While researching a science fiction novel on a manned mission to Mars, I took great effort to keep the science genuine. At least that was my excuse for the fun things done in pursuit of knowledge. In contrast to the solitary task of writing, research involves stepping away from the computer—something I think of as field work, something my husband calls living. The research was so fun I kept at it for two years and during that time life shaped the story of Phobos in subtle ways. During the research and writing of this book, I also earned my pilot’s license. You can read about that adventure on my website in articles I wrote for various aviation magazines.

First stage of research: The Paper Chase.

As I am decidedly NOT a rocket scientist, I inhaled every book, documentary, magazine article, and scientific journal on Mars, manned missions, space flight and even the medical issues faced by long-term space flight. I learned about space lore, superstitions, the established ship designs for a proposed manned mission to Mars, how weightlessness ruins the taste of food, and that the minimum age recommended for a long-term deep-space mission is fifty. Yes, the big five-o, the half-life of a human.

In psychological studies of people in dangerous situations, those under fifty are far more likely to panic and act out of instinctive, immediate self-preservation than people over fifty. Sacrificing oneself to save others and the mission would be a prized behavior, one that could easily be the difference between disaster and success. So this fact changed the age range of my astronauts and brought in terrific opportunities for back story. Fifty-year-olds have history, families, and connections more vast than younger folks.

The best of the non-fiction books on Mars is Dr. Robert Zubrin’s book, The Case for Mars that details a MacGyver-style approach to using spare parts and resources on hand to launch manned and robotic missions to Mars. From his book, I discovered about the dangers of deep space travel and the technologies suggested for countering them. Two serious threats to life are radiation and micro-meteorites. A radiation storm shelter in the center of the ship would have walls filled with water and lined with lead. Micro-meteorites the size of a grain of sand could kill an astronaut on a spacewalk by shooting through his spacesuit. By the time the astronaut felt the sting of it, his suit would be leaking and he’d be bleeding, or dead.

Spacewalks in earth’s orbit offer the same danger. An organization called the Center for Orbital Reentry Debris Studies (CORDS) tracks all the nuts, bolts, dead satellites, spare gloves and debris in orbit. Their tracking enables astronauts to time their walks to avoid being struck by deadly fast-moving debris. Imagine 21,000 bits of metal larger than 10cm moving at eight kilometers per second (17,895 mph) in earth’s orbit. Even a suit of armor can’t stop them from boring holes through you. A Whipple Shield is used to protect ships and satellites in space, but the astronauts are exposed to micrometeorites. Space walks are acts of courage.

During my library-based research, I learned that there is a plaque–an historical marker—that is supposed to be placed on Mars on the Viking 1 Lander as a tribute to the late scientist Thomas A. “Tim” Mutch. He was a pioneer in space flight who died climbing the Himalayas. Feeling obligated to include Mutch’s plaque in the story; I set out to find more about it. In order for my characters to handle the plaque, I had to know its dimensions, what it was made of, and the wording on the plaque. That’s where Dr. Ben Bova came in.

Second Stage of Research: Field Work

The eminent Dr. Ben Bova knew the late Thomas Mutch and was photographed on stage holding the Mutch Memorial plaque. Dr. Bova was a pioneer in the Navy Research Laboratory’s Project Vanguard, which led to the formation of NASA. As a scientist and a writer, Bova was awarded the Hugo Award six times and was nominated for the Nebula Award. At a science convention in Orlando, I hunted down Dr. Bova to ask him about the plaque.

Dr. Bova ever so graciously told me he couldn’t remember, but he gave me a number and told me to call Allan Needell. While we talked, Colonel Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin approached and greeted Dr. Bova, who then introduced me. Yeah, I got to meet one of the few people who walked on the moon. Aldrin was scheduled to speak at the conference, so I attended his speech and came home with a signed poster of him on the moon for my daughter, whose room was decorated in a stars and moon theme. Research was fun!

Later, I followed up on Mr. Bova’s suggestion to call Allan Needell. A quick online search of Allan’s name revealed that he chaired the Smithsonian’s Space History Division and he was curator for the Apollo artifacts. When called, Dr. Needell enthusiastically said he’d make a rubbing of it and FAX it to me with the dimensions and a description of the material it was made of. Officially in geek ecstasy, I thanked him and received the FAX within an hour. Sure, probably fewer than fifty people in the world know the plaque is supposed to be planted on Mars, but in the interest of credibility the plaque became part of my book. Was I taking the credibility thing too far? I don’t know, but knowledge once gained cannot be ignored.

In the name of research, I also attended the only science fiction convention held at Disney and shared a dinner table with James Doohan (best known as Scotty from Star Trek), and the president of the Science Fiction Writers of America, and other published science fiction writers and screenwriters. Happily in touch with my inner geek, I considered this field-work research. Okay, standing in line for a signed copy of Leonard Nimoy’s latest book wasn’t research, but I was there already for crying out loud. I seized the day.

From my home near Winter Haven, Florida, I watched many a space shuttle launch in clear weather. Even seventy-two miles from the launch, the second stage booster rocket burst was visible day or night. With binoculars in the daytime I could see the booster rockets fall off. When the opportunity came to watch a rocket launch for Mars, I drove to the cape, all the while calling it field research. Geek, wonk, call me what you will. I am who I am.

The Mars Global Surveyor launched November 7, 1996. There, I found another woman sitting alone and introduced myself. Barbara Atkins spoke enthusiastically of her husband’s work on the upcoming launch of the Stardust Project. Dr. Kenneth Atkins, the project manager for the Stardust Project, was in the control room, so Mrs. Atkins was left on her own for the day. After the launch we exchanged information and she asked if I would like a VIP pass for the Stardust launch. Would I? Oh, absolutely. So when the Stardust launched on 2-7-1999 and I was there with four VIP passes, my hubby and two pilot pals in tow. Still calling it research, mind you.

My writer pals suggest that I earned my pilot’s license that year as a stalling tactic to avoid sitting down to write. I confess. I earned my pilot’s license for the sheer fun of it. I even earned back some of the expenses by publishing magazine articles about the experience.

Armed with loads of research data, I finally outlined the story and hammered out a rough draft. Which lead to more questions, which required—yes, you guessed it—more research.

Third Stage of Research: Follow-up

In the story one of the astronauts suffered a broken bone, so I consulted experts on what would be done. My husband, an orthopedic surgeon, helped me properly name and describe the injury. Later, my husband attended an Osteonics workshop in New York City and I tagged along. He spent the day learning about hip implants while I shopped. At the end of the day we joined the Osteonics folks for a reception and met scientist Michael Kvitnitsky, a political refugee from the Ukraine. Hubby explained that Mr. Kvitnitsky was an engineer in medical research, so I lobbed a few questions at him about how to counteract bone loss in space flight. He raised his eyebrows and asked if I was a doctor so I told him I was writing a science fiction novel about a manned mission to Mars. He then described a combination treatment of electrical bone stimulation and medication. A charming man, he spoke in perfect English with a hint of Russian accent. Bless him for not talking down to me.

I asked Mr. Kvitnitsky how he was adjusting to life in America and he spoke in reverent tones about grocery stores. In the Ukraine, he said, you go to the store every day and buy whatever is available. One day the store would have cheese, another day meat, another day vegetables. He said in the Ukraine people wait in line for a long time without losing patience. He marveled that in the United States he could go into any grocery on any day and buy whatever he wanted. Socializing with brilliant scientists was research, wasn’t it?

When I ran into technical questions about my fictional manned mission, a couple of the geniuses at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) were kind enough to spare time from rocket science to answer my questions. I had contacts there from an essay published years earlier. The JPL geniuses quoted in “Rocket Mom” had been gracious enough to calculate the fuel costs for the space shuttle for me so I could compare the costs, mile per mile, to various SUVs. Sure, they snickered when asked at first, but then, they took on the extreme calculus challenge like normal folks would do a Sudoku puzzle. After the article was published, I sent them a copy. I still felt honored that they took time to answer my questions. Kudos to the geniuses at JPL.

Final Stage of Research: Application and Editing

Having exhausted all excuses about needing more research, I returned to my computer to apply the knowledge gained. The ship has the living space of a double-wide mobile home, so in order for the crew to perform their daily tasks without getting in one another’s way, they work in shifts. Each astronaut has a favorite place to spend time and this hideout has to suit the mission goals for each character. Each astronaut also has a teensy living space (a bedroom of sorts) for privacy—even the married couple sleeps in separate rooms.

The crew of a manned mission to Mars has to be a team of scientists from different disciplines to manage the challenges and mission goals. For my story, the disciplines were medicine, geology, robotics and deep sea exploration. Working in submarines is similar to working in space. In fact, astronauts train to perform extra-vehicular activity (space walks) in pressure suits underwater.

In developing the characters, I felt closest to the hero, Chance Whitcombe. I grew up in Wisconsin, so he did too. He pursued the career I had toyed with—geology. At Indiana University, where I earned a Bachelor’s of Arts in Journalism, Professor John Droste taught geology with contagious passion. The man was severely deaf and wore hearing aids. I had wanted to get into his popular class, but could not, so I took Geology 101 by correspondence and sneaked into the lectures. Droste shouted and gestured and told jokes. Somehow, in a room of a hundred students, he noticed a stranger sitting in the back row and sent an assistant to hunt me down. I confessed my situation and was allowed to sit in. I aced the course and took more from him to fulfill my science requirement. My character’s childhood wonder of rocks came directly from my college experience at IU as an homage to Professor Droste who brought rocks to life.

In the first draft of my novel the character of Valentina was a male. A critique partner read the story and suggested that having four men and one woman on a long-term space mission seemed unbalanced. Switching one character’s gender opened up the story for more far conflict and gave Chance a more compelling reason to join the mission. Valentina is the kind of strong female character I would love to be in real life. Confident, beautiful, brilliant, she overcomes a tragic childhood, in part, because of the unconditional love of her father.

As a parent, I identify with character Dmitri Rykov who faced hideous decisions and loss to protect his child. Michael Kvitnitsky’s flight from Russia also influenced the back story of Dmitri—as a scientist forced to leave his homeland to start over in the U.S. I’ve read that the Ukraine was the breadbasket of Russia, the equivalent of the Midwest in the United States. My husband did a medical mission in Kiev and he described the attitudes and temperament of the people there to be very similar to Midwesterners. He found one glaring exception. The doctors in Kiev were lax in their protocols about wearing lead shields during surgery to protect themselves during x-rays. My husband asked about it and one doctor shrugged and told him, “We have Chernobyl.” So that mention of Chernobyl triggered an idea for the character Dmitri’s back story.

The roboticists, Meiji and Misako Kanazawa, were designed to be mysterious to the other characters. Foreign in culture, language and personalities to the other crew members, the Kanazawas clash with the rest of the crew. They also harbor a few secrets. They are emotionally distant from the other crewmembers, like the robots they build.

The character of Dr. Zach Russell reflects the social conflict between science and religion. As a physician he is trained to employ rational, measurable, science-based thinking, but as a man of faith, he sees life in the perspective of the eternal and the supernatural. I believe science and faith are not in opposition. I believe man seeks answers to the great questions through the most objective, rational means known to us, but even that system of thought cannot answer all our questions.

As a writer, I don’t have answers to the great questions. All I can do is raise them within an entertaining story and let the characters and the readers wrestle with them. Characters, like real people, think about death differently when faced with it than they do in casual daily living. It’s the author’s job to push the characters to their limit and test them to reveal who they really are. Authors draw on the common ground of human emotion to craft characters so they feel three-dimensional and real to the reader. This part of the craft of writing comes easier to fiction writers than to writers like me who began their careers in journalism. Editors practically beat point of view out of me, because in reporting the focus is on presenting various sides and letting the reader draw his own conclusions on the news topic.

My journey from non-fiction to fiction writing  eased from newspaper reporting, to magazine writing, to opinion essay writing and then to fiction. Perhaps that is why research feels like familiar territory to me. Developing a novel takes discipline, organization skills, determination and an unleashed imagination. Keeping the science in my science fiction came easier than the fiction part.

Building a believable story demands a balance of fact and fiction so that the reader is drawn into the story in way that allows him to suspend disbelief—to fall into the story as if having a genuine life experience.

I’ve heard a few authors complain about conducting the research stages of writing. I see research as an adventure in which I get to ask dumb questions to brilliant people who help me see the world in new ways. What’s not to love?

Happy reading!

–Joni M. Fisher

This article first appeared on June 17, 2012 on the www.onkindle.com blog.

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