Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Rocket (Company) Man

DH-1 in Orbit with EMU1
Mark Paton is continuing to develop the DH-1 add-on for Orbiter, and it's really cool. Based on the book The Rocket Company (discussed several times in this blog), Mark's third version can now simulate almost every aspect of the complex flight profile described in the book. He says that with enough fingers and attention to detail, you can launch the piloted DH-1 spacecraft to orbit and hover-land the piloted first stage back at KSC in the same session. You can later re-enter the orbital stage (if you were careful to save a little fuel) and land at KSC with the parasail. I've done most of the parts, but not all in one mission yet - working on it!

Mark still has a few things he wants to add, so expect a new release in a couple of weeks with some PDF documentation that I will be helping out with. I was the one who first got interested in a Rocket Company add-on for Orbiter (after author Patrick J. G. Stiennon saw my Space Review article on Orbiter and emailed me!), but lacking the skills to build it myself, I enlisted first Andy McSorley (prototype) and then Mark to help. Both have done amazing work.

The picture above is a little hack made by editing scenario files. Mark added a hatch to the orbital stage (a basic seat and joystick too), but it only opens in the landed configuration, so I had to trick it into opening in orbit. Then to show the scale, I added a couple of astronauts based on a new 3D mesh by "c3po" (one poor astronaut has drifted away in this shot). More pix on Flickr.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Orbiter/Firefly Fiction

Firefly Drive with Yellow Exhaust
This is something new (for me anyway): Orbiter-inspired fiction! Fired up by the amazing new Firefly "Jumbo" add-on about which I posted just the other day, "Staiduk" has written part one of an action-packed SF adventure story called In Darkness, the Rose - in the Simviation forum! It is heavily illustrated with cool screen shots of the Firefly in action in Orbiter (the one above is mine). Although it uses the Firefly freighter and its rather exaggerated performance to good effect, the story isn't really based on the Firefly TV series or the Serenity movie or their characters (maybe it's based in the same time frame and universe, I'm not really sure).

It's an action-story, and although the characters and dialog are just a bit over the top, it's a pretty entertaining start. Today's entry ends with "to be continued" and Staiduk says he's writing more tonight. Check it out.

100 Years and a Few Miles Away

I'm reading the 2003 book Rocket Man by David A. Clary, subtitled "Robert H. Goddard and the Birth of the Space Age." It's interesting on two levels for me. One is the obvious one, that Goddard was a true pioneer in the early development of liquid rockets, as well as in his ideas about the possibilities of space flight. The other point is that I live quite near Worcester, Massachusetts, which is where Goddard was born and spent most of his life. He went to school at South High and Worcester Polytechnic Institute, then got his Ph.D. and became a professor at Clark University, all within a perhaps 10 km of where I sit. So he was a local boy, which is kinda cool. I also wrote a little about him in an earlier post when I was playing in Orbiter with Mark Paton's cool Early Rockets add-on.

Early in the book, Goddard was a student at WPI, still living at home. Every evening he spent hours writing in his journals, often about the possibilities of space flight, about which he was optimistic, sometimes wildly so. But he also got discouraged at times. In March 1906, a hundred years and a few miles from here, he wrote that he had "decided today that space navigation is a physical impossibility." Fortunately he continued to study and work on the problems, and by 1909 had decided that rockets could do the job. Of course he spent most of the rest of his life developing them. I know you can't hear me Bob, but just for the record, it has worked out pretty damn well. We're still not where you thought we would be by this time, but we're working on it!

Friday, February 24, 2006

NASA For Teachers

I'm on an email list for announcements of new NASA educational resources, and I got one today. I took a look at at the educational materials pages and was again reminded of what an amazing range of resources are available from NASA, mainly for classroom use, but also for general space education and interest.

I downloaded a few educator guides that caught my eye, each a 3-8 MB PDF file with many pages of classroom activity sheets and supporting material, all identified by teaching standards references and grade levels. Titles include "Rockets" (132 pages, K-12), "Suited for Spacewalking" (100 pages, 5-12), "Planetary Geology" (223 pages, 5-college), and one for my own professional field, "Optics" (98 pages, K-12). There are also a variety of posters, lithographs (like the Saturn sample here), and even bookmarks. Cool stuff.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

God is Grand

Steve Grand, that is. Steve Grand is the inventor of the artificial life computer game Creatures, and he describes his job as “digital god.” In 2000 he wrote a book called Creation: Life and How to Make It, relating his experiences and views on artificial life and many other things, and describing the work that went into the first Creatures game. With chapter titles such as “the importance of being emergent,” “God’s Lego set,” and “I am Ron’s brain,” you can perhaps see one of the things I really appreciate in Steve as god: his sense of humor. This is not to say that your more conventional supernatural gods such as Zeus don’t have a sense of humor as well – of course they do, and examples abound (e.g., Pat Robertson). But I find Steve’s self-effacing, witty, zany, and British brand of humor rather more amusing. He’s also much more transparent than your average god – he tells you what he’s trying to do, and why, and how. He works in interesting but not mysterious ways, thank god.

I found Creation on a bookstore bargain table and was really impressed by what Steve has accomplished and how he describes it. He’s rather down on the essentially failed traditional AI top-down approach of building isolated, specialized, and fragile programs to do things like play chess. His approach is bottom-up. Here’s a good summary from the book (chapter 8, page 119):
This is the way organisms work. There is no architect, and no master controller telling the system what to do. There are just vast numbers of small independent entities that respond to signals as and when it suits them, and emit new signals whose destination they do not know. Top-down control leads to complexity explosions, because something somewhere has to be in charge of the whole system, and how much this master controller needs to know increases exponentially with the number of components in the system. Living systems are bottom-up: no part knows or cares what its role is in the whole, but the whole still emerges from the cacophony of these zillions of mindless loops of cause and effect.
Steve does more than talk about this approach – the creatures in the Creatures game live by this approach and sport neural network brains that learn from their environment, immune systems, and their own genetic code. I just bought Creatures Exodus (essentially a repackaged Creatures 3), and though I doubt I will have time to explore it in much depth, I felt compelled to have a first-hand look at what can be done with this bottom-up approach. Because as Steve says in the book (page 8):
…if you’ll forgive the staggering lack of modesty this implies, Creatures was probably the closest thing there has been to a new form of life on this planet in four billion years.
I also bought his 2003 book, Growing Up With Lucy, which describes his attempt to build a robot that simulates a baby orangutan. This project seems to be on hold now for lack of funding (lots of great stuff on his web site on this and other subjects – click the buttons for Projects and Backgrounders). I guess I’m a Steve Grand fan now (in company with Richard Dawkins among many others), and although I don’t plan to build a shrine and worship him, he’s definitely got my vote in the next god elections.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Reach Out

I tend to write a lot about Orbiter and about various space topics that catch my eye, but if I had to briefly summarize what this blog is really about, I would say “science and technology education and outreach.” Orbiter is fun, and “space stuff” is cool, but my big concern is that the average citizen is not very aware of what is going on in science and technology, and that the average student in school is not very interested in becoming a scientist, an engineer, or even a citizen who is concerned with scientific and technological issues. They may admit that these issues are important, and they may be eager consumers of technology with their iPod Nano’s and PlayStations, but they are happy to let someone else worry about the details and make the decisions.

This is not a good situation, because like it or not, our civilization is dependent on science and technology and our very survival may hinge on decisions we make in these areas. Choosing to be uninformed and uninvolved is not a good plan.

How does a blog help this? In truth, not very much, at least not directly. I hope to be one voice among many that is trying to change this situation, and my strategy is to use space as a tool to help build interest in science and technology (space related or otherwise). Orbiter has the potential to be one of the “sharp ends” of this tool, because while it is game-like in some respects, it’s truly about physics and astronomy, and it’s a hands-on, first-person experience that can be extremely involving. Whether it’s enough to lead some kids into a career in science or engineering, I don’t know. But I figure it’s worth a shot.

Since I’m improvising in this whole outreach thing, I was happy to read a great post over at Centauri Dreams on Pitching Physics to the Public. It first makes the point that it’s important for scientists to be able to explain their ideas to non-specialists, and this made me think of what a good job some bloggers are now doing in this area (e.g., scienceblogs.com and anthonares.net). Paul then goes on to point out a wonderful free resource, the complete (17 MB PDF) proceedings of a 2005 conference in Europe, “Communicating Astronomy with the Public.” Astronomy has an advantage over many of the sciences in that everyone has seen the night sky, and so many of the images of astronomical objects from Hubble and various other space probes are simply beautiful. But there is still the need to build on this appreciation, converting some of it to understanding, and perhaps rubbing off a little of it onto the other sciences. I’m hoping to rub a little of it off on my outreach work.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Firefly "Jumbo" for Orbiter

Firefly Shuttle Cockpit View Firefly Drive
Inspired by the cargo ship "Serenity" as seen in the TV series "Firefly" and in the movie "Serenity," this is a greatly expanded and improved version of an earlier add-on. Jon Marcure and Shawn Beard have been developing this for several months, posting screen shots and progress reports in the Orbiter forum. So this would certainly qualify as a hotly anticipated add-on, and it is finally available on Orbit Hangar. The 3D modeling and special effects are really cool. It includes two deployable shuttle craft that are flyable add-on ships themselves, as well as a number of animated features such as the cargo bay, rotating engine pods, and the spectacular Firefly drive (startup phase of animation shown above). Both the Firefly and the shuttles include virtual cockpits (view from the shuttle is shown above), a pretty rare feature in Orbiter add-on ships. Nice work Jon and Shawn!

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Rocket Company DH-1: Massive Overhaul!

When I said on Friday that there was "some interest" in further work on Andy's basic prototype of the Rocket Company DH-1 model for Orbiter, I didn't realize what an understatement that was! Mark Paton said he would would start work on it over the weekend, and he did much more than start. Building on Andy's work, Mark created a textured and animated version of the DH-1 with deployable drogue chute, landing skids, and parasail. He even provides autopilot scripts for launches. Amazing work! And literally all done this past weekend.

Mark says there are a few additional things he'd like to add once he's seen some feedback from users. It also needs some flight testing to adjust various system parameters, so I hope some Orbiter test pilots will take it for a spin or two and make suggestions. Thanks to Andy McSorley and Mark Paton for bringing the ideas of The Rocket Company to (simulated) life in Orbiter.

I will put some pictures on Flickr as soon as I can - upload isn't working from this rather erratic hotel broadband connection at the moment.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Rolling Stone on Mars: A Bust

Although it has changed a lot over the years and has become more mainstream and commercial, Rolling Stone magazine still projects an irreverent, liberal, sarcastic, and sometimes smart-ass, hipper-than-thou image in much of its writing. I don’t subscribe any more, but I still read it occasionally, mostly for interviews with interesting people (e.g., Bono, Neil Young) and for articles on off-beat subjects.

So when I noticed a long feature article on NASA’s Mars plans in the current Rolling Stone, I bought it, not knowing quite what to expect. Space isn’t the usual beat for RS, but if they were to get a decent freelance writer, it could be an opportunity for some good mainstream media coverage of future Mars exploration possibilities. No such luck.

You can get an idea from the title and subtitle blurb for the article: “Mars or Bust: It will take fifty years, cost $500 billion and may ultimately prove impossible. But convinced that life on Earth is doomed, NASA is launching the most ambitious mission ever conceived: permanent colonies on the Red Planet.” Except for the fact that it doesn’t mention alien abductions, this could easily be the start of a Weekly World News piece.

The article by Benjamin Wallace-Wells is long and covers a lot of topics, though not in a very well organized way. In addition to bashing NASA as an agency that has lost its focus, it talks about the Vision for Space Exploration, the Crew Exploration Vehicle, recycling urine for drinking water, making rocket fuel from rocks on Mars, “flat-out weirdos” in the Mars underground movement, the likelihood of disaster (psychological and/or technological) on a 2.5 year Mars mission, problems with zero-G, and the fact that some key technologies needed for manned Mars missions don’t exist yet. NASA may have indeed lost its focus (or more accurately was given too many missions with no coherent direction), and I'm not suggesting that sending humans to Mars is a trivial problem, but many of the key facts are wrong in content and/or context.

The final section of the article is called “the obsession” and focuses mainly on “Mars obsessives” (especially Robert Zubrin and his “wacky text” The Case for Mars), and the ironic twist that with Mars as an official NASA goal, Zubrin has consulted with NASA and “the agency’s engineers take his calculations seriously.” It even mentions the Mars Society’s arctic research center (conceived in “Zubrin’s fevered imagination”), but as with most topics in the article, it presents it in a mocking tone, as if to say “are these people wacked, or what?”

One amusing point is in the description of how run-down and retro the astronaut training facilities are at Johnson Space Center. “And when the astronauts practice weightlessness, they do it, wearing space suits, in what is basically a twenty-foot deep swimming pool,” the author writes. That certainly is retro, but doesn't he realize this is only because Congress has consistently voted down construction of our giant zero-G anti-gravity chamber? (Um, that's a joke.)

I guess I was expecting too much of RS, but the cover does have a fabulous picture of Mariah Carey.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Rocket Company DH-1 Prototype in Orbiter

Rocket Company DH-1 Launch2
A while ago, I wrote a brief note on a book called The Rocket Company, a fictional but technically accurate account of the development of a fully reusable two-stage launch vehicle. I really wanted to see this novel launch vehicle concept flying in Orbiter, so I enlisted the help of my friend Andy McSorley to do a proof-of-concept prototype for Orbiter. Our thought was to spread the word on the idea and then try to get some other add-on builders interested in doing a more complete implementation.

Today Andy posted the DH-1 prototype as a work in progress at Orbit Hangar, and he announced it on the Orbiter forum, inviting others to download the working prototype, graphical meshes, and the developer's notes (my main contribution other than cheerleading and test flights). Andy did a nice job, and the concept works - you can launch straight up and fly the second stage to orbit, while the first stage returns to the launch site (more or less by falling now, eventually to a piloted hover landing).

There seems to be some interest already, so we hope to see a more complete model of the DH-1 in the weeks to come.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Steal This Book!

Actually you don't have to steal it, it's free (OK, weird, random title for this post - it was the rather odd title of a 1970 book by sixties political activist Abbie Hoffman). Anthony Kendall has just posted the full journal of his experience as a member of the Mars Society's FMARS-10 crew in the summer of 2005. FMARS is the Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station, part of the Mars Society's research activities in simulating Mars surface missions on Earth. FMARS is located on Devon Island in northern Canada, 1400 km from the North Pole.

Rather than tell you more of what goes on there, I'll suggest that you read Anthony's book, as I will be doing tonight. Book? Isn't it a blog post? Yes, but it's the biggest blog post I've ever seen, a full 74 pages when printed from Firefox. So it's the blog post that's also a free book!

I know it now sounds like this is Anthony Kendall appreciation day, but I've been looking forward to reading more about his FMARS experience ever since he mentioned it in his Space Review article on human space exploration last October.

Blogging Breather

Deadline-driven work is taking a lot of extra time this week, and although I hate to disappoint my loyal readership (me and both of you), I guess blogging every day is not strictly required.

So it looks like I’m taking a breather until work and some other projects slow down a bit. There’s lots of interesting stuff to read, of course, although I have to say that even ScienceBlogs.com is getting to be too much of a good thing – 37 posts on February 6 alone (at least there are a few lines from each post on the entry page to help you decide what to read). For balance, diversity, and a keen eye for the interesting and important, I still recommend a daily dose of Anthonares. His recent post on censorship is great, and I especially liked his article on Resource Scarcity and Asteroid Mining (read the comments too – maybe I should have chosen Mandarin as my Asian language instead of Japanese, zannen desu ne). Anthony is now also a regular contributor to the already diverse and damn interesting Damn Interesting blog, with a good article yesterday on unexpectedly diverse termites.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Orbiter Soundtrack Expansion

Sometimes I spend time in ways I don't plan or expect. Today I got the new Paste Magazine, with its sampler CD of new music. In addition, it contained a card for 50 free MP3 downloads at emusic.com/paste (I guess anyone can get this). So I figure, what the heck, and two hours and 50 songs later, here I am. It's a pretty cool site and I had meant to check it out sometime.

I first downloaded one of my own songs when I found I was on there (I suppose I'll get 60 cents or something from this free download, whoa). CD Baby is pretty good about getting your CD songs on dozens of download sites. Then I downloaded a whole bunch of pretty random stuff, just browsing and listening. Lots of cool new pop tunes, some old stuff, some Indian music, just extremely various.

One thing I found was a compilation of science fiction movie music. I would never buy the 4-CD set, but I like instrumentals for background music in Orbiter, so I downloaded a few tracks. These include themes from Contact and Aliens, plus the very brief theme from The Day the Earth Stood Still, perhaps the most stereotypical piece of "space music" you could imagine (but I like it). I also downloaded a couple of Kronos Quartet pieces that sound like they will go well in Orbiter. Sometimes it's fun to be random.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Wheels (and Beers) on Mars

It's a busy work period with not much time for blogging and Orbiter and such. I'm still in a pretty Mars-obsessed mood, finishing the Roving Mars book and following up on the Mars Rovers through various web sites. It's a little odd to have just read about how sick the Spirit Rover was just a couple of weeks after landing in January 2004 - the MER team was seriously worried that they had lost the little guy - and then to read this recent update on results and plans for some major new travels for both Spirit and Opportunity, both going quite strong two years later.

I found and ordered what appears to be an interesting 98 minute DVD on the project, Wheels on Mars - there's a good trailer for it here. And I also saw a commercial that shows a different approach to the search for life on Mars, using a seriously pimped-out rover derivative. Thanks to Alternate Reality for a couple of these tips.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Fly Guy

I don't know why, but I love this little Flash thing, Fly Guy. It's a very relaxing sort of flying game. You can get to space, but the physics isn't quite as accurate as Orbiter.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Apollo History at NASA

As I've noted before, NASA has tons of great stuff on the web, but I just saw something mentioned on the Orbiter forum that was new to me. It's an interactive Flash animation of the Apollo Earth/Moon mission profile (above), as well as a clickable diagram of the Saturn V and the Apollo spacecraft. Access these from the graphic link in the middle of this Apollo History entry page. This page will also take you to short summaries of all the Apollo missions, and those pages have links to other more detailed Apollo sites.