I love the Daily Show

Red and blue states agree: Jon Stewart is America’s most trusted newsman, according to a Time.com poll.

I had to wonder after learning this. The man is a satirist, after all. His delivery is sarcastic, his graphics are built around smarmy puns, and his style might be described as, perhaps, “theatrical antics.” He’s a comedian first, not a newsman!

However, on further consideration, I did realize something that probably factored into the poll: Stewart seems to have a knack for pointing out the obvious in a convoluted political situation. And sometimes it just takes someone pointing out some straightforward implication for us to keep our perspective on the twisting world of politics. And I, for one, am glad to have a guy around who will keep pointing out how childish and inane Sarah Palin is.

My first realization, though, on seeing that poll result was that it’s mostly a commentary on the demographic that is most likely to respond to Internet polls.

The Unified Space Vision

On this 40th anniversary of his launch to the Moon, Buzz Aldrin wrote an excellent opinion piece in today’s Washington post. (Speaking of the anniversary, check out the HD restored videos of the landing on NASA’s web site!) Reading it motivated me to go to the Augustine Commission‘s web site and leave them the following comment:

I have had dreams of space ever since I can remember, and grew up watching documentaries about the space program of the 1960’s. Now, I am pursuing a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering – and am working at NASA JSC this summer. I just turned 25 years old.

In my opinion, my generation has lost the focus on science and exploration – but we have more of a fixation on the latest and greatest high-tech gadgetry than anyone before us. We line up to get new smartphones and mp3 players, and then line up again to get the very latest model when it’s released. We are focused on the “new.” To us, who grew up with the Space Shuttle, the International Space Station, and the legacy of Apollo, the Constellation program does not look “new.” We look at the plans for Orion, Altair, and Ares, and think, “If the mission of NASA is to go to the Moon, why don’t we just dust off the old blueprints for the Saturn V and Apollo CM/LM and get there in just as long as it takes to build those things, instead of by 2020?” My generation has grown up seeing an ever-shorter development cycle on high-tech products. This leads us to wonder how getting *back* to the Moon from our current Shuttle/ISS position is going to take more than a decade, when in the social tumult and limited technology of the 1960’s America went from no human spaceflight to landing men on the Moon in less than a decade. We want to see something NEW, and we want to see if SOON. Something that looks like technology has evolved from the Apollo, Space Shuttle, and ISS stepping-stones rather than backpedaling from Shuttle and ISS. To us, that evolution looks like it is much more like SpaceShipOne than Orion.

If I may be so bold as to offer a suggested solution, I would say that, first, NASA needs a strategic focus on doing something obviously new, something that obviously leverages the latest technologies, something with obvious returns to our lives on Earth. NASA should be pioneering new technologies and actively exploring the Solar System. To me, this means human colonization of Mars, with all the development for a self-sustaining habitat and all the spinoffs to green high tech that entails. My generation is ever more concerned about social justice, energy policy, efficiency, and climate change; and given the similar challenges facing manned spacecraft, this is a perfect opportunity for NASA. In today’s Washington Post, Buzz Aldrin articulates a case for Martian exploration under a Unified Space Vision far better than I could: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/15/AR2009071502940.html

Second, NASA needs to look to new technologies and techniques in accomplishing its goals. Something experimental, something with a high rate of return. It would be fine if it requires a higher up-front investment if it lowers costs in the long term, unlike the Constellation architecture. To that end, I think funding should be restored to NASA programs developing next-generation lifting-body reusable spacecraft rather than capsule spacecraft. NASA needs to show that it can do more than what Scaled Composites did with a $20 million budget. The next-generation spacecraft could even leverage existing Constellation development by using Ares rockets and Shuttle boosters to achieve orbit. The focus should be on correcting the expenses and inefficiencies of the Space Shuttle, not entirely abandoning the architecture of that highly capable spacecraft.

Thank you.

If you are similarly motivated to support the space program and get ourselves kicked up out of low-Earth orbit, leave a comment yourself.

It is definitely beyond the scope of the Commission to designate a specific technical solution, but I had to throw in a plug for my favorite next-gen spacecraft idea. The concept comes from, again, Buzz Aldrin, and I first read about it in his novel The Return, which I picked up at a recent Ithaca library book sale. The basic idea is this:

Take two or three Space Shuttle solid rocket boosters. Modify the SRBs into lifting bodies, put little wings on them, or change the parachutes to paragliders. Then leverage existing UAV technology for all its worth to turn the SRBs into “flyback boosters” that return automatically to their launch site, where they can immediately go into refurbishment between flights. Voila: no ocean recovery means instant savings.

Now take those two or three flyback boosters and put them on something like an existing Atlas V/Centaur booster. (I favor using the Ares design here.) This liquid-fueled booster would be expendable, and provide sustained thrust through the second stage to get the payload into orbit. Of course, the payload could be much bigger than a typical Atlas V payload, such as MRO, thanks to the additional SRB-derived boosters.

Finally, what goes on top of this 2 1/2 stage booster? A manned spaceraft that’s half Space Shuttle and half SpaceShipOne. It would be a craft purely for orbital and reentry operations, so it needn’t be as large as the Shuttle, which incudes powerful main engines for the ascent to orbit. This craft could probably fit a small crew compartment and cargo bay along with an orbital maneuvering system; however, there’s a lot of sense to having a separate crewed version and cargo version. The key thing is that the aerodynamics of the spaceraft body need to be designed with a nice, smooth reentry in mind, and allow the craft to be piloted back to an airstrip. Leverage composites (a great new technology that matured mostly after the Shuttle was first designed) for all they are worth, and again, avoid the expensive water landing.

The result should be something with the range of capabilities of the Shuttle, lots of reusability, little expense compared to both STS and expendable systems, and a pretty big safety factor. I plan to run through some of the calculations when I get back to Ithaca, but I imagine that Space Shutle-sized crews or substantial cargo lifts should be possible.


I just saw Sam Rockwell in “Moon” today. Wow, what a movie.

The two-second, non-spoiler plot outline is that Rockwell plays Sam Bell, a blue-collar astronaut who works in a one-man mining outpost on the far side of the moon with no live communications to anyone. He’s about to end his three-year contract when, after an accident, he goes out onto the surface and finds a man who happens to look and act exactly like Sam Bell. Now they have to figure out what’s going on.

The movie is a tour de force for Rockwell’s acting, since he spends most of the time playing against himself. The obvious effects aside, he handles the dialog naturally enough that I really forgot that he had to play the two separately – he was really acting with himself. It’s also incredible that he was able to bring out the subtle differences between the Sam Bell who has been in the outpost for three years and the newcomer Sam Bell. There were some physical differences between the two characters, but sometimes it was hard to tell which was which based on visual impression alone. Yet it was always easy to tell one from the other as they interacted. Rockwell really put a lot of ordinary-guy-ness into the character, and put a lot of thought into the effects of isolation and delayed communication. They way his characters handle the mystery they’ve been thrown into is simulatneously heartbreaking and triumphant.

Now I have to talk a bit about the science fiction in this movie. This is sci-fi in its purest form: science and fiction, with a strong grounding in both solid scientific concepts and in dramatic and chracter development. The science is, in fact, not too far removed from our own – perhaps fifty years off – and it looks like everything grew out of the space program as we know it today. The movie goes to show just how well adhering to real science instead of going for cheesy effects, laser sounds in space, and ridiculous robots can move the drama along. Sam Bell eats freeze-dried, reconstituted astronaut food. He has to wear a familiar white spacesuit. His lunar outpost is all form-built white surfaces, but he still uses sticky notes. He has to exercise to keep his muscle tone. And all these things contribute to the frustrations he experiences in his lonely three-year stay.

However, there is only one bit of science that is absolutely necessary to move the plot along – the explanation for Sam’s duplicate. I got the feeling that this sort of story could have happened in many different places or times, and the science fiction is only a vehicle to move the plot along and let us watch these characters deal with their situation. I definitely appreciated that – it’s about time sci-fi broke out of the rut it’s been in, where it’s all about action-adventure and CG explosions.

(Just FYI: Yeah, they really could have done a better job making 1/6 gee gravity apparent. Yeah, there are some sounds in space – but at least they’re muted, BSG-style. And yeah, the rover design is kind of poor for the Moon. But those are about the only scientific gripes I can put down, and look how tiny and insignificant they are!)

This is also a very smart movie. The film shows you enough information to show you what’s going on, and by the end, I understood all that had happened. But it doesn’t tell you straight up what’s happening. There are no scenes where a character explains to another character what just happened or why they are in the situation they are. Instead, we see Sam figuring things out, and we figure things out along with him. It felt like a very participatory movie to me, and I enjoyed that aspect of it a great deal.

This is a wonderful sci-fi movie. It’s definitely an homage to some of the classics, most obviously the spaceship scenes in 2001 (you know, the best part of that movie), and an homage to the days of the classic Heinlein-style sci-fi that followed on the heels of real space exploration; it brings back the feel of when people followed both space movies and space news. And I’m all for that.

For what it’s worth, I hope this movie gets a much bigger exposure in national release. I will also secretly hope for an Oscar nod for Sam Rockwell, because I think the critics have long overlooked SF as a genre in which great acting and writing can happen.

on healthcare and research

I have two things to write down some thoughts about.

First, while I do some of the more mechanical computer modeling work during the day, I’ve been listening to a lot of NPR streamed over the Tubes. Today, I learned some factoids that basically break down as follows:

  1. If you figure out how many people in America get health care and the quality of care they recieve, you find that we actually have the most “rationed” healthcare system of industrialized nations. That is, in a country with omg-we-can’t-have-that single-payer healthcare, or even anything not as vile and disgusting as that, more people get the care they need when they need it than in the USA.
  2. If you figure out how much health care costs in this country, and compare it to the cost of health care in other countries – not just premiums, mind you, but tax money that goes into health care as well – you find that Americans have the most expensive health care system in the world.

If you’re thinking what I’m thinking, it’s that the GOP is neither morally nor fiscally responsible; and that they are not really “conservative” in any actual definition of the word. If you’re not thinking that, you’re probably a Republican and have just pegged me as a pinko commie godless bleeding-heart Massachusetts liberal. (I will give you three of the words in that phrase, contend that there’s nothing wrong with at least those three, and the rest I contest.) In fact, I am merely a scientist and engineer, and I know how to read numbers and am willing to make policy decisions based on data. I’m also insulin-dependent diabetic, and would seriously appreciate a much lower cost and more assurance of the efficacy of the treatments just keeping myself alive.

Second, I have been hoping to come up with some good theoretical results to present in a conference paper on my research later this summer, and it just hasn’t happened. I’ve been too busy with other work-related things, and now I’m in a summer internship at NASA and don’t have the time to spare, so results are not going to be forthcoming before the paper deadline. This leads me to conclude that I much prefer being an experimentalist to being a theoretician. The reason is that labs sometimes go the experimenter’s way, and sometimes they don’t – but part of that is uncontrollable. The experimenter can, though, usually sift through data to find some useful results. Even negative results are useful. Any results at all will at least shed light on the techniques employed. If theoretical work doesn’t go the theoretician’s way, however…you are just left with a theoretician staring blankly at a piece of paper with a lot of scratchwork. And a lack of results just means that the theoretician hasn’t done the right thing or worked hard enough yet.

In other words, I have no results and it’s my own damn fault. I can’t even blame fault apparatus, numerical noise, or experimental error. I just didn’t do enough, or the right kind of, work. And that just makes me less motivated to continue this line of inquiry.