Tag Archives: Space

Culture Orbital animation, version 2

Science Fiction may not be everybody’s thing. But when you pull yourself away from mainstream SF movies like Star Wars and seek out some contemporary Science Fiction literature you might be pleasantly surprised. For me Science Fiction has always been more a literary thing, simply because I was reading books before I watched any SF on TV. I was in my early teens when I slipped into Science Fiction. The early 1970s. The Americans were still in the middle of sending men to the Moon via Apollo. In Germany, where I grew up, at that time SF was only very reluctantly coming to TV. The original Star Trek series, the british UFO series, the original “Day the Earth Stood Still”. My first exposure to SFdom. I didn’t see any SF movies at that time that were based on Science Fiction books. While reading Science Fiction you always had to imagine the alien landscapes, the space ships, the aliens. The first movie I watched based on a Science Fiction story or book was “Perry Rhodan”. I only dimly remember that even back then I was utterly disappointed because the movie did not show at all how I had imagined the characters, the spaceships, etc. Of course most people will not count Perry Rhodan as literature (although the writing gets better later in the series.) To this day SF movies made based on Science Fiction stories often don’t work for me. Notable exception is Kubrick’s “2001”.

On the other hand of course there are so many Science Fiction stories I read I wish they made a movie of. If only because the story is written in such way that you can really see the ’movie’ play while you read the book. For me, one such book is “Consider Phlebas” which I had picked up because of the cover art (here’s a picture of the edition I read.) This was my first exposure to Iain M. Banks’ Culture universe.

There are so many giant and cool gadgets in this book that my inner movie screen became hyper-active. Space ships, 30km long. An extended train chase underground. And then the Orbitals! This is a place I wouldn’t mind moving to. You can read all the details at the Culture link earlier but the rationale to custom build a structure to live in space rather than terra-forming a planet makes sense to me – even when it is ever so out of our technological reach. Orbitals are big wheels, about 3 million km in diameter, put together from 1,000km square plates. Think Niven’s Ringworld, except there is not a sun at the center.

Anyway, recently I started building a scale model of an Orbital in Cinema 4d. It’s in the beginning stages because the size is staggering. This little video shows a first crude camera swing. Except for the first plate and its neighbor there are no details filled in. The yellow squares are the plates. Each 1,000km square. There are 4,500 of them in the model. As the camera follows the narrowing band of the Orbital it will zoom in on a small blue-green sphere. That’s an Earth sized planet, in the center of the Orbital.

The dimensions of this thing are staggering and Cinema 4d gets really hard to navigate once you deal with such large structures.

Watch version 2 of the animation (with music from my tune “Pink Floyd”).

There is more of my music here, just in case

The Future of Humanity, part 2: what went wrong?

Let’s face it:
Today we don’t live in the future we (or our parents) envisioned. Civilization was not eliminated or at least decimated by a nuclear war – at least not yet. TV hasn’t dumbed down all of society as predicted. But we also didn’t get our flying cars and there is definitely no big space station shaped like a wheel in earth orbit from which deep space missions are launched (as in 2001). I guess it’s a trade-off. In our everyday life we use so many things our parents never even imagined one could possibly have a need for. And maybe it’s a good thing those flying cars didn’t come out, they might be pretty dangerous under human control.

The reason the Moon is as far as humans went has become obvious lately: The race to the Moon was not about science but it was to show the Soviets and all the world that the US could do it. Considering that all the resources, manpower and money that went into that effort wasn’t spent on weapons was a good thing already. Maybe people started to think that there was so much good technology for everybody in the pipeline that they turned to SF and Fantasy when the goodies didn’t materialize. I guess our ancestors were used to gradual or no change in someone’s lifetime. The 20th century had so many projects and developments that were deemed impossible when proposed and then led to the wildest blooms. Aviation is probably one. At the same time human flight didn’t exactly start with the Wright brothers in the early 1900’s. The wish to fly seems to have been in human consciousness long before that. So, patience.

A little update might be in order:
Just a few days ago US president Obama canceled the Constellation program. This program was very much focused on going back to the Moon. It remains to be seen what happens now. It is hoped that private companies like SpaceX could provide launch capacity soon. Maybe that means that Bob Zubrin’s Mars Direct plan gets a closer look. Or how about Marshall T. Savage’s Millenium Project?

From a garden shed to a gantry

Since I was a kid a had a fascination with rockets, spaceships and other BIG stuff. I loved the Saturn V rocket. But the crawler, the huge vehicle carrying it from the assembly complex to the launch pad, and the gantry did it for me. This fascination with BIG hardware is what sucked me into Science Fiction and stuff like the Culture universe of Iain Banks. Here you are talking about space ships 30km long. I mean, that’s from Martinsville to Indianapolis! And then there are the ‘orbitals’. Giant rings, 10 million kilometers in diameter, consisting of a string of plates each a thousand km square. Of course the Culture has all sorts of machines and robotic equipment for their building needs – and I guess a few thousand years of experience.

A few years ago, after our second daughter Jasmin was born, our house started to get crammed. Instead of selling it and buying a larger one we decided to build a simple addition. Just an extra two rooms on the north side of the house. No plumbing, no gas lines. Just like this:

Old house
Old house
New house
New house

After finding a contractor we finally broke ground in July of 2003. Those were exciting times. Daily videos of the progress were made.
After a week the concrete foundation had settled and the frame for the basement went up. Day by day you could see it grow. After three weeks or so both floors were framed and the roof was covered. At that time I thought it would only be another few weeks until we could move into the new rooms. But little did I know how long hanging drywall would take. Upgrading the power connection to the house, installing electrical wires, light fixtures. Painting took forever. I wasn’t aware that they would stain the new doors right there in our basement. Hardwood floors. By November it was totally normal for us to share our limited living space with the contractor’s people – and then, five months after breaking ground, it was finished. I admit I had not appreciated all the planning and various steps of execution involving backhoes, concrete trucks, carpenters, roofers, gutterers, drywall-hangers, electricians, painters and a building inspector.

And then, this summer, it was time to do something about our old rusty garden shed. We needed a dry space for the mower, four bikes and other stuff that is crowding our basement. After the old shed had been picked up for scrap metal I decided on a wooden 10×10 foot shed. Nothing fancy. A kit with all necessary parts. At first I thought about pouring a concrete foundation but my friend Dave quickly talked me out of that – water coming down the hill during a heavy rain might flood the concrete slab. Wooden posts would lift the structure above ground so that any water was able to pass underneath. Keep in mind now that I have never done anything like that before. I can repair my amps, program in a bunch of computer languages and I write pretty decent jazz tunes. But how would I make sure the holes I started to dig at the site were properly lined up so that the posts (16 of them, overkill!) would form a perfect 10×10 square?

Well, I started out by making a 3D model in Cinema 4D to visualize it. After my kids had helped me picking out a shed at the hardware store I had second thoughts – not about quitting but rather about not using a kit which comes with all parts sawed to size but to build my own from scratch. My wife quickly talked me out of that – she knew I would have no time for anything else for the better part of a year and it would probably still come out crooked. In late September I started digging the first hole. I had planned to spend an hour or two a day digging holes for the posts. Once I had started I could see the construction site staring up at me through my office window every time I worked on my computer. What a good motivation for picking up a shovel and dig some more. After about a month I had 16 holes and the six kittens that were born at our house around June started using them as litter boxes. On a Saturday afternoon my friend Dave came over to help me setting the posts. I had bought 20 bags of concrete the day before and with string, stakes and other crude tools we tried to lay our posts out in a nice 10×10 square. That first afternoon we managed to put eight posts in and I did the rest on the following Sunday. A few days went by to let the concrete set then we screwed the boards to the posts. After that I put in some more cross boards for extra floor support. By that time I spent six hours a day out there. When I played gigs in the evening I couldn’t hold the strings down on my guitar because my fingers hurt from pressing the GO button on the screwdriver. The following Saturday the kit arrived in a huge package. Just unpacking all the parts took an afternoon. It’s Thursday now and since three days I have been building frames for the walls. Probably hammered in something like four pounds of nails. Tomorrow my wife and I will try to erect the walls on the site. I am sure it will be fun….

Wait a minute. Why am I telling this story?

Because reading books of the Culture, watching Star Trek and consuming large quantities of Science Fiction in general has distorted my perception of reality. In the future, they make you believe, anything is possible. I mean, people like Stephen Baxter often write about alien races who are able to engineer galaxies according to their whims. That’s great and great fun, too. But it didn’t take rocket science to build that garden shed. Just time and sweat. There are about 32 or so individual parts my foundation is made of (not counting the screws). And despite careful measuring there still were some things that didn’t fit quite right. Nobody’s life depends on the function of this foundation. And yet I have been at it for two months – and it will probably turn out not to be perfectly square.

Now if I look at that gantry for the Saturn V, I don’t think that came as a kit. That was planned and built from scratch. And at a height of around 120m it has a lot more parts than my foundation. And it has to actually work. How much harder is it then to send something to the Moon, to build a human habitat there? Or on Mars? I mean, just getting all the power tools there. Oh wait, you also have to bring your own power outlets (let alone your own air). This stuff isn’t easy. And now I appreciate it more than ever before.

Science for the non-scientist

I am a frustrated, castrated, suppressed mathematician, physicist, rocket engineer. I was born in 1960. Ok, Sputnik, was three years earlier. But when in 1968 Apollo 8 traveled around the Moon my granddad had already started giving me science books for birthdays and Christmas. The books about the U.S. space program were my favorites. From that time I have kept many notepads full of childish doodles of spaceships and astronauts.

When, on July 20 1969, just three days before my ninth birthday, Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon I was the only one in my family who staid up late to watch the live broadcast on German TV.  Consequently, I learned all I could about the US space program. I knew all the Astronauts by name and had see-through drawings of the Saturn V internalized. There was no doubt in my mind (and my parents’) that I would become an Astronaut, a rocket engineer or at least a pilot of some sort.

At one point in my teens puberty set in, the last two Apollo missions were canceled and surplus materials used in Skylab and somehow all talk of going to Mars next, or setting up a permanent moon base had gone away. Not only did the first girl I fell in love with not care for me but I was old enough to be asked “So, do you know what you want to be when you grow up?” At that time I started to realize that this question was somehow linked with money. While I had always been interested in Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics I just wasn’t able to get good grades in these subjects.

Around age 14, by sheer coincidence, I started playing guitar and just a few months later I played my first gig and got paid for it. Not much but enough to encourage me to pursue music. My interest in science and engineering never went away, With proper guidance I might have finished Gymnasium and gone on to study – University was free in Germany, for crying out loud! But I went the artistic way. I kept some sort of contact with my scientific interests by subscribing to various magazines. TV shows about technology were still my favorites and I developed an appetite for the literature called ‘Science Fiction’. In the course of my late teens and early twenties I drifted away from pure science – while my ex-classmates became doctors, chemists and biologists – and was consuming SF pretty much exclusively. While I actually started supporting myself by teaching guitar lessons and playing gigs and recording sessions every once in while the old science connection stirred in me. But there just didn’t seem to be a way to change professions (in retrospect of course I can see many junctures at which it would have been easy to switch, old people can be so much wiser.)

In 1983 I had my first practical exposure to a real computer. A Commodore 64, when I started to work part time at a friend’s computer store. There the old passion surfaced again. Learning programming, first Basic then Assembly, was such a blast. Again, I could have easily switched careers. At that time computer knowledge was in demand. Again I missed the boat and struggled on as a mediocre musician. At least computers became a big part of my everyday life and that kept the old interest in science and technology alive.

In the mid 80s I started to become interested in more, shall we say, esoteric topics. I had discovered books about past-life regression, reincarnation, UFOs. While I don’t know if I ever really believed any of this I still consumed large quantities of books dealing with these subjects. This phase lasted roughly about 10 years until after I had relocated to the US. Out of a melange of SF books and metaphysical literature I had been reading in that decade came the strange realization that:
#1, somehow there wasn’t much of a difference between the Science Fiction and the books about reincarnation, conspiracies, etc,
#2, the metaphysics books had vastly different and conflicting views from each other about reality and I started wondering where exactly these authors had their information from
#3, I had been an Atheist for most of my life and slowly I came to the conclusion that believing in UFOs and many other ‘unproven’  supernatural claims actually falls in the same category as Religion: You believe because you have faith and not because there is evidence

Within a short few years I started reading pure science books again and started a subscription to Scientific American. And now, as I am working the exercises from the ‘Idiot’s Guide to Geometry’ and am learning about the Scientific Method I realize that I still want to be a Scientist, engineer or something like that.

And that finally brings me to the point of this blather: How can someone who is not a PH.D. contribute to Science? How can you help building a base on the Moon and landing a man on Mars without working for NASA? Ok, I can always contribute money to the Planetary Society or the Mars Society. But that’s not really what I mean (although I am a member). How can I contribute, without being a physicist, an engineer or a billionaire? Are there more people like me out there. People who were very interested in Science for a while and then the needs of a job and family forced them unto a different path?

It now seems to me that one of the biggest things would be a community for people like me. Not quite geniuses and not quite idiots.