The title of this posting is no hyperbole. The “Chariot of Fear” is the ancient Greek personification of the mythological God Phobos, described by the ancients as horror riding his chariot across the night sky.
In reality, the diminutive moon Phobos, almost skimming the surface of the warrior planet Mars, is a potentially innocuous place to visit assuming you have a pressure suit and oxygen to breathe. Like Earth’s much larger moon, there is no atmosphere on Phobos. There is also no appreciable gravity.
NASA and Japan are planning a joint unmanned mission to the moons of Mars in 2024. The joint venture is called the Martian Moons eXploration Mission, or MMX. Those unmanned missions may be a prelude to later manned landings since NASA has considered landing astronauts on Phobos before landing on Mars, due to the lack of atmosphere and ultra low gravity of that moon.
Using the Hubble telescope, NASA generated a short video of Phobos as it orbits around Mars.
While researching a new novel, I was looking for a view of Mars from Phobos. Using the astronomy software Starry Night Pro 8, I found it.
Further more, I was able to make a 3 minute video of Mars going through an entire rotation, sped up of course some 150 times.
While the above video is aesthetically pleasing because of the background stars and the entirety of Mars being in the field of view (FOV), in reality Mars is too far away in this simulation. As the NASA movie suggests, the surface of Mars is much closer (about 6000 km away from Phobos), and thus in reality Mars fills a quarter of the celestial horizon as seen from Phobos. In other words, from Phobos the FOV of Mars is about 45°, which yields a more accurate view as shown in the following video, also made using Starry Night Pro.
The shadow of Phobos can be seen racing across the surface of Mars, to the left of center of the Martian equator.
From a writer’s perspective, thanks to affordable but sophisticated astronomical simulation software and a bountiful database of space objects and trajectories, both near and far, there is no longer an excuse for science fiction writers not getting their scenes setup correctly, assuming their stories are based on the observable universe.
As for the unobservable universe, well that’s where this thing called imagination comes into play. In an imaginary universe, there’s no fact checking allowed.
I once met the Father of the U.S Remote Viewing program, unawares.
A decade ago, at the request of a Navy engineer who ended up being a character in my novel Middle Waters, I invited Dr. Harold E. Puthoff into the Navy Experimental Diving Unit to give a talk on advanced physics. He had attracted a small but highly educated and attentive crowd which, like me, had no idea that the speaker had once led the CIA in the development of its top secret Remote Viewing program.
Puthoff is the Director of the Institute of Advanced Studies at Austin, in Texas, but before that, and more germane to this discussion, Puthoff was a laser physicist at the Stanford Research Institute. It was there that the CIA chose him to lead a newly created Remote Viewing program, designed to enable the U.S. to maintain some degree of competiveness with Russia’s cold war psychic spying program.
Psychic spying was purportedly the method used by the two superpowers to visualize things from a distance; not from a satellite, but from what some call the highly developed powers of the mind’s eye. If we believe what we read on the subject, Remote Viewing was eventually dropped from the US psychic arsenal not because it had no successes, but because it was not as reliable as signal intelligence (SIGINT), satellite imagery, and spies on the ground. But, it has been argued, it might be ideal in locations where you can’t put spies on the ground, such as the dark side of the moon, or the deep sea .
Serendipitously, as I started writing this blog post, Newsweek published a review of the Remote Viewing efforts of Puthoff and others in a November 2015 issue. The article seemed fairly inclusive, at least more so than other articles on Remote Viewing I’ve seen, but the Newsweek author was not particularly charitable towards Puthoff. Strangely, the strength and veracity of Puthoff’s science was reportedly criticized by two New Zealand psychologists who, as the Newsweek author quoted, had a “premonition” about Puthoff.
“Psychologists” and “premonitions” are not words commonly heard in the assessment of science conducted by laser physicists, especially those employed by the CIA. The CIA is not stupid, and neither are laser physicists from Stanford.
To the extent that I am able to judge a man by meeting him in person and hearing him talk about physics, I would have to agree with Puthoff’s decision to ignore his ill-trained detractors. Every scientist I know has had detractors, and as often as not those detractors have lesser credentials. Nevertheless, I have the good sense to not debate the efficacy of remote viewing. I don’t know enough about it to hold an informed opinion. However, there seems to be some evidence that it worked occasionally, and for a science fiction writer that is all that is needed.
As my curiosity became piqued by the discovery of the true identity of my guest speaker at NEDU, and as I learned what he had done for the U.S. during the Cold War, I thought of another great physicist, Enrico Fermi, one of the fathers of the atomic bomb. In the midst of a luncheon conversation with Edward Teller, Fermi once famously asked, “Where are they?” The “they” he was referring to, were extraterrestrial aliens.
What became known as Fermi’s Paradox went something like this: with all the billions of stars with planets in our galactic neighborhood, statistically there should be alien civilizations everywhere. But we don’t see them. Why not? “Where are they?”
In most scientists’ opinions, it would be absurdly arrogant for us to believe we are the only intelligent life form in the entire universe. And so ETs must be out there, somewhere. And if there, perhaps here, on our planet, at least occasionally. And that is all the premise you need for a realistic, contemporary science fiction thriller.
But then there is that pesky Fermi Paradox. Why don’t we see them?
Well, they could indeed be here, checking us out by remote viewing, all the while remaining safely hidden from sight. After all, as one highly intelligent Frog once said, humans are a “dangerous species” —fictionally speaking of course.
That “hidden alien” scenario may be improbable, but it’s plausible, if you first suspend a little disbelief. If we can gather intelligence while hiding, then certainly they can, assuming they are more advanced than humans. A technological and mental advantage seems likely if they are space travelers, which they almost have to be within the science fiction genre. Arguably, fictional ETs may have long ago engineered space-time, which could prove mighty convenient for tooling around the galactic neighborhood.
So, if in the development of a fictional story we assume that ETs can remote view, the next question would be, why? Is mankind really that dangerous?
Well, I don’t intend for this post to be a spoiler for Middle Waters, but I will say that the reasons revealed in the novel for why ETs might want to remote view, are not based on fear of humans, but are based on sound science. From that science, combined with a chance meeting with Hal Puthoff, the basic premise of a science fiction thriller was born.
So, to correct what some of my readers have thought, I did not invent the concept of “remote viewing”. It is not fictional; it is real, and was invented and used by far smarter people than myself, or even that clever protagonist, Jason Parker.
When I first saw images from NASA’s various Mars rovers, I was almost crawling out of my skin with excitement. As I spoke at a NASA sponsored conference where scientists and engineers were discussing plans for a Mars mission and colonization, I was enthralled with the thought that humans are actually planning for mankind to leave our planet for a foreign world.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about what I would miss if I were a colonist on Mars. I’ve decided, what I would miss the most is something we take for granted in most places of the world; water.
Of course, Martian pioneers would have to have abundant stockpiles of drinking water. But I sure would miss Earth’s oceans; their awe inspiring breadth and depth, their multitudes of sea life, and the gentle shades of blue-green in clear water along sandy coasts.
I would miss the sound of the surf, the laughter of children chasing and being chased by harmless but persistent waves.
I would miss the sound of clicking shrimp, and the clicking of dolphins corralling schools of fish.
I would miss being able to open the windows on a perfect day. I would miss feeling a breeze on my bare face.
I would miss never having to wonder if I had enough oxygen to breathe. I’d miss not worrying that toxic carbon dioxide would seep into my tiny house and suffocate me and my family in our sleep, or that my home’s pressure barrier would fail and our blood would essentially boil, releasing a flood of deadly bubbles stopping our hearts.
I am concerned that those attempting to colonize Mars woud sink into a chronic melancholy simply because the water that pleases and sustains so many of us is absent on Mars. Could these homesick astronauts survive, and even thrive?
If the first wave of colonizers did survive, procreate, and nurture the next generation, the first generation of true Martians, then I suspect that generation would fare much better psychologically than the first. After all, they would never have known the verdant forests and splendorous seas of Earth.
As I pondered what it would be like to be a third and fourth generation colonist on Mars, growing up knowing nothing else, I realized that rather than space exploration being a guaranteed and common place activity at that time in the not too distant future, a bleaker possibility exists.
It is entirely possible that war, disease, asteroid and comet collisions, or even the failure of mismanaged banking systems could so impoverish the Earth that space travel to the Martian colony might not remain economically sustainable. Eventually, to the stranded Martians our Earth could be little more than a distant memory, perhaps even a legend. Martian children might grow up on the red planet hearing tales of Sky People who came to Mars from a far away place, a world of indescribable beauty, with colors of blue and green that are not even imaginable on Mars.
Some native Americans have in the past recounted tales of Sky People coming to Earth. Wouldn’t it be ironic if the next generation of Earthlings becomes the fabled Sky People that populate the planet Mars?
If offered the chance to be one of those Sky People on a one-way trip to Mars, would I sign up for the mission? Frankly I don’t think I could leave the most beautiful planet in the solar system, perhaps in the galaxy, even for something as exotic as a trip to Mars.
NASA says the odds that someone will be struck by falling space debris when the bus-sized NASA Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite comes down this week is 1 in 3200. Which got me to thinking … if I was struck while out walking Friday night, would I be unusually lucky because I beat the odds, or unlucky because I beat the odds?
Would my life insurance company pay off? Arguably it would not be an act of God, or an act of war, so I think the insurance company should pay. But I really don’t know if they would; admittedly, I don’t have a falling space debris clause in my policy. (As the space around our planet becomes increasingly crowded, perhaps space debris insurance would be a good investment.)
Now if the odds were 1 in 3200 for each of us, can you imagine the chaos? That would be a mass casualty event in the making. Those odds would be much higher than the odds of being killed by almost anything else I can think of.
From Dr. Strangelove. Click to activate the video.
I suspect there would be anti-NASA marches on the capitols of all the nations affected, which would be most of the world’s nations, by people demanding we nuke the satellite before it poses a hazard. Or maybe they’d demand we send space cowboys up to guide the careening space bus to a safer impact. (I’m not sure how those heroic bronco busters would get back; maybe they’d ride it down a la Dr. Strangelove.)
Fortunately, the odds are mighty small (1 in 21 trillion) that you or I would be hit by this particular satellite. There are much greater chances of winning a state lottery.
But assuming a piece did actually hit me without putting a hole through my head or chest, maybe simply winging me, could I profit from it? Would I become an instant celebrity? Would there be book deals? Can you imagine the television talk show questions, like “How did you feel about your impending death when you saw the fire ball heading your way?”
Let’s face it, with burning metal hurtling to Earth at 18,000 miles per hour I likely wouldn’t see it in time to react, and if I did see it, I undoubtedly wouldn’t have time to mentally compute its trajectory. Should I stand still or run? In fact, I think that calculation would be impossible. An incoming missile simply gets larger and larger in your field of view, giving you perhaps just enough time to say “Oh…” but not enough time to finish the four letter expletive you had intended.
But frankly, I’m not at all concerned. If it happens at all, it wouldn’t happen to me. It always happens to the other guy. Which I’m sure is what the insurance companies are hoping – it will be the other guy, and the other guy will be uninsured.
If pressed, I suppose I could see the insurance company’s point; If I did get squashed by supersonic satellite debris it probably would be an act of God.
Now, I’m trying to think, have I done anything to tick Him off lately?
I was securely strapped into one of the world’s largest human centrifuges at the Naval Air Development Center (NADC) Warminster, Pennsylvania, jocked-down like a pilot in a high performance fighter. As the gondola started moving, I felt the pneumatic cushions in my G-suit inflate, squeezing my legs and abdomen, helping to prevent blood from pooling. Excess pooling would cause a decrease in the volume of blood being pumped to my brain, potentially resulting in unconsciousness. That type of blackout is called G-LOC, or G-induced loss of consciousness.
G is the term for the acceleration of gravity, about 9.8 m/s2. I was being exposed to a relatively mild but prolonged 3-Gs. To put that acceleration into perspective, the shuttle astronauts are exposed to no more than 3-Gs near the end of their climb to orbit, and briefly during reentry. The Apollo astronauts headed to the moon were limited to a maximum of 4 Gs, again during only a brief period of time.
But my three-G exposure was not brief. If I had been launched upwards with a 3-G acceleration for three minutes I would have been travelling at almost 12,000 miles per hour at the end of those 3-minutes, over mach 15, and would have climbed 296 miles, well above the altitude of the International Space Station. It would have been a sight to behold.
Another 3 and a half minutes and I would have been going fast enough to escape Earth’s gravity.
Alas, in reality I wasn’t going anywhere, except in circles around the inside of the centrifuge room, attached to a 4000 hp electric motor by a 50-foot long arm.
During the run I experienced about what I’d expected — I felt heavy, very heavy, like 3 times my body weight heavy. But I was not at all expecting the sensation I got when they put on the brakes. I felt like a bowling ball careening down a bowling lane. I felt like a gymnast doing impossibly fast forward somersaults.
It was not pleasant.
And I’m very glad the photographer took a photo before the run, rather than after.
I was at Warminster to study the stresses imposed on F/A-18 fighter pilots during high-G exposures. In the 1990s, losses of aircraft and pilots were an all too frequent occurrence during high-speed maneuvering flight due to G-LOC. To prevent G-LOC pilots need to perform, with precision, an anti-G straining manuever, even though they wear the same anti-G suit I was wearing.
To understand the fighter pilots’ problems, anti G-suits provide at most 1-1.5 G protection advantage. and most people lose consciousness above 3-5 Gs without a G-suit. But a fighter like the F/A-18 can easily pull 8-9 Gs during close in combat. That is where the anti-G straining manuever comes in. The pilots grunt and strain, contracting their leg and abdominal muscles during the high-G portion of the pull, forcing blood from their abdomen into their chest cavity, making blood available for the heart and brain.
The NADC centrifuge had been used to train the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts. Quoting from the Air & Space Smithsonian magazine, “John Glenn called it a “dreaded” and “sadistic” part of astronaut training. Apollo 11’s Michael Collins called it “diabolical.” Time magazine referred to it as “a monstrous apparatus,” a “gruesome merry-go-round,” and, less originally, a “torture chamber.”
Compared to the centrifuge ride, a flight to the moon was a cake-walk, except for Apollo 13 of course.
The NADC centrifuge was closed by the BRAC committee in 1996. The Navy Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory in Pensacola FL also has a centrifuge in which I’ve ridden, but NAMRL is closing as well, in September 2011.
It seems like military man-rated centrifuges aren’t as popular as they used to be.
Fortunately, NASA has a modern centrifuge, although its maximum G-force capability is about half that of the NADC centrifuge. Nevertheless, anyone who has ridden a centrifuge will tell you the 20-G capability of the NASA Ames centrifuge is more than enough to test human endurance to the forces of acceleration.