We Went to Olympus Mons on a Dare, But it Turned Out Completely Boring

I plotted out a Dispatch involving the first men to summit Olympus Mons, which originally included a dramatic scene on the summit ridge on the rim of the caldera.

Which, further research revealed, is not where the summit actually is.

It turned out to be difficult to find the actual summit location, but in Google Mars (no, the one in Google Earth Pro) it appeared to be on the north rim of Pangboche. Great, I thought: I simply have to move the sequence a bit south, and the descriptions of the ridge still work just fine!

Well, no.

After more research, I finally discovered the summit is likely some 15km to the east of Pangboche. In the middle of a rolling plain.

Like this, but redder.

Well. That complicates things a bit. It’s not exactly the kind of terrain where dramatic, death-defying challenges happen. Unless, of course, there are unexpected dangers lurking in those knolls…

*- Title stolen from this, which I need to re-read. I liked it a lot more than the reviewer, and picked up on a lot more subtextual commentary than she apparently did (or than was intended, maybe), but I can see her points. 

Silas Hudson on the Utopian Fiction Versus Reality

Perhaps the most effective persuasion against technocracy was its own literature, especially science fiction depicting futures of pure reason and universal brotherhood – the Perfection of Man. These bright imaginary utopias of scientific splendor stood in embarrassing contrast to the drab, stultifying, and corrupt reality that emerged from every attempt to establish in reality the foundations necessary for constructing these fictitious new orders.

What can be imagined cannot necessarily be realized. And realization is all the more difficult when the paradise of the imagination runs counter to the reality of human nature.

— Silas Hudson

One hopes not…

Russian Megarovers and Martian Industry

Sure, they have mars rover analogues in Iceland.  But this is a whole ‘nuther level.

The scale of the Kharkovchanka puts into perspective what would be required of a rover on Mars capable of what is described in the book and short stories (and especially in the in-work material).

Granted, most travel would be on “tracks”: the dirt or gravel roads plowed between settlements. But that wouldn’t be the case for the Ares missions or newly-landed settlements, exploration, or other activities taking place in undeveloped areas or in the Wilds. Where roads do not exist, something akin to a Kharkovchanka is needed: robust and powerful, and with a drive system able to tackle virgin terrain. The remoteness of such activities from settlements adds the need for extended self-sufficiency, including carrying supplies for a crew of (say) 4-8 people for several weeks.

When you add to this the living space and amenities necessary to allow them to do productive work while not losing their marbles from the cramped conditions, you get a substantially larger rover than what we’ve seen in the Ares Project stories (so far…).

It’d be tough to fit all this into a package that can be shipped to Mars on a “Mars Direct”-style lander, of course.  On the other hand, rovers used by the fictional Ares Project weren’t intended for extended use or long-distance travel (>500km), especially not with the full 4-6 person crew aboard. Based on real-world NASA conservatism in such things, such missions also wouldn’t land in areas with difficult terrain. Indeed, the fate of Ares III is an in-universe example of why “land in a parking lot” is sound practice in the early phases of exploration.

With the commencement of settlement on Mars, settlers needs quickly outgrow what can be accomplished with rovers small enough to transport from Earth. That the settlements are mostly commercial also means rovers transported from Earth constitute an enormous expenditure of limited capital. With the establishment of an industrial base, rovers become a high priority for import substitution. Larger, more robust, and more capable rovers incorporating local knowledge and experience in their design would be a high priority early on for the settlers, along with not having to break the bank to get them shipped from Earth.

Early on, combining imported high-tech (and high-density) items like power and navigation systems with Mars-fabricated heavy structures and bulky but simple components would be the obvious first step towards a fully Martian rover industry. The industry would be more Rolls-like than Ford-like (hand assembly vs. assembly lines, short runs vs. mass-production). But with a small population and no export market, you get what you get.

In the Mars context, however, rover systems and components have a market outside of the rover industry. A compact life support system, for example, is useful in fixed applications as well. ECLSS for rovers by nature would be transportable to undeveloped locations, making them perfect for startup settlements and oases. Though sized for what amounts to a Winnebago on steroids, ganging multiple small units provides ECLSS redundancy – and peace of mind for those at remote sites. Likewise, the same technology works for small spacecraft, like those needed to retrieve and ferry cargo at Phobos Station. The (literally) vital importance of ECLSS systems everywhere and to everyone on a dead and hostile planet makes them a target for import substitution at the earliest opportunity.

Once industry in general gets off the ground, the high cost of transporting even high-density, high-value components from Earth and Luna would drive import substitution in all areas. Local needs and transportation costs (along with MDA’s pesky port fees) incentivize the rapid expansion of local sources for everything required, not only bulky items like pressurized structures and wheels/treads but electronics, power generation and transmission, and even things like lubricants and coatings.

Could there realistically be a wholly local rover industry on Mars within fifteen years of the commencement of settlement? Something capable of manufacturing a hundred or more small and standard rovers and maybe a half-dozen Kharkovchanka-scale rovers every year? Again, there’s some artistic license involved here, but…why not?

Back to the Quote Mines

Holidays are over, family has gone home, and I’ve handed off the time-consuming part of my job to a new hire – time to pick up where I left off.

Easing back into things, I spent a half hour or so every day this past week extracting from my commonplace books anything that could serve as a Silas Hudson quote. The original idea was to publish it as a standalone piece akin to Heinlein’s Notebooks of Lazarus Long.*

Whether or not that happens, it will at least be a useful background resource. Much of the material ascribable to Hudson concerns technocracy, a personal hobbyhorse and one of the themes of Book 2 and especially Book 3.

The unexpected part of this side project is discovering that I have plenty of material to do the same for both Aaron Jacobsen and Martin Beech and the themes they represent. It’s an imposing amount of material to sift through: 30+ commonplace books and 1800+ index cards. And then there are all the books with margin notes…

* – Looking at the fulltext on the Baen website, I see I’m going to have to fisk it at some point. Long’s “wisdom” seemed a lot wiser when I was lot naiver.

Martian Technology: Science Pins and Pingers

These devices have been featured so far in In the Shadow of Ares and quite prominently in Redlands and He Has Walled Me In.

A science pin, as described in ItSoA, is a device shaped like a scaled-up golf tee, with a stem 1-1.5m long, and a head 100-150mm across and anywhere from 50mm to 400mm tall. The stem contains common power generation, storage, and management functions, and in the field is mounted to a peg or sleeve drilled or driven into the soil or rock.  The head consists of one or more cylindrical modules of different heights and a wide variety of functions. These modules thread together at the center with a common physical and electrical interface.

In all applications there is a communications and C&DH (command and data handling) module. This module links the pin to local and satellite communications networks, as well as to specialized instruments such as seismometer arrays or deep soil probes which are not located on the pin itself.

Modularity and standardization make it possible for science pins to be quickly emplaced and easily maintained, and readily upgraded with new or additional instruments as needed. The size and external features of the modules make them easy for suited settlers to handle with gloved hands.

Lindsay Jacobsen is shown in ItSoA maintaining a science pin she had previously deployed to monitor ground water for evidence of biological activity.

In HHWMI, Leon Toa has a strange encounter with a strange science pin in the Wilds.

Redlands prominently features a gold-plated science pin, and the action is set at one of the settlements where the devices are manufactured.

In Ghosts of Tharsis, we introduce a specialized application of the science pin concept, the “pinger”. A pinger is a science pin used as a navigation aid, particularly during mild to moderate dust storms when travel by rover is still somewhat feasible. The head of a typical pinger is a single mass-produced module containing navigation strobes and the power storage required to operate them for a month or more. The head is crowned with a passive reflector that rover navigation radars can use for distance and triangulation measurements.

Pingers at intervals and in problem-prone locations include additional instruments to monitor local weather conditions and transmit them back to a central data hub for use in travel planning.

A real-world approximation of Martian navigation pingers
A real-world approximation of what Martian navigation pingers along a rover track might look like (Öskjuvatn, Iceland).

I particularly liked the idea of reusing science pin components as the basis of navigation aids, as it reflects a potential real-world solution to the problems of navigating across a landscape with minimally-developed roadways prone to obscuring by dust. It has the added benefit of eliminating the ability of the MDA to bring to a halt surface transportation among the independents by scrambling the signals from the positioning satellites on which they have a Charter-granted monopoly. But most importantly for our purposes as authors, it makes possible a dramatic rover chase in a Class 1 dust storm…

Petty Gestures of Cost-Free “Solidarity”

Sure, we’re in an unhinged fit of histrionics over Russia, so why not?

I mean, if you’re going to cancel Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy for being Russian despite both pre-dating the Soviet Union, why would you not cancel a Soviet-era historical figure who is a hero in both Russia and Ukraine, and pretty much across the world? Isn’t that part of the point of “Yuri’s Night”, to bring people together in celebration of a human achievement? 

Families in Science Fiction

At Powered by Robots, James Pyles asks “Where Are the Families in Science Fiction?”

I’m curious. Of the science fiction and fantasy you read, have you seen any family life shows in a positive way, especially in more recent publications?

I haven’t seen much in recent science fiction, because I haven’t been reading much science fiction recently. My reading priorities lately trend to the Classics and other nonfiction.

However, when we started out writing what became “In the Shadow of Ares”, this was one of the elements that we noticed was missing from a lot of SF at the time. We wanted to write a young adult novel that avoided the cliches of that genre and SF itself. So, we created a main character who was human, who made mistakes, and who wasn’t some sort of infallibly smart and precociously wise Secret Chosen One destined for greatness, and we set her in a family with parents who made some pretty risky sacrifices to make a go of it. We explicitly avoided making her an orphan, or situating her on her own in some manner like many of Heinlein’s juveniles’ protagonists (stowaways, runaways, castaways, and kidnappees). Too, families fit with the overall nature of the fictional universe, in which Mars is just starting to be settled – one character observes (perhaps only in draft) that if you’re not having babies, it’s a base and not a settlement…you’re not really committed to stay and build a new world.

In “ItSoA”, Amber’s positive relationship with her parents (especially her father) is a key element, while in the sequel, “Ghosts of Tharsis”, her close relationship with her mother is explored. In both books, the issue of children and families on Mars is an important theme, and this theme reappears in “Redlands” and (indirectly) in “He Has Walled Me In”. In “Pipeline” (unpublished), Thoreson’s children are entrusted with his business empire on Earth when he emigrates to Mars with his grandchildren to run the project. Also in “Ghosts of Tharsis”, every protagonist is shown in the context of family: Amber, Marek’s children, Ethan and his parents, Ezekiel and his brothers, even some tag characters. The only story we’ve published so far without a positive family element in it is “Anatomy of a Disaster”, which is appropriate given the story is a farce inspired by the Piper Alpha disaster. Even our non-Ares Project story, “Silent Stalker”, involved the positive portrayal of two families.

The funny thing about it, though, is that while we chose consciously at the beginning to include positive portrayals of family, it’s played out naturally in the creation of characters and situations. For example the “Baby Taboo”, once conceived (no pun intended), took on a life of its own in the fictional universe and suggested different but always opposed reactions from different characters – everyone hates the taboo, and you never see anyone but the villains truly supporting it. At the beginning of “Ghosts of Tharsis”, when the MDA relents and allows a small number of children 13 and older to emigrate, that not only brings Amber some kids her own age to associate with but necessitates exploring the family backgrounds of those new arrivals to explain how and why they ended up on Mars.

Apart from that initial decision, though, it’s not something that we’ve shoehorned in, and is not presented in a treacly or sentimental way. It just followed naturally as we drew on our own experiences and those of families around us.

Perhaps that’s the real problem: those authors who cannot or will not write positively about something as commonplace and essential as families are themselves broken children from broken homes. Like the majority of modern culture creators, their creative priority is the non-stop masturbatory airing of their childhood resentments – they hate their fathers so much that they write them out of the future.

Helluva Ride

I had the same reaction to this that I had when LM started putting cameras on the Shuttle External Tanks: “Why haven’t they been doing this cool thing all along?”

The departure of the heatshield was especially fun, as it’s exactly how I imagined the corresponding event in the prologue to “In the Shadow of Ares” (minus the unfortunate burn-through, obviously).

The rover’s first 360 pano is also out:

Note the similarity…
Day 14
Day 14
Mars on Earth

Accidental Hiatus

Yes, we need to get back to blogging here. But you know how it is, sometimes other priorities intervene.

Anyway, getting back to writing, we’re (still) finishing up the crime story Dispatch we’ve been working on for a while. We’ve spent the past two weekends restructuring a portion of it to address a draggy sequence that was proving impossible to edit into shape. It’s turning out nicely, with a much more consistently-paced escalation of events following the titular crime.

Meanwhile, Act I of the second Amber Jacobsen book, Ghosts of Tharsis, is complete but for some fact checking on orbital mechanics, Act II is written but for a few additional thematic elements and some additional action, and Act III is written but (frankly) the denouement is still a dog’s breakfast.

I spent most of July in Iceland, which half-expectedly turned into a “location scouting” trip for writing purposes. Drove Kaldidalur, Kjolur, and about half of Sprengisandur, each of which crosses a number of Mars-like landscapes. Also drove the segment of the Ring Road between Egilstadir and Jokulsargljufur that I bypassed in 2010, an area that looked like the Moon and Mordor had a landscape love-child. Once I finish processing the photos, I may do a photo essay on the especially Martian landscapes I encountered.

Pence Calls for Human Return to the Moon by 2024

I swore off reading most news as one of my new year’s resolutions, so I’m a little behind on this item. Now I understand the sudden sense of urgency regarding proposals I’ve been busy with this past week.

Pence calls for human return to the moon by 2024

“At the direction of the President of the United States, it is the stated policy of this administration and the United States of America to return American astronauts to the moon within the next five years,” Pence said. “To be clear: the first woman and the next man on the moon will both be American astronauts, launched by American rockets from American soil.”

So much for the usual kumbayaa globalism. Heh.

Pence offered a warning that appeared to be directed at Boeing, the prime contractor for the SLS core stage. “We’re committed to Marshall [Space Flight Center],” he said. “But to be clear, we’re not committed to any one contractor. If our current contractors can’t meet this objective, then we’ll find ones who will.”

“If commercial rockets are the only way to get American astronauts to the moon in the next five years, then commercial rockets it will be,” Pence added. “Urgency must be our watchword.”

From what I’m seeing, what’s behind the sense of urgency is the perception that HQ will not hesitate when faced with delays or overruns to change contractors or cancel troubled programs outright. (Excluding SLS, of course…)

Having worked on a program (on the receiving side) that was taken away from one contractor and given intact to another due to poor performance, I hope that specific type of contractor change doesn’t happen too often. Shifting a existing program to an entirely new team may (or may not) fix the management and design competency issues, but it takes a lot of time for the new team to get up to speed. More importantly, it’s difficult if not impossible to fix all of the engineering problems simply due to the inertia of completed engineering – the new team may not be allowed to start from scratch, or to implement significant changes and improvements, simply because of the time and budget required to do so.