Communion Of Dreams


Another reason.

I mentioned meeting Ben Bova at the Heinlein Centennial a couple years back, and how I was impressed by his grace and humanity in how he dealt with both me and Frederik Pohl.

And I just found out that I have another reason to respect him: his support for the Bill of Rights, and specifically for the 2nd Amendment. I’m not too surprised, given some of the things he has written, but to see him weigh in on this topic specifically is quite enjoyable.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to the BBTI blog.)



Coincidence.

Last night I watched a movie made before I was born.  By coincidence, the timing was perfectly in sync with the news yesterday.

* * * * * * *

Over a year ago, I wrote this, about Jeff Greason of XCOR Aerospace (one of the speakers at the Heinlein Centennial):

Yes, dependable reusable rockets is a critical first-step technology for getting into space. But as Greason says, he didn’t get interested in space because of chemical rockets – he got interested in chemical rockets because they could get him into space. For him, that has always been the goal, from the first time he read Rocket Ship Galileo by Robert Heinlein when he was about 10. It is somewhat interesting to note that similar to the setting and plot of the book, XCOR Aerospace is based on the edge of a military test range, using leased government buildings…

Anyway. Greason looked at the different possible technologies which might hold promise for getting us off this rock, and held a fascinating session at the Centennial discussing those exotic technologies. Simply, he came to the same conclusion many other very intelligent people have come to: that conventional chemical rockets are the best first stage tech. Sure, many other possible options are there, once the demand is in place to make it financially viable to exploit space on a large enough scale. But before you build an ‘interstate highway’, you need to have enough traffic to warrant it. As he said several times in the course of the weekend, “you don’t build a bridge to only meet the needs of those who are swimming the river…but you don’t build a bridge where no one is swimming the river, either.”

And this, in a piece about Pat Bahn of TGV Rockets:

And there was a lot of thought early in the development of rocketry that such capability could be used for postal delivery. It doesn’t sound economically feasible at this point, but there’s nothing to say that it might not become an attractive transportation option for such firms as UPS or FedEx if dependable services were provided by a TGV Rockets or some other company. In his juvenile novel Rocket Ship Galileo, Robert A. Heinlein had his characters adapt a retired “mail rocket” for their own spacecraft, used to fly to the Moon.

I find this notion of private development of spaceflight more than a little exciting. When I wrote Communion of Dreams, I was operating under the old model – that the enterprise of getting into space in a big way was going to mandate large governmental involvement and coordination. I’m not going to rewrite the novel, but I am reworking my own thoughts and expectations – this is probably the single largest change for me from attending the Centennial.

Well, yesterday a Falcon 1 rocket from the Space X corporation made it to orbit.  From Phil Plait:

Congratulations to the team at Space X! At 16:26 Pacific time today (Sunday, September 28, 2008), their Falcon 1 rocket achieved orbit around the Earth, the first time a privately funded company has done such a feat with a liquid fuel rocket.

* * * * * * *

As coincidence would have it, about the time the Space X rocket reached orbit I was watching Destination Moon, a movie I had added to my NetFlix queue after the Heinlein Centennial, and which just now had floated to the top.

What’s the big deal?  Well, Destination Moon was about the first successful private corporation launch, not to orbit, but as a manned mission to the Moon.

It’s not a great movie.  But it was fascinating to watch, an insight into those heady post-war years, into what people thought about space, and into the mind of Robert Heinlein, who was one of the writers and technical advisors on the film (with connections to two of his novels: Rocket Ship Galileo and The Man Who Sold the Moon).  Interesting to see the trouble they went to in order to explain what things would be like in space (no gravity, vacuum, how rockets would work, et cetera) because this was a full 8 years prior to the launch of Sputnik.  We’ve grown up with spaceflight as a fact, with knowing how things move and function – but all of this was unknown to the average viewer when the movie was made and released.  They did a surprisingly good job.  And the images provided Chesley Bonestell are still breath taking, after all these years.

* * * * * * *

It may yet be a while before any private corporation wins the Google Lunar X Prize, let alone sends a team of astronauts there and gets them back, as was done in Destination Moon.  But it’ll happen.  When it looks like it will, I may need to schedule another viewing of the movie, and not just trust to coincidence.

Jim Downey



Thoughts on this day.

(I was busy with the Heinlein Centennial last year for the Fourth, and didn’t post anything.  I thought this year I would post something I wrote two years ago, and I hope you enjoy it.

Happy Fourth!

Jim Downey)

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Thoughts on This Day

One birthday, when I was nine or ten, I woke with anticipation of the presents I would receive.  Still in my pajamas I rushed into the kitchen where my parents were having coffee, expecting to get the loot which was rightfully mine.  My father happily handed over a small, wrapped box.  I opened it eagerly, to find a little American flag on a wooden stick.  My father said that since my birthday was July 4th, he thought I would appreciate the gift.

Horror-struck first at not getting anything better, then a moment later at my own greed, I guiltily told my parents that I thought it was a fine gift.

After a moment, of course, my folks brought out my real presents, and there was a fair amount of good-natured teasing and laughing about the little trick they had played on me.

That was almost 40 years ago, and I can no longer tell you what presents I received that day.  But the lesson in expectations and perspective my dad taught me that morning always remained with me.  My dad had been a Marine, fought in Korea, and was a deeply patriotic cop who was killed while on duty a couple of years after that birthday.  I have no idea what happened to that little flag on a stick, but I do still have the flag taken from my father’s coffin, carefully and perfectly folded at the graveside when we buried him.

I’ve never looked at the American flag without remembering what a fine gift it really is and, as so many others have written, what it represents in terms of sacrifice.  I love my country, as any Firecracker Baby is probably destined to do.  You just can’t ignore all that early training of patriotism, fireworks, and presents all tied up together.

But that doesn’t mean that I am blinded by patriotism.  As I’ve matured and gained life experience, I’ve learned many other lessons.  Lessons about tempering expectations, living with occasional disappointment, accepting that things don’t always work out the way you plan no matter how hard you work, how good your intentions, or how deserving you are.  Still, you learn, grow, and do the best you can.  This, it seems, is also the story of America.  I believe we are an exceptional people, holding great potential, with our best years still to come.  But nothing is guaranteed.  We must honestly, and sometimes painfully, confront our failures, learn from them, and move on.  The original founders of our country were brilliant, but flawed as all humans are flawed.  Some of their errors led directly to the Civil War, that great bloody second revolution of the human spirit.  That they made mistakes does not negate their greatness; rather, it shows us our potential even though we are not perfect.  They knew, as we should know, that only we are responsible for our self-determination.  Not a king, not a God, not a ruling political class.  Us.

Today we’ve been gifted with a small box with a flag inside.  A token of our history.  Let us not take it for granted.  Let us not think that the thing itself is more important than what it represents.  Let us look on it and declare our own responsibility, our own self-determination.

Happy Independence Day.



The morning after.

Yes, I should write about the Google X Prize. I’ve even met Diamandis, at the Heinlein Centennial. But it’s been getting substantial coverage in the media. I do have some thoughts beyond “that’s cool” – but am, I think, understandably preoccupied with other personal matters right now. Perhaps this weekend.

OK, things are still sinking in, vis a vis my post yesterday. To a certain extent I feel like my life has just undergone a paradigm shift, as nothing has really changed and yet I see most things in a different light altogether.

A couple of friends have been a little surprised at my wariness about this change. I guess that I have been so conditioned at having people not do the right thing that I am somewhat stunned that this institution is going the right direction with this collection. And, honestly, I’m not used to the notion that things might be going the right way for me, as well. But I meet with the head librarian next Tuesday to iron out details and get the first installment of books, so it really looks like this is going to happen.

I’ll need to make some actual changes in how I work. Since closing the gallery, I’ve been fairly casual about my work hours and the ‘business end’ of the business. I think that’s understandable, since my primary concern has been caring for my MIL, not being a conservator. So I need to lay in some additional supplies, get a large fireproof safe, sort out my accounting software, streamline some of my work habits, establish standardized tracking procedures for handling this volume of work, et cetera. All stuff I know I can do – I ran an art & framing business which had multiple employees and scores of artists we represented for five years – it’s just a matter of getting all the procedures and software set up properly.

So, while I still feel astonished, and pleased, I’m less frightened. Typical for me: I can face just about anything, so long as I have good information and the freedom to sort it out and come to terms with it.

Jim Downey



Death wins.

This morning, when I went to check on her after hearing some stirring, my mother-in-law looked at me and asked if I knew where her toothbrush was.

“Yes. I know where it is. When you get up, we’ll be sure to use it.”

This simple reassurance allowed her to get back to sleep, and when we got her up at her usual time about 45 minutes later, she had completely forgotten the whole thing. See, she is well into the arc of Alzheimer’s, and has slipped to the point where she doesn’t really know where she is or who is around her most of the time. But little things like knowing that she has her own toothbrush, and she can use it, seem to make her happy, give her a measure of security. I don’t try to understand it. I am too exhausted for that. I just try to roll with it.

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Last night a friend sent me the first news reports of the explosion at Scaled Composites, indicating that two people had died and others were injured, evidently during a test of one of their rocket engines. After reading the brief news item, I replied:

Well, shit.

But as everyone involved said during the Centennial – this is going to happen. And while we have to work to take precautions, we can’t allow it to stop the future.

My friend responded to this with:

Yes. If people say we should stop, I have just two words for them:

Apollo One.

My parents knew the astronauts. And if we’d let that fire stop the space program, well……..

***********************

I met Brian Binnie at the Heinlein Centennial. If you don’t recognize the name, that’s OK. Brian was the pilot of SpaceShipOne for the two flights which won the Ansari X Prize. He works for Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites. During his inspiring presentations and discussions at the Centennial, he conveyed a simple, honest love for what he did. He made no pretense that he was a brilliant engineer or scientist (though he holds a couple of advanced degrees), and poked fun at his own public speaking skills. He came across as a regular guy, highly skilled in flying test vehicles, and more than a little amazed to have been involved in making history. I like regular guys, people who are smart and extraordinary but don’t take that too seriously.

I hope Brian wasn’t one of the people hurt in the explosion. But even if he was, I bet that his attitude won’t change, and he’ll still be convinced that private spaceflight is worth the risk. On one of his test flights ofSpaceShipOne , the ship was badly damaged and he could have easily been killed. Obviously, that didn’t stop him then. I’m sure Brian, and all the others at Scaled Composites, will be going over the data from the test to see what happened, and how to avoid it in the future.

7/28/07 Update:  Scaled Composites named those killed in the blast:  Eric Dean Blackwell, 38, of Randsburg; Charles Glenn May, 45, of Mojave; and Todd Ivens, 33, of Tehachapi.  No word on the injured.
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Panel Finds Astronauts Flew While Intoxicated

Jul 26, 2007

A panel reviewing astronaut health issues in the wake of the Lisa Nowak arrest has found that on at least two occasions astronauts were allowed to fly after flight surgeons and other astronauts warned they were so intoxicated that they posed a flight-safety risk.The panel, also reported “heavy use of alcohol” by astronauts before launch, within the standard 12-hour “bottle to throttle” rule applied to NASA flight crew members.

You know, if you were going to strap me as cargo to the top of a chemical rocket with a 1-in-50 chance of catastrophic failure, I might well be still a little drunk, too. Oh, not if I was going to be responsible for flying the damned thing. But if I was just along for the ride? Yeah, I can see getting drunk before hand.

But that’s no way to run a space program.

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One day last week a steam pipe ruptured in New York City, killing one person and injuring many others. Each day in the US over 100 people are killed in vehicle accidents, and about half that number are murdered.

I was orphaned in early adolescence, one parent murdered and then the other dieing about 18 months later in a car accident. I came to understand death much earlier than most people in our country do. I’ve had a few close calls myself, all of them stupid and unexpected things that had my luck gone just a little differently, I would have died. Now, at middle age, I’ve got the typical health risks for a man which could mean an early and unexpected death.

But I don’t worry about that. Death wins. Every time. None of us gets out of here alive. We are all going to die, sooner or later. The only real thing that matters is that we live life as completely as possible, loving, creating, building the future. Brian Binnie understands that, and I’d bet that the others at Scaled Composites do too. I like to think that my parents understood that. My mother-in-law, who may not understand this on an intellectual level, still experiences life, still worries about her place in the world, still wants to make sure that she can brush her teeth.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)



Ben Bova

If I published 4 books a year, for the next 25 years, I’d have accomplished in my 74 years what Ben Bova has accomplished in his life so far.

Yeah, it reminds me of that line from the short-lived series Crusade: “Whenever I get to feeling too proud of my accomplishments, I remind myself that when Mozart was my age, he’d been dead for six years.”

Bova is a legend in Science Fiction. Justifiably so. But he’s more than that. He’s a decent human being.

I say that for two reasons, both observed up close at the Heinlein Centennial. The first is summed up nicely by the James D. Miles quote which I have long appreciated:

“You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.”

During the Centennial, I was waiting for a friend at a rendezvous point before going off for some lunch. The session I had attended had wrapped up early, so I was just standing there in an entrance hall, minding my own business. From one of the adjacent corridors came a distinguished gent, walking towards me. As he got closer, I recognized him. It was Ben Bova.

He came up to me, peered down at my Centennial badge, and quietly introduced himself. There was no implication that I should be impressed or honored – he was just one guy introducing himself to another stranger who happened to be in the same place at the same time. A part of me, experienced with countless hours of public relations, took note and admired how smoothly and genuinely he did this. The other part of me tried not to stammer too much in response to his queries and comments. We chatted for a few minutes, him telling me that his flight up from Florida had been delayed, asking me why I was attending, et cetera, and then the person he had been waiting for came up (I’m embarrassed to say that I cannot recall his name . . . he was another ‘V.I.P.’ who knew Bova evidently as an old friend). Bova introduced us like I had been his old army buddy. We all chatted for a minute or two. My friend ML came up. Bova took the initiative of introducing himself and his friend to her. Then he glanced at his watch, and said to his friend, “Well, I suppose it’s time I should get in there.” With a smile to us, he asked, “Will you be joining us?”

My friend glanced at me as he turned to go. I nodded, said quietly, “Um, let’s roll with this.”

We followed a few paces to one of the empty meeting rooms. Just inside the door Bova and his friend stopped, Ben looking around somewhat confused.

“Um, perhaps you’re still on Eastern Time? There isn’t anything scheduled during the lunch break . . .” I volunteered.

“Ah, right you are,” he said, somewhat chagrined.

“You’re welcome to join us, we were just about to go get some lunch.” (Hey, lunch with Ben Bova? How cool would that be?)

“Oh, thanks, I really should go get checked in. I just got off the shuttle, and thought I was going to be late getting to this session.”

We (ML and I) slipped out, Bova said goodbye to his friend, and the three of us went one direction, Bova off towards the reception area for the hotel in the other.

Now, that was the first insight. And I concede that it could well have all been just a highly-polished act by an author long experienced with dealing with fans at Cons and whatnot. But the next bit provided the other reason for my assessment.

ML and I had our lunch, and I returned to the room where Ben Bova had thought that he was to be participating. I had planned on going to that session anyway, since the other speaker was Frederik Pohl, and the topic was “Editors in Transition,” about the early days of SF publishing.

And here’s the second thing. I haven’t a nice little quote at hand, but I can assure you that it is true: you can also tell a great deal about someone by how they treat the elderly, particularly if that elderly person is suffering some form of diminished capacity.

Frederik Pohl, to my eye, is still as sharp as a tack. But he’s pushing 90, has had some health issues, and is getting a little forgetful . . . nothing that should come as any kind of a surprise in someone that age. As the full-time care-giver of someone who has Alzheimer’s at 90, I can honestly say that there is no reason to think that he suffers from any kind of dementia or mental deterioration. He’s just evidencing the normal traits of age, and even that very mildly indeed.

The thing is, watching Ben Bova interact with Fred Pohl during the hour long free-wheeling discussion of ‘the good old days,’ I saw another side of Ben Bova that most people probably don’t. There was the usual deference and respect, but there was also a genuine warmth, what I would characterize as perhaps even a kind of love. It’s the sort of thing that allows a person to smile quietly and let slide an error or mistaken memory without the need to correct it or even bring it to the attention of the older person. It is, in my experience, a deep reverence borne of long understanding of another, and reflects that person’s own self-confidence and self-understanding. I didn’t know it until I started to do the background research for this post, but Ben Bova has long experience with the martial arts, and that was the quietude I recognized in him.

I did see more of Ben Bova in the course of the weekend – his giving autographs, accepting awards, making little presentations, interacting with friends and fans. I didn’t attempt to claim any more of his time or attention – no reason to be a nuisance. He had been very generous with me already in that regard. And besides, I’d seen enough to understand some things about him which I deeply respect.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)



Going postal.

One of the panels I attended at the Heinlein Centennial included Pat Bahn of TGV Rockets. I got there a bit late, and he had a call which pulled him away early, but the few minutes he spoke about his company and the future of spaceflight as he sees it were fascinating.

As opposed to the large-scale space project, such as we’ve seen both in government (NASA) and with Peter Diamandis‘ vision (mentioned previously), Bahn has a very mundane, almost boring approach of incrementalism. He figures that it makes more sense to just keep expanding at the margins – to develop dependable, suborbital services which will bring about a demand for increased services, which will spur additional innovation in the necessary tech, which will in turn make more expansion possible, et cetera, in an upward spiral which will eventually get us off this rock in a stable and dependable way. His basic strategy is expressed in this article he wrote three years ago:

In the late 1970’s, Business Week magazine ran a cover story on the latest Cray supercomputer and how it was going to revolutionize American business. Deep inside that same magazine was a small story mentioning that Apple computer was now selling micro-computers. Business Week was correct that a computer was going to revolutionize American society, they were just wrong about which machine it was going to be. Fifty percent of the American public and 99 percent of the aerospace industry are convinced that a moon program will revitalize and grow a new space era. Meanwhile, 1 percent of the industry is working on the systems that will actually do that.

For the last 2 years a quiet change has been occurring. Small, privately funded teams have been flying prototype systems that have not received much notice. Armadillo Aerospace in Dallas, XCor and Scaled Composites in Mojave, Blue Origins in Seattle and TGV Rockets in Norman, Okla. have all begun pushing equipment off of the drawing boards and into the skies.

The key is cost effectiveness. Rather than have thousands of people servicing a custom-built, highly advanced vehicle with an extensive support system going for orbital capability, a small suborbital reusuable vehicle should be able to serve much the same market as a first step into space, with minimal support staff (TGV stands for “Two Guys and a Van”) for a tiny fraction of the cost. That market? Scientific, military, even conventional business needs. And the cool thing, Bahn said at the Centennial, is that if you are working with scientists, they will go out of their way to help you, since it is in their nature to want to get the best performance out of equipment by tinkering and adapting it.

This notion of providing a limited and possibly passing service is not a new idea. Bahn has in the past compared the current state of suborbital launch capability to where private aviation was in the 1920’s:

“One of the big business models was to fly up and take a picture of your house and sell it to you for $5,” he said. “That was a big deal.”

“There were many things that were done in the 1920’s that did not suvive the long term test. Wing walking is not what you would call a real market. Never-the-less, many markets matured and outgrew many of the experiments of the era.”

And there was a lot of thought early in the development of rocketry that such capability could be used for postal delivery. It doesn’t sound economically feasible at this point, but there’s nothing to say that it might not become an attractive transportation option for such firms as UPS or FedEx if dependable services were provided by a TGV Rockets or some other company. In his juvenile novel Rocket Ship Galileo, Robert A. Heinlein had his characters adapt a retired “mail rocket” for their own spacecraft, used to fly to the Moon.

I find this notion of private development of spaceflight more than a little exciting. When I wrote Communion of Dreams, I was operating under the old model – that the enterprise of getting into space in a big way was going to mandate large governmental involvement and coordination. I’m not going to rewrite the novel, but I am reworking my own thoughts and expectations – this is probably the single largest change for me from attending the Centennial.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.) 



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



Fox and squirrel.

Standing there, looking out the window to the driveway just below, I saw the fox take the unwitting squirrel. One quick, quiet leap from behind a tree, a snap, pause to snap again at the struggling grey mass, and it had breakfast. A pretty, lethal thing, yellow-red short fur, characteristic long legs and bushy tail, eyes sharp as it looked around. Probably weighed twelve to fifteen pounds, lean and long. Made me consider keeping the cats inside.

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Peter Diamandis received a standing ovation for his presentation on the absolute need to go into space. It wasn’t just that the attendees at the Heinlein Centennial Gala were predisposed to his message – it was because his energy and enthusiasm swept away all doubts that this was *going* to happen, that it was economically inevitable, once we realized that it was actually possible. What’s that? Charlie Stross and others have said that while something like asteroid mining might be possible, it won’t lead to colonization? Yeah, that’s the argument. But Diamandis calculates that one 0.5 kilometer metallic asteroid will contain a *lot* of valuable metal…to the tune of 20 Trillion dollars worth. Sure, such asteroids only comprise about 8% of the known bodies anywhere near our space…but still, you’re talking tens of thousands of such asteroids of varying size. That’s a damned big incentive to build infrastructure, and once the infrastructure is in place, once the basic research has been done and there are multiple private corporations, countries, and even private citizens exploiting this resource, there are going to be some who find it advantageous to actually locate in space (semi-)permanently.

Diamandis joked that his strategy is going to be to issue a lot of ‘put options’ for the precious metals, then announce that he is going to go grab one of these asteroids and use the procedes to finance the expedition. Hey, when a man worth that kind of money makes such a joke, people should take it seriously.

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I watched, one afternoon last week, while my mother-in-law suffered a slight TIA. She was sitting in her wheelchair, having just gotten up from her afternoon nap, and was finishing some yogurt. I was sitting and talking with her, when she just slowly sort of folded in on herself. While she is 90 and suffers from Alzhemer’s, she is usually capable of responding to direct questions about immediate events (how she feels, if she likes her yogurt, et cetera), but she suddenly went quiet, almost insensate. I checked to see whether something like a heart attack was in process, and asked if she was hurting or if there was some other indicator of a serious emergency. Eventually I got enough information to conclude it was likely ‘just’ a TIA or some similar event, and got her back in bed. I monitored her, and all seemed to be well. She woke two hours later, with no evidence of damage. But it was an indication of her condition, and likely a hint at things to come.

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I want to have Jeff Greason’s baby.

Greason (pronounced ‘Grey-son’) is the head of XCOR Aerospace, and is one of the many companies trying to build the infrastructure of private commercial spaceflight. He and his company have accomplished a lot in the development of dependable, reusuable, and powerful rocket engines…engines sufficiently well engineered that they show no indication of wearing out after even thousands of operating cycles (being turned on and off). As he explains, the two biggest problems previously with rocket engine design was that there was wear leading to failure on both the throat of the engine (where the burning fuel exhausts) and on the nozzle (which creates the high thrust needed). The XCOR designs have engineered these problems out, and they’re still waiting to find out what other life-span problems the engine might have. And once you have dependable rocket engines, you can build a reusable and dependable vehicle around them.

But that’s not why I want to have his baby. Yes, dependable reusable rockets is a critical first-step technology for getting into space. But as Greason says, he didn’t get interested in space because of chemical rockets – he got interested in chemical rockets because they could get him into space. For him, that has always been the goal, from the first time he read Rocket Ship Galileo by Robert Heinlein when he was about 10. It is somewhat interesting to note that similar to the setting and plot of the book, XCOR Aerospace is based on the edge of a military test range, using leased government buildings…

Anyway. Greason looked at the different possible technologies which might hold promise for getting us off this rock, and held a fascinating session at the Centennial discussing those exotic technologies. Simply, he came to the same conclusion many other very intelligent people have come to: that conventional chemical rockets are the best first stage tech. Sure, many other possible options are there, once the demand is in place to make it financially viable to exploit space on a large enough scale. But before you build an ‘interstate highway’, you need to have enough traffic to warrant it. As he said several times in the course of the weekend, “you don’t build a bridge to only meet the needs of those who are swimming the river…but you don’t build a bridge where no one is swimming the river, either.”

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In one of the sessions, people got to talking about what drives technological development, and one of the big things that people focused on was war. This has been a common theme in a lot of SF, including my favorite series Babylon 5 (see the Shadow War arc). I don’t entirely buy it. I tend to think that economics are a bigger force in tech development – even in wartime, most of the tech developed isn’t something like a pure weapon such as the atomic bomb; it is all the support infrastructure which has dual-use and can be adapted easily after a war because it is economically advantageous.

But this discussion took another familiar turn: that only after we have threatened ourselves with extinction through something like a nuclear war, would we find the will to go into space in a big way. That, actually, is one aspect of Communion of Dreams, but I don’t see mankind being able to survive a major nuclear exchange and then still have the capability to get into space. The infrastructure necessary to support a space-faring tech is really quite extensive, even if you have just small private companies and individuals building and using the rockets/spaceplanes to get to low-earth-orbit. Take out that infrastructure…wipe out the industrial base of the major nations, or even kick it back 50 years…and you will not have access to the kinds of composite materials, computing systems, et cetera, which are necessary components of any spacecraft. Burt Rutan will not be making SpaceShipTwo unless he has the parts – it’s that simple.

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There are a few things I’ve learned in my 49 years here. One is that we age, and we will die (sure, I’d love for Heinlein’s rejuvenation technology to come into play, or some version of ‘Singularity’ to save me from personal extinction…but I’m not counting on it.) It might be through something like the advancing senescence of global warming which we should see coming but act on too late. It might be something quick and unexpected, perhaps one of Diamandis’ $20 trillion rocks taking us out before we get around to using it for other purposes.

We should be like the fox, not the squirrel. The quick-witted one. The one who takes the future and makes it his own, rather than the one who is unpleasantly surprised for a brief and painful moment.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)



So, these three guys walk into a panel discussion…

Over the next week or so I’ll be writing a lot about some of the things I saw/heard/experienced at the Heinlein Centennial this past weekend. It was a fantastic, and for me, transformative experience, which will play out in interesting ways for some time, I think. Here on CommunionBlog I will be posting everything I write, some of which will be also posted on UTI and dKos). This will not be in any kind of order, and this first item was in fact just about the last thing that happened over the weekend.

Jim D

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I went to the Heinlein Centennial for a lot of reasons. Robert A. Heinlein was one of the ‘Big Three’ SF authors of the 20th century. His work had a profound effect on me in my early years, and still informs much of my world view. There was going to be a large component to the Centennial devoted to private space ventures, with leaders in the field there talking about the work they were doing and what was on the horizon. There were going to be any number of other top-notch SF writers in attendance. And it would provide me the opportunity to do some networking, in promotion of my own writing.

I am not much of a fanboy. I’ve only attended a few SF conventions – I’m not real big on large crowds, and the time period of my life when most people get plugged into that world I was busy doing something else which entirely preoccupied my time and energy. By the early ’90s I was busy (and broke) starting a business, then re-inventing that business in ’96, then closing that business in ’04. Since then I’ve been largely devoted to caring for my Mother-in-law, as noted in my brief bio on the left.

Anyway, while I knew the routine and what to expect from such an event, I was a bit of an outsider, a noob. On the other hand, because of some of my other life experience, I can usually pull off having a ‘presence’ – of looking like someone who is a little more established, a little more experienced, a little more than just a noob. (More on that later.) But the truth is, I had been largely fighting out of my weight class for three days, bluffing my way into discussions, handing out cards for my novel, et cetera – and was pretty much exhausted from it all.

So, the last panel discussion I decided to attend yesterday was on a topic of interest to me, but somewhat outside my main areas of knowledge, and I went intending on just keeping my fool mouth shut and listening (I’m keeping all the details vague for a reason). The three panelists came in, got started with introductions, a brief statement on the topic, and so forth. I’d seen a couple of them in other panel discussions, and had some idea of what to expect. Then one of them made some silly statements about his new-agey religious beliefs that didn’t really pertain to the subject, but he thought they did, about how the soul exists outside of the physical body, et cetera.

One of the other panelists, an academic with established cred on the subject, an author with a number of highly-regarded books to his name, got up and nicely, but very energetically and with considerable verve, tore Mr. New-Age a new asshole and shoved all the crap he’d been spewing back into it. It was a thing of beauty to behold, and I sat there thinking “cool – this guy’s a rationalist, in addition to his other credentials”.

The panel discussion proceeded, returning to the topic at hand, and everyone had a good time. Mr. New-Age didn’t seem to mind the slam-dunk he’d suffered, probably because it was done with such artistry, and the contributions of the other panel member and the audience kept things lively and interesting. I kept my mouth shut, but the fellow who’d shut down the nonesense made a comment about something that made me think he might be open to reading my book. When all was wrapped up, and the room was emptying, the panelists gathering together their things, I stepped up to the table, said something to the Rationalist, and handed him my card. As is usual in such situations, he made nice noises about thanking me, said he’d check it out if he had a chance, and I turned to go.

As I did so, I heard an exclamation behind me: “You’re Jim Downey!” (The business cards I’d had printed up say ‘James Downey’.)

Huh?

I turned to see what the hell caused that. Mr. Rationalist looked like he’d just been handed a big fat check, standing there, my card in hand, looking from me to it and back again with a huge grin on his face. “You’re Jim Downey!”

He thrust his hand across the table at me. “I’m a raging atheist – I read Unscrewing the Inscrutable all the time!! In fact, you’re the reason I’m here! I read the post you put up a couple months back about the Heinlein Centennial, and so I contacted the organizers and told them I wanted to participate! Wow!”

I was gobsmacked. Bumfuzzled. (And if you’ve never had your bum fuzzled, you don’t know what you’re missing.) I’m sure I stood there like an idiot as he continued: “Oh, here, let me…”

He reached over to his bag and pulled out his latest book. Inscibed it to me. “I’m really sorry, but I’ve got to run and catch the shuttle to the airport, so I can make my flight…I really wish we had time for a drink or something…”

***

Mr. Rationalist, I wish I could convey to you what an astonishing experience that was. (Actually, I dropped him a note and told him that I was going to be posting this, and invited him to come by and contribute – but I don’t “out” someone without expressed permission.) As I mentioned, I was weary from fighting the good fight all weekend, having a phenomenal time, but also very much feeling like I was completely outclassed by all the brilliant engineers, entrepreneurs, academics, and writers. To have one such panel member even recognize me based on my ramblings here, let alone to be so enthusiastic and gracious about it – well, it was a shot of rejuvenation juice which would make Lazarus Long jump for joy. Thank you.

Jim Downey

UPDATE: and in comments: Mr. Rationalist has dropped me a note and said it was OK to ID him: Richard Hanley, Assoc. Prof of Philosophy at U. Delaware, and author of South Park and Philosophy: Bigger, Longer, and More Penetrating and The Metaphysics of Star Trek among others. I mean, how cool is that?

JD

(Cross-posted, with tweaks, from UTI.)