Category Archives: A Writing Life

549. The Saturn Rockets

Saturn V

This post is called The Saturn Rockets, plural, because there were two if you speak loosely, or three if you are picky. If we were looking at all of the rockets of the Apollo program, we would have to add Little Joe. Getting men to the moon was a complex operation.

The pre-Apollo manned missions used modified military missiles as launch vehicles. Atlas was designated for Mercury, but delays in achieving reliability caused the first two Mercury flights to be sub-orbital on Redstone missiles. Gemini used Titan II missiles throughout the program.

The Saturn rockets are often said to be designed from the start as space launch vehicles, not military missiles. That is a somewhat limited view. The program that eventually produced the Saturns began in 1956 and ran through an amazing number of paper iterations before anything ever left the ground. “Saturn” development was simultaneous with the developments of Atlas, Titan, and other military missiles, and kept changing as those other missiles refined rocket technology.

The same infighting family of scientists and engineers developed Saturn and all American military missiles, the same set of companies built them, and the same government paid for it all. Saturn was developed through NASA and was never planned to carry warheads, but the entire American manned space program was a child of the cold war. The civilian vs. military distinction is a bit of sleight of hand.

By 1959, the possible types of Saturn rockets had been reduced to eight configurations. Eventually three were built.

Saturn I was designed to put spacecraft into low Earth orbit. Saturn V was designed to put men on the moon, and later tasked with launching Skylab. See 297. Skylab 1 and 298. Skylab 2.

Remember Little Joe? That was an existing rocket that was used early to test out the Apollo capsule’s abort mechanism.

Ten Saturn I rockets flew;. Five were in Saturn development flights. Five others carried early, unmanned versions of Apollo spacecraft, as well as Pegasus micrometeorite satellites.

The Saturn I was replaced by the more powerful Saturn IB (shown at left) in 1966. Saturn IB became a workhorse for heavy, low Earth orbit launches.

The first Saturn IB topped by an unmanned CSM was launched in a mission then called Apollo 1. Later, after the deaths of three astronauts in the capsule fire, there was a mass renumbering of past flights in order to call their mission Apollo 1. It was an entirely understandable gesture, but it causes confusion to this day.

Two more Saturn IBs were launched in 1966, then the first Saturn V was launched. The next launch was to test an unmanned LEM in low Earth orbit. That flight fell to the Saturn IB which had been involved in the “Apollo One” disaster, since the capsule fire had not damaged the launch vehicle. Another Saturn V launch in 1968 completed the unmanned phase of Apollo.

On October 11, 1968, the first manned Apollo craft achieved orbit. Manned missions are what we all remember, but by that time there had been seven abort tests, sixteen launches of Saturn I, IB, and V vehicles, and twelve major ground simulation tests.

Apollo 7 was the only manned Apollo mission to use a Saturn IB. Apollo 9 was also a flight to low Earth orbit, but it used a Saturn V because it was  a full, close-in dress rehearsal and first launching of a manned LEM.

The other ten Apollo mission used the Saturn V, cementing a picture of that rocket into everyone’s mind.

After the end of Apollo, a Saturn V launched Skylab. Three subsequent launches of Saturn IBs took up the astronauts who manned it.

The last manned use of Saturn IB was to carry an Apollo CSM to rendezvous with a Soyuz vehicle in 1975.


548. Victorian Steampunk?


Please note that Serial is back temporarily, to present the short story by Dickens which was a predecessor to A Christmas Carol. It starts today. Check it out.




The Victorian era — was there such a thing?

Victoria became Queen in 1837 and died in 1901, a reign of just short of sixty-four years. Everything in Britain changed in that time except the Queen, so does the phrase Victorian Era have any real meaning?

If you are going to write steampunk, that is a fair question. Of course steampunk usually takes place in an alternate Victorian era — sometimes extremely alternate — but you have to have at least a reasonable knowledge of the original if you are going to mimic it.

Most of us get our history everywhere but a history book, so let’s see what fiction we can use to subdivide the era. Jane Austen, the Brontes, and the Queen were born only a few years apart, so if you enjoy those authors, you are reading about the early Victorian period. Not my wheelhouse, but to each his own.

More to my taste, Charles Dickens’s first novel was published in 1837, the year Victoria became queen. His last novel (uncompleted) and his death took place in 1870. At that time Victoria still had three decades to live.

The Dickensian era is almost as widely known as the Victorian. In full disclosure, I have read all of Dickens’s Christmas novellas — A Christmas Carol several times — but his larger works tend to defeat me. I think I was inoculated against them by being force-fed Great Expectations at too young an age.

Not everyone reads Dickens by choice, but everyone knows what Dickensian means. Judith Flanders in The Victorian City, said:

Today “Dickensian” means squalor . . .(Dickens was) the greatest recorder the London streets has ever known — through whose eyes those streets have become Dickensian . . .

She got it right for her literary audience, but wrong for those who never read a Dickens novel that they weren’t forced to read. Dickensian, to the average Joe (or Joan) means carolers in fancy dress, Scrooge redeemed, Tiny Tim getting a second chance at life, and a village of quaint houses for the Christmas mantle. The actual harshness of Dickens’s other novels is excluded.

The squalor and the sweetness: that is the dual heritage that steampunk authors have to work with if they set their works in variations of the early Victorian period.

As I explained last Wednesday, Like Clockwork is derived from A Christmas Carol, although it morphed into something very different from a Christmas novel. I don’t think Dickens would recognize my London at all.


From 1870 when Dickens died, until 1901 when Queen Victoria died, the world became a very different place from the home of Scrooge, Tiny Tim, and Oliver Twist. The industrial revolution changed the world into something much closer to the present.

You might choose Jules Verne as the author that most represents this era, but not if you are concentrating on England. Verne would be the right literary reference for a steampunk novel set in the La Belle Époque, Paris. If you know of such a work, send me the author and title. I would love to read it.

My earlier steampunk novel, The Cost of Empire, travels across five continents by dirigible, but much of the action takes place in London. For that time period in London, there is only one literary creature who is in everyone’s DNA; not an author, but a character who is more real to most of us than the author who created him — Sherlock Holmes.

Holmes first case, A Study in Scarlet, was published in 1887, and there were flashbacks to earlier cases. His Last Bow was on the eve of World War I. This neatly fills in the rest of the Victorian era and spills over into the Edwardian.

Gender gets involved here. Dickens appeals, or doesn’t appeal, to men and women alike. The rest of British popular literature, contemporary to the era (not historical fiction) is largely gender biased, with Austen and the Brontes for the gals, Kipling, Buchan, and Conan Doyle for the guys.

In other words, if you are a guy (guilty as charged) and you consider Victorian characters, you are more likely to think first of Sherlock Holmes than of Elizabeth Bennet — or even Mr. Darcy.

When I first became involved in the Victorian era, after becoming interested in steampunk, my knowledge of everyday life in London came largely from multiple readings of the canon. That is what Holmes fans call the fifty-six stories and four novels written by ACD himself.  My internal vision of Victorian London was that which could be seen from 221b Baker Street, even though Sherlock himself never makes an appearance in my writings.



If you want a reference book for each era, I recommend:

For the early Victorian period — The Victorian City by Judith Flanders. She gives a modern scholar’s look at the reality behind the world that Dickens wrote about.

For the late Victorian period — Sherlock Holmes: the Man and his World by H. R. F. Keating. He provides commentary on Holmes’s world, with contemporary photographs of scenes from the canon.

547. Where Do You Get Your Ideas (2)

Continued from Monday.

In the movie Scrooge, just after Bob Cratchit leaves Scrooge to return home on Christmas eve, he meets his two youngest children outside a toyshop. Inside is a wonderland of toys, including mechanical marvels. Most notable is a clockwork strongman who lifts himself horizontally and then holds himself suspended by one arm. You’ll no doubt see the movie on TV sometime this month; you can watch for the scene.

When I saw it — and every time thereafter — I found myself asking who, in an obviously poor corner of London, would buy such toys? Who would make them? Why were they there?

I buy into Christmas and its magic 100%, but I also look behind the curtain. If you are a writer, you know the feeling.

Clearly, historically, these were late Victorian toys. Their existence was a product of Dickens’ push for humanity, kindness, and his desire to make childhood the joy it never was for him. In short, these toys existed in the 1970 version of Dickens’s Christmas Carol precisely because Dickens had called them forth by the writing of the novel in 1843.

If that confused you, don’t try to write time travel stories.

As I saw the toyshop, and the poor children outside who would never have such toys, I said to myself:

Let’s write a story about the toyshop, and the man who inhabits it. Let’s make him the toy maker, not simply the proprietor. How does he feel when he see children pressing their faces against the glass, knowing that they cannot afford the toys he makes? Why is he in this poor part of London? What is his backstory?

Let’s not make him a simple fellow like the one in the movie. Let’s make him a brooding figure. Let’s unfold his story slowly, and let him find his own kind of redemption. Let’s not make him anything like Scrooge, but the product of some irreversible tragedy outside himself. And then let’s reverse the irreversible, but slowly.

The skeleton of this idea floated about in the ether for decades. The final connections came when I was writing The Cost of Empire and getting acquainted with steampunk traditions.

Clockwork. Steampunk worlds work on steam and on clockwork. The toys in the toy shop are clockwork. Clocks are clockwork. Clocks measure time. Steampunk is full of time travel. Time travel is based on unsupportable science, so it touches on fantasy. A Christmas Carol is full of fantasy, if you count ghosts impinging on the “real” world as fantasy.

Remember, the subtitle of Dickens’ story was Being a Ghost Story of Christmas.

When you come right down to it, A Christmas Carol is a story about time travel. Three ghosts take Scrooge to the past, present, and future. And it displays the most cliché time paradox, that Scrooge goes back in time (from the future to the present) and becomes a different person than he would have been if he had never seen the future.

So suppose a time traveler from the future goes back to Victorian London to — no, I don’t want to tell you that yet. I have to leave something for the book.

Don’t think of all this speculation as something that moves in linear order, like an outline. Think of it as ten thousand bees in a swarm inside the author’s head. Nine thousand of those bees will be blind alleys and will never appear in the final product.

The ones that made the cut were dragged out of the cosmos by hard thought and reflection over the year it took to write Like Clockwork. Those are the “ideas” no one ever asks about, but they are the ones that really count.

The ironic thing is that Like Clockwork ended up not being a Christmas story at all. In fact, it takes place in a universe where Christmas has been all but forgotten. The part of the novel actually dependent on the toy shop ends up as about ten percent of the whole.

So if, on some future date, you are reading Like Clockwork and you ask yourself, “Where the hell did all this come from?” — the answer is, “Dickens made me do it.”

Or the answer could be, “Out of the ether.” Both answers are true.

546. Where Do You Get Your Ideas (1)

Everybody who doesn’t write, wants to know where writers get their ideas. Everybody who writes knows the answer is, “Everywhere,” and also knows that answer won’t satisfy anyone.

I think that those who ask really want to know is where we get the initial idea, the one that sets everything in motion. For instance, I have one like that which I haven’t used yet. It’s a winner for sure. It has hippies and drugs and the . . . nope! I might still write that one, so I’m keeping it to myself.

I’ve actually already told the origin stories of one novel, one series and one fragment. You can check them out if you want. I have one more answer that covers four stories, and that answer is Scrooge.

My fascination with Dickens’s classic began during the Christmas season of 1970. I was a new college graduate, married, waiting for my date to enter the Navy. My immediate future looked grim, and possibly short.

The musical Scrooge was released that year and it went straight to the heart when my wife and I saw it in the theatre. I immediately bought the videotape, even though I had no way to play it at the time. I knew I didn’t want to lose that powerful story of redemption.

In the  years that followed, I read the original story several times, along with the other four Christmas stories that Dickens followed up with in later years. I also made a collection of other Christmas Carol movies, some good, some dull, some awful. Every actor seemed to want to play Scrooge.

Five years after the release of Scrooge, I started writing novels. I concentrated on science fiction and fantasy, but deep down I wanted to write my own Christmas classic. And yes, I know, there are ten million other writers who have had the same idea.

I won’t go into detail, but over the years the idea grew from one story to three.

Nathaniel Gunn returns from a long voyage on a trading ship to Philadelphia in 1791 to find his wife dead from disease and his two children apparently dead as well. Throughout the following Christmas season he gives away his money to the needy around him, but it does his heart and soul no good until he has to give away the one thing that means the most to him.

The children, who are not really dead, make their painful way back from their uncle’s farm toward Philadelphia. Along the way they find themselves taking shelter with a family of Moravian’s, the Christian sect that was that era’s the strongest advocate of Christmas, long before it’s celebration became generally accepted.

These two stories are bracketed by a later story. Nathan, the son, finds himself in New York in 1823 where he befriends the despondent Clement Clarke Moore.

Those stories grew out of a desire to bring early Christmas to the new world, and tie the birth of Christ to the birth of the nation. (The first congress met in New York in 1789 and Philadelphia in 1791, before moving on to the newly built Washington City.)

It needs writing. Maybe someday if I can find the time . . .

Those were literary and historical ideas. Meanwhile, there was a purely visual idea that also came out of Scrooge. I’ll tell you about it in two days.

Continued Wednesday.

545. Lottery Day at the Big Casino

Rep. Pirnie draws the first number.

The place was a class at Michigan State University, just about this time fifty years ago. I wasn’t in the room, so I may be wrong on a few details, but the basic story spread quickly all over campus.

The professor was a young radical. There were a lot of those at MSU in the late 60s. Finals were near when he announced that grades would be given out a little differently this year. He opened a notebook and began to call roll. As he did, an assistant drew notes from a bowl. The professor read, “Adams.” The assistant took a folded paper from the bowl, opened it, and said C. The professor read, “Baker,” and the assistant said F.

As you may guess, it left the room in an uproar. I’m sure the actual grades were given in the normal manner, but the young professor had made his point.

About a week later, a similar lottery took place nationwide, televised, and determined life or death for thousands of young Americans. I was listening closely, because I was a contestant. It was the first draft lottery since World War II.

There were three of us paying attention, my two college roommates and I. One of them didn’t have to worry; he had blown his knee out as a high school wrestler and was 4-F. That’s a medical deferment. The other roommate and I were on student deferments, but we were both going to graduate in June. He drew a high number and never served. I wasn’t so lucky.

I have said often that the draft leveled the playing field. It was a favorite saying in that era that Viet Nam was a war where black people were sent to kill yellow people for the sake of white people. Without the draft, that would have been even closer to the truth.

I wasn’t feeling so charitable when that bastard got to my birthday and pulled a 41.

Ain’t it fun to gamble in the big casino?

544. Apollo 7

We are coming up on the fiftieth anniversary of the first moon landing.

Apollo One, the fire on the pad that caused the deaths of Grissom, White and Chaffee, took place February 21, 1967, causing a long delay. About a year and a half later things were just getting back up to speed. Apollo 7, the first successful manned flight took place on October 11, 1968.

The fiftieth anniversary of that flight was about a month ago, and I missed posting about it. That’s hard for me to believe, since I have been following the space program since 1957.

Purchased today, foot to butt kit, for self-application, apply immediately.

Apollo 7 is too important to simply mention, and too controversial for someone out of the loop to cover with authority. Nevertheless, here is a thumbnail.

Mission Commander Wally Schirra’s attitude toward NASA after the Apollo one disaster was — not positive. The space program had grown into a massive source of funds for companies. Engineers and the builders in the trenches were fully committed to excellence, however top brass decisions were sometimes questionable. The choice of North American Aviation to build the Command Module was controversial. McDonnell Aircraft had built the Mercury and Gemini craft, and many pointed out that the shift to North American Aviation wasted the talent and experience that had made the space program a success so far.

To put it bluntly, the Apollo Command Module NAA originally turned out was a lemon, and everybody knew it.

During the year and a half from the disaster to the launch of Apollo 7, Wally Schirra made it his personal mission to see to it that the craft he and his fellow astronauts were to ride in was of top quality. He was abrasive and relentless, and when Apollo 7 flew successfully, it was largely because of his persistence.

The flight, which he considered an engineering test mission, was cluttered up with scientific and PR projects. When they interfered with testing out the craft, he refused to do them. In space, where nobody could override his decisions. His acerbic interchanges with ground control would have banned him from future missions, but he had already announced that he would retire at the end of the flight. What could NASA do?

Apollo 7, the first manned Apollo mission, was an engineering success but a failure in personal politics. Eisele and Cunningham were never allowed to fly again, but the subsequent missions had a CSM that they could trust.

Wally Schirra became the only astronaut to fly on Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions.


I have recently worked out a series of posts covering events in the run-up to the moon landing. As I was doing so, I also became aware of another, less joyful anniversary. Since it took place on December first, which is a Saturday this year, I will skip Wednesday’s post and fill you in this Friday.

543. The Door


Photo: Marcin Konsek / Wikimedia Commons

Here is a quote for you, hot off the grill.

There is a door. On one side is written Science Fiction. On the other side is written Fantasy. You can come from either side, and pass through either way, but it will still be the same door.

You can write pure, hard science fiction, and you can write pure fantasy. At least you can try to, but no matter how much you try there will always be a modicum of fantasy in science fiction. And fantasy will always have a hard edge of life and death, or it won’t be worth reading.

Like Clockwork sounds like fantasy until half way through, when all the weird things are shown to have a scientific basis — more or less. And in the middle of the setting of the story, there is an arch between Inner London, which looks like a Dickens movie set, and Outer London, which looks like an equation.

 Snap’s world lay pinned against the Thames, from St. Paul’s to the Clock and on to the Tower, with London Bridge somewhere near the middle. It would be hard to chart the boundaries of Snap’s world, as it was a world of fogs.

Balfour walked with Snap as far as Pickwick’s and took his leave. From there, his path took him along the wider thoroughfares — and the widest were none too wide — past the shell of St. Paul’s. It was familiar territory for Balfour. He was one of the few whose nature allowed him to move freely between Inner and Outer London.

Eventually, he reached The Wall at Newgate Arch. As he faced the opening, it was a weathered arch with carvings mellowed by the corrosive fog until they were quite unreadable.  He passed through and looked back. On this side of the wall, the gate was foursquare and framed in brick. Every brick was identical and a caliper could not have found a variation in the lines of mortar.

The city beyond was foursquare as well, with rectangular buildings on rectilinear streets. A small fragment of humanity lived with Snap in Luddie London; the rest lived here.

Yin and yang. Dark and light. Old and new. The look of fantasy and the look of science fiction. It makes for a nice tension.