5 Stars for “Elon Musk: Tesla, Space-X, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future” by Ashlee Vance

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I’ve been fascinated by Musk for quite a while. I even entertained thoughts he might be some sort of space alien hybrid, helping us develop new technologies. I wondered where this guy came from and where he got all that money. I wondered why his new technologies, which are a threat to industries which have been known to resort to rather nasty tactics to suppress such competition, seemed to have no power to do so in his case. This book certainly answered all my questions and then some. I had no idea he was one of those dot-com millionaires, starting with his connection with PayPal. Explaining where his money came from certainly clarified quite a lot. His personality explained the rest.

As someone who worked as a NASA contractor for over twenty years, I can especially appreciate what he has done with Space-X. While some accuse him, and rightfully so, of being a obsessive workaholic and expecting the same from his employees, you have to admit that his system of finding the best and brightest and luring them to work for him works. Musk doesn’t suffer fools. You disagree with him or goof up and you’re gone. In today’s world of tolerance and dumbing down the general population via our pathetic education system, this certainly goes against the grain. But it gets things done.

I saw so much mediocrity at NASA it was pathetic. But it was only part of the problem as far as technological advances were concerned. I remember seeing an invoice one time for small a metal plate with a part number on it costing thousands of dollars. I mean, really. How ridiculous is that? But that’s how government contracting works. Musk, on the other hand, emphasized efficiency. It was his money, so he pushed for keeping costs down. Rather than buy from a manufacturer on the other side of the world, he would develop the needed facilities and make it himself. He demanded perfection and refused to give up.

One philosophy I always liked and employed as a manager myself was “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” Clearly he had the same attitude. His employees knew better than to simply complain about something being an obstacle. They needed to contribute to a solution or get slam-dunked.

There was so much about his management style that I admired. In most cases in today’s world, his tactics will either get you sued for harassment and/or fired. Which explains a lot. But if you want something considered impossible done correctly, that’s what it takes. The results of Musk’s methods speak for themselves.  He does what he says he’ll do and is a force to be reckoned with. He’s not been suppressed by existing industries since he has the money to proceed on his own, unlike most inventors who depend on selling their patents. In that case, they’re typically bought up by competitors, their ideas left to rot somewhere in a file cabinet to assure the status quo.

Along those lines, Tesla is another awesome success story, a venture that was more than once on the brink of failure. But Musk persevered, his vision and intentions a testimony to those who promote such tactics for manifesting what you want. I loved the part where Tesla acquired a former GM plant in Fremont, California (not too far from where I lived many years ago) virtually for free. Tesla is driving conventional car makers crazy. The cars are kicking butt in all areas from safety to speed to virtually “free” fuel as he builds recharging stations.  He’s out to change the world and making steady progress doing so, specifically in previously troubled industries collapsing under their own weight.

His personal life was certainly interesting as well. Did you realize he has 5 boys, i.e. a set of twins and a set of triplets from his first wife, Justine? Or that as a child he was bullied, in some cases brutally enough to land him in the hospital. His photographic memory has served him well, his intelligence and scientific understanding off the scale. If someone tells him something can’t be done, he usually fires them and does it himself. I find that inspiring, not obnoxious.

The author did a great job of providing a glimpse of what this guy is like, not only as a slave-driving manager, but as a person. I admire much of what he stands for and stands up for.  I loved the author’s candid writing style, often imbued with humor that had me laughing out loud. I don’t doubt that I will eventually read this book again. It’s inspirational to see what one determined man can accomplish when he sets his mind to what needs to be done, then commandeers the help and talent he needs to get there, leaving naysayers in the dust. His self-imposed mission is to save the world from itself and so far it looks as if he might do just that. It won’t surprise me one bit if he’s the one who gets us to Mars. If you have any doubts, then you should read this book. It made a believer out of me and restored my faith in old-fashioned hard work and ingenuity, which has somehow gotten lost in our crazy world.

This book convinced me, more than ever, that it’s people like Musk who should be considered heroes in today’s world. Not obnoxious sports figures, crooked politicians, and those who want to be taken care of at others’ expense. It’s time that we return a strong work ethic and intelligence to the status it deserves for making this a better world.

You can pick up a copy on Amazon here. I recommend it highly. I will warn you that it contains a multitude of f-bombs. If you want to share this awesome story with your kids, which I also recommend, there’s a cleaned up version you can get here.

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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.

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.]

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