Communion Of Dreams


Looking back: “Yes.”

While I’m on a bit of vacation, I have decided to re-post some items from the first year of this blog (2007).  This item first ran on November 24, 2007.

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I have a special place in my heart for Scott Simon, the host of NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday program. Oh, I’ve long enjoyed his reporting and work at NPR, but in particular it was the experience of being interviewed by him in 2001 for my “Paint the Moon” art project which endeared him to me. As it was just at the beginning of the media coverage of that project, and most people as yet didn’t understand what I was trying to do with the project, it would have been easy to mock the idea and portray me as something of a fool – but Simon was kind and considerate in his interview with me (which took almost an hour to do from my local NPR station facilities), and the end result was an interesting and insightful segment for his show.

Anyway, I go out of my way to try and catch the broadcast of Weekend Edition Saturday each week, and today was no different. One of the segments this morning was an interview with Pat Duggins, who has covered over 80 shuttle launches for NPR and now has a new book out titled Final Countdown: NASA and the End of the Space Shuttle Program. In the course of the interview, Simon asked the following question (paraphrased; I may correct when the transcript of the show is posted later): “Are Americans unrealistic in the expectation of safety from our space program?”

Duggins paused a moment, and then gave an unequivocal “Yes.”

I had already answered the question in my own mind, and was pleased to hear him say the same thing. Because as I have mentioned before, I think that a realistic assessment of the risks involved with the space program is necessary. Further, everyone involved in the space program, from the politicians who fund it to the NASA administers to aerospace engineers to astronauts to the journalists who cover the program, should all – all – be very clear that there are real risks involved but that those risks are worth taking. Certainly, foolish risks should be avoided. But trying to establish and promote space exploration as being “safe” is foolish and counter-productive.

I am often cynical and somewhat disparaging of the intelligence of my fellow humans. But I actually believe that if you give people honest answers, honest information, and explain both the risks and benefits of something as important as the space program, they will be able to digest and think intelligently about it. We have gotten into trouble because we don’t demand that our populace be informed and responsible – we’ve fallen very much into the habit of feeding people a bunch of bullshit, of letting them off the hook for being responsible citizens, and treating them as children rather than participating adults. By and large, people will react the way you treat them – and if you just treat people as irresponsible children, they will act the same way.

So it was good to hear Duggins say that one simple word: “Yes.”

What we have accomplished in space, from the earliest days right through to the present, has always been risky. But for crying out loud, just going to the grocery store is risky. None of us will get out of this life alive, and you can be sure that for even the most pampered and protected there will be pain and suffering at times. To think otherwise is to live in a fantasy, and to collapse at the first experience of hardship.

I think that we are better than that. Just look at all humankind has accomplished, in spite of the risks. To say that Americans are unwilling to accept a realistic view of death and injury associated with the exploration of space is to sell us short, and to artificially limit the progress we make. I think it *has* artificially limited the progress we have made.

One of the most common complaints I get about the world I envision in Communion of Dreams is that the exploration of space is too far along to be “realistic”. Nonsense. Look at what was accomplished in the fifty years that lead up to the first Moon landing. In a world filled with trauma, war, and grief, some risks are more easily accepted. In the world of Communion, post-pandemic and having suffered regional nuclear wars, there would be little fixation on making sure that spaceflight was “safe”, and more on pushing to rapidly develop it.

We can go to the planets, and then on to the stars. It is just a matter of having the will to do so, and of accepting the risks of trying.

Jim Downey



Oh! Lookit the purty pictures!

Do you like APOD? Dig great shots of space? Love to poke around the various and sundry sites where NASA has images?

Then boy, are you in luck:

NASA AND INTERNET ARCHIVE LAUNCH CENTRALIZED RESOURCE FOR IMAGES

WASHINGTON — NASA and Internet Archive, a non-profit digital library based in San Francisco, made available the most comprehensive compilation ever of NASA’s vast collection of photographs, historic film and video Thursday. Located at www.nasaimages.org, the Internet site combines for the first time 21 major NASA imagery collections into a single, searchable online resource. A link to the Web site will appear on the www.nasa.gov home page.

The Web site launch is the first step in a five-year partnership that will add millions of images and thousands of hours of video and audio content, with enhanced search and viewing capabilities, and new user features on a continuing basis. Over time, integration of www.nasaimages.org with www.nasa.gov will become more seamless and comprehensive.

“This partnership with Internet Archive enables NASA to provide the American public with access to its vast collection of imagery from one searchable source, unlocking a new treasure trove of discoveries for students, historians, enthusiasts and researchers,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale. “This new resource also will enable the agency to digitize and preserve historical content now not available on the Internet for future generations.”

How many images are we talking about? Over 100,000 at present. Completely searchable. The homepage is broken down into several categories (Universe, Solar System, Earth, Astronauts) and contains an interactive timeline of the space program going back 50 years. Each search generates a page of thumbnail images – Titan calls up almost 1,500 – leading to photos, animations, audio files, and artist’s renderings.

Wow. Just wow.

Damn, and I have work I need to get done this afternoon . . .

Jim Downey

(Via MeFi.)



“Yes.”

I have a special place in my heart for Scott Simon, the host of NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday program. Oh, I’ve long enjoyed his reporting and work at NPR, but in particular it was the experience of being interviewed by him in 2001 for my “Paint the Moon” art project which endeared him to me. As it was just at the beginning of the media coverage of that project, and most people as yet didn’t understand what I was trying to do with the project, it would have been easy to mock the idea and portray me as something of a fool – but Simon was kind and considerate in his interview with me (which took almost an hour to do from my local NPR station facilities), and the end result was an interesting and insightful segment for his show.

Anyway, I go out of my way to try and catch the broadcast of Weekend Edition Saturday each week, and today was no different. One of the segments this morning was an interview with Pat Duggins, who has covered over 80 shuttle launches for NPR and now has a new book out titled Final Countdown: NASA and the End of the Space Shuttle Program. In the course of the interview, Simon asked the following question (paraphrased; I may correct when the transcript of the show is posted later): “Are Americans unrealistic in the expectation of safety from our space program?”

Duggins paused a moment, and then gave an unequivocal “Yes.”

I had already answered the question in my own mind, and was pleased to hear him say the same thing. Because as I have mentioned before, I think that a realistic assessment of the risks involved with the space program is necessary. Further, everyone involved in the space program, from the politicians who fund it to the NASA administers to aerospace engineers to astronauts to the journalists who cover the program, should all – all – be very clear that there are real risks involved but that those risks are worth taking. Certainly, foolish risks should be avoided. But trying to establish and promote space exploration as being “safe” is foolish and counter-productive.

I am often cynical and somewhat disparaging of the intelligence of my fellow humans. But I actually believe that if you give people honest answers, honest information, and explain both the risks and benefits of something as important as the space program, they will be able to digest and think intelligently about it. We have gotten into trouble because we don’t demand that our populace be informed and responsible – we’ve fallen very much into the habit of feeding people a bunch of bullshit, of letting them off the hook for being responsible citizens, and treating them as children rather than participating adults. By and large, people will react the way you treat them – and if you just treat people as irresponsible children, they will act the same way.

So it was good to hear Duggins say that one simple word: “Yes.”

What we have accomplished in space, from the earliest days right through to the present, has always been risky. But for crying out loud, just going to the grocery store is risky. None of us will get out of this life alive, and you can be sure that for even the most pampered and protected there will be pain and suffering at times. To think otherwise is to live in a fantasy, and to collapse at the first experience of hardship.

I think that we are better than that. Just look at all humankind has accomplished, in spite of the risks. To say that Americans are unwilling to accept a realistic view of death and injury associated with the exploration of space is to sell us short, and to artificially limit the progress we make. I think it *has* artificially limited the progress we have made.

One of the most common complaints I get about the world I envision in Communion of Dreams is that the exploration of space is too far along to be “realistic”. Nonsense. Look at what was accomplished in the fifty years that lead up to the first Moon landing. In a world filled with trauma, war, and grief, some risks are more easily accepted. In the world of Communion, post-pandemic and having suffered regional nuclear wars, there would be little fixation on making sure that spaceflight was “safe”, and more on pushing to rapidly develop it.

We can go to the planets, and then on to the stars. It is just a matter of having the will to do so, and of accepting the risks of trying.

Jim Downey



“X” marks the (new) spot.

As I mentioned the other day, news of the new Google Lunar X Prize organized by Peter Diamandis is getting a fair amount of attention, and appropriately so. It’s good to see Diamandis pursuing his dream, as I wrote about in this post about the Heinlein Centennial Gala:

And then Peter Diamandis‘ brilliant, inspiring presentation about how he considered Heinlein to have written not just visionary fiction, but had actually mapped out a functional business plan with The Man Who Sold the Moon. Diamandis said his dream, his goal, was to be there to welcome NASA back to the Moon when the Constellation Program vehicle arrives. This brought a standing ovation and cheers.

Indeed. And with the new Google Lunar X Prize, there’s a fair chance that could actually happen. If private space companies can land a remote-operated vehicle on the Moon under the prize guidelines by 2013 (most people are of the opinion that it’ll happen sooner), then I’d bet that scaling up the tech used to accomplish that to have people – perhaps even Diamandis himself – on the Moon before NASA’s target date of 2020 for Constellation is certainly possible. Remember, we went from having barely function sub-orbital craft to the Apollo 11 Moonshot in just 8 years.

One of the things I find particularly interesting is a bonus possible under the Google Lunar X Prize guidelines. Here it is:

• BONUSES: An additional $5 million in bonus prizes can be won by successfully completing additional mission tasks such as roving longer distances (> 5,000 meters), imaging man made artifacts (e.g. Apollo hardware), discovering water ice, and/or surviving through a frigid lunar night (approximately 14.5 Earth days).

That one bit right there in the middle that I bolded is what I’m talking about. It simultaneously nods to the accomplishments of NASA and also thumbs its nose at the agency. It perfectly sums up the mixed emotions many in the private sector feel about the government’s involvement in space exploration and development: respect for what was accomplished in the past, yet a burning desire to prove that the private players can do more, do it faster, and do it for less money.

I haven’t begun work on it yet, but one of the ‘intervening’ novels of my future history series (between Communion of Dreams and the prequel I’ve started titled St. Cybi’s Well) would be set sometime in the 2030s at one of the Israeli colonies on the Moon. The main character would be an artist who is on sabbatical there, exploring how the space environment effects an aesthetic sensibility. And one of the scenes I’ve envisioned would have him visiting the site of the first Lunar Landing, which has been carefully secured to preserve it as it was left by Armstrong and Aldrin, in order to use the site as inspiration. I must admit, I sort of hate the thought that there would be additional rover tracks there in order that someone could claim a bonus for the X Prize.

Jim Downey



The Gala

Take a look at a map of the US. Let your eye more or less gravitate to the center. Chances are, what you’re looking at isn’t too far from Kansas City. Now, notice just how far this is from an ocean.

So, why the hell were most of the entrees at the buffet supper for the Gala at the Heinlein Centennial some kind of seafood? That was the question that everyone at my table wanted to know.

And since I live in this part of the country (about 2 hours from KC), I was the designated spokesman. What I told them was that a) it’s likely that the hotel providing the catering made the decision about the offerings, and the organizers just chose from a list, b) that seafood was likely chosen to ‘show off’ a bit, and c) besides, there are these things called airplanes, which can (and do) bring fresh seafood to even us uncultured louts in the Midwest.

Nah, the entrees were fine. What was actually a much greater concern to me was that for some reason, they had exactly ONE chocolate cake on the dessert table. And that was the *only* chocolate dessert. Huh? At a SF convention? I’ve not been to many, but my experience with other SF and Fantasy fans would lead me to believe that they’ve got a higher-then-usual appreciation for chocolate. Lord knows I sure do. But I got no cake that night.

Anyway, there was a reason why the Centennial was held in the middle of the nation. A fairly good reason, too: Robert A. Heinlein was born in Butler, Missouri, about an hour south of KC, and he spent a lot of his early years in Kansas City. Other places can (and do) claim him as one of their own, but KC was as logical a place as any to host the event. It was kind of fun to see the sign on the local SF club table which read “Join the same Science Fiction club that Robert Heinlein joined!” Fun stuff.

The Gala dinner was supposed to be dressy, and most people complied. (There were almost no people in costume all weekend, btw – another way in which this event differed from the Cons I’ve attended.) My friend ML and I joined a table full of charming chaps (well, of course they were being charming to her. Any straight male should be. And many are.) I had kicked in the ‘extrovert’ program, and was being outgoing to the point where one of the other people at the table asked me if I was the designated ‘celebrety’ who had been assigned to the table. Um, no. I dialed down the gregariousness a bit.

Dinner over, we left the round tables at the back of the hall and moved to row seating at the front. It was time for the Gala presentations and entertainment.

This comprised lots of various and sundry awards – Centennial writing awards, SFRA awards, John W. Cambell Award ( later I’ll tell how Ben Bova, this year’s winner for his novel Titan, came up and introduced himself to me…a particular thrill, since I have most of the action in Communion of Dreams take place on the surface and in orbit around that moon. OK, update – the story of that is told here.).

There were also speeches honoring and remembering Robert A. Heinlein, naturally enough. And then Peter Diamandis‘ brilliant, inspiring presentation about how he considered Heinlein to have written not just visionary fiction, but had actually mapped out a functional business plan with The Man Who Sold the Moon. Diamandis said his dream, his goal, was to be there to welcome NASA back to the Moon when the Constellation Program vehicle arrives. This brought a standing ovation and cheers.

The featured remembrance of Heinlein was provided by Sir Arthur C. Clarke, via pre-recorded message from his home in Sri Lanka. It was touching, all the more so for the evidence of Clarke’s own failing health.

Following were more presentations and performances, including information about the Stardance Project, a duet by Spider and Jeanne Robinson, an impromptu rendition of The Green Hills of Earth (the filk song popular in the SF community, drawn from Heinlein’s story of the same name), and finally ending with a screening of J. Neil Schulman‘s new offbeat movie Lady Magdalene’s. I decided to skip the last, but ML told me later that it was fun in a very silly sort of way.

There’s an excellent collection of images from the evening to be found here on the Midamerican Fan Photo Archive. I love people who know how to use a camera – a skill I never acquired.

Jim Downey