Nominations for the British Science Fiction Association Awards are open – in fact, they’ve been open for a couple of weeks, so I’m a little late with this reminder. But they’ll remain open until January 11 2013. If you’re a member of the British Science Fiction Association, feel free to nominate your favourite stories from Rocket Science for the short fiction award, and your favourite non-fiction pieces for the, er, non-fiction award.
Well, Eric in The Space Review, not actually in Low Earth Orbit or anything. Eric Choi provided one of the non-fiction essays in Rocket Science. It was titled ‘Making Mars A Nicer Place, in Fiction… and Fact’. A shortened version of Eric’s essay has just been published on The Space Review website. You can find it here. You can also find Eric’s ‘Introducing the author’ piece on this blog here.
There has been a long-running disagreement among those involved in space science over which are better at exploring the Solar System: robots or human beings. The former, obviously, despite their huge price tags, are cheaper. But humans are far more flexible and effective. And now that Curiosity is on Mars, the robot proponents are going to feel pretty smug for a while.
The problem is that there’s a bigger picture to take into consideration. Yes, we could populate the other planets with robots and learn some fascinating and important science. But that still keeps us tied to this planet, and we’re in very real danger of making our home world untenable. It’s not the pioneer spirit that demands we start sending people to visit and settle the other worlds and moons of the Solar System, it’s survival. And we’re not going to get anywhere close to a position to do that if we keep on sending out robots.
True, at present our technology isn’t quite up to a crewed Mars mission. We could build the rockets and get what we need into orbit, we could send it on a transfer orbit, we could even land it on the Martian surface. But we don’t know yet how to effectively keep the human payload alive during the months-long journey through interplanetary space. And then there’s the cost. Curiosity cost $2.5 billion. A crewed mission would cost quadrillions, and require the sort of long-term investment and political will no government would ever countenance. And, to be honest, given that cost, the mission would have to be something special…
Which is not that difficult to achieve. Most mission profiles would require a stay of months on Mars, perhaps even a couple of years. The Red Planet is not the Moon. It’s not a three-day flight, spend as long as you can on the surface, and then head straight for home. The orbits of the Earth and Mars, and the millions of kilometres between the two which increase and decrease due to those orbital paths, mean departures from each planet have to be carefully scheduled. An conjunction-class mission would launch when Mars is on the other side of the Sun to Earth, would require between 250 and 300 days for journey there, and give a stay time on Mars on 60 to 90 days. A opposition-class mission, however, which would launch while the two planets are close, would take 450 days to travel there and give a stay time of up to 500 days. The conjunction-class mission requires less energy than the opposition-class mission.
Keeping the crew alive in interplanetary space for almost a year is not something we really know how to do yet. There have been experiments with Controlled Ecological Life Support Systems, but a Closed Ecological Life Support Systems is beyond us. Because a year in space without resupply either requires huge amounts of supplies, or near-perfect recycling. And every kilogram of those supplies is going to cost well beyond its actual price because it needs to be lifted out of Earth’s gravity well and taken along to Mars. Even in situ replenishment on the Martian surface might prove too difficult, so the mission will need some sort of CELSS which can operate for the full length of the mission.
I freely admit I would be delighted to see a human being on Mars during my lifetime. But, realistically, I don’t expect it to happen. It wouldn’t surprise me if it took until the middle of next century before we got further than the Moon. At present, the only way we’re going to get there is via our imaginations. Which is pretty sad, when you think about it.
The Curiosity rover landed successfully on the surface of Mars this morning. It’s an impressive achievement but, to be fair, the US and the USSR have been doing this – with varying degrees of success – since 1971. There’s a good infographic explaining this on space.com here. The Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity is only the latest, and most sophisticated, of these. Putting an astronaut, or cosmonaut, or taikonaut, on the surface of Mars, however, would be a spectacularly impressive achievement. Curiosity cost around $2.5 billion; a crewed mission to Mars would cost several orders of magnitude more. For one thing, there’s the return journey to account for. Unless, of course, the space travellers are intending to settle the Red Planet…
Mars has held a particular fascination for science fiction writers throughout the genre’s history, and there are countless treatments of missions to Mars – from Rex Gordon’s No Man Friday to Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy of Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars. Robinson’s trilogy is often considered the definitive sf work on the topic, though it is more about the political and social development of the Red Planet than it is the nuts and bolts of settling it. For the latter, Robert Zubrin’s First Landing is perhaps more realistic; as is William K Hartmann’s Mars Underground. No Man Friday, on the other hand, is pure Robinsonade (that’s Robinson Crusoe, rather than Kim Stanley Robinson), though its early scenes, in which a team of British scientists secretly built a rocket in a disused water tower, holds a certain period charm.
Mars also proved a popular locale for stories submitted to Rocket Science, and three set on, or en route to, the Red Planet made it onto the table of contents: ‘Dancing on the Red Planet’, Berit Ellingsen; ‘The Brave Little Cockroach Goes to Mars’, Simon McCaffery; and ‘A Biosphere Ends’, Stephen Palmer. All three stories deal with human beings on Mars, however.
Nonetheless, let’s not forget that 900 kg robot currently sitting on the Martian surface, on Aeolis Palus on the floor of Gale Crater. At present, it’s the closest we’re going to get to another world in real life – and if there’s one thing science fiction rarely depicts it’s the sheer difficulty and danger of travelling through space and landing on alien planets. We need to be reminded of that more often.
This weekend, editor Jonathan Strahan announced the table of contents of his new anthology, Edge of Infinity, a sequel to 2010’s Engineering Infinity, and due late November from Solaris Books. He describes Edge of Infinity as an anthology of “hard SF/adventure set in an industrialised, settled pre-starflight solar system. It gathers stories set everywhere from Mercury to Neptune, the nooks and crannies of the asteroid belt, to the wonders and beauties of Jupiter. At a time when interstellar travel seems ever more impractical, these stories breathe life into our dream of the future by showing us the romance and challenge of what is achievable here on our own doorstep”.
The anthology will contain fourteen stories – no non-fiction – by Paul McAuley, Pat Cadigan, Gwyneth Jones, Stephen Baxter, Bruce Sterling, Hannu Rajaniemi, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, An Owomayela, and others.
I’m glad that more realistic science fiction is appearing in print, but I can’t help pointing out to prospective buyers of Edge of Infinity that Rocket Science is available now and covers a similar vein of sf – though perhaps with more of an emphasis on exploration and early steps into the Solar System. So if Edge of Infinity looks as it might appeal to you, then Rocket Science certainly will.
The reviewer, Ian Hunter, singles out Karen Burnham’s ‘The Complexity of the Humble Spacesuit’ and adds “likewise, Bill Patterson’s ‘A Ray of Sunshine’ is a joy”.
Of the fiction, he admits to preferring the “humorous or irreverent” ones, and mentions those by Berit Ellingsen, Simon McCaffery, Gary Cuba and Helen Jackson. For the serious stories, he names those by Stephen Palmer and Craig Pay. He also writes that Leigh Kimmel’s ‘Tell Me A Story’ was a perfect opener for the anthology, and “would have been a perfect way to end it too”.
“Rocket Science“, Ian Hunter writes in his review, “is a mighty fine collection and worth seeking out.”
Incidentally, the selfsame issue also contains a story by Rocket Science contributor CJ Paget. It’s the story with which he won the James White Award, ‘Invocation of the Lurker’.
Shenzhou-9 landed safely on 29 June, bringing back to Earth three taikonauts, including the first female one. The taikonauts had spent thirteen days aboard Tiangong-1, the Chinese space station. The name means “Heavenly Palace”, which I must admit is a more poetic name than “International Space Station”. China plans to send up another module to their space station in 2013, and then further modules over several years. The finished space station will be smaller than the ISS, perhaps similar in size to the US Skylab of the 1970s.
While the US tries desperately hard to create some sort of libertarian commercial space capability, the Chinese are just cracking on with an ambitious government space programme. You can’t help but wonder if they’d been doing this thirty years ago, they’d have put a taikonaut on Mars by now.
CNSA, the China National Space Administration, clearly has ambitions, which is more than can be said for the US Administration, or indeed the ESA or Roscosmos. True, a number of private sector firms in the US have proposed expansive plans – SpaceX wants to go to Mars, Planetary Resources wants to mine near-Earth asteroids… But I’ve yet to be convinced that the profit motive is a powerful enough driver for the exploration and exploitation of the Solar System. In these days of “shareholder expectation management”, the only true motivation for business is generating sufficient EBITDA to keep investors and shareholders happy so they continue to keep the whole financial house of cards propped up. None of this money is going toward anything socially, technologically or scientifically useful. It requires government intervention for that to happen. Like in the Apollo programme; and the pre-Glasnost Soyuz programme; and the CNSA’s current Shenzhou launches.
Space is not the Wild West, it is not the Final Frontier. It may well be the future of the human race, given our present willingness to destroy our biosphere in the name of an economic system which plainly doesn’t work and is unsustainable. Sadly, there’s no running away from the mess we’re making. We can’t simply chuck our worldly goods into a Conestoga wagon and head out into the wild blue yonder. Space isn’t a survivable environment – technological assistance is an absolute necessity. Even on the shores of Earth, so to speak, in LEO, the safest off-Earth place in the universe – if you fall, you land on Earth; plus, you have the Earth’s magnetosphere to protect you from all the nasty radiation – even in LEO, it’s a constant battle to stay in place and survive. The ISS was originally intended to deorbit in 2016, though it’s likely it will last much longer. All those billions of dollars spent on something that won’t even last twenty years…
What’s needed is a steady and regular programme of small steps which will take us out to the other planets in the Solar System. A monolithic government agency is the only way this will happen. People may baulk at the cost… forgetting that the US put twelve men on the Moon for a cost of approximately $10 per year per taxpayers over a decade. How can that not be a useful and noble way to spend tax revenue? Instead, western nations would sooner spend trillions on military adventurism. How is that justifiable?
It seems to me the Chinese have got their priorities right. And if it’s a taikonaut who first lands on Mars, then don’t be surprised if you see me cheering along and waving the Wǔ Xīng Hóng Qí.