In Sputnik’s Orbit

A few thoughts to tide you over…


Our Future in Space

I often see people asking the question, why haven’t we gone back to the moon, sometimes accusingly, as if that somehow implies we never went at all. We went, and we’ve sought in the decades since never to engage in such a race again, largely because those in the position to fund such a race have seen the bill for the last one.

During the 1960’s the space program consumed 5% of the federal budget—competing with the expensive cancer of war in southeast Asia. It needn’t have been so, but the race to beat the USSR gave the moonshot the character of a wartime weapons procurement program—sufficient to do the job, but damn the expense. That was sort of the point. It gave the electorate new heroes to rally around and helped transition America’s post war industrial economy into a technological powerhouse. It also taught us how hard space flight really is—especially manned spaceflight—and in our national exuberance, made it seem even more expensive than it needed to be. We built the space flight equivalent of the SR-71 spy plane (mission capable, but expensive and custom made) where we needed a DC3 (mass produced but adaptable) and only knew how to actually build the Wright Flyer. Congress didn’t quite appreciate how much we were biting off.

The program did what it was hoped it would. Even as a controversial war and deteriorating race relations pulled America apart, Apollo bound us together, not just with each other, but with everyone else on the planet. One could arg

ue that this alone was worth the price of the program, but we did get a bit carried away. NASA had designed Apollo to meet Kennedy’s mandate, but they spent money on studies of follow on lunar bases, space stations, LEM-derived space freighters, and upgrades to Saturn that from an economic perspective, made as much sen

se as a fleet of disposable battleships. Meanwhile, the Space Nuclear Propulsion Office had developed and tested an atomic thermal rocket and was advocating to have it developed into an atomic third stage for the Saturn, to send man to Mars in the 1970’s.

Having seen the ballooning costs so far, Congress was horrified. We had already “won” as far as they were concerned, having gotten to the moon and back, and now we risks snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Everything else (including the science) was just more dollars and danger. This, I believe, left congress with a “bad aftertaste” that lasted well into the 1990s. Sure, they thought, NASA can do great things, but who can afford them? NASA negotiated a compromise. They traded their grandiose dreams for Skylab and the Shuttle, with the hopes that this would lead to and justify a later station, and from there…

In hindsight, it’s hard to see how NASA planners, faces with dwindling interest and funding in the 1960s, thought anything they could achieve in low Earth orbit would restore the interest and the funding of their gravy days in the lead up to Apollo 11. In retrospect, they might have done better to set themselves a vision much more humble, but in its own way just as lofty, as the moonshot: developing economical space flight technology. Alas, they were given what they asked for—the shuttle—morphed by committee into a sort of Swiss-Army Knife relaunchable space station that ultimately may have done as much to reinforce our national sense of sticker shock as to advance the final frontier.

So when subsequent presidents have sought to challenge NASA with bold new missions…the funding has never materialized. Partly that’s lack of political commitment. Partly, though, it’s because LBJ is gone. Kennedy proposed the moon landing, and ultimately Kennedy is the one who initiated international cooperation in space, but more than anyone else, Lyndon B. Johnson championed the moon landings. According to NASA insiders, it was LBJ who, when Kennedy was fishing for a win in space, told Kennedy to send a memo officially asking him—as vice president—for ideas. It was in response that he (LBJ) suggested the moon landing. And after Kennedy consulted with the experts, it was LBJ who strong-armed congress into writing the checks. It was said of LBJ, “Nobody wanted to say no to LBJ. He knew everyone on the hill, and he knew where all the bodies were buried.”

The Cold War was over, and we both won and lost. We won by using the power of capitalism to spend the hard line communists controlling the USSR under the table in history’s greatest economic drinking competition. We lost by failing utterly to help Russian moderates—who had known this was inevitable for decades—to transition their country into a strong, stable, nation with the same incentives to innovation, but also the same controls against corruption and excess we had come by through hard knocks.

The moon landings were arguably the greatest thing ever done for the wrong reasons. We, as a nation, did it right, even carrying along rovers and a geologist. Sure, Congress wanted to put a thumb in the eye of the Kremlin, but America, from Kennedy down to the people, saw that for the first time since humans first walked out under that glowing thing in the sky, we could dare to go there. So we did. That was the good part. The moon landings not only inspired the generations who participated, but every generation since. They also paid dividends that are far less visible but far more important than the oft-touted spin-offs like CFL lighting and the acceleration of microcomputer research.

The Apollo program required “rocket science” of over 1,500 companies throughout the US economy, from brassiere makers to foundries. The high-tolerance, high reliability engineering and manufacturing controls developed for and disseminated by the space program now inform all of manufacturing, from flat-pack furniture that goes together the first time and every time, to cars that don’t rattle and that can drive 150,000 miles without a tuneup, to pocket computers 10,000 times more powerful than those that went to the moon. The race was the bad part. It made everything far more expensive than it might have been. But…maybe that’s the way it had to be. Something else the space race did was illustrate with crystal clarity how, despite the creative capacity unleashed by free enterprise, despite the inefficiencies often inherent in centralized control, sometimes greatness requires both. At the moment, NASA seems to get that, and is embracing its role as a foil and champion of commercial innovators, even while working on the next great booster—beyond the reach of commercial interests.

The last thing we need is another space race. Let’s take our time. And this time, when we get there, when we press human feet against another world, let us stay.

Why Finland Can’t Go To The Moon

So, we’ve seen all the pix from Finland, where this year’s World Science Fiction Convention was held, but how many there, gathered to celebrate all that is scifi and fantasy with shiny new rocket ship Hugo trophies, that byinternational law, Finland is forbidden to go to launch such a rocket?

Title IV, Article 23 of the Treaty of Paris specifies that “Finland will neither make, manufacture, nor field aircraft designed to operate with a normal range in excess of 5,000 kilometers, nor shall it assign or second its personnel to aircraft so designed.”

This provision is designed to restrain Finland from operating long-range bombers, but it also restrains it from sending Finns to the Moon since the Moon is more than 5,000 km away and requires air transport to get there.

Finland will not violate the Treaty of Paris. The Russian Federation, as successor state to the Soviet Union, is legally permitted to enforce Finland’s treaty obligations through force of arms, and Finland takes these obligations seriously. So, no moon shot for the Finns.

Of course, individual Finns might travel to the Moon in the same way that individual Finns can fly on long-range commercial aircraft. However, “Finland” -as a state – cannot sent a craft to the moon through any means currently known to science.

Although….the atmosphere is arguably less than 5,000 km deep–what if they went straight up?

Fake, Fake, Fakity Fake

This here is what UFOlogists call, “The Wedge of Aiud.”

It was supposedly found near some mastodon bones in 1974 in Romania. Sure, I’ll buy that, however, this thing’s all over the Interwebicles under headlines like “Experts are studying mysterious aluminum object that could date back to 250,000 years” (it does not) or “Experts speculate aluminum artifact may be a part from a UFO” (experts in what, pray tell?) or “Romanian Artifact Defies LOGIC” (it does not, but gullibility does).

It’s an excavator tooth. One of those pointy dirty scoopy thingamaboobers on the bitey end of excavator buckets like this one:

These things are made in a metric crap ton of styles by companies all over the world, but when they found it, I’ll bet you a can of soup someone at the site knew the exact make and model of the excavator it came off of–because it’s the one he’d used to dig the hole.

But….but aluminiminimumum… Yeah….some of these “experts” even claim to have had the metal analyzed and found to contain mostly aluminum and copper and a handful of other traces—in otherwords, Duralumin 2000, the international standard alloy designation for this stuff going back quite a ways further than you might imagine

This is definitely an excavator tooth. The only mystery is, why does anyone, anywhere, pay any attention to anyone who days otherwise?



While we are at it, this is not a 400 million year old “Out of place artifact” as claimed by pseudoscientist wackadoos the world over. This, “The London Hammer” is an ordinary hammer,  dropped most likely in the late 19th century into a creek flowing through Ordovician strata in London Texas. Minerals dissolved out of the surrounding rocks concreted around the iron, as they always do around iron or steel objects when conditions are right. This conclusion is supported by the shells of modern freshwater clams caught up in the matrix. The nearby rocks are Ordovician, the hammer and the concretion are not.

Some rocks form very quickly, like the foundation of your house, for example. Cement is nothing but synthetic limestone and takes somewhat less than millions of years to form. There’s a reason, when mixed with aggregate, it’s called “concrete.”

Limestone concretion can form very quickly indeed around iron, which is why this can exist:

If you believe, as the wackadoos claim, that that stone is half a million years old, you might as well donate your brain to science now, it’s not doing you any good.

Reality is amazing. It needs no help from the gullible.

The Reviews Are In!

I am over the moon (no pun intended) at the reception this story has gotten. It’s hard Scifi–as in real-world science and hardware that either actually existed in 1969 or really could have, and it’s long–novelette length in an era where flash prevails. I knew when I wrote it that Trevor Quachri at Analog was my first, best, and maybe only market.

But Trevor bought it–Yay! And he put my name on the cover (a pretty big deal, since this is only my second sale to Analog and there are 16 other authors in the issue)–Yay! And he hired the great, Hugo-winning artist, Vincent DiFate to do a full, two page illustration–say what?


And now the reviews are in:

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The Noble Art of Spin

Artists tend toward the introvert side of the human experience, but increasingly we are called upon to take the lead in promoting our own careers. Many recoil with distaste, perhaps sabotaging the recognition they might otherwise accrue. Others brag with gusto, thereby sabotaging their own efforts with a veil of well-earned distaste. There is a middle ground, and it’s not that hard to identify, as I realized recently in a discussion with fellow writers about reviews and what one should and shouldn’t do with them.Image result for spin bad reviews

The practice of mining reviews and news for favorable quotes was called “spin” long before that term made it into politics and the colloquial lexicon, and before it attained its more negative connotations. It’s an essential part of promotion, but like most things, it can be used and it can be abused.

To do it successfully, you only need ask yourself, “If I read this excerpt, then read the source, would I think the source had been misrepresented or not?”

It should be obvious that if you take a line out of context in order to make a negative review appear positive, the answer would be “yes.” If you go around misrepresenting your reviews, the world will see you for what you are, a douche with a coat of desperation. But that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t present what is written about you in the best light; that’s just common sense. Research has shown that your single biggest source of new readers is trusted referral. So it’s important that you collect and use good review quotes–but in a way that always preserves the honesty, even the objectivity, of your presence as a source of referral.

That being the case, resist mining the one positive comment in an otherwise lackluster review

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How to Get Rich in the Writing Business

Well, I did it.

I survived two weeks at nearly 9,000 feet. I critiqued thirty-three stories and a quarter-million words. I helped plot three novels, including my own. I wrote a nearly-ready-for-publication draft of a short story in two days. I had dinner with George R.R. Martin and Steven Gould. I hiked an alpine trail and got barked at by ravenous prairie dogs.

Now, it is with a heavy heart that I big adieu to a whole pose of talented, fascinating people, many of whom I expect to see great thing from–and do great things with–in coming years.

Taos Toolbox. It’s been different things to different people. If I’m honest, I signed up partly because I’ve always been a bit jealous

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Taos Toolbox

In its ten years of operation, Taos Toolbox has become one of the best-regarded Milford-style advanced novel writing workshops in the country. With Worldcon in Europe this year and a major novel rewrite on my agenda for the year, I decided to apply. I consider myself very fortunate to have gotten in, as George R.R. Martin is teaching this year and while Walter won’t tell me how many applicants he got, he did confirm it was a record.

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My story, For All Mankind, about the Apollo Program, the Tsar Bomba, and two women who save the world, appears in the July/August 2017 issue of Analog Science Fiction & Fact. Rocket Stack Rank calls it “meticulous and moving…quite an accomplishment…a Hugo Award worthy story.” And here’s the cover:

Meet the Winners! – C.L. Kagmi

Stuart: Introduce yourself. Who the hell are you? What might surprise your friends?

CL: Hi there! I’m C. L. Kagmi. Wandering writer, armchair scientist (I used to assist actual scientists before striking out on my own), and adventurer competing for Most Interesting Woman In The World Title.


Stuart: Ah, yes. That’s like…one of the x-prizes isn’t it? So what’s your entry?

CL: I was very predictable for the first 25 or so years of my life. Obtained a degree in Neuroscience and served as research coordinator in a children’s hospital. It was great work – but I’d never shaken my love for writing, or my desire to voraciously study any subject I chose.

Stuart: I hear you. I was much that same. I used to write radio plays and put them on with my sister. One day it occurred to me that I was still working on them but hadn’t done anything concrete in years.

CL: I’m told that I used to tell stories in stick figure comic form before I could properly pick up a pen. I believe at one point I filled a blank notebook with hilariously-spelled attempts to write Land Before Time fanfiction

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How Did Apollo Astronauts Get Through The Van Allen Belts?

Speed and trajectory.

It is a common misapprehension that all radiation is some sort of magic death ray. It isn’t. Type, dose, and duration of radiation make all the difference. We evolved on a radioactive planet. Sunlight is a type of radiation. Nuclear radiation can kill–or be stopped by our outer layer of dead skin cell. Even our bones are weakly radioactive, and we evolved to handle the gamma rays they produce within our bodies just fine.

Long before Apollo, NASA launched a fleet of probes to map and characterize the Van Allen belts. The belts primarily consist of an inner band of energetic protons and an outer band of electrons, all trapped from the solar wind by the Earth’s magnetic field.

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