SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't read Aero One, get yourself a copy. For 99 cents you can enjoy a 9500 word sci-fi adventure. This post discusses plot points with some spoilers.
The idea for Aero One came from an illustration showing He3 mining with an aerostat suspended from what looked like a weather balloon. It gave me the idea of a hot air balloon ride in the atmosphere of Uranus, and that evolved into the thought of someone trapped in an aerostat navigating the planet's winds.
My first draft of the story had ramjets ferrying He3 up to orbit from each aerostat. When Jia and Ping arrive, they find the ramjets missing and locate them on Uranus's moon Miranda. It was a fun investigation which had some memorable imagery, but the logistics of the whole He3 mining operation didn't make sense. I kept thinking: that seems overly complicated - why would anyone do it that way? So, I stopped writing the story, opened a new file, and worked out all of the details of how the aerostats worked.
Sometimes in sci-fi you don't need to know how things work. For example, we were all fine not knowing exactly how Star Trek's phasers worked. Other times you need the details (or at least the rules). So here are the rules for the aeros:
- The aeros fly in a 12,000 km wide counterclockwise loop
- The aeros fly at 100 kph
- Doing the math, it takes 10.8 days for an aero to complete the loop
- At the end of the loop, the aero docks with Cloud Nine and empties its tank
- There are 24 aeros spaced every 1000 km. This means every 10 hours a new aerostat docks at Cloud Nine, empties its tank, and returns to the loop
Cloud Nine needs rules also:
- Cloud Nine processes what the aeros offload and separates out the He3.
- Cloud Nine is the air traffic controller and autonomous command center for the aerostats. It has its own repair facilities for repairing aerostats. The repair facility can be operated remotely, if needed. Ping mentions doing telepresense repairs in the story.
- Sometimes techs need to come down to Cloud Nine to either repair the platform itself or do repairs they can't do remotely. They use Cloud Nine's ascent vehicle, the Crane, to shuttle to and from orbit.
- The Crane can lift 100 tons of He3. Every month a cargo ship arrives in orbit and the Crane launches and transfers its He3 cargo to the ship via an orbital transfer platform.
As soon as I realized people might need to come down to Cloud Nine, it meant Cloud Nine needed to have clear emergency procedures and areas to deal with people being injured. A suit breach, for instance, would be catastropic without a warm, pressurized area to retreat into. With a twelve day wait for rescue, the emergency area would need to be a full habitat. It would also need to have spare suits.
As an engineer I work in an industrial facility. In the event of an emergency all equipment is shut down until the emergency is resolved. It seemed the same would be true of Cloud Nine. It would not keep flying in aerostats while rescuers were trying to get to the platform, nor would it do things like filling launch tanks when people might need to use the runways or ascent vehicle.
Once I had all of these rules, the story assembled itself. I thought about each next step Jia and Ping would take for their survial, what would happen when they did, and how it would affect Ward's plans. I can say that, if you're writing survival stories, your characters will try to take things apart, improvise, and work around their constraints. I struggled at first with Aero One because I hadn't worked out the constraints.
Now for the geeky fun stuff. Here's a few subtle things you might not have picked up on when reading the story:
- The Prosperity approaches the loop from the east end, flying west towards Cloud Nine. They end up overshooting Cloud Nine by 38,000 km. This means Prosperity is orbiting Uranus east to west, which is the opposite direction satellites typically orbit Earth. This is because Uranus rotates the opposite direction that Earth does.
- Jia and Ping lie on the floor of Aero One partly to avoid contact with the cold exterior walls, but also because heat from the aero's core warms the floor. Ping mentions casually that it's warmer inside the aerostat than outside.
- Just before Jia blacks out, everything to her left floats up and hits the ceiling, while everything to her right falls to the floor. This is because the Prosperity is spinning about its center axis as a result of the explosions in the battery room.
- Aero One's parachute deployment sequence is modeled after the Apollo mission's reentry capsule. If you think about it, Aero One needs to get from orbital speed (several kilometers per second) to deployment speed (nearly stopped) just through wind resistance and parachutes, without killing everyone from deceleration. Fortunately Uranus's atmosphere is much taller than Earth's, and the deceleration is spread over a longer timeframe.
- Sucrose is C12H22O11. As the story mentions, it's carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. These elements are present in breath and water. Presumably the suits have a mechanism for stripping apart and reassembling molecules, and the water lost to create sucrose is factored into the suit's two week operational life.
- Jia references her IFR training when flying in the murk of the troposphere. Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) are aviation regulations used when visibility is poor. Visual Flight Rules (VFR) are used when you can see where you're going.
- The diamond heating pattern Jia feels when turning on her suit's heater is a nod to Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars.
- Astronauts overheating in space suits has occurred at least twice. In 1966, Gene Cernan needed to abort a spacewalk when vigorous physical activity caused his body to produce more heat than his suit's cooling system could handle. His pulse spiked at 195. In 2006, A bent water pipe compromised the cooling system of cosmonaut Alexander Kaleri, forcing him to return to his ship.
- If you do the math based on the distress signal response and Ward's ultimatum, poor Jia and Ping only get two hours on Cloud Nine. It's just enough time for a shower and a bowl of soup. Life is never easy for heroes.
Hope you enjoyed the story. Thanks for reading!