Space Subcommittee Hearing

The Space Subcommittee of the House Science Committee on Science, Space, and Technology will hold a space regulation hearing on Wednesday, March 8 at 10 a.m. in the Rayburn Building.  The hearing is titled Regulating Space:  Innovation, Liberty, and International Obligations.  I am honored to be included on the witness list.

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Shedding the Sharkskin

I’ve loved science fiction since the missionary school I attended in Northern Thailand received a boatload of books from a nearby U.S. Air Force installation. One of those books was Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I had already graduated from horse books to Edgar Rice Burroughs, but I knew deep in my bones that this book was different. The Heinlein had some realism attached to it, some small level of plausibility. It intersected with my world. It could, anyway. It really could. The book orders to my parents whenever they went to Bangkok switched from ERB to RAH. I loved the nobility, the heroism, and the love of the human race. I relished the observations about people and the world. And I read with grim determination the tutorials on orbital mechanics.

So, of course, I became a lawyer.

Fast forward a few decades to my decision to stop being a dilettante about my desire to write. I wanted to produce a book, one that I’d finish. It took a few years, but I did it. They say you should write what you know, so my first book was full of lawyers. Also, and some may find this sad, the stories running in my head always had lawyers. Additionally, as a space lawyer, I have notions about stuff, and I wanted to explore some of those notions, which was fun and amusing, for me, at the very least. My next book was about space debris, and the main character is an engineer; but, again, it was clear to me she needed a lawyer. After all, how else was I to dispense—in a blithe aside—with the issue of intellectual property rights in a satellite design if there wasn’t a lawyer lying around? (I’m kind of keen on the commercialization of space, so the private sector was taking care of cleaning up the orbital domain in my version of reality.) And if he wasn’t really good looking, what was wrong with me?

All this focusing on lawyers helped me work out a nagging question that I’ve faced during my many years of reading Bujold, Cherryh, Heinlein, and others. That question was always—after thrilling to the amazing things happening in a space story—what were they doing on Earth? Did they really mobilize that fast? Didn’t they all squabble with each other first? Drag their feet? Get it wrong? I have trouble envisioning us getting our act together in the face of an alien invasion. We would, but, first, bureaucracy had to happen. I worked at the FAA for a couple decades, so I know bureaucracy and the first two books have plenty of it.

But there’s more to science fiction than lawyers, and we can look for the pause that refreshes. So, what about lost colonies, humanity spreading to the stars, not keeping all our eggs in one basket, and finding a fresh start. That is still the pull of space. There have to be more worlds out there. Maybe I could visit one. Maybe I could visit one and leave my own kind behind. Maybe I could imagine a world with no lawyers. So I wrote Sleeping Duty, a story of a space marine trapped in a medieval lost colony. He isn’t awakened until three centuries after the lost starship limped to a reasonably Earth-like planet. There were reasons for that, but they are lost in the past, and his main problem is that the people who want him awake won’t let him wake up his wife.

This was a lot of fun. I wrote the first draft in a month. There’s only one lawyer, and he’s only in one scene. Really. But there was a glitch.

One of my beta readers pointed out that soldiers aren’t so unclear in their objectives. He’s not unclear, I protested. He’s thoughtful. He’s thinking things through. Then I stopped. I realized I had written another damn lawyer. The authorial indecision about certain aspects of the plot while I was making up my mind, which were fine to load onto a lawyer, were not good for a soldier. Who knew? As soon as she said it, I recognized what I had done. So I removed that excess of contemplation, the superfluous weighing of variables, and the whole on-the-other hand shenanigans with which I had weighted down poor Gilead regarding his goals. And he came back to life. All was good.

But it was a growth experience, and I do still like my sharks. They’ll be back.

My books: The Sky Suspended (which has an abundance of lawyers), Manx Prize (which has a lot less although there are still several), Sleeping Duty (which has only one and only briefly), and Out of the Dell (which has zero lawyers). No lawyers have appeared in the current work in progress, although there’s a bunch in the half-finished sequel to The Sky Suspended.

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Do You Hear What I Hear? Let it Not be MAD, but Money

This little story in the Atlantic has been haunting me for days:

When Bing Crosby or Robert Goulet or Carrie Underwood sing of “a star, a star, dancing in the night with a tail as big as a kite,” it evokes the biblical Star of Bethlehem, leading the magi to the son of God.

It also evokes a nuclear missile.

The song’s writers, Noël Regney and Gloria Shayne Baker, created the song at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, in fear of nuclear annihilation. Try listening to the song now that you know that.

The story reminds me of when I first got a gut understanding of how rockets got their start. When I was a lawyer with the Federal Aviation Administration, I worked for decades on commercial space transportation.  The Commercial Space Launch Act called rockets “launch vehicles,” so I did, too. Launch vehicles are a means of transport for nice things like communications satellites and weather satellites. They have nice payloads.

There was a fellow in the licensing division of the Office of Commercial Space Transportation. He was former U.S. Air Force, and he usually called the vehicles rockets or launch vehicles like the rest of us. I’d been at the FAA a while when I first heard him call them “missiles.” The hair on the back of my neck went straight up.

I don’t know why it did that, but I have my suspicions.  I’d grown up under MAD, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, and I remember a ferocious discussion of it with other girls in gym class in high school in the ‘70’s. I knew all about intercontinental ballistic missiles, and I knew what nuclear winter was, what ICBMs were. But here was this fellow who’d worked on launch vehicles that didn’t have nice, friendly comsats as payloads. His launch vehicles had different payloads. They had warheads, the kind I’d worried about in my youth, before Reagan, before the Berlin Wall went down, and before I stopped worrying.

When I wrote The Sky Suspended, a novel about an interstellar starship that discovers an Earth-like planet, I knew how fiendishly expensive and difficult space travel is. We hadn’t even returned to the Moon yet, after all. People came to the FAA with really cool plans, and then we didn’t see them again. Geostationary orbit is the farthest we get commercially, dreams of asteroid mining notwithstanding. Knowing all this, I had a credibility issue with what could lead to us spending all that money on a starship. Deep in the back of my brain I knew we’d have to be really, really scared. So, asteroids threatened the Earth, two of them, and math happened.

I’ve worried from time to time that our drive to space grew out of fear, that we yearned for space only because we needed a backup drive for Earth and because we were afraid. Once the children of MAD went where the elves go, humanity would turn inward and dive into its video games, never to surface above Earth’s atmosphere again. The machines would. You need those for video games. But those of us of flesh and bone? We’d stay put.

What heartens me, however, is what I’ve been seeing lately from people younger than me: the children at the New World Institute showing off their lunar and Martian cities, the number of law students and 20-somethings interested in space law. I attribute this to a different factor than fear. They aren’t afraid, but they’re starting to think they can go, that there are whole new worlds out there again, and they might be there for them, not just a handful of government employees. I wish I could attribute it to science fiction (since I love it so), but it’s something else: it’s commercialization, and when some see profit and dollars and rewards for their quixotic, romantic, and heroic efforts, the rest of us benefit, for it means the rest of us can participate, not just the government. Those capitalists want us to give them our money. And we’ll do it if they give us something we want.

When I first started at the FAA, I got to see an Atlas IIAS launch. It was around 2 a.m., and the whole sky turned bright as day, but orange. I was two miles from the rocket, and still my bones vibrated at the sound of it, and tears came to my eyes at the beauty of it.

I want to see that tail as big as a kite again, but I don’t want to see it on a missile. I want to see it on a launch vehicle.

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Books as Gifts

I love giving books as gifts.  Here are a few I highly recommend!

They are each a great combination of fun, harrowing, and high adventure, with characters you’ll love.  They’re just right for the season.  Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and Happy Holidays!

J.M. Ney-Grimm’s fantasy Winter Glory is a glittering tale of two people, who once loved each other, traveling over the river and through the woods.  In an icy wonderland they face both danger and the consequences of their own choices.  Ney-Grimm has a fresh and elegant writing style that captures the epic sense one wants in fantasy, but she also tells a story with a strong heart.  I gave my sister this book for Christmas last year I loved it so much.

From the blurb:  In the cold, forested North-lands, redolent with the aroma of pine, shrouded in snow, and prowled by ice tigers and trolls, Ivvar seeks only to meet his newborn great granddaughter.  Traversing the wilderness toward the infant’s home camp, Ivvar must face the woman he once cherished and an ancient scourge of the chilly woodlands in a complicated dance of love and death.

Ivvar’s second chance at happiness – and his life – hang in the balance.


Sarah A. Hoyt’s Prometheus winning science fiction novel, Darkship Thieves, is a rip-roaring, action packed romp through the solar system, from an Earth ruled by bio-lords to a secret colony on a mysterious asteroid.

From the blurb:  Athena Hera Sinistra never wanted to go to space. Never wanted see the eerie glow of the Powerpods. Never wanted to visit Circum Terra. Never had any interest in finding out the truth about the DarkShips. You always get what you don’t ask for. Which must have been why she woke up in the dark of shipnight, within the greater night of space in her father’s space cruiser, knowing that there was a stranger in her room. In a short time, after taking out the stranger—who turned out to be one of her father’s bodyguards up to no good, she was hurtling away from the ship in a lifeboat to get help. But what she got instead would be the adventure of a lifetime—if she managed to survive…


Dave Freer’s fantasy novel Changeling Island, a Dragon award nominee, is a modern version of all those books we loved as kids.  There’s a sense of community and responsibility for one’s actions and a hero we can root for, but now there are cell phones and divorced parents.  I loved it.

From the blurb:  Tim Ryan can’t shake the feeling that he is different from other teens, and not in a good way. For one thing, he seems to have his own personal poltergeist that causes fires and sets him up to be arrested for shoplifting.

As a result Tim has been sent to live on a rundown farm on a remote island off the coast of Australia with his crazy grandmother, a woman who seems to talk to the local spirits, and who refuses to cushion Tim from facing his difficulties.  But he’s been exiled to an island alive with ancient magic—land magic that Tim can feel in his bones, and sea magic that runs in his blood. If Tim can face down the danger from drug runners, sea storms, and the deadly threat of a seal woman who wishes to steal him away for a lingering death in the land of Faery, he may be able to claim the mysterious changeling heritage that is his birthright.

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The Importance of Titles

No, this is not a post about the aristocracy. This is a post about book titles.

As readers, we can all appreciate the strange, poetical allure of Stranger in a Strange Land, or the yearning created by Time for the Stars. I definitely picked up Dies the Fire because of the title.

I called my first book The Sky Suspended. I took it from A.E. Housman’s poem Epitaph to an Army of Mercenaries, one I memorized as a teen with no idea as to its origins or real meaning. (It’s from World War I, and, according to this site, Housman wrote it in response to German sneers that the British Army was an army of mercenaries because the soldiers received pay.). I always thought it was about Italian condotierri. In my defense, I was ignorant because I didn’t have the Internet, and that was because no one had yet invented our collective brain.

Be that as it may, the poem stuck in my head and I mined it for the title. (If you go on Amazon, you’ll see that other writers have as well, applying it to tales of aerial derring-do.)

The benefits of this title for a book about lawyers, crowds, past asteroids and present mania for a newly discovered world, consisted of it resonating—at least for me—on a couple of levels. The government is trying to keep people from going to the new world, thus suspending the human desire to explore, and seek out, strange, new worlds. Also, as a lawyer, it carried connotations of rights, privileges, or licenses suspended, revoked, or otherwise kept in check. For a book about a lawyer who wants to see human settlements on the new planet and perhaps go there himself, it fit nicely. I will mine the same poem for the sequel. In the second book, of which I have a working draft, Calvin Tondini leaves the government for the private practice of law, hence the title Mercenary Calling. There will be corn on the cover.

What got me thinking about all of this was that I have a separate series, the Waking Late books, I’m also working on. (The functional ADHD I acquired in my job at the FAA carries over into my fiction writing, too: I have to work on more than one project at a time.). In the Waking Late series, a lost starship finds an imperfectly hospitable world where the stranded settlers struggle to build a civilization. Gilead Tan, who has been kept in cold sleep for centuries, wakes to find things not to his liking at all, particularly the civilization the original settlers built. A former space marine, he busies himself with addressing his concerns.

His story is one I had worked on a long time ago. I didn’t finish it, and it sat in a drawer with an entirely different main character and languished until a couple of years ago. I was sitting in the garden at the Freer Gallery at lunch, gazing around at the pretty architecture in the courtyard, thinking it looked sort of like a fairy tale, maybe Sleeping Beauty, and the name Sleeping Duty drifted into my head.

Oh dear, thought I. I love that. It would make a great book title. It would make a great title for that thing in the drawer. But that person whose name I can’t remember isn’t the main character. Gilead is the main character. And it’s not a friend trapped in the sleeping cells. It’s Gilead’s wife. So I wrote that one.

The title to the sequel, Out of the Dell, is perfectly fine, seeing as how Gilead and company have left the human biome of First Landing, but it doesn’t have the clever twist on a fairy tale that the first one did. I tried. It’s probably a mash-up of The Farmer in the Dell and Out of the Cradle, and since the team is outside the human-friendly valley of First Landing they are way outside their comfort zone. Literally. It has other cool stuff (thank you, ancient Romans), but no fairy tale title.

I’ve started working on the third Waking Late book. I knew roughly what was going to happen, but the book had no title. I felt strangely desolate. I asked people on a Facebook group whether they knew any nursery rhymes or fairy tales with blasters, soldiers, or sleeping people, that I could twist to my nefarious ends. L. Jagi Lamplighter brought up Do Your Ears Hang Low as a ditty with a soldier in it, and that took care of that: Like a Continental Soldier is the next book. (By the way, if you look that song up—on the Internet—you will find that in the original version something else hung low. Shocking.)

Weirdly, getting the name helped me realize a number of things about the plot. This is a book about a battle. That was something I knew but didn’t want to admit because it’s going to be hard to write. I don’t know anything about battles. But knowing the right title helped focus the actual nature of the story for me. Also, the ending wasn’t the ending. It was the middle. After that middle, which may prove hard on a number of people, Gilead and his crew will be in for some very rough times. As will I, because I have to research small battles with rifles, muskets, and swords. I need to find a museum where I can look at these things. I have to figure out what an advanced civilization might do to make sure its small population of settlers could defend themselves for generations. And there will be soldiering, because you can’t title a book Like a Continental Soldier without some soldiering.



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Building a Garbage Truck for Space

This guy is awesome:

Mitsunobu Okada, aspires to be more than an ordinary garbageman. Schoolroom pictures of the planets decorate the door to the meeting room. Satellite mock-ups occupy a corner. Mr. Okada greets guests in a dark blue T-shirt emblazoned with his company’s slogan: Space Sweepers.

In my novel Manx Prize, Charlotte Fisher creates what she calls the B&B (Brake and Bake), to grab and burn up space debris in her quest to win $50 million in gold.  Mr. Okada goes one better:

He said he has created a two-step plan for making money from debris removal. First, Astroscale plans to launch a 50-pound satellite called IDEA OSG 1 next year aboard a Russian rocket. The craft will carry panels that can measure the number of strikes from debris of even less than a millimeter. Astroscale will use this data to compile the first detailed maps of debris density at various altitudes and locations, which can then be sold to satellite operators and space agencies, Mr. Okada said.

“We need to get revenue at an early stage, even before doing actual debris removal, to prove that we are commercial, as a business,” said Mr. Okada, who added that he had already raised $43 million from investors.

The more ambitious step will come in 2018, when Mr. Okada says Astroscale will launch a craft called the ELSA 1. Larger than its predecessor, the ELSA 1 will be loaded with sensors and maneuvering thrusters that will allow it to track and intercept a piece of debris.

The company settled on a lightweight and simple approach to grabbing space debris: glue.

In Manx Prize, the Consortium of Man, a fictional association of satellite and orbitat operators located on the Isle of Man, offers a prize to clean up the orbital environment.  In real life, the Isle of Man really is a very space friendly environment.

(The link is to a New York Times article if you want to read the whole thing).

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Space Settlement Symposium

I’m looking forward to participating in a New Worlds 2016 Space Settlement Symposium in Austin, Texas.  The panel I will be on, moderated by asteroid miner Sagi Kfir of Deep Space Industries, will address Who Owns Space?

Citizens are going into space. Who has the right to do what and where out there? How do we avoid the mistakes made on Earth, yet encourage the harvest of space resources that might save the planet? How do we make sure no one grabs the solar system yet enable regular people to dream they might own a house on the Moon or homestead Mars?

It looks to be fascinating.

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