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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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!

Pretty Planets All in a Row

This is a great time to view planets in the night sky. Four of the five naked-eye planets are visible right now and the fifth will be reappearing around the middle of the month. The night starts with Venus in the west, setting about two hours after sunset. It’s followed by Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. Around August 20, Mercury should be visible in the eastern sky just before sunrise. What’s more, Mars is near opposition, its closest approach to the Earth. In fact, it’s the closest Mars has been to the Earth since 2003 and it’ll be 17 years before Mars is this close again.

Although I operate two large telescopes for the National Observatory, I don’t get many opportunities to look at just anything I’d like. Most of the time, if I want to look at planets, I need to do so with my old reliable 8-inch Celestron telescope in my backyard. Fortunately, because this planetary show is happening in the summer and in the early evening, it’s actually pretty comfortable to sit outside with the telescope. Also, ever since my wife bought me an Orion Starshoot camera, I’m able to share my views with you.

It’s monsoon season here in New Mexico, so that often means clouds in the evening. I missed getting any views of Venus, but I did manage to get images of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. This is especially fun, because they are also the planets the crew of the Solar Sail Aristarchus visits in my novel The Solar Sea. Each of the planet pictures below is shown at the same scale, so you get a sense for how big they appear relative to each other in my telescope’s eyepiece.

Mars is the planet furthest in the east and the last of the three I observed. It was a little disappointing in that I didn’t see a lot of surface features. You can see one of the polar caps and some contrast between dark and light areas. Some of this is no doubt due to a planet-wide dust storm which has been engulfing the planet for the last month. I gather that dust storm is finally beginning to die down, so there’s a chance we’ll get better views later in the month while Mars is still close. In a way, this was kind of cool because one of the dangers the crew of the Aristarchus faced in The Solar Sea was a dust storm, albeit a somewhat more localized one than the planet is currently experiencing.

Jupiter was quite lovely and helped to demonstrate that the seeing—the atmospheric stability—wasn’t the reason Mars was somewhat washed out. The very best view of Jupiter I’ve had is through the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope at Kitt Peak. It’s one of the few telescopes of that class with an eyepiece adapter, so I have had occasion to actually go out in the dome and look at objects through the telescope. This is probably about the clearest I’ve seen the bands of Jupiter through my backyard telescope and I was pleased to see the great red spot. In The Solar Sea, the crew of the Aristarchus makes a point of flying over the red spot. It’s the largest, longest lasting storm in the solar system. If I went to Jupiter, I’d have to get close, though I wouldn’t want to be in it!

Of course, the real star of the show, as it often is, was Saturn. This is by far the best photograph I’ve ever taken of Saturn. I was pleased to capture Cassini’s Division in the rings along with a band on the planet’s surface. The only time I’ve ever seen Saturn better was when I had the opportunity to look through the 24-inch telescope at Lowell Observatory a couple of years ago. As it turns out, Saturn is the object of the quest in The Solar Sea. Thomas Quinn, who designs and builds the Aristarchus, discovers powerful particles near Saturn that appear to be able to travel through time. It turns out there’s more to these particles than meets the eye!

The Solar Sea is on my mind not just because of these pretty planets all in a row. It turns out that as of last week, copies are now for sale at the Kitt Peak National Observatory visitor center, alongside the anthologies A Kepler’s Dozen and Kepler’s Cowboys. Be sure to look for a copy next time you visit. Of course, you don’t have to wait for a visit to Kitt Peak to pick up a copy of The Solar Sea, you can learn more about the novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/solar_sea.html

End Game and New Beginnings

I’m currently working on the final chapters of my collection Firebrandt’s Legacy. This book collects space pirate stories that have appeared in numerous anthologies over the years alongside several new stories. The whole collection is an arc of related stories, so the book may be read as an episodic novel. I’ve been sharing the new and revised stories with my Patreon subscribers since September 2017.

Based on my current outline, I have about three stories to go to bring events up to the beginning of my novel The Pirates of Sufiro and to bring the collection up to the length I want. I will release the first story of the final three to my Patreon subscribers on Thursday, July 26.

My approach to Patreon has been pretty simple. I only have one tier and it only costs $1.00 per month to subscribe. Of course, patrons are welcome to pay more per month if they feel sufficiently moved by my work to support me at a higher level. My first goal is to use this money to pay the costs associated with publishing Firebrandt’s Legacy. My second goal is to print new editions of the other related books including The Pirates of Sufiro, Children of the Old Stars, and Heirs of the New Earth. Patreon support has already helped me publish the new edition of The Solar Sea, which is a prequel to my Space Pirates’ Legacy series that tells the story of how humans became a space faring society. I shared a free download of the ebook with all my Patreon subscribers. Patreon support also helps support this blog and helps support my travel to conventions where I give both writing and science presentations.

For the duration of Firebrandt’s Legacy, I have been posting at least one new or revised story to the site per month along with a “Behind the Scenes” look at where the story first appeared (if it had been previously published) and what influenced me to write the story. Of course, I plan to share a free download of the complete ebook to all my Patreon subscribers when it’s complete.

Now that I’m about to finish Firebrandt’s Legacy, I’m thinking about the best way to share my progress revising The Pirates of Sufiro for a new edition. I expect that I’ll be heavily revising this novel for a number of reasons. Not the least of which is that this was my very first novel and I’ve learned a lot since I first published it. I’ve also received a lot of feedback on the novel over the years and plan to take those comments into account. Sharing “reedited chapters” may not sound like much value to anyone who has already read the book and people may wonder why they should subscribe instead of just buying a cheap used copy of the book.

My current plan is that when I start The Pirates of Sufiro, instead of doing the “Behind the Scenes” segments, I’ll share the chapter as it appeared in the most recent edition, perhaps along with some notes about the inspirations and the origins of the ideas. I’ll wait a couple of weeks, then present the revised chapter, so people can see what I’m doing with this edit. In both cases, I’m delighted for people to comment on what I’m doing as the project progresses.

To prepare for this transition, I’ve recorded a brief intro video and posted it to my Patreon site. Also, I have made two of the Firebrandt’s Legacy stories/chapters available for anyone to read whether or not they’re a patron. They’re the first chapter, “For a Job Well Done”, and Chapter Twelve, “Calamari Rodeo.” I encourage you to drop over to the site, watch the intro video and read the two free stories. If you like these characters, please sign on as a patron. My Patreon site is: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers

One last thing before signing off. Speaking of used copies of The Pirates of Sufiro, Children of the Old Stars, and Heirs of the New Earth, Hadrosaur Productions is running an auction at eBay for the last complete set of the LBF/Hadrosaur editions of the Old Star Saga in their stock. Drop by and place a bid at eBay!

Bon Voyage, TESS

This past week, my daughter and I watched live as the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, was launched into orbit. This satellite is the follow-up to NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, which was designed to point to a specific region of space known to have many sun-like stars and get a sense for how many of them have exoplanets. As it turns out, the answer is many! The only problem is that Kepler’s region of interest didn’t include many nearby stars. TESS’s mission is to look at stars close to Earth and see which ones harbor planets. Here’s the video of the launch for those who missed it.

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the NEID Spectrograph on the WIYN Telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory where I work will be supporting and following up on TESS observations. This launch is a major milestone in the overall search for exoplanets. I gather it will take about two months for TESS to reach its final orbit. During that time, cameras and instruments will be tested to make sure everything made it through launch with no problems.

The most amazing part of the launch for me was to see how fast TESS made it into orbit, really only a couple of minutes after launch itself. And yet, with current technology, even the nearest exoplanets are still out of feasible travel range for humans. Despite that, I still have hopes that we’ll find destinations that we, as a species, will feel driven to explore. Once we do, I hope we’ll find ways to make the trip happen. In fact, one of the technologies that might allow a voyage to nearby solar systems is scheduled for testing later this year. The Planetary Society’s LightSail 2 is scheduled to launch on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy this summer. I imagine what a voyage through the solar system might be like using such a craft in my novel The Solar Sea.

Of course this is part of the reason that Steve Howell from NASA and I felt compelled to compile the anthologies A Kepler’s Dozen and Kepler’s Cowboys. They allow us to envision what the worlds we’ve been discovering might be like. They allow us to imagine life in new ways, and even to imagine exciting possibilities for things we could find on worlds that don’t harbor life as we know it. Of course, reality is such that what we discover will no doubt go far beyond what we imagine!

So, once the TESS and NEID teams start finding worlds near the Earth that we can imagine, will Steve Howell and I put together another anthology? I suspect there’s a good chance we will. Whether or not we do, I encourage writers to keep an eye on the discoveries because there will be plenty of inspiration for some cool science fiction stories in the coming years.

Learn more about the Kepler Anthologies and The Solar Sea at:

Revisiting Contact

When I visited the VLA a little over a week ago with my wife and daughter, I couldn’t help but note they had copies of both the novel Contact by Carl Sagan and the Robert Zemeckis film based on the novel on prominent display in the gift shop. This is perhaps not surprising given that a large portion of the novel is set at the VLA and a large portion of the movie was filmed there as well. My wife and I decided to pick up a copy of the movie on DVD to replace our aging VHS copy.

It’s been years since I watched the film, even longer since I read the novel, but it was fun to go back and see it again. One element that was fun was the behind-the-scenes look at both Arecebo Radio Observatory and the Very Large Array. This is the kind of behind-the-scenes look I wanted to give people with The Astronomer’s Crypt and also, to some degree, with The Solar Sea. While I’ve never visited Arecebo, I have worked at the VLA and recognized the control room and other places in the control building. It was great to see those places again. One thing I noticed, though, was that in the movie, the astronomers themselves operated the telescopes. In real life, specialists who know the instrumentation actually operate the telescope. Scientists might be in the room analyzing data as it comes in, but even that is somewhat rare. For the most part, I chalk this up to streamlining the storytelling and keeping the number of on-screen characters to a manageable number.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie more on this viewing than I remembered. I like how the movie focuses on the human reaction to alien contact more than the science fictional elements of the actual alien encounter. We see a wide variety of reactions from the general public, to religious figures, to politicians. While we see some paranoia, most of the extreme reactions come from … well, extremists. The acting is fine with Jodie Foster turning in a believable performance as astronomer Eleanor Arroway. I also especially enjoyed seeing Tom Skerritt as David Drumlin, head of the National Science Foundation, one of Ellie’s chief critics and ultimately her rival to meet the aliens. Another fun appearance was John Hurt from Alien and Doctor Who as the eccentric billionaire S.R. Hadden who funds Ellie’s experiments.

As I recall, the movie is a generally faithful adaptation of the novel. I was pleased to see that the movie didn’t include one element of the novel I really disliked. I’m not certain how necessary it is to give a spoiler warning for a novel that’s over thirty years old, but just in case, I’ll cover this element in the next paragraph. Skip over it if you haven’t read the book and don’t want the spoiler!

In the novel, Ellie has a stepfather named John Staughton. He’s a university professor who raises her after Ted Arroway dies. It’s ultimately revealed that Arroway is not really Ellie’s father, but that Staughton was her biological father all along. To me, this felt like academic elitism of the worst order. When I read it, it seemed as though Carl Sagan was saying that brilliant Dr. Eleanor Arroway couldn’t really be the daughter of an ordinary working man, but required the genetics of an actual PhD scientist in order to be as smart as she was. Of course, this impression could be unintentional, and it could have resulted from an editor’s suggestion at some point in the revision process to add more drama to the story. That said, it was bad enough, it almost proved a showstopper for me when I read the novel.

One element of the movie that was both fun, yet dates the film was the addition of scenes with President Bill Clinton. On one hand, it adds a certain credibility to the film, but it also sets it indelibly in the past. Of course, that will happen with almost any near-future science fiction and it’s perhaps better to fix it in time than let the older tech in the control rooms and older cars on the streets be the main “tells.”

Ultimately, I think both the novel and film are great in that they provide a look into the mind of Carl Sagan, who long served as an important spokesman for science and astronomy. Like Urania by Camille Flammarion, Contact provides insights into Carl Sagan that his non-fiction alone couldn’t provide. We get to see more of his hopes and fears and even though many of us never got to meet him, we still have the opportunity to know him better.

Sailing the Solar Sea

The Planetary Society was founded by Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray, and Louis Friedman in 1980 as a voice in support of planetary exploration. I was in high school at the time and joined soon after it was founded. I remember an article in the society’s magazine The Planetary Report that discussed solar sails as vehicles for planetary exploration. The idea immediately grabbed me and I had an idea for a book about astronauts who traveled aboard a solar sail and made a sort of grand tour of the solar system much as NASA’s Voyager space craft was doing at the time. The novel was to be called Sailors on the Solar Sea. It took over twenty-five years for me to see a draft through to completion and the novel was finally published in 2009 with a shortened title: The Solar Sea. Now in 2018, I’m pleased to announce the release of the second, updated edition.

In the novel, 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.

I started the novel soon after my mom bought me my first typewriter. It was a Smith-Corona electric and man that thing was nice. I remember sitting down for a couple of hours every weekend and savoring the hum of the typewriter and the tap-tapping as the ball hit the ribbon. I carefully saved those pages for many years. Jonathan Jefferson goes all the way back to the beginning. Natalie Freeman started as Nathaniel Freeman. I remember finding those early pages sometime in the early 1990s and feeling like there wasn’t enough of a plot to preserve, so I tossed the whole thing out. Around 2000, I made another attempt at the novel. I think I only succeeded in hammering out four chapters. That’s when Myra Lee and the whales came into the story. I grew up in Southern California and visited Marineland as a kid. My first job in astronomy was on Nantucket Island. Long before Captain Kirk saved the whales in Star Trek IV, I’ve been captivated by the idea of whale intelligence.

In 2007, Jacqueline Druga-Johnston, who was then the owner of LBF Books, challenged me to try my hand at the National Novel Writing Month. I looked at what I had written before and didn’t like the direction I had been going with The Solar Sea, tossed that draft aside, and made a third go at it. In 2007, my youngest daughter was just getting ready to start Kindergarten. I wrote the novel in the evenings after the kids went to bed. I succeeded in writing 50,000 words in a month and felt satisfied that I had, essentially, a complete story. I took the next three months and revised the novel, adding about 13,000 more words and then submitted it to LBF for publication. The novel was published in early 2009. In the subsequent years, LBF was acquired by Lachesis Publishing.

The novel is set in the near future, less than a hundred years hence. Despite that, the novel has mostly aged well and not become too dated, though there were a couple of places where I saw time rapidly encroaching on the novel. Also, in the years since the novel’s release, I’ve continued to learn more about solar sails and realized I could do better. Lachesis, for their own business reasons, didn’t want to invest in a new edition, so when the contract came up for renewal in 2017, I requested a reversion of the rights. The upshot is that I’m proud to announce the release of the newest edition this week.

Although the new edition has been re-edited, I haven’t introduced any new plot points. Readers of the first edition should recognize it as the same novel with just a few updates to the science and technology. One nice new feature is that I worked with artist Laura Givens to create diagrams of the Solar Sail Aristarchus for the book.

Print copies of The Solar Sea are available at:

Ebook copies of The Solar Sea are available at: