Looking to the Science

It’s fitting that my story, “Hubble Rising” [on sale now] appears in the first issue of Analog since the Golden Age to bear the magazine’s unique orthography.

Analogous-to-Symbol HARDWICK.png

[Image description: Analogous symbol]

It might surprise some readers to know that the name “Analog” never referred to electronics (as denizens of this digital age might guess). Instead, that little “home-grown” symbol reintroduced on the January/February cover was meant to imply that “Science Fact is analogous to Science Fiction.”

And so it is. Arthur C. Clarke told us, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” By the same token, science is that means by which magic is added to our toolkit. If you doubt that, imagine what King Arthur would have made of the screen you’re looking at—as opposed to the steel at his hip. Science makes wizards of us all.

Since long before the Discovery Channel and NASA TV, Analog magazine has been an exemplar for scientific literacy, delivering consistently well-grounded, often aspirational science fiction along with forward-looking articles that seek to anticipate and illuminate the human impacts of our ever-expanding technical culture.

“Hubble-Rising” is, if I may be so bold, classic Analog: a hard scifi adventure that explores legal and cultural shifts already starting to occur as the plummeting cost of space launch services fuels a commercial renaissance in space. Like all my “Open Source Space” stories, it’s just an old fashioned story of duty and grit—“Have spacesuit, will travel,” if you will, only with modern financing. But if Heinlein’s stage was technically over-ambitious, mine is developing almost beyond the pace of imagination.

When “Open Source Space” was published, one reviewer found the idea of a crowd-sourced space mission beyond his credulity. This year, one fell meters short of soft-landing a spacecraft on the real, actual Moon. A Nano Racks executive recently told me his employer has launched science payloads to the ISS paid for—literally—by middle-school bake sales. At a recent trade show in Houston, I “kicked the tires” on a commercial lunar ferry currently in contracted development that will have sufficient payload capacity (I noted with scifi writer’s glee) to drop a suited tourist on the Moon.

Elon Musk’s live-streamed antics and “rapid, unscheduled disassemblies” have stirred more interest in space than anything else since Sputnik, engendering a whole cottage industry of social media Space-X watchers. Yet even among these devotees, I suspect few are aware of the 2,000 American companies currently developing “foundational” new space technologies (more on that at a future date) for a bullishly adventurous new market.

Increasingly, I feel pressed to attend to my little notepad of “Open Source Space” story ideas before they all come to pass, but as I look to the science to suggest what’s soon to come, I have to wonder if the pursuit of scientific accuracy is more quicksand than foundation. Clark also said, “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.” Consider that, and that by “elderly” he meant “over thirty years old,” and Google the Space-X Starship prototypes with their front and rear actuated guide fins gleaming in the Texas sun like something from a vintage Analog cover. Who could have foreseen such a design even a handful of years ago? Is this life imitating art or the other way round? Or is that even the right question?

I was recently asked about the scientific accuracy of a scene in the movie Ad Astra, in which space-suited astronauts “fall from the ISS.” I’m afraid the questioner’s inability to distinguish an orbiting space station from a ginormous tower may have set me off. I explained why one cannot “fall from” orbit, but can certainly fall from a tower, no matter how high. I then explained that in spite of that:

 

“No, it’s completely ridiculous.

“Only a low-grade moron would step outside at a hundred kilometers altitude to climb a ladder to the next zip code without Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) equal to the task. The hero who has to unhook his tether to perform some obviously foreseeable task is so trite at this point it should invoke the ghost of Edgar Rice Burroughs to touch a smoldering cubeb to the manuscript. Have these people heard of three-points-of-contact? Redundant tethers? Velcro? Rolls of duck tape and prayer beads? Is that the premise of this movie? They all belong to history’s most improbable suicide cult? Do they keep the OSHA guys pickled in the karaoke bar? I hope Brad Pitt at least remembered his maximum absorbency garment—because he’s gonna need it—when his mamma gets done tanning his backside.

“That’s assuming he lives, because (minor detail) HE FORGOT TO BRING AIR. That’s an ACES whole-body pressure suit he’s wearing, not really meant for working in vacuum, but it’ll do in an emergency—like if you’re falling from such a height that the air is too thin for you to stabilize yourself—as it explicitly is here. Only his suit’s not inflated because A: he’s an actor on a soundstage and the crew doesn’t know the purpose of pressure suits and B: it’s not plugged into any life support—so by the time he falls the minimum 4.5 minutes it’ll take him to reach air thick enough to deploy a parachute, he’ll be deader than that watermelon you forgot in the basement fridge before you went on vacation to the Parthenon. Or maybe Elon Musk hired the ghost of Steve Jobs and that backpack is the swanky new iPLSS with integral selfie support, fashion chute, and Vienna Sausage warmer.

“Even the crabs on Cocoa Beach will be face-palming through this one, and they don’t even have palms. Hold on fellas, it’s turtles all the way down.”

Yeah so . . . we all enjoy poking holes—but is any of that really fair?
I have a confession, dear Analog reader: everyone gets the science wrong sometimes. Often, the story requires something to be possible that we don’t know how to do. If we did, we’d be writing a speech for the Nobel committee, not a blog for Analog, you see. Other times, we are simply speculating beyond what is known; Jules Verne rolled the dice as to whether a submarine could swim under Antarctica—and guessed wrong. Other times (and more often in hard scifi) we simply exceed the balance between the accuracy needed by the story and the information (and time) available to the author.

For “Hubble Rising,” I talked to Theo Brummelaar, director of the Charra astronomical array on Mt. Wilson, about the imaging capabilities of new interferometric optical telescopes like the one mentioned in my story. I sat through a twenty-five-lecture MIT course on space shuttle design and operations, and read the mission reports for all the Hubble Repair missions. I studied specification documents for the International Docking Adapter just delivered to the ISS, and for the LIDS capture interface installed on Hubble during its last repair mission.

docking-adapter HARDWICK.jpg

[Image description: Stuart with the International Docking Adapter, similar to the LIDS system installed on Hubble.]

Then last month, I was strolling through the exhibitor’s floor at SpaceCom Houston when I stumbled (literally—it’s smaller than you’d imagine) over the very LIDS gear that features so prominently in my story. I mentioned the story and the plot point to the NASA contractor manning the booth (they are all contractors, these days) and he said it wouldn’t work, that the new docking adapter and the one on Hubble are completely different.

Oh no! So I went home and looked it up. Spent two and a half times as much time on it as I should have, and it turns out that just as I had thought, though the two systems are of course very different, they’re explicitly designed for compatibility. In fact, quite the contrary—the very “ramming speed” maneuver I use rather cheekily in my story is explicitly (if obtusely) mentioned in a NASA briefing document as an expected, likely operation that both systems must support.

So . . . I was right and he was wrong. Or maybe not—we might simply have misunderstood one another. But of course, it doesn’t matter. Any two spacecraft can always mate through an adapter, and pivotal though the details are to my astronauts, they are only tangential to my story. And this is, I would suggest, almost always the case.

Apollo 13 is arguably the most accurate space adventure ever put on film, and the list of technical errors would crash this server (from launch tower arms retracting one after the other, to Ken Mattingly having the skills and responsibilities of twenty people, to pretty much every switch being thrown in the wrong place at the wrong time). The Martian was Robinson Crusoe in space, in which Crusoe’s space helmet is inexplicably made of heavy safety glass instead of polycarbonate (they fixed that in the movie), and Martian storms can . . . well, be felt.

But Apollo 13 was a dramatic masterwork that had us biting our nails over the fate of a man who we all knew survived to make a cameo in the movie, and The Martian is funny AF and elevates Disco in the scifi musical pantheon to its rightful place alongside Strausse’s Also sprach Zarathustra (we all agree on that, right?)

Ad Astra is . . . pretty.

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[Image description: Hubble after Servicing Mission 4. A Soft Capture Mechanism, the ring in the center of the frame, was added to permit post-shuttle capture and eventually controlled de-orbit. Credit: NASA]

I believe you’ll find “Hubble Rising,” to be a pleasingly plausible respite from such Hollywood hokum. You’ll find my science as sound as I can make it, and yes, in a story of this sort, that is important. It’s important because somewhere out there, it might interest some not-yet “elderly scientists” to wonder what can be, and maybe go do what can’t. Maybe, when the time comes, it will even inspire one of you to actually go save the venerable telescope that has so thoroughly lived up to its namesake—and might yet show us new wonders.

More important though, you’ll find my cast (some of whom return from the first tale in this series) of a decidedly more . . . human . . . disposition. You’ll find I’ve been quite wicked in giving one of them a handicap she’ll not overcome in the confines of this one story. And I hope you’ll find their struggles inspiring. After all, we do not live to make machines, but make machines to live—better.

But hey, if emotionless machine characters are more your dramatic wheelhouse, we have one of those too—Gort, but with open-source components and an in-memory collection of Comicon selfies. Klaatu barada nikto.

 


Stuart is a regular in Analog, and a winner of multiple awards including the Writers of the Future contest, the Jim Baen Memorial Award, and Analog’s Analab reader poll. Learn more and get a free sampler at cStuartHardwick.com.

 

 

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