Archive for the ‘Space’ Category


Illustration of the interior of 55 Cancri e — an extremely hot planet with a surface of mostly graphite surrounding a thick layer of diamond, below which is a layer of silicon-based minerals and a molten iron core at the center. (Image by Haven Giguere)

It’s not surprising that astronomers are discovering new planets almost every day. Almost all of them are the same boring type as our old Earth — wisps of gas and dust orbiting around a star that, under the influence of their mutual gravitation, gradually accrete into planet-sized bodies. But last year, Yale researchers found out that a big planet, twice the size of Earth, is apparently the core left when a great supernova blew most of its gases way.

The remaining core was carbon. Under the influence of ts own brutal gravity it crystallized its entire mass, And what is floating around out there — fortunately for the De Beers company, too far away for anybody to even think of mining it — is a gigantic diamond, the size of the planet Jupiter.

If there is a race of super-huge, super-intelligent aliens out there, what an engagement ring for their emperor to give his fiancee.

The Moon. (NASA photo.)


Why We Should Go Back to the Moon
For the Sake of the Science There

What recent scientific discovery suggests that we ought to resume space flights to the Moon for purposes of scientific research?

Why, that would be the discovery of traces of the isotope iron-60 in deep-sea rocks and meteorites. The reason that discovering this isotope, which has a half-life of 2,600,000 years, is so important is that it can’t be made in detectable quantities by any process that happens on the Earth. It can only be found in material expelled by a supernova. So how did it get to the Earth?

There is only one possible explanation: At some time within the past 2.6 million years the Earth must have been close enough to supernovae for them to deposit traces of their emissions in our planet. That is to say, within about 100 light years.

But our stellar neighborhood has been studied thoroughly enough for scientists to be pretty sure that there was no supernova within that distance over that period of time.

The only explanation is that at some point our solar system must have been in a different galactic neighborhood … as, in fact, we know that it was, because our sun has been shown to circle the core of the galaxy every 60 million years, in an orbit with a constant radius of about 30 thousand light years. So that trace of iron-60 is nothing but an heirloom left by some long-ago brush with a neighborhood in the heavens where supernovae are or were common, as, for example, the light from the neighborhood of the Orion Nebula shows that it was at one time.


Now the astrophysicists begin to prick up their ears. If some ancient supernova left traces of itself in the rocks of the Earth it must have left similar traces in the rocks of Earth’s constant companion, the Moon. For Earth, those traces would have been eroded away long ago by the actions of wind and wet, but not on the Moon, which possesses neither.

So, if you want to learn the secrets of or galaxy, don’t bother with big telescopes. With your shovel on your shoulder, just head for the Moon and dig, dig, dig!

A few months ago some fed-up Americans decided to let Wall Street know that they were a bunch of greedy, conscienceless pigs, and so they marched down that short, narrow — and crooked — street. It made the papers, and the next day there were a few more of them … and then more still … and then other cities caught the fever, and where it will stop no one can say. And I personally could not be more pleased.

Think it over. When was the last time you saw a spontaneous mass movement in America? We have seen plenty of the cooked-up kind, as where two super-greedy billionaire brothers give in to their appetite and hire experts to start a mass movement to cut their taxes — or a TV network beats the drums 24 hours a day for a “spontaneous” mass meeting.

This is the real thing. It’s the real people, the 99 percent of us, whose incomes are faltering or falling — or gone! — while the richest 1 percent among us are bending the laws and brining our legislators to make them richer still. Can that be called anything less than rapacious greed? It is, in truth, class warfare, an unrelenting effort to take away what even the poorest among us have.

Does anyone leaving a job need a $126 million (Gene Isenberg at Nabors Industries) parting gift? And he is by no means the only one — Eric Schmidt at Google got $100 million, and at IBM, Sam Palmisano stuffed his pockets with an unbelievable$170 million to ease the pain of leaving his job.

That isn’t just disgusting, it’s gross whole-hog piggery. It is one of the many battles the 1 per cent’s class war against the rest of us wins day after day.

If there is one thing we’ve learned in the past few years, it is that the very rich don’t care what happens to the rest of us. When Wall Street’s uncontrollable avarice came within a hair’s breadth of destroying the economy in one villainous spree in 2008 — selling people securities that they knew to be worthless and mortgage loans that they could never in this world pay back, and then evicting them for those unpaid loans — our government gave them nearly a trillion dollars — that’s $1,000,000,000,000 — of your, the taxpayers’, money to save them from bankruptcy, ostensibly in order to help the home owners. But the financial institutions didn’t help the home owners. They took the money and kept it for themselves.

What else have they thought up to do? Well, for a long time, American businesses have been pretending to move to another country in order to avoid paying what they owe America in income tax. Now they’ve gone farther. They’ve kept the vast profits of their deceitful offshore actions offshore. They have all the profits of their activities in overseas banks, where the U.S. can’t tax them for what they owe. (That’s another trillion or so.)

Grandma Judy

Grandma Judy

In the 1970s, both Judy and I had become active in Canadian television, Judy as the person who handled Dr. Who for Ontario Television, me as a sort of all-purpose guest correspondent for the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s coverage of the American space doings, ending with the CBC’s coverage of the rendezvous in orbit of the Soviet Soyuz spacecraft and the American Apollo.

Things reached a point with Judy where I could do something for her. The Ontario TV authorities were getting difficult. Dr. Who had been sold to them as science fiction under the general principle that science fiction was educational and therefore good for children to watch. Educational authorities, though, were up in arms to say that such claims were ridiculous. Dr. Who wasn’t science. It was silly garbage, and it should be off the air.

And what Judy wanted to know was, “Listen, Fred, you’re pretty good at that space-program science talk. If we gave you time, is there anything you could say that would make Dr. Who sound a little more sciency?”

I thought that was a pretty funny request. I had also, for some time, been spending a lot of my time defending sf in general as healthy for people to watch. True, Dr. Who was a pretty marginal case. But you could find scientific lessons in almost any fantasy story once you allowed quantum reality to be defined as scientific, and I wrote a number of comments-on-the-air for Judy’s shows, and the problem passed.

It wasn’t just the opportunities for working together that brought Judy and me together at last. Most of all it was our growing number of descendants. Our daughter Ann had gone and grown up, and she had married a Canadian named Walter Weary, with whom she had two children, Tobias, who is now an excellent chef, with children of his own, and Emily, the granddaughter who won the Hugo Award.

After that marriage tanked, Ann married Juan Miranda, an Argentinean immigrant to Canada who was a high-tech electronics engineer. The reason he left Argentina for Canada is that Argentina had fallen under the rule of the brutally murderous “colonels,” who formed the habit of picking up people who criticized them on the street, torturing them, then murdering them and burying them in unmarked graves so their families could not even have the satisfaction of being sure whether they were dead or alive. Juan himself had been picked up by the death squads. But it was just at the end of their power. Legitimate law officials were arresting them and releasing their prisoners. Whereupon Juan very sensibly decided to get the hell out of Argentina. (His elder brother was less lucky. He had been picked up a year or so earlier and was never seen again.)

Anyway, Juan Miranda was one of my favorite sons-in-law of all time. He was smart, he was funny, he was crazy about Ann, and with her help, he gave us two more grandkids, Julia and Daniel. Judy was fond of him, too. Every time I (or, more frequently, Carol and I) managed to get to Annie’s house to view our descendants, Judy did her best to get there too.

Judy and I had one trait that united us. At the time, she and I were both unregenerate heavy smokers. Nobody else in our families was. When we needed a fix, what we did was go out on the front porch, light up, and spend half an hour chatting about things in general. You know. Like old friends do.

Part of that ended when Annie’s last marriage ended, and she moved way to the Atlantic Maritime Provinces of Canada. Then Judy’s health began to fail. She got really sick. And then, in 1997, she died.

I am pleased that, at the end of the last time I saw her, she gave me a hug. Do you know that it’s possible to have happy endings, at least reasonably happy ones, in the real world, too?

Related posts:
Judith Merril, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8

Apollo  17, ready for launch.

Apollo 17, ready for launch.

By now you have noticed that I have left to the last one particular event, the actual Apollo 17 launch.

Actually the launch happened in the very early morning of December 7th, the third day of the cruise, after the ship had leisurely steamed down along America’s east coast to the Cape, but I’ve left it to the last because it was unquestionably the finest moment of a particularly fine cruise. By the night before, we were anchored in shallow water a mile or so off the Florida shore. Around nine or ten o’clock, the room parties were beginning to thin out, but no one was going to bed. On deck, the air was balmy, the stars were bright, the waves gentle.

We could see the bright lights of the Apollo and its launch tower — too far to be easily viewed with the naked eye, but several of the more intelligent among us had brought field glasses, and were generous about passing them around.. The three astronauts themselves, Eugene Cernan, Ronald Evans and Harrison Schmitt, were perhaps still asleep, or were supposed to be, but would soon be awakened to be suited up and generally prepped for the December 7th early morning launch.

We people lingering on the deck knew that our chances of catching a few Z’s before the launch were rapidly becoming zero, for launch was to be at half an hour after midnight, the first nighttime launch in the Apollo series. No one wanted to leave. A few of us took ourselves down to the dining area and drowsed over mugs of hot black coffee, until — with still an hour to go before the launch — we went back to the top deck and discovered that other shipmates were joining us in quantity. Once on the deck they strolled around, pausing to chat with friends, but never for long taking their eyes off the activity around the launch tower.

At 12:25 or so, the strolling dwindled as passengers sorted themselves into their proper observation spots.

Minutes later we began getting reports from the field-glass people: “Astronauts boarding over that scrawny little bridge,” “shackles holding spaceship to tower dropping away,” “door closing.” Apollo 17 was good to go, as soon as the clock reached that precise second of the scheduled launch.

Then it was T time.

We saw something flaring around the base of the rocket. Then that whole precarious stack of thrusters and capsules began to ease itself upward.

We all blinked and squinted as the five great rocket nozzles on the Saturn 5 savaged our eyes with the five blinding supernovas of hydrogen burning in air. The blinding flames began moving upward with the rest of the train, slowly at first, then picking up speed. Everything moved straight up together until the thrusters were level with the little bridge the astronauts had walked on, then higher and clear of the launch tower entirely.

And then at last the sound of those five Saturn rockets reached us, over beach and water, from far away, but still making the ship’s lighting fixtures rattle and our ears hurt. Now the entire construct was overhead, the hydrogen fire stretching down toward us, but far away and getting rapidly farther. Now the departing assembly of space-going parts was vertically over our heads.

Every head was craned back, every face aimed at the spectacle above. I turned around to look at my companions behind me. There were the upturned faces of Bob Heinlein and Isaac and Ted Sturgeon and others, clustered like blossoms in a flower-shop bouquet, starkly lit by that super-sun that was sliding across the sky above them. I could have kicked myself, angry at my dimwitted absence of forethought for failing to stick a camera in my pocket to capture a shot of those faces in that wondrous light.

Then the light went out as the fuel to the great Saturn nozzles dried up. That whole bank of ponderous rockets was cut free and fell away. A moment later the next complex of rockets ignited, tracing the Apollo’s course in a great, but dwindling, arc across the sky.

And then it was gone and we all began to talk again.

That was it, the last manned Apollo mission to the Moon. There has never been another. Unless the Chinese do one just to show off, I don’t think there will be in our lifetimes.

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Me, ca. 1972.

Me, ca. 1972.

Gather round, dear friends and fellow fans, especially the kind of fans who enjoy going to science-fiction cons. I have a story to tell that will make you eat your heart out. It is a tale of the absolute jim-dandiest (sort of) science-fiction con that was ever held, although it wasn’t called one. Unfortunately for present readers, it happened nearly forty years ago, and it is highly probable that nothing like it will ever happen again.

The project was the brainchild of three good friends of mine. One was an astronaut, one was a communications genius who used to work with Walter Cronkite and the third was a highly respected scientist, and the one thing I won’t tell you about them is their names. You see, the three of them collectively cooked up one of the very best ideas I have ever heard, and they overcame all obstacles to make it come to pass. But then they messed up one tiny, inconsequential little detail. That turned the whole enterprise into a catastrophic confusion which gave great pleasure to some but cost others, including one of its principle intended beneficiaries of the idea, the Holland America cruise ship line, a ton of money.

That’s why I conceal their identities. They suffered all the embarrassment they needed forty years ago. Now, well into the 21st century, they are entitled to set that huge humiliation behind them. So, just for purposes of identification. let’s refer to them as Joe, Jack and Jim.

The inspiration came to them in the early spring of 1972. By that year, NASA had already made good on President John F. Kennedy’s pledge, in his famous “Man on the Moon” speech of May 1961, to put a man on the Moon before the end of the decade. The space agency had landed five two-man teams of astronauts on the Moon’s surface in the Apollo series. One more was due on 7 December 1972, listed as Apollo 17. Several additional launches had been announced, but the fickle public had lost interest in space, and now they were all canceled. Apollo 17 would be the last of its kind, at least unless and until a new program began.

Our three friends, sitting around and chatting about it, agreed that this last Apollo launch would probably pull in a considerable crowd of spectators. “Only, you know,” (said Jack, or Jim, or possibly Joe), “if you’re just an ordinary citizen who wants something to tell your kids about, it’s really a lot of trouble to be a spectator to a launch. You have to fly down to a motel that’s probably ten or fifteen miles away the night before, and rent a car. Then you drive to your assigned parking space through miserable traffic while it’s still dark the next morning, then hiking half a mile or so across the sand dunes to get to your assigned observing spot, with the bull alligators bellowing at each other and the mosquitoes lining up for breakfast. Wouldn’t it be nice for them if there were some way to sit in comfort and watch the whole thing. Besides staying home and watching it on TV, I mean.

At that, one of them — I don’t know if it was Jim, Jack or Joe but we’ll say Jack — said, “Hey, what about watching it from a cruise ship anchored just offshore?”

And another one, maybe Jim, said, “Great idea! And, listen, if you really wanted to do it, maybe you could get a bunch of people like us to give lectures on the ship in exchange for free tickets.” And somebody, possibly Joe, said, “Why the dickens don’t we just go ahead and do it?”

They did. They talked to Holland America line (my own personal first choice among cruise companies), who loved the idea, only they wanted to make a real cruise out of it, with visits to four or five gorgeous tropical islands. Then they got busy compiling a guest list of leading science-fiction writers and assorted celebrities to attract hoi polloi. To all of which Holland America responded with approval and encouragement, and did they have any other ideas like that? And everything was going smoothly and the future looked good.

That year the Worldcon was in Los Angeles, in one of their big hotels close to the airport.

I planned to attend — actually I was their Guest of Honor that year — and when one of the three planners let me know that the three of them, too, would be in L.A. that weekend, I decided to drop in on them to see how things were going.

That was a little bit trickier than it looked. Los Angeles is one of the sprawliest of cities and, while the con hotel was next to the airport, the three schemers were clear on the other side of everything at the much classier Century Plaza Hotel in Century City. Still I did want to see them, and, besides, from experience I liked eating in the Century Plaza’s restaurants. So I shifted a few items in my Worldcon schedule around and drove my rental car clear across LaLaLand to join Jack, Joe and Jim for a very upbeat lunch.

Things were going splendidly, they said. They had been working the invitation list. Robert Heinlein was coming, and Ted Sturgeon and Isaac Asimov and at least a dozen other top science-fiction writers, said Joe. And other celebrities, too, Jack added, people like Carl Sagan and Norman Mailer and Katherine Anne Porter, whose 1962 novel Ship of Fools had created a stir in the world of publishing (an invitation which produced quite a lot of joking from Jim and Joe when Jack mentioned the title).

“And,” Joe put in, giving me a grin, “of course everybody brings his wife or husband or main squeeze. And we’re all comped, for the whole cruise, courtesy of Holland America. In your case, Fred, you don’t even have to worry about air fare, because you live near New York and that’s where this cruise starts and finishes.”

That I took to be my cue to tell them some good news I had brought with me. “Over on the other side of town at the Worldcon,” I said, “there’s a hotel stuffed full of four thousand or so science fiction fans, each one of whom would sell his grandmother into white slavery for the chance to be on this cruise. So why don’t the three of you come back there with me today? I’m giving a talk this afternoon. I’ll introduce you and, if you still have any unsold space left, you can have a sellout by dark.”

I had expected to get a pleased, maybe even a relieved response to that. After all, when you’ve got a thousand or so passages to sell and each one costs a couple of thousand dollars, you’d like to lower the risk factor as soon as you could, wouldn’t you?

So I thought they’d be happy to have the suggestion. They weren’t. They were polite, but not taking me up on my offer. One of them — Jim? — said, “We’re not ready for that, Fred. We’ve got to finalize the invitation list, and that’s what we’re here to work on for this weekend. We don’t want to start selling cabins until we know how many we need for guests, which means how many we have left to sell.”

Well, it wasn’t the way I would have done my calculations, but Jim, Joe and Jack were savvy, experienced human beings. So all I said was, “Let’s see. This is the first week in September. The launch is scheduled for December 7th. That’s not much more than ninety days away.” And the response I got to that was three friendly what-is-there-to-worry-about? chuckles.

And we went on with our lives. I was aware that there was a fair amount of telephoning going on in science-fiction circles — “Did you get invited to go on this cruise?” “Did you?” — but I was not involved in the decision-making, and very glad that was so.

I was never able to make a reliable count of the guests invited by Jack, Joe and Jim. More than fifty, I’m sure, but I think fewer than one hundred, and most, as Joe had said, were invited to bring their marriage partners, while a few had brought progeny as well. These were all traveling free, the cruise line covering their expenses, while the number of paying passengers was —

Was —

Well, I don’t know what it was. I have been told, by people who claimed to know, that there were a handful of people, fewer than a dozen, who in spite of the best efforts of Jack, Jim and Joe — who never did consider themselves quite ready to start selling tickets — somehow managed to pay actual money to someone for actual tickets for passage on the cruise, but I never met any of them. It is quite possible that the number of paying passengers on the ship was zero. It is true that, at the last moment, Holland America Lines, recoiling in horror from the approaching disaster, did put a couple of small nonpaying groups of travel agents aboard, as cruise lines, airlines and hotels often do to encourage future business. But most of the ship’s cabins were unoccupied as it pulled out of the port of New York.

This fact, of course, was reflected in all the ship’s services. There was only one sitting at meals and no waiting to use the exercise machines or visit the snack bars. For those passengers on the free list, it was a dream of paradise. For the cruise line, not pleasant at all. I don’t actually know what these follies cost Holland America. A figure I have heard mentioned was half a million 1972 American dollars. Jim, Joe and Jack might have been able to give a more precise figure, but we couldn’t ask them.

They hadn’t come aboard.

To be continued.

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