Category: Sci-Fi

Odds and Ends #2

I mentioned last week how much I loved going to the library as a child.  These days rather than going to the library I tend to buy used books from thrift stores and used book stores.

I used to look at thrift store book sections with disdain because they were mostly filled with romance novels, out-of-date political books, self-help guides from the 70s, and other forms of useless drivel.

But, what I came to realize is that there’s always a diamond in the rough and considering how much rough thrift stores tend to have, the rate of finding diamonds is pretty high.  The beauty of it is that because these books tend to be so cheap you can really indulge your curiosity without feeling like you’re throwing away money.

Sometimes I’ll buy a book because I know nothing about the subject matter.

Ekiben: The Art of the Japanese Box Lunch

I was at the Goodwill on State Road in Cuyahoga Falls recently when I found this 1989 coffee table book about Ekiben, the Japanese tradition of creating special Bento box lunches for sale at train stations so that people can eat them on the trains.

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I can’t imagine a similar book about American airline food, can you?

Other times I will buy a book because I am very familiar with the subject matter or I’m collecting books on a specific subject.  Ever since my parents bought me the Encyclopedia of Soviet Spacecraft as a child I’ve been interested in collecting books about spaceflight, including books by or about astronauts.

We Have Capture: Tom Stafford and the Space Race

I think I found this copy of We Have Capture, the autobiography of astronaut Tom Stafford (co-written with space writer Michael Cassutt) at the Waterloo Road Goodwill in Akron.

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Among the Apollo astronauts Tom Stafford is somewhat forgotten because he didn’t walk on the Moon and until I read We Have Capture I didn’t realize how much of an impact Stafford had made. After flying on Gemini 6 and Gemini 9 , Stafford commanded the Apollo 10 mission, which was a dress rehearsal for Apollo 11. He and Gene Cernan descended in the Lunar Module to about 47,000 feet above the Moon’s surface before testing the Lunar Module’s ability to abort during landing.

However, the most interesting part of Stafford’s career came after the Moon landings.  In 1971 was sent as a US representative to the funeral for the cosmonauts who died on the Soyuz 11 flight.  Later he would command the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP), the flight that is depicted in the jacket image.  ASTP is somewhat forgotten today but in a historic moment of the Cold War in 1975 the final US Apollo flight docked with a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft in order to demonstrate international cooperation.  What’s fascinating is that in the 25 years after ASTP Stafford continued to act as an adviser for NASA and helped to shepherd the Shuttle-Mir flights and the transformation of the failed Space Station Freedom project into the joint US-Russian-European-Japanese International Space Station project.  In many ways the most interesting parts of the book have to do with Stafford’s techno-bureaucrat functions on that ground more than what he did in space.

Incidentally, I hope someday a space writer like Michael Cassutt, Andrew Chaikin or Dwayne Day writes a book-length history of the origins of the International Space Station (ISS).  From what I understand there were some unique political, diplomatic, and engineering challenges that were overcome to create the ISS.

The best writer to tell that story may be William Burrows, author of books including Deep Black and Exploring Space.

Exploring Space: Voyages in the Solar System and Beyond

I found this copy of Exploring Space at the Waterloo Road Goodwill in Akron.  This is a funny book because to look at the cover this looks like your standard “spaceflight is so great” kind of hagiography that’s common among books about spaceflight.  In Exploring Space from 1990, Burrows actually takes a more critical approach.

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I don’t think Burrows dislikes us spending money on exploring space.  Rather, he’s unhappy, perhaps even disgusted with the way we’ve gone about doing it.  The history of spaceflight is rife with good ideas that were poorly executed repeatedly before the engineers got them right (JPL’s early flights in the Pioneer, Mariner, Ranger, and Surveyor series) , good ideas that we spent way too much money on before they were finally executed right (Viking and Voyager) and questionable ideas that were forced to be realized because of political pressure (like the Space Shuttle).  The bizarre way that we fund spaceflight through political kabuki lends itself to these kinds of costly messes.  I suspect that if Burrows were writing Exploring Space today he would be more sympathetic to NASA’s cost controlled Discovery program, very unhappy with the James Webb Space Telescope, and seething with rage about the forthcoming SLS launch vehicle.

An interesting example of when spaceflight vision and reality collide is well illustrated by…

Challenge of the Stars: A Forecast of the Future Exploration of the Universe

This thin coffee-table sized volume is another book I found at the Waterloo Road Goodwill.  I remember that I spotted it right after one of the book’s authors, the English astronomer and television presenter Patrick Moore, had died late last year.

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Much like The Compact Disc Book, I mentioned last week, the fun of Challenge of the Stars is seeing if what they predicted would occur that has occurred and what has not occurred.  One thing they got right was the “Grand Tour” of the solar system that became the Voyager 1 and 2 probes.

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This stunning illustration of a proposed docking between a Soviet Soyuz and the US’s Skylab space station (note the Apollo CSM waiting in the distance).  This idea was turned down in favor of the Apollo-Soyuz Test project flight that Tom Stafford flew.

What really caught my eye though, was the section on space stations and a manned Mars landing.

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On the bottom left is one of the earlier proposals for the Space Shuttle.  Rather than the External Tank and Solid Rocket Boosters we bacame so fami,iar with, this earlier proposal used a liquid-fueled booster that would fly back to the launch site and land rather than being discarded like the External Tank.

The real prize though, is the photo on the opposite page.  Here’s a closer view.

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Other than the fact that this is a beautiful piece of art, there’s quite a bit of political history attached to this image.  This was produced for a study that Von Braun’s group at Marshall Spaceflight Center conducted in 1969 about what to do after Apollo.

That blunt-nosed craft in the middle of the image with the three cylinders with the USA insignia on them are Von Braun’s idea for a manned-Mars exploration ship.  The three USA-labeled cylinders are actually nuclear powered rockets.  Here a space shuttle is delivering a fuel shipment to the craft while it’s being assembled in orbit nearby a space station.  What you’re seeing envisioned here would have taken dozens of Saturn V launches to get into orbit.

On a later page is an illustration of what the Mars Excursion Module, Von Braun’s Mars lander, would have looked like sitting on Mars.  Note that it’s basically a giant-sized Apollo command module.

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The excellent False Steps blog goes into more detail but essentially this outrageously expensive proposal was laughed out of the room in Washington.  One of the reasons we got the Space Shuttle after Apollo was that the Space Shuttle was seen as more cost effective than Apollo, and into this atmosphere NASA’s spacecraft designers at Marshall were tilting at windmills rather than proposing a more cost-effective alternative to the Shuttle.

It’s fascinating to imagine what might have been though, had Von Braun’s Mars mission proposal been accepted by Nixon.  In fact…

Voyage

Voyage, by Stephen Baxter is a science fiction novel that explores an alternate history where a version of Von Braun’s proposal was actually carried out and the United States landed on Mars in 1986.

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I believe I found this paperback at Last Exit Books in Kent.

Voyage is a real treat for spaceflight fans because it goes into immense detail about the trials and tribulations of the political squabbling, engineering feats, test flight mishaps, and other nerd candy that lead up to the Mars landing.  Clearly Baxter studied the various Mars mission proposals from the late-1960s and early 1970s carefully because many of the details from Von Braun’s plan, like upgrade versions of the Saturn V and the NERVA nuclear rocket project make their way into Voyage.  He also takes cues from real life as well.  For example, rather than the Challenger disaster, a gruesome mishap occurs with on a NERVA rocket test flight.  Rather than the ASTP mission flying, the Soviets are invited to a US Skylab-style station orbiting the Moon.  If you’re a space nerd at all, Voyage is going to be right up your alley.

Sometimes I stumble onto neat space memorabilia in unexpected places.

Atlas V AV-003 Interactive DVD

I was at the Kent/Ravenna Goodwill a few weeks ago browsing at the DVDs and suddenly I see a DVD that says Atlas V AV-003 on the side.

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I expect to see Atlas V rocket serial numbers the on the NASASpaceflight.com forums, not on something at Goodwill.

The Atlas V is a launch vehicle originally developed by Lockheed Martin and currently built and operated by the United Launch Alliance.  You might remember the original Atlas rocket that began as an ICBM in the 1950s, flew astronauts during the Mercury program in the early 1960s, and became a workhorse for launching satellites and space probes well into the 1990s.  Since then, the Atlas name has become a sort of brand name for the Atlas rocket family.  The current Atlas V has design heritage that goes back to the Titan and Atlas-Centaur rockets and uses a first stage booster engine built by the Russians.

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This is the Atlas V AV-003 Interactive DVD.  AV-003 refers to the serial number of the rocket, so this DVD documents the launch of the third Atlas V in 2003.

At first I was a bit disappointed in this DVD because it seemed to be full of standard marketing video drivel and over-produced launch video crud.  That is until I found the menu where they let you watch every camera that was covering the launch.  There are the cameras you expect to see: cameras on the pad and tracking cameras that track the rocket from afar.

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But then there are cameras mounted on the first and second stages.  I’ve seen these used on launch videos before, but I had never had the chance to just watch the raw footage with no commentary or editing.

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Here is a view on the first stage looking downward as one of the solid rocket boosters separates.

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And there it goes tumbling away.

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This camera is looking upward as the payload fairing (aka the nose cone) separates after the rocket has gotten far enough out of the atmosphere that it can shed the weight of the fairing.

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This is from the same camera looking upwards after the first stage has shut down and the second stage, a Centaur upper-stage, has started and speeds away from the dead booster.

I have no idea how a DVD like this made it’s way to the Kent Goodwill, but it made my day when I found it.

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Odds and Ends #1

After the massive post on Windows/386 last week I promised a return to regular service the following week.  Unfortunately I caught a stomach bug this week and by the time I recovered I didn’t have time to come up with a full post.  So instead, here’s a post of “odds and ends”, neat things that might not make it into a full length post.

After last week’s post Twitter user (and all around fascinating dude) @scottcarson1957 recommended that I read Fire in the Valley by Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine, about the early years of the personal computer from about 1975 to 1984 when the book was written.  I ordered a copy from AbeBooks and it arrived Saturday morning.  This copy looks like it came out of a public school library, which has a neat kind of charm.  I believe Fire in the Valley was the basis for the awesome TNT movie Pirates of Silicon Valley, a movie I adore.

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On Saturday I was delighted to feel well enough to go to the Friends of the Cuyahoga Falls Library book sale where in the past I’ve had really great luck finding cool sci-fi books for peanuts.  Isaac Asimov is always well represented.  The Friends of the Library organization has this large room in the basement of the Cuyahoga Falls Library where they collect books for sale and twice per year they let the public come in and buy them at very low prices.  This time we got there after 3PM, which is when they start doing their “fit as many books as you can into a bag for $3” sale. The selection was still very good for the sale being so close to the end.  As I made my way to the sci-fi section I passed the history and war sections and spotted a copy of The Codebreakers by David Kahn, published in 1967 (this copy is a Fourth Edition from 1968).

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I remembered there was something special about this book and that for some reason it was difficult to get so I immediately grabbed it and put it into my bag.

When I got home and googled it I remembered…This book was discussed in Steven Levy’s Crypto as being one of the first public histories of cryptography.

When I read Crypto I thought “gee, I should own a copy of the The Codebreakers” but then I looked up the book…It’s not that it’s difficult to get it’s that for some reason it’s bloody expensive!  A new copy basically costs $45 whether you want the hardcover or the eBook.  A $45 eBook!  A used copy of the hardcover is still over $20!  I don’t care how important a book is, that’s highway robbery.

So, I’m very glad I picked up a copy of The Codebreakers as part of my $3 bag of books.

Also in my bag of books where these three Asimov books:

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Pebble in the Sky is the first of the classic novels he wrote early in his career, but those two other books are collections of science fact writing he also did.  It’s oddly not that well known that Asimov was a terrifically prolific fact writer.  There was a series of collections of his science fact articles from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction published under the Discus imprint by Avon Books in the 1970s and From Earth to Heaven and Of Time, Space, and Other Things are the seventh and eighth in the series I have found.

Another thing I bought at the Friends of the Library Sale was this copy of Caddyshack on CED:

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CED, you may recall, was the Capacitance Electronic Disc System, RCA’s entry into the early-1980s home video format war that also brought us VHS, Beta, and LaserDisc.  Of the various losers of that war, CED was probably the most sad loser.

VHS, of course won.  Beta gave the world slightly better video quality and was still recordable.  LaserDisc was a very adaptable format that soldered on until the advent of DVD as the format with the highest quality analog video.  CED basically had no advantages.  It was not recordable but did not have better video quality as LaserDisc did.  It used a needle that had to physically touch the surface of the disc so over-time the video quality of a disc would degrade.

The discs are held in the bulky plastic caddy you see in the photo.  You would insert the caddy into the player and the player would sort of eat the disc while you removed the caddy.

At the moment I do not own a CED player.

The reason I bought this CED is that I sort of collect examples of forgotten video formats:

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Here you see Caddyshack on CED, Blade Runner on LaserDisc, The Pink Panther on Video CD, Jumpin’ Jack Flash on Beta, Being John Malkovich on HD DVD, and Deep Impact on DIVX (full-frame DIVX for maximum awfulness).

The practical reason for owning these things is if I happen to find a player at a thrift store I want to already own a test article.  The silly reason is that I just think it’s hilarious.