Interplanetary

Interplanetary

I initially learned of the British Interplanetary Society when I read Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s novel Prelude to Space. This was in 1977 and I was a high school student. The novel was one of a handful of science fiction books in our school’s library. They were all classics and Prelude to Space excited my imagination and yearning to become either an engineer or scientist. In this 1947 novel the first manned mission to the Moon is launched from the Australian Outback. It is an international endeavor and is led, in part by a British organization called “Interplanetary.” Only later did I realize that this was actually a nod to the British Interplanetary Society of which Sir Arthur was a former chairman.

The organization was founded on October 13th 1933 by a group of people who were interested in spaceflight. The organization, since inception, is dedicated to creating, exploring, and promoting concepts, technologies, and information about spaceflight. This applies to activity in Earth orbit, within the solar system, and beyond. Even as a fledgling organization it initiated some ground-breaking work, including a 1938 design of a lunar lander, the patent for a spaceflight navigation aid, and conferences on artificial satellites and remote sensing of the Earth’s surface. NATO and other national organizations took interest. The BIS has an international membership and highly respected reputation.

BIS Moon Lander 1930s
Moon Lander Design from the 1930s study as featured in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society by RS Smith & HE Ross
BIS Meeting 1938
1938 meeting of the British Interplanetary Society and American Rocket Society. From l to r H.E. Ross, J.H. Edwards, H.E. Turner, R. Truax (in US navy uniform), R.A. Smith, M.K. Hanson, A.C. Clarke

Around the time I read Prelude to Space the BIS conducted studies related to interstellar flight. This included the famous design program for an interstellar probe called Daedalus. In recent times Daedalus has been revisited by the BIS and updated as the Icarus Project. More recently a study for a manned mission to the Martian north pole called Project Boreas was undertaken. The study looked at the advantages of establishing a scientific base at the planet’s north pole in terms of resource utilization and the ability of using the little settlement as a sort of beachhead to explore other parts of the planet.

bis daedalus
Design concept for unmanned interstellar probe “Daedalus”

The organization is very detailed when it undertakes such studies and applies solid engineering and scientific principles to its designs and reports. In many cases they serve as a touchstone and lay the foundation for follow-on work where such ideas become reality. Indeed, this fall has seen a symposium on new launcher systems and their potential impact on Mars exploration. And this November the BIS will offer a symposium on space elevator design and development. There seems to always be something new taking place at the British Interplanetary Society and it is certainly an organization to watch.

 

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Tha-Thump!

Tha-Thump!

On an October’s day in 1947 it dropped from the belly of a converted piston-engine bomber and heralded in a new era. It is rare to write such a sentence without the “it” being some type of devilishly-crafted ordnance. In this case the item dropping out the bay of the B29 Superfortress was a tiny rocket plane designated the Bell X-1. The plane’s pilot, Captain Chuck Yeager, had nicknamed the plane the Glamorous Glennis, after his wife. It was one of many aircraft named after Mrs. Yeager. Each of those, both before and after 1947, represent something of a compact catalog of aviation history.

The Bell X-1’s development is a two-fold story: plane and engine. In many ways the interest in a rocket powered aircraft goes back decades, but the X-1’s genesis is likely somewhere around 1942. In Britain, the Ministry of Aviation, spurred on by the prevailing air war threat from Germany, began to secretly develop technologies that might allow supersonic flight. A company called Miles Aircraft began to develop a turbojet-powered engine called the M52, among other technologies.

Later, in 1945, the British and Americans signed an agreement to exchange information on supersonic research. Around this time Bell Aviation was given the go-ahead to build three XS-class (“eXperimental, Supersonic) planes. Ultimately the American planes would use a liquid fuel rocket engine created by a company in New Jersey called Reaction Motors, Inc.

Reaction Motors built and delivered a four chambered rocket engine with production designation XLR-11. The engine was one of several early progenitors of rockets that would someday take spacecraft beyond the Earth. Beginning in the 1920s there were little pockets of rocketeers working in Europe and North America. In the United States members of the American Interplanetary Society began rocketry experiments and by 1930 had founded a nascent little company that worked out of a converted bicycle shop. By the mid-1940s scrappy little Reaction Motors, Inc had years of experience in this field. The XLR-11 used a diluted form of ethyl alcohol as the fuel and liquid oxygen as the oxidizer. Nitrogen charged (pressurized) turbo-jets established enough of a pressure level in the engine’s thrust chambers to maintain a controlled yet explosive combustion.

bell x1 sota
Figure 1: The Bell X-1 was a state of the art research aircraft complete with sophisticated scientific instrumentation. Drama aside, it was a flying science platform.

Production of parts followed a parallel path with the plane and engine developed separately but then integrated at a Bell Aircraft facility in Buffalo, NY. By the shores of Lake Erie, a brightly painted bullet with wings received a state-of-the-art rocket engine with which it would challenge the fabled sound barrier. The plane was in many ways the first of its kind but is the result of decades-long progress in engineering experimentation, design, and aviation know-how.

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More tests were completed at Muroc in the California desert northeast of Los Angeles. The first recognized supersonic flight happened on October 14, 1947. The plane reached Mach 1.06 at an altitude of 13000 meters. Yeager and his plane experienced significant vibrations throughout the fuselage as they approached the sound barrier. As the plane propelled itself through the sky the air ahead of the X-1’s nose became increasingly compressed. When the speed of sound was suddenly exceeded the flying became smooth and the air around them seemed eerily still.

There is little debate around the significance of this event and by “recognized” this meant that level, sustained supersonic flight in excess of 1100 km/h had been achieved. There had been a few claims from reliable witnesses to this effect during World War Two. It is likely that some aircraft at that time, particularly high performance fighter aircraft that went into steep dives, reached or exceeded the sound barrier. An experimental Luftwaffe plane called the DFS-346 was captured and modified by the Soviets at the end of the war. It was flown in late 1945 and is rumored to have surpassed the speed of sound while being flown by German pilot Wolfgang Ziese.

The flight of Yeager was a milestone but at the time was considered a secret. The story was eventually leaked to Aviation Week magazine and then announced in a news story in the Los Angeles Times in late December of that year. The event was recognized by the National Aeronautics Association and the Collier Trophy was awarded to Yeager at the Truman White House in 1948. Needless to say the spilled secret became a world-wide sensation.

Yeager’s flight in the Bell X-1 is remembered in biography and film, especially in 1983’s The Right Stuff. There is a memorable scene when the Glamorous Glennis breaks the sound barrier and two concussive thumps rattle the onlookers far below on the desert floor. It seems as if the little plane and pilot have been lost. But then somebody spots the X-1 in the sky. It is no mirage and after its engines run out of fuel Yeager glides the plane to a safe landing.

Years later, when space shuttles returned to Muroc after long flights in orbit, they would drop below the sound barrier to that same double sonic boomTha-thump, thump. It always seemed like those amazing spacecraft were tipping their hats to a storied and near-mythic history.

October Bridge

October Bridge

A walk on the Erie Canal Trail last night revealed a new aspect to some of the wildlife that has managed to adapt to our urban environment. Year round there are plenty of waterfowl, songbirds, chipmunks, squirrels, groundhogs, raccoons, and the occasional fox to be seen. These critters frequent the strip of woodland that runs next to the canal’s steep embankment. Walking along the trail last night I noticed two players converge that I hadn’t appreciated before: insects and fish.

Heading east toward a rising Harvest Moon, I caught wispy blurs of motion against the diffuse but growing light ahead. Tiny night flyers had gathered in roiling, spherical swarms. The evening was cool with a taste of growing autumnal chill. Summer was definitely over…at least for today…and these latecomers had found their way into the shadowed cleft that ran beneath the nearby highway. To these frail creatures the bright glow of the tall prismatic lamps that clustered above the interstate must have seemed like the shout of some ancient god.  If not that then I wondered what drew them here. Perhaps the heat from the paved trail or something that is only relevant to their quicksilver lives?

Walking along, soft traceries brushed my nose, brow, and ears. Tiny ethereal beings skimmed the air just above my skin, gently colliding and then spinning back into the air behind me. I walked slower to give them some warning of my approach. Trees and brush grew up around me and shadows clashed. From the murky water of the canal I heard the occasional soft splash. Glancing down the rocky embankment I saw curvilinear patterns form on the surface of the water. There were many spirals forming with a languid, liquid grace. In the shallows I saw the occasional torpedo-shape of a ghost fish. Where the little night-swarmers had been careless the dark swimmers took advantage. There was a feast going on in the moonlight!

I continued onward and the fish seemed to follow me eastward. Were there many in the canal or did some combination of my headlamp, the moon, and the insects draw them along like a living tide? The path was bordered now by young, slim maples and the wide trunk of an oak. Amid parchment-dry leaves greenish husks lay in witness to a walnut tree’s scattershot attempt at immortality. A shadow loomed in a wide, geometrically straight line where a bridge cut across the dark sky.

I paused and looked up at the bridge’s archway of perfected, modern truss-work. Red and green lamps glowed like old-fashioned lanterns to show any boaters the navigational right-of-way. The bridge was new and it had only opened near summer’s end. Its form stood large and was a tribute to the months of work that had gone into its design, planning, and construction.

The old bridge that was replaced had been narrow and weathered. Cars and trucks would cross in a cacophony of jarring bumps and lurches as busy wheels encountered potholes or the scars of hasty repair work. Those sounds are just memory now. The traffic above crossed the new roadway with a barely discernible hiss. That relative quiet seemed like a shout of triumph. Canal and bridge stood together like an intersection in time, old and new but both full of utility.

I walked up the pathway to the avenue, leaving history and entering the modern. The sidewalk stretched wide and I continued homeward. Crossing the new bridge I heard the distant slap of water. Below, tiny clusters of iridescent wings glowed within the street lights. All just a passing signature of a night that might never come again.

Remembering Seattle Mornings

Remembering Seattle Mornings

Smudged dawn behind rain clouds.

Mist.

A raven worrying an unseen object on the lawn.

Slant and Desolation Angels displaced on my bookshelf as if they were half the night fighting one another for space.

Making toast but remembering those Sunday breakfasts when she took me over to Mae’s.

Bike tires hissing along damp pavement.

That dream where I’m writing with a laptop on a Washington State ferry.

Watching X-Files with my Scully on the old B&W we rescued from the guts of a Bellevue dumpster.

Green Lake.

The smell of coffee.

Some old person down the hall at work this morning playing the Singles soundtrack for no apparent reason.

Nostalgia for the 90’s, unbidden.

But really, I do know better.

My Seattle boy of coffee and computers.

My Rochester girl of lilacs and Asian dreams.

Walking the spine of a mountain with ocean on one side and mountains crowding the other.

Sitting with my backbone against a rock ledge at 9,500 feet, shivering, and then…

…the sun, swaddled by Pacific-laden rain clouds, finally peeks out at the world with all the radiance of a newborn babe.

Here in the bosom of my beautiful, beloved, and welcoming university I sip from the cup of the global Starbucks diaspora.

Okay, then.

Something on this dampest of July mornings tells me it’s time for that road trip.

Yeah, Frodo, the mountains are calling.

Great Sky River

Great Sky River

It’s interesting how a writer can on occasion transcend their own moment or place and create a sense of timelessness. The words on the page focus you in the moment and enthrall the reader. It’s a form of magic. This week I picked up The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. I haven’t read this book in about 10 years and I am thoroughly enjoying it. As an astronomer one passage was quite striking. Huck and Jim are adrift on the raft going down the Mississippi River and Twain captures the sense of wonder we so often feel when we look up at the night sky.

Twain wrote: Sometimes we’d have the whole river to ourselves for a long time. The riverbanks and the islands would all be far off in the distance. Sometimes you’d see a spark of light, which would be a candle in a cabin window. Or sometimes you’d see a spark or two on the water as a raft or scow or something passed by. Every now and then you’d hear the sounds of a fiddle or a song drifting out across the water from another boat. Then there was the sky, all speckled with stars. We used to lie on our backs and look up at them and discuss whether they were created or just came into being on their own. Jim thought they’d been made, but I thought they’d just happened. I figured it would have taken too long to make so many. Jim said the moon could have laid them like a chicken lays eggs. That sounded reasonable, so I didn’t argue with him. I’ve seen a frog lay a lot of eggs, so I knew it could be done. We used to watch the falling stars, too, as they streaked down. Jim thought they were falling because they’d spoiled and were being thrown out of the nest. It sure was nice to live on a raft. [Bantam Classics Edition, p115]

I’ve sat in observatories on many a night and shared such moments with other astronomers. And like Jim and Huck we too speculate about the nature of it all. May life always be good on this little raft called Earth.

 

 

(Note: photo by Mikkel Jensen at 500px.com)

The Long Road

The Long Road

“The Long Road”

Morning on Mars.

A shrunken sun rose to cast feeble light across the dust of a billion years. Cold darkness became shadow. Shadow evaporated as quickly as the night’s tenuous frost. A thin, cold wind grew from the south, ghostly herald of spring storms rising up from the distant ice cap. Chill and bitter, the wind clutched and tossed the ancient sands. Talcum-fine grit ascended, gathered momentum, and flew onward to channel dunes, erode rock, and bite at the metal flanks of the ship from Earth.

Sitting in the lander’s snug cockpit, Brendan Eriksson heard the steady hiss of sand against the thick oval of the pilot’s port. Storm coming. Big one. The churning atmosphere was already making radio communication with the orbiting Athena difficult. Not that the good ship’s crew could help Brendan with his current problem. What he needed right now was an experienced search party, not a band of eager mars-nauts.

Brendan peered out at a landscape grown misty with blowing dust. Somewhere amid those jealous sands was a lone man. Brendan pressed the call switch on his mike and demanded, “Carter, where the hell are you?” Static and the occasional charged pop were all that answered him. Angrily, he tossed the headset into a corner and headed for the airlock.

Carter never checks the weather updates, Brendan thought as he clambered down the access tunnel to the lander’s workbay. He probably went off in a huff. Out collecting specimens or poking around any of a dozen sites. A good stretch he calls it. Stupidity I’d call it…going off alone. He knows it’s a violation of Mars Program protocols!

Brendan slipped on the last rung of the ladder. His shin banged the hard plastic and his curse filled the little workbay. His outrage soon faded as he focused on preparations needed for egress. Yet even while donning his cumbersome mars-suit Brendan found himself recalling the events of last night.

The message had come in around 1800 hours. The two occupants of Mars Site One were settling down for dinner. It had been a productive day, possibly their best after a week on the surface. The sample cases in the cargo hold were full. Their bodies ached from the day’s exertion. Still, they were smiling as they opened foil packages and gulped bulbs of juice. Carter had even toasted the day’s success.

Then the message bell chimed. The words from Earth were short and to the point. Funding for future Mars missions had been cut. They were to return to Earth immediately.

“This can’t be!” Carter exclaimed. “We’ve spent years getting this project off the ground. And it’s canceled at the height of our success? Impossible!”

Carter recorded a message and sent it up to Athena for immediate relay back to Earth. Forty-five interminable minutes passed while Brendan changed ‘cycler filters and Carter fumed over a quiet comm board. In the end, Earth’s only response was to acknowledge receipt. No further comment. Transmission ended.

Weary after the long day and the sudden blow, Brendan patted the old scientist on the shoulder and turned in. Carter barely responded. Instead he stared forlornly through the pilot port. Outside, Mars was deep shadow and sand-glitter as Phobos walked its hurried path across the night sky.

Suited up, Brendan ducked through a thick hatchway and prepped the airlock. The conical lander was divided into two sections: the cockpit-hab was on top while the workbay and airlock were down near the landing skirt. All else was dedicated to life support and the various organs of the lander’s ascent stage. The ascent stage consisted of their cockpit and the bell-shaped engine core with its associated propellant tanks. For their return to Athena most of the vehicle’s mass would be abandoned. Safe within the stripped down ascent stage the two marswalkers and their precious specimens would ride comfortably back to the waiting spaceship.

Despite their best housekeeping efforts ocher dust dirtied the airlock’s polymesh floor and bulkheads. Brendan opened a smudged closet door and removed a surface pack. The units were always kept fully charged. Brendan deftly shrugged a pack over the mars-suit’s thick shoulders. Serpentine tubes from the pack were quickly attached to nozzles on his suit. Straps then secured the pack to his back. Step by step, just as protocol demanded.

After the hatch was sealed the airlock was depressurized to Martian ambient. Through the deck Brendan felt a pump chug as air was compressed and then siphoned into a reserve tank. Through the airlock’s tiny porthole the ruddy mars-scape tugged at his heart.

Mars! It sang in his heart like a song. He had spent years helping put this expedition together. Five years of design and training and toil. And then came the real work: the long and dangerous nine months aboard Athena in order to actually get here, the orbital survey to find the best landing site, and then the wild ride down to the surface in the lander. Yet it had all been worth it! In the last week Brendan had trod more Martian soil than he had ever imagined in his wildest dreams.

Minutes later he was down the ladder and beyond the lee of a mylar equipment tent. Mars was gusty wind and cloying sands. Brendan tuned his secondary channel to the location chimer in Carter’s suit. Instead of a comforting ping he heard only the same static that existed on the comm frequency.

“Carter!” Brendan called once more. Then, angrily: “Carter this is one helluva time to take a walk! You’re the one constantly badgering me about protocol. Big storm coming, any fool can see…”

Nearby, something caught Brendan’s eye. One leg of a scanner tripod had collapsed and dropped its delicate hardware into an orange drift. Almost on compulsion he walked several paces to inspect it. Only a day before he had anchored the tripod into the ground. He knew it should be stable even in these strong winds. Had it been purposely knocked over? The only culprit could be Carter.

Brendan felt heat sweep his brow and he cursed. Even if Carter was angry the man had no reason to beat up on the equipment.

Brendan examined the scanner. One of its interchangeable control modules lay in the dust. The unit’s slim anemometer was also missing.

Brendan was scanning the ground for any other errant components when he noticed something odd at the base of an adjacent dune. Amid the swirling dust a gem twinkled. Could that be another scanner? He knew Carter had a temperamental side but this was ridiculous! Brendan sighed and moved toward the glittering jewel.

He reached the mound of dislodged dust and his gloved hand wiped away the grit that covered the tiny green eye. He lifted the object that the emerald LED was attached to and his heart went cold. In gravity roughly a third of Earth’s the Mark VI life pack was not very heavy. Indeed, even fully charged the thing weighed only a few kilos. Yet it slipped from Brendan’s hands as if it weighed as much as the pitted boulders that surrounded their lonely landing site. Brendan swallowed and tasted sourness. Without his pack the air reserve in Carter’s suit was good for only fifteen minutes.

Brendan rose up on shaky knees, imagining the unimaginable. There was no reason for Carter to abandon his pack! It violated every protocol! Was the old scientist intent on throwing everything away? No. There had to be a better explanation. Dr. Carter Jackson was made of tougher stuff than all of them put together. He was the main reason they had made it to Mars!

Yet last night, after the news of the Mars Program’s cancellation…

You can’t work a lifetime and then see it taken away overnight, Brendan thought. Even a stubborn old bastard like Carter can only take so much.

“Carter!” Brendan called into the static that filled his comm set.

Through the convex bubble of his helmet Brendan’s eyes stared up the slope of the dune. A series of oval depressions, swept by the gale and eroding even as he watched, climbed the sandy hummock. The boot prints were unmistakable. Brendan followed them.

Trudging over the rise the man from Earth stared into the darkness of a Martian world-storm. A wall of dust and cloud reared across the southern horizon, relentlessly enveloping the rolling tablelands that stood before the Tharsis range. Movement caught his eye and Brendan gasped. A kilometer away, a tall figure in a bulky mars-suit stood on a high hill, transfixed by the approaching storm.

“Carter!” Brendan called.

In the low gee Brendan loped forward, praying that the old scientist would stay still long enough for him to catch up. Crossing hummocks and staggering down dunes, stray thoughts licked across Brendan’s mind. What if Carter had abandoned the pack more than fifteen minutes ago? Mission protocol only allowed fifteen minutes once that pack was off. It might already be too late…

And then, instead of being a distant figure, Carter stood above him on the tumbled and dust-blown knoll. Halfway up the rise Brendan heard the other man’s voice in his earphones: “…visionless cowards…if they could only see this…the breath of a world.”

“Carter?” Brendan stepped within a few meters of his companion.

The old man turned to regard Brendan. Behind his visor Carter’s face was pale and tears filled his eyes. When those eyes saw Brendan they closed slightly and Carter shook his head sadly. “It was a good run, eh, kid?”

“Carter, you need to put your pack on. Protocol…”

Carter laughed bitterly. Below them the rolling highlands descended toward a wide valley. Carter’s black glove swept over the ruddy land. “You and I almost conquered Mars, Brendan,” the old scientist said.

“We can buddy breathe,” Brendan persisted. “Protocol allows that. Long walk back to the lander but…”

“Lowell started the conquest, you know? Burroughs and Bradbury breathed dreams into this dust. The team that landed the first probes here were a bold bunch. Bolder than any of the bomb-builders they had to compete against, that’s for sure.”

“Carter,” Brendan whispered. Tears stung the young engineer’s eyes. He had never seen his friend like this. So upset.

“They conquered Mars, all of them. But when you stop asking questions or feeling wonder or looking outward, then Mars laughs in our face. Mars always laughs in the face of cowards. This place knows when it’s won.”

“Let’s go back to the lander, Carter.”

Carter sighed. A long and tired sigh. He suddenly seemed as old as the dust curling around his boots. “When we got that message last night I decided that Mars had finally won.”

“Carter.” Still a meter away, Brendan reached toward his friend.

Before the baleful glare of the Martian hurricane Dr. Carter Jackson reached up and unlocked the seal of his helmet collar.

“No!” Brendan yelled. He scrambled for the top of the knoll. Carter pulled his bubble helmet up over his head and hurled it down the slope. Before Brendan could reach Carter the scientist’s legs folded and the old man crumpled to the ground.

“Carter!” Brendan dropped to his knees next to his friend. Muffled voices shouted and yelled in the back of the engineer’s head. “Carter!”

Brendan’s gloved hands shook the scientist’s shoulders. Carter’s eyes were wide and they stared at the cloud-choked horizon. The scientist’s head rocked and then turned toward Brendan. Remarkably, Carter’s mouth stretched into a smile and he mouthed something. Brendan leaned back and tried to comprehend what was happening. Then, before Brendan could react, Carter’s gloved hand snatched at Brendan’s collar and un-dogged the double seal. Air hissed hideously in Brendan’s ears. Carter began to laugh. For a moment, his laughter seemed to fill the vast Martian wastes.

“Dammit, Carter! You’re nuts!” The words were out before Brendan could stop them.

In response, Carter patted the engineer’s shoulder. He gasped, “Perhaps I am. But knowing when to quit is the first sign of returning sanity.” Through Brendan’s depressurized helmet the words sounded joyous.

From behind them they heard footfalls crunch through the dust. The pair turned to see a Martian Natural Territories Ranger approaching. The ranger’s uniform was a blue-green tiger-striped parka that made the wearer seem much taller than her lithe, two-meter Martian frame. The ID patch over her left breast bore a name: Fitzhu, Dali. That was a perennial Martian favorite when it came to naming children. After all, Salvador Dali could have created some of the landscapes that had been carved during the long centuries of planet-wide terraforming.

A puff of air gusted from the woman’s lips and she waved a datalogger at the two Earthmen. “I’m sorry, gentlemen,” the Ranger said in her curiously clipped Martian accent. “But I’ll have to log that helmet removal as a violation of Mars Program protocols.”

Carter began to laugh again. Next to him Brendan protested, “But it’s the first time in nearly a year that we’ve tasted unbottled air! We haven’t violated anything!”

The MNT Ranger frowned. She hated tourist duty. Earthfolk were a strange breed and she had seen none stranger than this pair of astro-archaeologists…archeo-astrologers…or whatever the hell it was they called themselves. First they lay down all these tedious rules for their little experiment and then they howl when she calls them on a flagrant violation. Yes, indeed, she was going to be much happier when Tharsis Park HQ returned her to back country support. That’s where a gal belonged!

Dali Fitz said, “Believe me, I’m sympathetic. But the entire purpose of this Mars Program of yours was to copy historical artifacts from the 21st century and then use that so-called space technology to re-enact the first Mars landing. Removal of a suit helmet on the Mars of 2040 AD would have been deadly. I must log this as a protocol violation.”

Brendan was about to continue the argument when Carter stopped him. “It’s okay, Ranger,” the elderly scientist said. “No harm done. I think we’ve learned a great deal already. Thank you.”

The Ranger gave him a curious look and then smiled. As the two men rose to their feet she tapped her datalogger and then tucked it into a pocket of her parka.

Courteously, she asked, “Will you be removing any more specimens from the archeological sectors today? Some of the researchers from Barsoom University complained that the sight of you two in your mars-suits has been causing problems.”

“Really?” Carter said, his eyebrows raised. “How so?”

The Ranger sighed. “Wherever you go in those suits a flock of tourists seems to follow. Apparently the sight of you two has also been distracting Academician Kovik’s grad students. No work has been getting done.”

Carter snorted into the cold air. “No, we won’t be going back to the dig sectors. We’ve collected enough specimens to last us a while. My compliments to Academician Kovik.”

The ranger glanced toward the roiling clouds over the southern horizon. Lightning flared violet-white. She said, “Big blow in the outlands. Weather Control is keeping it over the Tharsis Reservoir. City planners in Bradbury want to erode away some of the Outer Dunes. They need a recreational harbor.”

“Why stop with a harbor?” Brendan grumbled. “Why not put in a few canals?”

The Ranger chose to ignore the comment. “If you should need anything today, gentlemen, I’ll be in the observer’s shack.”

“Thank you, Ranger,” Carter replied. “I think we’ll be wrapping things up in the next few days. We’ve gotten most of what we came for.”

The Ranger nodded curtly and walked back to the main trail. As she approached the path they heard a tourist with a real-cam complain: “I thought they weren’t supposed to take any of that gear off! What’s the matter with them? It spoiled my shot!” The Ranger said something placating and returned to the elevated observation platform.

“Martians,” grumbled Brendan. “Mustn’t upset the bloody tourists. Or those pumped up academics from Barsoom U.”

“Now, now,” Carter cautioned. “Those bloody tourists pay the taxes that keep this place open. I wish we had a few more tourists on our side. Maybe we wouldn’t have lost our funding.”

Sadness crossed Brendan’s face. “Without that funding we won’t even be able to fly Athena back home. The return flight would have proven conclusively that early 21st century explorers could safely journey to Mars and then return to Earth.”

“I know,” the senior archeologist shook his head. “I can’t believe it’ll take us a mere six hours to get home. I wonder what the first mars-walkers would have thought?”

“But, Carter, your dream…”

“Oh, don’t worry about me, lad,” Carter practically scolded. “Even without the return trip our contribution has gone far beyond anything that anyone in the field has ever attempted. There’s one hell of a design thesis in this for you. Who knows, maybe we’ll even see ourselves on the cover of Planetary Geographic.”

“But what about the Athena?” Brendan had grown to love the tough little ship, so carefully crafted, virtually hand made.

“I’m sure the park authorities will find a good home for the lander and the Athena. A historical display, perhaps? Athena is as good a reproduction of the First Expedition’s ship as is technically possible. And our journey here was epic. Heyerdahl would have approved.”

“Who?” Brendan asked.

Carter sighed. “An explorer from a chronicle I once read. The Heyerdahl Scroll actually pre-dates the Great Chronicle of the First Mars Expedition. If you believe the arguments.”

Brendan scowled. “I doubt if this Heyerdahl’s funding was ever cut. People back then, when they started something, they worked until it was done. The Mars of today would not exist if they hadn’t been so daring.”

Below the two men the morning sun glinted off scattered vehicles in the parking lot of the First Expedition Memorial Center. A road turned and twisted into a distant valley. Further away the golden spires of Bradbury City met the first rays of the new morning, defiantly shining in the face of the great storm.

“Fifteen hundred years since the First Expedition,” Brendan said. “I wonder if they knew what lay at the end of the long road.”

A thread of silver fire flashed through the dusty sky as a meteor announced its momentary passing. Below, in the ruddy light of dawn, the new world stirred itself from sleep.

“I suspect they did,” Carter whispered into the fresh Martian air.

*fin*

 

Originally published at scifidimensions webzine in December, 2000

Illustration found in National Geographic’s “Man’s Conquest of Space,” 1968, artist unknown although I believe it may have been an illustration from a NASA contracted TRW study from 1962

…and new civilizations.

…and new civilizations.

To boldly go. Everyone knows those words. For many of us they introduced the future, and a promising one at that. And yet those three words are not trapped in a little amber bubble that represents some fictional time in the future. I would say those words are highly applicable not so much to the adventurers of novels or movies…whose treks pale in comparison to reality…but to historic travelers and seekers of all kinds who have voyaged outward to find new, fascinating horizons.

That was certainly the case with the mid-19th Century explorers John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood. The partners were in the vanguard of exploration of Central America’s Mayan ruins. In the 1840s the lost cities of that region were little more than rumor inextricably tied to the well-worn narratives of Spanish conquistadors. In 1839 the two men came to Central America as seasoned travelers.  They had spent many years independently exploring the ancient monuments of Greece, Italy, and Egypt. Keen observers, they brought this experience as well as fresh viewpoints to an area that had been given only limited scientific investigation. And what they discovered…not without cost…laid the groundwork for understanding not just the original peoples of the New World, but the very human capacity to create greatness even in the most challenging of environments.

The book Jungle of Stone by William Carlsen tells the story of the American writer Stephens and the British architect and artist Catherwood. It is a marvelous biography of two adventurers who through dedication and hardship explored a lost world. Applying solid scientific observation they challenged the notion prevalent at the time that the peoples of the New World were incapable of independently creating a unique civilization. The old cities of Mexico and Central America were known to exist, however the view among academics was that these marvelous civilizations had been created by lost migrants from the Old World. Indeed, the thinking at the time was that after the original migrants had died off the native peoples simply copied or mimicked what had been brought to their shores. Some of these “lost migrants” included Phoenicians, Egyptians, and even a Lost Tribe of Israel.

Stephens and Catherwood came to their groundbreaking conclusion only after long and careful study of the ruins they uncovered with the aid of native guides. Although not the first to suggest this view, the theory that New World natives had independently created a civilization out of the jungles of Central America was somewhat controversial. The fact that the two explorers applied observation, careful measurement, and comparative data of the ruins they came across with those of the Old World is in the best scientific tradition. Indeed, Catherwood made carefully detailed drawings of the sites with an architect’s eye. His drawings of elaborate Mayan stelae and hieroglyphics were the first of their kind.

The two explorers also worked closely with, and were at times very dependent upon, native peoples. This included muleteers, farmers, hunters, fishermen, guides as well as revolutionary leader Rafael Carrera and the dashing yet tragic General Francisco Morazán. This unique combination of scientific rigor and cultural interaction led Stephens and Catherwood to the inescapable conclusion that the proud remnants of the lost Mayan civilization were a product of Central America and its people.

Jungle of Stone is not just a book about history and the beginnings of archeology it is also a book full of adventure. As a writer Stephens often needed “incidents” to write about. Central America was quick to offer these. The land is as much a character in the book as are the many people the two explorers encounter. The place is mysterious, time-wise, mercurial, dramatic, and beautiful. On the first day of their arrival they are treated to a powerful earthquake. This is a harbinger perhaps of the varied challenges that await them in the natural world: steep mountain treks, volcanoes, torrential rain, swollen rivers, thick jungles where one might get lost forever, insects, dangerous animals, and surprisingly: dry spells. There is also political upheaval, banditry, and disease. Yet Central America also offers a willing hand and the two are often aided by people who act out of kindness, pride, and in many cases an interest in the history of their land and their place in it. However, as they are so often warned, the land will not give up its secrets easily. And yet, throughout it all, Catherwood and Stephens are undaunted.

William Carlsen shows a deft hand and the book is at times as much about those who the two explorers encounter as about the explorers themselves. I learned a great deal about Carrera and Morazán, for instance, and a book about these two adversaries certainly awaits. The Caddy and Walker mission is also interesting in that it is a segment about hard travels and an expedition sent forth to “beat” Stephens at his own game. It is an essay in human endurance but also a peek at how so many attempts to literally wrest discovery have gone awry.

The book is also about the Maya themselves, the civilization they created, and how it flourished. Their tale is also one of caution in that the forces to which it eventually succumbed are similar to the forces that have harried all civilizations throughout history. Those forces…overpopulation, war, disease, cultural hubris, environmental degradation…are multi-layered and complex. Places such as Copán, Quirigua, Iximche, Tonina, Pelenque, Uxmal, Chichén Itzá, and Tulum stand in mute testimony to the strength, vision, beauty, dedication and tradition of one civilization’s powerful saga.

Stephens wrote up his adventures in a book titled Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and YucatánLike so many of his previous works it was a major bestseller. Richly illustrated by Catherwood it inspired others to study Mesoamerica. In the late 1840s a Central American official, Colonel Modesto Méndez ventured deep into the forest and discovered the giant temples of Tikal. Méndez made the first official recordings in his report on Tikal. Later explorers followed decades later and these expeditions utilized photography to capture the wonders of the lost cities.

Stephens and Catherwood made two expeditions to the lands of the Maya. Afterward the necessities of life made them follow more practical paths. Stephens became an advisor and later president of a consortium that built the first railway across the isthmus of Panama. Catherwood continued as an illustrator but with a family to support in London he often reinvented himself as a railway engineer or later, during the California gold rush, as a miner. The two men remained friends and Carlsen’s detective work leads to a poignant epilogue that is as fascinating as the rest of the book.

Jungle of Stone by William Carlsen is an excellent work and one I would highly recommend. It can be found in hard cover from William Morrow/Harper-Collins Publishers. It is 461 pages and includes many fine illustrations by Frederick Catherwood.

 

(Note on photo: a view of the southern facade of Temple 11 from the East Court of Copan..this is one of the first sites Catherwood and Stephens visited during their 1839 expedition to Guatemala). source: Wikipedia Commons