Category Archives: Space

Next Launch

The Cape has been quiet for a few weeks while undergoing needed modernization. But things are about to pick up, with today’s SpaceX CRS launch less than an hour away. If they don’t get it off today, they’ll have to wait another five days, due to EVA scheduling issues and other things. You can watch here.

[Post-launch update]

Another successful launch, and perfect landing. Mission won’t be complete until Dragon delivers its cargo to ISS, then returns to earth, but it’s off to another good start.


feel weird.

I wonder if the breaking down in tears is a current phenomenon, or if it’s traditional from when most people didn’t know what was going on, and thought it was the end times?

I disagree with this, though:

…for an eclipse with specific properties (such as total versus partial, long versus short, and tropical versus arctic) to make a repeat appearance in any particular region, one has to wait while eclipses work their way around the world like a set of gears, which requires three Saroses—a length of time equal to fifty-four years and around one month, or, more precisely, thirty-three days. Because this surpasses human life expectancy in that era four thousand years ago, it’s astonishing that the cycle was noticed at all.

Only if you don’t understand that life expectancy is an average, with a high standard deviation. Many, and particularly ancient astronomers, would have likely lived much longer than average.

We were in Denver over the weekend, and went up to Wondervu Saturday might for a meeting of the Sky Watchers club (invited by Leonard and Barbara David, who have a place up there in the mountains above Boulder). One of the lecturers (retired from the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden) gave a talk on NREL’s analysis of probability of not having clouds along the entire path. He had seen the one in Aruba in the ’90s, and he and most of the people there planned to go up to Casper to see it. I’d like to, but I can’t justify time/money right now.

The Panic Over North Korea

I’ve been bemused at all the sound and fury over yesterday’s DIA report. I pointed out on Twitter that there’s a lot more to a threat than a nuclear weapon, even a miniaturized one, and a rocket (we don’t even know that it’s a missile, which requires accurate guidance) that is a theoretical ICBM. The news reports keep saying that they’ve “developed” one, but part of development is testing and successful demonstration. I’ve been thinking about writing an explainer, but Tom Nichols beat me to it.

I’ve noted in the past that in order to prevent them from getting the capability, we may have to shoot down their tests. We can’t stop them from testing their bombs, but we can stop them from testing their missiles. The risk in that is whether they would view it as sufficiently provocative to start to bombard Seoul, which would end well for no one, but least of all them.

Risk-Averse Millennials

In response to a young woman who (almost literally) poo-poos being an astronaut, Ben Domenech says that they need to seize their own destiny:

Space is the next frontier. Throughout the history of America, we have been a nation driven by the idea of the frontier—a place where law was slim and liberty was enormous, where you could make your way in the world based on your own ambition and abilities, not fenced in by the limitations of society. The idea of the frontier is a stand-in for the idea of liberty. The danger for the millennial generation today is that even as they inhabit an era providing utopian degrees of choices, they have become too fearful to actually make those choices and seize the future liberty allows. In so doing, they deny their inheritance as Americans.

We have an abundance of evidence on this front. Millennials are extremely reluctant to invest or risk their capital. UBS found that in the wake of the financial crisis, millennials appear more risk-averse than any generation since the Great Depression. Brookings has analyzed the sense of displacement driven by technology, seeing Spike Jonze’s “Her” as a prediction of the world as it will be when millennial values drive society. And Megan McArdle has written eloquently about the fear of failure of any sort, even in the smallest ways, that animates young Americans.

“The other day, after one of my talks, a 10th-grade girl came up and shyly asked if I had a minute. I always have a minute to talk to shy high school sophomores, having been one myself. And this is what she asked me: “I understand what you’re saying about trying new things, and hard things, but I’m in an International Baccalaureate program and only about five percent of us will get 4.0, so how can I try a subject where I might not get an A?”

Consider the experience of millennials today as illustrated by Aziz Ansari in “Master of None,” quoting Sylvia Path’s “Bell Jar,” on the impossibility of making choices when overwhelmed by the options before you.

If there is a novelist who predicted the risk aversion at the heart of the millennial generation, it is the man who wrote that “You can get all A’s and still flunk life.” Walker Percy’s work spoke with the voice of the displaced Southerner wrestling with the inheritance of tradition and the modern age. His understanding of dislocation and despair and regional displacement speak to a different sort of placelessness which animates this generation. His protagonists prefigure the rise of hipsters—the love of irony and pop culture and memes as insulation from seriousness, a tranquilizer for despair. Fear of failure runs through his work, and the crippling fear of making a choice in a world full of choices that could lead down the wrong path.

Read the whole thing, but there’s another point to be made here: Much of West’s perception of what it is to be an astronaut is dated, largely influenced by the Apollo mythology (and yes, I know this is an attempt to be comedic). The vast majority of space travelers of her generation are unlikely to be NASA astronauts. For many, yes, there will be math, but for many others there will not, but the real point is that there will be many, and few of them will be overtrained civil servants. Like the storm-tost’ immigrants of Lazarus’s (non-legally binding) poem discussed so much this past week, they will likely be more akin to the people who set of first from Europe for a New World, and then headed west. And many those who headed west, or their descendants, will decide that the direction of the next frontier is up from there, and then out. And regardless of the generalizations of the nature of her generation (or any), there are many members of it who will know doubt take Domenech’s advice and seize their own moment. It’s not your grandfather’s space program.

As an aside, I’d note that Nolan’s quote was likely influenced by Wilde’s aphorism that we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars.

[Update a couple minutes later]

As usual, the comments are figuratively pedestrian when it comes to our future in space.

Planetary Protection

There may be some useful changes coming to NASA:

JPL has butted heads with the office over the next big mission, the Mars 2020 rover, which will gather rock samples for later retrieval to Earth. JPL is interesting in having the rover target areas with subsurface brines, an activity that would not be allowed with its planned level of cleanliness. Moreover, the planetary protection office has not yet agreed on the efficacy of the techniques JPL will use to sterilize the tubes in which the rover will cache rock cores. If the issues aren’t resolved, Rummel says, the rover could be headed for a bureaucratic “train wreck”.

The office, which has always been limited by a small budget and staff, continues to gauge a spacecraft’s “bioburden” based on a classic measure—the number of cultivable microbial spores it carries. “Some of the numbers we’ve been operating on date back decades, and it’d be great to revisit them,” says Sarah Johnson, a planetary scientist at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. She thinks the office should take advantage of two innovations: chemicals that can separate DNA from dead and living cells, and genomic sequencers that can classify the living ones by type. Scientists could then, for example, assess their individual likelihoods of surviving on Mars.

As a member of the Curiosity team, Johnson would like to see a change in policy that would allow the rover to sidle up to the wet streaks to give them a close look, even if the drill itself—currently on the fritz since December 2016—could not be used. In their op-ed, Fairén and his colleagues go further, saying NASA should slightly lower its sterilization standards so that robots as clean as Curiosity could explore special regions. Fairén says there is growing evidence that the harsh environment on the martian surface—a combination of frigid temperatures, caustic chemicals and deadly cosmic radiation—would kill Earth’s microbes quickly, especially in the limited numbers that ride along with robots. Even if some survive, he adds, future missions could distinguish between earthly and martian microbes by sequencing their genomes.

As the article notes, it’s inevitable that humans are going to go there. If they want to look for non-terrestrial life, they need to start doing it now.

Space Aliens

No, NASA is not hiring someone to protect the planet from them:

Though this should be abundantly clear by now—that NASA isn’t planning to launch an attack on aliens they don’t know exist—Shostak gets some colorful phone calls from those who want to believe.

“I have to say, people do call [me] and say, ‘Do you know anything about the Pentagon’s plans to defend Earth?’” he said. To be clear, Shostak does not know anything about ‘the Pentagon’s plans’ and thinks that even in some alternate reality where he did, the Pentagon wouldn’t waste time or money trying to save us. So please stop calling him.