Nurturing creativity with art, animals, and science fiction

Category: DIY Space Station series Page 1 of 2

Lucy’s beautiful, verdant landscape captures the terraced hills with their little farms on either side, the meanders of the Sirius River through the center, and the torus’s perverse upward curve in the distance.

Thinking About Space Stations

By Jan S. Gephardt

I’ve been thinking about space stations, lately (sure, doesn’t everyone?). As a regular reader of science fiction, I encounter the fictional kind pretty often. And I’m always interested in news from Earth’s very own space station, the ISS. Technically we Earthlings have two, but it seems like China doesn’t want to share.

I’m particularly interested in Jessica Watkins’ long-duration ISS assignment. She’ll stay in orbit for 6 months, adding valuable insight to our knowledge about the effects of microgravity on humans, by providing data from someone who is not a white male. She’s also breaking new ground (another “first,” –the first Black woman to fly an extended mission).

The information Watkins will gain for us is particularly important to me. That’s because anytime I’m thinking about space stations, the first one that comes to mind is the one I’m working hard to create: Rana Station.

Lucy’s beautiful, verdant landscape captures the terraced hills with their little farms on either side, the meanders of the Sirius River through the center, and the torus’s perverse upward curve in the distance.
The Sirius River Valley: It’s hard to imagine the years of effort by a surprising number of people that lie behind this peaceful-looking landscape. (Painting © 2022 by Lucy A. Synk).

My Anti-Disbelief Kit

As a writer, my most pressing necessity is to induce rational, intelligent, scientifically-educated readers to willingly suspend their disbelief and accept some patently unreal things. That humans can live together with a non-Terrestrial sapient species in harmony within the same nation, for example. That a government could dedicate itself to the well-being of all citizens. Or law enforcement agencies could fight crime effectively and respect the civil rights of everyone, even criminals. That dogs can be uplifted to an intelligence level on par with humans, for another. And, of course, that they all can exist in an exo-system somewhere else in the Galaxy, inside a human-and-ozzirikkian-made megastructure in space.

I know: that’s a lot of disbelief to suspend! But I have a huge advantage. Decades of popular media have trained people in our culture to recognize such ideas as not totally crazy. Thank you, Star Trek, Star Wars, and of the many, many other “space”-based movies, TV shows, and video games we’ve enjoyed!

The other major tool in my Anti-Disbelief Kit is to follow the science we do know, as closely as possible in my story context. That’s why thinking about space stations is something I do frequently. I keep updating myself, even as I have started publishing my XK9 books. If I can stay up-to-date with current knowledge development about space, as well as the knowledgeable extrapolations of experts, my stories will ring more true to my readers.

Three pictures of humans working inside the International Space Station, the photos are at odd angles, suggesting the very low gravity.
Things float around in microgravity – and there is no “up” or “down” unless it’s relative to one’s own face and hands. (See extensive credits below).

Enough to Eat – In Space

I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t planning to set my XK9 stories on a self-contained, self-sufficient space station. It was part of my basic concept “from the git-go.” Part of the appeal for me came from the “closed system” nature of the interior environment. I’ve done a lot of research and given a lot of thought to food production, protein sources, and agricultural infrastructure on a self-sufficient space station.

I think we all know the more familiar idea of a space station as a port of some sort. Sort of a super-sized airport in space. Most fictional space station depictions don’t get into food production questions. They mostly assume there are logistics chains from somewhere (or that magical “replicators” will cover the need). But I’m from farm country, I was born in the Show-Me State, and I’m also a longtime home gardener. I have a real hard time suspending my own disbelief when it comes to replicators or astronomically long logistics chains. How could I ask my readers to do so?

Something we already know about hauling things up from gravity wells into space is that it’s very expensive. And – speaking of thinking about space stations and their resupply issues – on the ISS they’ve been growing experimental food-producing plants for a long time already. NASA and the world’s other space agencies know full well that multi-year space missions or “colonies” on the Moon or Mars can’t afford to rely only on food from Earth.

Clockwise from the beefsteak in the black vacuum-sealed bag velcroed to the blue tray or mat at lower left, other vacuum-sealed food items are candy-coated peanuts, shortbread cookies, cheddar cheese spread, creamed spinach, and at the center some round crackers. At lower right are a pair of medical-style scissors, a fork, and a knife (which look startlingly similar to this blogger’s “Paul Revere” flatware pattern). The utensils appear to be held in place by two magnetic strips.
Taken in the Food Tasting lab in building 17: Bags of International Space Station food and utensils on tray, 2003. (see credits below).

Thinking About How to Build Rana Station

Thinking about space stations in the abstract is all well and good. Having some starting-point ideas about what you think you want to do is essential. But the next step is research. I had seen others’ fictional space stations. As I’ve noted in a previous post, within my lifetime I’ve experienced the progression from a time before we had real-life space stations, till now.

I love research. My sister would tell you that there have been times when I seemed likely to happily delve into research forever, and never resurface to write stories at all. And when it came time to create my own space station, I certainly didn’t need to start from scratch. I had loads of wonderful data, ideas, and extrapolations to build from. I “just” needed to do the research.

In this case, I took my “DIY project” online. The more thinking about space stations that I did, and the more research I piled up, the clearer it became that I had a lot of choices. In part to help me think through each possibility clearly, and in part to make good use of my research time, I created blog posts about several different space station designs. Even though I ultimately decided not to use them for Rana Station, I wanted to consider them. I blogged about Dyson Rings and Spheres, Bernal Spheres, and O’Neill Cylinders. But for several reasons, for Rana Station I settled on a chain of super-sized Stanford Torii.

Visualizations of the interior of a toroid space habitat: a landscape of the interior, and a cutaway of the interior with homes and landscaped plants.
Visions from the Ames Center in 1975: © NASA; artwork at left by Don Davis. Artwork at right by Rick Guidice.

Always Thinking About Space Stations

The longer my readers and I spend on Rana Station, the more aspects of it will become relevant, and the more ideas I can explore. It’s not enough to do the research and have ideas about how things should be set up. The science fiction novelist’s mission is to both entertain and explore science-based thought experiments. The cool ideas we cook up will only gain traction if they’re smoothly inserted into an engaging story when they become relevant.

The idea of uplifted police dogs on a space station will tend to intrigue the kind of people I’m writing for. But it’s my job to keep then intrigued and engaged once they’ve arrived on-Station. That’s why I’m always working on new story ideas. Always seeking better ways to visualize my characters in greater depth. It’s why I’m interested in new forensic science developments, and new discoveries about dog cognition.

And it’s why I’m nearly always thinking about space stations.

IMAGE CREDITS

The illustration at the beginning of this post is ©2022 by Lucy A. Synk. This painting was first unveiled on my monthly newsletter. Learn more about how it was developed and why it was painted in my recent post, “A Vision From a Different World.”

Many thanks to NASA and JAXA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, for the photos in the montage of people working inside the ISS. Floating on the left side of the montage, Flight Engineers Shannon Walker and Michael Hopkins put together extra sleeping space for astronauts during a “crew handover.” The sleep unit is the Crew Alternate Sleep Accommodation (CASA). It can be converted to a storage rack when it’s not an emergency bunk. They installed it in the European Space Agency-built Columbus laboratory module. Hopkins later became the first astronaut to transfer to the US Space Force.

The NASA photo at what is to us the top of the image shows Astronaut Kate Rubins working with the Biomolecular Sequencer. Her experiments with it yielded the first DNA sequencing in space. In the third photo (from JAXA), Astronaut Norishige Kanai exercises on the Advanced Resistive Device (ARED). Designed to fight muscle loss in space, it has proven to work much better than the previous unit. The Rubins and Kanai photos came from a NASA story about preparations for a new moon mission.

Two Photos You May Remember

I used the less-than-mouthwatering array of contemporary space food on an earlier blog post, “Growing Rana Station’s Agriculture.” Many thanks to original sources NASA and Wikimedia Commons!

I also used the two vintage views inside a Stanford Torus, in A Vision From a Different World.”  These 1975 paintings are ©1975 by NASA. They were painted by Don Davis (torus interior landscape) and Rick Guidice (cutaway view). I am deeply grateful that NASA has made this resource so freely available.

BFFs Lynette M. Burrows and Jan S. Gephardt.

A Pair of BFFs Talk about Writing

By Jan S. Gephardt and Lynette M. Burrows

A note from Jan to her readers: My longtime friend Lynette M. Burrows and I belong to some of the same writers’ groups, and first met through the Kansas City Science Fiction & Fantasy Society (KaCSFFS). We bonded over (among other things) our interest in writing, and we’ve been friends literally for decades. We regularly check in with each other to “talk shop” or be each others’ cheerleaders. Earlier this summer, I suggested we co-write a post in which we talk about writing, our personal writing journeys, and our books. This post is the result of that conversation.

Before we Talk about Writing, Who is Lynette M. Burrows?

Covers for “My Soul to Keep” and “Fellowship,” the two books so far published in the Fellowship Dystopia.”
From Rocket Dog Publishing. Cover artwork for My Soul to Keep is © 2018 by Elizabeth Leggett. Cover artwork for Fellowship is © 2019 by Nicole Hutton at Cover Shot Creations

Lynette M. Burrows loves hot coffee, reading physical books, and the crack of a 9mm pistol—not all at the same time, though that might be fun! She writes thrilling science fiction for readers who love compelling characters with heroic hearts.

The White Box Stories, which she co-wrote with Rob Chilson, appeared in Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact Magazine.

Her series, The Fellowship Dystopia, presents a frightening familiar American tyranny that never was but could be. In Book One, My Soul to Keep, Miranda discovers dark family secrets, the brutality of the Fellowship way of life, and the deadly reality of rebellion. My Soul to Keep and the series companion novel, Fellowship, are available at most online bookstores. Book two, If I Should Die, will be published in 2022.

Owned by two Yorkshire Terriers, Lynette lives in the land of Oz. You can find her online at her website, on Facebook, or on Twitter @LynetteMBurrows.

Who is Jan S. Gephardt?

Covers for “The Other Side of Fear,” “What’s Bred in the Bone,” and “A Bone to Pick,” by Jan S. Gephardt.
Covers courtesy of Weird Sisters Publishing. Cover artwork, L-R © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk, © 2019 and 2020, respectively, by Jody A. Lee.

Jan S. Gephardt commutes daily between her Kansas City metro home in the USA and Rana Station, a habitat space station that’s a very long way from Earth and several hundred years in the future.

She and her sister G. S. Norwood are the founders and co-owners of Weird Sisters Publishing LLC. Her XK9 “Bones” Trilogy and its prequel novella, The Other Side of Fear, feature a pack of super-smart, bio-engineered police dogs called XK9s. They struggle to establish themselves as full citizens of the space station where they live, while solving crimes and sniffing out bad guys.

The Other Side of Fear tells how the XK9s and their humans found each other. What’s Bred in the Bone begins the tale of XK9 Rex, a dog who thinks too much and then acts on his thoughts. Even after his human partner Charlie is injured and out of the picture. A Bone to Pick was just released last month. In it, Rex and the Pack have new and different problems, even before Rex’s enemy from the past comes gunning for him. Jan’s now working hard on Bone of Contention, in which the dogs must prove to a critical panel of judges that they are truly sapient, before the Transmondians manage to exterminate their kind completely.

Now, let’s Talk about Writing!

Lynette and I developed a list of questions, then each of us answered them. The rest of this post continues in a Q&A format. We hope you’ll enjoy this “conversation,” in which a pair of BFFs talk about writing!

What’s your most recently- or imminently-to-be-published title? What’s it about, and when/how/where can readers find it?

LYNETTE

This banner for “Fellowship” has a photo of a person in a snowy forest and the words, “The AZRAEL are real. The Cleaners are coming. Run, Ian, run!”
Banner and cover for Fellowship courtesy of Lynette M. Burrows on Twitter.

Fellowship, a companion novel to the Fellowship Dystopia, series, is my most recently published title.

Two years before Miranda begins her journey, tragedy shatters a high school senior’s dreams of being a journalist when his parents are Taken by the Angels of Death. Hunted by government agents, Ian and his younger siblings run for their lives. He leads them to the Appalachian Mountains. He knows how to survive, but resources are scarce. The mountains are unforgiving. And winter is in the air. If they are to survive, Ian and his siblings need help. But who can he trust?

I had intended to write a short story in the same world as My Soul to Keep, Book One in the Fellowship Dystopia, series. When Ian came alive on the page, Fellowship, a longer story about trust, was born. Read how, while writing this novel, My Story Went to the Dogs.

Fellowship is available at most online bookstores.

JAN

“A Bone to Pick” by Jan S. Gephardt, envisioned as an ebook on the left and as a trade paperback on the right.
Jan’s new book A Bone to Pick is widely available in a variety of formats. Cover artwork © 2020 by Jody A. Lee.

My most recently-published novel is A Bone to Pick, Book Two of the XK9 “Bones” Trilogy. It should now be widely available in a variety of formats.

The protagonist of the whole Trilogy is XK9 Rex, who becomes recognized on Rana Station as the Leader of the Pack for the Orangeboro XK9s. But an enemy from his past is still gunning for him.

Before Rex came to Rana Station, he ran afoul of Transmondian spymaster Col. Jackson Wisniewski. He deliberately flunked out of the espionage program and threatened Wisniewski’s life. Now Wisniewski wants Rex dead. Transmondian agents watch and wait for any opportunity to strike.

Meanwhile, his human partner, Charlie, faces a different struggle. Injured and out of the action for most of Book One, Charlie now works to recover from  his catastrophic injuries – and comes face-to-face with a once-in-a-lifetime love he thought he’d lost forever.

What is your current work-in-progress, and how does it fit into the rest of your oeuvre?

LYNETTE

I’m finishing up edits of the second book in the Fellowship Dystopia, series titled If I Should Die. It takes place in the same world as My Soul to Keep and picks up Miranda’s story.

Two years ago, former rebel soldier, Miranda Clarke, vowed she would never pick up her gun again. Vowed to help instead of kill. She created the Freedom Waterways and rescued fugitives from the Fellowship’s tyranny. With every rescue, she heard about nightmarish suffering and loss, and her dream of peace grew more and more desperate.

Until the day she received two simultaneous requests: a loved one on the Fellowship side wanted her help to bring peace to the nation, while a loved one on the rebel side would surely die without her help. No matter which choice she made, it would cost her. Dearly.

In a deadly battle between her dreams and loved ones, will she stick to her peaceful principles, or risk everything to settle the score?

JAN

I’ve recently started two projects. One is a short story tentatively titled Beautiful New Year, It’s set on Rana Station and features Rex’s partner Charlie, before he and Rex teamed up.

I’m also at work on the third novel in the Trilogy, Bone of Contention. Rex and the Pack have begun to enjoy the freedom Ranans believe they deserve. But they also have work to do. They’re hot on the trail of a murderous gang that blows up spaceships in the Black Void.

But in the far-flung systems of the Alliance of the Peoples, trafficking in sapient beings is the most-reviled crime of all. The leaders of the XK9 Project that created Rex and his Pack deny any wrongdoing. And the system-dominating Transmondian Government that sponsored the XK9 Project will do anything they must to protect themselves. Even if it means destroying every XK9 in the universe.

How did this series start? What themes did you know from the beginning that you wanted to address, and why? Have you been startled by other themes or ideas that developed in the course of writing?

LYNETTE

This has been one of those stories that cooked for a very long time. I knew I wanted to create a heroine who had survived abuse and ultimately makes the choice to thrive. Exploring abuse of politics, power, and people was a logical offshoot of my original idea.

The thing that startled me the most was that I would think I’d written a brilliant scene about abuse and violence until a first reader started questioning me about the scene. The way I’d written it, the abuse and violence were always off stage.

It took a long time for me to write more active and direct scenes.

JAN

This series started with a “what if?” I’ve been a dog-lover for a long time, and I’d been wanting to write a mystery set in a science fictional milieu. Reading about police K-9s used for scent tracking, I found a quote from an investigator: “It’s not like we can put the dog on the witness stand and ask him what he smelled.”

“Oho!” I thought. “But what if we could?” Science fiction is full of uplifted animals. It was a pretty short intuitive leap from there to Rex and the Pack.

This meme image shows a German Shepherd with its paw on a Bible held by a police officer, in what looks like a courtroom. It says, “ his look of determination: ‘I saw, heard, and smelled what you did. You’re going down, David!’”
Meme image courtesy of ImgFlip.

And when we talk about writing themes, my stories always seem to have an internal “compass.” One way or another, they end up being about interactions between people of different cultures, as seen through a lens of equity and social justice.

How did your book change from the first day of writing to your last day of the final draft?

LYNETTE

I started writing My Soul to Keep as a fantasy with dragons and a Cinderella story arc, which stalled out pretty quickly.

Then I tried setting the story in the future, but it smacked too much of The Handmaid’s Tale. And the writing stalled out again.

What I needed was a world that allowed me to explore the theme of thriving despite abuse. My husband suggested I write in the style of a 1950s Noir Mystery. So I explored that option, knowing this was a character growth story, not a murder mystery.

From there, it morphed into an alternate history. Once I had the alternate history idea, it was a small step to using the Isolationist movement of the 1920s and ’30s to turn America into an isolated religious tyranny.

JAN

It took me a while to research, think, write through, and develop the science fictional elements. I wasn’t sure at first how smart to make the dogs, or how they’d communicate with their humans.

A member of my writer’s group pointed out that my first concept for Rana Station wouldn’t actually work, for a lot of valid reasons. So I surveyed space habitat designs that have been proposed by sf writers and actual space scientists. Then I mixed, matched, and came up with my own (pardon the pun) spin on their ideas. After that, I had fun extrapolating how the inhabitants would design and use the interior.

What is your writing practice? Do you have a ritual to start your day? What time of day? How many hours, and how many days a week? How do you write (machine, dictate, hand write)?

LYNETTE

When I first started writing, I had a ritual. I’d light a candle or incense and start music and then do writing exercises in a journal. Those, I usually hand wrote. Then I’d re-read the manuscript pages I had written the day before. Finally, I’d put a blank sheet of paper in my IBM Selectric typewriter and re-type those pages, revising as I went. Then I wrote the next scene.

I had an infant when I started writing, so I wrote during his naps. Later, I wrote while he was in preschool (about two hours twice a week), and while he was in school.

Now, my dogs and I go to my office after breakfast. I might turn on some instrumental music or I might write in silence. I might review the latest pages. Just as often, I start where I left off. I write for at least two hours, but if the words are flowing, I will write for ten hours or more. I write six days a week with rare exceptions.

An adorable photo of Lynette’s Yorkies, Neo and Gizmo.
Yorkshire Terriers Neo and Gizmo in Lynette’s office, courtesy of Lynette’s Facebook Author Page.

JAN

I’ve never particularly made a ritual of creating a setting in which to write, but I do need to self-isolate. Attempts to write in a coffee shop or library result in people-watching instead. I write best between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. when there are no interruptions, and I write every day, if possible.

Let’s talk about writing tools. I started with crayons on cheap paper when I was four, but I’ve “traded up” a few times since then. I wrote my first complete, novel-length manuscript in 1976-78 on an Underwood manual typewriter. Later I went through two electric typewriters, a Kaypro computer (using WordStar) in the late 1980s, a succession of other PCs, and several Macs. I currently use a 15” MacBook Pro.

For early drafts I use Scrivener. It creates a separate file for each section. That makes it easy to switch their order and keep an eye on word-count. Closer-to-final drafts get copied over into MS Word. It creates a .docx file that’s easy to share for critique, print, or import into Vellum when it’s time to publish.

More specific to this book—do you write with music, tv or radio or silence? Is there a specific soundtrack you used for your book?

LYNETTE

When I started writing My Soul to Keep, I developed a specific soundtrack that I played on repeat. These days, about half the time I write in silence and the other half I’ll write with that soundtrack running or instrumental music that provides the perfect mood for the scene I’m writing. Music from epic movie battle scenes works well for me.

JAN

Sometimes I can write to instrumental music, or to songs with lyrics in a language I don’t speak. I love Two Steps From Hell and movie or show soundtracks. Current favorites include selections from The Mandalorian, as well as Raya and the Last Dragon and Captain Marvel. I grew up listening to Classical music and still enjoy it, particularly when it’s played by my sister’s band, The Dallas Winds.

However, when I’m trying to compose finished work I go silent. I need to listen to the internal cadence of the words I’m polishing, and music drowns that out.

What did you research the most? Did any of your research surprise you?

LYNETTE

What I researched the most is hard to say. It might be a three-way tie between the location and the history of the American Isolationist and the Eugenics movements.

My research constantly surprises me. I start off researching some small piece of history I recall and, in the process of that research, find a snippet that leads somewhere interesting. One of those surprises that became a large piece of My Soul to Keep was the eugenics programs that existed in the U.S.A. prior to World War II. You can read about the Better Baby Contests and the Eugenics movements on my blog.

JAN

I’ve done deep dives into both dog cognition and space habitat design. Like Lynette, I turned both of those inquiries into blog posts. My “Dog Cognition” series explored how much normal dogs understand, surprising canine word comprehension, and canine emotions. The “DIY Space Station” series offered an overview, then specifically looked at Dyson Spheres, Bernal Spheres, O’Neill Cylinders, and the Stanford Torus.

Not surprisingly, I needed to do lots of research into police standards, culture, practices and procedure—and wow, did that ever put me on the cutting edge of current events last year! You’ll find echoes of that research in the way police operate on Rana Station.

I think some of my most surprising research started when I was searching for sources of protein that one could sustainably produce in a space-based habitat. That led me to cultured milk, eggs, and meat and branched over into some of the ideas that underpin the speculative medical technology my characters call “re-gen therapy.”

When you started fleshing out your ideas for the book, did you start with plot, character, location, or something else?

LYNETTE

I almost always start with one or more characters. For me, character starts with a voice or an attitude that I find interesting. Plot and theme arise out of the characters’ needs and wants. And I choose locations because of real-life history, the mood I want to evoke, or an event that needs to happen. I also created locations that are totally fictional, but they provide an element that strengthens the theme or plot.

JAN

My whole series started with the idea of a dog who could testify in court. Stories can start literally anywhere. But it’s not really a story until there’s a character with a problem.

A character wants something, but they’re blocked from getting what they want. The character, their desire, and their obstacle(s) are the initial setup. Without those essential elements you can’t build a plot, although you can (and probably will) imagine snippets of action that may eventually become part of the plot.

Would You Like to Ask Us Other Questions?

The plan is for both of us to publish this as a post on our blog. We thought some of you might become interested in a new writer, or encounter a new idea. We hope you’ve enjoyed our talk about writing our stories.

If you thought of questions we didn’t ask, please ask them below in the comments! We’ll happily continue the conversation, because both of us love to talk about writing.

IMAGE CREDITS:

The banner with the covers from My Soul to Keep and Fellowship and the banner for Fellowship are from Rocket Dog Publishing. Cover artwork for My Soul to Keep is © 2018 by Elizabeth Leggett. Cover artwork for Fellowship is © 2019 by Nicole Hutton at Cover Shot Creations. And the adorable photo of her Yorkies, Neo and Gizmo, is © 2019 by Lynette M. Burrows

The banner with the three XK9 covers and the one for A Bone to Pick are both from Weird Sisters Publishing LLC. Cover artwork for The Other Side of Fear is © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk. Cover artwork for What’s Bred in the Bone and A Bone to Pick is © 2019 and 2020 respectively, both by Jody A. Lee. The meme with the K-9 on the witness stand is courtesy of ImgFlip.

In the header image, the photo of Lynette M. Burrows is courtesy of her website. The photo of Jan S. Gephardt is © 2017 by Colette Waters Photography. Gosh. We look nothing alike, do we? Many thanks to all!

Cutaway views of a Stanford Torus and a Bernal Sphere from the mid-1970s.

Real and Fictional Space Stations

By Jan S. Gephardt

I love both real and fictional space stations. Anyone who’s read my books, or the blog posts I’ve devoted to this topic will probably roll their eyes and say, “No. Really?”

Yeah, really. You got me. I love the whole idea, and I’m endlessly fascinated by the many visions of what a space station—or space habitat—could be.

Why? I’ve enjoyed science fiction for decades. When I was a kid I thought of sf books as “the books that give you stuff to think about.” (Perhaps I should clarify: I considered that a good thing). I was interested in how we humans might someday live somewhere other than on Earth.

Throughout human history, there’s always been a healthy exchange of life influencing art, which then influences life. In the case of real and fictional space stations, that’s definitely true.

When it comes to space exploration, the “art part” came first. From flip phones to satellites to space stations, visions cooked up by science fiction writers, artists, and filmmakers electrified and inspired several generations of 20th-Century rocket scientists, engineers, and designers.

Buzz Aldrin on the Lunar Surface July 20, 1969.
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot, stands on the surface of the moon near the leg of the lunar module, Eagle, during the Apollo 11 moonwalk. Astronaut Neil Armstrong, mission commander, took this photograph with a 70mm lunar surface camera. (NASA/Wikimedia Commons).

Living Somewhere Other than on Earth

I was a schoolkid when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, so I remember the excitement (and the setbacks) of the Space Race.

But that timing means more than just that I’m now “older than dirt.” It means I was an idealistic art major who embraced the environmental awareness of the 1970s. Concerned as I was about Earth’s future, I hated dystopian sf stories in which humans left a dying, poisoned Earth for supposed “greener pastures” (to, um, . . . poison and kill those, too? Great legacy, humans!).

Back then, a lot of us feared the “population explosion” that was supposedly going to devastate the planet. This was the era when Harry Harrison wrote his 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room!, from which the 1973 movie Soylent Green was adapted.

Space habitats interested me, but not as places to flee after the earth dies. I was interested in their potential to ease some of the environmental pressure on our natal planet.

The "Earthrise" photo.
Earthrise, taken on December 24, 1968, by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders. (NASA/Wikimedia Commons).

Digging into the Details

I wasn’t the only one interested in what were then called “Space Colonies.” NASA commissioned multiple studies into the feasibility of space-based habitats for humans.

Rana Station’s design origins came from those studies. The idea is a surprisingly old one, but interest at NASA proliferated, starting in the 1970s. The differentiation between real and fictional space stations got kinda thin when the ideas came from the space agency.

That is, until a Senator named William Proxmire made a big fuss about them as a waste of taxpayer money, and gave the programs a Golden Fleece Award. Publicly humiliated, the powers-that-be swiftly shut down that line of inquiry.

I felt wary of the “space colonies” idea, in any case. Colonialism was rightfully beginning to receive a lot of pushback. The idea of being a colonist dependent on corporate control smacked way too much of being trapped in a “company store” scenario.

Cutaway views of a Stanford Torus and a Bernal Sphere from the mid-1970s.
Two classic paintings by Rick Guidice, showing cutaway views of a Stanford Torus and a Bernal Sphere. (NASA via Space .com).

Real and Fictional Space Stations

“Space colonies” may have received a decades-long black eye, but we clever apes didn’t stop thinking about space. Nor have we stopped studying it, nor longing to explore space in person, as well as with our robots.

And in the name of exploring it in person, we started building space platforms where we could experiment. When I went into high school, the only kind of space stations anywhere that we knew about were those in science fiction.

The year before I graduated, the Soviet Union successfully launched Salyut 1. The early history of the Salyut series, Almaz (Soviet military) stations, and US Skylab included a lot of problems. Even so, ever since April 19, 1971 we have lived in an age of both real and fictional space stations.

I’m not sure it’s possible to explain how huge that step still seems. Nor my pleasure that I was privileged to (vicariously) see it happen.

Early space stations SALYUT 1 (rare photo), SKYLAB, and MIR.
Early space stations, L-R: Salyut 1, a rare photo of the first-ever-space station; Skylab; Mir. (See credits below).

Real Space Stations

The earlier stations weren’t as large or long-lived as the later Mir (1986-2001) and the International Space Station (commissioned by President Reagan in 1984 the first pieces went up in 1998, and development is ongoing to this day.

Are you old enough to remember when the ISS first went up? Or has it always been out there, hanging out in space since you’ve been alive?

Have you ever glimpsed it passing overhead? I’ve seen it—or at least I’ve thought I saw it—several times. But I usually can’t, because I live in a brightly-lit city with lots of trees. That means light pollution and an obstructed horizon. Thus, even when it’s a clear, cloudless night, station-spotting is a challenge. But when I can glimpse it, I’m always delighted.

Life Influences Art

The conversation between real and fictional space stations continues. Rana Station and I owe a long string of debts of gratitude to the International Space Station.

I’ve watched hours of videos showing the inhabitants of the ISS demonstrating various aspects of living and working in microgravity. I hope that’s helped me create more realistic depictions of things that happen in and around Rana Station’s Hub.

It’s from NASA information that I began to learn about the physical havoc human bodies undergo in any environment that strays too far from Earth-normal gravity.

These findings are the basis for my novels’ limitations on the hours one may spend “up top,” in the microgravity of Rana’s Hub. There are set lengths of time beyond which characters are not allowed to work in microgravity. These are my best guesses, based on what I’ve been able to find in available literature.

Infographic: women and men have different bodily reactions to microgravity.
This diagram shows key differences between men and women in cardiovascular, immunologic, sensorimotor, musculoskeletal, and behavioral adaptations to human spaceflight. (NASA/NSBRI).

Lessons from a Real Space Station

Making babies in something other than Earth-normal gravity? I find it hard to swallow the idea that we could do that without danger to both mom and baby (it’s hard enough, here on earth!). Mouse sperm is one thing, but there haven’t been nearly enough studies of the entire process and long-term effects, even in smaller animal species, to reassure me.

Meanwhile, the bottom line is clear, based on more than two decades of research (including a certain fascinating twin study)on the ISS. If we ever want to live and produce future generations any place besides on Earth, we’ll need to do one of two things.

Either we must change our biology, or we must create non-terrestrial habitats that support the biology we’ve got. There’s already ample science fiction that explores either choice. Art points to problems and opportunities with each direction.

I imagine genetic modifications may form a part of our future. But on the whole, I’m betting we’ll prefer the second option, and build to suit our biology. The “conversation” between real and fictional space stations continues!

IMAGE CREDITS

I owe a ton of thanks to NASA for the vast majority of the imagery in this blog post. Not only do they have an inside scoop on “all things space,” but their imagery is blissfully in the public domain (and also my blog posts normally fall under the “fair use” exclusion).

I also owe a massive debt of gratitude to Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Commons, which provided easy-to-find source information for the photos  I used. Makes giving credit where credit is due lots easier!

Specifically, the MOON LANDING PHOTO of Buzz Aldrin by Neil Armstrong is courtesy of NASA, NASA Image and Video Library, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons. The iconic “EARTHRISE” photo, taken by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders is courtesy of NASA, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The NASA CUTAWAY VISUALIZATIONS montage features two paintings by Rick Guidice: Cutaway views of a Stanford Torus and a Bernal Sphere from the mid-1970s. Via Space.com.

Credits for the photos in the “EARLY SPACE STATIONS” montage: Salyut 1, an extremely rare photo by Viktor Patsayev (fair use), via Wikipedia. Final Skylab Flyaround, by crew of Skylab 4, courtesy of of NASA, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Mir, from the Space Shuttle Endeavour, courtesy of NASA, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The video about the assembly of the International Space Station components was created and published by ISS National Laboratory, and shared via YouTube. The “Women and Men—In SPACE!” infographic is courtesy of NASA and NSBRI, the National Space Biomedical Research Institute. Many thanks to all!

The Veggie Project on the ISS

Growing Rana Station’s agriculture

the cover of "What's Bred in the Bone."
What’s Bred in the Bone
Cover art © 2019 by Jody A. Lee

Rana Station‘s agriculture is a big part of my vision for the primary backdrop of my characters’ lives. If you’ve read my first novel, What’s Bred in the Bone, you’ve possibly gotten an inkling that very little arable soil inside the tori of my characters’ habitat space station home lies fallow. Even small spaces are nearly all devoted to growing food.

I’ve blogged in the past about how humans will feed themselves and provide enough protein to live permanently in space. I’ve long been an interested follower of efforts to grow food crops on the International Space Station,as well as intensive gardening efforts here on earth.

Gardening sisters

Last week, my sister G. S. Norwood wrote on The Weird Blog about the joy, beauty, and health benefits of her gardening projects. Having grown up under the same influences, I’ve long been a gardener, too.

But while G. specializes in flowers, I’ve always been more of a fruits and veggies woman, myself. Having grown up in the ’60s and ’70s, I was always half-convinced I’d better hone my skills at organic gardening, in case I survived the coming nuclear armageddon, and needed to feed myself and others afterwards (unlike a prepper, I figured learning how to can the food I grow would feed me longer than squirreling away canned foods like Spam and beans).

Jan, in her garden in 1974, with her new bike and her sister's Irish setter.
I’d worked most of the summer of 1974 to buy that bicycle. I posed for it (with G.’s dog Finnian) in my garden. (photo probably taken by G. or our mother, to send to my then-boyfriend, now-husband, who was working in Colorado).

Eventually, worries about nuclear Armageddon receded as a real possibility in my maturing brain. But I still followed organic gardening methods. They appealed to my evolving environmentally-friendly consciousness.

More recently, in a concession to knee injuries, I’ve taken up container gardening. This has led to some interesting experiences–and inspired more ideas to use for Rana Station’s agriculture.

Lettuce and marigolds grow in Jan's cedar planter-box in 2019.
New in 2019: I added a cedar planter to my patio container garden, seen here dominated by lettuce and marigolds. (photo by Jan S. Gephardt)

My thought-experiment world

These influences all combined in my world-building efforts on Rana Station. Years of watching how our world and its societies work, years of teaching, and years of gardening have given me some strong opinions. How better (or more sfnal!) to explore their possibilities and shortfalls than to test them out in a “thought-experiment” world?

In my concept, Rana Station’s agriculture is not only necessary for their own consumption. It’s also a key export that is vital to their economy. A problem every space-based habitat faces is how to feed its inhabitants. The more I looked at the possibilities, the clearer it became to me that the early NASA developers were not gardeners or farmers.

"Torus agriculture," as envisioned by NASA engineers in the 1970s.
A year or so after my garden photo with Finnian and the bike, this was NASA’s idea of farming on a space colony. Note the stark division between agricultural and residential areas. (detail of uncredited NASA photo found on Socks Studio.)

What if a gardener from farm country did take a whack at figuring out how to feed the 8.4 million humans and 2.4 million ozzirikkians I wanted on Rana? What would such an effort take?

Thinking outside of strict divisions

First, I eliminated the to-me-strange division between “agricultural” and “residential” areas that seemed endemic in many of the space colony concepts (Designed by men who never got food anywhere but a grocery store?). 

Intensive plantings make the most of a small space, including a "salad wall" vertical garden.
“Salad wall” and raised bed give good examples of food grown intensively in a small amount of space. (Photo courtesy of QuickCrop).

Why not grow “veggie walls” in commercial buildings? Why not cultivate vine crops that hang from baskets or planter boxes on the residence towers’ balconies?

Then I conceived my living area not as a broad, relatively flat plain, but more like the agricultural terraces of YemenAsia, and the Incas. I envisioned a convex/concave profile of the Ranan hillsides would maximize arable surface area

Rice terraces create flat areas in hilly places, for rice paddies.
Rice terraces of Longsheng (Longji) in China (Photo by Anna Frodesiak – Own work, Public Domain)

This also creates an endless, undulating river valley that accommodates natural patterns of water flow. Yes, they still have to dredge parts of it occasionally. But they’ll have prepared for it.

Rana Station’s agriculture and its economy

In my universe, Rana Stationers have made a name for themselves as an interstellar farmers market of the first order. Not being required to haul their fresh produce up from a planetary gravity wellthey have a pricing and freshness advantage to offer the interstellar transports that stop over at the station to restock between transits through the local jump point.

Root crops, leaf crops, and squash at a farmer's market.
Fresh produce from the Fresh and Local Farmers Market, near Arizona State University (photo courtesy of Facebook/Fresh and Local at ASU, via Phoenix New Times)

I think it’s likely space environments will be dominated by utilitarian freeze-dried, frozen, and reconstituted foods in the form of microgravity-friendly ration bars, packets, or bulbs. In light of that, what sybaritic joy might fresh produce offerI can imagine captains who plot their course through the Chayko System’s jump point specifically to access the fruits of Rana Station’s agriculture.

ISS Space food, on a tray.
Taken in the Food Tasting lab in building 17: Bags of International Space Station food and utensils on tray, 2003. (Photo courtesy of NASA, via Wikimedia Commons).

Visions to come

I’m currently working with illustrators, and also on my own artwork, to come up with better ways to envision the station. I plan to share those efforts in future blog posts, and once I get my newsletter off the ground, they’ll also show up there on occasion. I hope you’ll join my explorations.

IMAGE CREDITS

What’s Bred in the Bone cover art © 2019 by Jody A. Lee. The 1974 photo of me was probably taken by G. or our mother, to show off the bike to my then-boyfriend, now-husband. I took the photo of my most recent container-gardening addition. 

Many thanks to Socks Studio for the uncredited NASA photo of agriculture on a space colony. I appreciate QuickCrop, for the intensive planting photo, and Anna Frodesiak – Own work, Public Domain for the rice terraces photo. Thank you, to the Phoenix New Times for the farmers market photo, and to NASA and Wikimedia Commons for the ISS food photo. The featured image shows NASA’s Veggie Project on the ISS. I appreciate you all!

Welcome to Rana Station

Where did Rana Station Come From?

The first of the XK9 “Bones” Trilogy, What’s Bred in the Bone, is now available on Amazon as a paperback or in Kindle format. It explores ideas I’ve been developing for a long time.

Its setting, Rana Station, is almost a character in its own right. That’s partially because of the culture, partially because of the communities, and partially because of the incessant need to grow food everywhere possible.

I chose the classic Stanford Torus as the basis for my design, but–like many sf authors–I’ve adapted it.

Here's the original 1975 Don Davis painting of a Stanford Torus space habitat. It has a large mirror at an angle to the wheel part of the structure, to shine light into secondary mirrors. There's a central hub structure and what look like the spokes of a wheel connecting the outer ring to the center.
The Stanford Torus space habitat design: In this 1975 painting by Don Davis, we see the single stationary mirror that would capture solar energy and reflect light to the secondary mirrors around the single torus.


For one thing, there isn’t a single torus on Rana, but rather a series of eight tori, counter-rotating for better balance and stability, and linked by a long central “Hub,” kind of like an axle linking the eight habitat wheels. For another, the tori are bigger, based on tech first extrapolated for a Bishop Ring.

I have tried numerous times and in numerous ways to visualize for myself how Rana would look on approach. The best way I’ve managed so far to approximate an exterior view is a “quick & dirty” extrapolation in Adobe Illustrator, using a PNG of a bicycle wheel with a transparent background. 

It’s still not right, because it doesn’t recreate the space docks and the manufacturing structures. but if you think of the spokes as symbolic of all the elevators from various parts of the 1-G habitat to the Hub, it does give a general idea of what the “wheels” would kinda look like.

Eight bicycle wheels in pairs (one pair is smaller in diameter than the other three pairs) are lined up along a central Hub, to approximate the eight wheels of Rana Station.
Admittedly, both quick and dirty, but it gives a general feel. The smaller wheels represent the ozzirikkians’ habitat wheels. Never met an ozzirikkian? You can change that! Read the book! You’ll meet several.

If you think this “wheel” structure looks familiar, that’s because it does. Ever since the Stanford Torus was introduced, it’s seemed to many the most earth-like, understandable, and workable of the space-colony habitat designs . . . at least, as far as movies and TV go.

This is an artist's conception of the space-based habitat in the movie "Elysium." It looks like a long strip of flat valley floor that curves upward the farther it is away from the viewer, until it disappears above the edge of the "sky" surface, which is some kind of mostly-clear looking window-like curving structure.
Interior concept art for the Elysium space station, 

We aren’t likely to be able to provide “artificial gravity” that works like magnetism and switches on or off, at least, not by using any laws of physics that we currently know. Therefore, the gravitation needs to be provided by centrifugal force, created by building rotating megastructures in space.

I’ve created several posts about space station designs that I considered and studied in the course of my “Space Station DIY” series, when I was trying to figure out what kind of space station design I would use for the setting.

I considered  space stations/colonies in generalDyson structures, Bernal spheres, and O’Neill CylindersBut the torus seemed to me the most likely to provide a reliable 1-G environment that was comprehensible to terrestrial human brains.  I liked it better, and I got to be the decider because it’s my story. 

I’m planning future posts about aspects of life inside those wheels, including a look at some of the maps and 3D elevations I’ve been creating as paper sculpture, to help me more realistically understand, develop and describe the settings inside this world I’m creating. Stay tuned.

IMAGE CREDITS: Many thanks to Wikipedia for a good file of the painting by Don Davis  – NASA Ames Research Center (ID AC76-0525), of the original Stanford Torus, which is now in the Public Domain.

To my chagrin, I can’t relocate the source of the PNG image I used to create my “quick & dirty” Rana Station visualization.  I apologize! 

Thanks also are due to Geeks of Doom, who provided the Elysium concept art. 

“Moving the needle” and author readings

I just wrapped up a delightful weekend at ConQuesT 49 in Kansas City, MO. Yes, it’s my “home convention,” but it was a particularly good one, this year–and I’m not the only one I heard say that.

The presentations by the amazing Elizabeth Leggett were worth the price of admission, all by themselves–Especially the big reveal of my friend Lynette M. Burrows’cover for her soon-to-be-available new book, My Soul to KeepIt was part of Leggett’s presentation on the making of book covers.

This is only a tiny glimpse of the “Book Cover” presentation by Elizabeth Leggett, featuring development of the cover for My Soul to Keep by Lynette M. Burrows, a spine-tingling alternate-history thriller soon to be released by Rocket Dog Publications.

Unfortunately, I was so busy I barely got to see half of the wonderful Dealers’ Room, and never made it all the way around the entire Art Show, though I helped hang the mail-in art. Did manage to get a photo of my own display.

Here is my before-sales display at the ConQuesT 49 Art Show. I sold several of my larger pieces!

I spent a lot of time at author readings, during the convention. I had my own reading on Saturday–and was overjoyed when I got a good audience! Thanks, everyone! 

I make a point of going to other authors’ readings, too–for several reasons. I like to know what their current projects are, and because it’s fun to find new things to read. I also like to support my fellow writers–and it’s a lot more fun to read your work aloud when there’s someone eager to listen!

Just a few of the books from which their authors selected scenes to read at ConQuesT 49: L-R, Blood Songsby Julia S. MandalaSinger’s Callby J. R. Bolesand The Alchemist’s Stone, by Kevin WohlerI either own, or will soon buy, copies of all of them.

I had panels opposite some of the authors I wanted to hear, but I did get a chance to listen to Kevin WohlerJ.R. BolesJim YeltonJulia S. Mandala, and Van Allen Plexico. I also really wanted to hear Sean DemoryLynette M. Burrows, R. L. Naquinand Rob Howell, but unfortunately I had duties elsewhere when they were reading.

One thing I did notice was that all readers are not equally audible, or intelligible. I was half-planning to create a post about “Reading Best Practices,” but Lynette beat me to it–and I don’t think I can improve on her excellent post! If you are an author who does readings–or if you know an author who does readings–give her post a close look! If you look at readings as a marketing vehicle, or if you plan to record your own audio-version, pay close attention to her advice!

It also pays to advertise, so come prepared with pre-printed information about where to find your work, and what it’s about. I’m always amazed how many authors forget to tell what the book is about, in their promotional material. Authors (especially Indie authors) sometimes think that making appearances at sf conventions isn’t worth the effort because it doesn’t normally result in an immediate jump in sales.

J. R. Boles and Sean Demory, who teamed up this winter as part of the Palookaville team, both did readings at ConQuesT 49. They came to meet fans, talk about their work, and share thoughts. That’s sold brand-building.

It also pays to advertise, so come prepared with pre-printed information about where to find your work, and what it’s about. I’m always amazed how many authors forget to tell what the book is about, in their promotional material. Authors (especially Indie authors) sometimes think that making appearances at sf conventions isn’t worth the effort because it doesn’t normally result in an immediate jump in sales.

But I am convinced that appearances at conventions are not so much about lead generation as they are about brand-buildingWhy do you think so many traditionally-published writers with established reputations still bother with going to conventions? It’s a chance to interface directly with a larger number of one’s fans, and to impress more, through your knowledge on panels, your attention, which is flattering, and your demonstrated grace. Of course–if you don’t demonstrate much grace (skip panels or readings, hide out in your room, or shy away from fans), you won’t develop a whole lot of brand loyalty!

IMAGES: Many thanks to Elizabeth Leggett’s public Facebook page, for the image of developmental stages for the cover of My Soul to Keep by Lynette M. Burrows! I took the photo of my Art Show panels; you may re-post the photo with my blessings if you don’t alter it, give an attribution to me, and link back to this post. The cover image for Blood Songs is from Amazon; the cover image for Singer’s Call is from J. R. Boles; and the cover for The Alchemist’s Stone is from Kevin Wohler. The photo of J. R. Boles and Sean Demory is from Sean Demory’s Facebook page

So, I wrote this book . . . the saga continues.

Anyone who’s been reading this blog periodically may have stumbled onto a mention or three about the science fiction novel I’ve been working on.

To be fair, it’s a science fiction universe I’ve been creating, the physical setting and milieu for a whole series of novels. Any blog posts I’ve written about future trends, such as last year’s series on automation, the DIY Space Station seriesfirst responders, and/or police K-9sMWDs, or service animals, all have been directly inspired by research aimed at making my fictional world seem more real.

The book’s still not published, so, no: this is not a sales pitch. It’s more like an update. After the 2016 post that marked the end of an early draft, it went through a series of editorial reviews by professionals I trust, as well as a lot of beta-readers’ reviews (note: beta-readers are kind of like beta testers, only for books).

And it underwent lots and lots (and lots and lots) of revisions. As far as the comments from my various critique resources have been going, it apparently continues to improve. I recently sent it off for what I hope is a final round of critiques. Considering the sequel’s now almost finished, I’m hopeful I can offer more substantive updates here soon.

IMAGES: Many thanks to the ever-witty Tom Gauld, via Pinterest, for the “Jealous of my Jetpack” picture, to Roxanne Smolen’s Instagram Page for the illustrated Phyllis Whitney quote, and to Kathy R. Jeffords for the “2nd Draft Won’t Kill You” design and thought.

Challenging assumptions in science fiction: 3. Worth their weight in diamonds

This is the third in a series of posts that question some of the classic tropes in science fiction. This series was inspired by observations made while reading Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey.

The book is a really wonderful space opera, first in The Expanse series, which later inspired the creation of the SyFy Channel show, The Expansein its third season as I write this. But it does seem to accept unexamined some of science fiction’s time-honored (and, in my mind, outmoded) tropes.

In particular, my comments center upon Ceres Station, its population, and its governance, as portrayed in the book. I compiled a short list of outstanding reasons NOT to live on Ceres:

  • Human life is apparently cheap, and easily squandered with no penalty.
  • Freedom of speech is nonexistent, and so is freedom of the Fourth Estate.
  • The nutritional base is crap. Seriously? Fungi and fermentation was all they could come up with? Readers of this blog don’t need to guess what I think of this idea.
  • Misogyny is alive and well, but mental health care is not.

Last week I took issue with the idea that there would be abundant, expendable excess humanity available in the extrapolated setting and time span.

The primary reasons why humans won’t be that abundant are the difficulty of achieving a viable pregnancy in most space (or space-adjacent) environments, and the lowered rates of childbearing among well-educated women who can control their fertility, a reality we already have seen played out in developed nations for several decades.

Today, I’d like to look at the reasons why the humans who do get there won’t be expendable at all. ASIDE from the human rights angle, which ought to be the FOUNDATION of any discussion about the “expendability” of human lives, if we’re not going to have lots of excess babies in space, then Earth is probably exporting the vast majority of the people who live in space.

Every human being who is technically educated to the point of being employable Out Therethen hauled up out of the gravity well is going to be an extremely valuable commodity. 

Hauled up out of the gravity well” alone gives you one reason. In 2009, Michio Kaku explained the cost of transporting someone to Mars this way, in a Forbes article: “imagine your body made of diamonds.

The XKCD Web Comic gives us ALL the gravity wells (in the solar system, that is)!

Even now, it doesn’t cost as much to put a human in orbit as it did in the early days of the Space Race, and that cost will inevitably continue to go down. But I guarantee you it’ll never be so cheap and easy that “anybody can do it.” 

Nor should “anybody” do it. Space is dangerous. Learning how to survive there takes a lot of training and highly specialized (not cheap) equipment. Which brings me to my next point: the “technically educated to the point of being employable” part.

If humans are neither able nor inclined to breed like rabbits in the tunnels of Ceres, that means in space most of the “grunt labor”–and more of the advanced processes than you might imagine–will be done the way more and more of it already IS, here on Earth: by robotsRobotic manufacturing processes are already essential to the current aerospace industry, and this trend won’t go away. I examined this and related automation issues in a series of posts about the automation of labor that started last March. 

Who will manage, troubleshoot, and integrate those robots? That’s the role for highly technically skilled and trained humans. Humans with master’s degrees and doctors’ degrees, sure–but also highly skilled technicians, to keep everything running as it should. We’re already experiencing a critical shortage of skilled labor, and the push into space will only add competition to entice workers in this job niche.

Typically, competition for workers means good salaries, signing bonuses, enticements, and perks added to sweeten the offer. If you want a model for what the workforce of the future will look like, look at Silicon Valley and the current aerospace industrynot the coal mines and textile mills of yesteryear.

Skilled workers, designers, and more are needed to put Spacex rockets into orbit–and the need for such teams will only grow as human expand their enterprises into space.

Moreover, companies are going to have to treat their employees with respect, or those intelligent, educated people will find ways to organize for change, mutiny, or jump ship to sign on with a competitor. How has science fiction not figured this out yet?

IMAGES: Many thanks to Amazon, for the Leviathan Wakes cover image; the XKCD Web Comic, for the gravity wells size comparison chart; to Cerasis, for the photo of robots manufacturing something (I can’t tell what, though, and Cerasis author Adam Robinson didn’t include that information in the article); and to the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation, for the photo of the Spacex Team.

A time of new challenges–and then some

Although my children now are grown and I am no longer either teaching or enrolled as a student, this time of year has always felt like a pivot-point for me.

For most of my life, August has been the time when my family (Mom and Dad were both teachers) and I would shift from a summer of differently-structured time, to plunge back into the challenges of the new school year.

Headed back to school: What should we prepare them for?

My time at the helm of a classroom probably is over, for well or ill. But at this time of year I can’t help thinking about the challenges today’s teachers and students face. Our picture of the future is continually in motion, but the age-old job of teachers is to prepare their students for it as best they can. That’s one of the few things that hasn’t changed!

But what should teachers prepare them for?

Our immediate future contains a massive range of possibilities. Technology that seemed remote only a few years ago now is imminent. From personalized medical care based on an individual’s genome to advances in brain-computer interface technology, our picture of living, working, and learning in the 21st Century is changing rapidly.

We’re beginning to feel the effects of climate change in shifting weather patterns and greater environmental hazards, from more intense storms, more widespread flooding, and hotter, less controllable wildfires.

More intense storms are only one of the environmental hazards kids will increasingly face in the future.

The news tells us the USA has officially recovered from the Great Recession of the last decade–though some of us will never make up the lossesAutomationsome aspects of globalization, and a shifting dominance of industries in the economic sector have taken away some jobs and transformed demand for skilled labor.

Learning new skills throughout life to remain employable is a new feature of the employment scene, a trend that isn’t likely to change in the future.

Our political and social landscape has been changed by economic and demographic shiftsphilosophical polarization, and new social norms about what is and is not acceptable. The so-called “bathroom bills” that have recently targeted transgender students are only one example of the lengths laypersons with no understanding of problems sometimes try to meddle in school affairs.

As if all of that wasn’t enough of a challenge for teachers, consider that there is now literally more history to teach than there was several decades ago, and the best pedagogical standards demand the inclusion of a range of ethnic and socio-economic viewpoints, not just “old dead white guys.”

New scientific knowledge is developed every year, and a quality science education demands that teaching adjust for newly-discovered facts or risk teaching erroneous information (there’s enough of that already).

School breakfast programs provide essential nutrition for millions of kids who otherwise might come to school too distracted by hunger to learn.

Educators also are now expected to accommodate a wider array of needs than they’ve been asked to do in the past, from feeding kids breakfast and lunch so they can be alert in class, to crafting lessons for differentiated learning and individual learning styles, despite often-overcrowded classrooms due to budget shortfalls.

It all adds up to steeper challenges for teachers and school systems every year. I wish them all the best of success, and good luck.

They’re going to need it.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Apple Country Living, for the “back to school” bus-and-kids photo; to CNN, for the photo of the Plaza Towers Elementary School, after a massive tornado hit Moore, OK, in 2013; and to the Eau Claire WI Leader-Telegram for the photo of employment seekers at a local job fair. Many thanks are also due to the Kansas City Chiefs for the photo of a “Wake Up” School Breakfast spread they helped promote for National School Breakfast Week at a local middle school (this photo is from their 2016 project).

DIY Space Station: Farmers in the sky

As I’ve been designing a space-based habitat that is home to the characters in my “XK9” novels, one of the recurring questions is how will these people feed themselves?

On the eve of the US Thanksgiving holiday, it seems an especially apt question.

Space Farmer by Jay Wong: if we’re out there, we’ll have to eat.

As you may have picked up from comments I’ve made in several of my previous “DIY Space Station” posts, I have some rather pointed views about agriculture in a space-based habitat. I’ve lived in or near farm country all my life, and I’ve been an organic gardener (I was even a garden club president once!) for many years. Of course I have opinions. 🙂

One thing’s certain: space colonists will have to eat–and for their habitats to be sustainable, they’ll have to produce food where they live. From Yuri Gagarin’s first space meal on Vostok 1 in 1961 and John Glenn’s first meal during the Friendship 7 mission in 1962 to contemporary experiments on the International Space Station, finding ways to fulfill this basic human need in space has been an ongoing concern.

An agricultural area in Kalpana One, as envisioned by Bryan Versteeg

The 1970s-era NASA project designers who created the Bernal sphere and O’Neill cylinder designs assumed that intensive farming, something like the industrialized agriculture that was beginning to become widespread at the time, would be most efficient for space. They designed a separate section for agriculture, the so-called Crystal Palace” of the Bernal sphere. The same kind of structure was planned for the O’Neill cylinder.

Perhaps the “Crystal Palace” made sense in the 1970s.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been near a feedlot or hog farm and smelled the “atmospherics” produced by intensive livestock farming, or if you’ve ever studied the health riskscarbon footprint or water use of such projects, especially as regards beef, but if you have the “Crystal Palace” plan should give you pause.

As I explained in my post on Bernal spheres, we’ve learned a lot about the perils of such practices since then. There’s also growing evidence that all beef, chicken, salmon, and other meat proteins are not equal: the intensively-farmed versions are markedly inferior. Why ever would we take those methods into space?

Not actually healthy for anybody: cattle on a large feed lot.

In a relatively small, enclosed system such as a space habitat, everything must be recycled. There’d only be room for highly efficient agricultural methods. Intensive livestock farming is still livestock farminginherently inefficient, compared to many other protein sources.

Of course, there’s a question of exactly what does “efficient” mean?

During the recent drought, for instance, California almond farmers have been taking tremendous criticism over their thirsty almond groves. But in general nuts are an excellent source of protein. In a smaller, closed system with a controlled water cycle, trees’ value must be considered in terms of the nutrition and oxygen they produce, not only the water they consume.

Almonds ready for harvest.

Unfortunately, when you look at nutritional protein sources, animal-sourced protein (including eggs and some milk products) tends to be better-suited for human metabolisms than most vegetable sources. A balance of both sources is best, nutritionally–but how do you get meat, milk and eggs in a space habitat where there are no wide-open spaces for healthy animals to roam?

Aquaponics systems can sustain quite a variety of plant crops, but also can produce animal protein from fish, shrimp, prawns, etc. That might provide a partial solution. 

An aquaponics “family plot” grows a wide variety of plants.

Certainly ventures such as Sky Farms in Singapore are pushing the envelope on the potential to grow more food in a smaller “footprint,” and they’re doing it with aquaponics. But so far they’re growing mostly salad greens, not almond trees.

The rotating towers of Sky Farms are designed to make sure all plants get adequate sunlight in a vertical planting scheme.

Sky Farms brings up another important point: the space station designers of the 1970s envisioned farming as something that happened in separate, “agricultural” areas. Yet contemporary trends are opening us to more urban agriculture options. “Farms” aren’t just out in the country anymore. They’re popping up in vacant urban lots and in greenhouses on urban rooftops.

This community garden in Kansas City, KS is not far from my home.
SkyHarvest in Vancouver has located its rooftop greenhouse within biking distance of many of its regular restaurant clients. Their website has a great short video about how they operate.

Another recent trend in urban plantings are so-called “green walls,” planted with a variety of species to create visual interest, produce oxygen, and help clean the air. I can’t imagine those would be hard to adapt for edible plants.

The company that makes this vertical planting system is called–appropriately enough–Greenwalls.

And of course, space-saving espaliered fruit trees have been around for centuries.

An espaliered peach tree at historic Le Portager du Roi (Vegetable Garden of the King) at Versailles, France

Another idea gaining traction lately has been “green roofs.” One has only to look at Bryan Versteeg’s visualizations of Kalpana One to see that I’m not the first person to think of putting them on space habitats.

Bryan Versteeg beat me to the idea of green roofs on a space habitat: this is part of his visualization of Kalpana One.

In addition to providing pleasant green spaces and oxygen, they’d make ideal garden plots if the soil was deep enough. Urban rooftops all over the world support similar green roofs and rooftop gardens.

This rooftop garden in Portland, OR supplies the Noble Rot Restaurant.

If agricultural efforts are integrated throughout the entire space habitat, that changes the picture and the potential. Food could grow anywhere! Why not on pergolas hung with grapevines, squash, or tomatoes, for example?

This is a squash trellis, but lots of food plants grow as vines, which means they can grow up walls and hang from trellises or pergolas–providing yet more vertical growing options.

And while we might not see cattle wandering freely through the streets, we certainly might find “backyard chickens” or other, smaller-scale livestock growing operations (Rabbits? Goats?) tucked in here and there all over the station–another potential partial solution to the “where do we get our protein?” question.

Beyond aquaponics: could small-scale chicken farming be another source of protein on a space habitat?

None of this discussion has so far wandered into the areas of genetically-modified plants, that might be specifically adapted for high yields in small amounts of space, but they are likely to be developed, whatever we may think of GMOs (a discussion for a different post).

Another area that’s still in its infancy is cultured meat. Yes, right now one tough, relatively tasteless patty recently cost about $263,000 to produce, but the Dutch lab that produced it from beef stem cells is anticipating its products could be commercially available and viable by 2020.

The $263,000 burger, before cooking. Is cultured meat the future of protein in space?

While the question of how many resources such “cellular agriculture” might require is still open, it seems likely that the field will have evolved considerably by the time we’re building habitats in space. So maybe our descendants who venture forth to live on the Final Frontier won’t have to forego eating their favorite Kobe steaks after all.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Jay Wong’s website, for his Space Farmer image, to Bryan Versteeg’s Spacehabs Gallery for the Kalpana One farm and green roofs images; and to Wikipedia and NASA for the “Crystal Palace” image (sorry–couldn’t find the artist’s name). 

I’m indebted to “Johnny Muck” for the beef feedlot photo, to Grow Organic for the photo of the ready-to-harvest almonds, and to Friendly Aquaponics for the photo of varied crop-plants in an aquaponics system. 

Many thanks to Urban Growth for the image of the Sky Farms tower, to Kansas City Community Gardens for the photo of the urban garden in KCK, and to SkyHarvest via Pinterest for the photo of their rooftop greenhouse. 

Thanks greatly to Greenwalls Vertical Planting Systems for their photo of a contemporary “green wall.” Go to their website for more beautiful examples. 

Thanks also to Paully and Growing Fruit for the photo of the espalliered peach tree at Versailles, to Noble Rot of Portland, Oregon, for the rooftop garden photo, to Organic Authority for the squash trellis photo, and to the Denver Library’s website, for the photo of urban chickens. And finally, thanks to the Daily Mail for the photo of the cultured meat patty.

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