Dreams of Mars

Tom Chmielewski : September 29, 2016 3:51 pm : Mars exploration, News, Space news

(credit: Space X video)

Musk Endeavors to Make Reality Catch Up with Science Fiction

Elon Musk is nutty as a fruitcake. He has to be to dream this big and have any chance of reaching those dreams. Musk and others like him are the only ones with enough passion who can.

Of course, it helps to have a lot of money, and Musk has accumulated plenty of it, mostly on risky ventures and big dreams. But none of those dreams compares to what he placed on the far horizons Monday for his company SpaceX – a  fleet of massive rockets, each capable of carrying 100 people to colonize Mars, or even travel farther out in the Solar System. His goal: to seed a million-person colony on Mars.

This isn’t a shoot for the Moon space race. It’s an interplanetary triathlon, with the aim of not who can cross the finish line first, but who can get there at all. Musk is determined to get there, and hopes other space initiatives spawned by similar dreamers are inspire to set forth on their own adventures. Mars is a small planet, but big enough to host a number of interplanetary visionaries with their own plans on how to reach and colonize the Red Planet.

Driven by Science Fiction

There’s no mistaking the impact that science fiction has had on Musk’s vision of future reality. The passenger ship for Mars colonists and explorers has an Art Deco aesthetic to it, similar to rocket ships flown by Flash Gordon in 1930s’ movie serials or portrayed on pulp SF magazine covers from that era and well into the ‘50s. Indeed, the passenger ship of the Interplanetary Transport System, as it’s now inelegantly called, reminds me of the rocket in the movie “When Worlds Collide.” That rocket had much the same purpose as the design proposed by Musk, to deliver a large group of people from Earth to hurriedly colonize another world.

It’s unlikely that Musk will stick with the acronym ITS for this interplanetary fleet. He already described ships making their way to Mars as a “colonial fleet,” admitting it was a reference to the TV series Battle Star Galactica. With his dream propelled as it is by his own internal “improbability drive,” Musk thinks he’ll name the first ship of Space X’s colonial fleet the Heart of Gold, after the ship of that name in Douglas Adams’ BBC radio serial and subsequent movie, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”

Perhaps the most influence science fiction has had on Musk is the big dream itself. It is not enough to set foot on Mars. SpaceX is attempting to build an interplanetary culture, and he’s in a hurry. He sees the first landing of a crewed spaceship on Mars happening in the 2020s with the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft, and “if everything goes really well,” he sees the first flight of the Heart of Gold within 10 years, as improbable as it may seem.

But What of Reality?

On Tuesday, Musk laid out a plan, a concept, a dream. At present, however, his vision is as much fiction as the stories that have inspired him. If SpaceX embarks on Musk’s plan, and if other private or public/private ventures join his company in his quest to reach and settle the Red Planet, NASA’s path to land astronauts there by sometime in the mid 2030s will be left in the dust. On the other hand, dust burying the remnants of Musk’s efforts may be all the NASA explorers find.

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The Cyberian Candidate

Tom Chmielewski : July 27, 2016 7:24 pm : Cyber tech, News, Writing sci-fi

The Russian penetration  of the Democratic National Committee’s computer network at first glance seems like the “third-rate” burglary that Richard Nixon’s tricksters tried to pull at the DNC’s  headquarters in 1972. But just as with Watergate, this latest political thievery has the earmarks of becoming a first-rate thriller.

I’ve written before about advances in cyber warfare, such as a Chinese cyber-mercenary gang known as Icefog,with apparent strong connections to the Chinese military.  And while most cyber attacks are meant to gather intelligence and, if possible, not leave a trace, a few have become notoriously public, such as North Korea’s revenge attack on Sony Pictures for releasing  a comedy that poked fun and insults at North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. The U.S. intelligence service, on the other hand, is widely believed to have unleashed an invasive program called Stuxnet against Iran that physically sabotaged its nuclear program. Rather than corrupt computer files, Stuxnet caused centrifuges for processing nuclear material  to spin too fast and self-destruct.

So any strong U.S. reaction to the Russian hack of DNC email servers would have been like saying they were “shocked, shocked to learn there was cyber spying going on around here.” In fact, the initial reaction was an admission that foreign countries, and our own, hack files of political organizations in other countries, friendly or not, to regularly gather insight into another nation’s key politicians. There’s a sort of nudge-and-a-wink attitude about such political spying, perhaps because it’s better for all sides if everyone’s up to speed on each country’s political landscape.

It was the release of DNC’s emails to Wikileaks, however, that seemed to cross the line. more »


Rocket Scientists Follow Science Fiction’s Lead

Tom Chmielewski : December 29, 2015 6:05 pm : Mars exploration, News, Space news

The first stage of Space X's Falcon 9 rocket successfully lands at Cape Canaveral. (Photo courtesy Space X)

The first stage of Space X’s Falcon 9 rocket successfully lands at Cape Canaveral. (Photo courtesy Space X)

I don’t recall many science fiction stories that had manned spacecraft landing on Earth by parachuting into water.  There might have been a few SF stories based on the Apollo program, but parachutes? No.

So last week’s powered landing of Space X’s Falcon 9 first stage was a step backward in time to when SF writers knew how spaceships should land, even if it’s taking decades for rocket engineers to catch up.

The Dec. 21 landing was only a step. It was, after all, an unmanned booster that landed back at Cape Canaveral. Yet it was not a test flight but an operational launch that sent 11 communication satellites into orbit. By accomplishing its primary mission and returning to its launch site, Space X achieved far more than rival Blue Origin did a couple of weeks before with a powered vertical landing after a test flight. The Falcon 9 booster traveled higher, farther and faster than the Blue Origin test hop, and proved vertical landing was not a public relations lark but a solid proof of concept under operational conditions. In one round-trip flight, the Falcon 9 flight and landing has demonstrated the viability of a truly reusable first stage that will cut the costs of launches for Space X.

Yet we can’t get too excited. It’s going to take more than one powered landing before reusable launch boosters have proven their dependability. The booster used in the Falcon 9 launch and landing will actually never fly again, according to Space X, but will be refueled and test fired as part of a series of tests to see how well it withstood the stress of returning to Earth intact. If the Falcon 9, however, succeeds in proving that dependability, the cost of sending humans and cargo to Earth orbit should drop dramatically. more »

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“That is how a 21st century spaceship should land”

Tom Chmielewski : June 15, 2014 5:47 pm : Mars exploration, News, Space news

SpaceX has been making great strides in proving its launch capabilities and competing for acceptance from NASA to carry astronauts back into space on an American rocket.

But in the neck-and-neck competition to have a private enterprise spacecraft crew rated, it struck me that SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft was lagging behind Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser when it came to the coolness factor. But that changed on May 29 when SpaceX’s CEO unveiled Dragon V2 that would land the way science fiction traditionally portrayed spacecraft landing, on its tail, rockets blazing, for a soft landing.

Illustration of DragonX landing on Mars.

Dragon V2 lands on Mars in still taken from SpaceX animation. (Courtesy SpaceX)

“That is how a 21st century spaceship should land,” SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk told the cheering crowd at the unveiling as an animation showed the Dragon V2 completing its powered landing.

Now I’m guessing NASA isn’t going to decide to support a spacecraft primarily on the craft’s coolness factor. It would seem a good chance that at least two of the three companies will win a NASA seal of approval. And while Space X and Sierra Nevada have made headlines, no one can discount Boeing’s years of experience of launching craft into space as a key reason for it’s capsule design to win approval.

But SpaceX, which since its beginning had been concentrating on simply launching into Earth’s orbit, very quickly showed in early June that Dragon V2 need not be limited to staying close to the home planet. The same landing rockets and design which would allow the spacecraft to land would also allow it to land on Mars.

The game is on. There is still much work that SpaceX, Sierra Nevada and Boeing must do before anyone rides their spacecraft into space, let alone to Mars. Yet it does look that America’s space industry and particularly its capability to send people into space is heading toward a resurgence. SpaceX’s design for launching a multipurpose spacecraft not limited to Earth orbit, much as NASA’s Orion also under development, may open up a new chapter of exploration, finally, in the coming years.

SpaceX Aims for Mars with Reusable Rockets, Spaceships

Private Space Taxis for Astronauts Move Closer to First Test Flights


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ISON dead. Wait, no it’s not!

Tom Chmielewski : November 29, 2013 1:40 pm : News

It was to be the comet of the century, or at least the comet of the century so far.

But as ISON made its much anticipated solar rendezvous on Thanksgiving day, something happened to it on the far side of the Sun. Initially, astronomers said the comet failed to reappear as it circled the Sun, but by Friday morning they reversed themselves and said ISON did survive, but in a greatly diminished state. The comet got beat up pretty bad as it grazed the sun, the heat vaporizing ISON’s ice and gas, and it’s rocky core likely began to boil. more »

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