Few people have a career record as impressive as Leroy Chiao: He’s an astronaut who flew three Space Shuttle missions, was the commander of ISS’ Expedition 10, and conducted countless research projects in space as well as down on Earth. After working for NASA, he became an entrepreneur, motivational speaker and consultant, for which his astronaut’s practical experience and chemical engineering background present a unique combination of insights. Last autumn, he has visited the Czech Republic to launch his book “OneOrbit/Život jako výzva” (“Make The Most of Your OneOrbit”), which was published by the Zdeněk Sklenář Gallery and first introduced at the International Book Festival in Beijing. English and Chinese editions of the book were published shortly after. We’ve talked with Leroy Chiao about returning to the Moon, facing the health challenges of a flight to Mars, working in space internationally and more.
At the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, I had the honor of being among the students awarded with ESA’s Student Sponsorship to attend the conference and of meeting the agency’s Director General Jan Wörner. Read about his plans for ESA and beyond the agency, about what inspired him to pursue a career related to space and how can ESA inspire others.
The interview was conducted primarily for the magazine Přírodovědci, whose next issue will feature a Czech translation of the text below.
That time of skeletons creeping down chimneys and eldritch carols has passed, and the time of reflecting upon the closing calendar year is here in its full strength. It’s also the time we think of our wishes and resolutions for the coming year. Overall, 2016 has been strange. If there is such a thing as split personality for years, 2016 is a prime example. We’ve seen extremists from various sides of political spectra and social media-abusing demagogues triumph, while many thousands of people in danger massively flee their homes. Some warn that the foundations of democratic societies are crumbling, and it somehow feels like we’re just before one of the timelines in William Gibson’s The Peripheral (oh yes, Gibson has got an uncanny knack at noticing things already present in the world years ahead of others). We should not take it lightly or dismiss it as exaggerations.
And yet, it was also the year that most likely continued the good trends of the preceding decades: decreasing both relative and absolute number of people living in extreme poverty in the relevant documented history, conquering even more diseases, spreading literacy, higher perceived happiness – all in all, if there’s no unexpected big jump in the data (for more on the poverty trend and pros/cons of the methodology e.g. here), it was on average a very good year, it’s just that this average is shadowed by many horrid events and also more subtle changes like the income gap widening in many areas: not to be taken lightly, perceived as normal or forgotten. But also not to be a cause for shouting “apocalypse”, panicking and doing nothing useful. They’re serious and need our work and attention. We can work on continuing that trend of the world getting on average better in terms of reducing poverty, providing access to medical care, education, and more. All of us can contribute to that, and every baby step counts.
In the realm of speculative fiction, it was a very good year. Lots of exciting new novels and shorter works on my to-read list! For me personally, it was a wonderful year. Lots of my stories and my translations of other authors’ stories had been accepted, I edited Dreams From Beyond (reviewed here by Rachel Cordasco), and several of my stories were published this year. Um, the award nomination season is approaching, right? This is new to me and I’m just becoming to understand it as a stranger to the Anglophone market for most of my life, so any advice how it’s done? Or I could just list my eligible stories (aside from the anthology) below, yes?
- The Ship Whisperer (In Asimov’s 3/2016. Short story. In orbit of a star that shouldn’t exist in so young a universe, a curious ship whisperer, a determined colonel and a conscious ship are facing the toughest decision of their lives. Update: Thanks to Jason Sanford’s tweet, I found that the story appeared on the Tangent Online 2016 Recommended Reading List.)
- The Nightside (In Alien Artifacts anthology. Novelette, apparently; 7 540 words as my word processor shows me. Linus doesn’t like cold, dark, dangerous places – but being stationed on one, a world of truly hellish qualities, was his only chance to escape war. Yet war may be coming to him…)
- Becoming (In Persistent Visions. Short story. You can read this one online! Dive into the strange world of a space station controller forced to live in a gravity well once again, until a first contact happens. You can also check out what Ada Hoffman said about the story.)
If you have read and loved any of them, please consider them. If you haven’t, don’t. Seriously. Never nominate something you haven’t even read, no matter who else recommends it. Read it first, decide then.
In terms of getting to know other people, places or things, 2016 has been superb. I attended The Astrophysics of Planetary Habitability conference, which was just astounding and full of inspiration for science, popular science articles and science fiction alike. Academia Film Olomouc was as great as the year before. I got to the national FameLab finale and received one of the awards. I toured Norway all the way from Oslo to Lofoten with my husband, and when we got lost on Moskenesoy, we’ve met a great hiking books writer Harri Ahonen by asking him for the directions. During the two science-themed summer camps I worked on, I got to impersonate a saber-toothed cat, teach kids how a skeleton fits together, and find several open as well as globular clusters with a telescope on my own (while interested in astronomy for as long as I can remember, I’m a lousy sky observer!). On the Festival Fantazie in Chotěboř, I won the Aeronautilus Award for the best novel and also the best short story published in 2015.
I had the honor to be among the students selected by ESA for a sponsorship to attend the International Astronautical Congress, held in Guadalajara in late September. It was an absolutely wonderful experience, made even greater by the ISEB (International Space Education Board) events. I loved it and gained some useful insight into my educational and perhaps also scientific activities. Not speaking of the beauty of Mexico we at least briefly glimpsed, and then touring Netherlands on my own and spending time in the Rijksmuseum, wandering through Haarlem and getting my hair blown into my face by gusts of wind next to the famous windmills. And then there was Eurocon in Barcelona: absolutely brilliant! I’ve met so many wonderful people on the convention, seen lots of interesting program and got to see the beautiful Barcelona.
Back from me to the bigger picture. In science, 2016 was a great year. Gravitational waves. New confirmed exoplanets. Hypothetical Planet Nine. More dwarf planet and smaller objects discoveries in the Kuiper and beyond. The successful finale of the Rosetta mission. Juno’s arrival to Jupiter. Year in Space and the Twin Study. Lots of bold announcements concerning especially piloted space exploration. GAIA data release. Genes transcribed post-mortem. Wider uses of CRISPR. Eukaryote which lost its mitochondria completely. Peculiar silica deposits on Mars. Thinner crust of Enceladus than expected. Possibly more subsurface oceans than we had expected (not just you, Pluto – what about Dione?). Maybe very young Saturnian inner moons. And much, much more, some of which we’ll perhaps only appreaciate some years in the future.
So. When I was 25, it was a good year. Let’s make the next one even better.
I’m looking forward to lots of expected events in 2017. The final part of the Cassini-Huygens mission. New rocket launches. Continuing search for Planet Nine, and hopefully more Kuiper Belt/scattered disk/inner Oort cloud objects. And I have a special list of somewhat specific wishes for 2017…
- I wish to know what scientific equipment will the Red Dragon capsule carry for its maiden voyage to Mars. If it makes the 2018 launch date, it’s high time to assemble that… So – any chance for a sensitive seismograph (Just imagine three active seismographs on Mars! InSight, Red Dragon, plus later ExoMars 2020 lander. You know how it goes: The more seismographs, the merrier… and the greater chances of learning more details about the inner structure and evolution of Mars.), and maybe some astrobiological instruments before piloted missions end planetary protection and make the results less reliable?
- I wish an “Ocean Worlds” mission to Enceladus and/or Titan is selected for implementation by NASA. Also, if there is a way to constrain the age of the inner icy moons (would more precise tidal dissipation measurements be feasible?), it would be perfect to include it if possible.
- I wish DAVINCI or VERITAS is selected in the current Discovery selection by NASA (and that perhaps two Discovery missions could be selected…?), and that more missions to Venus would follow. We know staggeringly little about the history of this “Earth’s sister planet”. Did it have water oceans at all at some point, and if so, was it for tens of millions years, two billion years, more, something in between? How did its surface and atmosphere evolve? Learning more about Venus would additionally give us useful insights for Earth sciences and exoplanets research. Update: This wish was over quickly. NASA selected Lucy and Psyche instead, but these are so great missions it would be hard not to be very excited! Venus may get its chance in the next New Frontiers selection.
- I wish there’s more drive to return to the Moon with piloted missions. This wish actually seems to have a good standing right now. Anyone up for making the Moon Village concept reality?
We’ll see what 2017 holds in store. As for me, I’ve got a few resolutions…
- Finish a novel in progress before the Worldcon.
- Start writing another one (and preferably have most of it ready in a year’s time).
- One short story or novelette a month, let’s say?
- Translate some good fiction. Luckily, it’s not in short supply.
- Write some good nonfiction. Topics also not in short supply (the opposite, really).
- Expand our science outreach programs.
- Visit the Eurocon and the Worldcon.
- Attend the European Planetary Science Congress in Riga.
- Try to attend the next IAC in Adelaide.
- Get on with older data and finally write those two papers, so that I’m not nearly in the middle of my PhD studies for nothing.
- Go running regularly (everyone needs an exercise resolution, right?).
- Not get months behind with transcribing interviews anymore. (AI industry, please make speech-to-text usable, please…)
- Not remain the thing I loathed and yet have become this year (= the person who sometimes takes weeks to respond to simple e-mails).
- Generally make the world a better place. Baby steps matter too.
- …and, you know, just enjoy the year and help others to do the same.
Suggested keywords for 2017: Reason. Fact. Peace. Curiosity. Exploration. Fun.
All the best into the new year!
My first Eurocon has been an even more amazing experience than I had expected. We arrived in Barcelona with Lucie Lukacovicova and her husband the evening before the convention, so we almost immediately jumped into the event. The first panel I saw was the Queer SF panel, to which we arrived a little late, but catching up was not a problem, and we learned about lots of interesting works. After that came my panel “Where are the aliens?” with Jonathan Cowie and Ian Whates. You can watch our discussion in the video below!
The Cross-Media panel and the Evil Females panel (including Lucie; watch it here) concluded the official Friday program for us. Saturday started with Ian Watson’s very interesting Orwell Tour around places in Barcelona marked by Orwell’s presence, and continued with the Genre Translators panel (including Lucie; unfortunately, program held in this hall was not recorded). The panelists were from the Czech Republic, Finland, China, Poland, Bulgaria and Italy, and listening to the peculiarities of translating into different languages was most interesting. Cultural context, history, grammatical gender, names bearing meaning – all of that can wreak havoc with a translation (especially if the name is something like Hodor…). My talk “Is Venus habitable?” came next. Watch it below.
Robot Companions by Carme Torras were a very interesting talk. I would recommend you watch it, alas, it was in the hall that wasn’t streamed. At least google some of the projects especially by Boston Dynamics, then. Sunday morning, I wanted to be at three places at once, so I left Euro Steampunk before the end to attend Beyond Jurassic Park. The talk had little new in store for me, but it was brilliantly structured and delivered: great fun with lots of interesting information, smoothly going from one part of a topic to another, and engaging the audience through Mentimeter polls. Great idea!
I also wanted to at three places at once in the afternoon, same as Lucie and Atlan, so each of us went to one of the program items. “Does SF prevent bad future?” was my pick, and liked the discussion, although (unsurprisingly) the question was not resolved. Then came the closing ceremony including the results of Euro SF Awards. The Czech Republic had no winners in the main categories, but the Czech Encouragement Award went to Jan Hlávka and Jana Vybíralová for their “Ledové hry” (“Ice Games”) space opera series.
Starting Monday, we’ve had time to explore Barcelona. I’m writing this at the airport, soon to leave the beautiful city (note: I was. And then an exceptionally busy week happened. No time travel involved, believe me.). I might add something more about Barcelona later. But as I have two talks and three interviews to conduct in the week after I return to the Czech Republic (not saying home, because I’ll almost immediately go to the other end of the country, and to the opposite one afterwards) (note: Already happened. Great events and great people I had the honor to interview!), and in the week after that, I’m teaching and also having my PhD exams (alas, that is still going to happen). Everything beside those things will have to wait until early December (unless I find a way how to apply the time travel).
Most of Eurocon program items can be watched here. If you’re in for some interesting talks and panels, don’t hesitate. And if you can attend the next Eurocon (in Dortmund next June), the same applies. I’ve met lots of wonderful people at this Eurocon; we went to dinner or lunch with some of them, talked with others during program breaks, en route to talks and panels… So, thank you, Lucie, Atlan, Cheryl, Kevin, Tasha, Charles, Ian and Ian, Jonathan, Pedro, Charlie, Mike, Djibril, Valeria, Cristina, Elena, Atanas, Mihaela, Klaus, and Arrate, for your great company. The people are always what makes conventions so amazing.
I’ll be registering for both the next Eurocon and Worldcon (in Helsinki in August) soon. Two more things before I conclude this post: You can still help kickstart Piracity, an anthology of pirate stories by writers from Bristol and the Caribbean, edited by Cheryl Morgan. I have just contributed with my pledge. Aaarrgh!
And the last thing: I have uploaded mobi and epub formats of Dreams From Beyond, so you can check out the anthology of Czech speculative fiction in English on any device now!
This year’s Eurocon is approaching fast! The convention will be held in Barcelona on November 4-6. The program has been ready for a couple of weeks, and there’s a lot to be looking forward to: interesting talks, panel discussions, cultural events, award ceremonies… I’m on two program items I’d like to invite you to: one panel discussion and one popular science talk.
Friday 12:15 “Where are the aliens?”
Although we know that the Fermi Paradox is not exactly a paradox and not exactly Fermi’s, the question “where are they” remains an interesting food for thought for science fiction authors, scientists and the public as well. To attempt to answer it (even if any truly reliable answers are far away due to the lack of data), we can look at the number of potentially habitable planets in our galactic neighbourhood, cultural aspects of our technological civilization, difficulties of interstellar travel, percolation theory models of colonization, and much more. We’ll be discussing the topic with authors and editors Jonathan Cowie and Ian Whates.
Saturday 13:30 “Is Venus habitable?”
My Saturday talk ended up with a somewhat provocative title “Is Venus habitable?”. We’ll look at the largely unknown past of the proclaimed “Earth’s sister planet” (Could Venus have had liquid water oceans at some time? For how long before its greenhouse effect evaporated the last bits of them? Could it have had plate tectonics and effective geochemical cycles when it still had water – if it had?) and thus chances of potential habitability in the past, current conditions in its cloud layer, life in Earth’s atmosphere, our historical thinking about Venus and more. I’ve been planning to write a popular science article about Venus’ past for some time, and I hope to have it ready not long after the talk.
I’m also going to launch an anthology of Czech SF in translation into English, Dreams From Beyond. It’s one of several anthologies from different countries, edited specially for this year’s Eurocon.
And something for my fellow Prague-dwellers: Before Eurocon, I’ll be having a public reading and discussion about the relationship of science and science fiction at the Czech Centre in Prague as a part of the Week of Science and Technology. It’s on November 2, starting at 17:00.
The day after is a press conference about the involvement of Czech students in astronautics. It starts at 11:30 in restaurant Mamacita Catalina in the Mucha Hotel in Karlin, Prague, and it’s also a part of the Week of Science and Technology. I’ll be talking about this year’s IAC and science outreach through astrobiology. After that, off to Barcelona!
Update: Eurocon will be streamed live here, so you can watch it from anywhere!
So, the Alien Artifacts SF anthology was released a few days ago! It includes my story “The Nightside”, and you can read an excerpt from it below. But beware – if cold, dark, unforgiving places which can kill you in a thousand ways give you the goosebumps, consider crawling under the blanket with a cup of hot tea before you read further. Your considerate author.
The International Astronautical Congress had been full of interesting talks, people and events. We’ve already discussed the budding race to Mars, but there was so much more to the IAC. It would be a mistake to reduce it all to proposals of crewed missions to the Red Planet. In this part, we will discuss robotic Mars exploration and its astrobiological implications, the Moon Village concept, visions of future icy moons exploration, and last but not least the student program on the IAC.
This year’s International Astronautical Congress is over, and we can now reflect on what it brought forth. It had been especially eventful this time and left hardly anyone cold. Possibly the main theme which resonated throughout the conference had been Mars exploration – talks by SpaceX’s Elon Musk on one hand, Lockheed Martin on the other hand, and numerous people in the technical sessions might have marked the beginning of a true race for Mars. But another pattern also emerged, and that was making space more accessible for everyone. A part of that were talks about affordable internet connection, satellite telecommunication or disaster management in developing countries, but also the Moon Village concept, first presented last spring by ESA’s Director General Jan Woerner. Musk’s grand Mars colonization plans and Woerner’s vision of the Moon Village stand in an interesting contrast next to each other. Now, don’t get me wrong, by no means do they exclude each other. On the contrary, I can imagine both activities going at the same time. But the spirit of those visions is very different; more on that later.
Mars has been the target of our imagination for centuries, if not millennia. We’ve dreamed of its exploration and colonization since the late 19th century. It’s not surprising that these dreams are being given a shape every once in a while. Today may be different, offering a real chance of achieving that dream. But does it really?
Today was the historically first ESA Citizens’ Debate: an event spanning two continents (ESA member and cooperating states in Europe, and Canada, working with ESA under their cooperation agreement) and including about 2000 citizens discussing the future directions of European space activities.
The Czech debate had a good attendance of around 100 people. Now, the results of the debate in each country and polled together are just being processed and you can already see some at www.citizensdebate.space/results.
But the part of our discussion about getting people to become more interested in space has inspired me to make a short list of space-related popular science magazines, websites, organizations or contests in the Czech Republic. It’s not comprehensive, so if you think I’ve omitted something, let me know. I’ll try to include as many relevant entries as possible. I haven’t included space-themed popular science books so far, because they’re so many, but I’ll eventually add them.
So, here we go…
Websites or online magazines
- Vzdálené světy
- Rudý Mars
- Kosmo Portál
- Základy astrobiologie
Not solely about space, but you’ll find it there too…
- Vesmír.cz (popular science magazine + website)
- Přírodovědci.cz (popular science magazine + website)
- Osel.cz (popular science website)
- Technet.cz (popular science website)
- Nedd.cz (popular science website)
- Věda z kufru (science experiments for schools)
- …and many more e-zines or outreach programs I’ll keep adding!
You may have noticed some silence on my social media in the last couple of weeks. I’ve been on a vacation and tried to avoid the internet during that time. I wouldn’t have much time for it anyway – Norway was too amazing. I have more than a thousand pictures to go through, this is just a tiny sample snapped on my phone…
I barely had time to unpack and pack again to go to Festival fantazie after my return from Norway. The convention was certainly worth it, and a pleasant surprise awaited me there in the list of nominations for the Aeronautilus Awards (imagine something between Locus and Hugo Awards in a Czech context): My novel Elysium and my anthology Terra nullius were both nominated for the best SF book of 2015. Stories from Terra nullius dominated the short story category: Three of the five nominations were from there, one of them my own story. Website of magazine XB-1, for which I work as a writer and translator, was nominated for the best SF-related site. XB-1 won this category for the fifth time in a row. Congratulations, especially to its editor Martin Šust! Without his hard work and dedication, the site wouldn’t thrive in the way it does.
Elysium won the best book category, and Zaříkávač lodí (The Ship Whisperer, published also in English in the March issue of Asimov’s and in Chinese in last September’s issue of ZUI Found) got the best short story award. Big thanks to all the readers voting in the awards! I’m immensely happy that so many people liked the stories and supported them, and even more so that it’s the second time I’ve won an Aeronautilus for the best short story. Last year, my Šeré město (The Dusk City, not yet published in English but working on it) got the award.
Last but certainly not least, I was notified that I’m among the students selected for ESA sponsorship for the attendance of this September’s International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara. I’m looking forward to it very much and I’ll be sure to write at least a few reports from there. I’m very grateful to ESA for selecting me!
It doesn’t look so promising with the DPS-EPSC in Pasadena, but at least I’ll have some colleagues there and I’ll be following the news. I may attend the Evolution of Chemical Complexity conference in Liblice (not that far from Prague) in September, if all goes well (and if it does, some reports will certainly appear here).
That’s all from me now; after the vacation, I should get to writing some papers, popular science articles, stories and novels, editing, transcribing interviews, translating, preparing a part of the program of two science-themed summer camps and so on. Being busy is quite good if I enjoy the work, and this I do.