Next Giant Leap

Can’t believe I forgot to link this, so I’m blaming the Christmas rush. Baen asked me to write a short background story on Frozen Orbit in advance of its release next week. From the opening:

Vladimir Vaschenko’s first indication that his landing attempt might not have planned for every variable was when the ground beneath him exploded.

If you want to find out what happens next, go to http://www.baen.com or just hit this link right here.

If It’s Boeing, It Ain’t Going

It pains me to say that. I spent a lot of time in their performance engineering school in Seattle, and after every course I came home feeling like a rocket scientist.

CST-100 Starliner passing by Charleston on its way to (the wrong) orbit.

After today I wonder if their rocket scientists feel like rocket scientists:

For most space launches, a rocket will take its payload all the way to Earth orbit — but that wasn’t the case for this mission. The Atlas V deployed the Starliner into a suborbital path around Earth, a trajectory that would not keep the capsule lapping around Earth indefinitely. Unless it ignited its own engines boosting itself into an actual orbit, the Starliner would eventually fall back into the ocean. This plan was a conscious decision made by the Starliner team. The idea was to drop the capsule off closer to Earth — a safety measure added just in case there ever was an emergency on future flights with passengers on board. That would make it easier for the crew to abort the launch and come home more easily and more comfortably.
Of course, getting Starliner to orbit meant the capsule absolutely had to ignite its own engines in order to climb higher into space. Initially, NASA and Boeing said the ignition had been delayed, and for a while it was uncertain if it occurred at all. Now, it seems that some kind of ignition did occur, but whatever happened did not put the Starliner on the path it was supposed to reach.

Well then.

I don’t pretend to have a clue what happened. Hopefully it’s easily understood and a quick fix–but in space program terms, “quick” is relative. At this rate, who knows when we’ll see a crewed Starliner flight?

Between this and the MCAS debacle, one rightly wonders what the actual &#$%@! is going on at the world’s leading aerospace manufacturer. It’s fair to wonder if this points to bigger problems, the rumblings of which I began to hear about 10-15 years ago after the McDonnell/Douglas merger. The engineers I got to know in Seattle were almost to a man concerned with the new management culture being imposed on them. They were afraid Boeing was becoming less of an engineering concern and more of a “business.”

That might have sounded like frightened old-timers protecting their rice bowls, but it looks like they knew what they were talking about. The bean counters took over, much to Boeing’s detriment. Moving the headquarters out of Seattle to Chicago certainly didn’t help. The 787 was a slow-motion fiasco, with supply chain and certification problems that delayed its entry to service by years, but at least the thing’s flying and hasn’t killed anybody yet. If only we could say the same thing for the 737 Max.

Safety and quality are always a balancing act: if you park all of your airplanes, you’ll never have an accident. You’ll also be out of business. You can likewise implement quality systems which are so onerous that nothing gets done. The opposite is to ignore safety and quality in the chase for dollars, and it can be surprisingly easy to rationalize cutting corners for the sake of “accomplishing the mission.”

By striving to improve their bottom line through questionable business decisions, this company has created some very expensive problems for itself. I just hope they’re not fatal, as I don’t want to see Airbus become a de facto monopoly. Despite their current issues, I think Boeing has always built a better product and I want to see that continue into the future.

It takes decades to build your reputation and seconds to squander it.

 

 

 

 

Steely-Eyed Missile Men

Just a quick hit, then back to work…I’m finishing a short story for Baen’s website in advance of Frozen Orbit’s release, the deadline for which coincides with an audit trip I have to take right after Thanksgiving. So yeah, lots going on at Chiles Manor South…

Aerotech Arreaux, the first large-ish rocket I built after getting back into the hobby 15 years ago.
My high-power fleet and mission control.
The Arreaux on an Estes F-15 motor, after the engine nozzle clogged and blew out the forward end. Black-powder motors are susceptible to this problem as they don’t easily scale up in size.
Public Missiles Mini Black Brant X, on an H182 redline motor.
Estes Mega Der Red Max on an Aerotech G64 White Lightning motor. Composite propellant works a lot better in these sizes than black powder.

Last weekend I went to my first high-power rocket launch since moving to Tennessee and had a blast with the Music City Missile Club (pun intended). It was a bit chilly with clear blue skies, not like the teeth-rattling cold and gray overcast that too often defined our launch days with Tripoli Mid-Ohio.

Out of four attempts, I had two successful flights and two which were less-than-successful but no less spectacular (i.e. they blew up).

Rocket science ain’t supposed to be easy.

Going for Gold at Pluto

See the source image

New Horizons‘ lead scientist Alan Stern describes their “Gold Standard” plan to return to Pluto:

First, after an orbital tour of Pluto, a final pair of close gravity-assist flybys of Charon will free the orbiter from the Pluto system to explore the Kuiper Belt without any need for any propulsion from the orbiter. Next, using only the existing capabilities of the NASA Dawn mission electric propulsion system, the craft will conduct a flyby tour of up to a half-dozen small Kuiper Belt objects and any one of a number of dwarf planets. In fact, in some scenarios, the Dawn propulsion system can even place the Pluto orbiter around a second dwarf planet for another orbital mission.

Lots more on the particulars of the design trades that have to be made for an orbital vs. flyby mission in the article at Astronomy.com. One of the balancing acts that always intrigued me is the need to cover the distance quickly but still arrive with enough propellant to slow it into orbit when it gets there.

An earlier piece at Astronomy lays out just why we ought to be interested in this icy world at the end of the Solar System:

Pluto generates enough heat to comfortably sustain a subsurface ocean over billions of years. The evidence scientists have accumulated so far suggests such an ocean is present — although it most likely remains locked beneath a thick, rigid shell — and would be detectable by a future orbiter. Also keep in mind that Pluto is not unique: Other bodies in the Kuiper Belt have similar sizes and most likely also possess oceans. So, the outermost reaches of our solar system are not universally hostile. Despite the cold and the dark, Pluto and its brethren may represent welcoming oases.

This is fascinating to me, and was part of my premise for Frozen Orbit. When it became apparent it held organic compounds known as “tholins” similar to what we’ve found on Saturn’s moon Titan, I naturally wondered about what else might be hiding out there in the Kuiper Belt. If comets were the source of Earth’s water and organic materials, most of which came from the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud, then that kind of makes the whole belt into one big freezer pantry. That made for some intriguing story ideas about how we came here and our place in the universe.

The rest you’ll just have to read about when Frozen Orbit comes out in January. If you really don’t want to wait, Baen is selling advance reader copies now.

 

The Story So Far, or Lessons Learned on the Writing Life

Writing full time is a dream come true for anyone who’s finished even so much as a short story. As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. Now that I’ve taken the plunge, there are a few lessons I’d like to pass on. This list is by no means complete:

1. Time management is everything. 

You may have a lot more of it now but it’s still less than you think, especially if working from home means you’re now responsible for, you know, taking care of said home. If you don’t make writing Priority One, I promise you will find enough meaningless distractions to leave you doing what Sarah Hoyt calls “rotating the cat.”

My days start pretty early. I help Better Half get around and see her off to work by 7. I make time for daily devotionals and Bible study (whatever is important to you, but this is something else that will fall by the wayside if I don’t do it first thing), then catch up on email and daily news. I make sure all that is done plus breakfast by 830. I’ll work out afterward if I feel like it. Otherwise, it’s time to plant my butt in the seat.

The exception to all this is when I have a road trip for my contract job. There’s a certain amount of preparation that has to happen ahead of time, and when I’m out on the road that job is the priority. Besides keeping my focus where it needs to be, it makes it easier to wrap up reports while I’m still on the clock and not back at home.

2. Human interaction is also everything.

Let me be clear: I did not leave a crappy job. It wasn’t always the most interesting thing in the world, but it was still a good gig. I miss my old coworkers, and you will too unless they were jerks in which case congratulations on escaping a toxic work environment.

That’s what I like about my contractor gig: besides paying actual money, it gets me away every few weeks to spend a lot of time with new people.

On a related note, I’ve also found it important to get out of the house and “go to the office” just to break up the routine (or maybe establish one). Don’t make fun of the loner at Starbucks pounding away on his laptop because he may not be doing it just for show–in fact, if you’re in the Bellevue, TN, area it might be me! I’ve recently started checking out local coffee shops Not Named Starbucks just to break up the monotony. First time I tried it I knocked out 1500 words in two hours on a story I hadn’t touched in three weeks.

Also, if you don’t have a dog or a cat, get one. Preferably a dog, because there are no good places for a litter box if you don’t have a basement or a decent-sized mudroom. See also that whole “rotating the cat” problem.

3.  The mental engagement of a full-time job may benefit your writing more than you realize.

YMMV, but if you’re like me you used storytelling to escape the mundane. You might be surprised at how much more work it takes to spark the old imagination.

4. Unless you’ve been handed a six-figure advance, be prepared to feel worthless.

My wife and I have swapped roles after twenty years spent raising our sons. She now works full-time in a job with excellent benefits and I work part-time as a contractor in my old industry (business aviation). We made all of the preparations responsible adults are supposed to do ahead of a big life change like this: eliminating debt, setting a budget, and ensuring we had enough savings to cover the gaps while I begin building writing income.

None of that changes the fact that after being the main breadwinner for all those years, I’m now small potatoes. My part-time consulting job brings in about half of what I was making before. While it enables writing full time, any royalties won’t be seen for at least another nine months from now. Baen structures their advances so that you have a good chance of selling through, but I still have no idea how much those royalties might be.

I have other stuff in the works that’s too short for Baen to publish so it’ll go on Kindle Direct where the royalties come a little quicker, but it’s still no less scary. If this doesn’t work out, I’ll have to go back to work full time. Which brings me to…

5. Make certain your significant other is 100% all-in.

It’s not fair to them otherwise, and you’re going to need them on your side for the times when doubt threatens to cripple you. My wife has been absolutely committed to this, and I can tell you with certainty I wouldn’t have been able to go through with it otherwise. She has been an absolute treasure and I hope every one of you reading this has someone like this in your life.

That’s all for now. I still have a lot to learn so there will be more to come in the future. In the meantime, you may recall I have a book coming out in January. Pre-orders mean a lot, so Tap That App and tell your friends!

 

Coming Soon

…but not soon enough!

The blog’s been dormant for awhile (okay, a long while), so you may rightly wonder what I’ve been up to. There’s this little thing, coming January 2020:

Balancing work on my first “real” novel for Baen against a full-time day job and family commitments kept me incredibly busy. Something had to give.

So I quit the day  job.

If that sounds nuts to you, rest assured it still feels nuts to me. Just so you know, I didn’t completely throw caution to the wind – I’m now a contractor in a job that pays fairly well for being part time, which enables me to write full time. This is a window of opportunity which needed to be taken advantage of, meaning that I can’t take three years to finish a novel anymore and expect to make it as a writer.

Life has changed dramatically for us in just about every way. Much, much more to follow as I breathe life back into this site. In the meantime, enjoy the cover and pre-order FROZEN ORBIT at Amazon.

Don’t Be Evil

Google is still doing it wrong:

Google ads has refused to do business with a Christian publishing house “because of the faith we express on our website,” said Concordia Publishing House CEO Bruce Kintz in a Facebook post today.
“Google ads will no longer accept anything related to the cph.org domain. They stated the reason is because of the faith we express on our website,” Kintz wrote. “[A CPH associate] was told, as an example, that things like our bible (sic) challenge on our [Vacation Bible School] webpage would clearly need to come down before they could consider us for ads.”

Let that sink in. They take exception to a church publishing house hosting apps for Vacation Bible School.

Ever been to a Lutheran service? Not exactly filled with the fervent faithful speaking in tongues and tossing snakes around. Google is afraid of a bunch of exceedingly polite people doing…what exactly? Teaching manners to their kids? Believing in a higher power? Holding another Sunday potluck?

If they’re this bad with the Lutherans, you can imagine how they really feel about the rest of us knuckle-dragging rednecks.

It’s like the whole country is a field of dried grass and the hard left just can’t stop lighting matches to see what happens. As Col. Schlichter has pointed out, if they’re this afraid of the “Christian” right, they’re really going to hate the non-Christian right.

Days of Glory

A resourceful filmmaker named Christian Stangl has animated thousands of NASA photos into a gorgeous video tribute to Apollo, well worth 7.3 minutes of your time:

UPDATE! Almost forgot this compelling short by Andrew Finch. It’s amazing when you see what his team accomplished on what must have been a shoestring budget – even using actual SFX models with the CGI:

h/t: Sploid