February 13, 2018

Elon Musk as Heinlein’s Delos D. Harriman – “Selling the moon is just what Musk is doing”

Filed under: Books, Business, Space — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 06:00

I suspect I’d recognize a lot of the books in Colby Cosh‘s collection, as we’re both clearly Robert Heinlein fans. In a column yesterday, he pointed out the strong parallels between Heinlein’s fictional “Man Who Sold the Moon” and his closest counterpart in our timeline, Elon Musk:

Written between 1939 and 1950 for quickie publication in pulp magazines, the Future History is a series of snapshots of what is now an alternate human future — one that features atomic energy, solar system imperialism, and the first steps to deep space, all within a Spenglerian choreography of social progress and occasional resurgent barbarity. It stands with Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy as a monument of golden-age science fiction.


The result, in the key story of the Future History, is an uncannily accurate description of the design and launch of a Saturn V rocket. (Written before 1950, remember.) But because Heinlein happened not to be interested in electronic computers, all the spacefaring in his books is done with the aid of slide rules or Marchant-style mechanical calculators (which, in non-Heinlein history, had to become obsolete before humans could go to Luna at all). Heinlein sends people to colonize the moon, but nobody there has internet, or is conscious of its absence.

Given that his ideas about computers were from the pre-computer era and even the head of IBM thought there’d be a worldwide demand for a very small number of his company’s devices, that’s not surprising at all. In one of his best novels, a single computer runs almost all of the life support, heat, light, transportation and communication systems on Luna … and is self-aware, but lonely. In later works where computers appear, they tend to be individual personalities or even minor characters, but they’re anything but ubiquitous: powerful, but rare.

I suspect the lack of an internet-equivalent derives both from the nature of his conception of how computing would progress and a form of the Star Trek transporter problem – it solves too many plot issues that could otherwise be usefully woven into stories.

The “key story” I just mentioned is called “The Man Who Sold The Moon.” And if you’re one of the people who has been polarized by the promotional legerdemain of Elon Musk — whether you have been antagonized into loathing him, or lured into his explorer-hero cult — you probably need to make a special point of reading that story.

The shock of recognition will, I promise, flip your lid. The story is, inarguably, Musk’s playbook. Its protagonist, the idealistic business tycoon D.D. Harriman, is what Musk sees when he looks in the mirror.

“The Man Who Sold The Moon” is the story of how Harriman makes the first moon landing happen. Engineers and astronauts are present as peripheral characters, but it is a business romance. Harriman is a sophisticated sort of “Mary Sue” — an older chap whose backstory encompasses the youthful interests of the creators of classic pulp science fiction, but who is given a great fortune, built on terrestrial transport and housing, for the purposes of the story.

February 10, 2018

When cinematography wins out over reality

Filed under: Books, Media, Space — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Earlier this month, Charles Stross talked about why he’s been reading less and less science fiction lately, and touched on SF movies and (for example) why George Lucas chose to model space combat on World War 1 aircraft battles:

When George Lucas was choreographing the dogfights in Star Wars, he took his visual references from film of first world war dogfights over the trenches in western Europe. With aircraft flying at 100-200 km/h in large formations, the cinema screen could frame multiple aircraft maneuvering in proximity, close enough to be visually distinguishable. The second world war wasn’t cinematic: with aircraft engaging at speeds of 400-800 km/h, the cinematographer would have had a choice between framing dots dancing in the distance, or zooming in on one or two aircraft. (While some movies depict second world war air engagements, they’re not visually captivating: either you see multiple aircraft cruising in close formation, or a sudden flash of disruptive motion — see for example the bomber formation in Memphis Belle, or the final attack on the U-boat pen in Das Boot.) Trying to accurately depict an engagement between modern jet fighters, with missiles launched from beyond visual range and a knife-fight with guns takes place in a fraction of a second at a range of multiple kilometres, is cinematically futile: the required visual context of a battle between massed forces evaporates in front of the camera … which is why in Independence Day we see vast formations of F/A-18s (a supersonic jet) maneuvering as if they’re Sopwith Camels. (You can take that movie as a perfect example of the triumph of spectacle over plausibility at just about every level.)

… So for a couple of generations now, the generic vision of a space battle is modelled on an air battle, and not just any air battle, but one plucked from a very specific period that was compatible with a film director’s desire to show massed fighter-on-fighter action at close enough range that the audience could identify the good guys and bad guys by eye.

Let me have another go at George Lucas (I’m sure if he feels picked on he can sob himself to sleep on a mattress stuffed with $500 bills). Take the asteroid field scene from The Empire Strikes Back: here in the real world, we know that the average distance between asteroids over 1km in diameter in the asteroid belt is on the order of 3 million kilometers, or about eight times the distance between the Earth and the Moon. This is of course utterly useless to a storyteller who wants an exciting game of hide-and-seek: so Lucas ignored it to give us an exciting game of …

Unfortunately, we get this regurgitated in one goddamned space opera after another: spectacle in place of insight, decolorized and pixellated by authors who haven’t bothered to re-think their assumptions and instead simply cut and paste Lucas’s cinematic vision. Let me say it here: when you fuck with the underlying consistency of your universe, you are cheating your readers. You may think that this isn’t actually central to your work: you’re trying to tell a story about human relationships, why get worked up about the average spacing of asteroids when the real purpose of the asteroid belt is to give your protagonists a tense situation to survive and a shared experience to bond over? But the effects of internal inconsistency are insidious. If you play fast and loose with distance and time scale factors, then you undermine travel times. If your travel times are rubberized, you implicitly kneecapped the economics of trade in your futurescape. Which in turn affects your protagonist’s lifestyle, caste, trade, job, and social context. And, thereby, their human, emotional relationships. The people you’re writing the story of live in a (metaphorical) house the size of a galaxy. Undermine part of the foundations and the rest of the house of cards is liable to crumble, crushing your characters under a burden of inconsistencies. (And if you wanted that goddamn Lucasian asteroid belt experience why not set your story aboard a sailing ship trying to avoid running aground in a storm? Where the scale factor fits.)

Whatever you do, don’t go asking him about Han Solo’s claimed Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs…

January 25, 2018

The Canals of Mars – Eye of the Beholder – Extra Sci Fi – #10

Filed under: Books, History, Space — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Extra Credits
Published on 23 Jan 2018

The Canals of Mars ignited so many imaginations, especially in science fiction stories, but they never really existed. What made us believe in them? And why did so many writers keep dreaming about them even after the theory had been disproved?

January 7, 2018

Carbon Fiber – The Material Of The Future?

Filed under: Space, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Real Engineering
Published on 27 Feb 2017

January 3, 2018

BAHFest London 2017 – Louie Terrill: Why the Kessler Syndrome is key to humanity’s future

Filed under: Humour, Space — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on Dec 11, 2017

Watch Louie Terrill at BAHFest London 2017 present his theory, “Making sure we’re all in this together: Why the Kessler Syndrome is key to humanity’s future.”

BAHFest is the Festival of Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses, a celebration of well-researched, logically explained, and clearly wrong scientific theory. Additional information is available at http://bahfest.com/

December 21, 2017

UFOs? Again?

Filed under: Media, Space — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

I must admit I share Colby Cosh’s just disproven belief that we were done with the UFO craze:

Yeah, I know: wrong UFO

There can no longer be any doubt: every fashion phenomenon does come back. I, for one, really thought we had seen the last of UFO-mania. When I was a boy, the idea of stealthy extraterrestrial visitors zooming around in miraculous aircraft was everywhere in the nerdier corners of popular culture. If you liked comic books or paperback science fiction or Omni magazine — and especially if those things were among the staples of your imaginative diet — there was no getting away from it.

Anyone remember the NBC series Project U.F.O. (1978-79), inspired by the USAF’s real Project Blue Book program? As the anthology show’s Wikipedia page observes, most episodes had the plot of a Scooby-Doo cartoon, only backwards: they would end with the investigating protagonists discovering that UFOs remained impenetrably Unidentifiable, but must be “real” craft capable of physically improbable manoeuvres. (I know citing Wikipedia will savour of pumpkin-spice holiday laziness on my part, but the Scooby thing is a truly perceptive point by some anonymous Wiki-genius.)

Then, at the end of the show, a disclaimer would appear on-screen: “The U.S. Air Force stopped investigating UFOs in 1969. After 22 years, they found no evidence of extra-terrestrial landings and no threat to national security.”


There are very good reasons for a superpower’s military apparatus to devote a little money to following up UFO sightings. “Threat Identification”? Sure, whatever. Plenty of U.S. military flyers have seen UFOs, and these people ought to be comfortable reporting odd occurrences without ridicule. But if I were American, I would definitely want most of that budget to go to Scully rather than Mulder. Don’t throw cash at someone who really, really wants to believe.

What I find vexing is that most of the response to the Times story has been in the spirit of “Whoa, aliens!” rather than “Taxpayers got robbed.” Young people may know on some level that ubiquitous good-quality cameras have all but eliminated civilian UFO sightings. But they lack the personal memory of a live, thriving UFO fad, one that bred quasi-scholarly international UFO-study associations along with a whole publishing industry devoted to UFO tales. I wonder if the Times’ piece on UFO research, by the very virtue of its flat-voiced Grey Lady objectivity, is having the same weird effect as that disclaimer they showed at the end of Project U.F.O.

October 18, 2017

Wheel of Future History

Filed under: Environment, History, Humour, Space — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 16 Oct 2017

It’s 2017. No jet packs yet, but 3D printed beer will be here soon so just shhhhhhhhh.
The poem near the end is ripped off from Rudyard Kipling’s “If”. It’s a good one. Check it out ► https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46473/if—

Are There Parts of German WW1 Warships in Space?

Filed under: Germany, History, Military, Space, Technology, USA, WW1 — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Real Engineering
Published on 19 Jul 2017

September 28, 2017

Back to the Moon in 2019?

Filed under: Space, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Charles Stross thinks a US circumlunar expedition is on the cards for just two years ahead, and he might well be right:

If Donald Trump is still president, US astronauts will return to circumlunar space around July 16th, 2019 …

That’s the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11. It’s also 6-12 months on from the projected date of Musk’s translunar tourist trip on a Falcon Heavy.

I expect Falcon Heavy to be delayed a few months, minimum, because no new launch vehicle ever flies on time, especially a crew-rated one, but it’s currently due to fly around December this year for the first time, with a vehicle currently undergoing integration at Cape Canaveral and commercial orders for subsequent flights. It’s rather hard to describe it as vaporware at this point. The same goes for the Dragon 2 crewed capsule; it’s due for a first uncrewed orbital flight test in March 2018, and a crewed orbital test flight later in 2018.


I’m making this a prediction, however, because the POTUS factor.

July 2019 lies within the term in office of Donald Trump (or Mike Pence, depending whether impeachment/removal has happened first then). Trump is nothing if not an egomaniac, and offering him the opportunity to make a historic phone call to lunar orbit in front of the TV cameras is a guaranteed ego-stroke. Trump is of an age to have young-adult memories of Apollo and I can’t see the idea not appealing to him if he can take credit for it.

So I’m betting that this is how Musk will fund development of his lunar-orbit capability.

(Terms and conditions: prediction invalid in event of nuclear war, global environmental or economic collapse, Trump and Pence both being impeached, or a Dragon 2 capsule exploding in flight, because any of these things might impact the launch schedule.)

Note: Charles is quite a fan of the impeachment scenario, if you hadn’t picked that up from context. The fact that he’s very much not a Trump fan actually makes his prediction that much more striking: he has no interest or desire to see Trump get a propaganda coup to end his term in office.

August 8, 2017

QotD: The next “Carrington Event”

Filed under: History, Quotations, Science, Space — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The last one happened in 1859. The Earth was hit by a cloud of magnetized plasma from a “coronal mass ejection” — something that our Sun often does. Most fly off in other directions; the last that barely missed us was in July, 2012. (You can tell it missed from the fact that the Internet still exists.) The last bullseye on our beloved planet was named after the brilliant English amateur astronomer, Richard Carrington (1826–75), who, in the course of figuring out what happened, demonstrated the existence of “solar flares.”

He was trying to explain why telegraph operators all over the world, on the 1st of September, 1859, were suddenly getting electric shocks; and then, prior to the whole cable system going down, why some had been able to send and receive messages even after disconnecting their power. Too, why auroras had lit up the night sky at temperate latitudes so bright people could read newspapers by it; or why those at higher elevations near the equator could enjoy the aurora borealis and the aurora australis — simultaneously.

Now, the world a sesquicentury ago was not so dependent upon electricity as it is today. And the system of telegraphy was so ridiculously simple, that it was soon repaired. I daresay Morse Code is worth learning in preparation for the next Carrington Event — which, when it comes, we will be able to predict, at best, a few hours in advance. (Other cosmic events might impinge on our lifestyles meanwhile, but I like to consider my apocalypses one at a time.)

Gentle reader may do a mental inventory of the gizmos in his environment that are connected directly or indirectly to the power grid. Then add in anything that contains a computer chip, whether it happened to be “on” or “off” when the Earth’s magnetic field was impacted. For I assume it will all turn “on” of its own, for a brief but memorable interval.

The “beauty” (as they say in Cape Breton) is that we have no back-up system, and moreover, there can be no back-up, except what we can rig from horse, or paddle. For we have made ourselves totally dependent upon sparks.

On the plus side, the environmentalists may exult, because the quick reduction of the world’s population to post-Plague mediaeval levels could prove a lucky break for the other endangered species.

It will, even more happily, improve national security for the survivors in USA. For the same magnetic storm that makes the cities (and towns) of America uninhabitable will also have disabled the military capacities of Russia, China, and Iran. If they want to come at us they will have to do so in sailing ships. Moreover, the depopulation of Mexico will probably reduce the invasion threat from there, whether or not Donald Trump is President.

David Warren, “The highest tech”, Essays in Idleness, 2015-08-22.

July 25, 2017

The Greatest Scientist of the 20th Century You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Filed under: History, Religion, Science, Space — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 13 Jul 2017

There’s a perception that religion and science go together about as well as mayonnaise and marshmallows. In some instances, this is, perhaps, true. But on a typically warm Southern California January in 1933 at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California (the same place and same time that Jack Parsons of rocket science fame was doing his experiments — history intersecting!), religion and science proved that these two ideals didn’t have to be enemies.

Want the text version?: http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/02/georges-lemaitre-greatest-scientist-youve-never-heard/

June 15, 2017

The “killer app of space tourism”

Filed under: Space, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

The “mile-high club” will soon be replaced by the “sixty-two-mile-high club“, says Glamour in their coverage of “Sex in Space“:

As Elon Musk announces a plan to start colonizing Mars in 2020 and space tourism companies begin offering (very pricey) trips outside the planet, space vacation is suddenly looking less like a sci-fi plot and more like a real possibility. And like any other type of vacation, one of the best parts will probably be sex. But sex in space? Is that even a thing?

To our knowledge, no one’s boldly gone there, but that hasn’t stopped the experts from guessing. Here, they answer some of our most pressing questions about the future of hooking up in space.

Is it even possible?

Sure, though keep in mind that in space capsule conditions, there’ll be considerably more fumbling around. Just getting our parts to touch could be a puzzle, since it turns out gravity is the important sex aid you didn’t even realize you were using.

“Because successful coitus for humans relies on gravity to achieve correct alignment and maintain contact with the participants’ genitals, its absence will pose a novel problem,” says OBGYN Kyrin Dunston, MD. “In addition, the thrusting motions required for successful coitus will present unique reactions in the female, where she will be propelled away from her partner during coitus, making the act very difficult.” (Though it’s pretty hilarious to picture.)

According to Dr. John Millis, Ph.D, a physicist and astronomer at Anderson University, it would be almost like two ice skaters pushing their hands against each other while standing on ice. “This two-dimensional example is complicated further by the fact that, in space, the astronauts would be moving in three-dimensions,” he says.

Will we need a whole new genre of sex toys, then?

If we want to streamline space sex, we may have to enlist technology to stop people from floating away from each other. A good space-sex device would have to attach the astronauts to their partners and the space station, says Millis.

Dr. Dunston elaborates: “That could be a jungle gym-type apparatus that allows people to position themselves appropriately to a strap system that holds them together, or clothing that accomplishes the same thing. Imaginative minds will create something ingenious, I’m sure.”

May 17, 2017

NASA swings for the Moon … and misses

Filed under: Space, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Robert Zubrin is not a fan of NASA’s recent announcement of a planned lunar orbital station as its next major goal, calling it “NASA’s worst plan yet”:

At the recent Space Foundation conference held in Colorado Springs, NASA revealed its new plan for human space exploration, superseding the absurd Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM) championed by the Obama administration. Amazingly, the space agency has managed to come up with an even dumber idea.

In the early months of the Trump administration, some lunar advocates spread the rumor that the new president would seek a return to the Moon within his first four years, thereby dramatically making America great again in space. That is not the plan.

Nor is the plan to send humans to Mars within eight years, something that I think we could achieve. Nor is it to send human missions to explore near-Earth asteroids, as then President Obama suggested in 2010, nor is it even to send humans to a piece of an asteroid brought back from deep space to lunar orbit for study, as called for in the ARM.

No, instead NASA is proposing to build a space station in lunar orbit. This proposal is notable for requiring a large budget to create an object with no utility whatsoever.

We do not need a lunar-orbiting station to go to the Moon. We do not need such a station to go to Mars. We do not need it to go to near-Earth asteroids. We do not need it to go anywhere. Nor can we accomplish anything in such a station that we cannot do in the Earth-orbiting International Space Station, except to expose human subjects to irradiation – a form of medical research for which a number of Nazi doctors were hanged at Nuremberg.

If the goal is to build a Moon base, it should be built on the surface of the Moon. That is where the science is, that is where the shielding material is, and that is where the resources to make propellant and other useful things are to be found. The best place to build it would be at one of the poles, because there are spots at both of the Moon’s poles where sunlight is accessible all the time, as well as permanently shadowed craters where water ice has accumulated. Such ice could be electrolyzed to make hydrogen-oxygen rocket propellant, to fuel both Earth-return vehicles as well as ballistic hoppers that would provide the base’s crew with exploratory access to most of the rest of the Moon. Other places on the Moon might also work as the base’s location, because while there is no water in nonpolar latitudes, there is iron oxide. This can be reduced to produce iron and oxygen, with the latter composing 75 percent or more of the most advantageous propellant combinations.

May 14, 2017

Space Myths Debunked – Earth Lab

Filed under: Science, Space — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 4 May 2017

From astrology to the temperature in space, Dom counts down the top 5 space myths and explains why they are baloney.

1 http://astronomy.swin.edu.au/cosmos/N/Neutron+Star
2 http://www.universetoday.com/77070/how-cold-is-space/
3 https://www.wired.com/2007/11/no-dark-side-of/
4 http://www.livescience.com/34212-great-wall-of-china-only-manmade-object-visible-from-space.html
5 http://www.universetoday.com/25364/can-you-see-the-great-wall-of-china-from-space/
6 https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/fact-or-fiction-nasa-spen/
7 https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/proceedings-of-the-international-astronomical-union/article/div-classtitleastronomy-and-astrologydiv/3171E9B009B4E8421B1913AC0A08AB32

April 28, 2017

What is a parallel universe? | Doctor Who Special | James May Q&A | Head Squeeze

Filed under: Science, Space — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 22 Nov 2013

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the very first episode of Doctor Who James has a very special video on what exactly a parallel universe is!

Some physicists believe that in a parallel universe all of our mistakes have been corrected. Rather than taking a take away for one in a cold miserable flat, we are, in a parallel universe, living with our one true love having the best life ever. Outside our own universe, the theory goes, that there are an infinite number of other universes.

However maybe we don’t have to travel beyond our universe to find a parallel. The Schrodinger’s Cat paradox basically is that a cat in a box with a device that can kill at random exists in both alive and dead states. More info on Schrodinger’s Cat here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/google/google-doodle/10237347/Schrodingers-Cat-explained.html

Thanks to Alyssa Ann for her portrait of Jeremy Clarkson: http://alyssamenold.com/

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