Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Future of Human Spaceflight

On Tuesday I had the opportunity to go to a public meeting of the Review of US Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, often referred to as the Augustine commission. They were here in Houston for presentations from various NASA officials as well as for public comment. If you're not familiar with the committee and their purpose, check out their website.

I took a ton of notes but for those of you who aren't space dorks, I'll summarize my personal impressions in the next section and I won't be offended if you choose not to read further, or if you only read certain parts; I'll try to organize it so you can pick and choose easily. I did my best to distinguish between my opinions and facts but no matter what, my impressions are biased, so do your own research as well!

My personal thoughts on the day
My overall impression is that this is one smart group of people. Hearing them have open and spontaneous discussion, I was impressed by the questions they asked and the way they interacted with each other. The panel is very diverse, with former astronauts, scientists, military personnel, a commercial spaceflight representative, and more. Although it was certainly clear that each member is influenced by their own background, it was equally obvious that they all want the best for this nation's future in space. They have a daunting task ahead as they have been asked to assess a lot of options in only 90 days, and whatever they propose is supposed to be within the current budget, which is almost impossible. It's important to note that they have been asked to present options, not recommendations, although by presenting only some options and not others they certainly have the opportunity to exert great influence.

A couple of the themes that came up focused on the tension between political and technical needs. Everyone agreed that once the US picks a course, we need to stick to it, because one of the easiest ways to waste money and lose focus is to hop from one project to another. In addition, a number of people brought up the need to invest more initially in order to save money overall. These have both been serious problems in the past and as long as NASA is funded on a year to year basis I'm not sure they will ever go away. Neither of those two observations were new to me but the next two were. First, there seemed to be a broad consensus that NASA should get out of the business of taking cargo (and possibly people) to low earth orbit (LEO). This should be done by Commercial Orbital Transportation System (COTS) vehicles, such as those currently in development by SpaceX and Orbital Sciences. In addition, there appeared to be strong support for working with International Partners (IPs). Hopefully that gets most of the acronyms out of the way for you non-space people but if I use some you don't recognize just shoot me an email!

It was great to see the variety of people who came to the hearing. There were college students, retired NASA engineers, current NASA employees, astronauts, and contractor executives, pretty much spanning the community.

This group genuinely wants to hear from you, and with only a short time at each meeting for public comment they are hoping people will send inputs through their website. Here's the link; use it!

Mike Coats, Johnson Space Center Director
After the opening comments from chairman Norm Augustine, Mike Coats came up to present some charts and answer questions. A lot of what he talked about was definitely an effort to show how important JSC is and will be for NASA. Coats said the two greatest threats to US human spaceflight are 1) the gap between Shuttle retirement and Orion flight, and 2) being stuck in LEO. He noted that in the past we have worked with IPs but have been reluctant to put them in the critical path, and thinks that may need to change.

Coats talked about a heavy lift vehicle to go beyond LEO and I thought it was interesting that he spoke about Orion but didn't mention Ares. I could be reading too much into that though since most Ares work is in Huntsville, not Houston. Coats supports Mars as our goal, with both the moon and ISS as training vehicles. He also spoke about spaceflight as a motivator for education to get more US students into math, science and engineering.

One interesting statistic he noted relates to choosing crew for long duration missions. A full 30% of the otherwise qualified candidates for the last astronaut class were not medically qualified for long duration missions.

Coats addressed a side effect of the spaceflight gap, which is losing technical knowledge. He noted the efforts JSC is making to avoid losing critical knowledge.

He said that the biggest difference between industry and government is competition and said that NASA needs to act with more urgency, as though it is in competition. NASA is competing for government resources and competing with other nations' space programs.

Next the panel asked him a number of questions. Former General Les Lyles asked about why he hadn't reached out more to other government agencies involved in space, such as DoD, the Air Force, the National Security Space (NSS) team, and the Pentagon. Coats noted that this is something he needs to do. He was also asked about the "paper NASA vs. real NASA", in that the agency has grand plans and gorgeous pictures on charts but often fails to live up to them. Coats gave a really honest answer. He said you can't fit a 50 lb weight in a 5 lb sack, and that right now the government is asking the impossible with the funding NASA has been given. He talked about minimizing lifecycle costs by increasing up front investment and finally said "I don't have a good answer." To me personally that was a better answer than glossing over problems. However, I didn't like that he was pretty much giving up on getting that large up front investment. I think that he and other influential NASA personnel need to push as hard as they can for the resources they need.

Input from Local Government Officials
This next part of the day was the least exciting. There were letters read and video messages shown from local Senators and Congresspeople. Most of these were pretty boring and run of the mill, with the officials praising NASA and pushing for more money for their constituencies. Sadly one of the Congressmen who is actually on the committee that allocates funding for NASA twice called ISS Skylab! UGH!

Steve Lindsey, Astronaut Office
The next pitch was one of a few from the panel's STS/ISS subcommittee. Steve Lindsey is the head of the Astronaut Office at JSC. He stated again that LEO is a dead end and said that the next architecture should have the capability to take us to multiple destinations.

The panel noted that NASA's culture is often criticized as being risk averse, yet his charts emphasized that the next crew vehicle should be an order of magnitude safer than this one. They asked how he would balance that. He responded with one of my favorite statistics of the day. The chances of dying when you launch on a space shuttle are 1:64; in climbing Everest, 1:62; for a soldier on D-Day it was 1:62. He said that as an agency NASA is not risk averse because every time we launch a shuttle we roll the dice with the future of the agency. While that is entirely true, I disagree with him that NASA's culture isn't risk averse. In my experience risk is viewed as inherently bad and is avoided instead of evaluated. Lindsey and the panel went back and forth on this for a while and there was definitely some disagreement. Once they moved on from that discussion they talked a bit about COTS vehicles which Lindsey supports. He also talked about how much the shuttle program has changed from what it was initially designed for an emphasized again that the new vehicle and architecture need to be flexible to accommodate changing goals in the next thirty years.

There was widespread disagreement on using ISS, the moon, or both as training for Mars so I'll try to note what each person said about it. Lindsey supports using both the moon and ISS. He said that in his personal opinion we don't understand the moon as well as we think we do, and it would be worthwhile to learn more about it.

Jeff Hanley, Constellation Projects Director and Mark Geyer, JSC Project Manager
The next pitch was about progress on Constellation, particularly Orion. Most of it was just a status on where the program is so I'm not going to repeat it all here. Geyer did note that currently the long pole in the direct path for Orion is qualification, not hardware, which was surprising to me. Most of the interesting information came in the questions and discussion with the panel.

The panel asked about the 6 vs 4 person crew. The original plan was a 6 person crew but ISS and the moon only need 4 people. The panel asked what impact reducing the overall requirement to 4 would have. Geyer noted that at this point in the process it's too late for that to make a large difference, and that it would create packaging and scheduling issues. He said that lifecycle costs are generally not strongly affected by crew/vehicle size so it wouldn't help there.

Dr. Sally Ride, chair of Shuttle/ISS Subcommittee
It's going to be harder for me to be objective in this section because I was so impressed with Sally Ride. She really dealt in reality and said a lot of things I agreed with, although I didn't agree with everything. Her subcommittee is focusing on three primary questions: 1) How long, realistically, is the current gap? Can it be shortened? 2) What is the best flyout scenario for shuttle? 3) Can ISS be extended past 2016, and if so, how?

Dr. Ride noted that the committee's mandate is to come up with at least two options within the current budget, which is not an easy task. She said that her subcommittee is working firmly in reality and jokingly called them the "Doom and Gloom" group.

First, she talked about a reasonable Shuttle flyout scenario. I'm sure everyone reading this who works on the shuttle and ISS programs will agree with her that completing the current missions on the current schedule is just not going to happen. Since Columbia, there has been an average of 115 days between shuttle flights (which does include the full year gap between STS-114 and STS-121), but the current schedule shows an average of only 62 days between flights. Her group assumes 90 days is a more realistic number which puts shuttle's final flight in March of 2011.

Her group also predicts approximately a 2 year slip in the Constellation schedule, due to budget cuts, technical issues, and all of their research. This, combined with the predicted shuttle schedule, puts the gap at more than six years, which would be the longest for the US since we started putting people into space. They assumed that ISS will be extended until 2020. All this together would put us $15.3 billion over budget ($1.3 billion shuttle, $4.7 Constellation, $9.3 billion ISS). She said "[that $15.3 billion] is why we're here." She thinks it's unlikely that the gap can be reduced from the right (ie by moving Constellation up).

Her group discussed three shuttle flyout scenarios:
1) Current missions as planned, finishing around March 2011 (leads to $1.5 billion over budget)
2) Current missions as planned plus one more mission in 2012, because there is one extra external tank.
3) Extend shuttle for 1-2 flights per year through 2014. This would require restarting external tank production and re-certifying shuttle. Her subcommittee does not recommend this option.

As far as extending ISS life, the subcommittee strongly recommended supporting ISS through 2020, for a variety of reasons including science, politics, and international partner commitments. Lester Lyles talked about international cooperation. He has spoken with lots of countries, including some which are not current ISS IPs. He said that everyone he spoke to wants to be involved in future work, and also that they want to see ISS continue post 2015. They see it as proof of the value of international cooperation and as a valuable resource for climate research and other science. He said other countries are looking to President Obama to make a statement expressing support for international cooperation in space.

Overall Panel Discussion
Norm Augustine opened the panel discussion by making three controversial statements (his words) which the group talked over for quite a while. Here they are:
1) There have been a lot of great arguments for international partnerships. However, we currently have IPs in the critical path and everyone is complaining about it (by which he means reliance on Soyuz to transport crew to and from ISS during the gap).
2) Would taxpayers have been as happy to pay for the Apollo program if Neil and Buzz had put a UN flag on the moon?
3) Much of the scientific community has indicated that ISS really isn't a great lab for science. If it's not a lab, what is it a test bed for? Not Mars, because the moon is supposed to be a test bed for Mars.

The rest of this is just notes on an open ended discussion so apologies if it's not too well organized!

Sally responded to statement 2 by saying that in 1969 people probably wouldn't have been as supportive of a UN flag, but times have changed and now they would be. There was talk about how the US can influence other countries and someone (I wish I knew who!) said that leadership is making people want to do what you want them to do.

The panel talked about whether ISS retirement is even their decision (or the US' decision) to make, given the level of commitment by the IPs, and by us to them. They debated whether they should make ISS extension until 2020 a part of all scenarios. Dr. Chris Chyba outlined five reasons to keep ISS. Two political (the absurdity of de-orbiting a $60 billion investment after only 5 years; commitments to IPs); one that is both political and technical (encouraging private sector development of COTS vehicles); and two technical (the potential for important science, and ISS use as a testbed for Mars). He emphasized that the two technical reasons may not be credible and that the committee should not oversell them.

Someone questioned whether extending the shuttle would undermine COTS. Sally Ride referenced a graphic showing our huge (I mean HUGE) loss in upmass and downmass capability with shuttle retirement and showed that even if shuttle is extended we are still short of mass capability and need the COTS vehicles. Right now mass issues restrict us to about 50-70% of rack capacity on ISS.

Sally had said a number of times that she thinks working in reality assumes everything costs more and takes long. Jeff Greason (co-founder of XCOR aerospace, who had asked a lot of COTS questions) said he didn't like that assumption. He said that by turning on multiple competing crew providers we have a chance of one of them being on schedule and on budget and not to just give up now.

The session closed with public comments which were quite varied so I'm not even going to try to summarize them here.

Whew! That was a lot of writing! I hope this is helpful and interesting for people. Please feel free to pass this along or ask me questions about what I've said. Get involved! Contact the committee! NASA belongs to you; own it!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

I Think I'll Take A Little Nap

Confession: I love naps. Is there anything more relaxing and decadent than saying "The sun is high in the sky and people are bustling about, but I'm a bit yawny so I'm just going to snuggle down and close my eyes"? Despite my feelings for naps it's pretty rare that I actually take one, which is why I was so surprised to read the statistics in this article.

Do you like naps or do they make it hard for you to sleep that night? There's definitely a fine line between a refreshing nap and a sleep disrupting one.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

I Love My Job

I haven't been around much because I'm my group's lead for this shuttle mission. It's easy to get worn down. But today I sat down the hall from the room where Mission Control was during the moon landing, talking to other engineers about how many inch-pounds of input it meant when an astronaut said he really "honked down" on something. Can't beat that.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Showered with Books

The Miracles of Prato, Laurie Albanese and Laura Morowitz
I picked this book up off the new arrivals shelf at the library and wasn’t sure what to expect. I have enjoyed quite a few books about Italian Renaissance art and if I ever go to Italy I’ll have trouble remembering what about the artists is fact and what I have read in fiction. That’s fine with me though! This novel focuses on Fra Filippo, a monk/artist in the Italian town of Prato, and Lucrezia Buto, a merchant’s daughter who is sent to the convent in Prato after her father’s death. Fra Filippo meets Lucrezia and uses her as a model for the Madonna in one of his paintings. Lucrezia is caught between her desire to be a good person and longings for the secular life. Both she and Fra Filippo are manipulated by many people who are motivated by greed, lust, and fear as much as they are by a desire to be close to God. I enjoyed the novel as a quick read but if you are specifically looking for something about this time period I’d recommend The Illuminator by Brenda Rickman Vantrease, or The Lady and The Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier. And if you do read The Lady and The Unicorn then you'll definitely have to read her other book The Virgin Blue because it is fabulous.

Brooklyn, Colm Toibin
I had seen this novel recommended on multiple blogs so I was thrilled when I actually found it on the shelf at the library and didn’t even have to wait for it to come in. When I see something recommended so many times I go in with high expectations and this met them. Brooklyn is the story of a young Irish girl named Eilis who comes to America to get work and finds herself torn between her old life and her new life. Although the novel has plenty of plot to keep it moving, the real page turning force is Eilis’ personality and her struggles to define herself in America and reconcile that with the life she had expected to have in Ireland. In addition, there are great period details about the social divides between Italian and Irish immigrants. I read the whole book in one day and my only disappointment was that it had to end.

The reason I got so much reading done this weekend was because I had time on the plane to and from Philadelphia. My wonderful friends and family threw me a bridal shower at my mom’s house, and I’ll be posting more about that later. The bridal party suggested that people give me books to go with their gifts and I was thrilled with an abundance of cookbooks, nonfiction, and novels. At the request of some of my cousins here’s a list of the non-cookbooks I got. I can’t wait to dig in!

My Life in France, Julia Child
Red, White, and Drunk All Over, Natalie MacLean
The Woman Behind the New Deal, Kirsten Downey
History of the World in Six Glasses, Tom Standage
Move Your Stuff, Change Your Life, Karen Rauch Carter
The Coffee Trader, David Liss

On the 40th Anniversary of the Moon Landing

If this capsule history of our progress teaches us anything, it is that man, in his quest for knowledge and progress, is determined and cannot be deterred. The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in this race for space.

But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
It is for these reasons that I regard the decision last year to shift our efforts in space from low to high gear as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the office of the Presidency.

Space expenditures will soon rise some more, from 40 cents per person per week to more than 50 cents a week for every man, woman and child in the United States, for we have given this program a high national priority--even though I realize that this is in some measure an act of faith and vision, for we do not now know what benefits await us. But if I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun--almost as hot as it is here today--and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out--then we must be bold.

Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, "Because it is there."
Well, space is there, and we're going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God's blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.

(excerpted from President John F. Kennedy’s speech on September 12, 1962)

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Book Reviews: The Mudbound Garden

I've only got two books to tell you about today but they're both excellent so you're getting quality, if not quantity!

The Forgotten Garden, Kate Morton
I ordered this book to fill out a $25 order on amazon and it was well worth it. The Forgotten Garden is like The Secret Garden for grownups. Part mystery, partly the tale of two very different women, this book sucked me in from the start. It's set in both Australia and England, in the present day, the 1970s, and the turn of the century. In 1913 a young girl arrives in Australia on a ship from England and no one is there to claim her. She has only a small suitcase to identify herself. Years later she, and then her granddaughter, try to piece together her family's story. It's a long book but I tore through it in just a few days because I couldn't put it down!

Mudbound, Hillary Jordan
I read a glowing review of this debut novel so I checked it out of the library without really knowing what to expect. I was completely blown away. Set in post-WWII Mississippi, it tackles the racism that was rampant in the American south even after black soldiers returned from the war. A white family buys a rural farm which has tenant farmers, among them a well-educated (for the time) black family whose oldest son has just returned from Europe. The dynamics between the men and women, blacks and whites, and various classes are fascinating. The plot slowly picks up tempo until you are left breathless at the finish. When I closed the back cover I had to just sit for a few minutes, digest what had happened, and slowly return to the present day. Amazing.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Game Theory

No, this post isn't going to be about what to do when it's 4th and long and you're down by 6. I want to talk about game theory the way mathematicians and economists do. Don't walk away; I promise not to bore you!

If you ever saw the movie "A Beautiful Mind" then you learned about game theory already. Russell Crowe has his mathematical revelation when thinking in terms of guys picking up girls in a bar. (Note: I doubt Russell Crowe has ever pondered such a dilemma in real life.). Another example of game theory is frequently seen on "Law and Order" and is known as the Prisoner's Dilemma. In this case two suspects are placed in separate rooms. The police don't have enough evidence and want to get one prisoner to testify against the other. They tell each suspect that if he betrays the other he goes free and the other gets ten years. If they both confess they each get five years. But if neither confesses then they can only be booked on minor charges and each will get six months (for more detail go here).

In both of those examples, working together is the best solution. But what happens when you use game theory for your own benefit to the detriment of others? The answer is, you get I learned about this new website in this article and it's fascinating. If I had heard of the site without reading the article first I can see how it would be easy to waste a lot of money for little or no payoff. I think things like this at the intersection of mathematical theory and psychology are fascinating. That said, if you ever get stuck in a prisoner's dilemma situation with me, I'll probably crack. No way I can stand up to this guy!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

All American Cupcakes

The Dude and I spent our 4th of July weekend eating, shopping, and hanging out in the all American weekend if there ever was one! When we went over to Josh and Lisa's house to hang out in their beautiful pool I wanted to make something 4th of July themed. I was originally thinking of salad but where to get the blue? The answer was obvious: blueberries. So I dropped the salad idea and made cupcakes instead! I can't take credit for the recipe myself; I found it on one of my favorite recipe websites, You can browse by course, main ingredient, or whatever else you need!

If you decide to make the icing for these cupcakes you will need maple sugar. I wasn't able to find it at the grocery store but a quick google search revealed that you can make your own using 2 parts light brown sugar to one part maple syrup, and then reduce another liquid in the recipe accordingly. The icing turned out great so clearly it works!

Also, there's a choice between buttermilk and low fat yogurt. I went with the yogurt to make things marginally more healthy and I think the cupcakes were still rich and moist.

Here's the recipe if you want to try it and a few pictures of the finished product. Delicious!

Did you cook anything fun for the fourth?

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Prayer in Schools

Don't worry, I'm not going to use this blog to start a huge political debate. However, I think this author perfectly sums up how I feel about prayer in schools. I hope everyone enjoys their Independence Day!