Exploring Space

Today, I’m at TusCon, in Tucson, Arizona where I’m anxiously awaiting the world premier of the film Revenge of Zoe, in which I have a small part. If you’re in Tucson, please drop by the convention and say hello. You can learn more about the event at: http://www.tusconscificon.com

A little over a week ago, I received an email from Bill Nye the Science Guy in his role as CEO of the Planetary Society, an organization I proudly support. The email encouraged members to take a photo with a Planetary Society T-shirt or with a sign included in the email. I was at work at Kitt Peak and I used my laptop to take this selfie which I then tweeted:

I first joined the Planetary Society in 1983, when the organization was only three-years old. It was founded by Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray and Louis Friedman who recognized a tremendous public interest in space. This was about three years after Carl Sagan’s groundbreaking television series Cosmos and the Voyager flyby of Saturn.

The Planetary Society’s newsletter, The Planetary Report, became a great source of information about what was happening in solar system exploration. It helped reinforce my interest in astronomy as I was deciding what kind of career I wanted to pursue. One article I remember in particular talked about the possibility of solar sails. I have a vivid memory of a painting of a heliogyro, a type of solar sail that was not only pushed by sunlight, but spun, so that the centrifugal force could provide simulated gravity for the crew. This sparked my imagination and I started writing a novel called The Solar Sea.

I started my college career in 1984. I didn’t have time to continue my novel at the time, so it waned. Also, on a college student’s budget, I let my membership in the Planetary Society lapse. After college, I did make a couple of attempts to restart the novel, but was never happy with the direction it was going. It wasn’t until 2007 that my publisher challenged me to try my hand at the National Novel Writing Month that I finally sat down and wrote the book.

It’s probably a good thing that I waited to write the novel. In the 24 years from 1983 until 2007, I learned quite a bit more about the solar system. I also learned a lot more about plot and character. I had long ago thrown away the original draft of the novel and wrote the new version from scratch. By that point, the novel couldn’t wait to get out onto the page. I had no problem completing the NaNoWriMo challenge. I spent December and January after NaNoWriMo finishing the novel. My publisher loved it enough to take it and the first edition appeared soon after. The second edition of The Solar Sea was released earlier this year and you can pick it up at: https://www.amazon.com/Solar-Sea-David-Lee-Summers/dp/1885093845/.

I’m sorry to say the Planetary Society itself fell off my radar until 2015. Fortunately, I became aware of a Kickstarter they had started to fund a solar sail experiment. I contributed to Kickstarter and rejoined the Society. I’m glad I did and proud to be part of a group that works to keep space exploration alive and well. The Lightsail 2 craft that was funded by the Kickstarter is now built and installed in a Cubesat awaiting launch. At this point, it’s expected Lightsail 2 will launch in early 2019. You can learn more about the Planetary Society and all of its initiatives, including the development of solar sails by visiting: http://www.planetary.org.

By the way, that amazing painting I mentioned of a real heliogyro solar sail that inspired my dreams of writing a novel is on their website. You can find it at: http://www.planetary.org/explore/projects/lightsail-solar-sailing/story-of-lightsail-part-1.html. The essay also gives you a great overview of the history and science of solar sailing.

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See You Space Cowboy…

Last week, NASA announced that after nine years of service, the Kepler Space Telescope has run out of fuel and will be switched off. It’s in an orbit around the sun, far from Earth. To date, it has been credited with the discovery of some 2,681 planets outside our solar system from both the Kepler and K2 missions. The K2 mission was the follow-up that happened after two of Kepler’s reaction wheels failed and it could no longer point at its target field. There are 2,780 candidate planets still to be checked with ground based observations, so Kepler’s total discovery count will likely increase even now that Kepler is off line. Among the planets Kepler has discovered include numerous Jupiter-sized worlds orbiting their stars in mere hours, many ice giant worlds like Uranus and Neptune, and there are some 361 candidate and confirmed planets in the habitable zones of their stars.

Earlier this year, Kepler’s successor, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, was launched. Whereas Kepler was designed to monitor one part of the sky and see how many planets it could find, TESS is designed to survey the stars nearest to the Earth. TESS has already its announced its first exoplanet discoveries.

Steve Howell observing at the Mayall 4-meter telescope, confirming Kepler discoveries.

At Kitt Peak, I work at the Mayall and WIYN telescopes, which are involved in confirming exoplanets. WIYN’s telescope scientist was Dr. Steve Howell when I started working at Kitt Peak eleven years ago. Steve since moved on to become Kepler’s Project Scientist and now serves as the head of the astronomy and astrobiology section at Ames Spaceflight Center which serves as the center of Kepler and TESS operations. One night while observing Kepler targets we began to talk about how Mars became more of a place in people’s imaginations after it started appearing in the science fiction of H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs, so we hatched plans to compile an anthology of stories set on Kepler worlds.

Our first anthology was A Kepler’s Dozen, which collected action-packed, mysterious, and humorous stories all based on real planets discovered by the NASA Kepler mission. Authors like Mike Brotherton, Laura Givens, and J Alan Erwine imagined stories set in places like a prison colony, or escaping from the authorities, or encircling a binary star. We collected thirteen stories in all. We also included facts about each of the planets written about in the anthology. You can learn more about the anthology at: http://hadrosaur.com/kepler.htmlAlso at the page is a link to a press release by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory that gives more background about the Kepler telescope and Kitt Peak’s role in confirming discoveries.

This anthology has done well and Kepler’s success continued, so we decided to compile a second anthology. The follow up was Kepler’s Cowboys, which imagined the space cowboys and cowgirls who would visit the worlds discovered by Kepler. In this anthology, we encouage you to saddle up and take an unforgettable journey to distant star systems. You’ll meet new life forms—some willing to be your friend and others who will see you as the invader. You’ll fight for justice in a lawless frontier. You can go on a quest for a few dollars more. We wanted an exciting, fun, and rollicking anthology. This one included fourteen stories and five poems by such authors as Patrick Thomas, Jaleta Clegg, Anthony R. Cardno, and L.J. Bonham. You can learn more about this anthology at:  http://hadrosaur.com/keplers-cowboys.html

Kepler has had a great run and it’s sad to see it reach the end of it’s life. Still, I think we could fill many more anthologies with stories about its planets and that’s even before we do any anthologies featuring discoveries by TESS. While you’re waiting, you can check out my space pirate story collection Firebrandt’s Legacy, which not only visits a couple of Kepler planets, but several other possible worlds out in the galaxy. You can learn more about that project at my Patreon page: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers.

TusCon 45

Next weekend, I’m proud to be a participant at TusCon 45 being held at the Sheraton Tucson Hotel and Suites in Tucson, Arizona. The guest of honor is Joe R. Lansdale, the author of more than forty novels and numerous short stories, including Paradise Sky, the Edgar Award-winning The Bottoms, Sunset and Sawdust, and Leather Maiden. This year’s toastmaster is Weston Ochse. TusCon is a small convention but one that attracts dedicated and enthusiastic fans of all ages who share a love of the written word.

My schedule at the convention is as follows:

Friday, November 9

  • 4:00-5:00pm – Panel Room 2 (Mesa) – Letting your personal secrets out in your stories. Alcoholic writers with alcoholic characters. Gay writers with gay characters. Abused writers with abused characters. How much of yourself should be in your story. On the panel with me are Joe R. Lansdale, Eric T. Knight, Gemma Lauren Krebs, and Gloria McMillan.
  • 7:00-9:00PM – Ballroom (Sabino) – Meet the Guests. Come rub elbows with the guests, enjoy the cash bar, and be regaled by Toastmaster Weston Ochse.
  • 10:00-11:00pm – Ballroom (Sabino) – Drake & McTrowell’s Hot Potato School of Writing. The authors of “The Adventures of Drake & McTrowell” will lead two guest authors and the audience in a madcap improvisational writing game show reminiscent of their signature “Hot Potato” team writing style. Two audience volunteers will each team up with two guest authors to form two “writing teams.” The audience will select three plot elements from a list provided by Drake & McTrowell. The two teams will take turns “writing” the beginning, middle, and end of a story incorporating all three elements with two audience-created “Hot Potatoes” thrown in for excitement. Erasmus Drake and Sparky McTrowell host the show. Ross Lampert and I will be the guest authors.

Saturday, November 10

  • 11:00am-noon – Ballroom (Sabino) – Have We Lost the Spirit of Exploration? NASA is a joke, deep sea exploration is dead, and nobody is listening to SETI. What happened to our frontiers? On the panel with me are Bob Nelson, Hal C.F. Astell, Wolf Forrest, Ross Lampert, and Joe Palmer.
  • 1:00-2:00pm – Catalina Ballroom Foyer – Autographs. I’ll be signing autographs alongside such luminaries are Ken St. Andre, Jennifer Roberson and Frankie Robertson.
  • 6:30-9:00pm – Ballroom (Sabino) – Revenge of Zoe. Premier of the film Revenge of Zoe, starring Bradford Trojan, Nathan Campbell, Eric Schumacher, and Rachel Netherton as Zoe/Fren-Zee. In the film, screenwriter Billy Shaw must face his inner demons while convincing comic book store owners John and Pete to help him write a sequel to his greatest work; a movie about comic book super heroine Fren-Zee. Filmed in, and around, Tucson. Hosted by actor/producer Geoff Notkin, followed by Q&A with cast & crew from the film. I play one of the customers in the shop and I’m looking forward to my motion picture debut.

Sunday, November 11

  • Noon-1:00pm – Ballroom (Sabino) – Great Art Comes From Limitations. How what you can’t do influences your art. On the panel with me are Diana Terrill Clark, William Herr, Julie Verley, and Curt Booth.

In addition to all these great programming options, Hadrosaur Productions will have a table in the dealer’s room. Come by and see what great books we have to offer. Also, Hadrosaur Productions along with Massoglia Books will be sponsoring the annual birthday party for Marty Massoglia and myself on Saturday night. Drop by our booths in the dealer’s room to learn to learn the time and location of the party!

October on the Road

This has proven to be a busy travel month for me. Given that I live in Las Cruces, New Mexico but work at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, this says a lot. Fortunately, I don’t have to make that commute daily. I have a residence at the observatory and I typically work for six nights, then have nine nights off. My work nights at Kitt Peak average right around 13-14 hours, which is how this works as a full-time job. To make this month’s travel work, I took four nights of vacation time.

My month started on October 1 with a drive from Las Cruces to Tucson for a writing session with a friend. From his house, I drove up to Kitt Peak and worked two nights at the WIYN telescope helping an observer from Indiana University view old galaxies before lots of metals formed to see how they fit into the scheme of galactic evolution. Once those two nights were finished, I drove to San Diego for the Gaslight Steampunk Exposition. On the first morning of the exposition, I had the honor of meeting in person a fellow who already felt like a friend from our online correspondence, Jack Tyler, author of a wonderful steampunk adventure set in Africa called Beyond the Rails and its two sequels.

Jack founded a group called the Scribbler’s Den at a now defunct site called The Steampunk Empire. The group has now been moved to the website Welcome to Steampunk. The group has connected me to many writers around the North America, and even around the world! Not only do we talk about writing, but we’ve produced two anthologies, Den of Antiquity and Denizens of Steam. Also, it’s directly because of connections I made in the group that I learned about the spooky Victorian anthology DeadSteam edited by Bryce Raffle. Jack continues to promote quality Indie books and shares his recommendations every Thursday at his blog: https://blimprider.com/

Another highlight of Gaslight Expo was getting to spend time visiting with Hugo-winning science fiction author Vernor Vinge. I’m a fan of his novels A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky. We had a panel discussing the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine designed by Charles Babbage. In addition to writing, Vinge is a retired computer science professor from San Diego State University and I had the privilege of speaking with him about the topic for over an hour outside of the panel as well as the hour on the panel itself.

Of course, the convention as a whole was a delight. William Ball, who works with me at Kitt Peak also traveled to the event. Here you see him in a stylish vest decorated with armillary spheres. I was delighted to attend Hal Astell’s Apocalypse Later festival that showed many indie steampunk short films. Also, I got to see Madeleine Holly-Rosing, creator of The Boston Metaphysical Society comic and related novels. This only touches the surface, but I had a delightful time.

From Gaslight Expo, I drove back to Las Cruces, spent one night at home, then went out to vote on the first day of early voting. After that, my daughter and I picked up the U-Haul she’d packed and drove it to Kansas City where she had a job waiting. This was my first visit to Kansas City, so it was a bit of an adventure finding our way around. We spent our first two nights in a motel, but quickly secured a nice apartment for my daughter. After that, we were able to take a little time to explore the city. Fortunately, Dayton Ward, one of my co-editors on the anthology Maximum Velocity lives in the area and graciously agreed to meet us downtown one day for a visit. Dayton is a talented author in his own right with numerous Star Trek novels under his belt. He took this photo of me and my daughter at the Arabia Steamboat museum.

We’re about halfway through the month’s adventures, so I’ll break it off here. Come back on Monday for more planes, trains, and automobiles as I return to Tucson to work on the DESI spectrograph and then go to Denver to help MileHiCon celebrate its fiftieth anniversary.

First Responder Training

This past week at Kitt Peak National Observatory, I renewed my first responder certification. As I mentioned in my Saturday blog post, observatories are in remote locations and bad things do happen. I’ve been fortunate enough that I haven’t had to deal with much in the way of criminal activity at an observatory. I’m often asked if I have ever seen aliens at the observatory. My answer to that is that the law enforcement agency I’ve interacted most with at the observatory is the U.S. Border Patrol.

That said, things can be bad enough without people engaged in illegal activities. I have had to treat an astronomer who was stung by a scorpion. I also know of a time a person on the mountain suffered a heart attack, though did not go into cardiac arrest. As I approach the age my father suffered a fatal heart attack, I find myself grateful that many of my co-workers know CPR and have been trained in the use of Automated Electronic Defibrillators.

Even without worrying about heart conditions, I have also had more than my share of accidents. About a month before my oldest daughter was born, I was working on a telescope when I accidentally knocked a 15-pound weight off a ladder and it fell right into my jaw, puncturing my lower lip. Luckily I didn’t lose any teeth. More recently, an elevator became stuck. We were able to open the door and I jumped to the floor below to go find a ladder to get my fellow passengers out. I managed to sprain my knee in the process.

At Kitt Peak National Observatory, once we dial 911, it will take 45 minutes for the closest ambulance to make it to the observatory summit. Many observatories are even further from emergency response. Having a staff where many people have first responder training means we can help each other and help visitors during emergencies.

I strongly encourage you to get first responder training if it’s at all available. I have to admit, I don’t always remember all the lessons from the videos and practice sessions, but the training does give me the confidence to follow instructions from a 911 dispatcher when I call. I’ve also found that in those rare emergency situations, I’m surprised by how much I do remember.

Another aspect of first responder trainer that’s important to me is that it gives me experience I can draw on as a writer. Aspects of both Kitt Peak’s remote location and the training I’ve received as a first responder have gone into such novels as The Pirates of Sufiro. The novel is currently out of print, but I’m about to launch into a full rewrite in preparation of a fourth edition at my Patreon site. My Patreon site also helps to fund this blog and I currently have an initiative to raise enough money to upgrade this to an ad-free site. Drop over to my Patreon site and read two free stories of my new collection Firebrandt’s Legacy. If you sign on, you can read the rest of the collection for free, plus you can see how The Pirates of Sufiro develops in its new edition. I bet you’ll even see some examples of how I put my first responder training to use in my fiction writing. My Patreon site is at: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers.

Chargers

No, this isn’t a post about a football team that started in Los Angeles, moved to San Diego, then returned to Los Angeles. This past week, I operated the WIYN telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory. About halfway through the week, the charger circuit on the telescope failed. The WIYN is a telescope with a 3.5-meter primary mirror, making it the second largest aperture optical telescope at the observatory. This large telescope needs to track the sky as smoothly as possible to get the precise measurements we make of astronomical objects. Because of that, the motors don’t actually work off a power cord plugged into the wall that could be subject to brown outs or power spikes. Instead, we have a charger circuit that charges up a set of small batteries. The telescope drives actually are powered by the batteries, shown in the photo to the left.

Although I have some experience with electronics, I’m not actually an electrical engineer. When failures like this occur, my job is less to make a repair, but to see if I can find a way to limp along for the rest of the night and continue to take data in spite of the trouble. However, the circuit is so fundamental to the telescope’s operation and the problem bad enough that I couldn’t even limp along. We had to close up and wait for more expert help in the daytime.

Fortunately, our expert electronics crew was able to repair the charger circuit in less than a day, so we were back on sky and taking spectra of galaxy clusters the next night. What has always amazed me about the charger circuit on the WIYN telescope is that a bank of relatively small batteries can move a 3.5-meter telescope. Those batteries need to move the telescope in three axes. The obvious axes are altitude and azimuth. As WIYN tracks the sky, images rotate in the field of view, so there’s also a rotator that keeps north up in the images.

The charger system strikes me as a metaphor for my approach to seeking inspiration for my writing. The charger system takes current from the wall in whatever form it exists, uses it to charge batteries, which change the form of the current to produce good telescope motion. I take inspiration from my work in astronomy, from the books I read, the movies I see, and my time interacting with friends and family, allow myself to process that through my brain and turn that into the stories and novels I write.

I have taken variable star data with telescopes that use wind-up clock drives and that has helped to inspire and inform clockwork gadgets in my steampunk stories. I once helped an astronomer to take one of the deepest images of the center of our galaxy in the infrared, which helped me to imagine a voyage to the center of the galaxy in my Space Pirates’ Legacy novels. Working late nights on a lonely mountain top in meandering buildings informs my horror. If you’re a writer, I’d love to hear about some things that have inspired your writing in the comments below.

Explore the worlds I’ve created at http://www.davidleesummers.com

Las Cruces Events

I’ve been on the road a lot this past month, so I’m looking forward to a week at home. That said, a week at home doesn’t mean a break from promoting books. It just means I’ll be promoting them in my hometown of Las Cruces, New Mexico at a pair of terrific events.

The first event is a signing at COAS Books downtown at 317 North Main Street from 10am until noon on Saturday, September 15. What’s especially fun about this event is that it happens during the Farmer’s and Craft Market downtown, so my daughter will be selling her crochet items nearby.

The second event will be the fifth annual Celebrate Authors event held in the Roadrunner Room of the Thomas Branigan Memorial Library at 200 E. Picacho Avenue from 2-4pm on Sunday, September 16. There will be 30 authors in all at this event including my friend R.H. Webster. The event is hosted by the Friends of the Thomas Branigan Memorial Library and they always provide a wide range of tasty snacks. It’s a great opportunity to discover local authors and discover what they’re doing.

I will have a selection of all my books at both of these events. That said, I will be featuring three recent releases.

Owl Riders

First is my latest novel, the steampunk adventure Owl Riders. In the year 1885, Apaches have captured a large swath of Southern Arizona and former lawman Ramon Morales must negotiate peace. Meanwhile, back in New Orleans, his wife is kidnapped by a man from her native Persia. A band of outlaws and pirates called the Owl Riders must assemble to reunite Ramon and his wife so they can tame the Wild West.

The Solar Sea

The next book I’ll be featuring is the reissue of my novel 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. Along the way, they discover humans may not be alone in the solar system.

Straight Outta Tombstone

Last but not least, the anthology Straight Outta Tombstone is now out in a mass market paperback edition. These tales may not be the ones your grandpappy spun around the chuck wagon campfire, unless he was talking about soul-sucking ghosts, steam-powered demons, and wayward aliens! This collection of weird western short stories features tales by Jim Butcher, Larry Correia, Alan Dean Foster, Kevin J. Anderson and more. Among the tales is my take on the disappearance of Albert J. Fountain, best known from history as Billy the Kid’s defense attorney.

If you’re in Las Cruces, New Mexico next weekend, I hope I’ll see you at COAS Books, the Branigan Library, or both!