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The World of BC9

This article continues my blog series about the technology, world, plot, characters, viewpoint, and other aspects of BC9. This time around, I'll be covering the world/setting of the novel. A number of readers have both praised and questioned the setting of Beyond Cloud Nine, so I thought I'd spend a little time talking about why I created the world the way I did.

BC9 begins in the year 2247 AD, which is the mid-twenty-third century. The main reason I chose set the book that far in the future is because of my educated prediction about how long it will take the real space industry to progress to the point in the novel (I do have a graduate degree in this sort of thing). If there's one thing a lot of science fiction gets wrong (in my view, anyway), it's the overly optimistic dates. In other words, stories are set too near in the future and advances are predicted to happen much too soon.

Due to the rapid pace of the advancement of electronic devices like smart phones, people tend to get the false impression that other types of technology should progress at the same rate. This is misinformed thinking. For example, while improvements have been made to make propulsion technology more reliable and efficient, today's rockets work more or less the same as those that took the first astronauts to the moon decades ago. With current chemical rocket power, it takes 6-8 months to get from Earth to Mars, and that's when the two planets are at the closest points in their orbits on the same side of the sun. Therefore, it takes over two years to reach Jupiter.

Now, there are some newer technologies on the drawing board like the VASIMR electric thruster that, if nuclear powered, could get astronauts from Earth orbit to Mars orbit in 40 or so days. That's a huge improvement, but a working prototype is still a ways off. Also, VASIMR still can't launch you from the surface of the Earth, so you still need a chemical-powered rocket to reach Earth orbit. These types of rocket launches currently cost tens of millions of dollars or more and aren't anywhere near as reliable as, say, a commercial airliner. Thus, some sort of game changer is necessary to make Earth orbit more accessible. Until that happens, making anything happen in space will remain a slow and costly process.

The Skylon orbital space plane, a single-stage-to-orbit concept, might hold the promise of making space more accessible by dropping the price of a launch from tens of millions of dollars to only single millions. Of course, that's still not in the average person's budget.

Today, NASA is working on the capabilities to launch a round-trip mission to Mars in the mid-2030's. There are other organizations wanting to go to Mars sooner--and props to them for dreaming big--but it ain't going to happen. It's going to be another twenty years, give or take, until the world's most capable space organization reaches Mars for the first time. When NASA does it, it's going to take cooperation from the international community and cost a hundred billion dollars or more (the International Space Station cost $100 billion to construct and the total cost is up to around $150 billion). Once we get to Mars, the focus will be on simply surviving at first, and the latter half of the 21st century will be all about building self-sustainable colonies. Closer to Earth, space tourism will be kicking off, asteroid mining will start to grow into a legitimate industry, and we'll be continuing to build and advance near-Earth capabilities.

Here's another thing. There's a huge difference between knowledge/capability and engineering implementation. Put another way, just because we know how to do something doesn't mean we've developed the ability to actually do it. We've had most of the knowledge we need to get to, survive on, and return from Mars for quite some time. However, many of the technologies haven't been built or proven. For instance, we don't currently have a way to land on Mars. The rovers that NASA has sent to the red planet have used various landing systems with great success, but something much larger and more reliable must be developed and put through the paces in order to be trusted to land multiple people on the surface. The new Orion capsule might be the first spacecraft capable of a Mars landing, but right now NASA's still working on making sure it lands okay on Earth.

There're also gaps in our knowledge. We don't know if the 38% standard gravity on Mars will be enough to counteract muscle and bone atrophy or the other effects of low gravity on the human body. Heck, we don't honestly know for sure if a baby conceived and born in lower gravity will survive. Most people take for granted that we'll be able to perpetuate the species out there, and while we'll most likely be able to make it work, we don't know for sure.

Due to all these considerations, it's my professional opinion that no one's going to be realistically thinking about going any further out than Mars until at least 2100 AD or later. At some point in the 22nd century, we'll finally launch a manned mission to the outer solar system, and the most likely destination is one of the moons of Jupiter.

A study was done by NASA called the Human Outer Planets Exploration (HOPE) in which Callisto, Jupiter's eighth moon, was seen as the most likely go-to location (I named the UN Base on Callisto in BC9 after this study). Why? Jupiter actually gives off a ton of radiation lethal to human beings, something that a lot of sci-fi set in the Jovian system glosses over. Callisto is not only far enough away from Jupiter that radiation is less of a concern, but the moon has plenty of ice and most likely an underground water supply, although nothing on the scale of Europa's subterranean ocean. Astronauts would therefore establish the first bases and colonies on Callisto and use the moon as a jumping off point to go elsewhere in the Jovian system.

To visit the moons closer to Jupiter like Ganymede or Europa, we either need to develop better radiation shielding technology (like the force fields found in BC9) or use heavy conventional shielding (spaceships would need to have thick hulls and colonies would need to be built underground to leverage rock for protection). Incidentally, the same concerns exist on Mars. The red planet doesn't have a magnetic field or much of an atmosphere to shield life on the surface.

So, let's say we launch our first mission with six astronauts to Callisto in the early-to-mid 2100's. How long do you think it's going to take to progress from those first few explorers to millions of civilians living on all the Jovian moons? We'll probably require another hundred years or so to establish that (if not longer), and further advancements in propulsion and other technologies will be necessary to do so.

People, real space travel is hard, and most mainstream sci-fi glosses over the harsh realities. Hence, don't expect to see the everyday person living out near Jupiter for at least a couple hundred years.

That said, a major advance could always come about and make progress move more quickly, but that's not as likely as slow, steady, gradual progress. In Star Trek, warp drive is invented in the 2060's, and this suddenly gives mankind the ability to travel at speeds faster than light. That would certainly be a game changer. At the speed of light, you can get to Mars in eight minutes or Jupiter in forty-five, which means we'd probably be settling our Jovian moons much sooner. However, with its shuttle craft and other star ships, Star Trek makes getting up into orbit or down to the surface of a planet look a heck of a lot easier than it is in real life. Someone once said that once you reach Earth orbit, you're halfway to anywhere in the solar system (in terms of the amount of energy that must be expended), and it's the truth. Just getting up into Earth orbit is half the battle, and warp drive only helps once you're already in space. Thus, even if warp drive were invented tomorrow, we'd still have to use rockets to reach orbit.

Moving on, I also wanted to talk briefly about a perceived clash between how far space travel has advanced versus how people live their everyday lives in BC9. Here are some examples. While Brooke is engaging in orbital combat near Jupiter, Marie is driving around in a car on the freeway in Chicago. While faster than light travel is being invented, Brooke is taking Maya shopping at a department store. In light of these seeming contrasts, some have said that everyday life in the 23rd century feels a little too close to life in the early 21st century. Well, I did that on purpose, and here's why.

There are two schools of thought about how far 21st century human civilization has come. One person might look at smart phones and the moon landing and think mankind has reached the pinnacle of its achievement to date. Technologically, we're certainly more advanced than at any point in our past--at least, as far as we know. However, another person--namely, this author--looks at the past few hundred years and sees that the fundamentals have changed very little.

Since the early 20th century, we're still driving cars, going to work, feeding our faces, and building buildings. We're still eating with a fork and spoon off of plates. While it seems like we've advanced, all we've really done is found ways to do the same things more efficiently. Instead of sending messengers on horses between towns, we started sending telegrams, and now we've got the Internet. While the latter is far superior to the two former methods of communication, they're all ways to send love letters and business correspondences.

With that in mind, I'm of the opinion that the basic infrastructure of modern society established in the early 20th century will continue for several hundred more years. Only some major game changer will radically alter the way we live our lives. Perhaps virtual reality advances so far we no longer ever leave the house, or someone invents a way to download your mind into an android brain. Until something like that happens, we're still going to live in apartments and houses, shop, and use the restroom. Look at the booming automobile industry and the concrete infrastructure necessary to support it. How soon do you think cars are going to go away? Public transportation will become more and more important in bigger cities, but there's still plenty of room on the Earth for people to spread out. And do you really think that millions of people zooming around in flying cars is a safe or realistic prospect (as much as we'd all love it)?

So, to summarize, I think it's going to take at least a couple hundred years for real space travel to reach the level portrayed in the novel. At the same time, everyday life isn't going to change all that much. Feel free to disagree, as this is all pure speculation. Something that happens tomorrow could radically alter everything I've said, written, or ever thought.

Happy reading!

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