Endeavour landed yesterday on its penultimate mission. I tweeted about it, noting that there are only four space shuttle missions left on the manifest. My friend Patrick just asked me what’s next for NASA after the Shuttle retires. My reply on Facebook turned into an essay, so I thought I’d share it here.
What comes after the Shuttle? All the things about NASA that don’t make the headlines will continue. Some even get more funding. The Shuttle has been the poster child for 30 years, but in the meantime, NASA has been instrumental in furthering our understanding of climate dynamics, earth observation, deep space astronomy and cosmology. Robotic planetary and solar exploration, cutting edge research in biology, materials, aeronautics, energy generation, propulsion, you name it, have all continued. Shuttle launches are sexy. But when they end, perhaps a little more light will be shed on everything else NASA does. Cassini, the robotic probe that has taught us more about Saturn and its moons than we ever knew before, just got a seven year life extension. And human space exploration isn’t dead; the Falcon 9 rocket just went vertical last week, with a test capsule that SpaceX claims can be human rated. Static test firings of the Falcon 9 could come as early as this week. Private subspace (read: Virgin Galactic) should come online this year. The Russians are cranking out Soyuz launches like Henry Ford did Model Ts. Europe, Japan, China, & India all have launch systems. The Shuttle will stop flying, but humans won’t. Maybe if we’re lucky they’ll resurrect the HL-20. Or the X-33. And don’t forget: the Air Force has a spaceplane now.
Humans have had a continuous presence in space since the year 2000, thanks to the International Space Station. Think about it. For the last decade, a single second hasn’t passed that someone wasn’t zooming over your head at 17,500 mph. It may sound pie-in-the-sky, but that’s the reason I answered a question about NASA’s future with international and private examples: as we go forward, this will be a cooperative effort. It’s one planet. One home. That is an inescapable fact. We are one species. Why not pool our efforts? There’s no need to reinvent the rocket just because you live in a particular spot on this planet behind some imaginary line. There’s no need for every country to send an individual probe to the moon or Mars just because we hoard information about our solar system as if we own it because we were the first to discover it. A fact is a fact; congratulations on learning it first. Now SHARE.
Newsflash: you can’t see borders from space. In my book, that means they don’t exist. They are mere constructs, accidents of history, that everyone seems to agree upon. They are fiction. Made up. There is true reality, and then there is that of which we are convinced. Exploration is inevitable. So is growth. I hope the void left by Discovery and the other shuttles makes room for the spaceships…and discoveries…of tomorrow.
There’s a lot of buzz lately about the so-called “Climategate,” with so much dispute and contention that the wiki article has been locked. Some say environmentalism has become ideology and should be regarded as a religion. Lines are drawn, people choose sides, the issue polarizes and progress grinds to a halt as we all stand around fiddling while Rome burns. I recently sent an email to a friend who tweeted about it, and she encouraged me to share my thoughts with the wider public. The following are excerpts from my side of our conversation, with a few additions.
Global warming, climate change, pollution, environmental destruction, species extinction…these are all tough things to swallow, especially when we humans decide to acknowledge our responsibility as the dominant species and custodians of this planet. It can be difficult to parse out just how responsible we are. We’re learning, after all. We don’t have a perfect overview of the situation, but I think the clues point in a general direction. Our emerging global awareness helps highlight that at a population of around seven billion, we’ve reached the point where the sum our actions, for better or worse, has a measurable effect on the life support system we call Earth.
I don’t get into the debate, and I try to find common ground with everyone. Surely there are things we can all agree on, and surely the solutions will be manifold, not singular. It is still an issue of science for me, and I think everyone needs to stop choking the air with uninformed opinions and politically-rooted (and ultimately self-serving) diatribes. The bottom line is obvious: we need to reduce our impact on the incredibly complex, wonderful, and naturally-occuring systems of the Earth, all of which are vital to our continued existence and prosperity. The solutions are easy to state, but hard for those profiting from the status quo to concede. Don’t dump trash and hydrocarbons into the air and sea. Use the sun and sun-powered natural phenomena to generate electricity. Reduce packaging and the frivolous use of plastic. Design, redesign and grow cities around the pedestrian. Make goods, including electronics, easy to disassemble and recyclable. Eliminate wanton and senseless consumption and destruction. Align ourselves with the seemingly hard to appreciate yet demonstrably priceless processes that recycle our oxygen and water and provide a temperature- and pressure-controlled, radiation shielded, food-bearing wonderland. One simply has to tick off the list of challenges and costs in supporting a continuous human presence in low earth orbit to make it plainly obvious that it is beyond our ability to do what the Earth does for all of us. We may be able to keep a dozen humans alive for a limited time and with a constant resupply in a precarious perch overlooking our little blue marble, but good luck doing that for the entire human race without the inestimable gift of our biosphere.
We can’t just blame corporations, think that clears our consciences, and go on contributing to the demand that drives global exploitation. We also cannot set up entities whose sole reason for being is profit at the expense of all else. “Else” in this case being the welfare of Earth and humanity, whose fates are inextricable. There must be balance. Profit is not bad if earned within a responsible framework. Unbridled, irresponsible profit that cuts corners, pollutes and exists only for the benefit of a mighty few is unsustainable, and will eventually crumble. We cannot continue to treat Earth’s resources as infinite and free and expect life to go on exactly as it is in perpetuity.
Meanwhile, there are a million other things to tackle, like the health, welfare and education of BILLIONS of our brothers and sisters. The Earth is going to warm up; we’ve already done it. That goose is cooked. It’ll be a shame to see some of my favorite islands and coastlines swallowed up, but we’ll adapt. We’re going to be forced to, and no amount of blathering in the high school hallways that our media has become is going to make a whit of difference about it, except insofar as it influences people to change their habits in manageable ways. The sum total of our lifestyle choices has an undeniable globlal effect. There’s only so much we can do as individuals…but that’s exactly what we should do, and all that can be asked of us.
On this and all topics, people need to be open to discussion, truly listen to each other, examine the facts, and most importantly be willing to change their minds. All too often ego trumps logic, and for some unfathomable reason, people think that admitting you were wrong, even partially, is a bad thing. On the contrary, it shows that you are willing to assimilate new information and to refine your viewpoint, bringing it closer to the actual truth! Truth, life, faith, they are all journeys of refinement. In manufacturing and economics they call it “continuous improvement.” In the Baha’i Faith we call it drawing nearer to God. We need to let go of the idea that as a single human being, we can be “right.” Only God has the claim of ultimate Truth, as the Source. All human understanding is limited by definition, thus are our opinions, including mine. No one should be proud of their opinion; our responsibility is to interact with each other with the utmost humility and love and to be ever-learning, ever-growing, ever-improving.
Think of it this way: what would you rather be? A feather, light and airy, devoid of any solidity, blowing about on the winds of public opinion and at the mercy of novelty? A rock, staunch and unmovable, stuck in the mud, powerless to move or progress but proud of your crusty and outdated sediment, gathering moss and refusing to interact, offering nothing but blunt, cold, and hard opinion? Or a blade of grass, firmly rooted in historical precedent but flexible, drawing upon the rich soil of previous human accomplishment and the guidance of the Almighty, able to bend in the breeze of new information and the breath of confirmation, soak up the rain of divine blessings and technological progress, and grow through the animating energy of the Sun?
This excerpt from The Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, which Lorenia read to me this morning, says it better than I ever could.
Every man of discernment, while walking upon the earth, feeleth indeed abashed, inasmuch as he is fully aware that the thing which is the source of his prosperity, his wealth, his might, his exaltation, his advancement and power is, as ordained by God, the very earth which is trodden beneath the feet of all men.
Five months ago I posted a photo on flickr of a SMART car.
I remember seeing these little jewels on a trip to Europe as a teen, where they left a lasting impression on a young American. Would you look at that! Cars don’t have to weigh two tons! And these suckers can “parallel park” with their nose to the curb! I posted this shot because I’m very excited that they finally made it to America. I didn’t expect anything from the comments, but the first one, from my friend Atoosa, caught me off guard.
“My cousin Neda is a paramedic and she calls these ‘smartcoffins’ because she’s pulled so many dead people out of them. Basically she says in a collision, this is a little plastic deathpod.”
“That’s unfortunate. But understandable, considering how overweight American cars are. If everyone drove a SMART, I’m sure the story would be different,” I replied. While the SMART car is perfect for the tiny streets and low speeds of European city driving, I now see what a frightening proposition it is to take these things out onto the highway to slice and dice with SUVs and pickups at 70mph. I went on to post links to crash test videos of the little Mercedes/SWATCH “deathpod,” and an article on SMART safety, that indicates this city car wasn’t really intended for highway driving. On the other hand, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety praises the car’s low-speed (40mph or so) crash safety in the official crash test video with commentary. I finished my flickr comment by saying, “It’s much safer than a motorcycle,” to which Atoosa replied, “My dear G, ‘safer than a motorcycle’ is hardly a reassuring recommendation.”
Fast forward to present day. I got an email from my brother-in-law (happy birthday, Dan!) about Volkswagen’s L1, a 170-mpg, tandem-seat-layout, carbon fiber monocoque concept that’s been around since 2002 and whose original prototype famously drove 100 kilometers on one liter of fuel.
They’ve updated the design of the new prototype with a diesel engine and a more production-ready design, hence the buzz. VDUB claims it will bring this beauty to market in 2013, but I told Dan I was skeptical. I love VW; Lorenia and I just purchased a Jetta and a GTI. But I admit I’d be surprised to see the L1 make it through to production. If it does, though, I’d buy a 2013 model. In 2018. In the meantime, there’s the glorious Aptera…if it ever makes it out of California.
I cracked up when in the comments on WIRED’s article about the L1, someone said, “Who’s going to be the first to comment on how the vehicle will fare in a collison with a semi? Somebody always does.”
Indeed, Atoosa made the semi comment five months ago. “And yes, they do pass all crash tests or they wouldn’t be allowed on the road, if they hit an SUV — or even worse, an 18 wheeler, the tiny car goes bouncing like a skipping stone. Remember the video with the concrete wall only demonstrates the effects of the momentum of the SMART car itself. What would the impulse transfer be like if it hit an 18 wheeler going 70 mph?”
And that brings us to the purpose of this entry, which is to post my little flickr manifesto from April. I made the following reply.
“True. It’s not as reassuring as, say, a new Volvo. I’d just like to point out that even SUVs are no match for 18 wheelers, so that argument against SMARTs is moot. Knowing that a big truck would pulverize your Celica doesn’t stop you from driving it. These are the choices that the individual driver has to make when we’re forced into car ownership by the societal status quo of a sprawled America devoid of intelligent urban design or the individual will to pay for such design through taxes that contribute to hard-to-measure quality of life benefits.
Bike vs. car is an even worse proposition than SMART vs. SUV, but that doesn’t stop me from riding my bike. Long story short, European-style, high density cities powered by renewable energy and with centers that exclude motorized traffic and emphasize pedestrians and bicycles are the way forward. Ultimately, the safety of a car is relative, and for most people cost, fuel efficiency, performance, utility and looks are all more important, since fatal crashes are relatively rare (42,000 vehicular deaths per year in the US versus 300 million inhabitants, or 0.00014% — 14 in 100,000).
Furthermore, almost no one considers the cost to the earth in terms of the materials and energy that go into producing a new car, which is why most don’t recognize that the greenest cars on the road will always be the pre-owned models: their environmental production cost has already been paid. No matter how efficient a 100% electric Tesla is, it can’t match the alternative: not gathering the materials and energy to build a new Tesla, and continuing to repair and drive what you have. Or better yet: selling your car and purchasing the nicest bike money can buy.
Fatal accidents in which you as the driver have no fault are exceedingly rare, on the order of acts of God. The majority of accidents can be avoided by paying closer attention to the task of driving and using defensive driving techniques, especially leaving enough distance between yourself and the car ahead. The unavoidable accidents, rare as they are, are not going to convince me to drive an SUV instead of a SMART, especially when the smaller, lighter car is more nimble and thus better at avoiding an accident. I’d rather die while trying to minimize my carbon footprint than survive crashes to burn another dinosaur another day. We can’t avoid it when it’s our time to go. What matters is how we treat others and our global life support system until we do.
Atoosa replied, “Very well put, my friend. That was like a blogpost unto itself. We keep fixing up our old Toyotas and riding our bikes when we can, but hopefully we won’t be pulverized, but will live to see the day when society around the world is built to minimize the human footprint on our planet.”
How strange, then, that both my 1992 Toyota Camry and her mid-nineties Toyota Celica would die last month. After an extensive search and over twenty test drives, Atoosa finally purchased a Hyundai Genesis Coupe. Notwithstanding the repair nightmares of being an early adopter, I’m very excited about her car. But I’m equally excited that after my own protracted search for four-cylinder standard-shift cars, I found the fastest car I’ve ever owned: a 2003 VW GTI 1.8T.
That’s right, GDUB has a VDUB. One that goes to 70 in second gear and still gets 30mpg, thanks to the turbo. Not as flashy as the L1, and I’m working on a few repairs to problems the dealer failed to mention, but I’m thrilled. Living in a “city” where cyclists have glass bottles thrown at them and working at a job whose security gate is six miles from the office and bans bikes during rush hour may force me into car ownership, but if I must drive, at least I can have a car that’s responsible, affordable and faster than a scalded dog.
Ever watch those old videos and wonder why the Apollo astronauts developed a loping gait when walking on the moon? Turns out the spacesuit, being inflated like a balloon, helped support its own 220-pound weight. The internal pressure also made it difficult to bend the joints of the suit. When the knee did bend, however, it would spring back, providing an extra pep in each step. This combined with the low lunar gravity meant that the transition speed (the point where humans break into a run from walking) for a suited Apollo astronaut was much lower on the moon. Hence the moonwalkers skipped, bounced and loped across the lunar surface at speeds where we earth-bound humans would simply stride. With any luck this discovery will be brought to bear on the design of Martian spacesuits.
BONUS: I just realized the music video for the Police’s Walking on the Moon was shot on location here at the Kennedy Space Center, back when the unused Saturn V rocket was on display outside the VAB, rusting away until it was restored and placed in a dedicated museum down the road.
Just in case you were wondering where I’ve disappeared to lately, here’s a quick recap:
I spend half my time in Florida testing, fixing, and launching shuttles, and the other half in Houston helping to design the GNC systems for the new Orion vehicle.
It’s a sweet gig. I ain’t complainin’.
This new MacBook Pro ain’t too shabby either.
All bragging aside, I checked my voicemail today and had 20 messages. In my defense, they aren’t showing up in my inbox. I need to give Verizon a call and have that fixed. My gmail inbox is below 100 unread messages, and that’s good. I get around 40 work emails a day, so when I fall behind, it’s bad. If I haven’t gotten back to you, I apologize. Life’s going to be busy for at least the next couple of years.
Didn’t think I was gonna get a post up in January, didja? HA! That’ll show ya.
Here’s a month’s worth of hope in one short film. Watch it full screen.
First, to my father. Without him, there are countless reasons I wouldn’t be here.
So here’s to both of you! We celebrated in fine style this week, with the crew of STS-124 returning to KSC to visit the employees on Monday. I had the distinct privilege of meeting and speaking with Aki Hoshide, Mike Fossum, Ron Garan and Ken Ham. During the question and answer session I asked about their views on the future of space exploration, since Space X successfully launched the Falcon rocket into orbit on their fourth attempt just this Sunday, making it history’s first private orbital spacecraft.
Ron gave a brilliant answer, one which I didn’t forsee and which settles the false dichotomy between public and private space. Many people aren’t aware how much NASA supports private space exploration, even putting their money where their mouth is and seed-funding several startups, not to mention making arrangements for future private-party resupply missions to the International Space Station. Ron said it’s time for NASA to leave LEO (Low Earth Orbit) to the startups, and venture outward into the solar system. The ISS is an incredible outpost, and we should operate it as intended, as an international microgravity science laboratory, but it should be resupplied with cargo and crew by private companies. NASA should throw its weight behind efforts where it has historically excelled, namely exploration. It makes sense to field more robotic missions to planets and NEOs (Near Earth Objects) and to embark on human exploration and settlement of the Moon and Mars. It’s a beautiful symbiosis. Ron emphasized that NASA and other government space programs are the only ones capable of pursuing the goals that are “seventy years out,” meaning the missions for which there is no immediately discernible financial return, but which intangibly benefit us all. LEO is ripe for commercial expansion. But Elon Musk doesn’t have the $40 billion it’s going to take to put a human on Mars. Yet.
Today, on the golden anniversary of NASA beginning operations, the employees of the Kennedy Space Center celebrated by walking, running and rollerblading 1-mile, 5K and 10K courses on the three-mile-long Shuttle Landing Facility. I take special pride in being the person who started the rollerblading tradition (much to the chagrin of the competitive runners) four years ago. Each year we have a greater number of dorks in helmets out on the slab. It’s fantastic fun. This year marks the first time I’ve been beaten to the finish line!
The highlight for me, though, is after the race. It’s not the free catered food and sports drinks, the camaraderie and the swag, all of which are good. It’s the chance to see what goes on nearly every day at the SLF, up close and personal. Astronaut pilots and commanders are training all the time in the STAs (Shuttle Training Aircraft), modified Gulfstreams with sophisticated flight controls and avionics to make them fall out of the sky just like space shuttles.
Today there were two STAs on the tarmac, and anyone who was brave enough to ask got a guided tour. There’s nothing in the world like sitting in the pilot seat of a split-down-the-middle frankenstein machine, half shuttle, half executive jet, looking through the futuristic transparent HUD (Head Up Display) as the astronauts arrive in their T-38 supersonic jets to train in the very seat in which you sit. We got the royal treatment, too, staying onboard while the engines spooled up and meeting the former astronauts and maintenance officers for the SR-71 and U-2 who teach the younger flyboys and flygirls how to handle the magnificent birds. I learned more in one evening about the STA than I have in all my years as an aerospace engineer. These planes have the longest service history of any Gulfstream (a company also celebrating its 50th) aircraft ever produced. The engines are different, as are the thrust reversers, the 30-degree-positive flaps, and countless other systems that give these planes their jekyll-and-hyde personality.
As I skated back to the car, the sky turned various brilliant shades of pink and orange as more astronauts arrived in their jets. I bid the crew farewell and said a silent prayer of thanks for the privilege I enjoy, working every day at the greatest spaceport on Earth, for an organization responsible for some of the crowning achievements of our era and that has contributed so much to humankind.
Arthur C. Clarke, one of my most exalted heroes, has passed to the next world. There is no way I could ever pay proper respect to his spirit or legacy, so I’ll let him speak for himself.
Rest in peace, Mr. Clarke, immersed in everlasting joy and assured in your new, infinite knowledge that all your wishes are true, and will come true for us.
You like coincidences? Check out my most recent flickr photo, which I posted before leaving for Mexico and have left up for nearly a week. I have read 2001: A Space Odyssey, and 2010: Odyssey Two, but until today I did not know that the second sequel was entitled 2061: Odyssey Three. Third book’s the chardm, as they say.
P.S. This is my third visit to Mexico.