Multiplanetary Species

Recently, at the International Astronautical Congress in Mexico, Elon Musk announced his vision to turn mankind into a multi-planetary species. Like most of his visions, it’s a big, hairy, audacious dream: To build reusable spacecraft that can carry a 100,000 kg to Mars. That’s an earth-shatteringly big dream; which is typical for Mr. Musk.

In the video above, you can see the major pieces of the Interplanetary Transport System. It relies on two major orbital vehicles: a crew transporter and fuel transporter. The two vehicles will rendezvous in Earth orbit much like the Agena and Gemini spacecraft, then the crew transporter will tank in orbit, and then fly to Mars. The heavy lifter rocket and fuel transporter will both then return to the launch pad for recovery, repair, and return to service.

When they pull it off, it has the potential to reduce the overall costs of space travel as well as pushing mankind forward. And I think SpaceX is in the perfect niche to do that. My only criticism is I wish they had more competition. While Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is working towards a similar goal, they are farther behind than SpaceX. We are sitting on the precipice of the next major step in man’s technological progression, much like we were at the turn of the 20th Century when multiple different companies and individuals were competing to make the first airplane. I firmly believe that only through cutthroat competition can we truly push to make interplanetary travel a reality. And I think NASA and all of the other government space agencies are not the right answer. To make the next leap, we will need to have the complete monetization of Space and that’s something only Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and the wild-eyed, audacious dreamers of the future are capable of doing.


Why Is STEM Education So Boring?

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve received the response of  “That’s cool; I’d be an engineer too if it weren’t for all of the science[math/drudgery/chemistry/fill in the blank],” I’d probably be driving a brand, spankin’ new Lamborghini Aventador with all of the trimmings. But usually all I get are excuses about why somebody would rather cover up the harsh truth than just admit that they weren’t passionate about science in order to pursue an education or career in it. But I do agree on one point and one point only: Unless you’re a huge nerd (I’m only a moderately-sized one), science can be a bit boring and dry. This is why I’ve always been a fan of people like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Carl Sagan, and Richard Feynman. These men had the ability (Dr. Tyson still does) to encapsulate the wonderment and awe that accompanies the pursuit of scientific discovery. Professor Tyson does an exceptional job in this video:

It’s that sense of grandeur that propels those of us who consider ourselves scientists and engineers and mathematicians to continue to explore the world and universe around us. It’s the same feeling that I get when I take things apart just to see how they work. The same feeling that I feel when I look up at the night sky, while far out to sea, and gaze upon the might Milky Way.

If we could but impart this same feeling to each and every one of our children, we’d create so much more interest in STEM education.

Saying Farewell To A Hero

The Flag is folded over the cremains of Neil Armstrong
The Flag is folded over the cremains of Neil Armstrong

I’ve written about the US Space Program before on this blog, and having worked in support of it, I’m very passionate about our exploration of the final frontier. Therefore it should come as no surprise that one of my personal heroes was Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on an alien world. Armstrong was an outstanding leader, an amazingly-talented pilot, and a humble man who accomplished extraordinary feats. He also valued his privacy and kept his professional and personal life separated.

As for me, I’ve admired Neil Armstrong since I was a young boy and learned that man had landed on the moon. I  was instantly captivated by his feats and those of his colleagues. I wanted to be like him, and had it not been for Neil Armstrong, I would never have slogged through the four years of toil that it took to earn my engineering degree. Had it not been for him, I would not have chosen to join the Navy, instead following in the footsteps of my Uncle and Grandfather into the United States Air Force. But by my logic, if the Navy produced talented aviators like Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell, and Gene Cernan, then by God that’s where I wanted to learn how to fly.

And so the news a few months ago that Armstrong had passed away struck me terribly hard. But I felt an unusual sense of kinship when I learned of his request to be buried at sea. While a Naval Aviator serving in Korea, he had developed a love of the ocean, something I can certainly sympathize with. I too have come to love the sea with all of her mystery and her tempestuous nature. It was his final wish for his earthly remains to be committed to the deep and so a ship was chosen for the solemn duty of carrying him to sea one last time.

In a strange bit of kismet, the ship chosen happened to be the USS Philippine Sea stationed in the same place as I. The Norns didn’t stop there, weaving our paths to cross one final time. As I was participating in our morning physical training, I suddenly heard the whistle blasts  calling all hands topside to attention on all of the ships throughout the basin. Scant minutes later, I spied the Phil Sea, as she made her way towards to the breakers, her crew manning the rails dressed in their whites. I instantly realized what was happening and I stopped mid-stride. I came to the position of attention and stood stock-still as I watched my hero make way towards his final resting place. The cruiser soon passed and the whistle signal to carry on with assigned duties was blown and I returned to my run a bit older than I had been before.

I Like Cars

I’m a car guy. There, I said it, and I feel so much better now that that skeleton is out of my closet. You see, there’s something intoxicating about driving a car for me. I love the feeling of hitting an apex just right and accelerating out of the corner, and the thrill of slamming the pedal all the way to the deck is one of those things that just has no substitute. I love the way you can feel a car dance on the edge of its grip, teetering, on the verge of letting go, and only your skill as the driver keeps it on the tarmac.

So yes, I love cars, and I love well set-up cars like BMWs, Audis, Subaru WRXs, Mitsubishi Evos, and so on and so forth. There’s just a joy that a car with a well-sorted chasis and a responsive throttle and transmission can provide. It’s why I love my Lexus IS250, and why I’ve loved every Bimmer that I’ve driven, and why I continue to lust after the BMW M3 and Ferrari 458.

So, after seeing one of BMWs newest commercials during my wanderings on teh intarwebz, it really resonated with me. Deep down inside I’m still a big, giant 8 year old who dreams about driving a fast car at the very limits of its design. I share said commercial with you below:

One Small Step For Man. . .

A young Neil Armstrong sits on a panel upon the announcement of his selection into the Astronaut Corps.

Neil Armstrong died yesterday. When I learned of his passing, I  was near tears. Professor Armstrong served as an inspiration for me, alongside his peers Gene Cernan, Jim Lovell, and John Young. His skill as an aviator and expertise as an engineer were exceptional. He was also a man of unfathomable humility, who upon retiring from the space program, returned to his homestate of Ohio and began teaching engineering at the University of Cincinnati. He was never one to publicize himself and he valued his privacy highly. He was one-of-a-kind, and the world is truly a lesser place with his presence gone.

A few years before he passed, he testified before Congress along with Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon. In it, he made the case for a push by the government to support NASA and to create a coherent and bold strategy for the manned spaceflight program.

And this is Neil Armstrong’s legacy, as it should be. His actions on July 20, 1969 serve as inspiration to millions and have served as the motivation for countless millions, myself included, to act boldly and do what we can to make the world a better place and push humanity forward. And if there is anything we should do to honor his memory, it is to take bold action and take the next step in expanding the boundaries of human knowledge and discovery.

The Navy and Bio-Fuel

For the last few years, the Navy has been pouring a lot of valuable money into bio-fuel research. The way that the project has been sold has been as a way to make the fleet more environmentally friendly, reducing emissions and the like. Now anyone who knows much about the engineering of ships knows that for the majority of our fleet, we use gas turbines in our main propulsion plants, and gas turbines burn through an exorbitant amount of gas in under the most “economical” of conditions. Because of this, the bio-fuel campaign has come under great scrutiny as a waste of money, including just recently from the Honorable Randy Forbes (R-VA).

The Navy used 20,000 gallons of algae-derived fuel for a November test in San Diego. Here, Lt. Cmdr. Frank Kim compares sample bottles of traditional diesel fuel and the alternative blend. Photo Courtesy of Dept of the Navy.

But the idea of “greening” the fleet isn’t all bad, it’s just being sold the wrong way. Having the ability to power our ships using bio-fuel as well as regular marine diesel provides us flexibility in the event that standard oil supplies are cut-off. Flexibility is crucial in warfare, as our adeptness at being able to roll with the punches can mean the difference between being victorious or having our rear-ends handed to us. And that being the case, we need to sell to Congress that we need to pursue bio-fuel alternatives in order to maintain superiority on the sea.

The only caveat is that bio-fuel isn’t the most economical way of providing independence from the vagaries of the oil market. The best way to do this is to convert as much of the fleet as possible to nuclear power. The joy about nuclear plants is that they don’t produce carbon emissions, they don’t need to be fueled up for decades, and they can run nearly indefinitely, meaning that a ship’s range is only limited by the amount of food and fresh water it can carry.

The only downside to a nuclear fleet is the amount of money required on the front end to install the reactor and propulsion plant. In the end, both initiatives are necessary, as well as increasing our domestic oil production as much as possible.

Visions of the Moon‬‏

YouTube – ‪JFK – We choose to go to the Moon, full length‬‏.

JFK was many things, but above all he was a visionary who could see the amazing things that America was capable of and inspire his fellow Americans to reach out and earn them. As I watched the final shuttle launch in our systems engineering lab at NASA GSFC today, I could feel the sorrow well up inside me as I watched the end of an era. The only question now is: Who will be our next JFK? Who will guide us into the new, glorious tomorrow where only the scope and breadth of our imaginations will limit the heights of our achievements.

We’re Losing The Space Race Again


via xkcd: 65 Years.

The alternate text for the image:

The universe is probably littered with the one-planet graves of cultures which made the sensible economic decision that there’s no good reason to go into space–each discovered, studied, and remembered by the ones who made the irrational decision.

As I’ve said before, we must continue our exploration of space. All of our accomplishments here on earth come to naught if we don’t reach out and expand the grasp of the human race. One day, a few billion years hence, our sun will engulf our terrestrial orb and life will cease. When that day comes, we cannot allow Homo sapiens sapiens to go quietly into that dark night, we must have solidified a beachhead on multiple other worlds. But sadly, it seems we’re stuck in our short-sighted, “rational,” political game. If only we could achieve world peace and learn to work together.

Also, for those with technical inclinations in need of a good chuckle, XKCD always delivers.

Man’s Next Small Step

With NASA’s space shuttle program drawing to a close and the planned moon missions cancelled, the future of manned space flight is unclear. The space program has long been one of America’s most cherished projects; but we’ve long lacked the will to use the program properly. Which is quite ironic, given the fact that our country was founded by explorers and radical thinkers.

Over forty years ago, a humble man from Ohio set his boot onto the moon. It was a culmination of a decade of hard work that had been fraught with danger and had used every resource our country could provide. In the process some of the most brilliant minds in the world used all of the technology available to them — more often than not, inventing what they needed as they went — to accomplish the goals that had been laid out by a young, visionary president, who embodied all of the hope of a generation. Those goals were to go where no man had gone before, and then to return safely to tell the tale. So, after a decade of design errors, exploding rockets, near-catastrophic disasters, and the loss of three astronauts, two men from the United States became the first humans to tread upon extraterrestrial soil.

But almost as soon as the celebrations had ended, the American public lost interest. Their focus turned to a conflict in Southeast Asia that had taken a turn for the worst, spilling much American blood with little to show for it. Their concerns about economic uncertainty due to stagnation and recession. When tragedy struck in April of 1970, the public’s eyes were again focused on the space program, but this time they were more concerned for the fate of their heroes risking all in the heavens above. It was Apollo 13, and later the Challenger and Columbia disasters, which would bring home the dangers inherent in exploring uncharted territory. And these would prove trying to America at large. When the only time they were reminded of the existence of the space program was when lives were lost or costly mistakes were made, the general public began to question just how practical the expenditure of money was on spaceflight. And so NASA’s budget was slowly eroded, and it’s future plans cancelled one by one.

So now we’re left with the prospect of once again being trapped earthbound, with the only countries capable of sending a man into space being Russia or China. But how do we get ourselves out of this mess? At risk of over-simplifying the issue, the best way to return to space is to commercialize low-earth orbit and then letting NASA reclaim it’s rightful position as the organization dedicated to the exploration of outer space, instead of letting it languish in its current state. By providing incentives, the government can help the private sector find an inexpensive, reliable, and hassle-free route into space. And let us not kid ourselves, private industry is the only group capable of reaching that particular end state, as their necessity to turn a profit requires that that they keep costs low and not kill customers. Also, with NASA freed to pour all of it’s resources into exploration and not commercial interests (i.e. putting communications satellites into orbit), it can once again focus on flying to the moon and then onto mars.

That exploration won’t be easy, though. There will be risks, and lives will be lost, but that is just the nature of the beast. It will also require visionaries and brilliant minds to sort out the problems inherent in space travel. But most of all, it will require the political will and determination of the American people to accept the loss of life and expense of capital in order to venture into the far depths of space. The only way to do that is to inspire them to turn their gaze skyward and to dream like their forefathers did.

Fantastic Contraption

I have a fondness for time-wasting internet games. I don’t know what it is, but they’re simple design and their ability to entertain me are unparalleled — not to mention that they are free. So a friend recently pointed me towards a wonderful little game called “Fantastic Contraption.” The physics are realistic and the goal is simple: figure out a way to move an object from point A to point B. It’s a great exercise in engineering, and I doubt I need to explain how much I love engineering.

An example of one of my designs: The Junker.

When We Left Earth

I’ve been glued to my television for the last few Sunday nights as I watched When We Left Earth. As you may know, I’m a bit of a science enthusiast (read: “enginerd”), and as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by the manned space-flight program and just about everything NASA has ever done. I don’t really know why exactly, maybe it’s the appeal to my sense of adventure or my natural curiousity about how the world works, but I do know that ever since I saw the images of the first men landing on the moon, I knew that I wanted to be an astronaut. It’s one of the things that prompted me to get an engineering degree and is a natural extension to my love of flight.

One day I’ll get there. Until then, I’ve got my fingers crossed and I’m waiting for this show to come out on DVD.

Global Warming & Solar Activity

I stumbled upon an interesting blog article concerning trends of solar activity. I found it interesting — your mileage may vary — as I like to ponder deep thoughts of a scientific nature from time to time. Usually, I crack open physics texts or partake in some engineering problem-solving, but it’s one of those things that keeps me going. The author raises an interesting hypothesis stating that the sun has more to do with long-term temperature and climate changes of the Earth than any other factor. Certainly it’s not humans. While we definitely contribute, there is no possible way that it is any where near the amount that the politicians and fear-mongers say it is; and the sun is a huge driving force of most other things in our solar system. If it wasn’t the exact size it is, life would not be possible and we wouldn’t have nine planets and a bunch of micro-planets or however the scientific community is referring to them these days. It just makes sense, which is more than I can say about Al Gore and the rest of his cronies.
On a related tangent, one of my largest pet peeves is the need of everyone in the “green” movement to point the finger at humans, when there is no evidence to back up the claim that we make all that much of a difference. It’s rather egotistical to say that, and to force people to drastically alter their lives because of some false pretense. Now, that’s not to say that I dislike hybrids and the like. Really, I’m all about better efficiency, technological innovation, and making as small an impact as is practical, but there comes a point when logic should step in and say “Hey, cut this out!” But maybe it’s just me.
As a final note, make sure you read the comments, if you are of a similar scientific bent. There is some really interesting stuff, including some theoretical physicists discussing their own thoughts, but then again, theoretical physics isn’t everybody’s cup of tea.

Personal Panzer

THIS is just too cool. It just goes to show what a bunch of bored engineering students with too much time on their hands are capable of. To be frank, if I had the money, I would buy one. The personal tank market is just ripe for the picking, a veritable gold mine; but then again, I might just be weird.

Magpul Masada

One of my BR’s, and a close friend of mine, has made me a convert. The Magpul Masada is just a beautiful gun. Absolutely, positively, awesome adaptable to any situation through its modular design. Need a long gun, just switch out the barrel assembly. Need a short gun for MOUT operations, just slap on a shorter barrel and a collapsible stock. It’s just cool and a real engineering masterpiece. It’s got me drooling and waiting until I have the money and age for a Class 3 license.

The Space Program

You know, I’ve been thinking, why the hell are we wasting our money on NASA when it’s not accomplishing anything? It seems we’ve lost interest, as a nation, in the vast unexplored territories of space. The very thing that made America what it is, our wanderlust, has been lost in the space program. It’s become more about low orbit, scientific missions. The astronauts aboard the space shuttle have become mere high tech babysitters. We have seen it fit to cut the NASA budget so much, that, were we to want to go to the moon tommorrow, we would be unable. Well, how do we as a nation, set about to pull the space program out of the rut it is in?

Well, first off, spend more money. The budget needs to be expanded if any gains are to be made. The money just simply isn’t there to improve the situation, whether it is due to political infighting or just apathy. Before any other changes can be made, the neccessary funds must be provided. This is the biggest test of loyalty for the American people. If they are willing to put up the cash, then maybe, just maybe, there might be hope. For a couple decades now, we Americans have been trying to stay partially committed in space travel, an endeavour that requires total committment. We must decide whether we are willing to accept the risks involved, and if we are, completely commit ourselves, if not, cut ourselves loose and shut it down completely.

Second, the space shuttle has to go! It is severely outdated, and we must update and take full advantage of all the technology that has been developed from the shuttle program. It has had a successful run, and now its time has passed. There needs to be new, cheaper methods of space travel. Many projects that showed immense promise were scrapped, due to lack of money. Experimental aircraft testing needs to start back up. There are too many things that we can benefit from it. If we can develop an easy way to achieve hypersonic flight, then we can come that much closer to more practical spaceflight. Also, the private and commercial area is going to end up providing radical innovations like they always do. I think if we can have both operating easily, it would be beneficial to everybody. The private arena can revolutionize low orbit stuff, and astro-tourism, while NASA can focus on the scientific end of the spectrum.

And finally, whatever happened to the badass astronauts and balls-to-the-wall flying? Honestly, space flight has become boring. I no longer care when the shuttle launches and when it lands and what it does in between. I was more excited to learn about the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs in school than I was to learn about spiders in zero-g. We need someone like JFK to set lofty goals in a set deadline, as that is the only way things will get done. We need something that will force us to move forward, and break us free of this post Space Race malaise. As much as I hate to sound cliche, we need to go to Mars and we need to return to the moon. The benefits far exceed the risks. I’ll leave you with the words of the man who got us into the whole space exploration business in the first place.

No man can fully grasp how far and how fast we have come, but condense, if you will, the 50,000 years of man’s recorded history in a time span of but a half century. Stated in these terms, we know very little about the first 40 years, except at the end of them advanced man had learned to use the skins of animals to cover them. Then about 10 years ago, under this standard, man emerged from his caves to construct other kinds of shelter. Only 5 years ago man learned to write and use a cart with wheels. Christianity began less than 2 years ago. The printing press came this year, and then less than 2 months ago, during this whole 50-year span of human history, the steam engine provided a new source of power.

Newton explored the meaning of gravity. Last month electric lights and telephones and automobiles and airplanes became available. Only last week did we develop penicillin and television and nuclear power, and now if America’s new spacecraft succeeds in reaching Venus, we will have literally reached the stars before midnight tonight.

This is a breathtaking pace, and such a pace cannot help but create new ills as it dispels old, new ignorance, new problems, new dangers. Surely the opening vistas of space promise high costs and hardships, as well as high reward.

So it is not surprising that some would have us stay where we are a little longer to rest, to wait. But this city of Houston, this State of Texas, this country of the United States was not built by those who waited and rested and wished to look behind them. This country was conquered by those who moved forward-and so will space.

William Bradford, speaking in 1630 of the founding of the Plymouth Bay Colony, said that all great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and both must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courage.

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.

Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolutions, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it – we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.

Yet the vows of this Nation can only be fulfilled if we in this Nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first. In short, our leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men, and to become the world’s leading space-faring nation.

We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say that we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.
. . . . . . . . .
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.

— John Fitzgerald Kennedy