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Saturday, July 20, 2019

Apollo at Fifty

Sam Seaborn: There are a lot of hungry people in the world, Mal, and none of them are hungry ‘cause we went to the moon. None of them are colder and certainly none of them are dumber ‘cause we went to the moon.

Mallory O’Brian: And we went to the moon. Do we really have to go to Mars?

Sam Seaborn: Yes.

Mallory O’Brian: Why?

Sam Seaborn: ‘Cause it’s next. ‘Cause we came out of the cave, and we looked over the hill and we saw fire; and we crossed the ocean and we pioneered the west, and we took to the sky. The history of man is hung on a timeline of exploration and this is what’s next.

--from "Galileo Five", season two of The West Wing, written by Aaron Sorkin

Anniversaries are a good thing, even if they're leavened with the weight of years of thwarted expectations and deferred dreams, as the First Lunar Landing's is: Why have we never gone back? Why are we stuck in low-Earth orbit? Was it all just politics and none of it the call of the stars?

But such anniversaries are a bit of a balm in times such as these, when humanity seems bound and determined to roll back on itself like some kind of distended, drunken serpent consuming its own tail in a weird and awful version of an ouroboros. We can look back on the Apollo missions as a reminder of the kinds of things humanity can do when the primary motive isn't necessarily profit.

I was born in September 1971, which means that I have never lived in a world where the Moon was not a place where humans have gone. I hope that I live to see a day when the Moon is no longer the only place other than Earth that we've gone.

From Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan:

It's a sultry night in July. You've fallen asleep in the armchair. Abruptly, you startle awake, disoriented. The television set is on, but not the sound. You strain to understand what you're seeing. Two ghostly white figures in coveralls and helmets are softly dancing under a pitch-black sky. They make strange little skipping motions, which propel them upward amid barely perceptible clouds of dust. But something is wrong. They take too long to come down. Encumbered as they are, they seem to be flying -- a little. You rub your eyes, but the dreamlike tableau persists.

Of all the events surrounding Apollo 11's landing on the Moon on July 20, 1969, my most vivid recollection is its unreal quality. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin shuffled along the gray, dusty lunar surface, the Earth looming large in their sky, while Michael Collins, now the Moon's own moon, orbited above them in lonely vigil. Yes, it was an astonishing technical achievement and a triumph for the United States. Yes, as Armstrong said as he first alighted, this was a historic step for the human species. But if you turned off the byplay between Mission Control and the Sea of Tranquility, with its deliberately mundane and routine chatter, you could glimpse that we humans had entered the realm of myth and legend.

We knew the Moon from our earliest days. It was there when our ancestors descended from the trees into the savannahs, when we learned to walk upright, when we first devised stone tools, when we domesticated fire, when we invented agriculture and built cities and set out to subdue the Earth. Folklore and popular songs celebrate a mysterious connection between the Moon and love. The word "month" and the second day of the week are both named after the Moon. Its waxing and waning -- from crescent to full to crescent to new -- was widely understood as a celestial metaphor of death and rebirth. It was connected with the ovulation cycle of women, which has nearly the same period -- as the word "menstruation" (Latin mensis = month, from the word "to measure") reminds us. Those who sleep in moonlight go mad; the connection is preserved in the English word "lunatic". In the old Persian story, a vizier renowned for his wisdom is asked which is more useful, the Sun or the Moon. "The Moon," he answers, "because the Sun shines in daytime, when it's light out anyway." Especially when we lived out-of-doors, it was a major -- if oddly tangible -- presence in our lives.

The Moon was a metaphor for the unattainable: "You might as well ask for the Moon," they used to say. Or "You can no more do that than fly to the Moon." For most of our history, we had no idea what it was. A spirit? A god? A thing? It didn't look like something big far away, but more like something small nearby -- something the size of a plate, maybe, hanging in the sky a little above our heads. Ancient Greek philosophers debated the propositon "that the Moon is exactly as large as it looks" (betraying a hopeless confusion between linear and angular size). Walking on the Moon would somehow have seemed a screwball idea; it made more sense to imagine somehow climbing up into the sky on a ladder or on the back of a giant bird, grabbing the Moon, and bringing it down to Earth. Nobody ever succeeded, although there were myths aplenty about heroes who had tried.

Not until a few centuries ago did the idea of the Moon as a place, a quarter-million miles away, gain wide currency. And in that brief flicker of time, we've gone from the earliest steps in understanding the Moon's nature to walking and joy-riding on its surface. We calculated how objects move in space; liquefied oxygen from the air; invented big rockets, telemetry, reliable electronics, inertial guidance, and much else. Then we sailed out into the sky.


The Moon is no longer unattainable. A dozen humans, all Americans, have made those odd bouncing motions they called "moonwalks" on the crunchy, cratered, ancient gray lava -- beginning on that July day in 1969. But since 1972, no one from any nation has ventured back. Indeed, none of us has gone anywhere since the glory days of Apollo except into low Earth orbit -- like a toddler who takes a few tentative steps outward and then, breathless, retreats to the safety of his mother's skirts.

Once upon a time, we soared into the Solar System. For a few years. Then we hurried back. Why? What happened? What was Apollo really about?


For me, the most ironic token of that moment in history is the plaque signed by President Richard M. Nixon that Apollo 11 took to the Moon. It reads: "We came in peace for all mankind." As the United States was dropping 7.5 megatons of conventional explosives on small nations in Southeast Asia, we congratulated ourselves on our humanity: We would harm no one on a lifeless rock. That plaque is there still, attached to the base of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module, on the airless desolation of the Sea of Tranquility. If no one disturbs it, it will still be readable millions of years from now.

Six more missions followed Apollo 11, all but one of which successfully landed on the lunar surface. Apollo 17 was the first to carry a scientist. As soon as he got there, the program was canceled. The first scientist and the last human to land on the Moon were the same person. The program had already served its purpose that July night in 1969. The half-dozen subsequent missions were just momentum.

Apollo was not mainly about science. It was not even mainly about space. Apollo was about ideological confrontation and nuclear war -- often described by such euphemisms as world "leadership" and national "prestige". Nevertheless, good space science was done. We now know much more about the composition, age, and history of the Moon and the origin of the lunar landforms. We have made progress in understanding where the Moon came from. Some of us have used lunar cratering statistics to better understand the Earth at the time of the origin of life. But more important than any of this, Apollo provided an aegis, an umbrella under which brilliantly engineered robot spacecraft were dispatched throughout the Solar System, making that preliminary reconnaissance of dozens of worlds. The offspring of Apollo have now reached the planetary frontiers.

If not for Apollo -- and, therefore, if not for the political purpose it served -- I doubt whether the historic American expeditions of exploration and discovery throughout the Solar System would have occurred. The Mariners, Vikings, Pioneers, Voyagers, and Galileo are among the gifts of Apollo. Magellan and Cassini are more distant descendants. Something similar is true for the pioneering Soviet efforts in Solar System exploration, including the first soft landings of robot spacecraft -- Luna 9, Mars 3, Venera 8 -- on other worlds.

Apollo conveyed a confidence, energy, and breadth of vision that did capture the imagination of the world. That too was part of its purpose. It inspired an optimism about technology, an enthusiasm for the future. If we could fly to the Moon, as so many have asked, what else were we capable of? Even those who opposed the policies and actions of the United States -- even those who thought the worst of us -- acknowledged the genius and heroism of the Apollo program. With Apollo, the United States touched greatness.

When you pack your bags for a big trip, you never know what's in store for you. The Apollo astronauts on their way to and from the Moon photographed their home planet. It was a natural thing to do, but it had consequences that few foresaw. For the first time, the inhabitants of Earth could see their world from above -- the whole Earth, the Earth in color, the Earth as exquisite spinning white and blue ball set against the vast darkness of space. Those images helped awaken our slumbering planetary consciousness. They provide incontestable evidence that we all share the same vulnerable planet. They remind us of what is important and what is not. They were the harbingers of Voyager's pale blue dot.

We may have found that perspective just in time, just as our technology threatens the habitability of our world. Whatever the reason we first mustered the Apollo program, however mired it was in Cold War nationalism and the instruments of death, the inescapable recognition of the unity and fragility of the Earth is its clear and luminous dividend, the unexpected final gift of Apollo. What began in deadly competition has helped us to see that global cooperation is the essential precondition for our survival.

Travel is broadening.

It's time to hit the road again.

Someday we'll look up with wonder again. Someday we'll go. I firmly believe that.

Footage of Walter Cronkite's live broadcast of the lunar landing. Note his happy amazement at what he gets to report, at the 1:58 mark. He takes off his glasses, shakes his head, and smiles at the person next to him. I can't help contrasting that with another moment when, while reporting on air, he had to remove his glasses and shake his head with disbelief, less than six years prior to this moment.

And I know it's not the right mission, but for the movie Apollo 13, James Horner managed to really catch some of the unbridled optimism of the entire Apollo era.

Seriously, humans: when are we going back, and when are we going farther?

Saturday, July 13, 2019

NOW where the hell have I been???

Yup, that was another unplanned hiatus, folks. This time it was technological in nature: my computer failed spectacularly eight days ago, to the tune of doing a factory reset on the machine (basically, returning it to "Just out of the box" status), after a diagnostic tool told me that my hard drive was failing. This was irritating news after owning this machine for just nine months, so after I got it up and running again with the factory reset, I took it to the Geek Squad for examination and consultation before I risked putting all my stuff back on it and moving on. Luckily, as I am exceedingly religious about backing up my stuff, the only annoying data loss I experienced was a few downloaded teevee shows I was still waiting to watch; these I can grab again or even stream if I need to.

I did learn something, though: apparently Dropbox, which I use as my secondary cloud-based backup, is a massive hog of hard drive resources! And my practice up to now has been to have it running in the background at all times, which means that I'm basically maxing out my poor hard drive each time I use my computer. Ouch. I'm still using Dropbox, but now I'll only be launching it once a week to sync newly-saved files, and then it'll be shut down again. After that it took several days of leaving my machine on, plugged in, and connected to the fast WiFi at work to re-download all my stuff from Dropbox and from Google Drive, and to reinstall some of the software I use. Now I'm pretty much back to normal except that I have not re-downloaded Scrivener yet. I am holding off because the folks behind Scrivener are insisting that August 30 will be the drop-dead date by which Scrivener 3 for Windows will finally be released. I'm skeptical on this point (the ongoing delay of Scrivener 3 for Windows after the program's release for Mac almost two years ago is a sore point with me), but I'm willing to wait, especially since at this point I'm not planning to do any drafting work until fall. Scrivener is the program where I do all of my drafting when it comes to fiction, so I can wait to get it back. (Unless they miss another deadline, in which case I may say "To hell with it" and go back to using LibreOffice for everything.

Anyway, that's the reason for the complete radio silence on the blog front. As of today, though, things seem back to normal (I hope!), so...onward and upward! Zap! Pow!!

My computer is back up and running, yay! But my desk is a freaking pit and I need to clean it today, boo! #thewritinglife

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

Tone Poem Tuesday

As I write this, it's still Tuesday! Wow!

Romanian composer George Enescu is endlessly fascinating, straddling the line between Romanticism and Modernism. He is probably the greatest composer to ever spring from Romania, and much of his work is of nationalistic origin (particularly his ever-wonderful Romanian Rhapsodies, which are favorites. This piece, though, is pure Modernism through and through, with meditative passages and sharp dissonances and a pervading sense of mystery. Enescu wrote Vox Maris over more than twenty years, and apparently he did not live to hear its first performance. I haven't been able to find a great deal of information about it, but it is indeed a fascinating listen and an amazing piece of orchestral and choral tone painting.

Here is Vox Maris by George Enescu.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Something for Thursday (Friday Edition)

OK, I need to find some consistency here again...I'll get back to that Song Challenge thing soon, but for now, here's a favorite musical number of mine. This comes from the movie High Society, which is a musical remake of The Philadelphia Story, this time with Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly in the parts played originally by Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, and with Frank Sinatra playing the nosy reporter originated by Jimmy Stewart in the original. High Society justifies its musical numbers by relocating the story to Newport, Rhode Island and a jazz festival that takes place there as Kelly's Tracy Samantha Lord is remarrying after earlier divorcing Crosby. It's a fine movie, and the musical numbers are all terrific (the film also makes good use of Louis Armstrong and his band), but I'm somehow never quite able to find Bing Crosby convincing as a romantic lead, and when you make a musical with Crosby and Sinatra, it seems odd to me that those two gentlemen are brought together for only one number.

But at least it's a great number.

"Well Did You Evah" lampoons the kind of gossip that takes place in the rich-folks circles of those eastern communities, and the song itself catalogs the growth of a friendship in about four minutes between two men who are vaguely antagonistic toward each other at the beginning. By the time they reach the song's final flourishes both Crosby and Sinatra appear to be having a blast, with one of my favorite lyrics ever: "Have you heard? It's in the stars--next July we collide with Mars!"

Here's "Well Did You Evah."

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Tone Poem Tuesday

I don't believe I've heard this work before, or even of the composer, Silvestre Revueltas of Mexico. Revueltas lived 1899 to 1940, and was not only short-lived but also a late bloomer, so his output is not large. The work Sensemaya is based on a poem that is in turn inspired by religious cults in the Afro-Cuban culture, with a blend of African and Cuban chants. The work is strikingly rhythmic and redolent of spiritual dance and chant, with rattling percussion instruments and insistent drive. Its energy, constantly growing over the work's roughly eight minutes, is compulsive. Here is Sensemaya by Silvestre Revueltas.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Where the hell have I been?

Why, right here.

DONE! To the beta readers the second draft goes! #amwriting #writersofinstagram #sciencefiction #spaceopera #forgottenstars

And while I've been right here, I've been focusing on applying first edits to The Savior Worlds in order to be able to get the book out to the beta readers, and today, off it went! Whew.

So, what have you all been up to?

Thursday, June 06, 2019

Something for Thursday

I missed last week, boo! But I'm back this week, yay!

Setting aside the Song Challenge thing for a while, here's a nifty bit of movie music...for a teevee movie, anyway. Back in 1983 there was a miniseries on NBC (a two-part movie, basically) called V, in which alien "visitors" appeared in giant ships to contact humanity. Their stated reason for visiting was benign, or so they said, but they quickly turned out to be liars who took over the planet and assumed control as they started robbing the Earth of its liquid water (which, the show told us, is "the rarest, most precious commodity you can imagine, and Earth is blessed with an abundance of it") and harvest humans for food. Now, ignore the ludicrous nature of the show's SF premise (there's a shitload of water out there in the universe), the show was a lot of fun and it had some sober things to say about the nature of resistance in the face of evil. But the first installment left things unresolved, so along the next year came V: The Final Battle, which wrapped up the story over three nights. After some really convoluted stuff in the plot department (the first series was much more tightly written), the humans finally achieved victory by developing a biological agent that would poison the Earth's atmosphere to the aliens (the "Visitors") but be harmless to humans. The humans dispersed this stuff via hot air balloons in a nifty sequence that was pretty entertaining for a war show, eschewing a giant final battle for a more passively peaceful way of depicting victory. (There was action stuff that played out alongside this, of course, because you had to have some kind of action finale.)

The scene in which the balloons launch at dawn is accompanied by this music, which is as charmingly 1980s as you can get, with synths and drum samples and sounds that mimic whale songs, before the soaring melody arrives. It's hard not to be cheered and buoyed by music like this. This is the kind of thing I grew up with, folks!

Here's "The Balloon Theme" from V: The Final Battle.