Friday, June 24, 2011

Short SF Review #18: Hackers

Hackers, by Rick Cook
Appeared in Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, April 1989

"All you were was a bunch of goddamn amateurs - hobbyists who kept building rockets and blowing them up, and building them and blowing them up, until one day you knew enough that the rockets didn't blow up anymore."

In retrospect - and I would welcome commentary from people who were actually around and involved at the time - it feels to me like there was a definite thing about space development in the late 1980s. Maybe it came about with the end of the Cold War, or perhaps that was just a convenient coincidence, but even now when I look back it really feels like 1989, say, was when we were supposed to start doing things in space in earnest. With the way things unfolded in reality, that's more likely to be 2019 or 2029... presuming that we can even afford it by then.

Considering the history of space exploration, particularly when one puts the grand plans next to the actual missions, it's no surprise that there's a strong undercurrent of alternate-historical "what might have been" speculation in the genre. Rick Cook's "Hackers" begins with this question and takes it in a direction that, even twenty-two years later, not many people have gone.

In "Hackers," we find ourselves under the sunny skies of Canaveral Field, where final preparations for 1989's Space Week are underway. This is where the rocket jockeys come together, from the San Antonio Rocket Club to the Los Angeles Space-Faring Society, with competitions as varied as a race around the moon and a mock rescue flight to one of the dozens of space stations orbiting Earth. In 1989.

Yeah, that's right. Because the 1989 of the nameless protagonist isn't the 1989 you and I lived through - it's a parallel universe, which split in the late 1950s when the Soviet Union failed to place Sputnik 1 into orbit. With the science of rocketry focused solely on ICBM development, and with no prevailing mood in the United States that the USSR was overtaking them, there was no space race. Governments didn't lay down billions toward getting men into orbit and, later, to the moon.

It was the amateurs that did that instead, as part of an entirely private space program - the moon was first visited not by the United States in 1969, but by the National Geographic Society in 1975... which actually makes a lot of sense when you think about it. By 1989, spaceflight is routine, and everyone accepts the world for what it is - except Crazy Eddie, a man who always hangs out around the rocket meets and never seems too right in the head. When the protagonist and his copilot launch in their Delta Doll on a mock rescue to a space station run by the Boy Scouts, they discover that Crazy Eddie has stowed away on their flight, and that his presence may make the difference between success and disaster.

The biggest issue with this story is one that isn't the fault of the author, one that couldn't have been realistically predicted - it's just that between 1989 and 2011, the harsh light of reality shines on the pages now, and one just can't read the story in the same way. What happened? Copenhagen Suborbitals happened.

The HEAT-1X Tycho Brahe rocket in flight over the Baltic Sea on June 3, 2011. Photograph by Copenhagen Suborbitals.

I mentioned this story, without being able to remember minor details such as its title, a few weeks ago when I wrote about the successful launch of HEAT-1X Tycho Brahe, the first such success for a non-profit, amateur project - and it really throws it all into stark relief. To be brutally honest, now that reality has advanced to this point, it's become much harder to suspend my disbelief for the alternate 1989 - that given only thirty-two years of different development and based solely on private funds, you could have a world of private rockets and private space stations and a city on the moon with no government resources whatsoever.

Now that I think about it, in that respect, this is a particularly American story, quite possibly emblematic of the political ideals of the Reagan era. I'm sure there are plenty of small-governmentists and libertarians and Reaganauts and whatnot out there who would wholeheartedly agree with the idea that a space program that never had to deal with the government would have been more successful. While they may have a case for how things would go once the required foundations are in place, personally I'm skeptical as to whether a private space program would have got that far to begin with.

Would it have been possible for a SpaceX to start doing business in, say, 1982 rather than 2002? Or rather, would it have been possible for that pre-SpaceX to successfully do business? Whether the necessary foundations for a private space industry existed at that time is something I can only guess at. Sure, Copenhagen Suborbitals built their rocket for $50,000 and used such esoteric and advanced equipment as a hair dryer - but they built it with the technology of the 21st century, from the tools to the materials and the social networks that enabled people from all over the world to drop dollars in their hat. They also had the benefit of sixty years of NASA blazing the trail, discovering what worked and what didn't. Nevertheless, "Hackers" may work even better now for some people than it would have in 1989 - almost a wistful image of what we could have had if we were driven enough, determined enough, if we wanted it enough.

I have to say, though, the choice of title seems a bit strange. While I do get it that it's "Hackers" as in "hacked-together rockets," even in 1989 the term was becoming closely associated with computer hackers. But that's minor.


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