Monday, December 31, 2007

A Year of Space & Blogging

I'm still reading Andrew Chaikin's excellent Apollo book (I'm in the middle of Apollo 16 right now) and enhancing this experience with Orbiter simulations of lunar landings and EVA's in AMSO. Apollo 15 was such an impressive mission, and thanks to Chaikin and especially AMSO, I now have a much better feel for the dramatic mountain valley location, for the distances covered in this first Lunar Rover mission, and for the scientific accomplishments of this mission. The picture shows the LM approaching its landing site about 2 km east of Hadley Rille. AMSO continues to improve, and according to this recent forum thread, the next version will even include 3D virtual cockpits for the CSM and LM!

But it's the last day of the year, the traditional time to look back and sum up: just how did we do in the fiftieth year of the Space Age? Fortunately for me and you, Alan Boyle at Cosmic Log has done a great job summarizing the year in space. This brief video summary of JPL's impressive 2007 accomplishments and this one about JPL's Explorer 1 (the first US satellite, launched in January 1958) are also great.

For myself, 2007 was a really great "year in space." It was my first year as a volunteer JPL Solar System Ambassador, and I presented or participated in at least ten educational outreach events, many of them in conjunction with the Aldrich Astronomical Society. I attended the National Space Society meeting (ISDC 2007) in Dallas, presenting a paper (3.5 MB PDF) on the uses of Orbiter for education, and attending talks by (among many others) Apollo astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Harrison Schmitt (I stood three feet from Buzz for about 5 minutes but he was busy and I didn't get to meet him). I was also fortunate enough to attend a NASA educational conference in Orlando in connection with the STS-118 mission, which also allowed me to join in a VIP tour of the Kennedy Space Center and to experience a shuttle launch from just 6 km away - really awesome. I also bought my first small but fairly reasonable telescope, an Orion StarBlast (earlier I had bought one of those useless department store telescopes they tell you never to buy, ostensibly for my daughter). I'm sure there will be more!

It certainly appears that I like to write, though I've known that for years. Before blogging came along, it was personal journals on whatever I was into at the time: books, Japanese study, songwriting, recording, flight simulators, flight lessons, etc. Although I didn't produce a new edition of Go Play In Space as I did in 2005 and 2006, I managed to write some 326 blog posts on quite a few subjects, including a number of tutorial posts under the heading "Orbiter for Educators." I still believe that space and astronomy are a great way to engage kids and others and to encourage interest in the wonders of science and technology. Orbiter continues to be a great help in my educational presentations and personal explorations into space and astronomy. I look forward to doing more educational outreach (and more blogging) in 2008 and beyond.

Happy new year and best wishes to all!

P.S. I had planned to host the Carnival of Space last week, but people were apparently too busy with Christmas and other things. I'm waiting to hear from Fraser Cain about hosting it this week, so stay tuned, and if you have a post you'd like to include in the next carnival, please send it in.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Einstein, Mystery, and Religion

I've been reading sections of Chet Raymo's An Intimate Look at the Night Sky. The book is arranged by seasonal highlights of the night sky, with observation notes followed by essays that tie together the celestial observations with historical and scientific observations. I like Raymo's explanations and analogies. For example, on the subject of light pollution, he writes, "Looking at the night sky from the environs of a city or suburb is the visual equivalent of listening to a live string quartet outdoors in Times Square at rush hour." It's a great little book. Here is a longer quote that I really like. It's from the final essay, which is tied to the final weeks of the year, where we are right now:
Einstein had no use for those people who sought mystery in paranormal fads and superstitions. Nor did his deeply religious nature lead him toward any sort of God fashioned in the image of man. His religion was "humility" in the face of the magnificent structure of nature that can only be imperfectly comprehended. Christmas and Hanukkah celebrate light that comes into darkness and illuminates the world. Not a bad time to consider the ways in which the light of reason illuminates reality. Science illuminates nature but does not deplete its mystery. Science at its best - as practiced by a Galileo, a Herschel, an Einstein, or a Hubble - is an almost religious activity; a deliberate effort to engage intellectually, passionately with the mystery that permeates every particle of existence, every glimmer of light in the night sky. It was the encounter with mystery at the shore of knowledge that inspired Einstein's life work and reinforced his sense of the worthiness of human life. "Measured objectively," he wrote, "what a man can wrest from Truth by passionate striving is utterly Infinitesimal. But the striving frees us from the bonds of self and makes us comrades of those who are the best and the greatest."

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Flying Apollo 12

Apollo 12 Final Approach v2
I was reading about Apollo 12 in A Man on the Moon, and it reminded me that this was one of my favorite Apollo missions, with a fun-loving all-Navy crew of Pete Conrad, Al Bean, and Dick Gordon. It took place in November 1969, just a few short months after Apollo 11, but in the Apollo era, they learned fast. Aside from a lightning strike that briefly knocked out their electrical systems moments after launch (fortunately not affecting the Saturn V guidance systems), it was pretty much "nominal" all the way. It was also the last Moon landing mission that I paid much attention to at the time, sad to say. Apollo 13 was April 1970 - I followed the crisis like everyone else, but of course they didn't land on the Moon. Then in August 1970, I went off to college, and for the next few years, Moon landings were not my top priority (neither were academics at first, but that's another story). Of course in this respect I was not that different from the public at large - Apollos 14, 15, 16, and 17 each did progressively more amazing things, but no one paid much attention.

Reading again about Pete Conrad's pinpoint landing (within walking distance of the Surveyor III spacecraft), I wanted to experience it for myself. So I fired up Orbiter and AMSO (Apollo Mission Simulator for Orbiter) to simulate the Apollo 12 landing. First I checked the AMSO installation and found that while there was a suitably modeled landing site for Apollo 12, the Surveyor spacecraft was not included. I then searched Orbit Hangar for a Surveyor spacecraft add-on and found one (created by Jim Williams). I installed that add-on in my AMSO directory and did a little scenario editing to place the Surveyor on the surface within the Apollo 12 landing area (the base in AMSO is called Procellarum). I didn't worry about the exact position, but I placed it near the edge of the large crater that was dubbed "Surveyor Crater" (the largest of a cluster of craters that looked something like a snowman). It's not exactly on the surface - for reasons I don't fully understand, it's floating about a meter above the Apollo 12 base texture - oh well. I tried to hide this in my screen shots.

AMSO is not a "system simulation" as the NASSP add-on is for selected areas. In NASSP you find fairly detailed instrument panels and even virtual cockpits, allowing (or requiring) you to click sequences of switches similar to what the astronauts did for various operations. This is impressive and cool but also somewhat impractical. AMSO accurately simulates the many steps and actions of the Apollo missions, but the interface is reduced to a few keys and simple menu prompts in the lower left corner of the screen, and there is a lot of available autopilot help, although everything can be done manually if you are so inclined (and skilled).

For the Apollo 12 landing, I chose a supplied LM descent scenario, which starts with the LM already in its low-pass orbit, a few minutes before PDI (powered descent initiation). Using the K key and arrow keys, I found I was about 500 seconds from PDI (braking with the LM's descent engine). I used 10x time acceleration to get to the good stuff, allowing the autopilot to fly just as in the real thing. Once the LM pitched up to its vertical "hovering" position and the landing site was visible, the computer switched to a mode where the landing point could be shifted with the arrow keys, similar to what Conrad did with a couple of toggle switches in the real LM. In this way I could avoid landing in the large crater. I spotted the shiny pixels of the Surveyor from a couple of kilometers out, and in a few minutes, the autopilot had landed (manual control for the final minutes of the landing is possible just as in the real thing, but only with a joystick, and I don't have one hooked up for this computer).

I ended up within a few hundred meters of the Surveyor, and I launched my two astronauts on their first EVA. I didn't first read the EVA instructions so I didn't deploy an antenna, plant the flag, and search for rock samples, though this is all implemented in AMSO! I just had my virtual Pete and Al hop around for a bit while I took some pictures. I was impressed that with the low Sun angle, even the dark color of the surface seems to match the character of the real site as shown in many Apollo 12 photos (Alan Bean accidentally pointed their color video camera at the Sun and fried its sensors, so there was no EVA video from Apollo 12, alas).

AMSO is great and with all the automation and supplied scenarios, it's possible to experience the complexity and even the beauty of the Apollo missions without being an Orbiter "ace," or to fly a complete end-to-end mission if you are. More pix on Flickr. See also the impressive AMSO Gallery at the primary author's web site.

N.B. From the gallery and some further tests I found that Surveyor 3 actually is part of the Apollo 12 landing site in AMSO, but it does not appear until EVA #2, when retrieving a piece of the spacecraft is part of your EVA goals, as indeed it was for Pete and Al. Lunar surface EVA's in AMSO have a simple game-like aspect to them - you need to go to one or more EVA sites in a prescribed order and retrieve several specific rock samples before you can complete that EVA and go on to the next one. You can even run out of oxygen if you don't keep an eye on your consumables and return your crew to the LM in time. This is all described in a supplied file (EVA.DOC) that even includes maps of the landing areas and EVA routes. Whoa.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Wired Science: From Elon to Space Junk

Wired Magazine is a favorite of mine, and although I don't watch much TV, I have managed to catch a couple of episodes of their spin-off show Wired Science on PBS, and it's quite good. But usually I hear something about a segment I want to watch and then forget to watch it. The good news is that they put a lot of their video segments on line after each broadcast.

Case in point: the video segment from last week on "space junk" (above). The "space junk" in this case is not hazardous debris in Earth orbit, it's actually space hardware that has been abandoned or sold to private dealers. The hosts in this segment visit a company in North Hollywood, California that has a huge inventory of spacecraft parts dating back to the Apollo era. Their customers have often been movie studios and private collectors, but now they also have NASA and other engineers visiting to salvage parts to be studied and perhaps reverse engineered for the new Constellation moon program! They have also removed internal parts from the old Saturn V boosters that are on display in Huntsville, AL and at KSC in Florida. Interesting and ironic - it seems that in the rush to meet JFK's promise to land on the moon by 1970 that many of the devices and systems that were designed and built were not especially well documented (or perhaps documents were thrown away like the remaining Saturn V's). By measuring and testing various valves, pumps, and other specialized parts from Apollo-era hardware, they may save time and cost on designing and building a similar part for the Constellation program.

There's also a great interview with Elon Musk from the first episode of Wired Science back in January 2007.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Moon & Mars

We went out last night around midnight to try to see the Moon and Mars, which were quite close together and almost directly overhead at the time. It was very windy and finally starting to clear - low clouds were moving rapidly, leaving occasional gaps through which we could see the full Moon, Mars, super-bright Sirius, and Orion. The clouds were quite bright, illuminated by ground lights, creating an eerily beautiful scene. Although it was obvious that it was the clouds that were moving, when looking overhead with no visible ground references, there was a strange illusion that the Moon, Mars, and the stars were flying through fixed clouds, at an apparent speed similar to that of the International Space Station when I've seen it passing overhead. Very weird illusion.

I didn't try to take pictures but several people on Flickr did. The one shown here is courtesy of KM&G-Morris. It doesn't show any detail on the Moon (as we saw quite clearly through the cloud gaps), but it reminds me most of what we saw last night. Other photographers had clear skies and took very sharp Moon-Mars images, including this one.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Vacation Reading

I’m reading A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronautsby Andrew Chaikin, the inspiration for Tom Hanks’ great HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moonwhich I bought on DVD a year or so ago. I’m surprised I hadn’t read it before but there you go – I read a lot of books but there are just so many out there. I’m also browsing through a couple of astronomy books, An Intimate Look at the Night Skyand The Soul of the Night: An Astronomical Pilgrimageby Chet Raymo. Raymo is a really good writer on astronomy and nature. I’m on vacation until January 2, mostly hanging around at home, and I’m hoping to get to another couple of books on the ever-growing stack including the latest Arkady Renko novel, Wolves Eat Dogsby Martin Cruz Smith. I’m also revisiting some of my musical favorites from my classical period in the 1980’s (I missed most of the pop music from the 80’s, which I realize now was not such a bad thing!). Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony and Mozart's "Dissonance" String Quartet, among others.

Reading is probably my most persistent habit, and one that I’m happy I acquired as a kid. Books about the Apollo program (Chaikin) and the night sky (Raymo) are comfort food for my brain, I guess. It’s relaxing to revisit such familiar territories, and there are always new things to learn, new perspectives on old knowledge, and even emotional connections, like thinking again about the reading of the opening lines of Genesis by the Apollo 8 crew orbiting the moon on Christmas Eve 1968. I’m certainly not religious, but the Bible is obviously an important part of mankind’s literary and cultural heritage. Reading those words underlined that whatever the technology involved, and despite the fact that this was an American project in the context of the Cold War, that space exploration is ultimately a human endeavor.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Carnival of Space #34

Carnival of Space #34 is now available for your reading and clicking pleasure, hosted by Rainer Gerhards' Spaceflight Blog. It's a nice collection, including a first wave of year-end wrap-up and best-of posts. I expect that such retrospectives will continue next week when I will take another turn hosting the carnival. Please send your posts and suggestions to (which Fraser will soon be forwarding to me).

Von Braun on Disney, 1955

This is really cool - a 1955 episode of the Disneyland TV show called "Man in Space." Available (for now) in 8 parts on YouTube. It's amazing to me how much they got right in 1955 (though not everything of course). The clip above is #6, which features Wernher Von Braun. Clip one is here. Thanks to "Darthvader" of Fly Me to the Moon for the tip!

P.S. For a brief and very funny musical counterpoint to this uncritical presentation of Von Braun and the V-2 rocket, check out this video.

Sagan: Slaying Invisible Dragons, Firmly But Gently

In chapter 10 of The Demon-Haunted World Carl Sagan talks about invisible dragons. Suppose a friend told you there was a dragon living in his garage. When you stop by to check it out, you learn that it is not only invisible, but it floats in the air, spouts invisible and heatless flames, and has no physical body. It is totally non-detectable, yet your friend assures you he is certain it exists. You would doubtless conclude that in the absence of any evidence whatsoever for its reality that this dragon exists only in your friend’s mind. Sagan talks about other possibilities – what if many otherwise reasonable people also claim to be hosting invisible dragons? What if there is some sort of evidence, a careless claw print or a burnt finger from momentarily hot dragon breath?

Of course the invisible dragon is just a silly example of a belief held in the absence of evidence (though I’m sure that somewhere out there you’ll find at least a few invisible dragon believers). Sagan discusses under what circumstances you might accept your friend’s contention, and how you might otherwise interpret the situation, but he is never harsh or cruel in talking about such people. The same is true of the many real-life examples of pseudoscience and myths, and even of hoaxes and of what I would call pure bunk. Sagan applies the warm light of reason, while recognizing that for many reasons, people often do wish for and believe in things for which there is no objective evidence. He does not ridicule believers, but he argues compellingly for the greater utility of the evidence-based approach we have come to call science (the book’s subtitle is “science as a candle in the dark”).

Carl Sagan died eleven years ago today. He was a scientist, an atheist, a humanist, a fine writer, and a great popularizer of science. Although some fellow scientists may have dismissed him as a relative light weight, as a mere popularizer (in spite of significant research results and many scientific publications throughout his career), I believe he was one of the most important scientists of the twentieth century because he was one of the few who made an effort to communicate science to everyone, and to do it so well and so entertainingly. The universe is tough to understand, and technology can be even harder, but we need to try to understand what is really going on – every one of us. We live in a world of physical laws, surrounded by a growing array of technology and its many side effects. We don’t all need to be scientists, but we all need to be able to evaluate evidence to form opinions and make all sorts of decisions that affect our own lives and contribute their effects to the world around us, to separate the pseudo from the science.

Sagan himself was not totally immune from belief and wishful thinking – for example, he wanted very much to believe that the universe is teeming with life. Maybe it is – but the evidence is just not in yet. We are still looking for it, with rovers rolling around on Mars and with arrays of radio antennas listening for signals from the stars. I’m sure Sagan would be happy about all that, anxious to hear some good news, to see real evidence of life beyond the Earth. But Carl Sagan was satisfied with the universe as it really was and is, with the natural richness of its physics and biology, and with the human-made richness of our cultures, societies, and relationships. Within those realms I know I too can find all the spirituality I will ever need, and I’m grateful that Carl Sagan was here to help me (and so many others) to see and appreciate the wonder of all that really is.

This blog post is one of many written today in memory of Carl Sagan on the eleventh anniversary of his death. Many of these posts are really wonderful and well worth reading, including a warm message from Carl Sagan's wife, Ann Druyan.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

iTunes U

On-line educational resources continue to evolve and expand. I've written before about MIT's OpenCourseWare (OCW) program, and it warms my heart as a former physics major to see a NY Times article today describing MIT physics professor Walter Lewin as a "web star" based on the world-wide popularity of his Physics I lecture videos. He certainly is an attention grabbing lecturer! With physics professors becoming web stars, maybe studying physics will become wildly popular and irrationality will plummet. But probably not.

I also just noticed that Apple now has something called iTunes U which expands upon the wide range of free audio and video podcasts already available through the iTunes Store. Universities can build their own iTunes U pages for iTunes, providing students or others with a convenient way to download audio or video lectures. Surprisingly, I didn't see Prof. Lewin's MIT classical mechanics class there, though his E&M (electricity and magnetism) class is available along with a number of other MIT OCW classes. I now have his first E&M lecture video on my iPod - how cool is that?

Note: The lecture videos at the OCW site itself are streaming RealMedia files with no option (that I can see) to download the videos for off-line viewing.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Rocket a Day?

Elon Musk at MSC 2006
John Walker (no, that's not him) was the founder of Autodesk, Inc. and the co-author of AutoCAD. For many years he has maintained a web site documenting his diverse interests and providing a variety of free software tools, as well as articles and essays on various topics, some of them related to astronomy and space. Very cool web site.

One of the space articles is called "A Rocket a Day Keeps the High Costs Away" (1993). In it Walker talks about the chicken-and-egg problem of launch costs and space development - the idea that to make extensive use of space requires lowering the cost of putting payloads into orbit, but that as long as it costs so much to put things in orbit, only payloads that are considered "high value" can even be considered. I won't repeat his analysis here (too many qualifications required since he talks about the German V-2, among other things), but he makes a case that there is no reason that rockets cannot be produced and launched at much lower costs than they are today, as long as you plan to build and launch a lot of them. To those who say we don't have enough payloads to make use of all these low-cost launch vehicles, he suggests that someone try it and see what happens!

It struck me in reading this 1993 article that this is very much what Elon Musk (that's him, speaking at the 2006 Mars Society Conference I attended) is trying to do with the Falcon rockets at SpaceX. It's not quite Walker's "if you build it, they will come" idea, but it's a clean sheet of paper approach to building modern, simple, modular space flight hardware with the long range goal of increasing the flight rate and encouraging all sorts of people, organizations, and nations to do stuff with space. Of course Musk's really long range goal is to open up a new frontier on Mars and elsewhere in the solar system. But you have to start somewhere, and I'm glad he decided to spend some of his PayPal millions building a space company.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Mars Now, Mars Future

I just had a look at Mars with my little Orion StarBlast telescope from my front porch. The sky was clear and Mars was a small, bright, and rather wiggly disk. It was wiggly mostly because I didn't really allow enough time for my telescope to get down to the cold ambient temperature before getting too cold myself and feeling guilty about three other things I needed to do before bed. I admit it, I'm not much of a winter observer! Mars will reach its closest point to Earth tomorrow night (about 88 million kilometers or 55 million miles), but I can't count on it being clear two nights in a row. Maybe I'll go out again (unfortunately I didn't).

Of course Mars is a lot bigger and closer in spacecraft imagery, and even bigger and closer in some people's imaginations. My small contribution to that category is not exactly fiction, but a picture book of possible future human exploration of the red planet. I created this a year or so ago using screen captures from Orbiter (with various add-ons) plus a few NASA images. The pictures illustrate how an early Mars mission might work using the Mars for Less approach, a variation of Robert Zubrin's Mars Direct that uses medium lift launch vehicles and modular docking-based construction of the Mars vehicles in low Earth orbit. The cool thing about this (for me at least) is that I worked with a team of people (Grant Bonin, Andy McSorley, and Mark Paton) to create the Orbiter add-ons so we could simulate flying the whole mission in Orbiter: multiple launches, LEO assembly, navigation, Mars entry, landing, the whole shebang. We wrote a paper on that project that I presented at the Mars Society Conference in August 2006 (PDF slides and text are available). Andy also has a web page with more pictures from the project.

Mars... Just Imagine (3.6 MB PDF) is a free educational picture book that is once again available on-line thanks to my friend "MiGMan" who has added it to the Orbiter section of his wonderful Flight Simulation Museum.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Revisiting Japanese

Learning Japanese was a major obsession of mine for quite a few years. I took classes and bought a lot of books and audio cassettes, and even a couple of electronic dictionaries, even though these were of limited usefulness to me since they are really made for Japanese users who read Japanese fluently. I did most of my studying in the pre-web 1980's and early 1990's when I was still a Mac user. Apple had a Japanese operating system called KanjiTalk that was pretty useful when I was studying kanji (Japanese has two phonetic "alphabets" of around 46 characters plus thousands of picture-like kanji characters whose meanings and multiple pronunciations must be memorized). Today I found a folder full of printouts of many pages of Japanese vocabulary and reading notes that I made on the Mac (the files are long gone since it's been years since I had a working Mac). Those notes would have probably become a blog if I were doing that now!

I don't have much time to spend on Japanese now, but looking at those notes and at the Japanese space books I bought last week has brought another wave of Japanese nostalgia. Japanese is not easy, but its intricate writing system has a puzzle-like beauty that I really came to enjoy, in addition to the utility and fun of being able to talk with people when I visit Japan.

So I decided to see what freeware Japanese learning tools are out there now, and I found a real gem, JWPce by Glenn Rosenthal of UCLA (physics!). This is a Japanese word-processor with a variety of features for non-Japanese users including a great dictionary and kanji lookup capabilities. It was inspired by an earlier program called JWP that I briefly tried out in the 1990's, but it's a complete rewrite with a different (and I think better) feature set.

Of course nowadays there are on-line translation tools like Babel Fish that include Japanese, endless web sources of Japanese text, and I'm sure there are also zillions of Japanese learning sites. With JWPce, you can enter Japanese phonetically or by copying and pasting, and you can easily look up kanji meanings and English definitions. This is much harder with kanji text on paper, though JWPce can help with that too - it provides multiple methods of identifying an unknown kanji from its components and stroke-count. It replaces about 10 kg of dictionaries I would otherwise have to carry around if I wanted to read Japanese text (there are many types of dictionaries for Japanese - I must own about 20).

Glenn's web site also has information on other Japanese software tools, books, and web sites. Great stuff, although it may not have been updated much since 2005 since I noticed a few broken links to outside sites (the download and support information is OK).

Carnival of Space #33

Carnival of Space #33 is up and running over at Universe Today. Because I've been traveling in Asia, I've been more of a spaced blogger than a space blogger recently, and I didn't submit anything to this week's carnival. But plenty of other bloggers were keeping an eye on the universe, so check it out.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Free Fall Physics

One of the things that confuses people about space flight is the whole "weightless" or "zero-G" thing. I was once discussing space flight with a man on an airport bus. He was a Ph.D. biochemist and had just attended a shuttle launch at KSC. He was pretty interested in space and said he had read a few articles and books, so I was surprised when he asked me, "At what altitude does gravity fall to zero so the astronauts can be weightless?" I explained that while gravitational force does fall off with increasing distance (squared), it is only slightly lower at the shuttle's typical orbital altitude than it is at the surface. The astronauts are not really in zero-G or weightless, but rather in a continuous free-fall around the Earth, and that this is essentially what an orbit is, just a really long fall as gravity pulls the spacecraft and astronauts toward the center of the Earth, and the Earth's surface "bends away." He was surprised and even somewhat skeptical of this. I guess the common terms "weightless" and "zero-G" are pretty misleading and influential. Free-fall is a better term.

This is explained in many places, starting with Newton's Principia in 1686-87. I even have a discussion in my Go Play In Space. But one of the best explanations I've seen is in a video of a physics lecture by Richard A. Muller, professor of physics at UC Berkeley. His course "Physics for Future Presidents" (Physics 10, for non-majors) is one of the most popular introductory classes at Berkeley, and his lectures are available as live webcasts and on YouTube. He also wrote a textbook for the class (several chapters are available on his teaching web site). The video above is lecture #3 on gravity and satellites (the orbit explanation starts at around 20 minutes). He does a few demos, but it's mostly blackboard and talking, with many real-world examples and great analogies and explanations. I've only watched this one lecture so far (69 minutes), but he's obviously really good. It's great that stuff like this is on the web and free to all (he has people all over the world auditing his webcast lectures and listening to his podcasts, which are also available free on iTunes).

Big SpaceX Update

One of the books I finished on my trip was Encounter with Tiber by Buzz Aldrin and John Barnes. I enjoyed the book, though it certainly has its faults. Some of its characters seem more like placeholders than real people. The aliens of "Tiber" don't seem all that alien. The writing style is a bit rambling. But it does manage to connect many aspects of the real historical space program to a future that includes private space companies, cooperation among multiple nations, and human exploration of the moon, Mars, and far beyond. I hope it doesn't take a message from Alpha Centauri to push us beyond low Earth orbit, but it is encouraging that some private space development similar to what the authors imagined in 1996 is happening in real life.

The main case in point is SpaceX, which is making real progress on its Falcon 9 launch vehicle and its Dragon spacecraft for transport of cargo and later crews to the ISS and other LEO destinations. SpaceX president Elon Musk released another "monster update" yesterday. Great stuff including several videos. The picture shows a test stand firing of the Falcon 9 first stage with a single Merlin 1C engine, the regeneratively cooled version whose development was recently completed. The Falcon 9 will use 9 of these engines in the first stage, generating over a million pounds of thrust.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Japanese Space & Astronomy Books

One thing I do when I'm interested in something is to buy books on the subject, or in the case of languages, books in the subject. For example, I've occasionally re-read a favorite book in French (e.g., La Stratégie Ender or Ender's Game, Escadrille 80 or Going Solo by Roald Dahl). I know I'm interested in it, and I know the basic story - pretty good practice.

I wish I could do this in Japanese, but unfortunately I never learned to read above maybe the second grade level! If you know 200 kanji, that's great for signs and menus (where many words are in phonetic hiragana and katakana anyway), but it's less than 10% of what you need to read adult materials in Japanese. So I have tried to find material intended for children that is still somewhat interesting, including a few classic children's books and some non-fiction materials that include pronunciation cues (furigana) for the more difficult kanji.

I haven't done this for a few years, but today I bought a couple of books and a magazine on space and astronomy subjects. One is Uchuu Ryokou ni Ikou (Let's Travel in Space), which features many extensively labeled diagrams and photos of spacecraft, launch vehicles, astronauts, etc., making it possible (with the many furigana-labeled kanji) to learn a lot of space terminology in Japanese. I also bought a 2008 sky guide for young astronomy enthusiasts, and the January issue of a Japanese astronomy magazine for adults, Hoshi Nabi - too hard to read much, but great pictures, including a nicely illustrated article on the Japanese SELENE (Kaguya) moon probe.

The final purchase is a book of color stereo photo pairs of various Hubble images. I can't quite fuse the images with the with the built-in stereo viewer yet, but I'll figure it out. The author has an interesting web site in English, Inaka's 3-D Space World. Of course the real question is when I will have time to read and learn all this stuff.

Tokyo: Nostalgic Visit

Asakusa Pagoda Tokyo
I'm in Tokyo for a few days on business, my first trip to Japan in three years, and on this sunny early December Sunday, I had time to indulge in a little nostalgia. I studied Japanese extensively in the early 1980's, and from 1982 to the late 1990's, I would spend at least a couple of weeks a year in Japan on business. This gave me a chance to practice Japanese conversation and provided at least a little motivation to continue to work on it. Since I only come to Japan every couple of years now and have a lot of other interests, I haven't really been studying it. Fortunately I didn't forget everything, and I can still talk with people about basic stuff and read enough to find a tempura restaurant and to read many things on menus and various signs.

Today my colleague and I didn't use any taxis or subways - we walked about 10 kilometers, from Akihabara to Asakusa to Ueno and back to Akihabara. Asakusa is an older section of Tokyo with a famous temple and pagoda, as well as busy Nakamise Street which has hundreds of shops selling various Japanese goods, at least some of which are still made in Japan rather than China. I remember going there on a bus tour on my very first trip to Japan in 1982 - there was a festival that day and the area was packed with thousands of people. It wasn't quite as crowded today, though there were a lot of people out taking advantage of the sunny weather. I took a few pictures before we set out to find that tempura restaurant, which ended up being in the basement of a department store in Ueno - much harder to find than I expected, even when I asked people in several shopping streets we passed through if they knew of a tempura restaurant in the area. Oh well - conversation practice.

I finally ended up in the space and astronomy section of an 8-story bookstore in Akihabara, but that's another post, probably when I get back to the states in a day or so. More pix on Flickr.

Friday, December 07, 2007

I found this site in a strange way. I plugged in my iPod, went to the iTunes store, and noticed a banner for "a collection of podcasts from outer space." Clicking this revealed a page with 15 space and astronomy-related podcasts and video podcasts. Several are from NASA and I was familiar with a few others including the excellent Astronomy Cast. I downloaded some samples to check out (podcasts are most often free).

One of the new ones (for me) is the video podcast SPACEGEEK VIDEO, so I checked out a few of these brief episodes on subjects ranging from Celtic astronomy to the expansion of the universe. They are produced and hosted by zany astrophysicist "doctor-P" (how often do you see the words "zany" and "astrophysicist" in the same sentence? - his real name is Dr. Jean-Marc Perelmuter). You can find Doctor-P's videos on his web site (Flash format) as well as in the podcast section of iTunes for free download. Doctor-P does a nice job on these amusing space and astronomy mini-lessons - and unlike my blog, you can even view them in China!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Carnival of Space #32

Just a quick note to say that Carnival of Space #32 is available over at Robot Guy, though it's not available to me at the moment. I'm in Beijing and the complete domain is apparently blocked by China's internet censors. Oddly enough the domain where I am editing this post is not blocked, so I can edit my blog but can't view it. I suppose there are some political blogs hosted by that are disliked by the Chinese government. To also block access to countless non-political blogs like mine and Robot Guy's is just "collateral damage" I guess. is also blocked.

I hope this actually publishes OK!

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Atomic Rockets!

I can't remember how I found the web site Atomic Rockets, but it sure is cool. It has a good bit of technical content including basic rocketry equations and nomograms, but it also covers many of the fine points of SF-inspired space ship design. The whole site is illustrated with a fantastic mix of images and text excerpts from classic SF books and films, vintage NASA photos and line drawings, and even photos of B-29 and B-36 cockpit panels on the "control deck" page. Flagged for further exploration when I get back from China and Japan in about a week...

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Chocolate & Vanilla Books

There's a new shuttle mission about to launch to the ISS (STS-122). NASA has launched a new web site design that must be incredibly popular because it won't even load for me. Mars is getting closer every night. The Geminid meteor shower is coming soon. So much going on in space, and I don't have time to keep up with reading about it, let alone to write much about it.

But I have had quite a bit of airplane and hotel time, which for me is pretty much book time. My current book is Encounter with Tiber, a 1996 SF novel by Buzz Aldrin and John Barnes. It's a near-future first contact story, among other things, and I'm mostly enjoying it. The narrative doesn't exactly flow, because it is interrupted by numerous asides on rocket engine specific impulse, base-8 arithmetic, radio astronomy, and myriad other special subjects. Of course it's not unusual in the "hard SF" genre to teach your readers what they need to know to understand your story, and who better to describe moon landings and EVA's than second-man-on-the-moon Dr. Buzz Aldrin? I'm interested in this stuff, so these digressions don't bother me, though if you read the Amazon reader reviews, you will find some one-star reviews written by people very much bothered by these detours in the story line.

I had a very different reaction to Pattern Recognition by William Gibson. This was one of those airport impulse buys, based on lots of positive review quotes in the book, and the fact that I generally like Gibson's work (starting with his 1984 classic Neuromancer). This one takes place in the present, and it's got "edgy" writing, but it's all about fashion, brands, totally uninteresting details, and totally unappealing characters. I forced myself to read 84 pages hoping that something interesting would start to emerge, but it was just bloody awful stuff. It's not SF but I don't care about that - I just wanted it to be about something I could care about.

A few Amazon reviewers agreed with me (a generous one-star-out-of-five), but the majority felt that it was a perceptive and wonderful novel about our modern wired society. To me it was just boring. I'm guessing that many of those 5-star reviewers would find all the space-related details in Encounter with Tiber just as boring as I found Pattern Recognition to be. That, as they say, is why they make chocolate and vanilla.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Across the (Beatles') Universe

Another trip underway, this time to Pasadena and a couple of stops in Asia. I had some free time today, so I went to see Across the Universe- written around songs of the Beatles, it's a wildly creative movie musical that really works. I don't know why this film hasn't gotten more attention - it was released in September and got some good reviews (this one is quite good), but I don't think it was in many theaters (at least not for long). I saw it as a bargain matinée in a second-run theater for just two dollars! The DVD will be out in February 2008.