December 14, 2012 - Reading time: ~1 minute

Historical note: This is no longer the case; EDIGREG has taken over DNS and is now 100% in control of 12v.org.  I miss the days of running that site and owning that car.  Good times, and a good community.

Somehow, I'm still paying the DNS fees for 12v.org.  I don't mind it.  If I win the lottery, I'm going to buy a few old 12v Audis, wrestle the site back from EDIGREG, and have lots more fun.

In defense of the Shuttle

July 22, 2011 - Reading time: 10 minutes

Historical note - this was perhaps not my most coherent or eloquent blog post, but I was pretty angry.  I'm not editing it, but I will revise history a bit to say that I haven't regarded Phil Plait as a reasonable person for many years.

OK fine I edited it, but only slightly.  It's been almost 20 years now; I think my writing has improved.

Amos Zeeberg wrote an essay published at Discover Magazine that takes a critical view of the Space Shuttle.

It's probably obvious that I'm a big fan of the Shuttle program.  And in these blinkered times, it's not really unusual to see such one-sided criticism in places that would normally be forums for reasonable discussion.  But it is a bit disheartening to see people like Phil Plait, who normally strikes me as a smart and reasonable person, refer to such an article as "fair."  So I feel compelled to respond to some of the less reasonable things that Amos says:

Now that Atlantis is safely on the ground and astronauts will never again face the risk of flying in a space shuttle, maybe we can at last take a clear-eyed look at this disappointing episode in our nation's history.

Well, he starts out swinging.  At least we know what his view on the matter is.  He seems to feel that space travel is perfectly safe in other vehicles.  He ignores, for example, the Soyuz program's two missions that ended in loss of crew: Soyuz 1 (1967) and Soyuz 11 (1971).  So the Soyuz program has lost 2 out of 110 missions and the Shuttle program lost 2 out of 135.  As far as space vehicles go, the Shuttle fleet isn't really out of the ordinary.

But this also brings up a more philosophical point: exploration has always been a dangerous matter and people have always died in those efforts.  If we choose not to explore space because it's risky, we fail.  As for disappointment, that single notion leads me to not take anything this guy says seriously.  To call the program a disappointment completely ignores the scientific and technological advances that came out of the Shuttle program.  Plenty of people have been discussing those lately.  I mentioned it briefly here.

The most important thing to realize about the space shuttle program is that it is objectively a failure. The shuttle was billed as a reusable craft that could frequently, safely, and cheaply bring people and payloads to low Earth orbit. NASA originally said the shuttles could handle 65 launches per year; the most launches it actually did in a year was nine; over the life of the program, it averaged five per year.

Here he develops his own set of criteria and then dismisses the program as a failure based on it not living up to those criteria.  Yes, the Shuttle fleet did not fly as often as was originally promised.  Yes, it cost more than was originally promised.  A lot has been said about the costs and it's likely that the original cost estimates were overly optimistic with the goal of getting the program funded at all.  As for the number of launches, though it didn't launch as many times as Amos would have liked, it did launch 135 times over 31 years for an average of just over 4 launches/year (including the couple of years that were skipped after the losses of Challenger and Columbia).  Compare that to just 110 Soyuz launches over 45 years, just under 2.5 launches/year.  The Orbiters also fit more than double the crew as a Soyuz, so far more people have flown in Shuttles as well (852 vs 258: >3 times as many people).  In the last decade, there were 28 Shuttle launches and 24 Soyuz launches.  And again, the Shuttle program had other goals that are harder to quantify: a return on investment with scientific and technological achievement.  Oh, but we're ignoring those points.

The failure rate was two out of 135 in the tests that matter most.

Again ignoring the competition, which (by the same test) fares worse.  That is not to be flippant about the deaths of Shuttle crews, only to point out that it's no MORE dangerous than other crewed spacecraft.

It seems likely, in retrospect, that the project was doomed for a variety of reasons, including the challenging reusable spaceplane design and the huge range of often conflicting demands on the craft.

The Shuttle Orbiter was a more complex spacecraft than any other.  But the "huge range of often conflicting demands" was made possible by that complexity.  The Shuttle Orbiter made many things possible that are still not possible with any other spacecraft, existing or in development.  So rather than "dooming" the project, these demands were making use of available features.  If NASA had decided, for example, not to use the Orbiter's airlock to allow multiple crew members to perform EVAs while other crew members were in a shirt-sleeve environment, that would have been a failure.  Oh, that's something that no other current spacecraft can do (other than the ISS, of course).

Tellingly, the U.S. space program is abandoning spaceplanes and going back to Apollo-style rockets. The Russians have always relied on cheaper and more reliable disposable rockets; China plans to do the same.

My personal view (which I don't present as fact, unlike Amos) is that going back to a capsule design is a step backwards; it is a demonstration of uncreative simple-mindedness and lack of vision.  Have we abandoned the quest for innovation that drives us to do more than just copying others?

According to reports after the Challenger disaster, the ship exploded because of a faulty joint that included an O-ring hardened by especially cold conditions before launch.

Actually (I'm being pedantic here) the "ship" didn't explode.

More importantly, this was far from an isolated problem, as illustrated by a report by Richard Feynman. Feynman slammed not only the O-ring error but the entire process of building and testing the shuttle, plus the management style and decision-making of NASA, for good measure.

Anyone who claims to speak authoritatively about the Challenger disaster should read Diane Vaughan's The Challenger Launch Decision.  In it we learn that the Feynman's frequently-quoted conclusions were coached, based on incomplete information, and not really fair.  Amos goes on to quote reliability statistics, which is always a fool's errand (and, by his own argument, not the "tests that matter").

So it was clear, as far back as 1986, that the shuttle was an objective failure judged by its own goals.

No, the Shuttle program was a failure judged by your standards.  Let's keep that straight.

The shuttle also failed a more basic, primal test: it's just not that cool.

This is clearly a subjective argument, but I completely disagree here and I would guess that most school children would as well.  How would you compare the "coolness" of the Shuttle to that of a capsule, which crams its occupants into a tiny, undignified box while orbiting the planet in boring stillness?  What of the graceful acrobatics of the Orbiter in space, and its gliding return?  The Shuttle's remote manipulator is pretty cool as well.  Soyuz capsules are fitted with a firearm so that returning crews can defend themselves against bears after untangling themselves from its parachutes.  How is that cooler?  He points out that the purpose of putting humans into space is to explore.  While the Orbiter could not leave Earth orbit, it does enable exploration by means of probes and telescopes.  It allowed us to explore Earth as well, by creating (at the time) the most accurate and detailed maps of the Earth's surface to date.  It enabled the creation of the ISS, which serves as a learning platform so that we can learn how to design missions and hardware suitable for long-term crewed missions (I'm sure Amos feels this is a waste too).

Ask anybody who was never tempted to go to Space Camp what the shuttle's accomplished since fixing the Hubble in 1993.

Willful ignorance does not make a convincing argument.

Perhaps worst of all, the shuttle not only failed its own mission but prevented NASA from doing much else.

Politics and money prevented NASA from doing much else.  The Shuttle program was expensive, but a significant portion of the expense was the waste inherent in any government program.  NASA could have used the Shuttle's capabilities to construct and launch a true spacecraft (one that stays in space) for planetary exploration.  They didn't.  That is a failure, but it's a failure of NASA and the public (as Amos alludes to in the beginning) - not of the Shuttle program.

Instead, we'll have to bum rides on the old, cheap, and dependable Russian Soyuz, which is galling not only because it highlights what a flop the shuttle was, but also because the space program still has an anachronistic whiff of the Cold War about it.

The Soyuz program may be "old" but the Soyuz craft have undergone several major revisions.  More than the Shuttle program, but that's because the Soviet and post-Soviet governments have cared to spend resources to improve it.  As for "dependable" - shall I bring up statistics again?  Maybe you could do a little basic research before you call the Soyuz program dependable.

OK, so Amos has clearly constructed an opinion piece, and everyone is entitled to their opinions (even ill-informed ones).  But it's extremely disappointing to see such a poorly researched, one-sided essay posted on Discover.  We should always welcome dissenting opinions and consider all rational arguments, but this sort of essay does not belong in a publication aimed at an intelligent audience.

All Good Things

July 20, 2011 - Reading time: 9 minutes

After the Space Shuttle Columbia was lost in 2003, Robert Crippen gave a moving eulogy that was as much about the Orbiter as it was about the crew.  In the process, he revealed a truth that you won't learn in school: engineering isn't just about cobbling something together from a collection of pieces and clever ideas - it's art; it's creation.  For many, it's creation in a profound sense: an engineer designing a spacecraft or other complex engine puts blood, sweat, tears, and a little bit of their soul into their project - their creation.

When Crippen spoke at the Columbia memorial service held at the Kennedy Space Center, he told a moving story of the final mission.  Columbia "struggled mightily in those last moments to bring her crew home once again.  She wasn't successful. [...] She, along with the Crew, had her life snuffed out while in her prime."  Columbia wasn't a piece of equipment used by astronauts to do their jobs; she was another one of the crew, struggling against an injury she would eventually succumb to.

Columbia as he described her was not a machine with 2.5 million parts - she was a being, with a heart, a soul, and a desire to escort her occupants safely and comfortably on their shared mission.  The Space Shuttles are beloved members of a team of thousands, who dedicate their lives to the awesome feat of lifting humanity from the surface of the planet and bringing them safely back.  And like the human team members, each spaceship has her own strengths, weaknesses, quirks, failings, and triumphs - each has her own personality that is endearing to her friends, if baffling to outsiders.  Sounds a bit like you and me.

Crippen wasn't the only one to become attached to a mechanical thing.  If you talk to Steven Squyres about the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, you'd think he was talking about his own children.  "Spirit is our firstborn. [...] Opportunity is not as quirky ... Spirit was always our 'problem child.'"  Many news articles about Spirit's recent demise read like eulogies for any human: "The cause of death appears to be hypothermia [...] Spirit lived a long, full and extremely productive life."  The rover had a face and a body and a perpetually curious pose that inspired many to imagine its soul.  An official eulogy for Spirit was given this month by John Callas, the manager of the Mars Exploration Project.  He described a lifetime of struggles for the rover, who toiled for our sake: "Spirit escaped the volcanic plains of Gusev Crater, mountaineer-ed up the Columbia Hills, survived three cold, dark Martian winters and two rover-killing dust storms, and surmounted debilitating hardware malfunctions.  But out of this adversity, she made the most striking scientific discoveries that have forever changed our understanding of the Red Planet."

John Callas said something else profound in the eulogy: "let's also remember that Spirit's great accomplishments did not come at the expense of some vanquished foe or by outscoring some opponent.  Spirit did this, we did this - to explore, to discover, to learn - for the benefit of all humankind.  In that respect, these rovers represent the highest aspiration of our species."

This brings me back to the Shuttles, and what we lose after Atlantis lands in a few hours.  The Shuttle fleet served us in many ways - it was a vital tool for constructing the International Space Station; it made science instruments such as the Hubble Space Telescope possible; it was itself a platform for scientific research; it was even a vehicle of diplomacy.  Its use and development resulted in hundreds of spinoffs that we unwittingly take for granted.

The Shuttle's grace and capability also inspired an entire generation.  This was not our parents' lump of a space capsule, confining its crew in a single cramped compartment.  The best efforts of the previous decades brought forth geometric shapes that orbited the earth in uninspired stillness and landed in a tangle of parachutes to be fished out of the ocean or dragged off an icy field.  With the Orbiters we tamed complexity and created something to be proud of.  In addition to their unmatched capabilities as spacecraft, in each mission the Orbiter would put on a show as it performed graceful acrobatics in space and then landed on its feet, panting and steaming but ready to take the trip again.  The Shuttle fleet was a symbol of American ingenuity and creativity, and even as its missions started to seem mundane its form became familiar as what a spacecraft of the future might look like.

Though they were sometimes used as tools for military or diplomatic use, the Shuttles were at their core vehicles of science and exploration.  They too represented humanity's ideals and aspirations - they were built to help us understand our planet, our bodies, the cosmos, and our relationship with it.  With the Orbiters we mapped parts of the Earth that were previously unmappable; we launched telescopes and probes to explore our solar system and they universe beyond it; we demonstrated true human cooperation by assembling an International Space Station.  We did all this not as contestants in a race, but as people engaged in the responsible application of the technological and scientific resources of our country.  The Shuttles demonstrated to the world that we could do anything, but we chose to do good.

The Orbiters themselves were a bit needy.  Each one required an army of engineers, technicians, and specialists for maintenance, diagnosis, and repair before and after each flight.  With unique personalities came unique problems, and their vast complexity was sometimes aggravating and expensive.  Lack of understanding and respect for this complexity twice led to tragedy, but (as engineering disasters always do) each tragedy led to better understanding, further innovation, and safer vehicles.  But the loss of Columbia in 2003 was too much to bear for a country at war that was shrinking from risk and wary of open-ended investment, and though the Shuttles flew for years after a short period of introspection, political and social pressures at the time ultimately led to today's scheduled retirement of the fleet.

When Atlantis lands it will not be the end of human spaceflight, in America or anywhere else.  Several corporations in this country are creating spacecraft of their own to take satellites, cargo, and crews to Earth orbit.  NASA is tasked (perhaps unconvincingly) with creating a new crewed spacecraft for exploration.  Russia is maintaining its ability to launch cargo and crew, China has a budding human spaceflight program, and other countries are well on their way to achieving human spaceflight with their own craft.  As the American west was won, Earth orbit has ceased to be a frontier and is becoming a place of expansion, enterprise, and opportunity.

When the last Orbiter is retired an important and storied program will come to an end.  Thousands of people have dedicated their careers to the Shuttle program; they've watched it through tragedy and triumph, fault and accomplishment; they have developed intense feelings and connections to co-workers, communities, and the vehicles under their care.  Many will lose their jobs at a time when the country's economy is already struggling.  America will lose a decades-old symbol of pride and accomplishment that has not been surpassed (or even successfully imitated) by any other country.  But as heartbreaking as this is, all things must come to an end and we must accept that and move on.

That's what we're supposed to say, right?  There are even those who are glad to see the Shuttles go; people who feel that they kept us tethered to Earth orbit when we could have been exploring far beyond it.  But it's hard not to feel a little empty right now.  To dismiss the Shuttle program is to overlook decades of invention, accomplishment, and discovery.  We are losing our best and brightest stars - they will be relegated to dusty museums, reminders of past glory for our divided country.

Sometimes the story doesn't have a happy ending.  For those who worked to build, maintain, and operate the fleet, dear friends are being taken away before their time, and there is real pain that outsiders fail to understand or appreciate.  For those who have been inspired by the Shuttles, it is a profound loss because there is nothing so pure to replace it.  Now we are left waiting for our political class to unite around a plan for NASA that provides appropriate vision and adequate funding for a worthy successor to the Space Shuttle program, so that we may create, explore, and be inspired again.

I can haz duct tape?

June 30, 2011 - Reading time: ~1 minute

Note: In retrospect - it was almost definitely OK to get those photos posted on the web.  I'm also still happy with the message I sent with them.

I stumbled across this today while surfing the web at random.  I'm still not sure if it was OK to get those photos posted on the web.

Buckaroo Banzai

June 26, 2011 - Reading time: ~1 minute

Last week a co-worker loaned me a copy of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, and I watched it yesterday.

If you're in the mood for a great 80s flashback movie, this is it.  Buckaroo Banzai has it all: before-they-were-famous actors and crew; a group of gun-toting, hard-rocking scientists; a heroine named Penny Priddy; a wondrous technological marvel that looks vaguely like a flux capacitor; a jet-powered Ford that looks vaguely like the Space Shuttle; a choreographed musical scene at the end; serious use of the phrase "wherever you go, there you are."

Great fun if you can track it down.

Smart meters

June 11, 2011 - Reading time: ~1 minute

My local power company installed a smart electric meter at my house recently.  Now, by going to https://www.smartmetertexas.com/CAP/public/ I can see my electricity usage down to 15 minute intervals.  It's really neat stuff, and my usage doesn't look at all like I expected it to.  This is really cool data and I think I can actually use it to lower the amount of electricity I use.

If you've got a smart meter at your house, it's totally worth checking out your usage.  Even if you don't want to nerd out and start making fancy graphs and calculating trends, you can see how your house behaves while you're gone, and maybe save a few bucks on your electric bill.

Worshiping the wrong heroes

May 5, 2011 - Reading time: 3 minutes

Charles Bolden put out a statement today on the 50th anniversary of American human spaceflight.  It begins (emphasis added):


May 5, 1961 was a good day. When Alan Shepard launched toward the stars that day, no American had ever done so, and the world waited on pins and needles praying for a good outcome. The flight was a great success, and on the strength of Shepard's accomplishment, NASA built the leadership role in human spaceflight that we have held ever since.

I was a teenager at the time and just sorting out the field of study I wanted to pursue. Though I never dared dream it growing up in segregated South Carolina, I was proud to follow in Alan's footsteps several years later and become a test pilot myself. The experiences I've had would not have been possible without Alan's pioneering efforts. The inspiration that has created generations of leaders to enlarge our understanding of our universe and to strive toward the highest in human potential was sparked by those early achievements of our space program. They began with Freedom 7 and a daring test pilot who flew the ultimate experimental vehicle that May day 50 years ago.

Giving astronauts full credit for the accomplishments of NASA's human spaceflight program is nothing new.  Many people (including people who work at NASA, and should really know better) view astronauts as a superhuman species, whose wisdom, wit, talent, and general prowess are the foundation of NASA's accomplishments.  I'm fairly certain that most astronauts, at one level or another, believe this too.  This notion has led to the corruption of the (already slanted) phrase "no bucks, no Buck Rogers" to the (even more slanted) phrase "no Buck Rogers, no bucks" - implying that without hugely egotistical military aviators as spokesmen, NASA has no hope of funding its programs.  Wonderful.

And that's why it's not surprising to hear someone give such wide-ranging credit to Alan Shepard, who wasn't an engineer or a scientist, for NASA's first manned suborbital flight.

But it does hurt a bit when that someone is NASA's administrator - even if he was also an astronaut. I've mentioned in the past, and will surely bring up again in the future, the roles I think astronauts and engineers play (and should play) at NASA.  At a time when we're trying to find ways to encourage more students to pursue STEM careers, leaders at all levels do themselves (and the rest of us) a disservice by failing to address the fact that a STEM career will not bring you any glory (or even much recognition for good work), will not make you rich (or even moderately wealthy), and will not make yours a household name (face it; the odds are really against that one).  By giving such fawning attention to Alan Shepard, Bolden minimizes the real, profound, backbreaking efforts of thousands of scientists, engineers, and technicians who actually made the flight possible.

So on this, the 50th anniversary of NASA's first manned suborbital flight, let's also recognize the people who actually made it possible: the thousands of smart people who worked long hours under stressful conditions to send some test pilot into space, and (probably against their better judgement) bring him back safely.  It was your pioneering efforts that inspired many of us to pursue engineering and follow in your footsteps.  You may not have inspired Charlie Bolden, but you did inspire me.  I hope that counts for something.

Uninformed alarmism

March 23, 2011 - Reading time: 4 minutes

I don't normally read this blog but the safety guy at work posted a link to a post on it that really got on my nerves.  So a few comments on it: (I apologize that you'll need to read the ranting of the original post for this to make sense. Update: I submitted a comment to the blog post as well; they apparently didn't feel the need to post it.  Ah well.)

1) The title of the post makes it seem like there's some sinister plot by the FAA to dupe and potentially injure air travelers, which doesn't seem to be the case if you actually read the Directive.

2) If you search Google for AD 2011-04-09, the first link you get is the FAA's public posting of the Directive, on their web site. I'm not sure why the actual Directive wasn't attached or linked to (probably because it doesn't support the poster's argument) but it is easily accessed.

3) The post suggests that the oxygen supply is removed but the mask is stowed as if it will still work, and there will be no notification to passengers. This is not necessarily the case, and even the single sentence paraphrased in the post tells how the actual response by airlines might be different. What the Directive does is allows the airline to remove the safety hazard (of the chemical oxygen generator) without making potentially significant modifications to their aircraft. The Directive doesn't instruct the airlines to re-stow inoperative air masks; it gives them the option of re-stowing or removing them. The access panel is generally hinged, so the options are to close it, leave it hanging open, or removing it; removing it would result in an unsightly hole in the ceiling that would give passengers a potential interface to tamper with the aircraft (or injure themselves). Just closing the door means that the airlines can easily comply with the Directive without having to make big modifications their aircraft. Passenger notification is not addressed in the Directive but that doesn't preclude flight attendants from noting the modification during the pre-flight safety presentation. Modifying an aircraft involves a lot of regulatory requirements that make modifications an expensive and time-consuming process. Directives are written with the intent of maintaining the safest possible air travel environment without creating an unreasonable burden for airlines and aircraft manufacturers. When the FAA mandated that all commercial flights in the country be non-smoking, they didn't require airlines to remove ashtrays from the seats; airlines and aircraft manufacturers have made those modifications at their convenience.

4) The post suggests that the airlines are allowed to make this modification in order to save cost and weight. Even a perfunctory reading of the Directive reveals that the airlines are required to take this action because the chemical oxygen generators in lavatories pose a specific safety risk that the FAA has deemed unacceptable. The option of expending the canisters saves no weight.

5) The post makes a big deal of the "time of useful consciousness" at various altitudes. What it omits is the fact that while an oxygen-poor atmosphere may cause you to lose consciousness and wake up with a nasty headache, commercial aircraft don't reach altitudes where the low oxygen concentration poses an immediate health risk to most passengers. The flight crews of aircraft have canisters of breathing air (not chemical oxygen generators) so that they can continue operating the aircraft and oversee passenger safety during a depressurization event. Passengers have oxygen masks so that most of them will stay conscious during the event so that they can evacuate the aircraft once it lands (or crashes). It is not assumed that every passenger will be able to help themselves; flight crews (and fellow passengers) assist those who are incapacitated. In this vein, the Directive instructs flight crews to check the lavatories in the event of cabin depressurization in case someone was inside (another overlooked detail).

The actual news here (that there is no longer emergency oxygen in commercial aircraft lavatories) is nearly lost in the zeal to accuse the FAA of compromising passenger safety in the name of cost savings for airlines. I'm not sure how that's helpful to anyone.