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Pondering best speculative fiction and science for June 29, 2017.
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Welcome to the Reader's Room for 29th of June, 2017.
Service Notice:
Until I get the next Embassy book put to bed, the Reader's Room will be scaled back. I'll be going to a First Thursday of the month schedule (and First Friday for the podcast) after this week's edition.

I really enjoy creating the Reader's Room, and thank everyone who reads and listens, but at the moment it's taking time away from what I really must write. Hopefully I'll get to 1st and 3rd Thursday when I get things under control. (And then weekly again.) Thanks for understanding, and reading, and listening.

The Crazy Idea

In September of 1962, President Kennedy made that famous speech where he promised the world that the US would send people to the moon and bring them back. At that moment, America hadn't even been able to put a person into orbit yet. The promise of walking on the moon was so audacious that even many inside of NASA thought it might be impossible.

We did manage to do it, but in 1962, NASA—which was only four years old at this point—didn't know how to make it happen. The final plan, using spacecraft that would separate and dock in Lunar orbit, was considered too risky in early planning. It took the nineteen launches of the Gemini program to incrementally discover what was possible, and ten Apollo launches to sequentially test all the steps leading up to that first footprint.

In 2002, Elon Musk created a private spaceflight company called Space Exploration Technology Corporation—usually just SpaceX. Private spaceflight has, historically, been a guaranteed way for people to go broke. Thirteen years ago Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic was founded with a working suborbital spaceship, spent hundreds of millions of dollars, and as of today have far clocked exactly zero minutes in space. So SpaceX was thought to be a fanciful idea.

But Musk wanted to do more than do what other companies had done. Most rockets just dumped their spent stages into the ocean (or sometimes on farm houses). Even the reusable Space Shuttle discarded its fuel tanks. But Musk wanted Space X to land and reuse the first stage, propulsively landing it on its tail, like a 1950's science fiction rocket. Even experienced rocket scientists said it was a crazy idea.

There were years of incremental work, some quiet successes and catastrophic failures (or, in rocket engineering parlance, 'Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly'). It took four launches before they got one that didn't blow up. But they eventually got to orbit—a first for a private company. Then they worked to just do that reliably, not bothering with reusability just yet. Then they started adding legs and fins so they could decelerate from near orbital speed. At first they smashed into the ground (or more accurately their floating landing boats) but eventually they landed safely. As of today, they've landed a dozen in a row, including two last weekend. One of those two had even flown and landed before, another first. They're currently offering trips to space at around 30% cheaper than the competition, and they have a backlog of seventy missions worth more than $10 billion.

But Musk isn't done with the audacious plans. Earlier this year he gave a presentation on making humanity a multiplanitary species. He outlined a plan for how to reduce the cost of getting people to Mars by five million percent so it becomes affordable to move a million people (and the things they need to live) to the Red Planet over the course of a few decades. It's pretty easy to read as far a technical presentations go, and the full thing is available for free until July 5th. But it is a crazy idea.

There has, of course, been a lot of criticism. The paper is only sixteen pages long, most of it charts and graphs, so there are a lot of details missing. But this is how you figure things out, especially the crazy ideas. You start with what you know, drawing borders around your ignorance and explore from there. SpaceX plans to send people around the Moon next year. With a timeline like that, Mars might not be that far off.
Maciej Rebisz is a Polish illustrator who creates alternate histories (and futures) of space exploration. He has an extensive portfolio.
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Linkdump Followup

Several bits of reading I've recently recommended have had developments. Two new books are out in series I've recently recommended. In both cases they're even better than the original (Though you'll definitely want to read the originals first):

Waking Gods, book two of Sylvain Neuvel's Themis Files builds on everything in Sleeping Giants. The worst portents of the first book start coming true, and there's little an enormous robot can do to prevent them.

Kangaroo Too, Curtis Chen's followup to Waypoint Kangaroo is just as much fun. Kangaroo is in more trouble, and rubbing his coworkers even more of the wrong way.

The XPrize Foundation has started releasing their stories about the future. Their collection of authors is amazing. A sampling includes: Bruce Sterling's It Feels So Exponential, Madeline Ashby & Margaret Atwood's The Japanese Room, and Charlie Jane Anders's Trapped in the Bathroom, and more. They're all told from the point of view of a flight pulled 20 years into the future. Get started here.

Listen to the Podcast:

Audio versions of the Reader's Room are posted the Friday after the email.
Listen to them here.
Writing Status:
As I mentioned up top, I'm slowing the roll of Reader's Room because, while I've been making steady progress, it's been breathtakingly slow. And as I start finer revisions, I'll need to keep more of it in my head so I can keep continuity and get the flow right. Six chapters left in this revision.
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Copyright © 2017 Steven Hoefer, All rights reserved.


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