Preface to Black Sky Voyage


Rather than burden the book description here with an author’s introduction that readers frequently skip, I’ll make the preface a separate blog post. It introduces Oliver Harwood’s space station architecture, which I think is worthy of consideration in future plans for Mars colonists.


I started this novel a long, long time ago when I was a spacecraft navigator at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) working on the NASA Voyager mission. Somewhere around the time Voyager II passed Neptune, I finished and tried to publish Rainbow’s End. Fortunately, I failed. It and I were not ready for the big time. Not even the small time. Not even close.

Instead, between and during other NASA missions to Mercury and Pluto, I dedicated what little of my energy remained to writing and publishing two other novels that achieved a modicum of critical success in the winning of awards. The first was about war. The second involved an asteroid, a preacher, a reluctant prophet of doom, and a ballerina—things that just naturally go together. In the process, I learned a little more about writing novels that I hadn’t known on the first attempt.

Since then—at loose ends as a recently retired interplanetary navigator and casting about for something new and exciting to do—I dusted off Rainbow’s End, reread it, and thought modestly, “My my, there’s some damn good writing in here, even if the overall execution sucks!” I decided to recycle, revise, and rename. The new name is the one you see on the cover, and the story is a greatly improved and vastly better constructed version (I assert) of the original. You’ll have to accept my word on this. Or see for yourself.

I had a fascination with Mars in my youth, planning at one stage in my career to become the first person to walk around on it. When that didn’t work out, I decided instead to write about colonizing it, and that’s what you’ll see in this story—a race against time and human stupidity to put some of our eggs in a second basket as insurance against a major wipeout. (I believe the odds are stacked against us in the short term, but that’s another story and maybe another novel.)

For my new Mars colony, I needed a space station to put into orbit around the planet and a habitation to put on the surface. My original concept was crude and poorly thought out, consisting of cubical modules plugging together somehow like LEGO® pieces. This was unacceptable for more than one reason. While I pondered, weak and weary, along came an epiphany like a raven above my chamber door: why not use an architecture I’d recently learned about—something modular with standard parts: expandable, sturdy, simple, cheap, and above all, elegant? That would be Oliver Harwood’s concept.

Oliver Harwood (1922-2003) was a twentieth century spacecraft designer who was a leader in the structural design of the Skylab Space Station. I knew him from a presentation or two that he gave at JPL, and a visit or two to his home to discuss promotion of his revolutionary space station architecture. He’d proposed his plan to NASA for use on the International Space Station then coming into existence on drawing boards.

Alas, the design was too elegant, too simple, and too cheap. NASA wanted lots of miscellaneous parts designed by lots of different companies in lots of different states to spread the constituency around so much that the project would be politically untouchable. Thus, we have what we have orbiting overhead in this second decade of the twenty-first century.

We can do better the next time. When we finally get serious about a Mars colony sometime in the coming decades—money-spending metal-bending serious—maybe we can have a second look at the Harwood architecture. You can get an inkling of what it looks like, in all its tetrahedral potential, on the cover of this book where I’ve used six of the seven standard Harwood components, and you can find more details inside.

However, this is not a sales job. It’s entertainment! Most of the details of the story are accurate mechanically, physically, astronomically, and psychologically (I humbly think), and the philosophical speculations should be universally intriguing, but …

The story’s the thing! Consider Station Ollie and Tharsis Cradle as just two of the characters in a telling of a president and a coup d’état, of colonists desperate for survival, and of a stranger who somehow interacts with all of them—things that just naturally go together.

Tony Taylor

Sedona, 2018/03/05


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