Describing a Sci-Fi story as “Unbelievable” is NOT a Good Thing

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** Review of “Return of the Sagan” by Neil Patrick O’Donnell

I don’t enjoy giving a book a bad review. As an author myself, I know it hurts, unless someone has such an iron-clad ego that they don’t believe it and thus fail to heed what it’s saying. Thus, when I do so, I try to stick to the facts of what a book’s deficiencies are so the author knows what to fix. Of course any review will always have a high level of subjectivity, but I try to judge a book as fairly as possible, based on its merits.

This story got off to a good start and has tremendous potential to become an epic saga of a starship gone for 300 years and now returning to Earth, only to find the human population extinct. That’s a big story. The main character, anthropologist, Francis Burns (no relation to Frank Burns of M*A*S*H fame), is believable and endearing with his OCD and quirky obsession with Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica and Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. It was a nice affirmation for gender equality that men and women shared high military rank in the story. The names of the vessels were well-chosen and credible. Authors are always advised to “write what you know” and O’Donnell did a great job with OCD and the geography of the Niagara region as well as military jargon and protocol. Generally, I believe that the world of “fandom” would particularly enjoy this story and would make a good target audience.

However, there are numerous things that need to be fixed before this story can be taken seriously by true science fiction fans. It’s important to note that “fandom” comprises individuals who are very well-versed on details and to earn their loyalty and respect you’d better get the particulars right. Unfortunately, I would give an “F-“ to some elements in this story, which I’ll explain farther down.

I must say that I truly hope the author can take my comments as constructive criticism as opposed to bashing, which is not my intent. I believe this story deserves serious editing at the line, copy and content levels so it can become the great saga for which it holds promise. If I were its editor, here are some of the things I would suggest to bring it to its potential glory.

1. It’s best to open a story with the main character, not someone who will largely disappear or be absorbed. Furthermore, there were too many characters, especially in the beginning. They weren’t all faceless, but most didn’t have a distinct personality. Due to the scope of the story, several characters are justified, but they need to be humanized and developed to hold the reader’s interest.

2. The author’s writing style is reasonably good, almost to the point of what I would call “strong.” However, there are few relatively easy to fix stylistic issues that would result in considerable improvement. Probably the most noticeable would be to eliminate the repeated use of the POV character’s name. Interestingly enough, this didn’t occur until later in the story. It’s distracting for a name to be repeated a half-dozen times or more in a single paragraph, especially in places where the person in question is the only one involved. That’s why we have pronouns. If there are two people of the same gender involved in a scene, a reminder of who’s talking or doing what from time to time is useful, but effective pronoun use is essential to readability. You don’t want the reader thinking, “Yeah, yeah, I know it’s him already!” or, conversely, having to stop and reread a section to figure out who’s speaking or prevailing in a fight scene.

3. Typos are almost inevitable in any novel, my personal favorite in this tome being “zero-gravy” which would probably slip past a spell-checker, but some were grating such as the consistent use of the wrong homonym. One or two I can handle, but this was excessive. I’ve never seen so many. I suspect a good grammar checker would catch these since in most cases they represent an entirely different part of speech. For example:

solar flares, not flairs

waver in the limited light, not waiver

reigned in magnificence, not reined

soul was allowed to leave his care, not sole

waved Francis to take his seat, not waived

pour out of the satchel, not poor

higher branches, not hire branches

fell from the satchel right past Francis, not passed

4. The military jargon and procedures were convincing and came across with an air of authenticity. Good job there. However, the technical aspects were so far beyond feasible that it detracted from the rest of the story. One minor example is the use of paper onboard a starcruiser, which is beyond doubtful.

5. And speaking of a starcruiser, no matter how much of a conspiracy buff you might be with regard to UFOs, it would be more credible for the ET’s from Zeta-Reticuli to provide Earth with a ship with interstellar capability with the volume of three aircraft carriers than for us to suddenly acquire one, much less populate it with F-15E Strike Eagles. I would think that most people, particularly sci-fi fans, would know that these aircraft could not possibly fly in space. Just out of curiosity and as a detail-oriented person myself, I asked a friend who’s a former pilot about that. Here is what he said:

“The F-15 could not be controlled outside the atmosphere as the airplane’s control surfaces depend on air flow to cause changes in roll, pitch, and yaw.  Thrusters are required to maneuver in space.  If it had thrusters, I suspect that the structure would overheat and breakup during reentry.  Initial reentry mach is far higher and would generate far more heat than the F-15 materials could withstand.  The engines are air breathers and can’t burn the kerosene without oxygen.  Then there’s the little issue of gravity.  The fuel tanks, lubricating oil tanks, and hydraulic reservoirs depend on gravity to operate.  The pickup points are in the bottom of the tanks.  The fuel tanks have baffles to keep a small amount of fuel available for negative-G use.  The engines are okay with the oil on them for a short time and there is pressurized hydraulic fluid in the system. 

“The fighters and trainers that I flew were limited to 30 seconds negative-G or inverted flight.  Zero-G is not negative-G, I’m not sure if there would be any difference.  The F-15 cabin is pressurized to 5 psi above ambient at altitude.  (It is unpressurized to 8,000 feet, maintains 8,000 feet until it requires 5 psi, then maintains 5 psid.)  There should not be any issues with DCS if the pressurization were functioning but it won’t be because it uses bleed air off the jets and the jets won’t work in a vacuum.  Therefore, the crew is exposed to vacuum with probable deleterious results. Another issue: the generators are driven by the engines and if the engines aren’t turning you are down to battery power which will only power essential systems for a short duration.  The longer I think about this the more reasons I come with as to why the F-15 isn’t a spacecraft.”

 

Yes, there are readers who are acutely aware of such facts and inaccuracies of this magnitude detract from the story as a whole. It would be more credible to make up an entirely new craft (think X-wing or Tie fighters) than use one inappropriately. Even a mention of the aircraft being retrofitted would have helped, even though that would be extremely unlikely due to what it would entail.

6. Some plot angles, such as the potential for a conspiracy on the part of political figures, were dropped. If this will be developed in a sequel then that should be implied more clearly.

If I were to deduct one star for each of the above points, the book book have a negative rating. Of course all the work the author put into it is worth something and it did have some redeeming value, even though reading much of this book was downright painful. Nonetheless, I persisted to see how it would end, which was handled reasonably well and provided fertile ground for a sequel.

As noted earlier, the premise is interesting and has tremendous potential, but the execution left far too many shortcomings if you’re picky about the science being accurate and expect proper grammar and style that doesn’t keep tossing you out of the story, shaking your head. These issues require attention to pass muster with the ranks of true science fiction fans. Besides some good editing, a cadre of good beta readers are a valuable asset that I highly recommend.

If you’re so inclined, you can pick up a copy on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Return-Sagan-Neil-Patrick-ODonnell-ebook/dp/B00SP4BOZS/

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Review of Glory on Mars by Kate Rauner

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If you’re a fan of hard science fiction, and I mean really HARD, then you will love this book. In fact, I’m inclined to say that it’s only on the borderline of sci-fi, that it’s more what I would call science faction, i.e. so close to being reality that it’s not even that futuristic. Indeed, many people reading this book are likely to live to see a Mars colony in their lifetime. If you loved the movie “The Martian” then this story is a great follow-up to keep your imagination well-grounded on the Red Planet.

The Mars base the author designed is brilliant. She has thought of just about everything imaginable and described it at a technical level detailed enough to make you feel as if you’re there. She has hab modules, jumpships, walkabouts, surface suits and any number of other goodies. At the least, you know she’s not just making this up because her engineering background truly shows. Since I worked as a NASA contractor for over 20 years, I found many familiar things in this story, from the space technological presence in Noordwick, The Netherlands, since I’d been there more than once, and other terminology such as “frangible nuts” used with explosives to release their hold in various spacecraft applications.

By the time you finish this story, you feel as if you’ve completed a tour of duty on Mars. Anyone who may aspire to go there someday can get a very sound idea of what it would be like, from eating worms to the various hazards that abound on a planet that is not fit for human habitation without serious, high-tech intervention. There are radiation issues, maintaining an appropriate pressurized volume with the correct oxygen mixture, psychological challenges, vehicles for getting around on the surface, sometimes at a great distance, and so forth. In this respect it is exceptionally well-done. The author’s knowledge and undoubtedly a whole lot of research is evident and available for readers to enjoy. The side stories were excellent as well, adding additional detail and background which I highly recommend readers take the time to enjoy. They’re not required, but add to its richness. Thus, as an outstanding science fiction novel, I give this book a strong five stars.

However, if you want a bit more than engineering and science in a story, there are a few things I would have recommended be included, had I been a beta reader for this book. I realize that all reviews have a high degree of subjectivity, and the comments that follow are strictly my opinion and may not be shared in the slightest by other readers, especially if all you want is hard sci-fi. Nonetheless, that’s part of the point of a review, to share one’s opinion, and why over all I give this story four stars, so here we go.

While the numerous characters clearly had different personalities, to me they were faceless. Their physical descriptions were lean at best and missing at worst. She did a great job giving them very diverse and memorable names, many of which implied the individuals’ international heritage, but I never was able to “see” them in my mind, other than perhaps Yin and Yang, which were handled in a very clever manner that worked. I like to be able to picture the characters in a story and didn’t feel I had enough description of the others to do so.

The point of view (POV) was limited to one member in particular named Emma, with whom I connected somewhat. One thing to be said about the single POV is that it does lend the feeling that you were Emma and experiencing what she did. Nonetheless, with so many characters, it would have been interesting to get into their heads and viewpoint as well. The first half of the book contained a lot of description about the base and getting things set up along with the challenges involved, which could have been handled through other crew member’s POV so the reader got to know them as well. This would have rounded out the other characters a bit more and provided an opportunity to describe their appearance.

A little more conflict among the crew members would have added a bit more realism as well. This was touched on a little, but it’s highly likely that roughly a dozen people confined as they were under stressful and sometimes life-threatening conditions would have had a few clashes along the way. There was some tension, but people simply aren’t that mature and logical all the time, even if they’re engineers. This I know, given I’ve managed them in my previous life.

Another thing that bothered me was the cat. As a cat owner and lover, I expected the cat to have a more significant role, perhaps along the lines of Pete in Heinlein’s “The Door Into Summer.” I couldn’t believe it that when this kitten was taken onboard as they began their journey that he was not immediately given a name! Maybe I’m just a crazy animal lover, but I can’t imagine that someone in that group wouldn’t have done so. At the least, when they arrived on Mars, someone already there would have done the honors, since it was that group who’d requested the cat in the first place.

The cat could have been worked into the plot more as well. The base’s AI even recognized the cat as a team member! Cats are curious, (Curiosity would have been a great name, in honor of a previous Mars mission) they get bored just like people, and he would have undoubtedly had some interesting experiences in the zero-gravity environment during the journey as well as once they arrived on the base. Mine get into trouble all the time in a regular earthbound house. Owning a pet isn’t simple and it certainly wouldn’t be on Mars. He could have caused any number of problems and conversely, even provided ways to solve others.

Why did the previous crew request a cat in the first place? Pets add warmth, affection, and a new dimension of “home” to say nothing of comic relief. He could have contributed an additional touch of reality to an unreal situation. I probably wouldn’t harp on the cat issue so much other than the fact the cat is so prominently displayed on the cover. I found this very misleading, since the cat played essentially no role in the story, whatsoever, other than a few cameo appearances, where he could have easily become an endearing and potentially major character.

That precious piece of visual real estate known as a book cover would have been much better used to fill other gaps in the story. It would have been very helpful to have a drawing of the base, for example, with all its modules and such, which was well-described in the text, but not always easy to picture. Any artist would have had a blast with that. It also would have benefited by some people as well, which could have compensated for the lack of description in the text. A newly designed book cover would be a great investment for this story and thus represent its content more accurately. Potential readers for this book include hard sci-fi fans, preppers into self-sufficiency, and cat lovers, based on the cover. The cat on the cover could actually turn off some readers who would enjoy it the most.

Speaking of preppers, a bit more of the self-sufficiency side of growing food, raising fish and so forth would have been great as well. The use of heritage seeds, saving some of the potato harvest to plant for the next generation, or even the use of aquaponics could have further enhanced the story and also fit nicely with switching viewpoints.

In spite of all my grumbling above, I truly did enjoy and appreciate this book and what it took to write it. As a physicist and former “rocket scientist” myself, I found very few things I wondered about on the technical side. There were a few places where I thought about making a few calculations, then reminded myself it was only a novel and to lighten up! It provides a realistic view and excellent vicarious experience of what it would be like to be a space pioneer. For that, I highly recommend it. Just don’t expect much from the cat.

You can pickup your copy on Amazon here.

Teleportation: Science fiction or science fact?

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The first time I read Lawrence M. Krauss’ masterpiece, “The Physics of Star Trek”, was in January 1996, which is hard to believe. Time, among other things, definitely does fly, but doesn’t diminish my memory of how much I enjoyed that book. Being a physicist and a life-long science fiction fan, I absolutely devoured it, even though some of his conclusions were disappointing. For example, he virtually discounted the possibility of teleportation. He recounted the basic steps as defined in the Star Trek Next Generation Technical Manual as follows:startrekbeam1

  1. Transporter locks on the target.
  2. Scans the image to be transported.
  3. Dematerializes the item (or person).
  4. Retains the information in a “pattern buffer”
  5. Transmits the “matter stream” in an “annular confinement beam”.
  6. Reassembles it based on data retained in the “pattern buffer.”

Krauss then proceeded to explain in meticulous, often amusing detail, what the requirements would be to create both a matter stream of the atoms comprising the teleportee’s body coupled with an information stream of how to put it back together.

startrekbeam2To wit, considering that a person consists of approximately 10^28 atoms (ten followed by 28 zeros, for those of you who don’t recognize that notation), turning a 50 kilogram person into pure energy according to Einstein’s E=mc^2 would release more energy than that of a thousand 1-megaton hydrogen bombs. To do so would require heating him/her to a temperature a million times the temperature at the center of the Sun. Accelerating the resulting plasma soup to near the speed of light is another feat, to say nothing of also transferring around 10^28 kilobytes of data to the “pattern buffer” to reassemble it. On top of that, there’s Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and various other quantum mechanical difficulties.

heisenbergprincRemember, however, that this was written back in the 90s and science has made vast advances since then as has our computational capacity. Personally, I would bet it could be done using the principles of quantum entanglement, but Krauss’ points are nonetheless well-taken. After all, he’s a professor of physics in his own right, at Case Western University when he wrote that particular book.

However, in Stephen Hawking’s foreword to said book, this phenomenally brilliant physicist stated, “Today’s science fiction is often tomorrow’s science fact. The physics that underlies Star Trek is surely worth investigating. To confine our attention to terrestrial matters would be to limit the human spirit.”

And apparently someone has done exactly that. At government expense. And much to my delight, quantum entanglement was indeed mentioned.  See?  I’m not as dumb as I look.

I never know what I’ll turn up when I go on a cleaning frenzy, more often than not, a desperate search for something in that proverbial “safe place” which I suspect lies in some other dimension. This last quest didn’t produce what I was hoping for, but instead I stumbled upon something even better, a paper from the Air Force Research Laboratory, Document AFRL-PR-ED-TR-2003-0034 entitled “Teleportation Physics Study.” This report is 88 pages long and is in front of me as I write.

USAFTeleportSeriously. I swear I’m not making this up.

When I worked at NASA, I came across all sorts of similar goodies and usually kept a copy, either electronic or hardcopy, provided it wasn’t classified, of course. In truth, I never saw anything of that nature, but plenty of stuff that was borderline and certainly not publicized.

This study was conducted by an organization known as Warp Drive Metrics located in Las Vegas for the Air Force Research Laboratory at Edwards Air Force Base. I don’t know about you, but I can’t help but notice that they’re both conveniently located not far from the infamous Area 51.

In the Introduction to this study the author states: “Beginning in the 1980s developments in quantum theory and general relativity physics have succeeded in pushing the envelope in exploring the reality of teleportation. . . . It has been recognized that extending the present research in quantum teleportation and developing alternative forms of teleportation physics would have a high payoff impact on communications and transportation technologies in the civilian and military sectors.”

He names five types of teleportation of which the science fiction version is one, but discounted as not included in the study, or so he says. Sad but true, you never know what jewel one of us sci-fi authors might come up with via our respective muses.

Of the five mentioned, my personal favorite is, as you would expect, the method using quantum entanglement, dubbed q-Teleportation, which he defines as the “disembodied transport of the quantum state of a system and its correlations across space to another system.”

I was particularly amused by Section 3.0, which addresses this particular category. The steps he summarized were as follows:

  1. Object placed inside the teleporter and scanned by a computer-generated and controlled beam.
  2. Scan beam encodes entire quantum information contained within the object into organized bits of information, forming a digital pattern of the object.
  3. The information is stored in a pattern buffer.
  4. The scan beam dematerializes the object into a matter stream.
  5. Teleporter transmits matter/energy stream and quantum information signal in the form of an annular confinement beam to its destination.
  6. The receiving teleporter reconstitutes the matter based on quantum information stored in the pattern buffer.

Hmmmmm. Am I the only one who thinks that sounds an awful lot like what Krauss described from the Star Trek Next Generation Technical Manual?

Section 3.0 goes on to describe many of the same calculations Krauss did.

Bah! Sci-fi discounted, indeed!

In Section 3.2.3 entitled “Recent Developments in Entanglement and q-Teleportation Physics”, he states, “Technical applications of entanglement and q-Teleportation are just becoming conceptualized for the first time, while a small number of basic physics breakthroughs and their related applications are in experimental progress at present.” (Emphasis added.)

You can’t make this stuff up.

Note that this study was conducted between January 2001 and July 2003. No telling what advancements have been made in the past 15 years.

My second favorite, p-Teleportation, is the “conveyance of persons or inanimate objects by psychic means” which he describes in Section 5.0. He goes on to mention psychics Uri Geller and Ray Stanford, who “claimed to have been teleported on several occasions. Most (emphasis added) claimed instances of human teleportation of the body from one place to another have been unwitnessed.”

Really? Ya think?

15385125_mlHe goes on to say, “There are also a small number of credible reports of individuals who reported being teleported to/from UFOs during a UFO close encounter, which were scientifically investigated….”   Plus: “There is a wealth of factual scientific research data from around the world attesting to the physical reality of p-Teleportation and related anomalous psi phenomena. The skeptical reader should not be so quick to dismiss the subject matter in this chapter, because one must remain open-minded about this subject and consider p-Teleportation as worthy of further scientific exploration.” He even mentions my favorite psi researcher, Dean Radin, PhD, of whom I’m a tremendous fan.

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Dean Radin PhD has done highly respected research on psi phenomena such as telepathy.

e-Teleportation, defined as “exotic”, comprises “the conveyance of persons or inanimate objects by transport through extra space dimensions or parallel universes”. This involves superstring theories, electromagnetic – gravity unification theories, and brane theory.  Don’t mind me, but just because they can do the math doesn’t mean it’s possible, if you know what I mean.

Last but not least, vm-Teleportation involves wormholes and “engineering the spacetime metric” which was supported by numerous pages of mind-bending math including linear algebra, trigonometry and multi-variable calculus equations loaded with enough Greek letters to be its own fraternity.

I don’t know how much money the author received for this study, which took two and a half years, but it could probably be found in the public record using the contract number. I must say that it would be just about any physicist’s dream job. In no way do I mean to dismiss the knowledge and expertise required to put this together. This is a comprehensive, thoroughly investigated study which includes 253 references, most of which were to prestigious journals such as Physics Review Letters, Physics Today, Military Intelligence, Nature, Science, numerous books published by Cambridge and Oxford University presses and various others by esteemed physicist authors. The original document’s distribution list included 54 individuals, 36 of whom were PhDs.

Personally, I don’t have a problem with my tax dollars going for such research, even though it’s undoubtedly hidden in all those “black projects” such as those conducted at Area 51, Dulce Base, Wright-Patterson AFB and probably Dugway Proving Grounds. Better spent there than numerous others I can think of but won’t name so as to remain politically correct in today’s volatile environment.

Nonetheless, the truth is out there.  Possibly more than we could begin to imagine.  Including me, as a science fiction writer.

You can pick up a copy of Krauss’ book on Amazon here. For a copy of the “Teleportation Physics Study” contact the Air Force Research Laboratory, Air Force Materiel Command, Edwards Air Force Base, CA 93524-7048 and ask for Report AFRL-PR-ED-TR-2003-0034. By now it might even be available online since it was released for “unlimited distribution.”

Challenges of Space Exploration: Have we Learned from Past Tragedies?

 

ColumbiaTributeIt was Saturday and I was home in the midst of a cleaning frenzy.  Since it was my grandson’s tenth birthday, my plans for the day included joining family members to celebrate that occasion. I was wearing ratty workout clothes, planning to get on my stair-stepper after I finished vacuuming. Periodically, I’d pause to look out my north-facing French doors that led to my patio to check for Columbia’s plasma trail, which was supposed to be visible from where I lived in Houston. I’d seen entry emissions from previous shuttle flights which were truly spectacular, contrails on steroids, that split the sky and sparkled in the Sun.

Seeing nothing and blaming the various buildings obstructing the view, my vacuuming continued, which prevented me from hearing the telephone. Needless to say, the person called back, I believe three times, until she reached me. It was our database manager, letting me know what had happened, and that she was on her way into the office to lock down the files, a critical part of our contingency plan. In shock, I quickly followed, bag lady attire notwithstanding, arriving at my office on the sixth floor of JSC’s building 45 to find a very somber group of coworkers, likewise stunned by the events that February morning in 2003 when Columbia broke up on entry over Texas skies.

sts107breakupI managed the Payload Safety Section at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Our responsibilities included making sure that anything that flew onboard the shuttle didn’t present a safety hazard, mostly through the institution of various controls. Whatever had caused the accident, we were reasonably sure that it wasn’t one of our payloads. It was a Spacehab flight, a module secured in the cargo bay that was a habitable area where astronauts conducted entire suites of life science experiments. That meant there were no satellites onboard with potentially dangerous inertial upper stages, a.k.a. booster rockets to take them to their proper orbit, which could have possibly been the problem.

Nonetheless, the recovery team needed to know what was on the manifest that could be toxic and present a hazard in any possible way, not only for those conducting the initial search, but civilians who lived in the debris field as well. Thus, those members of my team of engineers who had payloads for which they were responsible on that flight, which was designated as STS-107, needed to come in to compile a list of such items including batteries, pressure vessels, and radioactive or toxic materials. What surprised me was that it wasn’t only those engineers who came into work, some from considerable distances. Each wanted to know what they could do to help, which, as it turned out, wasn’t much at that point, other than to be together in our shared grief.

shuttlemourningNot everyone came in, some simply called in to make sure they weren’t needed, but I’ll always remember those who did. These were the ones whose hearts were in their jobs and dedicated to their place in the space program. It wasn’t just a job, it was their life. I was a contractor as were the engineers who worked for me, but there were a few who were actual NASA civil service employees who reported to a NASA lead, to whom I also reported. This particular individual, who professed to be an expert on NASA history and lived only a few miles away, didn’t bother to come in that day. He was home painting a room inside his house, which he apparently deemed more important. I called him several times, reporting our actions, appalled at his flippant attitude as well as his absence. How could someone who was supposedly a history aficionado stay away on such an occasion? I wonder how he feels about that decision today.

Since the shuttle had broken up over Texas, it left a huge debris field that covered 2,400 square miles which stretched from eastern Texas to western Louisiana. I eventually joined the recovery team in Hemphill, Texas, an experience I recounted a year ago which you can find here. What I’m going to talk about this time is what caused this tragedy, which sadly enough, began with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The cause of the accident was caught on various technical films of the launch, when a suitcase-sized piece of foam insulation covering the huge external tank broke loose, damaging the leading edge of one of Columbia’s wings. The force and extreme heat generated by atmospheric entry thus was able to penetrate the structure and ultimately cause the entire vehicle to break up. So how does this relate to the EPA?

sts107patchOne of the chemicals used to create the foam insulation had recently been banned by the EPA. While NASA could have applied for a waiver, they wanted to be compliant, which is certainly honorable enough. However, they couldn’t find a substitute that resulted in the same integrity of the material. Thus, the new formula resulted in losing chunks of foam. This substance was light, yet needed to be extremely durable. While you may wonder how being hit by something even lighter than the memory foam most of us now enjoy in one form or another, when it was going at launch ascent speeds of approximately 500 mph, the impact was considerable and enough to damage the wing’s composite structure.

But that’s only part of the story.

The shuttle program had always known, even before the formula change, that foam loss presented a catastrophic hazard, which was documented as such. Yet, this had occurred numerous times prior to the Columbia accident, resulting in no serious problems. Thus, the issue was largely dismissed as a non-safety problem, provided the chunks were below a certain size. But there was no guarantee that would forever be the case.

If you read my blog a few days ago about Challenger, this should sound familiar, a game of aerospace Russian Roulette, where a hazard with lethal potential had been dismissed because it had not yet reached its catastrophic potential.

Needless to say, anyone in the space business can’t obsess on it being 100% safe. Driving to work each day can’t be given such a guarantee. Life, by its very nature, is a risk. It’s not a simple matter. While NASA addresses safety, it’s not always the top priority. Money is a big consideration as well for NASA, who has to compete with numerous other federal programs for a mere pittance compared to the budgets of other agencies.

Nothing is simple. It didn’t help at that time that Bush appointee, Sean O’Keefe, who was the NASA administrator at the time of this accident, had absolutely no technical background but was indeed a high level bean counter who prioritized budget issues. Furthermore, while we were still in what is known as “return to flight” mode or RTF, which is the time when an accident is fully investigated and fixes proposed to preclude a recurrence, President George W. Bush announced we would return to the Moon and eventually go to Mars!

sts107memoryWTF? We were appalled. I suppose he wanted to show optimism and faith in NASA’s ability to recover. But for those of us at NASA, who were already stressed enough trying to fix the shuttle program and maintain the International Space Station (ISS), which was now totally dependent on our Russian and European partners for transportation, this was the last thing we needed. Then, of course, years later came an administration change and Moon/Mars was zapped, much as Reagan’s Space Station Freedom was initially cancelled by Bill Clinton, only to be resurrected some years later as the ISS. Some things never change. Most of us remember John F. Kennedy’s declaration to go to the Moon. Clearly subsequent presidents wanted a similar legacy. At this point, Reagan’s is the Challenger and Bush’s, Columbia. No wonder Reagan wanted Space Station Freedom and Bush wanted Mars!

Space and politics is as volatile as the hydrogen and oxygen mix used as rocket fuel. As a safety insider, it’s easy to see how the system failed, not only in the worst case scenario of “loss of life and vehicle”, but in principle as well. It was well established that the most dangerous times of a shuttle flight were takeoff and landing. At this point, NASA had lost a vehicle during both of these critical mission phases. Safety processes which involved requirements, inspections and rigorous reviews at multiple levels were in place, yet the unspeakable still happened. Twice. Each taking the lives of seven brave, intelligent and courageous men and women. And now, with the space shuttle retired, the USA no longer has an independent manned space program. We’re entirely dependent on Russia to transport our astronauts to the ISS. Is this good or bad? International cooperation or another game of Russian Roulette?

fallenherosThere are no easy answers. A plethora of international political implications exist for space exploration, many of which relate to countries and individuals we can’t even trust to share our neighborhoods, much less our planet or low earth orbit. Space weapons have an incredible advantage with tremendous destructive capability. This implies government involvement coupled with diplomacy are indeed necessary. Budgets and safety will inevitably clash. “Rocket science” technology based on propulsion remains quite primitive, something that’s been around for thousands of years. Whether or not you believe in UFOs, there simply has to be a better way. Seriously. Yet, on the other hand, Earth herself is vulnerable to attack from a rogue asteroid or comet. Space weapons could offer protection from cosmic annihilation as well as threats from our fellow humans.

Nonetheless, we have enough problems here on planet Earth. Big problems, including the irrational and often deadly behavior of numerous factions who make Darth Vader look like Mahatma Gandhi. We’re inspired by films such as Star Wars, The Martian, Interstellar and numerous others, but getting there is another story. I’ve been a space nut my entire life, involved with the stars and planets in multiple, diverse venues. My goal as a science fiction writer is to inspire today’s youth to pursue careers in physics, engineering and math. But in today’s world is that really the right direction?

At this point I wonder if maybe we need to fix Earth’s problems first, before transporting them into space. Maybe the nature of man simply isn’t ready to leave our planet, much less our solar system. There are no easy answers. Only questions.

Challenges of Space Exploration: NASA as a Government Bureaucracy

Space Shuttle Challenger disaster

On January 28, 1986, the U.S.A. experienced a tragedy that has since faded into history. If you weren’t yet born at that time, you may not have even heard of it. I remember talking about the space shuttle to a classroom full of junior high students in the late 90s where I was blindsided by a young man who asked whether one had ever blown up. That something indelibly imprinted on my memory could be unknown to someone, even an adolescent, was incredible. Until I realized the simple fact that the kid hadn’t been born yet.

Wow. To me it felt as if it had occurred the day before.

I was a physics major in college with aspirations to work in the aerospace industry. The day we lost the space shuttle, Challenger, for me was a very bad day. Ironically, that’s exactly what NASA calls such an event, a “bad day.” Well, no shit.

Sorry, I usually avoid naughty words in my blogs, but in that context my expansive vocabulary entirely fails me. Somehow nothing defines NASA’s understatement of tragedy as well as an expletive. And much of why I feel that way is because, subsequent to the Challenger accident, I went to work at NASA as a contractor, ultimately winding up in their Safety Division, which meant I was privy to all sorts of dirty little secrets.

When I arrived at Johnson Space Center in Houston in April 1988, the agency was deep into what they referred to as “return to flight”; RTF in NASAspeak, given their propensity for acronyms. RTF comprised the time while they finished investigating the cause and put together design fixes to avoid a similar occurrence in the future, eventually getting back to what NASA did, i.e., send men and women into space. It’s interesting to consider that we didn’t even refer to it as Challenger; it was 51-L, the ill-fated flight’s official designation, which was less emotionally charged than calling it by name.

When I went to work in the Safety Division at Johnson Space Center in 1990, “The Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident” was required reading. This well-written document covered the technical details in a way that even my teen-aged son at the time could understand. I remember him reading it in the backseat of the car during a road trip. That same copy still resides on a shelf in my home office, bristling with numerous sticky notes and highlights marking the parts that struck me the most. But those are but tips of the proverbial iceberg.

51Lexplosion2As anyone who’s actually familiar with the accident knows, its official cause related to the o-rings in the solid rocket booster which didn’t seal, allowing hot gasses to strike and penetrate the external fuel tank, which resulted in a deadly explosion. A major contributor to o-ring failure was the fact the launch took place when the temperature at Cape Canaveral in Florida was a mere 28 degrees F. This had never before been attempted, Floridian temperatures usually far above that range, even in January. This factor was illustrated dramatically by physicist Richard P. Feynman, a member of the investigation committee, by dropping an o-ring in a glass of ice water to demonstrate how they became brittle and incapable of performing their function at low temperatures.

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I lived in Northern Utah at the time of the accident, the manufacturer of the solid rocket boosters (a.k.a. SRBs), Morton Thiokol, located a few dozen miles away. Anyone who lives in such a climate is more than aware of the effects of cold weather. As I recall, the SRBs had never been tested in that temperature range, either.

On the surface, it appears that this tragic accident that claimed the lives of seven astronauts, including teacher Christa McAuliffe, took everyone by surprise. But in reality, as I learned working in Safety for nearly 20 years, it was processes and politics every bit as much as faulty design. They knew; they just ignored it. The true cause was as elusive as missing shuttle pieces still on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. [NOTE:–If you’re interested in more sordid details about the Dark Side of NASA, I recommend “Challenger: A Major Malfunction” by Malcolm McConnell or “Prescription for Disaster” by Joseph Trento.]

Anything that can cause a problem, either critical or catastrophic, is documented on a Hazard Report, with o-ring leakage no exception. Hazard Reports (HRs) contain causes along with controls, though some hazards are simply classified as an “accepted risk” if there’s nothing that can be done to prevent them. Space flight is risky and there are some things you simply can’t avoid or control; bird strikes and meteorites come to mind.

51LMalfunctionO-ring failure was a catastrophic hazard and documented as such. That the design was faulty was likewise known. Engineers had seen leakage on previous flights. Let that sink in for a moment. O-ring failure had happened before. However, earlier instances had not caused an accident. This resulted in a very dangerous and ultimately fatal thought pattern that led them to believe that perhaps it wasn’t as serious as they thought. Previous failures had been investigated, the leakage referred to as “blow-by” and eventually accepted as not a safety issue.

How wrong they were. In reality, they were playing Russian Roulette. Just because they got away with it a few times did not mean it wasn’t a hazard, only that they’d dodged a bullet. A Thiokol engineer named Roger Boisjoly had written a memo before the accident pointing out the seriousness of the problem. It was essentially ignored, most likely for budget and scheduling reasons. Unfortunately, his sordid prophecy of impending disaster was fulfilled almost exactly six months later. Later, to cover their sins, Morton Thiokol and NASA decimated Mr. Boisjoly, typical behavior employed to discredit whistleblowers.

I’d like to point out that for many accidents the public sees Safety as the culprit. Wasn’t it safety’s job to prevent such a horrific occurrence? Yes, it certainly was. And I must say that we did everything possible to assure safety of flight. We were the ones who made sure all risks and hazards were properly controlled and documented. This more refined process, however, was instituted after and because of the Challenger accident. The full rigor of the safety process recommended post 51L by the Presidential Commission was never fully instituted, however. A plethora of subsequent reorgs were supposed to make safety more of a priority, yet somehow eroded, as proven by the Columbia disaster 17 years later. An accident which has a strikingly similar administrative postmortem.

If you remember the movie, “Deep Impact,” you might recall the line where the female member of the crew on that fictitious shuttle flight, charged with protecting our planet from a collision with an approaching asteroid, noted that if they died in service to their country that all they’d probably get was a high school named after them, which is more truth than poetry. So let’s take a moment to remember those seven brave individuals by name who died so needlessly 30 years ago. They represented different genders, races and ethnicities, some professional astronauts, others not.

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Francis R. (Dick) Scobee (Commander)

Michael John Smith (Pilot)

Ronald Erwin McNair (Mission Specialist)

Ellison S. Onizuka (Mission Specialist)

Judith Arlene Resnik (Mission Specialist)

Christa McAuliffe (Payload Specialist & school teacher, winner of the “Teacher in Space” competition)

Gregory Bruce Jarvis (Payload Specialist & aerospace engineer, bumped to this flight by a U.S. Senator who took Greg’s original spot)

As they say, those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. And repeat it they did, within four days of being exactly 17 years later on February 1, 2003 when we lost Columbia.

Watch for more on that tragedy on the 13th anniversary of that disaster.

Challenges of Space Exploration: Gravity Assisted Functions

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One of my first assignments as a NASA contractor at Johnson Space Center in Houston back in the late 80s was to participate in a vendor survey seeking sources of medical equipment used for life science experiments in Spacelab (mock-up used for training purposed pictured above). If an item was available commercially, it could save a tremendous amount of money versus developing one from scratch and essentially reinventing the wheel.

When I would talk to each sales representative, who was usually rather excited to be talking to someone from NASA, the first thing I would ask would be, “Will this particular item work upside down?”

The ensuing silence never failed to make me smile.  After a sufficiently dramatic pause, I would explain.

Anything used in space needed to function without any assistance from gravity. This could be something as simple as a reagent moving through a tube or some mechanical part that required a nudge from the 9.8 meters/second/second acceleration of gravity.

Since we’ve all grown up on Earth’s gravity field, it’s easy to take it for granted. In fact, I was amazed to encounter situations where aerospace engineers made the mistake of designing something that was gravity dependent! How ironic is that? That’s how pervasive it is, that even someone trained specifically to work in the space industry would forget that important little detail. Along similar lines, when the shuttle would arrive in orbit, any tools left in the cargo bay, or anywhere else, for that matter, would come floating out, sometimes presenting a serious hazard.

Take a look around and think about some of the things you do every day that depend on gravity. Would your food stay on your plate or your drink in the glass? Nope. Could you wash your clothes in your washing machine? Nope. Would water run out of the tap so you could brush your teeth? Not unless it was under pressure and then it probably wouldn’t go where expected. Floating around looks like a lot of fun, but many an astronaut has battled with space sickness as his or her stomach was quite literally upset with food refusing to settle.

While my heroine, Creena, is onboard the escape pod, she encounters similar issues since it didn’t have a gravity simulator. To quote from “Beyond the Hidden Sky:”

“Nonetheless, there were still a few things she’d never get used to. Like the sanicube. She’d never thought of going to the bathroom or taking a shower as gravity assisted functions before, but they were, with equally bizarre solutions.”

Think about going to the bathroom standing on your head. More than likely, you wouldn’t like the result. Needless to say, toilet facilities in space require innovation to avoid what could otherwise be an extremely unpleasant environment. You can’t pick up a toilet that will work in space at Home Depot, that’s for sure, and developing one was expensive. Even then, it wasn’t ideal. I talked to individuals who were tasked with cleaning up the space shuttle when it returned from a mission who described a rather disgusting mess. Not only would it look as if the astronauts had engaged in numerous food fights, it would smell similar to a port-a-potty as well. Yummy, right?

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It was quite common when I would go to schools to talk about space exploration that someone would inevitably ask about the space toilet. It certainly didn’t look anything like a normal commode. It employed assistance from vacuum hoses for urination and a general vacuum for defecation. I had a tour of the toilet training facilities with some of my coworkers one time which, of course, we found somewhat amusing. Potty training for astronauts certainly seemed a bit odd, considering all the high-tech training they received.

The funniest part was that the toilet in the training facility actually had a video camera inside it! This had an important purpose, i.e., so trainees could see if they were correctly parked on the seat, which was required to maintain that vacuum effect noted earlier. Failing to do so would result in, well, the possible escape of something you wouldn’t exactly want to encounter floating around, eh?

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It didn’t take long for someone to dub it the “butt cam” and we joked about the possibility of someone broadcasting the training session across NASA Select, the private TV network that spanned not only Johnson Space Center but every other NASA facility and accessible in every conference room, lobby and manager’s office. No doubt the “butt cam” was on a closed circuit, but this shows the type of humor we engineers found in the most unlikely places. Yes, it was definitely fun and interesting to work at NASA.

How many “gravity assisted functions” that we Earthlings take for granted can you think of?

 

Do You Want to Work for NASA?

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A while back National Geographic featured a blog declaring that NASA was recruiting astronaut candidates. The astronaut corps is obviously an exclusive bunch with strict requirements and grueling competition. Even if you want to join their ranks it’s not going to be easy. At the least, military experience and graduate degrees are usually minimum requirements.

But just because you can’t make muster for the astronaut corps doesn’t mean all is lost. There are literally thousands and thousands of people who work for or support NASA without such demanding qualifications. You can find a list of them here. Having worked at NASA’s Johnson Space Center for over twenty years I can tell you that there is every job imaginable represented in addition to the obvious ones in a technical field. Whether you’re an accountant or public affairs wizard NASA will need people with those skills somewhere in their organization.

If you’re really interested in a NASA career and haven’t checked out their website, then you need to do so. Yesterday. If you haven’t, here are a few highlights.

One thing you need to realize is that NASA is only located in some very specific locations. They have centers in California, Texas, Mississippi, Ohio, Florida and various other places including their headquarters in Washington, DC. Unless you live near one or are willing to relocate, it will be more difficult. There is one caveat I’ll get to later, but if you want to be an actual NASA employee, living in close proximity to one of their centers is required. You can see where these centers are by going here.

If you want to work more directly with the technical side, which comprises 60% of their employees, then you need to have at least a bachelor’s degree in one of the fields noted on their website. Obtaining a position as an intern as part of your education will give you a considerable advantage later for becoming a permanent employee. More information about the various programs available can be found here.

Okay, now I’m going to talk about some things you won’t find on their website.

Getting a job with NASA is not easy. First of all, there are only so many positions available for which there will probably be hundreds if not thousands of applicants. There are three factors that can help you have a slight advantage. One you either have or you don’t with nothing you can do to change it, another may be related to your birth but not necessarily, and the last one you may be able to achieve if you plan early enough as mentioned above.

The first way to get your foot in the door is to be a minority. As a government agency, NASA takes pride in maintaining a high percentage of those in the affirmative action category as an example to industry in general. This is not to say that these folks don’t need to meet the technical requirements of the job at hand. They still need to possess a technical degree and the better their grade point average and/or experience, the better, but these individuals will usually make it to the top of the heap more easily than others. Minority women with a technical degree have an even bigger advantage.

The next potential advantage is to be disabled. Again, this doesn’t mean you don’t need to have the needed qualifications. If you do and you get hired NASA will actually help accommodate your disability. For example, I knew a NASA engineer who was a quadriplegic due to an unfortunate accident when he was a youth. His mind was not affected and he obtained an engineering degree after which he was hired by NASA. He was confined to a wheelchair and clearly had major physical limitations. To compensate, NASA hired an assistant who helped him by entering what he told her on the computer, taking him to meetings, and so forth. In other words, Stephen Hawking could get a job based on his abilities, not refused for his disabilities.

If none of these fit your situation, then it’s going to be a lot more difficult to get onboard, but not impossible. At least not as far as working with NASA’s space program. There are literally thousands of jobs in the aerospace industry, some of which are directly associated with NASA and others that are not. These are mostly available through numerous companies, big and small, that are known as NASA Contractors. In fact, the 21 years I spent at Johnson Space Center were as a contractor employee. There are pros and cons to being a contractor I’ll get into another time, but if you really want to work for NASA it’s a step in the right direction.

After you decide which NASA center you want to work for your next step is to identify which contractors are in that area and start applying. If you don’t want to or can’t move near one, all is not lost. And here’s the caveat I alluded to earlier: There are other options. In order to get their budget passed by Congress each year, NASA requires support throughout the United States. What this boils down to is that there are NASA contractors in just about every state. That way, to protect job interests in their home state, Congressmen will be more inclined to vote favorably for NASA interests. It might be a challenge to find a NASA contractor in your area, but that’s what the Internet is for. If you’re hired by one, depending on the position you hold, you’ll probably get to travel to NASA centers from time to time. You’ll not only get to see some very cool stuff but feel as if you’re part of the program. Perhaps all without moving, at least out of your state.

Like NASA, contractors often have intern programs, especially during the summer. They aren’t always easy to get into, either, but it’s worth a shot. Again, you’ll be competing against a lot of other applicants. And there’s only one way to get around that.

You’ve probably heard the saying “It’s not what you know but who you know.” In other words, if you know someone “on the inside” who can vouch for you, it will give you a much better chance of being considered for a position. In fact, that is why those intern positions are often difficult to obtain, because they’re usually given to the kids whose parents work there first. That may seem unfair depending on your point of view, but it’s the way the world works.

But all is not yet lost.

The next best thing you can do is make personal contact with someone inside your organization of choice. Better yet, lots of them. Trade shows related to aerospace and job fairs at universities are one place you may be able to make such a contact. Always treat such encounters as the equivalent of an interview. It’s critical that the impression you make be favorable as well as memorable. And no, looking like a cast member of “The Big Bang Theory” is not what I mean. Maintain contact with the person afterwards as well, but not to the point of being annoying. Touching base with him or her every few months will be sufficient.

It’s not easy but it can be done. Working with NASA had been my dream since I first watched the Apollo 11 Moon Landing back in 1969, before most of you were born. I didn’t graduate from college until 1987, at the age of 39, yet through determination and the right connections I was able to land a job supporting NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston within a year of graduating. I worked my way up through the ranks, eventually managing a cadre of engineers, and finally retired with the satisfaction of knowing I’d gone after something, no matter how elusive, and attained it. There’s no reason you can’t, too.

[Originally published 11/7/2015 at https://medium.com/@marchafox/do-you-want-to-work-for-nasa-f1a64db05292%5D

 

Challenges of Space Exploration: A NASA Insider’s View of “The Martian” (Movie Version)

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[Spoiler Alert: This constitutes one massive spoiler if you haven’t already seen the movie. I comment on specific situations depicted onscreen based on my experience working as a NASA contractor for over 20 years. So if you’re even slower to see movies than I am, are planning to see it, and prefer to thoroughly enjoy the suspense, then bookmark this blog and read it later.]

First of all, I want to say I thoroughly enjoyed this movie which I finally saw over the holidays while visiting family. My intent here is not to criticize since I believe it was exceptionally well done. It employed a lot of fascinating details, ingenuity and great suspense throughout. Fortunately, Hollywood has come a long, long way depicting NASA-related movies since the movie, Armageddon, which I considered a complete debacle as far as the technical details were concerned.

I suppose being a physicist and geek who worked for NASA as a contractor from 1988 – 2009 are what drive me to pick at technical details, perhaps as a matter of ego to show my knowledge. Whatever it is, I can’t help it, and to me such details are interesting while most normal people would simply enjoy the movie for what it is and give me one of those looks that screams, “What’s your problem, Bozo?” I’ve mellowed on this a bit myself, but I still maintain that a certain level of scientific accuracy is important. But I’m a geek, so what do I know other than it was science fiction that inspired me to become a geek in the first place? Does it really matter if it’s factual? Probably not.

IDL TIFF file

Anyway, “The Martian” is based on the book of the same name by Andy Weir, whom you can learn more about on his Amazon Author page. There’s also an interesting forum on Amazon where various readers have commented on the technical accuracy of the story (or lack thereof), which of course appealed to my inner geek. Having seen and enjoyed the movie, I plan to read the book. I assume that the author did a lot of research putting this story together and can thus take credit for the fact the movie was realistic enough to be credible and even admired by someone like myself. Based on my experience, here are a few comments.

1. My first job with NASA was in the Life Sciences Division at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Part of their purview was the well-being of the astronauts. The majority of their experiments conducted on the space shuttle and International Space Station were directed primarily at how exposure to microgravity, increased radiation, close quarters and isolation affected an astronaut’s mind and body. Colonization of distant worlds such as Mars has been a topic of NASA research for many years, including what crops would grow and thrive in conditions different from Earth. Needless to say, being self-sufficient is the ultimate goal.

That said, I suspect that if we had an outpost on Mars that by that time we’d know enough about such things as potential crops that there would have been more for the story’s hero, Mark Watney, to work with besides potatoes which were intended to be consumed as food. I’m reasonably sure that part of the mission would entail planting a variety of things, perhaps for the benefit of the next crew.

Which brings me to my next comment, the length of the movie’s mission being 60 days.

journey_to_mars

2. It takes a long time to get to Mars, depending on the available propulsion technology, but let’s just say using currently known or at least acknowledged sources, it’s going to be around a year or more. I suppose for the very first mission to the Red Planet that a duration of two months is possible, but I suspect that it would be longer. I also suspect that the habitation module constructed would be one that would be designed to be permanent, part of an elaborate colonization plan and not a primitive throwaway. Given the sophistication of their space vehicle, Hermes, which even had sectors that rotated to create artificial gravity, it’s more likely that part of that spacecraft would have constituted their living quarters and been left behind when their mission ended. This would have lightened the return load as well.

3. I thoroughly enjoyed the connections to previous Mars missions and how they provided resources for Mark to contact NASA. Whether that could actually be achieved I don’t know, but for me it was feasible and clever enough that I had no problem with it.  If you’re not at least partly awed by these previous accomplishments that comprise sending and then actually controlling a vehicle on another planet, then you simply don’t understand what it entails.

marsrover4. NASA has definitely been known to blow up rockets, not only in the early days of the initial space race with Russia to get to the Moon in the late 50s and 60s, but even more recently as many of you may recall with the Space Shuttle Challenger accident on January 28, 1986. Private rocket companies more recently are having a similar problem. Rocket fuel is highly volatile, systems complex, and problems are inevitable. Thus, when the rocket they put together in record time to send supplies blew up it wasn’t much of a stretch. Anyone who didn’t see that one coming hasn’t been paying attention to the space industry and its explosive history (pun intended).

But there’s more to it that that. Having worked in Safety and Mission Assurance for most of my years at JSC, I was privy to quite a few dirty little secrets. NASA makes every effort to identify every possible hazard and document them all in Hazard Reports. These go far beyond acknowledging the problem itself. Some are classified as Critical, i.e., could cause a problem but not a lethal one, while others are classified as Catastrophic, which entail loss of life and/or millions of dollars worth of equipment. Once hazards are identified, it’s mandatory to identify preventative controls. The severity of the consequences of failure determine how many controls need to be in place. Systems that can cause a catastrophic hazard are required to be three-fault tolerant, meaning three things need to fail before the worst case scenario can occur.

InSight in ATLO with back shell

The back shell of the InSight spacecraft is lowered onto the lander in a clean room at Lockheed Martin.

However, there are some systems that defy that level of safety via controls and are thus considered an accepted risk. For example, unless you’re a pilot you probably would never think of a “bird strike” as being in that category, but if a spacecraft on takeoff or landing strikes a bird, it can have dire consequences. Other risks are accepted for a variety of reasons, but it gets complicated so I’ll save further explanation for a future blog, such as some of those “dirty little secrets” that relate to the two space shuttle tragedies. [NOTE:–With the 30th anniversary of the Challenger accident coming up this month, you can watch for one soon.]

Back to the point of the rocket blowing up in the film, besides the inherent danger of propulsion systems in general, bypassed quality assurance inspections or those performed by over-worked technicians would increase the likelihood of problems, making that unfortunate event quite feasible.

5. The next safety-related situation would be the malfunction and subsequent explosion that destroyed Mark’s potato garden. Certainly he did some modifications beyond its original intent, but it’s still unlikely it would have been that fragile. Considering some of the nasty substances that go along on a space mission, explosions are always a possibility. This also refers back to the fact that I doubt their outpost would have been so makeshift in the first place. Mars’ thin atmosphere is not as efficient at destroying meteorites as Earth’s, plus the main asteroid belt lies between Mars and Jupiter, so they’re a bigger problem by proximity as well. I sincerely doubt that NASA would ever erect such a cheesy structure as part of a planetary outpost. This, of course, applies to the matter of the antenna being destroyed as well. Furthermore, as mentioned in the Amazon forum, the force of the Martian wind is lower, given the reduced atmospheric pressure compared to Earth’s.

6. Several of the means employed in the movie were theoretically feasible but unlikely, such as ditching the capsule nosecone and replacing it with canvas or blowing the Hermes module for some extra propulsion. A gravity assist is certainly a possibility since that technique is used routinely for interplanetary exploration missions.

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7. Lastly, I’m really skeptical about Mission Control not telling the crew earlier that Mark was alive. That just doesn’t make sense to me. However, NASA employees, no matter what rank they happen to be, are human and subject to bad judgement calls and mistakes, so it’s certainly not impossible. Subsequently, such individuals tend to quietly disappear, probably reassigned to the USA equivalent of Siberia.

In a situation like that in the movie, such a decision would undoubtedly be routed through the Astronaut Office and I suspect that the returning crew would be given that information posthaste. It’s important to know that communications between Mission Control and a manned craft are channeled through  a single source known as the Capcom, short for “capsule communicator”, a vestige derived from the early days of the space program.  This individual is traditionally an astronaut.  This person would undoubtedly be aware of the situation and thus wield considerable influence.

Not distracting the returning crew from their mission simply wasn’t sufficient rationale. Astronauts are human, too, and certainly have emotions which can drive them to do some crazy things in their private lives, but given the story’s circumstances and my experience at NASA, I really believe they’d be treated as the professionals they are and given all available information. They’d be far beyond pissed off to find out they’d been kept out of such an important loop.  Whether they’d go “rogue” or not is a possibility but doubtful without full ground support.  Spacecraft systems are beyond complex with each one having a team of experts who would assist with calculations for possible solutions.

Consider, as stated in the end of the movie credits, that it took 15,000 people to produce that movie.  Far more than that support the space program with each system component typically having a dozen or more engineers that know it inside out.  Astronauts couldn’t possibly have the necessary knowledge to make technical decisions that deviate from their training for a specific mission.

If you’re still with me at this point, thanks for listening. I really loved this movie, technical and operational flaws notwithstanding, because this is exactly the kind of film I love. My hope is that it inspires future generations, the ones who will someday walk on Mars, hopefully with a three-fault tolerant infrastructure as opposed to what astronaut Mark Watney had to deal with in “The Martian”.

You can pick up a DVD of the flick on Amazon here.

Mars Photos courtesy of NASA

 

 

Challenges of Space Exploration: Weightlessness

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In my recent interview with Book Nerd Paradise I read an excerpt from Beyond the Hidden Sky which illustrated what Creena experienced when the escape pod finally landed on Verdaris. While she’d been instructed by the onboard v-troid, DORAI, to exercise as a regular part of her zones, Creena got frustrated with the equipment malfunctioning and stopped doing so as part of her general rebellion. Exercising was a bore, especially when the marching machine kept jamming or not keeping an accurate record of how much she’d done. Moving about the pod in a weightless environment was effortless and fun! Yet she was initially informed that life in zero-g meant exercise zones. The conversation went like this:

“If I don’t I’ll get what?” Creena asked.

“Orthostatic intolerance,” DORAI replied.

“What’s that?”

“Side effects of zero gravity. It affects your heart, skeletal muscles, bones and balance. Without countermeasures you’ll be dizzy, have trouble standing up, and won’t be strong enough to walk when you return to a gravity field.”

So she’d been warned but conveniently forgot. The results were not pretty.

Why were these exercise routines known as countermeasures necessary? This excerpt from p. 62 of The Star Trails Compendium briefly explains it:

Gravity forces your body to continually compensate for it by building additional strength. Without it muscles weaken, including the heart, also a muscle, which needs to pump blood against it. Orthostatic intolerance is the technical term for not being able to stand up without holding onto something. Astronauts in space exercise to maintain their strength so that when they return to Earth they are not too weak to walk. Some astronauts who have returned from long-duration space flight have not been able to walk without assistance.

Gravity is something we take for granted. For example, pouring a glass of water requires gravity to deliver the liquid to the container. In space the liquid would spill out into the air and float around in a glob. Think about things you do that you can’t do upside down and you will discover various “gravity assisted functions.” Astronauts often suffer from space sickness, similar to motion sickness, because gravity is not helping keep food and liquids in their stomach.

My first job at NASA was in their Life Sciences Division at Johnson Space Center in Houston Texas. Among other things, they studied the effects of zero gravity on the human body. They conducted various experiments and developed exercise equipment for the astronauts to maintain their fitness level. One of the physical problems related to losing calcium from their bones, which obviously would weaken them. They found that resistance exercises were most effective, even though aerobic exercises such as running on a treadmill were still important as well.

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To prepare for long-term space flight such as that required to go to Mars, NASA is currently conducting a year-long study about the effects of micro-gravity in an interesting way. It just so happens that two astronauts, Mark and Scott Kelly, are identical twins. Mark is retired but on March 27, 2015 Scott and Russian cosmonaut, Mikhail Kornienko, blasted off for the International Space Station where Mark will spend a year participating in the study. Mark, who will remain on Earth, will serve as a control during which they will study molecular changes between the two. The study, which comprises numerous separate experiments, will also address how an astronaut’s mental state is affected by these changes.

You can learn more about the study here.

Space travel is not a simple matter. While we have the technology to build an interplanetary spacecraft we still don’t fully understand how it will affect humans at the physical level. This study will provide a few answers.

[NOTE: You can download a free copy of The Star Trails Compendium which contains lesson and discussion ideas of the science in The Star Trails Tetralogy from Smashwords here.]

Image licenses and copyrights via 123rf.com