Friday, July 22, 2005

Moon Conference: NASA's Revolution In Human Spaceflight.

Chris Shank of NASA, who describes his job as bringing together budgets and policy, was the keynote speaker for Friday’s session of the Return to the Moon Conference. The theme of the conference is “reality check.” His remarks fit that bill. Here are some significant points from his talk.

Shank said that the debate between science funding and human spaceflight funding is an artificial one because for budgeting purposes they do not "trade dollars" between science and human space exploration. He gave as an example recent large cost overruns in the James Webb telescope. Those cost overruns are going to have to be absorbed by other astronomy projects and the astronomers are going to have to prioritize.

The Vision for Space Exploration plans are not affordable for the US government unless the private sector steps up and contributes. The private sector is being expected to fill the role of transporting cargo and crew from Earth to Low Earth Orbit that is currently filled by the shuttle. The Crew Exploration Vehicle is not intended to replace the shuttle as an Earth to LEO ferry. The mission of the CEV is going to be exploration. It will be capable of replacing the shuttle as an Earth-LEO ferry, but only if the private sector does not step up and fill that role. If the private sector doesn’t fill that role and the CEV must be used instead, the exploration mission will be affected.

This is a huge change from how NASA has operated in the past. Welcome to the revolution indeed.

One concern at the conference has been whether the President’s Vision for Space Exploration will survive after his presidency. Shank pointed to the 383-15 vote in Congress to fully fund the President’s vision as evidence that there “considerable progress in Congressional buy-in” for the Vision, which will help it to survive past the end of President Bush’s term.



Opening Remarks Of The Return To Moon Conference 2005.

The conference started with welcoming remarks by Jeff Feige and Jeff Krukin both of the Space Frontier Foundation. Feige explained that this year’s conference was designed to bring together industry, entrepreneurs, “out of the box thinkers,” and others and have them sit down and listen to each other about going back to the moon.

Joe Hogan, the Nevada State Assemblyman who represents Las Vegas, welcomed the audience to his town. Hogan has a history with NASA having worked for them before and after the 1969 Lunar landing. In his experience at the time NASA had two problems he noticed: one, a lack of diversity and two, a problem with contracting methods. Hogan had come from the Department of Defense where they had been experimenting with “incentive methodologies” in contracting. NASA did not operate that way.

As far as he can tell, NASA has addressed the diversity problem. As for the contracting problem, he couldn’t say. Judging from some of the remarks by panelists later in the day, NASA still has a ways to go in addressing contracting.
Rick Tumlinson spoke next to set the theme for the conference. He opened with his standard catch phrase, “Welcome to the Revolution.” He then described Las Vegas in terms familiar to space colonization advocates as a city in an inhospitable environment (the day’s temperature was over 100) where the people live in artificial habitats established not by government planning but by “interesting characters” operating on their own agenda far from the radar screens of government planners. As he put it, “that’s what people do in this country.” (See here for a prior post describing Vegas in similar fashion.)

Then Tumlinson talked about historical lessons of the Vikings coming to North America and how we don’t really know what caused the Viking colonies to fail, but whatever it was, in his view the problem was the Vikings had not created enough value in their colonies that they were worth fighting for.

He said that for the space program to succeed we have to learn the lesson of the Vikings’ failure and create enough value in space that it becomes worth fighting for. To do that the space program has to be made economically viable. He argued that the problem with the shuttle and the space station is that neither was designed to be part of an economically viable infrastructure in space.

He concluded by asserting that the opportunity exists today to make an economically viable infrastructure in space. He attributed part of that to President Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration which sets a national goal of sending humans back to space to stay. The other part he attributed to the success of Space Ship One and others who are working in the private sector. As he explained, the opportunity today exists because “we have a government committed to going to space to stay and a private sector that is ready to step up.”

To do it right he said, we must commit to going to space to stay and understand that “nobody stays unless somebody pays” whether that is the taxpayers or customers. In his view, NASA should not build rockets, it should buy them. To get there, the private sector can’t over-promise what it can deliver and the government can’t expect too much yet. But the government’s obligation, because it has a need for space infrastructure, is to make decisions to begin seeding and catalyzing the industry.

The panel discussions began after Tumlinson’s remarks. Look for more on those in coming days. But here’s an impression to start. Representatives from industry dominated the panels. Not from the big names in aerospace but from the smaller companies who are trying to break out and to push the envelope. But the moderator of each panel was a representative from NASA. Furthermore, the idea that NASA will be a major customer and a driver for technological development appears to be a consensus view. So the new space industry that is being born today may be a space travel revolution in the making, but if today’s panels are an indicator, government will be there at the birth of that revolution.

Whether government will be a midwife or, to strain the metaphor, a social worker there to take the newborn baby away remains to be seen. The consensus view of the panelists today seemed to favor the former rather than the latter.



Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Return To The Moon Conference 2005 In Las Vegas.

Look for reports on this site about the Space Frontier Foundation's Return to the Moon Conference (website here) being held in Las Vegas this Thursday through Saturday. Depending on internet access on the road the articles will begin posting this week or next.



Monday, July 18, 2005

Discussing Mars Exploration In Popular Culture.

The San Diego Mars Society's panel discussion at Comic-Con on Sunday went off well. We opened to an audience of 130 people at 2:30 on the last day of the convention. The treat of this year's panel was Rica French, an astronomy professor at Mira Costa College here in San Diego County. She narrated a slide show about the basic facts of Mars in an entertaining and informative manner. The highlight of her presentation for me was a short public service announcement done by some college students at the University of Texas at Austin, where she used to teach. The students, mostly non-scientists, did a spot that promoted building cities on Mars. It was encouraging to see the spot and realize that people outside the space geek community see the importance of colonization to the space program.

That part of her presentation was especially timely in light of the latest Gallup poll that shows strong bipartisan support among the American people for the President's Vision for Space Exploration. According to this story on (click here)
More than three-fourths (77%) of the American public say they support a new plan for space exploration that would include a stepping-stone approach to return the space shuttle to flight, complete assembly of the space station, build a replacement for the shuttle, go back to the Moon and then on to Mars and beyond.

With funding for such a program expected not to exceed 1 percent of the federal budget, 51% of adults surveyed say they support the program and 26% strongly support it. Of note is that a majority of both Republicans (84%) and Democrats (75%) support such an exploration plan.

This high level of support is especially encouraging in light of the prominence given in the media to the myth that it'll cost $1 trillion to send humans to Mars.

Rick Sternbach narrated a fun slide show of his own that showed images of space art by him and other noted space artists. His slides showed imaginary spaceships designed for fictional missions to Mars as well as designs that were made for studies by NASA and the aerospace industry. The coolest pictures he showed were landscape images he produced on his computer using altimeter data from Mars. Software images of the Martian surface are almost as good as being there. Almost.

Science fiction author Kage Baker joined our panel and treated us to a reading from her novella Empress of Mars as well as from an upcoming sequel.

Mike Caplinger of the Mars Global Surveyor, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and the Mars Phoenix Lander also joined us and jumped right in to the controversy on whether the methane findings on Mars mean there is life on the Red Planet today. He took a great approach for an audience of science fiction fans by comparing how in Star Trek, the Enterprise crew easily find life by turning on their sensors and how scientists today struggle to detect life on other planets. Today we look for life by looking for its evidence visually and also by looking for chemical elements in the atmosphere. Even when a chemical associated with life, like methane, is found, the conclusion is still ambigous whether the detection is evidence of life or of something else.

We are still a long way away from being able to detect life on other planets without sending people there to do the looking.

Jeff Berkwits did an overview of Mars in science fiction from the 19th century to today, Gerry Williams ran through highlights of Mars science fiction movies, and I moderated the panel and spoke a bit about the Mars Society and how expectations of human exploration of Mars have changed since Werner Von Braun's famous series of magazine articles in the 1950s and the movies Conquest of Space and Destination Moon.

It's always a treat to do a panel like this at Comic-Con or any science fiction convention. There is always so much to learn from the other panelists and the audience is invariably interested in the topic.



War Of The Worlds Nonsense

As a science fiction movie fan and a fan of the classic movie, War of the Worlds, I've been looking forward to seeing Steven Spielberg's new version of the movie. Now after just reading this story in USA Weekend from a month ago (here), I'm not so sure.

"After 9/11," Spielberg says, "'War of the Worlds' is [again] a reflection on how scared we are. This movie turns American families into refugees; it's something America has never experienced."

Okay. No problem there. But then there's this quote from the movie's writer, David Koepp.
"You can read our movie several ways," says screenwriter David Koepp. "It could be straight 9/11 paranoia. Or it could be about how U.S. military interventionism abroad is doomed by insurgency, just the way an alien invasion might be."

So there it is. Despite the cute weasel word "could" it's clear that this movie was intended by the writer to be an allegory attacking the US liberation of Iraq. And not just the Iraqi war, but "9/11 paranoia." In other words, the American people are overreacting to the 9/11 attacks. There's no real threat from terrorism. The threat is all in our paranoid minds.

What smug nonsense.


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Saturday, July 16, 2005

Panel Discussion On Mars

Sunday, July 17th at 2:30 p.m. I'll be moderating a panel discussion at Comic-Con International called "Mars: The Future Isn't What It Used To Be." The discussion is a presentation of the Mars Society of San Diego. (Website here.) Guests include illustrator Rick Sternbach, formerly of Star Trek, science fiction author Kage Baker, Mars Scientist Mike Caplinger of Malin Space Science Systems, Rica French, astronomy professor from Mira Costa College, former Amazing Stories editor Jeff Berkwits, and film maker Gerry Williams.

Look for a debriefing in a few days.



SciFi Personality Test

This site (click here) has a personality test that reveals which science fiction character you are. Turns out I'm Captain Egghead from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Took it twice to be sure and the result was the same each time. Make it so!


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Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Where In The Heliosphere Are The Planets Today?

So, you're sitting at work in front of your computer and you've got time to kill. What do you do? What do you do? Here are some suggestions.

This (here) is a link to a page that runs a program for plotting the orbits of planets in the Heliosphere. It's pretty cool to play with. It's possible to plot orbits backwards and forwards in time.

Fourmilab has a more sophisticated version called "Solar System Live" at this webpage. (Click here) A really cool feature at the Fourmilab site is Terranova, a program that generates an image of a different imaginary Earth-like planet every day. The site is worth checking out just for that page. (Click here.)

JPL has its own "Solar System Simulator" located at this webpage. (Click here.) JPL's program can be used to show the relative positions of the planets at different dates. It also has images that show how certain planets look from various vantage points: for instance, the view of Saturn from Cassini on July 6, 2005. (Click here.) JPL also has downloadable maps of the planets on this webpage. (Click here.)

Finally, a really great and comprehensive site is run by Bill Arnett, a software engineer. (Click here.) It's billed as a multimedia guide to the Solar System and it lives up to that billing.


Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Thanks To Mt. Palomar.

The Open House was thoroughly enjoyable and ought to be repeated. The event was pretty well planned with interesting lectures by CalTech scientists at the on site museum every half hour. There were tour buses available to take visitors around the compound and food was sold by students and parents from the local school.

Clearly, more visitors than anticipated attended and there were a couple problems as a result. There weren't sufficient bathrooms around the grounds for the number of people who came. Also waits to see the 200 inch Hale telescope got very long. I waited over 3 hours to see the scope and only got in when the organizers decided to just let people in to guide themselves around the scope at the end of the day. For most of the day smaller groups were allowed in at a time and given a more guided tour. The scope is impressive enough as it is and with people stationed around the inside to answer questions, a guided tour would not really be necessary. But the positives far outweighed the negatives and credit is due to the observatory, CalTech, and to the Friends of the Palomar Observatory (website here) for opening the grounds to the public.

Here are some final miscellaneous photographs.


Top left photo: Some staff of the observatory live on the grounds. This is a pet cat roaming around the interferometer. Top right photo: This is a small part of the line to get into the Big Eye. The local fire department was on hand with their equipment.

Middle left photo: The San Diego Astronomy Assocation (website here) had some scopes set up to view the sun at the 60 inch scope. Middle right photo: The view from the observatory's 5,000 foot elevation is impressive.

Bottom photo: As the globe warms, some mountains in Southern California remain snowcapped in June.


Oh, It's Not An Interoceter; It's An Interferometer.

It was every exciting when the Mt. Palomar Observatory announced it would open its interoceter for public viewing. As any fan of 1950s science fiction movies knows, the interoceter is a machine from Metaluna, a planet inhabited by humanoids with really big foreheads and cool names like, "Exeter." In the classic movie, This Island Earth, the Metalunans send the plans and parts to build an interoceter to scientists on Earth as a test of intelligence. (Click here for IMDB webpage on movie and photos.) The scientists who successfully build an interoceter, Americans natch, are then recruited by the Metalunans to leave Earth and help them fight a war on their home planet. The movie is a cold war parable whose moral escapes me at the moment but it was probably something about the dangers of nuclear weapons, or science in service to militarism, or demonizing your enemies, or perhaps all three. It's a decent flick that has unfortunately been mercilessly skewered by Mystery Science Theater 3000.

I don't quite remember what an interoceter is or what it is supposed to do. I think it may have been some kind of subspace radio. It doesn't matter though, since Palomar either doesn't have one or they are still keeping it a secret from the public. Instead, they proudly opened their Palomar Testbed Interferometer to the public at the Open House.

The PTI is much different from the other scopes at the observatory. For one, it's not housed in a large dome like the others are. For two, it's not a single large scope but an array of smaller scopes that work in tandem to give the resolution of a much larger telescope.

The PTI's three 16 inch telescopes are housed in three small sheds separated by 110 meters.
When the scopes are operating the sheds roll back on tracks to expose them to the night sky.
The scopes are linked by vacuum tunnels to a central building.
The central building houses two mirrors on carts that move in tandem with the telescopes during operation. The light collected by the three small scopes is directed down the vacuum tunnels to the central mirrors, where the light is blended into a wave form that is captured by a special camera.

Because the scopes are each only 16 inchers they are not able to capture much light.
However, because they work in tandem and their light is blended in the central building they can duplicate the resolution of a much larger scope: about 4300 inches (110 meters) compared to Big Eye's 200 inches according to an astronomer at the Open House.

The PTI is thus able to measure objects with an accuracy unmatched by any other scope at the observatory. As one of the astronomers explained, the PTI could view an egg all the way across the United States in New York City and be able to tell which end of the egg was up. A neat parlor trick that would be.

The PTI was the first scope to accurately measure a star other than Sol. In this case, Altair, which turned out to be two times larger than Sol but spinning 600 times faster.

Today PTI is funded and managed by the Michelson Science Center. (Click here for Palomar's PTI webpage.) It is used to detect and measure the orbits of binary stars with very precise accuracy. It is also used to observe very young stellar objects. By observing these stellar infants, very much like Sol in its infancy, astronomers hope to learn about the early life of stars and about the disk material that surrounds stars and eventually forms planets.



Saturday, July 02, 2005

From Philadelphia In 1776 To The Moon In 1969.

American flags will be flying all across the United States come this Monday's Fourth of July celebration. With embassies and bases all over the world, the flag is flying somewhere on Earth at any time. That's 24/7, as the saying goes. The flag flies far above our heads on Luna all the time as well. But there it's 708/1: 708 hours a day and 1 month-long day per month. Not bad for a young country born during rebellion a mere 11 score and 9 years ago in Philadelphia. The flag's been flying unattended at Tranquility Base since 1969. It's about time somebody went back to take care of it
To those who will celebrate the holiday, here's wishing you a Happy Fourth of July.

UPDATE (July 3, 2005; 7:00 pm, PDT): A reader, Brad, comments that the Apollo 11 flag was blown over by exhaust when the astronauts took off from the moon. So the flag is no longer flyng at Tranquility Base. Perhaps it's time for somebody to return and pick it up.

Here are the flags at other Apollo landing sites:

The flag at the Apollo 17 landing site is pictured above.

The flag at the Apollo 16 landing site is pictured above.

The flag at the Apollo 15 landing site is pictured above.

The flag at the Apollo 14 landing site is pictured above.

The flag at the Apollo 12 landing site is pictured above.


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