Friday, December 23, 2011

To Space With the TechNerd Brigade!

How about a little hope for the New Year?

The effort to keep the U.S. competitive in space may be showing new life thanks to a friendly race between multi-millionaire tech geeks. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is the latest to join the private space technology scramble, bankrolling the design and construction of the widest airplane ever built to carry a new commercial spaceship high into the atmosphere. From there the ship would blast off into orbit using a booster rocket, a method that saves fuel (and money) over conventional rocket launches. The spaceship could hold as many as six people.

Allen is working with aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan on the project. Space Exploration Technologies, a company owned by Paypal’s Elon Musk, will provide the space capsule and booster rocket for the venture, called Stratolaunch. Together the airplane-and-booster system represent “a radical change” in how people can get to space and it will “keep America in the forefront of space exploration,” Allen said.

Allen and Musk are not the only cyberspace tycoons with an interest in space exploration. One of Allen’s chief competitors is Jeff Bezos of Inc., founder of the private space company Blue Origin. Blue Origin received $3.7 million in NASA funds to develop a rocket to carry astronauts. However, its initial flight test ended in failure last August.

What is fascinating is that Allen freely admits he is following a childhood dream:
“When I was growing up, America’s space program was the symbol of aspiration . . . For me, the fascination with space never ended. I never stopped dreaming what might be possible.”

For those attracted to difficult technical challenges, space is the ultimate challenge, he said. “It’s also the ultimate adventure. We all grew up devouring science fiction and watching Mercury and Gemini, Apollo and the space shuttle. And now we are able to be involved in moving things to the next level.”

For a writer, what is truly wonderful about that statement is that Allen so easily equates the dream with the reality, science fiction with science fact. If you can dream it, you can make it happen. If you have the will.

Of course, ceding the domain of space to private enterprise has its drawbacks, and science fiction has envisioned that future, too. The Space Merchants, by Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth, the ALIEN movies and other examples too numerous to mention have warned us of the dangers of letting profit drive the exploration of space. But these men seem at least as motivated by a sense of wonder as by the lure of any possible riches to be made out there. They are willing to go where our government is so far unwilling or unable to go.

So, good luck, fellas. You’ve found a much better way to spend your money than collecting cars and villas. May you live long and prosper and get us where we all want so much to go.

[Information for this post based on an article by Donna Blankenship and Seth Borenstein, Associated Press; photo courtesy Stratolaunch Systems.]

Donna’s Journal

Actions we've taken as writers. Where are we? What are we doing?

Those of you who are involved in trying to sell the written word in any way are well aware of the state of disarray in which the publishing industry currently finds itself. Agent Elaine English, speaking to the December meeting of the Virginia Romance Writers, suggested that this may have been the most disruptive year in publishing since Gutenberg.

English, who owns and operates her own agency in Washington, D.C., explained that with the rise of digital publishing, the legitimizing of self-publishing, the decline in traditional print book sales and the scramble for profits, no one in the industry is quite sure what to do. No one wants to make the wrong move, but at the same time, no one wants to be left behind. The result is a kind of paralysis in some quarters and furious change in others.

A few things do seem to be clear, according to English: the so-called “legacy” publishers are increasingly conservative, leaving new writers or slow sellers out in the cold. On the other hand, new opportunities with digital publishers or self-publishing are rising for those writers as e-publication in all its permutations becomes more respectable. Self-pubbing is no longer the dirty word it once was. However, anyone going that route had better be very savvy of the production, promotion and sales work required to make a go of it.

Those seeking publication with established digital presses should be aware that the contractual process is more complicated than it used to be, with both more rights and longer terms being sought than just a few years ago. English, who is also an attorney familiar with publishing law, suggested hiring an experienced attorney to review your contracts, even if you don’t have an agent working for you full time.

English spoke to the largest gathering of writers ever for a VRW Christmas luncheon. At one point she commented that she admired us for our perseverance in the face of all these obstacles, wondering, “Why do you keep doing this?” Most of us could only shake our heads. As Harlan Ellison once put it, we write because we can’t not write. It’s a curse.

Or a blessing.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa

And Happy New Year—I’ll be back in 2012!



  1. Fabulous post, Donna! The excitement of what private companies may do in space is only slightly tempered by the concern of profit over discovery, but it sounds like at least Paul Allen's heart and mind are in the right place.

    "If you can dream it, you can make it happen. If you have the will." I love that quote. It goes hand-in-hand with a quote I snagged from Jurassic Park that now hangs framed on my writerly office wall: "Creation is an act of sheer will!"

    It's an exciting future ahead of us, and a dangerous one, because discovery and exploration always comes with great risk. I think we've lost some of the heart for risk that we possessed in decades past. Let's hope for a resurrection of our courage as a species to take on this new challenge and acknowledge that it's going to be a very tough endeavor.

    As for the publishing industry, I truly believe it's only the traditional ways of publishing that are in jeopardy. The sky is not the limit for those who are willing to think outside the box and experiment with new ideas on how to reach readers and meet their expectations.

    I think our industry sometimes forgets that "market" does not drive the publishing world...readers do.

  2. Great post, Donna! I love your info on the publishing industry. I usually read Konrath and he is saying a similar thing.

    No matter what, the industry is changing and will continue to change because of digital publishing. Thanks for passing this on to us.

    Yes, contracts are different now. The other thing I've noticed is that it getting almost as difficult to break into epubs as it is print. Carina admits they only contract 7% of all submissions.

    Even so, I think the future of publishing will be different, yes, but also very good for authors.

    Have a wonderful Holiday!

  3. It's absolutely right that this year in particular has been one of great change. I honestly think that print books are on the way out. I can hardly believe I wrote that! I love books - BUT they're not eco friendly, they're expensive etc
    I don't even have an ereader YET and the word is YET. I suspect I'm about to have one in the next twenty-four hours. Either that or a set of drills. Sigh...
    I was interested to hear from Kaye that Carina are only taking 7% of what they're offered. I wonder if that has changed from previously- maybe more submissions??


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