Thursday, August 31, 2006

Mars... Just Imagine (Your Future In Space)

Mars... Just Imagine (Cover)
I'm nearly through with an educational spin-off project arising from the Mars for Less add-on project for Orbiter and the Mars Society Conference (MSC) presentation I made in Washington a few weeks ago. It was actually inspired by a presentation I saw at MSC by author Tom Hill. He had worked with an illustrator named Marilyn Glass to write I Want To Go To Mars, a book for very young children (age 3-7 I believe). Although the book is nicely done, and I bought a copy for my Mars collection, it's also very brief and simple. While this is a requirement for the target age group, what about something more detailed for older kids? I started thinking about this, and with PowerPoint as my palette, and Orbiter as my "brush," I started to write Mars... Just Imagine (Your Future In Space). My thought is that it's suitable for kids age 8 and up, and considering that most adults don't know very much about the possibilities of people going to Mars, it might be useful for anyone who wants to start thinking about this in a relatively painless way.

It's almost done, with 17 pages of pictures and text, plus a dozen pages of more detailed background information for each page, what it depicts, how it was made, references, credits, etc. I haven't decided yet how to distribute it. Most likely it will be a free PDF download (as is my earlier e-book Go Play In Space), but I'm also looking into various print-on-demand services, since a children's book seems to be more of a "sit on my lap" item than a computer screen document. I've put the cover (above, thanks to Jason Archer for the graphic) and two sample pages on my Flickr site as a sort of preview.

September 3 Update: The first version of Mars... Just Imagine has been posted here (3 MB PDF) at

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Kids To Space: Not Just For Kids

A few weeks ago I bought a new book called Kids To Space: A Space Traveler's Guide by Lonnie Jones Schorer "and America's school children." This weekend I finally spent some time with it, and it's really an amazing resource. First of all, teachers in the US and Canada asked students, ages 3-19, to ask questions about space. From the thousands of questions asked, several hundred were distilled into 94 catagories, and various experts were asked to provide answers. The resulting 303 page book is really fascinating, with questions ranging from "What is there to learn in space?" to the inevitable "How do you go to the bathroom in space?" Experts include astronauts, engineers, scientists, and commercial space pioneers (e.g., Burt Rutan on space transport for the future, and Robert Bigelow on space hotels!). There is also a forward by Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin.

Although it is really more of a reference book (a veritable space encyclopedia), it also has a sort of story line (suitable for younger kids) that continues between the major sections, and a large number of space related illustrations done by children of various ages (with many more on the accompanying CD-ROM).

Kids To Space is excellent book for anyone with an interest in our future in space, even if there isn't a kid in sight at the moment.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Ray Bradbury and Progress

I read somewhere that yesterday was author Ray Bradbury's eighty-sixth birthday. He was interviewed on the occasion by Los Angeles public radio station KPCC - you can listen here (RealAudio required). The author of The Martian Chronicles and many other books and stories (first story published on his twenty-first birthday) continues to write for hours a day and is optimistic about our future in space. He noted that when he was a young man, he dreamed of (and wrote about) people going to the Moon, and figured that he might live to see this happen, perhaps when he was an old man. In fact it happened when he was just 49, and we have also robotically explored much of the Solar System within his lifetime. He noted that there has also been amazing progress in medicine and in many technologies within the span of his own life.

He believes we should have never left the Moon and is enthusiastic about plans to return there and to go on to Mars some fifteen years later (maybe a bit optimistic unless things change from current plans, which for NASA suggest a time frame of around 2030, with even that a bit vague). He strongly supports colonization of Mars and human expansion into the rest of the Solar System and beyond.

Interestingly enough for someone who envisions all this advanced transportation in the future, Ray Bradbury lives in Los Angeles and doesn't drive! He says that LA's freeways "don't work" and looks forward to the day that a monorail system will replace them (hmm, Mars might be quicker, Ray). Happy birthday to an amazing writer who has been imagining the future in print for 65 years!

Friday, August 18, 2006

Something So Right

They got a wall in China, it's a thousand miles long
To keep out the foreigners they made it strong...
Paul Simon, "Something So Right"

I'm sure every songwriter can name at least a few songs they wish they had written, and along with everything by the Beatles, a top one of mine is Paul Simon's 1973 song "Something So Right." It's a finely crafted love song that happens to mention the Great Wall of China. I visited a part of the Great Wall near Beijing today, and despite the hazy gray sky, it was amazing to see and experience a small part of this wonder of the world. I climbed a section of it, about an hour up and down steep flights of many, many stone steps of irregular height, sweating profusely and whistling that song to myself.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Earth from Mars

The "visible from space" bit in my last post reminded me of a question I'm looking into for a current project: What does Earth look like from the surface of Mars? The idea came up in one of the stories in Kim Stanley Robinson's The Martians, where he describes a bright blue "star" with a darker companion, the Moon, seen by one of the characters from the surface of Mars. I supposed that under best conditions (distance and Earth phase) that it would look a little brighter and bigger than Mars appears from Earth. Google says?

It turns out that Earth was imaged from Mars orbit on 8 May 2003 by the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft (see above). According to this page, Earth had an apparent magnitude of -2.5 (the Moon was +0.9), and the image required processing for exposure and to apply color to the grayscale image. The distance was 139 million kilometers. For rough comparison, on 27 August 2003, Mars was in opposition and at its closest distance to Earth in over 56,000 years (about 56 million kilometers). It had visual magnitude -2.9 and an apparent diameter of 25 arc seconds. Earth is larger and more reflective than Mars, so if conditions were right, Earth would be distinctly blue and bright from the surface of Mars, though probably not visible as a disk without some optical assistance. I'm not sure the Moon would be visible at all with the unaided eye since it is small and quite dark (but maybe I'm wrong - at +0.9 it should be visible, the naked eye magnitude limit is +6). More research needed but now it's bedtime in Beijing.


Private pilot (sadly grounded for quite a while now). Frequent flyer (United 1K). Space flight advocate and fan. Afraid of open heights.

Afraid of open heights?!? Well, not exactly afraid, but looking down the atrium of the Shanghai Hyatt from the 85th floor to the lobby on the 56th did give me a sort of dizzy feeling, even though the railing was quite solid and chest high (so not really an "open height" in any literal sense). It's an amazing sight, as is the night view from the 86th floor restaurant. Shanghai is one visually stunning city.

Now I'm in Beijing and will visit the Great Wall tomorrow. Let's get a space connection in here, one I vaguely recall discussing somewhere before, maybe in this blog. Is the Great Wall the only man-made object visible with the naked eye from space as is sometimes claimed? Depends on where you are in space. From LEO (that's low earth orbit, Shuttle altitude), many man-made objects such as highways, ships, railroads, etc. can be seen depending on conditions, often including the Great Wall. From the Moon? This was claimed somewhere too, but beyond a few thousand kilometers, no man-made features are visible on Earth, and from the Moon, just patches of white, blue, brown, yellow, and sometimes green.

Monday, August 14, 2006

The Bund In Motion

This was taken with a borrowed digital camera which I did not really know how to use. It shows Shanghai's famous Bund from my hotel window, across the Huangpu River. My friend uploaded and sent me the picture with the overly kind suggestion that it has "some artistic effect." Yeah, that's it, artistic, not just shaking the camera! Here's what it's really supposed to look like (not by me, just the first one I found on Flickr).

Flickr probably has all the photos I need of everything in the world, but I still think I should get myself one of those ultra-thin digital cameras so I can just keep it in my computer bag (I tend to leave the one we have at home unless it's specifically a vacation or something). I sometimes see some cool things on business trips, like the whole Shanghai skyline. Here is another Flickr user's shot of the Shanghai skyline including the giant Oriental Pearl TV Tower which is across the street from my hotel, the same one where the Flickr user stayed (he notes this in his caption, but the TV tower and hotel are on the left, not the right).

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Speed: 431 km/hour, Altitude: 10 mm

I took the world's first commercial maglev (magnetic levitation) train from Shanghai Pudong Airport to Shanghai this afternoon. The 30 km trip took eight minutes and reached a top speed of 431 km/hour, or about 268 mph. Pretty zippy. This is a lot faster than the operational speed of Japan's Shinkansens, which I've ridden many times (about 270-300 km/h or 168-186 mph, depending on the line and model). The Shanghai Maglev has been in commercial operation since 2004 and has reached 501 km/hour (310 mph) in test runs. When you combine this with its amazing and often weird high-rise architecture, you can really believe that Shanghai is the City of the Future. They are talking about a maglev line from Shanghai to Beijing to make that a 3 hour trip (currently a 2 hour flight or a very long train trip).

I wanted to provide a link to a general article on maglev technology, but when I tried to do this, I realized there is one thing the City of the Future doesn't have today: access to Wikipedia (I can't get to any Wikipedia pages, and I assume the IP addresses for this are blocked in China, from what I've read about internet policies here). Too much "controversial" content I guess. But this link gives the basic maglev info.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Of NASA and NewSpace

Before the week passes and I head for Shanghai for a very busy week of business (and probably no blogging), I want to point out another excellent article in the current Space Review, "Of NASA and NewSpace" by Grant Bonin, one of my co-authors on the paper I presented last week at the Mars Society. I won't summarize Grant's arguments here, but among other things, he points out the potential for single point failures (i.e., putting all your eggs in one basket) that are inherent in the NASA's approach to developing next generation spacecraft and launch vehicles. Although there is some funding planned to encourage development of alternate commercial spacecraft (COTS), it's really not very much in the scheme of things. I hope NASA succeeds with its plans, but I hope that they can also increase the funding to jump-start private space ventures that will provide more options in the future.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Mars Society - Final Thoughts

I wrote about the first three days of the Mars Society Conference and then fizzled out. So here are a few final thoughts and things I forgot to mention before.

I did mention seeing The Mars Underground on Thursday night, but since then the Space Review has carried an excellent review and discussion of the film by Dwayne A. Day, including some interesting observations on the conference and on the role of Dr. Robert Zubrin in promoting the case for humans on Mars.

The Saturday night banquet was pretty enjoyable for a dry event, though the entertainment and awards were full of insider jokes and references that a first-timer like me wouldn't really get. That's OK - Mars fans are an interesting extended family to watch (and start to join) just the same.

I went to a few track papers on various subjects and was struck on the one hand by the big picture optimism regarding humans on Mars ("we have the technology - all we need is the decision and the money"), and on the other hand by the difficulty of the details. Several papers pointed out the need for more extensive and realistic simulations of missions (by this I mean analog simulations, where people practice aspects of Mars missions in ground-based simulations of spacecraft, in the desert or in the Arctic). While these partial simulations are interesting and useful, more realistic simulations will be needed before we send 4-6 people on the way to Mars with only themselves to keep everything working (and everyone breathing).

We talk about "pseudo G" from tether-rotated spacecraft, and while the physics of this is clear, no one has actually done this with living things on an extended basis, let alone humans. Can a nearly closed life support system be made to work in space (and on Mars) for some four years? Can all the mechanical systems of the spacecraft work well for the time needed? The ISS is not a fair test since it is close to Earth and is resupplied and repaired on a regular basis. Even the issue of aerobraking into Mars orbit is a problem - it's never been done with a 40 tonne spacecraft. People are thinking about and working on this stuff. But if "Mars by 2020" really has a chance, we need to solve the big picture and sweat all these "small" details. I think it's possible, but 14 years doesn't sound like a huge amount of time to do it all, even with Uncle Sam's and Elon Musk's checkbooks.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Mars Society, Day 3

Not much time to blog this since I have to run to the Mars Society Conference banquet in just a few minutes. Day three was good, starting with a somewhat rambling but pretty inspiring speech from Dr. Robert Zubrin on how far we've come, what's left to do (a lot), why we need to support NASA's Vision for Space Exploration (it's finally destination driven!), and why it has to be Mars as the real prize (it's a tough place but it has everything necessary to build a new branch of human civilization).

I was setting up a slide show for the MarsDrive exhibit and unfortunately missed most of Australian astronaut Andy Thomas's talk (STS-114 and five other flights) - too bad, because judging from the few Q&A responses I heard, he was very open and an excellent speaker. Dr. Chris McKay, one of the founders of the "Mars Underground," the predecessor of the Mars Society, spoke next. He's now with NASA Ames and is concerned with astrobiology, but his talk focused on using the Moon (no life expected there) as preparation for Mars exploration. He argued that the Moon will probably not have colonies as Mars ultimately will, but will remain a research site, more like Antarctica, a place where Ph.D. students do thesis research. But this is still a good thing. Once again HobbySpace has excellent summaries of the three morning speeches here.

In the afternoon I caught a couple of good talks by Reagan Walker, American Director for MarsDrive. One was on software/web based communication support for Mars analog research labs, and the other was an overview of MarsDrive and its aims. There was also a good talk on Mars Direct and Orbiter by Cyrus Phillips and Seth Hollingsead, which included live demos of Orbiter that really seemed to impress the audience. Cyrus, Seth, and Rich Wall also had an Orbiter table in the exhibit area and did a lot of "Orbiter evangelism" for all sorts of attendees, including astronaut Andy Thomas. I missed him there too! Seth told me that Andy asked, "where can I get a copy of this thing?" They gave him one. The picture above was posted by Cyrus in the Orbiter forum (Andy is standing in the blue suit).

My presentation went well also (Orbiter simulation of Mars for Less) - I showed 26 PowerPoint slides and 5 minutes of video clips in 30 minutes, and it seemed to be coherent and well received. People tend to be surprised at the technical and visual quality of Orbiter. The slides (PDF of the handout) are available at Andy's site here. To be continued...

Friday, August 04, 2006

Mars Immersion plus Air & Space

NASM #3: Apollo LM
Day 2 of the Mars Society Conference in Washington was also quite good, but I only caught one plenary speaker (Dr. Scott Horowitz, former astronaut and now NASA Associate Administrator for Exploration) before taking the rest of the morning off to go visit the National Air & Space Museum, just four blocks away. I've been to NASM maybe six times over the years but I still love it. The most obvious new thing in the main gallery was SpaceShip One. I didn't have much time, so I focused on the space side of things, Apollo, X-15, Skylab, etc. I also visited a gallery devoted to the Wright Brothers which was new to me -- it must have been added for the hundredth anniversary of flight in 2003. More pix on Flickr.

I devoted 45 minutes to seeing Tom Hanks' IMAX 3D film about the Apollo Moon missions, "Magnificent Desolation," which I had been meaning to see for a long time. It was fantastic - with the huge screen and 3D, I felt as if I were really viewing the dramatic terrain at Apollo 15's Hadley Rille. The script was also funny and extremely moving. Tom Hanks is a space freak for sure, and this movie is a loving tribute to the finest days of human spaceflight (so far) and to the people who made it happen.

Keeping with the apparent theme of this side trip from the Mars conference, I saw a book I had been curious about, Return to the Moon by Apollo 17 astronaut/geologist Harrison Schmitt. Since it looked pretty good and was autographed by the author, I decided to buy it.

This afternoon I sat in on five or six presentations at the Mars conference, a couple of them quite good, several others rather poorly prepared and presented. Grant Bonin did a very nice job on his updated overview of the Mars for Less mission design. Chris Carberry (political coordinator for the Mars Society) presented "Operation President," an enthusiastic talk about how we can build on past successes in reaching presidential and congressional candidates to be sure that the" Vision for Space Exploration" and Mars in particular will be on the agenda for both Democratic and Republican candidates in the 2008 presidential race.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Mars Immersion, Day 1

Mike Griffin at MSC 2006
Day one of the Mars Society Conference was really great. It started with a so-so 20 minute speech (PDF) by NASA Administrator Mike Griffin (pictured) followed by 40 minutes of excellent and funny questions and answers on all sorts of NASA, space, and Mars issues. has a great summary report including the Q&A. Griffin said he was the "warmup act for Elon Musk," and he sort of was! Musk gave a great talk, showing many slides with diagrams of the in-work Falcon-9 launch vehicle and Dragon manned spacecraft (see HobbySpace again for good summary of Musk's talk).

NASA Associate Administrator for Legislative Affairs Brian Chase gave a talk on political and funding issues, a good warmup for the afternoon "Mars Blitz 2006" where about 100 Mars Society members visited the offices of various Senators and Representatives on Capitol Hill (meeting with staff members in almost all cases). Despite the 100 degree (F) heat and humidity and the fact that we only met with technology/science staff aids, it was an interesting and fun experience wandering the offices, halls, and tunnels of the Hill office buildings. Our Massachusetts group visited Senators Kerry, Kennedy, and Sununu (NH) as well as Rep. Michael Capuano. Although all claimed to strongly support NASA's Vision for Space Exploration which aims for the Moon and (eventually) Mars, we tried to press the case for more Mars focus and a faster schedule.

The evening started with a reception with some good food and OK wine, followed by a pint of Guinness and a screening of an excellent new documentary on the drive for Mars, "The Mars Underground," profiling efforts since 1978 to promote manned exploration of Mars. This film featured a lot of interviews with Mars Society President Robert Zubrin and some excellent computer-generated video of his Mars Direct mission plans. The DVD of this film was said to have distribution in most overseas markets (couldn't find it on Amazon UK) but not yet in the US - but this is expected by December. The soundtrack is really beautiful.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Must Be Washingon

I've always loved Washington, ever since I first visited here with my high school senior class, quite a few years ago, when youthful energy and a dare prompted me to climb the steps of the Washington Monument (pictured here, from my hotel window). I don't know what it is - the history? I guess I'm impressed by all the monuments that were built to impress people. I even like the cheesy stuff in the hotel gift shop - the Air Force One t-shirts, FBI baseball caps, and CIA golf balls (?!?) - but don't worry, I didn't buy any of that crap! I'm saving my money for the Air and Space Museum, or maybe the merch tables at the Mars Society Conference itself.

So tomorrow morning, a quick breakfast in my room, register for the meeting at 8, then go hear NASA Administrator Mike Griffin give the keynote address at 9 am. Is this space geek heaven, or what?

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Mars Cliff Dweller View

Mars Cliff Dweller View
I don't think there are any Martian cliff dwellers yet, though I seem to recall there were some fictional ancient cliff dwellers in Ben Bova's novel Mars - a pretty good book, though not the best of the Mars SF I have read. But I still like the cliff-perspective view in this Orbiter screen shot. It's an outtake from the final "photo session" to capture pictures for the Mars/Orbiter paper I've been working on and will finally present on Saturday in Washington, DC at the Mars Society Conference.

MSC should be a cool event - the keynote speaker Thursday morning will be NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, and Thursday afternoon I will join many other Mars enthusiasts in making the "case for Mars" with my representatives on Capitol Hill. Meanwhile I'm just happy that the presentation and the technical paper are both finally done. Thanks again to my co-authors Andy McSorley, Mark Paton, and Grant Bonin for all the great ideas, hundreds of emails, and zillions of hours of work on this project.