In Sputnik’s Orbit

A few thoughts to tide you over…


Goodbye To The Goblin King

David Bowie passed away sunday after 69 decidedly not boring years. My daughter, who knows him as the Goblin King for his role in The Labyrinth, came in after hearing the news and said, “Did you know? He had two different colored eyes.”fe608c1bb4bd3590117f95a7e7889c24

No, actually, he didn’t. Both of his eyes were the same color, but the left was permanently dilated, a condition called anisocoria. In his case, it stemmed from a fistfight with a friend over a girl when he was 15 years old.

The girl forgotten, Bowie remained friends with his mate, George Underwood, who he credited for helping build his mistique.

It’s a Miracle

“It’s a miracle!”

We hear it all the time, often from newscasters who want to maximize the emotional impact of some story of survival—the cat in the well, the baby in the twister, the passengers who walk away from an air crash. These are all miraculous—except they aren’t really, and using this hyperbolic term may actually put people at risk.

Consider the humble air crash. Big plane hits the ground, thousands of gallons of Jet-A. Go through a crash and you’re screwed right? You definitely need a miracle.

You might be surprised.

Plane crashes are spectacle—fire, wreckage, flashy lights—it’s easy to expect the worst. But according to an NTSB study of 568 crashes between 1983 and 2000, only five percent of passengers were killed. The remaining 95 percent escaped unharmed or without life-threatening injuries. In another study of more serious crashes, the odds were better than 50/50 that passengers got out alive. And crashes that occur on the ground often have very high survival rates.

This is not a string of miracles. It’s the result of science, engineering, and training. Attributing these survivals to divine intervention ignores nearly a century of NTSB investigation, hard fought regulation, and the bravery, skill, and experience of flight and ground crews across the country.

Maybe there are miracles, but fortune favors the prepared.

Fire in the Deep?

In researching a new story, I learned that Deepsea Challenger, the deep sea submersible James Cameron used to visit the Challenger Deep, was recently damaged by a vehicle fire while being moved by truck.


This is quite a shame. The context of my research was possible exploration of Venus, where surface pressures are around 90 Earth atmospheres.

That’s pretty extreme, but you know how much pressure this baby could take? 1,099 atmospheres! With people inside! And with a window!

The Transcontinental Airway System

Ever see one of these?

Directional marker of the US Transcontinental Airway System

In the 1920s, the US government built a coast-to-coast system of navigational aides to help airplanes deliver airmail day and night, in good weather and bad, across a vast, sparsely inhabited interior without benefit of radio or radar.

The system would have been immediately understood by any engineer in ancient Rome: Some 1,500 concrete arrows pointing the way, generator shacks and fifty-foot towers by which rotating beacon lights helped pilots find the markers, and flashing lights identified each marker by number using Morse code.

It’s the kind of system that calls into doubt the sort of prognostication we often attempt in scifi. It seems absurd today, given than radio navigation beacons were less than a decade away–but they didn’t know what at the time. Nor were they willing to wait. So they did what they could with what they had, and by all reports, it was deemed highly successful by the standards of the day.

But imagine if you will, flying alone in a twine engine biplane, searching for one of these across the barren plains of Nevada, or among the treacherous passes through the Rockies. Oh the stories these forgotten slabs have seen transpire.

Women in Space

I thought I’d post about something most people don’t seem to know about, that I’ve run across in my research.

In the early days of spaceflight, NASA made the not-unreasonable decision that astronauts would be drawn from the ranks of high-performance test pilots. At that time, mostly due to long-time stereotypes and discriminatory norms, all such test pilots were white males.

Ergo, all crews for Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, in addition to the Air Forces MOL program, were made up of males and all but a couple of the MOL astronauts were white.
In 1961, Randy Lovelace, whose Albequeque medical research clinic had been tasked by NASA to test Mercury astronaut candidates for fitness, invited female aviator Jerrie Cobb to take the test. She did as well as or better than several of the qualifying male astronauts. When Randy reported this to his friend, the world-famous female pilot and record breaker, Jackie Cochran, she agreed to pay to have a couple of dozen more women tested.

Most of the women were drawn from the ranks of Jackie’s organization of lady flyers, “The Ninety-Nines.” Many washed out, unsurprisingly given the small sample size (Lovelace had tested something like 400 men for Mercury), but 13 had performance comparable to the best of the men.

This intrigued Lovelace, who observed that women weigh less, eat less, burn less oxygen, and need less water, all important considerations in sending astronauts into space. He made arrangements to send “The Mercury 13” on to the second of three phases of testing, but this depended on a handshake agreement with a contact in the Navy. About this time, the media got wind, the flags of controversy flew, and the military pulled out, and that was that.

Jerrie Cobb felt she had been lied to. This seems unlikely, as not only Randy Lovelace but the other ladies have stated that he made it clear from the beginning that this was a science project unaffiliated with NASA. Nevertheless, Jerrie and Jane Hart went to complain to LBJ, who was then Vice President, that women should be given a shot. LBJ may or may not have said encouraging things to Jerrie. If he did, he was lying. When his aide drafted an innocuous letter to NASA director James Webb indicting that, while of course the idea was absurd, NASA should still look into the idea for appearances, LBJ wrote across the top, “Let’s stop this now!”

So Jerrie pressed on until she got a congressional hearing, where none other than the first American to orbit the earth, Mercury Astronaut John Glenn testified that men do the flying and women stay home “because that is our social order.” Wow.

Then Jackie Cochran submitted a letter to the hearing in which she undercut the “astronettes” saying the effort to beat the Russians in space would be compromised if NASA diverted resources to train women for spaceflight.

To modern eyes, this all seems hard to fathom. However, it really would have been absurd for NASA to include women in these early efforts, which really did call for the calm nerves of experienced high-performance test pilots. The real issue is that woman had not been welcomed into the engineering and test pilot ranks after WWII. If they had been, then some of them would doubtless have been ready and able to fly in these early space efforts.

As it was, Russia flew a woman (whose only qualification was her skydiving hobby) and then on the basis of her having supposedly performed less than perfectly, didn’t fly another for 17 years until the US was about to.
But this all has a neat finish. When Eileen Collins commanded Space Shuttle Columbia in 1995 she invited the surviving members of The Mercury 13 to watch the launch as her guests. Candidate Wally Funk went on to become the first women air crash investigator. Jerrie Cobb went on to get a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize for her work using air service to deliver aid in the developing world.

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So you see, these women may not have had the credentials NASA wanted for the first tentative steps into space, but they definitely had the right stuff.

Since When Is Life Fair?

Damn you Eric flint, for writing this excellent essay and distracting me when I’m supposed to be writing! (Not really, Eric, you’re awesome and your cap is awesome).

In this excellent essay, Eric demonstrates that the fundamental charge underlying the recent Hugo kerfuffle is valid, that the nominations in recent decades have diverged from the tastes of the broader market. He goes on to argue persuasively that this is an inevitable phenomenon for any award, and not the dark ideological conspiracy imagined by the puppies campaigners.

To which my reply is, so what if it was?

Why would anyone think the Hugos SHOULD reflect the mass market in the first place? As I told Brad Torgersen early last year before attempting to bow out of the ensuing train wreck, it’s the WSFS’s show. They make the rules, and if the puppies or anyone else doesn’t like them they are free to create and fund their own award. I’ve seen awards that are explicitly only open to women or minorities or people who reside in Alabama. So what? Other awards are only looking for stories with certain outlooks or themes. So what? Clarkesworld, Analog, Asimov’s, and the editors at Tor and Daw and Baen all have their own interests and tastes, their own slice of the market they believe they can serve, and so that’s what you send them. Sometimes they tell you what they are looking for. Usually you take a stab. Often, what they tell you turns out to be wrong. So what?

Is it really such a shock or disgrace if the group funding the award honors their own collective tastes–just like every professor teaching in every MFA program anywhere on Earth? So what? The market already rewards the crowd pleasers, and if the problem is that some up-and-comer thinks he needs a Hugo for the publicity boost–well, the Hugo doesn’t exist to promote up-and-comers, it exists to sell tickets to WorldCon, to pay omage to Hugo Gernsback, and to do whatever the heck else those who put up the purse and throw the shindig want it to.

Those who don’t like it are free to complain. They are also free to write whatever they think will win a Hugo, or to promote WSFS memberships among their fans and friends, and so add diversity if they see it lacking, without stooping to petty games and mudslinging.

That’s it. That’s all I’ve got. I have word count targets to meet.

A Confident Humility

Here’s a copy of the Writers of the Future video that was shown during the big awards show last April, featuring glimpses of my experience as a contest winner and interviews with many of my friends and mentors. I’m sure you’ll find more than a few things interesting, humorous, and/or educational, but I’ll just speak to a few points.

At 2:42, fellow winner Randy Henderson talks about the blind submission process.  This is a unique and laudable feature of this contest. It helps eliminate unconscious bias and ensure the merit of every award.

At 6:34, I talk about seeing my illustration for the first time.

At 8:28, I talk about the honor of winning, and as Trevor says somewhere, the sense of responsibility one feels after winning, to meet or exceed standards you never knew you could reach for, and now are held accountable to by association with all the others involved in the contest, winners, instructors, and legends.

I must say that after being welcomed by heroes like Tim Powers, Orson Scott Card, and Larry Niven, after walking out on stage in the Wilshere Ebell, nothing seems all that daunting anymore. Dave Farland, one of our instructors, talks of writing with confidence. Winning this contest gives you personal confidence, and a powerful humility too.

Happy Anniversary America, I Got You On My Mind

I used to work with a very British chap with the very British name, David Noble. Once, in the lead up to the long July 4th weekend, I asked him his plans. “Ah, July 4th,” he said. “That’s the anniversary of the date you lot kicked us out. We don’t celebrate that.”

No, but he took the day off.

Happy birthday, anniversary, kick-the-Brits-out day, or however you choose to think of it. As troubled as the world is, I am pleased to live in a time when most of it’s people view one another more as neighbors and friendly rivals than as enemies. May we all continue the trend, educate the laggards, make amends for past indiscretions, and remember that the culture we bequeath to the future is at least as important as the skin color genes—or the flags.


The Ascent of the Apes

This, I think, ought to be part of every police academy curriculum:

It’s easy to see how even the most even handed, culturally mature police officer could be led into making racist assumptions when he or she spends every day dealing with trouble makers from whatever the local disadvantaged group happens to be (often black in the US), when the reality is, any group of economically stressed people will have an elevated crime rate, regardless of race, and even in the most crime infested neighborhoods, most folks just want to go about their law-abiding lives.

If the cops were racist to begin with, all the worse, but even if not, they must get conditioned by circumstance. Even if they weren’t terribly racist to begin with, they start to make understandable but irrational assumptions, and this affects their judgment and the culture of their interactions with one another.

And then…they start killing people under suspicious circumstances, and the community, the law-abiding people who mostly just want to go about their lives, shout back with rage and indignation, “Racist!” And the police get their hackles up: more trouble from the damned troublemakers. And the people get their hackles up: more trouble from those damned racists cops.

And where does it end? Are we human beings, with reason enough to solve problems our nature didn’t prepare us for? Or are we beasts? I never understood people who find it offensive to be told we descended from apes. We ARE apes, and I find it offensive that so few of us seem capable of using our brains, god given or nature-hewed to become anything  more.

Here we are, apes with billy clubs and tear gas, Molitov cocktails and machine guns. Apes with the dreams and drive to walk on other worlds, who use the tools to do so to set fire to this one.

It’s time the apes grow up.

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