Life Imitates Art #9845761: Splat

NASA Mars orbiter examines dramatic new crater.

Impressive. Now, imagine a few dozen of these happening. At the same time. I just drafted that scene last weekend…

I find it a bit surprising that this sort of thing (to various magnitudes) happens about 200 times per year. Not that it should be all that surprising, considering it probably happens on Earth as well – the rocks just don’t reach the surface thanks to our atmosphere. Surprising because one tends to think of Mars as a completely dead planet, where nothing much happens.

As we continue to explore and eventually settle the place, we’re bound to find out it’s nowhere near as dead as it seems. Something important to keep in mind with regards to writing fiction set on Mars – your characters are likely going to have to outrun a water outburst or dodge a meteoroid every now and then, and who knows what else.

The Ethics of Martian Babies

Rand Simberg probes the issue over at PJM: The Bioethics of Mars One.

It’s funny to see Rand and the commenters on his article echoing the sentiments we present in In the Shadow of Ares regarding Amber’s parents having a child on Mars and the continued reluctance of other settlers to have children. One criticism we received from several early readers of the manuscript was that it was unlikely that in a dozen years of settlement activity, nobody else would have had a child but Aaron and Lindsay.

Well…here’s an indication that it’s not so unlikely.

Grasshopper Flight Test

Watching this, I had to wonder what it would have been like had NASA done something like this with a Saturn V first stage back in the day…

What I find especially interesting and useful about SpaceX’s Grashopper effort is the applicability to Mars landers and (later on) surface-orbit shuttles – which is probably the long-term point of the exercise, given Elon Musk’s interests. If you picture this vehicle spread out at the base a bit more into a conical shape, you’ve got the Ares Project ERVs. Scale them up a little bit more from there, and you’ve got the MDA’s surface-orbit shuttles.  Add an Orbiter-sized payload bay, and you’ve got the new cargo shuttles which will make their appearance early in Ghosts of Tharsis.

Of course, the obvious problem this technology poses for In the Shadow of Ares is that this testbed is actually a better pilot than Daniel Martinez. Granted, he had no alternative under the circumstances but to deactivate the autopilot and land Odysseus himself (and succeeded), but his accuracy was somewhat less impressive than what’s shown here.

Speaking of Things That Look Like Settings From the Book…

This image at Wikipedia bears a striking resemblance to how I pictured the Ares IV “homestead” site in the simulation at the beginning of Chapter I, minus the “rump” portion of ERV Lilith.

Mars Direct base artist impression - N. Oberg
Mars Direct base artist impression – N. Oberg

You can almost imagine the suited figure as Amber preparing to fire up her jetpack.

Life Imitates Art (Sorta): Disaster at Xichang

Hmm…without knowing any of the details of this accident (though I do recall it happening), we had planned a similar incident for the prologue of the third book in the series: Disaster at Xichang

The rocket began to rise, and the American engineers in the satellite test room ran out the door. “I got out, turned and ran around the building to my best viewing spot, in time to see the mountain lit from behind, hear the startling rumble and see the rocket emerge,” the diary reads. “But instead of rising vertically for nine seconds and several thousand feet [before starting to arc toward the east] I saw it traveling horizontally, accelerating as it progressed down the valley, only a few hundred feet off the ground. ‘Wrong way!’ I yelled, and for the next few seconds I was frozen in my tracks.”

On the roof, Campbell and others were just as perplexed. “All of a sudden, we looked down the valley and saw this huge cruise missile flying by. Our first reaction was This is really interesting. And our next reaction was Holy shit, we need to get off the roof.

After flying for 22 seconds in the direction of the hotel and residential complex, the 426-ton vehicle crashed into a hillside, most of its propellant still on board. The overstressed payload section with the satellite inside had broken off and plunged to the ground moments earlier.

We were imagining a Chinese version of the Nedelin Disaster, but it looks like they’ve already had one. Looks like we’ll have to imagine something…bigger

Hard to Keep Up With The Technology

It’s stuff like this that makes it hard to write science fiction set very far into the future – Gesture control is wave of the future:

Touchless computers are coming to a store near you, likely sometime next year. These are computers that operate with simple hand gestures — either through the use of sensitive sound-wave recognition or via cameras, similar to Microsoft’s Kinect. And they are being developed and tested right now…

Because its technology depends on sound waves, the user can gesture beyond the edges of the computer screen. For instance, swiping toward the screen could reveal a set of icons, and swiping your hand away from the computer could close an application.

“It’s much more comfortable,” Kjolerbakken said. “You can sit back and don’t have to be in physical contact with the device. You don’t get fingerprints on the screen.”

So, we imagined smart phones and multiplatform integration with roaming displays and such before they became reality, but we still have physical interfaces when it comes to screens and even telepresence (the latter in the form of gloves or rings, depending on the vintage of the equipment). One could imagine Amber using something like this (in a more explicit form than what we describe) in the scenes where she is assembling survey data on the wallscreen using her MA, or the famous scene in Minority Report in which Tom Cruise sorts through data on a large screen being “upgraded” to eliminate his gesture-sensing gloves.

I’m not persuaded yet, though, that this new technology will be all that revolutionary in real life. Given the way I use a computer, it won’t offer me any useful new capability (at least none that I can think of without having actually tried it out). I use a keyboard for text input and editing, a trackball for video and photo editing, and a mouse and spaceball for CAD work, all of which involve fine-detail control that a finger-sized object poked into a vague spot in space can’t provide. This latter method is perhaps compatible with or an improvement in some way over how people use touchscreens on app-based devices (the implementation on which the article focuses), but having used a tablet over the weekend, I can’t say I much like the currently available version anyway…sloppy, laggy, inaccurate, and slow.

I’ll gladly accept a seamless voice interface, though.

Those Suicidal Pilgrims

Fox News recently ran a piece on plans by Mars One to launch one-way missions to Mars, with the first arrival in 2023:  Mars One Plans Suicide Mission to Red Planet for 2023.

The idea is that the astronauts are emigres, and not just visitors.  This removes the need for return spacecraft and the associated fuel, tremendously reducing the cost and complexity of the missions.  It also eases the concern that the early Mars missions, like Apollo, might eventually lose support and result in another dead end. 

Hyperbolic headlines aside, I agree with Brian Enke that “extended stay mission” is a more appropriate name.  The early settlers in North America arguably faced tougher physical and psychological hurdles, yet I doubt many would refer to their journey as a suicide mission.

A major theme of In the Shadow of Ares is the role of private enterprise in Martian development and settlement, though we initially expected government-led missions to open the frontier before “getting out of the way”.  Mars One proposes to conduct their missions completely independently, though it remains to be seen if they can obtain the required funding, estimated at $6 billion for the first mission.  I, for one, would love to see them pull it off.

I look forward to learning more, though an initial perusal led me to a few concerns, not least of which is Mars One’s stated intent to rely entirely on solar power on the Martian surface.  I believe their concerns regarding nuclear power are severely overstated, and smack of politics trumping science.  Readers of In the Shadow of Ares may recall politically-motivated power choices having deadly consequences for a group of settlers at Tharsis Station.

Life Imitates Art #983745345367: The Wallscreen

One of the fictional technologies we imaged for In the Shadow of Ares is the “wallscreen”, a wallpaper-like display of practically unlimited extent which interacts with the characters’ mobile agents and other computing systems. In the scene where this technology is introduced, Amber’s mother is playing an ambience video loop of a tropical beach, which […]

One of the fictional technologies we imaged for In the Shadow of Ares is the “wallscreen”, a wallpaper-like display of practically unlimited extent which interacts with the characters’ mobile agents and other computing systems. In the scene where this technology is introduced, Amber’s mother is playing an ambience video loop of a tropical beach, which her father observes is probably too realistic for healthy morale. In other scenes, smaller data windows are displayed as needed over whatever is currently used as the background.

So, imagine my surprise this afternoon when I walked past the Microsoft store at the local mall and saw a wallscreen of sorts along all three interior walls of the place, with a tropical beach video wrapped around the whole thing in correct perspective, and with small application windows floating over the video here and there?

I didn’t react quickly enough to get a photograph of it before it switched to headshots of some unkempt programmer on a plain orange and white background, but it was very impressive and almost what we had in mind. One big difference was that the screen was only about three feet high, and at eye-level on the wall, rather than being floor-to-ceiling. It was also segmented (obviously made up of a number of individual display panels about 3′ x 6′, each of which had a tiny bit of vignetting) rather than being visually seamless.

But those are really just quibbles with what is still an emerging technology. This is 2012, and we’re already seeing technology that Carl and I posited for 2051. That’s pretty cool.