Quotulatiousness

November 28, 2014

A visit to an Earthbound L5 colony

Filed under: Business, Europe, Space — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 00:02

Charles Stross visits the closest thing to an O’Neill L5 colony:

To the eternal whine of the superannuated free-range SF geek (“dude, where’s my jet pack? Where’s my holiday on the moon? Where are my food pills? I thought this was supposed to be the 21st century!”) can be added an appendix: “and what about those L5 orbital space colonies the size of Manhattan?”

Well, dude, I’ve got your L5 colony right here. In fact, they turned it into a vacation resort. I just spent a day checking it out, and I’m back with a report.

[…]

So here’s what happens. One morning you get up early in your hotel or apartment in Berlin. You collect your swimming gear, flip-flops, beach towel, and sundries. Then you wrap up warm, because of course it’s November in Prussia and while it’s not snowing yet the wind has a sharp edge to it. You head for Zoologischer Garten station (or maybe the Ostbahnhof if you’re on that side of the city) and catch a train, which over the next hour hums through the pancake-flat forests and villages of East Germany until it stops at a lonely (but recently modernized) platform in a forest in the middle of nowhere.

You’re wondering if you’ve made some sort of horrible mistake, but no: a shuttle bus covered in brightly colored decals depicting a tropical beach resort is waiting for you. It drives along cracked concrete taxi-ways lined with pine trees, past the boarded-up fronts of dispersal bay hangers and hard stands for MiG-29 interceptors awaiting a NATO attack that never came. The bus is raucous with small children, chattering and screeching and bouncing off the walls and ceiling in a sugar-high — harried parents and minders for the large group of schoolgirls in the back of the bus are trying to keep control, unsuccessfully. Then the bus rumbles and lurches to a standstill, and the doors open, and you see this:

Click to embiggen

Click to embiggen

It’s hard to do justice to the scale of the thing. It’s one of those objects that is too big to take in at close range, and deceptively small when viewed from a distance. It’s like an L5 space colony colony that crash-landed in on the West Prussian plains: a gigantic eruption from the future, or a liminal intrusion from the Gernsbackian what-might-have-been.

[…]

Welcome to Tropical Islands, Germany.

You can get the history from the wikipedia link above: in a nutshell, the Zeppelin hangar was bought from the liquidators by a Malaysian resort operator, who proceeded to turn it into an indoor theme park. They stripped off a chunk of the outer cladding of the hangar and replaced it with a high-tech greenhouse film: it’s climate-controlled, at 26 celsius and 64% humidity all year round. (That’s pretty chilly by Malaysian standards, but nice and comfortable for the German and Polish customer base.) There’s an artificial rainforest, with over 50,000 plants and a 5km long walking trail inside. There are about a dozen different saunas, hot tubs, and a swimming pool complex: there’s a 200 metre long artificial beach with sun-loungers for you to work on your tan wrapped around an artificial tropical lagoon — a 140 metre swimming pool with waves. There are bars, shops, restaurants, hotels, even a camp ground for tents: and of course the usual beachside resort song and dance show every evening.

November 21, 2014

Paging Delos D. Harriman – come to the Kickstarter courtesy phone, please

Filed under: Britain, Space — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 07:33

This is a use of crowdfunding I didn’t expect to see:

A group of British scientists have taken to Kickstarter in order to get the first set of funds to attempt a landing on the Moon. All ex-teenage (very much ex-teenage, sadly) sci-fi addicts like myself will obviously be cheering them on (and recalling Heinlein’s The Man Who Sold The Moon no doubt) and possibly even subscribing. They’re looking for £ 600,000 or so for the planning phase and will need £ 3 billion to actually carry out the mission. That’s probably rather more, that second number, than they can raise at Kickstarter.

However, over and above the simple joy of seeing boffins doing their boffinry there’s a further joy in the manner in which such projects disintermediate around the political classes. That is, we’ve not got to wait for the politicians to think this is a good idea, we’ve not even got to try and convince any of them that it is. We can (and seemingly are) just getting on with doing it ourselves.

[…]

Here’s what they’re proposing:

    In arguably the most ambitious crowdfunded project ever attempted, a British team is planning to use public donations to fund a lunar landing.

    Within ten years, they believe they can raise enough money to design, build and launch a spacecraft capable of not only travelling to the Moon, but drilling deep into its surface.

    They also want to bury a time-capsule, containing digital details and DNA of those who have donated money to the venture as well alongside an archive of the history of Earth. Finally, the mission will assess the practicality of a permanent manned base at the lunar South Pole.

There’s no doubt at all that the Apollo and similar Russian space adventures had to be run by government. The technology of the time was such that only a government had the resources necessary to drive such a large project. But, obviously, the cost of rocket technology has come down over time.

Marsha Ivins talks about the reality of working in space

Filed under: Space, Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 07:27

In Wired, former astronaut Marsha Ivins talks to Caitlin Roper about what it’s really like to work in space:

Everyone imagines that when you’re sitting on the launchpad atop 7 million pounds of explosive rocket fuel, you’re nervous and worried; but the truth is, there isn’t much to do for those two hours after you climb into the shuttle. Many astronauts just take a nap. You’re strapped in like a sack of potatoes while the system goes through thousands of prelaunch checks. Occasionally you have to wake up and say “Roger” or “Loud and clear.” But the launch itself is a whole other thing — from the pad to orbit in 8.5 minutes, accelerating the entire time until you reach the orbital velocity of 17,500 mph. That is a ride.

It turns out that once you’re actually in orbit, zero-g has some upsides. Without gravity, bodily fluids move toward your head. It’s a great face-lift. Your stomach gets flat. You feel long, because you grow an inch or two. (I thought, “Oh cool, I’ll be tall,” but of course everybody else was taller too.)

But zero-g also has some disadvantages. As that fluid shifts north, you get an enormous headache. Your body compensates and loses about a liter of fluid in the first couple of days — you essentially pee the headache away. And a lot of people get nauseated. The way to feel better is to “lose up,” to convince your visual system that “up” is wherever you point your head and “down” is where your feet are. When you can do that, and go headfirst or earlobe-first wherever you want, then you’re getting adapted to zero-g. On each flight this adaptation happens more quickly — your body remembers having been in space. But it can take a few days before your stomach finally settles down and says, “OK, what’s for lunch?”

I didn’t eat much on any of my flights. I don’t have a big appetite even on Earth, but between the lack of gravity and the shifting fluids, things can taste different in space. I’d bring great chocolate with me and it would taste like wax — it was very disappointing. But you don’t go to space for the gourmet dining. There’s no way to cook, on the shuttle or on the ISS. Space food is already cooked and then either freeze-dried and vacuum-packed — so you add water and put it in the oven to warm up — or it’s thermo-stabilized, like a military MRE. With no refrigerator on board, fresh food won’t keep. So on the shuttle we’d have to eat anything fresh — usually fruit like apples, oranges, and grapefruit — early in the mission.

November 13, 2014

Words you don’t expect to hear in the news: 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

Filed under: Europe, Science, Space — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 00:03

European Space Agency fails to harpoon a comet … successfully lands anyway:

In 1998, the Hollywood blockbuster Armageddon asked us to believe that it was possible to land a spacecraft on an asteroid hurtling towards Earth — too far-fetched, right? Not so. Today humanity just achieved the seemingly impossible.

Earlier this afternoon, scientists from the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta mission successfully landed the unmanned Philae lander module on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The complexities of this mission are such that a short article cannot do justice to the men and women who made this mission a success, but here are a few of the mind-boggling highlights:

The Rosetta probe launched in March 2004 after years of careful planning. Since then, it has travelled 6.4 billion kilometres through the solar system to get into the orbit of the comet 67p, which itself is just four kilometres in diameter. Comet 67p is orbiting the Sun at speeds of up to 135,000 kilometres per hour and is currently about 500 million kilometres from Earth. After a period during which it successfully orbited comet 67p, the 100 kilogram Philae lander then separated from the Rosetta orbiter, descended slowly and landed safely.

At the time of writing, the latest reports from the ESA suggest there may have been some problems with the lander’s anchoring mechanism. The lander was designed to fire harpoons into the surface of the comet to ensure it stayed in place — this may not have worked. But to be fair, no one has tried harpooning a comet before, so a few glitches are understandable.

Update: BBC News has more on the unexpectedly bumpy landing and the risk that the lander may not be able to stay active very long due to battery limitations. Having landed in the shadow of a cliff, the batteries are not able to be recharged by the solar panels.

The craggy surface of the comet - looking over one of Philae's feet

The craggy surface of the comet – looking over one of Philae’s feet

After two bounces, the first one about 1km back out into space, the lander settled in the shadow of a cliff, 1km from its target site.

It may be problematic to get enough sunlight to charge its batteries.

Launched in 2004, the European Space Agency (Esa) mission hopes to learn about the origins of our Solar System.

It has already sent back the first images ever taken on the surface of a comet.

Esa’s Rosetta satellite carried Philae on a 10-year, 6.4 billion-km (4bn-mile) journey to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which reached its climax on Wednesday.

After showing an image that indicates Philae’s location — on the far side of a large crater that was considered but rejected as a landing site — the head of the lander team Dr Stefan Ulamec said: “We could be somewhere in the rim of this crater, which could explain this bizarre… orientation that you have seen.”

Figuring out the orientation and location is a difficult task, he said.

“I can’t really give you much more than you interpret yourself from looking at these beautiful images.”

But the team is continuing to receive “great data” from several different instruments on board Philae.

Another problem with the lander — aside from not knowing exactly where it landed — is that one of the landing legs isn’t actually in contact with the surface:

Controllers re-established radio communication with the probe on cue on Thursday after a scheduled break, and began pulling of the new pictures.

These show the feet of the lander and the wider cometscape. One of the three feet is not in contact with the ground.

Philae is stable now, but there is still concern about the longer-term situation because the probe is not properly anchored — the harpoons that should have hooked it into the surface did not fire on contact. Neither did its feet screws get any purchase.

Lander project manager Stephan Ulamec told the BBC that he was very wary of now commanding the harpoons to fire, as this could throw Philae back off into space.

He also has worries about drilling into the comet to get samples for analysis because this too could affect the overall stability of the lander.

“We are still not anchored,” he said. “We are sitting with the weight of the lander somehow on the comet. We are pretty sure where we landed the first time, and then we made quite a leap. Some people say it is in the order of 1 km high.

“And then we had another small leap, and now we are sitting there, and transmitting, and everything else is something we have to start understanding and keep interpreting.”

Photo of the comet's surface from about 40 metres as the lander made its initial descent.

Photo of the comet’s surface from about 40 metres as the lander made its initial descent.

October 18, 2014

Unmanned X-37B returns to earth after nearly two years in orbit

Filed under: Space, Technology, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 11:50

In the Telegraph, Rob Crilly tells us what is known about the X-37B’s mission:

It arrived back at a California air base after dark. Only the eagle-eyed would have spotted the snub-nosed spacecraft gliding out of the black sky.

Officially, the unmanned Boeing-built X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle had just completed its longest ever mission, spending almost two years circling the Earth, conducting experiments.

But its secretive history has sparked countless theories about what the computer controlled craft was really doing in space.

One idea is that the US Air Force has developed a drone spy ship, which it uses to shadow Chinese satellites. Another more fanciful claim is that it has been developed to engage in sat-napping — gobbling up rival spy satellites like something from a James Bond film.

There were few clues in an official press release.

“The landing of OTV-3 marks a hallmark event for the program,” said an unidentified programme manager quoted in the Air Force statement.

“The mission is our longest to date and we’re pleased with the incremental progress we’ve seen in our testing of the reusable space plane. The dedication and hard work by the entire team has made us extremely proud.”

September 17, 2014

SpaceX and Boeing get NASA funding for 2017 deadline

Filed under: Business, Space, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 08:11

In Ars Technica, John Timmer reports on the NASA decision to fund two of the three competitors for manned launches to the ISS:

Today, NASA administrator Charles Bolden announced that there were two winners in the campaign to become the first company to launch astronauts to low-Earth orbit: Boeing and SpaceX. The two will receive contracts that total $6.8 billion dollars to have hardware ready for a 2017 certification — a process that will include one crewed flight to the International Space Station (ISS).

In announcing the plan, Bolden quoted President Obama in saying, “The greatest nation on earth should not be dependent on any other nation to get to space.” And he promoted the commercial crew program as a clear way of ending a reliance on Russian launch vehicles to get to the ISS. But Bolden and others at the press conference were also looking beyond that; several speakers, including Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana and astronaut Mike Fincke, mentioned that the ultimate goal is Mars.

To that end, Bolden emphasized that NASA is still doing its own vehicle and rocket development. The Orion crew capsule, intended to be suitable for missions deeper into the Solar System, recently underwent a splashdown test in the Pacific. Its first test flight aboard a Delta IV rocket is scheduled for this December. Work on the Space Launch System, a heavy lift vehicle that can transport the additional hardware needed for deep space missions, was also mentioned.

September 6, 2014

P.J. O’Rourke on what’s wrong with modern rocket ships

Filed under: Humour, Space, Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 12:10

From his post at The Daily Beast:

I was in the passenger seat of a small rocket ship when I realized what’s wrong space travel these days: I can’t do it yet. I’m still flying on pokey old Boeings for six hours from Boston to LA. The trip would take 15 minutes at 17,500 mph low earth orbit speed.

Also, rocket ships don’t fly. Or they don’t properly fly the way the rocket ships of Buck Rogers and Captain Video did. Buck and the Captain could use a hayfield with a windsock. A modern rocket blast-off produces so much shockwave commotion that the nearest safe viewpoint at Cape Canaveral is eight miles from the launch pad. That puts the Starbucks a long way from the gate when your rocket ship’s final boarding announcement is made.

Plus current rockets lack anything resembling Buck Rogers’ style. They look like evil corn silos or upright storm sewers or a trio of escaped steroidal church organ pipes wearing party hats.

Furthermore, at the moment, there’s no such thing as a small rocket ship.

The first rocket to reach space, the Nazi V-2 (which transported people only in the sense of transporting them to the next life) was 45 feet high and weighed 27,600 pounds. The 363-foot Saturn V used for the Apollo moon landing was 52 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty and almost 15 times her weight. And Lady L, tipping the scales at 225 tons, is no Mary-Kate Olsen. Now NASA is building a new Space Launch System (SLS) that’s even bigger.

All my rocket ship disappointments are the result of there not being enough private companies like XCOR Aerospace. I learned this at the Space Foundation’s annual Colorado Springs Space Symposium exhibit hall, where there was a full-scale mock-up of XCOR’s Lynx that I sat in.

The Lynx’s 30-foot fuselage and 24-foot wingspan would fit in a McMansion garage. And it’s as prettier than anything a rich car collector has in there now.

August 27, 2014

Disappointingly, SpaceX plays the crony capitalist game with Texas politicians

Filed under: Business, Government, Space — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:28

If you’ve been reading the blog for a while, you’ll have picked up that I’m a fan of SpaceX and other non-governmental organizations in the space race. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Elon Musk is a hero, but I’ve generally been happy about his company’s successes in bringing more private enterprise into the launch business. However, as Lachlan Markay explains in some detail, Elon Musk is not above taking government funds to do things he’d be doing anyway, just like crony capitalists in the rest of the government-industrial complex:

Shortly before a private spaceflight company’s test rocket exploded over southern Texas last weekend, state lawmakers announced millions in subsidies to get the company to continue launching rockets in the Lone Star State.

Space Exploration Technologies, commonly known as SpaceX, will receive more than $15 million in public financing to build a launch pad in Cameron County, near the Mexican border.

The subsidies came after SpaceX’s founder, billionaire tech mogul and pop technologist Elon Musk, made campaign contributions to key state lawmakers and hired lobbyists with ties to Austin.

SpaceX is one of a number of innovative and disruptive startups that, though lauded by some free marketeers for making government-run markets more competitive, are finding themselves drawn to political advocacy, whether out of shrewdness or necessity.

Of the more than $15 million in incentives for a SpaceX launch facility in Brownsville, Texas, announced this month, $13 million will come from the state’s Spaceport Trust Fund.

Initially created in 2002, the fund began to wind down together with the idea of commercial spaceflight. But with the ascendancy of SpaceX and similar companies, Texas looked to secure its place as a destination for commercial spaceflight operations.

Musk took notice. A prolific political donor, he began pouring money into the campaigns of key state lawmakers. On November 7, 2012, he donated $1,000 to state representative Rene Oliveira (D). Two weeks later, he gave state senator Eddie Lucio Jr. (D) $2,000.

The next month, the Associated Press reported that Lucio and Oliveira were working to secure state backing for a potential SpaceX launch pad in Brownsville.

As Drew M. says at Ace of Spades H.Q., it’s not like this is a new thing for businesses or for politicians, it’s just disappointing:

I’m not naive to think this sort of stuff hasn’t gone on forever and will go on forever, it’s simply human nature. That’s why making government at levels as small as possible is so important.

What does continue to surprise me when it shouldn’t is how cheap it is to buy politicians. Remember Team GOP’s hero, Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran’s longtime aide who accepted $20-30K in gifts from Jack Abrahmof in return to ensuring the felon’s clients received millions in government money?

When you think about it it’s really no surprise that politicians sell themselves so cheaply. Unlike honorable whores who sell their own bodies, politicians sell other people’s money. Plus, they make it up in volume.

This bi-partisan rush to hand out everyone’s money for their own gain is part of why I’m drifting away from conservatism and towards libertarianism. Screw them all.

August 23, 2014

SpaceX test launch goes wrong

Filed under: Space, Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 08:36

As they say, this is why you do the testing: to find out what can go wrong (and hopefully fix the design to prevent that from happening again). The Washington Post‘s Christian Davenport reports:

A new test rocket manufactured by Elon Musk’s upstart space company, SpaceX, blew itself up a few hundred feet over the Texas prairie after a malfunction was detected, the company said in a statement Friday evening.

At its facility in McGregor, Tex., the company was testing a three-engine version of the F9R test vehicle, the successor to its re­usable Grasshopper rocket, which was designed to launch and then land on the same site.

“During the flight, an anomaly was detected in the vehicle and the flight termination system automatically terminated the mission,” company spokesman John Taylor said in the statement.

The rocket never veered off course, and there were no injuries or near injuries, the statement said. A representative from the Federal Aviation Administration was on site during the test flight.

The company stressed that rooting out problems like the one exposed in the flight is the purpose of the test program and said Friday’s test “was particularly complex, pushing the limits of the vehicle further than any previous test. As is our practice, the company will be reviewing the flight record details to learn more about the performance of the vehicle prior to our next test.”

August 1, 2014

Old and busted – “I cannae change the laws of physics”?

Filed under: Science, Space — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 09:02

Call me an old fogey, but I’ve always believed in the law of conservation of momentum … yet a recent NASA finding — if it holds up — may bring me around:

Nasa is a major player in space science, so when a team from the agency this week presents evidence that “impossible” microwave thrusters seem to work, something strange is definitely going on. Either the results are completely wrong, or Nasa has confirmed a major breakthrough in space propulsion.

British scientist Roger Shawyer has been trying to interest people in his EmDrive for some years through his company SPR Ltd. Shawyer claims the EmDrive converts electric power into thrust, without the need for any propellant by bouncing microwaves around in a closed container. He has built a number of demonstration systems, but critics reject his relativity-based theory and insist that, according to the law of conservation of momentum, it cannot work.

[…]

    “Test results indicate that the RF resonant cavity thruster design, which is unique as an electric propulsion device, is producing a force that is not attributable to any classical electromagnetic phenomenon and therefore is potentially demonstrating an interaction with the quantum vacuum virtual plasma.”

This last line implies that the drive may work by pushing against the ghostly cloud of particles and anti-particles that are constantly popping into being and disappearing again in empty space. But the Nasa team has avoided trying to explain its results in favour of simply reporting what it found: “This paper will not address the physics of the quantum vacuum plasma thruster, but instead will describe the test integration, test operations, and the results obtained from the test campaign.”

The drive’s inventor, Guido Fetta calls it the “Cannae Drive”, which he explains as a reference to the Battle of Cannae in which Hannibal decisively defeated a much stronger Roman army: you’re at your best when you are in a tight corner. However, it’s hard not to suspect that Star Trek‘s Engineer Scott — “I cannae change the laws of physics” — might also be an influence. (It was formerly known as the Q-Drive.)

July 21, 2014

NASA’s “random mode”

Filed under: Bureaucracy, History, Space, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 10:55

Robert Zubrin identifies two different modes of operation practiced by NASA since 1961:

Over the course of its life, NASA has employed two distinct modes of operation. The first prevailed during the period from 1961 to 1973, and may therefore be called the Apollo Mode. The second, prevailing since 1974, may usefully be called the Random Mode.

In the Apollo Mode, business is conducted as follows. First, a destination for human space flight is chosen. Then a plan is developed to achieve the objective. Following this, technologies and designs are developed to implement the plan. These designs are then built, after which the mission is flown.

The Random Mode operates entirely differently. In this mode, technologies and hardware elements are developed in accord with the wishes of various technical communities. These projects are then justified by arguments that they might prove useful at some time in the future when grand flight projects are once again initiated.

Contrasting these two approaches, we see that the Apollo Mode is destination-driven, while the Random Mode pretends to be technology-driven but is actually constituency-driven. In the Apollo Mode, technology development is done for mission-directed reasons. In the Random Mode, projects are undertaken on behalf of various internal and external technical-community pressure groups and then defended using rationales (not reasons). In the Apollo Mode, the space agency’s efforts are focused and directed. In the Random Mode, NASA’s efforts are scatterbrained and entropic.

Imagine two couples, each planning to build their own house. The first couple decides what kind of house they want, hires an architect to design it in detail, then acquires the appropriate materials to build it. That is the Apollo Mode. The second couple canvasses their neighbors each month for different spare house-parts they would like to sell, and buys them all, hoping to eventually accumulate enough stuff to build a house. When their relatives inquire as to why they are accumulating so much junk, they hire an architect to compose a house design that employs all the miscellaneous items they have purchased. The house is never built, but an adequate excuse is generated to justify each purchase, thereby avoiding embarrassment. That is the Random Mode.

NASA had an overriding mission from 1961 to 1974: the moon program. Almost all of its resources were devoted to that goal, and it was achieved. Then bureausclerosis set in, politics took over, and we left the moon (so far, for good). If the future of mankind is in space, it’s unlikely that NASA will be a significant part of that future (unless you count its role in working to hold back private enterprise from getting involved on NASA’s “turf” (can I call it “astroturf” in this context?)).

A few mitigating words for the late Senator Proxmire

Filed under: Government, History, Politics, Space, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 07:35

Many of you won’t even remember the heyday of Senator William Proxmire’s Golden Fleece awards: his personal choices for the worst public spending boondoggles each year. Most space enthusiasts remember him for his adamant opposition to NASA (for which he could never possibly be forgiven). As an early supporter of the space program, I thought Proxmire was a terrible man and that we’ve have had a much bigger, better space program without him. He left the senate in 1989 and died in 2005, so I’d almost completely forgotten about him until I saw this article in the latest Libertarian Enterprise by Jeff Fullerton:

The things I discover while googling for things. Such as in my efforts to substantiate that Senator Proxmire quote: Not a penny for this nutty fantasy for my previous article. Found an online version of the newsletter of the old L5 Society [PDF]; a space colony advocate group that was around back in the late 70s. Which was sort of a trip down Memory Lane. Remember seeing them on Phil Donahue’s show circa 1980. It’s kind of sad when you look at something like this on the boulevard of broken dreams. But also at times amusing.

Darth Proxmire?

The man space enthusiasts loved to hate like J.R. from Dallas! He was definitely the sort of villain that could grow on you!

The name Proxmire sounds Germanic — but he was no Werner Von Braun — his mindset was typical for the down to Earth culture of the Midlands and being a Wisconsin democrat, he surely had solid connections in Madison — the regional snake pit of Progressivism. Yet he was a conservative democrat — as in fiscal conservative being he gave his “Golden Fleece Awards” to many federal projects that really were an atrocious waste of tax dollars. His disdain for the space program may have stemmed in part from populist disdain for technology — I remember SF writers like Ben Bova and others calling him a Luddite — and that sort of thing was politically fashionable in those days (often referred to as a knee-jerk reaction) so part of his reason for jumping onto the anti-space bandwagon may have been a political calculation. Some of it was probably born of a zero sum mentality that was also vogue at the time. A few space advocates wrote funny editorials about converting Proxmire to supporting space exploration and colonization by finding a way to turn butter into rocket fuel — being that the Senator’s primary constituency were Wisconsin dairy farmers!

[…]

As for William Proxmire — I can’t be too hard on him anymore. Especially when you consider all that NASA has done to thwart any hope of establishing human settlements beyond Earth. At best a lack of vision being the space agency had long ago lost its mojo and is nothing like it was in its early days when could actually meet the challenge of JFK’s vision of putting boots on the moon in a decade — as opposed to shrugging and saying “maybe in three decades”? At best they are slow walking because NASA is much like the establishment of the Republican Party that sometimes talks “small government” but is in no hurry to deliver on it. And worst of all — NASA seems to have an ideological agenda aimed at preventing the colonization of space deeply entrenched within the bureaucracy and the story is the same within most other federal agencies and institutions.

Wikipedia (not traditionally staffed by fans of small government) has this to say about Proxmire’s legislative career:

He was an early, outspoken critic of the Vietnam War. He frequently criticized Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon for their conduct of the war and foreign policy decisions. He used his seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee to spotlight wasteful military spending and was instrumental in stopping frequent military pork barrel projects. His Golden Fleece Award was created to focus media attention on projects he felt were self-serving and wasted taxpayer dollars. He was also head of the campaign to cancel the American supersonic transport. Despite his support of budgetary restraint in other areas, he normally sided with dairy interests and was a proponent of dairy price supports.

[…]

Proxmire was famous for issuing his Golden Fleece Award, which identified what he considered wasteful government spending, between 1975 and 1988. The first was awarded in 1975 to the National Science Foundation, for funding an $84,000 study on why people fall in love. Other Golden Fleece awards over the years were “awarded” to the Justice Department for conducting a study on why prisoners wanted to get out of jail, the National Institute of Mental Health to study a Peruvian brothel (“The researchers said they made repeated visits in the interests of accuracy,” reported the New York Times), and the Federal Aviation Administration, for studying “the physical measurements of 432 airline stewardesses, paying special attention to the ‘length of the buttocks.'” Proxmire stopped numerous science and academic projects which were, in his opinion, of dubious value.

Proxmire’s critics claimed that some of his awards went to basic science projects that led to important breakthroughs, such as the Aspen Movie Map (though the Aspen Movie Map project did not receive the award). For example, Proxmire was criticized in 1987 for the Aspen Movie Map incident by author Stewart Brand, who accused Proxmire of recklessly attacking legitimate research for the crass purpose of furthering his own political career, with gross indifference as to whether his assertions were true or false as well as the long-term effects on American science and technology policy. Proxmire later apologized for several of those, including SETI.

[…]

Proxmire earned the unending enmity of space advocates and science fiction fandom for his opposition to space colonization, ultimately eliminating spending on said research from NASA’s budget. In response to a segment about space colonies run by the CBS program 60 Minutes, Proxmire stated that; “it’s the best argument yet for chopping NASA’s funding to the bone …. I say not a penny for this nutty fantasy”. Arthur C. Clarke and Larry Niven retaliated by writing the award-winning stories Death and the Senator, Fallen Angels, and The Return of William Proxmire. In a number of circles his name has become a verb, meaning to unfairly obstruct scientific research for political gain, as in “the project has been proxmired”.

July 20, 2014

Apollo 11 moon landing anniversary

Filed under: History, Space, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:42

The first men walked on the moon on this day in 1969:

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot, stands on the surface of the moon near the leg of the lunar module, Eagle, during the Apollo 11 moonwalk. Astronaut Neil Armstrong, mission commander, took this photograph with a 70mm lunar surface camera. While Armstrong and Aldrin descended in the lunar module to explore the Sea of Tranquility, astronaut Michael Collins, command module pilot, remained in lunar orbit with the Command and Service Module, Columbia. *This is the actual photograph as exposed on the moon by Armstrong. He held the camera slightly rotated so that the camera frame did not include the top of Aldrin's portable life support system ("backpack"). A communications antenna mounted on top of the backpack is also cut off in this picture. When the image was released to the public, it was rotated clockwise to restore the astronaut to vertical for a more harmonious composition, and a black area was added above his head to recreate the missing black lunar "sky". The edited version is the one most commonly reproduced and known to the public, but the original version, above, is the authentic exposure.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot, stands on the surface of the moon near the leg of the lunar module, Eagle, during the Apollo 11 moonwalk. Astronaut Neil Armstrong, mission commander, took this photograph with a 70mm lunar surface camera. While Armstrong and Aldrin descended in the lunar module to explore the Sea of Tranquility, astronaut Michael Collins, command module pilot, remained in lunar orbit with the Command and Service Module, Columbia. *This is the actual photograph as exposed on the moon by Armstrong. He held the camera slightly rotated so that the camera frame did not include the top of Aldrin’s portable life support system (“backpack”). A communications antenna mounted on top of the backpack is also cut off in this picture. When the image was released to the public, it was rotated clockwise to restore the astronaut to vertical for a more harmonious composition, and a black area was added above his head to recreate the missing black lunar “sky”. The edited version is the one most commonly reproduced and known to the public, but the original version, above, is the authentic exposure.

I didn’t realize that almost all the Apollo 11 photographs of astronauts are of Buzz Aldrin. For some reason, Neil Armstrong appears in only a few of them, and The Atlantic‘s Rebecca Rosen wonders why:

Bootprint in lunar dust created and photographed by Buzz Aldrin for the boot penetration (soil mechanics) task during the Apollo 11 moon walk.

Bootprint in lunar dust created and photographed by Buzz Aldrin for the boot penetration (soil mechanics) task during the Apollo 11 moon walk.

If there is one thing everybody knows about Neil Armstrong, it is this: “One small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” This quotation, in my mind at least, appears illustrated, conjuring the image above of an imprint left by a human boot upon the dusty lunar surface.

Except that’s not the first step, nor was it left by Armstrong. It’s a footprint made by Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon.

[…]

The explanation for this paucity is murky at best, prone to the uncharitable reading that Aldrin was getting “Armstrong back by taking no photographs of him on the Moon” in retribution for Armstrong getting the honor of first to set foot on the lunar surface.

But this is speculation at best. Aldrin, at least, has always said that the lapse was inadvertant, the result of Armstrong carrying the camera most of the time, a picture of Armstrong not appearing on the bucket list of things to do while on the moon, and Armstrong never stopping to ask for one. According to Aldrin, he was about to take a picture of Armstrong at the flag ceremony when President Nixon called, distracting them from the task.

[…]

Later, Aldrin expressed regret about the oversight. “When I got back and someone said, ‘There’s not any of Neil,’ I thought, ‘What in the hell can I do now?’ I felt so bad about that. And then to have somebody say that might have been intentional…. How do you come up with a nonconfrontational argument against that? I mean, that was just such a divisive observation, and Neil and I were never in the least divisive. We really were intimidated by the situation we found ourselves in on the Moon, hesitant and with an unclear idea of what to do next.”

Hansen’s book includes a handful of divergent opinions from different NASA administrators, theorizing as to how this, what Hansen calls “one of the minor tragedies of Apollo 11,” could have happened. Was it mere oversight or petty payback? Men sticking close to the plan or men sticking too close to the plan?

H/T to Colby Cosh:

May 25, 2014

Russian rocket export ban means increasing opportunities for private enterprise in space

Filed under: Space, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:46

Strategy Page looks at the knock-on effects of the Russian government banning the export of rocket engines to the United States:

The U.S. government is being forced to use satellite launchers developed without government financing because the usual methods of obtaining these launchers is falling apart and currently is unable to supply enough rockets to get all American military satellites into orbit. The immediate cause of this problem is the recent (since earlier this year) Russian aggression against Ukraine. The U.S. responded to this aggression by placing sanctions on some Russian officials and firms. Russia responded to that by halting RD-180 shipments to the United States. That’s breach of contract and it will do enormous damage to Russian exports in the future because now many countries and firms realize that a contract with a Russian firm can be cancelled by the Russian government for any reason. This was always seen as a risk when doing business with Russia and many Western firms declined to do so or have pulled out of Russia in the last decade because of the growing unreliability of Russia as a business partner. The RD-180 affair got a lot of publicity, all of it bad with regard to future Russian exports of high-end industrial items. Europe, which gets about a third of its natural gas from Russia, is already looking for alternate sources and investors are fleeing Russia (and taking their money with them).

[…]

This is good news for the new private firms that are developing rockets for launching stuff into orbit. One such firm is SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corporation) and is has been trying to break the current cartel controlling U.S. government satellite launch services. Since 2006 all this business has gone to a government-approved monopoly called the ULA (United Launch Alliance) which is composed of Lockheed Martin (Atlas 5 rocket) and Boeing (Delta 4). These two firms have dominated U.S. space launches for over half a century. Because of the RD-180 the Atlas 5 is more attractive (in terms of performance and price) than the Delta 4. Meanwhile SpaceX expects to have Atlas 5 competitor ready in a few years.

In 2012 SpaceX obtained its first contract to launch U.S. military cargo into space. SpaceX had earlier obtained a NASA contract which included 12 deliveries to the International Space Station (at $134 million each). What makes all this so noteworthy is that SpaceX developed its own launch rockets without any government help. SpaceX also developed the Dragon space vehicle, for delivering personnel and supplies to the International Space Station.

SpaceX has since proved that its rockets work and is pointing out that the SpaceX rockets can do the job cheaper that ULA. Currently ULA gets a billion dollar a year subsidy from the government that SpaceX would not require. SpaceX still has to get all the paperwork and approvals done so that they can handle classified missions. SpaceX does not see this as a problem, it’s simply going to take another year to satisfy all the bureaucrats and regulations.

May 14, 2014

Russia, the United States, and the ISS – an opening for SpaceX

Filed under: Europe, Space, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 11:48

Motherboard‘s Jason Koebler says that Russia’s threat to ban companies from shipping rocket engines to the US represents a great chance for SpaceX to cash in:

Russia just announced plans to shut down the International Space Station in 2020, and prohibited companies in the country from selling engines to Lockheed Martin and Boeing for military launch purposes. If this is more than just posturing, there’s at least one takeaway: SpaceX is about to get paid.

It was just a month ago that NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said that Russia would never ban the United States from the ISS, and that his “contingency plan” for getting astronauts to and from the ISS was to continue working with Russia as normal until an American company is ready to fly manned flights to the ISS in roughly three years.

[…]

And that brings us to SpaceX. The company stands to gain greatly from both bits of news Rogozin announced today.

The company recently won (and then subsequently lost) an injunction to force the United States Air Force to compete for military satellite launch contracts. If Boeing and Lockheed Martin are blocked from buying Russian engines for their Atlas V and Delta IV from the other side (it’s worth noting that both countries have threatened to ban the companies from buying Russian engines), the Air Force once again has incentive to look at SpaceX as a legitimate option to launch military satellites.

The Air Force’s contract with the Boeing-Lockheed cooperative United Launch Alliance is worth roughly $70 billion through 2030 — SpaceX could potentially swoop in and take some of that amid the uncertainty.

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