In which The Author travels in Space and Time
without leaving the pub
I’m reading an extraordinary book at the moment, about the Apollo missions and the lives of the NASA astronauts once they returned home. It’s called Moondust by Andrew Smith (Bloomsbury, 2005), if you want to check it out for yourself.
It’s inspired my current creative writing project – soon to appear on a blog near you – called ’47 Minutes’. You’d think writing a science-fiction story set two decades away would be fairly plain sailing, wouldn’t you?
Unfortunately, I’m one of those annoying writers who needs to check the facts behind the fiction, and it’s bloody hard work. I’ve grown up in a literary sf tradition where there needs to be at least a semblance of science in the fiction. I dabbled with fantasy, but I’ve always found my way to back to something which seems to owe a debt to the laws of Nature.
Fortunately for me, over the past few months I’ve acquired some great open-source freeware which runs on the Netbook. You don’t need to be online to use them, and they can fry your brain if you’re not to used to potching with vague menus and experimenting with new features.
The first one is called Stellarium. My friend Andrew C. showed me how it ran on his laptop when we were on the train one day. You can set it to a specific location on the Earth, and it’ll show you exactly what’s in the sky at that time. You can accelerate time or run it backwards; it’ll show constellations and stars in their relative positions, or you can track the path of an object in the heavens even when it’s out of sight.
The second one is called Celestia. This one I discovered through watching an episode of NCIS, believe it or not. It’s a truly incredible package. You can explore the planets and the galaxies, track comets and satellites, or pilot a spacecraft in hyperdrive to the limits of our knowledge. Photos from probes, space stations, the Hubble Space Telescope and dozens of star catalogues have been used to make the representation as accurate as possible. The documentation is a bit odd, and as with Stellarium I’ve learned by playing with the controls and seeing what happens.
The third is the Virtual Moon Atlas, which my pal Mark W. told me about a while ago. By comparison with the others it’s not as graphic-heavy, but yesterday it came in really useful.
I was in the Pickled Pepper, working on some aspects of my story, when it occurred to me to see when the far side of the Moon actually falls into shadow. I had a date in mind for the events in the story, but I don’t really want some smart-arse from the Astronomy course pointing out a technical error in my time-frame. So I had a look at the VMA, where you can see the far side of the Moon in considerable photographic detail, although of course the actual terrain is unexplored and information about specific features is ‘unknown’ a great deal of the time.
While I was randomly clicking on craters, I found one called ‘Spencer Jones.’ I was highly amused to learn that a friend of mine, who used to be a regular account customer at Waterstones and whom I still see for a pint now and again, shares his name with a crater on the far side of the Moon. On that basis, I decided that ‘Spencer Jones’ was the crater my character would mention in the course of the narrative.
I made a note of the crater’s coordinates and went back into Celestia. I navigated to a point above Spencer Jones Crater, and pulled my viewpoint out so that I could could see the entire lunar disk. Far behind it, the Earth was hovering above and to the left. Now I was ready to test my hypothesis. I sped up time and watched the Moon alternate between light and blackness, while the Earth spun frantically in its path.
Eventually I arrived at the point in the future where my story was due to take place – and the damn place was lit up like Piccadilly Circus! I stopped the clock and reversed time, more gradually so that I could see the changing light conditions. Before too long I found the nearest date when the far side of the Moon is occulted, and altered the first page of the story accordingly.
My political prognostications may be completely wide of the mark. The Chinese or Indian space programmes might make the next manned landing on the Moon. The Americans might decide on two decades of uninterrupted Republican government, and pull the plug on NASA altogether. Nobody can be sure what the future holds. But at least I know in my own mind that any future astronaut in low lunar orbit will be looking down at total blackness at the point in Space and Time when my story is set. How OCD is that?