Tag Archives: In the Shadow of Ares

Survival and Sacrifice in Mars Exploration

This sounds interesting, if a bit pricey, like a cross between Big Dead PlaceEndurance, and The Martian (and who knows, probably a bit of Alive! thrown in as well).

Survival and Sacrifice in Mars Exploration: What We Know from Polar Expeditions  [Erik Seedhouse]

With current technology, a voyage to Mars and back will take three years. That’s a lot of time for things to go wrong. But sooner or later a commercial enterprise will commit itself to sending humans to Mars.

 

How will the astronauts survive? Some things to consider are:

• Who decides what medical resources are used for whom?

• What is the relative weight of mission success and the health of the crew?

• Do we allow crewmembers to sacrifice their lives for the good of the mission?

• And what if a crewmember does perish? Do we store the body for return to Earth or give the member a burial in space?

Questions like these, and hundreds of others, have been explored by science fiction, but scant attention has been paid by those designing missions. Fortunately, the experience gained in polar exploration more than 100 years ago provides crews and mission planners with a framework to deal with contingencies and it is this that forms the core of this book.

Why the parallels between polar and space exploration? Because polar exploration offers a better analogy for a Mars mission today than those invoked by the space community. Although astronauts are routinely compared to Lewis and Clark, Mars-bound astronauts will be closer in their roles to polar explorers. And, as much as space has been described as a New Frontier, Mars bears greater similarity to the polar regions, which is why so much can be learned from those who ventured there.

Note that even though we’ve written young-adult SF, we haven’t shied away from these sorts of questions, and indeed In the Shadow of Ares opens with the death of the entire third expedition to Mars, which mystery forms the core of the novel. Likewise, a dramatic mass-casuality accident forms the background of our new short story, He Has Walled Me Inand the story itself has origins in my having read Laurence Gonzales’ Deep Survival.

 

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.

 

 

 

Review – The Martian

I finally got to check out The Martian this afternoon.  I thought it was fantastic, as did the family members with me, young and old.  It has all the great imagery and action sequences that I go to the movies for.

It’s a while since I read Andy Weir’s book, but based on my recollection I felt the movie was true to the story in all the right places, and better in some.  Mark Watney is MacGyver on Mars.  The detailed technical exposition is largely gone, but that would have bogged down a film that was already 140 minutes long.  For the most part the profanity was limited, probably another good change to increase the broad appeal of the film.  Drew Goddard’s screenplay also did an adequate job of fleshing out the secondary characters, something on which I felt the book fell short.

As far as accuracy goes, just as in the book the effect of winds on Mars was completely unrealistic.  The author admits as much, using it as a necessary plot device.  I was a bit disappointed in the surface suits.  They are visually appealing, and they look more like a next generation suit than a standard pressure suits, but they were clearly not as tight fitting as a true mechanical counter pressure suit (as we depict in In the Shadow of Ares) would be.

For a couple of extra space-centric reviews you can check out Keith Cowing’s review here (with a NASA-focused perspective) as well as Sarah Lewin’s review on Space.com here.

As for my previously expressed concerns regarding what kind of a message The Martian would have, those were put to rest.  By necessity the movie focuses on the hardships of living on Mars, and surviving in space in general, but it’s also a celebration of exploration and challenge.  In one scene, while resigned to his own death, Mark Watney asks that his family be told that he died doing something he loved, for a cause that was bigger than himself.  Amen.

Movie Science: Does it Matter if It’s Wrong?

Thursday I attended my second presentation in as many months at the Lunar and Planetary Institute near the Johnson Space Center south of Houston.  It was part of their Cosmic Explorations lecture series, titled “Movie Science:  Who Cares if It’s Wrong?”, and consisted of a talk by Dr. Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer and Director at the SETI Institute.  He is also host of the Big Picture Science radio show and podcast.

Dr. Shostak gave an entertaining presentation on scientific accuracy in film, from the perspective of a scientist asked to provide guidance on Sci-Fi scripts.  Provided and often ignored.  We were given humorous insight on the creative process, where Hollywood gets it right sometimes but often not.  It was ultimately left up to the audience to decide if it ultimately matters.  Of course with In the Shadow of Ares, and the sequel, we’ve taken the position that it does.

It is anticipated that the series will pick up again starting in the fall.  Those living in the Greater Houston area and interested in attending should check the LPI website in August/September.

See? We Told You So

Forbes has a short piece on the ethics and practicalities of having babies on Mars: Birthing Babies On Mars Will Be No Small Feat.

They cover the core reasons why having children (at least for the first fifteen or so years of settlement activity) is a taboo in the Ares Project universe: mainly, there’s no telling whether it will be safe to do so, and in small commercial settlements, babies and small children will consume scarce economic resources without near-term economic return. This originated early on in writing In the Shadow of Ares in the need to explain why Amber Jacobsen was still the only child on Mars after almost fourteen years of settlement activity, and the more we thought about the reasoning behind such a taboo the more real-world sense it made (and the more influence it had on her character and the story, especially the coming-of-age subplot).

Of course, in Ghosts of Tharsis and “He Has Walled Me In” we show that this taboo is starting to break down. This happens in large part because several of the settlements are large enough by the time these stories take place to absorb the economic impact.

[via Transterrestrial Musings]

Review: Interstellar

Interstellar - GargantuaI’m posting this review of Interstellar, belatedly, because I felt I had to see it again before commenting on its greatness as well as its few shortcomings. There was just too much to absorb and appreciate in one viewing. I’ll be careful with my wording to avoid spoilers.

Knowing the basic premise— explorers are searching for a habitable home for humanity to save them from a dying Earth, helped by unknown, advanced “bulk beings” who have opened a wormhole near Saturn for our use—I had initial trepidation that I was in for a Climate Change lecture. That notion was dispelled on the first viewing. Sure there’s a dust-bowl type blight that is wiping out crops and threatening what’s left of mankind; but this is just the impetus—the McGuffin if you will—to provide the urgency that drives the action. Some elements leading up to the climax were a bit too contrived for my taste, but overall it’s a great story with a strong cast, tension, and visuals that won’t let anyone down.  The script is excellent, with the exception of one criticism I’ll go into below.

Unlike so many recent Sci-Fi films, this one consistently makes a case for space exploration and advancement. A particularly powerful and effective scene involves a parent-teacher conference where Cooper has to process the absurdity his daughter’s suspension. Murphy’s transgression? She got into a fight after bringing a non-sanitized textbook to school; one that hadn’t been “corrected” to show that the Apollo landings were an elaborate hoax.

Cooper: You don’t believe we went to the Moon?

Teacher: I believe it was a brilliant piece of propaganda, that the Soviets bankrupted themselves pouring resources into rockets and other useless machines…

Cooper: Useless machines?

Teacher: And if we don’t want a repeat of the excess and wastefulness of the 20th Century then we need to teach our kids about this planet, not tales of leaving it.

Cooper: You know, one of those useless machines they used to make was called an MRI, and if we had one of those left the doctors would have been able to find the cyst in my wife’s brain, before she died instead of afterwards, and then she would’ve been the one sitting here, listening to this instead of me, which would’ve been a good thing because she was always the…calmer one.

Wow, not the kind of thoughtful dialog you expect in a film like this, but most welcome and expertly delivered.  It’s something we were keen to include in In The Shadow of Ares, and what is so often missing from the anti-human, Luddite drivel we’ve come to expect.  The humor is also excellent, particularly the interaction between the humans and robotic character TARS.

Where I was a little let down by the dialog was during the climax where Cooper solves the mystery of the bulk beings.  Cooper works out the details in a conversation TARS that is perfectly set up to avoid exposition, yet ends up feeling like just that.  Complicated conclusions end up being stated more than worked out. This important scene, and the accompanying dialog, could have been extended slightly and improved greatly.  I have my fingers crossed that this is addressed in the Director’s Cut.

While Interstellar is brilliant on so many levels, it’s the human element that really surprised me.  Ultimately it’s a story about our relationships and obligations to those we love, particularly our children.  Two scenes in particular, between Cooper and Murphy, are perhaps the most powerful I have ever seen.

Review: The Martian

I recently finished The Martian by Andy Weir.   I knew little about it, hadn’t read any reviews, and wasn’t expecting much.  In fact, I was ready to be disappointed. 

When we decided to write In the Shadow of Ares, we intentionally set it on a developed Mars.  For my part, I thought the story of a few astronauts and a dead planet had been done to death, with predictably mediocre results. 

I’ve never been so wrong.  This book is fantastic. 

Mark Watney is stranded on Mars when the rest of the Ares III crew have to evacuate for Earth shortly into their mission.  He is thought to be dead, and with no functioning communications and almost no food, his prospects are bleak. What he does have, though, is a mountain of ingenuity and a great sense of humor that give him a fighting chance.

The Martian is highly technical, but so funny and suspenseful that it should be accessible to nearly anyone (the language is genuine—and salty—so it’s not for all). Despite the bulk of the story consisting of the narration of the protagonist, the voice of that character is more than strong enough to carry the story along, and it doesn’t hurt that the pacing and suspense are outstanding.  I did have a few technical and editorial criticisms, but they are too insignificant to describe in detail here.

This is one of the most creative and enjoyable books I have ever read, and I recommend it highly.

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.

NASA’s Mission is not Safety

ISS; NASA via flickrUSA Today has published a great opinion piece by Rand Simberg, who boldly states that “NASA’s mission is not safety“.  [Phil Plait agrees.]

I couldn’t agree more. Safety cannot–and should not–be the top priority if we are going to have a program that is affordable and actually accomplishes anything.

Does that in any way trivialize the lives and well being of astronauts?  Absolutely not.  It’s a recognition that space exploration is inherently dangerous:  risk will always be there, and safety goes too far when it blunts our ability to actually do anything meaningful. 

Respect for the bravery, sacrifice and achievement of explorers is a central them of In the Shadow of Ares.  We honor them by pressing on with the mission.

 

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.