Category Archives: Fact Finding

The Cosmic Train Schedule, and Getting Science Right

by Jennifer Willis

During the Q&A following my author reading at Orycon in November, I was asked a question I’d not gotten before:

“What was the coolest thing you learned while researching your Mars books?”

What an awesome question, right? I had to think quickly on my feet and sort through all of the fun stuff I got to dig into while working on these three books. The answer that sprung to mind, though, was the Cosmic Train Schedule. And I promise that’s not something I just made up.

The Cosmic Train Schedule is an online resource that includes real-world transit times between Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. It’s a massive timetable that spans centuries and gives exact dates for departures and arrivals as well as information on aphelion, perihelion, and other fun geekery.

And I did geek out over this. I opened up a new project in Aeon Timeline and mapped out all of the (fictional) manned missions to Mars for my series, including both the government-sponsored trips crewed by trained astronauts and the waves of colony missions that are central to my stories. This helped me get a better sense for the lengths of missions, a reasonable timeline for sending people on interplanetary voyages, and a hard schedule for overlaps between missions and gaps when there would be no human beings on the Red Planet. While I had a lot of nerdy fun pulling that together and inserting more mundane elements like future Super Bowl dates (because I also mapped out a fictional NFL expansion as background material), I also needed this information to construct and drive my stories—particularly for the third book, Mars Heat.

So why go to all this trouble? Because actual science matters in science fiction. This can be tricky for authors, because sometimes real-world limitations and physics can get in the way of what would otherwise be an awesome plot point. But I try not to use handwavium too much if I can help it. This is a big reason I’m still excited that I got to participate in the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop for Writers at the University of Wyoming in 2011, even though my brain melted as we tried to absorb what amounted to a college course in astrophysics in the space of a single week. It’s no coincidence that Mike Brotherton—founder of Launch Pad, UW physics and astronomy professor, and sci-fi author—is the one who directed me to the Cosmic Train Schedule.

Sci-fi authors have a unique opportunity to promote science literacy through our work. Countless astronauts, scientists, and others credit their early sci-fi reading for inspiring their studies and careers, and scientific understanding is important for everyone. Plus, it’s fun to learn something new while you’re in the middle of a great read. My SFR books aren’t hard science fiction, but I do try to get the science right where possible.

A chronically optimistic nerd, Jennifer Willis writes urban fantasy, sci-fi, and sci-fi romance. She is also the writer behind the Northwest Love Stories feature in The Oregonian and has a byline in the Hugo Award-winning Women Destroy Science Fiction from Lightspeed.