Perseverance in Space

Last Thursday, I woke up early to watch as NASA’s Mars 2020 mission was launched. The mission includes the Perseverance rover and the Ingenuity helicopter drone. The mission’s main goal is to look for signs of ancient life on Mars and collect rock samples which may be returned to Earth.

The launch of the Mars 2020 Mission

The rocket launch itself couldn’t have been more perfect. The weather at the Florida launch site was beautiful and the rocket lifted off the pad, flying straight and true. In fact, it lifted off so quickly, I couldn’t snap the screenshot from my computer before it left the pad! The rover is scheduled to arrive at Mars early next year. It incorporates many design elements from the highly successful Curiosity rover. It also incorporates autonomous driving technology, so NASA engineers can give it a course and let it avoid obstacles using onboard computers. In fact, that’s part of the reason for the helicopter drone. The drone can fly over the surface and help Perseverance map its course over the Martian landscape.

The primary mission objective is to look for evidence that life existed at one time on Mars. There are on-board instruments for achieving this, including the SHERLOC spectrometer which can accomplish microscopic imaging and help search for organic compounds. Perseverance will also collect samples which could be returned to Earth by a future Mars mission. As emphasized when I met Dr. Harrison Schmidt last year, nothing allows for detailed analysis like having actual physical samples in a lab. One of the reasons we would like to know whether life ever existed on Mars is that it would give us a better sense for how easy it would be to find life elsewhere. What’s more, there are some theories that life on Earth actually started on Mars and that it came to Earth as the result of an asteroid collision. So, we could gain insight into our own origins.

I watched the launch as part of an event hosted by The Planetary Society and Space For Humanity. The Planetary Society’s CEO, Bill Nye spoke after the launch. One question I see raised when discussing space exploration is, “wouldn’t it be better to spend that money on problems here on Earth?” This seems especially prescient in the middle of a global pandemic. Of course, you physically can’t invest all the funds on Earth into one problem. That would utterly destroy the economy and leave people hungry and destitute. Nye noted, “All the money we spend on space, is spent on Earth.” Investing in space is paying the salaries of the engineers, scientists, and technicians who make this happen. It’s investing in the companies that build the parts for these craft and that money gets reinvested into the economy. What’s more we receive dividends in these investments such as new technologies that do make the world a better place to live. Those technologies may even help to develop and deliver vaccines.

David the Space Cowboy wants to know when it’s time to board!

Space for Humanity is a group who has a vision of giving as diverse a group of people the chance to experience traveling to space. I believe that’s a worthy goal. After all, we need the experience of many people from many backgrounds if we’re going to reach for the stars. One of the places where we may succeed in getting to space in the near future is from Space Port America, just north of where I live in Las Cruces, New Mexico. One of the people who spoke after the launch was George Whitesides, Chief Space Officer for Virgin Galactic, who said their next goal is to accomplish manned flight from the New Mexico spaceport. In the photo above, I’m being a space cowboy, hanging out with one of the Virgin Galactic craft that may actually travel into space from this area. Time to saddle up and move out!

Revisiting Das Boot

I grew up knowing I had ancestors who came from Germany. What’s more, my uncle married a German woman. I wanted to be a scientist and I knew about a number of German scientists such as Kepler, Einstein, and Heisenberg just to name a few. So when it came to pick a language from my limited high school offerings, I chose German. My high school only offered two years of the language, so when I exhausted those, I was encouraged to take classes at Cal State San Bernardino. During this time, one of the most famous German films was released: Das Boot. The professor of my college German class offered us extra credit if we went to see the movie in German. Several of us went as a group. As with many at the time, I found the movie amazing, stunning, and sad at the end.

My aunt was excited that I had gone to watch a feature-length German film. She contacted one of her relatives in Germany and had them buy a hardcover copy of the original novel and send it to the US. She gave it to me as a Christmas present. It’s still one of my treasured possessions. I’m sorry to say I have not taken the time to wade through and read the whole thing, but I was delighted when I recently picked it up and discovered my German is still good enough to follow the gist of the story.

Writers are often told to “write what you know.” This can be tricky for science fiction writers. That said, we should pull from our experience to make what we imagine as believable as possible. One of the reasons Das Boot was fascinating to me was how real it made serving in a cramped, enclosed ship. Much as I loved the Star Trek-like future of grand, beautiful starships, I couldn’t help but think the reality of military space ships would look more like the U-96 in Das Boot than Captain Picard’s spacious Enterprise. When I started writing the stories that would become the foundation of my Space Pirates’ Legacy series, I made space vessels cramped and claustrophobic with crews who got on each others’ nerves.

Back in the days when I first saw the movie Das Boot, I’d heard rumors of a longer version than the one we saw in the United States. It turns out this was a 5-hour cut broadcast over five nights on British television in 1984. This cut (more or less) was eventually released in the United States as “The Original Uncut Version” shown above. I bought it a few years ago, then promptly moved to a new house where it disappeared under a stack of other videos. I finally found it again and watched the five-hour cut.

I have to say, I was impressed. The longer cut didn’t drag at all. What it gave us were more character moments. The 1980s American theatrical release focused on the captain, the chief engineer, and the war correspondent. The longer release gives us a chance to know the first officer, the third officer, the navigator and the radio operator much better. The crew began to feel even more like a family, albeit a dysfunctional one at times.

I’ve come to realize that space travel would be unsustainable if spaceships were as small and crowded as a World War II-era U-boat, but still, thinking about how they ate, the jobs they were assigned to, the “human” touches that made the sub a little more livable than sterile are all things that help me think about how to design space vessels in my writing. If you want to see how I’ve brought that into play, a good place to start is book one of my Space Pirates’ Legacy series, Firebrandt’s Legacy. You can learn more at:

The Last Apollo

My wife and I spent two weeks in July on the road. We paid a visit to my older daughter in Kansas City and then visited some colleges that my younger daughter is considering after she graduates from high school in the spring. On the way to Kansas City, we stopped in to visit my wife’s aunt in Hutchinson, Kansas. While there, she took us to see the Cosmosphere.

As interested as I am in space exploration, it may come as a surprise that I’d never heard of this place. It turns out the Cosmosphere houses the world’s largest combined exhibition of US and Russian space vehicles anywhere in the world. As I understand, the Cosmosphere grew from a planetarium established on the Kansas State fairgrounds in 1962. It houses artifacts from Gus Grissom’s Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft, Russian Vostok and Vokhod space capsules and the Odyssey command module from Apollo 13. It also has the training mock-up for the last Apollo flight, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.

This mission holds a special place in my heart for several reasons. As I mentioned in my post on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, I was too young to remember watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking around on the moon live, but I did sit glued to the television set watching the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project and the famous handshake in space between American Thomas P. Stafford and Russian Alexei Leonov.

One element of this mission that fascinated me was that after years of hearing about the famous “space race” between the Americans and the Russians, this was the first time I’d had a chance to really see pictures of a Soyuz space capsule. It was so different from the American craft and it was green! It was the first time I could remember seeing a spaceship that wasn’t white, gray, or silver.

The project would lay the foundation for the working relationship that would ultimately lead to projects like the International Space Station. In fact, to this day, Soyuz space craft are still the workhorses that take people to and from the space station. I recently learned that during training for the project and during the mission itself, all the Americans spoke Russian while all the Soviet cosmonauts spoke English.

In later life, I’ve come to appreciate astronaut Deke Slayton’s story from this mission. Slayton was one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, immortalized in the movie, The Right Stuff. However, Slayton was grounded and never flew during the Mercury program because of an abnormal heart rhythm. As I understand, his condition is not dissimilar from my own. Slayton went on to become a manager of the senior manager of NASA’s astronaut office. Watching footage from Apollo 11, we see Deke Slayton helping Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins aboard their famous flight. At long last, Slayton was cleared for flight status in the 1970s and the Apollo-Soyuz test project was his chance to go to space.

Soon after the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project I enrolled in a model of the month club. The company would send you a new model every month to build. One of the models I remember depicted the Apollo-Soyuz linkup in space. I hurried through the build, excited to make it. I remember globbing on paint and glue. Even my peers at the time said I did a terrible job. The model was ultimately lost to time. After returning home from our travels, I discovered an old kit of that model for sale online. I bought it for old time’s sake and put it together much more carefully. I even took extra care to make sure I matched the colors to what I saw in the Cosmosphere as best as I could.

This model is a keeper. Apollo-Soyuz reminds me that first steps toward cooperation can build dividends in the long run. It reminds me of Deke Slayton and that he would eventually overcome a health problem that grounded him. It reminds me of a visit to a cool museum with my family. The model itself reminds me that you can fail the first time you try something and then be satisfied when you learn from your mistakes and try again.

Saying Goodbye to a Website

I have to confess, I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with the idea that an author is “a brand.” Part of this is discomfort with the fact that many Americans seem obsessed with celebrities for no other reason than they’re celebrities. I’ve always believed recognition is something that must be earned because of one’s skills and accomplishments. What’s more, given my background in the sciences, judging good writing feels very subjective. Another aspect of my discomfort with author branding is the fact that I write in several different speculative subgenres including horror, science fiction, and steampunk. While I know and respect many authors who change pseudonym with each genre they write, I’ve never felt comfortable doing that. I feel like I’m hiding behind the name of someone I’m not.

I mention all this to explain why I created a website especially for my novel The Solar Sea when it was released nearly ten years ago. I wrote the novel during NaNoWriMo in 2004 and I succeeded in part because the novel captures much of my passion about exploring the solar system and the possible use of solar sailing as a technology. I wrote this as a novel that could be enjoyed by people of all ages and I thought a website that provided some additional background would be fun and would also satisfy my publisher’s desire for me to find new and innovative ways to market the novel.

As it turns out, the web and the way people look for information about novels has evolved since 2008. Few people seem to seek out websites about specific books. Instead, they go to online book retailers, review sites, and yes, author websites and blogs. I have both of those latter items, but I maintained the because, quite simply, the website was promoted in the print and ebook editions of the novel itself and it seemed like bad form to advertise a website that no longer existed.

Earlier this year, Lachesis Publishing returned the publishing rights to The Solar Sea to me. In 2018, I plan to release a new edition of the novel from Hadrosaur Productions. I’ve decided to take this opportunity to retire the website. This is a little sad because the website includes a page about solar sailing, a reader’s guide, and some cool supplemental illustrations by cover artist Laura Givens. Here’s her illustration of the Aristarchus Bridge:

I do plan to move much of this information over to my page about the book: In fact, I’ve already copied over my page with information about solar sails. I’ll copy the reader’s guide once the new edition nears completion.

In the meantime, this is a great opportunity to grab the original edition of the novel for only half price. If you’re with me at TusCon this weekend, I have my last copies in the dealer’s room. Otherwise, you can grab a copy at: Just a note, I only have three copies left as of this writing.

Solar Sails in Science Fiction


As promising—and romantic—a technology as solar sails are, it’s perhaps not surprising that they have found their way into fiction numerous times. Perhaps the first mention of the idea of using light to propel a spacecraft is in Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon. In Verne’s novel, a giant cannon is used to send a spacecraft to the moon. However, Verne writes that such a projectile has limited velocity. “Is it not evident, then, I ask you, that there will some day appear velocities far greater than these, of which light or electricity will probably be the mechanical agent?” asks Verne. The thing is, Jules Verne was right on top of the scientific achievements of his day. He knew that James Clerk Maxwell had recently discovered that light exerts a pressure on objects.

Lady Who Sailed

Compelling as this idea is, it seems that no one pursued it further until an engineer named Carl Wiley wrote an article for Astounding Science Fiction in 1951 about how solar sails could be built in orbit and used for space travel. The article was called “Clipper Ships in Space” and was written under the pseudonym Russell Saunders. This article influenced more than one science fiction writer. The first was Cordwainer Smith who published the story “The Lady Who Sailed The Soul” in Galaxy Magazine in 1960. The story was mostly about the romance of two characters, but it also does a fairly good job of describing a solar sail spaceship.

The next appearance of a solar sail in science fiction was in Pierre Boulle’s novel Planet of the Apes in 1963. To quote from the novel: “In those times, interplanetary travel was commonplace, though interstellar ventures were still an exception. Rocket ships would take the tourists to fabulous locations on Sirius or the finance people to the stock markets of Arcturus and Aldebaran. But Jinn and Phyllis, a wealthy and free couple, were known through the Cosmos to be young originals, with a bit of craziness, and they would cruise through the Universe just for the fun of it—with their sailcraft.” Boulle then goes on to describe the craft: “Their ship was a kind of sphere with a shell—the sail—made of amazingly thin material, and it would move through space, just pushed by the pressure of light beams.”

Boys Life Sunjammer

A year later, Arthur C. Clarke published the story “The Sunjammer” in Boy’s Life Magazine that told the story of seven solar sails racing from the Earth to the Moon. This story in particular captured many scientists’ imaginations and caused them to seriously ask the question of whether or not these kinds of craft could be developed. In fact, NASA’s first solar sail mission to deep space has been dubbed “Sunjammer” in Clarke’s honor. You can visit the project’s homepage at:

Light sails have continued to appear in science fiction since then. Notable appearances include the episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine called “Explorers” and Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. No doubt solar sails will continue to appear in science fiction. My own novel, The Solar Sea, about a solar sail spacecraft that’s used to explore the outer planets was published in 2009. You can read more about it at

Science and science fiction are closely intertwined with solar sails. In the middle of the nineteenth century, James Clerk Maxwell discovered that light exerted a pressure on objects. Soon after, Jules Verne posited that such a force could be used to move a spacecraft. In the 1950s an engineer published an article about light sails in a science fiction magazine and a few years later, science fiction writers were publishing stories about such craft. Now, scientists and engineers are working to turn the idea of solar sails into reality while science fiction writers continue to dream of sailing to distant planets and star systems.

The Solar Sea

Is there something about solar sails you’d like to know and I didn’t cover? Let me know in comments and I’ll see if I can find out for you and post next week. I’ve already been asked how to steer a solar sail. I’ll do my best to explain!

My novel The Solar Sea is available at:

Solar Sail Projects

Light pressure has been demonstrated as a force that can, indeed, move a spacecraft. Back in 1974, when Mariner 10 was running low on fuel, NASA utilized light pressure against its solar panels to adjust its trajectory. Although this was a limited demonstration, light sail technology holds sufficient promise that scientists around the world are trying to turn this science fictional idea into reality. Public and private teams in the United States, Japan, and Europe are all actively working on solar sail projects.


Although it’s not as heavily publicized as some projects, NASA has been on the forefront of light sail development. On November 19, 2010, they launched a solar sail “nanosatellite” called NanoSail-D. It was a 100-square-foot solar sail that was deployed from NASA’s FASTSAT Satellite on January 20, 2011. Four booms with sails deployed from a craft about the size of a lunchbox. The image above is an artist’s conception of the craft, but to learn more about NanoSail-D and to see photos of the sail during it’s 240-day voyage, visit:

In the longer term, NASA is developing a somewhat larger prototype solar sail. This larger sail would have an area approximately 13,000 square feet with a payload of 110 pounds. This makes it about seven times larger than the largest solar sail ever deployed. While the NanoSail-D project was essentially a simple sheet of reflective material designed to test the concept of solar sailing, the larger solar sail would include four small steering sails to test maneuverability of the craft. Currently, this larger prototype sail is scheduled to launch on a Falcon 9 in 2015. You can read more about this mission at:


Perhaps the most prominent private group working to build a solar sail is the Planetary Society. They’re a non-profit organization in the United States dedicated to the support of space exploration. They attempted to launch a solar sail called Cosmos 1 back in 2005. Unfortunately, it was lost when the launch vehicle it was aboard—a Volna rocket launched from a Russian submarine—exploded on the way to orbit. The original craft looked like an octagonal mirror. Eight triangular sails surrounded a central hub. Each sail was mounted to the hub by a rotating mast. By changing the angle of the sails, the craft’s course could be adjusted. The updated project is called LightSail-1 and appears to be a much simpler design as shown in the photo at the top of the paragraph. For more information, visit:

Interest in solar sail technology isn’t limited to the United States. In 2011, the Japan Aeronautic Exploration Agency or JAXA successfully deployed a small solar sail called IKAROS (for Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun). The test successfully demonstrated both sail deployment and the ability of a craft to fly by photon pressure. Later this decade, they hope to launch a probe to Jupiter that will be propelled by solar sails. An artist’s conception is shown below. You can learn more about the IKAROS mission, and see a cool gif of the sail in flight at:

Japan Jupiter Mission

The European Space Agency has also been working on a prototype solar sail, but there is little information at this point about when they might try a flight. They appear to have a near-term project using solar sail nanosatellites to help remove debris from Earth orbit.

As we move toward the middle of the 21st century’s second decade, we find ourselves searching for “green” technologies that utilize the resources we have available as wisely as possible. Solar sails appear to be a promising, green technology that would allow humans to explore space wisely. Indeed, it is the only propulsion technology within our reach that could conceivably propel a spacecraft to near the speed of light.

The Solar Sea

In the next installment, I’ll look at solar sails in science fiction. In the meantime, you can learn more about my novel, The Solar Sea, which is set aboard a solar sail spacecraft at The novel is available at:

Solar Sailing

In 2008, when my novel The Solar Sea was released, I gave a presentation about solar sails at several science fiction conventions. I summarized that information in an article called “Sailing the Winds of Space” which appeared in Strange Weird and Wonderful Magazine online. The issue no longer appears to be available and I thought it was worth updating some of the information. I’ll be presenting the article over the next three weeks here at the Web Journal. I hope you enjoy this look at solar sailing!

Pottery depicting masted ships. Photo by Einsamer Schütze.  License: CC BY-SA

Pottery depicting masted ships.
Photo by Einsamer Schütze. License: CC BY-SA

Sailing is one of the oldest transportation technologies. The simple use of wind to propel a craft across the water goes back to at least 3500 BC when the first representation of a ship under sail appeared on an Egyptian vase. Scientists around the world have explored ways to adapt this ancient technology for use in space flight. Sail technology is a way to make space flight more cost effective. Not only that, it’s possible that ancient sailing technology could propel a craft to near the speed of light. Sails for spacecraft would utilize light instead of wind. Such a sail is known as a light sail—or a solar sail if the primary light source is the Sun. This simple but powerful technology has also been an inspiration to numerous science fiction writers over the last fifty years.

Photons—individual particles of light—have momentum. When something with momentum strikes another object, it imparts some of its momentum to that object. Think of what happens when you play pool and the cue ball strikes another ball. The cue ball bounces off and the other ball moves in some direction. If you shine light at a mirror, the light bounces off, but it also imparts some momentum to the mirror. The reason you don’t see mirrors moving every time you shine light on them is that here on Earth, air pressure and gravity overwhelm light pressure. Light pressure from the Sun at Earth only produces about two pounds of force for every square kilometer. However, in space, where gravity is significantly less than it is on the ground and air pressure is no longer a factor, even a gentle force such as light pressure becomes significant.

Photo by No-w-ay in collaboration with H. Caps.  CC BY-SA

Photo by No-w-ay in collaboration with H. Caps. License: CC BY-SA

Even though gravity and air pressure are no longer factors in space, solar sails must be built out of very lightweight material. Think about the billiard balls, but imagine replacing the cue ball with a marble. If you shoot a marble at a billiard ball, the marble will still impart momentum to the billiard ball, but it will take a lot more effort for the marble to move the billiard ball. By the same token, solar sails must be built out of the lightest possible material so that photon pressure will have the greatest effect when propelling the spacecraft. The materials currently being investigated for solar sails are somewhere between 40 and 100 times thinner than a piece of writing paper.

Fuel is one of the greatest costs in contemporary space flight and spacecraft must be designed to start their journey with all of the fuel they will need for the duration of the voyage. This is a significant engineering challenge. However, in the solar system, the sun produces an abundant, steady stream of photons that could be harnessed by a spacecraft. As such, light sails become a very attractive means of space propulsion.

Venus transit with telescope

Because light pressure is a very gentle force, solar sails would accelerate very slowly. However, as long as there is a supply of light, there is nothing that will stop the acceleration of a solar sail. Theoretically, a solar sail will continue to accelerate until it reaches the same speed as the particles striking it—the speed of light. According to Newton’s first law, an object in motion will remain in motion unless some force acts upon it. In space, where there is no friction, once a solar sail reaches the speed of light, it could continue at the speed of light. As such, light sails could theoretically be used for interstellar travel.

A common misconception is that solar sails are propelled by the solar wind. The solar wind is a stream of charged particles emitted from the sun. This stream of charged particles will transfer some momentum to any object it strikes, just as photons will. However, photon pressure from the sun is about 5000 times greater than the force from the solar wind.

In the next installment, I’ll discuss some actual solar sail projects.

The Solar Sea

My novel The Solar Sea, which imagines a voyage aboard a solar sail spacecraft, is available at: