Tag Archives: space travel

Shut the Door, Martha!

This is unnumbered because it will be short — not so much a post, as a post script. In Serial today, Neil and Carmen finally make love but they do it off stage. I prefer that, most of the time.

Several reviewers of Cyan complained about the amount of sex in the novel. I don’t understand that. It was absolutely necessary to the story, since Cyan was a description of how the exploration of nearby extra-solar planets might actually happen. Given the isolation the explorers would endure, sex was a essential part of the mix.  Even then, most of the sex takes place off stage or nearly off stage.

This subject came up in a panel at Westercon. I was in the audience, not on stage. The question they were considering was, “When your characters have sex, do you shut the door?” Some did; some didn’t. No one asked me, but unless there is an overriding reason otherwise, I usually shut the door.

Even fictional people deserve some privacy.


469. Joe Engle, Astronaut

Joe Engle missed his chance to go to the moon when he was bumped from Apollo 17 by Harrison Schmitt. It made sense. Schmitt was a geologist turned astronaut, and became the only one of the scientist-astronauts to get to the moon. He was, in fact, the only scientist to fly in space before the space shuttle program.

Joe Engle never became a household name like John Glenn and Neil Armstrong, but fighter jet crazy and space crazy kids of my generation were already aware of him before Apollo began. Not through the internet, which was decades away, nor from books in the library which were always two generations out of date, but from Popular Mechanics and Popular Science magazines. That was where my generation went to read about what was newer, faster, shinier, and cooler.

Iven Kincheloe, Mel Apt, Chuck Yaeger, Scott Crossfield, Joe Walker — if those names don’t stir your blood, you missed out. They were test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base who flew the newest and the best, especially the X-1, X-2, and most especially the X-15.

Joe Engle was one of them. By the way, so was that other guy, Neil Armstrong.

Engle decided to be a test pilot while in college, where he was in Air Force ROTC. Chuck Yeager recommended him for USAF test pilot school, and he subsequently attended Aerospace Research Pilot School. This was pre-NASA when the Air Force planned to put a man in space in a project called MISS (Man in Space Soonest). MISS morphed into Mercury after NASA took over the space program from the Air Force.

Engle served as a jet test pilot at Edwards and applied to NASA to be an astronaut. Instead, the Air Force chose him for the X-15 program. There he made sixteen flights; the fastest speed he recorded was 3887 mph. His highest altitude was 53.1 miles.

FAI (Fédération aéronautique internationale) in Switzerland maintains world records for human space flight. They set the limit of space at 100 kilometers. That’s 62.1 miles in the measurements Americans still use. In the days of the X-15, the Air Force set 50 miles as the edge of space and awarded an astronaut’s wings to any pilot exceeding that altitude. Engle exceeded fifty miles three times in the X-15.

(Fellow test pilot Joe Walker flew the X-15 above 100 kilometers twice, becoming the eighth American in space by the FAI’s more difficult criterion.)

Joe Engle applied to NASA again and was accepted. He was backup Lunar Module pilot for Apollo 14, and would have landed on the moon in Apollo 17. Engle then elected to transfer to the Space Shuttle program. He commanded one of the crews which flew multiple flight on the unpowered Enterprise. This near-shuttle was carried aloft on a Boeing 747 and dropped for a dead stick landing to evaluate its aerodynamic characteristics. NASA had to determine if the shuttle could land before it would launch it into space.

Engle was backup for the first Space Shuttle flight, and commander of the second flight. He later commanded STS-51-1.

Joe Engle is the only man to have flown two different types of winged vehicle into space. He is also the only remaining pilot of the twelve who flew the X-15, which he still calls his favorite aircraft.

468. Astronauts Left Behind

These poor guys got left behind when Apollo 17 went to the moon, and then I left them behind as well. This and the following post were originally planned for January but life got in the way.

When Apollo missions 18, 19, and 20 were cancelled, ten astronauts lost their chance at the moon. They were:

joe Engle who was scheduled for Apollo 17, but was replaced on that mission by Harrison Schmitt. (see 444. Last Men on the Moon) He will get his own post on Wednesday.

Richard Gordon and Vance Brand, who were scheduled for Apollo 18 along with Schmitt.

Fred Haise, William Pogue, and Gerald Carr who were scheduled for Apollo 19.

Stuart Roosa, Paul Weitz, Jack Lousma, and Don Lind who were on the short list for Apollo 20, although the final choice of three had not been made at the time of cancellation.

Here are their individual stories:

Stuart Roosa had been the Command Module Pilot of Apollo 14, the third moon landing. It was his only mission in space. He did not fly in space after Apollo 18 was cancelled.

Richard Gordon flew first on Gemini 11 where he and Pete Conrad set a record for the highest apogee earth orbit, while Gordon performed two space walks. He was Command Module Pilot of Apollo 12, the second moon landing. He did not fly in space after Apollo 18 was cancelled.

Vance Brand was on the backup crew of Apollo 15 and scheduled for the cancelled Apollo 18. He was then backup on Skylabs 3 and 4, and was on the rescue team held in reserve for a possible Skylab disaster. He finally flew on space on the Apollo-Soyuz mission, and later commanded the first fully operational Space Shuttle mission on the Columbia. He commanded Challenger on the tenth Space Shuttle flight and Columbia again on the thirty-eighth shuttle flight.

Fred Haise had gone around the moon on the ill-fated Apollo 13. On Apollo 19 he would have landed on the moon. He subsequently was a pilot on the ALT program (full title, Space Shuttle Approach and Landing Tests), where he piloted the unpowered Enterprise to three successful landings, after being dropped from a 747. He was scheduled to fly the second Space Shuttle mission to boost Skylab to a higher orbit, but that was cancelled when delays in the shuttle program allowed Skylab to fall.

Skylab plays a role in the stories of several of these astronauts. For details, go to posts 297   298  and  299.

William Pogue and Gerald Carr both shifted from Apollo to Skylab after the cancellation of Apollo 19. They were part of the Skylab 4 crew which spent 84 days in space.

Paul Weitz also shifted to the Skylab project, where he was on the crew of Skylab 2, the first manned mission. Skylab was badly damaged during its unmanned launch, a mission that was called Skylab 1. Weitz along with Pete Conrad and Joseph Kerwin spent much of their mission doing repairs.  Weitz retired from NASA, then returned to fly the maiden voyage of the Space Shuttle Challenger.

Jack Lousma was on the crew of Skylab 3, where he spent 60 days in space. He subsequently was commander of STS-3, the third orbital test flight of Space Shuttle Columbia.

Don Lind once said he was “in the right place at the wrong time.” He was one of the scientist-astronauts brought into Apollo and would most likely have followed Schmitt in rotation had Apollo 20 not been cancelled. He moved to Skylab, where he was backup for Skylabs 3 and 4, on standby for a rescue mission that didn’t happen, and was scheduled for Skylab 5 mission, which also didn’t happen. He was under consideration for Skylab B, a second Skylab space station that was cancelled. He was under consideration for the Apollo-Soyuz mission, but was not chosen. He finally flew on STS-51-B in 1985 aboard Spacelab-3. Spacelab was a space lab, in module form, carried in the payload bay of a space shuttle. Lind had served nineteen years as an astronaut before his first and only spaceflight.

444. Last Men on the Moon

left to right: Schmitt, Cernan (seated), and Evens

The last Apollo mission occurred forty-five years ago this week, with final departure from the moon on December 14th..

The three men who went to the moon on Apollo 17 were not the original choice. Astronaut crews during Apollo were selected well in advance, with primary and backup crews for each mission. The backup crew, as a unit, was supposed to fly on a subsequent mission, but not the very next one. That plan was frequently disrupted by events. Everyone probably remembers from the movie Apollo 13 that Mattingly was originally part of the Apollo 13 crew, but was bumped at the last minute in favor of Swigert because Mattingly had been exposed to rubella. The actual shuffling that took place was far more complicated than that.

As Apollo wound down and missions 18, 19, and 20 were cancelled, (see 441. The Last Apollo) nine astronauts were going to lose their chance at the moon. One of these men was Harrison Schmitt who had been slated for Apollo 18. He was one of the scientist astronauts recruited by NASA. Given the schedule at the time Apollo 18 was cancelled, none of these scientists would have flown. This was unacceptable to the scientific community; they lobbied for and got Schmitt moved up to Apollo 17, which cost Joe Engle his mission.

What happened to the men who got the Apollo axe? Obviously that is worth at least one post, possibly more, but my rotation pushes that into January or later.

Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt landed on the moon December 11. Their mission was J type, as were Apollo 15 and 16, which meant these missions were designed for a three day stay and included a Lunar Rover. This dune buggy looking vehicle allowed one or two astronauts to move further away from the Lunar Lander and greatly increased the usefulness of the mission.

Apollo 17 landed in the Taurus-Littrow region of the moon. This site allowed sampling a wide range of types of rock, as it consisted of an ancient lava flow, with surface broken by subsequent meteor strikes, and included secondary strikes. This means that ejecta from the nearby Tycho crater came to earth (came to Moon?) causing secondary, smaller craters at the Taurus-Littrow site. This allowed Schmitt to sample Tycho material even though an Apollo landing at Tycho never happened.

A few minutes before eleven PM, Greenwich Time, December 14, 1972, the last manned mission to the moon lifted off, to later rendezvous with the CSM and return to Earth. Gene Cernan was the last to enter the lunar Lander before take off. We’ll give him the final words:

“Too many years have passed for me to still be the last man to have left his footprints on the Moon. I believe with all my heart that somewhere out there is a young boy or girl with indomitable will and courage who will lift that dubious distinction from my shoulders and take us back where we belong. Let us give that dream a chance.”


I’ve read a large number of memoirs by astronauts and others involved in space exploration. The Last Man on the Moon by Eugene Cernan and Don Davis is one of the best. If you want more of this story, that is the place to go for it.

Blatant Commercialism

Greetings, new friends.

Recently, a number of new people have found their way to my website, and I am glad to see you. All my old friends have already heard this.

I began this website two years ago, shortly after finding out that my novel Cyan had been picked up by EDGE publishers of Canada. The original idea was to make myself and my writing known in order to find new readers for my novel. The website has grown well beyond that since.

Cyan came out in April as an ebook, and later became available in paperback as well. If you just found this website, you missed all the build up.

Cyan is a realistic, near-future science fiction novel about the exploration and colonization of a planet around a nearby star. With complications, of course.

If you click here, it will take you to the Amazon page where you can read reviews, see the blurb, and even use the Look Inside function to read a chapter or two. You can also click and buy.

If you do buy and like what you read, please take time to write a review. That way publishers will buy my next book. And then so can you.

End of commercial. Thanks for listening. SL

318. Too Many Exoplanets

trappppIt’s official. The good old days are gone.

About a year ago, I said:

(T)he party is nearly over. We now have the capacity to discover extrasolar planets, and new ones are found every year. Fortunately for latecomers to the planet builders guild, megaplanets are easier to find that Earth sized ones, and NASA keeps cutting funding. Still, it won’t be too many years before you can’t decide for yourself where, within the limits of orbital mechanics, you want the planets of Alpha Centauri or Procyon to be.

Science has a way of getting somewhere a lot faster than you would expect. Manned space exploration doesn’t fit that statement, because it runs on politics, not science.

On February 22, in Nature, it was announced that seven Earth size planets had been discovered circling a single star only thirty-nine light years from Earth. Far more important, all seven orbit within the band of temperature where liquid water is a possibility. By contrast, our system has one such planet, Earth, and maybe Mars for a few minutes on a hot afternoon near the equator in mid-summer – if the ice doesn’t sublimate instead. Seven; its unheard of.

The star is TRAPPIST-1, an M dwarf. 

In fact there has been a mini-revolution in the search for exoplanets. NASA’s Kepler space telescope has found more that 4700 potential planets. Many of these will no doubt turn out to be false positives, since the techniques of the search are not perfected, but it is still a staggering number. Most of these were found around stars similar to our sun – where else would you look first? Very few of them are both Earth sized and at the right distance from their star to have the possibility of liquid water.

As I said in Cyan, “planets of no use as real estate.”

Since a mechanical failure in 2013 compromised its ability to orient itself, Kepler has concentrated on observing red dwarfs. To eveyone’s surprise, the planet candidates found around these small, dim stars tend to be more Earth sized. And there are a lot of them.

The TRAPPIST-1 discovery, however, was not by NASA but by the TRAnsiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope group operating out of the University of Liège, Belgium. That explains the use of caps; TRAPPIST is an acronym.

If you want details – and of course you do – the best source is here. This page from the University of Liège is in French, but the video which will self-start is in English, and gives enough details to stir the blood of any space or science fiction fan.

It took me about three seconds to start speculating about what kinds of novels could be written about the exploration of the TRAPPIST-1 system. Suppose most or all of the seven planets had some form of life, all evolving independently. Suppose we write about a paleontological mission on a planet which had vertebral life, then lost it; these dwarfs have a solar wind that operates heavily on planets so close in. Suppose at some time in the deep past, a spacefaring civilization arose on one of these planets, colonized the others, and then died out. Or didn’t die. Or seems to have died until our intrepid explorers begin to poke around.

Okay, I was wrong. The golden age is still here.

202. Planetary Scale

     Everything in a writer’s life is grist for the mill. For a science fiction writer that includes science itself and, in my case, the teaching of science.
     Here is some more teacher geek. In a book on teaching middle school astronomy, this would be an appendix.

When I was in my early teens and discovered the local library, it not only gave me science fiction, but science as well. I remember the dozen or so books on popular astronomy. I particularly remember How to Build a Telescope, which aroused my lust then dumped me when I found out I didn’t have enough money to but the mirror blanks.

The single issue that most challenged the writers of those books was how to convey the scale of things. Now, if you are under forty, you will have to project your mind back to the days when print technology did not include glossy paper and color photography. Visualize a few grainy black and white photos, a few drawings, and lots and lots of words. Like, “If the distance from the Sun to the Earth were equal to the thickness of a sheet of paper, then the distance to Alpha Centauri . . . “

I grew up figuring out that kind of analogy, but if I gave such a book to one of my modern students, their eyes would glaze over and the wheels would stop turning. The children of Sesame Street have to be shown.

Would you like a simple example? Did you know that a softball is moon-size in comparison to a 12 inch classroom globe of the Earth? And if you hold the softball 30 feet away from the globe, it will be proportional in distance as well as size.

For the rest of the solar system, you can’t show both proportional size and proportional distance in a classroom. You can buy a poster with the proportional sizes, but the planets are all on top of each other. If you make a chart of proportional distances, the individual planets will be too small to see.

You can do both, however, if you are willing to take the exercise outside.

We are about to make a model of the solar system. If you want to get out your calculator, be my guest, but I’ve already done the math and I’m willing to share. The scale I used was one to one billion. It would be easier in metrics, but we will eventually be using a local road map for this, so the good ole American system will have to do.

The chart below is in miles and double-steps. That’s because we want your students to get into the act and count the distance to the planets. A double step is normal walking, counting every time your left foot hits the ground, one-and-two-and-three-and . . .

Your sun will be about five feet in diameter. I looked for years for a balloon that size and never found one, so each year I made a new five foot diameter circle of paper and taped it to the outside wall of my classroom. The distances you need are:

Mercury        38 double steps
Venus            71 double steps
Earth             99 double steps
Mars            150 double steps
Jupiter         513 double steps or 0.5 miles
Saturn                                           0.9 miles
Uranus                                         1.7 miles
Neptune                                       2.7 miles
Pluto                                            3.5 miles

You can skip Pluto if you want, but when I first started doing this, it was still a planet.

Give some of your students models of the planets (we’ll talk about sizes below) and take off with the whole class, counting double steps. At 38, leave the student with the Mercury model and continue with the rest of the class. Et cetera.

My double steps go through Jupiter because our playground allowed us to get almost that far. When we reached the boundary fence, I would tell them, “Jupiter is just beyond that house.” Then I would reel off where Saturn through Pluto would be found. My recital would mean nothing to you; you need to make up your own. Find a large scale local map, measure out distances from your classroom, and memorize them. (For us, Pluto was in the next village.)

None of this would be worthwhile without models to show how small our planets are in comparison to the space they inhabit. I made Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, and Pluto out of  beads or glass headed pins, stuck into dowels. Be sure to paint the dowels orange for when Johnny loses one in the long grass. The rest of the planets were made of rubber balls found after multiple trips to toy stores, and painted with artists’ acrylics.

You need these sizes, and this time I’m going metric because it’s way easier.

Mercury       5 mm
Venus        12 mm
Earth         13 mm
Mars           7 mm
Jupiter     143 mm
Saturn     121 mm
Uranus      52 mm
Neptune    50 mm
Pluto            3 mm

Feel free to pass this on to anyone who might want to make this model.