Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


On the Road Again
by Michaele Jordan

A Prince of Blood and Spit
by Guy Stewart

by Brandon L. Summers

Little Ships
by Harold R. Thompson

Road Rage on the Hypertime Expressway
by Ken Altabef

Bug Out
by Cas Blomberg

By His Jockstrap
by Eamonn Murphy

Tamera’s Engagement
by John Hegenberger

Shorter Stories

From the Other Side of the Rubicon
by Sean Mulroy

To Be Carved
by David Steffen

Final Frames of the Eldrisil
by J. Daniel Batt


About That Colony
by John McCormick

Tesla and Newton
by Eric M. Jones



Comic Strips




About That Colony

By John McCormick

LITTLE RECOGNIZED IN THE MAINSTREAM press, at the end of August a colonization ship left for Mars—sort of!

On August 30, NASA began paying six human experimental subjects to vacation on the beautiful (north) slope of the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii.

Sounds like paradise except for one thing—they might as well really be on Mars, where they will stay until next August 29, in a 36-foot-wide, 20-foot-high dome.

A real Mars mission would take about one thousand days, not merely 365, but the simulation has important applications, in addition to those of the much longer test conducted by a joint Russian, Chinese, and European Space Agency group of six men who lived in a 12×66-foot living area for seventeen months ending in 2011.

A major difference between the European test and the one now underway at the NASA facility is that, although the longer test simulated the flight to Mars, the NASA HI-SEAS (Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation) experiment simulates living on Mars: the explorers can leave the habitat provided they don space suits, and many of their experiments are intended to see if we can live off the land, so to speak.

If you want to follow events on the volcano as they happen, three of the participants have blogs: Doctor and journalist Sheyna Gifford; former flight controller at Lockheed, Martin Andrzej Stewart; and French astrobiologist Cyprien Verseux. Says Gifford: “The first step to a successful Mars simulation is not crashing on the way up the volcano.”

Although travel to Mars is on NASA’s long-range schedule, the agency isn’t planning to send a human colony to the red planet—at least not yet.

But the first true attempt at colonization may not be as far away as you think. For example, Mars One, a private company, is currently planning to do exactly that in about fifteen years, although the time frame is flexible.

There are lots of excellent reasons why we should spread human (and other) DNA on various extraterrestrial planets before we destroy this one completely, but the main reason we should be planning a Mars colony rather than a quick visit is because it costs far less than half as much as a round trip.

The space race that the USSR and the United States entered into during the ’60s was triggered by a challenge made by President Kennedy. His real reasons might have been debatable. Many people believe it was mostly an effort to show the Soviets we could place nuclear weapons on targets inside the Soviet Union with great precision, and reassure the free world that the U.S. was still the technological leader after being humiliated by the surprise launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union at a time when our efforts were uniformly spectacular failures.

The first part of JFK’s challenge to the nation was that we “land a man on the moon within this decade.” That alone led to tremendous scientific and technological advances, especially in computer technology. (A friend of mine from my yacht-racing days designed the Apollo navigation computer.)

All wars advance not only weapons design but all technology, including medicine. The Cold War demonstrated that this applies to non-shooting wars as well.

It will probably come as a surprise to most people to learn that getting a man on the moon wasn’t the real problem NASA engineers had to deal with in the space program. The big problem came from the second part of President Kennedy’s challenge—“and returning him safely to the Earth.”

An obvious additional objective, yes, but building a space vessel that can go from Earth to the moon wasn’t that difficult once you had powerful missiles with guidance systems. The rest of the challenge was primarily keeping sufficient oxygen in the capsule at a proper temperature and pressure to maintain life support.

Sure, landing was tricky, but the real obstacle was building a second spaceship light enough that we could land it on the moon and still strong enough and dependable enough that it could get the people on the moon, along with their cargo of moon rocks, back up into orbit for the return trip to Earth.

Despite the lower gravity and consequently lower power demands for the
return trip, lifting off from the moon to an orbiting spacecraft and returning safely to Earth is more than twice as hard as just getting a man to the moon.

The same calculation applies to any journey to another planet; getting there is far less than half the battle. If the end goal is to plant a human colony on Mars, why not just send colonists on the first manned trip?

The Mars One group plans to send an unmanned habitat to the planet early in the next decade, with the goal of having it there and waiting by mid-decade, ready for the first colonists who will land in 2027. Fuel is the heaviest part of any space vehicle. Not having to include the extra fuel to carry everyone back to Earth means it will only cost about one-third as much, perhaps only one quarter as much, making the entire project more practical and therefore more likely to be carried out.

So sending unmanned supply vehicles along with food and hardware payloads is a no-brainer. And that means we would know in advance that a base camp was ready and waiting.

Also, ships having to carry people tend to be much better constructed and are therefore costlier than cargo pods. Even landing unmanned craft is simpler as demonstrated by both the Pathfinder and Rover Missions—those crafts were essentially wrapped in bubbles and dropped and didn’t require the kind of elaborate braking systems that would land gently enough for the health and safety of human passengers.

Getting There

There has been a lot of focus on finding habitable exo-planets and the way we might get to one, but not as much attention has been paid to what a human colony would look like on a distant planet.

Despite the concerns over psychological factors, the human race has long since proven that small ship crews, especially all-male crews, can survive months-on-end completely isolated from the rest of the world. In all cases this worked because of strict, sometimes brutal, discipline.

I’m speaking, of course, of the age of exploration aka the age of sail. But whether we are talking about the British Navy with draftees (in naval tradition they are referred to as having been “shanghaied”) or Boston whalers (the people in Gloucester, not the small boats) where the crew are all volunteers, the conditions are remarkably similar to long space flight.

Space flight, based on current technology, is much longer, so you might think conditions would be much much worse on a ten-year flight than on a nine-month sea voyage. But in compensation there would be an incredible improvement in lifestyle, complete with decent food rather than maggot-ridden salt pork and scurvy.

Instead of a ration of rum, space travelers would have a wide selection of psychoactive drugs if needed. A library with ten million books and videos can already be carried in a few pounds of high-tech gear, and that will only increase.

So food, entertainment, and health would be vastly improved over starvation, with daily floggings and the occasional keelhauling for entertainment.

In addition, sex would be very different—I don’t want to besmirch the memory of fine British sailors of past centuries but up to a year on a ship with no women? There is also the fine tradition of British public schools such as Eton or Harrow, with real old boy networks, so draw your own conclusions.

Although problems can be caused by having mixed crews, or even all-male crews, they can be solved rather simply by eliminating testosterone.

An all-female crew (as recently suggested by Associate Editor Eric M. Jones) makes perfect sense for space travel with the ultimate goal of colonization. Women are no more perfect than men, but when it comes to building a colony they have a distinct weight advantage—not only a few pounds but literally tons if you consider the entire colony ship.

In the early days of space travel, using midgets as astronauts would have made sense because of the weight factor, but it was politically unacceptable when the nation needed heroes.

Having an all-female crew heading out to found a colony is simply too attractive a proposition, engineering-wise, than the traditional crew of several virile men, a red shirt (cannon fodder) or two, one gray-haired professor or captain, and one or two luscious and scantily clad female “scientists.”

A practical crew design for such a mission would not be under the threat of a testosterone-driven rivalry of a mixed crew; add to that the fact that genetically you can take along 10,000 males in a space smaller than a dorm fridge.

Women, well-educated, capable, and as young as possible (to maximize child-bearing years), with a maximum of one or two men (backups in case the turkey basters and frozen sperm somehow fail) make for the best possible crew configuration. Men with a container of harvested eggs are useless. Women with a few test tubes of sperm can found a colony.

As for transportation, in the near future it looks as if we are talking chemical rockets heading off to Mars and that strictly limits the amount that can be taken along.

I don’t see how humans can make it to Mars and be able to stand up without breaking their legs unless someone either invents artificial gravity or the spaceship is built like a barbell and spun to create artificial gravity at the outer ends. It costs virtually no energy to spin up the craft after it is no longer accelerating, and then stop it at the Mars end. None of the designs I’ve seen incorporate this idea.

Mars One’s plan to send the habitat ahead in several loads makes terrific sense because you can only build so big, and because it is a huge confidence booster knowing that all the infrastructure a colony will need to survive has all been pre-tested on site robotically.

Being There

The traditional protocol held that men would go out and secure an area before the women followed, or, when long distances were involved such as crossing the Atlantic, men, women, and children would voyage together.

Robots are a critical tool for any colony. We have proven we can build ones that run indefinitely. Solar cell technology is a known quantity for space exploration as well as service on the surface of Mars.

No other power source, except nuclear, is even remotely possible. For heat or oxygen generation, nuclear power would be great. But it is unlikely a colony could rely on anything other than solar power in any mobile application, although some sort of rechargeable battery or fuel cell using electrolyzed chemicals might be practical, given a nuclear source.

Some might suggest that any expedition technologically sophisticated enough to mount a colonization effort on a distant planet would have already developed every sort of power tool and futuristic device known to man (or woman). I disagree with that because we don’t now have phasers, laser mining tools, anti-gravity shovels, food replicators, or any of the great tools that quickly make colonies self-sufficient in science fiction universes such as Gene Roddenberry’s “Star Trek.”

Even a small colony could have virtually unlimited power in the form of a nuclear reactor. But what do you do with that power?

Once you get there on a rocket ship, you’ll probably need a latrine for when the chemical reprocessing system fails, as eventually one always does. Even here on our home planet we can’t build a home sewage system that never clogs up or breaks down.

And aside from nuclear power and solar cells, digging that trench is still best done with a shovel. Breaking up the big rock that is always where you need to put something else is still best done with a human-powered hammer. And on a planet with any form of vegetation, a machete or axe will come in a lot more handy than a pocket computer.

A crossbow and bolts might be a good thing to have along because you can reuse the projectiles, and you never run out of power. If Robby the Robot were available, I’d vote to have him (it) along in lieu of almost everything else, but we don’t have that technology.

So what would a colony (as opposed to a mere expedition) look like on Mars?

My bet is that it would be pretty primitive. After all, there isn’t a single 2×4 of wood for construction on the entire planet. Given a basic living capsule, the first order of business for the women would be to produce oxygen, somehow. Second would be to find or create water.

Next comes protection from solar and cosmic radiation. At the foot of a one-hundred-mile deep well of oxygen and nitrogen surrounded by a powerful electromagnetic field, we tend to forget that exposure to space conditions with little or no concern for oxygen pressure will quickly prove fatal—if not for individuals, certainly for their genetic legacy.

The need for very large living quarters on the surface is relatively easy to deal with using inflatables, but if there are no natural caves created from volcanic vents or some other source it is going to be virtually impossible to have a growing colony on Mars no matter what technological marvels we can provide.

From a practical standpoint, I find it difficult to envision how a real colony would work on Mars. Yes, I believe we’d solve the problem of energy, air, and food. I can’t envision creating an environment where anyone would consider raising children without some major breakthroughs in creating force field bubbles, at a minimum.

The Latest Buzz

About a year ago I interviewed Dr. Buzz Aldrin and wrote a review of his book (within arm’s reach next to “Rendezvous with Rama” and “Practical Homicide Investigation”), which outlined in detail his concept of using asteroids in closed orbits as transport systems to and from Mars.

At the end of August, Buzz announced a partnership with the Florida Institute of Technology to have humans on Mars by 2039. Instead of a permanent colony population, his plan calls for a permanent installation with a ten-year tour for the Earth-Martians.

His plan for using asteroids, or perhaps space stations in permanent orbits, makes a lot of sense. It really doesn’t save much in the way of fuel except that the ship lifting passengers from Earth to the transit vehicle doesn’t need to be nearly as large as one that would support people the entire nine-month trip to Mars. That transport would be reusable and never have to dip into a deep (fuel-gobbling) gravity well at either end.

Accelerating to the velocity necessary to board the big ship is about the same delta-v as needed to get to Mars, but there is a big fuel saving because far less mass has to be lifted from the ground.

At the other end, Dr. Aldrin plans to use the two small moons already orbiting Mars as way stations before going down to the planet surface. This plan, and most likely the plans of the new Buzz Aldrin Space Institute, involve complex orbital dynamics.

Putting a Harsh Mistress on the Moon

But back to a real space colony ... one on the moon might be far more practical, if not as exciting, as a trip to the red planet.

The moon is close enough to Earth that real-time phone calls are practical. If you find you really, really need something you forgot, it would be possible to use a linear accelerator to get it to you. A moon colony is still far enough away that pollution, nuclear catastrophe, and probably an asteroid collision would leave the colony alive, especially if it is on the far side.

The argument for all or mostly female initial colonists remains the same. Women can do anything men can except one thing—and that can be frozen and shipped. colonySo, if you are planning a permanent, growing colony, starting with eighty or ninety percent women even as close as the moon is more practical.

If you aren’t going to grow a multi-generational colony with children, then there is no major reason for sex bias in selecting the colony candidates. An all-female starter colony would take many generations but eventually it, too, would balance out gender-wise because once established there is no reason to keep the number of males down in a colony.

On the moon as on Mars, there is no protection from solar or other radiation so moving underground is the way to go in the long run using surface domes to grow food.

For a colony, the moon has some powerful advantages that make it far more attractive than, say, Mars. It is easier to export things to Earth. The Moon makes a great place to build and launch missions to other places. Not only are there materials which can be used, and a much smaller gravity well to climb out of, but having some gravity actually makes construction projects easier than trying to build in a completely weightless environment.

I’m reminded of the moon as described by author John Varley in “The Barbie Murders” and particularly “Steel Beach,” where pollution is no problem. What would be incredibly dangerous or polluting to produce on Earth can be safely made on the moon and the waste dumped on the surface.

I find this basic technology compelling. With most of the people living and manufacturing underground, pollution can be disregarded. Not because colonists should be careless with their environment, but because there is no running water or atmosphere to contaminate.

In Varley’s postulated universe, there is no Earth to import to or from. In our universe, the moon would be a wonderful resource. I think any colony should be geared to servicing the needs of Earth.

Although the prices are just a guess, and variable at that, it should cost in the vicinity of $20K to land a kilogram of something on the moon, launching from the Earth’s surface. Just getting a pound into low Earth orbit (LEO) runs over $2K today ($5K per kg).

Because the moon’s gravity is about one-sixth that of Earth it should cost about $3,500 per kg to get a load from the moon to the Earth, and a linear accelerator is much more practical on the moon with no air resistance. Superconductive temperatures are obtainable by merely putting up a shade.

As a fuel station, the moon is like stopping right off the interstate, convenient if a bit pricey. Getting fuel from the Earth would be like driving into a big city center and paying big city prices.

Fortunately for the future of space travel it appears possible that, with reusable launch vehicles, it could cost as little as fifty dollars or less to get a pound of something into LEO.

LEO is the magic location as long as you aren’t in a big hurry, like trying to get passengers somewhere before supplies run out. Once you reach LEO you can use solar sails, ion propulsion, or interaction with Earth’s magnetic field, to slowly accelerate your package; changing to a higher orbit is not a matter of steering up but simply of speeding up. Lowering your orbit means slowing down, which can also be accomplished without wasting fuel.

Space Travel, the Wild Card

If you haven’t heard about this, it may come as a big surprise. Some reputable scientists think there is a new kind of space drive that violates Newton’s laws at the same basic level in which perpetual motion violates entropy.

Called the EmDrive, it violates the “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction” rule (Newtons’ Third Law) that makes rockets work. Rockets, as every reader should know, don’t move because the exhaust pushes against something. If they did, then they wouldn’t work in space.

But the EmDrive has no exhaust, there is no fuel being ejected, no “equal and opposite action.” In fact, no one really knows how it works because, according to the traditional laws of physics, it can’t. In truth, it doesn’t work very well. The design, built and tested at NASA’s Eagle Works, produces only very tiny amounts of thrust; but it does appear to do something.

The report, entitled “Anomalous Thrust Production from an RF Test Device Measured on a Low-Thrust Torsion Pendulum” is actually quite a clear explanation of what they did, if you can understand the science.

Anomalous means they don’t know what the hell is happening. RF simply means they are moving microwaves around and the pendulum means they mounted it in a way where a tiny thrust of any sort would make it move a bit.

The amount of thrust is only thirty to fifty micronewtons, a force which would impress a small fly if it was sick, but the fact that there is any thrust at all is an incredible result.

A Chinese test in 2009 reportedly produced a much higher thrust on the order of 700 millinewtons from a slightly different but closely related design, and that is plenty of power to move a spacecraft.

(A force of one newton will cause one kg to accelerate one meter per second per second. A force of 720 millinewtons is 0.7 newtons. A micronewton is one millionth of a newton. A force of 50 micronewtons is perhaps 0.00005 newtons.)

Unlike the cold fusion anomaly more than a decade ago, results for the EmDrive have been reproduced independently, although with wildly varying thrusts. The only theory as to why this works involves an interaction with something called quantum vacuum. I won’t go into details because: first, I don’t understand it; second, no one else understands how it works; and third, it is still possible it is all due to experimental error.

But if it turns out that a confined microwave resonance or completely electronic drive system with no exhaust works at all, it can be refined and would literally change everything when it comes to space travel.

The report of July 28, 2014, concluded: “Test results indicate that the RF resonant cavity thruster design, which is unique as an electric propulsion device, is producing a force that is not attributable to any classical electromagnetic phenomenon and therefore is potentially demonstrating an interaction with the quantum vacuum virtual plasma. Future test plans include independent verification and validation at other test facilities.”

But this was a real test. They tried moving the drive to determine if it would push in a different direction. Then they ran the tests with what might be a working device, and with one that was identical except it was intentionally configured so it couldn’t work.

Bottom Line?

Lots of science fiction stories explore what happens in generational colony ships. The unfortunate fact is that, given current technology, it isn’t a few generations to the nearest possibly habitable planet—it is ten to 50,000 years, or more than 1,000 generations away.

That is the time from the last Ice Age to today. What would humanity look like after all that time? Would crew members born and raised on a colony ship even consider building on the surface, or would they arrive only to decide the ship was a wonderful place to live?

Although I am all for space exploration, I fear we are a long way from spreading out across the galaxy unless we really do build a “Star Trek” kind of society and eliminate need and economics by embracing antimatter, cultural differences, and a working warp drive. END

John McCormick is a physicist, science/technology journalist, and author with more than 17,000 bylines to his credit. He is a member of The National Press Club and the AAAS. He recently launched the canine celebrating website, A to Z Dogs.