The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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Review of “Cosmopolitics: Public Policy of Outer Space” by Paris Arnopoulos

Cosmopolitics: Public Policy of Outer SpaceCosmopolitics: Public Policy of Outer Space by Paris Arnopoulos

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A good faith stab at attempting to consolidate information on a wide-ranging and complex question. How do we set up social structures that will work for the dawn of the real space age… when space is commercial accessible and exploitable by private interests?

However, the perspective is dated and some of the underlying assumptions naive. For example, Arnopoulos assumes that wealth disparity is due purely to the random distribution of resources on the planet and who was able to apply innovation to make use of them. This perspective completely ignores the much larger role that exploitation, slavery, genocide, and predatory monetary policies have had on the distribution of wealth in all human societies to date. Economics in a free market system are not based on people cooperating in rational self-interest, but rather conscious and subconscious xenophobia and the drive to maximize in-group wealth.

These human tendencies are certainly not going to magically disappear just because we will venture out into the solar system. Consider that a private company is now resupplying the space station and has designs on Mars, another private interest is sending a manned (slingshot) mission to Mars by the end of the decade, and still another is planning to mine asteroids in roughly the same timeframe. This is real, and this is now, and not facing the very real social problems we still have on earth will hardly lead us to anywhere sustainable or equitable in space.

While I did glean some useful thinking points from many of the essays, I confess to putting it down halfway through due to its sociopolitical and economic naivete. The fact that the writing gave me the sense that I was perpetually trapped in an introduction didn’t help in keeping me awake.

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We Need More Science Teachers

One more video posted from BTR, this one an interview on science teaching in particular and why we need more science teachers.

Applications open for Mars One, the first human space colony | Ars Technica

Artists conception of the Block II Space Launch System (SLS). By NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Want to travel to space and live on Mars? Are you willing to make that ticket one-way only? Ars Technica is reporting that  applications are open for Mars One, the first human space colony:

Mars One—the private space project that plans to be the first to send humans to Mars and leave them there—officially opened its virtual doors to would-be Mars residents, per a press release and press conference Monday. Today is the first day anyone who has ever thought it might be neat to put on a helmet and see Earth from outside its atmosphere can submit an application to be considered for the first permanent human colony on Mars. The Mars One foundation reports it has received 10,000 messages of interest about the program prior to this point. We’ll soon see how many of those translate to applications.

The Mars One project was started by Bas Lansdorp, a Dutch entrepreneur, with the goal of setting up a small human-inhabited outpost on Mars. The tentative schedule has supplies landing on the red planet in 2016 and the settlers in 2023.

Whoa. If you need a sign that commercial spaceflight is on the verge of a huge new era, look no further than this ambitious declaration.

The major hurdle is getting the mass up there. Climbing out of Earth’s gravity well takes up lots of energy, and that translates to high costs per kilogram of payload. Moreover, currently available launch systems simply do not have the capacity to launch enough at one time for large-scale missions to be practical. However,  With NASA’s Space Launch System (70 MT to LEO) and private heavy-lift launch vehicles like Space X’s Falcon Heavy (53 MT to LEO) coming online soon, long-range / long-duration missions (as well as space settlement) get much closer to being reality.

Ideally, we would want to reduce the material we launch from Earth as much as possible. Taking advantage of in-space resources, such as commercial asteroid mining, will be the key to establishing a long term space economy. That will require essential infrastructure, such as energy generation and orbital processing and construction facilities, to be put into place first. The Mars One project clearly doesn’t plan to wait around for such infrastructure though. In this case, the mission seems focused on a proof-of-concept to inspire blaze the trail.

With all of these private plans to forge ahead out into the black, it worries me that the policy side of the discourse seems to be severely lacking. Mired and gridlocked even with the basic problems of today, it does not seem as though our Congress is prepared, knowledgeable, or open-minded enough to even consider the basic questions at stake. As of now, there are few if any laws or legal precedents governing human and corporate conduct in space. Even more basic, no one seems to know who even has the right or authority to make such laws. It would be a shame, even dangerous for the future of the species, to allow unregulated expansion into the solar system.

  • Who has authority and jurisdiction over space?
  • How does one claim property in space? Can a private corporation simply land and claim a whole moon for example?
  • How will laws be enforced, assuming they exist?
  • Do international rules and identities apply in space?
  • How will the immense resources of space and the solar system be distributed, taxed, and/or appropriated?
  • Do people, especially workers, have rights in space?
  • Can corporations and private citizens declare war on each other for resources?

Space could be the next Wild West, only orders of magnitude more lawless and destructive to natural systems. If we are not careful, the bold dreams of colonizing the solar system and expanding humanity into the stars could quickly become tainted by exploitation, corruption, and greed. The action is happening already, whether we are ready for it or not — and we must engage with the issue now, at the outset.

A Sense of Perspective

Every now and then, usually when something like politics or racism or injustice or terrorism or whatever else gets nasty, I find it helpful to get a dose of perspective. Thanks to ESO’s VISTA telescope, we have THIS:

It may not look like much at first, until you realize that those points of light are not stars, but whole galaxies. Process that for a minute: you’re looking at over 200,000 galaxies, each one with anywhere from 100,000,000,000 to 300,000,000,000 stars.

Oh, and according to BadAstronomer’s post about this deep-field image, this is only a 1.2 x 1.5 degree patch of sky. That means those 60,000,000,000,000,000 (sixty quadrillion) suns are in just approximately 0.004% of the observable area of the sky. And that’s just what we can see with our current instruments and given where we are in the universe. (You can get the full image from ESO.)


Feeling humble yet? This is really why we do science and exploration.

By expanding the frontiers of what is possible, we move beyond present constraints to worldly solutions. By exploring, we discover more about ourselves, where we came from, and where we could be going. In doing the hardest things imaginable, we develop systems and methods and materials and technologies that rain down into all areas of human life.

And by always striving to look upward at the immensity of the beauty around us, we are constantly humbled into looking inward at how we can make our speck of the universe a better place for our fellow human beings.

If I ever find myself caught up in the mundane, wound up about something petty, or angry at someone or something else, despairing for humanity, or wondering why I should keep striving against something difficult… this is among the set of pictures I look at.

It’s good to keep a sense of perspective.

Review of Heinlein’s “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”

The Moon Is a Harsh MistressThe Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I will undoubtedly be branded a science fiction heretic, but I just don’t see what all the fuss is about.

I can respect Heinlein’s technical proficiency as a writer, particularly the highly consistent dialects and comprehensive rendering of technology. I can appreciate how forward-thinking (in some respects) Heinlein was in anticipating the space era in a novel written in the mid 60’s. I can also see how this novel undoubtedly influenced many writers down the line.

None of these merits, however, makes The Moon is a Harsh Mistress either enjoyable, informative, or insightful to the contemporary reader. Its technological futurism is obsolete, its view of humanity mired in a bygone era of chauvinism and nationalism, and its social commentary amounting to little more than Ayn Rand in Space.

I care about none of the characters, because I cannot relate to them — thus it to me fails as a story. Nor does the story bring me to any new understanding of the human condition, because its postulates in this regard are archaic — thus to me it fails as art.

My impression of Heinlein’s masterpiece is something analogous to the Deuteronomic Code: it has its set place in the establishment’s canon, mostly for historical reasons, but ultimately has very little worthwhile to say to contemporary society.

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Our Choice

“Those worlds in space are as countless as all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the Earth. Each of those worlds is as real as ours. In every one of them, there’s a succession of incidence, events, occurrences which influence its future. Countless worlds, numberless moments, an immensity of space and time. And our small planet, at this moment, here we face a critical branch-point in the history. What we do with our world, right now, will propagate down through the centuries and powerfully affect the destiny of our descendants. It is well within our power to destroy our civilization, and perhaps our species as well. If we capitulate to superstition, or greed, or stupidity we can plunge our world into a darkness deeper than time between the collapse of classical civilization and the Italian Renaissance. But, we are also capable of using our compassion and our intelligence, our technology and our wealth, to make an abundant and meaningful life for every inhabitant of this planet. To enhance enormously our understanding of the Universe, and to carry us to the stars.”

– Carl Sagan, Cosmos episode 8, “Journeys in Space and Time”

Stop Building Bombs and Start Building Starships


Stop Building Bombs and Start Building Starships

Side Note: To go where no human has gone before.. this may come off as a lengthy read but I would definitely recommend it to any follower who is either into futurism or at least has an interest in where our future ought to head. Scientific American guest blogger Steven P. discusses how science and our ever developing technologies can really take us into an age of space exploration. So give it a read or save it on the blog for later, I definitely enjoyed it myself. But then again I’m always up for some interstellar space travel.

Illustration: ‘The Fleet Advances’ by newcmd001

by Steven Ross Pomeroy

In 1969, a great shadow was cast over the United States. That shadow, however, was not one of gloom. Instead of evoking the absence of light, this shadow caused us to look up in wonder at the brightness that created it. When the Saturn V Rocket propelling Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins dashed across the blue, cloud-splotched sky, we did not see a dark present. We glimpsed a bright future.

Elsewhere, however, truly ominous shadows were cast by rockets which never saw the sun. Nestled in silos and buried beneath barren landscapes, “Minuteman” missiles meant not to uplift man, but to deliver the end of man, shrouded much of our world in trepidation.

These two rockets, with two very distinct purposes, bring into focus a problem that has long plagued our nation. We spend far too much money on war, and not enough on science.

Considering that we are nearing the ominously titled “fiscal cliff” — a series of government spending cuts and tax increases that will automatically take effect if Congress and the President do not act to stop it — we have a unique opportunity to review Federal spending and ensure that we are investing our time and wealth to their most productive ends.

I argue that such a review – if guided by reason – would reveal that defense spending should be reduced in order to make way for a world-changing commitment to science and technology, a bold move that will put both the United States and the world on a path to a bright future.

As it stands today, the United States is clearly over militarized. Defense spending in 2011 was estimated at $711 Billion. That’s equal to the combined budgets of the next fourteen top-spending countries, over half of whom are strong U.S. allies. Moreover, a 2011 Government Accountability Office audit of defense spending found that a combined $70 billion was wasted in 2010 and 2009.

This over-the-top spending is indicative of a military-industrial-complex run amok, precisely the scenario that President Dwight D. Eisenhower, perhaps the most revered military commander of the 20th century, warned against in his farewell address. “Together, we must learn how to compose differences not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose,” he avowed.

I can think of no better way to fulfill Eisenhower’s vision than through the pursuit of science.

By intelligently, purposefully, and gradually drawing down the defense budget from 4.7% to 3.0% of GDP (from $709 to $453 billion), and diverting some of those funds to meaningful science projects of both national and global significance, the United States can accomplish the essential goal of protecting its citizens, while simultaneously making the world a safer, healthier place and reinvigorating our economy.

We can begin the funding transition at home by re-committing ourselves to NASA. If we double the space agency’s budget (currently at $17.8 billion), our space accomplishments in ten years will dwarf even the monumental success of this summer, when the Curiosity rover landed on Mars.

We can complete the James Webb Space Telescope, allowing us to peer farther into the Universe than ever before. We can go to Mars by the end of the decade, a mission which astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson insists “would reboot America’s capacity to innovate as no other force in society can.” And with the recent news that warp drive may be more feasible than originally thought, we can focus on researching and eventually engineering interstellar starships that could one day take humans to Gliese 581 g — a potentially habitable Earth-like planet — in a mere two years. Along the way we could solve a myriad of other problems, writes’s Clara Moskowitz:

“…if human beings can solve the challenges of interstellar spaceflight, in the process they will have solved many of the problems plaguing Earth today, experts said. For example, building a starship will require figuring out how to conserve and recycle resources, how to structure societies for the common well-being, and how to harness and use energy sustainably.”

In addition to funding NASA, we can make fusion energy research a top national priority. Fusion power – an unparalleled energy source that generates electricity by effectively creating a miniature star – has eluded scientists for decades, but researchers now believe that successful fusion is within mankind’s grasp. Before the year is out, scientists at the National Ignition Facility in California hope to fire the world’s most powerful laser into a small test chamber with pea-sized fuel pellets of deuterium and tritium inside. The two isotopes of hydrogen will fuse together and potentially create up to one hundred times more energy than was used to ignite the fuel.

This breakthrough could serve as our “Sputnik Moment” for energy production. If we can put a man on the Moon a mere eight years after deciding to do so, then surely we can master “star power” if we pledge ourselves to the task. Fusion produces no carbon emissions, could provide power for thousands of years, is estimated to be cost-competitive with coal, and is unquestionably the energy source of the future. Yet despite the impressive resumé, fusion energy research is only allotted a relatively paltry $474.6 million.

Why wait for the future to happen later? With additional spending freedom by making cuts in defense, we can fund fusion and make that future happen now.

Continue over at SciAm

Uwingu and Funding for Science/Exploration

I caught the word from Dr. Pamela Gay (on whom I have a giant nerdcrush) about a new start-up that is trying to change the way science and exploration are funded. Uwingu is in the middle of a fundraiser on Indiegogo right now. Details are sparse, but the generally idea seems to be that it is a for-profit company that will use a combination of donor contributions and revenue-generating projects to maintain a fund for supporting exploration and education ideas related to space and science. Their stated motivation is that government funding for R&D seems to be getting slashed all the time, and they want to take matters into their own hands:

Tired of seeing space research and education always the victim of governmental budget cuts? Want to see a change in space funding and increased funds for space exploration, science, and space education? Uwingu LLC wants to effect these kinds of changes in a new way.

I’m actually really curious to see how this turns out, and I wish them all the best; any new venture in science and exploration based on peaceful discovery certainly deserves support. However, I’m a bit skeptical that this is a solution to where we are with R&D as a country.

Private space exploration and private R&D is an important and growing sector of the space industry, and it should be. I’m really proud to have friends working for Space X and similar companies that are pushing forward on opening up space and the associated economic frontier to more people. But there is something very unique about government research and exploration that is, almost by definition, lacking in the private sector: a focus on the public good. When I was a NASA research engineer, all of my research was, by law, made as widely available as possible. My papers were not even subject to copyright protection.

The research that is performed and funded daily by agencies such as NASA, the Departments of Energy and Defense, the NIH, NOAA, EPA, and many others is disseminated broadly. These new ideas and technologies are, by and large, are made freely available to and inform the activities and decisions of academia, private industry, other government agencies, and even other governments. With the exception of classified or ITAR information withheld for national security reasons, the general public receives the benefits and the world improves as a whole.

The crew of Apollo 11 (rest in peace Neil Armstrong), though Americans landing on the moon in an American spacecraft, did not claim the moon on behalf of the US Government, patent the landing method, or copyright their scientific findings. In fact, they didn’t even mention their country of origin on the plaque they set in the surface of the first other-wordly body our species has visited:


JULY 1969, A.D.


Would we be able to say the same if the first explorers on the moon had been from BP or Lockheed Martin or Big Pharma?

Mad props to the founders of Uwingu for getting such a project off the ground; I think we are going to see some really innovative things come out of this endeavor. But we should be cautious about throwing all of our eggs in the privately-funded science basket. No matter how well-intentioned and responsible, a private for-profit company is not the same thing as a national science or exploration program.

Efforts like Uwingu are necessary and welcome, but they are no replacement for a robust, publicly-funded, diverse, and national vision for science and exploration.

A scientific landscape controlled solely by a patchwork of for-profit interests and private agendas could make for a dangerous, or at least more fragmented and segregated, human society.

Was the Big Bang Like Freezing Ice?


Was the Big Bang Like Water Freezing into Ice?

How did the universe begin? The Big Bang is traditionally envisioned as the moment when an infinitely dense bundle of energy suddenly burst outward, expanding in three spatial directions and gradually cooling down as it did so. Now, a team of physicists says the Big Bang should be modeled as a phase change: the moment when an amorphous, formless universe analogous to liquid water cooled and suddenly crystallized to form four-dimensional space-time, analogous to ice.

Image: The Big Bang may have been the moment that a water-like universe froze to form the ice-like universe we see today, a new theory holds.

In the new study, lead author James Quach and colleagues at the University of Melbourne in Australia say the hypothesis can be tested by looking for defects that would have formed in the structure of space-time when the universe crystallized.

“Think of the early universe as being like a liquid,” Quach said in a statement. “Then as the universe cools, it ‘crystallises’ into the three spatial and one time dimension that we see today. Theorized this way, as the universe cools, we would expect that cracks should form, similar to the way cracks are formed when water freezes into ice.”

If they exist, these cracks should be detectable, the researchers said, because light and other particles would bend or reflect off of them as they trek across the cosmos.

The notion that space and time are emergent properties that suddenly materialized out of an amorphous state was first put forth by physicists at Canada’s Perimeter Institute in 2006. Called “quantum graphity,” the theory holds that the four-dimensional geometry of space-time discovered by Albert Einstein is not fundamental; instead, space-time is a lattice constructed of discrete space-time building blocks, just like matter looks continuous, but is actually made of building blocks called atoms.

Originally, at extremely high temperatures, the building blocks were like liquid water: they contained no structure, “representing a state with no space,” the researchers wrote in their paper. At the moment of the Big Bang, when the temperature in the universe dropped to the space-time building blocks’ “freezing point,” they crystallized to form the four-dimensional lattice we observe today.

The math describing the theory checks out, but “the challenge has been that these building blocks of space are very small, and so impossible to see directly,” Quach explained. From the human vantage point, space-time looks smooth and continuous.

However, while the building blocks themselves might be too small to detect, the physicists hope to observe the boundaries that would have formed as regions of crystallizing building blocks butted against one another at the time of the Big Bang, creating “cracks” in the universe. More work is needed to predict the average distance between the cracks — it isn’t known whether they are microscopic, or light-years apart — in order to characterize their effects on particles.

The research by Quach and his team is detailed in this month’s edition of the journal Physical Review D.

Color for Dollars


From Karagiozis et al 2011


I didn’t work on this specifically, but this was the nature of my previous job. A humorous aspect was the fluid nature of the acronym CFD… formally it stands for Computational Fluid Dynamics, but others that captured the often tricky business of interpreting the results included Colorful Fluid Dynamics, Color For Dollars, Contours For Debate, and my personal favorite, Can’t Fucking Decide.


A little over a week ago, NASA’s Curiosity rover landed on Mars, the culmination of years of engineering. The mission’s landing, in particular, was the subject of intense scrutiny as Curiosity’s size necessitated some new techniques in the final segments of the landing sequence. As it hit the Martian atmosphere at 13,000 mph, the compression of the carbon dioxide behind the capsule’s shock wave slowed the descent.  At roughly 1,000 mph—speeds still large enough to be supersonic—Curiosity deployed its parachute. Shown above are the parachute in numerical simulation (from Karagiozis et al. 2011), wind tunnel testing at NASA Ames, and during descent thanks to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The simulation shows contours of streamwise velocity at different configurations; note the bow shock off the capsule and the additional shocks off the parachute. These help generate the drag needed to slow the capsule. For an interesting behind-the-scenes look at the wind tunnel testing for Curiosity’s parachute check out JPL’s fourpart video series. Congratulations to all the scientists and engineers who’ve made the rover a success. We look forward to your discoveries! (Photo credits: K. Karagiozis et al., NASA JPL, NASA MRO)