Sunday, April 18, 2021

Moonraker (by Ian Fleming) - A Review

Continuing my trend of re-reading books that I read so long ago that I don’t remember many details (or, sometimes, even the plot!), I just finished Moonraker. The first piece of advice I can give a reader is ‘ignore the movie of the same name.’ The second bit of advice is ‘put yourself in the time period in which it was written and remember the context.’ The third is, ‘hang on, you are in for a great read!’

Written less than a decade after the end of WWII, when nuclear weapons and long-range missiles were new, the developed countries of the world were desperately researching both because they felt that if they did not, then they would be easily taken over or destroyed should another world war break out. Such is the setting for the development of the Moonraker rocket occurring in the UK under the direction of multimillionaire patriot Hugo Drax. (A rich, self-made man endears himself to a country by using his fortune to build a new type of rocket that revolutionizes everything. Hmmm. This is too farfetched to ever be possible…)

The only action in the first part of the novel is a card game - a game of bridge, not poker, not a casino game like Baccarat Chemin de Fer, no, just bridge. Fleming finds ways to build up to the game that make the reader think the fate of the world, or at least the lives of key characters, will depend upon the outcome. The game itself is suspenseful with the outcome uncertain until the very end.

Fleming loves describing food, rooms, and women and weaves key story elements into complex sentences that at first seem like they will only be providing the setting. But you need to carefully read every word lest you miss an important detail. The story moves along nicely and culminates into a very James Bond-like ending that is extremely satisfying.

SPOILER ALERT: At the end of the novel, to my great surprise, Bond does NOT get the girl.

As a writer (though clearly not in the same league as Fleming), I noticed he did one irritating thing that is a major ‘no-no’ today – head jumping. In many scenes, the story is described from the point of view of multiple characters. At more than one point, I was confused as to who was perceiving what and had to re-read the previous paragraphs to get it right.

I highly recommend this book, the 3rd in the James Bond series of novels. I am glad I re-read it.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Graphene Body Armor - Sooner Than Expected?

Having co-authored a book about graphene, I follow developments in the field fairly closely and when this headline appeared in my newsfeed, I took notice:

This Ultra-Thin Material Can Stop Bullets by Hardening Like a Diamond” (link below).

(What? This article about graphene did not appear in YOUR newsfeed? How is that possible? I thought we were all reading the same news? But that is the topic of another future blog…)

The gist is this: Scientists discovered that when two layers of single-atom-thick sheets of graphene (which is just carbon in a unique geometry) are impacted, they become harder than diamond, potentially stopping the passage of the impactor. Translation: When you fire a bullet at the two, ultra-thin, ultra-lightweight graphene sheets, it is (likely) stopped from passing through. They then postulate that this could be the basis of a whole new type of bulletproof vest or body armor that weighs no more than a normal shirt or undershirt. The stuff of science fiction becoming is becoming reality right before our eyes.

But it won’t stop there. The military uses are potentially endless: Better tank armor, more robust aircraft (from bombers, to fighters, to helicopters). What would happen if bullets or artillery shells were coated with similar graphene layers? Submarines?

Given that graphene is transparent, think about how robust your cell phone screen might become? What about your car windows or those on your home in hurricane-prone Florida? Dream on. Would-be entrepreneurs out there should get busy and begin making some of these a reality – create your own market.

To read the original article, go here:



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.  *****