Author Archives: Outbound

Bennu, Not a Potato This Time

This week has humanity reaching out to another asteroid, this one named Bennu, the target of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. Bennu is not content to be a tumbling potato in space, but is rather geometric in shape, with even some flat facets that are eerily regular in appearance. One wonders what mechanism has produced such an enigmatic shape.

 

 

 

Bennu from about 50 miles away. (Click the image to see an animation.)

 

If all goes well, we’ll be getting a sample of the rubble-like surface in September 2023, and it may be some of the oldest stuff in our solar system. For more information, see:

https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasas-osiris-rex-spacecraft-arrives-at-asteroid-bennu

First Man – First Impressions

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to get a sneak peek at the new film “First Man”, based on Neil Armstrong’s life and his eventual walk on the Moon. It is a good movie, if a bit uncomfortable at times. I’m not much for high-drama, angst-dripping movies, and there is some of that here, though not completely unrealistic as such movies sometimes are. Throughout the movie, there is a common thread of loss for the Armstrong family, especially for Neil personally, and a lot of it would tend to make a person emotionally withdrawn. Neil seems introspective by nature in both his portrayal here and in what I’ve read about him in the past, and certainly the filmmakers bank heavily upon that in the script. That’s definitely part of my discomfort, of course, and it was amplified by how long the director dwelled on these introspective moments. How long did he dwell, you ask? The whole movie was a study in introspection as observed in third person… Sometimes, that became quite dull.

That said, there were highlights of Neil’s career that punctuated why he did the things that he did, and why there is so much value in the movie for the audience. The Gemini flight that went so well, until a stuck thruster on the spacecraft sent Neil and his crewmate Dave Scott tumbling at more than one revolution per second. Of course, history shows that they overcame that problem and survived the mission, and the film shows that too. And wow, how well did it show it! Honestly, it was one of the most insightful, most energizing bits of cinematic peril I think I’ve ever seen. The portrayal is a signature moment in Neil’s career as an astronaut, and the public may finally be able to really grasp what happened over the heads of the world back then.

Speaking of portrayals, there is one thing that did grate on my nerves in this film. Cleanliness. Or lack thereof. Oh, hell no, NASA facilities never were, and are not, the grime-ridden warrens of under-lit locations some of the scenes conveyed. There is one scene where during a particularly stomach-churning training session that Neil and another astronaut find themselves heaving in a facility restroom. I’ve been in cleaner restrooms in backwoods truck stops. Having worked around or within NASA facilities over the past few decades, I’ve seen a few of the various restrooms. While some of the postings have been old, originally-equipped places, they are kept clean and functional. Doubly so for anything the crews use. The idea that the astronauts were using a NEW facility that looked like it had been intentionally dipped in grease then a bucket of mildew, well, that’s nonsense.

The spacecraft were no exception here, and were pretty ridiculous. Without exception, every spacecraft looked from the get-go as if it had already flown more than one mission. The Apollo 11 command module was the biggest offender, with dirty work surfaces and banged up handles and such. The tools used by the crew for training are not for flight, which allows for some rough handling and wear and tear. However, the flight tools are usually tested for operational suitability, and after handling with great care, are packaged for each crew for use only on their mission. Again, it looked like their tools had been used to fix a big rig at a truck stop somewhere, and kicked around on the ground a bit. Used as a hammer, too. And rusty (rusty!) toggle switches. That bothered me a lot. I can go today and walk right up to the Apollo 17 command module and even at five decades old, there are no rusty, crusty switches. The Apollo 11 CM, and indeed all NASA spacecraft, have been and still are clean as an operating theater, at least on their first mission.

Honestly, I think this all comes down to impressions, those that the filmmakers wanted to create. The austere, even cold Neil Armstrong, the dirty, grim NASA environment, it seems that an intentional effort was made to forge a picture of a grim but determined life leading to a great achievement at the end of one major milestone. I can understand from the point of view a good dramatic work of art, and this film is certainly that, but as a space geek both professionally and personally, these inconsistencies stood out like a sore thumb. A greasy sore thumb with a small, open laceration off to one side of the nail, whilst doing brain surgery with torn gloves.

There is a lot more that I could say about this “First Man”, but I think my biggest impression is the stoic feeling of pushing through loss to excel at a worthy attempt at exceptional goals. That’s going to play well with audiences I think, and it should, because it’s very well done.

Apollo 11 and Self-Awareness

I just figured out something about myself, courtesy of this post by Aesop at the Raconteur Report:

Happy Peak of Western Civilization Day

I’m not going to expound endlessly on this, as Aesop says it so well, but I realized that the reason I’ve hung on so tenaciously to my work in the space industry is tied in very closely with my personal views on society. Whether or not I am a member of this world, I am an American, and a Western construct. The height of Western accomplishment absolutely is the Moon landing.

I don’t mean “Murica is Number One” sort of jingoism (though I guess I don’t NOT mean it, either) but a deeper heritage of exploration that a lot of civilization have failed to embrace. Either they never had that urge, or they didn’t take it as far in the past, or they are only really moving on it now. There is one more possibility, of course, they followed the call, but abandoned it, indeed somehow shrunk from it for various reasons. That’s what concerns me, and drives me. The Western world has been in a holding pattern and seems to be losing ground the past few decades, navel gazing, or maybe trying to convince itself via globalization that following the herd is somehow safer and smarter. We’ve been moving on that abandonment track for too long.

This manifests itself in how the Western human space exploration and exploitation has stalled. We’re risk-phobic, afraid of what failure “looks like” as a media matter and loss of funding. We use our space programs as a geopolitical tool instead of a leadership program. Between those two problems, we end up moving too slow and too timidly, trying to achieve perfection and also not piss anybody off. When the rest of the world looks to the West for leadership, they end up pissed off at us anyway because we are so concerned with avoiding failure by also avoiding accomplishment.

I work to bring back the idea that risk is not a dirty word, and risk to cement humanity off-planet is required, as it’s always been required to breach a frontier. As a Western man, I want to reclaim that heritage in space, because we need new peaks in the history of our civilization, and we are still capable of making the climb.

Alien Day 2018

In case you aren’t aware, today is the third annual Alien Day. Started in 2016 to mark the 30th Anniversary of the movie Aliens, it continues to grow, and for huge fans like myself, it always leaves a little stirring in my chest. At least, I hope that’s all that feeling is…

The Alien franchise/community has a lot on tap for today:

Audible’s audiobook audio drama adaptation of the novel, Alien: Sea of Sorrowsstarring John Chancer, Stockard Channing, Walles Hamonde and Laurel Lefkow.

Amazon’s Alexa-based Offworld Colony Simulator, a turn-based survival game.

Dark Horse Comics’ Aliens: Dust to Dust a new series.

Fright-Rags has released a Xenomorph mini-mask limited to just 426 units, as well as a retro Alien T-shirt and pins.

Geek Fuel released several Alien pins.

And not to be forgotten, the Alien: Descent attraction opened to the public in Orange County, California. As I’m a Texas boy, it may be some time before I get to try that ride, but you know I’d love to make that combat drop.

 

In a more serious vein, the storyline behind the Alien franchise is important to me, not just as entertainment, but because there is a cautionary tale built into it that I find to be very credible. Much has been made of the idea that if a species has developed an interstellar presence, they can only have done so if they had left avarice and violence behind. For the most part, the possibility of malevolent alien, spacefaring life has been relegated to popular entertainment, ranging from the sinister, a la Alien, to the campy, such as Mars Attacks! or kids’ films with comical, bumbling invaders. I find that to be startlingly naïve.

My thought is that we live in a universe where resources are always allocated locally, and life will fight over those resources to survive when cooperation won’t get what all parties feel that they need. That is the basis of all war, ultimately. You may have competing ideologies that provide intellectual packages in this resource battle, but when you break it down, that’s what remains. We’re going to find that to be universal as we head farther and farther out into the cosmos. As such, other beings out there are going to run on the same basic algorithm. Where trade of some sort will not suffice, domination will be attempted. For some species, domination will come first, and things like the Xenomorphs will exist to do essentially nothing but clear the field of competing interests. We are developing those sorts of things now with our own robotic systems in battle, clearing minefields, defusing Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), drone strikes, and the beginning deployment of battle robots. If we can think up and use such things, how difficult would it be for a mature race to develop a cadre of biomechanical soldiers to project force?

I don’t point these things out to be a doomer, but more to bring some realism into how we view our own fledgling steps off-planet. We need to keep our minds on survival in exploring and exploiting space, but always remain mindful that we will someday fight over it, and that we’re likely to find others that have been fighting over it much longer than we have. I suppose we may run into some variation of the “Age of Aquarius” Space Brothers, but I doubt it. What we do find will probably want to give us a hug, though.

 

Space Nation Update

Well, I downloaded their app for their perception of astronaut training, as a beta tester. I appreciate their intent with trying to combine entertainment, education, and social interaction, but as with most beta releases, there’s some technical issues that they’ll need to overcome.

Right now, I was able to access the initial activities, but since the first week I’ve been getting daily messages that there are new daily missions and when I click on the weekly adventure, and it tells me that I’ve completed the daily mission. Of course, I haven’t done so… And this morning it now locks up when I try this.

I’ll be a dutiful beta tester and let them know my woes.

Marching Towards Warp Drive

There is interesting news afoot in particle physics. It seems that some researchers from the University of Rochester have created quasi-particles known as polaritons at room temperature, and these little beauties exhibit behavior of objects of negative mass.

The original Alcubierre Warp Drive theory involved the use of negative energy to achieve a transit method outside of normal spacetime. Of course, Professor Alcubierre’s original estimate of magnitude was unreasonably huge, but the theory has stood up well. What’s been encouraging over the years is work by a number of other physicists to bring that magnitude down to imaginable levels. What’s been even more difficult to grapple has been the negative energy aspect, but with this new work, we now have what looks like negative mass. Given Einstein’s famous equation:

E = mc²

Where E is energy, m is mass, and c is the speed of light, a mass of a negative magnitude should convert to negative energy. That’s a major puzzle piece.

For more, see:

Physicists Say They’ve Created a Device That Generates ‘Negative Mass’

 

Remastered

Here is something that I stumbled across, working late one night at the day job

Alien: Remastered – YouTube

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLwDbvYpEl86BvV_f6lr7wWIAKSxmYVgiV

For those of you who do not know me in meatworld, I am a massive Alien universe fan. Huge geek about it, really. There is something about the matter-of-fact, workaday way they present the overall environment in which the characters struggle with the villains of the story. A lot of the tech is worn but usable, not necessarily some smooth, gleaming spectacle of modernism. The texture of the universe in the movies is one of a realism, where living and working in space is what they do, and the Alien scourge is a realty thrust upon them as a true and horrific surprise. The storylines aren’t about the technology, it’s just there to show the future tense of humanity. The frontier still has lions, tigers, and bears out there.

Of course, this is all backed up by soundtracks of various and creepy types, as the original posted above. Well, I say original. Actually, the videos linked above are, as described, remasters by a very talented sound engineer and artist, Álvaro G. Plata. I’ve listened to this composition a number of times on YouTube directly, and eventually contacted him directly to purchase an electronic copy of the music files he produced. He was happy to oblige!

For more information on the history of this project of his, see the link below.

http://www.alesserfate.com/2014/04/remastered-alien-1979-original.html#!/2014/04/remastered-alien-1979-original.html

In my opinion, the Alien universe is one of the most gritty and realistic expectations of what the future may hold, and how pedestrian it will eventually be to live and work in space.

Small Space Growing Big – NSRC 2017

In two weeks, the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers ConferenceNext-Generation Suborbital Researcher Conference (NSRC) for this year will kick off in Bloomfield, Colorado. It is a central meeting and discussion forum for educators and researchers working to explore the suborbital realm, and with a focus on reusable vehicles to pursue that exploration. There are a number of companies beginning to break into the reusable market, both suborbital and beyond, and they’ll have exhibit space to explain themselves at the conference.

A lot of these newcomers are promoting variants of air-breathing/rocket-propelled first stage systems carrying second and sometimes third stages to orbital destinations, such as Exodus Aerospace. They have a rather novel combined lifting body outer mold line (OML)* that comprises a two-stage delivery vehicle. It should be instructive to see how the CEO of Exodus, David Luther, fares with the questions and comments he’ll receive during the week.

*Aerospace Education Moment: For those who do not know what an “OML” is, this term refers to the overall outer shape of an aircraft or spacecraft. It is useful in the design and analysis of such machines to tightly control that OML, to serve such things as aerodynamic studies and to constrain subsystems within and around the vehicle by a boundary that remains fixed.

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