In Sputnik’s Orbit

A few thoughts to tide you over…


2018 Award Eligibility

In which I toot my own horn and you ignore me and get on with your life…

I really did have a fabulous year, a year in which I won second place in the Jim Baen Memorial Award contest, met Jeff Bezos and Harry Hamlin (and Spider Robinson) and stood in the spot where the great Edwin Hubble redefined our universe!

But look…free stories for a limited time only!

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How Did We Do It?

An Internet denizen asks:

Q: How were we able to put a man on the moon with the level of technology that was available in 1969?

The answer? By spending a crap ton of money over ten years, peaking at 5% of the federal budget. And by relying as much at possible on already proven technology, which isn’t as “high-tech” as you think (more on that below).

Q: Did NASA have advanced technologies that were just not made public?

Very little. They developed the advanced technologies they needed, and except where they were borrowing from the military, they then made them public. NASA’s primary job, after all, is to promote and nurture the American aerospace industry.

Here are a few examples of how the technology came to be:

  • Back in 1961, NASA knew it would need a big moon rocket, but they didn’t know how big or have a design for it. They knew, however, that back in 1955, Rocketdyne had started work on the granddaddy of rocket engines for the Air Force. The first attempt (the E-1) had been a dead end, but the second try (the F-1) had been successfully fired in 1957—the year before NASA was founded. The Air Force had abandoned the engine, but NASA paid Rocketdyne to continue development, and the engine was improved continually throughout the Apollo program, including thrust and reliability upgrades from one mission to another. For all that, the F-1 was in many ways a crude engine by today’s standards. In particular, it required hundreds of difficult, manual welds in refractory metal, which all had to be perfect. Today, the same engine could be formed in three (principle) pieces and welded together by robots, but back then, it was all done by hand.

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Who Started the Moon Hoax Myth?

A while back, a reader of my moon hoax debunkery asked who started the hoax idea rolling in the first place.

Naturally, at the time of the Apollo Program, some folks didn’t believe it, just as many people don’t believe anything they ought to or do believe what they shouldn’t. I had a high school teacher who didn’t believe in the Titanic because “nothing that big could float” (never mind the fact that by the time I was in high school, about a third of all ships on the oceans were larger than the Titanic).

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How ‘BOUT that Earth!

When Apollo astronauts first visited the moon, they brought back something somewhat expected (though predicted by Heinlein in Rocketship Gallieo) a gorgeous view of our little “blue marble” poised all alone in space.

Nothing will ever match the poignancy of that image, but as technology has improved, we’ve given it some competition.

This image, was used as wallpaper on the Apple iPhone until 2012:

But this is not a photograph of Earth. At all.

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His Master’s Voice

If you grew up listening to music from the great age of vinyl records, you probably recognize this image:Related image

This (often in line drawing form and often with the words “His Master’s Voice”) was used as a logo for the Gramophone

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WorldCon76 Wrap Up

As you may know, Worldcon is the annual convention of the World Science Fiction Society, and while small by the standards of today’s comic cons, it’s one of, if not the biggest, convention for the science fiction fantasy literary trade.


Best Novelette.

Han Solo, spending the year dead for tax purposes.

When last I attended, two years ago in Kansas, I said it was like a family reunion, as everywhere I turned I ran into fellow alumni of the Writers of the Future contest or one of the workshops I’ve attended.

This year it was as if the reunion has segued into a ginormous block party.  I returned from San Jose with a stack of business cards, a head full of ideas, and an exhaustion so deep, after sleeping it off I found another one hiding underneath.

In addition to my WotF family, my Superstars and Codex buddies, and now my Taos Toolbox gang, I chatted with George R. R. Martin, David Gerrold, Eileen Gunn, Rob Sawyer, Nancy Kress, and Spider Robinson. I met a whole bunch of new folks too–fellow Analog writers, editors, anthologists, producers and even a few local fans.

What I didn’t do was remember to take even one selfie, and depending on your particular tastes, for that I apologize or you’re welcome.

The important thing, though, is I came home with strong leads for a couple of possible sales and contacts for others in the future–and new motivation to write! write! write!

And that’s what it’s all about.



That We May Touch the Sky


One of my favorite moments from the entire Star Trek franchise occurs in the Next Generation episode, “Hide and Q” when Captain Piccard quotes Hamlet, saying,

What he might said with irony, I say with conviction. What a piece of work is man. How noble in reason. How infinite in faculty. In form, in moving, how express and admirable. In action, how like an angel. In apprehension, how like a god”

As a science fiction author, I spend a lot of time exploring what it means to be human. I subscribe to the view that indeed, that question and questions like it are the heart and soul of the genre, and of speculative fiction in general.

What then does it mean to be human?

There are many answers to this question, of course, and not all particularly flattering, but two news items this week go a long way toward bracketing the topic.

This week, NASA launched the Parker solar probe, a spacecraft that will not only study the sun, it will dip down and sample its atmosphere.

There is a lot that can be said about this, but just think–we, puny naked apes that we are, have sent a tool to touch the sun. I’m willing to bet that, put in those terms, that thought puts a little energy in your heartbeat. Why? By completion, the Parker Solar probe mission will cost enough to foot the entire cost of all charity medical care in the US for a year (which honestly, is a much smaller amount than it ought to be). So why not, as social liberals sometimes ask (as Jesse Jackson asked about the moon landing) spend that money on the tired, the poor, the huddled masses?

There are two answers to this question, but to explore them, let’s cast our gaze back as ways–way back–to prehistory–to the Pleistocene and the beings who came before us.

Apes are fragile, and our fossil record is spotty, but we’ve identified several dozen “missing-links” between ourselves and our nearest ape cousins. Through most of the last 6 million years, our ancestors lived in the habitat they evolved in–like any other animal. Australopithecines walked upright and had larger brains for their body size than any ape before them–but they were more like chimpanzees than us. They can be thought of as smart chimps adapted to hiking in the heat of the African savanna, and to hiding form the big cats who preyed on them. By a little little less than 2 million years ago, these early hominids had become a lot smarter, and had adapted to the use of stone tools and fire. These were Homo erectus, and they became the most successful ape that had ever lived, spreading across Africa and into Europe and Asia.

This geographic dispersion, however, took forever. A modern human in good shape can easily hike ten miles in a day. A family living in North Africa, moving camp by a mere 30 miles per year, could reach China in 150 years. Erectus took at least a thousand times that long, and they didn’t even stop at Euro-Disneyland. You might reasonably ask what reason they had to move–and fair enough except, put yourself in those shoes. Can you imagine living in any human settlement where no one takes off to start a new settlement for hundreds of years? Hell, we’d do it just out of boredom, or cussedness, or to get away from the in-laws–or to see what’s beyond the next rise.

Dr Ceri Shipton, et. al. of the Australian National University School of Culture, History and Language have been studying H. erectus sites in the Arabian peninsula. Thay’ve found compelling evidence for what he calls ‘least-effort strategies’ for tool making and resource collection. Erectus seemed to rely on the stone at his feet even when more suitable tool making flint was available atop a nearby hill. He seemed to hang around established habitation sites even as the climate made them unlivable. Shipton like to say “erectus was too lazy for his own good.” I’d put it a little differently, erectus, like many people, may have been too lazy to do things the easy way.

By the way, erectus went extinct. Humans walked on another world after our leader said,

We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.

Cynicism aside, these are words that all humans understand, be they aeronautical engineers or petty thieves. Neanderthals used essentially the same tool making and hunting strategies for a quarter million years, I built my own treadmill desk in a weekend. Sure, I “stand on the shoulders of giants,” but those giants are also humans, they also have that human spark that drives us to invent, to explore, to seek out new worlds and see what’s there and what works. That’s what gave us bread and vaccines and that’s what gave us industrialized warfare. There two are closely related. We are more than “thinking man,” we are the scheming ape, the crafty ape, the ape of adventure and conquest. What drives us forward can also drive us closer to the brink–but we cannot go back to the jungle. We are mankind, and we much adapt ourselves and our culture to our new stature as the custodians of Earth, or we will meet the same fate as the lowliest creature–eventual, inevitable extinction.

The Parker Solar Probe will touch the sun. It will help us better understand space weather, prepare for manned explorations into deep space, protect our power grid and our communications technology, and maybe even safeguard life on Earth. That’s one reason for sending it. The other reason–the better reason–is because we can.

Earlier in the “we choose to go” speech, President Kennedy said this:

We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man.

This is the heart of the matter. Yes, we should feed the poor and tend the huddled masses and we can debate till the cows come home how and to what extent we should do that. But knowledge is important too, and adventure. And when the day comes that humanity no longer looks beyond the mundane requirements of our daily bread to peek over yon horizon, well, that will be the day after the last day of the human race.

Go Boldly.



ArmadilloCon 2018

his weekend I’ll be at ArmadilloCon 40 in Austin: (August 3-5, 2018)

Guests of honor are:

Guest of Honor: Deji Bryce Olukotun
Editor Guest: David Pomerico
Toastmaster: Aaron de Orive
Artist Guest: Rosemary Valero-O’Connell
Fan Guest: Craig W. Chrissinger
Special Guests: Holly Black & Robert J. Sawyer

My schedule is:

Friday, August 3
During the day, I’ll be teaching in the writing workshop.
Space Operas: Reading Beyond the Expanse – Ballroom D
Saturday, August 4
Analog Switch – Readings by C. Stuart Hardwick & John K. Gibbons – Southpark B

Autographing – Dealers Room

Black Panther: The Power of Wakanda! -Ballroom D

Star Wars: The Last Jedi – Ballroom E
Sunday, August 5
2018 Science: What’s New & What’s Coming – Ballroom D

What’s Your Earliest Memory?

A writer friend commented how some people seem to remember very little from their childhood, while others remember a lot.

I have tons of memories from before we moved from South Dakota when I was four, but I’d be hard-pressed to say which was the earliest. A contender might be pushing my head against the bars of the crib, which was aroused when my own first born joined us. That’s not much of a memory, though.
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Meet the Winners – Jonathan Ficke

Long time followers know that ever since my Writers of the Future win, I’ve made a tradition of interviewing the new year’s crop of winners and finalists as a way of welcoming them to the writing community. This year I’ve gotten sidetracked a few times, but better late than never. Please join me in welcoming Writers of the Future winner, Jonathan Ficke!

Stuart: Hi Jonathan, thanks for stopping by.

Jonathan: I’m happy to volunteer myself.


Stuart: Tell us a little about yourself, your hobbies, things that would surprise your friends…

Jonathan: Well, I’m from Wisconsin. I’m a woodworker and I built most of the furniture in my home. I kept a blog documenting most of my stuff at

Stuart: Wow, that’s awesome. Before I started writing, I used to have a life–I mean, do stuff like that too. I even built a barn for my tools. What else?

Jonathan: When I was in 8th grade, my brother and I were hard up for a father’s day gift, and we settled on getting my dad a home beer brewing kit. So I like to say that I’ve been brewing my own beer since I was 14 years old.

Stuart: Ha ha! Too funny!

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