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.)


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)


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.


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.

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.


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.)