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.