"We went to the Moon as technicians; we returned as humanitarians." --Edgar Mitchell

"We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the earth." --William Anders

Tuesday, February 5, 2013


This week, I went into the Mitchell Library on campus and walked around the Current Publications section. The article I chose was from the AIAA's Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets, which means that it's a bit more technical than the last article I chose. It was definitely more brutal. First paragraph, and I learn a new word: rovibronic. I'm still not entirely certain what that means.

The article that I chose was "Absolute Radiation Measurement in Venus and Mars Entry Condition" by Brett A. Cruden, Dinesh Praghu, and Ramon Martinez. It can be found in the November-December 2012 issue of the Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets (Volume 49, Number 6). Picking this article might have been a mistake. From what I understand, because the composition of different planetary atmospheres is different, this results in different levels of radiative heating. Previously, it was mostly convective heating that was mostly predicted, but the size and speed of the entering body (....) can make this less accurate.

Now, I've taken optics and chemistry, and I understand that different chemicals and elements emit different spectral lines. I understand that as you heat things up, they emit blackbody radiation. Basically, we're all glowing due to our heat. This paper explored how the velocity and pressure caused the different elements and chemicals in the atmosphere to glow. Essentially, as the body moves at different speeds through the atmosphere, it "triggers" different elements to emit radiation that can be detected through these spectral lines. This is in addition to the blackbody radiation that occurs from the heating up of the gasses. I think.

Part of what this paper was trying to establish, however, was whether the software that they had been working on (at NASA Ames) would be an effective model/tool for predicting the radiance that would happen from planetary entry. The authors decided that not only did this software need work, but that the experimental methods needed to be refined. This part was the take-home lesson for me. Even though these guys are spending their entire work week doing research and working with million-dollar pieces of equipment, at the end of the day they still produce an article that explains how they can be better. It might be good to keep that in mind.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Let's Go To The Moon!

"The fundamental limitation to expansion into the solar system is not technological, but economic." - James R. Wertz

To bring everyone up to speed: I read an article called "Architecture for Developing an Economically Viable International, Large-Scale Lunar Colony" by James R. Wertz about a week and a half ago, and I've been picking at my response to it ever since. It's mostly that I've not had a whole lot of time to devote to writing something that is solely for my own pleasure.

When reading this article, I had quite a few moments where my engineer mind gave a snort and said "that's a stretch!" However, my biggest sticking point was not ultimately at the core of his argument. More or less, Wertz was saying that the most dramatic reduction in cost would be obtained not by reducing launch costs to a small fraction of what they were at the time this article was written (1999), but by fully utilizing COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) technologies and not sending up more hardware than was needed. This struck me as a similar to the strategy that Robert Zubrin outlines in his book The Case For Mars (which I haven't entirely read yet, so no spoilers, plox): utilize as many resources as possible in situ. This means using the regolith on the Moon as building materials for everything from habitats to chairs and desks, as well as finding non-terrestrial sources of nitrogen and other gases. When coupled with using as much COTS tech as possible, establishing a 1000-person colony goes from costing trillions of dollars to mere tens of billions. Wertz makes the bold claim that it would cost less than the ISS. Let that sink in for a minute before I dive into some of the nitty-gritty.

Has his claim sunk it well enough, now? Alright, moving on.

I want to talk about his treatment of the problem of launch vehicle costs, first, as it's probably the most visible aspect of almost any space mission. Wertz never says exactly what the average cost of launching a kilogram into LEO (Low-Earth Orbit) is in 1999, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that it's pretty much the same as it is today (ignore SpaceX for a moment, I'm getting there). Well, this guy builds in as a major assumption that launch costs are going to drop by a FACTOR OF 50 in the indeterminate future. This factor of 50 includes what is essentially a bulk-rate discount, bringing the target cost of getting mass to the moon down to $1600/kg. That sounds like a lot, especially when you consider that the average person weighs about 75 kilograms (no, I don't have a source for that; I'm pretty much making it up). It's definitely out of my budget! Let's take out the factor of 5 that was taken into account for launching a lot of mass to the moon. This causes the cost to bump up to $8000/kg. However, let's look at SpaceX, now. If you go by their website (which doesn't have cost per kg, but rather has cost and weight separately - I did the math), then the absolute lowest price to get a kilogram of whatever to Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) is .... *drumroll*

*opens envelope*


And that's about half of what any other launch vehicle can do right now. (I almost wrote lunch vehicle, and now I'm hungry) It's not even to a lunar transfer orbit! And Wertz included a list of companies and the corresponding vehicles that were trying to hit the factor of 10 reduction that was needed in the first place, all of which are no longer being actively developed. This list includes the X-33, which makes me sad because that vehicle had a Cool Factor of over 9000.

But, as Wertz explains, this launch cost in conjunction with the "traditional" cost model for lunar colonization (if anything concerning what we've never done before can be considered tradtitional) is only going to get the development cost down to a figure that is in excess of $5 TRILLION. That's a T, ladies and gentlemen. That's still a humongous number. This is actually largely because projects like lunar colonization are usually approached as design solutions looking for a problem. Everything is specifically engineered for that environment, without specifying exactly what the requirements are for a lunar colony. If something doesn't need to be extensively engineered, it shouldn't be, was basically his point. The trick is figuring out what needs to be engineered, and what can and can't survive the harsh lunar environment. A smartphone, for instance, might not be able to survive the radiation as well as, say, a power drill.

So more or less, this article emphasizes Systems Engineering processes to bring the cost of engineering projects like this down. Just as SE has to be modified for Small Sats, it would also need to be modified for something like high-capacity colonies. And it all comes down to defining the requirements adequately without predetermining a design solution.

There were some other interesting tidbits in here, a lot of them about where the colony would get its air (he proposes bringing some of it from one of the gas giants - isn't that getting a bit ahead of itself) and other resources and minerals that aren't readily available on the lunar surface.

What I got from this, though? Wertz is totally Alt Space.

Anyone reading? If you got this far, AND you read the article (or part of it), let me know what you think of his proposals in the comments!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

I Am Alt Space

As part of my self-betterment for 2013, I am going to be reading at least an article a week and writing a response to it. This is similar, but more structured, in approach to my original goal of "learn something new every day." That one didn't work out very well at all... Not that I didn't learn something new every day (I'm in engineering for chrissake!), but I had a hard time writing about it, which I think was mostly due to time constraints.

I've already picked out my first article! It's called "Architecture for Developing an Economically Viable International, Large-Scale Lunar Colony" by James R. Wertz. It's from some conference proceedings which are pretty impossible to find in a library (I tried for hours), but it's available on the internets! I will be reading this after I finish up this post, which should be pretty quickly.

I found this article in the book Space Mission Engineering: The New SMAD. The first few chapters are just overviews of space engineering: the economics, history, and community. I was very sad when I read the chapter where it broke astro engineers into different communities and stated that human spaceflight was outside the scope of the book. Let me tell you, though: this is a huge book. And I have every intention of more or less reading all of it. Because I'm crazy like that.

The Human Spaceflight Community wasn't the only community that I was excited to read about, though. I saw this section titled "Alt Space" and I was confused. If you know what Alt Space is, don't laugh or spoil it for everyone else...  Everything else was self-explanatory, but I had no idea what this was. So I flipped to the end of the chapter, which is totally acceptable in this type of book, and read that section. Apparently New Space is a subset of Alt Space (or is Alt Space if you ask Wikipedia), but it more or less boils down to the people who think we should fully utilize space: its resources, space, and... space... Alt Space adherents view other members of the space community as having too narrow a focus and no passion, while everyone else views these crazies as... well... unrealistic and crazy. Neil deGrasse Tyson and Buzz Aldrin are, as best I can tell, part of this community. So was Wernher von Braun. Guess which one I am?

Pretty much a textbook case.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Futurology From Bobby Heinlein

I love Robert Heinlein. He was an arrogant bastard with some seriously frakked views on gender and sexuality, but I love his work. I grok him.
Well, when I found this list (on Lists of Note) that he wrote in 1949, I was super excited. Futurist lists like this are some of my favorite things ever. If the list is even partially correct, it makes me hopeful that the predictions we’ve made in the last few years might see fruition within my lifetime.
Anyways, on to the list!

So let's have a few free-swinging predictions about the future. Some will be wrong - but cautious predictions are sure to be wrong.

1. Interplanetary travel is waiting at your front door -- C.O.D. It's yours when you pay for it.

Well, that’s definitely true, but not in the sense I think he meant. We’re still trying to figure out how to get our current space program paid for, which ABSOLUTELY drives me nuts. But that’s a topic for another blog post. Oh, wait.

2. Contraception and control of disease is revising relations between the sexes to an extent that will change our entire social and economic structure.
Not gonna lie, I was a bit surprised to see this in a list compiled by Heinlein. But sure! Once birth control became more widely used, the number of women of “reproductive age” in the workplace increased, and a similar trend has been the increase in median age for first marriage, as well as the tendency for romantic pairs to cohabitate before (or instead of) getting married. This issue has also polarized the political scene. Fun, right?
Similarly, disease control/treatment has increased our expected lifespan, which changes the way our families are structured. And increased healthcare technology means higher portions of our income being spent on keeping us alive. Which is interesting, because it seems that doctors aren’t interested in the same.
Anyways, moving on.

3. The most important military fact of this century is that there is no way to repel an attack from outer space.
Pretty much wrong. The most important military fact of this century is that there is no way to prevent or defend against an attack from someone who does not care what happens to them.

4. It is utterly impossible that the United States will start a "preventive war." We will fight when attacked, either directly or in a territory we have guaranteed to defend.
Hahahahahahaha. Next.

5. In fifteen years the housing shortage will be solved by a "breakthrough" into new technologies which will make every house now standing as obsolete as privies.
Fifteen years from the year 2000 or fifteen years from 1949? I wish we all had smart houses. That would be absolutely amazing. Now I have this mental image of S.A.R.A.H. from Eureka.

6. We'll all be getting a little hungry by and by.
Well, some of us. Some of us are getting fatter. Yeah, you know who you are.

7. The cult of the phony in art will disappear. So-called "modern art" will be discussed only by psychiatrists.
Yeah, what?

8. Freud will be classed as a pre-scientific, intuitive pioneer and psychoanalysis will be replaced by a growing, changing "operational psychology" based on measurement and prediction.
Ummm, sort of. And by “sort of” I mean not really. Freud is pretty much a psychology faux pas, nowadays, but psychoanalysis still exists. But nowadays, statistics backs up a lot of what goes on in psychology.

9. Cancer, the common cold, and tooth decay will all be conquered; the revolutionary new problem in medical research will be to accomplish "regeneration," i.e., to enable a man to grow a new leg, rather than fit him with an artificial limb.
You know, I never really would have pegged Heinlein as an optimist. This is kind of refreshing.

10. By the end of this century mankind will have explored this solar system, and the first ship intended to reach the nearest star will be a-building.
So. Much. Fury.

11. Your personal telephone will be small enough to carry in your handbag. Your house telephone will record messages, answer simple inquiries, and transmit vision.

In the year 2000, this was true, at least for some house phones. In the year 2012, my “personal telephone” does all of the things that Heinlein said the house telephone would do. I love how quickly technology advances.
12. Intelligent life will be found on Mars.
Yeah, wishful thinking there, Bobby. We won’t find intelligent life on Mars until we put it there.

13. A thousand miles an hour at a cent a mile will be commonplace; short hauls will be made in evacuated subways at extreme speed.
I wonder what the dollars per mile breakdown is for air travel, nowadays. As a matter of fact, yeah, I’m going to do that calculation.

14. A major objective of applied physics will be to control gravity.
I think I remember something about DARPA working on anti-gravity, but the rest of applied physics isn’t even glancing in the direction of gravity control. We’re not even 100% certain what causes gravity.

15. We will not achieve a "World State" in the predictable future. Nevertheless, Communism will vanish from this planet.

False. I mean, no World State, not really. Europe got part of the way there with the Eurozone, but it’s starting to fray at the edges, which may be partially our fault.

16. Increasing mobility will disenfranchise a majority of the population. About 1990 a constitutional amendment will do away with state lines while retaining the semblance.
Interesting. If anything, on some issues, the states have become more separated.

17. All aircraft will be controlled by a giant radar net run on a continent-wide basis by a multiple electronic "brain."
SKYNET. But really, there are aircraft control systems in development that might actually do this soon. We just haven’t gotten there yet. Close, though.

18. Fish and yeast will become our principal sources of proteins. Beef will be a luxury; lamb and mutton will disappear
This should be the case, as cows and sheep are just about the least space/resource effective meat out there. We should be eating ostriches and fish. However, yet again, Heinlein is wrong.

19. Mankind will not destroy itself, nor will "Civilization" be destroyed.

Here are things we won't get soon, if ever:

-- Travel through time
-- Travel faster than the speed of light
-- "Radio" transmission of matter.
-- Manlike robots with manlike reactions
-- Laboratory creation of life
-- Real understanding of what "thought" is and how it is related to matter.
-- Scientific proof of personal survival after death.
-- Nor a permanent end to war.

We’ve gotten… two of those. See if you know which ones!!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Eulogy

On Monday, the world lost a master bard and we will be forever changed. Anne McCaffrey, author of The Dragonriders of Pern, The Rowan, The Ship Who Sang, and around 100 other works of fiction, died of a massive stroke at her home Dragonhold-Underhill in Ireland. She was 85 years old, and …

Monday, July 11, 2011

Letter to Congressmen Regarding NASA Budget Cuts

     Photo Credit: Associated Press

I'm postponing working on my entry about my trip to see the last shuttle launch, because something much more pressing came up.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Hundred Year Spaceship... ON CRACK

I was reading an interesting article involving the shifting of tectonic plates, and it got me thinking: what if one person were somehow able to see the before and after?

So... I really don't want to do the math (and I can, just so we're clear), but I'm fairly certain that there is no way that a single person could last that long, even taking into account relativistic speeds. But let's pretend anyways, okay? Either we're bending the laws of physics so that this hypothetical person(s) could go faster, we're imagining a world with true anti-aging medicine, or we're dealing with some kinda wizard (or Methuselah).

Can you imagine what it would be like to return to a world literally transformed? Not just society, but the face of the planet. I suppose recognition would hinge on what part of the world was seen first; if our Methuselah saw the North and South American continents first, recognition would be relatively easy - they are the same shape, after all. But then, after a moment, uneasiness would set in... There are islands there that shouldn't be. And Antarctica is just... wrong. As more of the surface is seen, it would become painfully obvious that this is not the world that was left behind; same physical planet, but everything would be different. Too much time had passed.