The Dream Smith wishes you a Merry Christmas

Christmas is upon us. I will not be able to update the blog until early January because the two weeks ahead are chock full with family activities.

I wish all readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year with my favorite song for the holiday season.

Review: “Voyage” or “Apollo goes to Mars”

Alternate history novels commonly deal with big wars, global disasters and similar high-impact events. Stephen Baxter‘s Voyage from 1996 instead uses this literary tool to tell the story of an alternate space program.

The novel’s turning point: in 1963 John F Kennedy survives the Dallas fusillade with serious injuries whereas Jacqueline Kennedy succumbs to the assassin’s bullets. The president must retire for health reasons, but nevertheless continues for another decade or two to influence the US space program in a more ambitious direction. So when the US Congress ends the Apollo lunar project prematurely in the early 1970s, NASA’s next priority goal becomes a nuclear-powered manned mission to Mars.

Voyage follows this endeavor from inception in the 1960s to conclusion in the 1980s, and delivers a detailed study of alternate-history engineering with multiple protagonists as viewpoints. This is a piece of hard science fiction with ideas and gadgets based on what technology was available in those decades; not everything was constructed in our timeline, but everything could probably have been if the will and the money had been there. Real-world engineers and astronauts make cameo appearances, like Pete Conrad and Wernher von Braun, but all major protagonists are fictitious.

The story takes a close look at the human aspects of space exploration: the dirty disputes between proponents of different engineering solutions, the injuries and deaths caused by hardware malfunctions, the political game behind government financing, the competition between astronauts for the three seats on the Mars mission, the marriages broken by career demands, the overworked minds that crack, spectres from Germany’s dark past haunting NASA, and so on.

Baxter also creates a plausible scenario in which NASA’s Mars crew contains one woman and one African-American, and describes the particular challenges these two encounter. In order to succeed they have to outsmart a system that consistently favors white males. (A non-issue today, perhaps, but not so when Baxter wrote the story twenty years ago about events taking place yet another fifteen-twenty years earlier.)

NASA uses upgraded Apollo and Skylab equipment for its extremely costly one-shot mission to the Red Planet. Therefore the Space Shuttle and the many unmanned interplanetary probes never materialize because different funding priorities: no Vikings landing on Mars, no Pioneers and Voyagers investigating the gas giants, no Mariner 10 photographing Mercury, etc. Baxter lets the reader decide which strategy carries the better long-term benefits.*

Baxter also delivers a heart-rending equivalent to Challenger disaster: NASA’s quality assurance protocols are as flawed in this timeline as in ours. “No, we didn’t check that particular issue because it seemed unimportant.”

No, this is not a feel-good story, but rather a feel-true one. The author’s meticulous research is ever-present in this page-turner and I wish I could write like this. I give Voyage 5 red planets out of 5.

*Hindsight is of course always 20-20: I think that the unmanned strategy has paid off well. A one-shot Apollo-style mission to Mars would hardly have been as beneficial to our steadily increasing knowledge of the solar system as the dozens of much cheaper probes that have visited our planetary neighbors since the 1970s.

Methane on Mars

Abruptly switching from last post’s Lost Mars to real Mars: NASA’s rover Curiosity has detected wildly fluctuating levels of methane in the Red Planet’s atmosphere.

The scientists responsible for this research speak of miniscule amounts, but they conclude: “observed elevated levels of methane of 7.2 ± 2.1 (95% CI) ppbv impl[y] that Mars is episodically producing methane from an additional unknown source.” That gas is not chemically stable on Mars because the sun’s UV radiation breaks apart its molecules. So there must be an underlying continuous process at work. On Earth methane is produced by volcanism and by life — there are no active volcanoes on Mars so this phenomenon definitely warrants serious investigation.

Link 1 for more facts about the discovery >>>

Link 2 for more facts about the discovery >>>

The Music of Lost Mars?

When I strive to envision the lost fantastic Mars, I want more than red deserts, languid canals and decaying terracotta cities. I want sounds, smells, and tastes that transport my mind to that Red Planet. It is not so easy, unfortunately, because even though being a prolific wordsmith, I have little talent for drawing, music and cooking. However, once in a while serendipity comes my way.

Musicologist Stef Connor, instrument maker Andy Lowing and sound technician Mark Harmer have recreated the music and instruments of the Akkadian, Hurrite and Sumerian cities in Mesopotamia more than four millennia ago. Their sources are clay tablets, with cuneiform song texts and musical notations, and instruments unearthed by archaeologists.

I have no idea how accurate their recreations are — that is a matter for scholars to debate — but I found the music unexpectedly haunting. Yes, this is something I think Leigh Brackett‘s fictional archaeologist Matt Carse heard in the torchlit nights in the ancient city of Jekkara by the Low Canals.

Carse walked beside the still black waters in their ancient channel, cut in the dead sea-bottom. He watched the dry wind shake the torches that never went out and listened to the broken music of the harps that were never stilled. Lean lithe men and women passed him in the shadowy streets, silent as cats except for the chime and whisper of the tiny bells the women wear, a sound as delicate as rain, distillate of all the sweet wickedness of the world.

The Flood, a song by the trio, located on Soundcloud — link >>>

The trio presents their work on a Vimeo video — link >>>

An article about the trio’s work — link >>>

Stef Conner’s web site — link >>>

Andy Lowing’s project to reconstruct an Akkadian lyre — link >>>

Mars’s Pleasant Past

NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity keeps on making interesting discoveries during its slow journey across the desert landscape. Now it has investigated layers of sedimentary rocks in what was a lake a few billions years ago. That is also a clear indication that the Red Planet also had an ocean in that distant era. It must thus have been a warmer and wetter time than what astronomers previously thought. Read more here — link >>>

Layers of sedimentary rock that form a part of Mount Sharp in the Gale Crater.