Back when, there wasn’t info on starfields and distances except in numerical form. There wasn’t the ready access to beautiful simulations…
So…I made my own. This is from a question a reader asked me:
My answer: “So many things are now available. Back in the 80′s, I used a star catalog that gave observed position, and input them into an Atari computer to get the X,Y, and Z on a graph, then got sheets of glass and made proportional dots on them at various levels to get a 3-d star map of the solar neighborhood. I had already chosen some close to us, like Ep Eri, A and B Cent, Wolf 354, Tau Ceti, etc; so they were there—my radius was about 30 light years. And it helped me conceptualize the distances, because without the ‘elevation’, you can’t see that 2 stars rhar appear close on a flat map are vertically separated by huge distance. I also turned up a curious spongelike threadiness to the location of stars, highways of stars, as if soap bubbles had stars only where they touched each other—and I was fascinated by this. I began to read up on cosmology, to see if my observation was elsewhere noted. Now it appears on 3-d computer maps, and these ‘filaments’ are, yes, observed, and part of the structure of the universe: they appear in macrocosm in the organization of galaxies, and rhey exist also within our galaxy (remember my observation was at max 50 light years, on version II) as strings of stars. So I envision the progress of star colonies as following these ‘highways in the sky,’ as the shortest distance between planeted stars. I’m delighted with modern discoveries, my ‘brown dwarf’ jump points are out there, my notion of extra-solar planets, which I never did use, is out there, and just so many wonderful things. Turns out my mining station at Viking (Ep Eri) has not one, but TWO asteroid belts, by recent observations—just really, really neat stuff.
I had several catalogs at hand, and they disappeared in a move so long ago I can’t remember. One was a (then) unpublished catalog I had sworn not to mention, so I didn’t; I’m sure it now is published; and the necessary imprecision of sticking little dots on glass sheets was such that it wouldn’t give away anything at all. Names that stick with me, yes, Gliese, Lalande, Luyten…but what I recall principally is two xeroxes in copper pin binding; and where those went, I wish I knew. But 6 house moves are between me and those catalogs.
I used that chart to work out a schedule of sublight ships and primitive stations, with dates. We need to get a move on to keep my schedule, but it tracks the movement of the sublight ships of my universe up to the point FTL is discovered and all but one of the old sublighters converts to FTL. It’s the ‘historical’ foundation of the Alliance-Union universe, and contains the makings of a lot of stories I haven’t quite found the characters to tell.
I am really pretty good with concept and really horrid at arithmetic. But my results kept coming out weird, where I knew they couldn’t be; so I found out my edition of the Encyclopedia Americana had screwed up the circumpolar coordinate equation—my second grade teacher, who undoubtedly despaired of ever teaching me to add and divide, would have been amazed that lil’ ol’ me found and fixed a math error in the encyclopedia (just a minus sign) without having to ask anybody. I knew when my stars assumed the configuration my astronomical knowledge expected.
I started working on some of this with Diane Duane, who had some relations with the Hayden Planetarium in Boston, and the Planetarium asked me if they could use my data—I of course was flattered and said yes. Then a reader volunteered to do a computer simulation flythrough—well, my programming was definitely limited, and adding the ‘theta’ so that you could do a real flythrough was considerably beyond my skills in Basic, which was all I knew. So the chap did it, back in the day (abt 1983) or before, when joysticks outside of airplanes and video parlors were a bit of a novelty. You could indeed fly through, and it was beautiful. As I say, so many things we expect now, but back then, it was wholly unexpected, and when I got that program I was so enchanted. It froze, it hung, it had problems, but it was wonderful to me.
I find myself wondering—do today’s young folk even know what 48 k means? Nowadays nobody whiffles at 48 gig. But back then, programming was so elegant, in the computing sense: I had a word processor that ran well in about 14 k. No failsafe, no advisement to save before shutting down: you command, it obeys, instantly. But it ran as well as any word processor. It just stored stuff on a LOT of ‘floppy’ disks. I neglect to mention my lightspeed acceleration-at-1-g calculations, which I set to print out, just to get a notion of scale and time—when I got back from an errand, the thing was still running, the tractor feed paper was nearly gone, and the sea of printout about reached the level of my desk in that little work area. I had to do my own mental adjustments to the scale of distance and accelerations we routinely work with.