Friday, May 29, 2009

Monkeying Around in Space

A couple of small news notes for your weekend enjoyment and reflection:

1) Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the successful suborbital flight of Able and Baker, a pair of monkeys (rhesus and squirrel respectively, both female) who were sent up atop a Jupiter rocket on May 28, 1959, and recovered when the nose cone parachuted down. Able, alas, died a few days later in a medical accident during removal of a sensor electrode, but Baker lived another 25 years. She is buried at the Huntsville, AL. rocket center - schoolkids sometimes leave bananas on the grave.

2) Perils of off-roading: The Mars rover Spirit has gotten stuck in soil that has the consistency of flour. I hope they get it unstuck, but the amazing thing is that Spirit and Opportunity are still operating after five years. (Well, only two or three Mars years.)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Population Explosion

Soyuz launch

The resident human population in space just doubled. A Soyuz transfer craft successfully went into orbit carrying a Belgian, Canadian, and Russian to the International Space Station, where they will join the current crew of three. It will take them about two days to rendezvous and dock to the station. Thenceforth the station will have a standing crew of six.

If the space population continues to double every nine years there will be some 6000 people in space by 2100. (And 12 million by 2200, but let's restrain ourselves to this century!)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart, by John Guy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004).

The sixteenth century has a good claim to be the ultimate retro SF setting. Sir Thomas More's Utopia is a sort of proto-SF, and da Vinci was designing cool technogadgets. Science itself was just taking recognizable form. On the fantasy side of the bookstores, Amadis of Gaul inspired nearly as many knockoffs as Lord of the Rings, till Cervantes blew up the genre. Above all, of course, the 16th century is a time when men really did set out to discover a New World and new civilizations, and conquer them. No Prime Directive back then, but the royal arms of Spain were and are magnificently SF: the Pillars of Hercules with the motto Plus Ultra – More Beyond!

In another contemporary note, 16th century Europe had a remarkable number of women in positions of authority. No one really knows whether Mary Queen of Scots inspired the nursery rhyme, which isn't recorded till 1744, but she plausibly may have. I have a curious bit of a love-hate relationship with her. I have a far higher opinion of her English counterpart and enemy, Good Queen Bess. I saw the movie 'Young Bess' as a kid, too young to fully appreciate Jean Simmons, but old enough to figure that any princess who thought ships were cool, was cool. Yet when I came around to try my own hand at a 16th century princess, Catherine de Guienne of Lyonesse ended up far more like Mary – Mary 2.0, as it were, with a few bugs worked out.

I have previously written elsewhere about Mary Queen of Scots and her 'social network.' (Click on the radial bubbles). Technically she became queen when she was a week old. Much colorful politics – i.e., bloodshed – ensued, but Mary herself was bundled off at age five to safety in France. By 1560 she was age 19 and a widowed ex-queen of France (not, for once, by violence). Rather than spend the rest of her life as a decorative has-been at the French royal court Mary decided to head back to Scotland and try her hand at being a real queen.

And at first she made an impressively good job of it. She didn't exactly rule Scotland, which at that time was much like Afghanistan without burqas. The most influential man in the country was the Protestant reformer John Knox, who had just recently written a pamphlet called The Monstrous Regiment of Women. This is not as SFnal as it sounds: 'Regiment' then meant 'rule,' and Knox's pamphlet was a screed about how women had no business running kingdoms. He and Mary did not get along, but you'll have to read about it elsewhere because I haven't filled in that part of her Emmet network.

Mary's other early challenge was the Scottish nobility, equal opportunity traitors and all-round treacherous snakes. She raised an army, rode at its head with a pistol in her belt, and put a couple of rebel lords' heads on pikes. This did not reduce the others to obedience, but at least got them to take notice that Scotland had a monarch – a useful first step in nation building.

So far so good, not to mention first rate story material. Unfortunately for Mary, though not for writers, in the spring of 1564 a cousin of hers showed up at her court in Edinburgh. His name was Henry Stuart, but everyone knows him as Lord Darnley. From this point on the standard version of her story becomes Smart Women, Foolish Choices. Mary fell in love, and in three months they were married. The marriage went downhill. Within a couple of years Darnley was dead, narrowly escaping a modern assassination attempt by bomb only to end up dead by old fashioned strangulation. Mary, after another marriage, imprisonment by rebels, escape, and assorted treachery and swordplay, fled to England. There she was imprisoned and eventually axed by another cousin, Elizabeth I.

Which brings me – at length – to John Guy's biography. Scottish himself, he is unabashedly sympathetic to Mary, and sets out to write a 'revisionist' version of her story. He wants to give her back her reputation, showing that she was neither a sex crazed murderess nor even an airhead bimbo. For example, Guy argues that while she did have a brief infatuation for Darnley, she got over him in a few weeks. She married him anyway, but that was dynastic politics, not hot monkey love. (Darnley had a credible claim to the English succession.) Later, Guy calls on previously little-examined source materials to challenge most conventional details of Darnley's assassination, in a way that clears Mary of complicity.

I don't remotely possess the scholarly toolkit to evaluate all of this. (If the author made it up out of whole cloth, how would I know?) But this isn't really a problem in Guy's book, because in the death cagematch between scholarly integrity and historical revisionism, scholarly integrity wins hands down. If Guy is correct, a fair number of details in what I wrote for Emmet are wrong, but the core remains unchanged. After a good start, Mary's rule did go to hell in a handbasket, mainly because of her bad decisions regarding her love life – and Guy, gritting his teeth perhaps, admits as much.

Mary's real problem wasn't just bad judgment, but the fact that hereditary monarchy is a political system that takes sex out of the bedroom and puts it in the history books. Kings rarely had serious trouble because they got married. (The ones who did, like Edward II, already had other problems, namely general ineptitude.) Ruling queens faced a much tougher challenge. Isabella of Castile made a very rare political success of marriage. So, later on, did Catherine the Great, but only because if it was Good to be King, it was even better to be Tsar, or Tsaritsa. Even Elizabeth I was not quite successful – by not marrying at all she avoided the usual pitfalls, but at the price of falling down on one crucial part of the monarchical job, namely providing a royal heir. (Until, at the very end of her reign, she gave the quiet nod to James I/VI, ironically the son of Mary Queen of Scots and Darnley.)

In short, I recommend this book, alongside Antonia Fraser's standard treatment. More generally, if you are a science fiction or fantasy geek, and you probably are, you should really treat yourself to some tourism in the 16th century. You wouldn't want to live there, but it's a great place to visit.

Monday, May 25, 2009

4300 ... 687

West Point cadet
Memorial Day, 2009 *

4300: Climbing out of the pit is harder than jumping into it was.

687: There are no good wars, only unavoidable ones. I hope we find a workable strategy for this one.

* Our counterpart of Remembrance Day.

Friday, May 22, 2009

A (Long) Last Hurrah for the Hubble

Hubble viewed from AtlantisAmid the clutter of the week I missed commenting promptly on the completion of the final Hubble servicing spacewalk last Monday.

It has been (yikes!) 19 years since the Hubble Space Telescope was lofted into orbit aboard the Shuttle Discovery in April of 1990. Time and triumphs have produced a generation happily unaware that the Hubble, as launched, was one of NASA's more embarrassing blunders. Somehow, in building it, no one thought to check the main mirror, which turned out to be incorrectly figured so that it produced only blurry images. Face, meet egg. But in 1993 astronauts fitted it with what amounts to a prescription monocle, and everything snapped into focus.

I won't try to list what Hubble has taught us since the eye doctor made a house call, except that the servicing missions themselves have confirmed our ability to do exacting physical work in space. (A robotic servicing mission was ruled out for the latest upgrade: Robotics are not up to the task.) Well done, Atlantis crew and predecessors!

The Hubble is now expected to have another 5-10 years of service life. Meanwhile, treat yourself to some eye candy here.

Update 1: Atlantis returned safely today (Sunday), capping this tricky and outstandingly successful mission. The landing was delayed and shifted to California by persisting rain at Cape Canaveral. (Too bad Florida can't send some of that rain our way - they have it, we need it, but it's our dry season now.)

Update 2: President Obama has named Charles Bolden to be the new head of NASA, pending Senate confirmation. Bolden is the second former astronaut to head NASA, and - how's this for synchronicity? - was pilot (second in command) of the mission that put the Hubble in orbit. Seems like good news for the manned spaceflight program.

Update 3: Be sure to read the comments for Cool Information from a member of the Hubble science team!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Mars Attack!

Let us pay a visit to, say, the 23rd century. Earth is 'neomedieval' - not in the SCA sense, no knights and castles, but politically fragmented and cross-connected, with multiple layers of authority.

The space population is highly geocentric - the majority in low orbit, which after all is easiest and cheapest to reach from Earth. Here are the main stations supporting other space activity, such as assembly and maintenance of deep space craft. Here also is microgravity research, perhaps manufacturing; also tourist hotels, Xollywood micrograv studios, and whatever else anyone can finagle shuttle fare for up there. Here too, surely, will be administrators and emergency responders. But like Earth, its surrounding space is politically fragmented and diffuse, with multiple divided loyalties.

Low orbit is the Janus of space, looking down from one side, out from the other. From low orbit out to translunar space will be smaller and more specialized populations: on higher orbits (or as Isaac Kuo suggested at SFConsim-l, long elliptical orbits), and on/orbiting the Moon. Perhaps also ever popular L5, though I'm unpersuaded that it has any special real estate value.

All of this is within commuting distance of Earth, for sufficiently large values of 'commuting.' Most of the people are there for a few days to a few months. Beyond Earth space the buses run much less often. The population, though far smaller, is necessarily more permanent and self-sufficient. Much of it is aboard spacecraft and stations scattered across the inner Solar System. But let us suppose that there is a concentration on and around Mars. (If you think Mars is overrated, substitute Ceres, or wherever. It might be both, but let's keep things simple.)

Mars and its orbital space are a single commute zone, so to speak. Long term habs there can support multiple secondary outposts, and they can backstop each other. No colony in the traditional sense is needed for a cohesive Martian identity to emerge. Shared experience and perspective, along with frequent intermingling, will do the job. And, like Earth orbital space, Mars and its orbital space will have some administrators and emergency responders, the seeds of government - but with a difference. They too are Martians.

What we have here are two different worlds - figuratively as well as literally. Earth orbital space has a large and varied population, much of it transient and most of it shuttling back and forth from Earth itself. Orbital-space regulars will have some shared identity as spacehands (I prefer this to 'spacers'), but they are not a community. Martians, though fewer in numbers, are a community, their Martian-ness reinforced not only by the Red Planet itself but by years of intermingling and interdependence, and shared distance from Earth.

Different worlds, and different politics. In Earth orbital space, goods from the shadow side will find a market if the price is right. A spot of larceny, even outright piracy? Someone else's problem (unless it happens to you). Let the downside courts argue over who has jurisdiction and who sends a patrol craft to deal with it. In Mars space, not so much. Margins are too small, people and stations/bases too interreliant to shrug off that sort of thing. Trouble around Mars is everyone's problem.

So. What happens when an incident of barratry sends a Mars-bound cargo pod on orbit to nowhere? The first time, the Martians burn up the comm channels with angry protests, and demands that the Powers That Be Do Something About It.

The second time, they decide that if the Powers That Be cannot or will not clean up the mess in Earth orbital space, they'll have to do it themselves.

And that, boys and girls, is how the Solar System came to be governed from Mars.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Live Long and Prosper

Nearly two years ago, in the early days of Rocketpunk Manifesto, I had this to say about the original Star Trek:

The Trek universe may be a mass of inconsistencies stitched together by unconvincing retcons, and the Enterprise may look like a 1950s automobile hood ornament. (Why were Klingon battlecruisers so much cooler?) Those are not what we remember: We remember Scotty and Bones, Sulu and Uhura, each bringing not just specialized skills but a distinct perspective. "I'm a doctor, Jim, not a scriptwriter!"
I saw the new movie yesterday, and the quoted passage turns out to work nicely as a thumnail review. The plot is unmemorable, the effects generic CGI, the bad guy a pale shadow of Khan - who cares? Those are all incidentals. What the film gets right, splendidly right, are the characters. The actors - as scads of reviewers have already noted - don't try to imitate their predecessors. They inhabit their roles, and make them their own.

It works. If you haven't seen it, do so.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Foreign Policy Formulation in SPAAACE !!!

Do I really need an excuse to link this?

I didn't think so.

Those who are curious can follow the backstory starting here.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Rocketpunk Manifesto Goes PoMo!

Firefly's Inara (Morena Baccarin)
Postmodernist literary criticism, AKA PoMo, gets beaten up on quite a bit, and not without some reason. It is the only discipline I know of in which people speak of Theory (with a capital T) without bothering to give the theory a name. It is notorious for unreadable prose. It is commonly associated with a prim campus leftism, but one of its founding fathers seems to have been uncomfortably comfortable with the Nazis.

Space geeks, of course, have poor standing to complain on that score. But most alarming, from intellectual perspective, there are legitimate grounds to wonder whether the postmodernists know what the hell they are talking about. Certainly no one else does, but a couple of physicists wrote a bogus paper, filled with pure jive, and got it published in a refereed postmodernist academic journal.

So why would I flirt with this particular dark side? Because at the root of postmodernism are some real insights into the slippery nature of texts. They do not always say quite what the author intends. Texts can contradict themselves in subtle ways, or the author's claimed meaning can be contradicted by other facts, the way Sally Hemmings contradicts the Declaration of Independence.

Among the questions raised is who 'owns' a text? Isaac Asimov once attended a lecture on his own work. He disagreed with one of the lecturer's points, and afterwards went up, introduced himself, and said so. Replied the lecturer, "What do you know? You're only the author." The Good Doctor A. had encountered postmodernism, and was not amused. I'll be returning to Asimov below, but what brought all this up was a discussion on SFConsim-l. The question of favorite starships came up, and a poster listed Serenity of 'Firefly' fame.

Is Serenity a starship? I said yes - thereby disagreeing with the show's creator, Joss Whedon. According to the official canon, the Firefly 'verse is a single vast planetary system that manages to have 50-odd habitable worlds. This is pretty shaky astrophysics - though hardly as shaky as FTL. But my argument is not so much about physics as about SF tropes. Serenity travels among habitable extrasolar planets, just like good old Enterprise. When I first watched the show I took for granted that it had the time-honored interstellar setting. No F/X or technobabble was wasted on FTL jumps, but it wasn't needed, and the only hint of a non-interstellar setting was the vague mention of the 'system' in Mal's opening voiceover.

So I have no hesitation in saying that, in terms of SF tropes, Serenity is best interpreted as a starship. If Whedon says otherwise it just shows that he is much better at creating a 'verse than explaining it.

Enter again Isaac Asimov. I have grumped before in this blog about his later Foundation books, which subvert and 'deconstruct' the whole premise of the original Foundation Trilogy - a thoroughly PoMo enterprise in its own right. The Mule a robot? I just don't buy it. My own PoMo response was and is to reject those books as Foundation canon. Donald Kingsbury's Psychohistorical Crisis has a far better claim to be a 'real' Foundation book - I haven't read it yet, but a quick thumb-through was enough to convince me. It engages the issues of determinism that the original trilogy did, and has the same grand sweep. Asimov's later books don't.

On the other hand, the later Foundation books have a much fairer claim to be canonical continuations of Asimov's robot-verse. Not only does R. Daneel Olivaw show up as a major character, the books are all about the implications of the Three Laws of Robotics - ultimately, the nature of ethics. Most of all the frame shift makes them much better books. (Just think of the Foundation-esque setting as a parallel universe.)

If that makes me PoMo, so be it. Isaac Asimov, for multiple reasons, is in no position to complain.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Lonely Luna - Not Feeling the Love?

Orion capsule

The Obama administration released its formal 2010 budget proposal today, proposing about $18 billion for NASA, about a 5 percent increase. More interesting are reports that the human spaceflight program will undergo a major review, one that may end the current plan to establish a permanent moon base.

All of this is bound up with the troubles of the Ares rocket, the main component of the 'Constellation' program, the overall cost of which is now projected to run to $44 billion. That is not the worst of its problems; one recent worry about Ares is that it might drift into its launch tower during liftoff. That is the sort of thing that American space rockets used to do back around 1959 - we really ought to be past that phase by now.

Given my politics I would love to blame it all on George Bush, but like Ares that probably won't fly. The truth is that all these decisions - not just the technical ones, but the policy framework - are determined several levels down. Because the further truth is that no national US political figure, so far as I can tell, is at all clueful about space. (The one possible exception is Newt Gingrich, who alas is clueless about Earth.) There is no reason they should be this early in the 21st century; the problems they have to deal with are overwhelmingly terrestrial. By 2059 or 2109 it could be a different matter, but not yet. As a practical matter we are unlikely to have a president who knows anything about space till we have one who grew up on science fiction.

Nor am I qualified to bloviate about the Constellation program or Ares technology, since I haven't followed the technical issues at all. The only observation I'll make is that returning to Earth by parachute, as the Orion crew capsule is intended to do, is probably not such a bad idea. When I first heard the idea it sounded horribly retrograde, a huge step backwards from the Shuttle. Parachuting down sounds like an emergency procedure, because we associate it with bailing out, even though about 99.99 percent of the people who have ever used a parachute did so by intent. Space travel is not aviation. There is no reason to put heavy structures like wings on a spacecraft if you can avoid it. This is one area - by no means the only one - where the rocketpunk-era vision has led us somewhat astray. (Though I still think the Skylon concept is way cool looking.)

But what about a moon base? This is another tradition that goes back to rocketpunk days - and perhaps another one whose time has passed. The moon has two problems: It is not really on the way to anywhere, and it has at most traces (if even that) of what we need most to get anywhere, namely volatiles AKA rocket fuel. So much - alas! - for producing fuel on the moon and shipping it to L5 or Earth orbit. The fuel isn't there to ship out.

Mars, on the other hand, certainly has water ice and probably enormous amounts of it, locked in permafrost just beneath the surface. Extracting it won't be easy, but at least it is there to extract. Somewhat handily Mars also has an atmosphere, so Mars orbital tankers can return to the surface with only modest descent fuel. Even better, there are hints that Deimos, the diminuitive outer moon of Mars, may have volatiles. If so it will be the natural gas station of the inner Solar System, directly accessible to electric powered deep space craft.

Does this mean skipping the Moon altogether? Almost certainly not. If nothing else, we'll want to test our planetary-landing procedures fairly close to home before using them on interplanetary missions. Not to mention that we haven't explored the place, only barely touched it.

But it is a very poor second to Mars, and that is what our primary goal ought to be.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Adventures in Interstitial Space

No special drive engine is needed to reach it, and travel to or through it raises no messy paradoxes involving General Relativity. On the other hand, traveling through interstitial space won't do a thing to get you to Alpha Centauri in less than 4.3 years, which is why you've probably never heard of it, and almost certainly not in an SF context.

Yet interstitial space travel, in the first of its two technical senses, has a time honored place in SF. The most famous instance in the popular culture is surely the trash-duct escape in the original Star Wars, but I recall at least one rocketpunk era SF novel that assigned a similar role to ventilation ducts. (Alas I recall neither author nor title, but the story had to do with asteroid mining, by Nasty Big Corporations rather than indie Belters. On edit: I didn't recall, but a commenter did - Scavengers in Space, by Alan E. Nourse. Thanks, Grif!)

Hence the #2 item on the standard list of advice for would-be Evil Overlords: My ventilation ducts will be too small to crawl through.

Our concern here is with a larger, metaphorical interstitial space, defined by the interstices of legal and authority structures. How's that for a sentence that cries out Adventure? But to put it in English, adventure thrives where the sheriff is a long ways off, or lacks a squad car, or has no clear right to wear the badge. I've blogged before about the density of power - not a familiar term, in a political context, though power vacuum is.

These things may turn out not to matter in space, not in any practical sense, any more than they matter in Antarctica. About a thousand people winter over there each year, and the summer population swells to a few thousand. Surely it can't be utterly crime-free, but misbehavior in the Antarctic has never made the papers in spite of a somewhat hazy legal framework. Certainly there are no renegade Antarctic stations, no Free Havens. Antarctica has no trade (only 'supply') and no autonomy; Antarctic bases are - so to speak - entirely and immediately dependent on Earth. Space may be the same way.

But if space evolves past the Antarctic stage of development, the question of who's in charge will sooner or later develop, and the answer may be far from clear - especially if it is not quite clear on Earth. A century ago a handful of Great Powers pretty much ran the show, but the trend of the last century has been decentralization of power. I blogged about a fragmented, 'neomedieval' world a couple of years ago, and now august Foreign Policy magazine is catching up.

In such a world, not only will there be more states - many of them happy to provide flags of convenience for spacecraft, at a modest fee - but also non-states, from corporations to universities, foundations, churches, whatever - that may enjoy some sort of semi-sovereignty, including authority (or the pretense thereof) over spacecraft. Moreover, the more blurred the concept of state sovereignty, the lower the threshold for space habitats or bases to claim some kind of semi-demi-sovereignty in their own right. Along with the means to assert and defend it.

Coming next, a closer look at space under conditions of fragmented sovereignty.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Happy 515th, Ms. de Guienne!

Because if you can't wish your character a happy birthday on your own blog, where can you?

(Now get back out there on your street corner, babe, and hustle us up a contract!)