INTERVIEW: Winchell Chung of "Atomic Rockets"

Republibot 3.0
Republibot 3.0's picture

With us today we have Winchell Chung, creator, writer and administrator of the utterly superlative “Atomic Rockets” website. Mr. Chung, thank you so much for talking with us today.

WINCHELL CHUNG:
Thank you for having me.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
“Atomic Rockets” is essentially a hard-science resource for science fiction fans, and aspiring SF writers. If you're reading this and you haven’t visited his site before, you need to drop whatever you’re doing now, go visit the site here http://www.projectrho.com/rocket/ , then
put the link on your favorites list and come back. We’ll be waiting.

Back? Ok, let’s begin:

Winchell, what was the genesis of the site? What made you decide to
actually explain *real* science to the Science Fiction reader? Was it one too many instances of someone confusing a Galaxy with a Solar System, or a prevalence of nonsensical Treknology, or Space: 1999 in general that caused you to throw up your hands, or was it a more positive thing?

WINCHELL CHUNG:
There is a venerable Yahoo forum called SFConSim-l
http://games.groups.yahoo.com/group/sfconsim-l/
or "Science Fiction conflict simulation mailing list" It was and still is a place where designers of science fiction wargames (the paper and cardboard kind) discuss issues of interplanetary combat and military simulations.

Anyway, in the late 1990's, somebody asked a question about spacecraft propulsion.

I worked up a quick note, listing a few basic equations and figures for a few existing propulsion systems. People asked some more questions, and I elaborated. At some point I realized this would make a pretty good web page. As time went on, I thought of other useful bits to add (notes on space suite, life support, detection, and whatnot). Over the years the website grew by accretion into the monster it is now. But basically it is a glorified term paper.

I must hasten to add that am not not a real rocket scientist, I have just done lots of reading, and I have a few real scientist acquaintances that I can use for resource people. I would love it if a real scientist wrote a website such as mine. But since nobody has ever stepped up to the plate, I guess I'll just have to do it myself.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
What kind of feedback and responses have you gotten? I know in my own
case, when I’m recommending your site out to people, I generally point them at the “Common Misconceptions” page first. This often leads to some serious fights with Trekies, who insist that your insistence that Trek got some stuff wrong is unacceptable. On the other hand, most people I’ve talked to seem to come away from it with a sort of “Oh, I never understood that before, cool!” kind of feeling.

WINCHELL CHUNG:
For the most part the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. I try to work on several levels. At the base level there are lots of marvelous illustrations to look at. A bit higher is the level where I talk about important concepts colloquially. And for the highest level I supply actual equations for the do-it-yourselfer.

Occasionally I get some feedback that points me to new rocketry related items that I was unaware of. Anything that passes the gamut of my scientist friends and is relevant will be added to the website. You will sometimes see in the site something along the lines of "thanks to John Smith for pointing this out", this is to give credit to the person.

There is, of course, some negative feedback. This falls into three main categories: those who think I have slighted their favorite media science fiction show, those who think that forcing SF authors to learn real science is unnecessary, and those who disagree with the website's teachings on the subject of faster-than-light travel, manned space fighters, and stealth in space.

I did add the "common misconceptions" page which you already use. For the more persistent I added the "respecting science" page, which outlines the rules of the game.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
I like a little science in my science fiction, not just flashing lights
and hand waving, but a lot of people seem to exclusively prefer the
World-War-II-In-Space stuff, and maintain that the science doesn’t matter,that it’s all just fantasy anyway with aliens substituted for elves, so why get all worked up about it? I suppose there’s room for all kinds, but I tend to find this pretty frustrating. What’s your take on this?

WINCHELL CHUNG:
Fans of a particular media show are not forced to read my website, the site is for SF authors who want to get the science correct. I am not saying that SF authors must use hard science in their novels or it is not science fiction. I am saying that if an SF author desires to write with accurate science, I'm willing to help. Science for science fiction is difficult, so I'm supplying the cheat sheets and Cliff notes.

And as the website grew, some pages were added that are not strictly about science, but instead were applicable to all science fiction. Pages about plotting a future history, designing an interstellar empire, what sort of futuristic games will they play to pass the time, that sort of thing.

RPUBLIBOT 3.0:
I like the Future History stuff. That's principally what I write. Just the same, despite the fact that no one is *forcing* SF Authors or Media Fen to take physics classes, I still find that many people feel threatened by this stuff. Do you feel it’s possible that Science Fiction in TV and Movies may actually be hurting American’s understanding of Science, and our respect for it? I’ve wondered for some time if Galactica and Dr. Who and Stargate are maybe actually working against space in an odd way. I keep meeting people who actually believe in ancient astronauts, or who think the Space Shuttle can go to the moon, or who think the universe is just littered with Southern
California-like planets, or who honestly believe that the humanoid shape is literally the only one sapient life can take.

WINCHELL CHUNG:
In my opinion, yes, current media SF is encouraging junk science, but it is not the primary cause. I think the blame is more due to the sorry state of education and the limited attention span that is now sadly common.

Media SF cannot be relied upon to be educational, for reasons Mr. Boyce explained to me here
http://www.projectrho.com/rocket/prelimnotes.php#On_Shaky_Ground~Hollywo...

REPUBLIBOT 3.O:
Yeah, Science Education is disgracefully bad in this country. One of the high school teachers in my area is telling kids we never went to the moon. The School Board refuses to do anything about it.

When I first discovered your site, the thing that leapt out at me was
your refreshing willingness to call a spade a spade, even if it’s a really popular convention. My personal favorite of these is the section on how Space Fighters Just. Won’t. Work. I also love the segments on how the ocean-ship-like deck plans in starships makes no sense at all. Here on the ’Bot, we had an argument that went on for *days* when I suggested that an Air Force command structure in a space military probably makes more sense than a Naval one. It’s become such an overwhelming cliché that people just can not accept another way to do it. This despite the fact that *no* space agency in the world has ever used a Naval command structure. So what’s your favorite cliché that people end up slavishly devoted to?

WINCHELL CHUNG:
The one that seems to be the most widespread and incredibly difficult to eradicate is the "rockets do not have a deck plan like an ocean ship" meme. I'm sure the reason is that pretty much every single science fiction spaceship in TV and movies has that fallacy. Real spacecraft have an internal arrangement like a skyscraper.

But again, the problem comes when one tries to "impose reality." For instance, in Star Trek they have a Naval-like command structure. That's fine, that's the way it is in the Star Trek universe. The sparks start flying when people start arguing about the plausibility of Star Trek in our real universe.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
Sort of touching on education again, there’s a tendency to portray conservatives as suspicious and fearful of science, and this not an entirely undeserved reputation. A lot of us are. My mom was a NASA engineer, and when one of our friends from church would get upset about space exploration or the large hadron collider, or whatever, she’d always say, “Hey, look, this is the universe God built for us. What’s
there to be scared of?” As a result, one of the major focuses of the
Republibot website is to attempt to expose my fellow right wingers to
science in a fashion that is nonthreatening. So, in your own words: Why does the science matter?

WINCHELL CHUNG:
Well, there is a misconception that "science" is all mysterious equations and ivory-tower scientists doing cryptic things. But if you hold a brick over your foot and let go, science in the form of "Newton's law of universal gravitation" will crush your foot.

In other words, F = G (m1m2)/r^2 is a fancy way of saying "things fall down." Since everybody knows that things fall down, nobody is scared of the idea that things fall down. So nobody should be scared of F = G (m1m2)/r^2, just understand that it is the same thing explained using twenty-dollar words.

Science matters because ignoring it can often be fatal. A toddler does not understand about electricity, so it won't think twice about sticking a fork into an electrical outlet. Ignorance of electricity is no protection, it will kill you dead regardless.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
I noticed you singled out Babylon 5 several times for at least attempting to follow the laws of Physics.

WINCHELL CHUNG:
I really like Babylon 5, not only for its attempts to be scientifically accurate, but mostly for its solid story arc. There were times when a situation occurred. I would think "but if that happened, then it implies this will happen." And nine times out of ten, "this" actually does happen.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
Oh, man, that was so refreshing at the time, too! Something would happen in one episode, and they wouldn't simply forget about it next week, it would have repercussions. I don't think most younger fans today can understand how revolutionary that was. So what's your least-favorite SF TV show?

WINCHELL CHUNG:
I have quite a few "least favorites", but I was always annoyed by "The Starlost". The premise had so much promise, but the show stunk on ice.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
I'm friends with the creator of that series. He felt it stank on ice, too.

As an amateur Science Fiction writer myself, I’ve made *extensive* use of your site over the last five years or so, and a lot of the more hard-science aspects of my stories are in large part derived from your information. I excitedly read “The Humanist Inheritance/The Last Great War” back when it was online. I know there have been several other authors who owe a lot to you. What’s that like? That has to be massively rewarding, yes?

WINCHELL CHUNG:
Oh, yes, you have no idea. When I read The Humanist Inheritance, it was so gratifying every time I discovered a detail or concept that I recognized as coming from my website. And there were quite a few, which is the way I like it.

I personally enjoy reading hard-science SF novels. My website is an attempt to encourage more such SF to be written. The least I can do is help.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
This isn’t related to Atomic Rockets, but it’s still pretty interesting: You actually became a professional illustrator while you were still in high school, right? You did the illustrations for the original “Ogre” RPG back in 1977. How did you manage that?

WINCHELL CHUNG:
Back in 1973 or so, while still in junior high school, I saw an ad for a paper-and-cardboard science fiction game called "Stellar Conquest" by an outfit called "Metagaming Concepts." I immediately purchased it, and sent a letter to subscribe to their "magazine" (more like a pamplet). On a whim, I did some sketches of spaceships in the letter.

They were so starved for content that they used the sketches in the next issue, and asked me for more. Before long I was doing cover illustrations.

When they started to design their game "Ogre", they let me do the illustrations. I was only in high school then, but they liked my work. I think I got about $75 for the artwork, which was a big deal for me back then.

They have gotten more mileage out of those drawing that I ever would have imagined. If only I had held out for royalties...
I talk about this a bit on my main web page, the one that Atomic Rockets is a sub-page of.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
Have you been involved with the re-releases and updated versions of the
game?

WINCHELL CHUNG:
Sadly, no. Steve Jackson parted with Metagaming concepts and founded his own company Steve Jackson Games. Metagaming is long gone, but SJG is still going strong. We sort of drifted apart.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
Are you still working in the field? I know you’ve done a ton of “Atomic
Rockets” illustrations yourself…

WINCHELL CHUNG:
I've done some work to keep my hand in, but only on a hobby level. I did graduate from college as an art major, but I quickly discovered that computer programming is a far more lucrative career.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
What‘s your favorite work as an illustrator, and might we view it online somewhere?

WINCHELL CHUNG:
I guess it would have to be the WarpShip
http://www.projectrho.com/portfolio/port04.html

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
Oh, wow. That is pretty sweet. “So who’s your favorite space artist?” He asked, expecting the answer ‘Chesley Bonestell” or perhaps “Fred Freeman”…

WINCHELL CHUNG:
Bonestell is up there, but my favorite has got to be the late Robert McCall. My favorite work of his is the awe inspiring mural he did in the Smithsonian Air and Space museum. If you are ever in Washington DC, you should check it out. The photos do not do it justice, because it is about three stories tall.

REPUBLIBOT 3.O:
Oh, it's gorgeous. First time I went to DC, I just gawked at the thing for like a half an hour, running back and forth, looking at details here, then there, then running back to where I started from.

Changing directions again: When I was a kid, I had a crappy
glow-in-the-dark model of a “UFO” that eventually turned out to be a
re-issue of the “Leif Erickson” space ship model from the late 1960s. I’ve always been fascinated by it, and so I was understandably gratified by the tons of information and fan art and speculation about the ship on your site. What about that vehicle interests you so?

WINCHELL CHUNG:
I got the original version of the model when it came out in 1968, so it has extreme nostalgic value to me. It was designed by Matt Jeffries, who also designed the original Starship Enterprise for ST:TOS. The man was a genius.

I gradually was drawn into the world of creating computer CGI graphics by attempting to created a computer model of the Leif Ericson. So by attempting to recapture my youth, I learned a valuable skill.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
Finally: What’s next for your site?

WINCHELL CHUNG:
I do have a depressing back log of about 2,000 items that I want to eventually include. Currently I am attempting to get some harder information about the Open-Cycle gas core nuclear rocket, since it is the most muscular of all plausible rockets. Unfortunately such information is hard to come by, not surprisingly.

However, some of the new pages sort of evolve from the old. I was working on the engine list page when I suddenly realized I had no page about atomic fuel. I do now.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
Please let us know about any further updates or expansions. And that’s all the time we’ve got. Again, I’d like to thank Mr. Chung for taking the time to talk to us today, thanks for being here, Winchell.

WINCHELL CHUNG:
Thank you for listening.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:

Always happy to listen! The Atomic Rockets website is online here, http://www.projectrho.com/rocket/ do go check it out. Right now!

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