Tag Archives: Voyager

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.

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P-0 days: Navigating Pluto

Where are we?

Pluto!

Closest approach was at 7:49 AM this Tuesday morning, July 14th in Baltimore. Pluto—12,500 kilometers away—was about 22 times the size of the Moon seen by the naked eye. Image mosaics are underway. The next event, occultations of the Sun and Earth by Pluto, begins at 8:45. After that, the same occultations by Charon begin at 10:15.

Of course, we have no way of knowing any of these things really happened until information travels at the leisurely speed of light for 4 hours and 25 minutes to get to Earth. Unfortunately, at this red-hot moment, the spacecraft is too busy with pictures and other observations to turn the antenna towards us to send that information. We have to wait until later this evening when the antenna centers on Earth and sends a radio postcard.

Where are we going?

The outer environs of the solar system, deeper into the Kuiper Belt for another encounter with one of a couple of recently discovered heavenly bodies (if NASA approves a mission extension), thence to the Oort Cloud and onward into the Milky Way.

Where are we from?

Earth
Solar System
Milky Way Galaxy
Universe, Zip 18395782886253402871-981294673.23

This is my last post of the Navigation countdown. We’re seeing Pluto up close and personal—we hope, unless the spacecraft has run into a piece of random debris, in which case we’ll never hear from it again and all those pictures will be lost. We’ll know for sure tonight.

Pluto. Been there, done that. Remember, this is about the voyage, not the destination. We Navigators almost always get you there, and in this case we most definitely got you there, whether the spacecraft is healthy and intact or in tatters. Onward to the next body. Onward with the next mission, to the next dream hatching in our restless souls. It is a never-ending journey.

What’s the point of this exploration? Will any of us ever live on any of these new worlds we’ve paid lots of money to get to? I think not. I think that the era of solar and extra-solar settlement is far beyond the horizon of our lifetimes. We have a lot of wars to fight and disasters to recover from before our evolved descendants ever colonize another world in this solar system or beyond. It will happen, but not soon, not until we’ve evolved the mean-streak and stupidity out of ourselves.

Will we wipe ourselves out? No. The human race is hardy and some will survive the worst disasters, be it nuclear war, devastating climate change, or a random asteroid strike. Some will survive and begin the climb back to civilization and the next disaster, just as it happens in Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. Read that book if you want a chilling yet poignant depiction of our future. Science fiction writers are the long-term Navigators of our species.

My message, if it’s not clear, is that we have little need to be optimistic in the short run—I think we’ll have a series of disasters and recoveries—but the future is very bright indeed over the long haul of centuries, millennia, or even millions of years. After all, we’ve only been around as a species for a couple of million years on Earth; think what we’ll be like in a couple more!

Meanwhile, life presses on, full of struggle and despair but sometimes with a glimmer of hope on the horizon. The hope is that we learn a little more today than we knew yesterday. The hope is the beginning of the next adventure. Onward to the Kuiper Belt and the outermost reaches of our solar system.

Why go? I think I said it best myself as Voyager finished Neptune a long time ago and headed out toward the deeps of the galaxy. The very fact of her improbable existence cruising among the stars for billions of years to come say this to any potential finders:

I am from the planet Earth. I am of the Human Race. We are small and insignificant but our souls are large because we have set out on a journey to know the Universe.

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P-1 day: Navigating Pluto

 

Where? 1.2 million kilometers to go at 1.2 million kilometers per day, as of 7:49 AM this morning of July 13th in Baltimore, almost exactly one day before the blessed event. Pluto is about 400 pixels across in the LORRI camera, but to the naked eye it’s still only 23 percent the size of the full moon. Over the next 24 hours that image will blow up, far overflowing the boundaries of LORRI, requiring that mosaics be done to cover more than the camera’s tiny footprint on the surface.

Where to? Pluto! At 7:48:45 in Como, North Carolina, 11:48:45 GMT, plus or minus 36 seconds or so.

Where from? The over-crowded planet that we all adore.

Today is the Navigators’ well-deserved day off while the rest of the project works its collective fingers to the bone. Our last delivery, Crit 37, is delivered. From here on, the laws of physics solely guide the spacecraft and nothing more can be done except to enjoy the ride. The pressure is off and decompression begins.

For your entertainment, here’s an excerpt from The Darkest Side of Saturn. It’s a few days before the Voyager (Nomad in the story) encounter with Neptune. Harris Mitchel does a radio interview with an obnoxious host about the upcoming event. As for the Pluto flyby, the Neptune event also has dual occultations explained in the story, with the main difference that Neptune’s gravity flings Nomad through occultations with the planet and its big moon Triton, while for the much weaker gravity of Pluto, the flinging is more like a very gentle, almost unnoticeable bending of the trajectory.

 

Navigating Neptune

The next morning as Harris drove to work along the surface streets between San Marino and the Lab, he tuned his radio to K-N-E-E, a low-powered downtown AM station. Reception was poor and he had to strain to hear through the static. Finally he found what he was listening for.

It was sobering to hear the host, James Conland, announce, “In the next segment, we’re talking to Harris Mitchel who wrote an article in last Sunday’s Times about spaceship Nomad’s encounter with Neptune. That’s up in fifteen minutes.”

Me! Fifteen minutes! And he was running late. He jogged left off New York Drive onto North Lake Avenue, then immediately right on Woodbury Road and drove as fast as he dared.

“. . . and the segment after that, we’ll take calls on how to bash liberals with the facts. Just remember, my friends, James Conland is your Truth Meister, believe me. The truth is putty in my hands!”

Uh-oh. A warning claxon went off in Harris’s brain. A right-wing whacko. What have I gotten into?

Woodbury Road became Oak Grove Drive, and as he sped into the final curve leading toward the entrance of ATL Harris saw, off to his right across the arroyo, the large motley collection of buildings that constituted the Lab growing out of the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains. Three minutes later he drove past the sign that announced “NASA Advanced Technology Laboratory.” He turned left just before the guard island and zipped along Mesa Road to the west parking lot.

Vacant parking spaces were filling rapidly, even at 7:20 in the morning. The impending encounter attracted a lot of visitors to the Lab—scientists, engineers, and media people—from all over the world. To the considerable irritation of the regulars who parked there, the security guards sent the overflow visitors traffic into the regular parking areas. Harris pulled into a spot near the far end of a row and alternately trotted and walked the two hundred yards to the main guard shack, attaché case swinging by his side. He noticed a large CNN TV van parked along the side of Oak Grove Drive, thick black cables spilling out of the back doors and snaking across the sidewalk through the fence to the auditorium. There’s the first one. There’ll be more in another day or two.

He flashed his ID card into the window of the guard shack as he went by and walked into the pleasant tree-shaded, grass-lined mall that served as a vestibule to the rest of the Lab. It looks more like a sleepy college campus than a laboratory, he thought to himself for the umpteenth time. An ornamental concrete pond that had lain empty for years to impress the earnest frugality of the Lab onto visiting congressmen and other federal budgeters was filled again with water, and fountains spurted merrily on both sides of the footbridge running across it. The water ran down a concrete creek bed lined on both sides by banks of luxurious grass and pine trees.

Harris paced briskly across the mall to the spacecraft operations building. He took the steps three at a time to the second floor and walked into his office at 7:27 precisely, sweating and breathing hard, but with time to spare!

None of his office mates were in yet. He scribbled a note across a piece of scratch paper, “Please do not disturb. Radio interview in progress,” and taped it to the front of the door. He sat down at his desk, pulled out the crib sheet filled with Nomad and Neptune “gee-whiz” facts that he’d constructed the night before, and waited for the phone to ring.

Neptune. A tiny blue dot almost three billion miles from Earth. It’s a cold, impersonal place—a speck of a planet through even the largest telescope, but an enormous gas giant full of mysterious wonders when seen up close.

Next week we’re going to experience it up close, you and I. We will see it through the eyes of a solar diplomat: a traveler, explorer, adventurer, and representative of the human race; a large metal-plastic-silicon representative named Nomad . . .

That’s the way his article had started. Apparently it had been syndicated in newspapers across the country; even though it had been out less than a week, he’d already received letters from Michigan, North Dakota, and New York.

Neptune. In seven more days, when Nomad II dove over Neptune’s north pole and intercepted Triton on the other side, the planet and its large moon would become as real to Harris as Saturn and its rings had been nine years earlier. Already the planet loomed enormously, a body whose light powder blue atmosphere streaked with white clouds and a large oval dot strained to spill over the framed confines of Nomad’s narrow angle camera into the more bountiful space of the wide-angle camera.

The phone rang at 7:31.

“Mister Mitchel?”

“Yes.”

“Hi, I’m Polly Marx at K-N-E-E. How are you this morning?”

“Hi Polly. I need a coffee transfusion. Other than that, I’m ready.” He made his voice a lot more confident than he felt.

“Great! We’ve got two more commercials to go and then you’re on. Will you hold?”

“Sure.”

“Ummm . . .” There was a pause.

“Yes?”

“I read your article and really liked it.”

“Thanks.”

“I know this is going to sound awfully forward, and you don’t know me at all, so I hope you won’t misconstrue, but I wonder if you’d like to do lunch sometime?”

“Hmmm. Well, maybe.”

“Think about it, please. I’ve always been interested in the space program and I’d love to talk to somebody like you who’s actually in it. And I could give you a tour of the station, here.” She giggled. “Besides, your article gave me the goose bumps and I want to see what you look like.”

Harris laughed. He got her phone number.

“Bye, now,” she said in a soft voice. “Hope I hear from you.”

I wonder if she looks like her voice sounds.

Polly’s sexy voice was replaced by a jingle about the awesome flavor of Puddy-Do Wiener Dogs (“Pud-dy-Do, the on-ly Wien-ner Dog for you, Pud-dy-do!”), followed by a frenetic pitch by Long John’s Body Shop in Long Beach, (“Drop by and get your body adjusted.”), followed by an advertisement for Trash (“The movie that trashes your preconceptions about bad taste.”), followed by a pitch from Get Rich Investments, Inc. (“The gold market is ex-ploding today.”), followed by . . .

That’s FIVE commercials, Harris thought just as an unctuously self-assured voice interrupted and smoothly rumbled into his ear, “Hello, Mister Mitchel, how are you this morning, and how’s Uranus . . . I mean Neptune, heh-heh?”

“Oh, Neptune’s fine, and my anus is, too. How’s yours?”

“Good, good. Oh, what a relief it’s going to be to talk to a real person instead of a nerd.”

“Thank you.”

“We’re on in twenty seconds, so I’ll do a quick intro and we’ll talk, okay?”

“Right.”

The last commercial resumed and ended. Conland’s voice came back.

“Now for a little something about one of the only things the federal government has any business doing, and that’s the space program. Space! The final frontier! We need space to grow. We need it for our real estate developers on Mars—new lands to exploit without having to put up with the environmental freaks. In a week we’re going to look at some of that potential new real estate with our Nomad spacecraft. It’s about to send a report back on the planet Neptune and its stupendously big moon Triton. On the line we have Harris Mitchel whose poetic article on the Nomad encounter with Neptune ran in the Times editorial pages last Sunday. Believe me, I normally choke on the word poetic, but when an article is about the free human spirit and Yankee ingenuity on the new American frontier, what other word do you use? How are you, Harris, and how’s the quest for Neptune?”

“Hello, Mister Conland. I’m fine. I’m afraid we’re going to have a problem developing the real estate on Neptune though, since there’s no place to lay cornerstones. It’s full of gas and maybe liquids right down to the core, totally un-usable. Maybe you’d do a little better on Triton, but you’d better bring your parka since it gets nine hundred times less light from the Sun. We’re pretty sure we’ll find either liquid or frozen nitrogen there.”

“Then I’ll bring my fur-lined mittens and bunny slippers, too. What’s your job on the Nomad project, Mister Mitchel? Are you one of the scientists?”

“Actually no, I’m an interplanetary navigator, and we . . .”

“If somebody told me that on the street I’d call for the boys in white jackets, but in your case it’s actually true.”

“Right. I’m one of the people more concerned with the journey than the destination. We’re the ones who make Nomad go where she’s supposed to go.”

“She, huh? It’s hard to guide a woman, isn’t it? Real estate aside, why are we going to Neptune, Mister Mitchel? Why are we spending our hard-earned money on a planet three gazillion miles away? What does Mister American Taxpayer get out of this?”

“He gets the same thing that every man, woman, and child in the rest of the world gets, Mister Conland: a lift in his spirits and a feel-good feeling. He gets a bright shiny future to think about, instead of a crusty dismal past full of wars and crime and hatred and other depressing things. He gets to look outward toward a new world instead of inward at an old one. That’s what he gets out of Neptune. I think it’s worth it. Don’t you?”

. . . The science at Neptune is important, but think also about the voyage, the adventure. Knowledge is good for the human mind, but travel is food for the psyche. And Nomad’s travels have been and will be prodigious. It has been on its way from Earth since 1977, wending a crooked path through the outer solar system. Now, in a handful of days, Nomad makes its final rendezvous, a close brush and embrace with Neptune before flying out of the solar system to begin an odyssey through the Milky Way galaxy, an unattended lonely voyage that may last billions of years . . .

“How do you navigate to a planet three billion miles away?”

Harris explained that he and his teammates collected Doppler and ranging data from the Deep Space Network stations that tracked Nomad. They collected images from Nomad’s telemetry—pictures of Triton and Nereid and the newly discovered satellites.

They dumped the tracking data into a large black cast-iron pot, metaphorically speaking—actually the pot was a large computer—along with other ingredients such as data calibrations and planet and satellite ephemerides. They stirred vigorously. They incanted techno-babble and tasted frequently, adding spices, a priori covariances, and toad tongues now and again until the brew was complete and the answer was apparent: they knew where the spacecraft was and where it was going well enough to plan the last maneuver that Nomad would ever do.

In three more days they would execute TCM20 (Trajectory Change Maneuver number 20), and four days later Nomad would go skimming—actually sizzling at twenty-seven kilometers per second— just above Neptune’s atmosphere. The giant’s gravitational hand would grab her, wind up and swing her in a tight arc and pitch her downward at a steep angle toward Triton on the far side of its tilted orbit about Neptune.

“You’re not going to hit Triton, are you? Splat! End of Nomad, end of project.”

“No, no, we’re aiming about forty thousand kilometers behind it, trying to pass through the dual occultation zone.”

“That sounds doubly occult to me, Mister Mitchel. Is this a sinister liberal plot?”

Harris laughed. He was beginning to relax. “Well, it’s true that I’m a liberal . . .”

“I’m amazed, you sound so reasonable, but I’ll try not to hold it against you.”

“. . . but there’s nothing at all sinister about me or the dual occultation. We want to make Nomad pass behind Triton as seen from both the Earth and the Sun. That way we get information about Triton’s atmosphere and surface by Earth tracking Nomad until it disappears, and Nomad watching the Sun until it disappears.”

“Is it hard to hit this zone? Is it as hard to hit as a homeless person at two hundred yards with an AK-47?”

“It’s about as hard as finding kindness in a right-wing conservative’s soul, which is harder than starting an ice-cream franchise on the sun.”

“Ouch. Heh-heh.”

“It’s hard, Mister Conland, because Triton is so far away on the other side of Neptune and the zone is so small. We have our last chance to target it with our final maneuver in a few days. After that the laws of physics take over and it’s completely out of our hands. Nomad passes over Neptune really deep in its gravitational well, and any errors left over from the maneuver get magnified on the rest of the trip to Triton. I’ll give you an analogy: imagine you’re a planet sized baseball pitcher standing on Neptune’s north pole like it was a pitcher’s mound . . .”

“And my feet are freezing because they’re in that cold atmosphere, right?”

“Yeah, and maybe your cleats are dug into methane icebergs. Anyhow, even though the zone we want to hit is fourteen hundred kilometers wide, at the scale of this planet-sized pitcher, Triton’s dual occultation zone looks like it’s about three times smaller than the strike zone at home plate. You have to throw a perfect strike over a six inch wide home plate to get a dual occultation.”

“Gee, Mister Wizard, space navigation is hard! And what if I don’t get a strike? Do I get pelted with beer bottles by the fans? What’s the consequence?”

Harris suppressed a sudden impulse to say, I have to run naked through the streets.

“You’re totally humiliated because you said you could do this and you didn’t. As a consequence, you lose all your credibility and live the rest of you life in shame and degradation and never get invited on a radio talk show again.”

“That’s the worst of all.”

“Oh yeah, and you get pelted by the scientists. They throw outdated textbooks at your head because you lost a science opportunity, probably the only opportunity in our lifetime to accurately measure the components of Triton’s atmosphere.”

“So you’re letting it all hang out here, Mister Mitchel? This is your career on the line?”

“It’s a tough, dirty job, Mister Conland, but somebody has to do it.”

Conland wound down the interview. They’d been going almost thirty minutes.

“Bring it home for me, Mister Mitchel. What’s in store for Nomad? What happens after Neptune?”

. . . Even though Nomad will go blind and deaf after a few tens of years; even though she will die an electronic death, she will still have the germ of human creativity and daring incorporated into her very structure.

She will carry two messages—an explicit one in the form of a golden record, and an implicit one stated by her profoundly improbable existence. And both messages will say to the finder, in essence, “I am from planet Earth. I am of the human race. We are small and insignificant but our souls are large because we have set out on a journey to know the universe.

“Well said, Mister Mitchel. Not bad for a mush-brained liberal and an engineer to boot. If you hit the occultation zone, you can come back on our program. If you miss, we’re gonna tell Congress to kick your butt and cut off your funding.”

“Thanks, Mister Conland. It’s been a challenge and a pleasure educating a right-wing fruitcake, and I hope I have a chance to do it again. Meanwhile, don’t shoot too many welfare mothers.”

“You sure know how to hurt a guy, Mister Mitchel . . .”

“So do you.”

“. . . but seriously, it’s been a pleasure.”

“And seriously, Mister Conland, I’ve enjoyed it.”

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P-5 days: Navigating Pluto

Midnight beginning Thursday, July 9th on the U.S. east coast: New Horizons is 6.5 million kilometers from it’s destination, still doing 1.2 kilometers per day.

Seen from the spacecraft, Pluto is only two-hundredths of a degree across. To put that in perspective, that’s only 4 percent of the diameter of the full moon seen from your back yard. However, to the LORRI camera, that amounts to 74 pixels, which is starting to be a respectable size in terms of picking up the hitherto unseen Plutonian details. It will continue to get much better as we continue this high-speed approach.

But I digress; this is about the trip, not the destination. Today we’ll process Crit 33 OpNav data. That’s short for the critical 33rd delivery of the precious images used for optical navigation. It’s the images of Pluto, Charon, and the rest of the satellites against a starry background.

It’s critical for a couple of reasons. First, image files are big, even after data compression, and there’s a lot to download for each critical delivery from a spacecraft 4.8 billion kilometers from Earth. It takes a long time to download the images at the low data rate. Second, the arrival time is still unknown by about a minute, and that doesn’t get knocked down to the few-second level until the last few days, beginning now. The time pressure on all the spacecraft teams, especially the Navigators, is high. Every new delivery of optical navigation data is critical to determining the encounter timing so that the onboard sequence can be adjusted by that improved timing knowledge. Image mosaics are already planned and onboard the spacecraft, but they may need tweaking by whatever amount of time change we get from the OpNav data.

As I write, several hours have flown by since the previous sentence and we’ve processed the OpNav data, merged it with the radiometric tracking data, and gotten multiple solutions. It looks like we’re arriving early by roughly a minute, but we have to be cautious about that because the uncertainty is still almost the same size as the time shift, meaning that the shift is only barely significant.

For that reason, we’re not going to take the chance of tweaking the onboard sequence yet for fear of inadvertently screwing up something else in the spacecraft computer. Editing data on the computer on your desk is one thing—editing data on a spacecraft 4.8 billion kilometers from Earth is quite another. A little fat-fingered “oops” on your laptop won’t cost much to fix compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on this spacecraft and the fact that this is probably the only time in our lives for this opportunity.

This is history, and a little oops that might turn the antenna away from Earth, never to be turned back again, never to be heard from again, never to send back those first-time detailed pictures from the last planet of our traditional solar system … well, that would be a disaster of the first magnitude. We don’t want to take the least unnecessary risk of that happening, and while the timing uncertainties are still large, that’s an unnecessary risk.

Tomorrow we tackle Crit 34 to see if we can improve on the arrival time even more.

Meanwhile, why do we make this extraordinary effort to explore this tiny, almost insignificant body at the edge of our solar system?

Because we have to. Because it defines us. Because billions of years of evolution have shaped us into the curious, never-satisfied beings that we are.

Because it is part of our souls.

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About The Darkest Side of Saturn

DSOS Front Cover

The Darkest Side of Saturn is, among other things, an asteroid story—a female astronomer and a male engineer co-discover a two-mile wide asteroid that might or might not hit the Earth in 16 years. Their conundrum, besides a potential illicit affair between them (they’re both married to other people), is how to announce it without making jackasses of themselves.

How did the title come about?

I was at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in the early 80s watching the first pictures come in from the Voyager I spacecraft after it flew by Saturn. The planet’s gravity had grabbed Voyager and flung it northward out of the plane of the solar system, and now we looked back and down at Saturn’s night side nested inside the crescent of the day side.

From that higher perspective came a view that had never before been seen. Saturn had always, in all of history, never been more than a tiny  two-dimensional disk painted onto the celestial sphere. Now for the first time, seen from a new direction, 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. 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 a decade later, and by then I’d figured out what the title meant: the yin and yang aspect of the world. How opposites taken together from a wider viewpoint 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 by itself.

What’s the meaning of the book?

Normally this is where an author should be coy and say, “That’s for readers and critics to decide; I am but the humble author of a modest story; what would I know about its deeper meaning?” But no! Fools rush in . . .  A chapter named “Bridge to Nowhere” lays out a good chunk of what I intended:

There’s a beautiful, pristine bridge deep in the middle of the mountains northeast of Los Angeles made of white concrete—pure and unabused by tire marks. Right after it was built in the 1930s, a flood washed out the road leading onto it, and the bridge was never used. It arches gracefully over a deep canyon and runs smack into the side of a mountain. Nowhere!

That bridge is a monument to man’s folly, thinking he can compete with nature. But it’s also a tribute to man’s striving for the future and the beauty that it occasionally brings about. The story of man has always been struggle and despair, and yet despite that, despite the manifest hopelessness of our journey, man keeps striving toward some unknown destiny, always hoping, always seeing something worthy ahead. The book names that destiny, but now I’m skirting a spoiler, so I’ll stop here while I’m still ahead.

Question: Why did I write the book?

Answer: To satisfy myself. And that includes not writing in a genre.

If you’re looking for genre, don’t bother reading The Darkest Side of Saturn. It’s not one. I wrote it to please myself, not follow a deeply rutted road. It’s not science fiction, mystery, romance, literary, thriller, or any of those categories that have rules, conventions, and expectations. It has science, but it’s not science fiction. It has romance, but it’s not a romance. There’s sex, some of it extreme—not in the usual generic mold. It’s about science, romance, sex, world view, and metaphysical speculation all rolled into one.

Cabbages and kings! It’s for people who like to ponder imponderables with their entertainment. But it ain’t vanilla science fiction (whatever that is), so if you’re looking for quirky, unpronounceable alien names or a space opera that violates all the rules of physics, this book is not for you—it won’t meet your expectations.

Then why did I call it science fiction? Because I had a weak moment. Because the established publishing and marketing industries require that every work of fiction be labeled, marked, pigeon-holed, screwed, blued, and tattooed as a genre.

I like to think of it as a Greek drama, devoid of sound and fury, signifying something. Like some Greek dramas, it has an odyssey, and there’s even a Greek chorus of girl and boy scientists and engineers. It has sermons preached by a spacecraft navigator turned Prophet of Doom and his antagonist, a fanatical preacher. It has voices in their heads, and rants ranted by an obnoxious radio talk show host.

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And lastly, it has a two-mile wide asteroid that might hit Earth. Start the countdown.

 Begin.

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Farewell to Neptune


Here’s my OpEd piece in the L.A. Times 1989/11/25 titled “Music for a Stellar Generation.”
I’m no longer as optimistic about our prospects for colonizing the solar system and the stars as I was back then, twenty-six long years ago. As I said in a recent post, we have little need to be optimistic in the short run—I think we’ll have a series of disasters and recoveries—but the future is very bright indeed over the long haul of centuries, millennia, or even millions of years. After all, we’ve only been around as a species for a couple of million years on Earth; think what we’ll be like in a couple more!

Gustav Holst began writing “The Planets” in 1914. Its first performance, five years later, was a symphonic celebration of planets Mercury through Neptune (Pluto wasn’t discovered until 1930). The music is beautiful and grand—but something is lacking. Despite its variety, there is no human adventure. The planets, in those days, were still “Gods”—remote, aloof in a separate, self-contained universe, hermetically sealed from human interaction or contamination. The solar system was a very large and inaccessible place for mortals.

Now another piece of music has played out: The last note of Voyager’s Neptune encounter fades into vacuum as the spacecraft departs our solar system, to be succeeded in the public mind by the discordance of the Bay Area earthquake and Eastern European upheavals. But we come not to bury Voyager; rather to praise. The brief encounter with Neptune was not an ending but a prelude yo a larger quest and a longer symphony.

After Voyager the Gods no longer reign. The planets belong to humankind.

The outer planets and their satellites were but tiny, pretty baubles in our skies before Voyager’s flight to Neptune and beyond. Now they are worlds in their own right, concrete and beautiful in their gargantuan presence.

Gustav Holst was born too early. How was he to know the adventure of the planets and man’s place among them? There was no way then to experience, even vicariously through the eyes of a Voyager, the pastoral solitude of interplanetary cruising; the rolling, thundering crescendo of planetary encounter.

I imagine him looking over our shoulders, following Voyager across the sky. NASA’s Goldstone antenna, a white leviathan creature in the center of an empty desert stage, glows in a fading twilight, hard bright stars overhead, the silence of the horizon dropping away into pink-gray distance. Why is it that this sight and silence seems so much like music? Gustav, are you listening? Can you hear the slow motion turning against the sky?

It’s time for a new musical genius to bring us a modern symphony of adventure among the planets, of man’s place among the Gods. Let us hear the chaos of departure from earth’s surly bonds, the basso profundo of planetary encounter. It’s time for that symphony, and I hope someone will write it because it is the beginning of a story of human drama of Wagnerian proportion. It will help to tell us where we are and where we’re going.

And where is that? “To the supermarket,” some will say. “My feet are firmly planted on Earth, and I’m going to work, I’m going home, I’m going to the hospital to visit a friend. I need to tend my garden.”

Worthy activities, but our children, or perhaps our grandchildren, are going to live in space. The urge to explore and expand is inborn. We are going, sooner or later, because we have no choice. Cast aside any debates about manned versus unmanned space exploration. They are irrelevant.

As a species, we will begin by colonizing the solar system.

We will break ourselves—bodies and spirits—on new shores, and we will regroup and plunge again, groping for dry land. Careers will be spent, lives lost in the quest. And the music will help us mend, and drive us forward again.

Many will not share our enthusiasm—will not want to assume hardships of pioneering. They are the equivalent of the Europeans who stayed behind, concerned with the problems of the Old World while explorers looked to the new.

Let them be. Very few will be able to go, anyhow. We will need their help, a large home base for support while we explore and settle, until we are independent. And what will explorers do for our homeland, our mother Earth at that time? Probably the same thing that the United States did for England in 1776. Children have no responsibility to their parents; only to the children that follow.

Voyager represents the beginning of a magic age. Its goodbye to Neptune is our hello to the solar system. The journey will begin with small steps: footprints on Mars, new ones on the moon. Every step will be hard-fought, but eventually we will inhabit most of the solar neighborhood. At that point, we’ll begin to get restless again—we’ll turn up our music and consider how to follow Voyager on her questing note, a trip to the stars.

Voyager at Neptune

This OpEd ran in the Sunday L. A. Times, 1989/08/06

Neptune! Almost 3 billion miles from earth. It’s a cold, impersonal place, a speck of a planet through even the largest telescope, but an enormous gas giant full of mysterious wonders when seen up close.

In a few more weeks we’re going to experience it up close, you and I. We will see it through the eyes of a solar diplomat: a traveler, explorer, adventurer, and representative of the human race; a large metal, plastic, silicon representative named Voyager.

When we arrive, what should we expect? The unexpected! That’s the lesson learned from previous visits to unexplored planets. Are there rings at Neptune like those at Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus? Possibly, but in incomplete arcs, unlike rings anywhere else. Are there other satellites, besides the already known Triton and Nereid? Yes! One has already been discovered, and there’s tantalizing evidence of more—perhaps many more, maybe even clouds of them — lurking just beneath the fuzz in the images painting the screens of video terminals at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In just days, now, they could rise to visibility above the electronic background noise.

Neptune has its own internal heat source, and radiates more energy than it receives from the sun. Why? Is this what drives its turbulent atmosphere, generating the large spots already found? Soon, we may know.

And Triton? We’ll find whether it has an atmosphere, and whether we can see through to the surface. Will there be pools of liquid nitrogen, or will gasses be frozen in slabs littering a desolate landscape of craters and mountains?

Among the answers to the questions we know to ask will be more questions we’ve not imagined—the unexpected!

When Voyager arrives at Neptune—on August 25th—it will be the first time since creation that anything human-made has been to that planet. We should enjoy, appreciate, and celebrate the event, since it will also likely be the last time it will happen during our lives.

That’s because a very special arrangement of the solar system, one that occurs only about every 175 years, was required to allow Voyager to make the trip in “only” twelve years. It had to go by Jupiter first, making a hard left turn in that planet’s gravity to pick up energy in a crack-the-whip fashion to go on to the next planet. That was Saturn, which turned it left again, gave it more energy, and pointed it towards Uranus. At Uranus, in 1986, it picked up still more energy and made course for Neptune. Since then it has been “cruising” at ten miles per second toward the planet. At Neptune it will skim over the north pole three thousand miles above the atmosphere, turn downward so that it’s headed south out of the solar system, and make a final encounter with Neptune’s largest satellite, Triton, before beginning a larger interstellar voyage.

The science at Neptune is important, but think also about the voyage, the adventure. Knowledge is good for the human mind, but travel is food for the psyche. And Voyager’s travels have been and will be prodigious. It has been on its way from earth since 1977, wending a crooked path through the outer solar system. Now, in a handful of days, it makes its final rendezvous, a close brush and embrace with Neptune, before flying out of the solar system to begin an odyssey through the Milky Way galaxy; an unattended, lonely voyage that may last from millions to billions of years.

Towards the beginning of that longer journey, a mere few hundred thousand years in the future, our sun will have become a faint, uninteresting star in Voyager’s eternally night sky. But no one will be with the spacecraft to appreciate that fact, and our ambassador will slowly tumble—sightless, senseless, and alone —in an immensely empty void.

A fellow engineer on the navigation team claims that the spacecraft will be on display in the Smithsonian Museum 200 years from now. He thinks that by then we’ll have both the technology and wherewithal to go out, find and catch Voyager, and bring it back. I’d like to think we would be able to do that, but if I’m still around I’ll vote to leave it alone. There’s something wonderful about the thought that a piece of ourselves is somewhere out there on a winding journey between the stars on its way to eternity. It’s like having immortal children.

So this is an adventure, and we’re all on board. The solar system is our playground, and after that—the stars! There are hazards ahead—for example, unseen ring particles orbiting Neptune could smack into us, prematurely ending Voyager’s life—but we’ll probably make it through to see the wonders of Neptune and Triton.

Then will begin the grander voyage—the one that requires us to be romantics instead of realists; dreamers rather than schemers: Even though Voyager will go blind and deaf after a few tens of years; even though it will die an electronic death, it will still have the germ of human creativity and daring incorporated into its very structure. It carries two messages—an explicit one in the form of a golden record, and an implicit one stated by its profoundly improbable existence. And both messages will say to the finder, in essence, “I am from the planet earth. I am of the human race. We are small and insignificant, but our souls are large because we have set out on a journey to know the universe.”

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