Here’s something, or rather somebody, you might like to check out, especially if you’re partial to the ‘Passion Beauty Joy’ (PBJ) interpretation of the universe (as Bill Nye likes to put it). Likewise, if you enjoy the Symphony of Science series of videos, this will be up your street.
On his website, Peter Mayer describes himself as a writer of “songs for a small planet—songs about interconnectedness and the human journey”. Last night he guested at a special live broadcast of the Planetary Society‘s monthly radio show Planetary Radio Live: Science, Nature and Music. I usually catch the show, hosted by Matt Kaplan with Planetary Society regulars Bill Nye, Bruce Betts, and Emily Lakdawalla in podcast form back in the UK. But as I’m visiting family in the US right now, I got myself a ticket for the show at the KPCC studios in Pasadena, California.
Mayer sings about the universe and man’s relationship with it. He sings about stars, planets, galaxies; and evolution too.
Here’s the full recording of the event from KPCC, :
One song Mayer performed on the evening, ‘My Soul’ likens the number of galaxies to snowflakes in a snow storm. Here’s another recording of that track:
Mayer’s background is interesting. Originally trained in theology and having spent time in seminary, he’s no longer a practising Catholic – aligning rather with Unitarian Universalism. That said, I got the impression Mayer is more interested in inclusiveness than the sort of divisions that can follow from too much emphasis on labels.
Incidentally, watching Mayer play an intriguing all-carbon-fibre guitar (by Rainsong Guitars), was an added bonus for me, as I go through something of a revival in my own attempts at guitar – which, believe me, call for cosmic scale inspiration.
You can catch previous Planetary Radio shows at the Planetary Radio website.
With the news today that Iran has sent a monkey into space, it seems appropriate to post these pictures of the less than luxury accommodation occupied by chimpanzee Ham in an earlier era of space exploration.
I checked out the Mercury-Redstone 2 capsule on display at the California Science Center while waiting to view the Space Shuttle last week.
Four year old Ham, who was an ape rather than a monkey, launched into space on 31st January 1961. He proved that beings similar to humans could survive and perform functions in space: to which end Ham was given a series of levers to pull on command (red, white, and black above).
It’s quite a mess in there:
Amazingly, the capsule Alan Shepard piloted to orbit three months later didn’t look that much different.
Ham beats the Iranian monkey on altitude, reaching 157 miles against the Iranian’s 75 miles – not that either would be aware of how high they were. The BBC report suggests the Iranian’s were testing the acceleration and deceleration of the rocket – although there’s the inevitiable ambiguity over why they’d want to do that, and the implications for weapons testing [monkey survives = warhead survives ?].
In related news, the U.S. National Institutes of Health announced this month they’d be stopping the use of chimpanzees for medical research; although I’m not sure where that leaves potential future space chimps.
I did kind of wish for a second or two today, staring up at the big, black, underbelly of Space Shuttle Endeavour – boxed away at the California Science Center in Los Angeles – that I’d made more of an effort to see she or her sisters performing live.
Am I getting all mushy and romantic about a spacecraft now? Well, maybe just a bit. My wife Erin said she felt unexpectedly moved after our visit. I’d set myself to appreciative-engineer-mode before I went in, but still felt like I was standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon for the first time; you’ve seen all the postcards and videos, and can’t imagine the real deal adding anything new – but it does. That’s twice I’ve been emotionally sucked in by an iconic cliché. Shocking.
Objects are evocative. At one point I found myself back in my lab as a research student in Birmingham in 1986, hearing about the Challenger accident. Then I’m back imagining all those tiles, engines, doors, and windows flying apart.
And there on Endeavour is that area of wing leading-edge, damaged on Columbia by falling debris during launch, causing her demise on re-entry in 2003 (more on that in this earlier post).
There is of course plenty of engineering to appreciate, and science behind it to ponder. But my gut reaction is how big she is, the length of the cargo bay, and how….dirty . It looks like she’s been treated like some science fiction fan might treat an Airfix model of the Millennium Falcon: roughed up, artificially distressed – so it looks like the real thing. Except the distress, evidently manageable, is real.
Size perception is odd too. I’ve seen video of the shuttle during ascent (in fact you can see it in Matt Mellis’s movie/iPad App called ‘Ascent’), where the ‘body flap’ – that piece below the engine in the picture below – is vibrating violently; it’s positively oscillating. The flap looks small and flimsy on the film, but it’s a huge construction; the forces must be tremendous.
The famous tiles, part of the Shuttle’s Thermal Protection System (TPS), are unmistakable. Designed not to ablate like the heat shields on the Apollo capsules, tiles do suffer wear and damage, and some had clearly been replaced with new ones for display.
The complexity and variation of tile design is striking. If you think tiling round the bathroom wash-basin is tricky, take a look at the area round the main engine gimbals and thrusters of the Shuttle. No wonder maintenance costs were high.
Several sliding bearings, or seismic isolators, sit between the Shuttle and its supporting pillars, insulating Endeavour from the perils of Los Angeles’ earthquakes. The idea is the Shuttle rocks around harmlessly until the shaking ground settles down.
We saw Endeavour in temporary accommodation; it’s destined to be mounted vertically in a custom-designed building. That said, the exhibition as it stands doesn’t feel temporary, and the associated display areas and accompanying audio-visuals describing California’s particular role in the Shuttle story and showing off various artifacts from the program – including, importantly, the Shuttle’s WC or ‘space potty’, are excellent.
Entry to the California Science Center is free, but there’s a very reasonable $2 entry charge or ticket booking fee to see Endeavour.
Even as we celebrate, the Space Shuttle program is criticised, particularly around issues of cost and safety, but also the scope of its achievements. As always, it’s easy to find fault in hindsight, and judge historical decisions by the political and economic expedients of the present day. Personally, I reckon we’d be in a much sorrier state had the program not gone ahead. The Shuttle was the workhorse behind the International Space Station, the full learning from which I suspect has yet to be converted. And Endeavour personally, so to speak, enabled the repair of the Hubble Space Telescope.
NASA is at a turning point, collaborating more closely with private partners and, most recently, other nations on its manned space program. While the arrival of new entrants, working methods, and relationships are culturally refreshing, surely much of the knowledge and expertise behind them has its roots in the Shuttle and related programs.
Hopefully this note’s been short and sweet. There’s no point my repeating loads of technical and historical information you can get from many sources: not least the NASA and California Science Center websites, which, like Endeavour, are both worth a visit.
You never know what unexpected quirky stuff is going to show up if you keep your eyes open.
This afternoon, Erin and I visited the Pasadena Museum of California Art to see an exhibition of works by Edgar Payne. We’re both fans of American plein-air painting, and Payne was a master of the technique – so the exhibition was a great success. But parking up, we found the Museum’s garage had its own artistic charm.
The graffiti is by artist Kenny Scharf, and instantly caught my eye with its images of rocket ships and swirling galaxies. The garage – or Kosmic Kavern – is the colorful legacy of an exhibition of Scharf’s work in the gallery proper in 2004 – his graffiti in the garage was just never cleaned off! Scharf’s work is influenced by the 1962 animated comedy sit-com The Jetsons, and there are other bits of space and nuclear iconography from the Golden Age of American Science spotted around – like the mushroom cloud and atom-swirl.
Some of the Jetson’s techno-utopia became a reality. But not, unfortunately, the aerocar or three-day week.
Unless you spent last week vacationing at the bottom of a Titan methane lake, you can’t have failed to notice NASA has just placed its largest, heaviest, and most advanced rover yet – the Mars Science Laboratory, or Curiosity, on the surface of Mars. And ‘placed’ it was – nice and gently – by a rocket powered crane.
Even though I followed the moon landings, the idea of visiting Mars, in any form, still has a ring of science fiction about it. But last weekend at my first Planetary Society Planetfest in Pasadena, California, Mars for me and 1500 others became extra-real, as we stood enthralled and affirmed in the knowledge that, for all our faults, human beings can still pull this stuff off.
There were nail-biting moments and fascinating discussions. What I’ve put together here is a summary from my notes, mixed in with thoughts and photos to give you a taste of what went on.
Let’s set the scene with a JPL simulation of Curiosity’s landing:
And here’s the reaction where I was sitting in the Planetfest crowd:
Now meet four of the Planetary Society team who managed the panels, reported live from JPL, introduced speakers, and generally held things together from Saturday through to Curiosity’s landing late on Sunday evening:
Left to right from top: CEO Bill Nye; Director Projects Dr.Bruce Betts; President Jim Bell; Technology & Scientific Coordinator Emily Lakdawalla.
Arriving early Saturday morning for a front row seat, I knew I was off to a good start when NASA Director of Planetary Science Jim Green sat next to me and slipped me a couple of mission pins.
It also helped that by the time Curiosity touched down we were already Mars experts, thanks to two days of presentations from the likes of ‘Mars Czar’ Scott Hubbard. Hubbard, now an aeronautics professor at Stanford, authored NASA’s ten-year Mars program in which each mission informs and sets direction for future missions under a guiding science strategy of ‘Follow the Water’. That strategy has morphed to ‘Seek Signs of Life’, with the qualification that Curiosity isn’t looking for living life as such, but evidence of past life or conditions that might have supported it (incidentally, there’s an article on this aspect by Stuart Clark here in the Guardian newspaper).
We can follow the sequence. Launched in 1996, Global Surveyor spotted evidence of flash floods, old polar oceans, and water-modified rocks. In 2001, the Odyssey probe detected possible water ice at the pole (using gamma ray spectroscopy), which in 2008 Phoenix confirmed, actually scraping some of it away. The 2004 Mars Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, also found evidence of historic water in the form of tell-tale hematite ‘berries’. And in 2006, the high-definition imaging ability of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbitor (MRO) convincingly separated out surface features caused by water from those by wind. MRO images were also instrumental in identifying Gale Crater as Curiosity’s landing site. It’s sitting there now, in shake-down mode.
Choosing Gale Crater, said Senior Research Scientist Matt Golombek, as with any landing site, is all about balancing science and safety: a negotiation between scientists who want the rover to go places where it can do interesting science, and engineers who have to build something that will get it there.
Site choice is also iterative with spacecraft development during the build, consistent with a rigorous systems engineering approach that underpins Hubbard’s original strategy and integrates the science/engineering/management teams.
So why choose Gale Crater from what started out as fifty possible landing sites? Firstly, it doesn’t contain many mini-craters for Curiosity to accidentally land and get stuck in; but as importantly, great science waits there in accessible layers of sedimentary rocks stacked up around its central peak – Mount Sharp: layers where we might find signs of an environment for past life.
“The history of Mars is in this hole”
So said Head of Mars Program Doug McCuistion describing how, over the weeks and months, Curiosity will explore the 96 mile wide Gale Crater, moving in on the three-mile high central peak, analysing rocks as it goes – remotely by shooting them with a laser and looking at the emitted light, and by pulling samples into its onboard chem. lab.
Each layer of the ancient deposit at Mount Sharp represents a step back in time, and as the side of the deposit has eroded away, Curiosity doesn’t need long drills to reach them. We may, said Chief Engineer Rob Manning, find evidence of a historic “warm wet Mars”, or even the complex carbon calling cards of past life. Unlike the earlier Spirit and Opportunity rovers – essentially geophysics platforms – Curiosity, with its onboard chem. lab, is equipped to find them.
Curiosity’s driver, Scott Maxwell, used the analogy of backing your car out of the drive with a 15 minute throttle delay for an entertaining introduction to roadcraft on an alien world. The key tip it seems – based on experience with the Spirit rover – is don’t drive to anywhere you can’t see!
I guess next to the landing itself, the dominant buzz was around how best to counter a slowdown in the pace of planetary exploration and NASA budget cuts. Crazy as it felt against the euphoria of Planetfest, NASA has no follow-on missions to Mars scheduled after Curiosity (although India plan an orbiter for 2014). [Update 20/08/12, InSight Mars planned for 2016].
In the grand scheme of things, when it comes to actually paying for it, space and planetary exploration simply aren’t a priority for – as one delegate described the general populace – normal people. The Curiosity mission cost every American $7, or I guess about $1 /year. What’s seven bucks? One burger meal? A movie rental?
Science fiction author David Brin echoes the common frustration that we’re not doing enough, fast enough, in space. Where’s the desire? asks Brin, reminding us we have a strong track record of achieving challenging, unlikely, tasks if we really put our minds to it, and pointing to that fairyland in the desert we call Las Vegas.
Asked what it might take for a NASA budget hike to receive more popular support, NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver suggested discovery of evidence for extra-terrestrial life or intelligent life might do it, or, less attractively, an asteroid threat to the planet.
It’s not that there are no ideas for a further mission. That would likely involve bringing material back to Earth for detailed analysis by many different laboratories and researchers: a ‘sample return’ mission.
Meantime, the Planetary Society reiterates the case for continued investment to support (America’s) national interest. That includes Bill Nye’s argument for ‘trickle-up economics’, whereby exploration project investments in a region attract the best educators, lift regional and national education standards, motivate a new generation of technology workers – ultimately strengthening a country’s role as an innovation economy (the only sort that has much of a future in my view). That’s before the global economic and political stability benefits to other, if not all, countries stemming from international co-operation in space. These are the kind of messages NASA Adminstator Charles Bolden and JPL Director Charles Elachi endorsed the Planetfest audience to get across to their elected representatives (i.e. Congressmen).
I suspect it also helps to have a few star quality communicators, not to say terminal space enthusiasts, on the case – like Bill Nye, Emily Lakdawalla, and Astronomy Outreach Specialist and Planetfest cheerleader Shelley Bonus :
Will the future of space be saved by the market? NASA has made extensive use of commercial contractors since before the Apollo program, and now an upswell of new businesses like SpaceX, XCOR, and Virgin Galactic, bringing with them new business models and work cultures, present fresh possibilities.
The role and opportunities for private investment were explored by a panel comprising Andrew Nelson from XCOR, developer of the Lynx low earth orbit rocket plane; George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic, and your best bet for an early space holiday; Peter Diamandis, founder of the X-Prize, an initiative which, among other things, is in the process of spawning a host of mini-moon-landers; and David Giger of SpaceX, the group whose Dragon capsule in May 2012 hooked up with the international space station. Lynx and Dragon were both on display.
As a trend, relatively well understood processes like taxiing to Earth orbit look likely to migrate almost 100% to commercial interests, leaving NASA and the publicly funded space efforts of other nations to push the exploratory envelope. But it’s not clear-cut. Peter Diamandis reckoned the first manned mission to Mars could be a private venture – and made a bet with Whitesides to that effect (freebie to orbit on Virgin Galactic if he wins).
Private entities can take bigger risks where they’re justified by attractive financial returns. Diamandis believes asteroids will be commercially mined in the next 10-15 years. Some contain precious metals, others carbonaceous chondrites – loaded with hydrogen and oxygen (as water) that, converted to fuel could be stored in space depots; beats lifting every ounce to orbit as we do now. These ideas could revolutionise the fuel logistics of solar system exploration. Science might be coincident with commercial ventures – but it’s still science.
All that said, with private investments apparently self-limited to the hundreds of millions of dollars, not billions, the panel believed public investment is still important.
One company already working with NASA is Sierra Nevada, who were involved building the sky-crane which, when this picture of Executive VP Mark Sirangelo was taken, had yet to lower Curiosity safely on to Mars; so maybe that’s a nervous smile.
But as one of three suppliers chosen to develop launch systems to reach the space station, along with Boeing and SpaceX, Sirangelo can be happy. On a more sombre but celebratory note, Sirangelo presented a tribute to the life of astronaut Sally Ride, who died in July this year.
Mentally photoshopping human figures into Martian panoramas is irresistible. And while the debate around the merits of manned versus unmanned exploration trundles on, some folks, like aerospace Engineer, Founder and President of the Mars Society, and author of The Case for Mars, Robert Zubrin, just want to get on with it.
Zubrin, whose enthusiasm alone should get him to Earth orbit, favours the systematic transfer of first unmanned, then manned, modules – for fuel generation, living, etc. – to Mars over a period of years. At least his approach side steps the popular but contentious (and somewhat macho?) debate around who’s ready to hop on a one-way mission. When X-Prize founder Peter Diamantis asked who would volunteer at 75% and 50% risk levels, the show of hands by my reckoning was reserved and super-reserved (although as George Whiteside commented, enough for a crew!) Diamantis reckoned he’d sign up at the 50% risk level. I got the impression from NASA Adminstrator Charles Bolden that he personally supports manned exploration. Further pressure for manned missions comes from advocacy groups such as Artemis Westenberg’s Explore Mars, whose optimistic goal is to see humans on Mars by 2030.
Of course, you can go to Mars in your imagination when you like, a mission delegates at Planetfest prepped for with the help of the Space Art panel. Led by President of the International Association of Astronomical Artists, Jon Ramer, the five space artists discussed the ins and outs of their craft applied to scientific visualisation, fine art, book, and movie work.
Staying with the arts. In tribute to science fiction icon Ray Bradbury, who died in June this year, co-founder of the Planetary Society Louis Friedman, with actor Robert Picardo and space historian Andrew Chaikin, led a poetic tribute to the visionary and sometimes controversial author of The Martian Chronicles.
Diversions and Surprises
Bill Nye may be the CEO of the Planetary Society, but for half an hour on Saturday he donned his trademark lab coat to become 100% ‘Science Guy’ in a liquid nitrogen-fueled double act with actor/director Robert Picardo. The session ended with Bill feeding marshmallows at -370 F to Picardo and young members of the follow-on ‘careers in space’ panel.
A host of special guests appeared on Sunday afternoon, perhaps the most diverting being writer / producer Ann Druyan, who was married to and worked with the late Carl Sagan.
Joined on stage by Family Guy producer Seth MacFarlane, Druyan shared progress on a new thirteen part re-make of Sagan’s famous Cosmos series that will be aired on Fox Network and fronted by Neil Degrasse Tyson.
It’s encouraging that Druyan is staying close to the production, and through MacFarlane aims to maintain the production values and ethos of the original show. Asked whether climate change would be addressed in the updated version, Druyan said it would be – as it was in the original. Also, there would be less emphasis on the nuclear threat. Again in common with the original, efforts will be made to bridge any perceived science-religion divide, perhaps through an appeal to common goals around themes like preservation of the environment. As one delegate put it, Carl Sagan could ‘disagree without being disagreeable’. It will be interesting to see what Tyson does with the Cosmos mantle.
Until Next Year
That’s all folks. All in all a pretty unforgettable weekend. Anyone feeling a bit cynical about space exploration or those who support it would do well to sample one of these gigs. Bill Nye is dead right when he says adventures like Curiosity represent mankind at its best!
Unless otherwise indicated, all photographs by Tim Jones
One of my favourite NASA clips shows the 1972 Apollo 17 lunar module blasting off, bringing home astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmidt – the last humans to set foot on the moon.
The film is presently looping, next to an R-18 rocket engine like the one used in the ascent, at the Huntington Library’s Blue Sky Metropolis exhibition – chronicaling a hundred years of Southern Californian aerospace.
There wouldn’t be much of an economy in the region if it wasn’t for aerospace – that, and the entertainment industry.
From the first fly-ins and air-meets of Wright Brothers’ style aeroplanes in 1910, to the birth of commercial aviation in the 1920s, to World War II fighter production and surveilance aircraft for the Cold War, to a still evolving space programme; this single-room display is an impressive distillation of the events, people, and motivations behind it all.
Documented photographs dominate the display. I liked this shot of a flight hostess in 1929, framed serving tea in the doorway of a Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT) passenger aircraft – something of a contrast to pilot Amelia Earhart leaning against the hanger doors of an aircraft factory.
Politics might not be the most noble motivation for the conquest of space, but the launch of Sputnik 1 by the Russians in 1957 sure pushed the pace. In 1958, under Eisenhower and with the passing of the National Aeronautics and Space Act, NASA was formed. Later that year, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Explorer 1 satellite (the horizonal object in the glass case above) shot into orbit in response to the Sputnik challenge.
The accompanying social commentary is also fascinating, and with family connections (on my wife’s side), we found the photographs of 50’s/60’s laboratory life – like JPL’s all-women ‘platoon’ of mechanical calculator operators lined up at their desks – especially interesting.
There are so many science events going on in London at the moment, it’s hard to know what to join and what to skip. But last night’s London Science Festival talk by NASA’s Matt Melis was a no-brainer – and quite excellent.
Not only is Melis an ‘insider’ who’s up for sharing those tidbits of information and video clips you don’t normally see; but he’s also an engineer with a math and physical modelling background that resonates a little with my own research roots; so I guess I’m a fan. The event was organised by Francisco Diego (UCL Physics & Astronomy) and Melis was introduced by writer/film-maker Chris Riley (In the Shadow of the Moon, First Orbit, Space Shuttle the Final Mission). Melis collaborated with Riley on his production Final Mission with Kevin Fong, and has his own movie Ascent out on YouTube (embedded below).
Kicking off with an all-round engineering tour of the shuttle, the focus soon turned to the intensive ‘return to flight’ programme NASA pursued after the STS-107 Columbia disaster of 2003.
The cause of the accident was traced to a wing leading-edge being damaged by a briefcase-sized piece of insulating foam detached from the fuel tank during launch. Melis described the variety of model tests used to confirm the analysis and help pre-empt future impact scenarios. So, lots of high speed film of various projectiles, from foam to ice, impacting various bits of Shuttle; the whole thing made more real by the samples of foam, orbiter leading-edge material, and a cross-section of the aluminium/foam fuel tank composite he passed around the audience.
Feeling the foam’s super-lightness in your hand brings home just how counter-intuitive reality can be. Travelling fast enough – over 500 mph in this case – the impact of an apparently harmless piece of foam is devastating. Melis showed the clip in this video of a full-scale impact test of foam hitting an actual Shuttle leading-edge section:
The key take-away for NASA, and I guess for all of us, is that we learn most through failure – painful as that can be.
Management systems and general attitudes, as well as technology, changed over the Shuttle’s 30 year life. Melis showed a photo of icicles hanging off the gantry of the ill-fated Challenger launch-pad: they weren’t the cause of the disaster – that was the booster O-rings – but they could have been if they’d got caught up in the turbulence of the launch. Nobody thought that way back then though, or the information didn’t get to the right people. Similarly, on one of the HD videos that NASA started using extensively post-Columbia, Melis showed a bunch of vultures sitting on the gantry at launch, at least one of whose number (all six foot wing-span of him), spooked by the engine start-up, ended up smashing into the rising fuel tank.
All in all a great evening, but not one I’m going to recount in its entirety here. Here’s a flavor though in Melis’s Ascent:
JPL, the NASA funded laboratory operated by Caltech, hold an annual public open day in May. What’s less well known I think is that they also run 2 hour (free) tours twice a week for anyone who can book ahead and has appropriate photo i.d. (you’ll probably need to book a month or more in advance).
Hopefully these pics give a flavour of the visit which, thanks to JPL engineer Randy Wesson, was quite excellent.
Truth be known, I’ve been impressed with JPL’s communications since the late 1970s, when they mailed to me in the UK a substantial pack of planet and probe photos. Ah, the things that went on before the internet!
Well worth planning ahead and booking a visit if you’re going to be in the Los Angeles area.
In the museum, full-size models of some familiar probes including Voyager, Cassini, and Galileo were on display.
JPL’s Martian programs were in evidence, including the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, and the Mars Science Laboratory Rover due to launch in 2011. Spirit has over-performed against design expectations but is now stuck in the Martian surface: one of the laboratory shots above shows the simulation rig being used to test possible escape strategies.
You might remember one of the speakers at the Royal Society event was physicist Paul Davies, who also has a new book coming out, The Eerie Silence: Are we alone in the Universe?.
I’ll be writing a full review of Eerie Silence in due course, but meantime you might want to take part in what looks like a fun competition, launched today by publishers Penguin UK together with National Science and Engineering Week.
They’re asking the question:
Is there anybody out there? What would you say if you could send a message into space?
Would you say hello, ask the meaning of life, share an insight or just complain about the weather?
As the organisers say, this is a rare opportunity to beam up to 5000 messages into space to celebrate the 50th anniversary of SETI, the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, which is the subject of Davies’s book.
So get your thinking cap on, make your message funny, thoughtful or wise and do something extraordinary.
The best 50 messages, as chosen by a judging committee, will be posted at the Penguin websiteand also here on Zoonomianon 12 March, the first day of National Science and Engineering Week 2010 and in the national media. Winning entrants’ names and home location, only, may be credited at the foot of each message. In addition, the 50 winning entrants will each receive a copy of “The Eerie Silence: Are we Alone in the Universe?” by Paul Davies.