Why I think Mars One is a really stupid notion

I posted last week about the silliness of trying to colonise Mars on a one-way basis, unless you’re sending Justin Bieber.

Sure, most colonists here on Earth made the trip one-way. But Earth’s way more hospitable. Even Roanoke. You can breathe the air, for a start.

Artists' impression of the Orion EFT-1 mission. NASA, public domain.

Artists’ impression of the Orion EFT-1 mission. NASA, public domain. Eventually, Orion may be part of the system that takes us to Mars – and brings us back.

Mars – that’s another planet. It has red skies and blue sunsets, temperatures that make Antarctica look summery, and surface air pressure about 0.6% that of Earth, though that’s academic because it’s mostly carbon dioxide anyway. Mars also has no magnetic field, which means the surface is irradiated from space. Then there’s the dirt, which the Phoenix lander found was saturated with naturally-formed perchlorates. Know what perchlorate is? Rocket fuel. It’s nasty stuff, it’s toxic, and the chances of keeping the habitat clear of it after a few EVA’s seems low.

The biggest problem is that nobody’s been there yet. There’s bound to be a curve ball we don’t know about. It’ll be discovered the hard way.

That was the Apollo experience forty years ago. It turned out lunar dust is abrasive and insidious. As early as Apollo 12, astronauts found dust in the seals when they re-donned their suits for a second EVA – moon-walker Pete Conrad reported that ‘there’s no doubt in my mind that with a couple more EVA’s something could have ground to a halt’. All the later Apollo astronauts hit it; leak rates soared in the suits as dust worked its way into the sealing rings.

I think it’s safe to say something of equal practical difficulty will be discovered about Mars, one way or another. Not good if you’ve just arrived – permanently. Besides, what happens if someone gets needs a hospital now? Or is injured? Well, that’s a no-brainer. You can imagine the colony consisting of a cluster of grounded Dragons with a row of graves next to it.

Cut-away of the modified Apollo/SIVB 'wet lab' configuration for the 1973-74 Venus flyby. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Cut-away of the modified Apollo/SIVB ‘wet lab’ configuration for the 1973-74 Venus flyby. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Mars One plan to send more missions every two years, each with four colonists to join the happy bunch. If they’re alive. My money says they won’t be. This is Scott of the Antarctic territory – high-tech for the day (Scott even had motorised tractors) but still gimcrack.

The main reason we’ve not gone there yet, despite space agencies making serious plans since the 1960s, is cost. Manned interplanetary fly-bys were (just) within reach of the hardware built for the Moon landings – and until the Apollo Applications Programme was slashed to just Skylab, NASA was looking at a manned Venus flyby for 1973-74, using Apollo hardware.

Composite panorama of Mars. Not going to be seen by the 2018 expedition, as they'll fly past the night side. NASA, public domain.

Composite panorama of Mars. NASA, public domain.

Unfortunately, stopping at the destination, landing on it, and all the rest was another matter. It was easy to accelerate an Apollo CSM and habitat module into a free-return Venus or Mars trajectory; no further fuel was needed, it’d whip past the target at interplanetary velocities, and the CM could aerobrake to a safe landing on Earth. But stopping at the destination, landing and then returning home? In rocketry – whether chemical or nuclear-thermal (NERVA), the two technologies available until recently, mass-ratios are critical.

Mass ratio is the difference in mass between an empty and fuelled rocket at all times, and fuel takes fuel to accelerate it. It’s a calculation of sharply diminishing returns, and the upshot for NASA and other Mars mission planners in the twentieth century was that a practical manned landing mission was going to (a) require a colossal amount of fuel, and (b) would still transit by low-energy Hohmann orbit requiring a 256 day flight each way, meaning more life support, which meant more fuel (see what I mean?).

Some plans looked to refuel the system from Martian resources, but that had challenges of its own. Either way, the biggest challenge in all Mars mission schemes was the first step, lifting the Mars ship off Earth into a parking orbit. No single rocket could do that in one go, meaning multiple launches and assembly in orbit, raising cost and complexity still further. With figures in tens and hundreds of billions of dollars being bandied about, and no real public enthusiasm for space after Apollo, it’s small wonder governments were daunted.

ROMBUS in Mars orbit: Mars Excursion Module backs away ready for landing. Public domain, NASA.

Conceptual art of Philip Bono’s colossal ROMBUS booster in Mars orbit: Mars Excursion Module backs away ready for landing. Public domain, NASA.

My take – which is far from original to me – is don’t try going to Mars now. Focus on building a space-to-space propulsion system that offers better impulse than chemical or nuclear-thermal motors. Do that and the 256-day trans-Mars cruise – which is what drives the scale and risk of the mission, including problems with radiation doses in deep space – goes away. One promising option is the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMIR), a high-powered ion drive that might do the trick if it works as envisaged. Another is the FDR (Fusion Driven Rocket). Current projections suggest Earth-Mars transit times as low as 30 days.

Of course, if your drive won’t light when you need it to slow down, you’re on a one-way trip out of the solar system. But hey…

Maybe we should send Justin Bieber on that first VASIMIR mission, just in case…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Essential writing skills: a few interesting publisher terms

Like all professions, publishing has its own terms – many of them plain English words that mean something different within the field. Today I thought I’d share a few of the more interesting ones.

  1. The way books should be sold, cover out (the best way to display them). I wrote this one...

    The way books should be sold, cover out (the best way to display them). I wrote this one…

    ‘Title’. This has two meanings in the publishing industry – (a) The identifiying name given to a book, in the sense we usually know it; but also (b) a particular book. For instance, if I’m contracted to write a new book, it’s referred to as my ‘new title’.  Publishers, similarly, don’t talk about the ‘number of books’ they release in a year – it’s ‘number of titles’. The distinction helps avoid confusion with ‘book’, which to the industry can also mean ‘stock unit’. I can always tell whether an author’s worked with the trad publishing industry for a while or not, because the term leaks into everyday author-speak.

  2. ‘Release to trade’. This is when a new title is made available to the market. It differs from ‘launch’, which refers to a special social event designed to mark that release. Outside the publishing industry, the terms ‘launch’ and ‘release’ are often used interchangeably to mean a title’s on the market, but that’s seldom done within it.
  3. ‘List’. This refers not just to the catalogue of titles that a publisher has available, but by implication also to its nature – to the style of title the publisher seeks to produce and be identified with. It can also refer to an author’s own personal catalogue of titles.
  4. ‘Back list’. The prior catalogue of titles that a publisher has issued, but which may not necessarily be available. Authors can have back-lists too (mine is in process of being re-issued, heh heh heh).
  5. ‘Imprint’. This is the brand under which a book is issued. Many of the larger publishing houses issue under several imprints, each usually associated with a specific sub-brand. Penguin, for example, always issued generally under its house brand; but also into more specialist markets as Puffin (kids), Pelican (intellectual) and Allen Lane (elite).
  6. ‘Sale or return’. This refers to the practise of a publisher lending their stock to trade. If the books don’t sell, they’re returned to the publisher, hopefully undamaged. Authors, who are at the bottom of the financial food chain, usually get a proportion of royalties withheld – by contract – as the publisher hedges against too many copies coming back. While it means publishers can get mountains of books physically on sale inside bookstores, to my mind all it really does is transfer the risk of a bad stocking decision by a bookstore back on to the publisher (and, of course, the author).

There are many other terms, often technically associated with the editorial and production process. More of them anon. Do you have any curious publishing terms you’d like to share, or which you’ve encountered? Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

In which I discover someone’s selling a book of mine for $4896.01

The other day I was blown away to discover someone was trying to sell one of my books, new on Amazon, for $4896.01. Plus shipping.

Yes, it's a four-figure sum for one of my books. Amazing. Click to enlarge.

Yes, it’s a four-figure sum for one of my books. Amazing. Click to enlarge.

The Reed Illustrated History of New Zealand has been out of print nearly a decade, and I’m not sure where the vendor got their stock from. I don’t see a cent for it, of course – I’ll have fielded the $1.50 royalty (less tax and expenses) when it was originally sold. Thing is, I’ve got a couple of copies myself, new, and I’ll happily undercut that vendor. Let’s say $US4895. I’ll even throw in the shipping, free. Call me.

I discovered this while sorting out my Amazon author page. It was time. I’ve got an awful lot going on just now. My book Man Of Secrets was released by Penguin Random House at the end of January, and last week the first in a series of reissues from my military-historical back list became available. Next week my book The New Zealand Wars (Libro International 2014) will be released in print for the North American market. And I’m also contributing to an Australian science-fiction compilation, which I expect will be published later this year.

So it’s all happening, and I thought I’d better get my own online arrangements in order. Starting with my Amazon author page. Check it out for yourself.

My Amazon author page. Click to check it out.

My Amazon author page. Click to check it out.

Some authors are known for one ‘thing’ – a specific non-fiction subject or a fiction genre, and eyebrows get raised if they do something else. I’ve never felt limited by such things. My work breaks into three categories: (a) military-historical non-fiction; (b) social-historical non-fiction; and (c) fiction. I’ve negotiated a partial re-release of my back-list in (a), but new stuff is primarily (b) and (c).

I’ve also set up a Facebook author page – which I cordially invite you to ‘like’, if you haven’t already. It’ll be populated with the latest news and other stuff related to what I’m doing – or what I find interesting.

Watch those spaces. And this one.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Yes – a Kiwi might go to Mars, but I still wish it was Justin Bieber

A New Zealander’s reached the short-list of 100 possible candidates for the one-way Mars One mission proposed for 2025-26 by Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, co-founder of the project.

Personally I’d have preferred they despatched Justin Bieber and left it at that. But the presence of a Kiwi isn’t bad given that the original long-list ran to 202,586 individuals.

Conceptual artwork by Pat Rawlings of a Mars mission rendezvous from 1995. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Conceptual artwork by Pat Rawlings of a Mars mission rendezvous from 1995. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Still, I can’t quite believe the plan. Settlers will be lobbed to Mars in batches of four, inside modified Space-X Dragon capsules. They’ll land, build a habitat based on inflatable modules and several Dragons, and remain there for the rest of their lives. Kind of like Robinson Crusoe, but with all of it beamed back to us for our – well, I hesitate to use the word under these circumstance. Entertainment.

I doubt that the show will run for many seasons. The development timing for the mission seems optimistic – a point I am not alone in observing. There have been a wide range of practical objections raised by engineers at MIT. But apart from that, nobody’s been to Mars before. Sure, we’ve despatched over 50 robots, 7 of which are still operational. But that doesn’t reduce the challenges involved in keeping humans alive in a hostile environment for their natural lives, and I figure from the Apollo experience that there’ll be curve balls along the way.

Those challenges will begin as soon as the colonists are cruising to Mars, a 256 day journey jammed into a 10-cubic metre metal can along – eventually – with 256 days worth of their wastes. Think about it. Popeye lived in a garbage can. The first Mars colonists? Well, they’re going to live in a commode. Hazards (apart from launch-day waste bags bursting on Day 255) include staying fit in micro-gravity and radiation flux. That last is the killer. The trans-Mars radiation environment was measured by the Curiosity rover, en route, and turned out to be – on that trip anyway – 300 millisieverts, the equivalent of 15 years’ worth of the exposure allowed to nuclear power plant workers. A typical airport X-ray scan, for comparison, delivers 0.25 millisieverts.

I suppose the heightened risk of cancer isn’t really an issue, given their life expectancy on Mars (68 days, according to MIT). Though if the sun flares – well, that’ll be too bad. (‘My goodness, what a lovely blue glow. Nice tan.’)

A large solar flare observed on 8 September 2010 by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. Public Domain, NASA.

A large solar flare observed on 8 September 2010 by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Public Domain, NASA.

Unfortunately the radiation problem continues on the surface of Mars. The planet lacks a magnetic field like Earth’s and its atmosphere is thin, meaning radiation is a threat even after you’ve landed. The answer is to bury yourself under Martian dirt, but Space One’s plans don’t seem to include that. There also a possible problem – which we’ll look at next time – with the nature of that dirt.

Whether the intrepid colonists will get away is entirely another matter. Apart from the hilariously optimistic timetable, the project relies on a modified version of Space-X’s Dragon, which has yet to be human-rated. And then there’s funding, which I understand will come from media coverage. But I suspect the likely barrier will be regulatory. These people will be flying inexorably and certainly to their deaths, and odds are on it will be before the natural end of their lives. Will the nation that hosts the launch permit that?

Still, let’s suppose there are no legislative barriers. And let’s say the colonists get to Mars without their hair falling out or the waste bags bursting and filling the cabin with – well, let’s not go there. Let’s say they land safely. Suddenly they’re on Mars. Forever. What now? And what about those curve-balls?

More next week.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Essential writing skills: why commas count when you write

Commas count when you write. Really. Franz Kafka thought he could do without them. But for the rest of us, commas are essential. Look at it this way. If I said to my wife, “I bought a new camera bag,” she’d be happy, whereas if I said “I bought a new camera, bag,” she might take it entirely the wrong way.

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume...

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume…

Some writers, beginning writers especially, wrestle over commas – like, where does the comma actually go? In fact, they are obvious in a well-written sentence. The confusion emerges when the sentence hasn’t been structured properly and the phrasing isn’t clearly delineated. That’s a matter of practise.

Other writers mistake the definition of single-word phrases and mistakenly use commas to bracket qualifying adjectives or adverbs.

You know. Single, qualifying, adjectives or adverbs. I once read a whole book filled with that particular construction. Ouch. (MS Word knows. It awarded my offending sentence a Wiggly Green Underline when I wrote it).

Typically, a phrase represents a single idea. It can be as short as a single verb or conjunction, or as long as half a dozen words. If you find a phrase extending much beyond that, look at the styling – there is a risk of convolutions that confuse readers. You might want to consider re-phrasing the sentence.

Commas can also string long sentences together. Sometimes it’s handy to add one in conjunction with the word ‘and’ to mark the final phrase of a sentence. This is the ‘Oxford Comma’ in honour of its origins with Oxford University Press, though I believe it’s also known as a Harvard Comma and Serial Comma.

So what’s the difference between a comma and its two cousins, the colon and semicolon? More soon…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Essential writing skills: stripping out the language

One of the best ways to make your fiction writing compelling is to leave gaps that the reader then has to work to fill. This draws them deeper into your material.

Wright_Typewriter2The question is what to leave out. And it seems to me that a lot can be done by dropping speech identifiers and the adverbs that get added around them. Instead of ‘he said’, ‘she said’, try not identifying speakers at all. It has to be done judiciously, but the context and individual ‘voice’ of a speaker should be sufficient to identify who’s speaking, most of the time.

Similarly, the tone of words chosen for them to speak should also show the emotion behind it – you shouldn’t have to tell the reader; they should pick it up from the speaker’s words, if necessary by adding a couple of clues into the writing.

Check this out (I can write this pastiche because Conan Doyle’s pre-1925 work was declared public domain):

Great Scott, Holmes!’ Watson said forcefully ‘how the devil did you know that?’
‘My dear Watson, it was an elementary deduction,’ Holmes replied smoothly.
‘How so?’ asked Watson quizzically.

The identifiers and most of the adverbs are unnecessary. We know Watson spoke forcefully from the words, and we know he was puzzled, so we don’t have to spell it out. Each speaker also named the other – a trick Conan Doyle used, himself, to reduce the ‘he said’ ‘she said’ problem. So it will work perfectly without the identifiers and adverbs:

‘Great Scott, Holmes, how the devil did you know that?’
‘My dear Watson, it was an elementary deduction.’
‘How so?’

See what I mean? The writing is smoother, the pace works better – and it’s shorter. Word count, remember, isn’t a target – it’s a tool. Of course, don’t just listen to me. Go read Hemingway.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Essential writing skills: the art of the book review

The other week the New Zealand Listener published my review of Christopher Pugsley’s new book on the Second New Zealand Division, Bloody Road Home.

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume...

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume…

I hadn’t written for the Listener for a while, so it took me a moment to slip into ‘book reviewer’ groove. And there is one.

Reviews of this sort – professional essays, basically, published in the culture or literary pages of major magazines and newspapers , and for which the reviewer gets a (small) professional fee, differ from the ‘reviews’ readers can write and post in places like Amazon. Sometimes, yes, those are also classic review essays; but often they’re not – they’re reader feedback.

That’s no less important, of course – especially given the way Amazon ranks books based on star rating –  but by the same token there is definitely an ‘art’ to review writing.

It’s not enough to simply summarise the contents or express an opinion as to whether the book was great, indifferent or a stinker. Professional reviews have to draw the reader, just like any other piece of writing. They have to trace an argument; and they have to say something along the way that adds value.

That doesn’t mean setting up a straw man to knock the target book down. You know, starting by pompously asserting that ‘any definitive work on this subject must have X in it’, followed by a lengthy discussion ‘proving’ that the author, foolishly, missed X.

It also doesn’t mean trawling for any trivial inconsistency or alleged ‘error’ that can be wrung out of it, as a device with which to deny the competence and worth of the author.

Both techniques are regularly used by academics in New Zealand to damage the sales and readership of other authors’ books in ‘their’ personal subjects.

To me, though, none of this informs the reader of the review what they’ll get out of the book. Why should they read it? To me the more useful approach is to ask questions around which to structure an essay. Why did the author take the angle they did? What is the place of the work in its field? Why did the author take the angle they did.

Conveniently, that’s sometimes answered in the introduction. Inconveniently, it’s just as often not – though that produces a device around which to structure the review.

Ultimately, a professional review must, itself, take readers on an emotional journey. Just like any other piece of writing.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015