Tag Archives: JPL

Writer’s Block II &etc

authorThis is an interview, slightly re-edited, that originally ran on Blogher wherein I talked about writer’s block and other things more or less associated with The Darkest Side of Saturn. Embedded within it are a  few tips on how to waste time and avoid writing which new authors, young and old, may find helpful.

I do not like to write. I like to have written.
— Gloria Steinem

Do you have a daily writing routine?

Not a perceptible one. Sometimes I write in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon, but the main rituals that come into play are my excuses to avoid writing: Check the online news, read the online comic strips, make a list of things to do today, check the email, visit twitter, sharpen pencils (metaphorically; I don’t use pencils), go back to the news to see if there’s anything new, brew more coffee, balance the checkbook . . . Oops, time for lunch!

It’s hard to get started! But once the delaying rituals play themselves out and the butt hits the rolling chair at my desk and I start focusing on the writing, I usually get into the groove and go at it for a few hours at a time. Sometimes it helps to start writing in a scratch file or a junk file until the imagination gets in gear. I have a file on my computer named “The Daily Drivel.” Sometimes I start there and just write nonsense—the first things that come into my head—and that sometimes lights the fire.

Where do you do most of your writing?

I do all of it in my office. I have an unfettered view of the red rocks and green Junipers of Sedona, Arizona from my second story office window (not to mention the vortices!). Unfortunately, when I finally begin to write, that landscape just disappears and becomes invisible since I can’t focus on more than one thing at a time. For the same reason, I never play music while I’m writing because I can’t handle distractions. It’s basically blinders on and bore straight ahead—all background either gets turned off or fades away.

Where did you grow up? Can you tell us a little about it?

I grew up in Rock Hill, South Carolina, but my fondest memories were at my grandmother’s house in a village in a forest in the flatlands of North Carolina not far from the coast. The name of the village is Como, after Lake Como in Italy, and it’s just a fly speck on the highway maps if it can be found at all. I devoted a good part of a long chapter to it, renamed Roma, North Carolina in a back story of the protagonist where the young boy lives with his parents and falls into dreams every night listening to tires sing along the asphalt of a lonely rural highway, trucks and cars passing, eeeooo, in the dark, coming from unknown pasts and humming into deep and distant futures. One night he has an epiphany there, in the starshine of his back yard, and it affects the rest of his life. I think this is some of my best writing in the book, and maybe ever. Maybe because I wrote it out of love.

What is your motto in life/writing?

In life: Answering the Navigator’s question: Where are we and where are we going? By that I mean curiosity about science, nature, and humanity. Never mind that it’s an unanswerable question, Where are we going on this incredible life-trip that we’re all on? What’s the end goal, if life (or evolution, same thing) can be said to have a goal at all. I’d love to live forever to see how this all works out. But in true Navigator form, the destination is less important that the journey.

In writing: There’s no discernible difference that I can see. Where are we and where are we going?, that’s what I like to write about.

What inspired you to write your book?

I was at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in the early 80s watching the first pictures come down from the Voyager 1 spacecraft after it flew by Saturn. The planet had grabbed Voyager with its gravity and flung it northward out of the plane of the solar system, and now we were looking back and down at the night side nested inside the crescent of the day side, and from that higher perspective came a view that had never been seen before. Saturn had always, in all of history, never been more than a 2 dimensional disk painted onto the celestial sphere from where we saw it on Earth. But now for the first time, from that new exalted perspective, the shadow cutting across the rings and that darkness nested into light made the planet real. It had finally become a three-dimensional sphere floating in space, and the title popped into my head. “The Dark Side of Saturn” (Darkest came later). The dark side contrasted against the light made it real.

I didn’t start writing the story until over a decade later and by then I’d figured out what that meant: the yin and yang aspect of the world. How opposites taken together from a larger perspective make a whole. Good and evil, science and religion, faith versus understanding, male versus female, each provides context for the other, and out of that you get something more complete than either one by itself. That’s one of the deeper reaches I intended for the story, successful or not.

Added 2016/04/10: By the way, I’m still figuring out what the hell the story’s about. New meanings and connections continue to pop into my fevered brain.


Press Release – Arizona Book of the Year



DSOS Front CoverTony Taylor of Sedona, Arizona added another paragraph to his resumé last weekend: his novel, The Darkest Side of Saturn, won the Arizona Book of the Year Grand Prize for 2015 in a banquet and ceremony for authors who entered the Arizona Literary Contest. The novel also won
First Prize in the Published Fiction category. The yearly contest, sponsored by the Arizona Authors Association in partnership with Green Pieces Press, is open to authors around the world without restriction on location. This year saw about 1,500 entries.

The book has been described by professional reviewers and writers as “A courageous and visionary work … an instant classic”, “A fusion of fanaticism and hard science, the visionary and the profane”, “Extraordinarily well-crafted and deeply thought-provoking … nothing short of a science fiction tour de force”, “Taylor presents a world teetering on the brink of the blackness of nothing and the lightness of life.” More than one reviewer has compared it to Walter Miller’s classic A Canticle for Leibowitz.

Taylor, whose careers encompassed air combat and spacecraft navigation, quips: “After this award I may have to come out of retirement a third time and start a full-time career writing novels.” His first novel, Counters, included his experiences flying fighters in the Vietnam war. This July he participated in the Pluto flyby as a member of the navigation team for the New Horizons mission. He has navigated spacecraft to every planet in the solar system, the first in history to do so.

Tony Taylor worked at JPL (the Jet Propulsion Laboratory) for almost 25 years, navigating to planets Venus, Earth, Mars, Saturn, Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune. He continued his quest at KinetX Aerospace in Tempe, AZ, adding Mercury and the Honorary Planet Pluto to his list. He writes, and plays a decent game of tennis. He lives with his wife Jan in Sedona and has two daughters and two grandsons.

The Darkest Side of Saturn
Arizona Literary Contest
Arizona Authors Association


– end –

Embracing the Future

My Op-Ed piece on the Mars Polar Lander ran in the Pasadena Star-News on 2000/01/20.
I was one of the NAG (Navigation Advisory Group) folks providing advice and help to the Mars Polar Lander Navigation Team after the crash of the Mars Climate Observer a few months earlier. We were chagrined to learn that the entry target region at Mars was incredibly small, and maybe not even attainable by the Navigation Team. Promises had been made which should not have been made. Unless the team was beefed up and new methods were implemented, the second failure in a row at Mars was itching to happen. After a lot of effort and worry, the day of the landing arrived. The Navigators and NAGs rejoiced because we had delivered the spacecraft to where it should be. Alas, the Navigation was right but the landing software was wrong …


Mars: NASA / Foter /

Dearly beloved, we gather to celebrate an arrival, not mourn a departure. Let us give thanks for the future and bury the past.

Conversation dies and silence gathers as the minutes tick-tick-tick toward 12:39 in the afternoon of a Southern California day at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I’m jammed cheek-by-jowl with fifty other people in a narrow hallway running half around a glass-enclosed operations room. Another thirty people wedge into that small room. Dan Goldin, NASA Administrator, is there — a gray eminence watching quietly and lethally. There’s Richard Cook, Project Manager, and bird-like Ed Stone, JPL Director. There’s John McNamee, Project Developer, looking intensely haunted and somber. Where are we? Where are we going?

“Take more risks,” Goldin said. “Don’t be afraid of failure,” he pronounced at the dawn of Faster, Better, Cheaper. More recently he added a stern codicil: “But don’t fail.”

We’ve been at risk for eleven months since our dearly departed little brother, Mars Polar Lander, became irretrievable at launch. Today, December 3rd, 1999, a cloud of uncertainty begins to precipitate into reality as we listen for the first available peep from little brother. We won’t know for several minutes yet, thirteen, twelve, eleven …

You have to roll dice in the space biz, there’s no getting around it. Everyone in that room and hallway has something on the line. For the mission engineers and scientists it’s a few years of their lives and careers. For others like myself—one of the navigators trying to figure out where we are going—only a few weeks of commitment are at stake. Only a few weeks? Wrong! It has been an agony of weekends, long nights and Thanksgiving holidays sacrificed to the demanding God of Exploration.

The God of Exploration! He has been benevolent to Viking and Voyager and Galileo and Pathfinder—and He has been cruel to Mars Observer and Mars Climate Observer. You have to sacrifice time, money, talent and ingenuity; he doesn’t provide safe passage to Mars for peanuts, you have to bleed and sacrifice a virgin or two.

… eight, seven, six …

Where are we and where are we going? All conversation ceases! All eyes lock onto the display of the spectrum analyzer. A green fuzzy-flat line lies horizontally across the range of radio frequencies expected from our departed kin.

… three, two, one …

Collective intake of breath. In moments we will shout joyfully to see a tiny needle-sharp peak of signal rise from that fuzzy-flat line to tell us that our dearly departed is dearly arrived, yet …

Yet now the possibility of failure congeals. Until NOW it was abstract and empty—was simply the dark underside of a probability cloud drifting far away.

Now! A nugget of information has propagated over fourteen minutes of light-travel-time from Mars to Earth, to the Deep Space Network, to this control room, to this display, to these eyes. Now. The probability cloud roils overhead, leaden black underbelly churning malevolently. A lightning stroke, abrupt and powerful, strikes nearby. Reality arrives.

The flat line remains flat-line. The nugget of information is the null bit, the absence of a needle-sharp peak, the lack of signal where signal is wanted.

Wait! Maybe the timing is off, maybe the receivers need tweaking, maybe the antenna is mis-pointed, maybe …

Silence. A downpour of cold wet reality begins, soaking the mind, depressing the soul. Dan Goldin’s face darkens; Ed Stone stares at the spectrum display. John McNamee gazes into space.

… five, six, seven …

Speculation begins in whispers. Maybe it’s in safing mode, maybe earth is temporarily out of sight, maybe …

There are a hundred possibilities. Over the next few days I will watch Richard Cook’s face filling TV screens, always optimistic, upbeat. There’s always one more thing to try—but I feel in my heart from that first moment, as do most of us assembled here, dearly beloved, that the roll of the dice has come up snake eyes. Our dearly departed has truly departed, smeared all over the landscape, or perhaps rolled into a ball at the foot of a steep slope, or perhaps …

There are many possibilities but only one actuality, which we may learn when the first human explorers eventually reach the forbidding southern climes of Mars. Meanwhile, we deal with failure—with breast-beating, investigation boards, program restructuring, launch cancellations …

And growth, and lessons learned, and a chance to do it better, because we WILL do it better, again and again, because we melt in the crucible of failure and mold to something better, but more fundamentally because we, as human beings, worship the God of Exploration and will sacrifice for the future.

Dearly beloved, give thanks for the future and bury the past. Where are we and where are we going? To Mars and beyond.