A Time For Dragons

In a year where good news has been incredibly scarce, here’s a ray of sunshine:  two astronauts were successfully launched into orbit yesterday from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  The two veteran astronauts aboard, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, are currently orbiting the Earth and will dock with the International Space Station today.

49927519643_b43c6d4c44_o.0The successful launch yesterday marks two milestones.  It’s the first launch of human beings into space from the Kennedy Space Center since 2011, when the last space shuttle mission occurred.  More significantly, the launch is a huge step forward in America’s entire approach to spaceflight and space exploration and development.  The launch vehicle and “Crew Dragon” capsule carrying the astronauts were designed and built by SpaceX, one of the many private companies that are working to make spaceflight a successful commercial venture.

It’s difficult to overstate how significant this step is.  For decades, the space program proceeded on a model where launch vehicles were designed by governmental employees and then built by contractors under “cost plus” contracts.  The SpaceX venture represents a radically different approach, in which NASA describes what it wants, says what it will pay, and then leaves it to the private company to design and build the vehicle that complies with the NASA requirements.  The decision to yield some of the governmental control, and trust private companies to do the job, is an interesting story, and one for which the Bush and Obama Administrations deserve significant credit.

The new approach has several consequences.  For one, it is unquestionably cheaper for taxpayers.  In addition, the interplay between private companies looking to control costs while delivering the required product and governmental engineers who have long experience with spaceflight issues is producing innovation and new perspectives on how to solve problems.  And finally, the successful launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, demonstrates that commercial spaceflight works.  SpaceX is one of many private companies that are making space their mission, and yesterday’s triumph will undoubtedly spur other companies to look to space as a new frontier for investment and commercial activity.  If, as many of us hope, spaceflight is to become a routine activity, with expansive space stations and lunar bases and the exploration of Mars as the next steps, the involvement of private investment and private capital will be essential to making that dream a reality.

Yesterday’s launch marks the Era of the Dragon in spaceflight.  It’s the first time in history that equipment built by a private company has carried human beings into space.  It won’t be the last.

In Search Of Eyeball Planets

Let’s say we’ve moved some time into the future, when interstellar space travel has become commonplace.  You’re on board a Virgin Galactic or SpaceX or Blue Horizons or Heinlein Enterprises flight down to Nimbus, in a solar system in the Orion constellation, when you look down at your destination and . . . it’s a planet that looks like a giant, unblinking eyeball against the dark, star-filled sky.

That would make your cool little space voyage even cooler, wouldn’t it?

planetscouldlooklikeeyeballs_600Scientists believe that there may be “eyeball planets” out there, just waiting to be visited.  They would look like eyeballs because they would be tidally locked with the star they are circling, so one side of the planet always faces the star — just like one side of the Moon always faces the Earth, so that we Earth dwellers never get to see the Dark Side of the Moon.  In such circumstances, the “light side” of the planet facing the star and absorbing the brunt of the sun’s radiation, heat, light, and solar wind, is bound to be a lot different than the “dark side” — hotter than the dark side, for sure, and probably different in other ways, too.

Scientists theorize that there could be at least two kinds of eyeball planets out there, and probably more.  Hot eyeballs would be planets located close to their sun, where the sun side is totally dry because the heat has caused all of the moisture on that side to evaporate, and the dark side is one enormous ice cap — with a temperate ring caused by melting ice, in perpetual, unchanging twilight, separating the two sides.  Icy eyeballs would be farther away from the star, where the dark side would be one huge glacier but the sun side would still have liquid water — perhaps with a few islands and continents thrown in for good measure, just to give the eye an even creepier appearance.

NASA Turns 60

Today NASA celebrates its 60th birthday.  The National Aeronautics and Space Administration was created when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 on July 29, 1958.

63a69251ab87b6532a23a84672c0bb66NASA replaced the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, and President Eisenhower viewed the creation of the agency as an historic step, “further equipping the United States for leadership in the space age” and allowing it to make “an effective national effort in the fields of aeronautics and space exploration.”  You can read the full text of President Eisenhower’s signing statement here.

It is not unusual for federal legislation to be hailed as historic when it is signed, but in the case of the National Aeronautics and Space Act that prediction was entirely accurate.  I think it is safe to say that NASA has met, and greatly exceeded, the goal of allowing the United States to make “an effective national effort in the field of aeronautics and space exploration.”  The Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, the space shuttle and international space station, and the many unmanned probes and devices that have allowed us to better understand our solar system all bear the indelible imprint of NASA.  NASA has taken human beings to the Moon and brought them safely back home and has given us up-close looks at Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and their moons.  NASA’s efforts have also helped to push advancements in science, technology, and other areas that have now become part of our lives and culture.  By any measure, this still-sprightly 60-year-old has been a spectacular success.

Some people reflexively complain about the creation of any federal agency, but NASA is an example of how mobilizing an effort at the national level and entrusting it to knowledgeable people can accomplish great things.  With private space exploration and travel looming on the immediate horizon, and Congress currently considering how to regulate those private efforts going forward, it will be interesting to see what the next 60 years bring for NASA — the little agency that could.

Going To The Moon

Forty-nine years ago, on July 20, 1969, the Lunar Module carrying Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon.  Neil Armstrong stepped off a ladder onto the lunar surface, spoke his famous words — “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind” — and history was made.

6dd375de95e2dbaea454b6203379dd20I was watching on that day, along with probably everyone else on the planet who had access to a TV set.  I remember sitting with UJ and watching grainy black and white footage as the lunar module landed and then, later, Armstrong stepped into history.  I was 12 years old.  Even now, I still feel a little thrill just thinking about that day and that moment, when it seemed like anything was possible and it would be the start of a golden age of space exploration that would take human beings to Moon bases, Martian colonies, and on to the stars.  Of course, that didn’t happen . . . but I still remember that awed and awesome feeling.

Popular Mechanics has a great piece that steps through the various phases of the Apollo 11 mission, from liftoff to the descent to the Moon to the return to Earth, based on the recollections of some of the participants.  It’s well worth reading.  If, like me, you watched it live in amazed wonder, you can relive that experience.  If you weren’t around then, it’s worth reading just to get a sense of what it was like for the United States of America to invent spacecraft, land on the Moon, and return to Earth in an era when the most sophisticated computer used on the mission would now be considered a Stone Age relic.  It was an extraordinary achievement.

I hope our politicians celebrate this 49th anniversary, and finally decide that it’s high time that we return to the Moon — and venture farther still.  It’s long overdue.

Investing In Space

Let’s say your modest portfolio in the stock market has had a good run over the past year or so, and you’re looking for a new investment opportunity.  Let’s posit, further, that you think Bitcoin is a curious bubble that’s going to burst someday, and that you’d rather put your money into a company that produces something more tangible and more futuristic.

Well, what about space?

fh-onpadSpaceX is racking up a number of impressive accomplishments.  Last month SpaceX successfully tested its Falcon Heavy Rocket, and it is moving forward on launching what it calls the most powerful operational rocket in the world.  The Falcon Heavy launch is set for next week, on February 6, from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  The successful launch of the Falcon Heavy would join other stellar (pun intended) SpaceX accomplishments, like being the first company to launch a rocket with payload into space and then land the rocket back on Earth, and being the first company to relaunch an already used rocket.  SpaceX also built the first private spacecraft to dock with the international space station, and it’s shown it can reuse the spacecraft, too.  If you’re trying to make space a commercially viable enterprise, developing reusable rocket technology and reusable spacecraft technology, to hold down the cost, is a crucial first step — and SpaceX looks like the leader in taking that step.

But here’s the thing:  you can’t invest directly in SpaceX.  It’s a private company, and its founder Elon Musk has said he won’t take it public until the company has started to make flights to Mars.  Why?  Because Musk is afraid that if the company goes public before then, there’s a chance that the stockholders will pressure the board to focus on things other than colonizing Mars — which is Musk’s goal and is bound to be more expensive and difficult than, say, establishing Moon exploration bases or mining asteroids for precious metals.  It’s not an unreasonable fear on Musk’s part.  So if you want to own a piece of SpaceX, you can only do so indirectly, by investing in Alphabet, which owns a piece of SpaceX as well as parts of Google, YouTube, and other things.

Okay, so SpaceX isn’t currently available for the intrepid investor who wants to get into the space exploration game.  Are there other options?  It’s not easy to determine, because a lot of the companies that are touching upon space issues — like Boeing, for example — are better known for producing other objects.  But you can start to get a sense of what’s out there by looking for lists like this one, on potential investment opportunities involving space, or looking for articles about company announcements related to space activities and then figuring out whether they are publicly traded.

It’s not easy for the casual investor.  What we really need is for one of the stock exchanges to create a “space index,” just like there’s a Dow Jones “transportation index.”  The index would identify the space-related public companies, mutual funds would be established to invest in each of the space index companies, and those of us who’d like to put our money in the heavens could buy into the mutual funds.

Hey stockbrokers!  How about giving investors interested in space some help here?

13 Billion Miles Away, And Still Working

Let’s pause for a moment, ignore the ugliness and failure that seems to boil out of the depths of Washington, D.C. on a daily basis, and consider for a moment something that everyone can agree America has done incredibly well:  manned, and unmanned, space exploration.

640px-ec_voyager_saturnConsider Voyager 1.  It was launched 40 years ago, in September 1977, during the early years of the Carter Administration.  With its sister probe Voyager 2, it successfully explored the major planets of our solar system, sending back fabulous pictures of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn and collecting data that gave us a better understanding of the two giants in the neighborhood of planets circling the Sun.  I remember belonging to a group called The Planetary Society that supported space exploration and travel and getting some of the fantastic Voyager photos as part of my membership.

But then, Voyager 1 just kept going, and going, and going.  It is now more than 13 billion miles away, and has officially gone past the boundaries of our solar system and is out in the trackless areas of interstellar space.  And it’s still working, too.  Recently NASA sent a message out to Voyager 1, instructing it to fire its trajectory correction maneuver thrusters for the first time since November 8, 1980, a few days after the presidential election in which Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter.  The Voyager flight team had to send the instructions in an outdated software language — imagine how much the computer world has changed since 1977! — and it took more than 19 hours for the instruction to reach Voyager 1, but the instruction worked, and the thrusters fired for the first time in 37 years.  The firing of the thrusters allows Voyager to keep its communication antenna pointed in our direction and to keep sending us data as it moves farther out into the void.

It’s pretty amazing stuff, and Americans should be proud of this accomplishment and the planning, and engineering, and foresight that went into the Voyager program.  Of course, we don’t hear about it, in the haze of coverage of presidential tweets and other current news — but it’s a noteworthy accomplishment just the same.  Kudos to NASA!

Recover, Reuse, Relaunch

Yesterday the SpaceX venture reached a new milestone:  the company took a used rocket that it had recovered from a prior mission, relaunched it into space, deposited a customer’s satellite into orbit, and landed the rocket on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean so it can be used again, and again, and again.

falcon-9-dscovr-launchAs I’ve written before, private, commercial ventures like SpaceX are making significant progress in making space flight a common, everyday option.  Yesterday’s flight was a key development in that effort, because a significant part of the cost of space flight has been rockets that are designed, built, and used only once.  That single-use approach might have been viable back in the ’60s, when government funding was plentiful and the United States was on a national quest to be the first country to land a man on the Moon, but it’s simply not sustainable or feasible in our modern world of massive budget deficits and competing national priorities.  It’s also an approach that commercial space concerns could never afford.  That’s why SpaceX has been focused on developing technology that allows those expensive rockets to be reused.

No one should take away from the mighty, ground-breaking accomplishments of the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and space shuttle programs, and there remains a key role for governments in space exploration.  Governments will always have more resources than businesses do, and the need for scientific exploration, and the technological developments that seem to inevitably accompany it, will often fall to governmental entities like NASA.  But profit-making entities and capitalist risk-takers are adept at building on the foundation the government has laid and figuring out how to make things affordable and, not incidentally, profitable.

If tourist trips to the Moon and settlements on Mars are in our future — and I hope they are, because I still hold out hope that I might see a glorious Earthrise from the Moon some day — commercial concerns inevitably will play a huge role.  SpaceX’s reusable rocket technology is another important step forward toward a future in which the “final frontier” becomes a much more accessible place.

Treasure-Hunting Around Mars

Those of us who’ve been waiting patiently — for years, and years, and years — for the United States to get back into the manned space exploration mode have always thought that perhaps crass commercialism might be the impetus.  If governments aren’t spurred by noble thoughts of advancing into the final frontier and exploring for the benefit of all mankind, maybe they’ll be motivated by cold hard cash.  With a compelling case for a serious financial return from exploration, modern governments might — like the European nations exploring the western hemisphere during the 1400s and 1500s — be willing to commission a few ships, set sail, and see what they can find.

We’re about to get an answer to that question, because in a few years NASA will be launching a mission to a solitary asteroid orbiting between Mars and Jupiter that — all on its own — would seem to make space exploration fiscally worthwhile.

1200x600The asteroid, called 16 Psyche, is about the size of Massachusetts and has been battered by meteor strikes.  It’s composed primarily of nickel and iron.  The vast quantities of metal on the asteroid is a kind of treasure trove that causes NASA to say that 16 Psyche is worth about 10,000 quadrillion dollars.  How big is a quadrillion?  Well, apparently there are about one quadrillion ants on planet Earth.  Multiply that mind-boggling number by 10,000, and you get the value of 16 Psyche.  Even Bill Gates would be impressed by that sum.

Of course, we might not want to cart all of that metal back to Earth, because that would be pretty expensive.  We might decide that the treasure trove would be better used to build settlements on Mars, or to manufacture space stations or space craft, or for any of countless potential uses of metal in space.  And it’s all out there waiting for the first intrepid country, or group of countries, that is willing to go out and get it.

So — why not get back into space, already?  We’ve twiddled our thumbs long enough, and you can tell that private enterprise is starting to look pretty seriously at space as an investment and development opportunity.  In fact, some people are arguing that, with private enterprise leading the way, we could be back on the Moon, permanently, in four years, and then moving on to other planets in the solar system thereafter.  Who knows?  Maybe a President who talks about “the art of the deal” couldn’t resist trying to lay claim to a titanic treasure.

With all of the bad things happening in the world these days, it would be nice to turn our eyes skyward.  I wouldn’t mind a little greed for $10,000 quadrillion if that’s what it takes to motivate us to get back into space to stay.

Learning From The Strangest Creatures On Earth

Tardigrades are extremely weird, extremely small creatures — but it looks like they’ve got a lot to teach us.

tardigrade_imagelargeTardigrades are eight-legged microscopic creatures that were first discovered about 450 years ago.  They are undeniably ancient, having diverged from precursor animal species more than 600 million years ago.  That makes them one of the oldest species on Earth.  In close-up photos, they look like manufactured animals . . . or perhaps characters in a video game.  They’re also called water bears, and some people curiously describe them as “adorable.”

But here’s the most interesting part:  tardigrades are the ultimate survivors.  In fact, they might be the hardiest species in the world.  Recently, scientists successfully revived a tardigrade that had been frozen solid for more than 30 years — that’s since the Reagan Administration, in case you’re counting — and the species also can withstand dehydration and a total vacuum.  Of particular interest to scientists, tardigrades also can survive radiation levels that are lethal to most organisms.

Scientists studying one of the toughest tardigrades learned that the little guys have a special protein that provides protection against radiation.  Dubbed “damage suppression” or “Dsup” by researchers, the protein envelops tardigrade DNA and protects it from radiation injury while allowing it to maintain all of its normal functions.  Even more intriguing, scientists think “Dsup” could be developed in human beings, and provide protection for humans engaged in space travel or that need extreme radiation therapy.  It may be that, in the future, humans are thanking our little water bear friends for providing us with a method that allows us to safely explore the far reaches of our solar system and the galaxy beyond.

Well . . . maybe they are kind of cute and cuddly after all.

To Infinity (Or At Least The Far Edge Of The Solar System)

Those of us over a certain age learned that Pluto was the ninth planet in the solar system, and the one farthest from the SunIn 2006, however, Pluto was “de-planetized,” when the know-it-alls at the International Astronomical Union concluded that Pluto should be relegated to “dwarf planet” status.  Pluto itself could not be reached for comment.

Since it was dissed nine years ago, tiny Pluto has stolidly borne its politically incorrect “dwarf planet” label.  Still, it’s an intriguing object.  It’s tiny (smaller than our Moon), its orbit is different from that of any other planet, it’s unimaginably far away (on average, 3.6 billion miles from the Sun, 40 times farther away than Earth) and its deeply mysterious because we’ve never gotten a good look at it.  Even though Pluto was discovered in 1930, we still don’t have any decent picture of the object.

That’s about to change.  Recently, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft entered its Pluto exploration zone.  It was launched in 2006 and has traveled more than 4 billion miles to get near Pluto.  For most of that time, the spacecraft’s active systems have been “sleeping.”  Now, New Horizons has been awakened, and last Sunday it began to take its  first pictures of Pluto.  It’s closest pass will come in July.

As New Horizons transmits its photos back to Earth, we’ll learn far more about Pluto than we’ve ever known before.  I’m rooting for little Pluto, which has basically been ignored in favor of studies of Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars.  I’m hoping that Pluto turns out to be the most fascinating object in the solar system.  Who knows?  Maybe Pluto is small and weird because it’s not a planet at all, but instead an alien spacecraft, or a marker like The Object in 2001.  Probably not . . . but a Plutophile can dream.

Warping To The Future Of Space Flight

I didn’t know that NASA scientists were thinking about how they might design a faster-than-light ship, but it’s pretty cool that people are giving concrete thought to the topic.  Even cooler is the artist’s illustration, above, of what such a spacecraft would look like — from the warp core to the Star Trek-like command bridge.

We all have to pay attention to the realities of the world — but it’s nice to take a moment now and then to dream.  I firmly believe that our future ultimately lies in the stars, and sometimes I wish we did more to make that future come to pass.  Aspirational projects like the one described in the article linked above might help to spur us in that direction.

The “New Space” Race

Yesterday, the Indian mission to Mars, called Mangalyaan, fired rockets that caused it to leave Earth orbit and begin a voyage that will see it rendezvous with Mars in September, 2014.  This morning China launched its first moon rover, with a rocket carrying the “Jade Rabbit” on a mission to explore the lunar surface.

India and China are competitors in a new space race.  They are vying to join the United States, Russia, and Europe in showing the scientific and engineering capability to conduct complicated space missions and enhance their international prestige as a result.

In the meantime, the focus of American space efforts have changed.  Although NASA continues to produce amazing unmanned space exploration missions, with the end of the shuttle program the United States government is temporarily out of the business of launching humans into space.  As the Washington Post has recently reported, the torch of manned space flight is being picked up by a number of private companies that are taking a different, more entrepreneurial approach.  Many of the companies are located in the Mojave desert — a location familiar to anyone who has read The Right Stuff and knows the history of the Mercury space program.  The companies feature imaginative business models that forecast how space flight and exploration can become a profitable venture.

As the Indian and Chinese missions show, there will always be a role for government in space.  Many of us regret that the federal government didn’t ignore the naysayers and move much more aggressively into space after the triumphs of the Apollo program with the building of a large, functioning space station, lunar bases, and other efforts.  But the government didn’t do so.  Now those of us who dream of space exploration should be pleased that private enterprise sees opportunities in the heavens.  The history of America has shown that capitalism can work wonders, and competition among companies can spur extraordinary technological advances.  If the same visionary leadership and engineering savvy that produced our personal computer and smartphone revolution can be brought to bear on the commercial development of space, who can say what opportunities might be realized?

Keep your eye on the high desert.  When we start reading more about readily available “space tourism” flights or mining efforts in the asteroid belt, we’ll know that the future envisioned in countless science fiction novels has moved a little bit closer.

Chatting Up Astro Boy

The Japanese have come up with a solution for astronaut loneliness:  they’ve designed a talking robot that was sent up into space yesterday to serve as a companion for the Japanese astronaut who will be commanding the International Space Station later this year.  The robot, called Kirobo, is part of a study of how machines can interact emotionally with humans who are isolated.

Kirobo is 13 inches tall, is capable of various movements, and was modeled on the cartoon character Astro Boy.  Kirobo is programmed to communicate in Japanese and to recognize the face of astronaut Kochi Wakata, so Kirobo can greet Wakata when they meet up at the International Space Station.  The robot will record all of his conversations with Wakata and also may serve as a conduit for messages from the control room.  Kirobo’s designer says he hopes the robot will serve as a kind of mediator between human and machine.

The Japanese are constantly breaking new ground in robotics, and Kirobo is just the latest development.  Still, I wonder about the underlying concept.  Our technology has progressed to the point where we routinely communicate with machines, through keyboards and voice commands, but an emotional connection just doesn’t happen. No one considers Siri their BFF.

Will a lonely astronaut, fresh from a hard day’s work on the ISS, really want to have a deep conversation with a doll-like invention that looks like Astro Boy?  Would Mission Control be more concerned if the astronaut didn’t connect emotionally with Kirobo — or if he did?  Is talking to a tiny machine really that much emotionally healthier than talking to yourself?

Curiosity, On The (Martian) Ground

NASA announced today that the Martian rover, Curiosity, has successfully landed on the Red Planet.  In an amazing display of engineering, Curiosity roared through the Martian atmosphere, undertook a series of maneuvers to slow itself down, and then landed safely in the Gale Crater, near Mars’ equator.

The rover’s touchdown on Mars is just another triumph for America’s unmanned space program.  We have probes, satellites, robots, and landers operating all across the solar system — and for the first time in human history just outside of it, too.

Curiosity‘s mission will be a long, and interesting, one that will last for at least two years.  The rover is the largest device NASA has yet landed on Mars and is powered with a long-lasting plutonium battery.  It will navigate the Martian surface, scan the Martian soil for signs of water, climb a Martian mountain, and collect samples to test for organic compounds, and pulverize rocks with a laser.  And, because this is the social media age, Curiosity of course has its own Twitter feed.  The rover therefore also has made history by sending the first Tweet from the surface of Mars.  It said: “I’m safely on the surface of Mars. GALE CRATER I AM IN YOU!!!”

A Glimpse Of The Future Of Space

Our governments are running out of money.  Programs like space exploration — which don’t pander to particular interest groups and aren’t viewed as “essential” — are easy targets for budget cutters.  That means that, if we are to advance in space, commercial entities motivated by profits will have to carry the ball forward.

Today saw a big step in that direction.  A company called SpaceX launched its own Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral.  The rocket is carrying a SpaceX Dragon capsule filled with supplies for the International Space Station.  Because this is the first flight, the supplies are not essential, and the Dragon capsule will need to show its reliability and maneuverability before it will be allowed to get near the ISS.  If it passes those tests, however, it will move close to the space station, be snatched from space by a robot arm, and then emptied of its cargo.  If the mission is a success, it will be the first of many such deliveries.  With the space shuttle program ended, NASA will need to rely on private companies to deliver the goods.

I’m sure there will be some who moan about the intrusion of money-grubbing corporations into the pristine realm of space, but the fact is that capitalism is already there, in the form of countless communications satellites.  If space is to be fully explored, profit-seeking risk-takers will need to take the lead.  We should all celebrate SpaceX’s achievement and hope for a successful venture that encourages other companies to get into the business of space.