Thursday, May 31, 2007

The President's Space Program: the Strangeness of Science and Politics

In part of a peculiar interview of Michael Griffin on NPR this morning, the NASA administrator argued that although global warming was real and that mankind is responsible for 'much' of it, he questioned whether or not it was a long-term concern or a problem with which we need wrestle. He had other comments about who are we to decide what is an optimum climate, etc. The transcript and audio of that interview can be found here. FWIW, I recommend that you go and listen to it for yourself.

After listening to the whole interview, my impression is that Mr. Griffin is quite the slippery politician and just a bit of a doormat. The thing I really focused on was his use of the word 'much'. The neat thing about 'much' is that it is neither 'all' nor 'none'. There is no way to tell from Mr. Griffin's statement if human impact is closer to 1% or 99% of global warming. By using 'much', he may have convinced a few climate scientists and a fair amount of the public that he thinks global warming is real, but he qualified the impact of global warming by indicating that maybe it wasn't as bad as some people think and who are we to decide what qualified a decent global temperature, which I assume was said to placate the White House. In other parts of the interview he was being equally vague.

The news media seems to be making a big deal over this story, but I think the basic gist of Mr. Griffin's statements is that he would really like to keep his job. How he really feels about global warming and the direction NASA is going in is probably only discernable through the use of a fair amount of sodium pentothal and maybe waterboarding.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

ESA Attempting to Dictate Commercial Spaceflight Safety Standards

In various web articles it was announced that the ESA and NASA are working towards establishing safety standards for commercial spaceflight via their IAASS association. It's interesting to see something like the ESA, an agency that has never flown a man-able rocket, and NASA, an organization with a proven record of killing astronauts by ignoring safety concerns, becoming so passionately involved with international space safety. This is much like the international space treaty, ratified by a host of nations with no spacefaring capability whatsoever. That NASA is involved should come as no surprise, although why they should be trying to circumvent the FAA's AST organization is beyond me (well, not actually beyond me). Probably (definitely) inter-agency competition or somesuch (somebody's feeling left out of the chain of authority). The released documents attempt to define various aspects of the launch facility and vehicle prior to there actually being any commercial manned rockets to regulate. This seems a bit of the cart before the horse. Especially since no-one has actually managed to crash a commercial manned launch vehicle to start with.

Internationally speaking, it seems to me that the biggest concern of any commercial launch vehicle is whether or not it or it's pieces are going to smack into any of the international community's vehicles, stations, or satellites. In which case the biggest concern for commercial (and other) spaceflight is going to be some degree of space traffic control (a la the FAA). It's too restrictive and way too soon for an international body to define what constitutes a manned launch vehicle or what manned launch operations should consist of.

Radiation Fed Fungi to Feed Future Flyers

Who says you can never profit from tragedy? Scientists exploring the inside of the Chernobyl reactor vessel, the source of the world's greatest unintentional nuclear disaster have discovered a black fungus that apparently thrives on the radiation therein. New research shows that many melanin-rich fungi like radiation. The melanin functions much the same as chlorophyll does in plants in these organisms. The article speculates that future astronauts may be able to feast on fungi formerly bathed in the hard radiation of space.

While I find the radiation utilizing fungi to be of interest from a biological point of view -- yet another example of how little we know about the many ways life manages to survive -- I am reminded of a cautionary tale of mushrooms, astronauts, enclosed spaces and the unforeseen side-effects of combining them.

The article was one of these speculation-rich stories that should be filed away under 'trivia' somewhere in the dark recesses of one's mind -- to be otherwise ignored until Alex Trebeck poses the appropriate question. So many space-related news stories fall into this same category. 'Earth-like planet discovered' was another one, which dealt with Gliese 876 -- a planet 17 times more massive than the earth, orbiting 2 million miles away from it's primary star, and with a surface temperature of molten lead. I talked to the story's author who also questioned why the astronomer's spun their announcement to sound like a new earth had been discovered (rather than a new freakishly bloated version of Mercury), and the consensus was that the astronomers 'sexed-up' the press release so the general public wouldn't ignore it entirely. The same effect happened in a SpaceDaily story about NASA working towards public travel by hypersonic aircraft -- coming to your local airport in about another 50 years or so. Terribly great sexy news, except it had practically no relevance to any persons currently living.

Personally, I think stories like this do more harm than good. The cyclic raising and dashing of the reader's hopes create's more cynical people like me. It's like the boy who cried wolf. After awhile, people start ignoring the sexy announcements, and the interesting science behind them gets ignored too.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Troublesome Tanks of Foaminess

As we all know, the latest shuttle launch was delayed due to a hail storm pitting the foam on the external tank. In the photo above, you can see the little white dents that the hail stones left behind. In the latest news from NASA, the tank is ready to go -- having been refoamed in several spots -- if a bit homely in appearance.

Apparently, the insulating foam is orange because of natural aging when exposed to UV. It actually starts out white and changes color over time. When Atlantis launches, the external tank's complexion is going to be a complex palette of white, off-white, and orange bits. Two things come up regarding this news: 1) Would a coat of white or reflective paint prevent the UV aging and general unsightliness (although who cares about unsightliness over safety)? 2) Does exposing the foam to UV and the raw elements present any risk of moisture absorbtion and thus potential foam separation during launch?

The reason I bring up the moisture issue is because there was some speculation that the foam separation that's happened before may be due to moisture getting between the tank and the foam. When the LOX and LH2 are added to the tank the theory is that the moisture turns into ice, which separates the foam from the tank. When it's stressed during launch, the foam at that spot breaks off. I can imagine that in a place like Florida (KSC) or Louisiana (Michoud), humidity has to be a constant problem, and since the external tank is hauled by barge along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts to KSC, it is a wonder that the tank isn't soaking wet by the time it gets to the launch pad.

So it occurs to me that sealing the surface of the foam with a moisture repellent barrier (paint) would be a good thing. Additionally, I was thinking that that one of the ways to ensure that the foam wouldn't pop off of the external tank was to embed mist net or a carbon fibre equivalent material into the outer surface of the foam. Mist nets are made of super fine nylon fibers with 2cm or a bit smaller sized square holes. If a tank-sized mist net were put over the tank (or at least the front of the tank), then any foam that was compelled to leave would first be held in place by the net, and if it still managed to come off, it would have to pass through the net's webbing; to be cut into harmless sugar-cube sized bits.

These are two ideas that I think NASA should consider. At the very least, they should at least leave feedback.

Monday, May 07, 2007


A few months ago, the news that XCOR Aerospace had tested a LOX/Methane engine hit the rocket journals, like the aRocket email list and Today, Science@NASA got around to covering the event. LOX/Methane research is cool for at least three reasons: (1) It's far denser, much easier to handle, and far warmer in it's liquid state than liquid hydrogen, (2) Robert Zubrin has pointed out that martian methane production is a good propellant option for missions from Mars, and is a relatively plentiful gas in much of the rest of the solar system, (3) The US has abundant stores of methane in the form of Natural Gas.

Congratulations to XCOR, a small private rocket development company, for getting coverage on the NASA news pipeline.