Archive for January, 2012


Retro-space imagery of what might have been

January 15, 2012

The novel I wrote two years ago that takes place in the alternate universe of the Domination of the Draka will be available on the interweebs soon. It’s sort of an alternate-universe take on the early days of the US experimental jet and space vehicles that flew out of Edwards Air Force Base in the 1950s and 1960s – sort of an alternate “The Right Stuff.”

It needs a cover, like all novels. About a year ago I acquired a resin limited-run model kit from Fantastic Plastic that was a speculative look at what might have been if the X-15 rocket plane program had continued into the late 1960s. The kit of the X-15-D was mastered by Scott Lowther, editor/publisher and primary author of the Aerospace Projects Review and one of the authorities on concept aircraft and spacecraft. It was cast by BLAP Models and included decals by JBOT, both legends in the garage-kit space model kit business.

The kit was beautifully done, both in design and in execution. It was pretty a pretty simple build, especially because I didn’t want to include landing gear. Instead, I filled in the landing gear wells before painting.

I had in mind that the “real” concept spaceplane of 1967, the X-15-D, could become my X-14 Demon of 1953 in my book. The Demon was described as a single-seat suborbital spaceplane, sort of a super-X-15 with a scramjet chamber as well as rocket engines. The look of the X-15-D fit the description pretty well, even though I had originally envisioned the Demon about six or seven years ago without knowing about the design for an X-15 follow-on. (This is not that surprising. In The Stone Dogs, the third Draka novel, author S.M. Stirling sets forth a timeline of technological development and history that has the US and the Draka both getting men into orbit in the late 1950s – but using spaceplanes, not disintegrating totem poles.)

I had to make a couple of changes. First, the X-15 was covered in Iconel-X, a very temperature-resistant nickel-based alloy, and it was usually painted black. (On one flight it was coated in a heat-shedding ablative coating that was bright pink; the pilots refused to fly a pink airplane so white paint was applied over the coating before flight.) The Demon’s skin was made of a cermet, a ceramic-metallic composite material that had a rather unusual origin – you’ll have to read the book! Anyway, the cermet wouldn’t look purely metallic, or purely flat black, so I painted it black and dusted it with silver and blue shades to give it a hint of a different color.

I left off the NASA markings and a few of the others that I felt were out of scale with what I imagined the plane to be. (There is no NASA in the Drakaverse.) Otherwise, it’s Lowther’s airplane – I made no changes in the design. I ended up with this:

I hope I did Scott and the folks justice in building this model. It’s a cool design. I can’t just put the plane on the cover like this, though – I wanted to make it look realistic, as if it was in flight. I have very little of a real artistic hand, but I started fooling with a few tools and came up with a few possibilities. These are probably not what will eventually make the cover, but they are a start as I learn the software.  I used a masking plug-in for Photoshop called Topaz ReMask to clip the plane out of the image, then composited with various images taken from high-altitude aircraft and balloons. Then I used a nifty little tool called Neatberry PhotoStyler to create some “vintage” photos of the plane in flight.

Over California

At apogee

Black and white is stylish, right?

Over a certain place in Nevada that doesn't exist

I don’t quite have it to the point where the model doesn’t look like a model, yet. A couple of these backgrounds were shot from orbital altitude, and the Demon wasn’t supposed to be able to go into orbit…that wouldn’t be for a few years yet. I’m working on it, and it’s been great fun. I highly recommend these tools, along with Photoshop or Photoshop Elements, as software even an untrained person like me can use.

You can say you saw the Demon first!

(And by the way, the Demon was flown in the book by Jack Ridley, a test pilot and engineer who was a real person and a great pilot. He’s the guy who gave Chuck Yeager the stick of Beeman’s gum (and the broom handle) before Yeager broke the sound barrier in the X-1 in real life! Check out Yeager’s autobiography for more information.)


It’s a great idea – a flying model SpaceX rocket!

January 9, 2012

Falcon 9 flying model (with detachable clear fins needed for flying)

Back in the heyday of the Space Race in the 1960s, the major model kit manufacturers sold kits of the real space vehicles for Baby Boomer space fans. It was also the high-growth period for flying model rockets, with Estes Industries leading the industry, but with several other manufacturers developing interesting kits as well.

The major model kit manufacturers from around the world have produced kits of American and Russian space vehicles ever since. This piece isn’t about that, but about how SpaceX is trying to rekindle that kind of excitement with this generation by selling a flying model rocket kit of their flagship launcher/cargo capsule combo, the Falcon 9/Dragon vehicle. They were smart in marketing it on Amazon, and the box proudly proclaims, “Made in the USA.” The real SpaceX vehicle is all-US designed and built from the ground up. (Just as a comparison, the Japanese  H-1 launcher used a  licensed version of the US-designed Delta, and the US Atlas 5 uses the Russian-built RD-180 engine.)

SpaceX is combining its second and third orbital test flights of the Falcon 9/Dragon into one mission, scheduled to launch on February 7 of this year. If successful, the Dragon will rendezvous with the ISS and will be captured with the robotic arm, then docked with the ISS.

CGI image of the Dragon berthed at the ISS

If this flight is successful, commercial flights to the ISS could begin during 2012. The man-rated version of the Dragon is scheduled to be ready for flight in 2015.

I hope selling a flying model of the Falcon will help bring more interest in SpaceX in particular and commercial space in general. It’s not as “interesting looking” as the Mercury/Atlas or Saturn V models of yesteryear, but it’s real, and it’s flying. I hope a commercial model company will offer a plastic static-display kit of the Dragon…but unfortunately it will probably be made by a foreign company if at all. Revell/Monogram is the last of the big model companies in the US. (Although I wouldn’t discount Moebius Models or Polar Lights/Round 2 – both are smaller companies that have been very aggressive in science fiction subjects.

Boxtop art for the Revell Mercury-Atlas - it came with a full launcher as well!

The art from the 1960s Revell 1/96 Apollo/Saturn V kit - the completed model is over 3 feet tall!

By the way, the image above is from this site – check the price – $ 420!

Want to fly a 1/100 scale Apollo Saturn? Get the one below from this site.

Estes is still in the business of flying rockets and is the major manufacturer of model rocket engines.

I just received a copy of the Falcon/Dragon model. One of these days I’ll build it and post some pictures here! UPDATE 1-20-2012: I’ve received the kit and the quality of the kit and instructions is outstanding. The lower section of the body and the Dragon capsule are ABS plastic, and the clear fins are polycarbonate, so they should handle plenty of rough landings. The body tube is completely enclosed in a pre-printed self-adhesive paper wrap, which means there is no painting needed and it should strengthen the body tube besides. There is a wrap for the Dragon capsule as well. The instructions are great – someone 12-14 years old with no previous experience building a model rocket should have no problem with this, and assembly should only take a few hours. I’ll add some photos soon. I highly recommend this!


This may help other Rush Limbaugh iTunes podcast subscribers

January 2, 2012

Thomas Sowell, one of the leading economists of our generation.

I’m one of those folks who finds listening to radio programs on the radio tedious. When there is less than 35 minutes of programming per hour, the rest commercials, traffic updates, PSAs, news at the top and bottom of the hour, etc., unless I’m actually engaged in something else and have it in the background it annoys me. I know that without the advertising we’d all be stuck with Sirius or something like it – I get it – but the same commercial six times in a hour? Really? And I generally like WLS, the AM station in Chicago that leans right.

So anyway, I listen to Rush on the podcasts through iTunes. (Of course I’m a Rush 24/7 subscriber. Aren’t you?) I listen to Mark Levin that way, too. That way, if either of them gets stuck on a rant and I’m not prepared for a rant that day (especially Levin),or they are on the same topic for the tenth day in a row, I can choose to skip them.Or if they are away on vacation and I’m not particularly excited about hearing the guest hosts. (I like what Mark Steyn says, but he always sounds nervous on the radio, and it makes me nervous to hear him!)

Because of this, sometimes I don’t listen or download podcasts for a week or more. Then iTunes gives me the gray exclamation point to the left of the podcast name and stops updating the podcasts. Clicking on it and choosing “Yes” should allow the updating to begin again. It used to. Now, it doesn’t.

It turns out that you have to click the Refresh button on the bottom of the iTunes window afterwards. Then it begins to update. I know it didn’t used to be this way. It’s apparently a feature, not a bug. You can find that in the Premiere Networks facs if you are a subscriber.

Anyway, just a note if you, too, want to hear Walter E. Williams interview Thomas Sowell about his new book, “The Thomas Sowell Reader.” Two brilliant economists conversing! I heard some of it on the radio that day (Friday, December 30) and they were fun and enlightening!

Thomas Sowell’s website
Walter E. Williams’ website