Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Martian

I saw The Martian Monday night.  Yes, you should be jealous*, it was a very good movie!  Don’t worry – No spoilers here…

If you haven’t been living on Mars, then you may know this movie is about a NASA astronaut who gets stranded on Mars and has to survive until he can be rescued.  The movie has lots of drama, at least one compelling, well-developed character (our hero, Mark Watney) and some very, very credible science and engineering.  While it isn’t perfect (let’s talk about those dust storms!), the creators did a superior job getting the technical side of the story to be accurate and believable.
I’ve been asked how it compares to 2001: A Space Odyssey.  In truth, I can’t directly compare the two movies and here’s why: I am a movie snob.

I can no more compare 2001 with The Martian than I can compare it with Star Wars or Plan Nine from Outer Space.  These three science fiction movies have different inherent value, difference target audiences, and, well, different artistry.  That’s why I have a 3-tier categorization for movies that allows me to better do comparisons:

A film is entertaining, well written and directed, and has some sort of artistic merit in the way it is produced and filmed that goes beyond its entertainment value.  A film has enduring qualities that stick with viewers for a lifetime, often impacting them in ways they never imagined before viewing them.  Examples include Casablanca, Citizen Cane, Blade Runner, and, yes, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

These are also entertaining, well written and directed, but they are developed primarily for entertainment.  A good movie is something you go see on a Saturday night and talk about the next week with your friends at school or work.  You might even go see it again – just for fun.  But it doesn’t necessarily have any profound messages you are intended to carry with you and the filmography isn’t multi-dimensional.   Star Wars is in this category, as are The Terminator, Alien, Aliens and ET.

These are the low budget side of Hollywood.  They can be entertaining, but they certainly aren’t necessarily well written and directed – and therein lies their charm.  Scenes may be well acted, but the background is obviously shot on a soundstage or in the Producer’s home.   I include Dark Star, The Silent Earth and Journey to the Far Side of the Sun in this category.

In each category you can have movies that are “Excellent,” “Average” or “Poor.”  Blade Runner was an excellent science fiction film; The Terminator an excellent science fiction movie and The Silent Earth an excellent science fiction flick.  If someone asks me which is the best of the three, I cannot easily answer – they were each excellent in their own way, for their own intended audience and in how they were made.  But asking me answer that question is like asking me if a filet mignon is better than Crème brûlée, if London is better than Rome, or, well, you get the idea.

Now, about The Martian.  It is an excellent movie.  You should go see it expecting to be entertained, carried away to another planet and inspired by what a person placed in a life or death situation can achieve.  But don’t go see it expecting a revelation or having it spur weeks, months or even years of debate about what the director meant to convey in the scene where the spacecraft takes off from Mars or why the hero’s spacesuit had the orange patch on his right shoulder and not his left.  It’s not that kind of movie.  And thank goodness it’s not.  Sometimes an awesome night of entertainment is exactly what one needs…

* A note about jealousy.  I am extremely jealous of Andy Weir.  He wrote a great Mars book which was turned into a great Mars movie.  Why am I jealous?  Because I wrote my own Mars book, Rescue Mode, (with NYT Bestselling author Ben Bova) which came out in hardcover last summer and will be released in paperback on September 29, 2015.  My book hasn't yet been made into a movie -- or a film -- or even a flick.  But if you are a movie producer, get your people to call my people and we'll do lunch... 

About me:

I'm is a physicist, a husband and father, a science fiction author for Baen books from whom my latest novel, Rescue Mode, is to be released in paperback September 29.  You may learn more about me, my work and my writing by visiting my website at www.lesjohnsonauthor.com, on Facebook and on Twitter (@LesAuthor).

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Space Tethers and Elevators

Today I’m redirecting you to Baen Books’ website for my recent article, “Space Tethers and Elevators.”  If you want to learn how we can do more than just explore the solar system, then you need to learn about space tethers.  I believe this technology will one day allow us to build a reusable, low cost space transportation system – a space railroad – opening the inner solar system to many of the same benefits that the transcontinental railroad brought to the emerging USA in the 19th century.

Read all about it here: http://www.baen.com/SpaceTethers.asp

Les Johnson                                        
Co-author (with Ben Bova) of Rescue Mode - coming in paperback this September from Baen Books

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Getting Lost In Infinity

It is time to revisit another of my essays for the Baen Books website, “The Size Of It All,” in which I discuss the sheer scale of the observable universe.  To summarize, IT IS HUGE.

But HUGE does the universe a disservice.

I was reminded of this the other night when I was in my front yard stargazing – and sighting some magnificent shooting stars during the Perseid Meteor Shower.  As I sat in my favorite camping chair gazing at infinity, I once again drifted into one of my more common daydreams – reproduced here from my Baen essay:

“One of my favorite daydreams is also one of my scariest. When I am outside on a clear, cloudless night, I like to imagine that I am on a spaceship in the deep between the stars, looking out at the vastness of the universe. During this daydream, I often fondly recall my favorite science fictional spaceships – the Enterprise (Star Trek Classic, of course!), the Drusus (from the pulpish German language serial Perry Rhodan), or the Nostromo (Alien) – and wonder what it would be like to be truly in the middle of deep space, far from Earth and our familiar solar system. My thoughts alternating between the wonder of it all and the terrifying thought of what it would be like to be stranded there, so far from home.”

For me it was an almost spiritual moment and one I wish more people could share.  So go outside on a night with clear skies and let yourself get lost in infinity.  I think you’ll find it exhilarating (and, yes, a little scary).

Les Johnson                                        

co-author (with Ben Bova) of Rescue Mode - coming in paperback this September from Baen Books

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Aliens Are Not Among Us

Today I'm going to revisit an essay I wrote for Baen Books in 2011 called, "The Aliens Are Not Among Us."  You can find the original post here: http://www.baen.com/Aliens.asp

I recently attended a space professional conference filled with engineers and scientists who work in the space and aerospace industries - from NASA, Lockheed-Martin, Boeing and many other well-known companies and universities.  As you might expect, most of the papers presented were heavily technical and provided a fairly good snapshot of today's rocket and space technologies.  Very few covered novel advanced space transportation systems and fewer still talked about systems that might one day take us to the stars.

Yet, at lunch, the topic of interstellar travel came up which included, unfortunately, a digression into 'flying saucer' lore.  We covered it all: from ancient astronauts, to Roswell and pyramids on Mars with alien autopsy videos interspersed within.  Most, like me, quickly dismissed the notions that we are being visited and/or that our government can keep anything of this magnitude secret.  And yet... some were not convinced, or at least it seemed that way.

When I was a teenager, I was a 'believer.'  I read all the books, including those by J. Allen Hynek and Brad Steiger; those about Project Blue Book; and still others about alleged alien abductions.  My skin used to crawl and I spent many hours stargazing, wondering from where they came.  That stargazing played a major role in my studying physics in college and graduate school and it shaped my career.  Physics and a liberal arts degree from Transylvania University (it's real; look it up) taught me critical thinking and that's what led me to where I am today - a 'non-believer' in alien visitors.

Why?  It all a matter of probabilities and our tendency to radically underestimate Deep Time. 

Read the Baen essay and you'll understand what I mean.

Les Johnson
co-author (with Ben Bova) of Rescue Mode - coming in paperback this September from Baen Books

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Mars Awaits!


Just saying the name of the red planet evokes in a science fiction fan a sense of wonder and adventure.  From Edgar Rice Burroughs’ visions of Barsoom in A Princess of Mars to Andy Weir’s The Martian, generations of space enthusiasts have been inspired to dream of exploring Mars. 

Space scientists have also given the notion a great deal of thought.  I have a copy of a NASA Technical Memorandum (TM X-53049) titled, “Proceedings of the Symposium on Manned Planetary Missions 1963/1964 Status,” which describes the status of America’s plans and capabilities to explore Mars as described in a meeting held in January of that year.  (5 years before we landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon; 3 months before the first Gemini flight.)

The report is fascinating.  Fascinating because these audacious engineers were planning to send people to Mars before we’d even flown two humans in space simultaneously and fascinating because they clearly understood the technical challenges facing anyone choosing to mount such a mission – and many of these same challenges remain with us today.  (We’ve made progress toward solving most of the technical challenges.)  Dare I say almost all of them can be resolved sufficiently to risk sending a crew on a 2-3 year round trip mission to Mars with reasonable chance of mission success and bringing them home alive.  So why, then, haven’t we undertaken the voyage?

The simple answer, which would be wrong, is money.  The United States, for example, has a gross domestic product of ~$16.7 Trillion Dollars.  That’s $16,700 billion dollars.  The US Government budget in 2015 is $3.9 Trillion Dollars ($3,900 Billion Dollars).  A Mars mission, in round numbers, should cost no more than $10B - $25B dollars (total, not per year).  Surely a country where a soft drink manufacturer (Coca Cola) has a gross revenue of $45.9B (in 2014), or roughly twice the total projected cost of a Mars mission, can afford to pay for the trip.

No, in my opinion the answer is much simpler: Lack of will.  Sending people to Mars isn’t happening because there aren’t enough people making enough noise to make it happen.  And that’s a pity.  Mars is within our reach and has been for decades.  To quote Werner Von Braun from his Introduction to the 1964 Mars study, “Although our nation is firmly dedicated to achieving a manned lunar landing in this decade, a landing on the Moon is not an ultimate goal.  Man will travel beyond the Moon to explore the solar systems.  When, I do not know.  But perhaps, after this symposium, we shall have a better idea of when man could conceivably venture out to Mars or Venus and return safely to Earth.

We’re discovering other solar systems and we haven’t yet ventured (with people) into our own beyond the Moon.  When, indeed, shall we venture to Mars?  I say we’ll go as soon as we decide we want to do so.  (Hurry up!)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Using Outer Space to Improve Life on Earth (Or Why Space Advocates and Environmentalists Should Work Together)

Today, instead of a new post, I'll refer you to my recent article on the Baen Books website in which I describe how we can use space technology to help solve the very real energy and environmental problems we face here on Earth.  The subtitle, "Why Space Advocates and Environmentalists Should Work Together" should be a wake up call to those who believe that high tech space development is somehow not compatible with being a good steward of planet Earth.  On the contrary - the two are not only synergistic, they are intertwined.  I firmly believe that in order to protect and preserve our home planet we have to embrace space development -- sooner, rather than later.

Read on...   http://www.baen.com/Using_Outer_Space.asp

Monday, May 26, 2014

I think Evelyn Beatrice Hall Would Approve (and Voltaire too!)

"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" - Evelyn Beatrice Hall*

As I celebrate and contemplate this Memorial Day, I believe we seem to have forgotten what used to be this truism in American culture.  Personally, I value the opinions of those who have views on issues that differ from my own.  My wife and I host a monthly discussion group that embodies the spirit of Evelyn Hall; members of the group disagree more often than they agree on many issues yet we still manage to eat pizza together after many a spirited debate/disagreement.  Some members are liberal, some conservative.  We’ve had members who are Christian, atheist, and Hindu.  Views are expressed that some find offensive, and they say so – but they still come back each week to discuss issues and seek to understand the viewpoints of those with whom they vociferously disagree.   These are my friends and they define by example what it means to be tolerant -- I think Hall (and Voltaire) would approve.

*(this quote is often incorrectly attributed to Voltaire)  

Les Johnson