All posts by Andrew Case

Insurance problems for Da Vinci

Via Wired, it looks like the Da Vinci Project (now renamed the space program) is running into problems with finding insurance.

Insurance is a huge deal for suborbital startups, and will probably turn out to be a showstopper for at least some of them. I was very surprised to find out how much of a problem insurance and launch licensing (including environmental regulation) were going to be when I first got seriously involved with this area. Launch licensing is partially addressed by Senate bill 2772, but insurance is still out there. If I was to start a suborbital launch services company tomorrow I’d tackle the insurance issue in parallel with vehicle development. The right vehicle design will keep insurance costs low, and the wrong design will drive them towards infinity.

A couple of space links

The Beagle 2 mission team has released its own report on what went wrong – they place a lot of blame on ESA management, but the upshot is that the atmosphere wasn’t as dense as they thought. Story via Nature

Nature also has a story on the Shuttle return to flight. One paragraph stands out to me:

The CAIB report said that safety checks were often poorly managed. “The shuttle programme had become comfortable with an operational mindset that treated a developmental vehicle as an operational vehicle, accepting debris strikes as normal, and so on,” says Hubbard. This culture is being challenged through increased communication between different areas of NASA, says Hubbard.

The problem of treating a vehicle in development as operational is serious, but the solution is not more communication. Reading between the lines, that looks to me a lot like more forms, more reports, more meetings, more teleconferences. In other words, more noise. The solution I prefer is a single office tasked with both operations and upgrades, and with the authority to take the vehicle off line. The bipod ramp foam shedding was a known issue and it could have been addressed with a number of different fixes had work started when the problem was first identified. Of course this presumes management with an attitude oriented to fixing things before they become problems, which may be asking too much. Certainly expecting NASA to behave in ways which fly in the face of the political incentives imposed by congress is asking too much, but hey, a man can dream, can’t he?


Via comments on a post at Crooked Timber, an article in the Globe and Mail about a tribe in the Amazon that not only doesn’t have a numbering system, they also don’t have clearly defined words for colors. Adding weirdness to weirdness, they also change their names on a regular basis. The thrust of the article is that the lack of number names interferes with their ability to count. There’s a whole literature in linguistics about this and the larger issue of how language influences thinking, though the subject has fallen into disfavor. I suspect that the truth of the matter is that language severely constrains thought, in that it’s easier to conceptualize things for which you have a word, but does not completely limit it (or where would new words come from? – the concept has to precede the word).

Incidentally, if you’re interested in this question, check out the logical langauge group. They are developing and promoting a language based on formal logic with the explicit intention of exploring the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

Mars simulation weirdness

Via WorldChanging, an item about a NASA sponsored simulation of Mars colonization that’s being sat on instead of released. I don’t see why there is a need to do much of anything active to release it other than just slap it on a web server, but then again, I’m not a NASA official. Who the hell knows what calculus leads to this sort of thing. From the article linked in the WorldChanging post it sounds like most likely somebody had an overly ambitious plan to release it on CD, and once the money dried up they didn’t come up with an alternative. If anyone reading this has free server space and is willing to host the game, I’d suggest contacting Professor Henry directly and offering to distribute the game. Double bonus if you distribute source as well. My bet is that if source is released the very first hack will be to add hostile aliens and weapons.

Dynamic lab notebook

I’ve been mulling the idea of keeping my lab notes on my Mac for a while, and I’ve started moving in that direction. The problem with keeping notes on a computer rather than on paper is that the computer is far less flexible. It’s much more powerful, but it’s quite constrained by the need for exactly the right software. The major advantage of a computer over a lab notebook is that you can put in a whole lot more data, and interlink the data in ways that you just can’t with paper.

The ideal lab notebook software would combine some of the functionality of a blog with some of the functionality of a wiki. The blog function would be to simply keep a log of all entries, with timestamps. The entries would consist of text, images, and tables of data. The wiki function would integrate the linear collection of entries from the blog to build up a coherent time-independent picture of the object under study. The wiki would include both information about the current state of the experiment and a set of tentative conclusions about the phenomenon under study, along with things like lists of references with comments.

Continue reading Dynamic lab notebook

How science works

Over on Technology Review there’s a good article by Richard Muller on the discovery of the K-T impact that wiped out the dinosaurs, and the history of the science behind its discovery. He makes the point that science is inherently a process of asking ever more questions, each concrete answer generating a host of new questions.

The article is worth a read on its own merits, but as soon as I read it I immediately thought of this article on global warming, written by people who claim to be conducting scientific inquiry, but then end with this astonishingly dishonest statement:

The science is settled. The “skeptics” — the strange name applied to those whose work shows the planet isn’t coming to an end — have won.

I’ll usually give people the benefit of the doubt when it comes to what they believe about global warming, since the science is complex and information is still coming in. The state of the field is rapidly evolving, so disagreement is not just reasonable, it’s mandatory for the health of the science. However here we have three people claiming scientific credibility while making utterly inane statements which to a layman might seem like solid proof, but which don’t pass even the most basic scientific smell test. Let’s take a look at the quote above in detail:

The science is settled.

Bullshit. Simple, barefaced bullshit. The science is not settled until a model exists which is consistent with all the observations. The fact that there are difficulties with a certain subset of observations (atmospheric temperature data for example) does not mean that the null hypothesis (no warming) is true: in fact, if there is other reliable data that is inconsistent with the null hypothesis, the question is very much not settled. There is ocean surface temperature data, for example, which cannot easily be reconciled with the null hypothesis.

The “skeptics” — the strange name …

Apparently the authors are unfamiliar with the meaning of the word “skeptic” – it is entirely appropriate to apply it to people who doubt, who question, who disbelieve orthodox views. To be a skeptic in science is a good thing – it’s what the whole enterprise is about.

…applied to those whose work shows the planet isn’t coming to an end …

Ah yes, the signature of scientific integrity: distorting the view of your opponents beyond all recognition. The generally accepted view within the climate research community is that the world is warming and that there will be negative consequences. The difference between that and “the planet coming to an end” is the difference between a hangnail and death.

… have won.

Riiiiiiight. Questions about consistency of a subset of data completely overwhelm all of the data in favor of the hypothesis.

As I’ve said before, there’s a lot to be done before we’ll have a clear picture of what is up with global warming. There are entirely reasonable arguments that the warming is primarily natural rather than caused by humans, there’s plenty of reasonable doubt about the magnitude of the warming, there’s reasonable questions about wether the net long term effect might in fact be beneficial, and there are reasonable grounds to argue against any given policy regarding climate change. There is not even a slight amount of reasonableness to claims that the science of global warming is even close to settled, let alone settled in favor of the theory that there is no warming.

The authors of the TCS piece might have a defensible position if they were engaging is strictly political polemic, but they are not: they are brandishing scientific credentials on the one hand, and making blatantly false statements on the other. They are using scientific credentials to bolster claims which any credible scientist simply would not make. If you want to use scientific credentials to establish credibility, you have an obligation to meet a certain standard of integrity. Saying things which any scientist would know to be false, but which a member of the general public might believe, violates the most basic standards of personal and professional integrity. These guys are liars, and should be treated as such.

Interesting results from cluster spacecraft

Recent results from Cluster shed some light on the mechanism that brings particles from the solar wind into the Earth’s magnetosphere, creating the Aurora and radiation belts. The basic mechanism is vortices generated in the sheared flow region between the magnetosphere and the solar wind. The mechanism behind the vortices is called the Kelvin-Helmholtz instability, and it’s fairly generic to low velocity sheared flows, as the discussed in the article.

The same mechanism will affect any craft powered by mini-magnetospheric plasma propulsion (M2P2), but the particle transport will be the other way – from inside the magnetic bubble to outside (since the inner particle density will be higher than the solar wind particle density, at least in the tail region). This will cause loss of ions from the bubble, and may turn out to be the limiting factor for M2P2.

There is a nice picture of Kelvin-Helmholtz waves in the Earth’s atmosphere here.

Updated Spaceflight Bill

The latest revision of what used to be H.R. 3752 has been released by Sen Inhofe. The new bill is S. 2772 (no static link: go to Thomas and search for “s2772”). Changes are to the definition of suborbital rocket:

`suborbital rocket’ means a vehicle, rocket-propelled in whole or in part, intended for flight on a suborbital trajectory whose thrust is greater than its lift for the majority of the rocket-powered portion of its flight.

I’d prefer “thrust greater than weight,” since lift is a bit harder to keep track of without extensive instrumentation, but that’s just a matter of preferring the easier quantity to measure. Still, it’s a good definition. This eliminates the problem that Rocketplane Limited (formerly Pioneer Rocketplane) had with the definition.

There are some other relatively minor changes, and then this:

The Secretary of Transportation shall not require any additional license, permit, certificate, or other legal instrument be obtained from the Department of Transportation for any activity, including flight and return, for which a license or experimental permit has been issued under this chapter.

This is a nice addition, since it further lowers the bar for flight testing of suborbital vehicles. The experimental permit referred to is similar to the experimental permit for flight testing of aircraft, with the same intent: to lower the regulatory bar to new vehicle development. The entire homebuilt aircraft industry is built on the existence of aviation experimental permits. Anyone contemplating building their own suborbital spacecraft should read the portion of S.2772 dealing with experimental permits (section 3(c)(8) of the bill, about halfway down the page). Read the whole thing 🙂

Hat tip to Randall Clague of XCOR for letting me know about this development.

Steam kills

An accident at a nuclear plant kills four workers. It was a steam leak, but that won’t stop the antinuclear hysteriacs from flipping out. Of course, nothing will stop the antinuclear hysteriacs from flipping out. OTOH, it’s worth pointing out that the failure of the steam system lead to an appropriate controlled shutdown of the core, just the way it should. In a sane world the headlines would read “Nuclear reactor safety system works as designed,” and the whole thing would lead to no more than a call to reemphasize the safety guidelines for working with high pressure steam that have developed over the last couple of centuries. My prediction is that the accident will turn out to have been preventable had those guidelines been followed. Steam is dangerous, but controllable, and it can be safely harnessed. Just like nuclear power.