Thursday, March 31, 2005

Space Tourism News: The Flashy and the Low Key

Two companies made news this past week with announcements of their space tourism plans. Virgin Galactic's celebrity boss, Richard Branson, announced that his company's plans for commercial spaceflights are complete. Virgin Galactic's jump into space tourism was announced with great fanfare last year when Space Ship One flew into space.

Meanwhile, in Southern California's bedroom community of Temecula, Aeraspace Corporation unveiled an animation of its commercial space rocket. Aeraspace has contracted with the United States Air Force and Cape Canaveral to send vertically-launched rockets into space carrying commercial passengers. Their plans include a highly ambitious goal of launching the first commercial flight in 2006 and manufacturing one rocket each month after that.

Thanks to a world-class PR campaign, everybody on Earth has heard of Branson and his plans to fly into space. Who's ever heard of Aeraspace? Their website doesn't tell a whole lot about themselves. And Temecula? To Southern Californians Temecula is known more for it's relatively low housing costs, wineries, balloon rides, and being located about halfway between San Diego and Riverside. Who'd have thought commercial space tourism would be developing there? But if Aeraspace pulls this off, they'll beat Virgin Galactic by two years and Temecula will never be the same.



Shellfish in Space

The linked article is an interesting story on a researcher here in San Diego who has developed a lightweight and strong material made by layering and firing thin sheets of aluminum and titanium. The resulting material could be ideal for spaceship construction because of its light weight, high strength, resistance to shattering, and heat conductivity. The aerospace engineer who developed the material at UCSD, Kenneth Vecchio, is a devotee of biomimetics. Biomimetics, meaning imitation of life, takes its inspiration from nature. In Vecchio's case, the natural inspiration for his material is the abalone shell, which is composed of 95 percent chalk but because of the way it is layered at the microscopic level it is incredibly strong.

Biomimetics seems like a promising field for space engineering. For example, we here on Earth are protected from radiation by our planet's magnetic field in a way that astronauts in deep space would not be. This recent story describes NASA-funded research into artificially generating electrostatic fields to envelop a lunar base for radiation protection. An even more ambitious idea for protecting humans on Luna is to artificially generate a magnetic field around the entire moon by girding the satellite with cable and running power through it.

Mars has no planet-wide magnetic field but it does have 1,000 kilometer long bands of local magnetic fields. This story suggests that the localized magnetic fields are as strong at Mars's surface as the global magnetic field is on Earth. If they provide the same kind of protection locally that Earth's magnetic field provides globally and if they are strong enough to provide some radiation protection for humans, will the first humans on Mars place their base in one of the spots protected by a local magnetic field? If so, do these maps (here, here, here, here and here) show the locations for the first human settlements on Mars?



Wednesday, March 23, 2005

What about Bob?

I've been a member of the Mars Society for about 4 years now. I've usually been proud of my membership. The Society is the only space advocacy society I know of that relies so heavily on its volunteer members to do its work. The Society doesn't just want dues from its members in exchange for a magazine. In fact, there is no magazine. Instead, in exchange for paying dues members have the opportunity to participate in the Society's work, including its analog research program. That program conducts research at two simulated Mars bases in Utah and the Arctic Circle. Volunteer crews live and work at these bases as if they were on Mars and participate in an ongoing scientific research program. The Society has gotten some good publicity out of the program that has drawn international attention to the goal of sending humans to Mars. The Society's plans, drawn up by its president and founder Robert Zubrin, have become the model for human missions to Mars. These accomplishments have made me proud to be a member.

Yet in the last year or so the Society's resources have been diverted to a task not part of its mission, saving the Hubble space telescope. I don't agree that saving the Hubble is part of the Mars Society's mission in any way. But what I find most disagreeable are the tactics of personal destruction aimed at former NASA Director Sean O'Keefe that are being employed by the Society. Those tactics are an embarrassment. The latest embarrassing salvo was launched in the Society's email newsletter last week. (A version of the newsletter was also published by spacedaily as an article.)

In the newsletter O'Keefe's decision to spend $300 million to de-orbit the Hubble is described this way:
"This proposal is remarkable for its irrationality. NASA calculates that if Hubble were to re-enter without direction, there is a 1/10,000 chance that the resulting debris would strike someone. That works out to a probability of one life saved per $3 trillion spent. If life-saving is the mission, $300 million could do a lot more good spent on tsunami relief, body armor for the troops, highway safety barriers, childhood vaccinations, swimming lessons, take your pick.

Humanitarian and scientific budgets cannot be directly compared, because they serve different objectives. However the proposed Hubble deorbit budget is NOT a scientific expense; its purpose is to save lives, and thus it must be considered a humanitarian
expense, and judged accordingly. A reasonable estimate is that one life is saved for every $3,000 spent on Tsunami relief. At that rate, the decision to waste $300 million in potentially useful humanitarian funds on deorbiting Hubble amounts to the willful killing of roughly 100,000 people – mostly children. It is irresponsible, irrational, and immoral in the extreme."

Actually, what is irresponsible and irrational is to make wild charges that it amounts to the mass murder of 100,000 people to spend money to safely return a large piece of space debris to Earth without harming anyone.

But what is even more problematic with the newsletter is the advice given to Mars Society members. Here's the recommendation:
"Americans committed to a sane, moral, and courageous space policy need to mobilize now to save Hubble. Everyone should call their own Senators and Congressional representatives, ask to speak to their legislative aides, and demand that the SM4 mission to save and upgrade Hubble be reinstated, and that not a penny of the taxpayers' money be spent on the immoral Hubble de-orbit mission.

If NASA has funds available for humanitarian purposes, those funds should be spent to save lives, not wasted to validate the capricious decisions of a Philistine careerist bureaucrat who has since moved on to greener pastures.

Given the decision to maintain the Shuttle flying in a given year, the incremental cost of flying an additional Shuttle mission such as SM4 is only about $100 million. Instead of stupidly and heartlessly wasting $300 million to destroy Hubble, we should
use $100 million to save and upgrade this gem of science and civilization, and spend the other $200 million to save the lives of tens of thousands of destitute children far more worthy of our charity than the Hubble deorbit program. Call congress and tell them so!"

It's counterproductve to the cause of the Mars Society and the manned space program to have Society members call their representatives and tell them the $300 million that was proposed to de-orbit the Hubble would be better spent on Earth saving lives and that Congress should adopt a fall back position that spends $100 million to save the Hubble but takes $200 million (presumably from NASA) and spends it on Earthbound charity.

I know from my own experience of public speaking on the importance of funding the manned space program that inevitably somebody will respond that we should be spending money here on Earth instead. Yet now members of the Mars Society are being asked to call their congressional representatives and tell them to do just that.

I don't care if Hubble is saved or not. I think a good argument can be made that it's time to replace the scope rather than fix it. Consequently I think the Mars Society should not involve itself in a crusade to save the Hubble. The mission of the Society is to promote human exploration of Mars. Saving the Hubble is not part of that mission.

But if saving the Hubble is going to be a part of the Mars Society's mission, it should at least do it in a way that brings credit to the Society rather than shame. It should do it without hyperbolic rhetoric and personal attacks and without adopting the arguments made by opponents of manned space programs.

A reasonable argument to save the Hubble should be limited to stating how much science Hubble has produced, how popular the scope is, how much cheaper fixing it would be than de-orbiting it or launching a new scope, how much more of a useful life we could get out of it with a simple fix, and how we've done it before so we can do it again. If that argument succeeds, great. If the argument fails, it's not the end of the Mars Society or of the manned space program. The goal of saving the Hubble is not so closely tied to the Mars Society's mission that it justifies pulling out all of the rhetorical stops.



Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Does the humane society care if cartoon dogs get hurt in an anime?

I went to see the anime film, "Steamboy," with a friend tonight. The movie wasn't too bad. The animation was very good, at times approaching art. The story was watchable even though it did descend into the juvenile at times. The theme explored the perils of technological advancement in an era of nationalism, capitalism, and militarism. In that sense, it was a bit sophomoric for my taste. Capitalism has been the greatest engine for creating and distributing wealth among the general population the world has ever seen. The nation-state is not inherently bad, and where the people govern themselves it is a guarantor of liberty and human rights. It's hard to object to the film's portrayal of militarism, a bad ism I'll admit, but I will note that the military is as necessary to a peaceful society as the police.

But it wasn't the movie itself that struck me. Instead, the most interesting thing about the movie involved the audience's reaction to something that happened in the movie. The annoying girl character had a cute little dog that she hit a couple of times early in the movie. Don't ask me why. She was a rather loathsome little girl and she never got her comeuppance for hitting her dog. She even ends up the friend of the boy hero by the end of the movie. Maybe it's a cultural thing because no self-respecting western filmmaker would let her off that easy. The audience would not stand for it.

In fact, that's exactly what happened tonight. Each time the girl hit her dog a large percentage of the audience groaned and complained. This, for an animated character in a movie. Truly no dogs were hurt in the making of the movie. Still the audience reacted. Lots of human characters were hurt in the movie too. Some even died. Yet the audience didn't even cringe at that. Not once.

What does that mean, I wonder?



Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Here's the photo of the machine that beats the flying car.

The Giant Walking Machine from Plustech Posted by Hello

Forget the flying car ...

Where can I get one of these giant walking machines?

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

And the Helios goes to ...

The Oscars have come and gone. The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films has its award ceremony on May 7th, so it's time to start thinking about the best flicks of those genres from 2004. Here's the link to the Saturn Award nominees page. The nominees are about what you'd expect.

Here are some of my favorite genre movies from last year:

"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" was for my money the best science fiction movie of 2004. Not too much in the way of special effects in this movie, just good screen writing that keeps tight control of the plot, well-managed direction, and superb acting by some of my favorites: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst, Tom Wilkinson, Elijah Wood, and Mark Ruffalo. It takes place in the present but it's pure science fiction as it explores the mind-bending consequences on human behavior of a new technology that can selectively wipe away bad memories from a person's brain.

In the mainstream sci-fi genre "I, Robot" was a safe bet. Adapted from the works of Isaac Asimov, it doesn't feel much like Asimov, with its car chases and it's thrilling conclusion at the robot headquarters where the world will be saved if our heroes destroy the giant supercomputer controlling all the rampaging robots. It's really convenient for sci-fi heroes that so many villains have not gotten hip to the whole notion of distributed command and control. One properly placed bomb and the world is always saved. Yet whatever the movie's safe conventions its vision of the near future feels about right as we see Chicago with familiar buildings alongside futuristic structures, people walking around on ordinary looking streets with robots mingling among them. It looks more normal and likely than the future in "Bladerunner" did, for instance. It's also not based on the writings of Philip K. Dick. Please let this be the start of a trend.

For spaceships and action, "The Chronicles of Riddick" provided plenty of both. Although it doesn't measure up to its predecessor, "Pitch Black," the new movie is worthy as a sequel because it takes Riddick's story in an entirely other direction. The visuals are stunning, even better than "Sky Captain's." The plot is hardly more than an action movie, there's no situation so dire that it can't be beaten to death by Vin Diesel's fists, but the story does end at an unexpected place. It's also suggestive of today's world of religious combat with an invading army crossing the galaxy and converting the conquered along the way. And did I mention that the movie looks damn good? The Academy must think so too because special effects is its only nomination.

A quirky favorite of mine from last year is "The American Astronaut." It was made in 2001 but it was in theaters in 2004 so it counts. This movie is a sci-fi rock musical made effectively on a low, low, very low budget. It's more than a little bit avant garde and there's a feeling throughout the movie that there's some private joke lurking just below the surface about to be told. Some have wrongly compared the movie to David Lynch's "Eraserhead," but it's more like Jim Jarmusch's "Dead Man." If you liked that, you might like this. The story doesn't really matter so suffice to say it involves a chase across the solar system from Ceres, to Jupiter, to a space station, and then to Venus. The attraction of this movie is that it combines science fiction with the musical. That's right, the characters sing and dance, even the serial killer villain has a song and dance number. Cory McAbee, of the band The Billy Nayer Show, which makes a cameo appearance at the bar on Ceres, wrote, starred, and directed. The movie is available on DVD from Netflix. Rent it. I dare you.



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