Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Turning Disappointment Into Bliss - Part 1

Falcon 9 & Dragon - ready to head to the ISS...but not
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, 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
Following CASIS was Dr. Samuel Durrance, physics and space sciences professor at the Florida Institute of Technology...and two-time 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 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.

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.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

SLS - Show me the money...

Illustration: MCKIBILLO
Ah, 'The Right Stuff' - one of my all-time favorite movies. Even as a kid, I would watch this movie over...and over...and over...and over...until one day the VHS cassette needed to be replaced. Yes, I wore out the tape. I still love it, and if you've never watched it, I highly recommend you do so. Though it is filled with many memorable lines, the ones below seem as apropos today as back then:

Gordon Cooper: "You boys know what makes this bird go up? FUNDING makes this bird go up."
Gus Grissom: "He's right. No bucks, no Buck Rogers."

Without sufficient funding, a rocket won't make it one inch off the ground, much less beyond low Earth orbit (LEO). I fear this fate awaits SLS. I truly hope I'm wrong, but my gut is telling me otherwise. Unless Congress sees fit to give more money to NASA (they currently receive less than 1/2 of one penny from every tax dollar), I feel that SLS is doomed.

Sidebar, Your Honor: I think this pittance NASA (along with other scientific endeavors) receives is not only a national embarrassment, but is also indicative of America's decline. We're spending money on the wrong things...and government waste is appalling. I recall seeing a poll on a conservative news site asking about how people would restructure tax allocations (they could choose between 'cut', 'stay the same', or 'increase'), and - unsurprisingly, since it was a conservative site - the prevailing opinion was to CUT allocations across the board...*except* for the military and NASA. In fact, a majority of respondents indicated NASA should be given a budget increase. So, if liberals (generally classified as 'pro-science') and conservatives (generally classified as 'anti-tax') both think that NASA's budget should be increased, why hasn't it been?

Anyway, back to SLS. As things currently stand, EM-1 (the first full-up flight of SLS and Orion) is slated to launch some time in late 2018, which represents a slip from the original 2017 launch time. EM-1 is supposed to take a similar path as Apollo 8 - an orbit or two of Earth before shooting a figure-eight around the moon and back to a splashdown in the Pacific. Unlike Apollo 8, however, EM-1 will be unmanned. Though I understand why there will be no crew aboard - it's SLS's first flight, and NASA is reluctant to send a crew up on an untested rocket - that means the US will have no manned national space flight until EM-2...which won't launch until at least 2021. Considering the last Space Shuttle flight was in 2011, that gives America a 10-year gap in manned spaceflight. The world's greatest space program is going to be reliant upon the Russians and/or commercial partners to get our astronauts into space until at least 2021. Unconscionable.

When a reporter asked Mark Geyer (NASA Program Manager - Orion) if NASA had a budget increase, could the schedule be accelerated, he gave the only real answer he could: "We're blessed to receive the money we do." Though I know he couldn't say anything else, I would have loved to see him give an impassioned speech about the benefit NASA provides to the country and that people need to contact their representatives and senators to lobby for a budget increase. Though I'm a huge fan of SpaceX, and our other commercial partners, there's something special about NASA being *my* space program. I'm an American, with pride in what my country can do when we put our national will towards something, and this weakening of our spirit of exploration saddens me.

However, since multiple signs point to further slippage in the flight manifest, I feel it's wishful thinking to put much faith in the 2021 projection. In fact, there are some naysayers that feel SLS will *never* launch. Though I can see that as a possibility, I've been to NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility and Stennis Space Center...and those people are working hard to get SLS ready for its debut...and I, for one, believe SLS will launch...perhaps not on-time, but it *will* launch. If - and that's a BIG 'if' - SLS never flies, it won't be for a lack of passionate, talented, and hard-working people. No...the blame will lay squarely on the shoulders of the ineffectual partisans that we, the US people, continue to elect and send to Washington.

If you value our national space program, please make sure your representatives and senators know how you feel. Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Back to the...Past?

"What's wrong with NASA? Don't they know that a capsule is soooo 1960's? And rockets? ROCKETS?!? The Space Shuttle *looked* far more advanced...and we're going back to capsules and rockets? That just proves NASA is yesterday's news!"

I can't tell you how many times I've heard that, or something very similar to that, when talking to people about the space program. And knowing the poor state of aerospace journalism in the mainstream press, one could be forgiven for harboring such an opinion. However close external appearances may suggest, though, rest assured that it's what's inside that counts.

Let's start with the ship itself - Orion. As one can see from the image to the right, Orion bears the same 'gumdrop' shape as its Apollo predecessor, though a bit larger. Orion is nearly four feet (forty-two inches, to be exact) larger in diameter than Apollo, though a tad shorter. Don't let the visual similarities fool you into thinking that they're the same inside, too. While Apollo had 218 cubic feet of habitable space, Orion sports a comparatively roomy 692 cubic feet. Of course, both pale in comparison to the Space Shuttle's spacious 2,625 cubic feet.

"A-HA! You see, the Space Shuttle *was* superior!" Well, yes...and no. If one is simply considering interior space, then yes - the Shuttle had more. That said, the Shuttle was built to be a jack-of-all-trades...and, as the old adage goes, it was a master of none. Unmanned rockets could get materiel to orbit more cheaply (and safely) than could the Shuttle. OK, so the Shuttle could repair orbiting satellites - or bring them home if on-orbit repair wasn't practical...but was that worth the massive costs to keep the program alive?

The Shuttle was forever tied to low Earth orbit (LEO). No matter what science fiction might have one believe, the Shuttle couldn't make it to the Moon (aside: why do we say 'the Moon'? We don't say 'the Mars' or 'the Saturn'. Maybe we'll tackle this another day.), or to an asteroid, or to a comet on a collision course with Earth. LEO was its home. Both Orion, and Apollo before it, only use LEO as a stepping stone to get to its ultimate destination: deep space.

So what IS the point of the ship? Is it to provide research space? Act as a truck to tote cargo to orbit? To build a space station? No. A ship's purpose is to transport its occupants - safely - from recovery. If that's the measure of a successful ship, then the 'capsule' design has a stellar record.

While we're on the subject of safety, I don't think anyone can rationally argue that placing the organic bits as far away from the exploding bits isn't the safest place. The Shuttle's placement on the side of the 'stack' was inherently unsafe, and there was no survivable abort mode while the SRBs were still firing. Even after jettisoning the boosters, any further abort modes were tricky, at best...and fatal, at worst. There was no 'Launch Abort System' (LAS) to pull the Shuttle (or crew compartment) away from disaster - the astronauts were, for better or worse, largely along for the ride. Placing the ship at the top of the stack is SIGNIFICANTLY safer than the Shuttle's side-mounted configuration. Though any abort would still be dangerous, the crew would be far more likely to survive a 'rapid, unplanned disassembly' of the launch vehicle if their ship is at the top of the stack and has an LAS.

This is old and boring...
Why, then, is there a hue and cry about NASA's return to a capsule design? Though I can't say for sure, my gut tells me that it's because it doesn't look "cool". People expect space ships to look 'futuristic'...whatever that means. The Shuttle evoked a sense of moving forward, and even though it wasn't terribly efficient, it at least looked the part. The capsule, though, looks more like a "been there, done that" design. Well, what of it? Even though there are geometric designs that could provide a constant rolling surface, we still use the same basic design for tires and wheels that have been working well for over one hundred years. If it's not broken, why fix it?

...but this is new and cool.
Moreover, people seem to be falling all over themselves with SpaceX's Dragon capsule. Why is it wonderful when SpaceX uses a tried-and-true capsule design, yet NASA is considered moribund if they do something similar? Don't misunderstand me - I'm a HUGE fan of SpaceX...I think they're on the cusp of completely upending the traditional players in the aerospace sector - but if one is going to complain about NASA's design while heaping praise on SpaceX, then they need to go look up the definition of 'hypocrite'. 

Now, if one wants to have a discussion about costs and mission, that's a completely different that we might address in the future. Until then, thanks for visiting and please join the discussion in the comments.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

I Don't "Get" It...Apple Edition

Hello, all. I'm a big fan of Apple and their products, but not everything they touch turns to gold. I'm sure they're stocked with some of the best and brightest talent and they have an enviable track record, to be sure. However, some of their offerings - both past...present...and forthcoming - seem to miss the mark for me. Here are a few of the more recent:

Apple Watch
I'm not Dick Tracy - I don't need this.

I'm sorry, Apple, but I just don't get it - $350 for a device...with an unknown (but likely short) battery life...with a limited input method...that requires another device in order to work? Why would anyone buy this? I hear people calling it a "game changer"...but I must be missing something, because I can't see why very many people (other than those that want to show it off) would buy one.

Perhaps if it was only $100 I'd consider it, but starting at 3.5x that price point, I don't see the value. I don't need a screen on my wrist. I don't need to reply to a text message from my wrist. In fact, I currently don't even have a watch on my wrist - if I need to know the time, I simply LOOK AT THE STINKIN' SMARTPHONE I ALREADY HAVE WITH ME! It's not as if I'll be able to leave my smartphone at home and use its diminutive sibling instead; indeed, the Apple Watch *requires* an iPhone for full functionality.

Before you call me a luddite or an Apple hater, understand that I'm a network engineer...and all of my personal computers, phones, and tablets are Apple devices. In fact, I even worked for Apple back in the 1990s. I understand technology. I love gadgets. Moreover, I'm generally an early adopter. That said, I'll readily admit to having some blind spots. When the iPad was released, my thought was: "It's a big iPod Touch. So what?". I was wrong - I'll admit it. To that end, I try to keep a more open mind, but I'm still not understanding the point of a $350 wrist computer that requires another $600+ computer in order to really work. What am I missing?

iTunes Radio

A big sack of 'meh'
This is another "what were they thinking?" offering from Apple that I can't bring myself to care about. Though it has an impressive library (27+ million songs, I believe... compared to Pandora's 'paltry' 1 million), its features are lacking. Sure, I can create a myriad of stations - each with relevant songs - but I can't shuffle the stations I create. This is such a basic feature that I can't imagine why Apple has yet to implement it. Pandora allows for a station shuffle, and it's excellent.

Additionally, I've spent YEARS curating my stations on Pandora. I'm fairly-well assured that Pandora will play a song I like at this point. I do NOT feel like going through all those steps again with another service. I guess that's not so much of an indictment of iTunes Radio as it's a statement about my laziness. Regardless, it doesn't help.

iPhone 6. Kind-of.

Camera 'pimple'
OK, I have an iPhone 6, and I love it. It really is a great smartphone. But there are a few annoyances that seem like a no-brainer and should have been addressed. First is the asinine camera 'pimple' on the back of the phone. What gives, Apple? Could you not have made the iPhone just a little bit thicker so the camera didn't protrude from the body? Maybe you could've shoehorned in a bit larger capacity battery...or made the body a little less bendy. You know - useful stuff.

Another issue is the relatively worthless 16GB model. Apple, storage is CHEAP. Really, really cheap. No one wants the 16GB model, they just settle for it since the wait for the 64GB model is interminable. Sure, one can get the 128GB model (as I did) within a reasonable timeframe, but I really didn't want (or need) that much space. However, unless I wanted to wait 25-35 business days for a phone...or get the anemic 16GB model...the only real choice was 128GB. Yes, I know: first world problem...but I live in the first world - what other kind of problem am I going to have?

I'm sure that the 128GB iPhone is Apple's most profitable model, so they're crying themselves all the way to the bank as people opt for it rather than wait for the 64GB model. This would also help to explain why Apple isn't making a 32GB iPhone 6 - they know that's the one people REALLY want, so they'd cannibalize 64GB and 128GB sales if the 32GB unit was ever made.

Another niggling issue is the mute switch. It feels cheap - less solid - than the iPhones of past. To make sure it wasn't just mine, I checked with a coworker that also has an iPhone 6 and his had the same low-rent feel. Not what I expect in a premium handset. Of course, at least it *has* a physical switch unlike the craptastic Samsung Galaxy S4 that I have at work. THAT phone is junk.

Your Turn
What say you? Anything you'd add to the list? Do you take issue with anything I've said? Let me know in the comments below.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Things I think I think...I think.

What has happened to all the smart people?

I fear tonight is the night I lose some followers, and I don't relish that prospect. If I follow you on Twitter, or I'm a friend of yours on Facebook or Google+, it's because I truly respect your thoughts and opinions...and at times, you challenge the way I think. That's a good thing and I appreciate it. Please allow me that same latitude.

There are some things that I see some of you saying that are troubling. Let's take the #Shirtstorm saga, for instance. I'm not going to argue for/against the shirt itself - there's been enough of that already and I don't think I can directly add anything constructive in that space. Rather, I'd like to focus on *how* people responded.

Dr. Matt Taylor - European Space Agency
If you don't know what #Shirtstorm is, here's a brief synopsis: One of the primary scientists of the Rosetta/Philae mission (Dr. Matt Taylor) chose to wear a shirt that had many people scratching their heads, or - in some cases - take to Twitter to complain of misogyny and sexism. This elicited a flurry of rapidly demeaning replies. As is often the norm nowadays, the responses (from both sides) were mean... combative... incendiary... divisive - you name it.

There seems to be a total lack of reasoned discourse in disagreements today, and I don't understand it. Not only that, I think it's dangerous. The effect is that uncomfortable viewpoints are being squelched under the guise of mitigating offense. Moreover, it appeared as if the "preacher was preaching to the choir" in many of the exchanges - people incensed about the shirt were chattering to those of like minds while being dismissive of those that might have a different opinion.

Threats like this are NEVER warranted. Never.
On the "other side", there were childish taunts, vulgar name calling, and more than a fair share of threats. There's no excuse for those people to hide behind the perceived anonymity of the Internet and use that "protection" to abuse and belittle those that have a differing opinion...and, quite honestly, I hope the more dangerous threats (like the one to the left) were passed along to law enforcement for further investigation.

When did our society get to the point where we feel opposing viewpoints are unworthy of consideration, only to be shouted down? We must protect free speech, not bury it under a mountain of hatred and vitriol. And to those that claimed offense: you have no right to be free from offense. I know that you likely disagree, and you want to use the bully pulpit of social media (and other outlets) to kowtow those that hold "offensive" opinions...but they have just as much right to their opinion as you do yours. Bullying people into sharing your viewpoint does not create a convert.

Though fiction, the words are still wise.
Sadly, #Shirtstorm isn't the only instance where truly smart people (and quite a few...uh...less intelligent people) reacted in a knee-jerk manner to the cause-of-the-day. Let's take a look at #Ferguson for a moment. There are the expected reactions from the usual partisans - people calling for the police officer to be charged...or people unequivocally stating the officer's innocence - but it's the conversation coming from "more reasonable" people that really has me confused. These people have already convicted the officer...or the victim...and are not asking for justice to be served; rather, they want their sacrifice, and they want it now...regardless of what the evidence shows.

For instance, there is a particular scientist for whom I have a great deal of respect that has taken a very definite stance on the situation in #Ferguson. Is this person privy to the evidence that was collected? Have they interviewed all those involved in the incident?, they have not. Yet they've already formed a definite opinion and are supporting those that share their view. Correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't scientists supposed to analyze the data before coming to a conclusion? I'm not saying that it's wrong to hold an opinion...but being intractable in one's views is not what I would expect from such a person.

Common sense, why hast thou deserted us?

Daylight Standard Time

I hate it. I hate it a LOT. Having the sun set at 5:30-ish PM is inhuman. Why do I post this? Because I'm grouchy and it's my blog.

Orion EFT-1

Are you excited? ARE YOU EXCITED?!? I am most definitely excited. December 4th marks the first flight of America's newest space ship: Orion. Sure, it's uncrewed for this flight...and it's being sent aloft on a Delta IV-Heavy rather than SLS...but this is a BIG deal.

This is the next step in humanity's journey to become a multi-planet species. I've been invited to take part in the NASA Social at JPL (you can follow me on Twitter at @Crow_T_Robot), and many others will be doing the same at NASA facilities across the country. Look for the #NASASocial hashtag on Twitter. More info to come on this in the next few days.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Technology tidbits...

I'm going to take a small break from the space-related posts to talk about one of my other passions - technology. I have no particular theme to the topics below...I'm posting them in a somewhat 'stream-of-conscious' manner.

Net Neutrality
Quite honestly, I haven't read enough about it to know exactly where I stand. If one listens to the politicos, the right would have you believe that it's the technology equivalent to 'Obamacare' - with all the doom and gloom that implies, and the left will leave you thinking that if it's not passed that evil corporations will block/cripple any competitors on their network, thus stifling innovation.

The truth is likely somewhere between the two. I have no problem if an Internet provider wants to allow faster access for some traffic if a service wants to pay for it, so long as they don't hinder access for those that won't/can't pay for the priority access. For instance, I think it's perfectly fine if Comcast (a company I *despise*) offers Netflix prioritized access to Comcast's Internet customers...but I do NOT think it's OK if Comcast decided to slow/impede someone's traffic if they were unwilling/unable to pay for priority.

Some think that infrastructure buildout will negate the need to even consider implementing something like Net Neutrality because future tech will ensure there is enough bandwidth to go around. That's a fallacy - consumption always seems to meet and rapidly exceed any additional gains in bandwidth availability. For instance, I co-manage a very large enterprise network supporting more than 45,000 users. We are regularly running out of available bandwidth, even though we have three independent Internet providers. As soon as we increase a circuit, that extra overhead is consumed by some new device...or app...or website. So thinking that the need for some reasoned governance would be negated by a technology that's "just around the corner" is a bit naive.

That said, do I want the government dictating to a private company how they should be allowed to sell their product? I can't say that I do. To use Netflix again as an example, there is data to suggest that - at times - Netflix accounts for more than 25% of all Internet traffic in the US. That undoubtedly puts a strain on the network infrastructure of the providers, and any additional capacity must be paid for by someone. Should it be the source of the traffic (Netflix)...or should the consumer pay increased fees to cover the buildout? The money has to come from somewhere.

I'm sure this is only the tip of the iceberg with Net Neutrality. I'll revisit as I have more info.

Apple OS X Yosemite Wi-Fi Issues
Yes, Virginia, there are Yosemite wi-fi issues. I was running the beta of Yosemite on my late-2012 MacBook Pro Retina for a couple months before commercial availability, which was an upgrade to the OS X Mavericks. I encountered no wi-fi stability issues on it at all and assumed the rumblings of wi-fi problems were the domain of an unlucky few. Fast forward a couple weeks and I was re-evaluating my stance: some new Macs at work were not so fortunate.

I'm currently evaluating best-practices for integrating Macs into our very large Windows-only network and had ordered a couple iMacs and a Mac mini for small-scale testing. All three arrived with Mavericks and worked flawlessly on our wireless infrastructure. After performing an upgrade (not a fresh install) to Yosemite, I began to experience random wi-fi drop-outs...first on one iMac, then the other. The mini seemed to be immune. I tried some hints & tips I found online, all to no avail. The issues persisted even after performing a CLEAN Yosemite install.

I dropped back and decided to used a wired connection since any officially-supported Mac in our infrastructure will be wired. The problems immediately vanished. So there is definitely something 'hinkey' with wi-fi on Yosemite iMacs. Your experience may differ, of course...but just be aware that it's a possibility.

Enterprise Technology Podcast
I'm in the process of organizing a podcast geared towards enterprise technology needs. It's been bubbling in my noggin for a while, but I think the time may be nigh for a development. Keep an eye out on the blog for further info.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Media Event at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center (Part 3)

Welcome to Part 3 of my experience at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center Media Event. If you've missed Part 1 or Part 2, be sure to check them out. Great info.

I need this sign. For reasons.
After leaving the avionics testing area - after what felt like too short a time, but really wasn't - the group headed to see some seriously cool stuff dealing with propulsion. How cool? How does 'Nuclear Thermal Propulsion' sound? was as cool as one can imagine.

Just what is nuclear thermal propulsion? Let's take a step back for a moment and discuss what rocket engines do: In order to propel a ship/probe/satellite, something needs to to 'push' against the craft. How exactly does one do that in space where there's nothing to push against? You bring the 'pushing stuff' with you in the form of fuel (also known as reaction mass). In very simple terms (really - this is an overly-simplified explanation), the amount of 'push' is a function of the speed at which the reaction mass exits the engine...and the mass of the craft. The faster that the reaction mass exits the engine, the quicker the craft is accelerated. But there are limits to the speed at which traditional chemical rockets (both liquid and solid varieties) can expel their reaction mass.

Engineer explaining testing the nuclear thermal rockets
A nuclear thermal rocket engine works by using the heat from a nuclear reactor to excite hydrogen and expel it from the nozzle. The hydrogen exits at a much higher velocity than do traditional chemical fuels; however, since it's the lightest element, it has less "push" per atom. But that's OK - it's VERY efficient. So, if one wants to get somewhere and speed is NOT of the essence, then a nuclear thermal rocket might fit the bill. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, is stable, and can be produced in-situ. This is a huge benefit over traditional chemical rockets that require more complicated fuels. Moreover, the amount of reaction mass needed to get the craft to its destination is vastly reduced over chemical rockets. This means less overall mass of the vehicle - an all-around win. Want to read a more in-depth explanation of nuclear thermal rockets? Wikipedia is your friend - click here.

An actual iodine thruster.
But all the advancements aren't in big rockets - oh, no. In fact, some of the most impressive engineering is going into smaller thrusters meant for cubesats. One of those is an iodine thruster. Doesn't sound too exciting, does it? Oh, but it is. Historically, cubesats have very little maneuvering capability or ability to change their orbit to any meaningful degree (perhaps a few m/sec delta-v). The iodine thruster, though, is a game changer. It mounts to a standard cubesat frame and promises to give more than 1,000 m/sec delta-v). What does that mean? Just that cubesats deployed from Low Earth Orbit (LEO) can transfer themselves to a higher...or more inclined...or more eccentric...orbit on their own. Think of the cool possibilities!

There were so many awesome things to see and learn in the propulsion and avionics areas, I could've spent all day there. I sure hope the engineers and scientists enjoyed having us there as much as I enjoyed seeing their work.

NASA engineer explaining the innovative solar cell layout.
The last stop before we headed off to a press conference discussing SLS was to see some more additive manufacturing, and examples of some fine engineering concepts from young engineers from several NASA centers. I didn't get a chance to spend much time with these extremely smart people, which was a shame...but I did get some excellent takeaways. Firstly, one team is working on autonomous programming that would allow cubesats to team up to combine disparate functions into a working unit greater than the sum of its individual parts. Another team devised a simple, but very effective, solar cell arrangement to ensure small satellites constantly receive adequate sunlight without the need for cumbersome orientation hardware. These are but two examples of phenomenal work coming out of young NASA engineers.

Lastly, we were part of a press briefing for Orion's first flight - EFT-1, scheduled to launch from Kennedy Space Center on December 4, 2014, atop a Delta IV-Heavy. Though it was, in large part, a rehash of the info I'd heard at the NASA Social at the Michoud Assembly Facility in September, excitement was heightened knowing that launch is rapidly approaching. I won't revisit the information here, but suffice it to say that EFT-1 is a big, BIG deal, and you'll be hearing more about it in the days ahead.

Though I'm a proponent of a cooperative global space program, I can't help but feel some national pride knowing that all of these super smart people are part of NASA. I know, childish...right? But there's something inspirational about seeing the Stars and Stripes hanging in a work area, or painted on a rocket, or stitched on the flight suit of one of the brave astronauts that are helping to make us a multi-planet species. I'm ready for SLS. I'm ready for Orion. I'm ready to go to Mars. Let's light this candle!

** I would like to thank the wonderful people in NASA's Public Affairs Office for allowing us this privileged access.**

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Media Event at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center (Part 2)

Welcome to 'Part 2' of my experience at the Media Event at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center (USSRC) and Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) - click here for 'Part 1'.

Sam Ortega discusses 'Centennial Challenges'
After leaving the ISS Payload Operation Center, the group headed to "working lunch", with several NASA engineers and scientists on-hand to discuss their areas of expertise and to answer any questions. My table had an engineer that was responsible for NASA's Technology Transfer Office and another that worked with NASA's Centennial Challenges program.

I was interested to discover that NASA has been turning to private industry, and "citizen engineers", more frequently lately...both as a response to budgetary constraints and as a way to "think outside the box". For example, did you know that spacewalks (EVAs) can be torturous on an astronaut's fingertips? Since the suit is pressurized, the astronaut is constantly fighting against the glove's tendency to spring back to a fully-spread configuration (think back to those elementary school turkeys make from the outline of a hand and you'll get the idea). This tends to, at the very least, give the astronaut blisters on their fingers...but there have been cases of raw & bloody fingertips...and even loss of fingernails. Spacewalking doesn't sound quite so glamorous now, does it?

Astronaut Anderson even had issues in a properly-fitting glove
To help solve the issue, NASA reached out to private entities and offered a cash award to anyone that could come up with a workable solution to this problem. NASA ended up awarding two companies a share of $1 million to further develop of each of their solutions. In the past, NASA would've contracted a company - and paid a LOT more - to do something similar. This is part of NASA's modernization efforts, and I think it'll pay dividends in short order.

Another example of "citizen engineers" helping NASA solve a problem is related to testing fabric stress limits. NASA had developed a material that was extremely strong, yet the weave bias was such that the strain gauge couldn't get adequate purchase on the cloth and would tear it apart without being able to measure the strength. The engineers worked on a solution FOR A YEAR without positive progress. Someone suggested asking the private community for a solution - fully expecting to have already tried anything that might be suggested - and wouldn't you know it, NASA received not one, but TWO workable solutions to this problem...IN 24 HOURS! Do I think this means NASA is no longer home to the best and brightest? Absolutely not...but even the best of us can develop a blind spot and a fresh point-of-view can yield unexpected results. I'll be sure to think back on this when I'm presented with a seemingly insurmountable problem.

Real-life Kerbal Space Program
After this stimulating lunch, we headed off into the bowels of the building to take a look at the crew working on SLS's avionics (the hardware and software "brains" of the rocket). Being a network engineer, THIS is the stuff that I can correlate with a "real-world" analog in my daily life. There is a mock control room where the engineers can fully simulate a launch using the avionics hardware in the adjoining room. This hardware is mounted in a life-size (diameter) rig that mimics the curvature of the rocket's body so physical fittings can be tested and adjusted.

The team has simulated hundreds - if not thousands - of SLS launches...but only on the core stage at this point. Soon, ATK will supply a testing analog of the solid rocket boosters (SRBs) - complete with sensors and flight hardware - that will be coupled with the core stage hardware so some full-up testing can be accomplished (currently, the SRB sensors and computers are virtualized in software).

SLS Avionics
SLS is going to be a big rocket - Block I will be 321 feet tall - but even at the speed of light, the time for a signal from an engine sensor to reach the flight computer and then make the return trip isn't zero. This delay is called 'latency' and you've likely experienced it on a phone call...especially if it's long-distance. While it might be annoying when chatting with Aunt Edna across the country, it can be downright catastrophic on a rocket if the delay isn't accounted for. While the engineers can't build a full-height mockup of SLS in their shed, they *can* mimic the latency by either using cables as long as would be needed in the flight vehicle, or inducing latency in software to mimic the expected delay. This is but one of the many issues the hardware and software engineers must overcome, and test, to make sure SLS is the safest human-rated vehicle flown to-date.

I thought I could finish this in 'Part 2', but I was wrong. Stay tuned for 'Part 3', and I promise to not take quite so long on the next installment. Until then, thank you for reading.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Media Event at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center (Part 1)

1st stop - the U.S. Space & Rocket Ctr.
Yay - my 2nd NASA Social! Except it wasn't a Social. But I'll call it that and we'll move on. A few weeks ago, there was a post on the 'NASATweetup Alumni' Facebook page announcing a limited number of social media slots for a pretty large event at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center (USSRC) and Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, AL. If you've never been to Huntsville, I highly recommend it - it's a wonderful city, nestled in the foothills of northern Alabama. Being from the South, I'm well aware of the many stereotypes often associated with southern states...and while some of those descriptions are well-earned, Huntsville is a true jewel. Do yourself the favor and make the trip.

Look, ma - I'm on TV! Kind-of.
Anyway, back to the media event. The day was to be filled - literally - with nonstop activities and information. A quick introduction with the MSFC media staff started the day, followed by a LIVE, one-hour panel discussion broadcast on NASA TV...featuring engineers that are responsible for projects covering communications, 3D printing, life support systems, and more. Though I was unable to secure a mic to ask a question (it was a genius question, I assure you - trust me), all that were asked were interesting and lead to a greater understanding of the topic.

Did you know that a great majority of the water on ISS is recycled? But not all of it. Some of the non-recyclable water is in a sludge that the current technology has a difficult, if not impossible, time reclaiming. Even if that sludge only represents 5% of the overall total, NASA's engineers are trying to come up with efficient methods to squeeze every last ounce of water out of it that they can. Tech like that will be critical to the success of any long-term mission since water is heavy and is a finite resource in deep-space (unless we're able to produce it in-situ).

Cutaway of a 3D-printed injector nozzle assembly.
By far the most popular topic was 3D printing, known in the industry as 'additive manufacturing' (AM). Though I've been aware of AM for several years, I was not aware how much it has progressed. The types of hardware that can be printed is astonishing. I can definitely see this as being a real-world analog of Star Trek's matter replicator. Two of the biggest benefits of AM are significant cost reductions and much shorter production time. For instance, injector nozzles for rocket engines are a complicated affair that can take several months and six figures to produce. And it gets 'discarded' when the engine is destroyed (either through testing...or splashing down...or in re-entry). No wonder rocket engines are so expensive. But what if you could produce the same item in two weeks and at a fraction of the cost? That's what AM promises...and it's delivering, at least in limited tests.

Virtual trainer
After leaving the USSRC, the group was off to MSFC to get the low-down on some ISS operations. We split off into two groups - one of legitimate journalists and one comprised primarily of social media representatives. If you know me, you know which group I was in. We were first taken to the ISS payload training area. Though not a wholly accurate representation of ISS (microgravity lends itself to the astronauts storing stuff wherever they can - "overhead"...on the "floor"...etc. - but terrestrial trainers leave the walkways clear), it's a close enough approximation for training to be useful. One of the modern additions is called a 'glass rack trainer'. Think of these trainers as huge touchscreen displays that mimic the layout of the hardware and allow the trainee to "flip" switches. This can speed-up training and reduce costs.

We then traveled upstairs to the ISS Payload Operation Center - one of 4(?)...I think (I really should take better notes) in the world that cover 24/7 operation and monitoring. From what I recall, the Russians take care of their own stuff...but many of the other partner nations will make use of our services for this. And it's an important job - they have their own independent power supply in the event of general failure (as occurred a couple years ago when Huntsville experienced some significant storms).

That's all for now - but there's so much more to come in 'Part 2'.