Sunday, July 30, 2006

Magazines to Read and Hear

Despite the plethora of reading materials on the web, I still like books and magazines, though I don't subscribe to as many as I did in pre-web days (mainly Newsweek, National Geographic, Wired, Paste, and SEED - there are also a few guitar and songwriting magazines that come and go, plus The Atlantic, which I decided I didn't have time to read but now miss).

Paste has been around a couple of years and is the main way that I keep my ears refreshed with new and often amazing music, mostly by newcomers and relative unknowns. Each issue includes a CD with about 21 songs (and sometimes a DVD too, with short independent films and music videos, which I rarely have time look at). I've discovered artists like Bright Eyes, Teitur, Anna Nalick, Patty Griffin, and many more through Paste CD's. It's an eclectic mix that rarely includes rap or metal but does include almost anything else. Highly recommended, but this month there's good news and bad news: Paste has gone monthly (from bimonthly) and I just don't think I have the bandwidth for twice as much new music!

Seed (subtitled "Science is culture") is new and rather different, aiming to unite "the two cultures" (aren't there more than two now?). I find I'm drawn to only about half of what they publish, but this often includes some amazing gems, such as an article in the latest (September, just arrived) called "How We Know" by Jonah Lehrer. This article discusses research and experience with effective learning methods, focusing on the fact that to the brain, doing and learning are effectively one and the same - which means that what you learn by doing something generally stays with you, while what you learn by conventional classroom approaches often does not. This may not seem like shocking news, but with the recent focus on "teaching to the test" to prepare students for government-mandated standard examinations, the effectiveness of active learning methods in getting students involved and really learning is largely ignored.

Lehrer also reveals the secret of Mozart and Tiger Woods: 10,000 hours of practice. Mozart seems to have achieved this by the age of eight (thanks to a demanding father), and Tiger was already learning golf as a toddler. Experts like these achieve a fluency in their skills that makes it look easy and natural, and there certainly is a seed of genius in many such cases, but the real secret is the combination of effective practice (creative and realistic so that learning IS doing), and lots of time devoted to it. I better get busy!

Friday, July 28, 2006

Mars for Less for Orbiter: PPT Done!

MTSV Modules Assembling with CEV
The PowerPoint I will present next Saturday at the Mars Society Conference is finally done! It's 26 slides including six short video clips that total about five minutes (I know, too much material for a 30 minute presentation). I think it's good but in some ways it seems like a relatively small result for all the work that co-authors Andy McSorley, Mark Paton, Grant Bonin, and I put into it over the last 3 or 4 months. But of course it's not the whole story. I still have to finish the technical paper itself, for which Mark has contributed some 10 pages on his Orbiter-based design and testing for Mars EDL (entry/descent/landing - I've got a nice video of the entry and landing). And the spacecraft, launch vehicles, accessories, and dozens of scenarios will be assembled and released as a new Orbiter add-on as soon as we get a chance to clean up all the loose ends.

The picture above is from one of the slides - it shows the two sections of the MTSV about to be assembled in LEO with the help of NASA's CEV and two EVA astronauts. More pix on Flickr.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The One Minute Astronomer

Jack Horkheimer: Star Gazer has been a weekly public service "short subject" for some twenty years, though I just discovered it myself on the web. This tiny show specializes in naked eye astronomy, focusing each week on some notable sky event, such as Jupiter being visible just above the Moon in the southwest an hour after sunset on August 1 (the video shows easy to follow diagrams and instructions on what to look for and where). Some TV stations play the five minute version just before they go off the air at night (not a very convenient time for most of us), but now you can view the last 12 month's worth of videos (both one minute and five minute versions) on the web here, using RealPlayer. There's also a video podcast version - take the lesson right to the back yard on your iPod!

Jack also has a some astronomy cartoons on line! Astronomy cartoons? How cool is that? (My daughter now has even more proof that I am a goober.) The picture above links to one from March 2006, "the rival of Mars and how the scorpion lost its claws." The web site has a useful FAQ that tells other ways to get access to the show, especially for teachers. Note that since Jack is based in Florida, he talks about northern hemisphere constellations and events - sorry southern hemispherians.

Lake Rocket Fuel

Recent radar images of Titan from NASA's Saturn-orbiting Cassini spacecraft show dark patches that are being interpreted as "hydrocarbon lakes." At the temperature and pressure conditions of Titan, water would not be a liquid, but methane or ethane would be. Giant lakes of rocket fuel! Just touch down and fill the tanks! OK, maybe it's not that easy, and you still have to get your oxidizer somewhere unless you're flying a nuclear-thermal rocket or something. But it's still a pretty amazing image and idea.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Read This Interview!

I happened to notice this link to a video feature page in my daily New York Times news email. It's a wonderful interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist, author, and director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York. I've seen Tyson on TV and read some of his work, and I know him as an articulate and passionate proponent of space exploration, astronomy, and science education. But in this 30 minute interview (in 7 short "chapters"), he gets right to the heart of what matters to him and why it matters to all of us. Great stuff. It may require registration with the Times web site to view these videos (low and high bandwidth versions available).

Unrelated except that it's also in the New York Times today is this opinion piece on the psychology of retribution and retaliation, "He Who Cast the First Stone Probably Didn’t." It seems that escalation is built into our fundamental psychology. Bummer. But my brother always did hit me first -- except for that one time...

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Musical Interlude

No blogging time the last few days - a long-time friend and musical partner from Nashville has been visiting and we've been writing and recording some new songs, something I haven't really done much of since I entered my current "space cadet" phase in spring of 2005 (when I discovered Orbiter). I'm also working on the final screen shots, video clips, and PowerPoint slides for the Mars for Less paper I will present at the Mars Society Conference on August 5, two weeks from today. Title slide shown above.

Monday, July 17, 2006

STS-121 Landing Live!

Of course this isn't actually live HERE since it happened at 9:14 am EDT, but I watched NASA TV on my computer for the last 30 minutes of Discovery's entry, approach, and landing. I've watched Shuttle landings before, but this is the first time I recall seeing live HUD video from the pilot's perspective and it was really great! Congratulations to the Discovery crew and to NASA on a great mission.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Making Vallis Dao a Little Lived In

ERV with Greenhouses etc
I spent several hours this weekend furnishing the virtual Mars for Less base at Vallis Dao with a few props, most courtesy of Greg Burch (from his Heinlein Moon Base). Of course Orbiter isn't The Sims, but I wanted to make the virtual base a little lived in, even if all we'll do is land and take off from there.

I added six "inflatable" greenhouses (to the left of the ERV above) as well as a protective enclosure for the small nuclear reactor that Mark Paton built, a tall antenna with a red beacon, and some cargo containers (from a cargo drop?), the latter three not shown. This adds to the four astronauts already borrowed from Greg (2M, 2F), Andy's Mars Rover, Mark's ERV and MTSV, and an inflatable "lab" added on to the MTSV (this is from the ESA space station inflatable add-on by "No matter" and intended for zero-G, not surface use - but no matter). I couldn't find a suitable vehicle to stand in for the robot tractor that would remove the nuclear reactor from the ERV and install it to get the methane/LOX fuel production going for the ERV's return flight. But at least this gives some idea of what the first Mars base might be like - pretty spartan, but home just the same.

At Mark Paton's suggestion, we have dubbed this first base "Mandya Arti" (which means Mandya's blood), a name that comes from an Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime legend called "How the hills came to be." More pix at Flickr.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Back to the Future (and the past)

Orbiter and its add-on developers continue to amaze me. The creators of two must-have add-on packages for Orbiter 2005 have just announced updates (in one case, an interim patch) for Orbiter 2006.

I've written before about both Project X-15 and World of 2001. Greg Burch and Scott Conklin have updated their X-15 packages (there are three, X-15, Edwards AFB, and X-15 Delta) for Orbiter 2006, taking advantage of the advanced features of Vinka's spacecraft3.dll to improve aerodynamics as well as usability and immersiveness. I've just downloaded the packages and haven't tried them myself yet, but the original add-ons were great and the early reviews on the forum are strong.

World of 2001 (Wo2001) by Erik Anderson (Sputnik), Alain Hosking (80mileshigh), and Wolfgang Schwarz (Nautilus), is another work of art for Orbiter. They have just released a patch with fixes required for everything to work in 2006, and their web site says a full 2006 rework is planned for later in the year. In the meantime, get the original and the patch, and watch this cool video (15 MB wmv). The picture above is a Phobos base from Wo2001, which implements bases and spacecraft described only in Arthur C. Clarke's books in addition to the well-known ones from the Stanley Kubrick movie.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Coming Soon to a Mars Near You

ERV MTSV Landing
MTSV Chute Over ERV Site
I'm getting ready to capture video clips of the key Mars for Less mission steps to use in the PowerPoint I will present in a few weeks at the Mars Society Conference. I'm testing my camera positions and views with static screen shots, using a wide-screen format which I think is pretty cool. Mark Paton's autopilot-assisted entry sequence for precision landing at "Mandya Arti" (the name we've chosen for the base, not a real Mars feature) works very well, though I still have to manually detach chutes and the aeroshield, and the timing of these events affects where the MTSV actually lands, sometimes a few meters from the waiting ERV, sometimes inside the valley wall! More pix on Flickr.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Bigelow's Genesis

Private space company Bigelow Aerospace achieved a real milestone today with the succesful orbital launch of its research satellite Genesis I. It was launched in Russia on a converted ballistic missile. The Genesis is a scaled-down research prototype of an inflatable "hab" structure for use in a future commercial space station. Bigelow hopes to launch such a space station by 2015, but a lot of research on inflatables needs to be done first.

This was originally a NASA concept that Bigelow took over. If "inflatable" suggests floating around inside a thin mylar balloon, think again. It would really be a thick multi-layer structure that would inflate by a factor of roughly two, giving a very roomy space in space. There are some good pictures here and and a report on a visit to Bigelow here (not much on the Bigelow site, oddly enough). There's also a good article (from 2004) at the Space Review on "inflatable POOF's" (privately owned orbital facilities!) that discusses the origins of the idea and Bigelow's plans. I want to go!

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

STS-121 and Orbiter

I feel a little bad. Here I am a space freak, and I haven't blogged a word about the current shuttle mission to the ISS, STS-121 - a mission that seems to be going fantastically well, I'm happy to say. I was in Australia when Discovery launched, with limited web and TV access, so I missed the lead-up and the early details. There's no shortage of mission information at NASA and other sources, of course.

As usual, the Orbiter community has been following along, with a great effort by "David413" and friends to update the Shuttle Fleet add-on (e.g., Discovery 3.9.1) and to provide a huge STS-121 expansion pack to allow faithful simulation of the actual mission (check for updates to this). David has also provided a new add-on of the ISS in its current configuration (11A, the standard Orbiter ISS is the future, complete version).

Finally a reminder that Gene Harm has some of the best advice for flying the shuttle in Orbiter on his web site (including the pic above).

Monday, July 10, 2006

Making Flat Earthers Look Smart

As you may have gathered, I’m a space advocate, and in fact, I believe strongly with Tsiolkovsky that “Earth is the cradle of mankind, but one cannot remain in the cradle forever.” People should and will eventually also live in places other than Earth, and for a variety of reasons, I believe this is an important idea. I realize this is currently a minority viewpoint and that most people assume that human life begins and ends here on Earth. So it goes.

But what I didn’t realize until today is that there’s a big hidden assumption in the above beliefs: that it’s a good thing for human life to continue to exist at all. While I’ve heard of all sorts of beliefs, including those of people who demand the destruction of other people who don’t share their faith, and those of the occasional cult whose disturbed leader calls for mass suicide, I was not prepared for the bizarre beliefs of VHEMT, the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. I learned about it today in an article in the Space Review (“Destroy all humans!”). Why there? I guess because this view represents the polar opposite of the typical space advocate’s view of “expand into space to spread and preserve humanity” – it’s “keep human life on Earth and let it become extinct.” VHEMT doesn’t advocate suicide or war, merely that we all stop having children and let the human race quietly go extinct.

I’m not sure why this weird movement bothers me more than, say, the Flat Earth Society, but it does. If you read the article and look further at the VHEMT web site (which claims to be serious), it’s clear that they represent an extreme form of Earth-first environmentalism (“Phasing out the human race by voluntarily ceasing to breed will allow Earth’s biosphere to return to good health.”) I’m all for preserving the environment and living in balance with our fellow creatures. But this idea that “nature” is the only thing that matters, and that humans are a kind of toxin whose main effect is to destroy nature– that’s just insane. We’re part of nature too!

Humans are animals that have evolved to be especially versatile in adapting to environments. Evolution gave us large, adaptable brains, and we have used them to extend our capacities beyond biology. We make use of culture and technology to adapt better than biology alone would allow. While we have been wildly successful at this, we have not always been kind to our fellow creatures (including fellow humans) and to our Earthly home. Through our numbers and our technology, we have “fouled the nest,” as they say. But we are also smart enough to finally realize this and to begin to take measures to overcome it. We have made mistakes in managing this planet, but our brains, culture, and technology can also give us the tools we need to fix the problems. Will we be successful? I think so, though it may take a while. Obviously not everyone is on the same page on this, and there are many competing problems and threats. We need to try a lot of things, including fixing up our environment, cleaner energy sources, reasonable population controls, and expansion into space – a backup plan, as it were.

Just as obviously, the VHEMT freaks don’t represent any sort of mainstream view, so I feel a little funny ranting about them like this. They aren’t going to convince many people to “cease to breed,” and since they aren’t advocating active measures to reduce the population (such as mass murder), they don’t seem to be much of a threat. But the fact that a group of people can seriously advocate the extinction of all human life as some sort of a desirable goal shows that humans can believe anything. And that’s scary! Unfortunately it’s not the scariest irrational belief that’s floating around the planet these days.

Eagle Eye View (Literally)

This is too cool! In the June/July issue of Europhotonics there is a brief article on research into the mechanisms of bird flight. Graham K. Taylor and Adrian Thomas of the Zoology Department of Oxford University (UK) are using miniature CMOS cameras and a motion measurement device mounted on the back of a trained steppe eagle to study the bird's movements and behavior in free flight! The cameras have built-in 2.4 GHz transmitters to send the video to a ground station. There is a news release that tells more as well as a brief Quicktime video clip (still frame above) that shows this literally eagle's-eye view as "Cossack" turns his head and then banks for the point where he is looking. Fascinating!

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Mars for Less: End to end!

I was relatively Orbiter-free during my two weeks in Australia, but Andy McSorley and Mark Paton have continued to work on the Mars for Less project for Orbiter and now have nearly completed all the esssential 3D and space flight modeling. They've done an amazing job on this project (we will release this as a free add-on for Orbiter in the next couple of months).

Mark has done extensive EDL (entry-descent-landing) testing, including aerocapture into Mars orbit, all the way to entry and landing, using two parachutes to limit entry loading to 3g (using only one chute allowed 5g, probably too much for astronauts who have been in artificial Mars gravity for six months - the tether-based rotational pseudo-G can be simulated in Orbiter too). Andy has worked out the Earth return part of the mission, launching the ERV from Mars to a parking orbit, trans-Earth injection (TEI), precision guidance back to Earth for aerocapture into low Earth orbit. Andy has put together a mission "storyboard" page of Orbiter screen shots on his web site (sample pic above, ERV departing from Vallis Dao).

This is all good fun if you're an Orbiter and Mars fan, of course, but the impressive thing to me is that Orbiter can model such a mission in sufficient detail to simulate aerocapture/EDL and even measure G loads and other flight data. This is why we are calling it "virtual prototyping of human Mars missions" for a paper we will present in a few weeks at the Mars Society Conference in Washington, DC. The MSC agenda is now on line (PDF). In addition to the Orbiter MFL virtual prototyping paper (Irving-McSorley-Paton-Bonin, Saturday, August 5 at 4 pm), one other MarsDrive related paper is scheduled, Regan Walker on the Drive to Mars (Saturday at 5 pm).

Friday, July 07, 2006

Down Under: The Book

Looking for something more to read on the long flight home from Sydney, I picked up Bill Bryson's Down Under (2001, apparently published in the US under the title In A Sunburned Country). Good choice. The only Bill Bryson book I had read before this was A Short History of Nearly Everything, which is a good overview of the history of science and technology. While that book had some humorous moments, I wasn't prepared for the laugh-out-loud flavor of Bryson's travel writing.

Bryson has seen a lot more of Australia than I could in just two short weeks, and he artfully mixes history, descriptions of nature and geology, a bit of politics, and encounters with everyday Australians in every corner of this huge, sparsely populated, and amazingly good natured and scenic country. While I would love to go back to Australia and see more of it, Bryson's book is a good way to extend the vacation right now. I'll have to check out some of his other travel writing too.