Tag Archives: Mars

Rockets, Rhymes & Recipes

Where have I been these last few months? Planning the next black sky voyage.

It’s a novel about presidents and coup d’etats, Mars colonists and aliens, death and resurrection, volcanic recrudescence, and a few metaphysical speculations.

Station Ollie, in this working cover, is a geometrically realistic 3-D software model using the tetrahedral architecture that Oliver Harwood—a real spacecraft designer who had a hand in the Skylab Space Station design—invented in the 1980s and 90s. It consists of six standardized parts, all of which I’ve used in Station Ollie. The “Nodal Balls”, which are rhombic dodecahedrons (sorry—I had to throw that in for the woo-woo factor), serve both as air locks and docking connectors for the other components. These nodes are key to a modular concept that allows for the building of space-filling tetrahedral structures of great strength and variety using only those six standard parts. The elegance and logic of this architecture almost certainly preclude the concept ever being adopted by a bureaucracy infested organization or politically driven government.

With a few more drafts to go, the novel should be finished in about a year. Here’s the current working prologue to launch the ship. The similarity to The Darkest Side of Saturn prologue is intentional. Consider it indicative of some of the themes common to both books.

All aboard and bon voyage


A long, long time ago—about fourteen billion years more or less—the universe banged into existence. Immediately—commensurate with the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum physics—our baby universe began dividing into infinitely many sister universes weaving almost parallel but slightly diverging courses through meta-time. One of these would become the home of The Author. This narrative is not about that universe or the separate one containing Harris Mitchel and an asteroid named B, nor a somewhat different one containing pilot Steve Mylder who counted air combat missions in a brutal war. It is about the slightly different universe which contains neither Steve, Harris, nor B, but does house a president that Harris once met.

In that baby universe, in the beginning, gasses swirled, mixed, collided, and gave birth to galaxies and stars. Stellar systems formed consisting of mother stars surrounded and embraced by loving children: planets, asteroids, satellites, comets, and other odd siblings. In some of these systems, life ignited and began a long journey towards an unfathomable end, obeying Evolution’s holy trinity of Replication, Variation, Selection in a never-ending struggle to make order out of chaos and perhaps bring forth consciousness from unconsciousness, thus continuing a never-ending and hard-fought battle with the Great Satan, Entropy, who strives to make disorder from order.

A long time ago—about one billion years more or less—in one of these stellar systems in one of these galaxies, this evolutionary course resulted in the ignition of consciousness. A race of beings quickly came into existence able to control and direct its environment. It began expanding relentlessly outward, filling all available evolutionary niches—to the nearest planets, to the nearest stars, to the nearest arms of the galaxy and beyond.

A while ago—about one million years more or less—another race of beings also banged into consciousness and began exploiting its technological prowess to expand into every nook and cranny of its birth planet, eventually casting an avaricious eye on its neighbors.

A short time ago—about one thousand nine hundred and fifty years after the birth of a significant religious figure—a member of these later developed beings named Enrico Fermi lunching outdoors with his colleagues on a warm sunny day raised his gaze to the sky and shrugged with upturned palms, exclaiming in puzzlement, “Where is everybody?”

He meant, presumably, that with all the possibilities of advanced beings long preceding his own race, Where are all those alien beings? Why haven’t they expanded and overrun this corner of the galaxy, paving it over into a galactic parking lot to serve a galactic football stadium … and sadly, paving over his own unfortunately less advanced and hence defenseless sapient civilization?

Where is everybody? asked Enrico. There was no answer. For this devilishly speculative and unanswered question, he was honored in the naming of a paradox, namely the Fermi Paradox.

An even shorter time ago, a leader of these less advanced and hence defenseless sapient beings—a president—announced a program to colonize a nearby sibling planet. The planet was named after Ares, a god of war also known as Mars.

Yesterday—meaning an extremely short time ago Geologically speaking (or perhaps more appropriately for a planet named after Ares, Areologically speaking)—one of the three colossal and dormant Mars shield volcanoes riding atop a gigantic uplift named Tharsis Ridge awoke after a brief snooze of a hundred million years, more or less, and began again to stream its buried gasses into the sparse atmosphere of the planet. The first colonists-to-be looked down in awe upon this curious spectacle from an orbit far above.


Mars texture map: JHT’s Planetary Pixel Emporium at
Modelling software: Cheetah3D at https://www.cheetah3d.com


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.