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Friday, May 31, 2013

Reading List: The Rocket Company

Stiennon, Patrick J. G., David M. Hoerr, and Doug Birkholz. The Rocket Company. Reston VA, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, [2005] 2013. ISBN 978-1-56347-696-9.
This is a very curious book. The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics isn't known as a publisher of fiction, and yet here we have, well, not exactly a novel, but something between an insider account of a disruptive technological start-up company along the lines of The Soul of A New Machine and a business school case study of a company which doesn't exist, at least not yet.

John Forsyth, having made a fortune in the computer software industry, decided to invest in what he believed was the next big thing—drastically reducing the cost of access to space and thereby opening a new frontier not just to coercive governments and wealthy tourists but to pioneers willing to bet their future on expanding the human presence beyond the planet. After dropping a tidy sum in a space start-up in the 1990s, he took a step back and looked at what it would take to build a space access business which would have a real probability of being profitable on a time scale acceptable to investors with the resources it would take to fund it.

Having studied a variety of “new space” companies which focussed on providing launch services in competition with incumbent suppliers, he concluded that in the near term reducing the cost of access to orbit would only result in shrinking overall revenue, as demand for launch services was unlikely to expand much even with a substantial reduction in launch cost. But, as he observed, while in the early days of the airline industry most airlines were unprofitable, surviving on government subsidies, aircraft manufacturers such as Boeing did quite well. So, he decided his new venture would be a vendor of spacecraft hardware, leaving operations and sales of launch services to his customers. It's ugly, but it gets you there.

In optimising an aerospace system, you can trade off one property against another. Most present-day launch systems are optimised to provide maximum lift weight to orbit and use expensive lightweight construction and complex, high-performance engines to achieve that goal. Forsyth opted to focus on reusability and launch rate, even at the cost of payload. He also knew that his budget would not permit the development of exotic technologies, so he chose a two stage to orbit design which would use conventional construction techniques and variants of engines with decades of service history.

He also decided that the launcher would be manned. Given the weight of including crew accommodations, an escape system, and life support equipment this might seem an odd decision, but Forsyth envisioned a substantial portion of his initial market to be countries or other groups who wanted the prestige of having their own manned space program and, further, if there was going to be a pilot on board, he or she could handle payload deployment and other tasks which would otherwise require costly and heavy robotics. (I cannot, for the life of me, figure out the rationale for having a pilot in the first stage. Sure, the added weight doesn't hit the payload to orbit as much as in the second stage, but given the very simple trajectory of the first stage the pilot is little more than a passenger.)

The book chronicles the venture from concept, through business plan, wooing of investors, building the engineering team, making difficult design trade-offs, and pitching the new vehicle to potential customers, carefully avoiding the problem of expectations outpacing reality which had been so often the case with earlier commercial space ventures. The text bristles with cost figures and engineering specifications, the latter all in quaint U.S. units including slugs per square foot (ewww…). Chapter 6 includes a deliciously cynical view of systems engineering as performed in legacy aerospace contractors.

I noted several factual and a number of copy-editing errors, but none which call into question the feasibility of the design. The technologies required to make this work are, for the most part, already in existence and demonstrated in other applications, but whether it would be possible to integrate them into a new vehicle with the schedule and budget envisioned here is unclear. I do not understand at all what happens after the orbital stage lands under its parawing. Both the propellant tanks and interstage compartment are “balloon tanks”, stabilised by pressure. This is fine for flight to orbit, orbital operations (where there is no stress on the interstage when it is depressurised for payload deployment), or re-entry, but after the stage lands horizontally how does the pilot exit through the crew hatch without the interstage losing pressure and crumpling on the runway? Some of the plans for lunar and planetary applications in the final few chapters seem wooly to me, but then I haven't seriously thought about what you might do with a reusable launcher with a payload capacity of 2250 kg that can fly once a day.

The illustrations by Doug Birkholz are superb, reminiscent of those by Russell W. Porter in Amateur Telescope Making. Author Stiennon received U.S. patent 5,568,901 in 1996 for a launch system as described in this book.

Posted at 23:40 Permalink

Monday, May 27, 2013

Reading List: Mission to Mars

Aldrin, Buzz with Leonard David. Mission to Mars. Washington, National Geographic Society, 2013. ISBN 978-1-4262-1017-4.
As Buzz Aldrin (please don't write to chastise me for misstating his name: while born as Edwin Eugene Aldrin, Jr., he legally changed his name to Buzz Aldrin in 1988) notes, while Neil Armstrong may have been the first human to step onto the Moon, he was the first alien from another world to board a spacecraft bound for Earth (but how can he be sure?). After those epochal days in July of 1969, Aldrin, more than any other person who went to the Moon, has worked energetically to promote space exploration and settlement, developing innovative mission architectures to expand the human presence into the solar system. This work continues his intellectual contributions to human space flight which began with helping to develop the techniques of orbital rendezvous still employed today and pioneering neutral-buoyancy training for extra-vehicular activity, which enabled him to perform the first completely successful demonstration of work in orbit on Gemini XII.

In this book Aldrin presents his “Unified Space Vision” for the next steps beyond the home planet. He notes that what we know about the Moon today is very different from the little we mostly guessed when he set foot upon that world. Today it appears that the lunar polar regions may have abundant resources of water which provide not only a source of oxygen for lunar settlers, but electrolysed by abundant solar power, a source of rocket fuel for operations beyond the Earth. Other lunar resources may allow the fabrication of solar panels from in situ materials, reducing the mass which must be launched from the Earth. Aldrin “cyclers” will permit transfers between the Earth and Moon and the Earth and Mars with little expenditure of propellant.

Aldrin argues that space, from low Earth orbit to the vicinity of the Moon, be opened up to explorers, settlers, and entrepreneurs from all countries, private and governmental, to discover what works and what doesn't, and which activities make economic sense. To go beyond, however, he argues that the U.S. should take the lead, establishing a “United Strategic Space Enterprise” with the goal of establishing a permanent human settlement on Mars by 2035. He writes, “around 2020, every selected astronaut should consign to living out his or her life on the surface of Mars.”

And there's where it all falls apart for me. It seems to me the key question that is neither asked nor answered when discussing the establishment of a human settlement on Mars can be expressed in one word: “why?” Yes, I believe that long-term survival of humans and their descendants depends upon not keeping everything in one planetary basket, and I think there is tremendously interesting science to be done on Mars, which may inform us about the origin of life and its dissemination among celestial bodies, the cycle of climate on planets and the influence of the Sun, and many other fascinating subjects. It makes sense to have a number of permanent bases on Mars to study these things, just as the U.S. and other countries have maintained permanent bases in Antarctica for more than fifty years. But I no longer believe that the expansion of the human presence in the solar system is best accomplished by painfully clawing our way out of one deep gravity well only to make a long voyage and then make an extremely perilous descent into another one (the Martian atmosphere is thick enough you have to worry about entry heating, but not thick enough to help in braking to landing speed). Once you're on Mars, you only have solar power half the time, just as on Earth, and you have an atmosphere which is useless to breathe.

Even though few people take it seriously any more, Gerard K. O'Neill's vision of space settlements in The High Frontier (May 2013) makes far more sense to me. Despite Aldrin's enthusiasm for private space ventures, it seems to me that his vision for the exploration and settlement of Mars will be, for at least the first decades, the kind of elitist venture performed by civil servants that the Apollo Moon landings were. In this book he envisions no economic activity on Mars which would justify the cost of supporting an expanding human presence there. Now, wealthy societies may well fund a few bases, just as they do in the Antarctic, but that will never reach what O'Neill calls the point of “ignition”—where the settlement pays for itself and can fund its own expansion by generating economic value sufficient to import its needs and additional settlers. O'Neill works out in great detail how space settlements in cislunar space can do this, and I believe his economic case, first made in the 1970s, has not only never been refuted but is even more persuasive today.

Few people have thought as long and hard about what it takes to make our species a spacefaring civilisation as Buzz Aldrin, nor worked so assiduously over decades to achieve that goal. This is a concise summation of his view for where we should go from here. I disagree with much of his strategy, but hey, when it comes to extraterrestrial bodies, he's been there and I haven't. This is a slim book (just 272 pages in the hardback edition), and the last 20% is a time line of U.S. space policies by presidential administrations, including lengthy abstracts of speeches, quoted from space.com.

Posted at 23:16 Permalink

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Reading List: Inferno

Brown, Dan. Inferno. New York: Doubleday, 2013. ISBN 978-0-385-53785-8.
This thriller is a perfect companion to Robert Zubrin's nonfiction Merchants of Despair (April 2013). Both are deeply steeped in the culture of Malthusian anti-humanism and the radical prescriptions of those who consider our species a cancer on the planet. In this novel, art historian and expert in symbology Robert Langdon awakens in a hospital bed with no memory of events since walking across the Harvard campus. He is startled to learn he is in Florence, Italy with a grazing gunshot wound to the scalp, and the target of a murderous pursuer whose motives are a mystery to him.

Langdon and the doctor who first treated him and then rescued him from a subsequent attack begin to dig into the mystery. Langdon, recovering from retrograde amnesia, finds reality mixing with visions reminiscent of Dante's Inferno, whose imagery and symbols come to dominate their quest to figure out what is going on. Meanwhile, a shadowy international security group which was working with a renowned genetic engineer begins to suspect that they may have become involved in a plot with potentially catastrophic consequences. As the mysteries are investigated, the threads interweave into a complex skein, hidden motives are revealed, and loyalties shift.

There were several times whilst reading this novel that I expected I'd be dismissing it here as having an “idiot plot”—that the whole narrative didn't make any sense except as a vehicle to introduce the scenery and action (as is the case in far too many action movies). But the author is far too clever for that (which is why his books have become such a sensation). Every time you're sure something is nonsense, there's another twist of the plot which explains it. At the end, I had only one serious quibble with the entire plot. Discussing this is a hideous spoiler for the entire novel, so I'm going to take it behind the curtain. Please don't read this unless you've already read the novel or are certain you don't intend to.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
The vector virus created by Zobrist, as described on p. 438, causes a randomly selected one third of the human population to become sterile. But how can a virus act randomly? If the virus is inserted into the human germ-line, it will be faithfully copied into all offspring with the precision of human DNA replication, so variation in the viral genome, once incorporated into the germ-line, is not possible. The only other way the virus could affect only a third of the population is that there is some other genetic property which enables the virus to render the organism carrying it sterile. But if that is the case, and the genetic property be heritable, only those who lacked the variation(s) which allowed the virus to sterilise them would reproduce, and in a couple of generations the virus, while still incorporated in the human genome, would have no effect on the rate of growth of the human population: “life finds a way”.

Further, let's assume the virus could, somehow, randomly sterilise a third of the human population, that natural selection could not render it ineffective, and science found no way to reverse it or was restrained from pursuing a remedy by policy makers. Well, then, you'd have a world in which some fraction of couples could have children and the balance could not. (The distribution depends upon whether the virus affects the fertility of males, females, or both.) Society adapts to such circumstances. Would not the fertile majority increase their fertility to meet market demand for adoption by infertile couples?

Spoilers end here.  

This is a fine thriller, meticulously researched, which will send you off to look up the many works of art and architectural wonders which appear in it, and may plant an itch to visit Florence and Venice. I'm sure it will make an excellent movie, as is sure to happen after the success of cinematic adaptations of the author's previous Robert Langdon novels.

Posted at 21:49 Permalink

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Partial Lunar Eclipse: 2013-04-25


Click image to enlarge.

On the evening of April 25th, 2013, a close to minimal partial eclipse of the Moon occurred for observers in the Eastern Hemisphere. Only 1.5% of the Moon/s disc was completely within the Earth's shadow (the umbra—where observers on that part of the Moon would see the Sun completely obscured by the Earth); the rest of the Moon experienced only a penumbral eclipse: observers there would see only a partial eclipse of the Sun by the Earth. The following graphic illustrates the geometry of this eclipse.

Geometry of 2013-04-25 partial lunar eclipse

I began the photo sequence above near the maximum partial eclipse. Due to my location, the eclipse was already in progress when the Moon rose, so it wasn't possible to record the entire eclipse from Fourmilab Observatory (otherwise known as my driveway). I was only able to photograph the second half of the event. As you can see from the geometry graphic, at the moment of maximum partial eclipse, only a tiny nibble of the Moon's disc was inside the umbra, but almost the entire Moon was within the penumbra. When the partial phase ended, little had changed: the penumbral shading of the disc was almost the same. At the conclusion of the eclipse, with the Moon entirely outside the Earth's shadow, its disc was much brighter (so much, in fact, that the image verges on being overexposed—I should have used a faster shutter speed for the images taken during the partial and penumbral phases of the eclipse). For consistency and to render the images directly comparable, all were taken at f/8 with a 1/30th second shutter speed at ISO 100 by a Nikon D600 camera with a 25 year old NIKKOR 300 mm f/4.5 lens. All post-processing of the images preserved the relative intensities of the the originals. The bulk of image processing was done with The Gimp, and automatic alignment of the images was done with Photoshop CS4.

Seeing” (atmospheric turbulence and transparency) varied substantially in the period these images were taken—the Moon was rising and the sky, while cloudless, was a bit murky. I have applied different degrees of sharpening to these images to compensate, but it remains apparent if you look closely. None of the image processing I did adjusted the intensities captured by the camera's sensors—they are faithful to what the camera saw, although not necessarily what human observers would have perceived looking at the same scene with their nonlinear vision.

Posted at 23:17 Permalink

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Reading List: Escape from Camp 14

Harden, Blaine. Escape from Camp 14. New York: Viking Penguin, 2012. ISBN 978-0-14-312291-3.
Shin Dong-hyuk was born in a North Korean prison camp. The doctrine of that collectivist Hell-state, as enunciated by tyrant Kim Il Sung, is that “[E]nemies of class, whoever they are, their seed must be eliminated through three generations.” Shin (I refer to him by his family name, as he prefers) committed no crime, but was born into slavery in a labour camp because his parents had been condemned to servitude there due to supposed offences. Shin grew up in an environment so anti-human it would send shivers of envy down the spines of Western environmentalists. In school, he saw a teacher beat a six-year-old classmate to death with a blackboard pointer because she had stolen and hidden five kernels of maize. He witnessed the hanging of his mother and the execution by firing squad of his brother because they were caught contemplating escape from the camp, and he felt only detestation of them because their actions would harm him.

Shin was imprisoned and tortured due to association with his mother and brother, and assigned to work details where accidents which killed workers were routine. Shin accepted this as simply the way life was—he knew nothing of life outside the camp or in the world beyond his slave state. This changed when he made the acquaintance of Park Yong Chul, sent to the camp for some reason after a career which had allowed him to travel abroad and meet senior people in the North Korean ruling class. While working together in the camp's garment factory, Park introduced Shin to a wider world and set him to thinking about escaping the camp. The fact that Shin, who had been recruited to observe Park and inform upon any disloyalty he observed, instead began to conspire with him to escape the camp was the signal act of defiance against tyranny which changed Shin's life.

Shin pulled off a harrowing escape from the camp which left him severely injured, lived by his wits crossing the barren countryside of North Korea, and made it across the border to China, where he worked as a menial farm hand and yet lived in luxury unheard of in North Korea. Raised in the camp, his expectations for human behaviour had nothing to do with the reality outside. As the author observes, “Freedom, in Shin's mind, was just another word for grilled meat.”

Freedom, beyond grilled meat, was something Shin found difficult to cope with. After making his way to South Korea (where the state has programs to integrate North Korean escapees into the society) and then the United States (where, as the only person born in a North Korean prison camp to ever escape, he was a celebrity among groups advocating for human rights in North Korea). But growing up in an intensely anti-human environment, cut off from all information about the outside world, makes it difficult to cope with normal human interactions and the flood of information those born into liberty consider normal.

Much as with Nothing to Envy (September 2011), this book made my blood boil. It is not just the injustice visited upon Shin and all the prisoners of the regime who did not manage to escape, but those in our own societies who would condemn us to comparable servitude in the interest of a “higher good” as they define it.

Posted at 22:41 Permalink

Sunday, May 12, 2013

My Trip to CERN

L020.jpg I have just posted a photo essay of my visit to CERN on April 22nd, 2013. Taking advantage of the long shutdown of the Large Hadron Collider to upgrade it to operate at its design centre of mass energy of 14 TeV, we were able to visit the underground detector halls of the CMS and ATLAS experiments and tour the Accelerator Technologies Laboratory where components of the LHC were developed and tested before being placed into service.

I include photo tips for folks fortunate enough to visit CERN who wish to capture images of these colossal machines.

Posted at 21:35 Permalink

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Reading List: The High Frontier

O'Neill, Gerard K. The High Frontier. Mojave, CA: Space Studies Institute, [1976, 1977, 1982, 1989] 2013. ISBN 978-0-688-03133-6.
In the tumultuous year of 1969, Prof. Gerard K. O'Neill of Princeton University was tapped to teach the large freshman physics course at that institution. To motivate talented students who might find the pace of the course tedious, he organised an informal seminar which would explore challenging topics to which the basic physics taught in the main course could be applied. For the first topic of the seminar he posed the question, “Is a planetary surface the right place for an expanding technological civilisation?”. So fascinating were the results of investigating this question that the seminar never made it to the next topic, and working out its ramifications would occupy the rest of O'Neill's life.

By 1974, O'Neill and his growing group of informal collaborators had come to believe not only that the answer to that 1969 question was a definitive “no”, but that a large-scale expansion of the human presence into space, using the abundant energy and material resources available outside the Earth's gravity well was not a goal for the distant future but rather something which could be accomplished using only technologies already proved or expected in the next few years (such as the NASA's space shuttle, then under development). Further, the budget to bootstrap the settlement of space until the point at which the space settlements were self-sustaining and able to expand without further support was on the order of magnitude of the Apollo project and, unlike Apollo, would have an economic pay-off which would grow exponentially as space settlements proliferated.

As O'Neill wrote, the world economy had just been hit by the first of what would be a series of “oil shocks”, which would lead to a massive transfer of wealth from productive, developed economies to desert despotisms whose significance to the world economy and geopolitics would be precisely zero did they not happen to sit atop a pool of fuel (which they lacked the ability to discover and produce). He soon realised that the key to economic feasibility of space settlements was using them to construct solar power satellites to beam energy back to Earth.

Solar power satellites are just barely economically viable if the material from which they are made must be launched from the Earth, and many design concepts assume a dramatic reduction in launch costs and super-lightweight structure and high efficiency solar cells for the satellites, which adds to their capital cost. O'Neill realised that the materials which make up around 99% of the mass of a solar power satellite are available on the Moon, and a space settlement, with access to lunar material at a small fraction of the cost of launching from Earth and the ability to fabricate the very large power satellite structures in weightlessness would reduce the cost of space solar power to well below electricity prices of the mid-1970s (which were much lower than those of today).

In this book, a complete architecture is laid out, starting with initial settlements of “only” 10,000 people in a sphere about half a kilometre in diameter, rotating to provide Earth-normal gravity at the equator. This would be nothing like what one thinks of as a “space station”: people would live in apartments at a density comparable to small towns on Earth, surrounded by vegetation and with a stream running around the equator of the sphere. Lunar material would provide radiation shielding and mirrors would provide sunlight and a normal cycle of day and night.

This would be just a first step, with subsequent settlements much larger and with amenities equal to or exceeding those of Earth. Once access to the resources of asteroids (initially those in near-Earth or Earth-crossing orbits, and eventually the main belt) was opened, the space economy's reliance on the Earth would be only for settlers and lightweight, labour-intensive goods which made more sense to import. (For example, it might be some time before a space settlement built its own semiconductor fabrication facility rather than importing chips from those on Earth.)

This is the future we could be living in today, but turned our backs upon. Having read this book shortly after it first came out, it is difficult to describe just how bracing this optimistic, expansive view of the future was in the 1970s, when everything was brown and the human prospect suddenly seemed constrained by limited resources, faltering prosperity, and shrinking personal liberty. The curious thing about re-reading it today is that almost nothing has changed. Forty years later, O'Neill's roadmap for the future is just as viable an option for a visionary society as it was when initially proposed, and technological progress and understanding of the space environment has only improved its plausibility. The International Space Station, although a multi-decade detour from true space settlements, provides a testbed where technologies for those settlements can be explored (for example, solar powered closed-cycle Brayton engines as an alternative to photovoltaics for power generation, and high-yield agricultural techniques in a closed-loop ecosystem).

The re-appearance of this book in an electronic edition is timely, as O'Neill's ideas and the optimism for a better future they inspired seem almost forgotten today. Many people assume there was some technological flaw in his argument or that an economic show-stopper was discovered, yet none was. It was more like the reaction O'Neill encountered when he first tried to get his ideas into print in 1972. One reviewer, recommending against publication, wrote, “No one else is thinking in these terms, therefore the ideas must be wrong.” Today, even space “visionaries” imagine establishing human settlements on the Moon, Mars, and among the asteroids, with space travel seen as a way to get to these destinations and sustain pioneer communities there. This is a vision akin to long sea voyages to settle distant lands. O'Neill's High Frontier is something very different and epochal: the expansion of a species which evolved on the surface of a planet into the space around it and eventually throughout the solar system, using the abundant solar energy and material resources available there. This is like life expanding from the sea where it originated onto the land. It is the next step in the human adventure, and it can begin, just as it could have in 1976, within a decade of a developed society committing to make it so.

For some reason the Kindle edition, at least when viewed with the iPad Kindle application, displays with tiny type. I found I had to increase the font size by four steps to render it easily readable. Since font size is a global setting, that means than if you view another book, it shows up with giant letters like a first grade reader. The illustrations are dark and difficult to interpret in the Kindle edition—I do not recall whether this was also the case in the paperback edition I read many years ago.

Posted at 18:28 Permalink