Flying By Mars … and Smashing Into the Moon

On July 31, 1969 — forty years ago today — Mariner-6 flew by Mars. Along with Mariner-7, Mariner-6 comprised a dual-spacecraft mission to study the Martian surface and atmosphere. The Mariner-6 flyby gave NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory the chance to make minute changes to the profile before Mariner-7 flew by. As noted on the National Space Science Data Center page,

On 29 July, 50 hours before closest approach, the scan platform was pointed to Mars and the scientific instruments turned on. Imaging of Mars began 2 hours later. For the next 41 hours, 49 approach images (plus a 50th fractional image) of Mars were taken through the narrow-angle camera. At 05:03 UT on 31 July the near-encounter phase began, including collection of 26 close-up images…. Closest approach occurred at 05:19:07 UT at a distance of 3431 km from the martian [sic] surface.

But no, it wasn’t Mariner-6 that smashed into the moon: Forty-five years ago today, in 1964, the Ranger-7 spacecraft impacted the surface of the moon. It had been launched on July 28th, and sent back over 4,000 close-up images of the lunar surface before it hit.

So where did Ranger-7 hit? Mare Nubium (the Sea of Clouds):

(Final image taken by Ranger-7 camera A, July 31, 1964, of the floor of Mare Nubium, 2-1/2 seconds before impact. NASA image.)

If you’re not sure why Mare Nubium is significant to me, read a little further and it will all become clear.

Another lunar impact happened ten years ago today — July 31, 1999 — when the Lunar Prospector spacecraft hit the moon. It was deliberately aimed into a crater near the south pole, where it was suspected cometary ice may have been deposited. The mission planners hoped that the Lunar Prospector would hit a patch of icy soil and release a plume of water that sensors on earth would detect; however, the detectors did not pick up the signature of a watery plume. The NASA press release outlined several possible explanations for the failure to detect any water:

  • the spacecraft might have missed the target area;
  • the spacecraft might have hit a rock or dry soil at the target site;
  • water molecules may have been firmly bound in rocks as hydrated mineral as opposed to existing as free ice crystals, and the crash lacked enough energy to separate water from hydrated minerals;
  • no water exists in the crater and the hydrogen detected by the Lunar Prospector spacecraft earlier is simply pure hydrogen;
  • studies of the impact’s physical outcome were inadequate;
  • the parameters used to model the plume that resulted from the impact were inappropriate;
  • the telescopes used to observe the crash, which have a very small field of view, may not have been pointed correctly;
  • water and other materials may not have risen above the crater wall or otherwise were directed away from the telescopes’ view.

All of this is important to any future lunar outposts, since any amount of recoverable water on the moon will mean fewer resources that have to be brought up from earth. (It’s important in my novel, too, part of which takes place as colonists bring back ice collected at the south pole to their station on the edge of Mare Nubium … but that’s literally another story.*)

Today — and I mean today in 2009, not today in space history — the Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) is en route to its own impact with a shadowed crater near the lunar south pole. It will impact on or about October 9th. You can read more about LCROSS on this NASA page.

*Still no luck yet in finding a literary agent or publisher willing to take on my novel of survival and sacrifice on the moon. But someday I hope WALKING ON THE SEA OF CLOUDS will see print.

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Apollo-11's Journey Begins, 40 Years Past

Forty years ago today — July 16, 1969 — Neil A. Armstrong, Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins launched from the Kennedy Space Center aboard a Saturn V booster (number SA-506) on Apollo-11, the first manned mission to land on the moon.

(Apollo-11 mission patch. NASA image.)

I’m not old enough to remember President Kennedy and his bold proposal to land men on the moon and return them safely to earth. I wish I remembered more about the lunar landings as they happened, but memory is a fickle thing and my childhood memories are fleeting at best.

Thankfully I have access to the Internet to augment my memory. From one of the NASA history sites, here’s a list of the firsts accomplished by Apollo-11:

  • First lunar landing and return mission.
  • First test of landing radar and other landing systems on the Lunar Module under operational conditions.
  • First lunar surface extravehicular activity (EVA).
  • First human foot print on the lunar surface: Neil Armstrong’s left foot.
  • First man-made items on the lunar surface, including: the first seismometer, first laser reflector, and first solar wind experiment deployed on the Moon.
  • First lunar soil and rock samples returned to Earth.
  • First use of mobile quarantine facility.
  • First use of the Lunar Receiving Laboratory at the Manned Spacecraft Center (now Johnson Space Center).

And, my personal favorite: the first meal eaten on the Moon “consisted of four bacon squares, three sugar cookies, peaches, pineapple-grapefruit drink and coffee.”

If you want to learn more, NASA’s Human Space Flight Office has a good web page about Apollo-11, and the “We Choose the Moon” site is a nifty interactive tribute to the mission.

I don’t know if it’s because of the Apollo program and the space enthusiasm that permeated the country when I was young, or because of STAR TREK, Robert A. Heinlein, Larry Niven, and the many science fictional adventures I enjoyed, but when I look at the moon I still want to go there, live there, explore and build there. And since I can’t do that in real life, I do it in my imagination and in my stories — even if only I and a few friends will ever enjoy them.

So Godspeed, Apollo-11, and thanks.

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A Moon Launch, and the MOON Movie

Forty years ago today — July 13, 1969 — three days before the U.S. launched Apollo-11, the Soviet Union launched the Luna-15 probe on a Proton-K rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. According to,

Luna 15 began its journey on 13 July 1969 as a last-minute attempt to regain national pride in the face of the pending Apollo landing. Luna 15 was a fairly sophisticated craft designed to land on the surface of the Moon and collect soil samples to be launched back to Earth. It was hoped that the soil could be returned prior to Apollo 11’s splashdown making the Soviets the first to bring lunar material back to Earth. Though the probe was successfully launched and made its way into lunar orbit, bad luck again struck the Soviet lunar program. Luna 15 had completed 52 orbits of the Moon when it attempted to make a soft landing on the surface. Unfortunately, the final retrorocket burn failed and the probe crashed in the Sea of Crises on 21 July 1969, just one day after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made their historic walk on the Moon.

In contemporary space-related news, we saw the movie MOON yesterday at the Galaxy Cinema here in Cary. It was, as we’d been led to believe, impressive in its production quality — so much that at times it was easy to forget it was an independent film. The issues with the lunar setting (e.g., noise where there shouldn’t be any, the inconsistent treatment of gravity) and the lunar infrastructure and equipment (e.g., no alarm on the secret door, vehicles sturdy enough to withstand rocks landing on them) would only be problematic for geeks. (Yes, I qualify on that score.) It had a few plot holes as well, but all in all was a worthy effort and an enjoyable ninety-seven minutes.

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When a Space Station Fell From the Sky

Thirty years ago today — July 11, 1979 — the nascent U.S. space station Skylab re-entered the atmosphere from its low orbit. It broke up and burned, but parts of it made it to the surface. The debris field began in the Indian Ocean and extended into Western Australia.

(Skylab in orbit, as seen by the Skylab-2 crew upon their departure. NASA photo.)

Three different crews had lived aboard Skylab while it operated, as detailed on NASA web pages here and here. I doubt that Skylab had much potential to be expanded into anything bigger, but it still seems as if falling from the sky was an ignominious end.

I wish I had a piece of Skylab, to go along with the piece of Titan-IV on my desk. Then I’d have some space hardware that fell from orbit, as well as some hardware fished up from the bottom of the ocean. That would be cool.


Related-but-still-shameless plug: Skylab is mentioned in my short story, “The Rocket Seamstress,” which is available at Anthology Builder.

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Does the Moon Matter?

As someone who a) loves to look up at the bright, shining moon, and b) has written two novels about life at a lunar colony,* I naturally answer “yes.”

New Scientist apparently agrees, in its commemorative series of articles entitled “Why the Moon Still Matters.” This month, if you didn’t already know, is the 40th anniversary of the Apollo-11 lunar landing. As you might imagine, that’s a big deal to the likes of me.

In related news, here’s a Spaceflight Now article about NASA’s preparations for launching the Ares X-1, which will become the country’s “new moon rocket.”

So, to repeat: yes, I think the moon matters.

*The first one, like so many first novels, was not worthy of being published. I thought it was, and so did a very small publisher, but that’s a story for another day. The second one, WALKING ON THE SEA OF CLOUDS, is making the submission rounds now. I think it’s a much better book, so here’s hoping….

(Image Credit: Full moon image by longhorndave, licensed under Creative Commons, from Flickr)

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First Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Images: Near the SEA OF CLOUDS

How cool is this? From NASA’s LRO web site:

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has transmitted its first images since reaching the moon on June 23. The spacecraft’s two cameras, collectively known as the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera, or LROC, were activated June 30. The cameras are working well and have returned images of a region in the lunar highlands south of Mare Nubium (Sea of Clouds).

(L: An LRO image of the highlands south of Mare Nubium [the Sea of Clouds]. R: A Clementine image of the moon, showing the location of Mare Nubium. NASA images. Click to enlarge.)

Since I’m currently trying to interest publishers and agents in WALKING ON THE SEA OF CLOUDS — a novel of survival and sacrifice at the first commercial lunar colony, located on the southwestern edge of Mare Nubium — the fact that the LRO’s first images are of that area is exceedingly cool to me. That made my day!

So … if you know of anyone interested in publishing such a novel … or even if you’re interested in reading such a novel … let me know. That would make my day, too.


P.S. Here’s the NASA LRO page with the images on it, and here’s the LRO main page.

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LCROSS, and the Hazards of Writing Near-Future Science Fiction

Today the LCROSS (Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite) is supposed to launch on an Atlas-V rocket, along with the LRO (Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter). LCROSS is specifically designed to check for water in shadowed craters at the lunar south pole.

(Artist’s conception of LCROSS approach to the moon, from Click to enlarge.)

The mission profile involves crashing the Centaur upper stage into an as-yet-undetermined crater, with the LCROSS vehicle and its sensors following close behind. Not only will LCROSS itself examine the ejecta for signs of water, but the debris from the impact is expected to rise high enough above the moon’s surface to be visible to earth-based instruments as well. Analysis should show whether hydrogen detected by previous missions (e.g., Clementine) is in the form of water.

Why does this demonstrate the hazards of writing near-future SF? Because I know of a novel — written by me, for which I’m trying to find a publisher and an agent — in which a major part of the plot is a difficult journey to the lunar south pole to retrieve ice to keep the fledgling colony alive.

The LCROSS mission could either lend credence to my treatment of lunar conditions, or it could make the novel much more fiction than science. So here’s what I would like:

  • First, I’d like the mission to detect appreciable amounts of water ice, no matter what crater they choose.
  • Second, I’d like NASA to select a different crater than I did, so no matter what LCROSS finds my story could still be plausible. I picked Faustini Crater for my ice expedition, so anywhere else, okay?

Such is the hazard of writing realistic, near-future SF — your assumptions may be subject to verification before your story ever sees print! (Here I repeat my hope that my story will indeed see print. Time will tell. But if you know of a publisher looking for such a story, point them my way!)

If you want more info, here’s the NASA page about the mission.


And, how about a little space history: Five years ago today — June 18, 2004 — marked the first time a U.S. astronaut was in space when his child was born on Earth. Edward Michael “Mike” Fincke was aboard the International Space Station when his wife gave birth to their second child.

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A Few More Queries, And With Them, Rejection

I forgot to post this yesterday, but the fourth week of the agent hunt consisted of sending out several more queries and receiving one very nice rejection. Here’s the tally of the really important statistics:

  • 34 queries submitted
  • 9 rejections

And so it goes.

On the advice of a couple people in the business — whose names I will not use, but whose identities might be guessed by people familiar with my experience in the very small SF&F world — I also submitted a partial (3 chapters and synopsis) to one of the major SF publishers. We’ll see if anything comes of that.

Hopefully someone out there will be interested in publishing a near-future science fiction story about colonizing the moon — the risks people will take, the hardships they’ll endure, and the sacrifices they’ll make to achieve a difficult goal. Here’s hoping!

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Shhh, be vewwy quiet … I'm agent hunting

My hunt for a literary agent to represent WALKING ON THE SEA OF CLOUDS — and such other work as I hope to produce in the next ever-how-many years — continues. Slowly. I do have a day job, after all. And a night job.

So, after two weeks pursuing elusive agents, tracking them by their Internet presences and deciphering the glyphs they’ve carved in electronic “guidelines,” I’ve racked up the following record:

  • 20 queries submitted
  • 4 “thanks, but this isn’t right for us” rejections
  • 3 “interesting, tell us more” responses
  • 2 manuscripts submitted
  • 1 “partial” submitted — 50 pages & synopsis

If you want to play “hunt the agent” with me, see if you can spot one of the wild agents who might be interested in a near-future, realistic science fiction novel about survival and sacrifice in the early days of a lunar colony. If you see some, don’t scare them away! Try to chase them in my direction. And let me know, so I can get the right query ready! 😉

Image by Gaetan Lee, from Flickr, under Creative Commons license.

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Agent Hunt

No, I don’t mean to refer to Ethan Hunt from MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE.

Tonight I started my hunt for an agent to represent my novel — a story of survival and sacrifice in the early days of the first lunar colony, tentatively titled* WALKING ON THE SEA OF CLOUDS.

Specifically, I sent out queries to five agents who have sterling reputations and accept electronic inquiries.

I’ll send more queries out, in batches, in the next few weeks, and I’ll post updates as I have them. Meanwhile, I need to finish getting ready to go to RavenCon.

*Tentatively because, if a publisher decides to take the book, they will decide the title based on what they think is most marketable. That, however, is far in the future.

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