Sunday, November 16, 2008

Of Subs and Spaceships

During my recent trip to San Diego, I had the opportunity to tour the B-39, an old Russian Foxtrot submarine that was once involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Actually, my admission to the San Diego Maritime Museum allowed me access to the HMS Surprise, the sailing vessel used in the movie Master and Commander: Far Side of the World (with Russell Crowe), the Berkeley a large and very impressive ferry, the Medea, a luxury steam sailing yacht, and the Star of India, another tall ship with a long history as the world's oldest active ship.

But I made a B-line for B-39, leaving poor David in my wake. My military officer/police chief spouse likes to read everything--all the plaques, commemorations, signs and notices. I'm more of a visual learner. I scan signs at points of interest, but I pretty much go for the hands-on experience. And I couldn't wait to get my hands on--and feet into--that sub.

I scoured the old diesel Foxtrot from bow-to-stern, examining hatches, instrumentation, torpedo tubes, the wardroom/medical clinic (nothing like eating dinner from a table used for operations, eh?), the radio room, officers and captains quarters (which were very miniscule and spartan), the sleeping berths or racks (well-named, since they were racks of cots four high, four end-to-end set into every available space along the bulkheads, behind machinery, or in the torpedo rooms), the emergency hatch, and the three heads (toilets) which were beyond basic. I paid special attention to how the boat was laid out and how space was used.

Why the fascination? Subs and starships have a lot in common. They are both closed-environment vessels surrounded by elements that are hostile to human life. There are similar priorities with pressure differences, keeping water or a vacuum out, or traveling through them, that have parallels. In my research for "Planets" (my current work in progress) I am studying the culture on large Naval vessels, inspired in part by Sandra McDonald, a former Naval officer and author of the Science Fiction Romance THE OUTBACK STARS. It's apparent the author drew a lot of material from her shipboard experiences and applied a dose of imagination to create the huge futuristic ships in TOS.

But I realized my starship is much closer to a submarine than say a destroyer or aircraft carrier. First of all, the crews on these big ships don't generally have to worry about running out of oxygen in case of accident or mechanical failure. A submarine crew is also closer in size to the crew on my research vessel (though granted, my ship is much larger than the largest sub). Shortly after I made this connection, I became aware of and "adopted" the Virginia class nuclear fast attack Naval submarine USS New Mexico, still in construction. The New Mexico has become one of my favorite research subjects.

My goal is to create in "Planets" an authentic feel for the dangers and hardships faced in space along with the romance and adventure. I hope my experience prowling the decks of a real submarine will give me some great material to contribute to that end.

Foxtrot submarine

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