Monday, October 31, 2005

A Blog Worth Reading

OK, one last post for the month and the night. I read an article at The Space Review by Anthony Kendall, about the value of human exploration - very good article. It linked to his blog, so I took a look at some recent and archived articles. After reading posts about education, the future, NASA's Moon plans, the colors of fall leaves, creationism/ID, I realized that I was hooked on this blog. Here's a smart and sensible young science graduate student who can write some really engaging prose. On some of his pieces, I'm reminded of the the essays of the late Lewis Thomas (The Lives of a Cell). A rational mind analyzing things, connecting things, and appreciating the world. Check it out!

We got pictures!

Stanford Torus Space Colony View

I uploaded a bunch of my Orbiter screen caps to the new Flickr site. Just a convenient and free way to store a bunch of higher resolution pix (up to 1280 x 1024) on-line. The example above is one of my favorite "places" in Orbiter, the Stanford Torus Space Colony. If you want to see a wide range of Orbiter's graphics, browse through my Flickr pages - 46 "photos" so far. Gas giants, green Mars, space elevators, Moon landers, Mars Direct, even the Death Star, but without its (add Dr. Evil finger quotes) "Giant Lay-zer."

This may be my last post of the month. It looks like I've really gotten into this, and it is more or less the kind of thing I used to write in my flight lesson and flight sim journals for my own amusement - which is pretty much what this is too!

Sunday, October 30, 2005

T-45 Cockpit - HUD and MFD

I took this photo of the cockpit of a US Navy T-45 jet trainer at the Barnes Air Show in Western Massachusetts in August 2005 (the Thunderbirds were there, great show). I ended up using this in my Go Play in Space tutorial book for Orbiter, to illustrate what a real HUD (head-up display) and real MFD's (multi-function display) look like in a real aircraft. Orbiter spacecraft have a simulated HUD and two MFD screens that are used to display various navigation and control information, as is done in many combat, trainer, and other military aircraft.

T-45 Cockpit

Compare this to the similar HUD and two MFD's configuration of Orbiter's Delta Glider (shown in its virtual cockpit view).

Delta Glider HUD and MFDs

This is my first post using pictures from Flickr, an on-line picture storage and display system offered by Yahoo. It's free and it seems pretty cool - by posting the picture there and using the HTML code they supply to reference it here, I can insert the picture where I want it in the blog entry, and if you click on it, it takes you to the Flickr page where you can see the picture in other sizes, and also easily find other related pix I may post there.

Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV)

My friend Andy told me about a cool space site, Lots of useful stuff and interesting discussions on the forums. The CEV (Crew Exploration Vehicle) is NASA's proposed next-generation spacecraft that will take crews to the ISS, the Moon, and perhaps even Mars. In one post, an Orbiter user (gladiator1332) showed some Orbiter images of a biconic CEV, commenting that Orbiter provides the means to visualize these next-generation craft in 3D (not to mention you can fly them!). Another application!

Biconic refers to a special crew capsule shape that would provide some controllable lift on reentry without the weight penalty of wings. Francis Drake developed an add-on for Orbiter using this shape, and it's really cool. I played with it a bit, and the picture shows it docked at the ISS (unusual through-the-heatshield docking port). I haven't yet installed the files to mate this to Simcosmos' prototype SRB-derived booster.

NASA's programs may be delayed by funding problems - but not in Orbiter!

Best stuff on Earth: The Beatles

Here's a musical revelation: I love the music of the Beatles, all 10 hours and 28 minutes of it. They are probably my biggest influence in terms of songwriting, and I just never tire of hearing their music. I know I'm hardly alone in these sentiments, but there you have it. The trigger for this post was a Yahoo news item about the huge new Beatles biography by Bob Spitz. Early Amazon reviewers are Beatles fanatics and are not impressed, so I won't be rushing to buy it. But one of the reviews referenced a web site where a musicologist named Allan Pollack has analyzed all of the Beatles songs. This "Notes on" site was new to me -- I read a few, and they are quite good.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Mars and Money

Maybe this will be a short post. Switch to bullets...
  • Mars has been looking really bright the last few nights. Tomorrow night it will be only 69 million kilometers away. I wanna go!

  • Aside from the short-sightedness of cutting spending on space programs (in terms of long-run benefits and loss of valuable people and capabilities, among other things), there are also aspects of scale and context to consider. A number like $104 billion (estimated 13 year cost for NASA's plans to return to the Moon and go to Mars) sounds like a lot of money, and it is, but do critics consider the time period? And how does it compare to other government expenditures? A letter in the new Scientific American points out that the individual cost to the average American of the whole NASA annual budget is something like the cost of a magazine subscription. NASA is fortunately not the only path to future space ventures, but it still has a role, and I hate to see its budget treated like its programs have no value.

Newton's Cannon on the Moon

One of the things I'm working on now is a teacher's guide for Orbiter. It's not too far along, in part because I'm still hoping to find a real science teacher to work with me on it -- I think Orbiter can be a valuable tool in classrooms from grade 8 and up, and I think I have some good ideas, but never having been a teacher, I want to make sure the guide is grounded in school reality.

One thing the guide will have is some suggested lessons and demos, and one could explore the basic question "how do orbits work?" A classic explanation was first used by Sir Isaac Newton in his Principia, "Newton's mountain" (here is a cool interactive Java applet version). The thought experiment starts with a very tall mountain, tall enough to be above most of the Earth's atmosphere. A very powerful cannon fires cannonballs horizontally, adding powder each time to make the ball go faster. Slower balls hit the Earth, but at a certain speed, the curving slope of the Earth's surface "out-races" the cannonball's curved path, and the ball is in orbit.

In Orbiter, this experiment can be done on the Moon (Newton also worked out the orbital motion of the Moon in his Principia - it was the only Earth satellite around at the time). I use the Delta Glider (DG), which features separate main and hover engines. I first decide on an orbital height, say 20 km (low but OK, the Moon has no air to worry about) . I then calculate the circular orbital speed for this height (which is equivalent to R=1758 km from the Moon's center). The formula is Sqrt(G*M/R), where G is the universal gravitational constant (not the Moon's g), M is the mass of the Moon, and R is the distance from the Moon's center (Sqrt means square root). This works out to 1671 meters/second.

To get around the problem of gradual acceleration (Newton's imaginary cannon effectively has infinite acceleration, but Orbiter's spacecraft do not), I decided to have the the spacecraft accelerate up to a reference point (Orbiter's standard Moon base, Brighton Beach), using automatic hover to hold the 20 km altitude, and cutting the main and hover engines just over the base. I give the spacecraft unlimited fuel so its mass will not change as it accelerates, and I test and find that its main engine gives acceleration a=12.3 m/s^2. So to reach 1671 m/s, I need to accelerate for t = v/a = 1671/12.3 or 135.85 seconds.

But how far away should I start? There's another high school physics formula for this, for acceleration a, time t, distance d, d = (1/2)*a*t^2 (time squared). This works out to 113.5 km, so I open a Brighton Beach scenario and fly a DG 113.5 km west and hover there at 20 km altitude. Point toward the base, full thrust, watch the distance in the Map MFD, and when I get close, I slow down to 1/10 of real time so I can kill the engines right over the base.

Sure enough I get a pretty nice orbit. Two other DG's will be added at closer distances - they will not build up enough speed to orbit and will hit the Moon. So I will have the student launch each of the three and keep track of how far and how long each flies, and if orbit is achieved.

Long post! This is the sort of thing I think about in the car sometimes these days. It used to be song lyrics, now it's gravitational thought experiments on the Moon! Well I was a physics major as well as a space freak. What can I say?

Thursday, October 27, 2005

LIFE Magazine Flashback

The Project Gemini add-on for Orbiter is just beautiful. Although most of the changes in the latest (4.5) version are internal (it now has a virtual cockpit), I had never tried the earlier versions. Rob Conley and his "Meadville Space Center" partners have done a great job on this. Project Gemini was where the vital techniques of rendezvous and docking were actually demonstrated - the ability to do this maneuver with precision would be a key requirement for the planned two-spacecraft (Command Module and Lunar Module) Apollo Moon missions.

The first Orbiter screen shot depicts Gemini about to dock with the Agena booster above Hawaii. The second shot simulates the dual-spacecraft rendezvous missions flown in 1965 with a view of Gemini 6 from the commander's window of Gemini 7. These Orbiter views really bring back memories of those mid-sixties missions, and especially of the color photos in LIFE Magazine. Now I finally get to fly the Gemini.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Obsession's Greatest Hits

I've just been thinking about a few things I have pursued that have bordered on obsessions at various times, without much elaboration except to say -- when I get obsessed with something, I really get obsessed. This list is semi-chronological and certainly incomplete:
  1. Space and other flight (as a kid)
  2. Model building (airplanes and spacecraft, as a kid)
  3. Flying (Civil Air Patrol, as a kid)
  4. Basketball (briefly, in high school)
  5. Music (guitar, songwriting, recording, in college)
  6. Languages (French, Russian, Japanese)
  7. Physics
  8. Optics (a good one, pays the bills!)
  9. Flight simulators
  10. Flying (flight lessons, private pilot)
  11. Music again (songwriting, recording, my first CD)
  12. Space again (Orbiter simulator)
There are worse things to be obsessed with, I suppose. Notably missing: TV and sports since high school. It's kind of odd that I've "regressed" back to the first obsession I really remember (space). John Glenn must have made some impression on that 8 year old boy!

And I forgot what has to be the biggest obsession of all -- books! Every other obsession was accompanied by a steady stream of them -- shelves and boxes are still crammed with books on Japanese, flying, space, flight sims, songwriting, SF, WWII history, Mozart, and whatever else. A few die-cast model airplanes too (nostalgia for the models but no time to build). And if anything, the web has fed the book addiction. I am an Amazonaholic...

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Really retro...

and not retro rockets. One of the coolest add-ons for Orbiter comes from the pages of Collier's Magazine, circa 1952. A series of early articles on space exploration by Wernher von Braun was illustrated with paintings by Chesley Bonestell. These paintings visually defined space as a place for a whole generation of Americans, including many future space scientists and astronauts. Erik Anderson and John Graves have recreated the look and feel of the Bonestell paintings in an amazing add-on called "World of Colliers." Pointy-nose rockets, spinning space stations, spider-legged moon landers - they are all here. Too cool.

Christa's Legacy

I had a meeting today with some nice folks at the Christa McAuliffe Center at Framingham State College. This center provides support to teachers by offering science and math programs, some with space exploration themes. One of their programs, the Challenger Learning Center, hosts groups of middle-school students who participate in team-oriented, science-based simulated space missions in mockups of Houston's Mission Control and a space station interior. It's a pretty cool place for grown up space freaks too.

Since this center is already using space themes for science education, I thought they might be interested in Orbiter. I contacted them, and they invited me to give a presentation and demo on Orbiter to some of their staff involved with science/technology and curriculum development. It went well, and they will be looking into the possibility of using Orbiter in some of their programs. I offered to help.

Christa McAuliffe, who tragically died along with the rest of the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986, was chosen as NASA's first "teacher in space." Her mission continues today in the programs of the Christa McAuliffe Center and the Challenger Learning Centers.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Let a thousand space programs bloom

I think Mao's original quote was for "100 flowers" and it has been paraphrased in thousands of ways. It suggests diversity in thinking and action, and while it may have been a short-lived philosophy in China (though it seems to have made a good comeback in recent years), it describes the state of space programs in the world today, which I think is a good thing, for the most part.

Although I'm a space enthusiast, I don't closely follow the space press or even all the issues. I'm more of a grazer -- exploring various paths through the web, reading the occasional Discover Magazine or Scientific American, playing with and promoting Orbiter, buying and sometimes even reading books on space subjects. Even this relatively casual look at space news and issues reveals an amazing level and diversity of space-related activity in the world today.

Consider just the last few weeks. NASA announced its Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS), followed by a lot of debate. China launched two "taikonauts" on its second piloted orbital mission. I read articles about private space ventures by SpaceX (developing low cost launch vehicles) and LiftPort (developing space elevator technology). This morning I saw an article about the NASA-sponsored Space Elevator Games. I also read about European plans for Mars in a Discover Magazine article. And the MarsDrive Consortium launched its web site, working to unite people and organizations that support their "aim to send human missions to Mars and establish a permanent base there within the next 2 decades." I hope to be involved with their educational task force - perhaps a petal on one of those thousand blooms.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Almost Serenity

I have an Australian friend (Peter "MiGMan" Inglis) who shares my love of making music and playing with things that fly (I know what you're thinking - who are these guys, FlyingSinger, DarthVader, MiGMan?!? - blame it on too many childhood comic books). He strongly recommended the film Serenity, so Friday night my wife and I went to a 9:30 show. It's a quirky movie, more "space western" than SF, but we were really getting into it for 45 minutes until the film broke. We got our money back, but that's very frustrating. Have to find time to see the whole thing before it leaves the theater.

Intrigued by the film's oddball space freighter "Serenity,", I checked the Orbiter Forum and found that there's already an add-on model for Orbiter! Jon Marcure created this animated gem from the short-lived "Firefly" TV series that the film is based upon. Orbiter has realistic orbital mechanics and can re-create real spacecraft and missions, but there are tons of fun fictional spacecraft for it as well. The screen-shot shows the Serenity firing all engines in low Earth orbit.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Fly me to the Moon, too!

I really like DarthVader's Orbiter-inspired blog Fly Me to the Moon - he is learning Orbiter and Apollo at the same time, starting with Earth orbit testing of the CSM in Apollo VII, just like real life. Makes a lot of sense. I've only flown selected segments of Apollo XI myself, but intend to fly a complete Apollo mission one of these days. I know Orbiter pretty well, but the accurate NASSP/Apollo add-on has its own learning curve. See all those switches on the Lunar Module (LM) panel?

I'm also trying to watch From the Earth to the Moon, the Tom Hanks/HBO mini-series I recently bought on DVD. It's really great, but with all the other things going on, I've only watched 3 episodes so far. One was about Apollo IX which was the first mission to test the LM. Although it was "only" an Earth orbit mission, it was complex and difficult, and the episode also showed a lot of the complex engineering work that Grumman had to pull off to to get "Spider" to fly at all. Great stuff.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Why Space? Why now?

For me personally, the question of "why space?" is buried deep in my childhood, when I watched Mercury and Gemini launches on TV and saw the amazing pictures in LIFE magazine. I decided that flying was the coolest thing you could possibly do, and flying in space, even cooler. Long story how I ended up an optical engineer instead of an astronautical engineer, but I never lost the interest in flying and space stuff, and I'm thrilled to see that space is on the national and world agenda more today than in many years.

But I recognize that "normal" people may desire more of an explanation than "it's really cool," and of course it is much more than that. You can list many direct and spin-off benefits of past space programs, and people will accept that weather satellites and velcro are good things. We have those, and we can launch more satellites as we need them, but why do we need more piloted space flights? To go back to the Moon? To Mars? Why spend all that money in space?

First of all, we never actually spend money in space -- there are no boxes full of $100 bills ejected from the Shuttle's payload bay. The money is spent here -- on paychecks, materials, manufacturing, business services, research contracts, graduate student funding, lots of things. It helps people on Earth, generates technology for future products, and stimulates interest in science and technology.

That's my big thing, the kids and the needs of the future -- I'm sure we will always have more than enough rock stars and lawyers, but can we inspire enough kids to be interested in science and technology to meet future needs? Not just for space, for all fields. Anything that can help this is worth it in my opinion. Space should be an international effort, but I would like to keep some of those future jobs in North America, if possible (there's plenty of room for all in the vastness of space, but note that China and India both have very active space programs and apparently associate this with future growth and leadership).

There's much more to say, but I will stop and recommend a web site called The Space Review (see for example this article). Lots of thoughtful articles there, largely by people who favor space exploration, but who are also very critical of what we do and why. There are choices to be made, but taking any of NASA's 1% of the Federal budget and applying it to "more pressing current problems" is not the answer. We should actually invest more money in space now if we hope to continue to get benefits in the future.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Mars Direct Base Scene at Vallis Dao

Mars Direct is a proposal and an architecture for getting to Mars sooner rather than later, one key component of which is the idea of "living off the land," which really means making use of available resources on Mars for certain parts of the mission. You can send the unmanned, automated Earth return vehicle (ERV) there ahead of the crew and have robotic systems deployed which will make rocket fuel mostly from atmospheric gases. This will save a lot of mass for the total mission, allowing it to be done without complex Earth-orbit assembly as in many earlier Mars mission proposals. There's more to it than that, and Dr. Robert Zubrin's original book The Case for Mars is still the best basic source on Mars Direct.

The Mars Direct Project for Orbiter (MDPO) is an ambitious team project which intends to model a Mars Direct mission from start to finish in Orbiter. Some parts of this add-on are already modeled in near-final detail, such as the "HAB" (habitation module which will carry the crew from low Earth orbit to the surface of Mars and provide the primary living space) and the Ares booster and upper stage. Other parts are in less complete form, including the essential Earth Return Vehicle (ERV).

To give an idea of what this could look like, I've put together a "teaser" picture with elements from several sources. The HAB is a MDPO beta version beautifully modeled by Ken Bolli. The terrain is a recent 3D surface base for the rugged Vallis Dao region of Mars, by "jtiberius." The "Mars Rovers" are actually Moon rovers created by Andy McSorley for his Prometheus Project. And in the background, the ERV from an earlier Mars Direct add-on for Orbiter, published by Zachary Grillo. I mashed these together for my "photo shoot" - they're not distributed in this form, but I wanted to give an idea of what a Mars Direct base scene could look like in Orbiter. I've flown most of the phases of a Mars Direct mission, but I'm looking forward to eventually simulating the whole thing, except for the six-month trip (fortunately Orbiter supports high levels of time acceleration!).

Jupiter Rising on Io

I really like Orbiter. I want to thank Dr. Martin Schweiger for developing it and making it freely available to the world. Thanks to him, there's a truly international "virtual space program" going on right now -- with people in many countries creating add-ons for Orbiter and using it to teach and learn about physics and space flight, to explore the possibilities of space, and even to simulate possible future missions and systems such as space elevators. I think it's a great educational tool, and I've got my own campaign going to help teachers and students make better use of it (I'm currently working on a teacher's guide to supplement the tutorial book I wrote).

But you can also use Orbiter to just fly around the solar system and appreciate how beautiful it is. With the help of an indispensible add-on called Orbiter Sound, Orbiter is also an MP3 player for your PC! So you can listen to music while peacefully orbiting the Earth or any other body in the Solar System. Very relaxing. The screen shot shows Jupiter rising over the sulfurous surface of Io, Jupiter's highly volcanic moon. A futuristic "Delta Glider" space plane is firing its main engines to leave orbit.

Space elevators - sooner than I thought!

I posted the Green Mars space elevator picture from Orbiter yesterday, and I was pleased to get my first non-spam comment for my two-day-old blog from someone who is actually working to create a real space elevator on Earth - in 15 years! This was from Blogspot blogger Brian Dunbar.

The LiftPort Group is doing research, development, and fund raising to make his happen, and it's really cool. From their FAQ and research pages, I learned that the concept of a space elevator as a massive, rigid pole (as depicted in the Orbiter add-on and in "Red Mars" and other SF
descriptions) is basically wrong -- it will really be more like a super-strong and thin ribbon, with self-propelled "climbers" that pull themselves up the cable with power beamed up by lasers. It's nice that there's also some optics in this, as that's my professional field - this will certainly require adaptive optics to maintain the beam quality through that long stack of turbulent atmosphere.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Red Mars => Green Mars?

I'm just finishing Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson, a really amazing SF book about the first steps of colonizing and terraforming Mars, starting around 2026. It could happen, and I think it should. I think space is going to be very important in the next 20-100 years, and colonizing Mars will be part of that. A backup plan for humanity, among other things. Along these lines, I wrote a long article called "Your Future in Space" which was adapted from the Epilogue of my Orbiter book Go Play in Space. The article is posted at, a new and very cool space advocacy and education site.

I'm going to press my luck and include both a web link AND a picture in this post (I've had some trouble getting this blog going). The picture is from Orbiter and shows a space elevator rising from the equator of a future terraformed "green Mars." Yes , space elevators will be possible, thanks to carbon nanotubes (they can be simulated now in Orbiter), and yes, terraforming Mars is probably possible, but it will take a long time. "Green Mars" is the next book in Robinson's trilogy, probably to be read on my next long airplane flight somewhere.

So where's the music?

So far this is all about the "spheres" and nothing about the music. Obsessions go in phases, and music has been down the list since spring of 2004. But music will rise again, I'm sure. Meanwhile, I have songs in various places around the web. This site has three of my songs, including one that is not on my CD, a countryish-rocker called "Gonna Start Winning." You can stream or download the MP3's there (

Music of the Spheres? Flying Singer?

Music of the Spheres was just a whim, but perhaps it's apt - I make music, and I play with space stuff, and "music of the spheres" is an ancient space reference, referring to the motions of the celestial bodies. Orbital mechanics, just like Orbiter, sort of. Flying Singer was the name of a horse in a race I once accidentally attended. I'm not a gambler, but as a songwriter and a (semi-grounded) private pilot, the name Flying Singer had a certain appeal. I bet on the horse and he made me a few bucks. When I needed a nom de web for some forums and such, I adopted the name for myself. Pretty random, but also not, the way a lot of things are.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

A blog?

I've got a personal web site that I hardly use, several guitars I hardly play, a pilot's license I hardly fly with, not to mention that tread mill in the basement. I've got a CD I'm hardly promoting (from late 2003 - I still like the songs though, and I've got a bunch more at least half-written for whenever the next CD project happens, maybe in 2006). So do I really need a blog?

Maybe I do. Things change. I have a personal journal that I mostly use on business trips, and I kept journals in my college years and in my heavy flight sim period, and in my flight lesson days. This won't be a personal journal - just a place to share some thoughts on whatever happens to be the obsession of the month. Maybe I mostly share these thoughts with myself (have we reached the point of one blog for every person on the planet yet?)

The last few months the obsession has been space flight, courtesy of a wonderful freeware space flight simulator called Orbiter. Big time obsession. I even wrote a book about it, an introduction to space flight called Go Play In Space. That's 136 pages and 8 MB of obsession. That's a small picture from Orbiter, the Mars Direct HAB (habitation module) approaching Mars. I'll probably write more about Orbiter and Mars in days to come.

This blog will NOT be about politics (OK, I think Bush sucks, but I don't want to discuss it), families, travel (well maybe sometimes), TV, or dogs.

I guess blog entries are often brief, and I'm often not, though I aspire to be. To be continued I guess.