunder Bay. My neighbour Bill is coming too - he moved into the neighbourhood recently and turns out he's a keen SF reader, preferring the classic  oldies like Heinlein and Asimov. Has boxes full of the stuff in his basement, 'Come on in and help yourself!'

But I digress.

So this Festival is hosting  Vincent Lam, Ania Szado and Robert J Sawyer and they will read from their current works. Do you wish you were here? Admittedly, SF-head that I am, I have not heard of the other two, but I have read some of Robert Sawyer's novels and short stories. You can read the opening chapters of Sawyer's latest, Red Planet Blues, here. I started it, began enjoying the mid-future Mars he paints with deliberately grimy brush, then I had to get back to work. Ahem.

It's set maybe 100 years in the future, when Mars is settled to some extent, and the main character is a hard-up private detective starting on a missing-person case. One major technological breakthrough that plays a major role in the plot is the idea, in vogue amongst many SF types these days, that sooner or later we'll be able to upload our personalities onto computer hardware or into replacement bodies, thereby extending our lives tremendously. A kind of ultimate hard-drive backup.

Here's a snippet of dialogue as he visits the local police force which is renowned for its sloppiness and inattention to duty:

The NKPD consisted of eight cops, the junior ones of whom took

turns playing desk sergeant. Today it was a flabby lowbrow named

Huxley, whose blue uniform always seemed a size too small for

him. "Hey, Hux," I said, walking over. "Is Mac in?"

Huxley consulted a monitor then nodded. "Yeah, he's in, but he 

don't see just anyone."

"I'm not just anyone, Hux. I'm the guy who picks up the pieces 

after you clowns bungle things."

Huxley frowned, trying to think of a rejoinder. "Yeah, well ..." 

he said, at last.

"Oooh," I said. "Good one, Hux! Way to put me in my place."

He narrowed his eyes. "You ain't as funny as you think you are, 


"Of course I'm not. Nobody could be that funny."

So I am plotting. What one question should I ask the author, if I get the chance? Here are some contenders:

  • If Microsoft launched a technology to upload the human mind onto a computer, would you do it?
  • When you invented your future-Mars, how much did current Mars colonisation ideas affect your planning?
  • Have you signed up with Mars One for a one-way ticket? That would be a great inspiration for a future novel!
  • Do you know a friendly publisher I could talk to?
Actually I wouldn't dare ask quite as bluntly as this, except the second question. Not in public. Perhaps afterwards, after Bill has got his autograph.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Everybody's Into Space These Days!

This is a link to the article over on The Calling giving some links to all sorts of wise and wacky things that ordinary people are doing these days in the arena of spaceflight, space exploration, space colonisation and so on. Hope you enjoy it.

Here's an extra pic - my favourite Earth-to-orbit launcher, Skylon.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

A Plethora of Home-made Rockets!

I believe some people call it 'down the rabbit hole'. When you start clicking things online you never know where you'll end up - having tea with the mad hatter, or arguing with the Queen of Hearts.

I experienced something comparable while doing a little background research for the Chapters book-signing event (see this link). Looking into the many and varied efforts people are putting into private space travel ventures is like old-style barn dancing - who will be your partner next time around? And the next? I looked again at SpaceX on Wikipedia (bless their cyber-socks) and clicked on a link that said 'private spaceflight'. Way down the bottom of that page under the exciting 'External Links' section I found two intriguing companies called 'Starchaser Industries' and 'Astrobotic'. Who could resist finding out about names like that? Starchaser is building its own rocket to launch two people up to 100,000 feet - that's about 30 km - not quite 'real' space which is 100 km, but still impressive. Here's what it looks like:
Thunderbirds Are GO!
And they're recruiting astronauts to fil the navigator's seat! Need I mention that it's based in the UK, in Cheshire to be exact, where they make such good cheese.

Sadly, Astrobotic's page didn't load. Oh - wait a sec - I tried again and here's a picture of one of their planetary exploration rovers.
Anyway, you get the idea. I spent a few other web crawls finding out about the advantages of orbital tethers, LEO refuelling depots, the Outer Space Treaty of 1951 and its ramifications for private space investors, and the Mars Society. It's all out there. Isn't it wonderful that so many people are taking the initiative? My favourite of the week is the Danish engineer who is building Denmark's first manned space program in his (rather large) garage, along with some buddies. They're called Copenhagen Suborbitals. Look!

Shiny rocket cones! I like! This is the liquid oxygen tank.
The most dazzling item these Danes have produced? A steam-powered fuel pump! Yes. Watch their video on how they designed it. (Did you know you can produce steam by throwing hydrogen peroxide at potassium permanganate? No boiler required.) Innovation, and the simpler the better. Brilliant people.

I'll be adding a whole list of similar links after the book signing that's at Chapters, Thunder Bay, Friday October 25th at 7pm.

What fascinates me with all these is the standard science-fiction starter question: "What if...?" In this case, what if some of these amazingly creative, perseverant people are successful? Wouldn't the world be a better place if people like you and me were travelling the airless corridors of the sky above our heads? If it wasn't just the governments of a very few nations sending their ex-Air Force pilots and top scientists? Granted, most of the private space ventures with more chance of success are funded and run by billionares such as Elon Musk (developer of PayPal and Tesla Motors) with his SpaceX, and Richard Branson with his Virgin Galactic. Not exactly your average Joe Public. Still, even many of these are enabling many others to join in a Space Race characterised by friendly competition and inspiring goals, rather than the Cold War era frantic race for orbit and the Moon which has left us so little lasting legacy.

I remember reading a great SF novel about a disgraced alcoholic astronaut and some keen, bright teenagers who build a spacecraft out of a disused railway tanker-truck (and many other bits and pieces) and fly it to Mars and back. But I can't remember the title or the author's name! Can anybody help me? It's about the only attempt at fiction I can recall on this subject. My only real gripe with the storyline is that it involves an unrealistic method of propulsion invented by the astronaut's reclusive, genius relative. (As another rabbit-track, maybe the author was thinking of this attempt  by NASA researchers to squeeze the fabric of the universe behind and in front of the spacecraft and propel an object in a bubble of warped space-time.)

On the subject of propulsion, here are two more "What-ifs":
  1. An ion thruster is under development which could make manned interplanetary travel faster. It's called VASIMR, which stands for (take a deep breath) : Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket. Read about it here. Wikipedia says: "Costa Rican scientist and former astronaut Franklin Chang Díaz created the VASIMR concept and has been working on its development since 1977". All it needs is a lightweight power source and a bit more development. Oh, and perhaps a wealthy billionaire to get it built and into orbit!
  2. Orbital tethers. Imagine two satellites attached by a 4km tether. Each one could be at a different altitude above the Earth, and thus would be in a different orbit, placed under different gravitational force. The transfer of momentum that can then take place is a keen topic of study for some of those bright mathematicians, because it holds potential for cutting down drastically on the amount of chemical rocket fuel required to change a spacecraft's orbit - perhaps allowing craft to begin their journey to Mars or the Moon at a much lower cost. A conducting tether in orbit around Earth can also generate electricity, or if a current is passed through it, will exert a force on the spacecraft that it's attached to! The possibilities of that are huge.

 Well, that's enough of that for now. I must get back to work. I have a large barrel in my garage filled with baking soda, and I am about to pour in the vinegar, strap into the flight seat and open the skylight for lift-off....

(just kidding!)