John W. Young, one of the most accomplished astronauts in US history, passed away today at the age of 87. He flew two Gemini missions, two Apollo missions including a landing on the Moon as commander of Apollo 16, and two Shuttle missions, including as commander of the program’s first flight on Shuttle Columbia.
“Between his service in the U.S. Navy, where he retired at the rank of captain, and his later work as a civilian at NASA, John spent his entire life in service to our country. His career included the test pilot’s dream of two ‘first flights’ in a new spacecraft — with Gus Grissom on Gemini 3, and as Commander of STS-1, the first space shuttle mission, which some have called ‘the boldest test flight in history.’ He flew as Commander on Gemini 10, the first mission to rendezvous with two separate spacecraft the course of a single flight. He orbited the Moon in Apollo 10, and landed there as Commander of the Apollo 16 mission. On STS-9, his final spaceflight, and in an iconic display of test pilot ‘cool,’ he landed the space shuttle with a fire in the back end.
A NASA documentary on Apollo 16:
And a documentary about STS-1, the first Space Shuttle mission:
I recently posted an item about the “new” sci-fi novel Pioneer by Robert Zimmerman. While Bob is best known as a space historian and journalist, he produced this work of fiction back in 1982 when he was just starting out on his writing career. He set it aside after he had trouble finding a publisher. He came across the transcript in his files this year and decided it was worth releasing.
I’m glad he made it available. I finally had a chance to read it (always way behind on my reading) and wanted to say I really enjoyed it. The plot was laid out previously so I’ll just point out some aspects of the story and Solar Sci-Fi scenario that I found particularly interesting.
One of the reasons Bob released Pioneer was because of its depiction of a solar system where commercial ventures are prevalent and settlements on Mars and the Moon are being established. This fits well with what we see today with entrepreneurial companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin leading the way in innovations that are making access to space affordable and companies like OneWeb, Planet, and NanoRacks creating new space services and products.
However, the time frame of the book is not the early 21st Century but the late 22nd Century. Perhaps it was a symptom of those pessimistic years just a decade or so after the shutdown of Apollo that Bob could not see such ambitious space progress happening until a couple of centuries had passed. With Elon Musk planning Mars settlements and Jeff Bezo pushing for millions of people living and working in space, a grand expansion of life out into the solar system may happen sooner rather than later.
The technology depicted in the novel is also interesting. The spaceships in Pioneer have propulsion systems that can get the crews to distant parts of the solar system but not very quickly. Missions to the asteroids and outer planets take years to complete. This is a more realistic, down-to-earth scenario, so to speak, than warp drives sending ships to this or that star in days. It’s similar to what we see with deep space probes like Cassini, New Horizons, and Juno. However, it’s also a bit on the pessimistic side. Already there are credible fusion propulsion projects underway (e.g. see here and here) that offer major improvements over chemical propulsion. Perhaps in a coupe of decades, and certainly by the 22nd Century, most parts of the solar system should be accessible in months rather than years.
Bob has mentioned that he greatly under-estimated the rapid advances in micro-electronics and computers. I noticed in Pioneer there is also a lot of cable-handling for communications where today we would use wireless routers.
A writer of a “hard sci-fi” story must decide, though, what technologies will have “futuristic” capabilities and what will be similar to current tech. If everything is depicted as hyper-advanced, then the story may seem too magical, too untethered to reality for the reader to take seriously. It also becomes difficult to create a plot that has hurdles for the characters and their super-tech hardware to struggle against and overcome.
For example, if Bob’s characters had used a computer search tool that instantly returned answers extracted from humanity’s vast storehouse of knowledge, I expect many readers in 1982 would have scoffed. Today we take our browser search tools far too much for granted. They are really as wondrous as anything Merlin ever did in Camelot.
Ultimately, a novel in any genre needs interesting characters in a believable setting and a captivating plot. Pioneer has those things even if it doesn’t have Google.
One of Bob’s best known historical books isGenesis: The Story of Apollo 8, which describes the first time humans left earth’s realm and orbited a distant celestial orb.
“Construction of Earth’s artificial satellite”
“Refueling the interplanetary ship at the satellite”
“Mars in the skies of its moon Deimos”
“The interplanetary voyagers at Jovian moon Europa”#spaceart by N. Kolchitsky from “The Journey to Distant Worlds” book by K. Gilzin, 1960 pic.twitter.com/0Ml8GFfFde
“The sight of Saturn from its moon Tethys”
“The interplanetary settlement at 1670 km height”
“The interplanetary ship heads to landing”#spaceart by N. Kolchitsky from “The Journey to Distant Worlds” book by K. Gilzin, 1960 pic.twitter.com/gsIgMKUvZD
Over the last 54 years, the story of the first and only cat to go to space has been largely forgotten. She deserves a proper memorial.
With 14 hours left, the campaign has gotten pledges of $51,292 towards the $52,681goal. (If they don’t reach the goal, they get no money.)
Félicette suborbital spaceflight was part of a French study of weightlessness:
On the 18th of October 1963, she blasted off from a base in Hammaguir, Algeria. Her short flight included 5 minutes of weightlessness and reached a height of 157 kilometres. Her capsule then parachuted back down to Earth, where she was met by a helicopter recovery team, just 13 minutes after launch.
After her successful flight, reports indicate Félicette returned to the French space programme’s laboratory for 2 or 3 months of further study. She was then sadly put to sleep, in order to further analyse the electrodes implanted in her brain.