Units

Your whining about is 300 decibawls.

“We expect the shipment in a megasecond or so.”

” ‘scuse me–that’s about a week, no?”

“Eleven point something days, actually. Why you gotta use Earth-standard days, though? Pretty dated if you ask me.”

“Your metric time confuses the shit out of me. It’s arbitrary.”

“And how? Last I checked, you measure time based off of the rotation of a freaking rock–a rotation which, by the way, changes, so instead of owning up to the fact that your time standard is broken, you change your notion of time itself to compensate? Here in space, we care nothing for Earth or its leap-seconds.”

Rain

Earth is the cradle of the mind.
Sounds like junior needs a kick out the door.

It was raining on Earth.
. . . the whole Earth.

Well, except the poles–there, the rain was a furious blizzard. It was also raining underwater. Such fury had been excited in the impact that great cannonballs were pounding the shallows into a seething, bubbling confusion of water and air.

Humanity had seen the asteroid coming. It was 31 years out when we first spotted it, but it was also big. NASA took one look and shrugged. The other national space agencies did the same. There was just nothing to be done. We didn’t have the infrastructure. Didn’t have the experience. The tremendous rockets of the space launch system were finally putting our men and women on Mars. But it couldn’t budge that rock from its fateful course. Literally couldn’t, correct to the first five decimal places.

The politicians all begged and promised money. Especially in the United States. But it just couldn’t be done. It was already too late. We could only evacuate the East Coast, strengthen the colonies on other planets to hedge our bets, and hope for the best.

On that morning of 2060, a mountain-sized interplanetary bullet on a chance encounter kerplunked into the Atlantic Ocean, and Earth shivered in the torrent of its own frozen waters, churned up from the depths. Debris fell on the other side of the planet; the sky was darkened for a year; the loss of life was catastrophic. And so the people declared that whatever it took, whatever expense had to be paid, whatever technologies had to be developed, this would never be allowed to happen again.

. . . and that’s how we finally reached for the stars . . .

Sex Discrimination

The fairer sex? More like unfair.

For a single rocket, gender falls within the engineering slack. But–and NASA didn’t like very much to discuss it–the more you invest, mission-resources-wise, in your astronauts, the more you want them to be female.

Every gram counts, and women end up being preferable due to cascading effects of this rule. Women are, on average, a bit lighter, but the real benefits are secondary. Lighter means less EVA fuel, less transfer fuel, smaller boost costs, smaller and lighter spacesuits and clothes–and over a mission lifetime, vastly less food, less water, less mass that needs to be heaved out of Earth’s gravity well at thousands of dollars per precious kilogram. Then make everything modular and tailored to one gender instead of two, and everything gets simpler, smaller, and, yes, lighter. Every gram counts.

And so, in the early years, more and more astronauts just sortof happened to be women. Only by slashing launch costs could a compelling economic (and let’s face it, sociological) argument for equality be made. Construction began on ISS Clarke, the terminus of the first space elevator, the instant the required materials were developed. The politicians, so statistically male, so staunchly and implicitly anti-science for so long, had finally looked up at all the smiling ladies in the heavens and found envy. The funding for ISS Clarke, long proclaimed impossible to acquire, somehow materialized immediately.

And they painted it red . . .


Ed. note: This story was derived from my own reasoning but apparently, real engineers think the same way.

Forward Euler

In your honor, Baraff and Witkin.

“One of our major problems is scalability. Exponential growth still works, so no matter how much simspace or compute you have, it all fills up pretty quickly.”

“How bad?”

“For quality-of-life reasons, we need to simulate physics at 10-1m (down to as small as 10-4m near simpersons). The teeming masses want to interact with the real world, meaning time must be simulated more-or-less 1:1 with reality. Now multiply those requirements over a km3 of simspace and think about those numbers a minute.”

“You cut corners?”

“Obviously. Δt is 25 ms, and the engines use forward-Euler numeric integration.”

“Hold up. FE doesn’t work. The numerics pump phantom energy into your reality. If a deer steps in a forest, that footstep gradually becomes a nuclear holocaust engulfing the universe. No bueno.”

“Well no shit. So we remove the pent-up numeric barf once every thirty seconds with artificial damping. That’s why there’s a little hiccup in the universe’s framerate twice a minute.”

“Don’t the customers complain?”

“Yes.”

Artificial Gravity

Highest bidder loses.

“Why can’t we design in a rotating ring?”

“Because think about the bearing. The entire circumference of the fuselage must be sealed–a seal which, by the way, must be both absolutely airtight and operational for years on end, at minimum.”

“The seal doesn’t have to be on the inside of the habitat.”

“Well, then you have to EVA every time you want to go anywhere else in the ship. No one’s really figured out a great material to resist vacuum welding either. If it happens anywhere and that bearing seizes up . . . well. Best case, you dump your precious, life-giving atmosphere into space and everyone dies. Worst case, any habitat worth having has enough momentum to wrench the ship in twain–so everyone dies, and the ship isn’t even worth salvaging afterward.”

Best case, you dump your precious, life-giving atmosphere into space and everyone dies.

“Well, why can’t we spin the whole ship?”

“That turns null-g into micro-g, complicates docking and navigation, and confuses the hell out of your pets. And you still need to get that spin in the first place–what a horrid waste of mass. We only bother for stations, because we only need to do it once.”

“What a delightful mélange of engineering and physics.”

“Yeah. Mag-boots are clumsy, but at least they won’t kill everyone.”

The Forest Town

Sometimes, you’re the cause of your own dystopias.

In the quiet, sylvan hills of California, a small town is untouched by the future.

The town’s single road still twists past the same businesses–the same mom-and-pop videocassette rental place that clings to life somehow, in this era of autostereoscopic displays and oct-HD encodings. The same dingy diner under new management, the same hotel with four rooms. In the evenings, a neon sign can be seen flickering in the café window, advertising fresh pastries, and the bistro beside it casts a golden light onto the row of parked cars, as working-class men and their wives celebrate a day’s work in measures of liquor.

Yes, a quiet town, separate from the future into which the rest of the world is racing so breathlessly. Sometimes, driving down one of the many ill-maintained byways, you’ll see a couple drinking lemonade on a faded porch, enjoying the cool summer breeze that blows from the west, the sun streaming through the dusty trees. The supermarket is staffed, and the checkout lady knows your name. To the south, a converted chapel is a museum, chronicling the good old days when men’s men harvested the great redwoods with makeshift hand tools, and floated the timber down the river to the bay.

We cling to our past, yet not because we are scared of the future per-se. We simply grew up in the past, and in some sense, we feel like we belong there. As Earth and the other planets race into the future, we take comfort in our collective childhoods, in our collective story, written indelibly into our most precious memories.

Can you remember the shaded brook, on whose banks we used to play? The park up the winding stairs, with the railing where you once clung after your first bee sting? Your friend’s house, where they had that party for Y2K? The autumn rain? The frostbitten, silver-lined leaves? Or the narrow dirt pathway, winding into the mountains, past the slope covered with dead grass that you used to ride down on sheets of cardboard? You remember cardboard, don’t you?

I do. And these things cannot be touched by the future, whatever it may hold.

I used to look down every time. I used to look down at that tiny spot, invisible from space, where I knew my home must be. And every time I imagined I caught a view through the trees–and then I was gone, pulled away, racing through the sky at speeds inconceivable, in a spacecraft’s desperate sprint against gravity. Part of that greedy future, I would fly ahead of that sleepy town in a single breath, relegating my imagined vision to the past.

But on the next orbit, I would see it again. And again. And every time it was like I was coming back home. That, even as I was part of the future, I kept returning, inexorably, like the clockwork universe, to that sylvan town under the stars.

Continuity

Good health starts young.

A few years after the first crop of men (for their adventurous spunk) and women (for popular appeal, lower mass, and because they quite rightly insisted) began living together in space–really actually living in space–eventually nature took its ageless course.

As had been known from the earliest NASA and Soviet missions, everything “works” in space. But there’s a problem. On Earth, embryos develop under an effectively uniform acceleration, allowing them to develop such necessities as skeletons and brain tissue. The first (official) pregnancy in zero-gee ended in tears all around–and some rather graphic footnotes in ontogenic texts. But, lesson learned, fetuses need gravity.

That’s sortof a problem if you’re living in free-fall.

Under the circumstances, the nascent U.N. issued a surprisingly uncontroversial mandate barring more than one week of a pregnancy to be below 0.12g. This seemingly arbitrary cutoff allowed colonies on the larger moons to be sustained (but of course, citizens were encouraged to return to Earth for child-rearing). In those early years, no one really knew exactly how much gravity was required, although it seemed to fall in a range. Martian children seemed normal. Toddlers from Ganymede had trouble breathing.