What is the nature of the STEM crisis?

There is a recent National Science Foundation report out that says, over the decade from 1993 to 2013, the number of college graduates in science and engineering fields grew faster than the number of graduates in any other fields. By 2013, we got up to 27% of college graduates getting their degrees in science or engineering. Hooray! STEM crisis solved, right?

I actually see something in this report that I find quite worrying, and a sad commentary on the state of science and engineering in the United States.

The report says that only 10% of all college graduates got jobs in science or engineering fields. That statistic means that, although 27% of our graduates are in STEM fields, at least 17% of graduates got their degree in science or engineering but couldn’t find a job in any scientific or engineering field. Put another way, at least 63% of STEM graduates couldn’t get a job in STEM fields!

The STEM crisis, in my opinion, isn’t about the number of graduates. It’s about the support our country and society gives to science and engineering. Our government has forsaken basic research in favor of maintenance-level defense tasks and austerity. Our companies have forsaken applied research in favor of “killer apps” and next-quarter profits. In light of those actions, it’s no wonder that we’re now worried that other nations might leapfrog us technologically.

If we want to get out of this hole we dug, we need to dramatically increase our support for science, engineering, and innovation.

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How to Get to Mars

NASA wants to go to Mars. Great!

The approach, as the agency has been publicizing with fancy graphics like the one below, seems to consist of the following:

NASA’s tentacles travel to Mars

  • Send astronaut Scott Kelly to the International Space Station for one year, to learn about the effects of zero gravity.
  • Perform the Asteroid Redirect Mission, moving a near-Earth asteroid into lunar orbit, to prove that solar electric propulsion works in space.
  • Assemble a Mars transfer spacecraft in distant Earth orbit out of components launched on the Space Launch System.
  • Pack everything astronauts need for a round trip to Mars on the new spacecraft and send them on their way!
  • Keep the spacecraft in space for future trips to Mars. Bring the astronauts and supplies back and forth separately.

Not that these aren’t good brainstorming ideas, but they are not how I would get to Mars. I am too confident and impatient for this plan.

For one thing, we can probably skip this one-year mission. In fact, NASA, I can help you out by zipping straight to the conclusions: Being in zero gravity for a year results in bone loss, muscle atrophy, a compromised immune system, radiation exposure, and changes to the shape of the astronauts’ eyes. We know all that already. Similarly, we already know that solar electric propulsion works – quite effectively, robustly, and scalably – in space. Commercial satellites are flying solar electric propulsion right now, with more on the way. Heck, NASA itself has been flying solar electric propulsion, on missions like Dawn, since the turn of the millennium! Nothing needs proving here. We can take the known technology and use it.

Now, assembling a Mars transfer spacecraft, sending it onward, and reusing it for further exploration – that I like. Here is how I would do it.

First, get one of the companies developing solar-electric propulsion satellites to build a number of spacecraft buses. They will probably run a few tens of millions of dollars each, and they can ride up to space on Falcons, Arianes, or Atlases. (That’s bargain basement stuff for NASA!) Then, tie them together. All I really want are the propulsion systems. Each spacecraft has a propulsion system with something around 10 kW power, and NASA wants to get up to around 100 kW to go to Mars. So, by my rocket science calculations, we need…ten satellites. Or maybe, if we strip out all the telecommunications payloads that these satellites usually carry but I don’t care about for this application, maybe we can get the number down to five-ish.

Four of 'em stuck together

Four of ‘em stuck together (with obligatory blue ion engine exhaust)

Somebody would probably have to do some thinking about the best way to support all these stuck-together satellites. Maybe a truss of some kind. But I’m not too worried about that, because NASA has two decades of experience building modular things and sticking them to trusses in space. They can just do what they do best, using their own well-proven techniques.

Now we need a place to put our astronauts. Preferably a place that has some accommodations for solving the problems that Scott Kelly will be confirming. Many of the major physiological issues with space travel have to do with being in zero gravity. Too bad our Mars transit vehicle can’t bring gravity along with it.

Oh, wait! Science fiction knows the answer. It’s known the answer for decades! Spin the spacecraft. The astronauts get to live with a force akin to gravity, pulling them outward along the spin axis.

But building a giant ring-ship takes a lot of time, effort, energy, and resources. I have something different in mind. Something simpler:

My Mars transit vehicle is finished!

My Mars transit vehicle, finished!

On the right, that’s supposed to be an inflatable, cylindrical habitat. (Inflatable things would be terrific for space construction, because they only need a small launcher. Since everything on my vehicle is made of small components, we can launch them once a month instead of once every two years, if they needed a super-heavy launcher like SLS.) This inflatable habitat is tied to the central propulsion core by tethers, or maybe trusses of some type. The astronauts would feel “gravity” pulling them toward the right-hand side of this image (and a little bit downward, because of the thrust). On the left is a dumb counterweight: I’ve drawn it to evoke the empty upper stage of a rocket. It could maybe be long-term storage, but its main purpose is simply to be dead weight to make the spinning easier. The whole vehicle would rotate about the thrust axis, rapidly enough to give the crew at least lunar or martian gravity levels. (The illustration isn’t to scale!)

I’d do one last thing before I send this to Mars with a crew. I’d pack the transit vehicle with enough food, water, and air to get the astronauts to Mars, and for their surface stay.

Not enough to get back, though.

Instead, I would bring seeds. When the astronauts land on Mars, the first thing they will do is become high-tech space farmers. They are going to grow all the food for their return trip on Mars’ surface.

Why would I want to do that? Well, for one thing, seeds are smaller and less massive than full-grown food products. They are probably less expensive – in an energy sense – to get to Mars than those food products would be. Then, on Mars, we can get water and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, to fuel plant growth. So, over the whole mission, I’m actually saving time and money. There’s also a second reason, one I find more compelling. What’s the point of this whole endeavor if we don’t come out of it knowing how to colonize and explore other planets, and keep colonizing and exploring them? Learning to use the resources on other worlds is fundamental to the future of space exploration. We know Mars has water, we know it has oxygen, and we even know that we might be able to grow crops in its soil. We should focus on that idea and advance it. In other words, I think that – both pragmatically and philosophically – it would be shortsighted and silly to attempt Mars exploration using only what supplies we can bring from the Earth.

We need a space program that focuses on developing the technology to use the resources on Mars to support further Mars exploration. We need to do this in a modular, reusable, scalable manner. We need to make sure our astronauts – no, our pioneers – have the tools, the materials, the infrastructure, and the autonomy to solve their own problems. In other words, we need to stop thinking about how to put a few guys in spacesuits on Mars, and stop thinking about how to have astronauts do science on Mars, and instead think about how to colonize Mars. That requires a lot of little things to come together, with more than a few big things in the mix as well. But, for the most part, we have the technology. We’ve had it for my entire lifetime. We need a space program with the right stuff to use it.

That’s how to take a journey to Mars.

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New map! “The Scientik Age”

Giant's Causeway on steroids!The culture of this world is having a bit of a renaissance: they are discovering frontiers of architecture, science, commerce, and engineering. The terrain of rolling hills gives way to basaltic columns – which the cartographer emphasizes, likely beyond plausibility, as an artifact of this renaissance. Those columns shape the flow of nearby waterways. Scattered around the region are representations of monuments and landmarks: the White Palace, the Water-Whele, the Observatorie, the Derrick, the Beacone.

I’ve had this idea lodged in my head for a while, to do a map along the lines of, oh, every hexagon-dominated sci-fi map ever. I wanted to caricature the Giant’s Causeway, and I had the goal of using the hexagonal columns to play with the flow of water. That turns out to be only a minor feature of this map, playing second fiddle to the color. I’m particularly happy with the color blending I got in the peninsula just below center-left. The labels are something I’ve done before, incoherent scribbles that try to give the impression of glyphs, but pushed further than I’ve done before to include bullet lists and parenthetical notes.

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Space to get excited about

Last month, NASA repeated an accomplishment they first checked off in 1964 – with some few improvements hardly worthy of the intervening half-century. But tomorrow morning, assuming the weather is a “go,” we will get to see a space travel event that has me far more excited. SpaceX is going to launch a rocket…and they’re going to turn the first stage around from high altitude and hypersonic speed to land on this:

SpaceX drone barge

in the Atlantic Ocean.

I love this.

I love this because of the technical meaning of the capability: being able to reuse a rocket would be seriously cool. It has the potential to alter forever the economics of spaceflight. And it’s not as crazy an idea as you might think at first – SpaceX has actually pretty much done it already, albeit without the barge underneath the landing rocket.

But I also love this because of what the event represents! Elon Musk estimates a 50/50 chance of success. SpaceX is trying this because nobody has tried it before. They are trying it because there’s no way to convince people it’s possible except by doing it. They are being incredibly ambitious, and they are willing to accept failure in order to learn from it.

In an industry increasingly defined by incrementalism and risk aversion, SpaceX recognizes that sometimes reward comes from risk. They are truly innovating; trying things that are new. It seems that while NASA’s human spaceflight programs once had the “right stuff,” they lost it in bureaucratization – but the “right stuff” didn’t vanish. It just moved – to the robotic explorers like Curiosity or New Horizons and to the “new space” companies like SpaceX.

Best of luck to the SpaceX team tomorrow. I know that even if you don’t succeed, you’ll be proud of your achievements and you will try again. But I’d bet you’ll see that first stage again!

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A brief review of “The Martian,” by Andy Weir


Fantastic, Mr. Weir.

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Back to the Future

This week, NASA launched the Orion spacecraft on a test flight. I have a conflicted viewpoint about this event. To me, Orion is both exciting and deeply disappointing.

On the one hand, Orion is NASA’s first entirely new spacecraft for human crews in over twenty years. There have been only seven in American history: Mercury (first successful flight in 1959), Gemini (1964), Apollo (1966), Skylab (1973), Space Shuttle (1981), Space Station (1992), and Orion (2014). Those dates have been getting unacceptably distant from one another, and it is wonderful to see NASA getting its game back on. Test flights are NASA’s business. The agency is supposed to operate in the proving ground of technology. I want to see it doing new things, and the Orion flight was a reasonable first step towards NASA getting back to its roots. Those roots, after all, were triumphant!

On the other hand, though, Orion falls far short of what NASA could, and should, do. The spacecraft is an improvement over the last capsule NASA designed – the Apollo Command Module – but it is an incremental improvement rather than a revolutionary one. As an example, one of the technological advancements NASA has been touting about Orion is its glass cockpit. But this is the era of the iPad: in such a mass- and volume-constrained environment as a space capsule, the glass cockpit is simply not innovative – it is obvious. (For examples of innovation in space vehicles, try inflatable habitatsrockets that fly back to their landing pads or crew shuttles that could land at any normal-sized airport runway.) To make matters worse, not only is Orion an incremental step in capability from the early ’70s, but its development is horrendously stretched. For reasons that are political, programmatic, and cultural, rather than technical, the next flight of Orion will be in 2018. A human crew will not use the capsule until after 2021, at which point it will be almost a decade old itself.

I think the most bitter disappointment is the concept of what Orion will do when it finally does have astronauts on board. The current plan is to build the world’s biggest rocket, the Space Launch System, and use it to send an Orion crew to asteroids and Mars. I’m all for visiting those places, but the “giant rocket with space capsule” architecture – the architecture of Apollo – is a recipe for one-shot visits to other worlds. After the first astronauts return from such “flags and footprints” missions, there is a very strong risk of program cancellation. I don’t want to see our space program cancelled.

An Orion capsule riding a Space Launch System rocket is not even close to how I would design a sustainable, long-term space program. A much better approach is to use many different spacecraft, and specialize them for individual purposes. Think of the Apollo Lunar Module: it was a flimsy, silly-looking vehicle that was exactly suited for the prospect of landing and taking off from the Moon’s surface. Instead of building on Apollo and Space Shuttle heritage to make an “all-purpose” space capsule, I would like to see NASA lean on its Space Station experience to design a set of interplanetary transport spacecraft. These vehicles would stay in space for their whole lives: we would assemble them in space, launch them out of Earth orbit rather than from Earth’s surface, and we’d never use them to carry astronauts up from and down to the ground. Whenever they need more fuel, we’d send only the fuel up to them – not a whole new vehicle. When we need to rotate astronaut crews, we could always hire SpaceX.

That sort of multi-vehicle concept offers some big advantages. First of all, it’s much more flexible than giant, infrequent, one-shot missions. Second, it’s far more efficient and cost-effective. Think about this: 20% of Orion’s mass is its heat shield, a component only needed for the last ten minutes of its mission. If Orion is returning from Mars, then that means our Mars return rocket needs to be huge in order to push that heavy heat shield on its half-year-long journey back to Earth. And if the heat shield and Mars return rocket need to be huge, then the Earth departure rocket needs to be enormous. Instead, though, we could forget sending the heat shield to Mars in the first place. Forget having the vehicle that goes to Mars also be responsible for landing on Earth. When the astronauts come back from Mars, you just send a little rocket with a little capsule into Earth orbit – just enough to bring the astronauts to the ground. The lightweight interplanetary spacecraft stays in space.

In 2011, when Congress ordered NASA to begin work on the Space Launch System, internal NASA studies came out that agree with my assessment. Multi-vehicle approaches that we can re-fuel and re-use in space are more efficient and cheaper than SLS. They will also get astronauts to other worlds much sooner. Most importantly, such approaches won’t be reliant on one-and-done missions. They will be much more likely to keep our explorers in space.

That is why, while I applaud NASA’s successful demonstration of the ability to launch new vehicles, I hope the agency moves on quickly from Orion, and begins work on a new fleet of exploration vehicles to stay in space.

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Vhonn/Brawn (what could we do?)


Wernher von Braun is one of the lions of the early American space program: a pioneer who engineered our initial forays into orbit, our steps onto the surface of the moon, and our designs for space stations and Martian colonies. He developed or directed the development of the technology to enable those feats. Without him, the United States might not have a space program as we know it.

But all technology is only as good as the people who use it. If von Braun had a personal failing, it was being willing to embrace the use of his devices for nefarious purposes, so long as he could work on them at all. His part in aerospace history began in Nazi Germany, with slave labor and vengeance weapons. Then, after he surrendered to the Americans, he secured a place at the US Army not by promising it the moon – but by promising it the intercontinental ballistic missile. The dual use of this technology was not lost on von Braun. As he famously said of the V2, “the rocket worked perfectly except for landing on the wrong planet.” Since then, every single government to come into contact with von Braun’s work has first thought not of space exploration, but of ballistic missiles armed with weapons of terror.


Two worlds. The reckless denizens of Brawn choose to use their technology for destructive ends. In their insecurity, they ultimately realized their driving fears. Now, all that remains of them is technological detritus: shattered pipelines, broken chain-link fences, and cracked bunkers; all are monuments to warnings ignored.


On another world, the policymakers kept their engineers focused on exploration, enriching and enhancing their culture. They ultimately landed an expedition on the neighboring planet Vhonn – a place harsh in its alienness, but full of scientific treasure troves, including keys to understanding life as they knew it. Their citizens are confident and inspired. They strive forward into the cosmos, and will eventually stake claims throughout their star system.

Today was once celebrated as Armistice Day, a day when the world laid down its arms to end the greatest war it had ever felt – a war that saw the development of weapons so terrible that an international convention gathered to forbid their use. Now, nearly a quarter-century after the end of the Cold War, may we do so again. I hope that, one day, we live in a nation worthy of our veterans’ sacrifices.

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