Wednesday, November 30, 2005

But who will actually do it?

I read an article in the November 14 Economist called "Israel: Punching Above Its Weight," which discussed the fact that Israeli high tech businesses are successful in the world far out of proportion to Israel's size. Part of this is attributed to a high percentage of engineers in the work force. Out of 10,000 employees, Israel has 135 engineers, compared to 70 for the US, 65 for Japan, and 28 for Britain.

I also found this article on a national panel which in October called for "an urgent and wide-ranging effort to strengthen scientific competitiveness" in the US. Some interesting numbers from that article:
  • American 12th graders performed below the international average for 21 countries on general knowledge in math and science
  • Engineers graduated in 2004: China 600,000 - India 350,000 - USA 70,000
  • Cost of employing one chemist or engineer in the US is equal to five chemists in China or 11 engineers in India
We need more, and more inspiring, science and math teachers in the US. We need ways to help students get excited about science and math and to want to do these things as careers. Space is important, as are energy, environment, biotechnology, and many other technical fields. I'm not saying the sky is falling, but I am concerned not only for space development but for other things that require science and math - who will actually do this stuff? I am all for international efforts, and if the next human to walk on the Moon is Chinese, that in itself is OK with me (although there may be wider implications to this, I know). But the US has always been a leader, and I like to think a force for good (at least sometimes), and I wonder if we can continue to be if these trends continue.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Party Line, Well Spoken

If you are reading this, and feel discouraged by an inability to communicate to others your own feelings about the importance of an active space development effort, comfort yourself with this thought. If you want to be on the leading edge of anything, you have by definition to be a couple of standard deviations away from most people. That makes you an odd-ball. The trick is to learn to accept it, then to like it--and keep on making lots of noise for what you believe in.
-Charles Sheffield, Keynote Address
AAS Annual Meeting, 1978

I wanted to chime in on Sam Dinkin's Space Review essay "The High Road" and add my voice to the sentiment that space is too important for advocates to be divided over petty differences. I also wanted to second a motion by Anthony Kendall that we speak out to people about the importance of space, even to those who may be most indifferent and our harshest critics (yes, our families and friends - just kidding - sort of). I went looking for a quote to support this sentiment, figuring I'd use something by Carl Sagan or Arthur C. Clarke, and I found a whole page of great space quotes by these and others. The "party line" is certainly presented eloquently by those collected there.

But I finally selected the quote above - perhaps less famous than some others on that page, but more relevant to the issues of fighting the good fight, cooperating with those who share your goals but maybe not your agenda, and making a contribution, however small, to something important. So here's to fellow space advocates and odd-balls, to future Mars colonists, and to all mankind.

Preview: The Rocket Company

Lots of real work and a new book have diverted me temporarily from Orbiter and blogging.

The book is The Rocket Company by Patrick Stiennon and David Hoerr, and it's really amazing. It's a fictional case study of a private venture to create and market a fully-reusable two stage launch vehicle. While there are characters and fictional situations, the technical and business material is detailed and realistic - the research behind this book is impressive, but it is also highly readable. I'm only half way through it, and I'm learning a lot about space vehicle engineering and the challenges of private space ventures. One interesting point: both stages of the rocket are piloted, and both return to the launch site, which is key to fast and low-cost reusability. More to come...

N.B. Two chapters (1 and 4) from the book are still available on line at, where work-in-progress portions of the book had originally been posted.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

ISS in Constant Sunshine

ISS Light - Earth Dark 11-24-05

Extended Map MFD ISS 11-24-05
Orbiter users quite often post really cool stuff in the forums, news of new add-ons, rumors of new releases, and sometimes a connection with real-world spaceflight. Recently "David413" posted a new add-on model of the ISS (International Space Station) in its current form (the default ISS in Orbiter is the future completed version). He included in this zip file three scenarios with up-to-date ISS orbital elements for November 24, 25, and 26 (the last few days) when the ISS was in one of its periodic "constant sunshine" states (when the positions of the ISS, the Earth, and the Sun result in the Sun being visible from the ISS at all times for several days, even when it is above areas of the Earth that are in darkness).

I installed the "new" ISS and ran the sunshine scenarios, and I also installed Radu Poenaru's "extended Map MFD" for the occasion (available at, file This add-on MFD shows multiple orbits as well as the sunlit areas of the Earth on an enhanced color map. In the pictures shown, you can see that at 1835 UT on November 24, the ISS was over the south Indian Ocean and was fully illuminated by the Sun. The MFD shows that the Indian Ocean region itself was in darkness. Pretty cool - orbital mechanics works!

Note that getting accurate ISS positions like this requires creating a scenario with updated orbital elements available from NASA. Harmsway explains how to do this here. The ISS elements are not automatically updated by Orbiter (which means that the position of the ISS in Orbiter does not closely match the real ISS by default).

Why Space?

Thanks to Anthony Kendall, who referred me to to, I registered my blog there and thereby found at least one other blogger who shares my interest in Orbiter. Citing my recent Orbiter review and this blog, Spaceflight Sandbox wrote about some Orbiter experiences on November 15. Exploring further, I found an October 9 post titled "Why Space?" which offers some good ideas for how to answer (and how not to answer) this question when it is asked by someone from outside the Space Faithful.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Man Will Never Fly

There have been many famous and subsequently embarrassing impossibility statements in the past, including Lord Kelvin’s 1895 statement that “heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible” (he also predicted in 1897 that “radio has no future”), and the New York Times’ famous 1920 criticism of Robert Goddard and his rocketry experiments, which claimed as obvious that rockets could never operate outside the atmosphere as Goddard proposed, since the vacuum of space would give them nothing to push against! The Times published a “retraction” in 1969, the day after Apollo 11 landed on the Moon.

People who are aware of statements like this (and there are plenty more, this page collects many of them) tend to be wary of making technological impossibility statements, or at least to put them in more qualified terms, based on what is possible today, or at a reasonable cost, or within the known laws of physics, “possible but highly unlikely,” etc. Some examples of such “qualified impossibility” statements (related to human colonization of Mars) can be found in a recent opinion piece on Anthony Kendall made some really good points about this in his blog. Space advocates may sometimes need to be reminded of important realities, but we should try to not assassinate the messengers or their dreams in the process. I think space is too important to exclude anyone who is supportive of the goals, even if they are not rocket scientists.

Orbiter Web: Going into Harmsway

Shuttle Climbs Over KSC
Among the many Orbiter support and "fan" web sites, the Orbiter section of Harmsway's web site is probably the winner for the one Orbiter support site you would take to a desert island (OK, a ridiculous analogy, desert islands usually have broadband anyway). But Gene Harm really has put togther an extensive array of Orbiter support materials, with an FAQ, a number of tutorials, missions/adventures, screen shots, and more. His "Space Shuttle Guide" is a brief but up-to-date introduction to installing and flying the latest Space Shuttle add-ons for Orbiter. There's also a very useful overview of the Apollo/NASSP add-ons. This site has really helped me to explore and understand Orbiter, and I highly recommend it.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Venus & Mars

Venus and Sun

Just after sunset today, the sky was clear, and Venus was incredibly bright - I thought I was seeing landing lights for a business jet climbing out of Worcester Airport. Mars was already quite bright too.

I've read and thought a lot about colonizing Mars, but until I saw a reference to this NASA paper by Geoffrey A. Landis in a post on the Orbiter "real space" forum, I would have thought that colonizing Venus would be impossible without massive terraforming to modify its atmosphere (Carl Sagan suggested seeding the clouds of Venus with genetically modified algae to remove CO2 and eventually reduce the severe greenhouse effect). In Landis' paper, the idea is to avoid the brutal surface temperature and pressure by setting up floating cities in the clouds, about 50 km above the surface, where the atmospheric pressure and temperature are about Earth standard, and gravity is about 0.9 G. This is not something we could do next week, but the paper suggests that it would be physically possible and would offer some interesting advantages.

The picture is an Orbiter shot of Venus just after sunrise.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Orbiter: CEV/LSAM at Taurus-Littrow

CEV-LSAM at Taurus Littrow

CEV-LSAM Over Taurus-Littrow

I'm getting back to my CEV "Back to the Moon" practice mission, setting some things up to simulate NASA's planned mission profile. As I understand it, a heavy-lift launcher places the unmanned LSAM (lunar surface access module) along with a "departure stage" for TLI (trans-lunar injection, pretty much using the old Apollo terms) in a parking Earth orbit. The manned CEV is launched separately, and it soon docks with the LSAM in Earth orbit. At the right time, the CEV/LSAM/departure stage stack makes the burn for the Moon. There's more, but from here on, it pretty much follows the old Apollo Moon landing plan. I'm using Francis Drake's "old" CEV add-on, which doesn't have the very latest projected CEV shape but is quite cool.

Good things: I docked the CEV with the LSAM in LEO (don't we love our TLA's! OK, one FLA). I installed a Taurus-Littrow 3D terrain "base" (by jtiberius) to have an interesting place to land (but didn't actually land there yet). I edited scenario files to put the LSAM at this base and practiced taking off for lunar orbit (the LSAM either floats about half a meter above or sinks a little into the 3D mesh for this terrain - not sure if this is fixable).

Not-as-good: I couldn't run the edited scenario to dock the LSAM with the CEV-upper stage stack (not sure why). LSAM has the up-is-forward confusion of many tail-sitter spacecraft, so docking is tricky (both view and controls). Landing would be tricky too except for the Land MFD. No docking port frequencies so docking is all visual (no MFD help). Actually should have the LSAM on a different booster. A few minor problems but it pretty much works.

This is all preparation for a full-up CEV/LSAM Earth-Moon mission soon. More things to figure out, but it's going OK. More pix on Flickr.

Optics and Space

When I was a space-obsessed kid, I figured that if I couldn't someday be a military pilot and an astronaut, that I would at least end up being an astronautical engineer. But instead I majored in physics and later became an optical engineer, working mainly with optical design software. It's a long story, but the good news is twofold. First, optics has provided a diverse and enjoyable career. And second, there's a lot of optics in space. I've had some connection to many space related optics projects, through my company and through our customers, including many NASA and aerospace company engineers I have supported and trained over the years. Some examples of optics in space:
  • The Hubble Space Telescope is perhaps the most famous space-based optical system, and several of my colleagues actually worked on the design and other aspects of the repair optics (the company even won a NASA award for this and other space-related work).
  • In addition to the obvious imaging applications (e.g. amazing Cassini and Spitzer IR images), optics are also involved in science instruments such as spectrometers and polarimeters that provide scientific data on the atmospheres and surfaces of planets, moons, and stars.
  • Adaptive optics are widely used in astronomy, laser communication, and other applications where the distortions of the atmosphere must by dynamically compensated. A future application could be the laser power beaming systems for the space elevator.

And even carbon nanotubes have an optical side - a recent report indicates that under some conditions, single-walled carbon nanotubes can emit very bright and tunable (1-2 micrometer wavelengths) infrared light.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005


After mentioning the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in my last post and linking it to Wikipedia as I often do, I happened upon a link to another "wiki" which is called h2g2 (one of the several extant abbreviations of Douglas Adams' best-known title). This one is hosted by the BBC and purports to be "the unconventional Guide to Life, the Universe and Everything," with user posts on a variety of subjects. The difference from the rawther serious Wikipedia is what seems to be a certain humorous or sarcastic spin to many of the entries (based on quick visits to a few pages). See for example cockpit, flight simulators, and Obstacles to Manned Space Exploration: Part I - Propulsion (including the sub-section "solutions to getting it up"), and Exactly 100 things to do with a towel.

Even better duct tape?

I really like Wired magazine, and in the December 2005 issue, there's an essay by Bruce Sterling on the Dawn of the Carbon Age. I've been reading and writing a lot about space elevators, whose now-more-likely feasibility is based on the remarkable strength and light weight of carbon nanotubes (CNT). Sterling does mention space elevators in his essay, but suggests (gasp!) that a material strong and light enough to create carbon beanstalks into space might have a few other uses down here. Of course that's true, and the fact that there will be huge demand for CNT-based materials will help to make them cheaper, which will be a good thing when you need to buy a 100,000 km ribbon of the stuff for the elevator. Thus begins the Age of Carbon. Future readers of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy will no doubt be advised to carry a roll of CNT duct tape in addition to the indispensible towel.

Monday, November 21, 2005

SpaceDev - Chasing the Dream

Although it looks a bit like a cartoon spaceship, SpaceDev's lifting-body Dream Chaser is an intriguing alternative to capsule-style CEV spacecraft for "safe and affordable crew access to the International Space Station" and other missions. It also looks rather like the proposed (never built) European Hermes spaceplane. Note that the picture here is linked from the SpaceDev site - Dream Chaser is not in Orbiter quite yet (there is an Orbiter add-on version of the Hermes somewhere, but I can't find it online at the moment - OK, here is a lunar mission version!).

Now just a few days later, SpaceDev also announces the results of a study that "Finds Lunar Missions Can Be Completed for Less Than $10 Billion." In the proposed SpaceDev architecture, each mission would position a habitat module in lunar orbit or on the surface, allowing the buildup of some reusable infrastructure for later use. There is also a wild looking lunar-landing rocket chair that looks like a souped-up ejection seat (I guess it more or less is!).

An interesting week - SpaceX plans to launch their first Falcon 1 rocket this Friday. There's a lot going on in commercial space development. Will it all get funded? Will it all work? Probably not. But some of it will. Space is turning into a business with multiple paths and players. It's very dream-worthy in any case. Orbiter add-on builders, start your 3D modelers!

Orbiter Movie: "Stargazer

There's a really cool 5-minute video by "Tinfish" that showcases some aspects of Orbiter in a rather artful way. "Stargazer"(26 MB wmv) uses scenes of the Moon, Earth, Jupiter, and some spacecraft, and has a soundtrack with some interesting audio clips. I have seen a few other Orbiter-based videos, but this one really highlights the visual beauty that greatly adds to Orbiter's appeal as a space flight simulator. Tinfish has previously made movies based on Microsoft Flight Simulator (more info here). This is his first using Orbiter, and I hope he makes more.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

A quote from "Green Mars"

And because we are alive, the universe must be said to be alive. We are its consciousness as well as our own. We rise out of the cosmos and we see its mesh of patterns, and it strikes us as beautiful. And that feeling is the most important thing in all the universe - its culmination, like the color of the flower at first bloom on a wet morning. It's a holy feeling, and our task in this world is to do everything we can to foster it. And one way to do that is to spread life everywhere. To aid it into existence where it was not before, as here on Mars.
From Green Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson, spoken by the character Hiroko, page 9 of the US paperback edition.

Orbiter Web: John Dunn's Apollo Tutorial

Apollo 10 LM-CSM Docked

I've decided to start writing brief overviews of some of the many Orbiter-related web sites that are out there. Orbiter is freeware and has no official support, but between the forums, the add-on sites, and the web sites of many individual Orbiter users, the total available support is really quite extensive.

John Dunn's Orbiter site is a case in point. It focuses with incredible detail on flying Apollo missions using the NASSP add-on. It includes historical background on the real activities of each of the 17 phases of a full Apollo mission, followed by detailed instructions for the Orbiter procedures, including many screen shots and at least one video (lunar descent, stream or download). Although I have not yet done a complete Apollo mission myself (only selected parts), I have read through John's tutorial and used it as a reference to understand the "why" as well as the "how" of the many Apollo mission steps. It's quite an impressive document.

The tutorial dates from 2003 and thus is based on earlier versions of Orbiter and NASSP (Orbiter 030303 and NASSP4, while current versions are 050216 and NASSP 6.4.2), so there may be some changes in some details of how these missions are flown. For example, the tutorial refers to the Lunar Landing MFD (LM autopilot), and I have only used the more recent Land MFD when I have done practice Moon landings, so I'm not sure if the earlier MFD is still supplied or still works with the latest NASSP. But I have not found a more detailed tutorial on flying Apollo in Orbiter, and I believe it's worth reading if only to gain an appreciation of the scope and detail of these missions.

Speaking of impressive documents, John's site also includes a page with downloads of many official publications from the Apollo era, including the 56 MB PDF "NASA Apollo Command Module News Reference" from 1968.

The picture is my own shot from a recent Apollo 10 flight - just some lunar orbit docking practice. But someday I will fly a complete Apollo mission, and John's tutorial is already in a three-ring binder ready to guide me through the zillion steps to the Moon and back.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

World of 2001 for Orbiter!!!

Moon Bus and TMA

2001 v3 Orion Station V

Amazing new add-on just announced in the Orbiter Add-on Forum, World of 2001 (3.0) by Sputnik, Nautilus, and 80mileshigh. A complete rework for Orbiter 2005 with lots of new stuff. Amazing work! Dozens of scenarios, spacecraft, and bases from the classic movie "2001: A Space Odyssey." This was already my favorite family of SF-based add-ons, but the various parts had been built for earlier versions of Orbiter and sometimes caused problems. There is even an animated retracting dome at Clavius base. More pictures on Flickr.

ESPACE Magazine - Formidable!

I'm glad I've retained a moderate level of French language skills for all the many years since high school. In France, it's good for a laugh and sometimes even for conversation. And my reading level is still quite good, so I can generally read anything that interests me.

Case in point: brand-new issue of ESPACE Magazine that I picked up at the airport just before leaving Paris. This (#17) is a special edition with the theme "space exploration, the future in pictures." And the pictures are great - it's a large format glossy magazine with excellent full-color printing. There are many paintings and photos, starting with Chesley Bonestell's wonderful space paintings of the 1950's (discussed in my October 25 post on the "World of Colliers" add-on for Orbiter), many NASA concept paintings (including examples by and an interview with artist Pat Rawlings), and much more. There are also interviews with American and French astronauts and space researchers.

It's really cool. If you are a space enthusiast in France, you probably know this magazine. But why don't we have something like this in English? I haven't seen any in the US anyway - Britain?

Friday, November 18, 2005

Blogger's block?

I don't know how real teachers do it. After a few full days of teaching a software seminar here in Paris, my brain is fried, and I barely have the energy to deal with email let alone blog. Could jet lag and Beaujolais contribute to this effect? Perhaps a little.

In the meantime, the roll of space bloggers that I added to my site continues to grow, with many interesting entries (automatically generated, no energy required from me). With RSS feeds and Foxfire's "live bookmarks" it's easy to keep an eye on what's new. I really enjoy the enthusiastic posts of Sector 4 Command, the humor of some recent posts at Bad Astronomy Blog, and several others that help me keep up with space news. And although it's too eclectic to call a space blog, Anthonares is always thought-provoking and a good read. A continuing favorite.

For Orbiter fans looking for something new and fun to do, I'd suggest a look around Virtual Spaceflight. There are some really good scenarios and tutorials over at Andy's site.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Moon & Mars & Montmartre

Moon Over Montmartre
From my eighth floor seminar classroom in Paris, November 14, looking east, 1700 UTC, the Moon in light haze above Montmartre. But what is that reddish blur to the left and below the Moon? Could it be Mars? It's usually over my neighbor's house...
Moon and Mars from Earth 11-14-05 1700 UTC JPL SSS
JPL's Solar System Simulator page is the quick way to check. Enter the date and time, "Mars seen from Earth," 20 degree field of view, et voila. Yes that was Mars, 72.668 million kilometers away (Sacré Cœur was about 3 km). Click the pictures for bigger versions available on Flickr.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Orbiter in The Space Review

Dock ISS - Delta Glider Virtual Cockpit
The Space Review is one of my favorite space sites, a weekly web magazine with articles, opinion pieces, and reviews that go beyond the quick reaction to news events. With contributions from various guest writers (as well as editor Jeff Foust), The Space Review provides background, depth, and perspective on space developments.

So I was especially pleased when The Space Review accepted my proposal for a review of Orbiter. The article appears in today's issue. The picture above is one of the two illustrations in the article, a view of the International Space Station from the virtual cockpit of Orbiter's "Delta Glider" space plane (this version has a link to my Flickr picture site which has larger versions of this and many other Orbiter screen shots).

If you are visiting from the link in The Space Review article, welcome. I hope you found the article useful. If you have any questions about Orbiter, feel free to ask me here, or better yet, visit the Forum where the real Orbiter experts hang out.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Absinthe Without Leave

Actually I haven't drunk any absinthe here in Paris (yet), though I read recently in a Wired Magazine article that it's now legal and fairly safe to do so in France (all things in moderation). So maybe I will. Meanwhile I have a training seminar to prepare for, and what better preparation (?!?) than a visit to the always impressive Musée d’Orsay. Love those Impressionists, though alas the cloudy weather meant that the natural light was a bit dim for flashless digital photography - with slow shutter speeds, the Renoir nudes look even fuzzier and pinker than usual. And oh yeah - sorry about that headline! N.B. I learned that absinthe is not exactly flowing in the streets of Paris. At dinner tonight (Monday) I asked the waiter about it, and he said it's not legal to sell it here. Oh well.

Nothing very space related in this magnificent former train station full of nineteenth and early twentieth century art, but I did find an oddly arresting Moon image in a dimly lit pastel display room, a work by the Belgian artist Leon Spilliaert entitled Clair de lune et lumières. The nearly full Moon looked much like this on the way to dinner tonight. There are many fantastic works at the Orsay, but this little pastel somehow stuck in my mind.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

In the Beginning...

Apollo 8 CSM Earthrise
While I'm not as systematic about it as DarthVader in his "Fly Me to the Moon" blog, I too am exploring the wonderful Apollo add-on for Orbiter (NASSP 6.4.2). Although it still takes me minutes to find the right switches on the CM or LM panels, thanks to "Saturn V" (Don Hagerty), I can still experience the key moments of historic Apollo missions. He has posted scenarios for Apollo 7, 8, 9, and 10 at Orbit Hangar. Each zip file contains historically accurate scenarios for many points in the respective missions.

For example, the crew of the Apollo 10 Lunar Module experienced a "staging anomaly" (caused by some incorrect switch settings) which caused the LM to tumble when they were about to separate the ascent stage from the descent stage in low lunar orbit. Commander Tom Stafford was able to recover from this, and now so was I! I also docked the CSM with the LM. The picture above shows the Apollo 8 CSM in lunar orbit on Christmas Eve 1968, right at the time the crew made their famous readings from Genesis (the sound for that is not included in the scenario, though it probably could be!). Thanks to the NASSP team and to Don for making it possible (and even fairly easy) to recreate parts of these historic missions. More pictures at Flickr.

Going up... Fast!

On my flight to Paris last night, I finished a detailed reading of The Space Elevator by Bradley Edwards and Eric Westling (I praised the book in an earlier post based on skimming it and reading a few sections). This 2003 book is a real tour de force that describes and analyzes the coming technology of space elevators with great clarity and detail. The amazing thing is that the space elevator (SE) is now not so much a problem of waiting for scientific breakthroughs as it is solving a lot of challenging but not unprecedented engineering problems (and getting the funding). The main technical breakthrough took place in 1991, with the discovery of carbon nanotubes (CNT). This material has many useful properties and a growing list of applications, but for SE applications, its main strength is its... strength! It's incredibly strong and light.

Within the last few months, I read of a technical breakthrough in the rapid fabrication of CNT ribbons and sheets of the type needed by the SE at a prototype rate of 7 meters per minute (published in Science magazine, August 19). These prototypes are very strong but not yet strong enough, and this is not fast enough for the thousands of kilometers of CNT ribbon that will be needed for the SE -- but it's a huge advance over previous methods of making CNT composites.

I also learned about the LiftPort Group a few weeks back -- a commercial venture that is developing SE technology now. They have begun to test early versions of the robotic "climbers" that will pull themselves up the ribbons and eventually to space. Their small test lifters recently climbed 1000 feet (305 meters) up a balloon-suspended test ribbon.

Here's the thing. Rockets are cool and have gotten us where we are today in space, but chemical rockets can never be an efficient and cost-effective way to get large cargos and people to space on a routine basis. The Earth's gravity well is just too deep, and a huge fraction of any rocket has to be fuel. The space elevator is the solution. It will eventually make access to low Earth orbit and beyond as routine and cost-effective as international airline flight is today. The astounding thing is that "eventually" is not centuries or even decades. We could have these things in 10-15 years. The benefits will be enormous. This is not science fiction, boys and girls.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Honoring Veterans

Although I never served in the military myself, I'm proud of my three brothers, who all served in the 1980's, two in the U.S. Air Force, the third in the U.S. Navy. I'm also proud to say that my late father, Richard Irving, was a U.S. Navy sailor in the Pacific during World War II. He served as a gunner's mate on a landing-craft support ship which saw heavy action at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Since his death in 1988, I have often wished I could have learned more about his experiences. Like most veterans of "the greatest generation," he didn't talk about it much.

My father in law, Charlie Cook, is also a veteran of World War II, and he too is pretty quiet about it for the most part. But partly because of my strong interest in flying, and the fact that Charlie was a B-24 pilot in the South Pacific, I asked him about it, and he gradually opened up and agreed to talk about his experiences. He also shared a number of photos that he kept from his flight training days in 1941-42 (example above, B-17 in formation flight - he first trained in the B-17 before being transferred to the B-24). In the fall of 2000 (when Charlie was 80 years old), I interviewed him and wrote an article about his experiences. My friend Peter Inglis has hosted Charlie's story as part of his Flight Sim Museum (and as a PDF, new window) since then.

In the conclusion to that article, I said
He did the job, took care of his crew, and suffered badly from the stress, but never asked for any special thanks or credit. We owe a lot to Charlie and the people like him who did so much at such a young age during World War II – we live in freedom and prosperity today thanks largely to the work of men like him. I want him to know that I and many others are very grateful for his service and for his sacrifices.
I'm also grateful for the service and sacrifices of all the other thousands of men and women who have served in the military in the past, and who continue to serve today, doing important and often difficult and underappreciated jobs.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Nuclear power: Going Small

Here's an interesting article from MIT's Technology Review. It discusses the development of small nuclear reactors that could be deployed at low cost in developing countries to provide power to a small area without requiring extensive infrastructure such as a national power grid. Of course there are safety and security concerns, and these are addressed in the article. The article is based on comments made in a talk at MIT by this year's Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Mohamed ElBaradei.

With world-wide demand for power growing rapidly, global CO2 emissions will become a bigger and bigger problem if we simply burn more coal and other fossil fuels to meet this demand. Solar, wind, and other alternative energy sources should be developed and exploited, and as space technology advances (especially the space elevator), we may eventually be able to meet much of the demand with solar power satellites. But that's not a near-term solution. In the near-term, nuclear power has to be a big part of the solution.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

See How It Flies

I haven't written much about real flying so far in my blog - I've been in total space cadet mode, I guess, plus I unfortunately haven't been doing much real flying recently, at least as a pilot (all those passenger hours in 747's and 777's over the Pacific don't count). But when I was taking flight lessons back in 2000-2001, there was one web reference that was really helpful in a lot of situations - See How It Flies by John Denker.

See How It Flies is really a book on how to fly airplanes, masterfully integrating the practical arts of flying (in the spirit of the classic Stick & Rudder) with the physics of flight, illustrated with dozens of clear diagrams. Dr. Denker is well qualified to write this sort of book - he is both a Ph.D. physicist and a flight instructor. He is also very good at explaining things. He even wrote his own wind-tunnel simulation program to generate diagrams like the one shown above!

Amazing and free. As I write more educational materials related to space flight and Orbiter (for kids and interested adults), I sometimes think about how good this book is, and how well it integrates the practice with the science. It gives me something to shoot for.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

A Moon of One's Own

I really don't know the Moon very well. I looked at it tonight with binoculars, a brilliant first quarter Moon on clear New England evening, right from my front porch. In Orbiter, I've been orbiting and landing on the Moon frequently since April, and I turn on surface labels now and then, wondering what some large crater might be. But I don't retain much.

Then in the binoculars tonight, it hit me - it does look like Wilma Flintstone! Not the whole thing, but a certain cluster of "seas" to the right of tonight's mid-Moon terminator. This is something that Bruce Mattson of the Christa McAuliffe Center points out in an article on their web site. He noticed that it is hard to distinguish the superficially similar features of the Moon, but with the help of the Wilma image, you can begin to see some patterns. I won't steal any more of Bruce's thunder - but check out the article, it's cool.

And speaking of of "Bruce" (which happens to also be my name), guess what is right in the middle of Wilma's lovely mouth (Sinus Medii, actually)? Bruce Crater! What a great name for a crater, but it's probably named for Lenny Bruce, not me. And the location? Very central, 0.4° East longitude, 1.1° North latitude, 7 km across, 800 m deep. I added a Moon base there in my honor (and so I could find it easier). Bruce Crater and Wilma Flintstone now form the core of my own personal Moon feature awareness program. Bruce Crater is only about 50 km from the landing sites of Surveyor 4 and Surveyor 6 (the red symbols on the Orbiter screen shot). I thought you should know.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Future Creep

Maybe it’s because I’m paying more attention, but doesn’t it seem like the future is creeping up on us? Sure, we still don’t have the flying cars. But every time an issue of the Weekly Newsletter shows up in my mailbox, it blows my mind. Stuff is happening fast. Very fast. Of course I also read Wired magazine, so you might think this is just a sampling error (if you read publications that focus on the future, you will find stuff about the future – duh). Well, maybe. But I read those things because of a sense that change is really accelerating, and I want to try to understand it if I can.

Of course Raymond Kurzweil is a leading proponent of the idea that we are approaching a “technological singularity” in which a number of technologies will merge and create (among other things) super-intelligent machines. The idea of a “singularity” is that it’s a sort of technological event horizon, beyond which we can’t see or even imagine what will happen next. When you have a PC that still shows you the blue screen of death once a day or so (admittedly XP is a bit better in this regard), it may be hard to believe that a machine that is smarter than a human is coming any time soon. But Kurzweil’s got you covered there too – that is linear thinking in an exponential world. Very natural, very common, probably wrong. Hard to see the slope of the curve while you’re on the curve.

The thing that impresses me is that the pieces are arriving very fast, even if they are not the pieces we were expecting. Take molecular nanotechnology. K. Eric Drexler described molecular assemblers in his 1986 book Engines of Creation. I was blown away by this book and by the idea of pervasive molecular-level manufacturing (you’ve got that whole DNA/RNA/life thing as proof of concept that molecular machinery can work). Now it’s late 2005 – where are the assemblers? Not here yet, and maybe not necessary, or maybe they will show up later. But meanwhile nano-researchers are hijacking the proof-of-concept machinery (DNA, RNA, proteins) and rewiring things to make stuff at the nano scale. Other things too. All kinds of crazy, amazing stuff. Maybe not all good stuff for the long run – but it’s happening.

The other thing that impresses me is that no matter how amazing the changes are, they quickly get sucked into the mainstream and become just another part of our everyday technological background noise. iPods? Implants to restore hearing? Carbon nanotubes? Self-driving cars? That old stuff?

This is why I’m not that worried about getting back to the Moon by 2018 or to Mars a few years later. I think that the combination of private space ventures, government interests, and technology developments that we can’t imagine will allow us to beat those dates and to start to establish Moon and Mars settlements sooner than that. Unless something else happens. How’s that for air-tight projections of the future?

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Doing What You Can

In vain have you acquired knowledge if you have not imparted it to others.

This Yoda-esque expression popped out of a fortune cookie the other day. I was already trying to follow the advice. I believe that we need to expand beyond this planet, to Mars and beyond, and not just for scientific exploration. I have believed this for a long time, but until recently, I wasn't doing anything about it except paying for a membership in the Planetary Society (which I still support).

As a private citizen, what can I do? One thing I'm doing now is trying to promote Orbiter as a tool for space-related education -- a way to provide simulated "hands on" experience that I believe can be more motivating than just reading, watching videos, or visiting web sites. I've also volunteered to be involved with educational outreach for the MarsDrive Consortium. I'm not sure what this will involve just yet, but there is bound to be a lot of educating to do if we are to move the idea of becoming a spacefaring civilization into the mainstream. I also plan to start talking (not just blogging) to more people about this, every chance I get. Just hope you don't sit next to me on a trans-Atlantic flight! Unless you like space stuff, of course.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

My Other Car is a Corellian Freighter

Milennium Falcon and Corvette at KSC

Ever wonder what happened to the Millenium Falcon? Turns out it was sold to a nice young couple from Encino. Here they are on a stop at the Cape where they've just unloaded... their Corvette? This is an updated Orbiter add-on by filozofio, based on earlier work by several others (credits in PDF file). Nice work - fun stuff. The Corvette (driveable) and R2d2 in the cockpit are nice touches. More pix over at Flickr (click the picture above).

I was going to come back to the near future and start some serious Moon flight planning for the CEV-1, but I decided to have another glass of wine and watch 12 Monkeys instead. See, it's not an addiction.

Friday, November 04, 2005

JPL Solar System Simulator

This is not Orbiter, but it's a great web application from JPL that lets you see any body in the Solar System at any date and time, from any other body (and several spacecraft, like Cassini). It's really easy to use and very handy for getting an idea of where everything is on a certain date when you're planning an Orbiter flight.

Use the Mouse, Luke!

Like many add-on ships for Orbiter, the CEV-1 does not include an instrument panel. Does this mean you are stuck with remembering dozens of key commands? Not necessarily. Orbiter includes a simple floating panel called Remote Control that you can activate in the Orbiter Launchpad dialog. This lets you use the mouse to control main and hover engines, reaction controls, and the basic autopilot functions like Kill Rotation and Prograde. You can control any vessel in the scenario - including your current one. It's not that pretty, but very functional. Some people prefer the Remote Control for docking, because there are separate buttons for rotation (RCS Rot) and translation (RCS Lin). With the keypad, you always have to toggle between rotation and translation. Most real spacecraft have separate hand controllers for rotation and translation.

The other essential tool is is over_g's add-on Glass Cockpit. This is another small panel you can install and activate which displays buttons for a currently active MFD (you have to click R or L to choose the right or left MFD). Most MFD's have key commands for their buttons, but I find it hard to remember all of them, so this tool is really essential for me.

If so many ships have no cockpit graphics, aren't they basically all the same to fly? Visually from the cockpit? Sort of yes. But in reality, no. Why are there so many Orbiter spacecraft out there? A subject for another post...

Mars is in the Details

I stumbled on the web site of space engineer and writer James Oberg last night. Lots of good stuff, but two excerpts from a work in progress (The Mars Conquest) especially caught my attention. "The Outbound Leg - No Time for Boredom" discusses the likely high level of training and other activities that would be required of astronauts on a 6 month Mars flight. "Scenario: Mars Medical Emergency" describes a role-playing exercise that was done (with simulated communication time delays between the crew and mission control) of a serious multi-aspect medical emergency for a 6-person exploration crew on Mars. The complexity of this simplified exercise is mind boggling, though the participants managed to solve most of the puzzles and get through the exercise successfully.

Going to Mars will take more than money and rockets! I'm glad people are thinking about the details, and I hope Mr. Oberg completes and publishes "The Mars Conquest" (excerpts are labeled 2004 so maybe the project is on hold).


SpaceNow is a terrific space-related web site. Although launched only a couple of months ago, they already have a tonne of great physics, astronomy, rocketry, and space related educational content -- practically an on-line textbook, but organized into convenient short articles. There's also a forum where space-related questions are posed and discussed (recent weekly debate topic: nuclear power in space). They just added a new information catagory, software, with Orbiter as its first entry. Add this site to your space links!

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Beating NASA Back to the Moon...


CEV-LM Ascent from Brighton Beach

...virtually, of course. I've decided to try my own "back to the Moon" program using Francis Drake's CEV-1 add-on, especially since I found that LazyD's Land MFD works great with this "tail sitting" lunar lander. It brought me hands-off from lunar orbit to pad-1 at Brighton Beach. Not much challenge in that, you say? True, but without a landing autopilot, a tail-sitter with only a main engine is not something I'm ready for. Plenty of other challenges in this, including planning (with IMFD) the whole Earth to the Moon thing for the CEV-CRM (if that's what it's called, command & resource modules), rendezvous in lunar orbit with the separately launched CEV-LM (making sure the resulting orbit is in reach of the desired landing spot), land (easy now), then take off with enough fuel to rendezvous with the CEV-CRM.

In my test launch from the Moon, I ended up with 6% fuel in the CEV-LM ascent stage, and not in a very good orbit to dock with the CEV-CRM. I need better planning (it's all in the timing), because in the test scenario, the CEV-CRM only has 33% fuel itself (after LOI burn), and I don't know how much is needed for TEI (trans-Earth injection burn).

So all the needed parts are there, and I can even install some of the Apollo 3D terrain "bases" for more realistic landing sites (I don't think there will be pads and a control tower for the first few flights). This will familiarize me with the CEV game plan and brush up some of my rusty orbit sync/dock skills. The hardware looks a little different from the current concept - but even that is still artists' conceptions. I think it looks kinda cool.

Spaceblogs Galore

Writing a space-related blog leads me to look at other space-related blogs, which in turn leads to yet more space-related blogs. A veritable exploding galaxy of space-related blogs out there. I visited an interesting one written by robot guy, where he provided some code for adding a space-related blogroll to your site - so I did. I didn't pick these particular blogs, and so far I've only looked at a few of them. But it's already clear that space-bloggers are as all-over-the-map as any other group of people. They just happen to be interested in space!

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

CEV Play for Today

CEV v1 in LEO

Francis Drake's CEV-1 "Odyssey" add-on for Orbiter is modeled on an "old" Lockheed-Martin concept (late 2004), and its shape doesn't quite match the Apollo-like cone that NASA has shown in the most recent concept art. But it is still the most complete CEV add-on for Orbiter that I know of, with the crew capsule, service module, and a lunar descent vehicle, along with starting scenarios for trying them out (and a convenient nose docking port). So until someone decides to create an add-on based on more recent CEV ideas, I'll use this to try out some CEV-type missions, such as visiting the ISS, or doing a Moon flight with a lunar orbit rendezvous and landing.

I Like Ike! I mean Mike!

Andy alerted me to the text of NASA Administrator Michael Griffin's comments yesterday at the Workshop on Space Exploration and International Cooperation. These comments give some perspective and focus to the recent ESAS report on NASA's "Vision" plans. He first gives some background on how President Eisenhower pushed hard for the development of the US interstate highway system in the 1950's, and how the resulting network of (sometimes!) high-speed roads has had great economic benefit. Griffin says that NASA's work in developing next-generation spacecraft and launch systems is to provide analogous infrastructure for future space programs, but that the work of creating and running (and funding) those future programs needs to be shared with international partners and with private space ventures.

I suppose this has all been said before, but Griffin really emphasizes that it is NASA's job to reach out and make sure these partnerships are developed and used. I like the tone of these remarks and the strong implication that NASA mainly wants to build the roads, not define what is driven on them. I also like this sentence:
It will be required of NASA that we be open to commercial offerings in preference to the development of government-only systems, whenever possible. If exploration is to become "what NASA does", we must recognize that in a world of limited resources we must, to quote Ben Franklin, "all hang together, or most assuredly we will all hang separately".
As I said in my post on October 24, let a thousand space programs bloom.

Cool Book: The Space Elevator

Here's a parenthetical quote from page 175 of The Space Elevator by Bradley Edwards and Eric A. Westling:
Only a few heavy traffic destinations like Mars will have direct ribbon to ribbon transfers.

Huh? Don't worry, all (and I mean all) is made clear in this amazing book. This 2003 book is the end product of a detailed study on the development of a space elevator, which is really more of a very strong ribbon of carbon nanotubes with "climbers" that pull themselves into space, powered by infrared light beams from high-power lasers. While this is a technical book with a lot of details, the writing is remarkably clear and friendly. Highly recommended! I thought it was only available at Amazon, but I recently saw a copy in a Barnes & Noble. You can also find free on-line information on the space elevator (including Edwards' Phase II report) at The earlier phase 1 report (15 MB PDF) is available at