How Do We Get from Here (Earth, 2012) to There (Dust, 2512)? Part II

Part I here.

Dust takes place on a colony of the same name established on a harsh, unforgiving world many light-years from Earth.  The single biggest hurdle that has to be overcome is how the heck do we get there?  For any story set against a backdrop of galactic exploration,  the author has to decide how the human race figures out how to travel beyond the bounds of the solar system.

There are three well-known mechanisms for this: generation ships, faster than light travel, or wormholes.  Generation ships are well within the realm of possibility but are not  conducive to my futuristic galactic Republic, so I’ll explore that topic another time.  Meanwhile the plausibility of faster-than-light travel took a blow this week, but at the moment, wormholes remain a theoretical possibility.  Do a search for wormhole experiments and you’ll find plenty of discussions on the  topic from all corners of the academic spectrum.  Currently, most of the conversation focuses on the theoretical aspects of the problem – that is is it possible to connect two different points in space-time and allow for quick transit between two points that are light-years apart?

Eventually, these discussions will move from the blackboard to the lab (which may already be happening).  Then at some point in the future, my guess here is the 22nd century, we will discover that scientific holy grail.  At that point, the frontier will be open for business.

First though, we’ll need to work on stability and safety.  The first wormholes created will be highly unstable and disappear within seconds.  They will also require tremendous amounts of energy to generate and open.  It’ll take years of experimenting and practice before we can really harness this technology.

Highly technical depiction of the wormhole transit paradigm in Dust

Then there’s the problem of knowing where that wormhole will open up.  The model that I’ve established in Dust is fairly simple, satellites have been deployed throughout the galaxy and link together to form a transit network.  A wormhole can be created between any two points in that network.  The satellites are needed to keep a stable link so that we know with certainty where the wormhole will open up.

With a stable means of transit in place, now we can actually start sending things through the wormhole.  Because the loss of human life in making scientific progress is generally frowned upon, no government will approve the use of wormholes for human travel without extensive testing.  This means the first traveler through a wormhole will be a friendly, sacrificial robot.

The difficulty with beginning to use this transit system will be getting the satellites in place.  If the only way we could accurately predict the exit point of a wormhole is to physically put a satellite in that location, then it’s going to take some time to put that satellite in place through conventional means.  Right now, the closest exoplanets that we know of are roughly 10 light years away.  Even assuming we’ve advanced conventional propulsion to the point where you can travel at roughly half the speed of light or greater, it will still take 20 years to get the first beacon in place and then another ten years for the two satellites to link up.

So when the frontier finally opens, it won’t be a gold rush at first but rather the slow trickle of molasses as humanity works to put a safe and reliable network in place.  Once that network is in place, then the fun begins and humanity will establish its first outpost beyond the boundaries of our solar system.

That won’t be the last of the struggles though, because at some point, there will be an accident and lives will be lost.  When that happens, human transit will be suspended until a root cause to the problem is found and the entire system is made safer.   Those initial flights will be fraught  with risk and it will only be after the system has proven reliable that governments will grant average citizens the opportunity to travel to distant stars.

For more on how I approached building the fictional world of Dust, please see my guest  post on the book blog Alchemy of Scrawl.

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The Rhetoric on the NASA Budget

This week, the White House unveiled its fiscal year 2013 budget request for NASA and as soon as that happened, the hand-wringing about NASA’s budget began. In order to decipher the conversation that surrounds the request and the debate to come, we need to briefly look at how NASA is currently constructed and the missions it supports.

NASA is composed of 10 centers, five involved in human spaceflight (Johnson, Kennedy, Stennis, Goddard, Marshall), five involved in research (JPL, Ames, Dryden, Glenn, Langley), NASA headquarters, and roughly half a dozen other facilities. Each center has a different function or specialty which support NASA’s missions of human space exploration, robotic space exploration, planetary sciences, Earth sciences, and aeronautics. In the map above, you can see that those centers are spread across the country. Geography is the first factor that drives the initial rhetoric regarding the budget.

The day after the budget was released, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) released a statement saying:

“I am pleased the President requested $830 million for Commercial Crew programs, which is America’s single most important near-term civil space project. But cutting the Technology budget while increasing the Earth Science budget – a function that doesn’t even belong in a space exploration agency – and continuing to shovel resources into the SLS money pit is a travesty.

“Any more of this kind of “leadership” and soon NASA’s entire budget will be consumed by JWST and the SLS, two things that won’t have made it off the launch pad ten years from now.”

So what’s behind this statement? Well, SpaceX and Blue Origin, two prominent commercial space partners, are both headquartered in California. In addition, two Mars’ robotics programs that are now at risk would be developed and run out of JPL and Ames, also in California.

Meanwhile, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) released this statement:

“As I told the Administrator during our meeting, I oppose these ill-considered cuts and I will do everything in my power to restore the Mars budget and to ensure American leadership in space exploration.”

Rare to see bi-partisan support of anything these days. Then, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX) chimed in with this reaction:

“Despite repeated assurances from NASA and White House officials that the SLS and Orion are ‘key elements of our future strategy for human space exploration’, vehicle development for the heavy lift SLS rocket and the Orion capsule is cut by hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Given that JSC is one of the centers that will most benefit from the development and operation of SLS, these comments should not come as a surprise. The bottom line for each of these representatives is that a reduction in funding to a NASA mission supported by their local centers means a potential loss of jobs at each of those centers. Again, less budget means fewer jobs. Fewer jobs means that constituents in the districts that they support will be out of work.

Having the conversation center around the benefits of one aspect of NASA’s mission vs. another aspect of that mission will not advance the conversation very far. It causes internal strife in an organization that can’t afford to have that. Missions will always need to be appropriately vetted to ensure we are pursuing worthwhile scientific or technological goals. The reality is there are benefits to be gained from all aspects of the agency’s current missions. At this point, funding is being spread so thin across programs in a way that jeopardizes the long term success of several programs. To best accomplish NASA’s mission of exploring the solar system will require a combination of human and robotic exploration supported by satellite or telescopic observation. Each one of these areas of research provides different benefits. Someone who tells you we should only do one or the other of these things is likely not seeing the entire picture.

Satellite observation provides invaluable insight into the varied worlds around us. Satellites like Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter can help map a planet, identify where water once flowed, and point robotic exploration missions to areas of high value. They can peer far into the surface of these worlds giving us insights we would have otherwise never had.

Robotic missions can then go to the surface and help us understand the environment where humans will eventually tread. Robotic explorers can go where it is too dangerous to send humans. They can also explore for long periods without the need for refueling or replenishment. Eventually, those robotic explorers will fail and cease operation.

Enter the human explorer who can change a research target at a moment’s notice, conduct research and exploration without needing someone on Earth to command him or her to do so, and can repair instruments or rovers that break. In addition, as we explore the solar system, we learn more and more about ourselves. Space exploration tests the limits of human endurance and requires continued advances in so many areas.

To do human exploration, we need a US vehicle capable of reaching orbit, low Earth or otherwise. The commercial crew providers show promise but are by no means guaranteed success. As people are now finding out, the commercial providers face the same technological and budgetary challenges that NASA has faced for decades. Several are turning to NASA to provide tried and true expertise for operating their spacecraft. Just as it has always been, the future of human spaceflight will be a public-private partnership.

The real question shouldn’t be should we do robotics vs. human exploration or commercial vs. NASA, it should be are we as a country spending enough on scientific research and development. NASA’s total budget for 2012 is $17.7 billion. This represents .48% of the federal budget or less than half a cent from your tax dollar. This is the lowest percentage of the federal budget that NASA has received since 1960. Many people are under the mistaken impression that the NASA budget is comparable to the Department of Defense Budget. The DoD budget request for 2013 stands at $525 billion dollars or 30 times the NASA budget. By point of comparison, in NASA’s entire history from 1958 to 2012, the US has given NASA $543 billion dollars (non-adjusted) or $18 billion more than the DoD’s request for next year. Staggering.

At one point, I was a doubter of MPCV and SLS, believing the rhetoric that had spewed forth of it just being a pork program. That was before I talked to people hard at work on that program, people who are working as hard as they can to get this done as quickly and cheaply as possible, so that we can resume human exploration of the solar system. Without MPCV and SLS, NASA would not have any budget for human exploration and who knows if we would ever get that back. Now, MPCV is on track for a test flight in 2014 and SLS is slated for its first test in 2015 and a longer test flight in 2017. If funding is maintained, those dates will be here sooner than you think.

Couple that with the continued development of commercial crew services, which some companies are still on track to provide by 2016, and the US would have a fully operational human exploration program with access to low Earth orbit and beyond in 4-5 years. Robotic precursor missions would have already paved the way and suddenly, we would have the capability to do the things we’ve always dreamed.

Isn’t that worth paying for?

Quick addendum: I’m not trying to suggest that the government should give NASA whatever it wants unchecked. Accountability is absolutely needed and funds for research should also be used in other areas of scientific, technological, or medical research. I am suggesting we ought to consider our national priorities of where to invest taxpayer money and perhaps alter the balance of things.

How do we get from here (Earth, 2012) to there (Dust, 2512)? (Part I)

The challenge of setting any story in the future is establishing some reasonable progression of society and its technological capabilities.  Dust takes place some 500 years in the future, so I thought it would be fun to lay out a bit of a timeline of advancements needed and milestones achieved over that time.

Sometime this year or next, I expect the discovery of the first potentially habitable planet to be announced.  Exoplanet discoveries have steadily ramped up over the past year and that will only increase as more resources are devoted to deciphering data from research projects like the Kepler telescope.  The discovery of a habitable world will no doubt spark a small mention in the national conversation, but the stark reality is we will be limited in how much we will be able to learn about this world at this time.  So we will discover the world, we will no doubt listen to it and study its atmospheric composition, but beyond that there won’t be much more we can do.

On human exploration, I have to believe that at some point in the next 2 decades some man or woman will set foot on another world in our solar system.  Whether that person will be from the United States, Russia, China, Japan, Germany, Italy, India, South Korea or any other space-faring nation is ultimately irrelevant.  What really matters is that someone will do it.  That person may set foot on that world for the noble goal of exploration, due to an attempt to instill national pride, or in some misguided cold-war-style space race, but it will be done.

When that happens, I want to believe that the final hurdle will be overcome and that the floodgates for exploration will be open.  This is naive, of course.  At a minimum, I hope we have learned lessons from the incredible accomplishments of Apollo and hopefully, we will be there for more than just a brief visit.  Of course, the real gate-opener for exploration and ultimately colonization will be to find a way to make it profitable whether it’s through mining, scientific advancement, or some other unforeseen reason.  Make it profitable and companies will come.

While this exploration of the solar system will ultimately result in advances in medicine and medical technology due to the obstacles overcome in that exploration, medical advances will continue to advance due to terrestrial research.  Within the next couple of decades, the developed world will start to have access to life-extending medications.  Even without these medications, the world population will continue to increase and the ability of the planet to support the ever-growing population will continue to be stressed.  Could the world population ever become so large that humanity is forced to try and expand to another world?  Possibly, but it’s more likely that some section of society would collapse before a solution like that would be pursued.

Eventually though, assuming there are enough well-to-do private enthusiasts and/or government funding, enough money will be poured into developing space exploration technologies that the cost-to-orbit will be lowered, advanced propulsion capabilities will be delivered, and the technical challenges related to establishing a colony on another world will be overcome.  Then finally, whether through necessity or curiosity, humanity take out an insurance policy on the Earth and begin living on another world.

Given the current rate and commitment to exploration, 50 years is probably too ambitious a time frame for this to happen.  This is where you have to recognize that even if the United States doesn’t do this, then some other country will.  With any luck, it’ll be a cooperative effort.

Once a foothold is established on another world, we will then begin the task of reforming that world into something more hospitable for us and turning it into a long-term home for our people.  Currently, these technologies and approaches are only theoretical, but we have plenty of time to turn those theories into reality.

Up next, the 22nd century…

Spaceship Design of Dust or Everything I Know about Spaceship Design I Learned from the International Space Station

In writing Dust, the first element of the setting that I defined was the Hannah, Max Cabot’s medium-class freighter that serves as the setting for a good portion of the story.  My biggest challenge when writing Dust was to not try and explain how every little thing worked in the flow of the story.  I would often have to go back and remove sections that I ultimately felt went into too much detail.  Instead, I figured I would save those details for some behind-the-scenes posts on here.

Spaceship design is something that I have been playing around with since I was about ten years old.  One year, my mom brought me home a tablet of graph paper from her civil engineering firm and I spent hours and hours drawing spaceship layouts, identifying where the ships systems were, challenging myself to come up with designs that weren’t recognizable as ships from Star Wars or Star Trek.

In college, spaceship design and function continued to dominate my creative thoughts.  It was then that I wrote the short story “The Scout” which was an attempt to write a short story where the main character was the ship itself and its journey through space.  Finally, a year after I graduated from college, I started working on the International Space Station (ISS) and I got to delve into the design of a real spaceship.

My first assignment on ISS was as an instructor for life support systems, so it should come as no surprise that the Hannnah’s systems reflect much of what I learned then.  From a life support systems perspective, the ISS is the first spacecraft that has attempted to have a close-looped system.  For a spaceship that is going to spend much of its time in space, you want an efficient system that will not waste any resources.  On ISS, an oxygen generator uses water produce oxygen and has a leftover component of hydrogen. A separate system removes carbon dioxide from the air.  The oxygen from that carbon dioxide is combined with the hydrogen from the oxygen generator to then form water, which when processed can be used to produce oxygen, and so on.  The key philosophy here is that a spaceship has to recycle everything and waste as little as possible.  The more you waste, the more you have to replenish.  ISS doesn’t have a truly closed system, but it’s taken great strides towards one.

About a third of the way through Dust, the Hannah experiences problems with rising carbon dioxide levels.  Max then embarks on a hunt to figure out why this is happening.  One of my favorite lines of Max’s is when he says that there are no mysteries on-board a spaceship.  Everything is definable; there are few variables.  Everything that happens in that closed environment has a limited set of contributors and probable outcomes.  Max knows this and immediately knows that something is amiss.

At this point, Max starts tearing apart the ship to find the source of his problem.  This reflects another lesson learned from ISS: everything breaks.  Every component on ISS has been pored over, rigorously tested, and then operated on Earth to make sure it works.  Even still, things are constantly breaking.  Before the ISS was fully complete and it didn’t have fully redundant systems, the biggest threats to having to abandon the station were that the oxygen generator would break, the carbon dioxide remover would break, or that the toilet would break.  And those three things broke with disheartening regularity in the early days of the program.

It was only natural to me then that the Hannah would constantly be having problems.  While I fully expect that in 500 years a top-of-the-line spaceship will be full of self-healing alloys, self-healing nanostructures, and other “unbreakable” components, the reality for Max is that he flies the equivalent of a 30-year-old used Winnebago.  Nothing heals itself, half the ship is replacement parts, and nothing runs for too long without breaking.  Someday, when spaceships are as ubiquitous as cars, we will have to deal with the reality that not everything is a top-of-the-line model.  When that happens, I hope the owner has a maintenance robot of their own to help with all of the repairs.

On the ISS when something breaks, the crew knows that they will be spending some time within the next couple of weeks replacing something, which means they’ll have to go digging through storage areas to find the spare parts.  Then they’ll have to spend a good deal of time cutting through clutter to get what to what they need.  Pictures of the inside of ISS, like the one below, show that the station is jam-packed with stuff.

So, my procedure says to follow the white wire...

For this, I gave Max a bit of an advantage as he gets to use a 3D printer to generate replacement parts.  I had to do something to cut out the piles of stuff that would otherwise be lining the floor.  I did however try to preserve the concept that there is no wasted space aboard the ship.  Behind every panel is some vital piece of equipment.  Throughout the story, Max is forced to worm and weasel his way into and out of tight spaces all in the name of making a living.

So through the Hannah’s systems and operation, I tried to reflect a realistic spaceship environment.  That realism though means the entire ship is one big pain-in-the-ass for Max to run by himself which is what ultimately leads Max to trying to hire on some extra help.  I could have made the ship less of a junker, but I’m confident that Max wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Dust is available in the Amazon Kindle store for $3.99 and is free for Amazon Prime members.

Introducing ‘Dust’, Now Available in the Amazon Kindle Store

Image Dust, my first published novel, is now exclusively available in the Amazon Kindle store.  Currently it is available in eBook format only, but will be available in paperback in the coming weeks.

What is Dust about?

Dust is a science fiction adventure set in deep space, hundreds of years in the future.  The story follows a young man, Nick Papagous, as he runs away from his rich, luxurious homeworld and journeys to the rough and tumble frontier.

Nick is running away from home to escape the control of his father, a top official in the Marshall Conglomerate.  The Conglomerate produces everything needed to help maintain a safe and secure society.  They serve the people and in so doing they serve the Republic.  Or so his father says.   Nick, though, has found something rotten in his father’s work and he can no longer live with the man he once admired.

Nick is forced into the employ of Max Cabot, an old, weathered freighter pilot who does supply runs to the last colony humanity has established, the colony on Dust.  Max has been on this route for ten years, trying to put his tragic past behind him.  The Republic has turned a blind eye to Dust, an inconsequential world that isn’t worth maintaining. However, Dust has plenty of secrets beneath its shifting sands, secrets that will challenge everything Nick believes.

What is my writing background?

Dust is the second novel I’ve written but the first I’ve published.  My first novel, Crusade of the Warrior King, will be released later this year.  I’ve also written many short stories, several of which are also available on Amazon.com, Smashwords, iBooks, and other sites.  Check the Hutt Publishing tab for details.

Who or what influences my writing?

I’ve read more science fiction novels than I can remember, but my favorites are Isaac Asimov’s Robot novels, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, Jack McDevitt’s Omega series, and Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.  I prefer fiction that has a bit grittier feel, that has a bit of an edge to it.  I’m not a big fan of happy endings, which is probably why I like King’s work as much as I do.

I do love space opera and the grand sweeping stories of the original Star Wars trilogy or the Star Trek movies.  They’ve romanticized flying through the stars, fighting super-villains, and the rogue-ish hero.  There’s no denying the influence that movies like that or shows like the ill-fated Firefly have had on me.

I’m also a big fan of Ben Bova and his series of novels that explore the colonization of the solar system.  Bova’s fiction falls under the category of hard science fiction, rooted in real-world science wherever possible.  While I prefer adventures that allow humanity to travel from star to star, I still try to root the story in some form of reality.  I hope that some of my twelve years working for NASA on the International Space Station shine through in an entertaining manner.

I hope you enjoy the novel and I am open to any and all feedback you may have, positive or negative.  I’m also happy to answer any questions about the story.  I’ll be following this post up with a few other posts on some aspects of the story including the technology, comparisons to real space vehicles, etc.

Dust is available for $3.99 from the Amazon Kindle store and is free for Amazon Prime members who own a Kindle.  I’ll post an update when the paperback is available.  Please rate and leave feedback.  If you enjoy it, please pass it on.  I appreciate any and all support.