Monday, April 19, 2010

Space, the Lost Frontier

On Thursday, April 15th, President Obama went to the Kennedy Space Center and outlined his plan for NASA. Whine there wasn't much in the way of pomp and circumstance, it was a big day for the space agency. At least they would get details on what they were going to do for the next several years. Change was in the air, and the results came crashing to the ground.

The President's space policy is as follows:

1. The cancellation of the 6 year old Constellation Program.

2. The conversion of the new Orion capsule (the shuttle's replacement) into an escape pod for the International Space Station.

3. A budget increase of $6 billion over 5 years.

4. The setting aside of $6 billion over 5 year from NASA's budget to assist private companies in developing space technology.

5. Doing research into space technology.

6. Increasing space-based Earth observation.

7. Upgrading launch and launch preparation facilities.

8. Beginning research on a new heavy lift rocket, with a design to be selected in 2015.

9. Landing astronauts on an asteroid in the future.

10. Orbiting Mars by the mid-2030's.

11. Landing on Mars a few years later.

As I watched the speech I sat there incredulously. I have never seen such a set-up for failure before. Added to that is a depressing lack of sense. For weeks I had waited to hear what the President had to say thinking it would be interesting. Instead I saw dreams get crushed. To top it all off, President Obama continuously talked about how this was all a good thing.

One of the President's claims was that he loved NASA so much that he raised their budget despite freezes and reductions in government spending. But did he really do that? First off, his blue-ribbon Augustine Commission (a panel he organized to look into options for the new space policy) said that NASA needed $3 billion more a year to accomplish goals. $6 billion over 5 years comes to $1.2 billion a year, less than half the recommended amount. With that, I couldn't help but notice that the amount of money NASA will be giving to private companies is the same as their raise, meaning that their budget is the same! Instead of giving NASA more money, the President found a roundabout way to give taxpayer-raised government money to private companies, one that makes him look like a real hero.

Ever since the President released his proposed budget we knew that Constellation was on the chopping block. Instead of a new shuttle replacement program, we are now focusing on pure technology research. Now I'm not saying that I'm against R&D, it is necessary, but here's an analogy for what is happening: I sell my car to get the funds to upgrade my car's cruise control into a full-blown autopilot. When I'm done I take this new system outside to install into my car, only to realize that I don't have a car anymore! So yes, lets do research into space technology, but we need something to do with it! One of the landmark items of this research is the new heavy lift rocket, which is definitely something we need. But here's a question: How is a rocket design that hasn't even been started on, and won't be picked for 5 years get us a new rocket sooner than the Constellation Program's Ares V rocket, a rocket that's been in development for 6 years already?

Seeing the President channel Kennedy and goals for Mars and the asteroids felt like a slap in the face. Yes, we need to get humans to the asteroids; we need to learn more about them. Mars has been drawing us like a beacon for decades. But the 2020’s for the asteroids and 2030’s-40’s for Mars?! First question: how are we getting there? There are no plans for a ship. What’s to say that the next administration won’t cancel all the research (which has a good chance of happening. More on that later.) How are we going to learn how to live in space for that long? The station is a good start, but it is not enough. Nestled inside of Earth’s magnetosphere, the station is protected from most of the Sun’s radiation. It’s too small to be self-sustaining. We need to learn how to build a self-sustainable outpost first, and we have two prime candidates: the Moon, and the LaGarange Points. They’re exposed enough to have to deal with the radiation, far enough to make resupply tough, yet close enough to keep in touch and get help if needed. Why aren’t we making use of such excellent classrooms?

Barring an intervention from Congress, this is what NASA will be doing through the Obama administration. I do not see how they can hope to survive the next. No matter if the President’s term ends in 2012 or 2016, none of the new projects will be finished before he vacates the White House. Unless Obama’s successor is a major space fan here is what I think will happen: A new Space Panel will convene to examine what NASA has been doing and where they stand. The lack of a ship and the reliance on foreign powers and private companies to get anything into space will be highlighted. The dollar signs attached to the research programs will be questioned. Eventually the question will be asked: “What are you doing to extend American interests in space?” NASA will have to admit that they will have people up in the next decade, that they will start to work on a new ship as soon as the new rocket is built. The government will not be satisfied with this and cut the budget, taking the research with it. With less money NASA won’t be able to start a new program, its research will be curtailed, and it will wither as this cycle repeats every year at budget-deciding time.

The new focus on private companies is a bit of a mixed bag for me. NASA has always used private companies for its work. Contractors built every craft, satellite, and probe we have ever sent aloft, as well as the rockets that carried them. But can private companies run space programs of their own, and what would that be like? We don’t really know. One claim is that competition will bring the price down, but there is a minimum limit to the price. Go under that limit and safety and success get compromised. Then there’s the bottom line: profit. A government agency like NASA doesn’t have to make money, while private companies do. If there is no profit in going into space (which is a very big question right now) then companies will fold. The only guaranteed way to make money in space is to mine the resources found in the various bodies there. Unfortunately, that kind of an operation is beyond us right now. We could make O2, H2O, and fuel from lunar and Martian dirt, but that is very limited, something that a small outpost could do for self-sustainability. For now, no one has enough capital to fund a space program from scratch to sustainable mining operations. Profit just isn’t there from tho looks of things. When there is, what will companies do to keep their profit margins? How will you enforce space laws?

I pray that these predictions don’t happen. With luck something will happen that will revitalize our space program, restoring it to the limelight, and making its workers heroes. We feed our bodies every day and work hard to make sure that everyone can eat. Let’s feed our souls as well. By going where no one has ever been we learn more about the universe around us, and we learn more about ourselves. Why not go and learn?

Sunday, December 6, 2009

I love the Internet, it's such an amazing source of information. I may still reach for a book first when it comes to reports and papers, but when the library fails (and sadly, where I live it fails often), the Internet can fill the gaps. It also lets me connect with people from all over the world via message boards and other forums. It even lets me have some fun with games that would never work on a home console. Best of all, the Internet lets me speak my mind in a way that lets many of you read my articles (though why you'd want to is another matter).

Unfortunately, the ability for people to reach so many also causes a few problems. Unlike newspapers, news shows, and other printed forms of information, there is no check on the Internet. Anyone can write something, and with the right dressing it can look like anything you want it to. What's worse is that you can say anything at all, and you don't have to know anything about what you're writing about. Thanks to the Internet misinformation, and outright lies are spread throughout the world at nearly the speed of light.

On Youtube I saw a video of a woman screaming about some government conspiracy concerning the water supply. Her evidence: her sprinkler produced a rainbow one day when she ran it. More recently, CERN faced lawsuits, protests, and even threats over the new Large Hadron Collider. Someone had posted on the Internet that the LHC would create mini black holes that would destroy the planet. More websites, and later news organizations who should've known better carried the story throughout the world. All of this culminated in the suicide of a 16 year old in India.

The most dangerous piece of information floating around the Internet right now is the idea that vaccines are harmful. For decades now some have claimed that vaccines cause a whole range of problems, from cancer to autism, to death. Time and time again doctors have shown these claims to be false, but the anti-vaccine groups keep coming back with the same claims. Right now, a battle is being waged in Australia between anti-vaccine groups and the government health departments over it. Children have died of preventable diseases because their parents wouldn't get them their shots.

2012 is 2 years from now and the Internet is full of doomsday prophecies. The movie of the same same name used these as marketing, and the advertising powerhouse that is Hollywood let these crackpot ideas reach many eyes and ears. NASA ended up having to make press releases refuting the nay-sayers because they were getting questions from teenagers asking if the world really was going to end in 2012, and if so, they would go ahead and commit suicide to avoid the end of the world.

Am I calling for a control of the Internet? Honestly, I'm not sure, but I don't want to see that happen if we can avoid it. Despite the hoaxers, the crackpots, the trolls, weirdoes, the sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, dickheads, the Internet is an invaluable source of information about the world and universe. But be smart as you read, and be ready to question everything you find. Back up your research with books and reviewed articles. Mixed research sources are always the best. And never hesitate to share your thoughts about anything.

See you on the Information Super-Highway!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

What About Nobel?

When I heard about the Emmys being awarded back last Sunday I did a quick count of all the major awards that we see on TV (at least the ones I could think of.) You've got the Emmys, the Grammys, the Academy Awards (Oscars) all major shows on TV. On the Internet you've got the Webbys and the Razzies. Nowadays we can add in the Viewers Choice Awards many cable channels run. I'm sure I've probably left a few out, but that should be a big enough list. Each of these awards are given out with much fanfare (especially the TV/film/music awards) and are considered major accomplishments for those who receive them, and rightfully so (well, most of the time at least.) We need entertainment. As the saying goes, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy."

But what about the granddaddy of all awards? The Nobel Prizes are awarded each and every year just like all those entertainment awards. In fact, they even come with a monetary prize (about $1.2 million) and the winners get to meet the King of Sweden (Norway if you get the Peace Prize)! What's more, the Nobels aren't handed out for being a good entertainer. No, you get a Nobel by contributing to the world itself, via scientific discovery, invention, or other such means. Thankfully the importance of the Nobels hasn't been lost in the years, you still hear about who got what prize (mainly the Peace Prize.)

But I have to ask: when was the last time the Nobels were on live TV with the full court press and red carpet? Can the average American name any recent winner other than Al Gore (and don't even get me started on how he got the Peace Prize)? Heck, I'm ashamed to say that I can't either. *smack's self*

The Nobel Prize winner announcements will be made in the next few weeks with the award ceremony itself on December 10. Can we please see them in the news, and more than just a byline? Is it too much to ask to have people be celebrities for actually doing something to help the world?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

I'm A Mad Engineer!

Welcome everyone to the grand opening of this grand spanking new blog! With some luck I'll be able to get my points across while entertaining you, my readers. So without further delay, on to the introduction!

In less than a second I'm sure you've got three questions in your head:

1. Why do I call myself a "mad engineer"? Isn't the term a "mad scientist"?
2. Why in the world should you read anything I have to write?
3. Just what will I be writing about?

Those are very good questions. I know I can answer the first, and I'll take a stab at the second.

I call myself a mad engineer because that's what I am. Well, mostly. I'm not an engineer quite yet, I'm still in school, but since I've been groomed for that title since my first semester I feel that I can claim the title, at least probationally. Now a followup question: Aren't engineers scientists? Yes, we are. I like to think of us as applied scientists. Scientists work in labs and think tanks to figure out the laws that govern the universe. Engineers then take those laws and put them to work, designing and building machines, processes, and everything else that you can see and touch that nature didn't provide. The computer you're reading this on is a good example: scientists figured out the laws of electricity, mathematicians figure out the laws that govern logic computing, engineers combined the two into that box of silicon sitting in front of you.

As for the mad part, well that's a little more complicated. You see, I have ideas. Strange ideas. Some might even say ideas that are out there. When we read books and watch TV shows and movies that have mad scientists as strange people who are essentially kicked to the curb for being strange. Dr. Frankenstein is a mad scientist to a "T". (Rest easy, bio-engineering is not what I want to do, so I won't be making any monsters.) Combine that with the paragraph above and you get a "mad engineer". (Isn't it amazing how math can apply to writing as well?)

I know that sounds like a simple reason why I call myself a mad engineer, but there is a second reason: things today are making me mad. Many of the things that are going on in the world these days are often mind-boggling stupid to me. I won't go into detail here since this is supposed to be an introduction, I'll go into detail throughout the blog. So essentially, in a literal sense, I'm an engineer who's mad.

And now the moment you've been waiting for: what will I be writing about? Short answer: anything I want. Long answer: I'll focus on science and engineering with a focus on astronomy and related fields. I'll add in some commentary about how science is being treated in the world today as well as current events, then top the whole thing off with a dash of gaming chatter, bake at 450° for 20 minutes and voila: A blog! And for dessert I'll throw in a piece of religious commentary cake topped with a cherry.

So that's what's on the table. Feel free to comment, and don't be shy about offering topics for me to write about. My door is always open!