Saturday, January 31, 2015

A fix for Georgia's transportation woes?

Atlanta traffic sucks.
This week, Georgia's House of Representatives unveiled a transportation plan that includes $1B (annually) for transportation funding, without raising taxes. Though that last part is surely not entirely (or even partly) true, this represents a major shift in policy from the state's exceedingly conservative political leaders. For those that don't know me, I am a fiscal conservative. I prefer my taxes to be as low as possible...and my taxes to be spent in a wise manner. Of course, being a realist, I also understand that's likely to never happen.

That said, I am also a proponent of effective and efficient mass transit. I live and work in one of the most-populous and geographically-dispersed metropolitan areas in the country - Atlanta, Georgia. With the Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) coming in at 8,376 sq mi (21,694 sq km), Atlanta is larger than Rhode Island (1,213 sq mi), Delaware (2,026 sq mi), Connecticut (5,006 sq mi), Hawaii (6,459 sq mi), New Jersey (7,790 sq mi), and Massachusetts (8,262 sq mi). If one considers the Combined Statistical Area (CSA) at 10,494.03 sq mi (27,179.4 sq km)  - the Atlanta MSA plus a few adjacent MSAs - we're also larger than New Hampshire (9,283 sq mi), Vermont, (9,615 sq mi), and Maryland (10,455 sq mi). Yet we have one of the worst mass-transit systems in the world, which contributes to some of the worst traffic in the US.


Atlanta skyline as seen from the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport

All this seems rather odd considering Atlanta's history revolves around being a transportation hub. Ever heard the old adage "All roads lead to Rome."? In modern aviation, it could almost be said "All flights lead to Atlanta." Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (ATL) is the busiest airport in the world...and one of the largest. Tens of thousands of people connect through ATL on a daily basis. On top of that, three major Interstates - I-75, I-85, and I-20 - connect in Atlanta. Lastly, Atlanta is also a major rail hub for the eastern US. If Atlanta is such a hotbed of transportation, why does its mass transit fail so badly?

What's the cause?
As with most things, there is no one single answer. Georgia is an odd state - we have more counties than any other state besides Texas. Georgia's counties have historically taken a relatively insular attitude when it comes to cooperation with their neighbors, which often leads to little-to-no cooperation on projects that might be mutually beneficial. Counties take a "go it alone" tack (with help from state and federal sources, of course), with any benefit ending at the county line.

Secondly, Atlanta is growing rapidly. So many people are moving to the area that it's difficult (if not impossible) to keep up with the pace of growth. The county in which I live is attracting so many people (due to its proximity to the mountains, large lake, and exceptional school system) that the school system is adding approximately 1,700 new students EVERY YEAR. This growth isn't centralized. There are no real population cores in the MSA/CSA any longer - everything is spread out.

This lack of centralized growth leads to an impracticality in using mass transit. As I've said, I live in the Atlanta MSA...but I'm in the northern suburbs. The closest rail station is nearly 25 miles away. If I have to go to Atlanta for anything...and if I'm going to have to drive 25 miles to get to the subway...why not just drive the rest of the way? Sure, the traffic is going to suck...but I have to sit in it anyway just to get to the rail station.

Thirdly, no one wants to pay for transportation. A recent survey from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution indicated that a large majority of people feel strongly about the need for transportation improvements, yet fewer than a third of respondents wanted to pay for them. I find that astonishing and more than a little maddening.

Last, and by no means least, is the specter of bigotry. (Note: I refuse to call it 'racism', because it's not. Look up the definition of 'racism' and you'll see that just about everyone is using it incorrectly, in my opinion.) During the 80s and 90s and into the 2000s, white professionals moved out to the suburbs and exurbs, leaving the inner-city areas predominately populated with a heavy minority contingent. The suburban counties didn't want to make it easy for the minorities to come out to the suburbs, so any initiative that would have expanded mass transit to the 'burbs was resoundingly defeated. Traffic continued (and continues) to worsen while Atlanta's mass transit remains moribund, at best.

While we're on the subject of how the suburban counties have handled transit, I must admit that I've felt less-than comfortable riding MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) at times. Even though law prevents it, and MARTA has their own law enforcement, there are still significant numbers of panhandlers riding the train, and they frequently harass people for handouts. Additionally, there are people that ignore the signs - WHICH ARE POSTED EVERYWHERE - that indicate it's against the rules to play music without headphones. I've had instances like this EVERY time I ride MARTA. I can understand why ridership is down...no one wants to be harassed on their ride. This needs to be fixed if anyone wants rapid transit to expand.

To be sure, there are many other problems afflicting transportation in the region - laws stipulating how MARTA spends its money, environmental concerns, NIMBYs, etc. - but those are the biggies as I see them.

Can it be fixed?
Did I just invoke 'Hot Fuzz'?
I don't know. I believe it will take a strong government to fix what's wrong with Atlanta's traffic...and, quite honestly, the thought of a strong government does NOT sit well with me. However, I also think that too many people are looking out for themselves, rather than determining what might be for the <cringe> 'greater good'. Holy crap, I can't believe I just typed that. It sounds so socialistic. But seriously, while I'm all for taking care of me and my family, I'm also cognizant that a totally selfish attitude is a recipe for societal disaster. I simply wish more people felt like that because I do NOT want an overbearing government to mandate it for me.

I don't like taxes any more than any other fiscal conservative...but I also understand the need to address these problems might require me to pay my share...and for others to pay their share. That goes for you, too, EV owners. Your cars tear up the road just as much as the rest of us with our internal combustion vehicles, so it's really not quite fair that you bypass the gas tax (which pays for road improvement/construction).

I also hope that any solution isn't Atlanta-centric, with Georgia's smaller cities (Augusta, Columbus, Savannah, Macon, etc.) "forgotten" while still helping to pay the tab for Atlanta's improvement. If we're all going to have skin in the game, there should be a payoff for all. There has long been talk of an interstate (I-14) linking Augusta, Macon, and Columbus...heading further west to Mississippi or Louisiana. This would allow east/west traffic to bypass Atlanta altogether, which could only help traffic in the Atlanta region.

I know that it's a problem that won't get fixed on its own - it'll only get worse as time goes by. If not us, who? If not now, when? Fix it.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Turning Disappointment Into Bliss - Part 2

The Cathedral of US Spaceflight.
Sorry for the delay in getting Part 2 written - the holidays were hectic, what with family and...who am I kidding? I was kid-free for Christmas and had no responsibilities. I was simply lazy. And it was GLORIOUS! 

Where was I? Hmmm...oh, that's right - WE WERE GOING INTO THE VEHICLE ASSEMBLY BUILDING!!!! The last time I was at KSC (1986), the tour bus only drove by the iconic structure and did not stop. In fact, most of KSC was inaccessible in the wake of the Challenger Disaster. But even then, I knew what a special place this is. Every Saturn mission...every Skylab launch...every Space Shuttle flight...was, at some point, in this building. History flowed through this massive structure. It's been in movies, TV shows, and video games. In fact, I think even people that don't pay much attention to NASA would recognize this building. To me, it's as much a national icon as anything in Washington, D.C.,...and through the incredible efforts of Jason and the NASA Public Affairs Office, we were going to be allowed inside...AND ON THE ROOF!

The walk from the press area to the VAB wasn't that far, but it felt like it took ages to cross the expanse of asphalt. We were all chatting amongst ourselves, while periodically stopping to snap a picture or two. I can't speak for the others, but I know that I was pretty stinkin' excited. I've been a fan of NASA and the space program for as far back as I can remember, so being in the "shadow" of the VAB was a thrilling experience.


Entering the Low Bay
After passing through security, we entered the VAB through a door in the Low Bay. Of course, the term 'low' takes on a different meaning when it's connected to something the size of the VAB - the Low Bay itself was more than 200 feet tall. I'm fairly certain that my mouth was affixed in a permanent smile at this point.

The interior was both more impressive, and far different, than I'd anticipated. I don't know why, but I had assumed the interior of the VAB was basically an empty shell, with a few cranes for lifting rocket assemblies into position. Though there were cranes, the interior volume was far more filled with "stuff" than I would've thought. I wonder how much change the VAB has seen since Apollo.

At this point, the NASA PAOs started a headcount to see if we needed to split up, and how many groups we might need to split into. I was part of the first group, with Andres and Nancy (NASA PAOs) escorting us up. We were told we'd have to take three elevators to reach the roof - ground to floor 16, floor 16 to 34, and floor 34 to the roof.


Buttons...LOTS of buttons.
Remember when I said Jason asked the group if anyone was afraid of heights? No one raised their hand. No one. I will admit that I don't relish the thought of heights, but they don't particularly bother me, either. I've been skydiving several times, and I love to hike in the mountains...both of which reach heights far greater than the 526 feet of the VAB. Well, let me tell you this - the VAB impacted me in a way I did NOT expect...and that "weakness in the knees" was not purely from the excitement of being there.

Entering the first elevator, everyone started snapping pics of the control panel and its rows and rows of buttons. Once we were all packed-in, the elevator shot upwards - and I do mean "shot". That was the most rapid ascent I've ever experienced in an elevator, coupled with a gut-churning deceleration at the stop on the 16th. This elevator was definitely not cut from the same cloth as those at your neighborhood mall.

Exiting on the 16th was a bit anticlimactic. The surroundings looked much like the basement of an apartment complex - bare concrete floors and cinderblock walls. Not exactly what I expected to see on the 16th floor of the VAB. The group was then guided to the next elevator that would whisk us to the 34th floor.


High...higher...highest.
The "dullness" of the concrete and cinderblock was soon to be left behind - rounding the corner brought the group to a breathtaking sight: the open expanse of the VAB's High Bay! This is where the Saturn rockets and the Space Shuttle were stacked before heading out to the launch pad...and where, soon, SLS will join their ranks. There were banners indicating the respective heights of each program to further illustrate just how big SLS is going to be.

Also, at this point, I became acutely aware of just how high I was...and how much higher I was going. The 'weakness in the knees' began to spread. I'm certain my heart rate jumped quite a bit - it's a good thing that I wasn't wearing any sort of heart-monitoring gear as I think it might've melted down from the increased activity.

As the group made its way to the second elevator, people began to discuss the possibility that this next car might, in fact, be the open-air variety that one might find at a construction site. Cue full-on pupil dilation and a 200 bpm heart rate. Oh dear, I hoped that this next elevator wasn't open-air. Though I would most definitely "suck it up", I preferred to not have to see the girders zip by as we climbed skyward. As the car arrived, it was obvious that it WAS an open-air type...but someone had the foresight to hang heavy "curtains" inside the car so that one couldn't see out. Woo hoo!


Walkway across 34 floors of nothingness.
The second elevator was just as zippy as the first and delivered us to the 34th floor in short order. Once again, the group filed out in order to head to the next (and final) elevator in our quest for the roof. This next elevator, though, was different. It was *considerably* smaller than the other two, which meant that the group had to break into smaller groups in order to be accommodated. Oh, and did I mention that the elevator, unlike the previous two, was out "in the open"? Yeah...34 floors up, standing on a 10'x10' concrete pad, with "nothingness" all around and only chain link-like barriers to prevent us from a 9.8m/s^2 trip to the floor. ::gulp::

Raised how I was, I couldn't take a place on the elevator if a lady would miss out on a spot. Yes, I know that some people think that's an antiquated mode of thought...and some might take offense...but I'm sorry - that's how I was raised. So, while the first group ascended to the roof, I waited on that seemingly tiny pad of concrete with the rest of the group for the return of the empty car so that we can head up. When the elevator doors opened and the rest of the group started filing in, it became clear that not everyone would fit...and I was one of four people left standing on that high perch. The seconds waiting for the return of the elevator car seemed like hours. I made small talk with the NASA PAO, mainly to get my mind off the heights.


Look, Ma - I'm on top of the VAB!!!
Finally, the doors opened and the remainder of us made our way up. When the doors parted, we were greeted with the bright, late afternoon, Florida sun. Gorgeous blue skies were overhead, and we had visibility for MILES! Holy moly, we were on top of the world! Well, on top of the VAB, but it may as well have been the world at that point. The view was absolutely TREMENDOUS! We made our way to the others that had already been up for several minutes, taking the opportunity to snap pictures of the surroundings - Launch Complex 39 in the distance, along with SpaceX's Falcon 9 on the pad at LC 40 - and the Mobile Launch Platform under refurbishment for SLS. And, of course, the obligatory selfies. You know that weakness in the knees I mentioned? Gone. Completely gone. I don't know if it was because the VAB is so large that it can be mistaken for "solid ground" like a mountain...or if it's because of the overwhelming excitement...or a combination of the two...but I was in heaven. This was SOOOOO cool. 

Unfortunately, since it had taken so long for us to make it to the top, we only had a few minutes to take in the surroundings. I took some pics with the DSLR (with a nice telephoto lens in order to 'see' the Falcon 9 on the pad) and a few more with the iPhone before we had to head back down. I'm certain that, if given the opportunity, many (if not all) of the group would've bribed/cajoled a few more minutes of roof time out of the PAOs...indeed, some were fantasizing about camping up there...but there was a whole other group of people that were waiting their turn to make it to the roof. Reluctantly, the group made its way back down.


R.I.P., Columbia.
Upon reaching the floor, we had the opportunity to look around while the rest of the group took their turn on the roof. There was some construction work occurring in the VAB getting it ready for SLS...and I noticed a large "mission patch" denoting Columbia's final flight, several floors up. I took a picture of it, not understanding the gravity of its significance. I didn't know it at the time, but Columbia's remains are housed in the VAB behind that memorial. Oh. My. Even now, thinking about it, I get a tear in my eye. I'm glad I didn't know about it at the time, else I might've looked a bit undignified.

Well, that was the end of Day 1...and, at any other time, it would be hard to approach - much less, top - the awesomeness that Jason and Co. presented to us. But this wasn't "any other time". You see, Orion had just returned to KSC...and we were going to see her the next day!!! But that's a story for another blog entry. Until then, thanks for visiting, and be sure to check out Part 1 if you missed it.

Many more photos are in a Flickr album I've shared - click here to see them all.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Is there still a need for a national space program?

I was at a friend's house the other evening, and the topic of the space program came up. He asked me this: "What do you think of Obama closing down NASA and relying on the private sector to do the job?" I was about to reply, but someone else said something and the conversation moved down a different path...which is a shame, because I most definitely have thoughts on the matter. Since I didn't get the chance to talk about it then, I'll take the opportunity to do so now.

Firstly, I don't think I've heard any credible source indicating that NASA is anywhere near being closed down. In fact, in the recent 'Continuing Resolution/Omnibus Spending Bill' that was passed, NASA received more money than they'd requested, with a significant increase targeted at SLS/Orion. Certainly this should quell any notion about NASA's mission being near an end.

Secondly, the private space industry is nowhere near ready to match the capability of what NASA can provide (both in-house and through contracted services). NASA has invested billions of dollars in facilities, research, infrastructure, manpower, etc., that private industry simply cannot replicate.

Would private industry see a value in New Horizons?
Thirdly, there are a lot of space exploration tasks that are not profit-driven and would likely be considered low-priority by private space interests. While someone like SpaceX might realize a financial reward by investigating lunar/asteroid mining, I'm far less confident they'd see a fiscal benefit in exploring Pluto (New Horizons) or Europa (Europa Clipper). Expanding human knowledge, though unprofitable, is critical to understanding how the universe works.

Lastly, why does having one preclude the usefulness of the other? It doesn't. Private industry, being profit-driven, will look for the cheapest/most efficient way to accomplish a task. There's nothing wrong with that, provided safety and reliability don't suffer. Similarly, I see the need for a national space program that serves the nation's interests - security and exploration - that would make a corporate beancounter whip out their red pen.

One might argue that a national space program is inherently more expensive than a private program, and they have a point. Kind-of. One must remember that many of the private partners make use of the decades of research and experience that NASA offers, as well as the state-of-the-art testing facilities NASA has built over the years. These are costs that the private guys don't have to incur. Moreover, with competition in the private arena heating up, I believe reduced costs are inevitable in a national program, too.

I love seeing the Stars and Stripes on a spaceship.
I'm a fan of the private industry, though I must admit to not always feeling that way. I never thought there was much real push behind them other than to stroke a billionaire's ego. I was wrong, and I don't mind admitting that. I'm genuinely excited about the prospects they bring to the table. I'm also just as excited, if not more-so, about the big programs coming out of NASA.

There are many fanboys out there proudly waving the flag of their chosen "team", and are quick to deride "the other guys". These are wasted energies and detract from the absolute awesomeness that is occurring in the industry. One thing is certain, though: For a space nerd, it's an exciting time to be alive.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Turning Disappointment Into Bliss - Part 1

Falcon 9 & Dragon - ready to head to the ISS...but not
today.
Many of you may know that I recently took a trip to Florida to cover SpaceX's CRS-5 launch to the International Space Station. Originally scheduled to fly on December 9, the launch was later delayed a week...then a few extra days to December 19. Through the generosity of 'The Universe' and Amy (@AstroGingerSnap on Twitter - you need to follow her. Really.), I applied for media credentials for the event...hoping to see my first in-person launch. NASA approved the request and I was to be issued my first-ever media credentials.

So, on Wednesday, December 17, I set-off from the northern Atlanta 'burbs for the 8-hour drive to Titusville, FL. With all of my requisite gear (camera, multiple smartphones, laptop, tablet...you know - the essentials) in-tow, I pondered what the sights and sounds of a launch might be like. Thinking happy thoughts, I wiled away the miles with nary a concern. Even the ubiquitous Florida toll roads didn't irritate me as much as usual. OK, maybe that last part is a stretch - those toll roads tend to make me a bit "stabby", and this trip was no different. I *hate* toll roads.

Anyway, as the final miles ticked off and I neared the hotel, the excitement grew within. This was getting real...very real. I was going to see a launch! Woo hoo!

A few minutes after checking-in and unloading my car, I received an ominous message from Amy that said (paraphrased): "Here's a link that I don't think you're going to like." 

::clicks link::

Uh oh. Unconfirmed reports indicated that the Falcon 9's static fire test didn't go as planned and the launch is being delayed until at least the 20th...but likely later. Much later. As in '2015-later'. Crap on a cracker. So, I'd driven 500+ miles for a launch that was now likely to not occur. On top of that, though NASA had invited a few dozen people to take part in their planned NASA Social agenda for the launch, the media types like myself had no such activities in which to participate. I contemplated checking out of the hotel and head home the next day.

Amy said that the briefing was still scheduled for Thursday morning, and that more information would be given then...but all signs pointed to a significant delay. I slept fitfully, dreaming of disappointment. Waking early the next morning, I set off for the badging office to sign-in and received my credentials. Though I knew there was to be no launch, my excitement level was still pretty high. At the very least, I would see the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) from close range, and that's pretty cool in-and-of itself.


Obligatory selfie w/ the VAB in the background.
Arriving far before the start of the briefing (remember, kids: "Early is 'on-time'...and on-time is 'late'."), I sat in my car for a moment to take-in the scenery...and the history. I was in space nerd heaven. The iconic VAB was just a stone's throw away...and the new clock, with Pad 39A as its backdrop, was nearby.

I strolled around outside, trying my best (but failing) to not look like a KSC-noob. Well, I wasn't really a noob - I'd been to KSC once before...all the way back in 1986. My parents had taken us to Florida to visit Disney, and we were going to take a trip to KSC to watch Challenger land. If you know your space history, you'll understand why we didn't get to see a landing, and why most of KSC was closed to visitors.

Deciding that I'd spent enough time gawking at the cool stuff, I headed into the Press Center and waited for the briefing. As people started arriving, we began chatting with one another. While I was attending on a media pass, most people were there as NASA Social invitees. It was apparent that NASA selects from a broad pool of people for these events - though there were the expected types of social media representatives present (space bloggers, enthusiasts, engineers, etc.), we also had a travel blogger, someone that works in the fashion industry, and an elementary school principal (just to name a few).

Knowing that my presence at the event was purely as a media representative, but wanting to participate in the programs offered to the NASA Social crowd, I asked Jason Townsend (NASA's Deputy Social Media Manager) if there might be room for me to tag along with the group. Luckily, he thought that it shouldn't present a problem, so I excitedly joined-in (thanks, Jason!).

FULL DISCLOSURE: It's entirely possible that I have some of the speakers listed out-of-order, or info not entirely correct. If so, please accept my apologies, and feel free to let me know and I'll rearrange as necessary.

CATS in space! No...not that kind of cat, Laurel. :-)
The briefing began with a talk from some engineers and scientists working on NASA's CATS (Cloud-Aerosol Transport System) project. Very cool, and I'd only heard small bits of info about it previously. The experiment will attach to the exterior of the Japanese module (thanks, JAXA!) on ISS, and will use different laser wavelengths to measure particulates - biological, mineral, human, etc. - in the atmosphere in order to give us more accurate atmospheric models. ISS makes for a perfect platform for this type of science due to its orbital inclination and excess resources (power, comms, etc.). In fact, the ISS was considered to be 'underutilized', and was ripe for a project like this. Be sure to check out the program's webpage for more info.

After the CATS team, another NASA scientist - Dr.Sharmilla Bhattacharya (head of the Biomedical Performance and Behavior Lab at Ames - thanks, Amy) - discussed experiments analyzing multi-generational studies of fruit flies exposed to microgravity, compared to a control group in 1g conditions on Earth. They'll also have a third group kept in 1g-like conditions on ISS in a centrifuge. This will allow the scientists to determine if any genetic changes are related to gravity, or some other space-based condition (radiation, etc.).

Next, we heard from Patrick O'Neill - Marketing and Communication Manager with CASIS (Center for the Advancement of Science In Space). CASIS manages the national laboratory on ISS, and was appointed by Congress to identify new research opportunities afforded by ISS's unique environment. I never knew about this initiative, and it was quite interesting to see how private industry is being made aware of the research capabilities available to them on ISS.


Dr. Samuel Durrance - FIT professor and two-time
astronaut.
Following CASIS was Dr. Samuel Durrance, physics and space sciences professor at the Florida Institute of Technology...and two-time astronaut...to discuss his project: Self-Assembly in Biology and the Origin of Life (SABOL). I'll be honest - I generally consider myself to be a relatively intelligent person, but a lot of this was over my head...but that's OK - Dr. Durrance and his team are the ones that need to understand it, not me. Quoted from their web site: “Through our project we seek to develop an improved understanding of the origin of life on our planet, increase our understanding of Alzheimer’s disease and provide an opportunity to apply this new understanding for the betterment of humanity.”

Then, Mary Murphy from NanoRacks came to talk about the company's capability to: "...put microgravity research projects within the budgetary realm of hundreds of universities, smaller organizations and first-time commercial space research users." They operate the only commercial laboratory in space.


The 526'-tall Vehicle Assembly Building - each stripe on
the flag is big enough to drive a bus...with room to spare.
Lastly, Dr. Julie Robinson - ISS program scientist - spoke with the group about how proper diet and exercise in space could negate bone loss without the need for drugs. This holds possible groundbreaking treatment possibilities for osteoporosis.

After all this, Jason mentioned that he was attempting to arrange a couple of very cool things for the group...and, for one of them, he wanted to know if anyone was afraid of heights. Afraid. Of. Heights. Did that mean what I thought it meant - going into, and on top of, the VAB?!?

Yes...yes, it did! How cool is that?!?!? We get to go into - AND ON TOP OF - the 'Cathedral of US Spaceflight'!!! 

But, alas, that's a story for another day. Until then, thanks for visiting, and be sure to let me know your thoughts and opinions in the comments below.


Monday, December 22, 2014

Can't we all just get along?

July 21, 2011 - the beginning of a pause in the capability of NASA to get astronauts to orbit from US soil. Since Atlantis's touchdown, we have had to rely on Russia's ability to do the job for us...and the price they charge per seat is indicative of the lack of meaningful competition. This was never meant to be a permanent solution, which is why NASA awarded the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts to both SpaceX and Boeing earlier in 2014. Both companies were awarded the full amount of their respective proposals to develop a ship capable of carrying astronauts to LEO (low Earth orbit), dock with ISS, act as a space lifeboat in the event of emergencies, and return crew safely to Earth.

While Boeing is considered to represent the "old guard" in US spaceflight, SpaceX is most definitely the young upstart. As with most newcomers, SpaceX feels they can do things better, faster, and cheaper than the old guys. And you know what? Maybe they can. SpaceX currently charges significantly less to get hardware to orbit, and with their cargo flights to ISS, they continue to strengthen their credibility. They've yet to have a significant launch failure since the early days of the Falcon 1 tests, and their launch manifest is getting decidedly crowded as more customers line up to use SpaceX's services. Elon Musk has certainly created a capable and innovative company.


SpaceX's final launch of 2014 slipped to early 2015
However, all is not perfect in Hawthorne. Though SpaceX doubled the number of launches from the previous year (six Falcon 9's launched in 2014, compared to three in 2013), they only completed half their manifest. In fact, their final launch of 2014 ended up being delayed until early January 2015. The company is notoriously tightlipped about their operations, only disseminating information in minuscule bits as they see fit. Moreover, there are grumblings of overworked employees, and a high turnover rate.

But, to borrow a quote (modified though it may be) from Shakespeare: "I have come here to praise SpaceX, not to bury it." I admit it - I like the company. I like that they bring a much-needed competitive aspect to the space industry, and I'm thrilled at the renewed public interest in spaceflight. Many non-enthusiasts I speak with have at least have heard of SpaceX, which contrasts sharply with the "brand recognition" of their main competitor, United Launch Alliance (ULA). Unfortunately, though the marketing prowess of SpaceX has garnered a lot of mindshare, it has had the negative consequence of opening a rift among some that follow the industry.


Public engagement done right.
Over the past few months, I have had the honor of being invited by NASA to participate in several of their NASA Social events (be sure to search the hashtag #NASASocial on Twitter to see some excellent posts from these events). Among the topics covered, SLS and Orion received the greatest amount of engagement from fans...and detractors. The naysayers state that ULA overcharges NASA...and that NASA is a rudderless and bloated governmental agency: "SpaceX could accomplish so much more if the old guys would just get out of the way!"

OK, maybe there is a bit of truth in there somewhere. Does ULA charge too much? I can see how that might be the case. However, success isn't cheap...and if one wants the highest degree of a successful outcome, I can't fathom too many other places that would warrant such a consideration than with a rocket launch. Is NASA a rudderless and bloated government agency? No...well, not in the classic sense. They might be misdirected at times...but that's the fault of our elected leaders, not of the fine people running the agency. NASA has accomplished mighty things...and I do NOT think its best days are in the past.

EDIT: A friend made mention that SpaceX is very supportive of NASA, and that any contention is generally from the company's supporters...so I've amended the section below.

To SpaceX: I love you guys...really, I do. You may hold the the future of our spacefaring species in the drive and determination of your CEO and talented engineers. I want nothing more than for you to succeed. Your success is our success. Your innovations push others to compete with, and try to outshine, you. But never forget - you stand on the shoulders of giants. The men and women that came before you have blazed a trail that has given you a boost (pun intended), and I dare say you wouldn't be half as successful as you are without NASA. 

To SpaceX's supporters: Let's stop the petty feuding and support any of the companies that are working on the important task of making us a multi-planet species.

To ULA: My goodness, you guys are good. You have some of the most capable launch vehicles on the planet. Your record is exemplary, and your name is tied to some of the most iconic missions in our nation's history. But you're losing the PR battle. The 'everyman' knows nothing about you, and in today's media-centric culture, this isn't a battle you can long afford to lose. Though you probably don't need the approval and acceptance from the average American, I think it would behoove you to step it up a bit.

I'd love to know what you think. Please join the discussion in the comments below.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Time to take our ball and go home?

Can't we all just get along?
No, apparently we can't.
So, according to some, Russia is ready to abandon their part of the International Space Station (ISS) in 2020, effectively closing the orbiting facility (Russia says the US modules cannot operate independently from the Russian modules - others disagree with that assertion). Why? Well, I'm sure the Russians have all sorts of reasons, some of which sound pretty plausible...but it likely all boils down to the world's disagreement with Russia's invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea.

"Let them go!", I say. Though I'm grateful (said through clenched teeth) of Russia's ability and desire to get our astronauts to orbit (Side note: It still angers me that we canceled the Shuttle program before having a viable means of getting astronauts to orbit), I'm tired of their attitude and tantrums. Go ahead - go build Son-of-Mir. My feelings might be a product of my adolescent years being during the Cold War, but I don't trust the Russian government. I. Just. Don't. Of course, I can't say that I like the bozos in D.C. too much, either...but that's a story for another time.

I think the Russian space program has accomplished some impressive feats. Some of their rocket motors - designed and built decades ago - are fine examples of Russian engineering, still held up as being best-of-breed (when they don't, you know, explode). Russia has a proud and strong space history, with many 'firsts' attributed to them. But I still don't trust Russia. I never have...and I don't believe a sustained cooperation with them is possible. I don't think their interests and goals align with ours, and I truly feel we'd both be better served by an amicable divorce rather than the inevitable decline that I see coming.

'Merica!
So, if not Russia, with whom *do* we cooperate? Of course, the top of the list would comprise our friends and allies from ESA, JAXA, CSA, etc. We also have domestic veterans of space, such as ULA (a consortium comprised of Boeing and Lockheed Martin). Then there are the new upstarts in spaceflight: the private industry. SpaceX, like them or not, is compiling an impressive record of successful launches, and was awarded one of two contracts as part of NASA's Commercial Crew Program (the other was Boeing). Orbital Sciences, though recently dealt a blow with the failure of their Antares rocket shortly after liftoff, has also shown a capability to get hardware to space. Bigelow Aerospace has some interesting designs for "inflatable modules" as alternatives to the traditional rigid station concepts (though, for the love of all that is good and holy, Bigelow, *please* hire a competent web designer because your site is atrocious) and will be supplying a test article for installation on the ISS some time in 2015.

Listen to the man.
Can NASA go it alone? Yes...but they don't need to. However, they also don't need Russia...well, at least not after we have an operational Commercial Crew Program. At that point, I hope we bid Russia a fond 'do svidaniya' and resume our nation's impressive space-fairing capabilities. It's been 42 years since humans last set foot on the moon. That's too long, and we're wasting our time with a "partner" that doesn't help us get back to deep space. We need to refocus our energies into specific goals, with friends that want to help us achieve the next steps in making us a multi-planet species. Though the movie was terrible, 'Interstellar' did have a good line that is apropos: "Mankind was born on Earth. It was never meant to die here." Let's. Get. Going.

I'd love to know what you think - please leave a comment below. Thanks again for visiting!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Tablet Problem...

No, I'm not talking about my ex-wife's habit (we'll save that for another glorious installment of 'Crap Curt Thinks But Should Never Write'); rather, it's a statement outlining a major issue in supporting wireless communications (or wifi, if you prefer) in an iPad-rich (and the like) environment.

As you may know, I'm responsible for the wireless infrastructure (amongst other things) for one of the largest school districts in Georgia. We were one of the first in the nation to support wireless networking - we rolled-out (pun intended) mobile wireless notebook labs in 1998 - and started offering building-wide wifi in 2008. During this time, our number of users has more than doubled...we now support more than 45,000 people on our network (students and staff, combined). This is not an insignificant number.

When we first designed our building-wide wifi infrastructure, notebooks/laptops were the predominate mobile access technologies of the day. Smartphones, such as they were, were relatively rare...and tablets? What tablets? So our hardware placement was designed for notebooks/laptops...which have fairly robust antenna hardware. Computer hardware worked very well in this environment, with speeds no slower than 11 Mbps...though most were near the theoretical limit of the 802.11g standard of the day at 54 Mbps. Life was good, and users were happy.

Then, in April 2010, Apple introduced the iPad to the world. Though I thought the iPad nothing more than an oversized iPod Touch, the rest of the gadget-buying population disagreed with with me (upon actually using one, I had to re-evaluate my opinion - I love my iPad) and purchased them by the truckloads...and brought them to school to use on our wireless network. Good, right? No...not good. Not good at all.

You see, these wonderfully portable devices (along with the proliferation of usable smartphones) sacrifice some things to be so portable...and one of those things is antenna performance. While a laptop may have multiple antennas to ensure the best possible speeds, tablets and smartphone may only have one (to save space), which means a signal must be stronger to get the same speed. Considering that they're more susceptible to outside interference, and that the increasing numbers of "sacks-of-signal-killing-water" - also known as 'students' - negatively impact signal propagation, performance really began to suffer.


Step away from the consumer electronics...
Unfortunately for our users, our infrastructure was designed to support hardware with a greater antenna diversity than the hardware the users were now bringing on-site. You might be thinking: "Just run to the nearest electronics store and pick up another access point. Geez, dude, they're only like $75-$150 and work GREAT! It's not that hard." Well, yes, it IS that hard. When supporting large numbers of users, consumer-grade hardware doesn't work. It just doesn't. So we have to get enterprise-grade hardware...which isn't cheap. When I say "isn't cheap", I mean "in the thousands of dollars". Each. Times a couple hundred. Plus cabling. Plus additional network switches. Plus channel planning to reduce overlap/interference. Plus, plus, plus...

So, as you can see, increasing coverage for these new and wonderful devices was not, and is not, a trivial undertaking. We are currently evaluating the most cost-effective way to provide greater coverage, and faster speeds with the latest wireless tech, to our users with funds from a recently-passed bond initiative. Though I know they'd like to see us provide enhanced coverage sooner than later, it's imperative that we carefully consider the changing landscape of wireless tech and user devices else we run the same risk of designing for today rather than for tomorrow.

As we approach one-to-one devices on our network (we support more than 40,000 unique devices on our network in a 24-hour period) and move into many-to-one (meaning each user has more than one connected device), planning a robust and fault-tolerant infrastructure becomes even more important, if not downright critical. Providing wifi is no longer a secondary consideration; in fact, I might go so far as to say it's taken center-stage as the primary access method. Wires are soooo 2005, you know?

We've encountered many hurdles across the years supporting such a large wifi installation, some we've solved some with great aplomb and others continue to irritate us to this day. Maybe I'll address some of these in the future. Do you have any stories or questions? Be sure to let me know in the comments below.