Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Beamed Energy for Space Exploration: Giant Leap or Incremental Steps?

Progress in space exploration and development used to come in “giant leaps.” Neil Armstrong’s “one giant leap for mankind” is perhaps the most well-known leap. As Armstrong stepped on the Moon for the first time, he was the living fulfillment of a decade-long endeavor that took us from barely being able to send someone into space all the way to sending multiple people to the Moon and back again. In 1977 the Voyager spacecraft were launched, taking us on a leap that gave us our first close-up looks at Jupiter and the planets beyond. Since then, we’ve achieved significant milestones of exploration and science, but, sadly, they’ve come at a much slower pace and few, if any, have achieved the status of being a giant leap. And that might not be a bad thing.

Giant leaps tend to be expensive and take many years to develop, fly, and achieve their goals—leaving them open to the vagaries of politics, changes in the economy, and the whims of those who fund them. So, what about the alternative? Is the incremental approach better or at least more sustainable?

For my answer to the question and the rest of the story, click over to the website where my article is featured for the month of March 2020.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Furloughed from NASA Again

UPDATE: January 1, 2019

It is amazing how little has changed since I wrote my 2013 blog post about being a furloughed NASA employee (see below).  I am again furloughed because a different president and Congress cannot agree on a budget.  I fear this shutdown/furlough will last much longer than any other I've experienced due to the polarizing nature of the core issue being debated.  It is important to note that funding for NASA (and many of the other parts of the government affected) have absolutely NOTHING to do with the core issue.

Projects will be delayed, hardware delivery deadlines missed, and launch dates may slip.



October 1, 2013

Today I received my furlough notice from NASA.  Since my job isn’t considered “excepted,” in other words, since no one will be injured or die if I don’t report for work, then I am to remain at home until recalled to work after the Congress passes and the President signs some sort of budget or continuing resolution to keep the government running.  The fact that the government has shut down all non-essential operations should come as no surprise to anyone who hasn’t been hiding under a rock these last several days.

What may come as a surprise to many is the following statement from the letter I received informing me of what I can and cannot do during the furlough: “During the furlough, you will be in a nonpay, nonduty status. During this time, you will not be permitted to serve NASA as an unpaid volunteer.

How many federal agencies, for that matter, how many employers have to tell their employees “I’m sending you home without pay for an indefinite period of time and you are strictly prohibited from doing any work for the company/organization on your own time and without compensation?”  I dare say there are not very many people out there who would take forced, unpaid days off and continue to work for the company that sent them home.  Except at NASA.  And, yes, if it weren’t so explicitly stated, I would be one who would continue to work on my NASA projects at home, on my own time, and without compensation.  I am sure I wouldn’t be alone.

In a normal work week, I receive 1/3 of my average daily work-related emails after 5:00 pm.  Some of them are time stamped after 11:00 pm.  I find that the people I work with routinely work at home, on their own time, as a general rule of thumb.  I’m not just talking about the rushed deadline where everyone pitches in to make it happen.   I’m referring to the day-to-day business of NASA.

Did you know that NASA has routinely been named THE best place to work in government by its own employees for at least the last two years?  How many companies where the employees routinely work uncompensated overtime just to get the job done will then turn around and rate their company as a great place to work?  Not many.  Except at NASA.


Speaking only for myself, I’ll tell you why I think that’s the case.  We’re working on challenging projects with the goals of advancing our understanding of the universe around us, expanding humanity beyond the Earth so as to ensure the eventual survival of the species, and making the Earth a better place to live for all who inhabit it.  Yes, these are lofty goals and bold assertions.  They are what motivate me and have inspired me since I was a child.  We believe we’re making a difference in the world and we love doing it.

Are there NASA employees who are just punching the clock?  Yes.  But they are in the minority.  Most of us don’t dread Mondays.  Most of us would much rather be working than furloughed and I, for one, would keep working on some of my projects during the furlough if I were allowed to do so.

Les Johnson
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Sunday, December 30, 2018

Rereading The Classics (of Science Fiction)

I've reached that point in my life that I am paring down on my belongings and it was inevitable that I began looking through the thousands of books I own to determine which to keep (or not). I came across the "Analog Anthologies" from the early 1980's and decided to reread them. Issued when I was in college, enough time has passed that rereading most of the stories in the anthologies (I have read 1, 2, and 3) was like reading them for the first time. Most, if not all, deserve five stars. These are truly the best of the stories from the first 50+ years of Analog (and its predecessor, Astounding). Heinlein - Asimov - Pohl Anderson - Vonda McIntyre WOW I was especially pleased to see a story by one of my favorite "sociological" science fiction authors, Chad Oliver. Yes, I decided to keep this series. One of these days, my children will have to decide whether or not to read and keep them or add them to the pile of charity donations.

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).