Soaring from Asimov to XCOR Lynx


Science fiction stories! Nowadays, whether it’s a Brawny story about being tough, a Rembrandt story about being original, or a Clean & Clear story about being unique, we find stories everywhere. As Kevin Spacey told the audience at Content Marketing World 2014: “The story is everything, which means that it’s our jobs to tell better stories.” So where’s mine? Will mine sound like a sci-fi story?

Hi, my name is Jay, and I’m an IBM TRIRIGA information developer at IBM. To celebrate the first anniversary of my tech blog, I’d like to try something a little selfish — something that brings together a bit of my past and a bit of my future. While my personal story won’t be fictional, I can’t deny the influence of science and science fiction — especially stories written by the late Dr. Isaac Asimov.

XCOR Space Expeditions

XCOR Space Expeditions

Coincidentally, Dr. Asimov’s name recently returned to the spotlight when his 1959 essay on creativity was published for the first time ever. Nearly thirty years after his essay, as a mere college freshman, I wrote a 1988 letter to Dr. Asimov about finding ideas for my own sci-fi short stories. Then last week, in a giant leap from science fiction to science fact, I grabbed chances to win a 2015 round-trip to space!

How should I begin my story?

In terms of writing science fiction, let’s begin in high school. While sci-fi films and television — like the original Star Wars trilogy, original Battlestar Galactica TV series, and original Doctor Who TV series — heavily influenced my teenage interests, my writing style and sensibility were undoubtedly shaped by two authors — my high-school AP English teacher L.S. Bassen and the highly-prolific Dr. Asimov.

While L.S. Bassen opened my eyes to the literary past — from the heroic Beowulf to the tragic Hamlet — Dr. Asimov painted new visions of the technological future — from his psychohistorical Foundation trilogy to his positronic Robot series. Before long, I wrote one of my first sci-fi stories — Implant — which was published in Futures, our low-budget high-school science fiction and fantasy magazine.

Here are a couple of playful excerpts from the tales of Scientor Ultis Anshoran — Implant and One Question — each edited slightly for stylistic clarity and published online for the first time. Enjoy!

“W-wait! What the hell is this ‘Appy’?”

“Come on, Trand. Figure it out. It is a derivation of the acronym of my Automatic Physio-monitor Implant.” And pulling his white-sleeved arms from behind his lightly-greyed hair, he continued, his arms now folded upon his chest, “And as I was saying, Appy has been successfully tested on our laboratory animals, its progress has been most satisfactory.”

“But human beings?” Sr. Dallen paced impatiently, his eyebrows knitted and and his left hand fumbling at his beard in thought. “You may not know it, but you may be beginning a trend to mechanize all of humanity, to transform it all into, uh,… ‘robotity.’ Other, perhaps ungentlemanly, scientors may discover a device, similar to your precious Implant, that would replace the brain as regulator of the human body’s mental and physical processes. And then they may create a higher-level device that would–“

“Quite an excess of may’s, Trand. You know, you a-may’s me.” Sr. Anshoran followed with a brief chuckle and pulled out from his coat pocket, his favorite electric hologame…

“Look, I want to make this clear to you. Appy is an implant, a completely passive implant. Placed surgically underneath the occipital region of the skull, the implant monitors those sections of the brain which control the vital physical processes of the body, and transmits the information to a receiver linked up to a computer, by which the information is collected, analyzed, processed and stored. Nothing interferes with the brain. Appy is a passive but observant bystander and monitor of the brain.”

Retaining the same basic sizes as those of the paper-ink-and-glue “books” of perhaps two megadays ago, electrotexts surpassed them in practicability and variety. However, it was necessary to replenish their energy banks every hectoday or so. And for tens of kilodays, they remained restricted to the storage capacity of fifty literary works of an average of one million or so characters each. Apolla’s science project intended to render these electrotexts obsolete. Her “teletext” would maintain the capacity and in addition permit it to access, via radio or ultro waves, the properly adjusted compu-plex of a library, through which millions of literary works could be reached…

Apolla switched her project on. Ever so gradually, a black spherical cloud materialized above the teletext’s projective aperture. Random letters of laser green within the fifteen-centimeter-wide cloud likewise gradually materialized. She cleared the cloud with a light touch of a button and proceeded to type the word “Access” into the black sphere.

She trembled with anticipation as her right index finger drew closer to the “Activate” button. She thought about the target “compu-plex” across the dim basement which she would hopefully access and from which she would hopefully retrieve a simple sentence. And she thought about that simple sentence which would light up in bright green characters across the black teletext sphere: “You did it!”

And she pressed “Activate.”

What amuses me about these short stories is that although some of their decades-old ideas — such as a metric time system with kilodays, decidays, and millidays — still seem woefully remote, other fictional concepts — from electric hologames, holophones, and holovisions to automatic aeromobiles — might transform into reality within the next decade. Yes, including an injectable electronic implant!

If a tiny device could be implanted in your body to give you self-healing powers, would you want one?

That question is on many minds now that the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has announced that just such a device is in the works: an electronic implant, injected via a needle, that would monitor the health of internal organs and help the body heal itself when illness or injury strikes.

The implant — being developed as part of the agency’s ElectRx (pronounced “electrics”) program — would “fundamentally change the manner in which doctors diagnose, monitor and treat injury and illness,” DARPA program manager Doug Weber said in a written statement.

“Instead of relying only on medication — we envision a closed-loop system that would work in concept like a tiny, intelligent pacemaker,” Weber continued. “It would continually assess conditions and provide stimulus patterns tailored to help maintain healthy organ function, helping patients get healthy and stay healthy using their body’s own systems.”

There’s no word yet on when such a device might become available, but a spokesman for the agency said clinical trials might begin within five years.

But what amazes me the most is that before I ever heard of Apple or Microsoft, still other fictional concepts — namely, the “compu-plex” and “teletext” — have already transformed into reality — as real-world intranets and smartphones! Smartphones might not be holographic yet, but if the Apple iOS “parallax effect” is any indication, we might see holophones and holovisions sooner than we think!

What about my letter to Dr. Asimov?

Before I dive into my letter, let’s take a moment to set the context with Dr. Asimov’s 1959 essay on creativity. While his essay explores the parallel cross-connections made by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace “simultaneously and independently”, my letter explores the parallel discoveries made my Dr. Asimov and myself “independently”. But naturally, he developed his ideas decades earlier.

Note from Arthur Obermayer, friend of the author:

In 1959, I worked as a scientist at Allied Research Associates in Boston… When I first became involved in the project, I suggested that Isaac Asimov, who was a good friend of mine, would be an appropriate person to participate… Before he left, however, he wrote this essay on creativity as his single formal input…

ON CREATIVITY

How do people get new ideas?… My feeling is that as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required. The creative person is, in any case, continually working at it. His mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it… Probably more inhibiting than anything else is a feeling of responsibility. The great ideas of the ages have come from people who weren’t paid to have great ideas, but were paid to be teachers or patent clerks or petty officials, or were not paid at all. The great ideas came as side issues.

By the time I finally composed and mailed a brave letter to the legendary Dr. Isaac Asimov, I was highly inspired by his epic Foundation trilogy, Robot series, and countless other works. Consequently, I figured that Dr. Asimov would appreciate a dynamic self-confident letter more than a tediously subservient one. I mailed my letter in the autumn of 1988. Sadly, he passed away 4 years later.

Decades later, I don’t know if Dr. Asimov’s lingering consciousness somehow allowed my existential frequency to access his transcendental frequency, or if my emotional state simply sought nostalgia, or if it’s purely coincidental. But whichever it is, I have the strangest feeling that reconstructing my old letter from the past might be telling me something in the present. Like telling me to share this story.

Although I regret not making a photocopy of my final letter, reconstructing it last month from my old draft was an enlightening process that reminded me of the technologies that Dr. Asimov imagined in his published science fiction, as well as those that I imagined in my own high-school science fiction. Not only fiction that is steadily turning into fact, but fiction that has already transformed into fact!

Yet, as I read more of your works, the challenge to create that universe seems to grow in intensity. As a high school sophomore, prior to encountering the first in a chain reaction of Asimov novels, Foundation Trilogy, I had developed concepts of a metric or decimal time system, and a 3D polar-coordinated mapping system. But after reading Foundation Trilogy, I discover that you describe these concepts in detail. I developed the concept of an enormous evolving super-computer called UNIEC (pronounced “unique”), the Universal Network Information-Expansion Compu-plex, to find your Multivac in a multitude of your short stories. I even developed an electronic book-sized and book-shaped parallelopiped fitted with screen and control buttons that could access via ultrowaves an unlimited number of texts from libraries, called a teletext, only to find the telebook described in your “The Fun They Had.”

It is both a bit discouraging and encouraging. Discouraging that, oh no, another good idea has been taken and had been taken decades ago. (It would seem that I copied your ideas rather than developed the same ones independently. So I consequently reinstate a search for another good idea.) And encouraging that I developed notions very similar to the great Gentle Doctor himself. (I must be doing something right!)

Although I don’t recall the exact date on which I mailed my letter to Dr. Asimov, I have the lingering impression that I sent it in autumn with little expectation that he’d reply. But weeks or months later, he did! At first, I was disappointed that he misspelled my name and I cursed myself for not inking my name more clearly. But over the years, I’ve grown to smile at the genuine humanness of his reply.

What about my trip to space?

Back in early September, I received an email from the Mars One team. Although I haven’t been the most active member of the Mars One community, the email thanked me “for being a part of our passionate community” and provided me “with a no-cost chance to launch into space (and back) aboard the XCOR Lynx Spacecraft”. For whatever reason, I didn’t take any real action. Until last week.

What finally compelled me to act? I’m not quite sure. Maybe part of the reason was wanting to celebrate the November 2 anniversary of my blog with a special sci-fi post about Dr. Asimov. Maybe another part of it was seeing his 1959 essay and being inspired by his name in the spotlight again. Or maybe the biggest part was the impending deadline to enter — 11:59:59 PM ET, November 5, 2014.

Nevertheless, I took the giant leap. On October 21, I made a donation through the Urgency Network “Ticket To Rise” campaign to help fund the Mars One “2015 simulation outpost and 2018 Mars lander missions”. In return, I earned an orange “Mars One Output” T-shirt plus 250 entries to win a 2015 round-trip to space aboard the XCOR Lynx Mark II spacecraft! I can earn even more entries daily.

Ticket To Rise

Ticket To Rise

Ticket To Rise

Ticket To Rise

Ticket To Rise

Ticket To Rise

Ticket To Rise

Ticket To Rise

Ticket To Rise

Ticket To Rise

Here are a few eye-opening excerpts from the Urgency Network website and the XCOR Space Expeditions website, including the approximate retail value of the spaceflight — $100,000.00 USD.

You’ll travel to the edge of space on the XCOR Lynx Mark II spacecraft, reaching an altitude of 100 km (338,000 feet). The 100km altitude line (the “von Karman Line”) is generally recognized by the international community as the threshold of space. Participants on the XCOR Lynx Mark II flight may claim the title ‘Astronaut’ upon their return…

Package includes:

  • A “Founders Ticket” to space on XCOR’s Lynx spacecraft, making you one of the first 100 people to experience this life changing journey with SXC.
  • Exclusive status as SXC’s “Founding Astronaut”
  • 4g simulator training mission
  • Roll Out // Assignment party
  • Video of the entire experience
  • Bragging rights for life…

Deadline to enter: 11:59:59 PM ET, November 5, 2014

Contest drawing date: November 6, 2014

Date(s) of actual experience:

Founder acknowledges and understands that the LYNX is presently being completed and delays, both seen and unforeseen, very likely may occur. Although it is anticipated that it will be completed sometime in 2014 and tests flown also in 2014, no assurances are being given that actual service will begin in 2014. However, the first flight is tentatively scheduled to occur in Q3 2015.

Ticket To Rise

Ticket To Rise

Ticket To Rise

Ticket To Rise

Ticket To Rise

Ticket To Rise

Ticket To Rise

Ticket To Rise

Ticket To Rise

Ticket To Rise

Pre-launch protocol

Unlike all other previously developed spacecrafts, including the Space Shuttle, XCOR’s Lynx Mark II spaceship is equipped with an independent take-off and landing system. The ship’s four revolutionary rocket engines can be shut down and restarted in-flight at any time. There are no disposable carrier rockets, carriers or landings at sea. The Lynx Mark II simply departs from the runway at Curacao Spaceport, and glides back to a runway landing after the flight. You will find yourself sitting next to the pilot, going over the take-off checklist. The four engines start. Your space travel has begun…

You are not a passenger, you are the co-pilot

The Lynx carries only two people; the pilot-astronaut and you, the spaceflight participant, in the right seat. You are in the best seat, up front with all the action, watching every move of the pilot. You are truly part of the mission, not just cargo. This also means that you will be given a suitable “call sign,” a pilot nickname. And, just like any other pilot, you will have no say in this at all…

G-centrifuge

During your training in the G-centrifuge, you will experience the effects of elevated G-levels (up to 4G). And, more importantly, learn how to be ready for them. During the G-centrifuge Training Mission, you will take a seat in a small cockpit simulator, which flies high-speed circles at the end of a mechanical arm. Professional instructors will teach you several simple techniques to deal with the high G-levels. And enjoy them!

Zero-G flight

Experience weightlessness. Zero-G or parabolic flights are conducted on a specially equipped aircraft, to simulate zero-G. You will be weightless for about 20 seconds during a special maneuver called a parabola. These can be repeated 20-30 times per flight. During the short periods of weightlessness, you will experience the same sensations that astronauts feel in space. You will be able to float freely through the cabin and may train to perform various tasks in weightless conditions.

XCOR Space Expeditions

XCOR Space Expeditions

XCOR Space Expeditions

XCOR Space Expeditions

XCOR Space Expeditions

XCOR Space Expeditions

XCOR Space Expeditions

XCOR Space Expeditions

XCOR Space Expeditions

XCOR Space Expeditions

Breathtaking! It’s breathtaking when I stop to think that I have a mathematical chance to sit in the XCOR Lynx cockpit myself. Definitely not a huge chance by any stretch of the imagination. Especially when I see dozens of other participants on the boards with 10x or 100x more entries than I have. Thankfully, the leaders don’t have 1000x more entries either, so my chance isn’t effectively zero yet.

What are my final thoughts?

Earlier, when I talked about finding stories everywhere, I asked: “Will mine sound like a sci-fi story?” I admit, there aren’t any supernatural powers, interstellar engines, or interdimensional portals. But the mathematical chance to sit in the XCOR Lynx spacecraft is still pretty darn cool. And that’s the funny yet scary part! I’d say Dr. Asimov would’ve been amused. We’ll find out on November 6, won’t we?

XCOR Space Expeditions

XCOR Space Expeditions

Podcast

Last but not least, it’s time for my next Jay@IBM podcast! So sit back, multitask, and enjoy the show!

Jay@IBM Podcast

Jay@IBM Podcast

Jay@IBM Podcast

  • 00:16 “Hi again! This is Jay@IBM.”
  • 00:57 “One of those streams was triggered by my former AP English teacher.”
  • 01:14 “Actually, it’s called Summer of the Long Knives. It’s an alternate-history story.”
  • 01:57 “Particularly, the assassination attempt of Adolf Hilter by Colonel Stauffenberg.”
  • 02:31 “Because back then, I was really heavily influenced by Isaac Asimov.”
  • 03:13 “Maybe I’ll include this in my next post, especially my anniversary post.”
  • 04:39 “So there was this great presentation by Kevin Spacey.”
  • 05:25 “Last month, I got a Mars One email about a drawing to win a trip to space.”
  • 06:06 “That was the final piece of the puzzle. I could finally put this post together.”
  • 06:24 “Now why am I posting this about a week before the actual anniversary date?”
  • 07:50 “Now what if I actually win this thing?”
  • 08:44 End.

Do I have an update?

Guess what? As of November 1, the Ticket to Rise deadline has been pushed to December 31, 2014! Whether or not this change is related to the Antares rocket explosion earlier this week, I’m not sure. But I was pretty psyched up for the November 6 announcement. What’s curious is that the website no longer mentions the XCOR Lynx Mark II spacecraft. Here are the revised details and stay tuned!

Due to circumstances beyond our control, we are currently in the process of re-tooling Ticket to Rise with plans to take the program it to new heights. We anticipate that it will take us a short while to finalize arrangements, but Ticket to Rise will be reactivated soon. All of your entries remain valid and will be automatically entered into the new program. Watch your email for more news to come…

Deadline to enter: 11:59:59 PM ET, December 31, 2014

Contest drawing date: January 1, 2015

Date(s) of actual experience:

Winner acknowledges and understands that the space technology is presently being completed and delays, both seen and unforeseen, very likely may occur. Although it is anticipated that it will be completed sometime in 2014 and tests flown also in 2014, no assurances are being given that actual service will begin in 2014. However, the first flight is tentatively scheduled to occur in Q3 2015.

Ticket To Rise

Ticket To Rise

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3 thoughts on “Soaring from Asimov to XCOR Lynx

  1. So engrossing & impressive (as always, Jay). Probably never told you that I also wrote to Dr. A way back in the day, and he also sent me a reply. What a fine guy. Didn’t tell you either that I entered my Mars haiku in a NASA (I think) contest:

    Opportunity,
    Spirit, Curiosity
    watch Earthrise from Mars.

    It’s always worthwhile watching YOU. Humble (but glowing) thanks for the mention! lsb

    • Thank you and you’re welcome! Wow, you never told me that. Great minds think alike? But I’m hoping his reply was as inspirational for you as it was for me. Someday, if you haven’t read it yet, I’d like to hear your thoughts on my rather bold (and boldly-written) letter from a teenage kid to a sci-fi legend, haha. Funny also how we’re both drawn to unearthly contests!

  2. Update from Urgency Network: Ticket to Rise (01 Nov 2014): “Due to circumstances beyond our control, we are currently in the process of re-tooling Ticket to Rise with plans to take the program it to new heights. We anticipate that it will take us a short while to finalize arrangements, but Ticket to Rise will be reactivated soon. All of your entries remain valid and will be automatically entered into the new program. Watch your email for more news to come… Deadline to enter: 11:59:59 PM ET, December 31, 2014.”

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