Sunday, April 30, 2006

Revisioning the Vision

CEV-LSAM Approach on Moon
I’ve been busy with work and with doing space stuff in Orbiter. On the Orbiter side, I’ve been finishing the second edition of Go Play In Space (and beta testing the upcoming 2006 release of Orbiter in connection with this), and working with a team on an Orbiter simulation of the MarsDrive Consortium’s Mars for Less reference mission. Mars for Less has been developed by Grant Bonin as a modular variation of Dr. Robert Zubrin’s well-known Mars Direct approach, and Grant will be presenting a paper on the mission design this coming week at ISDC 2006 in Los Angeles.

Wrapped up in real work and virtual space, I missed a big story on the real side of space, and I’m grateful to Grant for pointing this out. On March 15, Dr. John Marburger, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) gave a major speech at the 44th Robert H. Goddard Memorial Symposium in Greenbelt, Maryland. In it, he revisited President Bush’s 2004 Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), and spelled out more clearly that a major question answered by VSE is “whether we want to incorporate the Solar System in our economic sphere, or not.”

The VSE’s answer is “yes,” and Dr. Marburger goes on to justify the focus on the Moon as a crucial step, because it and its resources are fairly close at hand, and more importantly, lie far from the bottom of Earth’s deep gravity well. And “resources” are key, because he also talks about how our space program must be made to serve the goals of scientific, security, and economic interests. It is not only about science, although that is part of it, it’s about making space serve the interests of the people of the US, and mankind in general. It’s a long-run view that is really quite progressive, even (dare I say) visionary. It does put Mars on a distant back burner, which is disappointing but also unfortunately realistic from the perspective of an economic return – I’m all for someone going to Mars as soon as they can, but Mars is quite far away and getting there will require solving many more problems than getting back to the Moon (maybe someone will solve those problems before NASA gets to them).

The speech also puts into perspective the reductions in NASA’s budget for science programs – for one thing, I was surprised to learn that due to unexpected successes in the lifetimes of many spacecraft (e.g., the Mars Rovers), that the US currently has 55 viable spacecraft requiring operations support. There are also relative increases for certain non-space science areas important to US competitiveness (DOE, NSF, NIST). These factors (in addition to continued support for the ISS and Shuttle, and development of next generation manned spacecraft) certainly put pressure on NASA’s budget, and a 3% increase just can’t cover everything. Should NASA have gotten more? In part this is a ROI question – would the American people get a good return by investing more in NASA? I don’t know, but the 3% and this speech certainly show the Administration’s opinion.

There is more to it – it’s a good speech. Such a speech from the OSTP director could be seen simply as one of the President’s men defending the President’s policies, and at one level, it is. But at another level, it makes the case that the VSE really is visionary, setting the stage for making the Solar System part of our practical world. Whether NASA will be able to pull it off, and whether future administrations will support its goals, I don’t know. But it goes far beyond footprints and flags and is extremely space-positive. I rarely give him credit for much, but I do have to give the President credit for pointing us in a spacefaring direction.

There was also an interesting analysis of this speech by Dennis Wingo on Saturday in

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Remedial Astronomy

I've got something really cool in my back yard... THE UNIVERSE! Despite all the time I spend "playing in space" with Orbiter on my computer, I sometimes forget that real, actual space is just a few hundred kilometers on up to several billion light years, right above my back deck! Pretty amazing, huh?

I know a a fair amount about physics, planetary motion, the properties of stars and galaxies. All of that book and software astronomy and space flight stuff. But I must confess that when it comes to actually knowing my way around the sky, I'm pretty dim. I know the most common markers - Orion and the Big Dipper (an asterism rather than a constellation, BTW), and I can recognize the planets when I know (from the web) when and where to look. But beyond that, I really know very little observational astronomy.

So when I stumbled on The Backyard Stargazer by Pat Price, I bought it, even though I already have a few amateur astronomy books. This 167 page book is really basic, and sad to say, I need that! It's full of good explanations, diagrams, rules of thumb (2.5°) that I sort of knew, and even a table of pronunciations so I finally know how to say Bo├Âtes (bo-OH-teez). It has sections on binoculars and telescopes but focuses more on naked-eye astronomy, which is what I really need to improve. On clear nights this spring and summer, I plan to spend some time in the back yard, getting to know my universe better with the help of this book.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Pioneers Get No Respect

Ira and George Gershwin wrote a great song called They All Laughed which starts out
They all laughed at Christopher Columbus
When he said the world was round
They all laughed when Edison recorded sound
They all laughed at Wilbur and his brother
When they said that man could fly...
The New York Times also laughed at Robert Goddard in 1920 for his crazy belief that rockets could work in the vacuum of space. And of course they're still laughing at space pioneers today, as discussed by Bob Clarebrough in a great essay called "That Kitty Hawk moment" at The Space Review. Pioneers get no respect.

And they probably won't get any respect until tourists are complaining about how slow the robot room service is in their hotel room on Mars (actually no one will think about space pioneers then, any more than most people think about the Wrights while eating a tiny bag of pretzels in a coach seat en route to Newark). But as Clarebrough suggests, let's at least cut the pioneers a little slack.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Deepstar Interplanetary Ship 2071

Deepstar 2071 at Io Deepstar Lander Io 2071
I've been looking at Orbiter interplanetary add-on ships that carry landing craft. There are a few of them around, and I want to recommend one for a follow-up activity for the Earth-Mars chapter in the new edition of Go Play In Space. In that chapter, the standard Delta Glider is used, which makes things easy because it's a futuristic (though still physically realistic) spaceplane that has the range and power to get to Mars, as well as hover engines to make it (relatively) easy to land. It doesn't really matter in a simulator, but the fact that the Delta Glider has about the same interior space as a minivan hurts the realism just a bit for a six month flight.

Near-future Mars spacecraft such as Mars Direct and Mars for Less are in the pipeline for Orbiter, but for now, I thought I'd look a few more years ahead, to the late part of the century. There are some add-on ships around that implement exotic but possible propulsion systems, provide large crew spaces (often rotated for artificial G), and can carry one or more smaller craft (such as the Delta Glider) for surface operations.

I had been planning to recommend the Vespucci D (Nectioch, John McCain, and "Oz") which is a large spacecraft with rather exotic propulsion. This is a cool ship that can carry up to four Delta Gliders, but there is a bit of a procedural learning curve for using its power and propulsion systems. So I kept looking.

Today I tried out Deepstar 1.0, a rather nice recent add-on by Alain Hosking (80mileshigh), and this could be the answer. It's also a rather large ship with rotating hab compartments, and it carries two lunar module-like landing craft. These have hover engines, so the LandMFD autopilot can land them, at least on moons with minimal atmosphere such as Io (shown above). It seems to work quite well in local tests, and I see no reason it won't work well with IMFD (Alain supplies a large number of scenarios with tips for using TransX, perhaps the most commonly used interplanetary flight planning tool).

The only downside to the Deepstar (cool name) is that I'm not sure the LM-like landers are really suitable for Mars entry. They may work anyway (Orbiter doesn't really keep track of aero-heating, so you won't burn up), or maybe I can try substituting Delta Gliders for the standard landers. This could cause rotational stability problems though.

The quest continues... more pix on Flickr.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Fast Food and Pornography

We have evolved to survive and reproduce. Survival works with heuristics – rules of thumb that tell us “eat things that taste good, and when there’s a lot, eat a lot” and “seek out attractive, healthy-looking mates” because during most of humanity’s history, survival was a close thing. Those who followed such evolved heuristics had marginally better chances to survive and leave behind children and grandchildren. They were our ancestors. For those of us lucky enough to live and work in prosperous societies today, survival is not such a close thing in the food and attractive mate departments. But evolutionary survival heuristics keep working anyway. The result? Fast food and pornography.

This is one of many seemingly off the wall conclusions of evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller in an essay in the April/May Seed Magazine. The title is “Why we haven’t met any aliens.” Huh? Yes, it connects. I’ll spoil it for you and tell you that the aliens lost interest in finding other minds in the universe when they perfected the arts of permanent self-stimulation. They perished in virtual worlds of their own creation, loving every minute of it, right down to the last GTA virtual gang-bang and Big Mac with Fries (or alien equivalents thereof). The virtual worlds didn’t actually kill them (though the fries may have). They just were having so much fun, they forgot to reproduce. ET is probably hanging out in Woody Allen’s orgasmatron. Hey, isn’t somebody working on that here?

Of course this is really about us. Are we pleasuring ourselves to death? It does seem that entertainment in its many forms occupies more and more of our time and attention in America, at least. Sure, we still work a lot. But it does seem more and more to be about the frivolous and pleasurable and trivial. Far removed from survival. Of course many of the world’s people are faced with more difficult day to day decisions than whether to watch American Idol (go Katherine!) or play X-Box. And we do institute clever, non-intuitive strategies for making sure that survival doesn’t get too easy. Like electing (well, not exactly) a “decider” president who pisses off the whole world and can’t wait to find another war to start. That should keep us from getting too fat and lazy! Some of us anyway.

So am I part of the problem or part of the solution? Take space. On one level it’s cool – Orbiter is a video game I don’t have to feel guilty about playing. It’s freaking physics, man! On another level, I really believe that a one-planet strategy could get us in trouble someday. I’d like to have a backup plan, a couple million humans fighting and bickering on Mars, instead of just the 12 billion or so down here. Writing Go Play In Space was my first attempt to stimulate interest in science, using the relative coolness of space flight to sell the relative geekiness of studying science stuff. But in the end, I’m sitting for hours in front of a computer, immersed in a virtual world of space by night, a virtual world of international business by day. I help to sell software that is used to design technical products involving light. Most of my customers are in Asia. What are they designing? Entertainment products! Whoa. Neo, you were right, there’s something strange going on here.

Orbiter Add-on Riches

2001: Work Pod Betty with Discovery 2001: Aries at Clavius
I'm in the final few days of updating Go Play In Space for the expanded second edition - between work and that, I've had little time for blogging or anything else. The docking and Mars flight chapters have come out well. Thanks to Andy McSorley for all the Mars work, and to Terry Gibson and Mark Paton for testing preliminary versions of the two new chapters and making a lot of useful suggestions.

I'm now updating the add-ons chapter, and I'm realizing again what a wealth of amazing add-ons we have available for Orbiter. I've spent hundreds of hours on this ebook, but add-on developers must have spent thousands of hours developing the many available add-ons (some 1200 listed at now - thanks also to Jeff aka x292 for his great work in creating and maintaining the primary library of Orbiter add-ons). Some add-ons are especially deep (and big!) such as World of 2001 (by Sputnik, 80mileshigh, and Nautilus) and David Bartles' 2001-2010 vehicles, both available at Orbit Hangar, with sample pix above. But there are a lot of great ones out there. Thanks to all the hard-working Orbiter add-on developers. More pix on Flickr.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Wonderful Mars-Moon Web Site

Mars Approach 2033
I've been getting into another Mars phase recently. One reason for this is the new Earth-Mars chapter written by Andy McSorley for the new edition of Go Play In Space. I've been testing his Orbiter scenarios and instructions, and I'm finally starting to get a feel for what's involved in getting to Mars. It's relatively straightforward if you have a good planning tool like IMFD, a futuristic vehicle with huge (but still limited) delta-V capability, and extreme time acceleration for the long cruise phases. Real-life Mars missions are a little trickier.

The other thing is the Mars for Less (video clips now available there) mission approach developed by Grant Bonin for the MarsDrive Consortium (I've written about it previously). This is basically a variation on Mars Direct, restructured for use of multiple payloads launched with existing (or slightly modified) medium-lift launch vehicles, and with some specific ideas related to on-orbit assembly of the complete Mars vehicles. I'm working with Andy McSorley and Mark Paton to develop an add-on to simulate this mission in Orbiter.

I've therefore been looking for Mars references to support these two little projects. There is certainly no shortage of information on the web, from NASA, ESA, the Mars Society, and many other sources. A veritable confusion of data! But I recently found a "meta-site" that is really wonderful. It summarizes the issues and organizes the technical information in a series of clear and detailed PDF files on many issues of getting people to Mars (and back to the Moon). These papers are directly useful but also point to the various NASA studies and technical papers, making it easier to find the most useful and important original sources.

The simply named Mars and Moon Website is the personal site of Dr. Donald Rapp, an engineer and scientist who has worked for or with JPL for many years. This man knows a lot about planning Mars missions, trade-offs, ISRU, and much more. Dr. Rapp also has a number of "editorial" articles on his site, in which he gives his own views on various space issues. We're not talking about blog posts here - his opinions are backed by experience and technical data. His depressingly-titled February 2006 editorial "Why NASA is not going to be able to send humans to Mars this side of 2040 and probably 2080" (813 kb PDF) is 39 pages! We better look at some other options (this is MDC's goal).

Thanks to Dr. Rapp for making this resource available on the web.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Mars Sample Return Design Contest

MarsDrive Consortium (MDC, of which I am a member) has announced a Mars sample return mission design contest. The contest requires the design of an unmanned mission that would (1) place a scientific payload on the surface of Mars, (2) collect geological and astrobiological samples, and (3) use local Martian resources to produce propellent (methane, LOX) sufficient to allow the collected samples to leave the surface and return to Earth orbit.

Abstract submission is summer 2006, with design submission in fall 2006, and announcement of winners in winter 2007. A distinguished panel of experts will be involved in evaluating and selecting from the submissions, including Dr. Chris McKay (Planetary Scientist, NASA Ames Research Center), Dr. Robert Zubrin (President, The Mars Society), and Louis Friedman (Executive Director, The Planetary Society). Prizes will include cash and an expense-paid trip to the ISDC 2007 conference.

I think this is a great way to promote interest in a Mars sample return mission and to raise awareness and promote research on in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) for the production of sample-return fuel and oxidizer. ISRU is a key component in learning to "live off the land" as will be required in future manned missions to Mars.

Monday, April 10, 2006

The Truth Machine?

I year or so ago I read a couple of SF books by James Halperin. One was called The First Immortal, which is about radical life extension, and I liked it a lot. The other was The Truth Machine, and while it had a lot of intriguing ideas, it was not as well written as it could have been, and I never really bought its premise. It was about a near future world in which no one can lie, because a reliable technology for lie detection has been developed and widely deployed. It mostly explores the social changes that such a technology might lead to (think how this would transform politics!).

My problem with the premise is that lying seems to be a matter of degree. While most people know when they are lying, some don't, and then there is the matter of white lies. Is an insincere compliment a lie or is it something else? Does the context or motivation matter? There are many other issues, of course, and I just couldn't see how truth-telling could really be quantified.

But today I happened to read an article in the January 2006 issue of Wired magazine, "Don't Even Think About Lying." This concerns research and two imminent products based on fMRI brain scans. It seems that lying and truth-telling will "light up" different regions of the brain in distinctive ways, and that these patterns can now be detected. Of course the subject has to be in an expensive, noisy, coffin-like MRI machine, so it isn't exactly an unobtrusive technology. But it apparently works, raising a host of new social, ethical, and legal questions, even before the likely future development into a more "user friendly" interface (wearable or even wireless brain scans?).

Very much like Halperin's The Truth Machine! I think I may have to revisit that book sometime. Truth is stranger than fiction. Lying too.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

20 Trips to Mars

Mars approach with IMFD Screens

The good news is that thanks to the miracle of time acceleration, I took twenty trips to Mars this weekend. The bad news is that thanks to the anti-miracle of "slow learning curve," I had to take those twenty trips to Mars. For example, I spent about 4 hours discovering that 100 meters does not equal 100 kilometers. It took me this long (and an email to Andy) to figure out that the reason I kept colliding with Mars was that I had defined my orbital insertion periapsis to be 100 meters, omitting a crucial "k" in my input. The "bug" seemed familiar -- because I had done the same thing last fall when I was first learning IMFD. Mars is so unforgiving - and computers are too.

These are virtual trips in Orbiter, of course, working with Andy McSorley on the final chapter of Go Play In Space (Second Edition), for which he has been handling the Mars beat. I chimed in to try to find a better arrival date and time in October 2033 that will give us some daylight and a small orbital inclination that the Land MFD autopilot can land from (it doesn't like polar orbit approaches). I didn't do much better than what Andy started with, but at least I tested his procedures (a lot). I can see now why JPL has more than one or two people doing this stuff.

Interplanetary MFD (IMFD) is a wonderful "FMC" (flight management computer in aviation parlance) that handles general flight planning and can perform programmed engine burns automatically. The Land MFD (zip file) is an auto-lander intended mainly for bodies with no atmosphere (such as the Moon), but it works OK on Mars too, as long as you give it a decent orbit to start from.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Swift, Voltaire, and Saxifrage Russell

Green Mars Deimos Approach 2
Swift and Voltaire are the two largest craters on Deimos, the potato-shaped outer moon of Mars (its mean diameter is only about 13 km). Saxifrage Russell is one of the "first hundred" settlers on Mars in Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy. More about the connection after a little background...

After starting it and getting interrupted some months ago, I just finished reading the second book in the trilogy, Green Mars, on my long flights to and from Taiwan. It's a powerful epic of terraforming, politics, social science, war & peace, geology, engineering, life extension, culture, psychology, biology, and just about anything else involving human beings. It's simply amazing that Robinson could have created a future world that is so richly imagined, so tangible and so detailed. Wonderful stuff.

Without giving away too much of the plot, I can say that in the period of this book (from the late twenty-first century until around the 2120's), Mars has been extensively terraformed, and it already supports a large human population. There is conflict set against the backdrop of powerful "metanational" companies who control much of crisis-gripped Earth, and who wish to hold on to Mars as well. Meanwhile a variety of factions on Mars struggle with this and with many other problems, and a movement for Mars independence grows.

Sax Russell is an amazingly brilliant and versatile scientist, the head of the initial terraforming actions in Red Mars (starting in 2026), and a dominant character with several roles in Green Mars. Late in the book, he is working hard to prepare defenses against the metanationals in the likely event of armed conflict. One thing he decides to do is to eliminate Deimos as a potential space weapons platform (a role served by Phobos in the first book, to disastrous end). In part 8 of Green Mars, Sax and his people land on Deimos in a number of space planes. They install robotic equipment that will construct the infrastructure needed to relocate Deimos to a safe distance. A pretty wild plan (read the book for more).

The picture above is from a scenario I set up in Orbiter to illustrate this scene from the book. I reinstalled the Green Mars planetary textures (by "Schimz," available at and placed a few Delta Glider space planes on close approach to Deimos. In the scene in the book, Sax lands near Swift Crater, and the experience of walking on the surface under extremely light gravity (about 0.04% of Earth G) is described. This is a tiny but fascinating episode in the epic of Green Mars.

N.B. KSR points out that the craters are called Swift and Voltaire because both men predicted that Mars would have moons, a century before any were observed. Swift even predicted that there would be two Martian moons, apparently based on a supposed sequence. Venus has no moons, Earth has one, and Jupiter four (as known at the time). The sequence 0, 1, 2, 4 has a certain appeal, so Mars was assumed to have two moons.