Stepping into Space

I’ve created a second list of recommended books at shepherd.com, a book discovery site where authors recommend favorite books based on a particular topic. Space is a topic near and dear to my heart. We’ve put many satellites in orbit. Humans work in orbit. We’ve been to the moon for just a few short years at the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s and we’ve sent robotic probes to planets in the solar system. So, I often find myself asking, what is the next big step into space and these books address different aspects of that question.

You can find the list at: https://shepherd.com/best-books/humans-taking-the-next-big-step-into-space

As a kid, I watched the later moon landings, the Skylab missions, and Apollo-Soyuz even as I discovered shows like Star Trek on television. Voyager flew by Jupiter and Saturn as the Star Wars movies were being released. In my mind, space exploration and science fiction go hand-in-hand. That said, as I’ve progressed in my career as both a scientist and a science fiction writer, it’s become clear that science fiction often makes exploring space look easy. It looks like visiting Mars is as easy as walking next door. In fact, space is very dangerous and even the distances to our closest neighbor planets are vast. We don’t even have technology that would guarantee a robot probe’s safe arrival at the nearest star, much less a human-occupied spacecraft. We have a lot of ideas and people have been working on those ideas, but that’s very different than just being able to pack your bags and go.

Though four of these books delve into the technical challenges of space travel, the set as a whole is less about those challenges and more about why humans are drawn outward toward the stars and what they might learn about themselves there. “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey,” is a familiar saying and, in a sense, all of these books address that. I know people who express concerns about exploring space before we fix the problems of our home planet. I sympathize with that because, so far, Earth is the only planet we know we can live on. However, I’ve also believed we as a species can fix the problems we face on Earth while also striving toward the stars. Doing one doesn’t preclude the other.

I also know people who are concerned about humans destroying other worlds and civilizations with our colonial ambitions and corporate greed. Again, this is a legitimate concern and the books on my list don’t tend to shy away from those issues. They also acknowledge there’s a lot of space to traverse and many technical challenges to overcome before we get to that point. Hopefully, as we make those steps, we can learn to do better. It’s also distinctly possible that if we meet another space-faring race, they’ll easily have the upper hand because they’ve been out there longer than us. Hopefully they’ll be wiser than us as well!

Do you have a favorite book about next steps in exploring space? Let me know in the comments. Meanwhile you can learn more about my book about humans taking a next big step into the solar system at: http://davidleesummers.com/solar_sea.html

Risk and Exploration

Almost two months ago, I discussed the anime series Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut. The link in the previous sentence will take you to the original post, so you can read about the anime and learn more about the plot. The anime was based on a light novel series. Last month, I picked up the first volume of the series for my Kindle. Because the light novel and the anime are so strongly based on the Soviet Space Program, I took the opportunity to refresh my memory of that period using my handy copy of the Haynes Soyuz manual, which I’d purchased in 2019 at the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, Kansas. All in all, it made an enjoyable deep dive into both the history of space flight and an exploration of storytelling techniques.

Haynes Soyuz Manual and Irina the Vampire Cosmonaut light novel

Over the years, I’ve read numerous novels that have been made into movies along with several movie novelizations. That said, this marks the first time I’ve read a Japanese light novel that was adapted into an anime. Overall, the anime adapted the light novel almost scene for scene and beat for beat. The main thing I noticed is that the first novel only covers about half the series. So, presumably, the second half of the series is based on the second novel. I’ll have to wait until October to confirm that! There were a few minor details in the novel that I didn’t remember in the anime, but I’d have to go back and rewatch the anime to make sure they actually weren’t there, or if I just missed them in a casual watch.

Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut was interesting from a narrative perspective. It told its story strictly from two points of view. One was reserve cosmonaut candidate Lev Leps, who trains the vampire Irina. The other viewpoint belonged to Irina herself. Lev’s point of view is by far the predominant one in novel, with Irina’s viewpoint providing a small counterpoint to Lev’s at the end of each chapter.

Both the light novel and the anime focus a lot of their time on Irina’s training for her rocket flight. This was where the Haynes guide proved interesting. I learned that the training regimen described in Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut is a reasonably accurate depiction of the Soviet training regimen. Isolation training played an important part in the novel and anime as well as real life. As it turns out, the isolation tank used by the Soviets had a high oxygen content and I learned that one real-life cosmonaut died in a flash fire in the test booth in a way similar to the Apollo 1 astronauts in the United States.

There’s an inherent drama in the conflict between pushing forward to achieve a goal but analyzing all the risks to do something as safely as possible. I used that when I wrote my novel The Solar Sea about the first solar sail voyage across the solar system. I would argue that the Quinn family, who build the solar sail in my novel, push a little too hard for their goal. Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut does a good job of showing how the Soviets also pushed very hard to beat the Americans in various space milestones, arguably taking dangerous risks along the way. That said, I strongly sympathize with the idea that it’s sometimes necessary to take risks to achieve great things. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to look at Russia’s history without thinking about current events. Invading another sovereign nation is most definitely not a great ambition for any country and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has harmed international cooperation in space, which I’d argue has been far more beneficial to the planet than the 60s “space race” ever was.

One thing I enjoyed about the novel is that author Keisuke Makino has an afterward where he discusses his inspirations for writing the light novel. He mentioned that he was intrigued by the idea of taking a fantasy character like a vampire and putting them into a space setting. It’s true, that I can’t think of another book that has vampires involved in the early space programs of either the United States or the Soviet Union, but the ideas of vampires being drawn to space and the stars is one I’ve long found fascinating. In fact, my 2010 story “Anemia” about a vampire boarding a colony ship for the stars to escape the Earth’s sun is now reprinted in the first issue of The Hungur Chronicles. Even before I wrote that story, my Scarlet Order vampires dreamed of going to space in Vampires of the Scarlet Order.

You can get the light novel Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut from Seven Seas Entertainment: https://sevenseasentertainment.com/books/irina-the-vampire-cosmonaut-light-novel-vol-1/

My short story “Anemia” is in the first issue of The Hungur Chronicles: https://www.hiraethsffh.com/product-page/hungur-chronicles-walpurgisnacht-edited-by-terrie-leigh-relf-and-robert-bellam

You can learn more about my novels at: http://www.davidleesummers.com

Deal on Science Fiction Novels

The annual Smashwords Summer/Winter Sale is underway. It gets its name because where I live in the northern hemisphere, readers are loading up their e-readers for great beach reading and vacations. In the southern hemisphere, it’s the middle of winter and people are spending time in a warm and cozy place reading. All of Hadrosaur’s titles are available at deep discounts this month and I’ll be highlighting them all month long here at the Web Journal. If you’re looking for a specific title, you don’t have to wait for me to highlight it, just visit http://www.hadrosaur.com/bookstore.php and click on the book you’re interested in. On its page is a link to Smashwords if its available there. The coupon codes for these discounts are automatically applied at checkout. One of the things I love about Smashwords is that they provide ebooks in all popular formats and they’re DRM free, so you can download them to your favorite device.

Today I wish to present a pair of science fiction novels. The first is a thought-provoking novel I was pleased to edit written by Don Braden. The second is my story set in the near future which imagines a voyage to Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn aboard a solar sail spacecraft, especially apt since the Planetary Society’s LightSail 2 craft has just celebrated its third anniversary.


On its way to a distant colony world, the space vessel Marco P loses all power and an unknown force convinces the navigator that a distant, dead world is the vessel’s true destination. Commander Malcolm Carpenter orders the crew to abandon ship to protect them and to learn how to defeat whatever force has intercepted his ship. The crew discovers a small group of inhabitants, the only people on the planet who were not uploaded into a vast computer network—a computer network captivated by upstart humans and their imaginations. To free his crew and his navigator from the planetary network’s grip, Commander Carpenter must face a moral dilemma. Can he save his crew without condemning a planet’s inhabitants and their digital ancestors to death?

Get Upstart Mystique for 75% off the cover price at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/1010602


In The Solar Sea, whales around the world changed their songs the day scientists announced the discovery of powerful new particles around Saturn’s largest moon which could solve Earth’s energy needs. The Quinn Corporation rushes to build a solar sail space craft to unlock the secrets of these strange new particles. They gather the best and brightest to pilot the ship: Jonathan Jefferson, an aging astronaut known as the last man on Mars; Natalie Freeman, a distinguished Navy captain; Myra Lee, a biologist who believes the whales are communicating with Saturn; and John O’Connell, the technician who first discovered the particles. Charting the course is the mysterious Pilot who seems determined to keep secrets from the rest of the crew. Together they make a grand tour of the solar system and discover not only wonders but dangers beyond their imagination.

T. Jackson King, the author of Battlestar and Star Glory says, “This story follows the private space industry exploration of the Moon and becomes a kind of Voyage of the Beagle as the solar sail ship Aristarchus visits Mars, Jupiter, then Saturn and its giant moon Titan … Highly enjoyable read. Highly recommended.”

Get the book for 75% off the cover price at: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/805692

Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut

As a writer and an avid reader, I find myself subscribed to the newsletters for several publishers. One of those is Seven Seas Entertainment, which translates Japanese manga and light novels into English. In their latest newsletter, they mentioned a forthcoming light novel which caught my eye simply because of the title: Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut. According to Seven Seas, the novel tells the story of how a space race between two global superpowers led to the “Nosferatu Project.” After sending dogs into space, one of the superpowers decides to send vampires into space before sending humans. This seemed right up my alley! Effectively it’s an atompunk alternate history with vampires. After a little more searching, I discovered the light novel series inspired an anime of the same name and the anime had recently been released in the United States via Funimation.

Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut

In the world of this story, the space race is between the Zirnitra Union of the East and the United Kingdom of Arnack in the West. The reason these countries arose instead of the superpowers we know from our history is never discussed. The UZSR has a red flag with snakes. The United Kingdom has a flag with stars and stripes, so it’s not hard to guess who stands in for whom. This world also contains vampires who live predominantly in Eastern Europe. These vampires aren’t the monsters of our mythology, but simply another race of people who happen to be sensitive to sunlight, have pointed ears, and sharp teeth. They eat normal food, but they can gain an energy boost from drinking blood. It’s almost as though Neanderthals survived into the modern world. In the alternate world of the anime, the vampire legends arose as a kind of propaganda to stir hatred and revulsion of vampire kind, and to justify invasions into their lands. It becomes a rather clever way to discuss hatred and bigotry without invoking the all-too-numerous examples we can draw from our real history.

In 1960, the UZSR recruits a vampire to be trained as a cosmonaut. This vampire is the Irina Luminesk of the title. She’s to be trained by Lev Leps, a reserve cosmonaut candidate. Lev was supposed to be one of the regular cosmonaut candidates except that he has a temper and attacked a man who abused one of his fellow cosmonaut candidates. The anime follows Irina’s training along with Lev and Irina’s growing affection for one another. As a fan of the world’s space programs, I found it delightful to see space craft based on early Soviet designs, rather than the oft seen American designs. Characters in the story seem to have historical parallels as well. Party Chairman Fyodor Gergiev is clearly based on Nikita Khrushchev. Lev Leps is basically Yuri Gagarin and his chief rival Mikhail seems based on Gherman Titov. One fun thing I noticed is that while the writing on shops and containers in the anime appears to be in Cyrillic script, the words are actually in English.

Of course, the vampire Irina is the focus of the show. We watch as she trains to be every bit as capable as the human cosmonaut candidates, even when many of the scientists testing and training her buy into the superstitions about vampires. I found myself cheering as she overcame her fear of heights to master parachuting. Given that she’s treated as an animal by many of the scientists and politicians, there’s a real tension about whether or not she’ll survive her first space flight and I won’t spoil things by saying whether or not she does.

It’s a shame this anime came out so close to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I suspect many will shun it because of a perceived connection with Russia even though I suspect no such connection actually exists. In some ways, the series is actually rather critical of the Soviets and their treatment of those countries they took control of. What’s more, one of the themes of the anime is that people can change and become better. In a very real way, it reflects the spirit of Yuri Gagarin who said, “Orbiting Earth in the spaceship, I saw how beautiful our planet is. People, let us preserve and increase this beauty, not destroy it!”

I enjoyed the anime enough that I decided to pre-order the light novel so I can get to know the characters better. It will be released on June 23. While waiting for the light novel’s release, you can check out my vampire novels at http://davidleesummers.com/books.html#scarlet_order

Neutrinos and the Day After Tomorrow

In Episode 178 of the Gerry Anderson Podcast, Chris Dale featured the film The Day After Tomorrow on his Randomizer segment. This is not the 2004 film about climate change. Instead, it was a 1975 segment of an American after school series called Special Treat, which offered educational programming aimed at teenagers. It appeared soon afterward on the BBC. The show was produced by Gerry Anderson and starred Nick Tate, Joanna Dunham, and Brian Blessed. The show was produced between seasons one and two of Space: 1999 and it shares models and props with the television show. One of the show’s goals was to introduce kids to Einstein’s theory of special relativity. Anderson apparently had the notion that he might turn this into a series, so wrote it in such a way that more episodes could follow the special.

I was intrigued by Dale’s discussion of the show on the podcast, so decided to seek it out. The episode is available on the DVD The Lost Worlds of Gerry Anderson, along with several other one-shot gems produced by Anderson. The Day After Tomorrow reminded me of what Lost in Space might have been like without the Robot or Dr. Smith. Two families travel in a near light-speed craft to Alpha Centauri and beyond. Of course, this becomes our “vehicle” for discussing the effects of special relativity. Nick Tate, best known as Alan Carter in Space: 1999, is the captain and he travels with his daughter. Brian Blessed and Joanna Dunham play a husband and wife scientist team with a son. Like the Robinson kids in the early episodes of Lost in Space, these kids are smart, but manage to avoid crossing over into the annoying territory that kids in science fiction shows have been known to do. Since this is 1975 and well before Brian Blessed became known for “Gordon’s Alive!” in Flash Gordon, he delivers a subdued and believable performance as a scientist.

While I was prepared to see the cast to discuss the wonders of Einstein’s theories, there was a moment that truly surprised me about two-thirds of the way into the show. Joanna Dunham’s character, Dr. Anna Bowen, is observing a red giant star when she warns that she’s detecting “massive neutrino emissions from the red sun.” A moment later, the sun explodes into a supernova! As it turns out, the notion that a supernova would be preceded by a neutrino burst is a theory proposed by my graduate advisor, Dr. Stirling Colgate, in a 1966 paper. This theory would finally be demonstrated in 1987 when a neutrino burst was detected just before Supernova 1987A was observed.

Stirling Colgate at the Digitized Astronomy Observatory after the detection of neutrinos from Supernova 1987A

It’s hard to look at the special and say that it was full of groundbreaking or mind-blowing science. Mostly it seemed like a fun, action adventure show that tossed in some tidbits about special relativity. Still, writer Johnny Byrne had done some homework in astronomy to know that it had been theorized that a neutrino burst would precede a supernova explosion. As a science fiction writer, I know story and character come first, but I really do appreciate a moment like this when I see a writer going the extra mile to understand his subject matter.

The Conquest of the Moon

When most people today think of nineteenth century French science fiction, I suspect the first name that comes to mind is Jules Verne. However, he wasn’t the only writer who speculated about extraordinary journeys around the world or to other worlds. While doing research for the panel “From Jules Verne to Jacques Tardi” which I presented with James Keeline at Gaslight Steampunk Expo earlier this month, I came across the works of André Laurie. Like Jules Verne, Laurie was published by Pierre-Jules Hetzel. André Laurie was the pen-name of Jean Grousset, a politician and journalist. Laurie even “collaborated” with Verne on three novels. I put that in quotes because some experts believe that Laurie wrote the works and Hetzel asked Verne to rewrite them for publication.

One of André Laurie’s most interesting works is called Les Exilés de la Terre – Selene-Company Limited, which is usually translated as The Conquest of the Moon. Published in 1889, it tells the story of an astronomer named Norbert Mauny who leads an expedition to a mountain rich in iron ore in the Sudan to use as the base of a powerful electromagnet which he will use pull the moon to the Earth, so that people can cross over at ease, explore, mine, and colonize. It turns out, this whole plan was started by a group of hucksters who tried to trick people into investing in a lunar colonizing expedition. However, the hucksters had no idea how to pull it off. Mauny convinced the investors of his plan and builds the magnet. As he’s working, a faction of Sudanese are planning to overthrow the European colonizers and they surround Mauny’s observatory with its solar-powered electromagnet. Despite this, Mauny finishes construction and succeeds in pulling the moon to the Earth, only to have the mountain that houses his facility ripped from the Earth and dropped onto the moon. The moon then drifts back out to it’s orbit leaving Mauny and the people with him stranded.

Now, pulling the moon to the Earth sounds like an exceedingly bad idea. In reality this would create a terrible cataclysm. In the novel, he only succeeds in ripping the one mountain from the Earth, raising the tides for a few days and covering Europe in clouds. Though I had to suspend my disbelief a lot for this part of the plot, the rest of the novel presents an interesting look at exploring the moon. Of some note, early in the novel, it’s supposed that the events of Jules Verne’s From the Earth to Moon have already occurred. Once our characters reach the moon, they discover an atmosphere so thin they can’t breathe, so they have to go out with air tanks. Laurie imagines everyone on the moon hopping like kangaroos because of the low gravity and there’s an interesting discussion about how the gravitation of a body would impact the creatures that would evolve on that body. He also notes the temperature extremes that come from the long days and long nights in the “thin” atmosphere.

All in all, The Conquest of the Moon was a fun read. I especially liked how our protagonist was an astronomer who was given a romantic subplot. I could see some of the ideas in this book being given a fun steampunk twist for a more modern story that better understands the nature of the moon, or what would happen if you tried to draw it near.

The edition of The Conquest of the Moon I read was edited by artist and writer, Ron Miller perhaps best known for his 1981 collaboration with William K. Hartmann, The Grand Tour. I was pleased to discover that Miller has edited an entire series of early science fiction novels for Baen which he called “The Conquest of Space” series. All are still available as ebooks. My only complaint with this edition was that it appeared to be scanned using Optical Character Recognition technology, so some characters were misinterpreted and the book wasn’t given a proofread after conversion. Despite that, I enjoyed the book and especially enjoyed Miller’s essay at the end about the growth of science in science fiction through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. You can find the Conquest of Space series along with other books Ron Miller has written and edited at: https://www.baen.com/allbooks/category/index/id/1849

William Shatner in Space

Earlier this week, William Shatner took a ride into space aboard a rocket built by Blue Origin, a company founded by Jeff Bezos, best known as the founder of Amazon. The rocket launched from outside Van Horn, Texas, a town about two and a half hours to the southeast of my home in New Mexico. As a long-time Star Trek fan, I thought it was great that Shatner, who brought the role of Captain Kirk to life, had the opportunity to go into space for real. What’s more, at 90 years old, Shatner is the oldest person to go into space. I’ve long thought, I hope to be doing as well as William Shatner when I’m 90!

Glen de Vries, Audrey Powers, William Shatner, and Chris Boshuizen in Space. Image courtesy Blue Origin

As a kid, when I first became aware of Star Trek, the last Apollo missions were still flying. I remember thinking that Star Trek was just another document of a real mission into space. My parents soon explained to me that it was all just make-believe, but in a way that excited me just as much. That made me pay attention to the opening credits and notice those writers who made up Star Trek’s vision of exploring space. In the end Star Trek’s captivating writing helped to launch my careers in both astronomy and writing. So, it should come as no surprise that I watched Shatner’s journey from the moment he entered the rocket until he landed again in west Texas near the launch site.

Some have criticized Jeff Bezos for investing his personal wealth in space flight rather than causes to help the planet. He’s argued that developing space flight is one way to help the planet. I think he has a point. Developing space technology has a long track record of creating other technologies that help us on the Earth. I also believe there’s no reason we can’t work on solutions to problems on Earth while developing space technology. We have no shortage of people. Among the challenges are training and directing them to places where they can do the most good.

This all noted, I don’t feel I can let Bezos completely off the hook. According to Yahoo Finance, Bezos’s income is somewhere in the ballpark of 110 billion dollars per year and he invests 1 billion of that in Blue Origin. To put his income in perspective, you only have to multiply minimum wage by a single digit to get to my income. You have to multiply minimum wage by six digits to get to Bezos’s income. Over a million people could be employed at better-than-minimum wage with his income alone.

There are plenty of reports that suggest working conditions for front-line workers at Amazon are not great. As an author I do business with Amazon. In the last year and a half, I’ve received several packages in poor condition. They look as though they were rushed out the door without care and some books have arrived in unsellable condition. This makes sense if workers are being rushed to get things out the door without concern for quality of service. I’ve also had to call Amazon at times to resolve issues. Most of the time, their representatives are very helpful, but I’ve had at least two instances where I asked them something that clearly went “off script.” They promised to call me back and simply didn’t. Again this smacks of putting perceived efficiency ahead of customer service.

Given what’s reported of Jeff Bezos’s salary and what that must imply for Amazon’s total profits, there must be room for Amazon to improve salaries, make conditions better for front-line workers, and improve service. Star Trek suggested that humans would be ready for space exploration when we learned to appreciate our own diversity and treat our fellow humans with respect and dignity. Sometimes making the planet better starts with how corporate executives and upper management treat and pay the people who are making them the money that allow them to invest in cool things like space exploration and who make it possible for someone like William Shatner to visit the final frontier.

Cosmos 1 Solar Sail

The Planetary Society’s LightSail 2 spacecraft has been demonstrating the viability of solar sailing for a little over two years now and the society recently debuted a retrospective video called Sailing the Light. Given these events, I thought it would be interesting to look back at the Planetary Society’s first attempt at launching a solar sail, the ill-fated Cosmos 1. The design ideas implemented in Cosmos 1 were ones I used when creating the Aristarchus for my novel, The Solar Sea.

Cosmos 1 Model Built by David Lee Summers

Cosmos 1 was primarily developed in Russia with oversight from The Planetary Society in the United States. The Planetary Society also provided system design expertise along with subsystem development, such as designing the onboard radio system. The craft’s design involved eight triangular sails deployed on inflatable booms. Motors at the ends of the booms allowed the sails to turn in pairs. This allowed them to optimize the amount of sunlight collected. Solar sails are propelled by the momentum from sunlight, so a solar sail in orbit wants to catch as much sunlight as possible when moving away from the sun. When moving toward the sun, the blades turn sideways, so the solar sail doesn’t slow down. I incorporated the turning boom design into my fictional solar sail. By the way, if you would like to build a Cosmos 1 model, I discovered that the instructions are still online. The pattern and instructions are free at: http://spacecraftkits.com/cosmos1/

The Russians finished building Cosmos 1 in 2005. They planned to send it into space with a Volna Rocket launched from a nuclear submarine. The expectation was that the rocket could carry Cosmos 1 to an orbital distance of 820 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. Just as a comparison, LightSail 2 orbits at about 710 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. Unfortunately the June 21, 2005 launch of Cosmos 1 failed and the rocket crashed into the sea. As I mentioned, The Planetary Society debuted a video about the current LightSail 2 mission called Sailing the Light. I watched the YouTube premier as it happened. You can see it here.

In the video, they talk about upcoming NASA solar sail missions Solar Cruiser and NEA Scout. Solar Cruiser is a significantly larger solar sail than Lightsail 2. Solar Cruiser would be 1650 square meters compared to LightSail 2’s 32 square meters. NEA Scout will be 86 square meters and will have the mission of looking for potentially harmful asteroids.

The Solar Sea

LightSail 2 accomplishes the turning maneuvers I mentioned above, not by turning its sails, but by using momentum wheels inside the space craft. It takes a couple of minutes to turn the craft ninety degrees. With new NASA solar sails in the works, I wondered if anyone was considering a return to the Cosmos 1 design anytime in the near future. I was able to pose that question to LightSail 2’s project scientist Dr. Bruce Betts at the end of the video. In effect, he says that in the near term, most projects are now developing square sails with reaction wheels to turn the craft.

You can read about my fictional solar sail in my novel The Solar Sea. It imagines an entrepreneur building a manned solar sail spaceship and taking it to Titan to search for mysterious particles that appear to travel through time. Along the way, the crew visits Mars and Jupiter and they find clues that we may not be alone in the universe after all. Learn more about the book and watch the book trailer at: http://davidleesummers.com/solar_sea.html

Star Trek: Lower Decks

Given my love of both Star Trek and animation, I knew I would get around to watching the first season of Star Trek: Lower Decks eventually. I admit, I didn’t quite rush to the show for two reasons. First off, back when Star Trek: The Next Generation did a couple of episodes from the point of view of junior officers, I felt they’d botched certain elements of it. Also, the animation style put me off. Still, I’m glad I took a chance and saw what the series had to offer. I was pleased to find yet another incarnation of the Star Trek universe to enjoy.

Set aboard the U.S.S. Cerritos, Lower Decks focuses on four ensigns: Becket Mariner, an irreverent character who has climbed up to higher rank, only to be demoted again; Brad Boimler, a by-the-book character who sees himself as a future captain; Davana T’endi, an Orion medical technician; and Eugene Cordero, an engineer adjusting to a cybernetic implant. The ship itself is on a mission of providing engineering support to worlds just entering the Federation. The series features many references to classic Star Trek episodes and, perhaps not surprisingly, has many wonderful tributes to the original animated series. On the whole, the source of the humor comes from poking fun at places fans themselves have poked fun at the different series. More than once, the series reminded me of Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville.

Back in Star Trek: The Next Generation, there were two episodes told from the perspective of junior officers. The first was called “Tapestry” where the powerful alien Q shows Picard what would have happened if he hadn’t gotten into a fight which resulted in him needing an artificial heart. We learn Picard never took the chances he needed to be promoted and remained a junior officer. The next episode was “Lower Decks” about four junior officers up for promotion. Both episodes were good overall, but my problem was that the senior officers seemed too aloof and frankly snobbish around the junior officers. The dynamic felt more like Hollywood producers around interns from the back office than members of a team working together to explore the galaxy. Over my time in astronomy, I’ve had the opportunity to work with numerous well-known scientists in leadership positions, including Nobel Prize winners, and while some have been challenging to work with, most have been team players who recognized that everyone in the room was there because they had something to contribute no matter their level of seniority or what accolades they’d received. When I turn on a Star Trek episode, I want to see a team I’d want to be on as much or more than the one I’m on in real life. The Lower Decks animated series succeeded at this, possibly helped by the comedy premise. All of the characters are flawed, which puts them on much more equal footing as people, even when some of those people have more experience. What’s more, I felt as though the characters were having fun, which made me want to join them for the fun of exploration.

In graduate school, I was a fan of Matt Groenig’s comic strip, Life in Hell. I watched Groenig go on to develop The Simpsons and Futurama. I then watched other creators use a similar style in shows like Family Guy and Rick and Morty. In effect, Groenig’s style became the “adult animated comedy” style and we see it again in Lower Decks. I don’t dislike the style, but I found myself wondering if it would work for Star Trek. As it turns out, the style was adjusted to give it just a little more realism. While I was frustrated to see another American animation show forced to look a certain way because of its intended audience, I did find the actual look appealing and I soon warmed to the characters, in part because of solid voice acting and good scripts.

On a personal level, I loved the California-class ships named after the state’s cities. Growing up in California, I recognized all the ship names they’ve mentioned so far. I would love to see my old stomping grounds of San Bernardino or Barstow get a starship in a later season. The former seems like it would provide an opportunity to pay tribute to original series writer Jerome Bixby, who lived there. It might be fun to see it appear in an episode about the mirror universe that he created. Of course, Bixby’s stories were an early influence on my own writing, which you can learn more about by visiting http://www.davidleesummers.com

Saturn’s Shrouded Moon

I love a good mystery and I love exploring new places. These two facts go a long way to explaining why I love astronomy. The universe is vast and we know so little about it. The NEID spectrograph at the WIYN telescope on Kitt Peak is just getting started on its mission helping to learn about planets around other stars. The DESI spectrograph on the Mayall telescope is starting its mission of mapping the northern sky with hopes of understanding dark energy. Of course, dark energy is one of those fundamentally great mysteries because we see evidence of its existence, but we really don’t know yet what it is. Fun space operas like Star Trek or even my Space Pirates’ Legacy series make space exploration look inevitable and even easy, but in fact, we’ve barely started. People have only been to the moon a few times and robots have just visited a few of our neighbor worlds in our own solar system. We have almost a hundred billion stars in our galaxy alone.

But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Today, I want to focus on one small world within our own solar system, Saturn’s moon Titan. It’s the second largest moon in the solar system and one covered with a dense atmosphere. It’s a place of real interest for those people seeking life in the solar system. The Cassini mission discovered that Titan has a salty sea underneath its icy crust. Its atmosphere is teaming with organic molecules that get deposited on its methane-ethane lakes and seas. We’ve sent a probe to Titan’s surface and we’ve even made good headway at mapping the surface. We’ve even started naming some of the features on Titan’s surface as you can see in this map from the US Geological Survey.

Map of Titan

By the way, you can download a good, high resolution PDF of this map at: https://planetarynames.wr.usgs.gov/Page/Images. It’s the one called Titan with VIMS Bacground and Radar Strips. I love that we have a map of Titan with this much detail, but this map also makes me think of old maps of the Earth with great undefined places. You can even imagine the legend “There be dragons here” somewhere on this map. We have learned a lot about the solar system and the universe in the last century, but this map makes it clear we still have a lot to learn about Titan.

This is one of the reasons I enjoy writing science fiction. I like to dream about the things we might find in the solar system and in the galaxy. I like to consider the more blurry places on the Titan map and wonder what might be there that could surprise us. In my novel, The Solar Sea, I imagine scientists discovering particles that travel through time on Earth’s moon. Once they understand the energy signature of these particles they go looking for them throughout the solar system and discover them in great abundance on Titan. This becomes the reason the Quinn Corporation decides to build a solar sail spacecraft to go find these valuable particles. The thing is, when they get to Titan, they look beneath the shroud and find…

Well, that would be spoilers. Fortunately though, you can get the book as part of the amazing Expansive Futures SciFi Bundle. The bundle includes eighteen great science fiction novels curated for the SFWA by Amy DuBoff. This is last call. The bundle is only available until Thursday March 4 at https://storybundle.com/scifi