Archive for the ‘books’ Category

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Travel by asteroid

November 15, 2012

David Hardy painting of an asteroid-based spaceship

For a long time scientists and science fiction writers have postulated using an asteroid as either an orbital base or a non-FTL starship. Books like Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow use spacefaring asteroid ships because it appears to be a monumental problem to lift enough material out of Earth’s gravity well to build a starship from scratch. John Ringo’s Troy Rising series uses an asteroid, melted and inflated, as a fortress to defend Earth from aliens entering through a hyperspace gate.

SPOILER AHEAD! In fact, Ringo goes farther and, using an Orion-style nuclear bomb drive, turns his fortress into a mobile battle platform, taking it through the gate and to the battle.

I just finished Dr. Travis Taylor’s new book, A New American Space Plan, and I was struck by something that I never really considered much before. Maybe we can get to Mars using current, or near-future technology. NASA is now setting its sights on a mission to a Near-Earth Asteroid. (Or it was last I looked. NASA plans change every day.) Beyond that – let’s say we want to go to Jupiter – it’s going to be orders of magnitude more difficult. When the AE-35 antenna pointing unit failed in “2001” – OK, Hal did it, but still – they happened to have the parts or whatever to fix it. They didn’t have to, but were prepared to.

So let’s say we’ve got a Discovery-class ship, three crew in suspended animation, two minding the store on the Long Trip Out. Something breaks, or the classic Dramatic Meteor Impact happens and breaks something – something that is not available on the ship. We’re basically screwed. Don’t tell me 3D printing technology will save us. It won’t build a microchip for a really, really, long time. And a whole antenna, say 20 feet in diameter? Probably not. We don’t have Ringo’s fabbers, and if we have to wait for those, we won’t go to Jupiter for a long while.

We could do it by what Robert Zubrin, author of the “Mars Direct” concepts, derisively called the “Battlestar Galactica” approach: a gigantic fleet of ships, traveling together for mutual aid and protection. But if lifting one ship’s parts out of the gravity well is hard, lifting 20 is a lot harder.

So let’s see…maybe we can grab a Near-Earth Asteroid, bolt a bunch of stuff on it, drill it out or blow it out with nukes, and build a habitat inside. Maybe not for hundreds of people – let’s say, 50 or so. That’s a lot of lifting but not as much as the other alternatives. Ion drive, solar sail, Orion or Orion-derived nuclear pulse drive – any of them would probably work. It would just take a while to go someplace.

Look at it as if you are driving your motor home cross country and have to take your machine shop along because nobody stocks parts for your vehicle. The bigger the vehicle, and the more people, the more likely it is you can fabricate what you need. And most of the mass is nickel-iron asteroid, which is also providing a lot of radiation shielding. Instead of thinking of a trip to Jupiter as taking a few years, maybe you’ll take decades. Running a closed environmental system like that isn’t easy, but it’s easier than a lot of the alternatives. Eventually we’ll have some better drives, and we can get around the system faster.

Has anyone ever calculated how much toilet paper is needed for a five-year trip?

I don’t see this happening in the next 10 years, but it could be done a lot sooner than most every other idea I’ve heard for deep space interplanetary travel as long as we lack a superdrive. Those are based mostly on magic and good intentions right now.

Once we know how to do that, we can build bigger ones and send people to the stars. By then we should have a pretty good idea which ones have planets we could live on.

I wasn’t a fan of the NASA asteroid mission scenario until now. Now I hope we can get there. We won’t just be learning how the solar system is put together, but how to build a better spaceship.

A pity, though. I kind of like the Blake’s 7 Liberator as a spaceship design. Of course, it was built by aliens…

Blake’s 7 “Liberator” – lots cooler than flying a hunk of rock!

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“Atlas Shrugged – Part II: The Strike”

October 13, 2012

I think in most cases, if you like Ayn Rand’s book, or even found it thought-provoking, you will like the movie. If not – especially if you respond in great horror to Rand’s ideals – you will hate it.

This cast was, by and large, at least as good as the Part I cast, except for Dagny. Samantha Mathis is no match for Taylor Schilling, sorry. Oh, and Rebecca Wisocky was a far better Lillian Rearden in Part 1.

Jason Beghe was a fine, growly Hank Rearden. I can’t think of a TV part where I’ve liked Paul McCrane, so he is a fine Wesley Mouch – even though the name seemed to fit Michael Learner better.

I think the plot modifications and updating to fit the present day worked very well. I know it must have been difficult to edit down all those great monologues, like Francisco’s at the wedding and Hank’s at the hearing. $ 40 per gallon gasoline would have seemed ridiculous a few years ago, but today it just seems prophetic. The most chilling visual to me is any of the scenes of the streets of New York. There are so very few cars on the streets that are normally jammed with traffic, yet it is midday – the first time I didn’t even notice it. When I did, it scared the bejeezus out of me.

The main threads are there – the increasing desperation of the government as the economy goes down the toilet, the opportunistic nature of Mouch and his friends (remember Rahm’s “never let a crisis go to waste”?). Of course, every decision made by the government is exactly the opposite of what should be done…in a black-and-white world like that of the film it is much easier to see the folly of the government’s directives than it is in our daily lives.

Dagny is more and more driven by trying to discover the secret of Galt’s motor and torn apart by trying to save the country singlehanded. As more and more of the men who actually keep the world going disappear she is pushed practically to her breaking point…and she escapes. Her escape is very short-lived, however, and she is compelled to come back to save the railroad once again. For those of you who have not read the book or seen the movie, yet, I won’t spoil any more of it for you.

If you have read the book, and enjoyed it, and saw how it is a cautionary tale for today, then by all means go see the film and take your friends. The really “extreme” – to use a term bandied about too much nowadays – ideas of Rand are not promoted in the film. There isn’t much in here to argue with unless you are an extremely close-minded liberal. Even conservatives of a religious bent can’t argue with the film as much as with the book. Rand promotes the idea that organized religion is almost as bad as government – she refers to religious folks as “mystics” throughout the book. None of that is present in the film. The film really promotes enlightened self-interest over “social justice,” equating required sacrifice for the good of all as a form of slavery.

The Dagny/Hank Rearden romance is downplayed somewhat in the film. It’s used as a plot point as required by the book’s plot, but it doesn’t become overwhelming. In the book the romance is based on mutual respect and an attraction forged by their shared beliefs and passions. This is not a romance that develops between “oil and water” types of people. The only thing that holds them apart is Hank’s marriage, loveless though it may be.

Of course, all of that changes in Part III…after all, at the end of Part II, Dagny looks out of the wreckage of her plane and sees…John Galt.

Is it perfect? No. Does it do a good job of presenting the main points of the book? Yes. I hope a lot of those “undecided” voters see this movie. This could easily be the America of 2016, if we choose unwisely.

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“Atlas Shrugs Part II” opens Friday!

October 10, 2012

With a new cast, the second installment of the “Atlas Shrugged” trilogy, based on the Ayn Rand novel, opens in theaters this Friday. It will be interesting how the whole “Galt’s motor” thing will be handled in the near-future setting of the movie series. (The book gives no particular date, but there is a lot of speculation that was to be set in the – at the time of the book’s publication – near future of the mid-1970s.) It will probably not be in theaters for a long time, so check it out right away. It’s important to see before the election. And if you haven’t purchased the first installment, it is available here and is on the Amazon video-on-demand service as well as  on Netflix.

https://www.facebook.com/AtlasShruggedMovie

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The continuing adventures of the Princess Cecile…

August 23, 2012

Off and on. Fits ‘n starts. An hour here, an hour there. I got a couple of ideas that sort of took me in another direction. (To catch up, just use the search function over on the right using the keywords Princess Cecile.)

I originally thought of the Sissy as a simple with rounded ends…sort of like a modern submarine. But a sub uses that shape to equally distribute water pressure, and while the Princess Cecile has to withstand a vacuum, it probably encounters more stress from manuevers during battle than from any other source. (Drake notes that the ship rarely accelerates at more than 2 g’s.) Then I saw a set of 3D graphic images from someone on Flickr named xriz00 who did some beautiful renderings of the ship. (‘ve emailed him about posting one of his images here – no answer yet. Go onto Flickr and search for Princess Cecile and you will find his images as well as those from a gentleman named Marcelo Glenadel. His are more “realistic” renderings, if that’s the word…not as futuristic-looking, but more like I envision the ship should look.

Mine won’t look so slick, I’m afraid, but it’s beginning to take shape. Here’s the  taped-up mockup so far:

 

The other outrigger isn’t placed – I just put that one there to get a feel for it. The knobby thing in front is the prototype High Drive motor – behind it is the Mark I prototype HD motor that I ultimately rejected. The barbell-shaped thing behind it is not attached to the outrigger – it’s just there to get a sense of proportion. It’s a prototype oleo strut for the outrigger. The big knobby end would be embedded in the main hull, and the small one in the outrigger. I don’t think it’s too long…maybe. . I want to try casting it in resin to see how it looks. Patterns made of a bunch of dissimilar materials always look a little weird to me.

The clear plastic half-tube taped to the hull is the new addition. I decided the straight cylinder looked too plain, and i still can’t see how you can stuff the drive systems, environmental, stores, missiles and living space for over a hundred people in that small a ship. So I added a bit of living room. Inspired a bit by the images I spoke of above, I decided the missile tubes should run the long way in the ship. I don’t recall Drake mentioning their orientation. The hole in the top of the hull was originally going to be a missile tube, paired with another that launched down. It will be some kind of access port now, I guess.

The turrets for the plasma cannons got a little dressing up with some plastic tube and some milliput. I’m sort of making them look more like tank turrets, I hope.

I like the idea of using spheres as a primary shape a lot…it’s a shape not often used today on science fiction spacecraft, many of which are made to look really sleek and aerodynamic  even if they are not atmosphere-capable. (That was the cool thing about the original series Enterprise – it sort of look airworthy, but you could tell it was really only designed to fly in space. Then they supposedly brought it into the lower atmosphere in the episode where they went back to the 1960s. Subsequent versions of the Big E got sleeker and sleeker, but I would hate to try to bring the Enterprise-D into an atmosphere. Oh, wait…they did, and crashed it. I forgot!) Of course, the ships designed by Fred Ordway and Harry Lange for 2001 had spheres, but they were based on real science and utility as much as possible…not art. Sort of like a VW Bug vs. a 1959 Chevy Impala.

Cool lookin’ car, but really, did all the streamlining make any difference? (My dad had a brown one. Even in brown, it was cool.)

So anyway, I cut a 2 inch diameter acrylic tube in half and I will attach half to each side of the hull. Not sure how the ends will look. Maybe scalloped, maybe quarter spheres…I’ll have to see.

Of course, now I have to cut another door for the main hatch. The styrene tube of the hull cut a lot nicer than the acrylic, which tends to melt on the Dremel.

Go check out Flickr. These guys did some truly beautiful work! More later, when I get the sides attached and get some resin outrigger struts and HD motors made. Oh, and I have to redesign the plasma thrusters…and figure out the sail rigging…

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More Princess Cecile work

August 5, 2012

I’ve cast and assembled a whole bunch of thruster quads for the Princess Cecile build:

I really only need six, tops, but I don’t know which ones will look best painted. Since they were resin cast by me, they are “somewhat inconsistent.” Here’s a closeup of a couple of them – they are about 3/4″ across:

And here’s the next idea for the High Drive motor:

It’s a little over an inch long. I need a bunch of them, also. About half the resin I mix is wasted because I’ve been casting such small parts and I need to mix at least a half-ounce so I can get the amounts equal using my little plastic mixing cups. I figure once it’s ready, I’ll make one mold, then cast one, then make another mold. At least that way I can get two out of one pour. I don’t know what else I will need multiple copies of. It would make more sense to make more stuff at once, but I also hate to burn too much rubber making more molds. I have to think about that a bit.

I’ve been too busy to do much on the build. I have to tackle the masts next. I can’t figure out something that looks cool for the struts for the outriggers yet. Hmm.

 

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More on building the Princess Cecile

July 16, 2012

Those of you who have followed my ramblings as I slowly work on a (mostly) scratchbuilt model of the starship Princess Cecile from David Drake’s Lt. Leary science fiction book series – here’s your next little bit:

The thruster quads I was trying to cast in resin turned out to be a challenge. I tried several different molds, trying to make one as a one-piece casting with the mold in two halves, and as two separate halves poured, sanded flat, and glued together.

In both cases I had problems with air bubbles or voids. Splitting it vertically in two helped a bit, but that still required getting the halves exactly flat and so they would line up when I glued them together. I learned a lot about the behavior of resin and moulding rubber, though!

The more time I spent with these parts, the more I was convinced the quads were just too big. They would scale out to 10 to 12 feet across, nozzle to nozzle. Granted, a warship has to maneuver quickly and so they would need to be larger, most likely, than on a commercial spaceship.

The trend today is that such thrusters would be mainly contained inside the hull of a spacecraft, I guess, if there is such a trend. The thrusters on the SpaceX Dragon vehicle only show the openings of the rocket nozzles.

A test firing of the Draco thruster for the SpaceX Dragon

You can see the thruster openings on the SpaceX Dragon – the four ovals below and to the left of the hatch.

No doubt about it, the Dragon is a well-designed little ship. But she’s not a fighter, and (hopefully) she will never have to take battle damage. The ships of the RCN routinely are repaired during battle by the riggers, who wear armored spacesuits because there’s stuff flying around out there. Drake usually refers to the riggers as needing to repair the rigging and sails so the ship can re-enter the Matrix. The design of the RCN ships was predicated on making them as similar to sailing vessels as possible for narrative purposes, I think.

One other point is that the RCN ships are built on steel hulls and are an interesting combination of high tech and low tech. In one of the books a ship is radically rebuilt on the ground on a mostly uninhabited planet. Just like the sailing ships of Aubrey or Hornblower, sometimes the crew finds it must effect major repairs without the benefit of a shipyard.

So…external thruster quads just sounded like a good idea to me. Here is the Apollo command and service module combo, showing the thruster quads:

See the thruster quads?

Closeup of the Apollo Service Module thruster quad

So…I still wanted them on the exterior of the hull, so they could be repaired or replaced without quite as much danger of explosion. It didn’t make sense to me to have them located inside the hull placing a bunch of small (relatively)  rocket engines where they could be dangerous to the crew, with openings through the hull for the exhaust.

So I made a couple of sort-of tetrahedrons about 3/8 of an inch on a side out of balsa foam. It’s a little too porous, but once I cast some I could sand the sides smooth. I also made a few small rocket engine bells based on the FP von Braun ferry rocket engines. I glued one set together. Here it is, next to the old master:

Test version of the new quad.

The whole thing is less than  3/4 of an inch across. That still makes it about 12 scale feet across, but I think they will look more in-scale and they are about as small as I can make them. I may try making one with the “shoulder” on the engine bells removed. That would make it smaller, but it would also make it far more delicate – the nozzle throat is about 1/16 of an inch!

I’ve not drilled out the engine bells. I should have done that first, with a pin vise. I’ll have to do that on the next set before I attach them.

I think these will give the ship a bit of a “retro” look, which is what I’m going for, anyway. I don’t see the ship as a beautiful, streamlined aerodynamic vehicle – in fact, Drake notes than when entering the atmosphere too fast it is far too easy to tear the rigging right off the hull. This is a ship that does not enter an atmosphere ballistically. It is under power at all times.

So, slow going. One other thought it to somehow create even smaller engine bells that would look more like the Apollo bells. I just don’t know how I would hold them on!

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Scratchbuilding the “Princess Cecile” – the perils of resin casting

July 3, 2012

If you read the previous post on my scratchbuilding project, the Princess Cecile from David Drake’s Lt. Leary/RCN novels, you know that I have been working with resin casting a bit, trying to duplicate my master for the “thruster clusters.”  I have a couple of issues with the design of the thruster clusters yet, including the fact that they are big – not big on the model, but in the 1:200 scale of the model they would be about 15-20 feet across! Each rocket nozzle would be about 5 feet tall. However, the ship is supposed to be 230 feet long and it should displace about 1300 tons, so moving such a massy object would take some pretty big thrusters. In particular, the thrusters on a warship should be oversized compared to a commercial vessel so that they can maneuver quickly in a battle situation. The Sissy must be nimble!

So, I’ve been trying to get better results making resin castings of the master. The first mold I made yielded only far results, with some bubbles in the surface because I was overzealous in using mold release. I also used the wrong mold release agent – stupid! I used the aerosol kind intended for making resin castings, not the liquid stuff used to keep the master from adhering to the master.

I decided I needed to make new masters. I tried making them in the other orientation – with one nozzle pointing down – and making it in two halves that would be poured without putting them together. The problem there was that two thrusters would be made in halves, and the downward-facing one would be hard to pull from the mold. The technical term is undercut, meaning that the bottom of the nozzle has a larger diameter than the throat above it. That would require me to pull the resin copy out by forcing it through the rubber.

I actually tried a couple of these and they, frankly, sucked. I decided that I would just make a better version of the first two-part mold.

The master, sitting in clay, for the mold that didn’t work.

The master that didn’t work, both parts.

Both halves of the new mold, which looks a lot like the first one. I used big toothpicks to create the air bubble release holes instead of wire.

And I was so excited that I forgot to spray the inside of the mold before I poured the resin, and got this:

Ugh! And the nozzle broke off trying to pull it out of the rubber.

I sprayed the mold and tried again. This time I got a better result:

It was easier to pull out of the rubber this time, but it was still dicey.

The problems pulling the copy out of the mold were reduced, but not eliminated. Those long slabs on the image above are the air bubble holes, filled up with resin. The resin flowed through the mold well, however, and there were no large bubbles. The other problem is that the very bottom of the mold is made of clay, not rubber. It helped hold the master upright when making the mold. A little comes loose with each pull, even after spraying it with mold release. This one looks a lot cleaner, though, and except for removing the plugs on the ends of the nozzles, this one will take much less time to clean up.

By the way, while this one was curing, I cleaned up the other one to see if it was salvageable.

I still have to find a way to glue that nozzle on.

It would need more precision sanding before I would be ready to prime it.

I’ve considered having a more complex shape made in CAD and then having it grown in a 3D printer. I just don’t have the chops with a 3D program to make that happen. I tried a couple of programs, but the free ones don’t seem to work very well and the cost of the higher-end versions – whew!

There is an advantage to using these big thrusters on the Sissy, though. In the books, the riggers sometimes had to remain out on the hull while the ship moves in real space, not just in the Matrix. In the Matrix the ship moves by adjusting the direction of the sails, but once the ship was out, it often jumped right into the thick of battle. One of Daniel Leary’s skills is being the best astrogator this side of his uncle Stacy Bergen, who plotted many of the routes from star to star still used in Leary’s time. Leary could drop out of the Matrix closer to a planet than almost any other captain. This advantage meant that often the ship dropped out of the Matrix and right into the fighting, without having the time for the riggers to come back inside. Often they stayed outside anyway to cast off broken rigging before it fouled the guns or the missile tubes.

So anyway, if the thrusters were smaller and closer to the hull a rigger could be in the way of the exhaust of the rocket engines. Bigger clusters put the nozzles higher, farther away from the hull, where they would be less danger to the riggers. At least, that’s my rationalization!

One other thing. I’m playing with this possible High Drive motor:

I don’t think I like it. And i’s too big.

This thing is about an inch and three-quarters tall. Since an average person is about 3/8″ in this scale, this motor would be almost 30 feet tall in scale! In one of the books – I think it’s “The Far Side of the Stars” – the crew has to install some High Drive motors on another ship while both are on land, not in the water. Adele had hacked into the other ship’s computer and re-routed the plasma thruster controls to the High Drive motors. Using High Drive motors anywhere other than in vacuum is very dangerous, because they operate by matter-antimatter annihilation. The result was that the ship was badly damaged, but the was repaired by the crew of the Sissy and sent back as a sort of Trojan Horse. Since the High Drive motors were destroyed when they were used on the ground, the crew pulled some motors off of a “country craft” that was abandoned in the jungle nearby.

The description doesn’t make it sound as if moving the motors was an insurmountable problem, just with the resources carried on the two ships. It is mentioned that each motor weighs about half a ton. This is about the same weight as a SpaceX Merlin first-stage rocket engine probably weighs. I could see the High Drive motors as about the same size as a Merlin as well. This puts them about the same size as one of the rocket nozzles on the thrusters.

Part of the problem of the prototype above, besides size, is that the wire winding (which is to represent that used to create the magnetic field required for an motor using antimatter) is too big and probably beyond my skills to make prettier. A High Drive motor should be a device that generates and manipulates magnetic fields to control the mix of matter and antimatter.

In the second book the High Drive motors are on the bottom of the main hull, all together. Later they are described as being on the outriggers, in case something bad happens. However, how do you send antimatter to the engines if they are on the outriggers? That’s almost a bigger problem than building the engines!

The motor may not even need a physical nozzle, since the antimatter can’t touch it. I think I have to look into antimatter engines more. Robert Forward described how to make ships operate using “mirror matter,” but not in detail for small motors like this. And most of his required just a little antimatter mixed with more regular matter, usually hydrogen, and superheats the un-annihilated hydrogen to use as reaction mass, as a sort of super-rocket engine.

I know, you can’t study this so close or the physics breaks down! How do they make antimatter, anyway? They even have missiles with small High Drive engines on them, so controlling the magnetic fields must be old hat for these crews. I know – just ignore some of this and read the damned stories!

But to build something that looks believable – well, I have to get my head into the RCN universe and extrapolate. A lot.

My next project after this is the Alliance Space Ship Vorpal Blade, from the John Ringo/Travis Taylor book. It was built from the former USS Nebraska, a ballistic missile submarine! And it has a gigantic – well, sword – on the front! Doc Travis gets the science as right as possible, within the limits of storytelling. Giant intelligent chinchillas on antigravity golden surfboards?

(I have to do this one because I was a “red shirt” in the book. Long story, but John Ringo put a bunch of folks in as red shirts and then of course got them killed off. My character, an intel geek who completely misses the evidence pointing to an incoming invasion of “demon” dog-like creatures, gets torn apart by one of said creatures. And hey, John, I wear glasses and I suppose I’m kinda geeky, but my ears do not stick out! :))