Category Archives: Essays And Commentaries

How not to get to Mars

Yesterday the world’s first space tourist, Dennis Tito, testified before Congress about the plans his organization, Inspiration Mars, has put together to make possible a manned fly-by of Mars by 2018.

The flyby mission would require two launches in quick succession. In the first liftoff, an SLS would loft four payloads to Earth orbit: an SLS upper-stage rocket; a 600-cubic-foot habitat module derived from Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus cargo vessel; a service module that would support the habitat module with power, propulsion and communications systems; and an Earth re-entry pod, which would be based on NASA’s Orion capsule. The second launch — this one likely using a commercial rocket — would deliver the two astronauts to orbit aboard a yet-to-be-selected private spaceship. The crewmembers would then transfer to the habitat module, and the SLS upper stage would propel them on toward Mars.

In making this announcement Tito and his organization challenged Congress and NASA to make it happen. They also admitted that they had initially thought this manned fly-by could be done entirely with private resources, but have looking at it closely realized it needed NASA money and hardware.

What a pipe dream. As much as I support Tito’s effort to accelerate the United States’ space effort, neither Tito’s original ideas as well as this new proposal are realistic. At no time do these dreamers show the slightest understanding of the challenges involved in flying humans in weightlessness for more than a year and as far away as Mars.
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The sun goes boom!

It is always best to admit when you are wrong as soon as you find out. Last month, in reporting NOAA’s monthly update of the solar cycle, I unequivocally stated that

My interpretation of this data tells me that almost certainly the solar maximum has ended. We might see some later fluctuations whereby the sunspot number jumps, but the Sun is clearly beginning its ramp down to solar minimum.

Well, I spoke too soon. Last night NOAA posted the newest update of the solar cycle, and it shows that in October the Sun was more active then it has been in two years. In fact, for only the second time this entire solar cycle the Sun’s sunspot activity actually came close to matching the predictions of scientists. This month’s graph is posted below the fold, with annotations.
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Why governments can’t do it

A government official today unwittingly revealed a fundamental and unpleasant truth about how governments: operate. In an interview today, the head of India’s space agency denied that his country is in a space race with anyone.

Mr. Radhakrishnan, Secretary in the Department of Space and Chairman of Space Commission, said each country — whether it’s India, the US, Russia or China — had their own priorities.

“There is no race with anybody. If you look at anybody, they have their own direction. So, I don’t find a place for race with somebody. But I would say we are always on race with ourselves to excel in areas that we have chalked out for ourselves,” he told PTI here in an interview.

How typical. By denying the reality of the competition that India is part of Mr. Radhakrishnan illustrates for me and everyone once again the basic reason all government efforts eventually fail.
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Fresh impacts caused by Curiosity during landing

impacts from Curiosity debris

The image on the right is a cropped close-up of a Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter image taken in early September that shows a fresh cluster of impacts, all smaller than six feet across. Nearby but not visible in this image are four larger craters about 12 to 15 feet in diameter. The impact cluster is located just northwest of Gale Crater and was not present in images taken before Curiosity’s arrival on Mars. The cluster is also in line with other impact craters produced by other debris dropped by Curiosity as it descended onto the Martian surface.

Scientists are at the moment unsure what spacecraft debris caused these impacts.

Assigning each of the impacts to specific pieces of hardware is a challenging puzzle, but it is thought that the four large craters were produced by two large tungsten weights that broke in half to make these four craters, or by pieces of the cruise stage, which was designed to break up in the atmosphere for planetary protection purposes, to kill any Earthly microbes.

The cluster imaged here adds to the mystery, and may have been produced by a piece of the cruise stage that traveled farther through the Martian atmosphere and was therefore more thoroughly fragmented by the time it crashed onto the surface.

Identifying the source of the debris is a challenging engineering problem that also has scientific interest. Knowing what caused the impacts and then studying how the surface was changed by them will tell geologists a great deal about the make up of that surface.

Ramping down from solar maximum

Yesterday, despite the government shutdown, NOAA posted its monthly update of the solar cycle, and as I do every month, I am posting it here, below the fold, with annotations.

My interpretation of this data tells me that almost certainly the solar maximum has ended. We might see some later fluctuations whereby the sunspot number jumps, but the Sun is clearly beginning its ramp down to solar minimum.
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Freeing the Smoky Mountains

Maddron Bald trailhead during the federal shutdown
The Maddron Bald trailhead on October 3, 2013, during
the government shutdown.

Today we did our last hike in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As I described yesterday, we decided to go to a place where we could park on private land and easily hike to a trail in the park. That way, we would reduce the level of power any fascist-minded ranger from the National Park Service might have over us should they confront us for being in our park.

As it turns out, there was no evidence at all of a shutdown at the trailhead we choose. We went to the Maddron Bald trailhead, just off state route 321. The parking area here is small, capable of holding no more than 5 or 6 cars. When we arrived there were three cars there, so we had no problem finding room, as you can see from the image to the left.

There were also no signs indicating the park was closed. Nor were there any barricades or cones. As far as we could tell, it was a normal day in the national park, which to me proved that the restrictions the park service is imposing on New Found Gap Road (as well as elsewhere across the nation) has absolutely nothing to do with their lack of funds. This particular trailhead is not as well known or visited, and is off the beaten track. Moreover, it would be hard to monitor. Thus, the park service chose to make believe it wasn’t there. Smart tourists could come here and enjoy the park, as intended, despite the shutdown.

If the shutdown really required the closure of the park, the park service would have sent a ranger here as well. They did not, proving that their obnoxious efforts are really aimed at causing problems for as many Americans as possible, not securing the park as they dishonestly might tell us.
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Shut down fascism wins in the Smoky Mountains

See my October 3, 2013 update here.

The veterans in DC might be keeping the World War II memorial open by defying the Obama administration, but here in the Smoky Mountains the National Park Service has apparently succeeded in shutting down most access to Great Smoky National Park.

In my post yesterday I described how the park service appeared to be setting up barricades at the various lookouts, parking pull-outs, and trailheads along New Found Gap Road — a public highway through the park which they cannot close — in order to prevent access to the park. Such barricades are inappropriate, unnecessary, and are certainly being done for political reasons. The Obama administration is trying to pressure the Republicans to fold in the budget battle by hurting the American public. By blocking access to these pull-outs the administration is increasing the risks to hikers still in the park and to drivers on the road while damaging the local economy.

Today we drove back up to New Found Gap to see how things were developing and found that my suspicions were correct. While yesterday many of the major trailhead pull-outs were not yet blocked, this evening they all were. As we drove past the New Found Gap parking lot the barricades had been moved into place, preventing our entrance. I also noticed some cars trapped in the lot, as well as some people by the barricades. When I had turned around and returned, I found that a wide enough section of the barricade had been shifted, allowing me to pull into the lot. I immediately drove up to two guys standing by their car to ask them what had happened.
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Shut down fascism in the Smoky Mountains

See my October 2, 2013 update here.

Today, October 1, 2013, my wife Diane and I went hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We did this despite the news from Washington that the federal government had shut down due to the lack of a funding from Congress and that all the national parks were closed.

The news reports had said that the National Park Service would close all roads into the park except for New Found Gap Road, the one road that crossed over the mountains from Tennessee to North Carolina. They couldn’t close this road because it was a main thoroughfare used by the public for basic transportation. Moreover, my research into the hikes we wished to do told me that several of those hikes originated on trailheads along this road. In traveling the road the day before, we had seen that these trailheads would not only be difficult to close, it would be dangerous and stupid to close them. For one, the road was windy and narrow. If there was a car accident or someone had car problems, any one of these parking areas might be essential for the use of the driver as well as local police and ambulances. For another, there are people still backpacking in the mountains who will at some point need to either exit with their cars or be picked up at these trailheads. Closing the trailheads will strand these hikers in the park, with dangerous consequences.

So, despite the shutdown, off we went to hike the Appalachian Trail, going to a well known lookout called the Jump Off, an easy 6.5 mile hike that leaves from the parking area at New Found Gap, the highest point on New Found Gap Road that is also on the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. It is also probably one of the most popular stopping points along the road, visited by practically every tourist as they drive across.
Smokies from the Appalachian trail

The hike itself was beautiful, if a bit foggy and damp. The picture above shows one of the clearest views we had all day. Nor were we alone on this hike. We probably saw one to two dozen other hikers, heading out to either the Jump Off or Charles Bunion (another well known day hike destination along this section of trail).
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The Coney Island of the Smokies

The main drag in Gatlinburg, Tennessee

I must admit I did not expect this. When we made our reservations to stay in a timeshare motel in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, I imagined the town would resemble the small West Virginia towns I am very familiar with from my many years of caving in that state. There would be a relatively quiet main street, with some restaurants, a supermarket, one or two gas stations, and some basic shopping.

What I found instead is a wonderfully energetic example of American capitalism, a carnival amusement area reminiscent of the amusement spots of the past and most epitomized by Brooklyn’s Coney Island.

When I was growing up in Brooklyn in the late 1950s and 1960s, Coney Island was a shadow of its grand past, but it still carried with it much of its old glory. You could stroll along the boardwalk or Surf Avenue and visit hundreds of shops, stores, and amusement rides, most of which were independently owned. In addition, the island also had several larger private amusement parks, such as Steeplechase Park, Astroland, and Luna Park (which unfortunately had closed before I ever saw it), each of which had a collection of their own rides and amusements. With some, like Steeplechase and Luna, you had to pay a separate admission price to get in.

This is exactly what I discovered here in Gatlinburg and the adjacent towns of Pigeon Forge and Sevierville.
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Linking mass extinctions to the Sun’s journey in the Milky Way

The Sun's orbit in the Milky Way

In a paper published today on the Los Alamos astro-ph preprint service, astronomers propose that as many as eleven past extinction events can be linked to the Sun’s passage through the spiral arms of the Milky Way. (You can download the paper here [pdf].)

A correlation was found between the times at which the Sun crosses the spiral arms and six known mass extinction events. Furthermore, we identify five additional historical mass extinction events that might be explained by the motion of the Sun around our Galaxy. These five additional significant drops in marine genera that we find include significant reductions in diversity at 415, 322, 300, 145 and 33 Myr ago. Our simulations indicate that the Sun has spent ~60% of its time passing through our Galaxy’s various spiral arms.

The figure on the right, from their paper, shows the Sun’s orbit in red over the last half billion years. The Sun’s present position is indicated by the yellow spot, and the eleven extinctions are indicated by the circles.

There are obviously a great deal of uncertainties in this conclusion. Most significantly, the shape and history of the Milky Way remains very much in doubt, especially since we reside within it and cannot really get a good look at it. Though in recent years astronomers have assembled a reasonable image of the galaxy’s shape — a barred spiral with two major arms and several minor ones — this picture includes many assumptions that could very easily be wrong.

Nonetheless, the paper’s conclusions are interesting.
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A fundamental truth about America

This morning Orbital Sciences successfully launched into orbit its commercial cargo freighter Cygnus to bring supplies to ISS. This was also the second successful launch of its Antares rocket. If Cygnus berths with ISS as planned, the company will then begin cargo operations, joining SpaceX to give the United States two different freighters for bringing supplies to low Earth orbit.

After Antares’ first successful launch in April I wrote the following post, which I think still applies and should be reread. It describes how today’s Cygnus launch success reveals a lot about the future.
—————————————————
Yesterday, Orbital Sciences successfully completed the first test launch of its Antares rocket, developed, designed, and built in less than five years under a commercial contract with NASA to provide cargo to the International Space Station. The launch went like clockwork, perfectly, with no hitches at all, something that is quite remarkable for a new rocket on its first launch. Kudos to the engineers at Orbital Sciences for a job well done!

Besides demonstrating the skill of Orbital Science’s engineers, however, this successful launch illustrated in stark reality a fundamental fact about the culture of the United States that continues to allow it to stand out from the rest of the world, even as a large percentage of the present generation of Americans are doing their darndest to try to destroy that culture. Moreover, that fundamental cultural fact is basic to human nature, not just the United States, and if we recognize it, it will provide us all the right framework for what to do and not to do in trying to maintain human societies, both here on Earth as well as in the future in space.

In order to understand the true significance of Orbital Sciences’s success yesterday with Antares, however, we must first review the capabilities of the world’s launch industry. I am not going to list all the rockets capable of putting payloads into orbit, only those that are successfully competing for business in the open commercial market.
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Why we must remember

I wrote these following words three years ago on the anniversary of the World Trade Center attack. I think they are worth repeating again, especially considering the confusing debacle of this administration’s Syria policy these past few weeks, and the continuing violent and oppressive behavior of the Islamic revolutionaries in that country.

My words on September 11, 2010:

The President has asked us to consider today “a national day of service and remembrance”. Though the sentiment seems reasonable, I must respectively disagree.

September 11 should not be turned into a day to celebrate volunteerism or service or American charity. Though these values are profound, important, and an expression of much of what makes our nation great, they are not why we remember September 11.

We remember the evil acts committed on September 11, 2001 in order to remind us that there is evil in the world.

We remember these evil acts so that we will have the strength to fight that evil, with every fiber of our being.

We remember those who died in order to prevent future attacks and further deaths.

We remember so that no one can ever try to make believe these events did not happen.

We remember so that no one can spread the lie that the perpetrators were something other than what they were: Men who had decided to kill in the name of Islam, based on what they believed their religion taught them.

And finally, and most important, we remember the horrible events of September 11, 2001 so that those innocent murdered souls — whose only crime that day was going to work — will not have died in vain.

“The face of the sun is nearly blank.”

Today NOAA posted its monthly update of the solar cycle, and as I do every month, I am posting it here, with annotations.

Before we take a look at that, however, there is other climate news that is apropos. The Daily Mail in the UK put out an entertaining article on Saturday with the headline “And now it’s global COOLING! Record return of Arctic ice cap as it grows by 60% in a year.”

The article is entertaining because, after illustrating the ice-cap’s recovery this year, it then notes the 2007 prediction by global warming climate scientists that the Arctic Ocean would be “ice-free” by 2013. If this isn’t a good example of the dangers of crying wolf, I don’t know what is.

I should emphasize that the ice-cap recovery this year does not prove that global warming has ceased. A look at this graph from satellite data shows that even though the Arctic icecap has recovered, it is still remains small when compared to the past few decades. The increase this year might only be a blip, or it could be indicating a new trend. We won’t really know for another five years, if then.

The article is also entertaining because it outlines the confusion that is right now going on behind the scenes at the IPCC. The next IPCC report is scheduled to come out next month, but no one agrees with its conclusions because it apparently ignores or minimizes the approximately fifteen year pause in warming that has now been documented since the late-1990s.

In its draft report, the IPCC says it is ‘95 per cent confident’ that global warming has been caused by humans – up from 90 per cent in 2007. This claim is already hotly disputed. US climate expert Professor Judith Curry said last night: ‘In fact, the uncertainty is getting bigger. It’s now clear the models are way too sensitive to carbon dioxide. I cannot see any basis for the IPCC increasing its confidence level.’ [emphasis mine]

It appears that scientists and governments are demanding approximately 1500 changes to the IPCC draft, which suggests its release will be delayed significantly.

Meanwhile, the Sun continues its lackluster and weak solar maximum.
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Space agencies of the world unite!

On Tuesday NASA released what it calls a new “space exploration roadmap,” outlining the agency’s goals for the human exploration of space over the next few decades.

Normally I’d say, who cares? The space agency puts these kinds of PR roadmaps together periodically. None of them really ever mean that much. And in truth, this particular report doesn’t mean that much either. However, what makes this “Global Plan” interesting and worth mentioning is the participants who wrote it. It seems that NASA and the Obama administration didn’t do it alone.
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Pigs in space

Today I have an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, entitled “No liftoff for these space flights of fancy.” It is essentially a more detailed reworking of my rant on the John Batchelor Show on July 30.

My point is that the federal space program mandated by Congress, the Space Launch System (SLS), is never going to go anywhere, and is nothing but pork that should be cut as fast as possible. (See my essay from November 2011 on how NASA and the federal government can better use this money to get more accomplished in space, for less.)

The comments to the article have generally been positive and in agreement. Those who disagree mostly question the $14 billion cost per launch that I claim SLS will cost. That number comes from John Strickland’s very detailed analysis of what it will cost to build, complete, and operate SLS. However, it doesn’t require much thoughtful analysis to realize that this number is not unreasonable.
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Modern Journalism: Retyping press releases

This post is really about the monthly NOAA update of the solar cycle, but before I do that, I must note some really bad science journalism in connection with that solar minimum.

This week NASA released a poorly written press release describing how the Sun’s magnetic field flips whenever it goes through solar maximum, the period when sunspot activity reaches its maximum. The article gave the incorrect impression that this “flip” will be some grand singular and spectacular event and when it happens the consequences to Earth could be significant. Then it buried this most important little detail to the article’s final paragraphs:
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My rant Thursday against politicians on the John Batchelor Show

On my Thursday appearance last week on the John Batchelor Show John and I devoted the entire segment to talking about the sad state of NASA and how the partisan bickering in Congress is not only failing to deal with those problems, that bickering is intentionally disinterested in actually fixing them. As I say,

What both those parties in Congress and in the administration are really doing is faking a goal for the purpose of justifying pork to their districts, because none of the proposals they’re making — both the asteroids or the moon — are going to happen.

I intend to elaborate in writing on this subject in the next day or so. In the meantime, here is the audio of that appearance [mp3] for you all to download and enjoy.

Note that I specifically talked about the following stories during this appearance:

The Sun has a maximum and no one notices

On July 8 NOAA released its monthly update of the Sun’s sunspot cycle, covering the period of June 2013. As I do every month, this graph is posted below, with annotations to give it context.

After a brief period of renewed but weak activity during the last three months, the Sun’s sunspot production has once again plunged, dropping back to the levels generally seen for most of 2012.

As predicted by some solar scientists, the Sun seems to have produced a double-peaked maximum, though the second peak appears at this time to have been remarkably wimpy and brief. It is still possible, however, that this second peak is not over and that we might see another burst of renewed activity in the next month or so, based on the Sun’s past behavior during the ending stages of the previous solar maximum in 2001 and 2002. Nonetheless, from all appearances it looks like the Sun has shot its load and is in the process of winding down from a solar maximum peak that occurred back late 2011.

What is especially fascinating about this is that when that peak occurred in 2011, no one noticed!
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Doing the Grand Canyon Right

The Tonto Plateau

The one thing about the Grand Canyon that attracts hikers is its intimidating nature. People feel challenged by its large size and depth, and want to prove to themselves that they can do it.

The irony of this to me is that it is that intimidating nature that generally causes most people the most problems. People worry about the climb out. They worry about the heat. They worry about the lack of water. And they worry about vastness around them.

All of these things — the climb, the heat, the lack of water, and the vastness — must be dealt with. Each has caused the death of many visitors. Each could kill you if you are not prepared. In fact, one or all of these factors are probably the primary causes behind all of the approximately 300 rescues that occur each year at the Grand Canyon.

Yet, none of these factors is actually the biggest obstacle for most people trying to climb in and out of the Canyon. Instead, it is the worry about these things that causes people the most difficulties.
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At the rim 2

We have returned from inside the Grand Canyon. We hiked out on Tuesday, doing the climb up in what is for us record time, arriving at the rim at 12:30 pm after 7 hours of hiking. We were down at Phantom Ranch for two full days and three nights, doing some really spectacular day hikes each day. I will post some further details, with pictures, once I get home.

We are still touring about here in northern Arizona and will be until Sunday. Right now I am sitting in the patio of the motel at Grand Canyon Caverns, about two hours west of the national park. This morning we drove down to the Colorado on the Hualapai Reservation, using the only road on the south rim that reaches the river. This weekend I will be participating in a long term cave dig project here at this somewhat famous commercial cave. The dig has been going on for years in cooperation with the cave’s owners. This will be the first time that I will contribute to the project.

At the rim

The Grand Canyon from our motel room

After a 5.5 hour drive we arrived at the south rim of the Grand Canyon and checked into our hotel. You can see the view from the window on the right. Not very spectacular, but then, you don’t spend much time in a hotel room on trips like this.

Tomorrow we take the shuttle bus to the North Rim, where will spend another night in the lodge there. On Saturday, we hike down on North Bright Angel trail, and will stay in a cabin at Phantom Ranch for the next three nights, doing day hikes from the bottom of the canyon on Sunday and Monday. We will hike then up on Tuesday, coming up Bright Angel trail to the south rim, completing our first rim to rim hike. Once we check out of our hotel tomorrow, we will be out of contact with the internet until we return to the south rim. I hope the world doesn’t fall apart in the interim.

This will be Diane’s third trip to the bottom, and my fifth. I can’t express how happy I am to be back. This is truly one of the grandest spots on Earth.

Third Anniversary

This past weekend Behind the Black celebrated its third anniversary. I did it by posting very little, as the news in space, to my mind, has been very quiet, while the news in politics and culture has been very depressing, something I am growing tired of reading. It seems to me that freedom is dying, both in the United States and worldwide, being chipped away bit by bit until no one alive knows what the word means anymore.

Moreover, on July 4 Diane and I will head north to the Grand Canyon (our third trip together to the bottom) for ten days vacation, so expect posting for that time period to be very light or nonexistent.

I do intend to post until then and once I get back. If you have liked what I have written and posted these past three years, then please consider the idea of contributing to the website. The tip jar is in the right column, near the bottom.

And if you really want to find out the moment I believe American society began to die, you might want to consider reading the new ebook edition of my first book, Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8. The book tells the story of one of our country’s grandest achievements, and how that triumph ironically ended up teaching an entire generation all the wrong lessons.

Close-minded politicians everywhere!

Despite the repeated news in recent weeks that the evidence for global warming is slim, or at least confused, today we have two elected officials and one appointed official screaming that the sky will fall if we don’t do something, including spending billions of dollars of other people’s money.

First we have our friend Al Gore, who was in Washington, DC to speak at an environmental event put on by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island). Whitehouse you might remember was the senator who, even before the injured and dead had been counted from the terrible Moore, Oklahoma tornado, started blaming Republicans for the tornado because they weren’t doing more to stop global warming.
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The red tape of the space bureaucracy

“An article in the Economist today has some chilling conclusions about the difficulties faced by the new commercial space companies.

Although the cost of developing new space vehicles, products and services is high, just as much of a burden can be imposed by such intangible expenses as regulatory compliance, legal fees and insurance premiums.

The article points out the heavy cost to these new space companies caused by insurance requirements and government regulation, including the ITAR regulations that restrict technology transfers to foreign countries. However, this paragraph stood out to me as most significant:

Then there is the question of vehicle certification. The first private astronauts and space tourists may soon take to the skies in new launch vehicles, and the FAA has initially agreed to license commercial spacecraft without certifying, as it does for aircraft, that the vehicles are safe to carry humans. The idea is that specific safety criteria will become apparent only once the rockets are flying and (though it is rarely admitted) an accident eventually happens. This learning period will keep costs down for makers of the new spacecraft, even if significant compliance expenses are likely when it is over. The exemption was meant to have expired last year and was extended to the end of 2015. Commercial space companies are understandably keen for it to be extended again. “In the dawn of aviation, planes had 20 to 30 years before significant legislation applied,” says George Whitesides, the boss of Virgin Galactic.

Back in 2004 I noted in a UPI column the problems caused by these regulations, even as they were being written. (I had also done something at the time that few reporters ever do: I actually read the law that Congress was passing.) Then I said,
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The Sun makes the scientists look good — for now!

NOAA today released its monthly update of the Sun’s sunspot cycle, covering the period of May 2013. As I have done every month for the past three years, I have posted this latest graph, with annotations to give it context, below the fold.

For the third month in a row, the Sun has shown increased sunspot activity. Though the total activity continues to remain well below all predictions, it appears that the Sun is going to produce a double-peaked maximum, as predicted by some solar scientists back in March. Be aware however that this prediction isn’t based on any real understanding of the physical processes that produce sunspots but is instead based on the fact that the Sun has sometimes done this in the past. If you asked these scientists why the Sun sometimes produces a double-peaked maximum they will wave their arms about but will really not be able to tell you.

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The 2000th show

Tonight David Livingston will air the 2000th episode of The Space Show, what has become the world’s leading media outlet for the discussion of space exploration and the aerospace industry.

The Space Show began in June 2001, and in the ensuing dozen years David has interviewed almost every single big mover in the business of space exploration. I myself have been honored to appear on his show more than thirty times, a fact for which I am deeply grateful, since there are people far more important than I in this field.

It is difficult to measure the significance to space of David Livingston’s effort during these past twelve years. When the Space Show began, SpaceShipOne had not yet flow, the X-Price had not yet been won, and the idea of private space and space tourism were considered wild and absurd ideas. Twelve years later, these ideas are now common knowledge and are likely to be main path for the human race into space. By giving a forum to supporters of commercial space, the Space Show under David’s leadership made this paradigm shift possible.

Thank you David! When the solar system is finally settled, the colonists should remember that without his important contribution their journey to get there would have been far more difficult.

The Sun shows a bit of life

It is that time again, buckos! Yesterday NOAA released its monthly update of the Sun’s sunspot cycle, covering the period of April 2013. As I have done every month for the past three years, I have posted this latest graph, with annotations to give it context, below the fold.

For the second month in a row the Sun’s sunspot output increased. The result is that April 2013 saw the most sunspot activity in more than a year, since December 2011.

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Private space is winning

Today I attended an space industry conference here in Orange County, California, sponsored by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Unlike the Space Hackers conference which also occurred today and to which I was also invited, this was not a New Space get-together, but a standard aerospace event which included a lot of old time engineers from the big old-time companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Most of the talks today were engineering related. For example, one described in detail the engineering advantages of building ion engines and solar sails at the molecular level, nanotechnology to the max. Another talk, which I found astonishing and exciting, was an analysis of the orbital mechanics of getting to Mars. This analysis found that using constant acceleration as low as .01 G it would be possible to get to Mars in weeks, not years, and without the necessity of waiting for the perfect launch window. You could launch almost anytime. Though we don’t have engines that as yet can provide this much constant low acceleration, these numbers are not so high as to make it impossible. With some clever refinements, it might be possible to come up with propulsion systems capable of these constant Gs, and to do it in the near future. If so, it will open up the entire solar system to manned exploration very quickly. Not only will we be able to travel to the planets in a reasonable time, the constant Gs would overcome the medical problems caused by prolonged weightlessness.

It wasn’t these interesting engineering presentations that got my juices flowing however. Instead, it was presentation on public policy issues that completely surprised me and made me think the future of the American aerospace industry is really going in the right direction. This significant take-away was further reinforced by the audience’s reaction to my lecture in the evening.
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A rocket reveals a fundamental truth about America

Yesterday, Orbital Sciences successfully completed the first test launch of its Antares rocket, developed, designed, and built in less than five years under a commercial contract with NASA to provide cargo to the International Space Station. The launch went like clockwork, perfectly, with no hitches at all, something that is quite remarkable for a new rocket on its first launch. Kudos to the engineers at Orbital Sciences for a job well done!

Besides demonstrating the skill of Orbital Science’s engineers, however, this successful launch illustrated in stark reality a fundamental fact about the culture of the United States that continues to allow it to stand out from the rest of the world, even as a large percentage of the present generation of Americans are doing their darndest to try to destroy that culture. Moreover, that fundamental cultural fact is basic to human nature, not just the United States, and if we recognize it, it will provide us all the right framework for what to do and not to do in trying to maintain human societies, both here on Earth as well as in the future in space.

In order to understand the true significance of Orbital Sciences’s success yesterday with Antares, however, we must first review the capabilities of the world’s launch industry. I am not going to list all the rockets capable of putting payloads into orbit, only those that are successfully competing for business in the open commercial market.
» Read more

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