Tag Archives: exploration

Coming Soon: Dispatches from Mars

In addition to the full draft of Ghosts of Tharsis, we have several stories in the works, more Dispatches from Mars by freelance journalist Calvin Lake, author of “Anatomy of a Disaster”. While that story was written tongue-in-cheek as a satire of several “sci-fi” tropes (notably the fiery redhead stock character and the annoying cat-fetishism of SF writers, indulged in by hacks and masters alike), it was the first use of Lake and his Dispatches as a framing device through which we could explore elements of the Ares Project universe that wouldn’t fit into one of the novels. We have at least ten of them outlined, with two substantially completed and one now finished and out for review. I’ll throw in a bonus description of a fourth story that has a full detailed outline, because I’m generous like that.

  • “True Crime” (working title)
    • Lake investigates an incident at Redlands Automation (makers of, among other things, the science pins mentioned in In the Shadow of Ares and “He Has Walled Me In”). When celebrity science popularizer Silas Hudson and his producer are murdered while visiting the settlement, order threatens to dissolve into mob violence as the settlers improvise justice for the killer. Eyewitnesses recount the murders and the dangerous days that followed – but are any of them telling the truth?
    • The story tackles a surprising number of themes for a 22,000 word short story, including:
      • The nature of science popularizers like Bill Nye and Neil Degrasse Tyson. Silas Hudson is their inverse, in that he’s actually brilliant in his own area of expertise and has learned through embarrassing experience to consult with experts in other fields before talking out his ass. He’s philosophical, he’s engaging, he shares credit with other experts, he’s earnestly curious about the way the universe works, he’s everything you could ever want in a science popularizer (apart from being dead).
      • The problems of civic order and justice in a frontier settlement where there is no established law and order. This theme is meant to be explored in depth in a different Dispatch and in the third novel, but here you get a glimpse at what can happen when there are no formal methods for dealing with serious crimes.
      • The invisible threat of “the crowd” in small, isolated populations like space settlements. We draw on Charles Mackay and Gustave le Bon to show how “extraordinary popular delusions” can spread as a social contagion and grow rapidly out of control and out of all contact with reality.
      • The unreliability of personal accounts of crimes and other dramatic events.
      • The value of sticking to the truth over taking the easy route of lying, which can be dismayingly tempting even to scrupulously honest people under certain circumstances – one seemingly small lie can snowball into tragedy.
      • A variety of recurring themes in our stories, such as the “baby taboo”, immigration on bond/contract, the protection of scenic places, commercial development, the practical operations of a Martian settlement, “facers”, etc.
    • This story is complete and out to our test readers for review and feedback. I expect we’ll have it published in the next 3-5 weeks.
  • “Pipeline”
    • Lake shows us the single largest development project on Mars undertaken to-date, and the colorful businessman behind it. His attempt at obtaining an interview with Jedediah Thoreson leads to an unexpected journey through Thoreson’s past and Mars’ future.
    • There are a few parallels to Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold” here, but the development and outcome of the story are very different.
    • The main themes here are free markets vs. anti-business zealotry camouflaged as environmentalism and humanitarianism, the importance of a clear vision to a large project, how large projects might be organized and funded on Mars or the moon, industrial development and future industrial technologies, and how people aren’t always who or what they seem to be.
    • Despite our original intention that “Anatomy of a Disaster” be non-canonical given its farcical nature (remember that it was first published on the blog as an April Fool’s joke), there is a cameo appearance by one of the characters from that story, and Thoreson Polar Water itself is mentioned in that story as a reference to this (future) Dispatch.
    • I especially like the narrative substructure of this story. Describing it here would reveal a lot of spoilers, unfortunately, so readers will just have to uncover it for themselves.
    • This story is around 80% written out from the detailed outline.
  • “Marineris”
    • This Dispatch describes the First British Trans-Marineris Expedition. An eleventh-hour leadership change initiates an escalating spiral of bad decision-making. Initial successes despite bad choices lead to hubris and eventually catastrophe.
    • The feel and certain elements of the story are modeled on the exploration missions of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, and specifically Mawson’s account in Home of the Blizzard. While none of these real-world expeditions went awry for the reasons shown in “Marineris”, those reasons are exaggerations of various leadership and mission planning flaws those early explorers experienced mixed with the authors’ own real-life leadership experiences.
    • The main themes in “Marineris” are of course leadership and the planning and conduct of complex missions. In particular, why you don’t put gamma males in charge of anything, ever, and the importance of sticking to a plan, preparing for contingencies, and not overextending yourself. Other themes include the practical elements of such a mission (i.e.: an architecture by which settlers on Mars might pull it off), the stultifying dead-end of technocratic socialism, team dynamics under reckless and incompetent leadership, the thrill of discovery, and the majesty of wild nature (even when it seems to want to kill you).
    • This Dispatch introduces a special-purpose hopper which will figure prominently in both Ghosts of Tharsis and “The Olympian Race”, and shows the origin of its name (it being the only named hopper in the MDA fleet). It also ties in to an unnamed Dispatch in which Lake buys a second-hand rover and runs into unexpected company on his way back to Port Lowell.
    • This one is currently about 70% written from the outline.
  • “The Olympian Race” (detailed outline complete and ready to write)
    • Lake relates the dramatic true story of two “gentlemen explorers” vying to be the first man to reach the top of Olympus Mons. Each thinks he has an insurmountable head-start over the other, only for their rivalry to converge at the end in a deadly all-out race to the summit.
    • This Dispatch is more an action story than a big-theme story. It’s a character-driven mixture of extreme sports and crime caper (remember that the MDA forbids all unapproved access to the Wilds, i.e. the lands outside of the settlement tract, which includes Olympus Mons and all approaches to it).
    • For crossovers, it’s the only Dispatch we’ve outlined so far in which The Green makes an appearance, and as noted above, it features the special purpose hopper from “Marineris” (as well as another key piece of hardware used on that Expedition).

Better Never than Late?

Barrack Obama has been busy writing OpEd pieces lately, including one in my favorite magazine, The Economist, and an extremely curious one published October 11 on CNN.com.

While I might take issue with a few of the assertions in the piece, I certainly don’t disagree with the overall message that we will go and that this time it is to stay.  However, the timing is bizarre, and the message odd from a President that hasn’t displayed an overwhelming interest in space exploration.  I do not tend to be cynical, but to me this screams of a transparent attempt at legacy building on the cheap.

On a curious note, right below the President’s piece is another by Michelle Obama advocating improving access to education for girls the world over.  Right now the link is titled “Michelle Obama:  Let’s get girls to school”, but here’s what it looked like earlier today when it was originally published:

10-11-2016-3-32-30-pm

 

Gemini-Mars Winner Announced

The Mars Society recently announced the winner of the Gemini-Mars competition, the culmination of a program that was originally announced last year.  Awhile back I described the benefits of such a program here and here.  Gemini-Mars is a proposed Mars flyby mission, so named because it would include a two-person crew and also because it would pave our way to reaching the Martian surface, much like the Gemini Program did for the Moon in the 1960s.

team-cranspace

The top team, from Cranfield University in the UK, was one of 10 teams invited to present their plan at the 2016 Mars Society Convention held last month in Washington DC.  Details of the plan were not included in the announcement, but will presumably be contained in the conference proceedings.  I was unfortunately not able to attend this year, and thus haven’t yet seen the presentation.

The original contest announcement included the statement that the plan “could be placed on the desk of the President-elect in late 2016 and be completed by the end of his or her second term”.  Well in a matter of weeks we’ll know who that will be, and hopefully that individual will have an interest in taking this next bold step.

Zubrin on SpaceX to Mars

Robert Zubrin was quick to post some suggested improvements to Elon Musk’s recently announced Mars plans (quicker than I was to post this follow-up):

The key thing I would change is his plan to send the whole trans Mars propulsion system all the way to Mars and back. Doing that means it can only be used once every four years. Instead he should stage off of it just short of Earth escape. Then it would loop around back to aerobrake into Earth orbit in a week, while the payload habitat craft with just a very small propulsion system for landing would fly on to Mars.

Used this way, the big Earth escape propulsion system could be used 5 times every launch window, instead of once every other launch window, effectively increasing its delivery capacity by a factor of 10. Alternatively, it could deliver the same payload with a system one tenth the size, which is what I would do.

So instead of needing a 500 ton launch capability, he could send the same number of people to Mars every opportunity with a 50 ton launcher, which is what Falcon heavy will be able to do.

The small landing propulsion unit could either be refilled and flown back to LEO, used on Mars for long distance travel, or scrapped and turned into useful parts on Mars using a 3D printer.

Done in this manner, such a transportation system could be implemented much sooner, possibly before the next decade is out, making settlement of Mars a real possibility for our time.

 

Mars Sample Return on the Cheap?

I recently attended a presentation about the BoldlyGo Institute, hosted by the Rice University Space Institute.  BoldlyGo is a “non-governmental, non-profit organization founded to address highly compelling scientific questions through new approaches to developing space science missions while engaging the global community in the quest.”  As presenters Dr. Laurie Leshin (Worcester Polytechnic President) and Dr. Jon Morse (BoldlyGo CEO) put it, they are trying to fill the science and exploration gap resulting from stagnant NASA funding.

Their first proposed mission, surprisingly, is a Mars sample return mission.  Sound too ambitious?   Maybe not.  I’ve posted about the welcome reset of expectations for Humans-to-Mars, with a shift to focusing on a Mars flyby as the initial near-term goal.   Similarly, BoldlyGo’s SCIM mission (“Sample Collection to Investigate Mars”) is a fresh alternative to the standard sample return missions that have never gotten off the drawing board.

With a baseline launch opportunity in August 2020, SCIM performs a daring high-speed atmospheric pass down to below 40 km altitude timed to coincide with seasonal Martian dust storms, collecting thousands of Martian dust particles from the atmosphere. After the sample collection pass at Mars, the spacecraft returns directly to Earth, where its precious, sterilized samples descend by parachute to the ground.

While the sample size will be small, it is anticipated that the particles collected will be representative of the ubiquitous Martian dust, and that back on Earth the dust can be subject to intense examination not foreseeable on a near-term robotic mission.  For the relatively low price of perhaps $300 million, that’s a lot of scientific bank for the buck.

RIP Phobos

PhobosThat may be a bit premature, but apparently Phobos will be pulled apart by Mars’ gravity in about 30 to 50 million years.  New findings were announced by NASA Goddard scientists November 10.

Phobos’ grooves, long thought to be related to the enormous impact that created Stickney Crater, may actually be due to deformation from tidal forces.  These “stretch marks” may indicate that Phobos is not solid, but rather is an aggregate of rubble surrounded by a thick layer of powdery regolith.  This would make it easier for tidal forces to fracture the Moon.

These findings, if accurate, could present interesting challenges and opportunities for astronauts visiting the moon for exploration, mining, or setting up a base.  Phobos will figure prominently in Ghosts of Tharsis, our upcoming sequel to In the Shadow of Ares.

 

 

 

Company on the Moon?

A renewed international space race that many have been hoping for appears to be on the horizon.  NASA has announce plans to send humans to Mars, and now Russia has announced it intends to send humans to the Moon by 2029.  It has also been reported that Russia is in talks with China to collaborate on a Moon base.

Anything that gets us beyond LEO is a good thing, as long as the Moon doesn’t become the ultimate goal or a significant distraction in getting us to Mars.

Seeking Mars Architects

In line with NASA’s recent focus on Humans-to-Mars, the agency announced a new contest to design structures on Mars using existing materials found on the planet.  The In Situ Resource Utilization Challenge  offers a $10,000 first place prize and two $2,500 second place prizes.

Of course, ISRU is a cornerstone of all practical Humans-to-Mars proposals, and it’s nice to see NASA embracing it.  Personally I’d like to see a near-term sample return mission with the return powered by fuel derived form the Martian atmosphere, a much bolder ISRU demonstration than some of the proposals currently under consideration for the Mars 2020 mission.

ISRU is so critical because it significantly lowers the cost and (if done properly) the risk of the mission.  As NASA indicates:

One advantage of using resources from the planet instead of bringing everything from Earth is the potential to save the agency more than $100,000 per 2.2 pounds (1 kilogram) of cargo each launch.

As for that $100,000, that’s gotta come down quite a bit, regardless of ISRU.  Of course the private sector is making great strides there already.

We have a plan…or do we?

On Thursday NASA released a plan for getting humans to Mars, the 36 page Journey to Mars: Pioneering Next Steps in Space Exploration.

journeytomars-coverThe document is definitely much more of a PR brochure than an actual mission plan, but of course this is for public consumption.

It includes three phases:  “Earth Reliant” (ISS-based), “Proving Ground” (cis-Lunar) and “Earth Independent” (Mars and vicinity), “each with increasing challenges as humans move farther from Earth.”

It is positive to hear NASA publicly proclaim, “Like the Apollo Program, we embark on this journey for all humanity. Unlike Apollo, we will be going to stay.”  It’s quite a reversal from a few years ago where even mentioning Mars seemed to be a taboo.

Unfortunately, this “plan” does differ from Apollo in other key areas: it lacks the political mandate, budget and timeframe to provide a reasonable chance at success, at least in our lifetime.  This isn’t NASA’s fault, of course; it’s a political reality that must be overcome.

Other problems include the plan’s attempt to justify past expenditures and accommodate other, irrelevant initiatives.  The role of ISS is certainly larger than it needs to be, asteroid capture is unnecessarily included, and apparently Solar Electric Propulsion will be playing a role.  Too many things that don’t have a lot to do with getting to Mars.

There’s also no mention of a Mars fly-by mission.  Such a mission would be achievable within NASA’s current budget and more importantly within two presidential terms.  It would also significantly advance and provide a real “proving ground” for many of the critical technologies mentioned in this document.  Maybe more important, it would likely boost the political and public support for a full blown Mars landing and settlement program in our lifetimes.  Hopefully a future version of this plan will move in that direction.