Mankind’s journey out into the black has been goaded on by many great thinkers: some, storytellers who craft amazing and fantastical worlds of science-fiction that we yearn to attain, while others are visionary scientists who challenge us with ambitious plans of how that might be achieved (while some, like Robert Heinlein, dabble in both). I’d like to change tack today and look at the latter category.
Over twenty years ago, Robert Zubrin wrote The Case for Mars, the book that inspired me as a young man (and many others, I’m sure) to grow up to study and become an engineer. It’s remained a bestseller in publication ever since, undergoing new revisions/editions every few years or so as new scientific discoveries about the red planet are revealed. More rarely, he’d add a note or two about some development in space policy or the industry that he felt worthy of note. Then, a few years ago, the “SpaceX revolution” broke onto the scene, with the advent of dramatically reduced launch prices and reusable vehicles, and it begged the question of whether Zubrin would revisit his thesis in light of these developments. The Case for Space, published in 2019, is his answer. But does it measure up to the pivotal, groundbreaking volume that started it all for so many of us?
Firefly: Generations is the fourth original Firefly novel from Titan Books, and the first by an author other than New York Times bestselling author James Lovegrove. For this novel, Titan called upon award-winning British horror and dark fantasy author Tim Lebbon, whose novelization of the film 30 Days of Night, along with three of his original works, also landed him on the New York Times bestseller list. Generations was originally scheduled to be the third Firefly novel to be released by Titan, but saw its publishing date pushed back for reasons that were never explained. For Browncoats, though, the wait was well worth it, as this latest tale of the adventures of Captain Malcolm Reynolds and the crew of Serenity is Titan’s best offering to date.
Generations begins as many Firefly episodes do, with the crew of Serenity desperate to find work. While in search of a job on one of the moons of the Outer Rim, Mal ends up in a card game in which he wins an old map covered in mysterious symbols. The map’s former owner insists it’s worthless, but when Mal brings the map aboard Serenity, River Tam is able to interpret it, and claims it will lead to one of the legendary ships that originally brought humans from Earth-That-Was to the ‘verse.
Knowing that the salvage potential alone is staggering, Mal and the crew can’t pass up the chance to find the ship. And find it they do, but when they approach the aged, floating hulk, they quickly discover that it is not the derelict it had initially appeared to be. Not only that, but the closer they get, the more agitated River becomes. She keeps saying that someone is on board, and that she and he are somehow connected.
Lebonn’s reputation as a horror writer might lead one to expect this novel to be a suspenseful thriller with a tone reminiscent of the Firefly episode “Bushwhacked.” But while there are definitely suspenseful moments, as well as more than a few creepy elements, readers might be pleasantly surprised to find the pages filled with action. Throughout the story, Mal and the crew find themselves “trading injuries” with local gun thugs on a border moon, security drones, Alliance soldiers, and even those mysterious Alliance agents who appear two by two with hands of blue.
Lebonn takes Browncoats closer to those enigmatic blue-gloved agents than they’ve ever been before, and he expands their role in the Firefly mythos in ways that are clever, innovative and unexpected. Fans who have always wanted to learn more about who these agents are and how they operate will probably be far more satisfied with their role in this tale than they were with what little was offered by Joss Whedon himself in the Dark Horse Comics series Serenity: Those Left Behind. (As with all of the Titan novels, Whedon is credited as the consulting editor of this book.)
Perhaps Lebonn’s greatest strength, though, is his understanding of the various members of Serenity’s crew and their individual voices. The dialogue in the novel sounds so similar to the original series that it’s almost uncanny, and the thoughts, actions and motivations of the crew are always consistent with what Browncoats have come to know from the series and the movie.
The plot doesn’t leave room for the full crew of nine, and very early in the novel Lebonn sends Inara and Shepherd Book away in one of Serenity’s shuttles– Inara to meet with a client and Book on an errand to try to generate a little bit of cash in a manner more befitting a shepherd. Fans who have read all of the Titan Books Firefly novels might find this a bit odd from a continuity standpoint, since the two had already left the crew more permanently in the previous novel, James Lovegrove’s The Ghost Machine, which was originally scheduled to be released after this one but ended up on bookstore shelves eight months earlier instead.
For the most part though, Generations is a page-turner that starts out interesting and gathers momentum with each passing chapter. There may not be any doubt as to the fate of our big damn heroes, since this story takes place pre-Serenity, but Lebonn’s deft handling of plot and skillful development of the ancillary characters he’s created still make the book very difficult to put down as the story progresses.
If there is a weak spot in this novel, it would have to be the way the story fits into the overall continuity of Firefly and Serenity. The events of this story, if taken as canon, would make it highly unlikely that Mal and the rest of the crew would still be as in the dark with regards to the full extent of River’s abilities as they seemed to be at the start of the motion picture Serenity. But then, both the Titan Books novels and the most recent Firefly comics published by Boom! Studios create a bit of a conundrum with regards to the continuity of the Firefly ‘verse just by virtue of the sheer volume of storytelling that is going on in what is supposed to be the period of time between the conclusion of the TV series and the start of the movie. At one point in the movie Serenity, Mal reminds Simon that he and River have been aboard the ship for eight months. That means that if they are to be regarded as canon, then all of the events of the TV series, the Boom! Studios comics and the Titan Books novels have to have taken place in a span of time that is less than or equal to eight months in duration. Given all of the events in these various stories, it’d be a minor miracle if the crew had time to eat or sleep, let alone have any “down time” between adventures!
After being starved for any additional stories from the ‘verse at all for years after Serenity’s release, we’ve now reached the point where Browncoats are literally inundated with Firefly stories and ultimately need to decide for themselves which ones they believe to be reasonable within the larger canon and which ones just make for entertaining yarns. (This may soon become even more necessary, as rumors of a more family-friendly, PG reboot of the Firefly series for the Disney+ platform have recently surfaced, much to the chagrin of many Browncoats, this one included.) As these stories go though, Browncoats would be hard-pressed to find better ones than the Titan Books Firefly novels, all of which read like lost episodes of the original series (and don’t need to be read in sequence like Boom! Studios’ ongoing comics series does). And of these novels, Generations has set a new standard. This Browncoat gives it an A+.
Firefly: Generations has a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $24.95, and is available now from major booksellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble. The hardcover edition is packaged attractively, with shiny ‘verse-themed cover art on the dust cover and a built-in bookmark of a brownish color.
The next Firefly novel in Titan’s series, James Lovegrove’s Life Signs, is scheduled for release in March of 2021.
Firefly: The Ghost Machine is the third original Firefly novel from Titan Books, and the third by New York Times bestselling author James Lovegrove (The Age of Odin). Much like Lovegrove’s previous two novels set in the Firefly ‘verse, 2018’s Big Damn Heroand 2019’s The Magnificent Nine, this latest effort reads for the most part like a lost episode of the series. Unlike the previous two books, however, this novel takes a unique and somewhat bold approach in that the vast majority of the story takes place only in the unconscious minds of Serenity’s crew, in alternate realities of their own design.
image courtesy amazon.com
This story, which takes place after the events in Firefly but before the events of Serenity, begins as most tales of the ‘verse do. Malcolm Reynolds and his crew (minus Shepherd Book and Inara Serra, who at this point have both already left the ship) are hired by Badger to retrieve illegal cargo from Canterbury and transport it to Persephone, where a buyer is waiting. When the crew arrives at the rendezvous, Mal sees that the cargo is a flightcase stamped with the Blue Sun logo that likely contains Alliance-funded tech that was stolen from a nearby R&D facility, and decides to scrub the mission. He and his crew are desperate, but not desperate enough to risk smuggling an item this hot out of an area that’s swarming with Alliance ships that are almost as keen to regain the stolen property as they are to find the two fugitives that have been hiding aboard Serenity for several months.
Unbeknownst to Mal, Jayne Cobb isn’t willing to pass on the potential payday, and sneaks the cargo aboard Serenity in the hopes of bringing it to Badger and securing the payment for himself. When Jayne stows the case in a secret compartment in his cabin, however, its contents begin to have a strange effect on the crew.
When Chris and I hatched this harebrained scheme, we didn’t know if anyone else would hop on board. After all, no one had really noticed when the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011, who’s to say they’d notice us, a single voice in the void, let alone sign on with us?
To an extent, no one did — or at least, we didn’t get the reaction/following we’d sought: one last, grand Browncoat fan uprising like the one that showed Universal Studios that there was an audience for them to make a Serenity film. We kept at it, though, covering the launches in person when we could, going to any con that couldn’t keep us out and approaching people with the very weird proposition, even by comic-con standards, of getting involved in spaceflight advocacy.
I’d like to think that we succeeded in that way without intending to: informing the public about the goings on in the black. We’ll never know how many (or few) of the millions of people across the world who watched the live broadcast of the first launch of astronauts aboard an independent spacecraft did so because of our efforts, but that’s okay. “Mission accomplished,” I say. And I do mean that. Yeah, it would have been shiny if the crew of the Dragon spacecraft had opted to name it Serenity, but it’s more important that people actually paid attention either way for a change.
I saw Behnken and Hurley’s broadcast on my phone while out on a quick shopping jaunt, which feels more like an excursion into a zombie-infested ruined city in the tense rush to get in, get the goods and get out while minimizing exposure in the age of COVID-19. In spite of that, when the cameras went live, I stopped in my tracks in the middle of the aisle. There was just something hauntingly… familiar, intimate. Their broadcast was more of a fireside chat, like the kind the Apollo crews used to do. The backlighting on the capsule walls was clearly designed to look like the soft lighting of an airliner cabin, and looked all the more “homey.”
I was positively riveted by these two men who had welcomed me and the human race into their humble home away from Earth. When they showed how their touchscreen control panels worked, I was suddenly transformed back into a 6-year old fascinated by the shuttle’s controls. Those controls, like Apollo, were riddled with analog switches, dials, buttons with warnings not to push them unless you meant it, harsh angles… almost seeming like it wasn’t hospitable for human life, or was at least something you could easily get lost in. It added to the mystique of the Astronaut Corps, that these men could navigate that maze while we mortals would never be able to.
Contrast that with the simple touchscreen controls we can see aboard the Dragon, and one gets the impression that it’s like any new app on our mobile devices that we could teach ourselves to use. It made the craft seem all the more “approachable,” and I suspect many a child has been inspired anew by it. The cycle continues.
It does for me, too, of course. Those of you who’ve been with us from the start may recall that Shuttle Endeavour is what started me on this trajectory in my life — so, of course I’m not bummed out that they went with it as the name for their craft. It has meaning to them, personally, named for a ship they both loved, and there’s no finer reason in the ‘Verse.
We spoke at length with each other, batting around more crazy ideas like the good old days. What we concluded was:
Keeping the Firefly and Serenity fandom alive is reason in and of itself.
There’s still more good we can do in the realm of educating people about space, about the real-life ‘verse.
We’re taking this site in a new direction, one we think you might actually like more. In addition to the geekdom and nerdery you know and love, we have some ideas and plans to share with you, not just to inform you about what’s going on in space, but to enable you to participate in what goes on up there, in ways that just weren’t possible for us in years past. It’s not ready for prime time yet, but suffice it to say that it’s in the true, independent spirit of the Browncoats, and I can’t wait to share it with you in the days to come.
The ending panels of the Serenity: Those Left Behind graphic novel see Zoe asking her captain for a new course for her pilot husband to chart. Mal replies, “The same way as always… forwards.”
COMMANDER HARKEN: “Seems odd you’d name your ship after a battle you were on the wrong side of.”
MALCOLM REYNOLDS: “May have been the losing side. Still not convinced it was the wrong one.”
— Firefly, “Bushwhacked” (2002)
The event that we here at Take Back the Sky and many others in the aerospace community had been eagerly anticipating for close to a decade has finally came to pass. At 3:22pm EDT on May 30, 2020, a Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida and carried NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the International Space Station aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon, the first private spaceship to take human beings out to the black.
For just shy of eight years we have been doing everything in our power to lobby SpaceX, its CEO and founder Elon Musk and its president and COO Gwynne Shotwell to name the first Crew Dragon after Serenity, the Firefly-class transport ship in Joss Whedon’s sci-fi TV series Firefly and subsequent motion picture Serenity. We created online and paper petitions, hosted panel discussions and tabled at science-fiction and comics conventions and science fairs and maintained a steady social media campaign. We also encouraged members of the space community as well as Browncoats and fans of science-fiction in general to mount a steady letter-writing campaign asking for the name, just as Star Trek fans succeeded in doing in 1976, when it was announced that the first Space Shuttle would be named Enterprise.
As launch day approached, the name of the Crew Dragon remained a closely-guarded secret. Astronauts Behnken and Hurley announced that they had selected a name for their ship, but they would only reveal it the day of the launch. Those of us who were still holding out hope for Serenity were somewhat encouraged when the crew used a plush dinosaur as their zero-G indicator, the object in the cockpit that is traditionally left untethered so it will float when the ship reaches orbit. After all, Serenity’s pilot Hoban “Wash” Washburne famously played around with toy dinosaurs while at the helm in the pilot episode of the TV series Firefly. When the crew held their first media event from orbit, however, they welcomed the world aboard Crew Dragon Endeavour, a name they had chosen because it held deep personal significance to both of them since both men had previously gone to space aboard the Space Shuttle of the same name. It was also revealed that the zero-G indicator, a plush apatosaurus named “Trimmer,” was chosen for the flight because both of their sons have an affinity for dinosaurs.
Two Demo-2 launch dates meant over 15 hours of #NASASocial events and #LaunchAmerica coverage– and a whole lot of coffee.
It was hard not to be disappointed when the crew revealed that the ship’s name was Endeavour, not only because it meant that our campaign of 7+ years was unsuccessful, but also because they had chosen what could only be described as a traditional name for such a shiny new class of spaceship. It was also hard to argue with their reasoning though, and at the end of three days of covering #NASASocial events as part #LaunchAmerica and nearly fifteen hours of following launch coverage across two launch dates (the mission had to be scrubbed due to inclement weather on May 27), whatever disappointment we felt was naturally overshadowed by the fact that the NASA Commercial Crew Program had succeeded in returning American astronauts to space from American soil, and we had backed the right horse to do it first in SpaceX. It was also impossible not to be thrilled for Doug Hurley, who won the ultimate game of “Capture the Flag” by being the US astronaut to claim the very same American flag he himself had left aboard the ISS at the end of the final Space Shuttle mission with the understanding that is was to be brought home by the crew of the next US spaceship to dock with the station. In the midst of a worldwide pandemic that had left millions out of work and virtually everyone stuck in quarantine and a week of the most widespread protests and riots the country had seen in decades, the story of Crew Dragon’s Demo-2 flight provided a beacon of light in some very dark times. SpaceX and NASA had given us reason to be hopeful for America.
And yet, that didn’t change the fact that the Crew Dragon was not named Serenity, and that left me asking: “What now?”
Jeff and I started this campaign eight years ago when we discovered we shared a common goal while posting about the topic on the Yahoo message boards of the Pennsylvania Browncoats. From the very beginning, we talked about how positively epic the launch party for a spaceship named Serenity would be. If there’s one thing Browncoats know how to do, it’s throw a mighty fine shindig. Anyone who’s been to a Can’t Stop the Serenity charity event or a Browncoat Ball, or remembers the turnout at San Diego Comic-Con for the celebration of Firefly’s 10th anniversary, knows exactly what I’m talking about. As someone who has been passionately involved with the Browncoat community for nearly a decade, I promised myself that I would personally see to it that a crewed spaceship named Serenity had a launch party that Browncoats everywhere in the ‘verse could not only be proud of, but would want to be a part of.
Crowds gather for the final Space Shuttle launch in 2011. (Photo: Tim Shortt/Florida Today)
With all the focus on the much-anticipated launch of the Demo-2 mission of Crew Dragon on May 27, which will be the first time since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011 that American astronauts will head out to the black from American soil, it’s easy to forget that SpaceX is still expected to launch another batch of approximately 60 satellites for the company’s Starlink broadband network first. A Falcon 9 will lift off from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida NET Sunday, May 17 with a one-hour launch window opening at 3:53am EDT (7:53 UTC).
Image Credit: thespacestore.com
The mission is dubbed Starlink 7, though it will actually be the eighth batch to be launched and will bring the Starlink fleet to nearly 500 satellites. SpaceX has regulatory approval from the Federal Communications Commission to field a fleet of up to 12,000 small Starlink broadband stations over a period of 24 launches.
SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said the company will debut a new sunshade with this mission that is designed to reduce the brightness of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites. The measure is intended to alleviate astronomers’ concerns about the satellites’ impact on observations through ground-based telescopes. SpaceX is calling the new feature “VisorSat,” and plans to use it on every subsequent Starlink launch.
According to SpaceX, the first stage rocket booster supporting this upcoming mission also launched two previous Starlink missions, as well as the Iridium-8 and Telstar 18 VANTAGE missions. SpaceX will attempt to recover the booster again aboard its drone ship Of Course I Still Love You, though the weather forecast for the LZ, which is in the Atlantic Ocean approximately 200km east of Charleston, South Carolina, is not looking very good. The National Hurricane Center has reported that an area of low pressure is expected to form near the Bahamas, and it has a high chance of becoming a subtropical depression or storm this weekend while it moves northeastward over the western Atlantic. That is why SpaceX moved the launch forward a day, and perhaps that is also why SpaceX’s fairing recovery vessels, GO Ms. Tree and GO Ms. Chief, still had not left port for the LZ as of 5pm on May 14.
SpaceX’s drone ships Of Course I Still Love You and Just Read the Instructions are now operating together in the Atlantic Ocean. OCISLY got the call for this Sunday’s mission. With a weekend storm expected, SpaceX’s fairing catcher ships GO Ms. Tree and GO Ms. Chief may have to sit this upcoming launch out due to rough seas. (Photo Credit: Kyle Montgomery)
Any night owls and folk whose Circadian rhythms have been disrupted due to the Coronavirus quarantine, as well as those who are just ambitious enough to set their alarms, will be able to watch the mission unfold live at spacex.com and on the company’s YouTube channel. The webcast should go live approximately 20 minutes before liftoff.
NASA has scheduled the first crewed launch of SpaceX’s independently designed and developed Dragon spacecraft for 4:32 p.m. EDT (2032 GMT) on May 27, 2020 (barring unforeseen delays, such as a high probability of adverse weather). Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will be the first American astronauts to go into space aboard an American-made ship since the former Space Shuttle program. Continue Reading
Starlink is SpaceX’s constellation of satellites that are designed to provide broadband internet access across the globe. This month’s launch will push the size of SpaceX’s Starlink fleet to just over 300 satellites, though not all of them will be operational when the broadband network goes online.
The Falcon 9 booster for this mission completed its static fire on April 17, nearly a full week before its scheduled launch. It is a bit unusual for SpaceX to conduct such an early static fire, which has led some to speculate that it might be related to the fact that the Falcon 9 used for the company’s most recent mission on March 18 suffered an engine failure that ultimately resulted in a second consecutive unsuccessful attempt at landing and recovering the first stage booster (though the mission itself was successful). The booster that was lost last month had just been launched for the fifth time, more than any other Falcon 9.
If there are those who are concerned, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine doesn’t seem to be among them. He has already stated that Falcon 9’s engine anomaly on March 18 is “… not going to impact our Commercial Crew launch.”
Big Damn Heroes Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley sit in the cockpit of the SpaceX Crew Dragon that will take them out to the black next month. (image courtesy SpaceX)
Despite Bridenstine’s assurances, SpaceX may be feeling a bit more pressure to prove the reliability of the Falcon 9’s Merlin engines given that the rocket is scheduled to send two NASA astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, out to the black on a test mission to help prove that Crew Dragon’s systems meet NASA’s requirements for certification to carry astronauts to the International Space Station and back. The mission will launch NET May 27 from LC-39A at Kennedy Space Center, and will mark the first time since the conclusion of the Space Shuttle program in 2011 that American astronauts will launch from American soil.
During this upcoming mission, SpaceX plans to recover the Falcon 9’s first stage for a fourth time in the Atlantic Ocean aboard its drone ship Of Course I Still Love You. The fairing for the mission is also a veteran of a previous launch, having been flown for the AMOS-17 mission in August 2019. SpaceX’s fairing recovery vessels, GO Ms. Tree and GO Ms. Chief, will attempt to recover the fairing yet again during this mission.
If you are a fan of Joss Whedon who has been starved for more tales of the thrilling heroics of Captain Malcolm Reynolds and his crew, then the past few years have been a good time to be a Browncoat. Fans have seen a whole passel of print hit the shelves– initially in several volumes of Serenity comics and graphic novels published by Dark Horse Comics, and more recently in the form of Firefly prose novels and reference works published by Titan Books and Insight Editions as well as a new ongoing Firefly comics series (and its accompanying one-shot stories and graphic novels) published by Boom! Studios.
The ongoing Firefly comics series from Boom! Studios made its debut in November of 2018, and is set between the events of the Firefly TV series and the motion picture Serenity. It has introduced a number of interesting new characters and landed the crew in more than a few exciting situations in the 15 issues that have been published so far. Despite some minor shortcomings (like the fact that it took no less than 13 issues for any of the characters to utter even a single syllable of Chinese), for the most part the plots have been entertaining and have managed to maintain the spirit of Joss Whedon’s original stories and characters– even though the creator of the Firefly ‘verse has had very minimal personal involvement in the project. (Whedon is officially listed as a “story consultant” for the series.) The same can be said of Boom! Studios’ Firefly spin-off comics… with one notable exception.
In November of last year, Boom! Studios released Firefly: The Sting, an original graphic novel (OGN) written by New York Times bestselling writer Delilah S. Dawson, whose numerous writing credits include several books set in the Star Wars universe. (Dawson collaborated with no less than five different illustrators on this project, one for each of the book’s chapters, though it’s worth noting that the illustrators have similar pencilling styles and the book’s artwork is visually seamless from one chapter to the next.) The book was announced in June of 2019 with a solicitation that included the following synopsis (as reported on newsarama.com):
“Saffron and the women of Firefly pull the ultimate heist! Saffron– the enigmatic rogue who captured the hearts of Firefly fans worldwide– returns to Serenity. But this time, she’s got no time for Capt. Malcolm Reynolds, as she’s there to recruit the women of the ship to join her on a heist that has personal stakes for all involved.”
It’d be hard for any dyed-in-the-wool Browncoat not to be intrigued by a story involving Saffron, the criminal-minded opportunist played so deftly by Christina Hendricks in the Firefly episodes “Our Mrs. Reynolds” and “Trash.” But a heist for which she only recruits the women of Serenity? Sure, she and her “kinda husband” Malcolm Reynolds share a somewhat adversarial past, but if she’s desperate enough to include any members of Serenity’s crew in a scheme she’s conjuring (especially after her last attempt ended with Inara locking her in an automated trash bin), then what reason could she possibly have not to want a skilled pilot like Wash, or someone like Jayne who’d obviously be useful if things turned violent? And if things did go sideways and her gang ended up various degrees of bruised and bloodied, wouldn’t a man like Dr. Simon Tam be just the sort of person she’d want to have around?
This Browncoat was already skeptical, but I still ordered the book. After all, for the past ten years, no single pop culture brand has meant more to me than the Firefly/Serenity ‘verse. I have devoted countless hours to the Browncoats fandom, both as a local event coordinator for Can’t Stop the Serenitycharity screenings and as co-founder of Take Back the Sky’s ongoing campaign to convince Elon Musk to name SpaceX’s first Crew Dragon space capsule after Serenity.I count myself among the most passionate of Browncoats who, nearly two decades after Firefly’s debut on Fox, will greet each new official story or officially licensed Firefly or Serenity product with enthusiasm. Besides, Boom! Studios’ Firefly books had a solid track record of good stories up to this point, and the writer was a best-selling author.
My copy arrived in time for me to take it along on a cross-country flight to the West Coast in mid-December 2019. Our family was headed to Southern California so my son could play lacrosse in the Legends National Cup, which afforded me the opportunity to read the OGN in one sitting on a nearly five-hour flight from Chicago to San Diego. I assumed that reading the story uninterrupted from cover to cover would allow me to appreciate the overall narrative better than if I read the chapters as installments. Ultimately though, I’m not sure it mattered, because from the very onset, this Firefly tale just felt… off.