My friend Les Johnson, my colleague at Baen, is both a real writer and a real scientist, one of those renaissance men we all aspired to be at some time. Most of us never made it, but Les did.
Recently Les co-authored the book Rescue Mode with Science Fiction legend Ben Bova, and he was kindly enough to allow us to interview him about space, about working with Ben Bova, and about our chances to get off the rock and go out to space.
Sarah: What is holding us back on the rock, in your opinion, from the practical viewpoint?
Les: First of all, I need to say that the opinions expressed here are my own, and do not represent NASA.
There is no technological reason keeping us from going back to the Moon to visit or to set up a base there. What we’re lacking are the systems to go. By systems, I mean the actual hardware to launch the people and the hardware needed to keep them alive while they are on their way to the Moon or living on the surface. NASA and several private companies have the technologies to develop the hardware we need — all they are lacking are the money and the will to make it happen. By the way, the same can be said of sending humans to Mars. We can go if we want to.
An aside about money. I contend that going to the Moon, Mars or an asteroid with people is not that expensive – in relative terms. For reference, look at the 2015 NASA budget of $17 billion. For you and me, that’s a lot of money. For most countries and certainly most private businesses it is a lot of money. But for the US Government it is a relatively small amount when you consider that our total budget is over $3.9 trillion (or $3,900 billion). $3900 – $17 = $3883, which is, in practical terms, not much different from the $3900. In other words, NASA’s budget is a rounding error on the total federal budget. Sending humans beyond Earth, which would cost less than $17 billion and be spread out over 5 years or so, is a very small cost in the grand scheme of things. It just isn’t a priority. People spend more money on Coca Cola than they do on space exploration! ($46 billion global revenue for Coca Cola versus $17 billion for NASA.)
To make the money available from a government or from the private sector, we need a vision and an explanation why space exploration and development is important – one that people can hear and understand. We haven’t adequately done either.
What are hopeful developments in space exploration?
I am optimistic about the future of space exploration. Our military and our economy now depend upon space satellites. (You don’t believe me? Ask any major retailer if they can manage inventory, shipping, and other logistics without GPS and satellite communications.) We will eventually run out of easily accessible resources and be forced to go to the asteroids to keep our civilization going. It is just a matter of when this will happen. It could be in 30 years or 300 years. The Earth has finite accessible resources and we will one day stress the system to the point where costs make space resources look attractive. Environmental concerns may make this happen sooner rather than later. My personal vision of how we can use space to solve our resource, environment and energy problems is described in my book, Harvesting Space for a Greener Earth (Springer 2014).
Space tourism will make space accessible to more people and that is great. The increased flight rate will also drive down launch costs, making science and exploration missions less expensive to fly – enabling more to be flown. NASA’s new heavy lift rocket will enable us more easily send people beyond the Earth-Moon system to asteroids or to Mars. Our robotic probes will continue informing us of our place in the universe and help us to understand the local neighborhood that is the solar system. I am hopeful.
If you had your dream funding and dream project, what would you be doing?
My dream project has to be Interstellar Probe. Imagine a square solar sail 1/3 of a kilometer on a side, carrying a small spacecraft out of the solar system at speeds greater than 50 kilometers per second, racing into nearby interstellar space. Solar sails use sunlight for propulsion, requiring no fuel. And when they are deployed close to the Sun, they get a much larger push than a comparable sail deployed at the Earth-to-Sun distance. Solar sails are real. The Japanese are flying one called IKAROS and NASA is building one called Sunjammer. The neat thing about sails is their scalability; today’s solar sails can be made ever larger to go ever faster to even greater distances. I believe a very large solar sail will one day take a spacecraft to another star and Interstellar Probe will have been the first step.
What was it like to work with Ben Bova?
Working with Ben on Rescue Mode was just… awesome. Ben is an icon and the inheritor of the Asimov/Heinlein/Clarke legacy. His writings have inspired me since I was in high school (many years ago) and working with him on a book was an opportunity of a lifetime. He provided guidance throughout the project and seemingly effortlessly guided me out of many literary corners and potholes as the book was evolving. The nuts and bolts of the collaboration occurred by email, though we did talk on the phone a few times to bounce ideas off each other. Mars exploration is his passion and I think our story complements his other ideas about how this might actually happen. Though hopefully without some of the near-death experiences we put our characters through!
Tell us a little about your book.
Rescue Mode, published last week by Baen Books, is about the first international human mission to Mars. The mission is launched after a robotic mission finds signs of life there. Worldwide interest in learning more finally causes a few nations to come together to make it happen. But, in the spirit of the classic “man versus nature” theme, something goes horribly wrong during the journey which places our characters in a struggle to survive. In the process of surviving, they come up with a novel approach to assure that Mars exploration continues beyond their one mission. I better not say much more — I want you to read the book!
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“Just a little consulting work,” Joschka said. “Nothing dangerous,” Joschka said.
After all, just how much trouble can Rada get into serving as the “strange things” adviser to a minor military group on a small, backwater world? Wandering interstellar anthropologists, an increased Trader bounty on her head, and a musician who’s just a little too good all make Rada Ni Drako’s easy new part-time job a lot more interesting than planned. Interesting enough to make serving a Lord Defender of Drakon IV look like a quiet vacation.
Laredo’s defenders were ground down and its people ruthlessly slaughtered when the Bactrians invaded the planet. Overwhelmed, its Army switched to guerrilla warfare and went underground. For three years they’ve fought like demons to resist the occupiers. They’ve bled the enemy, but at fearful cost. The survivors are running out of weapons, supplies, and places to hide.
Then a young officer, Dave Carson, uncovers news that may change everything. An opportunity is coming to smash the foe harder than they’ve ever done before, both on and off the planet. Success may bring the interplanetary community to their aid – but it’ll take everything they’ve got. Win or lose, many of them will die. Failure will mean that Bactria will at last rule unopposed.
That risk won’t stop them. When you’re fighting a war to the knife, in the end you bet on the blade.
Tammy Kirsch has had her shot at fame. She came to Hollywood with stars in her eyes and lint in her pockets and looks that would open any door in town just to try to get her onto the casting couch. After several guest roles in TV shows, one starring role in a movie that nobody saw, inadvertently dodging the mid-70s porno chic moment and keeping her dignity and reputation intact, her career sputtered to a halt.
Then she lost her daughter in a custody case, and what was left of her world came crashing down around her ears. When the crazy homeless man tried to talk to her incoherently as she was leaving the court building, that only seemed to be the cherry on top of the layered dessert of her misery. In fact, it was just the first step on her path, a path that would end with her defending the entire world from an invasion of other-dimensional eldritch horrors.
She was drawn to the dark stranger; she could not help it. He was everything her broken heart needed, and everything her body desired. She was shy and sweet and he would never let her go.
She married him that night and he took her virginity. He seared her mind and body with the remembrance of erotic bliss and tormented every waking moment even as she tried to forget…
She fled her husband’s loving embrace but searched for him in her dreams. That is when he comes to her…and claims her as his.
But Lucy cannot forget, even as she tries to pick up the pieces of her shattered life and finds another..
He will always be her husband. For he is the one who seduced her in a night of drunken passion and the only man she craves…