Voting with my Feet

I recently made a major life decision: I left my job. And after the US presidential election last month, I feel that my decision was precisely correct. I want to explain my motivation, because I believe that there are important policy issues in play that many people do not think about. I also believe it’s especially important to raise these issues among scientists and engineers.

First of all, everything in this post reflects my personal opinion.

I used to work at an engineering company that does most of its work as a military contractor. My discipline is spacecraft engineering, and this company occasionally offered work on space systems. It was that spacecraft work that attracted me to the company in the first place. I got to design algorithms for a constellation of NASA hurricane-monitoring satellites, and I got to help out with some experimental satellite programs. However, for the several years I worked there I struggled with the fact that space work was sort of a side project for this company. The main revenue stream came from building weapons. The kind of weapons nobody in their right mind should ever consider using.

I recall hearing many ways to rationalize participation in weapons projects: we are defending our nation; if we don’t build these, someone else will; this is just an interesting engineering problem we’re solving regardless of the applications. I could never make any of the rationalizations work for me. That last one, in particular, I found fundamentally disturbing. If we, as engineers, don’t consider the possible applications and implications of our work, then I think we lack the moral standing to do that work – even if our work was not used as we intended. If our projects kill, then we have blood on our hands. I did not want that to happen to me.

There was a particular class of weapon that inspired an existential dread in me. (Fortunately, though I learned about these systems, I never had to work on one. What I know of them comes from the media, as exemplified by the links below.) It’s called a hypersonic weapon, or sometimes a “prompt global strike” weapon. These are weapons designed specifically to travel as fast as a ballistic missile, though they could carry non-nuclear warheads. The problem with these weapons is that their purpose is to penetrate air defenses like that possessed by only a few specific (and often nuclear-armed) nations – Russia and China, for instance. It doesn’t take much of a stretch to imagine that American development of hypersonic weapons would make such nations think that they are our intended target! Furthermore, their design is to move quickly, maneuver erratically, or otherwise act in a manner that could be confusing to opposing radar operators. Russian missile-warning satellites have a historical track record of mistaking things like scientific sounding rockets or sunlight glinting off clouds for an American nuclear missile attack – against which Russian doctrine dictates a nuclear response. So do we really want to confuse those early-warning systems further? Even if the American weapons are non-nuclear, firing one in the vicinity of Chinese or Russian air defense creates an unacceptably high probability of accidental nuclear war. Russian officials may even have suggested that they would respond to a hypersonic weapon with nukes, on purpose.

The really crazy thing is that former President George W. Bush agreed with me and discontinued an experimental hypersonic vehicle program for exactly the reason I outlined: unacceptable risk of accidentally causing nuclear war. What the US is developing now are actually President Obama’s weapons. Obama thought that his Defense Department would rely on American technological superiority to deter any potential adversary. Instead of our weapons having the most powerful blasts, they would have other fear-inducing qualities. They would strike the quickest and be able to penetrate any defense. In addition, with non-nuclear warheads, these weapons are not limited by nuclear arms treaties and might even be useful to generals fighting a smaller-scale conflict like the one against ISIS. Ironically, though, these non-nuclear weapons could very well set off a nuclear counterattack anyway! Worse, Obama touched off a volatile hypersonic arms race among the biggest military powers of the world. Now several nations are rapidly developing the ability to accidentally trigger a global nuclear holocaust by setting off the US’s, Russia’s, or China’s Cold War-era automated response systems.

Though I didn’t work on those weapons, my former company had an intent focus on military programs. I feared that it was only a matter of time before they ran out of civilian spacecraft work and assigned me to something nefarious. Hypersonic weapons are only one terrifying example. Missiles, drones, cyberweapons – work on all these things and more is common in engineering companies. Given the Pentagon’s push for “disruptive innovation” – really, just think about how scary that phrase is in connection with the military! – I figured the prospects for a guy who wants rockets only to explore space were likely to get worse. Ultimately, I decided that it was up to me to vote with my feet, uphold my moral convictions, and deprive both my former company and the military of my engineering talent. So I got a new job, at a facility that doesn’t do any weaponry. I’ll be working on telecommunications satellites, and weather satellites, and imaging satellites, and space probes. That was how I cleared my conscience. But to do so, I had to move across the country to find an aerospace industry facility that didn’t build weapons. Others with the same moral dilemma may not be so flexible.

Now enter President-elect Donald J. Trump. In a primary interview, he suggested the use of nuclear weapons, in Europe, as a means to fight ISIS. He has reiterated many times how important he thinks it is to be “unpredictable” with his nuclear policy. He wants to abolish the deal that pushed Iran from being months away from developing a nuclear bomb to a decade away. He has publicly stated that the US should pull back from defense commitments in Europe and Asia. He has suggested that he would be okay if Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia all became nuclear powers. He has offhandedly proposed bombing various American enemies, large and small. And he wants to dramatically increase US military spending. With merely a phone call as president-elect, Trump caused an international incident. All this is likely the product of willful ignorance: He is refusing security briefings, and he doesn’t believe the information presented in those he does attend.

A Trump world is a world with more nuclear-armed powers and more instability. I do not have confidence in his ability to refrain from policies that make nukes more risky, or even from ordering a nuclear attack himself. Furthermore, I have little doubt that, given the option to launch a “non-nuclear” hypersonic weapon at some target that peeved him, Trump would pull the trigger. An all-too-possible result: global nuclear war and the end of human life as we know it.

If that happens it will be Trump’s fault, and not mine. I left the weapon-mongering subfield of engineering, and so I will not help him do these things. Not even in a small way. My decision feels secure. But, thanks to his election, the safety of the world isn’t.

I think we all learned something from this election: the price of silence. The media failed to challenge Trump on his most egregious or insensitive claims. Republican party statesmen failed to hold their own convictions as his fortunes rose, and instead held their tongues over each new outrage. Ordinary Americans failed to discuss the issues with their family and friends outside of Facebook’s echo chamber. And then, on Election Day, voter turnout was historically low. We’re seeing repercussions for bigotry and harassment already, and Trump’s decision to pack his cabinet with generals – violating the American principle of civilian leadership of the military that goes all the way back to George Washington – makes me extremely skeptical about future military strategy and weapons development. That’s why I wanted to to write this piece: We, as Americans, all need to think hard about how our tax money is going to be spent on the military, and whether that spending makes us safer or not, regardless of the jobs it secures for our communities. If the military money doesn’t make us safer, or especially if it makes us less safe, then perhaps we can find other ways to sustain jobs with federal funding: say, basic research and infrastructure investment. We need to keep a sharp eye on our federal policies and keep in close touch with our representatives in Congress.

Trump is a man who tolerates no disagreement, and doesn’t hesitate to unleash a horde of GamerGate-style trolls to harass and threaten people who question him. Furthermore, the congress is going to be full of spineless, unprincipled people like Paul Ryan, who condemned Trump’s moral failings…short of withdrawing their endorsement of this man who could keep them in power. They will not be an effective check on Trump. So one thing I am doing in response to Trump’s election is finding ways to live my policies, and letting my behavior in the market speak to American policymakers and companies for me. We signed up with our home energy provider to receive 100% renewable energy. We’re donating to the ACLU, and SPLC, and Brady Campaign, and Planned Parenthood, and Natural Resources Defense Council. We’re getting newspaper subscriptions to the New York Times and Washington Post. We’re buying into programs that offset the heavy carbon emissions of airplane flights. We’re putting a priority on getting fuel-efficient cars. When we do buy fuel, we’re going to try to buy from European companies like Shell that have tied their executives’ bonuses to carbon-reducing efforts (and to avoid ExxonMobil, which waged a decades-long disinformation campaign after its own research scientists became aware of the occurrence and causes of global warming).

And, in that same vein, I left my job at a weapons manufacturing subcontractor.

There is power in voting with one’s wallet and one’s feet. In particular, I think engineers need to consider carefully the applications and implications of the work we do. Especially any engineers given the choice of contributing to the most devastating weapons we can imagine, or weapons that do the most damage against civilians, or devices that are overly provocative to other nations. If our work falls into the wrong hands – say, an “unpredictable” American president who won’t rule out weapons of mass destruction and has advocated targeting civilians – then we share in the responsibility for the consequences. I would like to encourage other engineers out there to devote some thought to how they can also find ways to use their skills to make our world a better place.

Because, in Trump’s new world, we as individuals are going to need to spend a lot of effort to make things better. Hopefully, there will be enough of us to counteract him.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

A Diary in Space

I recently read a fascinating book – a diary of a man who spent about a year on a space station. In his journal, he expresses his excitement about learning to live and work in space. He’s proud of the opportunity to represent his country, and he enjoys sharing his accomplishments with international visitors to the crew. He learns to appreciate the automated systems on the next-generation spacecraft sent for resupply. He grows – and eats – plants in space. He worries about ennui, and at one point enjoys playing a practical joke on ground control with a monster mask. He particularly enjoys exercising on the treadmill and observing earth’s geology. His dream is to perform a spacewalk, and he achieves that goal.

You might think I’m referring to astronaut Mark Kelly’s hashtag-YearInSpace. But I’m not.
The man is Valentin Lebedev, and the book is “Diary of a Cosmonaut.” The mission is Salyut-7. The year is 1982.

I found the book quite interesting to compare to recent events in spaceflight. For one thing, the similarity between Lebedev’s Soviet mission and Kelly’s #YearInSpace was uncanny. I’m not even kidding about the monster mask – it came up to the Salyut station with French cosmonaut-visitor Jean-Loup Chrétien. Lebedev’s translator wrote the phrase “learn to live and work in space” even then, back in the early 1980s.

What sticks in my head, though, are the ways the Salyut-7 mission differ from a contemporary NASA International Space Station Expedition. In 1982, the Soviet Union was not able to communicate with their stations over the full length of the orbit. As a result, the two-cosmonaut crew had a much greater degree of autonomy than NASA affords a modern mission. Lebedev and his commander made their own decision to extend their spacewalk. They often decide which scientific experiments to do. They determine much of their own exercise regimen, and they arrange the interior of their station to their liking. These are behaviors that NASA must learn – re-learn, really – if they truly want to send humans out to “live and work” beyond Earth orbit. Especially at Mars, where real-time communication back and forth with mission control is not feasible.

This is not to say that everything was better on Salyut than on ISS. At one point, the two cosmonauts smell something burning – fire is an immediate existential danger on a spacecraft. They’re out of communications with the control center, so the cosmonauts grab a fire extinguisher and go hunting for the source on their own. They find the source of the smell – a component overheating – and take care of the problem. Then, they decide not to tell ground control. Wouldn’t want to worry them! In another instance, the cosmonauts are rearranging supplies and equipment on their station when they find that a refrigeration unit won’t fit behind a panel. So: they get out a saw, and start cutting the metal panel. (Somebody thought they would need a saw?!) I’m all for astronauts learning to build and repair things in space, but this activity leads the cosmonaut to make the logical complaint. Metal shavings float everywhere, and one goes in his eye. (Fortunately, his companion is able to remove it, ending that cringeworthy episode.)

There’s a lot the modern NASA could learn from these programs of the past: they were steeped in ingenuity and piloted by independent souls who really had the Right Stuff. But there’s also a lot we have learned: to plan thoroughly, to account for then-unknown contingencies, and to sustain a human presence in space for continuous years. What amazes me most, though, is how, over thirty years later, the broad architecture of life on a space station and the research program in space is the same. We need a next step. Centrifugal gravity, closed-loop life support, agriculture in space: We know the kinds of technologies we need to do to truly enable life and work in space. If only NASA would do it.

Posted in NASA, Space | Leave a comment

The Maucland Confederacy

In honor of its tenth anniversary online, the Cartographers’ Guild ran a project to map a large, collaborative world. Each participant contributed a map of one country, done in whatever style they chose and with whatever lore they chose. Some of us compared notes with our neighbors to negotiate trade routes and such. Here is my contribution, the Maucland Confederacy!

I took inspiration from my native New England for the names, landforms, and cultures on this map. I’m particularly proud of “Poscadia” and “Quinnameg!” The names along the border are my neighbor countries. (While I was on the other side of the globe from the Fromage War, I enjoy good relations with Janantara Elubor and the Kingdom in the Clouds.)

I am quite pleased with this pen-and-watercolor-pencil map. The colors came out richly, the overall theme holds together nicely, I was able to experiment with some more map elements than I have previously, and I completed the whole project end-to-end in a month, which makes it my second-fastest map after Abrantoc!

You can see the development of the project in my Cartographers’ Guild work-in-progress thread here. Be sure to check out some of the other wonderful maps in this forum!

Posted in Art, Fantasy, Maps | Leave a comment

A brief note about the 2016 presidential election

Hey, Americans. I want you to know that I’m looking for a few things from my national leadership, especially the President.

  1. Infrastructure investment. Doing this is how we will solve a huge number of problems: Want to create jobs? Advance American science and technology? Mitigate global warming? Fix broken bridges? Make the electric grid more robust to cyberattack? Then we have to invest in our highways, power systems, public transit, National Science Foundation, NASA, and data systems. This all takes concerted national effort and a lot of money, but the important thing about it being an investment is that the payoff is greater than the cost!
  2. An end to the attitude of constant warfare that has pervaded American foreign policy since World War II. Most, if not all, of the foreign policy challenges America faces today are of our own making. We need to stop doing that! We could also save a ton of money in the defense arena. I’m convinced that the US Department of Defense budget could be half of what it currently is, and the US would suffer no loss to national security. (In fact, ending some of our more specifically provocative programs like drone strikes, prompt global strike weapons, or the recently unveiled B-21 would probably increase our national security, by de-escalating arms races and conflicts.)
  3. A considered, logical, and data-based approach to solving our pressing problems. Issues like income inequality, racism, campaign finance reform, education, the national debt, immigration, foreign policy – or anything else, really – cannot be solved with a simplistically soundbyte-y ideologies like “build a wall,” “create jobs,” or “bomb them.” They are complex, multifaceted problems, and we know from history, science, or economics which solutions are more likely to work and which are not. We should use that knowledge. To give an example, if we want to reduce the incidence of gun deaths, studies show that the most effective way to do so is to reduce the rate of gun ownership. To give another, global warming is definitely a thing, definitely caused by humans, and definitely going to threaten our lives and livelihoods in the future: we should fix it, and we know how. In some way, a reduced role for ideology may help advance the other two points, too.

It would be nice to see more of these perspectives from the campaign trail. None of the Republicans have any interest in any of my points. Most of them actually seem to take opposite positions; to listen to their debates, I guess America needs less investment, more war, and more ideology. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton seems to be interested in items 1 and 3, while Bernie Sanders seems to like them all. If only Congress had more adherents to these ideas!

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Some web tweaks to highlight maps

I’ve just completes a couple tweaks to the main web site associated with Quantum Rocketry, with the goal of bringing my cartographic artwork more front and center. Note that:

  • I take commissions! And I would be willing to sell some existing original pieces. (Really! It’s not all spacecraft engineering with me.) Got a fantasy novel, RPG, or just a private world you want depicted in hand-drawn style?
  • I’ve uploaded several more maps for you to purchase as prints on Imagekind, including the latest Gliese 581g, as well as two maps not yet featured here, Abrantoc and Erthal Province Frontier!

Abrantoc

Posted in Art, Fantasy, Maps | Leave a comment

Gliese 581g (Hámnù, Pedak, Gaustan, or Estivama)

I finished a big new map! You can purchase a print here.

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The world known to humankind as Zarmina (catalog identifier Gliese 581g) is a habitable planet orbiting a red dwarf star. It is tidally locked to its dim sun, such that one face of the planet always points toward the sun. The most striking consequence of this orbit geometry is that the habitable region of the planet is a disk-shaped area roughly the size of an earthly continent. The center of this zone always sees a sun at high noon, while toward the edge of the disk, the sun sinks gradually away from zenith. Outside this region, Zarmina is encased in ice. As the sun does not define east and west, the cardinal direction convention on Zarmina refers to the planet’s orbit, instead: prograde (in the direction of the orbit), retrograde, normal (up from the orbit), and antinormal.

Zarmina does not exhibit evidence of plate tectonics. Surface features express several processes: large-scale rift graben form from tidal stresses, shield volcanoes build over mantle hotspots, impact craters and basins dot the planet, and erosion slowly whittles down the more ancient features.

The world hosts life with biodiversity similar to the Earth. One dominant intelligent species has settled across the landmass, with cultures reaching technological development levels roughly equivalent to 1300-1600 CE on Earth. There are three regions with large populations, indicated on the map in normal-retrograde (NR), antinormal-prograde (AP), and normal-prograde (NP) callouts. In the four major language families of Zarmina, the natives call their world Hámnù, Pedak, Gaustan, or Estivama.

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The NR region hosts two major linguistic and cultural families. The first is an empire ruled from the city of Hòmp Sīnkà (Port Sinka). Explorers and artisans populate this empire; though the political extent of the empire only reaches as far as Níngtòhús (Greencliff), speakers of the imperial language can be found all along the coast in the prograde direction as well as in coastal settlements on the other side of Fíkùm Pòst (The Normal-Direction Sea). The antinormal borders of the empire are more ragged and contentious, however – the imperial urge to spread its vision of culture and knowledge brings it into direct conflict with the city-states in that area. The people of Kivod Sev Adoso (Mountain Gate Town) dominate the substantial resources of Sev Skem (Mountain Channel) and have repelled several campaigns launched from Hútpòkā (Chasmtop). Hòmp Sīnkà rapidly loses its stomach for these campaigns, and so Kivod Sev Adoso holds back imperial expansion. A more fluid and contentious collision of cultures occurs in Pasken Gimet (Pasken Forest). Scattered settlements under the command of local chiefs raid imperial populations farming antinormal of Ngùsì Āmā (Wide River) while imperial reprisals prevent the Pasken peoples from incorporating large towns. The disparate kindgoms of Ogjapud (Grayrock), Katofa Petang (Retrograde City), and Fetva Zand (Calm Peninsula) maintain their own set of animosities and alliances.

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The plains of the AP region offer little shelter from the winds that blow in off the ocean. As the land rises, larger and larger plants cover the land until one encounters lush prairies between dendritic river networks. Roaming clans live on the prairie “kidan.” A few large settlements dot the kidan, most notably Jung a Uid Nakaun (the City of Two Rivers). The kida clans take pride in not pinning themselves to a particular place – many of their dwellings are portable, and they happily move their crops to new locations on the fertile plains when they tire of the old. The culture is leery of townfolk. The Ushtin clan is a splinter from the kida clans, and is more attached to their resource-rich homeland on the shore of Gaiju a Shai (Lake of Wind). On the other end of the cultural spectrum, the dramatically different Togui a Awaish (Chasm of the Forest) hosts a sect worshipping the sun god Dautwai. This sect possesses the settlements of Santiso (roughly, Above-the-Green) and Uigonja (named for the uigon trees), as well as a major urban center in Jung Togunau. From the isthmus of the Nakau Dautwai, dramatic views of the Audos a No (Mountain of the Sun) have inspired monuments throughout the city. The natural defenses of Togui a Awaish shield the people within from raiding kida clansmen.

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Lush lands and geographic barriers squeezed into a comparatively smaller area give rise to the warring city-states of the NP region. Though they share a common linguistic root, each of the population centers here represent separate nations. The largest are Evinbok and Neka Estag, both named for their original monarchs. Evinbok holds a position of strategic strength, with access to productive outlying farmland in Pantma Zhusti (the Upper Plains), while timber and easily quarried rock are in the ancient impact basin of Gesta Kazi (Broken Bowl). Kagzai (roughly, Blue-ton) and Ka Topi (Lower Town) are notable for practicing a form of representative democracy. Ka Shata Besi (High Cliff Town) is the center of a prosperous small nation of traders, who build ships from the timber of Tifa ko Pantma Shti (Forest of the Red Plain) and sail through Vimna Shti (Red Pass) as far antinormal as Sot Ushtin.

This map is hand-drawn with Pigma Micron pens of various types, then colored in Derwent watercolor pencils. I finish the map by painting over the pencils to blend and soften the watercolors together. The last step is photographing the piece with a 60 mm macro lens. The entire thing is 17″ wide and 14″ tall.

Enjoy, everybody!

Posted in Art, Concepts, Fantasy, Geology, Maps, Science Fiction | 2 Comments

What drives me nuts about “The Martian”

“The Martian:” Yeah, Martian dust storms are nothing. Yeah, Rich Purnell could’ve explained his maneuver to the NASA top brass with about six acronyms and the phrase “gravity assist.” Yeah, real-life-JPL has almost nothing to do with human space exploration. And yeah, that blow-up-the-Hermes thing is a completely harebrained and terrible idea.

I’ll give the movie a pass on all those counts, because it’s a good story, it gets most things right, and it puts technical problem-solving front and center. But here’s what really drives me nuts about “The Martian:”

“The Martian” highlights what NASA must do, but is not doing, in order to get people to Mars.

The Hermes

The Hermes

NASA must build interplanetary transfer craft optimized for deep-space travel, like the Hermes, not single-use capsules designed mostly for reentering Earth’s atmosphere like Orion.

NASA must invest significant research and development effort into “in-situ resource utilization,” such as the robotic manufacture of the fuels and propellants the MAV uses for Mars ascent.

NASA must develop closed-loop life support systems, like Mark Watney has in the water reclaimer and the oxygenator.

NASA must learn to grow food on Mars, instead of trying to send every supply with their astronauts in a single mission.

NASA must build vehicles that provide their crew with artificial gravity, by rotating, to counteract the bone loss effects of long-duration spaceflight.

NASA must learn to let its astronauts solve their own problems when they are twenty light-minutes away from Mission Control.

Most of all, NASA must try a lot of ideas, and they must be willing to see some of those ideas fail, in order to accomplish their ultimate goals.

What astronauts on Mars should be doing

What astronauts on Mars should be doing

Right now, NASA’s plans for getting people to Mars revolve around a series of activities designed to “learn how to live and work in space.” These activities include astronaut Scott Kelly’s hashtag-YearInSpace mission and the Asteroid Redirect Mission.

Commander Kelly’s mission has the goal of learning how the human body responds to a long duration spaceflight. At the end of his mission, Kelly will be tied for the fifth-longest duration spaceflight. We already have much experience with long spaceflights. Our friends in Russia have even more. So we already know pretty much everything that’s going to happen to him. What’s more, we know ways to mitigate those adverse effects. We need, for example, something to simulate gravity. Like a spacecraft with a centrifuge. That’s a solution science fiction – including “The Martian” – has taken for granted for decades, though NASA has no obvious plans to build true long-duration space vehicles for its crews. They will go to Mars floating in the cramped zero-g environs of an Orion capsule.

NASA also isn’t looking seriously at growing food to keep their crews fed in space. At a conference last March, I learned that all the Mars exploration reference missions involve taking all the food the crew needs for their entire travel, exploration, and return mission. That takes a huge amount of payload mass. Mark Watney did a much better job – and saved a lot of weight – by turning a few potatoes into food for a year. He got fresh vegetables, something his colleagues on the Hermes didn’t even have. Rover data shows that plants could grow on Mars, and creating a spacefaring civilization obviously depends on our ability to feed astronauts – so, again, why not look at the obvious solutions?

The big idea that “The Martian” demonstrates is human ingenuity and problem-solving. To NASA, though, that’s a problem. NASA doesn’t want astronauts tearing components apart and putting them back together like Mark Watney does. They want to have astronauts follow a checklist that has been tested, verified, and validated on the ground in several dozen ways. That philosophy is so pervasive in NASA that agency officials talk about how they need the Asteroid Redirect Mission to “test” solar-electric propulsion – a technology that NASA itself has been using in flight missions since 1998. If NASA really wants to go to Mars, it’s going to have to learn to be more like “The Martian:” being willing to take risks, try new ideas, and give its astronauts leeway to make decisions.

That’s what drives me nuts about “The Martian.” It depicts the space program that I’ve been hungering for for thirty years…and I’m afraid I won’t see such a thing for thirty more, at least.

Posted in NASA, Science Fiction, Space | 1 Comment