Thursday, April 21, 2016

Moon, Mars or Bust!

It's time for the space human exploration advocacy community to get its act together. A change in U.S. Presidents, as will happen this year, almost always leads to a change in American space policy and plans. Whoever is elected this year will set the policy the country will be living with on the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11: July 20, 2019. With that reality in mind, those of us who wish for mankind to make additional "giant leaps" can no longer afford the perpetual bickering amongst ourselves that has characterized the pro-space advocacy community since about the time Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon. It is time for those of us who desire to see humans expand throughout the solar system (and then beyond) to come together, compromise, and unite behind a plan to get us again started down that path. The situation is complicated further by the very vocal disagreement between the “private” versus “public” space development communities; another distraction we cannot afford.

For the rest, please go to my article on the Baen Books website:

Les Johnson

Saturday, January 30, 2016

What have I read and liked? (I am often asked)

As a writer, I’m often asked, “What are you reading?”   Consider this a reading snapshot in time capturing the fiction I’m reading currently and what I’ve read recently – going back perhaps a few months.  I’ll capture the non-fiction in another post.

The Bowl of Heaven by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven
This is an epic story of an interstellar colony ship departing Earth for a new world and encountering a truly massive alien ship along the way.  And when I say “massive,” I mean it.  The ship is a solid hemisphere surrounding roughly half of its parent star, made from the planets, comets and asteroids that once circled that selfsame star.  The encounter is fascinating and I can’t wait to find out how the book ends; but I really can [wait] because it’s such a good book and I am enjoying the read! **** so far.

A Call to Duty by David Weber and Tim Zahn
Not an epic, but a solid space adventure novel set in the early Honorverse.  It tells the story of a newly enlisted cadet in the Royal Manticoran Navy coming to grips with the technical, political and social aspects of (space) military service.  The book was rousing fun and I look forward to the next one in the series.  A solid ****

The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
I’m noticing a trend here: books with multiple authors.  Apparently, not only do I like to write with a co-author, but I like to read books by multiple authors as well.  I had no idea (seriously).  This was definitely lighter fare than I’m used to from Stephen Baxter, but I suspect that is due to the influence of the late Terry Pratchett.  (This is the first Pratchett book I’ve read.)  Imagine a nearly infinite set of parallel Earths, mostly empty, that anyone can suddenly access.  That’s the premise and the authors spin an entertaining tale based upon it.  I’m not sure it was good enough to warrant reading the sequels though.  *** rating.

The Expanse Series by James S. A. Corey

Before you think I’ve broken my streak of reading co-authored books you need to know that James S. A. Corey is a pen name for… 2 writers collaborating: Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.  The trend continues.  I’ve read the first three books in this awesome series that can now be seen as “The Expanse” on the SyFy Channel.  (Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War and Abaddon’s Gate)  How would I describe these books?  Awe Inspiring, Jaw Dropping, and Page Turning, filled with many OMG moments.  Of all I’ve read recently, these are clearly the best.  *****

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The CubeSat Revolution

They're not making the news, but CubeSats are making space accessible for a growing number of small businesses and universities. You can learn more about this quiet space revolution in my latest essay for Baen Books:

Les Johnson is a Baen science fiction author, popular science writer, and NASA technologist. His most recent science fiction novel, Rescue Mode, coauthored with Ben Bova, was released in paperback in 2015. To learn more about Les, please visit his website at

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Martian

I saw The Martian Monday night.  Yes, you should be jealous*, it was a very good movie!  Don’t worry – No spoilers here…

If you haven’t been living on Mars, then you may know this movie is about a NASA astronaut who gets stranded on Mars and has to survive until he can be rescued.  The movie has lots of drama, at least one compelling, well-developed character (our hero, Mark Watney) and some very, very credible science and engineering.  While it isn’t perfect (let’s talk about those dust storms!), the creators did a superior job getting the technical side of the story to be accurate and believable.
I’ve been asked how it compares to 2001: A Space Odyssey.  In truth, I can’t directly compare the two movies and here’s why: I am a movie snob.

I can no more compare 2001 with The Martian than I can compare it with Star Wars or Plan Nine from Outer Space.  These three science fiction movies have different inherent value, difference target audiences, and, well, different artistry.  That’s why I have a 3-tier categorization for movies that allows me to better do comparisons:

A film is entertaining, well written and directed, and has some sort of artistic merit in the way it is produced and filmed that goes beyond its entertainment value.  A film has enduring qualities that stick with viewers for a lifetime, often impacting them in ways they never imagined before viewing them.  Examples include Casablanca, Citizen Cane, Blade Runner, and, yes, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

These are also entertaining, well written and directed, but they are developed primarily for entertainment.  A good movie is something you go see on a Saturday night and talk about the next week with your friends at school or work.  You might even go see it again – just for fun.  But it doesn’t necessarily have any profound messages you are intended to carry with you and the filmography isn’t multi-dimensional.   Star Wars is in this category, as are The Terminator, Alien, Aliens and ET.

These are the low budget side of Hollywood.  They can be entertaining, but they certainly aren’t necessarily well written and directed – and therein lies their charm.  Scenes may be well acted, but the background is obviously shot on a soundstage or in the Producer’s home.   I include Dark Star, The Silent Earth and Journey to the Far Side of the Sun in this category.

In each category you can have movies that are “Excellent,” “Average” or “Poor.”  Blade Runner was an excellent science fiction film; The Terminator an excellent science fiction movie and The Silent Earth an excellent science fiction flick.  If someone asks me which is the best of the three, I cannot easily answer – they were each excellent in their own way, for their own intended audience and in how they were made.  But asking me answer that question is like asking me if a filet mignon is better than Crème brûlée, if London is better than Rome, or, well, you get the idea.

Now, about The Martian.  It is an excellent movie.  You should go see it expecting to be entertained, carried away to another planet and inspired by what a person placed in a life or death situation can achieve.  But don’t go see it expecting a revelation or having it spur weeks, months or even years of debate about what the director meant to convey in the scene where the spacecraft takes off from Mars or why the hero’s spacesuit had the orange patch on his right shoulder and not his left.  It’s not that kind of movie.  And thank goodness it’s not.  Sometimes an awesome night of entertainment is exactly what one needs…

* A note about jealousy.  I am extremely jealous of Andy Weir.  He wrote a great Mars book which was turned into a great Mars movie.  Why am I jealous?  Because I wrote my own Mars book, Rescue Mode, (with NYT Bestselling author Ben Bova) which came out in hardcover last summer and will be released in paperback on September 29, 2015.  My book hasn't yet been made into a movie -- or a film -- or even a flick.  But if you are a movie producer, get your people to call my people and we'll do lunch... 

About me:

I'm is a physicist, a husband and father, a science fiction author for Baen books from whom my latest novel, Rescue Mode, is to be released in paperback September 29.  You may learn more about me, my work and my writing by visiting my website at, on Facebook and on Twitter (@LesAuthor).

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Space Tethers and Elevators

Today I’m redirecting you to Baen Books’ website for my recent article, “Space Tethers and Elevators.”  If you want to learn how we can do more than just explore the solar system, then you need to learn about space tethers.  I believe this technology will one day allow us to build a reusable, low cost space transportation system – a space railroad – opening the inner solar system to many of the same benefits that the transcontinental railroad brought to the emerging USA in the 19th century.

Read all about it here:

Les Johnson                                        
Co-author (with Ben Bova) of Rescue Mode - coming in paperback this September from Baen Books

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Getting Lost In Infinity

It is time to revisit another of my essays for the Baen Books website, “The Size Of It All,” in which I discuss the sheer scale of the observable universe.  To summarize, IT IS HUGE.

But HUGE does the universe a disservice.

I was reminded of this the other night when I was in my front yard stargazing – and sighting some magnificent shooting stars during the Perseid Meteor Shower.  As I sat in my favorite camping chair gazing at infinity, I once again drifted into one of my more common daydreams – reproduced here from my Baen essay:

“One of my favorite daydreams is also one of my scariest. When I am outside on a clear, cloudless night, I like to imagine that I am on a spaceship in the deep between the stars, looking out at the vastness of the universe. During this daydream, I often fondly recall my favorite science fictional spaceships – the Enterprise (Star Trek Classic, of course!), the Drusus (from the pulpish German language serial Perry Rhodan), or the Nostromo (Alien) – and wonder what it would be like to be truly in the middle of deep space, far from Earth and our familiar solar system. My thoughts alternating between the wonder of it all and the terrifying thought of what it would be like to be stranded there, so far from home.”

For me it was an almost spiritual moment and one I wish more people could share.  So go outside on a night with clear skies and let yourself get lost in infinity.  I think you’ll find it exhilarating (and, yes, a little scary).

Les Johnson                                        

co-author (with Ben Bova) of Rescue Mode - coming in paperback this September from Baen Books

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Aliens Are Not Among Us

Today I'm going to revisit an essay I wrote for Baen Books in 2011 called, "The Aliens Are Not Among Us."  You can find the original post here:

I recently attended a space professional conference filled with engineers and scientists who work in the space and aerospace industries - from NASA, Lockheed-Martin, Boeing and many other well-known companies and universities.  As you might expect, most of the papers presented were heavily technical and provided a fairly good snapshot of today's rocket and space technologies.  Very few covered novel advanced space transportation systems and fewer still talked about systems that might one day take us to the stars.

Yet, at lunch, the topic of interstellar travel came up which included, unfortunately, a digression into 'flying saucer' lore.  We covered it all: from ancient astronauts, to Roswell and pyramids on Mars with alien autopsy videos interspersed within.  Most, like me, quickly dismissed the notions that we are being visited and/or that our government can keep anything of this magnitude secret.  And yet... some were not convinced, or at least it seemed that way.

When I was a teenager, I was a 'believer.'  I read all the books, including those by J. Allen Hynek and Brad Steiger; those about Project Blue Book; and still others about alleged alien abductions.  My skin used to crawl and I spent many hours stargazing, wondering from where they came.  That stargazing played a major role in my studying physics in college and graduate school and it shaped my career.  Physics and a liberal arts degree from Transylvania University (it's real; look it up) taught me critical thinking and that's what led me to where I am today - a 'non-believer' in alien visitors.

Why?  It all a matter of probabilities and our tendency to radically underestimate Deep Time. 

Read the Baen essay and you'll understand what I mean.

Les Johnson
co-author (with Ben Bova) of Rescue Mode - coming in paperback this September from Baen Books