Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Stories for Apollo 1 and Challenger

For several years I did a Weekly Story where I – I bet you can’t guess – wrote a story each week.  They were usually prompted by something that happened that week, like a political scandal or some holiday.  For the week of January 27, 2008, I wrote “Always With Us.” It is a story set in my Human Republic Universe that remembers the astronauts who died in Apollo 1 on January 27, 1967.  The original story is still on my website, but below is a slightly revised version.

For the week of January 26, 2014, I wrote “Two Apples for the Teacher” in remembrance of schoolteacher McAuliffe who died in the Challenger accident January 28, 1986.  The website I had posted that on is no longer around, so below is a slightly revised version.

I’ve stopped doing my Weekly Stories, but hopefully someday I’ll be prompted to write stories dealing with the Columbia accident of February 1, 2003, as well as the Soyuz 1 accident of April 24, 1967, and Soyuz 11 accident of June 30, 1971.

“Always With Us”

Afterwards, many of the crews claimed the get-together was their idea, but really, anyone with a calendar and basic math skills could have figured it out. Regardless of who had the idea first, on January 27, 2167, three research vessels met in an empty – but convenient – sector of space to mark the 200th anniversary of the deaths of their namesakes. To make the meeting, the crew of the Virgil Grissom – along with half-a-dozen Pentan scientists – broke away from cataloging the primitive life forms on Angaraka. The Edward White II stopped mapping the heliopause – where Sol’s influence finally yielded to interstellar space – and the Roger Chaffee left off the mining survey of Sigma Ceti’s Oort Cloud.

The three ships docked, and friendships were renewed or started. A short memorial was held for their long lost comrades, speeches were made, and vast amounts of food and alcohol were consumed; few of the crews went to bed alone that night.

But one who stayed alone and missed most of the partying was the Captain of the Grissom, Amuis. She had taken the watch so her crew could enjoy the festivities, and sat on her bridge with only a bottle of Hades Beer as company. While her eyes stared at the main viewer – which showed the ship’s status superimposed upon the distant stars – her thoughts roamed over the past two centuries.

“I thought I would find you here.”

She was so caught up in her thoughts that Amuis had not heard John – the lead Pentan scientist – roll onto the bridge in his space tank. She frowned at the alien in his aquarium on wheels and said, “We should put a bell on that.”

Through the clear front plate she could see John’s skin turn from the normal deep blue to a confused green. “A bell?” he asked through his translator. “What for?”

Despite her slight annoyance at being disturbed, Amuis had to smile. “It’s a common threat adults make – at least it was with my mother – to keep kids from sneaking around.” She then gave a large smile to show John she was only joking, and was glad to see the green fade and be replaced by the scarlet speckles of laughter.

“I understand,” he said.

Amuis nodded and asked, “So, why were you looking for me?”

“I was recording my report on today’s activities and I had a few questions. Most of the crew is otherwise engaged,” Amuis had to smile at that, “but I assumed you would be here.”

Amuis shook her head and took a sip of beer. For the past week the Pentans had been … interrogating was too strong a word but it fit … the humans as to the meaning and purpose of the celebration. The humans had even started a pool as to how long the Pentans would keep asking about it; Amuis had twelve days. “Ask away.”

“After the events of today, do you feel closer to the men you honored?”

She was going to answer with an emphatic “Yes,” but she stopped herself. After a moment’s thought she said, “I think they’ve always been close, just lost in the multitude of countless others. But today, the spotlight was on them, so they seemed closer.”

Turning back to the viewer Amuis continued, “Before you came in I was thinking how different, far-away their world was. At that point in time, humans hadn’t even been to the moon.” Spreading her hands she said, “Now look at it. I’m a third-generation Martian exploring the stars.” After a brief pause she added, “And I’m sharing my thoughts with an alien.” Again John’s skin was covered in scarlet speckles.

“Now,” Amuis asked, “may I ask you a question?”

“Of course.”

“Is there anyone from the distant Pentan past you feel close too? Someone you would like to honor?”

There was just enough room inside his tank for John to swim in a tight circle. After several laps he stopped and spoke. “For several of your centuries after we first left our planet, we were confined to our star system. We knew if we were to survive our star becoming a red giant we ourselves would have to leave. We spent several decades hollowing out an asteroid and turning it into a generational starship. However, before it could be launched our scientists made the breakthrough of tunnel technology. Our great generational starship was made obsolete.”

“What happened to it?”

“For many centuries it was used as an ecological testbed, until the structure began to fail.” John swam around his tank a few more times. “I have often wondered about my ancestors who were willing to set off to the stars, knowing they could never return but also never to reach their destination. I must admit, it is an alien concept to me.”

For several moments, neither said anything. Then John said, “You should know, many Pentans were worried that our contacting you would shatter your society. We knew how long it took us to, as you say, come to grips with our technology and many doubted you could handle the sudden change. However, we are amazed at how far Humanity has come since we first discovered your species. You have done more in a century then we did in a thousand years. There is no telling what the future holds for you. Those men have worthy descendants.”

Amuis smiled. “Such praise, coming from a species building themselves a new homeworld.”

John’s skin speckled in a grin. “Building a new world is easy. We only take pride in that we are willing to see the eleven thousand year project through.”

“So,” Amuis sipped her beer, “your generation starship was not in vain. It was just the first version of your new homeworld.”

“Indeed it was.”

“Where is it now?” she asked. “Could we visit it? See how it’s faired over the millennia?”

“I’m afraid not,” John answered. “It was one of the first asteroids we collided together to form the core of our new homeworld.”

Amuis nodded and sipped her beer. “It will always be with you.”

John’s skin took on a tinge of white sadness. “Indeed it will.”

After a few moments, Amuis left her chair and knelt before John’s space tank. “Grab a shrimp,” she told him. With his skin again a confused green, he reached into a tiny cage and brought out one tiny, blue shrimp. Amuis held her beer bottle against the front plate and after a second John mirrored the gesture with the shrimp. “A toast,” Amuis said, “to those that will always be with us, no matter what.”

“Two Apples for the Teacher”

The news anchor glanced down at his desktop then looked back at the audience.  “And finally, in the last few decades the robotic exploration of asteroids has become rather commonplace with missions currently launching about once a week.  While most of the probes scout for resources to be mined or asteroids to be colonized, some are for pure education.  Here with a story about one such probe, is TYN’s space correspondent Robyn Spector onboard the Alexandria Space Station.”

The view switched to a young woman floating before a window looking down on the night side of Earth.  There were a scattering of city lights, but more prominent were the constant flickering of lightning in vast thunderstorms.

Robyn smiled and began, “In the mid-1980s, the American space agency NASA started a Teacher in Space program.  The idea was to invigorate the country’s school children by having a teacher teach lesson plans from orbit.  This happens every day now, but this was back before there were twenty crewed space stations orbiting the planet and a lunar base.  This was even before the internet.  Some of our viewers may have to ask their grandparents what that world was like.

“The schoolteacher chosen to go on the mission was Sharon Christa McAuliffe.” A photo of a young woman in a blue flight suit holding a model of the space shuttle appeared while Robyn continued to speak.  “Sadly, she was never able to teach a class from orbit.”

The photograph of Mrs. McAuliffe was replaced by a video clip of a space shuttle launching.  “Shortly after the Space Shuttle Challenger launched on January 28, 1986, a series of engineering failures caused it to disintegrate, killing Mrs. McAuliffe and the other six astronauts onboard.” The video clip reached its tragic end.

Robyn returned to the screen.  “After the accident, all seven of the astronauts onboard received various honors: schools and streets across America were renamed to honor them, and various planetary features like craters were named after them.  Also named after all seven astronauts were asteroids.

“Asteroid 3352 McAuliffe was discovered in 1981.” Animated views of the asteroid’s orbit and composition began playing, along with a few images.  “It is an Amor Asteroid,” Robyn continued, “crossing the orbit of Mars.  More interesting is that it is a very rare A-Type Asteroid, representing the mantel of a differentiated parent body.  At last count, there were only 137 A-Type Asteroids known, and only one – 2021 DJ114 – has been visited by spacecraft, and that was only with a flyby.

“So last year when Lilium Space Systems decided to launch a probe to conduct an in-depth study of an A-Type Asteroid, they chose 3352 McAuliffe.  Deciding to honor the memory of Mrs. McAuliffe, they let school children vote on the names of the crawler probes the orbiting probe named Challenger would land on the asteroid: they picked Sharon and Christa.”

The animation switched to show the projected mission.  “The Challenger probe is set to go into orbit of 3352 McAuliffe in about an hour-and-a-half.  It will then begin a two month mission to map the 2.3 by 1.6 by 0.9 kilometer asteroid.  With this information – and some oversight from professionals – school children will then decide where to land Sharon and Christa.  Once on the surface, the children will then control the probes as they conduct their scientific studies.  It’s very possible that by this time next year, several scientific papers concerning this rare type of asteroid will have been written by school children.  Isabelle Ferry, CEO of Lilium Space Systems, stated that, ‘Having school children be involved in missions like this is great hands on training for the next generation of space engineers.  And any mission going to 3352 McAuliffe had to involve school children.  That’s a no brainer,’ she added.”

The view returned to a smiling Robyn.  The space station had moved over to the day lit side of Earth, and behind her now was the deep blue of ocean.  “The two crawler probes Sharon and Christa aren’t arriving empty handed.  Engraved onto each one is an apple for the teacher.  Lilium Space Systems hope that Mrs. McAuliffe would have approved.”

Nodding her head – which caused her pony tail to float into view – Robyn finished with “This is Robyn Spector onboard the Alexandra Space Station.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Just start the story with a diagram

I’ve been a member of several writing groups over the years.  Some of these groups have just been more of a general writing support group, but others have been critique groups.  I’ve had dozens of my stories critiqued by these groups.  (Which is really easy since most of my stories are rather short.) But an issue that has come up a few times in my stories, as well as in discussions in the general writing groups, is how to start a story.  We’re told that a story needs to start with a hook, something to grab the reader’s attention and make them want to continue.  But the opening also needs to set things up for the rest of the story.  But you don’t want to just start a story with, “Joe Irving lives in Wala Wala, Washington.  He is 24, six feet, 255 pounds.  His girlfriend is Sarah Roberts, 23.  They’ve been dating for seven months.” Listing all the facts like that is boring, but if you start a story with Joe working as a temp in some office and it’s twenty pages before we learn he has a girlfriend, some people would be like “His girlfriend comes out of nowhere.  Can you bring her in earlier, or something?” Of course, if you rewrite it to bring Sarah in early, you may have to leave his temp job for later, and then some people will say that comes out of nowhere. 

I often run into the problem of my setting being a base on the moon or something.  I want to start a story with characters talking about something, but none of them say, “As you know Bob, we’re in a base on the moon.” When that does come up, is it a twist, or a needed bit of information I held from the reader.  Which brings me to the title of this post.  I sometimes wish I could just start the story with a diagram.  Like, this is the house the story takes place in with all the rooms and such marked.  That way, I could just start the story without having to spend the first several pages trying to slyly weave in the fact that this is taking place in a house and here’s the layout.  It would be so much easier.