Thursday, December 31, 2009

Russia Vs Apophis

It sounds like an episode of Stargate:SG-1 featuring their long-running Gua'uld villain, but this actually refers to a possible mission bye the Russian Space Agency to deflect asteroid 99942 Apophis, which is scheduled to make two very close approaches to Earth in the next few decades. For the full story, check out THIS article from the New York Times.

The mission is by no means firm, international objections are already being raised, and even if it does go ahead the exact method to be used for the deflection hasn't been elaborated on. But I hope the mission does go ahead.

First of all, I do think it would be a good thing to deflect the asteroid away if possible. Even though scientists are pretty sure its trajectory will carry it through a couple of near misses, something unforeseen could teeter in toward a collision course. I don't consider that very likely, but its not impossible, so perhaps its best not to take a chance.

But more important, it will test a capability that will prove very valuable to long-term future space efforts. Not just in terms of safety, in deflecting possible future impactors, but in terms of how to exploit one of the most abundant and important resources in interplanetary space. Not any time in the near future, mind you, but toward the end of this century or perhaps early in the next one can envision asteroids being slowly herded about the inner solar system, to be used as mineral resources for burgeoning construction projects and as natural frameworks for well-armored space-borne habitats. But in order to do that, we will first have to master how to move them about safely and with minimal damage.

The first few experimental deflections would be an important first step toward such a future. And NASA has actually talked occasionally about carrying out an experimental deflection themselves within the next ten years, just to test techniques for it, but on a different rock than Apophis.

So, despite the controversy this is going to be sure to create, the Russian deflection plans would be a big forward step in space development. Let's hope this isn't just empty talk.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Hidden Treasures of Science Fiction: Scrapped Princess!

Is it possible to tell a good science fiction story relying mostly on high fantasy tropes--wizards, magic, knights, prophecies, and so on? There actually have been numerous attempts over the years, but most of them have fallen short or come across as merely clever contrivances. And I thought that's all such attempts could ever be.

That is, until Scrapped Princess, an anime TV series that ran on Japanese TV in 2003, which to my great surprise turned out to be an epic science fiction story 'disguised' as high fantasy. The series is based on number of light novels created by Ichiro Sakaki and boasts the same character designer who worked on Cowboy Bebop. It has received high praises by many reviewers both in Japan and in North America for its excellent story, music, and first-class production values, ending up on numerous 'Best of Anime' lists.

I admit I've become somewhat of a reborn anime fan in the last year. I used to be really into anime in the 90s, but my enthusiasm for it waned after it started becoming increasingly mainstream in the wake of Pokemon, and the need to divert my money at the time to more practical pursuits.

However, thanks to anime shows uploaded online by various sites and dedicated fans, I've been rediscovering a lot of really good anime, and have gotten somewhat back into the hobby. And I'm very glad I have; as a science fiction enthusiast, it has opened up a doorway into a great many good stories I would have never have otherwise discovered. In the past year, I've watched through the entire runs of Cowboy Bebop, Planetes, Last Exile, and most recently, Scrapped Princess.

The 24-epsiode story centers around 15-year-old Pacifica Casull, who at birth was prophecized to be the Poison That Would Destroy the World on her 16th birthday. So she was thrown off a cliff--literally 'scrapped'--as a newborn to make sure that never happened.

But as you can probably guess, she was saved at the last moment and secretly placed with a foster family, where she grew up unaware of her destiny. But just a few months shy of her fateful birthday, she was discovered and her foster parents killed by a murderous mob. She was forced to flee with her older brother and sister, and the story opens with them on the run from the powerful forces who want her dead at all costs--perhaps with justification.

Though the series begins seeming like any another high fantasy tale in the vein of Record of Lodoss War, it quickly becomes clear that this story is actually science fiction via Clark's Law (which states that any technology, sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from magic.) The 'magic' and 'spirits' and 'gods' of their world are all just forms of technology too advanced for them to understand. This may be a bit of a spoiler, but it was something made very plain by the sixth episode, and the rest of the series makes no attempt to disguise from the viewer that everything happening in the series is the result of highly advanced science.

As the world's backstory becomes revealed throughout the series, the reasons for why their world is set up the way it is begins making a lot of sense. It does get a bit convoluted in places, but all the pieces do end up fitting neatly into place by the end.

Scrapped Princess also surprised me in that it was about something we don't see a lot of in anime or in science fiction--brothers and sisters and the bonds siblings share. Pacifica's older adoptive brother and sister--Shannon, a gruff swordsman, and Raquel, a level-headed sorceress--aren't motivated by any hidden agendas or lofty goals. Very simply, they protect Pacifica because she's their beloved little sister, prophecy be damned.

They also honestly act like brothers and sisters too, arguing and trading barbs and sometimes even going against each other out of pique. Pacifica is bratty, Shannon is dour and critical, Raquel is the often exasperated peacemaker. But the strong bond they all share as a family never seems in doubt.

Pacifica comes from the Sailor Moon school of anime heroines. Often times she's whiny, self-absorbed, spoiled, and shallow, especially with her brother Shannon, with whom she often bickers. But beneath that seems a deeper core of compassion and determination which occasionally surfaces, showing the type of woman she would eventually become, if she survives. Throughout the series she struggles a lot emotionally with the fact that so many people are dying and suffering just because she exists, and wonders if maybe the world really would be better off she was 'scrapped.'

The series vacillates back and forth between lighter comedic moments and much more weighty issues. One moment they would be dealing with Soopy Kun (a goofy cartoonish dragon costume that one of the secondary characters ends up habitually wearing), the next they would be dealing with the ultimate fate of mankind and who may have to die for Pacifica to fulfill her destiny. Mostly it finds a good balance between them.

Scrapped Princess also turned out to be very West-friendly. It doesn't rely overly much on anime cliches or nuances of Japanese culture that can often confuse North American viewers new to the medium. There is a fair amount of cheesecake in some episodes and some very occasional but brief peek-a-boo nudity, mostly stemming from the Japanese predilection for frequent bathing. This, taken along with the violence, would probably rate the series at PG-13.

The complete series is available on DVD, which you can find HERE, among other places. Episodes are also available online.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Extrasolar 'Water World' May Have Been Found

For more details, follow THIS link to the original article on MSNBC's Cosmicblog.

Basically, astronomers have spotted a so-called 'super-earth' in orbit about a G-class star 40 light years away that may have an abundant amount of water.

But don't get too excited about finding exotic alien mermaids on it just yet. The planet wouldn't be a fun place for a human to go traipsing about on without an armored space suit on. Its 2 to 10 times the mass of Earth, meaning it would likely have unpleasantly high gravity as well as potentially crushing atmospheric pressure, depending on its composition. Its also unpleasantly close to its primary, with an estimated surface temperature of 400 degrees F.

But still, because of its estimated density, experts are fairly certain it may hold significant amounts of water, even if it would be in the form of water vapor. Plus, depending on its atmospheric composition, the high atmospheric pressure might be enough to keep surface water liquid even at its estimated temperatures.

Discovery of the presence of water on an extrasolar terrestrial world would be a major find, and a good indication that other worlds like Earth, with abundant liquid water and a thriving biosphere, may actually be out there among the wilds of the Milky Way. Just something to keep an eye on in the coming months as astronomers turn other instruments toward that very distant world and see if they can discover anything more.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Decade's Best Science Fiction Animation

Animation would seem to be the most natural medium for science fiction. It literally has infinite creative freedom--anything a creator can envision can be drawn and animated on screen.

Unfortunately, at least in North America, the potential of the medium in scifi has been slow in catching on. Fantasy stories and comedies have dominated American animation for decades, while science fiction has usually been a creature of live-action films. This is not to say there hasn't been a lot great live-action scifi, but it would be nice to see Hollywood really cut loose and see what it could do with animated science fiction. But the situation has improved, haltingly, in the last decade. If I'd done this list ten years ago, it would have been all Japanese anime with one exception (The Iron Giant.) I'm glad to say that this list has a number of very strong American entries, and I hope that trend continues.

And it is probably Japanese anime that has shown, and continues to lead the way, in what can be done with animated science fiction. Though the anime industry has become infamous for certain banal cliches (big-eyed schoolgirls, giant robots, tentacles...), it has also produced some truly classic works of science fiction such as Akira, Ghost in the Shell, and Cowboy Bebop. Its too bad that people in North America still tend to turn up their nose at these works simply because they're animated, because they stand shoulder to shoulder with the best live-action science fiction Hollywood has ever produced.

Now for the actual list, which includes both movies and TV series. Please keep in mind that these choices are MY OPINION only. I'm sure many people will disagree and will have their own picks, which is the way it should be. lists like this are always very subjective. Also, I haven't been able to watch everything; its certainly possible that there are some works that blow these all away that I just haven't seen.

First up are the honorable mentions. These works are all great in their own right and deserve to be seen, but lack that certain extra je ne sais quoi that could put them in my top 5.

The Incredibles (movie)
Justice League Unlimited (TV series)
Code Geass (TV series)
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (TV Series)
Last Exile (TV Series)

The main picks:

5. LILO & STITCH (2002): A dysfunctional little girl, still mourning the death of her parents, prays for an angel so she can have a friend. She gets the most unlikely one imaginable: a vicious, violent, super-powered monster from outer space.

There's a school of thought that science fiction has to be serious and profound, like Battlestar Galactica and Lost, to be good. I reject that outright. It not to say serious works can't be high quality, but in fiction, its much harder to make people smile and laugh than to make them frown, and takes just as smart a story. With its stylized design, sharp story, and quirkily-realized players, Lilo & Stitch has smarts in spades. From Lilo with her bizarrely skewed worldview to Stitch's gleeful vileness to the awesomely named Cobra Bubbles, the movie is an inventive, fun and character-driven romp that both sends up and greatly improves upon the science fiction monster movie.

4.THE GIRL WHO LEAPT THROUGH TIME(2006): Makoto, a 16-year old student in Japan, discovers on the verge of a fatal accident that she can literally leap backward through time. At first using her newfound ability frivolously, she finds that interfering with past events can have unpredictable and often disastrous consequences. The more she tries to correct them, the more things veer out of her control, until someone dear to her is threatened by the same accident she herself avoided. And when the source of her new power is uncovered, it brings a heart-wrenching revelation.

A much more thoughtful and intelligent take on time travel and romance than the clunky Time Traveler's Wife, this Japanese anime film is fun, intelligent, surreal, and at times profoundly moving. Too often teen-age protagonists are just stand-ins for cynical 40-year-old screenwriters, but Makoto comes across as a real 16-year-old, a tomboy who can be very cocksure one minute and very hesitant and vulnerable the next, especially when she begins to confront her first real romantic feelings. The director Mamoro Hosada very skillfully crafts his tale, allowing the heroine, and the audience with her, to take her time to react and think about developments naturally. I can count the number of truly good time travel movies on the fingers of one hand, and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is one of those.

3. WALL-E (2008): On a future Earth choked lifeless by human garbage and neglect, one last robot spends year after year, century after century, clearing away mountains of trash long after all his fellows shut down. Slowly becoming self-aware, he longs for more from his existence, having only human junk and one lone recording of an old movie musical to guide him. Then, one day, a mysterious probe from space lands nearby...

WALL-E is the very best film created by Hollywood's very best animation studio. It has won scads of awards, even the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation. Its been described as lyrical and enthralling, full of a gosh-wow sense of wonder that is missing too much from modern science fiction. The first half of the film, which goes almost completely without dialog, has been called as close to a true work of art that computer animation has yet come. The robots of the film come across as much more fully-realized characters than the humans that are eventually weaved into the story, and the production's attention to detail is no less than astounding. It is the best animated scifi film of the decade, and one of the best overall science fiction films ever, for that matter. A true classic.

2. PLANETES (2003-2004): By the year 2075, an economic and energy boom created by exploiting Helium-3 on the moon has allowed humankind to expand wildly into space, with many small stations, nine large orbiting colonies, and even a full scale city of a hundred thousand on the Moon. However, all that activity generates an enormous amount of orbital debris that can pose a hazard to all the new orbital real estate. Enter the Debris Section, blue-collar stiffs working out of second-hands spacecraft to clean it all up. This 26-episode Japanese anime TV series follows the lives and happenings of these spaceborn garbage collectors.

I cannot reccommend this series highly enough. I've written about it before as a Hidden Treasure Of Science Fiction. For those who love truly hard science fiction, the series is a treasure trove, showcasing very believable near-future technologies with nary a hyperdrive or giant robot in sight. It should be required viewing for would-be scifi writers just for that aspect alone. But this realism extends also to most of its cast of internationally diverse characters, treating nearly all of them with complexity and maturity. Though the series can at first seem a bit off-putting--its main female character starts off as very annoying--it quickly builds up to a number of astounding, smartly-plotted, and at times deeply affecting stories. Combining gritty realism with aspirations toward humanity's greatest hopes, this series may be the single best work of on-screen science fiction Japan has produced since Cowboy Bebop.

1. FUTURAMA (1999-present): Lowly delivery boy Fry accidentally gets frozen for a thousand years and wakes up in a very oddly skewed Thirty-First Century. Befriending cynical robot Bender and the sexy one-eyed Leela, he finds his true destiny--as a delivery boy.

Futurama is to on-screen science fiction what The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy is to literary science fiction--all at once a mainstream comedy, a tour-de force parody of all things science fiction, and a great work of imagination in its own right. I also predict it will ultimately the most long-enduring and popular work of on-screen science fiction to be produced in the last decade, live action or animated, on small screen or large. It just seems to have that kind of populist resonance, that will ensure it will be a well-remembered classic decades from now.

The first thing that stands out about the series is its wonderfully demented characters: Fry, dimwitted and hypnotized by pop culture; Leela, sexy and heroic but self-conscious about her single gigantic eye; Bender, the joyfully amoral, alcoholic robot; Doctor Zoidberg, a clueless sadsack lobsteroid; and many more. There's more detail and dimension just in many of Futurama's walk-on characters than in many works' main ones. Then there's the universe it inhabits, a vast collection of of visual-puns, gonzo scifi motifs, and skewered sacred cows. An alien race addicted to thousand-year-old Earth TV programs; space bee hives; a planet-sized retirement home; a museum that resurrects celebrities just so they can spend all eternity as heads in a jar. It is a world where literally anything can happen, where the creators' imaginations can be fully unleashed, often to highly humorous effect.

It also helps that the series has consistently had some of the smartest writing on TV. As stated earlier, comedy is harder than drama to write well, and the fact that the show so consistently hits the funny bone is proof of the quality of its scripts. Surprisingly, its not all just laughs either. Very occasionally, it waxes both profound, such as when Bender postulates the nature of God, and heart-felt, such as when Fry learns the fate of his time-lost brother and nephew. Futurama is definitely a show for the ages.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Thoughts On Generation Ship Societies

This entry is an informal response of sorts to a blog written by Charles Stross, which you can find HERE. Not that I think he'll read this, but I thought this might be something people reading the OV blog here might find interesting. I also touched upon this subject in one of the first articles I did for OV, Generations Ships.

In the original article, Stross postulates the difficulty in designing a society that could be stable enough to last through the centuries or millennia of the voyage. I think he was approaching the problem from the wrong angle.

You simply can't build a completely stable human society. Human history has proven that any institution established either mutates profoundly, dies off, or is absorbed by a newer one as the decades and centuries slip by. Human societies cannot be stable for long periods of time, its just not in our nature. Human culture is ultimately dynamic, not static, and that seems to be built right into our base psychology, if not our DNA.

Rather, you have to assume the human society on a generation ship is going to go through numerous upheavals and changes throughout its voyage. Its an inevitability. In fact, I'd even go so far to say that IT DOES NOT MATTER WHAT THE ORIGINATING GOVERNMENT OR SOCIETY IS. Its not going to last in recognizable form for more than a small fraction of any truly long-term voyage.

Realistically, the originating society on a gen ship will just be the builder society in microcosm. If the US built one tomorrow, the society would be the current US society in miniature. If China built one, it would be a mini-China, and so on. Its what the people starting the voyage would be most comfortable with, and imposing something radically different would lead to potentially a lot of trouble early on.

In fact, it seems an exercise in hubris by the designers, in assuming the generation ship crew will somehow be too stupid or inflexible to handle their own affairs, to the point that the builders have to impose excessively rigid societal restraints. It is true that a series of poor political decisions could have potentially disastrous effects on the environment or operation of the ship, but the same can be said of just about any government and its environs on Earth as well. Rather, we're just going to have to assume that the crew will adapt and grow to their environment on board in their own way, as our own societies have adapted and grown in unique ways to the world around us.

Instead of trying to impose rigid societal restraints that will just break down anyway, you need to provide the evolving society with one or more safety valves that will allow them to resolve conflicts with minimal threat to the ship as a whole. I think one of the most valuable of these would be living space.

Given the technology level needed to build a gen ship (which I estimate may come online at least 50 years from now, or at Tech Level 13 on the OV scale) how many crew do you really need to maintain it, given future advances in automata and AI? Probably not that many. So you leave most of the habitable space in your gen ship uninhabited; start with a small population, just big enough to ensure healthy genetic diversity, say a few hundred to a thousand. Concentrate them in one small town, and leave the rest of the habitat fallow. Depending on the size and design of the generations ship(Stross quotes an O'Neill-style hollowed asteroid design; it could also have many different levels or separate habitats), that could be from a few to maybe hundreds of square kilometers.

Over the course of the voyage, the crew will expand and 'colonize' the rest of the ship, giving them an added endeavor they can concentrate their energy on. Plus, when schisms and conflicts inevitably arise, the bereaved section of the society can just leave for 'new lands' elsewhere in the ship, giving them a hopefully better alternative to outright conflict.

The amount of fallow space you need to help mitigate potential conflicts would depend on a lot of variables, such as the size and design of the ship, the length of the voyage, and the size of the seed population. If planned out properly, the ship will reach its destination before all the internal space is used up. I do think this approach is the best way for a crew to mitigate the pitfalls of the inevitable ebb and flow of human societies on board a generation ship over the centuries.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

More Updates Coming Soon!

I apologize for the lack of updates both here and on the main site. I've been up to my eyeballs in other work and projects, some of which I'll announce on here before too long. But it looks like it will be a few weeks yet before I'll be able to get back into either posting articles on the main site or updating the blog here the way I'd like.

However, the good news is a fan of Orbital Vector has volunteered to recode the main site so it'll handle RSS feeds and such. plus I have over a dozen articles and blog entries already half-written, so when i can fully turn my attention back here I'll have a lot of material to work with.

Be back soon!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Nigeria's Orbital Ambitions

According to
THIS article in the Global Post, Nigeria has ambitious plans for its modest space program, including a manned launch sometime in the coming decade.

To Nigeria's misfortune, when many people in the US and other Western nations think of it, the first thing that comes to mind are their notorious internet scammers and spammers. But I know from my nephew, who is half Nigerian, that the central-african nation has much to be proud of. In recent years, that includes a small but ambitious space program.

The details are in the linked article, so I won't need to repeat them here. But I hope that they succeed in their ambitions in orbit, especially in launching their own astronaut by 2015. Space should be accessible to, and exploitable by, everyone, not just the most powerful countries and global corporations. Africa is a huge, diversified continent with vast natural resources that I think will come into its own as a major global player in the coming century, and its forward-looking countries like Nigeria that will lead the way for its peoples. Best of luck to them.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

SciFi TV: Maybe Its Time To Abandon The 1-Hour Format

Recently there has been a dust-up on certain blogs and forums about the state of science fiction on TV, either a) bemoaning its quality or b) bemoaning how shows that are actually interesting, like Firefly or Dollhouse, often don't last long.

I think at least part of the remedy to both these problems can be solved with a relatively simple shift in approach: abandon one-hour shows for half-hour ones.

The idea would be attractive to networks, as half-hour shows would be cheaper to produce and invest in in the long term. They could try out twice as many ideas and approaches than they do currently, enabling them to more easily find the properties that will strike a chord with audiences and make them a profit.

And for fans, the switch would be even better in my opinion, as writers would have to cut a lot of extraneous dramatic junk that I think tends to drag down the worst of the hour-long shows. Scifi stories on TV can get leaner and meaner, focusing much more on important story elements while cutting a lot of the b-story plots used to just fill in time in hour-long episodes.

I haven't come to this conclusion in a vacuum, either. I've recently watched quite a bit of half-hour science fiction shows that easily equal anything the hour dramas have produced. Unfortunately, they weren't made in North America or even Europe. Yes, I'm talking about (gasp!) Anime.

Despite what some purist snobs in the West may think, Anime has indeed produced science fiction on par with the very best the West has produced. All one has to do is watch series like Cowboy Bebop or Planetes or Ghost in the Shell to attest to that.

That's not to say that there isn't a lot of mediocre anime out there; there is, and Sturgeon's Law (which states that the majority of anything is crap) holds true for it as for anything else. But the very best of it does demonstrate definitively that half-hour science fiction can be high-quality, mature, intelligent, and exciting. And there was nothing I saw FX-wise in shows like *Bebop* or *Planetes* that couldn't be done in live-action nowadays. It would just be a matter of finding the right pacing and approach to make such shows work, depending on the concept.

Somehow, though, there seems to be a stigma against half-hour dramas in the US. Half-hour time slots are reserved for comedies, hours for dramas, and that's the way its been for decades now. I'm not sure if that could be changed around enough to give any half-hour scifi TV show a decent chance. But then, if the show is good enough, it would find an audience no matter what.

What I'm basically saying is that if the Japanese can produce quality half-hour science fiction shows, we should be able to as well. And it would help to seriously re-invigorate a TV genre that seems stalled for some time now. Anyway, something to think about.

(Cowboy Bebop copyright Sunrise.)

Monday, October 19, 2009

400+ Exoplanets and counting

According to THIS article, 32 newly confirmed exoplanets have been added to the ever-growing list, thanks to the efforts of astronomers at the European South Observatory. Most significant here is the fairly large percentage of 'super-earths' discovered, planets that are much more massive than Earth, but are not big enough to be gas giants. If these are fairly common, than that means that smaller terrestial planets like the kind we are familiar with must be a standard feature in most star systems.

I would put a cautionary asterix next to the statement in the article by astronomer Alan Boss that, "The universe must indeed be crowded with habitable worlds." While I think most of us would indeed hope that's the case, there's still no real evidence for that. The universe seems to be a very hostile place, and even a plentitude of terrestrial planets does not automatically guarantee a plentitude of life. A lot can still go wrong in the billions of years that are needd for life to evolve, even if it does arise on any world. I'm not saying that life-bearing worlds aren't out there, I'm just saying we need more evidence before we can say that the universe is crowded or not with them

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

VASIMR Plasma Rocket Powers Up

Less than a day after my LAST blog entry, where I predicted that Plasma Rockets will become the predominant space propulsion technology later in the century, comes news that an experimental plasma rocket engine has just passed a significant milestone.

For full details go HERE for the original article from PHYSORG.COM. For the basics of how VASIMR and other types of plasma rockets work, go HERE.

Here's hoping the Ad`Astra Rocket Company continues to do such exemplary research and devlopment. I do think plasma rockets hold a tremendous amount of promise, and the sooner the technology is fully developed, the better off our future in space will be.

(Image Copyright Ad Astra Rocket Company)

Monday, October 5, 2009

Space Travel Feasibility Round-Up

In gathering articles for the main ORBITAL VECTOR site, I try to stay clear of favoritism for any particular idea. I DO try to make clear a particular technology's real-world feasibility, whether its hard science or soft science, how advanced society likely needs to be to produce it, etc.

However, that doesn't mean I think that all technologies I write about are equally probable. There are other factors besides just purely technological to overcome. Economics, politics, circumstance, location, culture, are as likely to determine if a technology becomes widely used or if it just sits on the shelves of history as a curiosity. The Segway is a perfect example. As a technology, it exceeded expectations, and fulfills its utility niche almost perfectly. However, it was cultural and economic factors--basically the fear of lawsuits--that killed its wide-spread use.

With all that in mind, I thought I'd give my own personal views of the likelihood of various Space Travel technologies I've written about so far on the main site. Just keep in mind these represent my own personal views of what will likely be developed or not based on political, economic, cultural, and other factors in the real world. Believe me, I would love to see a huge flowering of advanced space technology within the next decade, but I try to be as realistically constrained with the predictions as I could, while still assuming the world community in general continues to slowly develop space capabilities. Also, the needs and attitudes of various space-faring nations/companies/groups may change over time, so what seems likely now may also change in the future.

Each technology discussed is linked to an article explaining how it works.

CHEMICAL ROCKETS: Will probably remain the main means of obtaining orbit and maneuvering in space for at least the next half-century, if not longer. Its just too reliable and well proven a technology, and with so much infrastructure already in place to manufacture rocket components they will likely remain the cheapest option for some time to come. In the second half of the century I think they'll start slowly being replaced by other technology, but even so they will still linger for many decades.

SPACE PLANES: Also a well-proven technology, from the old X-series rocket planes to Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipOne. As Virgin Galactic gears up and actually begins running tourist flights, imitators will likely blossom from every corner, and I think the rocket/space plane will have a serious renaissance in the 2020s and beyond.

ION DRIVES: Now a proven technology, ion drives are very fuel efficient and will likely begin to slowly supplant chemical rockets as the main thrusters on deep space robes. Will likely be a routine technology by mid-century, used mostly for unmanned scientific and (hopefully) industrial payloads.

PLASMA ROCKETS: I do think old-style chemical rockets will begin turning over to these within a few decades, starting in the 2030s or 2040s; they have many of the same characteristics s chemical rockets but with much greater power. By the end of the century they will likely be the dominant space propulsion technology.

FISSION ROCKETS: Toxic radioactive exhaust will make sure this technology is never seriously used, despite its near-term feasibility and other advantages.

NUCLEAR PULSE DRIVES: Despite being actually much more dangerous than fission rockets, nuclear pulse drives have much more support among the space and scientific communities. Plus they also deliver phenomenal amounts of thrust compared to most other drives to compensate. Will likely be used for large deep-space missions in the second half of the century and beyond, perhaps even for the first interstellar probes.

SOLAR BOILER ROCKETS: Nominally a very cheap form of deep space rocket, these only become economically feasible if enough infrastructure in space exists to easily refuel them with water, which probably won't happen until the next century. But when that does happen, they will likely become the cheap transport workhorses of any emerging space culture.

SOLAR/MAGNETIC SAILS: A little too far out-there as a concept to gain a lot of real popular or political support, plus in order to turn them into decent-performance vehicles, you need to build powerful laser or particle beam facilities that could too easily be interpreted as weapons, making them a political sticking point. I foresee them being used only occasionally for certain scientific missions into the foreseeable future.

FUSION ROCKETS: Fusion has always one of the big "ifs" of science. They've been promising the big breakthrough for cheap, sustainable fusion power for half a century now, but if that will actually happen anytime soon is up for speculation. IF it comes within the next few decades, fusion rocket spacecraft may begin plying deep space sometime in the last half of the century, I'd guess. However, like with fission rockets, its radioactive exhaust will make its use infrequent at first, but as humanity moves further out into the solar system its superior power will become a premium. That likely won't happen until well into the next century, however.

ANTIMATTER DRIVES: The ultimate rockets, but the problems, technical and economic (and probably political, as antimatter can easily be turned into a weapon), involved in producing and storing antimatter means these probably won' be used in any significant way until well into the next century.

LAUNCH TOWERS: Feasible, but would probably only be seriously pursued if a space elevator proves definitively unobtainable. Even so they probably wouldn't be constructed until late in the century, after any space elevator projects fail.

SPACE ELEVATORS: With the development of carbon nanotubes, these seem definitively feasible, and there is currently a large populist push within the space and scientific community to develop one. It still unfortunately remains a little too far-out-there as an idea to get any significant funding politically, which probably won't really change for at least few decades yet. However, by the 2030s or 2040s I can see space elevator technology being seriously pursued, and the first commercial one may open in the second half of the century.

I'd love to hear other peoples' opinions. I may do another feasibility round-up of space technology (focusing on space stations and planetary exploration and such) some time in the future.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Hidden Treasures Of Science Fiction: 2010!

I'm sure some people are going to look at the title to this entry and wonder why I'm plugging next year as a "Hidden Treasure." But 2010 is actually the 1984 sequel to the critically-acclaimed science fiction masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In my opinion, 2010 has always been unfairly overshadowed by its predecessor. While not as ground-breaking as Stanley Kubrick's work, it is still one of the most solid and thought-provoking works of science fiction put to film. Its director, Peter Hyam, made the wise decision not to try and emulate Kubrick but instead to create his own vision of the future using Clarke's sequel story.

As the title may suggest, it is nine years after the ill fated Discovery mission to Jupiter, and what happened is shrouded in mystery. Doctor Heywood Floyd (Roy Schieder, in probably his best role after Jaws) is selected to put together the American contingent of a joint American/Russian mission to the giant planet to find out what happened. And by 'Russian', I mean 'Soviet'; remember the film was made in 1984 and no one expected at the time that the USSR wasn't going to be around in the 21st Century. But watching the film nowadays, its just easier, at least for myself, to simply think of them as Russians.

The Russian-built Leonov spends two years in transit to Jupiter. As the vessel approaches, Floyd and his fellow Americans are wakened from cryosleep when the derelict Discovery is spotted abandoned but undamaged in a decaying orbit around the Jovian moon Io. The vessel is boarded and reactivated, including a befuddled and amnesiac Hal 9000. Apparently the AI has no memory of turning against the crew, and seems at least for now to be back to his old mellow, non-homicidal self.

Then both ships turn toward what everyone really came to Jupiter for: the alien Monolith. But that is only the first of many mysteries that pile up for the crew in quick succession: chlorophyll-bearing life forms are spotted on Europa; a mysterious but growing dark spot appears on Jupiter; and what might or might not be Dave Bowman is spotted on the Discovery, telling of 'something wonderful' about to happen in a few days. But if the Leonov and the Discovery is still at Jupiter when this 'something wonderful' happens, everyone aboard will die. And, oh yeah, WWIII is about to break out on Earth.

The movie takes all those plot strings and ties them together in a tight, crisp, storytelling package, and what that 'something wonderful' is at the end of the film is indeed quite a jaw-dropper. Not in the mind-bending psychedelic sort of way in the first film, but in much more visceral demonstration of just how far above humanity the aliens are.

Discounting what the insanely advanced monolith makers do, the science and space flight shown in the film is very hard-science and realistic. I especially like how it was one of the first movies to really show just how soil-your-pants scary real space travel may be for future travelers. One example is with the Leonov's fiery aerobraking maneuver to insert itself into Jupiter orbit. When we first see the interplanetary vessel, it looks bold, blocky, and impressive. But as it screams through Jupiter's outer atmosphere behind inflatable shielding, it looks like little more than a glowing dust speck against the immense horizon of the gas giant. This is intercut with shots on board, as Dr. Floyd and unnamed (but very cute!) female Russian crewmember hold onto each other in mutual terror as the ship seems ready to shake apart, even though he can't speak Russian nor she English.

And let me as a scifi technophile wax for a bit about the Leonov, one of the most smartly-designed fictional spaceships I've seen. Most futuristic spaceships are designed more to be sleek eyecandy than anything else, but the Leonov looks like an interplanetary vessel that might actually fly some day. The designers' attention to detail is apparent, from the ship's large outrigger communication dish to the twin, counter-rotating crew sections.

Also well done is the resolution of what happened to HAL 9000, and the intelligent computer's ultimate fate. His breakdown in the first film is explained, and fears of a second episode is one of the many points of tension as the story builds toward a climax, especially after he starts talking to apparent ghosts.

Perhaps one disappointment in the film is that the aliens go from unknowable enigmas in 2001, to being merely mysterious and a bit creepy here. That's inevitable as their motivation and methods become clearer in this film. I'm not giving much away by saying that they seem interested in seeding the universe with life, and that humanity (which the first movie implied were helped toward sentience by the Monoliths) was just one of their many interests along these lines.

If all this sounds like your kind of movie, go HERE for a copy of the DVD. The real 2010 is almost upon us. How better to celebrate it than by exploring an alternate version, one of thrilling space exploration, terrifying discoveries, and extraterrestrial contact?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Fuel Is Expensive (Fiction)

A recent article I read reminded me of a short story I wrote a few years ago. Fuel Is Expensive was originally published in 2006 in Tales of the Talisman Volume 2 Issue 3. Its set in the not too distant future on Mars. Image courtesy NASA.

Fuel Is Expensive
By Paul Lucas

The maser drill slipped from Sam's fingers as a thousand needles of pain sliced into her skull. She fell to her knees in a rusty cloud of Martian dust, hands clawing at her faceplate.

The words returned, so familiar now after a dozen similar attacks, whispered in her mind by a fearful voice she couldn't quite recall. Fuel is expensive, it rasped.

Jesus and Buddha, what did it mean?

"Sam?" Ken's voice in her ear, tinny with radio noise. "Sam! You okay?"

The pain ebbed, the words faded. "I...think so. It just hit me all of a sudden."

"Another migraine?"

"Yeah. A real bastard too."

"Mission Control's going to freak. Thirty billion dollars to get here and we're hurting for four dollar aspirin."

She narrowed her eyes at him, standing a dozen meters away in his bulky white EVA suit. "Thanks. Obvious irony is so much comfort right now."

"All part of the astronaut service, ma'am. But seriously, go back to the hab and lie down. EVA is dangerous enough without a brain bleed. I'll go grab Getch and meet you back there. He can look you over again."

Sam grimaced. Getch had examined her every time she'd suffered through her attacks, but always found nothing physically wrong with her. The prevailing theory was that she was having an allergic reaction to the microfine dust creeping into everything after a month on Mars' surface, but nothing had come of it so far.

Sam methodically packed away the maser permafrost drill and trundled back to the Surface Habitat Module, a grayish, inflatable dome twenty meters across, their base and living quarters since landing on the dark-soiled Chryse Planitia in Mars' Northern hemisphere three weeks ago. A hundred meters behind it squatted their lander, a bulky steely polyp against the pale blue-pink Martian sky.

She waved at Getch on the far hillrise, doing a routine check on the automated fuel plant. Drawing on the carbon dioxide in the thin Martian atmosphere and treating it with the water they mined from the Martian permafrost, they were slowly stockpiling methane fuel to use on the return trip home.

Getch waved back but was busy with a conversation with Ken on a private channel. Talking about her, no doubt.

Getch and Ken were decent enough guys. She had slept with both of them at one time or another on the nine-month trip out, even though that was technically a big regulations no-no. But on a very cramped, very dull voyage out, there was simply not much else to do. It was easy enough to loop old monitor vids of them sleeping separately to Mission Control back Earthside to cover up first one liaison, then the other. Who exactly that fooled was a matter of debate. The people at MisCon weren't idiots, after all, and could probably easily see through the ruse. But no one had said anything yet.

She stripped out of the vacc suit. It was a much lighter model than previous NASA space suits, even though this first flight to Mars was expected to encounter much heavier radiation exposure than any other manned mission. A NASA gearhead had lectured to her about some new breakthrough layer that provided superior shielding, but it always mystified her how they managed to make it so thin that she could never see it.

Maybe that was the problem. Maybe her suit's shielding was wearing away or breaking up, causing the migraines as a preliminary stage to radiation sickness. She should mention the possibility to Ken.

She grunted as the pain in her head returned.

Fuel is expensive.

The words were the strangest part of her attacks. Why did they flash through her mind every time? And who did that strange voice belong to, speaking them?

Thankfully, this migraine was proving to be much less severe than the last one.

Focusing through the dull ache, she shucked her vacuum suit's thermal layer and undersheath and put on her oversized sleeping shirt. She knew from the previous incidents that Getch would want a full physical from her and there was little sense in making things difficult by getting fully dressed and then undressed again.

The headache wasn't going away.

She really should check the vacc suit's shielding while she waited. Sam reached for the vacc suit maintenance tools beside the airlock.

A thousand rusty knives stabbed behind her eyes.

Fuel is expensive.

She screamed.

Then stopped in mid-yell, the pain suddenly gone.

Her hands felt warm and wet. She looked down. They dripped with crimson up to her elbows.

Blood? Oh, God, was she hemorrhaging?

She blinked again.

The blood vanished, her hands normal.

Fuel is expensive.

Her vision swirled as she suddenly realized the hab was gone. She stood trapped in a small, bookish apartment back on Earth. Tidy shelves, cramped furniture, and small paintings drowning on bare pastel walls.

Someone rasped her name from a nearby room.

Bright blood pooled across meticulously polished floorboards, a trail leading to the darkened doorway.

Pain again. Her teeth ground so hard she heard enamel cracking.


- - -

Getch with his shaggy mane of blond hair peered down at her as she blinked her eyes open, a steely-cold stethoscope lodged rudely between her breasts. "Sam?" he asked tentatively. "You okay?"

She slowly sat up, cradling her head, holding onto his arm for support. "What...what happened?"

Both men were still in their EVA suits, their helmets orphaned on the floor by the airlock. "You tell us. We found you passed out on the deck. Was it another attack?"

"Yeah. The worst one yet." She told them about it, even the vision of the blood-stained apartment, shivering as she described how real it all felt. Ken held her fingers for reassurance as Getch pulled off his EVA suit's outer armor to continue his examination. As before, he found nothing wrong with her physically.

"I'll have to run more extensive tests," he said. "But there's only so much we can do here. I'll have to consult with MisCon. Those hallucinations worry me. Maybe we can see if there might be some psychological treatment."

She grunted noncommittally. "But it didn't seem like a hallucination. It all seemed so real."

"I'm sure it did. The brain's perception of reality is pretty fluid, actually. You'd be surprised what it can be fooled into thinking is real."

For a moment, just a brief flash, the apartment she had seen earlier appeared behind Getch, its green pastel walls bright with blood. She blinked and shook her head, and it was gone. She cradled her head in her hands. "Maybe I should just get some sleep."

The mission's medic nodded. "That would probably be best, actually. I'm gonna relieve you of any further duties until we can find out what's happening."

Sam started to protest but Ken cut her off. "I think that's for the best, too. Until we know what's up with all this we can't have you risking yourself."

Outranked and outvoted. "I guess," she sighed. "Just let me know if you find anything."

"You'll be the first I tell," Getch said as the two men helped her to her bunk.

- - -

Fuel is expensive.

She woke in the darkened hab, pain lashing through her. A quick glance at the wall clock and the reddish-black glow outside the small viewport told her Mars was sliding into night. Both men slept on their bunks nearby, separated from hers by a partially-pulled curtain. The pain didn't seem so bad this time. She slowly unknotted herself and made her way to the hab's fresher to take some pills.

As soon as the recycled water in the tiny sink began running, it hit her again.
Fuel is expensive.

She blinked and blood suddenly splashed back onto her arms, redder than Martian sands. She staggered back, mouthing a scream that would not come. She was in the apartment again, the plastic handle of a large carving knife curled into her fingers.

An inferno hotter than the sun crashed through her skull. She thrashed about, her limbs thumping uselessly against the thin plastic walls.

And she remembered.

- - -

Cold stone walls framing colder metal bars. The stench of the scratchy brown toilet. Huddling for hours on a stiff bunk, hating her cell, but hating even more what lay beyond it.

Pushed around at mess. Beaten in the laundry. Humiliated in the showers. Day after day after day. How could she survive thirty more years?

Then two mysterious men came to see here. Impeccable gray suits, their voices as crisp as their attire.

"Sheila Polara?" one asked. "Geological researcher? Did a graduate thesis on primordial Earth geochemistry?"

She gaped, then nodded slowly.

"How would you like to get out of here?"

A flurry of paperwork later, and she was outside, stepping into a taxi. She bawled like a little girl, her relief at escaping those hellish walls that intense. Neither of her primly-suited escorts made any move to comfort her.

An expansive office, severe right angles everywhere. Except for the huge round man behind the fortress of a desk, smelling faintly of sour milk.

His voice was a baritone sing-song, talking to her of a new identity, of limited emancipation, of a historic space mission. She blinked at him, bewildered. But she did not care. It was not prison. She readily agreed.

Then the training. Long, long days and weeks of studying, exercising, and testing, broken occasionally by flight training, exhausting survival courses, technical seminars by the hundred. She met her crewmates, Kentaro Hale and Thomas Getch, coming from hopeless criminal situations similar to hers. The three of them were to go to Mars.

Insanity. Three convicted felons, the first humans on another planet?

The men in the suits were evasive in their explanations. But no longer cold, in pain, and hungry, she could think much more clearly than when they had first brought her from her cell. Over many weeks she eventually pieced together that it was all about the fuel.

It was expensive.

She had traded prison for something far, far worse.

She told her companions, and they all balked. No more training, no more exercises, no more seminars, nothing. She quit. Better the mess and the laundry and the showers than this.

Then their new jailers broke out the needles. And the electrodes. And looked the other way when the beatings and the rapes began. A year-long ordeal of intense hypnotherapy and torture and mind control followed. They wanted perfect astronauts, and they were going to get them no matter what.

Starving, filthy, in agony in a frigid darkened cell, she repeated a mantra to herself over and over all through that year, concentrating as best she could through the drug-induced haze.

Rote memorization was used in schools for so long because it worked so well, wearing a groove in memory paths so deep that people could remember fifty years later things like Oliver Cromwell's middle name, the atomic weight of cesium, i before e except after c. The mantra whispered to herself a thousand, thousand times was a warning she only prayed would survive to whoever or whatever she became.

She didn't remember exactly when she had stopped being Sheila the convicted murderer and started being Sam the perfect astronaut mission specialist. All the horror from that year still cast too many shadows in her memory. Perhaps she would never know.

Fuel is expensive.

One final spike of pain, and the memories crashed to a stop. Darkness reclaimed her.

- - -

Again, she woke up on the examining table with Ken and Getch very worriedly looking down on her.

"Thank God," Ken said as she blinked her eyes open. "You okay Sam? You were out nearly two hours."

She looked at her two cremates, sighed heavily and hugged herself. Everything was so clear now, so lucid, as if it was the first time she had been truly awake in months. "I remember. My husband's name was Gray Valentin. Oh God, poor Gray..."

The men exchanged worried glances. "Um, you never mentioned being married, Sam," Ken said.

She got up and slowly pulled herself to the farside of the room. She looked out the tiny viewport at the fuel processor on the nearby hillock, illuminated by work lights. What she saw confirmed all her suspicions. Bastards.

"Fuel is expensive," she whispered. She had expected to be hit by a wave of agony, but nothing. "My own warning from a lifetime ago. But that's only half the sentence."

Ken walked over to her, laying his hands gently, almost fatherly, on her shoulders. "Sam, if you need to tell us anything..."

She sighed. "Five years ago--I think it was five years--I killed Gray. Stabbed him."


"We had this hideous fight when he finally blurted out all his sleeping around. We screamed each other hoarse for hours. Finally he slunk away to the bedroom, saying we'd talk more the next day. As soon as I heard him snoring I shuffled into the kitchen for a knife, then went into the bedroom. It slid in so easily. I only remember the first stab, but the police told me I did it twenty-eight more times. He woke up dying, begging for his life, but it was too late."

Ken and Getch stared at her, stunned. "Um, look, Sam, remember those hallucinations you were telling us about? Maybe they're getting worse. Maybe we can get MisCon to cut the mission short. Get you back Earthside at the earliest possible window."

She barked out a short, loud laugh. "NASA already knows all about the 'hallucinations,' Ken. Its why we're all here. Don't you remember?" Her laughter stopped. Of course he didn't. "We're never going back."

She looked over her shoulder and saw their uncomprehending expressions. For them it was too soon. The mission planners must have known their carefully-wrought psychological alterations couldn't last forever, but had time-tabled everything so that the mission would be over long before it became an issue. Getch and Ken would never have a breakthrough like hers until it was too late.

Her migraines were all too transparent a ploy now. A conditioned response. A primal distraction in case one of them began skirting the truth.

She abruptly changed the subject to tomorrow's schedule and the experiments they needed to run. Getch and Ken visibly relaxed, apparently relieved that her "episode" had passed. They were careful to avoid the subject of her odd behavior the rest of the night, but still looked at her with an odd mixture of concern and a little bit of fear.

When they settled in for sleep again, Getch sat at a chair beside her cot, in case she had a relapse. A sweet gesture. But not surprisingly, he was slumped and snoring within an hour.

Getch and Ken had been her friends on this long, long journey to Mars, even her lovers a few times. She knew they cared for her, and would probably do anything to help her. She owed them.

Sam quietly slipped out of her bunk to the equipment locker. There, she dug out the maser permafrost drill she had used earlier. She lugged it toward Getch snoozing in the chair.

Getch blearily fluttered his eyes open as she approached. "Sam, what--"

Sam pointed the drill and toggled the power switch. In a heartbeat Getch's face bubbled as his head was flooded with high-powered microwaves, his skull cracking open from the hideous steam pressure within. Before Ken could do more than stir at the disturbance she walked over and turned the drill on him.

She stared at their ruined bodies for many minutes before she collapsed to her knees, body-wrenching sobs ripping through her for the rest of the night.

At dawn, Sam scrubbed herself long and hard, damning the water rationing, donned her EVA suit, and went outside to lock down all the experiments. When she returned, she reprogrammed the three mission comsats in orbit to begin transmitting, in a non-stop broadband loop, the next fifteen minutes that would be recorded by the hab's internal cameras. She made sure Ken and Getch's corpses were clearly in view.

She was sure that many sites on Earth would pick up the transmissions. By the time NASA got the comsats back under control, hopefully not for weeks thanks to her hastily-hacked programs, the truth would be out.

"It was all about fuel," she said to the cameras. "Spacecraft fuel is very expensive, especially for a manned interplanetary mission. That's why a Mars mission was talked about for decades, but nothing was ever done. Hauling the fuel out of Earth's gravity well and then lugging it all the way to Mars and back would cost many billions of dollars no one wanted to spend."

"One plan was to manufacture methane fuel out of materials on-site. But every automated probe sent to test the feasibility of that failed miserably. A chemical quirk in the Martian environment no one had foreseen prevented it.

"But budget cuts were looming, and both the public and politicians sniveled for a return to Apollo-era glory. The answer: a high-publicity Mars mission. But let's to cut costs? The mission would have to carry all the fuel it would need to get out there and back. Tens of billions of dollars to haul hundreds of tons of exotic fuel on a hundred-million-mile round trip. That would break the back of the cash-strapped space program right there.

"But what if they could cut the fuel costs directly in half? Why not only supply just enough fuel to get there, but not to get back?

"Sounds good, right? Now all you have to do is sign up a crew for a one-way mission. You'd think that would be the hard part, but some wily budget genius found a way. Take people who would never be missed--say, prison lifers who happened to have the right technical backgrounds. Train them, give them new, PR-friendly IDs, and send them off.

"But of course its bad PR to have your crew morose and rebellious over their imminent deaths. So make the crew believe the lies. Through months and months of brain washing, drugs, hypnosis, torture. Drill it into their brains that they never committed any crimes, that the astronaut training program had been their life-long goals. From that moment on, to themselves and to the rest of the world, they were heroes.

"And because they were not coming back, other means of cutting the budget could be taken, like skimping on the radiation protection in EVA suits, then lying about some new non-existent breakthrough layer that we could ever find. Let your suicide crew believe that the fuel processing plant was not really just a pile of soldered-together pipes and an empty tank. Let them believe they would not die a long, lingering, painful death as the food and water and air ran out and that the people back Earthside would just cover it up with some invented system failure, then paint them as noble sacrifices to squeeze out more taxpayer dollars for the budget."

She brought the tip of the maser drill to her temple. Tears brimmed. She was thankful that she at least had given Getch and Ken the mercy of dying quickly and painlessly, when they still believed that they were heroes.

"After all, fuel is expensive..."

Her finger tensed on the toggle switch.

"...But martyrs are cheap."

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Re-Envisioning Space:1999

A number of sites and forums observed that yesterday, September 13, 2009 was the ten year anniversary of the nuclear waste repository on the Moon detonating, blasting Earth's only natural satellite out of orbit and sending it careening deep into interstellar space. The fate of the 311 personnel trapped on Moonbase Alpha remains unknown.

Or rather, it would have been, if we lived in the universe of
Space:1999, a quirky but fondly-remembered science fiction series from the mid-1970s. I watched it religiously as a kid, but I have to admit it did not age as well as Star Trek from a few years earlier. There were some ambitious scripts and ideas--I think it was the first on-screen work of science fiction to feature a wormhole in one episode, for example--but the shoestring budget, sometimes wooden acting, and the gonzo approach to a lot of its scripts tended to detract from that.

But the basic idea--a ragtag band of reluctant humans riding a rogue world into the vast unknown of the universe--is still a slambang one, rife with tons of story potential. It just needed a better execution. In this age of restarts and re-envisionings, I'm surprised Space:1999 hasn't been picked up for one yet.

So how would one go about reworking it to make it more palatable? Let's call our new version Space: 2099 and set it in that year. That gives us nine decades of history and technology to play around with.

We can have the same set up: a large international base on the moon, named Alpha. But since its set much farther in the future, we can make it bigger than the original Space:1999 Moonbase. The 2099 Moonbase has over a thousand personnel, and there are other facilities around the moon as well, smaller bases, observatories, and most importantly, strip-mining operations extracting Helium-3 for power and other vital elements from the lunar surface.

Five years before the series opens, astronauts discover an eons-old facility of obvious alien origins buried deep on the farside of the Moon. The facility holds a number of vast mysterious machines of unknowable purpose. And, much to their horror and delight, human explorers also discover vast quantities of antimatter buried even further into the moon beneath it.

On September 13th, 2099, investigations into the alien machines go horribly wrong. A vast explosion shakes the entire satellite. Only there is very little destruction--the antimatter functioned as an immense Explosive Power Generator to feed a gargantuan wormhole generator. Thus, we can have a parallel to the original series of a massive explosion hurtling the Moon away from Earth, but with a slightly more logical way to get it to the interstellar adventure part quickly.

The Moon arrives in a new solar system through the temporary wormhole, entering into orbit around a gas giant just as the gateway back to earth collapses. Of course, the new star system is an odd one, seemingly created artificially, with dozens of life-bearing worlds from around the galaxy, and hundreds of moons and asteroids, giving the crew plenty of mysteries to unravel and new worlds to explore. Who created the artificial star system? Was it the same people who created the device that brought them there? What are the other inhabitants of the system like? Are they trapped there like the Alphans are? And can they ever find a way to return to Earth, if they can even find out where it is?

And in this age of Lost and Battlestar Galactica, we can have a lot of good, heavily-character-oriented stories as they unravel these huge interconnected mysteries. A lot of the characters in the original were a bit bland; it would be nice to see things spiced up with the updated version. If drek like Moonfall and Defying Gravity can get greenlighted, how about another quality scifi show with a proven, nerd-pleasing premise?

Some caveats, though: Don't mess with the Eagles, the all-purpose modular spacecraft used in the original series (and pictured above.) In my opinion, they are among the best designed fictional spacecraft ever created. Even the shows worst detractors liked the Eagles' sleekness, believability, and raw functionality. They would be as iconic to the show as the Enterprise would be to Star Trek.

And also, keep the beginning sequence, or at least the spirit of it. It started with these majestic instrumentals, showing the lead actors. But then it cut to an Eagle plummeting and exploding on the Lunar surface, segueing into a fast-paced funky theme that sticks in my head to this day. A quick montage of teaser scenes followed in quick succession, ending with SEPTEMBER! 13! 1999! flashing by and showing the moon breaking out of orbit. If the rest of the series had been as cool as its opening, it might have had a much longer life.

Anyway, that's just some ideas. I doubt we'll ever see a real Space:1999 remake, but its fun to play around with the concept anyway.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Japan's New Space Freighter

Click HERE for the full story on the launch of Japan's new H-II Transfer vehicle from the BBC.

The space freighter, together with its Kaguya moon probe and its announcement of a project to develop solar power satellites, demonstrates what I hope to be a trend of Japan taking much more of an initiative in space. Last year, JAXA (the Japanese Aerospace eXploration Agency, the island nation's equivalent of NASA) announced much more ambitious agenda in the years to come. Beforehand, Japan as a space power was primarily a relatively safe but unimaginative satellite-launcher. Now it seems to be blossoming into much more, and may be on its way to becoming a major space power in a decade or two.

Go HERE for an interview with Keiji Tachikawa, president of JAXA, for more information on Japan's future space plans.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Just How OLD is the Flash?

I was watching Spider-Man 2 on TV recently, and thought back to the other superheroes I enjoyed when I was younger. One of my favorites was the Flash; specifically, the Wally West version.

But one thing always bothered me: Just how old was he?

I don't mean how long its been since the character was created (the first Flash comic appeared in 1940), or how old he physically appeared to be (Wally West, like most superheroes, was supposed to be perpetually in his mid-to-late 20s.) But rather: how much subjective time has he lived through?

The Flash's main power, of course, is speed. He can do everything and anything fast. He can react and think at speeds no human--or too many other superhumans, even Superman--can match. And therein lies the rub.

He lives through every single action he performs at superspeed. He has to, or else he could easily end up plastering himself all over a wall at half lightspeed. He's aware of every single step he takes as much as we are of ours, even if he can take a million such steps a second.

One of the most common feats he performed in the comics was running around the globe in a handful of second or less. That's 25,000 miles. Assuming one didn't get tired or had to stop to sleep, eat, or run to the latrine, how long would that take a normal person? At a breakneck running speed of 10 mph, that's 104 days. And the Flash lives through every step, even if to us it takes only a heartbeat. That's 3 1/2 months, subjectively. In some storylines, he does something similar dozens of times. He must burn through years of subjective time every time he fights a supervillain.

But that's just an average day at the office. What about some of his more extraordinary feats? In one story, he evacuated a threatened city of a quarter million single-handedly in a few seconds. How long would that take a single person? Assuming he could carry out one to two people per trip, that's something that could take years.

In another story, he had to tune every single radio on Earth to a certain frequency in a fraction of a second. Every single radio, in every country in every city, in every home and apartment and business and military base and ship and airplane in the world. Billions of individual units. If you had to do all that on foot, you're looking easily at a centuries-long project.

Now take all this, and combine all the adventures and battles he's had throughout his comic, plus guest appearances in other comics like JLA and such.

Now once again: Just how OLD is the Flash?

He's had to have lived through thousands, if not millions, of years of subjective time. Every time he uses his superspeed to battle a supervillain, he must be burning through lifetimes of subjective existence.

Given the nature of the world he lives in, where his best friends include a shapeshifting alien telepath and a magical greek goddess, the fact that he may be effectively immortal between ticks of the clock is not really an unbelievable development. But it does raise some rather disturbing possibilities.

For example, why hasn't he gone insane? He's not only millennia old subjectively, but he's lived through most of that time doing very repetitive tasks, like running or carrying things or turning radio knobs. It would be the next best thing to sensory deprivation, and would drive even the most resilient mind bonkers. Or maybe he has gone insane many, many times over the years, only he lives in such an accelerated timeframe that he was the only one who was ever aware of it.

Second, why does he bother with human relationships? Every time he went into battle, he'd be away from his loved ones for so long according to his own perceptions it would be difficult for emotional bonds to really persist. Other writers have pointed this out, but I think in the context of his millennia-long subjective existence I think it might be especially true: most of the time he lives in a world of very slow-moving statues. The periods where he can de-speed and spend normal time with his wife and friends would only be a minuscule fraction of his total subjective existence. Would they even seem real to him after a while?

Anyway, just something to think about next time you pick up a comic book.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Powering The World With Solar Panels

CLICK HERE to link to a very interesting graphic showing how much of the world's total surface area would have to be covered in solar cells in order to supply all of Earth's current energy needs.

I don't know the map's ultimate source, but it looks legitimate enough. And even if not completely accurate, it does provide plenty of food for thought. I'm guessing the chart is assuming present-day efficiency with solar cells (the best current commercial models are about 42% efficient); future versions of the technology could greatly improve on efficiency, and require less surface area to produce the same amount of power.

The problem with all of this, though, is cost. Look at the figures; 495,805 square kilometers = 496,805,000,000 square meters. The cost of commercial solar cells today is about $1000 per square meter, so putting up enough solar cells to meet projected 2030 demands would cost $496 trillion--over 30 times the current yearly output of the entire United States economy. Assuming very optimistic cost reductions from mass production in quantity and more advanced, lighter, and cheaper-to-produce solar cells that could reduce costs 100 fold, the total would still hover around $5 trillion dollars. Spread out over 20 years, that's $250 billion a year.

That might seem to some to be a small price to pay for powering the entire world CO2 free, but try convincing any current politician or economist of that, especially with so many more pressing economic issues today.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Hidden Treasures Of Science Fiction: Planetes!

(I don't know why I keep putting exclamations after the titles for the 'hidden treasures', it just somehow seems appropriate.)

Planetes is a 2003 hard science fiction anime TV series that, like Cowboy Bebop before it, is quickly building up a substantial fanbase in North America mostly from sheer word of mouth about its quality. You don't even have to be an anime fan to like Planetes; its very West-friendly, features a broad cast of international characters, and like most great fiction, speaks to universal themes independent of cultural nuance.

The series begins in 2075, when an international treaty organization of space-capable nations (the US, Japan, Russia, and some European countries) have built up a substantial infrastructure both in orbit and on the Moon. The development of Helium-3 fusion, with Helium-3 mined from the Moon, has replaced the old oil economy and has led to a major financial boom among the treaty countries, allowing them to fully expand into space. Hundreds of thousands of people now live and work off-Earth.

But of course there's a downside; all that activity in space has produced a tremendous amount of debris; i.e., space junk. Today, in real life, orbital junk represents a potential hazard to space missions. Sixty plus years from now, its a primary ongoing danger to all orbital activity. So who gets the thankless job of cleaning it up?

The series focuses on a crew of these space-going garbagemen. Called 'Half Section' because they are constantly under-funded and undermanned, they go out in an outmoded shuttle and haul off rogue satellites, old space station sections, abandoned experiments, and much more for recycling.

The crew includes Hachi, the series' main character, who is a young, cynical Japanese EVA specialist. Tanabe, the female lead, is another young Japanese national and the idealistic rookie on her first day in the first episode. The pilot is American Fee Carmichael, a brash, loud chain smoker. System specialist Yuri Mihairokov rounds out the space crew, a stoic, soft-spoken Russian. There's also a small office staff, and they all get their moments to shine throughout the 26-episode run, but the focus is definitively on the crew of the garbage scow shuttle called Toybox.

Planetes shines above most other on-screen SF, both live-action and anime, Japanese or American, in two areas: depth of character and scientific accuracy. The series' great strength lies within its characters' stories and their interactions. As the series progresses, they come across as real and compelling, with both noble moments as well as petty. In other words, they act very human, and the viewer very easily can get caught up in their daily lives.

The series also gives us the most realistic representation of future space travel I've ever seen, and given all the research I've done on space tech for over the last several years, that's saying a lot. There's not a single scientific or technological gaffe that I could spot in the series. It is hard science fiction the way it should be, and reminded me in some ways of Allen Steele's Near Space series of novels, which also contemplated a very similar type of future in space. This technological accuracy greatly adds to the series' verisimilitude.

This isn't to say Planetes is perfect, however. The series' greatest weakness is its female lead, Tanabe, who is annoying in the extreme. This is especially true in the first handful of episodes where, as the rookie, the viewer is introduced to Half Section through her POV. There is nothing wrong with portraying a character as idealistic or foolish or reckless, but she takes all three to such a degree that its hard to believe the other characters would keep her around, especially after she deliberately endangers the crew more than once. In fact, of all the characters, it takes her almost until the series' very end to find any real depth. Fortunately, after the first three episodes or so, the series begins focusing less on her and much more on the its larger cast, and quickly becomes much more watchable. Planetes also relies too much on unlikely coincidences to move its plot along at times.

But if you can get past these gaffes, you're definitely in for a science fiction treat. Episodes 10, 11, ands 12 are the series highlight, in my opinion. Episode 10, focusing on Yuri's past, has an intense emotional gut-punch. Episode 11 features a wannabe space explorer from a third world country's humble program, and though he starts out as a kind of comedic character, one can't help but be moved by his underdog determination by the end. Epsiode 12 focuses on Fee and her bad habit of smoking, but her obsession turns out to be an unlikely salvation for everyone in orbit in the wake of a terrorist attack. The last third of the series focuses on a sprawling eight-episode storyline involving an expedition to Jupiter that Hachi tries to qualify for while also trying to deal with a personal crisis. This is in addition to the mounting terrorist plot to stop it. Planetes also has something very rare among not only anime, but just about all TV series as well--a pitch-perfect ending.

The complete series of Planetes is available on DVD, which you can find HERE and other outlets that sell anime products. Select episodes are also available for viewing online.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

From New Scientist: Abandoned NASA Projects

The magazine New Scientist just put up a very interesting article on abandoned space projects.

Take note of when most of the projects were canceled; either in 1993 or 2001-2002--basically when a new political party took over the White House. I suspect that most of them weren't canceled because they were necessarily bad ideas or too costly (what space project doesn't have cost overruns?), but simply because the new administration wanted to kill the projects of the previous one out of politically-motivated spite.

As I've stated in previous entries here, we have to stop this political game of tit-for-tat every eight years with our space program if we ever want to accomplish any long range goals, such as returning to the Moon or going to Mars. Space is just to vast and difficult an undertaking for such short-term petty-minded tactics to get anywhere.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The 7 FORGIVABLE Sins Of Sci Fi

A lot has been made about the scientific inaccuracies and logical fallacies we often see in on screen science fiction. While no doubt some of it does stem from just plain ignorance or carelessness, a lot of it actually serves an important story telling purpose.

The first commandment of any form of entertainment is straightforward: You Must NOT Be Boring. This coupled with time constraints, limited budgets, and the need to tell a complete story driven by characters, has led to a number of shortcuts that creators of film and TV science fiction have to take. Its not that they, the writers, the FX crew, etc., are unaware of how scientifically accurate phenomena would actually work, its just that they have to put entertaining the audience and creating a compelling but easy-to-follow narrative first. And that often requires compromises.

This isn't to say that fans aren't right to complain about obviously stupid plot developments, or groan-inducing nonsense technobabble. Only that people should understand that science fiction is primarily about stories and characters first, and if some scientific accuracy has to be sacrificed to enhance either of those, so be it.

1. Cow Goes Moo, Duck Goes Quack, Space Goes Kaboom

In a dramatic presentation, music and sound effects are often used as dramatic punctuation, a tradition that goes back centuries to the earliest plays and operas. Its used so often because its proven itself very effective at evoking visceral responses from the audience. Should a filmmaker give up such a useful and versatile tool in a science fiction film simply because in real life, sound does not travel in space?

The answer is, it depends. Some very successful science fiction has used space silence as an effective dramatic device (2001, Firefly, Planetes). However, these works are almost always aimed at a more mature, thoughtful audience. For a more general audience work, especially an action-oriented one, such abrupt silences can serve to kill the dynamic flow of the story. So using sound in spaceshots, such as engine noises, weapon fire, explosions, etc, as well as background music, is forgivable if it all keeps the story or action flowing smoothly.

NOT FORGIVABLE: Humans breathing and talking in space without explanation (Superman IV, Power Rangers, for example). Even the most non-science-savvy of audiences nowadays know that people can't survive in space without spacesuits, much less go around talking in naked vacuum.

2. Enhance!

A sin scifi shares with many a modern crime show, this is where a computer enhances a visual image in some way that should either be impossible (how exactly do you enhance four fuzzy pixels into a complete mugshot?) or take many hours of tweaking and programming.

This is a necessity mostly born of time constraints. A typical scifi TV show only has an hour, not counting commercials, in which to tell its story. How much of that time do audiences really want to watch a computer operator clicking a mouse and typing at a keyboard to tweak an image into clarity? Even a montage of that would be fairly mind-numbing. So this is a quick little shortcut most scripts use to bypass what would be a scientifically accurate but very boring process to watch.

3. The Universal Up

In scifi TV shows and movies, most ships meet each other in the depths of space always oriented in the same "up" direction. Most combat, too, is usually depicted as two dimensional. Spaceships come at each other from ahead or behind, but rarely from below or from above.

This is mostly a visual shortcut, to avoid confusing the audience. Because make-believe spaceships come in a lot of unusual visual designs, they can be difficult to recognize from odd angles, especially during combat when they may be zipping quickly across the screen. This way the audience can more easily keep track of who's the good guy and who's the bad guy.

There have been exceptions to this, of course (particularly Return of the Jedi), but even then, with the fighters zooming about in three dimensions, the main fleets themselves were arrayed on a more or less flat plain in space as they exchanged shots.

4. And One Gravity For All

In science fiction, most locales are either one Earth-normal gravity, or zero gravity. There is no in between, even on the Moon or Mars or alien planets. Even the most low-tech future societies seem to easily develop magical artificial gravity.

The reason for this stems from the current limits of special effects and most movie/TV budgets. Simply put, all the actors and sets are on Earth, and there's no escaping that a full G is in effect there. Studios have gotten fairly adept over the years at visually fudging freefall with harnesses and other tricks, but these can get expensive, and are usually not used except for certain necessary scenes. In other words, faking anything other than Earth normal gravity can be a budget buster for most productions, so they usually use artificial gravity as a quick and easy end run around that.

5. Cosmic Wharrgarbl

Wouldn't it be convenient if every race, nation and civilization spoke the same language? In many science fiction universes, they do.

Yes, we know that the act of actually translating and learning to speak a completely new, alien language would be a long, complex, and arduously boring process to watch. Like with Enhance! this process is usually shortened dramatically, or even hand-waved away, to save on the audience's sanity and to get on with the story that will actually entertain them.

UNFORGIVABLE: Not providing even an arbitrary explanation for WHY everyone speaks the same language. If even my 8 year old nephew knows enough to question why everyone is speaking the same, then its not something audience members will just shrug away. Universal translators, babel fish, telepathy, a common trading language, etc., just pick one and move on. I'm looking at you, Stargate Atlantis. Earthers show up in a brand new galaxy that has been removed from human contact for 10,000 years and everyone can easily understand each other the first time they meet?

6. Ridged Forehead Syndrome

Aliens are one of the centerpiece concepts of science fiction. From everything we know about evolution, its easily a trillion to one odds that any alien lifeform will end up looking even remotely like us. So why do so many aliens in sci fi look like actors from Hollywood central casting with crinkly foreheads?

The simple answer is, of course, they are. Until fairly recently, expecting a special effect to act would be like asking the moon to dance a jig. If you wanted the aliens in your story to be actual characters instead of some barely-seen rubbery suit or glowy cloud, that meant you had to use human actors. And even Hollywood make-up masters could only make them so alien, especially with the budgets many productions had.

This has changed somewhat with modern computer animation (especially with incredibly convincing CGI characters like Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies), but even so the process still remains very expensive. So ridged forehead aliens are still forgivable, as long as other measures are taken (language, mannerisms, culture, etc) to show that they're from a world other than earth. It is also forgivable if the presence of near-human aliens is plausibly explained away (such as in the Stargate universe, where many human populations were transplanted off Earth in ancient times to be used as slaves of the alien Gua'uld.)

UNFORGIVABLE: Having near-human/ridged forehead aliens in a sci fi production where the FX budget easily allows for better, less human alien characters. This is a sin especially perpetuated by japanese anime--being animation they aren't limited by FX budgets, and yet too often their aliens come in only two varieties--very human-looking or loathsome tentacle-beasts.

7. Outdated Special Effects

Now, we've all had a good laugh at one time or another at the Styrofoam rocks on the original Star Trek or the hokey muppet Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back. But seeing people put down the entire movie or TV show because of such special effects is definitely a sci fi sin.

We all know the story we're watching isn't real. But we're willing to suspend our disbelief for the sake of being entertained. Its why we can enjoy animated movies even though everything in the film is at least several steps removed from reality; its why we can get into plays even though its obvious we're just watching people shuffle about and talk on a stage with obviously artificial sets. If the story is good enough, whether the FX scenes look realistic shouldn't matter so much as how well they serve the ongoing story and move it along.

The original King Kong is a brilliant example. Does the Kong of the movie even closely resemble or move like a realistic gorilla? No. But is the movie still very entertaining? Definitely yes. The FX are crude by today's standards, but still serve the story of the film and move events along very well.

So this sin is very forgivable IF the special effects crew did the best they could with the technology and budget they had at the time. How well the effects serve the story should always matter more than how realistic they look.

UNFORGIVABLE: using outdated special effects on more modern films; in fact, the bigger budget and more modern a movie is, the less forgivable this sin is. Also, using special effects so much that they dilute the story instead of enhancing it, as was the case of all three Star Wars prequel films.

Let me know if I've forgotten any!