In Sputnik’s Orbit

A few thoughts to tide you over…


Meet The Winners! Kate Julicher

Greetings fellow readers! Allow me to introduce this year’s Writers of the Future Published Finalist, the very lovely, Kate Julicher.


Author Kate Julicher

Stuart: Hi Kate! It was great meeting you at Superstars earlier this month, tell my readers a bit about yourself.

Kate: I’m actually only half of the KD Julicher team. My husband and I collaborate closely – you might say intimately – on everything I write. My role is to be the “hands on keyboard”. We toss ideas around through emails during the work day or on weekend expeditions into the mountains around our home or over dinner. Then I sit down and write a draft, then we edit it together with a fine-tooth comb, lots of wine, and hopefully no need for marital counseling.

Oh, and I keep trains from crashing into each other.

Stuart: Wow! Any talents or hobbies, aside from the train thing?

Kate: I sing a lot. Not professionally, but it seems like once a month someone comes up after church and says “you should join the choir!”. I don’t think it’s because I’m that good, I think it’s just that I’m loud and enthusiastic.

Stuart: Enthusiasm definitely counts! So how’d you get into writing?

Kate: I’ve always been a writer. I wrote on that “story paper” you get in kindergarten, the stuff with the big lines and space at the top for art. I spent three years in fanfiction as a teenager and then discovered NaNoWriMo, which I’ve done every year since 2002 and only failed once. About four years ago we decided to get serious and went from NaNovelists to working at the craft year-round.

Stuart: Ha ha! I remember “story paper.” How long have you been entering WotF?

Kate: Two years ago I decided to enter every quarter of WotF until I won or pro’d out. I’ve racked up 4 HMs, 3 finalists. One of those won the Baen Fantasy Adventure contest in 2014.

Stuart: All right! Way to go, Kate! Okay, Star Trek or Star Wars?

Kate. Yes? I grew up on Star Trek. For a while it was the only thing my parents would let us watch. I saw the whole Star Wars trilogy at one sitting when I was 13 and it really fired my imagination. Right now I am enjoying the new Star Wars movie more than the new Trek movies but I would love to be won back over by Trek.

Stuart: Fair enough. Hey…what’s that…who’s shining that light in my eyes?

Kate: Winks.

Stuart: Pantser or Plotter?

Kate: Definite plotter. If I have a detailed scene-by-scene outline when I sit down I can whip out a first draft in no time flat. That said I leave enough room for my characters to surprise me.

Stuart: Very impressive. How do you come up with the outline?

Kate: My husband and I throw ideas back and forth at each other for a while. Then I sit down and start plotting in Scrivener. I set up a new project, break things into three acts, and start dumping in the events I know will happen as separate scenes.  I use the notecard function to jot down some notes for each scene. I’ll put in placeholders in between the scenes I know about, and start filling in. Usually at this point my writing brain is active and things just start to click. I also like to put in a word count estimate on each scene. If I’ve got multiple POVs, I color-code the scenes. Then I look and say, ok, this part needs to be longer, I need another Lord Evilpants chapter here, etc.

After that we’ll ideally go over the outline and make sure it makes sense. Then I sit down to write. If I’ve done this outline right, the writing part is pretty darn fast. I wrote a 120,000-word draft last November for NaNoWriMo, thanks to this system. It’s got some flaws and the pre-writing part can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to months, but I feel like the resulting product is strong.

I’m looking to upgrade this process to the next level by incorporating scene/sequel plotting as described in Deborah Chester’s “The Fantasy Fiction Formula” but I only just got that book so I haven’t actually tried yet.

Stuart: What’s the nuttiest thing that ever happened to you?

Kate: My boss wouldn’t let me quit my job.

No, seriously, I went in saying, “Sorry, love you guys, but my husband got a job offer a thousand miles away, here’s my two weeks’ notice” and they said “Wait wait, how about you work for us remotely?” Eight years and three moves since, I have either the longest or the shortest commute of anyone I know. It only takes me thirty seconds to stroll down the hall to the living room, but if I have to actually go to the office, that’s an all-day flight…

Stuart: Hola! If you had a superpower other than enrapturing employers, what would it be?

Kate: Can I have Hermione’s Time-Turner instead? I work full time, raise my daughter, and try to put in 3-4 hours a day on writing related stuff. As a result I often feel like Bilbo: “Butter that’s been scraped over too much bread”.

Stuart: Done! Now where did I put that thing….oh well, here’s a bagel. Er…next question. What was your favorite toy growing up?

Kate: The woods out back. We had a narrow lot that stretched out for what felt like miles, all wooded and hilly, with a four-foot ravine along one edge to play in and fallen trees to turn into forts. We’d go out after lunch and just be gone all day.>

Stuart: Ha ha! Me too. That tree made it into my upcoming Analog story, in fact. My sister and I were always secret agents looking for missing isotopes–whatever those were. If you adopted a unique wardrobe tag (ala Dr. Who’s scarf/bowtie etc.), what might it be?

Kate: My husband and I had custom-fitting hats made recently by a local hatmaker. He used this steampunk tophat device to measure our heads, and then shaped the hats to our heads. I love my fedora, I wear it every time I go out.

Stuart: Tell us about your winning story.

Kate: I’ve had three finalists at WotF now and they’re actually all in the same world, though that is not obvious at first glance. Swords Like Lightning, Hooves like Thunder is one of my favorites. It starts with the heroine running desperately from the enemies that have captured her brother. She meets a mysterious stranger and goes on a journey into a strange, exciting new world. This story actually sprang from an offhand reference to a legend that I wrote into an as yet unpublished novel. I started wondering just what that story had looked like to the people who lived it…. Interestingly, my other published story, The Golden Knight, was the second legend referenced in that same novel, and I wrote it for the same reason.

Stuart: Do you prefer fantasy or scifi?

Kate: You’d think as a software engineer who was reading hard SF at twelve ,that would be my passion, but I’ve been drawn to traditional fantasy. I like stories about duty and honor and sacrifice. I also really like using family, marriage, and relationships as plot motivators, and that tends to work better in fantasy.

Stuart: Well awesome, Kate. Enjoy the WotF workhop, it’s definitely a bit of fairytale come true.

Follow Kate at, and check out The Golden Knight at

Help for a Moon Hoax Fence Sitter

Someone recently asserted that “his dad” said th moon landings couldn’t be real because blah, blah, blah and that’s impossible, to which I responded with reality. The questioner that came back with these followups:

“What was the radiant barrier [that keeps spacecraft cool] made of?” Several layers of aluminized Mylar (the same stuff that is now used in attics) over a “superinsulation” of alternating layers of Kapton and glass-fiber cloth.

“Water cooled, [referring to spacesuit thermal control undergarments] that must have weighted a lot” No. Tiny plastic tubes filled with glycol and water were sewn to a mesh garment worn over the permanent waer garment, so one layer over the underwear. The purpose was mostly to remove the astronaut’s body heat. The suit reflected much of the sun’s heat and the remaining extremes between the sunlit and shadow sides canceled each other out. Movement, air circulation, and the water garment ensured no hot or cold spots. Thermo regulation was absolutely not a problem..

“If I remember correctly, the suits were at 250 F which is 121 C, at 100 C water boils, so the air inside the suit, when reaching 100 C would make the body of the astronauts burn and the blood boil.” No, dark surfaces would have heated up, but the white suit and reflective visor, combined with insulation, prevented the surface from getting so hot and prevented the heat from reaching the astronaut. Air entering the suit was cold anyway, because it was stored under pressure. The was not a problem. Firefighting gear has it far, far harder.

“Since they were in low pressure inside the suits, they would have boiled at even less temperature.” Yes they would, at about 170 F, but that was never going to happen.

“And cooling that water would be really hard.” No, cooling that water was simplicity itself. When they were in the shade or resting they didn’t need to cool it much at all. Gemini suits had no water cooled undergarment at all, and they worked just fine until the astronauts started doing physical work. In the A7 suits used by Apollo, when they we in the sun for a while or getting hot, a porous plate sublimator was used to cool a heat exchanger, which cooled the glycol loop. The Astronaut could control how much of the glycol went through the heat exchanger soas to avoid overcooling. This method is still used today, and was used for supplemental cooling on the LEM as well.

“Handling half a tank of water in the tank would make a pretty unstable astronaut” Good thinking! Naturally, the engineers thought of that. Water for the sublimator was stored in two flexible bladders, a primary holding about a gallon and a secondary holding about half that much. This were no more problem than today’s CamelBak packs. Really, the inertia of the entire PLSS pack was more of an issue than water slosh.

“Since they were in space, I suppose those are psi absolute, which would mean about 1/3 of the pressure at sea level.” Correct. Apollo spacesuits were pressurized to 5.5 psi of pure oxygen.

“Bizarre that they would use only oxygen given Gus Grissom’s death because of that in 1967.” Not at all. They still use pure oxygen in suits to this day. The reason is that inflating to 14.7 PSI would cause the suits to balloon and make flexing the joints too hard for the wearer, and adding nitrogen to the mix would make the life support pack far more complicated, prone to failure, and tricky to operate. Fire is no more a risk at 5.5PSI and 100% O2 than normal air at sea level. The Apollo 1 pad fire was caused by procedural oversights that led to the cabin being filled with more than sea level pressure of pure O2—a very bad idea. Also, suits are carefully constructed to prevent any source of sparks, and the astronaut can’t exactly forget and light up a stogie.

Hamilton standard’s tests showed that a man can live on pure O2 down to 3.7PSI–provided it’s all oxygen.

“If they weighted 1/6 of earth gravity they would have been able to kick a ball and put it into orbit.” No they wouldn’t. The minimum speed for lunar orbit is well over 2km per second.

“Without atmosphere and with an escape velocity of just 2 m/s, even an astronaut jumping would have been able to put himself into orbit,” No, because we are talking about the moon, where the escape velocity is 2.38 THOUSAND m/s. Even if your astronauts brought a clown cannon, they aren’t entering orbit.

“all the recorded videos and photos show the moon as having its horizon between 100 and 200 m” No they don’t. The horizon on the moon is about 2 kilometers away if you are standing on a plain, and that’s what all the photos show, but there is nothing to give a visual sense of scale.You can’t tell how far away a lunar mountain is without looking at a map. Jack Schmitt took this telephoto image of the Apollo 17 LEM from a rise 3 km away, with mountains in the background:


Or consider this shot of Apollo 15 from its ALSEP site, which all by itself it about 100 meters away:

as15-82-11054 thru as15-82-11058

Or maybe you mean like this shot of Pete Conrad inspecting the Surveyor 3 probe that landed two years before he did, with the LM in the distance (note the big antenna used to improve TV reception back on earth.)


And lest you are concerned by the lack of a crater beneath the probe—like Apollo, it was designed to cut off the engine early to avoid disturbing the soil it was sent to sample. It malfunctioned, and ended up bouncing 35 feet in the air, no worse for wear.

“A normal person would have recorded around himself…that is what we do when we explore, naturally, we go up and take a look.” Yeah, they did that. I believe it was Apollo 12 in which the commander opened the docking hatch first, then stood up to survey the landing site before going down through the door to the surface. Every major site of every surface mission produced at least one panoramic photo.

“wouldn’t it be normal for astronauts to record the stuff they left on the moon as they take off? You mean turn around and take a picture as they were lifting off? You mean like this movie frame from the Apollo 14 liftoff?


Why is the Moon Receding?

When the Apollo astronauts set down on the moon, they didn’t just plant the flag and take a selfie–they had science to do.

One of the experiments left by Apollo was a laser range finding experiment. By means of high quality retro-reflectors left by Apollo and two Soviet Lunakod missions, we now know that the moon is receding by nearly 4 cm per year. We also know our day is slowing down. So what gives?

The moon’s gravity constantly creates a bulge in the Earth, mostly in our oceans. But our daily rotation constantly carries that bulge eastward. The moon must then constantly pull it back toward itself–and the bulge constantly pulls the moon forward in its orbit. This has the effect of slowing our rotation and accelerating the moon’s orbit.

tide-frictionDon’t worry, though. Although the moon is now almost a foot farther away that it was when we first set foot on it, it’s not going anywhere. The recession is slow enough, the sun will die before the moon can get away.


Meet the Winners – Julie Frost

Welcome friends and readers, lend me your…er..eyes! Say hello to freshly minted Writers of the Future winner, Julie Frost.

Stuart: Congratulations Julie! Tell the good folks a little about yourself. What got you into writing?

Julie: I used to write a lot in high school, but got out of the habit in college. I didn’t pick it up again until I discovered Buffy the Vampire Slayer fanfiction. I cut my writerly teeth on that, learning how to plot, keep characters consistent, and actually finish. The first piece of “original” fiction I actually wrote was a Firefly story I assiduously scraped the serial numbers off of by combining characters, changing sexes, and adding aliens (it’s up for free on my blog). The first story I ever sold was one starring those folks.

Stuart: Cool! I was somewhat the same. I just left behind those childish dream until one day they build up and exploded.

Julie: (Raises a wolf mug)

Stuart: I understand you write an eclectic mix of scifi, fantasy, and horror. What have you been working on lately?

Julie: Lately it’s been all werewolves, all the time. There’s so much you can do with them—I’ve even surprised myself.

Stuart: I can see that. Sort of inherently conflicted characters. And where do you do you write your werewolves. Describe your “writer’s cave.”

Julie: People have caves? I should get a cave. In a bar.

Stuart: No, silly. You put the bar in your cave. That way, when the moon is full—oh never mind. Do you have any unusual talents or hobbies?

Julie: Currently, it’s all writing all the time, with the occasional foray into picking up a new Oaxacan carving or anteater figurine.img_0487 In the past, I’ve enjoyed Dog Agility (my dog was the first dog in Utah to earn a title from NADAC and the first Brittany in the country to do so, back in the day), collecting and mounting insects, and building plastic car models. Zoo and nature photography and travel are fun. I also collect werewolf movies. The worse, the better.

Stuart: Wow! That’s amazing. You know, Dave Farland is from Utah. And Orson Scott Card and Brad Torgerson if either of them are there this year. How long have you been entering WotF?

Julie: I entered for the first time in 2007. I’ve garnered 14 form rejections, 11 Honorable Mentions, 2 Semi­Finalists, and 2 Finalists. This story was my second Finalist.

Stuart: Are you a Pantser or a Plotter?

Julie: I used to swear by (and at) pantsing. Then I decided to do a short story NaNo project (in January, because I just can’t even in November), but knew that if I wanted to write 50,000 words worth of short stories without crashing and burning ignobly, I needed a plan. So I grabbed the Seven­Point Plot Outline, plotted out seven stories using it, and wrote five of them across 53,000 words that month. I have sworn by plotting ever since.

Stuart: Way to go! Knowledge is power. If you had a superpower, what would it be?

Julie: The ability to read books by other people and write my own at the exact same time.

Stuart: Kind of like chewing gum and whistling at the same time, or whistling and drinking a coke-float. Yeah. Now we’re talking. When you were a kid, what was your favorite toy?

Julie: I had a stuffed donkey I slept with and still actually own. I do remember always having my nose stuck in a book.

Stuart: Good preparation! If you adopted a unique wardrobe tag what might it be?

Julie: All wolf shirts, all the time. Oh, wait, that’s… pretty much what I wear now!

Stuart: So you wearwolves. I see. I think I see a pattern here… So tell us about your winning story.

Julie: It’s about a werewolf who is (probably) clinically depressed (having just lost his entire pack to hunters) going on a hunter-killing spree to make his city safe for his kind again. It opens in the morgue. The ending is super bittersweet, though not as awful (for the character) as the original ending was. I actually re­wrote it from nearly the ground up with Dave Farland’s sensibilities in mind. His comment about my first Finalist (which was also a werewolf story) was “Is it a story about werewolves, or a story about belonging?” That one, I hadn’t seen that way. This one definitely was. I used a lot of sensory imagery, and I had fun with the world-building aspects and the character immersion. I guess it

worked, since Dave famously “hates” werewolf fiction (he says so in my novel blurb), and yet he’s

put two of mine up as Finalists.

Stuart: Well done. I often remind folks who enter the contest over and over that, like any market, there are tastes and sensibilities to be considered. How about your tastes? What’s your favorite genre?

Julie: Urban fantasy is my current genre du jour. I find stories set in a semblance of our world just a little more satisfying. I like imagining what might lurk in the corners and shadows if we only had the wit to see it.

Stuart: Like…werewolves! Well thanks Julie. I can’t wait to see you on stage in April!


Follow Julie at and @juliecfrost.

That We May Have Wings

Thirty years ago today, I stepped up to get a hamburger and saw this on TV:ap8601281739

Two weeks before this, I had mentioned to my mother that I read a NASA report in our school depository library saying that solid rockets were not suitable for manned spaceflight because they could not be aborted and had too high a failure rate.

Six months later, we learned that the accident had been caused by leaky seals between solid rocket booster segments. The SRBs had been choosen for political reasons, to keep work flowing to the manufacturer and ensure the support of its state representatives. The danger of flying these boosters in cold weather was known, and urgent please from the engineers had been suppressed–for political reasons.

A tragedy, to be sure. The more tragic because it could easily have been prevented.

A tragedy made far, far worse by what happened eight years later, when the Space Shuttle Columbia was lost after suffering damage to its thermal protection system ceramic tiles at liftoff:


Nobel Lareat, Richard Feynman described the root cause of the Challenger disaster thusly (the same exact cause was at the heart of the Columbia loss)”

“They are warnings that something is wrong. The equipment is not operating as expected, and therefore there is a danger that it can operate with even wider deviations in this unexpected and not thoroughly understood way. The fact that this danger did not lead to a catastrophe before is no guarantee that it will not the next time, unless it is completely understood. When playing Russian roulette the fact that the first shot got off safely is little comfort for the next. … In spite of these variations from case to case, officials behaved as if they understood it, giving apparently logical arguments to each other often depending on the “success” of previous flights.”

Feynman was right. Absolutely right. Chillingly right. And his conclusions speak to us all, everyday, and everything we do. The stakes are not always life and death, but the lesson is alwars the same. “Common sense” evolves on the African Savanna. It is no substitute for empirical evidence, scientific rigor, and tested understanding. When we deviate from these proven tool, we tread on broken ice.

As American, as humans, we owe it to the 14 men and women lost to these two disasters to take this lesson to heart. Not merely to patch a few procedures as NASA, but to embrace as a culture this reality: Science is how you know things. Anything else is guesswork.



Of Space and Pens

The story goes that NASA spent millions of dollars developing a high-tech space pen while the more practical Russians just used a pencil.

Only it isn’t true. At all. 1838a

During the first NASA missions, US astronauts used pencils. For  Project Gemini, for example, NASA ordered mechanical pencils in 1965 from Tycam Engineering Manufacturing, Inc., in Houston. The fixed price contract purchased 34 units at a total cost of $4,382.50, or $128.89 per unit. That created something of a stink, as many  people believed it was a frivolous expense. NASA backtracked immediately and equipped the astronauts with less costly items.

During this time period, Paul C. Fisher of the Fisher Pen Co.  designed a ballpoint pen that would operate better in the unique  environment of space. His new pen, with a pressurized ink cartridge,  functioned in a weightless environment, underwater, in other liquids, and in temperature extremes ranging from -50 F to +400 F.  He developed his pen with no NASA funding, at a reported cost of $1 million–then  patented the pen and cornered the market as a result.

Fisher offered the pens to NASA in 1965, but, because of the  earlier controversy, the agency was hesitant in its approach. In 1967,  after rigorous tests, NASA managers agreed to equip the Apollo  astronauts with these pens. NASA purchased 400 pens at $6 per unit for Project Apollo.

The Soviet Union also purchased 100 of the Fisher pens and 1,000  ink cartridges in February 1969, for use on its Soyuz space flights.  Previously, its cosmonauts had been using grease pencils to write in  orbit.  Both American astronauts and Soviet/Russian cosmonauts have continued to use these pens.

I use them too. They are great for autographs and won’t leak or go dry when left for months in a car. Of course, the price has gone up.


Meet The Winners 2016 – Matt Dovey

12247064_1681806465389861_7632676903299013661_nWhen I won the L Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest, it brought many new experiences into my life. One of the most rewarding has been meeting fellow winners of the contest. So not to deprive you of the same, please join me in welcoming 2015 winner, Matt Dovey, a very tall, very English fellow who has stopped by with a cup of tea.

Stuart: Hi Matt! Welcome to Sputnik’s Orbit, don’t mind the cables, and whatever you do, don’t touch that lever.

Matt: Thanks, I won’t.

Stuart: So tell us a little about yourself.

Matt: Well, I am, predictably, a geek. I work with computers for a living, and the only reason I don’t spend all my time playing computer games anymore is that I’m too busy writing now. I am a proper country boy– a Yellowbelly, in fact–and live in a quiet market town with my amazing wife and three children. The sunrises here are glorious.

Stuart: A yellowbelly eh? I should point out to my American readers that in the UK, that means someone from Lincolnshire, not someone who runs from a fight. So what dragged you away from the sunset and into the writing life?

Matt: I’ve always just felt like a writer, even if I’ve not particularly been writing at the time. I read an awful lot of books as a child, so I suppose it’s based in that. I met my best man at primary school when I saw him misspell Martin the Warrior as “Martian the Warrior” on a book report. Reading is a fundamental part of who I am.

Stuart: Ha ha! That’s me too. I used to write all the time as a kid, just never took it seriously.

Matt: My first fiction was Skies of Arcadia fan fiction. I’m not ashamed (though it is pretty terrible. You could Google it, but you shouldn’t).

What got me started on trying to do it properly? Hilariously enough, because I needed some money, and thought the world would be falling over itself to shower me with praise and money. I have been severely disavowed of both those notions in the three years since.

Stuart. That goodness. You know what’s the last advice Tim Powers gave me at our workshop? Marry into wealth. You did say you have a pretty amazing wife. Does she put up with your writing space?

Matt: I have a man-cave. I’ve got my first Amiga 500, an N64, Gamecube, Dreamcast, Wii and 360–along with my PC, all hooked into a big plasma TV. There’s shelves full of books and DVDs and old Warhammer figures. I am surrounded by all my accumulated nerdery there.

Stuart: Cool. What do you do when your aren’t writing.

Matt: I’ve spent half my life live-roleplaying, which turns out to be marvellously useful for writing. I also homebrew wine and take my SLR with me everywhere I go.

Stuart: Aweseom! You will definitely need it at the workshop. How long have you been entering WotF?

Matt: This was my sixth entry over the course of two years. I’d had two honorable mentions before this. It’s my first sale of any kind, though I’ve just signed a contract with Flash Fiction Online for “This is the Sound of the End of the World”.

Stuart: Well all right! Go man! Tell me this, Star Trek or Star Wars?

Matt: I reject your false dichotomy. Star Trek is science fiction at its best: an examination of humanity, the best and worst of us, our hopes for the future and our fear of ourselves. TNG did it best. Star Wars is fantasy at its best: there has never been another piece of escapism as fine or as successful. Who amongst us has never pretended to be a Jedi? Anyway, the correct answer is “Firefly”.

Stuart: You are correct sir! Have some lovely tea. Do you prefer fantasy or scifi more?

Matt: I love both–and write both–but I am a fantasy geek at heart. Warhammer still occupies a huge part of my imagination, all its gothic spires and overwrought high fantasy.

Stuart: You will probably be meeting Jordan Ellinger, who’s written a lot for Warhammer. He says it has it’s pluses and minuses professionally, but is a great foundation to add to.

Matt: It’s a magpie world, made of stolen shiny bits from a hundred other places, jumbled together and turned up to eleven, and I love it uncritically.

Stuart: There you go. What else?

Matt: Discworld is almost a third parent to me, it’s such a large part of my moral education. I strongly suspect my atheism and humanism was born on the streets of Ankh-Morpork and in the hills of Lancre and the grey plains of Death’s Country.

Stuart: Thanks a lot, Matt. The Texas Talliban will be writing all our great state’s school librarians in the morning.

Matt: Ha ha. Fantasy is so much more than the traditional definition though. It’s the cracks between the pavements that people fall through, it’s the world on the other side of the mirror, it’s the magic you see out of the corner of your eye. I love Gaiman and Miéville and Moorcock, the incredible imagination they bring to bear. I think, even more so than science fiction, fantasy is the one truly unrestrained genre. Laws of physics? Consistent biology? Extrapolated technologies? Such limiting concerns. But magic–magic can take you anywhere.

Stuart: Indeed. Speaking of which, if you had a superpower, what would it be?

Matt: Invisibility. Because I am a writer, and thus an awkward introvert. So long as my SLR could be invisible as well, so I could get some glorious candid portraiture. (Not that kind, you perverts.)

Stuart: Ha ha! Tell us about your winning story

Matt: I can’t say much, because the story is still being blind judged for the Golden Pen award. But it is, objectively, the best thing I’ve written to date: it has characters I like, and characters I dislike but admire, and an actual plot structure to it, and hopefully some cool world-building to it (I think so). It is also a story & setting that has fundamentally grown out of who I am, and it absolutely embodies my politics and my opinions. It’s the sort of story where I looked back on it and thought, “Huh. So that’s what I believe.” Writing really is thinking on paper for me.

Stuart: Are you a pantser or a plotter?

Matt: Mostly plotter. I have to know where I’m headed with a story, else I end up just noodling around going nowhere in the story, and by Dickens does that result in some boring passages of prose, ripe for later deletion. But my plotting comes out in a rush of inspiration and excitement as a core idea sparks off implications and interesting scenes and snatches of conversation and gorgeous visuals. I scribble it all down frantically in no sort of order. If I could type at 2,000wpm I’d be a pantser, but the limitations of this frail corporeal existence require me to be a plotter.

That said, any plot as originally envisioned is never complete, and is never adhered to wholly. It seems that half my brain is in my fingers, and the best ideas come while I’m typing. This half-brain-architecture also has limited capacity, such that I have to write down what I’ve already got in order to make room for the rest of the idea to fill out. This is where the role playing comes in handy–I can feel the shape of where an idea should be when I’m writing, and I can just reach out and grasp something from the aether. Occasionally, it even turns out to be something good.

So as long as I have a reasonable idea of where I’m headed, I can pants along the way. (There’s a quote to confuse non-writers.)

Stuart: I think you have the right idea. Plan the work—then wing it. So aside from the WotF workshop, and Flash Fiction Online, what have you got coming up?

Matt: I’m also shortly to appear on a BBC TV quiz show, Pointless, with my wife sometime early this year. That was a surreal experience to film. As soon as I know an airing date, I’ll shout about it on my website/Twitter.

Stuart: How awesome? Well leave a comment with a link when you have one, and soak it in at the workshop. They put on one hell of a show.

Matt: Thanks, I will!


To watch Matt receive his WotF award live on the Internet the second week of April, Google the Writers of the Future contest as the date approaches. You can also follow Matt at | facebook | twitter










Why Did Apollo Space Suits Have External Hoses?

Someone recently asked: Weren’t the external hoses on the Apollo astronauts’ space suits a risk?

Excellent question. Yes, they were a risk, but an easily managed one with huge benefits.

  1. First, the risk of damage was managed by:
    1. Enclosing the tubes inside braided stainless steel as is done today in better plumbing supply hoses. That, in addition to a multi-layer insulation and abrasion wrap made them pretty snug.
    2. Providing the astronauts with spare hoses.
  2. Second, using the hoses made it easy to:
    1. Decouple the suit and the PLSS–even during an EVA–in case of emergency, or in case of entrapment.
    2. Recharge, clean, and service the suits and life support (PLSS) packs.
    3. Connect the same (multi-million dollar) suits to the space craft interior life support console for use during dangerous maneuvers (like liftoff and reentry).
    4. Buddy breathe off another astronaut’s suit in case of damage or failure of a PLSS.
    5. Use the same (multi-million dollar) spacesuit for tethered EVAs using a long umbilical connected the the life support console inside the spacecraft.

Apollo 17 Command Module Pilot, Ron Evans, performing an EVA to retrieve films shot from an experiment rack. Note that he is wearing the backup emergency life support pack, but no larger primary pack. Instead, both the emergency pack and a long umbilical connect to the suit connectors.

What do you think? Did the gains outweigh the costs? Please rate and leave a comment and let me know. And if you liked this post, you’ll love my upcoming story in Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Pop over to for a free signed e-sampler of award-winning scifi.

What is an orbit, anyway?

What is an orbit, anyway? And what do we mean by freefall, microgravity, and weightlessness?

To answer these questions, first understand the difference between mass and weight. Mass is a property of all (ordinary) matter, and can loosely be thought of as the amount of stuff in that matter. A bucket full of iron nails has a lot more mass than the same bucket full of wooden pegs because there are a lot more electrons, protons and neutrons in every atom of iron than there are in the carbon and other atoms in wood.

All (ordinary) matter has its own gravity, which is just its attraction to all other matter. Weight is what we call the attraction of matter to Earth (or another body like the moon). A bucket of nails weighs more than a bucket of pegs because the earth pulls harder on it–because it has more mass crammed into the same space, and mass is what gravity pulls on.

Crate up the bucket and launch it into space and it still has the same mass, so why does it float around and get nails into everything? It’s still being attracted to the earth, isn’t it? So where did all its weight go?

To understand this, you need to understand inertia. Ever play air hockey ? Or ice hockey? Or knurling? Set the puck flying and it keeps going until it hits something. Give it a tap, and it creeps along until you reach out and hit it again, or till it strikes something, or till the slight friction against the table (or ice or lane) brings it to a stop. And once it stops, it’ll sit there till the cows tip over unless you go get it. Why? Because matter is lazy, that’s why.

No, I don’t mean matter is living in it’s mother’s basement playing video games all night. I mean it likes to keep doing what it’s already doing until something makes it change. If it’s still, it will remain still until pushed. If it’s moving, it will remain moving in a straight line until acted upon. This property of lazyness is called inertia, and it totally makes sense if you think about it. After all, if a bit of rock is hurling through space smoking weed at 82,000 kilometers per second, it’s not just going to stop, put on a tie, and go out for interviews at Starbucks. Why should it?

Inertia makes perfect sense, except in everyday life, we don’t live in a hockey rink or in space. If we roll a cat through the garden, it rubs against the carrots and slows down pretty fast, so we think that’s normal. And it is, in the garden. But toss the same cat out an airlock from the International Space Station, and it will go hurtling off in a straight line in whatever direction you tossed it (you sorry, cat-hating heathen). Except it won’t…because the earth is pulling on it…which brings us to orbits.

Sir Isaac Newton probably never got hit in the head with an Apple, but he was a pretty smart fellow. Three hundred years ago, he understood gravity and inertia and proposed this thought experiment: Say you climb up to the top of Mount Everest with a shiny new cannon. After negotiating the tip with your sherpa, you fire the cannon flat and level toward the horizon. What will happen?

Nothing, right? You fire the ball, it falls and hits some mountaineer on the head, lawyers are called, the usual. But if you pack more powder into the cannon, you can fire the ball further. Fire it far enough, and you can hit base camp. The faster the ball leaves the cannon, the further it will go, until eventually, the curvature of the earth starts to carry the ground away beneath the falling cannon ball.

What if you traded your magic beans for elfin gunpowder that lets you fire the cannon as hard as you like and send your projectile flying without any resistance from the air? Eventually, it would fly so far that the ground was carried perpetually away and the ball would circle the globe–forever.This is what we call an orbit, and we can actually do it in space where the air is so thin it takes months, years, or centuries to slow down our cannon balls, er satellites.

Objects in orbit still have the same mass they do on earth. The earth’s gravity still pulls on them (though not quite as hard, because gravity diminishes with distance). In fact, if you stepped on a bathroom scale while standing atop a tower as high as the International Space Station, you would weigh almost 90% of your normal weight on the ground. And so would all the steel and concrete in the tower, which is why it would collapse, so don’t do that.

But if you jumped off the tower, you would instantly be in free fall (which sounds a lot nicer than “screaming, oh crap! I stepped off the tower”). You would have no weight because the scale that measures weight would be falling along with you and would have nothing to push against but the chewing gum sticking it to your feet. You would not burn up (like a reentering spacecraft). You would fall through the near vacuum, speeding up due to gravity all the time and would eventually exceed the speed of sound before slowing down again in the thickening air. You brought a pressure suit and a parachute, right?

But why would you jump off the tower? It’s not like the ISS is about to crash into your bathroom. Crap! The ISS is about to crash into your bathroom! At 17,500 miles per hour. That’s gonna leave a mark!

Why so fast? Because the ISS is in freefall too. At 88.9% of normal surface gravity, it’s in what NASA likes to call, “microgravity.” It’s falling towards the earth all the time, and to keep from smacking into Disneyland, it’s been set moving in a straight line at 17,500 miles per hour. If the earth weren’t here, it would fly off in a straight line at that speed forever (ignoring a few dozen details that aren’t relevant here). But the earth IS here, and at 17,500 mile per hour, the ISS is flying away in a straight line at precisely the same rate it’s falling toward the earth. Freefalling. Weightless, but still with a lot of mass (the official mass of the ISS is 3.217 crap-tons).

The moon orbits the earth in the same way. The earth orbits the sun, the sun orbits the center of mass of the galaxy, and the galaxy orbits the disembodied mass of Donald Trump’s ego. It’s all the same.

So there you go. Did I leave anything out? Let me know and I’ll try to clear it up. Or jump over to my homepage and request some free scifi and I’ll send you, you know, some free scifi.





The Chicken Or The Egg

This is a repost of a piece I wrote for Informed By Nature a while back:

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? This seeming paradox actually has a clear, specific answer, and that answer reveals as much about how we know what we know as it does about where our breakfast comes from.

To ancient philosophers, the question evoked the deepest mysteries of existence and creation. In popular culture, it’s used to imply the futility of hard reasoning. Both views are wrong—utterly wrong—and it’s easy to see why, even if the actual solution takes a little more effort. The chicken or egg question is an infinite regress, and like division by zero or answers containing infinities, this is usually a sign not of some profound truth but of a poorly framed question.

One famous example is Zeno’s argument that motion is impossible because to move any distance one must first move half way, and before that, half again, and so on. The fact that Zeno—living in ancient Greece—lacked the nineteenth-century mathematics necessary to sum infinite series and calculate geometric limits did not prevent his moving outside to address his neighbors. Another example is Anselm’s attempt to prove the existence of God. He first defined God as the greatest being imaginable, then argued such a being would be greater still if it were real and thus concluded that the greatest imaginable being must therefore necessarily be real. Among the more egregious problems with this argument are that it fails to explain why the whole of reality should be bound by the thoughts of one medieval monk and that it argues with equal force for the abominable snowman.

Clearly, asking the right question is very important.

The correct question here is, how did egg-laying chickens come to exist? To ask “Which came first” implies a false dichotomy—a one or the other choice that isn’t real. It implies that all chickens are the same, that all eggs are the same, and that at some point in the past, one or the other must have popped into existence exactly in its present form. This isn’t true.

The category of birds we call “chickens” is a population of animals that, while very similar to one another, is every one unique. Each chicken is a blend of features from the previous generation, each egg of features from its parent hen. Over time, certain traits may be selected for across the population so that it tends as a whole to drift, from Belgian bantams, say, to Bearded Antwerps. Go back 8,000 years, and you would find red and gray jungle fowl drifting into something recognizable as modern domesticated chickens.

Chickens, like all living things, change along a messy continuum. Any particular chicken came from slightly different parents which in turn arose from even more different ancestors, and so on and so on until at some point in the past, we humans arbitrarily declare the ancestor not to be a chicken at all.

The thing is, there is no such thing—in nature—as species. This is a concept we invented to help categorize and study life. We divide modern chickens into distinct species and breeds, though no genetic barrier prevents their interbreeding. On the other hand, chickens can’t breed with dozens of other kinds of birds in nine modern orders, though countless genetic markers tell us they all descend from a common ancestral population.

The “tree of life” we all learned in elementary school is a useful metaphor, but it’s only a rudimentary approximation of how life actually changes over time. Put aside the nice, flat diagram from the biology book and picture instead a tree that branches in three dimensions and is very, very, blurry—as if viewed through an out of focus camera.

Blurred trees

Blurred tree of life

Zoom in, and distinctions break down between branches. At each fork, blurriness causes overlap between the offshoots. The blurriness represents the variation among individuals. The overlap is the ability of neighboring populations to interbreed. If two branches continue to diverge, the gap between them  grows too wide—they lose the ability to interbreed.

This—more or less—is how species arise. There’s no set line between one species and its neighbor. Polar Bears can breed with Brown bears if we provide the accommodations. Hybrids even occur between more distant branches, such as between jackals and wolves. How is this possible? Because every population is varied—every branch is blurry.

There was never a day when the first chicken appeared. There was only a population that gradually acquired more and more “chicken like” characteristics. The “species” of modern chickens and jungle fowl all overlap. Trace them up the tree and they join up with nine larger branches that once overlapped, but no longer do because they’ve continued to diverge. Far enough, and the branch holding the Rhode Island Red eventually blurs into what once led to certain dinosaurs.

It’s a messy, elegant progression. It never leads from one distinct type to another. It leads instead through diverging groups until time and survival raise a new species from the shadows of its origins. So now when someone asks which came first, the chicken or the egg, you know the correct answer: “Neither. Both come from an evolving population.”