In Sputnik’s Orbit

A few thoughts to tide you over…


Gargarin: First in Space, but Not Drama

Netflix has a Russian language biopic called “Gargarin: First In Space,” which I found terribly disappointing. It should have been the Russian “The Right Stuff,” but totally wasn’t. And that’s a real shame.

Yaroslav Zhalnin plays Gargarin, and is a dead ringer, close enough that in some places, the production cuts back and forth between historical footage and recreation, and you’d never know. All of the cast is wonderful, and the emotions–such as there are–come through believably, even with subtitles.

I was pleased that they included (and named) all twenty of the original soviet cosmonaut candidates. Sadly, through, this story was all Gagarin, and either the filmmakers didn’t know much more about him than you might learn from a blurb on a trading card, or they chose not to dramatize it.

Instead, the story is pretty much just Gargarin preparing for, then taking his historic flight, with a few flashbacks to his early life. There is a nice scene of him stealing from a German soldier during the war and almost getting his little brother killed, and…that’s about it.  The only sources of drama are the (probably fabricated) conflict between Gagarin and Titov, resolved with a last minute hug at the foot of the rocket, and the long suffering silence of his wife, Valentina, “the pilot’s wife” played by the lovely Olga Ivanova.

Watching this film, you get the distinct impression that Gagarin only married her because she was pretty, and only was selected to be first in space because he was pretty; senior officers in one scene explain, not very dramatically, how he should be first because some of the other cosmonauts are more fit, and should be saved for the harder, longer flights to come. Really? His staunch party support and photogenic youth had nothing to do with it?

It’s sad, because the film should have been so much more. We don’t get to see Gargarin plant a ceremonial tree the day before the launch or have the bus to the launchpad pull over so he can take a piss–both on which happened and led to traditions carried on right up to the present day.

There is a brief mention of the passcode Gagarin was meant to be given so he could unlock the controls in the event manual operation was needed, but we don’t see the ground technician slip him the code–which we know from history is what happened; the ground crew knew that if he needed it, there would be no time for party officials to approve it. This conflict between party officials and common sense is portrayed, but is watered down to the extent one wonders who they are trying not to offend. At least Gargarin’s summary promotion from lieutenant to major (skipping a rank for political reasons) is portrayed.

Another thing they get right is that Gagarin had essentially nothing to do except sit in the capsule until it was done with the flight–then pull the eject rings. As he makes his one orbit, reflecting over his life, we are treated to several shots of his feet, dangling over the tiny porthole like a little boy’s from a treehouse.

Which is not to take anything away from him or the flight, but we get no sense of why he had to be the titular “first in space.” Instead, we see an attractive kid, an unexceptional but competent pilot, and his winning smile. We get no sense of anything that made him exceptional, either as a pilot, a cosmonaut, or a political envoy, we don’t see his post-flight drinking or infidelity (we don’t get to see him climb out the window) and we don’t see his fight to be allowed to return to the air, or subsequent crash and death (which would be where the real drama and tragedy lay).

We also don’t see cosmonaut candidate Valentin Vasiliyevich Bondarenko carried out in a body bag after his training accident, the drunken encounter that got Grigory Nelyubov booted from the program (later to commit suicide) or the state political revisionism that saw the famous photo of the Sochi Six–after the other fourteen cosmonaut candidates were airbrushed out of the photo–and history.

So…the effects are excellent and the performances are good for what they have to work with, but all in all, “Gagarin: First in Space” comes across as a fluffy bit of post-Soviet nostalgia that does a profound disservice to the genius and sacrifice behind Gagarin’s historic flight.

What a Year!

What a year! The world’s gone mad but my little oasis continues, unabated.

Once again, I made the finals for the Jim Baen award, didn’t win, but sold the story to Analog Science Fiction & Fact! “Open Source Space” is a spunky, humorous yarn about a near-future crowd-funded space adventure, and will presumably appear in the magazine some time in 2018.

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America’s Invited Spies

I’m staying with in-laws, both retired bankers with a lot of disposable time and money, who have Alexa in every room.
I am connected to their network, which their ISP, Google, etc. can determine by my IP address.

Last night, before bed, kitchen conversation briefly turned to the topic of people buying too much house via interest-only mortgages and ending up under water, and then to a friend who lost his shirt gambling on real estate appreciation before the 1980s oil bust, and then to some general investment advice for the benefit of my nephew.

Then, not five minutes later, when I brought up YouTube on my computer, for the first time EVER, YouTube served up ads for investment services

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An Everyday Science FAIL

Years ago, I read about a study that asked students a math question involving school bus capacity, to which most students answered “three and three quarters buses.” When asked if they thought that was a sensible answer, many responded that they thought they were being asked “school math” instead of “real world math.”

This highlighted a big problem in the way education is done in this country, and the problem isn’t restricted to math.Related image

Today, I watched a car explode, and I knew without shifting my backside from the seat exactly what thy owner had done to cause this yuletime catastrophe.

I was sitting in the drive-through at McDonald’s, having just ordered a hamburger after a quick trip to the store. I’d waited forever for the chance to order (no doubt, due to the car in question), but being literally sick and tired, and as there was a brilliant comedian on the radio, I didn’t mind. I pulled around and paid, rolled up the window, and heard a “Poofshwishshshshshshsh…”

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Living In Infamous Times

Today is December 7th, 2017. Seventy-six years ago today, forces of the empire of Japan unleashed a surprise attack on US Naval facilities at Pearl Harbor, killing 2,403 people, sinking eighteen ships, and dragging the US into the war. Despite the gross imbalance in political and economic power, Japanese planners saw the US as weak and its people irresolute, and they believed that if they struck us hard enough, we would roll over and give them what they wanted–dominion over Southeast Asia and the Southern Pacific.

The lesson from that was, that if you don’t want war, be visibly prepared to win one.

Also on this date, forty-five years ago, Britons started dying in droves as a killer smog built up through the third of what would prove to be five days of temperature inversion over the city of London. Fog is nothing new to London, but this fog was saturated with the sulfur-laden emissions, not only of automobiles and trains, but of a set of coal-fired power plants built inside the city limits by the post-war Churchill administration, mostly to appease business interests and project an image of post war England as stronger than it she was. Churchill dismissed the growing catastrophe as an act of god, even though his government has been warned this would eventually happen before the plants were built, in part using scientific data from similar events in America. In five days, though mortality statistics were suppressed at the time, 12,000 people died–five times the number killed at Pearl Harbor, and not only soldiers, but women, children, and the elderly.

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The Skinny on Our First Interstellar Visitor

In case you haven’t heard, the astronomy community is all atwitter over the first confirmed visitation from beyond our star system

No, we’re not talking aliens, not even the kind that look suspiciously like extras wearing costumes. No, Oumuamua as this visitor is called, is an oddly elongated asteroid currently whizzing through our solar system, having made its closest approach to the sun about two months ago.

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Flying by the Waist of Your Pants

There’s a scene in Ron Howard’s wonderful film, Apollo 13, when the crew is preparing to fire the LEM engine in space and Commander Lovell is Seen ensuring that his socked feet are firmly attached to the velco floor. That might well be authentic, but it leaves audiences with a mistaken notion of when flying the LEM was like during a landing.

Landings were dangerous because there was a big moon outside, just waiting to smash into you. The LEM had to maneuver, and the crew could be tossed around as it did so, just as they needed precision control. If something went wrong (as it did in Apollo 10) such an upset could elevate a minor problem into a crisis, but even under the best of circumstances, landings could be hard, and the last thing you wanted was for a suited astronaut to bang to into a bulkhead, breaking the suit or the LEM.

NASA needed a way to hold the astronauts down so they could focus on their jobs while giving them the mobility needed to move about the cabin as needed. It had to be light, it had to be reliable, and it had to be dead simple. Their solution? The Apollo LEM Crew Restraint System:


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A Scam To Watch Out For

Most SPAM emails are so transparent, so riddled with grammatical errors and unlikely usage, you wonder why anyone would fall for them. In fact, researchers have found this to be by design. Spammers are happy to have the alert and educated see through them–those are the people who make trouble.

So today, when this message arrived in my mailbox, it got my attention:

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Sale of Open Source Space!

My third Jim Baen Memorial finalist, Open Source Space, has sold to Analog Science Fiction & Fact. I guess now I can say I’m a regular.

OSS is the story of a girl who goes into space to retrieve Snoopy, the derelict ascent stage from Apollo 10, and maybe avert World War III.

Houston Under Water

A friend asked how much of Houston is experiencing flooding, so I thought a post might be warranted.

First, let me say that I am fortunate enough to have been relatively untouched by Hurricane Harvey. That’s partly because we did our research before buying a house here and partly because we are the direct beneficiaries of a $120 million flood abatement project along White Oak bayou–completed just as we moved here in 2004, paid for and coordinated by a Federal program that Mr. Trump has asked Congress to eliminate, and additionally, by deep neighborhood lakes that have inadvertently acted as flood abatement since our neighborhood was built in the 1990s. Largely, it’s because we got lucky, and at the point Saturday when the White Oak was at its highest, we caught a break–a six hour respite as the heaviest band of rain passed over to the east, giving our part of town a chance to recover. Others were not so lucky.

This information is condensed from government sources and the Washington Post, which has done an excellent job covering the storm.

The average annual rainfall in Houston is officially 59.5 inches. Since Friday, all parts of the city have received between 32 and 52.5 inches. The 52.5 inches is a new record for the continental US, and may be low, as the sensor station on Cedar Bayou failed at that point. That’s a lot of rain, over 9 trillion gallons, over 8 cubic miles of water.


Harvey dumped a year's worth of rain in three days.

Houston rainfall cumulative annual total (dark), cumulative annual record (light), and Harvey(blue).

The immediate impact of this was the utter shutdown of the city, from Tomball in the Northwest, to Galveston Bay in the southeast. The city was founded at the confluence of the White Oak and Buffalo Bayous. Roads, then interstate highways, grew up around them. It’s alarming to many, but actually quite logical, that the major surface roads that tie the city together now form part of the normal floodplain for these waterways. We’re used to it. If you work downtown and a storm rolls in, you go home early or risk getting stuck. That’s just Houston.

This is different. Service roads and underpasses all over the city flooded simultaneously. Pumps were overwhelmed. Both airports had to be shut down. Retaining walls collapsed into the Sam Houston Tollway, one of three loops that normally keep traffic flowing around the city even in times of crisis. Miles of these loops and the interstates and feeders that connect them went under water. The Addicks and Barker reservoirs, large flood control structures on the west side that protect downtown from catastrophic floods during hurricanes both filled to the top for the first time in history.

Buffalo? Bayou before and during the storm. Downtown before and after, looking toward University of Houston, just above the confluence of the White and Buffalo bayous.
Houston downtown theater district–with floodwater blocking route to I45 and I10.

West Sam Houston Tollway @ Main

Now the city is full of water, not because any levees broke (they didn’t) or because any government official screwed up failed to act (one can quibble, but both preparedness and response have been pretty good by normal American government standards). It just is what it is, and now the water–all eight cubic miles of it–has to make its way to the gulf.

So how much of the city is flooded? About 30 percent, including some of the city’s poorest, most densely populated areas. That’s 30 percent of a metropolitan area of 5.6 million people. There is currently no way to know what percentage of homes are actually flooded, or what percentage of those have more than a few inches.

That kind of detail makes a big difference. A little water in the front door, and you just replace the moldings. A few inches, and you might have to replace the lower part of the drywall. More than a couple of feet, and you may loose most of your personal property, in addition to having to gut and remodel. Over the next few days, the water will recede, except for certain areas like those around the reservoirs who officials say can expect to remain flooded until October. Yes, that’s right. It will take up to two months to draw the flood control structures back down to normal levels. It could be worse. At least it’s fresh water. And let us not forget, Rockport, to the South, was devastated. At least Houston’s homes and businesses are just wet, not destroyed.

How bad off is Houston? Time will tell.

Meanwhile, Houstonians and our neighbors from across the state and across the nation are coming together in a way that must give hope to all but the most hardened, cynical heart.

As I write this, various agencies and organizations have set up well over 22 shelters, including the GRB Convention Center, the Toyota Center, and NRG Stadium, where over 10,000 evacuees were housed as of last night, as first responders, the #CajunNavy, and a Dunkirk style flotilla of good Samaritans continue to bring people in. Some of these people will be renters and the ill prepared, who simply didn’t feel comfortable waiting out the flood. Many, of course, and those who need a little help under the best of times. Some–and unknowable percentage at this point–will be homeowners who didn’t or couldn’t get insurance, and whose homes are submerged to the rafters. Last night, the news interviews a guy from Austin who drove here to help–and stopped to buy a boat along the way. Another guy described the ad-hoc cloud network by which the “Cajun Navy” dispatches rescuers. A third told of water do deep, he’d pass a deer taking refuge on a rooftop.





50 Years Since Apollo

​​Uplifting space adventure with a

foreword by Astronaut Stanley G. Love