I Didn’t Know This

There’s world building. That’s when a writer tries to create a tangible story world.  In science fiction, the process is more involved because rather than relying on the world we actually live in–or a reasonable facsimile thereof–the writer creates an environment in space or on an alien planet.  For fiction set in the near future, the writer finds the task much easier.  Still, research is required.

When I wrote my novelette Far Flung, which is set somewhere between five and ten years from now, with “now” always being today, I had to research how to renounce U.S. citizenship.  It made me feel sad.  I love my country and its founding ideals.  In Far Flung most of the seasteaders who make up its original settlers come from the United States, so I learned all about the process of renouncing U.S. citizenship and how you have to go in twice to show you really mean to lose something so precious.

Then this morning I found this list.  For my day job as a lawyer I check the table of contents of the Federal Register every day.  I check the three space regulatory agencies–the FAA, the FCC, and NOAA–and I also check a few other agencies with space responsibilities like DOD, NASA, and the State Department.  It turns out that the Treasury Department publishes a quarterly list of individuals who have chosen to expatriate.  As Treasury explains:

This notice is provided in accordance with IRC section 6039G of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) of 1996, as amended. This listing contains the name of each individual losing United States citizenship (within the meaning of section 877(a) or 877A) with respect to whom the Secretary received information during the quarter ending September 30, 2017. For purposes of this listing, long-term residents, as defined in section 877(e)(2), are treated as if they were citizens of the United States who lost citizenship.

The list goes on for twenty pages, with maybe 75 names per page. That’s a lot of people. It makes you wonder what the stories of all those people are.  Long term residents who are not citizens may just want to go home.  Others may have married overseas. Several people share a last name. Is that coincidence or are they a whole family leaving? Or, are they leaving families behind? They do leave behind the protections and rights of a great country.  In my imaginary Far Flung world Betha Tenney’s name would appear on that list.  Her father would see it and hate it being there.  How do the families left behind feel about that list?  Do they know it exists?

It’s a big decision, renouncing one’s citizenship.  How did they make the call? And why?  It seems like there are a lot of stories there, at least twenty pages worth, of leaving one’s world behind.

Correction:  The original post stated that the list was published by the State Department.  That was wrong.

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Dithering

I don’t know what to do.  Should I do National Novel Writing Month (NaNo) in November?  I’ve done it many years, and it’s a fabulous way to reach 50,000 words in 30 days.  I have some problems, however.

For one thing, it turns out I have two novels in draft.  Like a Continental Soldier, the next Waking Late book, is with beta readers, and it is possible I’ll start hearing back from them any day now.  If that happens, it’s got to be my top priority because I’m hoping to publish it in January.  That might not happen in any event because my cover artist isn’t available until then.  So there’s that.  Mercenary Calling, the sequel to The Sky Suspended, has been sitting in my computer for two years.  I’ve not wanted to look at it because I was writing, finishing, and publishing Out of the Dell, and then Soldier.  However, I’ve just finished re-reading Mercenary, and it’s just a little messy, not the out and out Mess that I had feared.  I could get that published within a couple months of Soldier.  I’d polish up Mercenary this week and then find an unsuspecting beta who said she’d be happy to read it.  Our conversation took place over a year ago, but she might still be amenable.  We’ll see.  No beta reader would finish that in November, so it’s not really a barrier to NaNo.

There is a bigger barrier to NaNo.  I have no idea what I’d write.  I have very inchoate thoughts on the next Calvin Tondini novel after Mercenary. Waking Late will be done with the third book.  I have ideas for more seastead stories.  I really want to write Shut the Kingdom, which is a follow on to Manx PrizeKingdom is about Charlotte and Ethan again, lunar property issues and Chinese shenanigans, and may have thriller overtones.  I’m not sure.  Regardless, I have a huge file to read about lunar rills, lunar landers, water, lunar geography, and whatnot.  I have a globe of the Moon, so that’s a start.

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The Dairy Planet

Every now and then life presents an opportunity to make a point about something that has bugged me for years.  I’m talking about the dairy planet.

I loved the first three seasons of the new Battlestar Galactica, with humanity on a giant exodus to the stars to avoid extinction. The rest of it was ok, and I watched it to the end.  Enough said there.  Nonetheless, like all massive works it had its flaws, and I need to nit pick one of them.  There’s a scene where Dr. Gaius Baltar tries to explain the horrors of his abused childhood.  He grew up on the dairy planet.  It was all cows, mud, and manure, and wretched, wretched, wretched.  He’s just about sobbing, and a person would have had to have a heart of stone not to laugh.  I would have laughed, but I was having too much trouble suspending my disbelief.  Really?  A whole planet of dairy?  What, it’s all Ireland?  There are no deserts, no varied terrain or topography? No chickens?  It evolved without people needing clothes, transportation, or smartphones?  Wow.  That’s some specialization for a whole damned planet.

This is one of those things they don’t seem to understand in movies or TV.  Planets are huge.  Just like ours.  There was a Star Trek episode where everyone wore orange.  I called it the Dana Buchman planet.  (All her clothes in the department stores that year were orange.  (And those alien orange clothes were not uniforms, so don’t suggest that:  they swirled, and uniforms are not swirly.))  Here on Earth—which is a large planet—we have all sorts of industries, agriculture, peoples, races, and animals.  It’s just not plausible that there’d be a whole planet doing nothing but dairy.  The economics of it defy credibility.  I understand it makes the story more simple to tell, but so would faster-than-light travel.  Oh, wait.  (Yeah, but there’s a rule somewhere that says you only get one unbelievable thing per story.  Once you’ve picked FTL, that’s it.  No acoustical levitation and no dairy planets.)

I finally finished drafting my third Waking Late book.  It’s got a bunch of strife in it.  The planet Nwwwlf, where the series takes place, looks great on the surface, but unlike most worlds that humans settle, it is not a giant rock that got properly and thoroughly terraformed.  It has its own ecology, and it’s not hospitable to humans on the nutritional front. Most things don’t poison you, but if you ate only the crops of Nwwwlf you’d get all sorts of deficiencies, the kind that lead to beri beri, pellagra, scurvy, and other fun life events.  I think of it as a giant Twinkie.

One colony ship went astray and found Nwwwlf (Not What We Were Looking For) and the people from it are trying to eke out a toehold in this world without any support from the rest of human civilization.  (SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t read the second book):  One settlement, First Landing, got all the early advantages of what terraforming infrastructure the starship had with it.  In Out of the Dell we learn there’s another settlement, Seccon.  And, yes, that’s short for Second Landing–space settlers aren’t good at names.

There are two settlements?  And Gilead Tan is determined to free the original settlers still trapped and dying in their sleeping cells?  That all means strife.  At one point, after everyone has spent a lot of time, effort and bloodshed covering lots of ground and fighting each other, one character muses how all this activity has taken place within the equivalent of one small corner of North Carolina.

I liked writing that.  I really liked it.  I got to remind the reader of all sorts of things useful for the story and for worldbuilding (or shrinking), and I got to say “it’s a planet, for crying out loud, and planets are big!”

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I’m Happy to Hate Them

It’s really easy to hate the other side.  I wish more writers remembered that.

I’m posting today not as a writer, but as a reader.  Books need villains, or, at the very least, opponents.  Everyone knows that.  However, I wouldn’t mind if they were merely on the other side of a problem from the main character, just a little awful, or, you know, had unpleasant body odor–which last is perfectly fine in a book:  no brain bleach required.  However, graphic depictions of the deaths of children, the grisly slaughter of innocent after innocent, dismemberments lavished lasciviously across the pages, I just don’t need those things.  Then I start checking Amazon for that brain bleach to get rid of all the stuff I can’t unsee.

Of course, reading it is my own fault.  I know which writers indulge.  I know better a lot of the time.  I read military fiction and lots of adventure.   I can handle carnage, but sometimes the plot catches me up and I need to keep wading through way too much sadistic torture. Yeah, no, I don’t watch Game of Thrones.  I’m too puny. My plea is not directed at the writers who give us the sadists.   They do what they do and some of them do it well.  Clearly, there’s a market for it, and I’m not going to go ask anyone to change.

No, my plea is directed at the writers who are wondering if they should do it, too.  No need.  Don’t go there. Think about it.  I’m sure we all know people who hate the Golden State Warriors.  (Ok, well, I know some.)  But however unfairly fawning the press coverage they receive, however unjustly the referees favor them, the Warriors have not removed anyone’s bodily appendages or stripped all the skin from anyone’s body. Yet these unnamed people I know think poorly of them, very poorly.

Think of a sports team you hate.  Have they done anything like that?  No, they haven’t.  Even though I don’t follow sports, I’d have heard about it if they had.  They may have individual bad apples and the occasional criminal, but no one has consumed a small child for lunch.  Yet you despise them.  I know you do.

You are against them because they are on the Other Side.  Life is full of examples of people developing emotional antipathy.  Neighbors become enraged over water run off.  Litigants hate each other because of money.  Fourteen-year old girls smack each other down because of clothes.  We’ve already gone over the sports teams.  None of these disputes are life or death, but the world is full of hate.  Ain’t it grand?  You can harness that.

I’m not saying you should write about petty things.  War, murder, beheadings of persons pretending to be trolls, whatever.  That’s all fine.  I’ve read and now written battle scenes with people losing their heads and limbs, but there are a few things on the list that you shouldn’t feel you have to do: sharing the internal monologue of sadists during the sadism is gosh-darned unpleasant. The slaughter of children and pets is not fun (for that, think “tell, not show”), and the removal of bodily appendages lasting for pages results in much sadness.  For all concerned, of course.

I know it’s a fine line, and I’m just one person, and inconsistent.  I’m reading Bernard Cornwell, and loving the Sharpe books, which have the occasional bit of awfulness.  I just don’t need to read lots or even any graphic scenes of torture and dismemberment by the bad guys to take your hero’s side and root for him.

 

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Status Report and the Value of Deadlines

I just finished my first draft of Like a Continental Soldier, the third book in my Waking Late trilogy.  Now I have to fix it, send it to a beta reader knowledgeable about muskets and early rifles, fix it again, send it to a couple other beta readers, fix it again, commission a cover, and I’ll be ready to publish.

Other news on the story telling front is that I have deadlines, which means I will have more short stories ready to publish, starting in January.  A few people formed a critique group and invited me to participate.  We must each submit a 5,000 word short story once a month and meet by Skype to go over our comments to each other.

This is very good for me.  I started being able to write in any kind of productive way because I read Chris Baty’s No Plot, No Problem, which described National Novel Writing Month (NaNo), and its sneaky, secret ingredient, namely, The Deadline.  If I’m remembering his story correctly, he saved up his money, took six months off from work to write, and wound up spending that six months building a bridge for a squirrel outside his window to get from a branch to the fence.  Thus he learned the importance of deadlines, and founded NaNo, which requires its participants to produce a 50,000 word novel in one month.  This can be done.  I’ve done it.

The first time you do NaNo, you may not quite understand how important that single month is.  When, however, you learn that your brain shuts down somewhere around December 3 because the deadline is gone, you realize you really do only have 30 days to get the words down on paper.  The following year the adrenaline flows, you buy your family a ham so you don’t have to cook, and you learn to crank out a couple hundred words at breakfast, 700 at lunch, and a thousand in the evening, maybe more.   If you don’t do this every day you can’t “win” NaNo.  Eventually, all that writing in November carries over into the rest of the year and you no longer need a crispness in the air and the changing of the leaves to tell you to get to the keyboard.

Likewise with the critique group.  I don’t want them to kick me out for slovenliness.  It could happen.  Also, knowing there’s going to be a meeting at the end of the month makes it important to produce my story and to read all their stories, too.  Fortunately, the writers all seem to be in the Human Wave camp, so I don’t come away feeling like life is hopeless and everyone in it is rotten to the core.  That’s a plus.  Even more betterer, I enjoy the stories, and get a little bit of that feeling of wonder and excitement I had as an adolescent reading Analog and other science fiction magazines.  And, betterest of all, they tell me what I need to fix in my stories.

I’ve sent the first story to Analog.  I have to revise the second one and will also send it in for consideration.  Analog has thousands of readers.  As an indie I need the exposure.  Then as each one gets rejected, I will start posting them either on this blog or on Amazon and other e-tailers.

I am not a pessimist to plan on rejection.  The magazines get so many submissions that it would be like winning the lottery to get published there.  I am actually an optimist to send anything in, but I am a realist to plan on what to do after I hear back in a few months.

All of this is a very long way of saying that I hope to be publishing something every six weeks or so, starting in January.  Wish me luck.

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So You Want to Launch a Rocket? The FAA is Here for You

I was a space lawyer for the Federal Aviation Administration. I worked in the Chief Counsel’s office and supported the Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST).

A number of years ago a whole passel of school kids showed up for A Day At The FAA. One lucky little girl, maybe a fifth grader, got assigned to me. We chatted in my office for a while. I explained how the FAA licenses and regulates commercial space launch and reentry, and the operation of launch and reentry sites (aka “spaceports”). I explained how any U.S. citizen launching anywhere in the world needs a launch license from the FAA (which explains why Michael Flynn’s Firestar has to be alternate future history, although I didn’t get into that since I figured she hadn’t read it yet). I may even have mentioned how a person who launches without a license can get heavily fined, with the fines being adjusted for inflation every four years at that time. I talked about launch safety, and how cool it is that in the United States you achieve safety by exploding the rocket. This kid asked a few questions, so I knew we were communicating. She seemed to be taking it in, but you never know.

Then we went downstairs.   I had a meeting in AST and she sat in on that. Then I took her to meet some of the engineers I worked with, where they were toiling away at their desks. AST’s space is pretty fun for a kid. It’s full of posters of launch vehicles, air-launched rockets, carrier aircraft that look like science fiction, boring carrier aircraft that don’t, sea-launched rockets, more rockets, and a line drawing of a Celtic spaceport (yes, it did look like crop circles, why do you ask?). One of the engineers pointed my young guest to a poster of two kids bending over a toy Estes model rocket. The two kids looked happy. “What,” asked the engineer of my visitor, “are these two doing wrong?” (The kids were leaning over the rocket. That’s bad.)

Wide-eyed, she looked up at him and swallowed nervously, but said very clearly, “They don’t have a license.”

Four grown men just about fell out of their chairs laughing. I was filled with pride, of course, and they quickly explained the safety issue, that she’d been hanging out with me too long, that launching rockets was lots more fun than the boring, paper-work obsessed lawyer had made it sound, and that they were totally impressed with her. The kid was happy.

The point is, you do need federal permission to launch a rocket from the United States. And, if you are a U.S. citizen or other entity you need FAA approval to launch anywhere in the world. The Commercial Space Launch Act says so. You also need permission to reenter a reentry vehicle or operate a spaceport. The one thing my protégé had wrong, however, is that you don’t need a license—or even an experimental permit—to launch a toy rocket or even a somewhat large amateur rocket.

So, if you want to launch a rocket, first, go do all your rocket science. That’s the easy part. Now, open the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). Congress passed the first version of the Commercial Space Launch Act in 1984, but the FAA’s regulations implementing that very broadly worded law may be found in Title 14, chapter III of the CFR. (I share these acronyms not to be annoying, but so you will recognize them as you pursue your research, because lots of other people use them.) The regulations get very detailed, and are full of design and test requirements for the flight termination system you will need to destroy your rocket in case it goes off course. You need a flight termination system if you are launching a large expendable launch vehicle (ELV), the kind that jettisons its component stages in the ocean on its way to orbit, but if you are flying people on board the FAA may try to be more flexible. (The Shuttle used to have a flight termination system). You will also have to launch far enough away from other people that you meet the FAA’s risk criteria. If you have a really big rocket this likely means you should launch over the ocean. We took the risk criteria from the Air Force, which called them the “expected casualty” numbers. I meekly suggested calling them something else but got overruled.

Anyway, back to your license application. Make sure you have filled it out completely enough for the FAA to get started working on it. If you do, the clock starts ticking on the FAA, which has 180 days to complete a review where it makes sure you are capable of satisfying the regulations. If you provide only a semi-finished application, the FAA can stop the clock. You will be annoyed but will get to complain how the government is slowing you down.

Then there’s the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires environmental impact statements and environmental assessments for major federal actions, which includes licensing. If you launch from an existing spaceport you won’t have to do too much work for an environmental review. If you go from a new place of your own, you might be out there counting desert tortoises before you can launch to establish an environmental baseline. You have been warned.

You need a payload review. If your payload isn’t licensed by the FCC or NOAA, the FAA gets to look at it for whether there are any national security or foreign policy concerns.   (The latter is something I’ve been writing and testifying about a lot, but you’re the launch operator with plenty of other things to worry about, so I won’t go into that today.)

Do you want to put people on your rocket? There are legal requirements for that, too. There are three types of people you might take to space or on a suborbital jaunt: space flight participants, crew, and government astronauts. The FAA isn’t allowed to regulate how you design or operate your rocket to protect the people on board until 2023, unless there has been a death, serious injury, or a close call. Because the crew are part of the flight safety system, the FAA determined it could have regulations in place to protect the crew. That those requirements might also protect space flight participants is purely a coincidence.   However, just because the FAA can’t tell you what to do to protect the space flight participants doesn’t mean you are out of its clutches. You have to provide the crew and space flight participants—but not the government astronauts because they already know how dangerous this is—informed consent in writing. You have to tell them the safety record of your vehicle and others like it, that the government has not certified it as safe, and that they could be hurt or die.

Once you get your license, you have to buy insurance or show the FAA that you have enough money to cover the damage you may cause to third parties or U.S. government property. Also, you have to sign waivers of claims with the government, all your customers (each person who has put an object on your vehicle as a payload), crew, space flight participants, and your contractors and subcontractors. Everyone, to put it in largely accurate terms, has to agree not to sue everyone else.

At this point, your eyes may be glazing over. You might think to yourself that you will incorporate as a foreign entity and go launch somewhere else like they did in Firestar, and get away from all of this. Not so fast. Firestar was alternate future history, and the people who administer the dread ITAR, the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, will want to take a look at you if you try to provide your launch technology to a foreign entity, which is what you have become if you incorporate in another country.

When you decide that’s too hard, the FAA will be there for you. Welcome back.

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Failing to Plan Ahead

I’m not in the path of totality. I didn’t buy the eclipse glasses because what’s the point of looking if the eclipse isn’t total? (That’s called letting the perfect be the enemy of the good). Also, I’m a grown up who knows better than to look at the sun.

It’s 2:00 Eastern as I write this.  Oh, man, I so badly want to look at the sun now.

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Using Your Government as a Writing Tool

Today we will talk about the Federal Register of the U.S. Government. (I know. Soon this blog will be guest-featured on Fun with Flags. It’s not everyone who’s waiting to be discovered by Sheldon Cooper.)  Why are we talking about the Federal Register?  It makes sense that I talked about it on my law blog, GroundBasedSpaceMatters, but why here?  Because I like to share.

If you are a citizen it tells you about all the notices of all the rules that apply to you or the businesses you deal with. Just remember, the contents of the Federal Register apply to you.   If it’s in the Federal Register and it applies to you, it applies to you even if you don’t actually know about it.  It’s  legal notice to the world, to everyone from coal miners with pneumoconiosis to members of the military-industrial complex.  If you are a writer, however, it is also grist for the mill.

What is it?  The Federal Register, as you may or may not know, is a repository of recent regulations left by roving bands of regulators. It is also a treasure trove of transportation trivia. It publishes every week day and contains notices of proposed regulations, final rules, agency meetings, petitions for exemption, copyright royalty distributions for satellite transmissions, Coast Guard safety zones, airworthiness directives, and those mysterious self-regulating organizations that the Securities and Exchange Commission keeps mentioning. The Federal Register lets you find things and know things and use them to hurt your characters with. The Federal Register is a thing of beauty.

The Office of the Federal Register, which runs the publication, describes it as the newspaper of the Federal Government. No actual news, however, is allowed. See 44 U.S.C. § 1505(b).  (Paragraph (c) suspends the publication requirements in the event of an attack on the continental United States. (Not sure what that means for Hawaii)).

Why You’ll Like It.  You do not need to be a lawyer to benefit from checking the table of contents every day. If your main character wheels electrical power, he might care about the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or maybe the emission rules of the Environmental Protection Agency. If your heroine trades in securities, you might want to know what the SEC is thinking of requiring so she can rant about how hard her job is on a hot date. If your main character has a buddy who is a law student taking Administrative Law he can subscribe and treat the Federal Register as a palate cleanser in between all the heavy reading.  It’s kind of like Reddit.  Sort of.  As a space lawyer in my day job, I check the Federal Aviation Administration for commercial space transportation, the Federal Communications Commission for telecommunication satellites, and for remote sensing of our home planet the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which also has notices about fisheries, lots of notices. I don’t read the ones about the fish.

When I first stared practicing law, the Federal Register arrived at my old law firm printed and bound on cheap, thin paper; the savvy lawyers in the firm would check its table of contents every day to see whether there was anything to fuss about. The Federal Register will now email you its daily table of contents. You can sign up here. Later, when I worked for the Federal Aviation Administration, and I already knew about the things I cared about before they were published, I almost never checked it. I didn’t need to, but I should have, and I would have if I’d known about this email service. I truly believe that.

I don’t know, this whole topic might be too exciting for Fun with Flags.

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Visualization, Early Spaceports, and a Writer’s Friend: Pinterest

I’m worried I see in words. When I read a vivid, painterly writer like Dorothy Dunnett or J.M. Ney-Grimm I feel like I am immersed, virtual-reality-style, in a world I can see and smell. When I try to remember the color of my mother’s couch, I can’t. When I try to conjure an image of what my own couch would look like based on the two color swatches in my hands  the image won’t come. Could I describe a stranger’s face to a sketch artist in sufficient detail to depict a perpetrator? Hell, no. I’d get height, hair, and eyes, and I’m lying about the eyes. I can recognize someone if I see them again—most of the time—but I’d really appreciate it if none of you ever changed your hairstyle again. I’m good with what you’ve got.

It’s different when I read. I can see something even without looking at it.  Words make me see all sorts of things in my head. With the right writer, I feel like I’m reading a movie. It’s also how I write, and when I write I see thing as I describe them in words. The images grow clearer with each word on the screen, and I can enter my own worlds and eventually see all of it.  I just need words to take me there. But if I’m sitting around daydreaming, what comes into my head are conversations and actions, not pictures of places. This made my alien world of Nwwwlf rather difficult at first. I didn’t even know it would be.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I like looking at things. I may have no long-term storage capacity for what I see, but I love beautiful things. I have paint and pictures on my walls, floral fabrics on chairs, and I love gardens, manicured or wild. People are objects of beauty just as much as a painting, and my heart melts with longing when I look at a pot de crème. But my visual imagination lags my language.

As with so many things, the internet has come to my rescue. I was looking on One Kings Lane at paintings I wanted but couldn’t get, and there was Country Sunrise by Kenneth Ray Wilson, with its odd colors that do exist in the natural world but not often. A meadow of pale lime receded up a hill.   Grasses of indigo, pale and dark, crowded the foreground. It was alien and strange and looked like my imaginary world, only I hadn’t realized it until just that moment. Sunset Oaks gave a different perspective on the same colors and had the same effect on me. A pang of excitement hit. This really was what Nwwwlf looked like. Then I became sad. I wished I could save the paintings. I could write up the colors really quickly, sure,  but the paintings were evocative and put me immediately into my imaginary world without me having to do a lot of work. I wanted to come back and gaze at it, but the site was a flash sale site of sorts. All would be lost.

Then I saw it, the little circle with a P in it. I could save the picture. I could look at it whenever I wanted to and not pay anyone $379 to do so. I set up a board for Sleeping Duty, the first in my Waking Late series, on Pinterest. I gradually added other pictures to it, a river mill, a rush chair, items and settings that evoked the medieval feel of Nwwwlf. I even have some wacky dudes whose manly posture I like to show to my cover artist.

I created more boards. My favorite might be my collection of Early Spaceports. The Canaletto above will be the cover for an unfinished story about a powersat billionaire who collects paintings of what he calls, you guessed it, early spaceports.  I’ll just be adding a little satellite to the blue, blue of the sky.  The board itself contains paintings of wharves, ports, sailing ships, water, water everywhere, and mysterious paths. A painting of mysterious paths also features in the story. For some reason, that painting is something I can picture in my head, and I keep looking for a real-life version of it. I haven’t found it yet, but I’m getting close. I also have a picture on that board of one of my sons and me, but that’s because it’s a picture of us at a real early spaceport, waiting for the first Antares launch out of Wallops. The launch got scrubbed, but these pictures won’t.

 

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