Writer's Guide to Government Information

Resources to inject real life detail into your fiction

Archive for the category “What If Your Story Isn’t Set on Earth?”

New Worlds Atlas (Extrasolar planets)

New Worlds Atlas – http://planetquest.jpl.nasa.gov/newworldsatlas

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • Where is a terrestrial planet orbiting a star that can be seen from Earth with the naked eye?
  • What’s the closet planet orbiting a pulsar?
  • What’s the closest multiple planetary system to Earth?


This resource can be searched by system type (star visible to the naked eye, multiple planets, transiting planets), planet type (size, pulsar planet, etc). The database may also be browsed.

Each planetary entry starts with a description of the system, with a photo of the star and an artist’s conception of the planet.

This is followed by specifications of the planet and star.

For the Planet:

  • Average distance from primary, with its orbit plotted against planets in our solar system.
  • Mass – expressed in terms of Jupiters, Saturns, Neptunes or Earths.
  • Discovery Date
  • Orbital period

For the Star:

  • Stellar Type
  • Mass – expressed in terms of suns.
  • Coordinates
  • Magnitude
  • Planets

NASA missions, past, present and planned

NASA missions, past, present and planned – http://www.nasa.gov/missions/index.html

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What was the purpose of NASA’s Gravity Probe B?
  • When was the last transmission from Pioneer 10?
  • What are the current locations of Voyagers 1 and 2?
  • Where did the Mars Viking Lander land?


Like the page says, links to mission factsheets and/or websites (when available). Available information varies widely by mission. Some missions will have multimedia.

Probably most useful in stories set in the era of the mission, or in the far future when the aging spacecraft gets recovered by a starship.

Astrogeology (USGS)

Astrogeology (USGS) – http://astrogeology.usgs.gov

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What was the path taken by Apollo 14 on the lunar surface?
  • Where can I find a detailed map of Mercury?
  • Where can I get a paper globe of Europa?
  • Where can I find a dataset for the Mars Science Laboratory: Landing Site Selection?


While the whole of the astrogeology site will be interesting to amateur astronomers, writers will probably make the most use of the maps section at http://astrogeology.usgs.gov/maps. There are maps and in some cases globes of Callisto, Europa, Ganymede, Io, Mars, Mercury, The Moon, Dione, Enceladus, Mimas, Rhea, and Tethys.

Among the Moon maps are “transverse maps” of several of the Apollo missions, which show where the astronauts went and what they did. Mineralogical and geological maps for the Moon are available as well.
The maps menu at the top of the screen has several more options, including the Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature (The official source for named craters and other features on moons and planets) and Pilot – Planetary Image Locator Tool (Quick access to images of dozens of solar system bodies.

If you decide you’d like to use some of these maps or alter them to show your colonies, go right ahead. As the website itself says, “Images, maps, data, and information authored or produced by the USGS Astrogeology Science Center are in the public domain.”

Project Horizon [moon base] (US Army)

Project Horizon (US Army)
(V.1 http://www.history.army.mil/faq/horizon/Horizon_V1.pdf)
(V.2 http://www.history.army.mil/faq/horizon/Horizon_V2.pdf)

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What skills would be needed to maintain a lunar outpost?
  • What functions might a permanent lunar colony do?
  • How were spaceships and spacesuits envisioned in the 1950s?
  • What items need to be included in a budget for a lunar outpost?
  • What are the limiting factors on launch sites to build a lunar outpost?


A two volume feasibility study by Werner Von Braun’s group at the Army Redstone Center that argued for a full time moonbase of about 15 soldiers. The cost estimate to build this moonbase was less than that of the actual Apollo program.

The first volume is organized as follows:

  • Introduction – includes justification of the project, include the “fact” that the Soviets had the capability of landing a man on the moon by 1968.
  • Technical considerations and plans – Discusses the study’s scope, a description of the outpost, transportation requirements, etc.
  • Management and planning considerations
  • Non-technical supporting considerations – includes political, psychological and security implications

The narrative section of volume 1 is followed by three appendices:

  • Policy of the United States with respect to activities in space
  • Legal and political implications – includes the murkiness of land claims on the Moon and argues against using Antarctica as a precedent
  • Technical services support capabilities – discusses the types of specialities needed to build and maintain an outpost.

Volume 1 also has a list of figures, tables and charts that may provide helpful information to the writer, including:

  • Cross Section of typical outpost compartments
  • Typical lunar suit
  • Lunar landing vehicle

The second volume, at 298 pages, goes into deeper detail on the outpost and is organized into the following chapters.

  • Introduction
  • Outpost
  • Space transportation system
  • Communications electronics
  • Launch site
  • Program logistics
  • Research and development
  • program cost and schedule
  • Bibliography

Like volume 1, this volume also has a list of tables and figures. Some of the tables of possible interest to writers include:

  • Human engineering considerations
  • Flight time and velocity values for various Earth-Moon trajectories
  • Data summary of Saturn II with nuclear upper stage
  • Summary of weights of material transported to the lunar surface (1965-1967)
  • Map of Moon with areas of interst for landing site
  • Nuclear power plant on Moon (60kw)

These two volumes together should at the very least acquaint you with the basic requirements of a lunar outpost, which really haven’t changed all that much since 1959. These volumes could be used in an alternate history or used in the story of manned exploration by other races. While I can’t prove he had access to these reports, Clive Cussler’s book, Cyclops central theme feels like a privatized version of Project Horizon.

Moon Information via the NASA Open Data Portal

Moon Information via the NASA Open Data Portal   https://data.nasa.gov/

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What did the Apollo 12 landing site look like from the surface?
  • What might lunar litter look like?
  • Where can I find geologic maps of the moon?


Links to imagery and other data about the moon that will help writers accurately describe terrain and lunar locations. Some of the more interesting sets are (Descriptions from website):

  • Lunar Sample Display Locations – A database of every location around the planet holding returned lunar samples from the Apollo missions.
  • Lunar Map Catalog – The Lunar Map Catalog includes various maps of the moon’s surface, including Apollo landing sites; earthside, farside, and polar charts; photography index maps; zone mosaics; shaded relief; topographic; and a geologic atlas.
  • Apollo Surface Panoramas – Apollo Surface Panoramas is a digital library of photographic panoramas that the Apollo astronauts took while exploring the Moon’s surface. These images provide a spectacular boots-on-the-ground view of the lunar landscape. The panoramas are stitched together from individual 70mm Hasselblads
  • Apollo Image Atlas – The Apollo Image Atlas is a comprehensive collection of Apollo-Saturn mission photography. Included are almost 25,000 lunar images, both from orbit and from the moon’s surface, as well as photographs of the earth, astronauts and mission hardware.

Story Idea:

The Lunar Sample Display Location database could be used as a way to set a location for a moon rock heist story.


Apollo Missions page (Apollo)

Apollo Missions page (Apollo) – http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/apollo/missions/index.html

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What did the control panel for the lunar module look like?
  • What six alternative missions were envisioned for Apollo 11 if it could not meet its objective of landing on the moon?
  • When was the first lunar rover used?


This site will give you all the details of every mission. Just click on the appropriate Apollo mission on the right hand side of the screen, then click “get more information.” This will bring up a page with the mission patch, personnel, mission milestones and a summary of the mission.

For a far greater amount of material for each mission, click on “Apollo Lunar Surface Journal.” This link takes you to the Apollo Press Kits. These documents are a few hundred pages each and are detailed mission briefings including what actions would be taken in the event the mission needed to be aborted.

For details on how to describe Apollo spacecraft without digging through the the Press Kits, click on “Apollo Spacecraft Drawings.” which bring up a scrollable window of various parts of the command and lunar modules sent to the Moon.

These details may come in handy for describing early space flight on other worlds, or for stories set during the Apollo program. It might also aid in stories of future lunar exploration that visit old Apollo sites.

Space Settlements: spreading life throughout the solar system

Space Settlements: spreading life throughout the solar system – http://settlement.arc.nasa.gov

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • How could we build a space station without using many resources from the Earth?
  • How many people could live in one colony?
  • What justifications could be made to build a large space colony?
  • How many people could be housed if we demolished the asteroid Ceres and turned it into colony materials?
  • What sort of farm livestock might you have on a space colony?


This site talks about the kinds of space colonies that I hoped I’d be living in one day. The dream is still alive and it is big, according to the website:

In the 1970’s Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill with the help of NASA Ames Research Center and Stanford University showed that we can build giant orbiting spaceships and live in them. These orbital space colonies could be wonderful places to live; about the size of a California beach town and endowed with weightless recreation, fantastic views, freedom, elbow-room in spades, and great wealth. In time, we may see hundreds of thousands of orbital space settlements in our solar system alone. Building these settlements will be an evolutionary event in magnitude similar to, if not greater than, ocean-based Life’s colonization of land half a billion years ago.

Here’s a little more specific description of the habitats they have in mind:

Rather than live on the outside of a planet, settlers will live on the inside of gigantic spacecraft. Typical space settlement designs are roughly one half to a few kilometers across. A few designs are much larger.

Settlements must be air tight to hold a breathable atmosphere, and must rotate to provide psuedo-gravity. Thus, people stand on the inside of the hull.

Enormous amounts of matter, probably lunar soil at first, must cover the settlements to protect inhabitants from radiation. On Earth our atmosphere does this job, but space settlements need about five tons of matter covering every square meter of a colony’s hull to protect space settlers from cosmic rays and solar flares.

Each settlement must be an independent biosphere. All oxygen, water, wastes, and other materials must be recycled endlessly.

Turning to the site itself, it is divided up into several sections:

  • Basics (Who, What, Where, How, Why, When, How much will it cost?)
  • Student Design Contest (for 6-12 Graders) – See 2012 results at http://settlement.arc.nasa.gov/Contest/Results/2012/index.html. The results might be a good map for your own settlement.
  • Online Space Settlement Books (Mostly from 1970s) – Some of these are close to blueprints.
  • Images
  • Other Space Settlement Web Sites
  • Miscellaneous

Story Idea

One of the “Other Space Settlement Web Sites” is the Space Settlement Institute which is pursuing legislation to recognize land ownership on the moon. See their pitch at http://www.space-settlement-institute.org/strategy.html. Complications arising from such legislation might make for an interesting story.

Skylab Mission page

Skylab Mission page – http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/skylab/index.html

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What’s involved in creating a working bathroom in zero g?
  • When were the first and last Skylab missions?
  • How did NASA control Skylab when it had no crew?
  • What can you do if your docking thrusters misfire?


Before Mir was Skylab, our low key successor to Apollo. From the website:

Skylab was launched into Earth orbit by a Saturn V rocket on May 14, 1973. Through the use of a “dry” third stage of the Saturn V rocket, the station was completely outfitted as a workshop area before launch. Crews visited Skylab and returned to Earth in Apollo spacecraft.

Three, three-man crews occupied the Skylab workshop for a total of 171 days and 13 hours. It was the site of nearly 300 scientific and technical experiments, including medical experiments on humans’ adaptability to zero gravity, solar experiments and detailed Earth resources experiments.

Skylab was small compared to the Mir and ISS stations. Unlike Mir, Skylab had long periods where it was uninhabited. There were not regular shift changes where one crew handed off the station to another.

The site links to several NASA books that may be useful for establishing station context:

  • Skylab: A Chronology (Includes statistical appendix)
  • Living and Working in Space – Chapter 8 talks about the challenges of a working space toilet.
  • Skylab, Classroom in Space

Photos and video are also available on the site.

Shuttle-Mir program

Shuttle-Mir program – http://history.nasa.gov/SP-4225/toc/toc-level1.htm

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • Who was the first Russian cosmonaut to fly on the U.S. Space Shuttle?
  • How do you respond to a fire in space?
  • What would an appropriate backstory be for a character who served on Mir?


A history of the program that took American astronauts to the Russian Mir space station. Details on each mission, along with biographies of the crew. Also relates incidents during the program such as the fire that occurred in 1997 during the time that American astronaut Jerry Linenger was onboard the station.

Mir space station history

Mir space station history – http://history.nasa.gov/SP-4225/mir/toc-mir.htm

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What are some ways to resupply your space station?
  • When did Mir burn up in Earth’s atmosphere?
  • What was the purpose of the Kvant I module?


This is an extract from a longer book about the Shuttle-Mir program (http://history.nasa.gov/SP-4225/toc/toc-level1.htm). This section deals with the Soviet/Russian Mir Space Station, which came after Skylab and before the current International Space Station. It is a description and history from the American perspective and is put into the context of the “Shuttle-Mir” program. The American perspective is non-hostile, as this portion of the introduction shows:

The space station Mir became a legend in its own time reflecting Russia’s past space glories and her future as a leader in space.

The Russian Space Station Mir endured 15 years in orbit, three times its planned lifetime. It outlasted the Soviet Union, that launched it into space. It hosted scores of crewmembers and international visitors. It raised the first crop of wheat to be grown from seed to seed in outer space. It was the scene of joyous reunions, feats of courage, moments of panic, and months of grim determination. It suffered dangerous fires, a nearly catastrophic collision, and darkened periods of out-of-control tumbling.

The section on Mir is subdivided into short blocks organized around the various components of Mir: Mir Base Block, Kvant I, Kvant II, Kristall, Spektr, Priroda, Progress, Docking Module, Solar Arrays, Interior. These include pictures and descriptions of functions.

In addition there are chapters dealing with launch publicity in the Soviet Union, a description of how Cosmonauts returned from Mir and a description of Mir Expeditions 17-25, which cover the time of the Shuttle Mir program. The Mir Expeditions were scheduled to be six months and for various reasons some cosmonauts stayed in the station for more than a year. This could be psychologically hard and was probably part of the inspiration for the crazy cosmonaut scenes in the Bruce Willis movie Armageddon.

Two other sections linked from the Mir text deserve mention. One is “Bilingual Blues”, which examines the training that NASA Mir astronauts received in Russian. The quality of language training varied by expedition. According to the text, “Mir Astronaut John Blaha thought that inadequate language preparation was perhaps NASA’s “biggest mistake” of the Shuttle-Mir Program, although he became comfortable with Russian while onboard Mir.”

The section on “Long Duration Psychology” notes differences in training between astronauts and cosmonauts. In particular, Cosmonauts have ground training in isolation that lasts between two weeks and thirty days. This difference in training and the lack of psychological compatibility matching on the American side were noted as responsible for some friction on the station. It is a good read if your story includes small crews cut off from meaningful contact.

Post Navigation