Communion Of Dreams


Coincidence.

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

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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.

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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.

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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



The difficulty of accomplishing anything.

One of the hallmarks of major depression is the energy-sucking nature of the disease. For someone in the throes of such a depression, it becomes almost impossible to even get out of bed, and regular correspondence, routine tasks, et cetera, all slide by the wayside, piling up and contributing to the downward spiral.

I suffer from a mild form of bipolar disorder – what is commonly called manic-depression. The arc of my mental state can be influenced by many things, but typically runs about 18 – 24 months through a full cycle. I have never suffered through a full major depression, but I’ve been down into it far enough to have glimpsed that hell, and know I want no part of it. I’ve learned to cope with my condition, and know full well that if I were ever to slip further I would want professional help to deal with it.

One thing I find in being a care-giver for someone with Alzheimer’s is that as my charge slips further into dementia herself, the toll that it takes on me and my wife comes increasingly to resemble suffering a major depression. Basically, with the prolonged lack of sleep and growing effort to help her comes an increasing difficulty in having the energy to accomplish anything else. Last week I read the new Harry Potter book, and the effort left me completely exhausted and suffering a prolonged migraine by the end of the week. If I can get the focus to spend a few hours at the bench doing book conservation in a given week it is a minor miracle. Just contacting clients or suppliers becomes a task I cannot confront. I’ve promised someone an article on Pat Bahn of TGV Rockets, which I really want to write, but finding the energy to do so is another matter altogether.

And yes, my own mental health is stressed by all of this. I am constantly at risk of falling into the trap that I should be doing more, should be stronger. That’s my image of myself. And when I put my mind to it, I really can accomplish some remarkable things. So the temptation is to push myself further, to goad more work out of myself, to criticize myself for being “weak” for not having the focus or the energy to do this or that. That is a dangerous path.

So, I do what I can, when I can, and try and cut myself some slack the rest of the time. And this afternoon, while my mother-in-law naps, I think I will can some tomatoes. There is more conservation work waiting for me, and other writing I should do. But the tomatoes are ripe and ready, and it will be a nice change from the other tasks.

Jim Downey



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.)