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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NEW RELEASE from John Reinhard Dizon!

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If you love lots of action and strong characters be sure to check out John Reinhard Dizon’s latest, The Empire, a fast-moving sci-fi thriller. I had lots of fun designing the cover and plan to read it soon. Here’s the blurb:

Driven to the threshold of extinction, the human race has survived the destruction of the Solar System and found a New System to call home. Old rivalries surface, causing the Allied Federation of Alpha and the Terranean Alliance of Beta to take a stand against the Republic of Delta and the Scorpion Empire. A crisis results when Styrena Stone, the daughter of the President of Alpha, is kidnapped. The abductors demand that the Federation accepts a non-aggression pact allowing the Empire to conduct a campaign of terror throughout the System. Only a renegade captain commits an act of mutiny in turning an Imperial starship against Styrena’s captors. Federal agent Von Kilgore is sent to rescue Styrena, with the threat of war looming and the merciless Captain Grav Drachna standing in his path.

You can pick up a print copy on Amazon here or an ebook for 99c from Smashwords here. It will show up on other retailer sites soon. Don’t miss it!

Interview with Ted Weimann, Author of “Paradox: Fascinating Anomalies of Science”

webTedTed Weimann is obsessed with science and shares what he learns generously in his recent book, Paradox: Fascinating Anomalies of Science from Quest Publications. If you want a crash course on the hottest topics in science today, I highly recommend this book, as you can tell from my recent review. Ted’s enthusiasm and love of learning comes through in his writing, thanks to his ability to synthesize the information and then explain it in a way a person of average intelligence can understand.

Ted was gracious enough to grant me an interview, which gives us further insights into his brilliant mind and his ongoing quest for knowledge, fueled by his “Question Everything” attitude.


MF: What motivated you to compile Paradox’s rich collection of modern research?

TW: The thrill of learning about these fascinating topics.  I so thoroughly enjoyed the dark energy / center of the universe enigma over the years, that I began noticing other paradoxes.  They’re interesting.  For instance, who would have thought that France will experience a higher sea level rise than Iceland when the Greenland Ice cap melts?  But with the reduced gravitational attraction upon the North Atlantic Ocean because all Greenland’s ice mass is gone, and with the resulting glacial rebound, France actually will.

Something else I didn’t include in that section because I didn’t think about it at the time, is when that part of the North American Plate glacially rebounds, Iceland’s continental rift will likely increase.  As you know, Iceland is practically split in half because it straddles two tectonic plates that are moving apart from each other.  Its western half will experience some glacial rebounding when Greenland does.  Since its eastern half is on the Eurasian plate, that part of Iceland likely won’t, or if it does, will to a far lesser degree.  An increase in Iceland earthquakes may be in their future, perhaps even their volcanic activity will increase. We could talk all night about this one topic and all its implications.  Scientists could research it for years.  I find that pretty cool.


MF: Which part of Paradox is your favorite section?

TW: It’s changed over time.  First it was the section on dark energy.  And then it was black holes.  When I calculated the compression of a neutron star down to a black hole, I made mistakes.  Catching those mistakes was fun, and humbling.  And then I realized that the neutron star would start rotating faster than the speed of light.  Since I knew that this could never happen, I started researching the ways in which this violation of physics was avoided.  One of those ways is the decoupling of the magnetic field-lines when they cross the light cylinder.  I had never heard of a light cylinder.  That was another cool concept I got to research.

Plate tectonics made a run for the number one spot, but I’d have to say the chapters on the evolution and devolution of the human brain are my favorites.  So many questions remain unanswered.  Like how will our intelligence change in the future?


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MF: Tell us about the research/facts presented in your book that surprised you the most.

TW: Probably the agricultural paradox.  I knew farmers produced more calories, yet had poorer nutrition than hunter gatherers, but I didn’t realize how much poorer their diets were.  I had always been led to believe that hunter gatherers lead such difficult lives compared to farmers.  And that’s not necessarily the case.

I also didn’t know that farmers used to live with their livestock.  Living in these cramped, filthy conditions is how their diseases evolved and became our diseases.  That was interesting.


MF: Do you have a particular source you trust more than others?

TW: The source I use the most, not necessarily for writing books, but for medical research, is pubmed.org.  I’ve been researching medical studies on their site since practically day 1.  But, as discussed in my chapter on the obesity paradox, the reliability of medical studies is far lower than it should be.  So, they’re not my answer to your question.

I’m sorry but, I don’t have any one source to hold up for you.  My thanks go to the majority of the experts that take the time to answer questions from me and I’m sure many other people.  Sometimes it was research for this book, but often I simply read about their research and had a question about it or its implications.  And most of these experts took the time to help me.  So, thank you to them.


MF: What do you think the next major technological breakthrough will be (that’s revealed to the public)?

TW: I might have to go with batteries.  I’ll be surprised if we don’t have vastly superior batteries 10 or 15 years from now.  And that simple advance will have profound changes upon the planet.  Think transportation, renewable energy, climate, and the lives of people around the world currently without power.  We’ll all benefit with that one, seemingly simple advance.


MF: If you were the one controlling the purse strings to a big chunk of grant money, which branch of science would you reward it to? Why?

TW: Renewable energy.  We’re making good progress and I believe we’ll get to where we need to be, but the sooner we get the cost of renewable energy lower than fossil fuels, the better off our climate, and everything tied to it, will be.

Where my passion lies however, is the likely extinction many large mammals will face, regardless of climate change.  Because of greed, religion and superstitions, the mega fauna that we all love are in serious danger.  I’d like to get Bill Gates, Ted Turner, Jeff Bezos and others together with the purpose of talking them into purchasing a huge track of land in the US and turning it into an African savanna.  I believe that’s the only chance elephants, giraffes, rhinos, cheetahs, and others, will have in the long term.  It might even turn a profit someday.


MF:  What percentage of critical medical knowledge do you think is being withheld from the public?

TW: Nearly 50% of all medical studies go unpublished.  To answer your question though, we’d have to define critical.  To me, all well conducted studies are critical, because they contain knowledge we need.


MF: Do you have any particular method for recognizing “fake science?”

TW: For me, I’d say it’s a combination of intuition and reason.  For example, I just had lunch with a friend who’s an avid hunter.  He was showing me photos and telling stories of his wild hog hunting trip, when he said the local experts he was hunting with told him that he should dodge a charging pig to the right, because they can’t turn to the left very well.  I told him I didn’t believe that.  Rationally, it didn’t make sense to me on an evolutionary basis.

If your gut feelings send you signals, or if the media headline seems a little too dramatic, question it.  Do your research.


MF:  What do you like to read in your spare time? Strictly nonfiction or do you ever take a break with fiction? If so, which genre?

TW: I was in my 30s when I read my 3rd fiction book, Jurassic Park.  The first two were The Little Engine that Could, and Bugs Bunny adventures, or something like that.  My 4th was Jurassic Park in Spanish, Parque Jurasico.  I started reading The Destroyer, a comedy/ adventure series during my recoveries from my spinal surgeries.  I’ve now read about 100 of them.  I also enjoy some comedies like The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and A Dirty Job.  In that book, the author has a hilarious comparison of an alpha male versus a beta male.  When I’m healthy though, it’s pretty much non-fiction for me.  I like to learn about the world around me.


MF: Do you have any other books planned or in-work at this time?

TW: I did have one I would love to write, but I knew I’d never pull it off.  I wrote all the living presidents, requesting interviews with them and their spouses, as well as access to the medical records of the presidents.  Of course, none granted me such access. My idea was to conduct a small sample study on the effects of the extreme stress of the presidency on health and aging.

Imagine how much I would have learned in the process.  That, would have been fun.


Yes, learning should be fun. I know it is for me, but far too many find it an unpleasant chore. Just think what the world would be like if we could find a panacea for this crippling attitude. Thanks to people like Ted, however, who shares these delicious brain candy tidbits so generously, hopefully others will find the intellectual stimulation as fun and interesting as the next computer game. -MF

You can pick up a copy of Paradox: Fascinating Anomalies of Science from Amazon or the publisher.

 

 

Is your inner Einstein looking for some brain candy?

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This deliciously meaty and heavily researched book should be on everyone’s shelf. Of course, I’m prejudiced as a scientist myself. I thrive on nonfiction books like this, because they clear the dust from those remote corners of my brain, many of which haven’t been used in a long, long time.  In many ways, the content reminds me of the popular physics books Isaac Azimov wrote years ago, which I thrived upon, prior to actually obtaining a physics degree myself.

Probably what I liked most is its focus on the numerous paradoxes that exist in just about every field of study. The author includes sections on medicine, neurology, and psychology; astronomy, cosmology, and physics; and geosciences and math. He points out through a host of examples that there is still so much we don’t understand and thus so much to learn and explore. On the other hand, research is often subjective and highly biased, conducted to prove a point that financially benefits someone or, more likely, a corporation or industry.

So can you trust research results? Maybe, maybe not, making scientific findings paradoxes in and of themselves.  Science should represent facts, but does it? If someone you don’t trust tells you one thing, scientific data notwithstanding, do you automatically assume the opposite to be true? Do you trust everything the pharmaceutical industry tells you? The tobacco industry? Monsanto? The government? How many times has USDA’s official “food pyramid” changed? How many drugs or food additives have been declared “safe” by the FDA only to be proven otherwise at a later date? is it a paradox we can’t believe so much of what we’re told in the name of science?

You’ve probably heard the quote “Lies, damn lies, and statistics”. The section on mathematical manipulation was particularly fascinating, especially pointing out a statistical flaw (or method, depending on whom you ask) known as HARKing, “hypothesizing after the results are known.” Sometimes, remarkable discoveries are found that way; but, on the other hand, it can be used deceptively.

Weimann notes how correlations are often implicated as causes, when there’s no solid evidence to substantiate it. Along similar lines, in some cases, I would have liked to have seen a specific source as opposed to the massive bibliography at the end. While I understand that footnoting every fact would have been a Herculean task, I definitely raised a eyebrow from time to time wondering, and would have appreciated more substantiation. Ironically, the author himself points out how so much of published scientific findings are suspect, yet other times presents them as gospel. I find this somewhat ironic, perhaps a subtle play on the title, perceivable only at the subconscious level, or maybe it’s the author’s way of messing with us.

What can we believe these days? Sometimes, it’s hard to tell. In some ways, the entire book is a paradox, where facts are provided on one hand, yet the overall theme is that contradictions lie all around us. It’s as if it the book’s underlying message is something like, “This is all the cool stuff science is discovering these days, but don’t believe everything you hear.”

Maybe you need to be a scientist to see the humor in that. We nerds do tend to have a weird sense of humor, a trait that’s occasionally, but not always, captured on the popular TV show, “The Big Bang Theory.” It’s a matter of laughing with versus at someone and, more often than not, the humor in that show is directed at mocking those who are different. Personally, as a physics major myself, I find it marginally offensive, and if I were of certain political persuasions, I’d be out there protesting and demanding it be removed from the airwaves. Not that scientists can’t laugh at themselves. They just do it at a level the average person doesn’t grok.

Digression aside, Paradox contains a wealth of science, much of it unknown or cutting edge; the beauty of it lies in pointing out–sometimes clearly, sometimes, not–the various contradictions afoot. A favorite saying among physicists and mathematicians is that something is “intuitively obvious.” That tends to show our arrogant side, since so much isn’t, such as his expose of the number one in the math section.

One human behavior paradox I particularly enjoyed in Weimann’s book was in the section that addresses psychology. As humans, we want choices, even demand them, but too many options are overwhelming and tend to result in a person not selecting any of them. I know I’ve experienced this in the grocery store, where there is so much to choose from (especially in the ice cream cooler) that walking away and thus doing without is a far simpler decision, and probably healthier. Another example would be the plethora of political ideologies (some of which are idiotologies) where people scream for freedom to express their own views, then want the entire world to conform to their beliefs, a primary reason why democracies fail.

Some sections are more controversial than others, including the age of the Earth, as well as whether global warming is attributable to a natural climate cycle, which the Earth has endured for millennia, or being contributed to by fossil fuels. I must say, that section tended to convince me of the latter, though I previously leaned toward natural cycles. I found the section fascinating that addresses how our brains have evolved and actually become smaller. The author states that scientific evidence indicates that once daily environmental threats are removed by a “civilized” society, brains shrink, while disease increases. Apparently, “Survival of the fittest” conditions refine a species to top efficiency, whereas survival for everyone, including the drones, downgrades the species, generally. Who woulda thunk it?

The contradictions paradoxes represent keep us honest and humble. They remind us that all may not be as it seems, that our sense of reason may be flawed, implying we’re not as smart as we’d like to think we are. What we believe is impossible is limited only by our knowledge of natural law. Perhaps the only individuals from centuries past who wouldn’t be surprised by what we’ve achieved would be Nostradamus and other visionaries who were considered crazy in their own time.

While this book serves as brain candy if you’re a scientist, you don’t have to have a physics degree to appreciate or understand this information. Rest assured, it’s presented for a lay audience, but won’t be palatable for everyone. For those who find science boring, it’ll serve best as bedtime reading for insomniacs.

On the other hand, this is a must read if you’re a science aficionado or entirely immersed in it by degree or profession. Stretch your synapses to fields outside your own! If you love science, yet aren’t formally educated in its tenets, Paradox is a wonderful primer that will keep you informed of some of the most interesting subjects under investigation today. If you’re surrounded by scientists or engineers, but aren’t one yourself, yet want to participate in conversations at work or social gatherings and show you’re smarter than they think you are, this handy volume will provide a wealth of the latest information on what’s going on out there in the world of research, both in the cosmos and on planet Earth.

Those heading for college to obtain a technical degree can benefit greatly as well. If you’re not sure which field you want to go into, you may find something that grabs you. Furthermore, this material will help grease the skids, so to speak, introducing concepts that will make them easier to understand later. Our brains require synaptic connections to work properly, and if a concept is entirely new, it’s harder to grasp than one with some level of familiarity where a niche has already been prepared in your grey matter, if you will. Anyone home schooling their kids will also find this an excellent resource. If you’re a science fiction author, you definitely need this book, not only to keep your writing credible, but to likewise trigger a wealth of new ideas.

As you can tell, if nothing else, this book made me think and possibly stimulated my neurons a bit too much. All that aside, even if you’re not interested yourself, pick up a copy of this five-star book and give it to your favorite nerd. They’ll be forever grateful.

You can pick up your copy on Amazon here.

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/

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.

RIP Space Shuttle Columbia: Picking Up the Pieces

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At 8:59:32 a.m. Columbia was approaching Dallas, Texas, at 200,700 feet and Mach 18.1. At the same time, another broken call, the final call from Columbia’s commander, came on the air-to-ground voice loop. —Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report, p. 43

Some things you remember with your heart and some you remember with your head. Events with an emotional impact are timeless, their memory as clear as yesterday, while those random facts that are processed through your brain are more transient. For example, I can’t remember how to “divide and conquer” a differential equation but I can remember my relief at getting a 28% on a test in that class affectionately called “diffi-que” that turned out to be a “C” thanks to grading on the curve. I can’t remember the specifics of chemical covalent bonds but I can remember discovering a chunk of tartaric acid crystals in a quart of homemade grape juice that represented a major “Aha!” moment when they conformed perfectly to theory.

You have probably noticed that memories with an emotional component are vivid and often come back with all the feelings of the moment. This is because they are not only stored in your brain but also in your heart. Literally. Those of you who don’t believe that should read “The Heart’s Code” by heart surgeon, Paul Pearsall which recounts the remarkable experience of heart transplant patients who experienced it.

One memory stored in my heart is 1 February 2003, the day the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up on entry over Texas skies. It was a Saturday so I wasn’t at work. That morning I was in my workout clothes vacuuming, which ironically kept me from hearing the phone the first few times someone tried to deliver the tragic news. Needless to say I was in shock and left immediately for my office, dressed worse than I would for a visit to Walmart and no makeup, which actually came in handy because tears were inevitably going to be shed that day.

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I worked at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and lived only a mile or so away so it didn’t take long to get to my office. I was employed by a contractor and managed Payload Safety which assured that payloads flying on the shuttle complied with all NASA safety requirements. Payloads comprised everything from satellites to small self-contained experiments. Our involvement on that fateful day involved compiling a list of any toxic materials onboard any payloads that could be a risk to the initial recovery effort. The engineers who were responsible for that mission came into work to compile this information with the assistance of our outstanding administrative support staff, who were amongst the first to arrive at the office.

Only those responsible for payloads onboard were required to report to work, yet I am still touched as I recall those who came in regardless, simply because they felt that was where they were supposed to be, to see if there was anything they could do to help, and to mourn with those who shared their grief. Yes, this is definitely an emotional memory because I am tearing up as I write, seeing those dedicated individuals gathered in my office. I don’t know where all of them are today but I do know at this moment they are in my heart.

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Since the space shuttle vehicle had broken up over a wide swath across Texas, they put together a major recovery effort to gather the debris. This was important to the investigation as well as for safety reasons because there were various dangerous substances associated with the shuttle. To quote the Columbia Accident Investigation Report, “From the start, NASA officials sought to make the public aware of the hazards posed by certain pieces of debris, as well as the importance of turning over all debris to the authorities. Columbia carried highly toxic propellants that maneuvered the Orbiter in space and during early stages of re-entry. These propellants and other gases and liquids were stored in pressurized tanks and cylinders that posed a danger to people who might approach Orbiter debris.” Besides that there were several explosive devices known as pyros used for such things as deploying drogue chutes upon landing.

The debris field stretched from south of Fort Worth, Texas to Fort Polk, Louisiana and covered over two thousand square miles. Base camps were set up in Corsicana, Palestine, Nacogdoches and Hemphill, Texas where search efforts were coordinated. Something drove me to join this effort, even though at 55 I was no spring chicken but in reasonably good physical shape. NASA employees were needed in the field to identify debris. I volunteered and was deployed to the Hemphill camp which operated primarily out of the Sabine County Veterans of Foreign Wars Post Number 10351 facility.

I was a member of one of several twenty-man teams that walked a grid pattern across the debris path. Most of the members were Forest Service workers who had little to do in the spring. Throughout this effort 10,630 Forest Service personnel were involved in both ground search efforts and logistics. The majority were Native Americans known as “smoke jumpers” who would bail out of helicopters to fight fires in the southwest. You can see some of them in the photo below, lined up to get their duds for the following day.  These were some of the most wonderful people I ever met in my life. They could also spot a copperhead sunning itself on a rock from fifty yards. Fortunately most of those critters were still in hibernation and plant life such as poison ivy was barely beginning to emerge from its winter sleep.

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The ground we covered was primarily brush and thickets. We could not use machetes, only walking sticks to avoid giving the entire area an unsightly crew-cut, if you will. We dressed in U.S. Forest Service clothing suited for resisting moisture and hostile plant life such as thorns. Of course boots were part of the garb and it was a bit of a ritual each day to use duct tape to seal your pants to your boots to keep unwanted stickers or critters out. Hardhats and goggles were a required part of our fashion statement. We walked in a straight line regardless of what might be in our way and one time this took me into a tangle of brambles such that I didn’t know how I would get out. I actually got claustrophobic in this vicious web of briars. Fortunately, one of my team members came to my rescue and opened up an escape route.

We took an hour lunch break each day and for many it was nap time, including myself. That was the only time in my life when I could lay down on the bare ground, head on my forty-pound backpack, and sleep like a baby. I awoke one time to see three of my teammates trying to figure out how to wake me up. Maybe they thought I was dead. There were times I thought that maybe I was.

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I was one of the lucky ones, I had a hotel room while many stayed in a tent city set-up at the VFW facility. I remember one of many long days which started at 6 a.m. and ended about 7 p.m. with twenty miles of walking inbetween after which I went back to my room to shower up and then go find something to eat. Breakfast and lunch were provided but we were on our own for dinner. This wasn’t easy in a tiny Texas town where there was only one restaurant that was open after seven or eight o’clock. I sat at a table and a small group came in a bit later that I recognized from my team and so I smiled and nodded at them. In return I got a trio of blank looks. Too tired to pursue it at the moment, the next day I asked them about it and they laughed and said they didn’t recognize me without my hardhat, shooting glasses, boots and classy Forest Service yellow shirt and green pants.

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The experience was physically, mentally and emotionally demanding. My group found items that ranged from an intact spherical oxygen tank about six feet in diameter to smaller bits of composite structure. One of the massive shuttle main engines fell into nearby Toledo Bend Reservoir (shown above) while the other landed on a golf course in Louisiana, creating a new unexplained water hazard which was eventually investigated to reveal its cause. There was one day when just about everything we found was a personal item of the crew. I tear up again as I remember logging a recovered food bag which had Astronaut Laurel Clark’s name on it.

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Periodically we were assigned to the base camp to sort smaller debris and determine for certain whether it was shuttle related or simply junk. A teammate reached into one of the huge black garbage bags filled with the previous day’s efforts and removed a baseball. When he held it out for me to see, I scowled and shook my head, thinking it didn’t belong. Then he turned it so I could see the back, which was singed black and partially melted from re-entry, apparently being flown for a Little League coach, crew family member or some other individual. Crew personal items such as that were returned directly to the astronaut office in Houston while everything else went back to Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

I could go on and on but this is probably long enough if your eyes haven’t already glazed over. Fortunately I kept a daily diary during that time which will aid me in my next writing project. When I get my science fiction books properly launched I’ll probably start writing my NASA memoirs of which there are many stories, not only about Hemphill but numerous others. Meanwhile, for today, 1 February 2015, while others celebrated Superbowl Sunday, I found myself wandering down Memory Lane, reliving an experience preserved within my heart that I’ll never forget.