Sunday, July 24, 2016

News and Updates!

Yes, I know it's been a couple months since I've posted anything here...but that doesn't mean I haven't been busy. Far from it, in fact. Here's an update on what's up:

This is no longer the place for space
That's right - I will no longer be posting space-related content here*. In an effort to better "brand" my space content, I'm spinning-off those to a new site: The Liftoff Report. It's still very much under construction - and there may be some more tweaking before I'm truly happy with it - but be sure to go there if you're looking for that sort of information from me. I plan to update things more frequently there, and hope to provide content that I don't see anywhere else.

In fact, I've written my first real piece for the site. Seem there may be an update on a topic about which I've covered here: a fitting name for SLS.

I'm a published writer
OK, I suppose that's not a big deal, considering that pretty much anyone can be published nowadays...but I'm pretty happy about it. I've been writing content for one of the largest names in spaceflight news: SpaceFlight Insider. If you're interested in reading my articles - and I would sincerely appreciate it if you are - all of my posts can be found here. However, the fine team at SpaceFlight Insider takes pride in putting out a quality product, so if you enjoy my work, be sure to take the time to read the other content there. You won't be disappointed.

So...what WILL this site be?
Ah - good question. This place will be where I post all my thoughts/writings that AREN'T about space*. So, pretty much everything else goes here.

*Exceptions - OK, you probably already noticed a couple of asterisks when I mentioned space content. I plan to make The Liftoff Report fairly professional, even if it's covering Op/Ed content. However, there may be times when it's not appropriate to have space content on that site, but I want to post it, anyway - such as if I attended a NASA Social and wanted to discuss that particular experience. That will be the only type of space-related content still posted here.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

What's in a Name?

If SLS could talk, this is what it would say...probably.
Photo credit: NASA (with my snark added)
In 'Romeo and Juliet', Shakespeare penned: "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." One could take away from this that a name doesn't fundamentally change the nature of something.

Factually, that may be true...but in practice, we humans are a funny bunch. We grow attached to things and imagine them with personalities. Consider the robotic explorers we send out into the solar system: We cheer when they overcome hardware failures. We weep when they've made their last call to their handlers. We feel pain when they take their final plunge into a planet's atmosphere. We grow attached to these pieces of metal, and mourn their passing, just as if they are living, breathing things...not soulless contraptions built by man.

Names might not impact function, but they matter to us. Would we space nerds have been so attached to something called 'OV-104'? we wouldn't. However, saying 'Atlantis' evokes mental images that any space enthusiast will immediately see in their mind's eye. Same goes for the the words 'Mercury'...and 'Gemini'...and 'Apollo'. Those names convey a special feeling for the programs they represented. Not only that, but the individual spacecraft were christened with meaningful...or, sometimes, playful...names which gave one a sense of personality of the inanimate object carrying our intrepid explorers across the vastness of space.

Certainly, hearing: "Houston...Tranquility Base here...LM-5 has landed." doesn't carry the same impact. It just doesn't.

So, you may be asking, "Curt - what's your point?". My point is that America's next great rocket - the launcher ostensibly meant to carry crew and machines out of low Earth orbit for the first time since the days of the Apollo program - has been stuck with a horrible, clinical-sounding name: the Space Launch System (or 'SLS' for short). Though I love the rocket, I *hate* the name. Heck, even the cancelled predecessor to SLS had a cool-ish name: Constellation.

And while the space shuttle was technically the 'Space Transportation System' (STS), at least the individual orbiters were given meaningful - and memorable - names. While our nation's spacefaring endeavors might only be a few decades old, surely we haven't run out of 'cool' names for our rockets. Come on - this is America...WE LANDED PEOPLE ON THE MOON!!!! We can do better than calling it 'SLS'.

NASA: Names matter. Make it happen.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

A bozo with a microphone...

A Long Time Coming
Well...I've wanted to do a podcast for a long time. I picked up a decent mic and stand a couple years ago with the intent of starting a podcast, focusing on enterprise technology. But, for some reason, I never got around to making it happen. Probably because I secretly hate computers...or I'm lazy...or maybe a combination of the two.

However, over the past couple years, I've been honored to have been invited by NASA, United Launch Alliance, Orbital ATK, and as a representative of several internet media groups, to cover various aspects of our nation's space program. Being a life-long space nerd, this has been one of the most enjoyable things I have ever done. And I want to do more of it...and share that enthusiasm with others.

Be Careful What You Wish For
Being a somewhat socially awkward introvert, writing about the events was a natural expression of my thoughts and feelings. The relative safety of a static medium like a blog suited me just fine. I could write words, post the link to Twitter and Facebook...and watch the readers queue up like customers at an ice cream Alaska. But I was ok with that.

Of all the social networks, I'm by far most active on Twitter. I think the brevity of the 140-character limit suits my desire for posting a quick thought...and, really, people seem to interact more freely on Twitter...people who may not normally do so (like celebrities, industry moguls, etc.) on other social platforms, treat Twitter differently. For better or worse.

But I still want to do a podcast. I don't know why, but I do. Maybe it's because I have a face for radio, and a voice suitable for sign language...and I wanted a challenge. Or I'm a glutton for punishment. Granted, I'm a glutton - the middle-age spread is a testament to that - but punishment doesn't sound like me at all.

Space Tweeps are the Best Tweeps
One of the things I've discovered that I really like about the NASA Social events are the people who attend. It would be disingenuous for me to say that I've forged a friendship with all of them...or even a large number of them...but for those with whom I "click", engagement is fairly prolific. And fun. It is through one of these "clicks" that I have been presented an opportunity to take part in a space information venture.

Rachelle Williams (@AstroAnarchy) - along with Gene Mikulka (@genejm29) and Carolina Garza (@g_cgarza167) - has asked me to contribute to a new venture of hers: The Anarchist's Guide to the Universe. Through this media organization, we hope to provide space-oriented podcasts, commentary, live launch coverage, and blogs...from a diverse - and interesting - set of viewpoints. This is out of my comfort zone. But I'm excited. And I hope you'll join us for our inaugural event on March 22, as we provide live commentary of the Orbital ATK OA-6 launch to resupply the International Space Station. I'll post updated information about our coverage as we get closer to the event - or you can follow any/all of the Twitter accounts above...and look for the #AstroAnarchy tag on Twitter - for the latest details.

While I can't say we'll be the most polished...or most to have ever covered a launch, I can guarantee you'll see three super smart people - and a bozo with a microphone (me!) - having a great time sharing something about which they're passionate. We hope that you enjoy it enough to engage us with questions/comments, and come back to our group for our future offerings.

Thank you, and I hope we see you March 22.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

A Song of Ice and Firing Stands

Ice cares not if you have AWD, Mr. Subaru.
I love Huntsville, Alabama. Really, I do. In fact, it's one of my favorite places to visit, and were it not for me being so far along in my career, I'd likely be looking to call 'Rocket City' home. However, the city that helped build America's manned space program hides a sinister secret - a "monster" who looks to snatch unsuspecting motorists from the apparent safety of the elevated arterial roadway and hurl them willy-nilly into the concrete barriers separating travel lanes from the near interminable drop to the ground below.

I know this monster. I've met this monster. I've *survived* this monster. On my birthday, of all days, this beast chose to rear its ugly head and attempted to add me to its collection of broken and charred victims. But not this day. My trusty steed - the venerable Forester - quickly leapt into action, deftly dodging left...then we were locked in an epic battle with Huntsville's silent killer: snowy roads.

OK, perhaps it wasn't quite so dramatic...but I *did* do a bit of dodging to the left and right...mostly because I started sliding on the ice and was doing all I could to keep from hitting the wall, or the other cars sharing the road with me. I don't care how good a driver you are, or what kind of car you drive, ice is the great equalizer. With the 'pucker factor' having risen to dangerous levels after my brief, but near-catastrophic, encounter with the icy roads, I decided to get the heck off the 'skyway' and move down to the surface streets, which I hoped would be clearer.

I liked the framing of this shot. That's it.
So, what dragged me out of a safe and warm hotel room in a city nearly four hours from home? NASA was hosting a Social event at many of their Centers across the country to mark the 2016 'State of NASA' address by Administrator Bolden. Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville was one of those sites, and had invited nearly twenty social media participants to visit the Center.

I know that I've visited MSFC many times - often writing about the trip here in my blog - and I almost feel like it's "my" Center. In fact, I had been to Marshall a scant two months prior to report on the near-completion of the stand meant to stress-test SLS's massive liquid hydrogen tank. Nevertheless, my passion and interest in our nation's space program is such that I could likely visit the Center weekly and not tire of it, or feel jaded about the major role Marshall has played - and continues to play - in America's space flight heritage.

Being the Center responsible for designing, testing, and validating SLS, one would expect any Social event at MSFC to focus heavily on that vehicle...and this day was no exception. Marshall's newly-appointed Center Director - Todd May - greeted the group, welcoming us to the Center and gave us a brief overview of Marshall's activities over the past year, and then took a moment to answer questions.

Marshall Space Flight Center Director Todd May
With the possibility Congress could direct NASA to launch the proposed 'Europa Clipper' mission on SLS, I asked May if the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) - which operates under Marshall's "umbrella" - could accommodate that need along with the tentative flight date of EM-2. According to May, though the nominal production rate for SLS will support a cadence of one flight per year, capacity at MAF will allow for a surge rate of two SLS launches per year, and a 'spike' capacity of three per year. Any cadence higher than that, or a sustained rate of two-plus vehicles per year, would require expansion at MAF.

After a few more questions, the group heard from two engineers working on the SLS program - Michelle Tillotson and Nick Case - before heading to the avionics area. There, engineers and programmers are 'tweaking' SLS's flight computers, followed by simulated launches, to gather data about how the rocket will perform throughout nominal - and off-nominal - flight profiles. Even a shortened simulated launch can generate several terabytes of data for the engineers to examine. As various components of SLS move from design to testing to qualification stages, that real-world performance data is integrated into the testing regime. In fact, shortly after the successful test of the new 5-segment booster in March 2015, Orbital ATK had delivered the raw data to the SLS engineers in Huntsville.

Yes, I took a selfie at a rocket test stand. Not ashamed.
Departing the avionics area, the group boarded the bus to travel to the test stand area at Marshall. This part of the Center has a rich history - here, von Braun and his team tested many of the rockets which would carry America's astronauts to Earth orbit...and beyond. Situated between the two SLS test stands currently under construction is the massive firing stand used to test the mighty Saturn V rocket. It's hard to imagine the sound which must've roared through the Tennessee River Valley when those engines were tested.

Though quiet this day, the stand nonetheless presented an imposing sight: its massive concrete and steel structure stood as a testament to the power it was built to restrain. With snow continuing to fall in fits and spurts, and a healthy wind chill to boot, the group was invited to take an elevator ride midway up the structure to get a view of the two SLS stands being built nearby. Once complete, those stands will push, pull, and twist the core stage's liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellant tanks, stressing them to flight limits, and beyond, to ensure SLS will be the safest vehicle to launch crew and cargo.

Les Johnson - Dep Mgr, NASA's Advanced Concepts,
compares the thickness of the sail to one's hair (or lack thereof).
Thoroughly chilled to the bone, we dutifully boarded the bus to head to the 'flat floor' facility to meet with some engineers working on secondary payloads which will fly on SLS. One of the more interesting payloads is a solar sail. This 86 square-meter sail is made out of a material the thickness of a human hair - 2.5 microns. The 'pressure' of sunlight will push on this material, accelerating the sail at a slow, but steady, pace without requiring fuel or engine. Smaller sails have been tested previously, but SLS will give these smaller secondary payloads the unprecedented opportunity to go beyond their usual "playground" of low-Earth orbit (LEO) and operate in cislunar space. Without the drag of Earth's atmosphere, thin though it may be in LEO, the sail should be able to accelerate slightly more rapidly (though 'rapid' is definitely a relative term when one is talking about the pressure of sunlight), providing more meaningful data to scientists.

Our final stop of the day was back at the US Space and Rocket Center. There, the group was given a tour of the new International Space Station (ISS) exhibit, which includes a scaled-down version of the real-life Payload Operations Center (POC) at Marshall, along with a "high fidelity" replica of many of the ISS modules. Save for the lack of cables, computers, and various clutter one many expect to find on an operational space station, the ISS mock-up is an accurate analogue to the real deal.

This is on the ISS. Really.
One of the more amusing stories came from 'Paycom Penny' (Penny Pettigrew). The astronauts on-station can speak with the ground operations not only through the expected ISS-ground radio communications, but also through more traditional means - a.k.a., a phone call. Pettigrew recounted an instance when she was heading home from a shift at the POC only to have her cellphone ring as she was on the highway. CallerID doesn't identify it as 'Space Calling' (though how awesome would *that* be?!?), so she wasn't necessarily expecting there to be an ISS-based astronaut on the other end of the call. Penny said when an astronaut calls, you'd better believe that's a situation when one pulls over to the side of the road to give the caller one's undivided attention.

Knowing that I had to take the long route back home in order to avoid the snowy conditions through the mountains, I excused myself from the last, optional bit of the day and headed home. As always, the Social was thoroughly enjoyable, and it's always nice to meet fellow space enthusiasts.

I would like to thank the people at Marshall, and at the Space and Rocket Center, for inviting the group out to take part in this NASA Social event. It's incredible to consider that a "normal person" like me has the opportunity to participate in something like this.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Another one of my interests: Astronomy

I made this. Really. Well, the picture...not the Moon.
After reading some - or all - of my previous posts, one may come to the conclusion that I only like rockets. And complaining. OK, fair enough - I guess I *do* like both (especially complaining), but that's not all - I also have quite the fondness for astronomy. In fact, the 'astronomy bug' bit me almost as early as the 'rocket bug'.

Considering the speed with which I succumbed to the "fever", I must've been highly susceptible to their infection...and, quite honestly, I wouldn't have it any other way. If one has to be bitten by something that molds their life and interests, why not something so basic - and exciting -  as exploration?

However, just as with my experience with rockets/spaceflight, my interest in astronomy did wane for a while. Must've been a time in my life when happiness was difficult to come by...and if I wanted to pay a bajillion dollars for a shrink to figure it out, I'm sure they could nail down the cause. However, since I didn't win the lottery...I'll choose to look forward rather than to the past.

My first telescope was a gift from my parents: a 60mm Bushnell refractor. It was mounted on a simple tripod, with basic alt-azimuth (up/down - left/right) controls, and had a couple of eyepieces. Though not the best telescope, and I quickly outgrew it, it's what helped foster my interest in looking at the heavens.

If my first telescope was a bicycle with training wheels, my second was a 3/4 ton truck with a manual transmission. A gentleman in my local astronomy club was selling one of his telescopes: a huge 8" Newtonian reflector on a German equatorial pier mount. Being a gainfully-employed, and very naive, teenager, I jumped at the chance to get this beast. Unfortunately, my skills and knowledge weren't nearly up to the task of making use of even a little bit of this scope's capabilities, so it sat - more often than not - in my room as a piece of decoration. A very large piece of decoration.

Rather than let it continue to languish, I sold it to someone else in the club when I went off to college. Better to let someone else love it rather than have it gather dust. And thus started my 'Astronomy Dark Ages'. I was still interested in the night sky, and I followed news and discoveries with great interest, but I was now a sidelined observer rather than actively participating.

Fast-forward about twenty years, and I began to feel the urge to get another telescope. We happened to be in a store that had their scopes on sale, so I snagged a Meade 114mm computerized reflector for a hair over $200. It's not the best scope...but at that price, from a brand like Meade, well...I couldn't pass it up. Unfortunately, living in metro Atlanta, light pollution here is a huge issue, so the scope didn't get used as much as I would've liked. After a couple seasons of taking it out to look at the Moon...and Jupiter...and Saturn...and the Orion Nebula...well, it kinda sat unused for a while. Until today.

I've taken it out of storage, dusted it off, and cleaned the cobwebs out from the tube. Now to get some batteries and hope the tracking motor isn't as bad as I remember it (I hope I was just doing a poor job of aligning it). Next clear night, I plan to take it out to reacquaint myself with the wonders of the night sky. Until then, I'm relegated to taking pics of the moon (like the one above) with my DSLR.

How do I get started? Is it expensive?
As with any hobby, astronomy can be as cheap - or as expensive - as one wants it to be. In fact, all that is required is the Mk I Eyeball. That's it. Just look up at the stars. Take it all in. Get to know the sky in your part of the world (yes - the sky can look markedly different depending on where one is located). Read online content about naked eye observations, and learn the major constellations. All of this can be had for the low, low price of 'time'.

Once you feel you're ready to progress beyond simple stargazing, you may feel the pull to get a telescope. There's nothing wrong with that...but BEWARE the siren's call of 600x zoom telescopes (and the like) from the big box retailers. If the seller's key metric is the zoom power of the telescope, away.

Also, you might want to first decide what type of astronomical viewing you want to do, and let that influence what type of telescope to consider. Though all telescopes do basically the same thing - gather the light from a distant object, magnify it, and direct it to your eye - some perform better at certain tasks than do others. If you're going to only be looking at bright objects, such as the Moon...Jupiter...Saturn...etc., then a simple (but decent) refractor may be all you ever need (especially if you live in a heavily light-polluted area). Are you more interested in faint, deep-sky objects? Then you might want to invest in a "light bucket" - a.k.a., Newtonian reflector. How about a 'jack of all trades' (but kinda pricey) scope? Then a catadioptric scope (like a Schmidt-Cassegrain scope) may fit the bill. Also, you may already have something handy to extend your stargazing just a bit: binoculars. Even simple 7x35 binocs can give one an entirely new view of the night sky.

If it's still a bit murky, which is entirely understandable, I would recommend you seek out a local astronomy club to see what they have. Talk to the club members, get their advice, and take a look through their eyepieces. From my time belonging to an astronomy club in my hometown, I can readily testify that there's almost nothing more enjoyable to amateur astronomers than to share with others.

The fine people over at TMRO have produced a set of videos (Space Pods) explaining the differences (and a bit of history) between the three types of telescopes mentioned above: