I got the email saying that my submission was not chosen to advance to the next round of judging in the Baen Memorial short story contest, so I present it here (with only minor editing) for your reading pleasure. The formatting for this blog doesn’t lend well to pasting in a rich text format document as everything gets left justified so you lose paragraph starts. So when reading this just assume that every new blog of text is a new paragraph, and multiple returns between blocks of text is a scene change. Personally I really look forward to reading the winners of the contest 🙂
“A Bright Idea”
Conglomerate Research Station Perseus, delta sensor arm, January 23rd, 2067.
Travis slowly tightened the fastener holding down the access panel. “What do you mean you can’t violate the law of conservation of momentum?”
“The equations have to balance, you have to get thrust from somewhere, you just can’t turn energy directly into thrust.” Robert replied over the comm link.
“Kinda like you can’t turn energy directly into mass, or mass directly into energy?” Travis asked as he moved on to open the next set of fasteners to inspect the equipment below the next access panel. “Inspection of panel 37 complete, starting inspection on panel 38.”
Robert noted in the log book the time of completion before responding. “Exactly, remember the old EM drives that people thought would go from Earth to Mars in only 8 weeks? Violated the law of conservation of momentum, to get thrust in one direction you need something going in another direction.”
“And that’s why we are up here, floating in some cobbled together monstrosity of a research lab, is because people can’t figure out a way to cheat basic physics?” Travis asked as the access panel popped open, revealing the circuitry behind the number 38 panel.
“Yes.” Robert responded. “You’re an engineer, you should know this.”
“I’m an IT and maintenance technician, not an engineer.” Travis answered back ruefully. “I know how to link sensors and networks and make sure everything functions. But I’ll be damned if some of this stuff wasn’t out dated before I was born. Seriously who ever used IP4 routing?”
“Who cares, it’s our mess now. I see the sensor array coming back online” Robert spoke happily. “What did you do?”
“The coating on these circuits must have been faulty, I see tin whiskers coming out of the solder joints on three cards. I brushed them off manually and sprayed a sealant on them. Mark panel 38 for continued monitoring.” Travis instructed “I give you even odds we’ll see more of that problem in the next six months.”
“Panel 38 marked for continued monitoring.” Robert confirmed from the control station “And since we haven’t got this damn station to function continuously for even 4 months without troubleshooting you can keep that bet.”
“All right, since I’m so close to the end, I’ll finish the rest of the panels in this section today. If the array is fully functional let the whiz kids know they can continue testing once I get out of here.”
“Roger that” Robert responded, “Feel free to take your time, no one should be up for another four hours.”
Mess Hall, Conglomerate Research Station Perseus.
“I’m just saying that if E equals mass times the speed of light squared, and gravity is proportional to the distance between mass one and mass two, simply solving gravity for mass and substituting that into the relativity portion should give us the exact amount of energy we need to create the amount of gravity we want.” Sherry Lewiszky, MD muttered in frustration.
“Yes and no.” George responded. “The equations work, but they don’t describe how gravity and mass interact in a way that we can turn one into the other the way we can mass and energy.”
“Still having the physicist verses engineer discussion” Robert asked as he attached himself to the wall using the “hook and pile tape” system on his uniform. Sometimes it was nice to be in a fixed point, at least from your own frame of reference.
“Yes, I’m explaining to the good doctor again that we have equations for how to measure gravity from known mass, and equations to calculate energy potentials of a given mass, but that is not the same as being able to equate energy to gravity.” George answered. “We don’t really have a good way to manipulate gravity or define the relationship between a single mass and gravity. In fact, all of our definitions of mass were originally tied to the concept of weight, which is just the gravitational force measured in a particular acceleration.”
“So what you are saying is that because mass and gravity are so closely related in our understanding of physics that it’s a bugger of a puzzle.” Robert chuckled.
“In short, yes.” George answered.
“But the light drive works, and light is a wave.” Sherry pointed out.
“Yes, but, just like electrons are sometimes a particle and sometimes a wave so are photons. They are sometimes a particle and sometimes a wave which means we can use the sometimes a particle property to use their mass to conform to the conservation of momentum and use light to create thrust.”
Travis floated in, his three days of stubble giving him a roguish charm. Sherry and George gave nods of approval and an ironic slow clap.
“I’d like to thank the Academy for this honor, and of course God.” Travis spoke deadpan. “What’s for chow?”
“You have your choice of tubes to spread on your choice of tortillas.” Sherry replied, “The chef recommends the green tube today.”
“Green again?” Travis recoiled in mock horror. “I guess if it is green or death I’ll choose the green.”
“Green it is.” Robert said, and floated a toothpaste tube size of green protein goo towards his co-worker.
“What were we talking about?” Travis asked before spreading green goo on a plain white tortilla.
“Conservation of momentum, light, electrons, waves particles.” George summarized.
“I guess that’ll take your mind off the green goo.” Travis muttered as he took a bite.
“So why didn’t the EM drives work?” Sherry asked.
“Microwaves aren’t like electrons or photons, they don’t sometimes behave as a particle” George answered. “So even though we can put a lot more microwave radiation out for a given reserve of energy, it just didn’t do jack for creating thrust. Heck even with the light drive we still can’t get enough thrust to do anything useful with manned spacecraft so that system only gets used for exploration probes.”
“So it works, but we can’t get it to work big enough?” Sherry smiled, “I know a few engineers who could probably design something big enough to work.”
“Oh yeah, it could, but the problem becomes the bigger the mass, the more energy you need. And life support needs a huge amount of mass, which means you need a huge amount of energy, which increases your mass, which means you need more energy, which requires more mass.” George explained.
Sherry looked a little confused.
“Sherry, if you are crossing the desert, how much water do you need?” Travis asked.
“Depends, on what your requirements are, how long the trip, temperature, etc” Sherry answered immediately. “OH! I get it! It’s just like the more water you carry in the desert the more water you need because you are working harder to carry more water. It’s the point of diminishing returns.”
“Exactly.” George nodded. “Thank you Travis for an analogy I would have never considered. But that explains why we don’t use the light drive for manned exploration, it is way too expensive compared to rockets.”
“Well, if you want to cross the desert you can usually find water along the way.” Sherry mused, “if you didn’t have to carry the light generation with you but could get it on the way, it would be a better analogy.”
“Unfortunately there aren’t a lot of high density energy sources floating around in space” George lamented.
“But if you are using light as thrust, you don’t need to generate the light on the ship, right?” Robert asked before biting into his green good tortilla sandwich.
“If you didn’t want to control direction, yeah, that could work” George replied.
“You know what we need to do?” Travis asked around a mouthful of chow, “We should re-orient the debris satellites pi radians and use their pulse lasers to push payloads out of earth orbit towards Mars. We don’t need to control the direction from a cargo pod to get it where it is going, we just need to get it moving fast enough to get there and let the ballistic course do the rest.”
George stopped chewing his own breakfast and said, “That might work.”
Railgun Launch Station, Columbia, South America.
“Fifteen kilometers in length, gradient from 0 degrees horizontal to 90 degrees in the last two thousand meters.” Jose Menendez led the tour group through the control station with obvious pride in the project that put Columbia firmly into the international space community. “We call it a rail gun but in truth it is a hybrid system where only the last five kilometers of track use linear accelerators. We had to build up against the mountain face to get enough support to handle the stress of redirecting so much acceleration from horizontal to vertical.”
“You say it’s hybrid, what does that mean” an older lady from Iowa happened to teach middle school and looked forward to using this vacation as a tax write off.
“The first ten kilometers of track are actually three tracks side by side. The launch track and the train tracks. We have eight diesel locomotives, four on each side track, pushing the launch cart as hard and fast as they can for the first ten thousand meters. Once the cart hits the linear magnetic drive the acceleration continues faster than the locomotives can keep up so they break away to the slow down on side tracks, and the booster rockets ignite anywhere from kilometer seven to nine depending on the payload mass, so maximum thrust is achieved and because there is plenty of velocity starting out we can use smaller rockets to launch larger payloads for less money than the Russians or Chinese who are still using pure rocket based solutions from a vertical stand.”
“About how much energy do you use up for each launch?” another tourist asked.
“The numbers are so big they don’t make sense to me” Jose admitted, “But after the eight locomotives have given their all, the on-site thorium reactor pushes enough electricity through the linear accelerator portion to power a good size town for several months.”
“Isn’t that a waste?” Another woman asked.
“No, it is actually very efficient” Jose replied with a smile, “The thorium reactor provides electricity to the rest of the country when not launching spacecraft and we make a tidy profit from that as a side business. Since launches are scheduled well in advance Columbian Electric has plenty of time to balance the load before we go all out on a launch. Our reactor takes away the output equivalent of five large coal fired power generating stations.”
“What other projects is your corporation involved in?” the schoolteacher from Iowa asked.
“We funded half the cost for the anti-debris satellite array in coordination with the UN Space Agency and European Space Agency” Jose explained as he led the tour group to an enclosed balcony overlooking the operations center. “In order to be true to the 1967 treaty on the non-militarization of space we created a transparent command and control structure where the targets for the lasers on the satellites can be vetoed by any of the four permanent members of the UN Security Council plus the European Space Agency.”
“How does anything ever get done?” a man chuckled from the back of the group.
“Since space debris is a problem for everyone, everyone has an interest in cleaning up the debris orbiting Earth” Jose explained. “The satellites have RADAR systems and laser systems. The RADAR provide updates to the debris tracking database and the lasers fire pulses at the right time to degrade the orbit of the debris. The smaller the debris the less energy it takes to push it down further into Earth’s gravity well where it will burn up in the atmosphere. So far veto authority has only been used when someone finds that a laser would be pulsing directly down on their territory during the firing solution.”
“How successful has anti-debris array been?” the man followed up.
“Honestly not as successful as humanity has been at littering.” Jose joked, and the group chuckled. “We’ve successfully stopped the growth of the total number of orbiting debris, but we’ll need to add more satellites to the array to actually get ahead of the problem.”
The tour officially ended as Jose left the group at the gift shop where they could buy everything from pencils to a “I went to the space launch railgun and all I got was this lousy t-shirt” in English, Spanish, or Russian for the socially ironic.
Jose’s cellular phone buzzed in his pocket, and he touched his smart watch, which told him the call was coming from the Consortium Space Research Facility. He tapped the smart watch twice to connect the call to the electronic noise canceling earplugs every worker at the facility was required to wear while on premises. The inconspicuous inserts allowed for the employees to receive safety announcements without the use of loudspeakers and let people answer phone calls discreetly.
“Jose Menendez.” Jose answered.
“Jose, this is George.” George spoke excitedly, “We think we’ve had a breakthrough on your Mars problem.”
“You’ve figured out how to generate gravity from energy?” Jose’s breath caught in his throat.
“Hell no, but we think that you can use the anti-debris array as a thrusting mechanism to lob cargo to Mars.” George responded. “It won’t be faster than rockets, but it’ll be so much cheaper that it’s not funny.”
“Instead of using a light generator on the pods, we use the satellites as an external thrust generator.” Jose caught on. “Those satellites are tuned for screws and paint chips, not tons of cargo. Consider me skeptical”
“Right, but what if?” George came back, “One of the guys up here ran some numbers and they look like you could reduce costs significantly if we get it to work. Obviously you’ll need a cargo pod designed to be hit with a laser, but once the science is done it’s really an engineering problem.”
“Si.” Jose chuckled. “I’ll put some of the crazier engineers on it if you can convince them the science is sound.”
2 years later: Conglomerate Research Station Perseus
“Welcome back Travis” Sherry smiled as the lanky redhead with the perpetual scraggly stubble crossed over from the rocket pod.
“Not so bad to be back, how’d she do while I was gone?” Travis asked.
“I don’t monitor the array, but if using the mental health of the scientists is a viable proxy you’ll be man of the hour in no time.” Sherry responded with a grin.
“I brought up enough components to keep the array online for a long time.” Travis smiled. “But seriously the levels of power being put out by the experiments here make it tough on anything electronic.”
“Frank did his best, but you left big shoes to fill.” Sherry responded “you still hold the record for least downtime on average. No one else has come within a standard deviation according to Robert.”
“Circuits and signal flow have to make sense.” Travis shrugged, “I’m sure as hell not following the science on gravity generation.”
“Me neither, no matter how much George lectures.” Sherry began Travis’ in-processing physical exam. Temperature, pupil response, oxygenation level, heart rate, blood pressure. “And you are still in good health, looks like you got some sun this trip down.”
“Went deep sea fishing with my old man in Florida.” Travis smiled. “Caught more beer than anything else, but fishing is kind of a tradition with us.”
“You better go see Robert.” Sherry grinned, “He’s been pulling his hair out ever since you took your vacation.”
“Ain’t no rest for the wicked.” Travis grinned, and floated his way down the shaft to the command facility. The station looked the same, smelled the same, and probably still had all the same air as when he left.
“Travis, welcome back. Now get to work” Robert said with a grunt and a grin as his favorite technician entered the command facility.
“Sure thing boss” Travis replied with mock sincerity.
The next two hours Robert and Travis reviewed the maintenance and change logs on the station. The station had been built one module at a time with parts connected by a standardized communication bus. Eventually there were enough modules to link all the computers together into a highly redundant Beowulf Cluster super computer. A cobbled together super computer running everything from life support functions to experiment support is going to have quirks, but in defense of the Consortium, the average downtime for the station was within industry norms and all mission critical systems were triple redundant. With a good look at the work needing to be done Travis started in on the list.
Four days later Travis and Robert floated into the chow hall and didn’t even bother cracking jokes about the food paste tubes.
“I can’t believe water was running on only one system for the last week.” Travis said with a yawn, “That should have lit up red flags all over the place.”
“It did.” Robert answered, “But the parts to fix the other two systems were coming back with you so there was no choice but to wait.”
“Well all’s well that ends well.” Travis said as his back stuck to the hook and pile tape to anchor him in place.
George and Sherry entered, looking disgustingly well rested and cheerful.
“Good morning.” George said overly cheerful, “How are my favorite support drones.”
“Dead on our feet.” Robert answered as Travis nodded his agreement.
“Well, today is a big day.” Sherry declared, “The first satellite laser push to Mars is coming up the railgun and we’ll either have a hit or a billion dollar bust.”
“No pressure.” Travis quipped. “I just hope that the sail concept works as advertised in all the sci-fi books I read as kid.”
“Who knows?” George responded as he squeezed some reddish brown paste on a tortilla, “But if it works we’ll all have a very merry Christmas.”
“Well, wake me up for anything exciting.” Travis said after swallowing his last bite of protein paste flavored tortilla. “We may have the record for most years at 100% operational systems, but we’ve come awfully close to losing that because of lack of redundancy. This station is just getting used up.”
“I know Travis.” George said seriously, “And I’m glad you are back up doing maintenance here. If we can squeeze another few years out of Perseus the follow on facility should be good to go. If the laser idea of yours works in reality, we’ll have enough capital to start our shiny new home in no time.”
“Any consideration about building it out of the same cargo pods as Jose came up with for the laser acceleration?” Robert asked.
“Actually yes, it looks pretty good since a bulk buy will lower the cost and we can essentially swap out modules at will on that design.” George smiled thinking about a larger, better funded, more modern research station.
Travis yawned. Robert yawned. Sherry told them to go sleep. The pair left the facility to rack out in their isolation units.
Six hours later, the first cargo pod pushed off from the railgun launch facility with solid fuel booster rockets burning white hot in the sky. The aluminum framed pod entered orbit and was nudged faster and faster by the anti-debris satellite array until it had the velocity to escape orbit and begin the long journey to Mars. A quick thruster burn pushed it on its way, and a thin laminated Mylar sail opened up in the front, the titanium nickel alloy wire unfolding in the heat of the sun to create a mesh supported solar sail a hundred meters in radius with helium inflated cross sections for rigidity. The anti-debris array turned on their gyroscopic stabilizers to fire at the retreating cargo pod, adding their energy to what the pod collected from the sun.
Two months later the pod arrived and shed velocity by orbiting Mars and using up a small amount of thrust at apogee. The pod began entry and crashed down on target, delivering cargo at half the cost of a pure rocket propelled delivery. The year 2070 gave Travis and the rest of the team on Perseus a very good year-end bonus, and while the research into creating gravity from energy continued on without much progress, the permanent colonization of Mars became a possibility thanks to a chance quip by a maintenance tech on a commercial space station.