Saturday, November 25, 2006

Giant Space Billboards Are Bad For Everybody Not Just Astronomers.

The Bad Astronomer (here) makes a good point about how foolish it was to drive a golf ball from the International Space Station. There's a lot of space debris in orbit already without adding a hurtling golf ball into the mix. Even if it is for only a couple of days.

The possibility of stupid commercial activity in space prompts him to say this in the same post:
"Anyway, I fear this will not be the last of the dumb things done to make money in space. I’m not sure how much to worry about space banners, for example, which will be big lit-up banners in orbit hawking commercial products; this has been proposed realistically and could do serious damage to ground-based astronomy. The list goes on and on. I’m not a big fan of regulating what goes on in space, but if garbage like this golf shot keeps up, I may change my mind."
Actually, giant billboards in space would ruin the night sky for all of us, not just ground-based astronomers. The aesthetics of the night sky would be ruined and people all over the world would be a captive audience whose only option to avoid the advertising would be to look at the ground not the sky. Who wants that?

To some degree we are all exposed to advertising we'd rather avoid. We voluntarily expose ourselves to most of that advertising by reading newspapers and magazines and using TV, radio, and the internet. Billboards differ from media advertising because we are exposed to billboards just by walking or driving around in public.

Space billboards would be so much more intrusive than ordinary billboards. Here on Earth a billboard may be visible for a block or two or maybe for several miles on the highway. Space billboards, on the other hand, would be visible over vast reaches of Earth to millions of people at the same time. That difference in degree is a significant intrusion on people's ordinary lives and justifies legislation against space billboards, even for merely aesthetic reasons.

There may be environmental reasons to ban space billboards as well. Depending on their brightness, the proliferation of space billboards could light up the night in ways that ruin the environment for nocturnal animals. It's true that cities pollute the sky with their light at night but there are weighty considerations of safety and necessity to justify the amount of light created by cities despite the environmental impact. Because orbital billboards would fly over cities and the dark countryside their impact on the environment would be widespread. Moreover, the potential benefits from space advertising likely would not justify the negative impacts on the environment and the night sky.

Space advertisers may have free speech rights on their side, but even free speech can be regulated by reasonable time, place and manner restrictions. The negative so far outweighs the positive that it seems entirely reasonable to ban obtrusive space billboards visible on Earth.

For a more in depth analysis of legal issues surrounding regulation of space billboards read this Note (here) in The Federal Communications Law Journal and this online article (here) by Jimm Erickson at the website of law professor David D. Friedman. According to the Erickson article Congress has already acted to prevent obtrusive space advertising from ruining the night sky. A US launch license can be denied to any spaceflight sending "obtrusive advertising" into space.


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Friday, November 17, 2006

Yes, Virginia, There Is A Spaceport In Virginia.

Apparently, it's not just the wide-open spaces of the West that will be home to the coming commercialized space age. Virginia has a spaceport. (Here.)

It's a small facility and appears to be a joint venture of two state governments, Virginia and Maryland, but if officials at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport have their way, it will be the launch site for future commercial flights to the ISS. In the more immediate future MARS, as it's called, plans to launch an Air Force flight on December 11, 2006. Three more flights are planned with assistance from NASA. Two government flights and one joint venture.

Another blogger wonders just how private this facility really is with all that government involvement. (Here.) Not very, it appears. But that's the reality of the space industry today. Government is still one of the biggest players.


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Thursday, November 16, 2006

A Rabid Society.

What the hell kind of government permits the wanton killing of dogs to fight rabies? (Here.) Have the Chinese not heard of the rabies vaccine? Senseless.



Good News, Everyone!

Futurama is going to be a movie. (Here.) Woohoo!


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Friday, November 10, 2006

Space Visionaries Rutan, Diamandis, And Allen Enter Aerospace Hall Of Fame.

The San Diego Air & Space Museum (SDASM) honored three visionary space pioneers at the inaugural presentation of the 21st Century of Flight Distinguished Achievement Award on Saturday, November 4th. Gerry Williams of The Mars Society San Diego (here) attended and provides these observations and photographs. (View photos here in folder labeled "Hall of Fame Ceremony.")

With the unveiling of the full-size Spirit of St. Louis replica back from its 2003 flight and restoration by SDASM Gillespie Field volunteers, the International Aerospace Hall of Fame Gala Celebration kicked into high gear. The event celebrated both the beginnings of commercial flight and looked forward to the future of commercial space flight. More than 400 people attended.

Three new honorees were inducted into the International Aerospace Hall of Fame for the 20th Century: United Airlines' "Pat" Patterson; TWA's Jack Frye, and Russia's Sergei Ilyushin, whose stories were told on video using vintage footage and photos as their portraits were unveiled. Patterson's and Frye's families accepted the honors.

The inaugural presentation of the 21st Century of Flight Distinguished Achievement Award went to three visionaries of today: SpaceShipOne financier Paul Allen (who was unable to attend) took the first award, accepted by the museum on his behalf.

XPrize Foundation creator Dr. Peter Diamandis took the second award. He encouraged donations to the new Hall of Fame Engineering Scholarship program to help increase America’s engineer graduation rate. In addition to space exploration, he says the XPrize Foundation encourages innovation in other areas of worldwide importance, such as fuel efficient automobiles and human genetics. Ansari Prize financial backer Anousheh Ansari reinforced these sentiments in a "filmed on location in space" video aboard the International Space Station recently, praising the XPrize Foundation as the best way to preserve our planet while simultaneously exploring beyond it.

The final 21st Century of Flight Distinguished Achievement Award recipient and keynote speaker was Burt Rutan. SDASM board member Mark Larson noted that, "While some strive to think outside the box, Burt Rutan simply never acknowledged the existence of the box.”

Rutan spoke about taking risks as human beings, and how we now seem to be living in a country that is becoming ever more risk-adverse (averse -ed). He additionally commented, semi-directly to the two tables of student aerospace engineering students from SDSU and UCSD, on how few aerospace engineers are graduating in the United States these days compared to how many are graduating in the same field from China and India and other nations.

In Rutan's (and my) day, there was the thrilling challenge of taking existing missile technology and building it into something that could carry humans into outer space. Today, in comparison, our country is talking about heading back to the Moon, Mars and beyond, but without trying to learn a different way of doing it -- by using "Apollo on Steroids" to accomplish it. Rutan fears a “dumbing down” of the new generation.

Rutan talked with the tables of recent graduates before the event, and none of them could give a good solid answer as to why they became aerospace engineers (unlike the heady Apollo days when EVERYONE could tell you) -- if he’d’ve asked me, the answer would be simple: I want to go to Mars!

SpaceShipOne was not just about proving that a non-governmental group could build and launch spaceships. It was about creating technological breakthroughs necessary for public access to space. Most of the public can't afford going into space by way of governments (with Russia being the only government presently selling tickets), so SpaceShipOne was about taking the risks and doing things differently.

Rutan spoke in the SDASM's Pavilion of Flight, and he repeatedly looked overhead at the Museum's Ford Trimotor aircraft, one of the first passenger planes. His father told him at a young age that this aircraft was for rich people only, and that he would probably never get to fly in one.

SpaceShipTwo, a fleet of five now under construction, will take the lessons learned here and apply them to industrializing public space access with a fleet of eventually 100 vehicles, each carrying up to 11 passengers on their suborbital treks. Yes, rich people will be the first passengers, but with stiff competition and low operating costs Rutan says that eventually millions of us will be able to journey into the black sky.

The 2006 International Aerospace Hall of Fame Gala Celebration was an inspiring evening of achievements and dreams, both fulfilled and still on the drawing boards and in the imaginations of human beings everywhere. I'm glad I had the opportunity to attend.

-Gerry Williams

Republished once to correct typos.

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