F + 2 Days Furlough Report

First, why do this?  Several reasons: 1. I’ve got the time.  2. If I can’t laugh at myself or the absurdity of this situation, then it’ll be a more depressing situation than it actually is.  3. Show what work isn’t getting done because of this impasse.  4. It’s good to have an outlet.

With that out of the way…

Furlough beard 2

Just a few more days before I look like unshaven Justin Timberlake. Or maybe not…

Duration of Furlough: 2 days

Work not done: Yesterday, I would have been given the monthly status of each group’s progress in completing our wildly important goals. The first Wednesday of every month, each group lead for the four groups in my branch reports on the progress we’re making in reaching those goals.  We discuss any potential obstacles, potential solutions, and what progress we expect to make in the next month.  These goals are usually centered around improvements we need to make – our ISE and ISO flight controllers are both working to try and improve the training flow required for certification to work in mission control.  Our Crew On-Orbit Support System software development lab is currently putting together their strategic software development plan for the next 1-2 years.  Our PLUTO flight controllers, responsible for ISS computer networks, is preparing for a major software update to the ISS LANs that’s supposed to be released in early 2014.  Work on these projects will continue to an extent as our contractor teams are forward-funded for the next couple months, but progress on these will be slowed without some key contributors.

In addition, we were also slated to continue discussion on improving proficiency training for all of our certified flight controllers and instructors.  Proficiency training is refresher training for controllers who are already certified.  We’re currently revamping that training to ensure that certified personnel are always ready to ensure the safety of the crew on ISS, ensure the safety of the vehicle, and successfully complete our mission.  We’re comparing plans across our groups to see where we can share resources, ensure we’re being consistent, and ensure we don’t miss anything.  Most of this work is just not getting done.

Outlook for Continuing Resolution passage by Congress: Still poor.

Yesterday showed little if any signs of progress.  There’s talk of a grand bargain in the works, but I’m skeptical that Democrats will agree to anything that further reduces spending.  More on that in the liberal thoughts section below; I’ll spare my conservative friends from me getting into that here.

Have I showered today? Yes!  Rationale below.

Chores done: None. Dishes pending.

Wife-requested tasks: Take youngest daughter to preschool since my wife had to be in to work early (hence the shower to not scare off the preschool teachers). Submit forms for Texas Unclaimed Property (Done! $200 comin’ my way). Write something (I’m not sure this counts).

Video games played: Injustice: Gods Among Us, The Simpson: Tapped Out

I’ve never been much for fighter games as I mostly just mash buttons. I’m also not up to speed on my comic superheroes – my knowledge stops at the core characters – but it’s satisfying to pound away in this game.

Mood: Resigned.

This is going to take a while.  It’s hard to tell how much urgency both sides have in this discussion.  The last time this occurred the shutdown lasted 21 days. Comments saying that the shutdown was wanted make me incredibly unsympathetic to your view.

Furlough Fun Fact: It is illegal for a federal worker on furlough to check his or her work email.

Movie of the day: Deep Impact

God, this movie is depressing.  But fairly realistic!

*** Warning: Liberal Views Ahead***

If you think a liberal is inherently a bad person, you’ve probably already stopped reading or never ventured here in the first place.  If you can consider that 2 people can look at a problem and come up with 2 different solutions and not think they’re terrible people because of those views, then you may be open-minded enough to read on.

I thought I’d spend a few minutes answering a question from an old friend:

When did I become such a Democrat?

First, I’m not a registered Democrat.  I’m still an independent because I don’t have a lot of trust in the career politicians on either side.  I will admit to being very liberal.  Did I used to be more moderate?  In some ways, but over the last 6 years, my worldview has definitely shifted more to the left; though I also wonder how much the right shifted away from me.

So what’s important to me?  The following is in rough priority order.

Environmentalism

This isn’t about save the Earth, because the Earth existed just fine millions of years before we came along and will continue to be here long after we’re gone.  I do believe though that we need to protect our environment as much as possible.  Pollution, be it air, water, light, or other, destroys our environment and the environment of the plants and animals we share the planet with.  We require biodiversity among those other planets and animals in order to survive.  Lack of biodiversity puts humanity’s food chain at risk.  Extinction of species, like say the honey bee, could also be devastating to our food supply. We release more pollution every day in many different ways.  In my view we need to curb that as much as possible.

I haven’t even touched on global climate change which climate scientists are now 95% certain is caused by humans.  I believe the science, but I’ll admit there’s a small chance it could be wrong.  I look at it this way – What if climate scientists are wrong?  We may waste money on renewable energy sources, jobs may disappear from coal and oil industries, but then we would have an energy supply not dependent on foreign assets and jobs would likely spring up in other areas.  Now, what if climate scientists are right and we don’t do anything?  Well, the potential consequences are fairly dire.  I’d rather make changes and have them not be needed, then not make changes and have the situation get worse.  Good businessman will find other ways to make money.

Women’s Issues

I have 3 girls.  I want them to have the same opportunities and same rewards as anyone else – man or woman.  I support fair pay laws and equal opportunity laws that will allow them to get opportunities in male-dominated industries.  I also support anti-discrimination laws that protect the from any institutional sexism.  Don’t think that exists anymore?  Talk to women in the video game industry or IT industry.

I also don’t want any of them to get pregnant before they are emotionally, financially, and physically ready for it.  However, I’m not naive enough to believe they will abstain from sex before they get married in their mid-to-late twenties or later.  They need to be educated on how to protect themselves and what contraception they should use to avoid unplanned pregnancies.  And God forbid they ever get raped and get pregnant from that, but if one of them ever were, I would want them to make whatever decision they feel is necessary for that pregnancy and for them to have the right medical care when making that decision.  I would want the same if that pregnancy threatened their well-being.

Science

I’ve already talked about climate change. I would also site the controversy over teaching creationism as science as something that drives me to the left.  The Theory of Evolution is not just some supposition; it’s well-supported by scientific evidence.  That’s the definition of a scientific theory. As long as the religious right pushes to teach creationism as science, as they’re currently doing with Texas science textbooks, I will vehemently oppose those efforts.

Economic Recovery

I fully admit this is not an area where I have a thorough understanding of the principles of the system.  I’ve learned a lot from reading sites like baselinescenario.com.  I don’t believe that focusing on the deficit and cutting government funding is what this country needs right now.  Fiscal conservatism has its place and time, but I don’t believe that time is now.  My view is that the government needs to spend more on infrastructure, science and medical research, and education in order to improve the foundations of the country, better prepare Americans to succeed in the real-world and create more jobs.

The lack of jobs is the most important issue that I believe our government should be addressing.  When taxes are low, the rich save more money rather than spend more.  Building and improving infrastructure creates jobs, research and development of new technologies creates jobs and a better education allows people to get better jobs.  Employers will continue to seek ways to lower their costs through automating tasks or finding cheaper labor.  This will continue to move manufacturing jobs out of the country and eliminate other jobs.  We either need to find other ways for people to work or change the expectation that everyone has to have a job.

I’m going to stop here.  I could also discuss pushing religion on government, gun control, military spending, government lobbying and several other issues, but I’ve probably either agitated or bored you enough already.  None of this is to say I love the current Democratic leadership – Obama seems to not really value NASA, both sides are too beholden to corporate interests – but in the current environment, I do support more of what they’re after.  In the past, pragmatic environmentalism, prudent government spending, trusting science, and equal treatment for people would not have made me a liberal.  Today, it does.

If you missed it:

F + 1 Day Furlough Report

F+1 Day Furlough Report

Debut of Furlough Beard!

Debut of Furlough Beard!

Duration of Furlough: 1 day

Work not done: Yesterday was supposed to be the Operations Division review of inputs to the Increment 38 Flight Readiness Review.  This review is in preparation for the Directorate and Agency-level Flight Readiness Reviews.  Each technical discipline in the division reports on their readiness to support Increment 38.  We review things like the certification status of everyone supporting the mission, readiness of ground facilities, and readiness to support all planned activities during this increment.  All of this is done to ensure the safety of the mission.  Assuming a short furlough, this will be rescheduled for the near future.

We were also supposed to preview a new photo storage utility that helps the ISS astronauts store photos taken on ISS in the correct folders for downlink.  This will help both the crew and ops team with some  minor hassle as this is relatively unimportant information for the crew but they  need it all the time with the volume of pictures taken.

Secondary impacts: Cancelled the after school babysitter since I was home.  Didn’t go to a lunch with my group leads as planned.

Outlook for Continuing Resolution passage by Congress: Poor

An article on CNN yesterday (which I can’t currently find to link to), stated  that the Republicans would use the shutdown as leverage to get what they want during the upcoming debt ceiling fight.  The problem? We’re not expected to reach the debt ceiling until October 17th.  That’s a long time from now and would mean I miss out on at least half a paycheck.

Have I showered today? Soon.

Chores done: Dishes. Vacuumed laundry room.

Wife-requested tasks: Go to Post Office and drop off a package (I get off easy today!).  Do something productive.

Video games played: Injustice: Gods Among Us, The Simpson: Tapped Out (Hooray for the Halloween update!)

Mood: Aggravated.

This whole situation is absurd.  I love how Congress gets paid while it’s there fault that there is not a budget and I am out of work.

Yesterday, Rep. John Culberson of Texas said this about the effort to continue to defund the Affordable Care Act (ACA):

“The whole room [shouted] ‘Let’s vote!’ And I said, you know like 9/11, ‘Let’s roll!'” Culberson said.

Rep. Culberson what you’re doing is not in any way heroic and is in no way like what the brave folks on Flight 93 did when they took a plane back from terrorists and crashed it into a field in Pennsylvania.  In my opinion, the extremism you’re displaying in this fight against ACA is closer to the actions of the bad guys in that scenario than it is to the heroes. The goals of the ACA – fewer uninsured Americans, control health care costs –  are admirable even if the solution is imperfect and needs improvement.  I’d be more inclined to be sympathetic to the Republican view if they offered any viable solutions or alternatives.  And since the Heritage Foundation,a conservative think tank, drew up the foundation of the ACA, it really makes no sense that conservatives don’t support it.  The only response so far, though, is to stomp your feet and refuse to play even though the ACA is law and the Supreme Court upheld it.

Furlough Fun Fact: It is illegal for federal workers to volunteer to work during a furlough.

Song of the day: Sometime Around Midnight – The Airborne Toxic Event

The Story of the 2012 Eagles Told in Terms of Rocket Failures

I haven’t posted anything in a while as I’ve been hard at work on  the next book and find that between work, 3 kids, writing, and occasionally trying to do something else, I am not able to write here all that often.  The 2012 Eagles, though, have inspired me to write something as I watch their soul-crushing march to another underwhelming season.  In watching the Eagles implode in spectacular fashion on Thursday Night Football against the Bengals, I was reminded of something – big fiery explosions and moments of embarrassment that cost millions of dollars.

As I watched, I was inspired to create this meme:

Eagles Meme

But, that doesn’t quite do this season justice.  So without further preamble, I present you with this: The 2012 Philadelphia Eagles in terms of rocket launch failures.

Failure to Clear the Launch Pad

The team has worked hard, putting lots of effort into the latest project.  Everyone is excited, full of anticipation for the journey that’s about to begin.  And then, the entire project goes up in a cloud of smoke and never leaves the launch pad.

We’ll call this…

the Bryce Brown.

Failure of the Guidance System

In other cases, your team is working on a development project.  It’s going to take time and effort to get things working, but there’s lots of potential and the long term payoff could be great.  Then, you finally cut the cord and unleash your project on the real world – only to watch it come crashing back to Earth in spectacular fashion.

We’ll call this…

A Nick Foles.

Rocket Explodes in Mid-Air

Sometimes, the rocket gets off the pad, clears the tower, and is rocketing toward space!  Everyone gets excited because something great is about to happen!  And then, BOOM! Your hopes and dreams are so much debris in a field.

We’ll call this…

A JeremyMaclin.

Missing the Target

Some rockets are intended to actually hit targets and defend us from the enemy.  A missile missing its target and hitting the wrong target can have disastrous consequences.

[If anyone has a better video of a missile missing its target, please pass it on.]

We’ll call this…

A Kurt Coleman.

Failure of a Reliable Rocket System


Some rockets are around for decades and function reliably.  You trust them; they do their job well.  Then, inexplicably they suffer a complete and total failure.  Maybe it had something to do with an upgrade or maybe the engineers behind it became complacent.

We’ll call this…

An Andy Reid.

Sigh.

 

Update:

I had one major omission in the original post –

Failure Due to Orbital Collision

Sometimes your team’s hard work and dedication pays off, and and your rocket’s liftoff is glorious.  Your rocket reaches orbit as intended and everyone is happy.  Then, your blind-sided by a piece of orbital debris and the energy from the resultant collision is enough to tear both spacecraft to bits.  All your left with is a burning desire to throttle the team responsible for leaving their space junk in your orbital path.

We’ll call this…

A Mike Vick.  Although Brent Celek and LeSean McCoy are also candidates.

How to Train for a Dragon: Preparing for the First ISS Commercial Partner

Via universetoday.com

If everything holds, early Saturday Tuesday will see the  launch of the first commercially-operated space vehicle that will provide supplies to the International Space Station.  This is an important milestone for NASA’s potential commercial spaceflight partners and one that will hopefully restore some positive vibes to our struggling human spaceflight program.  This flight represents the culmination of 6 years of work between NASA and SpaceX and over that time we’ve had to learn quite a bit about working with each other.  There have been many challenges and lessons learned over the past few years as we’ve prepared for this moment, many of which I know little to nothing about, but I thought I’d share a few of the things we had to do  to get to this point.

At first, we didn’t know what to expect out of this endeavor.  This was not Boeing or Lockheed Martin or any other partner we had experience working with.  SpaceX was a complete unknown.  We didn’t know what to expect from them and they didn’t know what to expect from us.  The first thing we had to do, just like we did with all the international partners, was learn to speak the same language.  Once Dragon gets close enough to ISS, it falls under the authority of the NASA Flight Director and Mission Control Team.  This means SpaceX needs to operate within a certain framework, it needs to be able to provide the right data to the team in Houston and the Dragon control team in California must be able to operate in concert with the ISS control team in Houston.

Our first challenge, as with any mission, is to figure out what and who needs to be trained.  Obviously, the astronauts on ISS need to learn to operate Dragon and be able to successfully capture the spacecraft.  SpaceX will train the astronauts on the spacecraft systems and operation.  For these test flights, astronauts will spend a day or two at the SpaceX facility in Hawthorne, CA. There the SpaceX engineers will teach them about the design of the craft.   In order to decrease travel costs, training for cargo resupply flights will actually occur in Houston at a mockup located at Johnson Space Center.  But for the test flights, every crew that could potentially be on-orbit when Dragon was launched spent a couple of days out at SpaceX.

Before this astronaut training occurred, the NASA training lead assigned to the flight offered a bit of guidance to SpaceX on how to scope the content the crew needed.  We’ve been training ISS crews for 15 years.  The information provided to astronauts is carefully scoped to focus training only on the things they really need to know.  We’ve tried to eliminate as much superfluous content as possible.  The training program is far from perfect, but it has been well refined over the years.  Our initial goal was to help the SpaceX team be showing them our best practices for how to provide training so that they may learn from our mistakes.

With the initial crew training in place, we could turn our attention to flight control team training.  The NASA Station Training Lead, Flight Director, and SpaceX leads worked together to identify what the flight control teams would need to practice in order to be ready to fly the mission.  We needed to practice the Dragon rendezvous with ISS, both under nominal conditions where everything goes smoothly and off-nominal conditions where the teams can practice responding to contingency situations.  We would need to practice have the ISS robotic arm grapple, or grab hold, of Dragon and berth it to ISS.  We would like to practice the ingress and activation of Dragon systems once it is docked and make sure both teams know what to do in the event an emergency occurs while Dragon is docked.

To do all this, we would need to run simulations and to run those simulations we would need a simulator.  SpaceX would operate a simulator of the Dragon vehicle, NASA would operate a simulator of ISS, and we would have to figure out a way to get the two of them to work together.  This isn’t like getting a couple of people together to play Left 4 Dead; this is like trying to connect someone playing Skyrim with a group of people playing World of Warcraft.  The simulators had to exchange the right information, they  needed to stay in sync, one needed to be able to follow the lead of the other, and they needed to do it all with little to no lag.  This is an incredibly difficult process, so much so that we had to find interim solutions for the demo flight until we can put in place a permanent solution for future missions.

Once the simulators could function together, then we could practice Dragon rendezvous, berthing, and ISS-docked operations with both the SpaceX team at Hawthorne and the NASA Mission Control Team in Houston through  multiple simulations.  Prior to every simulation, the training leads for NASA and SpaceX would coordinate on the script for the sim.  We plan out every malfunction and discuss the expected outcome so that we can ensure we are maximizing the training value of the simulation.  We’ll run more than a dozen of these to ensure that the two teams know how to communicate, to make sure SpaceX knows what data NASA needs at a moment’s notice, and to make sure we’re prepared for the truly horrific contingencies.

The worst possible outcome here is that Dragon loses control on approach to ISS and there is a collision between the two vehicles that puts the lives of the ISS crew at risk.  This happened with the Russian MIR Space Station in 1997, when an automated Progress supply vehicle collided with that station.  We are well-acquainted with the risks.  We know what we need to protect against.  Everyone on both control teams and the ISS crew needs to fully understand their role in safely bringing Dragon to ISS.

That brings me to the final bit of preparation – on-board training for the ISS crew.  Astronauts Don Pettit and Andre Kuipers will be monitoring Dragon’s approach and have the ability to abort that approach if Dragon malfunctions.  They will also be responsible for grappling the capsule with the ISS robotic arm.  While they were well-trained prior to their mission, they arrived on ISS in mid-December and that knowledge is hardly fresh in their mind.  So the training team puts together a series of review lessons with a laptop-based simulator that allows the crew to practice what they’ll need to do.  They’ve gone through several of these sessions over the past few weeks.

At this point, the crew is trained; the mission control teams are trained.

Everyone in Houston is ready to catch a Dragon.

The Technological Innovation I was Reluctant to Feature in Dust

Part of the premise of Dust is that the human race has grown beyond its means and as a result many colonies across the Republic  are struggling to adequately feed their populations.  When Nick, our protagonist, travels to Dust, he expects to find a local population filled with the emaciated and destitute, with people begging for scraps and the whole of the colony struggling to survive.

Much to his surprise, that’s not what he finds.  Instead he finds a population that is having no trouble supporting itself.  He finds his plate is filled everyday with strange but scrumptious meals that leave him more than satisfied.  This delicious bounty is the result of Dust’s top mind, the old geneticist Doctor Aldous Sinclair.  Doctor Sinclair used his scientific gifts to modify crops so that they could thrive in the harsh environment of Dust, thereby guaranteeing the colony’s survival.

The people of Dust rely on genetically-modified foods for survival.

My reluctance to include genetically-modified food in Dust doesn’t stem from any fear of genetic modification itself.  There is nothing inherently wrong with something that is genetically modified.  In fact, human-made modifications can potentially be very beneficial, but that doesn’t excuse the shameful way genetically-modified foods have been handled in the United States.

Just under a year ago, I stumbled across this TEDx talk from Robyn O’Brien.  Robyn does an excellent job laying out the case against the dangers and risks that have been introduced into the U.S. food supply through the introduction of unregulated genetically-modified foods. In the presentation, she reviews the data that shows an increase in food allergies, cancer rates, and other issues that have occurred since genetically-modified foods started showing up in our food supply.  She does note that correlation does not equal causation.  There are times though, when better safe than sorry or caveat emptor should be our underlying approach.

As I sat at my kitchen table with my three little girls, I realized just how much I agreed with Robyn’s approach.  We’ve made wholesale changes to our food buying habits, buying as many organic, natural, and chemical-free food products as we can.  These days, you’re much more apt to find foods from Cascadian Farms, Annie’s, Kashi, or Mom’s Best then you are to find Kellogg’s, Nabisco, or Kraft.  That’s not to say we’re perfect as the need for quick snacks and fast meals with our little girls sometimes makes processed foods necessary.  However, we have made substantial changes.

Frankly, I think it’s fairly shameful how governments in other developed countries around the world have seen fit to protect their citizens from the inherent dangers that could be resulting from their foods and yet the government “by the people, for the people’ has not.  I find the mindset that many people seem to have, that food or chemicals are okay until they are proven harmful, to be perplexing.

When a new medication is introduced to the public, it is required to be tested to ensure that it is reasonably safe (there are problems with biased studies here, but the approach is reasonable).  Side effects must be identified and if a medication proves to be too detrimental, it is not approved.  Yet, medication is not required for consumption everyday by every person in this country.

Everyone, man, woman, or child has to eat.  Yet for the food we put on our plates, we seem to have put the bottom-line of corporations ahead of the safety of the people.

Until this situation is rectified, grocery shopping truly requires a ‘buyer beware’ approach.  I know too many people with cancer to want to put my family at risk by eating food that is ultimately unsafe.

So, as I said, I was reluctant to include this technological innovation in Dust.  I considered adding an exchange that would show how Sinclair tested his modifications to ensure that they were safe, but I couldn’t find any way to naturally blend it in with the story.  I considered not having genetically-modified organisms, but they were important to establishing Sinclair’s abilities.  In the end, I left them in the book with the rationalization that genetic modification is not inherently bad, but I knew I’d be writing a post to express my reservations with the approach the United States has taken.

You can follow Robyn on twitter @unhealthytruth.

Advice on Interviewing for an Internal Promotion

Over the past two weeks, I’ve interviewed 9 candidates who’ve applied to become the lead of the Station Training Lead Group. This group is responsible for overseeing the completion of training for all of NASA’s human spaceflight missions related to ISS.  The group lead will be counted on to keep a team of high performing employees acting in concert with the overall goals of the Mission Operations Directorate while fostering the leadership and integration abilities of each one of those employees.   It is critical that I select someone who is going to lead this team in the right direction.

Each applicant I interviewed had more than 15 years of experience with NASA or its subcontractors.  Each applicant had strong backgrounds working  in human spaceflight and had major accomplishments on their resume.  I had first-hand experience working with some of the candidates; some, I didn’t know at all.  How do you separate those candidates?  Here’s what I looked for:

  • Did you do your homework?
Did you take the time to learn something about the organization?  Did you talk to anyone in the organization to find out what the perspective of the employees is?  Did you talk to any of our customers to find out anything about their perspective?  Show that you’ve taken the time to get a grasp on what our priorities are, what challenges the organization faces, what the outlook of the group is, and what we’ve been doing lately.  This is particularly imperative for someone coming from outside the organization.  I’m going to need someone who can step in right away and be a leader.  Doing this shows me that you’re proactive, that you’re truly interested in this organization, and that your putting effort into this.
  • Do you really want this position?
There comes a time for many employees when they feel like they’ve done their time and they are ready to be a leader in an organization.  There also comes a time when you grow tired of facing the same challenges day-in and day-out and you’re ready for something different.  I understand those feelings and have had them at different points in my career.  Just wanting to do something different or just wanting a chance at leadership doesn’t show me that you really want the position that I’m interviewing people to fill.  I have 9 candidates who want that promotion.  The reason you want the promotion is an important factor.  Do you care about our mission?  Do you care about the direction of the organization?  Our work is challenging, draining, frustrating, and constantly changing.  If you’re only in this for the title or the money or to do something different, then I’m going to look for someone who wants it more.
  • Have Vision
If you’re going to be a leader in this organization, then I want to know that you’ve thought about the direction the organization needs to go.  How can we be more effective?  How can we improve?  Is there something we should stop doing?  Is there something we should start doing?  Do you have some idea of where you’re going to lead this group?  What’s important to you?  What’s important to my boss?  Put some thought into it.  Be specific.  Give me two or three concrete things that show you’re going to come into this position and work with me to maintain or improve a world-class organization.  Your vision doesn’t need to match mine.  In fact, your vision may be better than mine.  If that happens, you will force me to consider you for this position.
  • Know Thyself

Even if you do all of the above, you need to be completely and brutally honest with me about what you’re good at and what you’re not good at.  Know your strengths and weaknesses, tell me how you play up to your strengths, and tell me how you overcome your weaknesses.  Be honest about them.  If you’re not, I will find out about them when I talk to the people you’ve worked with for the last 15 years.  Sure, I will talk to your references, but I expect those people to be generally positive about you.  I’m also going to talk to people I know you’ve worked with.  I’ll talk to Flight Directors, other managers, co-workers, and anyone else I can find with an opinion.  If you don’t know what your weaknesses are, you’re co-workers and former and current bosses will or at least they’ll have their opinion.  If that opinion is different than what you told me, then it becomes a case of your word against theirs and I have to wonder if you don’t see your shortcomings.  Having shortcomings is not a bad thing; not knowing how to deal with those shortcomings is.  Not being honest about them is a dealbreaker.

Doing these things won’t guarantee you a promotion, but it will put you in contention. If you don’t do these things, then I will find someone who will.

Fatherhood is the Engine that Drives Dust

***MINOR STORY SPOILERS AHEAD***

I’ve written a bit on the technological backbone of Dust and the evolution of technology that enables the story, but I haven’t yet written much on what Dust is really about. The story for Dust came to me when I asked myself one question:

What would society be like if you were only allowed to have one child?

Growing up, I never really envisioned myself as much of a family man.  I had no dreams or aspirations of having kids and having a family.  I never thought about it.  I thought a helluva lot more about getting a chance to walk on alien worlds and travelling through the stars then I ever did about family.  My own experiences with my parents were different  with a biological father who abandoned my mother and I when I was 2 years old and an adoptive father with his own struggles.

When my wife and I first discussed having kids, I didn’t really have an answer to how many children I wanted.  My wife, seeing me as the responsible-yet-calculating engineer that I was, figured I would be a solid provider for the family, but I would probably be fairly distant with the kids.  I was awkward around other people’s kids, not really able to interact with them in a way that suggested I would be any good with my own kids.

When my firstborn arrived, my change in perspective was profound. Yes, I felt naturally protective which is no surprise.  Not only did I fulfill my obligation to take care and provide for my girls, but I also played with them.  I became involved.  I help with their development.  I read them stories every night, take them to movies and sporting events, and try to teach them about the world around them.  I love them.

There is a 1988 apocalyptic movie, The Seventh Sign, that ultimately asks a young mother if she will die to save the soul of her newborn baby and in so doing she saves the world.  That willingness to give your life for your child is a cliched statement, but the roots of that cliche come from absolute truth.

Now back to the question I asked myself, what would society be like if you could only have one child?  How protective would you be of that child?  What would you think of someone who clearly didn’t love their child?  What would you do if you lost your child?

This brings us to the two main characters – Nick and Max – and their respective relationships.

Nick is a young man whose relationship with his father is broken.  Nick has been raised a good Catholic boy; he is well versed on what is right and what is wrong in the eyes of the Church and the government of the Republic.  He understands that families are limited to one child because of rampant poverty because humanity cannot support the size of the current population.  He understands that everyone has a moral and legal obligation to conserve so that everyone may have at least a small piece of the pie.

In reality, it’s not quite that easy to draw the lines between right and wrong.  A year before the events of the novel, Nick stumbled on some information about his father’s job that opened his eyes and set him down a path that would ultimately lead to Nick leaving home in the middle of the night, setting out to making a life of his own.

Admittedly, Nick’s father is a one-dimensional, bit character; he is the boogeyman who haunts Nick’s dreams.  He is the aloof, distant father who puts career and wealth above family.  His pursuit of the brass ring leads him down a path that Nick finds utterly repugnant.  In the months following Nick’s initial discovery, his relationship with his father sours quickly.  Arguments between the two of them are frequent and Nick’s father withdraws from his son as he learns that their values are in conflict.  While his father is on a business trip, Nick tries to run away for the first time, but his mother talks him out of it.  She holds the family together with every ounce of her strength.  She knows what is at stake and she fights to keep them together.  Ultimately, she cannot stop her son from setting off on his own path.

When Nick’s vindictive father learns that Nick has run off, he strips away all of Nick’s money.  This is what brings Nick to Max and sets into motion a series of events that will dramatically alter both of their lives.  Max lost his only child ten years prior  to meeting Nick.  His days and nights are haunted by the memories of the accident that took her life.  Max knows what he lost and that makes him a little more receptive to taking on a young man who has no real experience and no real place to turn.  It makes him a little more patient with a rebellious kid whose only direction has been provided by the loathing he feels for his father.

It is this connection that propels Nick and Max through the events of the story.  On the backwater colony of Dust, both men will face the consequences of their failed relationships.  Both men will be pushed to the brink of their capabilities until they are forced to come face-to-face with their troubled pasts.