Thursday, July 23, 2009

Space Exploration - 40 Years Later

What would you say if you were part of man's greatest triumph ever, and yet after 40 years of scientific achievement, unimaginable advancements in chemistry, physics, and biology, along with other peripheral sciences, you could not repeat that feat even if it meant the preservation of the human race? I am referring to our human exploration of the Moon. As most people know by now, it started with Apollo 11, 40 years ago on 20 Jul 1969--six months before I was born; and it ended with the last mission, Apollo 17 on 19 Dec 1972--only weeks before my third birthday.

In a 2001 interview [19 Sep 2001, Johnson Space Center Oral History Project, Neil A. Armstrong] Armstrong stated "Well, had you asked me that question thirty years ago, I probably would have said, no, I can't imagine that we'll make such a small number of steps over the next three decades. " Though he also noted that he understood why the manned missions, or any missions to the Moon had fallen out of favor (due to "conflicting requirements for resources that the country has"), I suspect that he was being gentle with NASA and the various administrations between 1972 and that day.

I have been a space fanatic for most of my life. I think it may have started with movies like Star Wars in 1977, my first viewing of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), or the likes of The Right Stuff (1983), all of which inspired me to learn more about space. In my early grade school years my family was living in Maryland, just a stone's throw from the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. I was an active member of the Rocket Club in junior high and high school, developing my own designs and flying them when I could afford engines. I also participated in many of the monthly model rocket launches at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt when I could convince my mom to drive me down there. At some point I told my dad, an Aerospace Engineer working for the USAF, that I wanted to become a "space architect". I followed the early adventures of the new Space Transportation System (STS, better known as the Space Shuttle), the crews, and the missions themselves. I remember where I was when the Challenger was lost--it was my young generation's equivalent to Kennedy.

Later, my interest turned into serious efforts to pursue the same engineering degree my father had received but mine would come from the University of Colorado at Boulder. First semester, freshman year was when my dreams encountered reality. Beyond the fact that I was shortly thrown out on my ear from the College of Engineering, I also began to understand the true reason for the US space program. I learned that the space race, the Mercury and Apollo missions were started more for political reasons than for reasons of true science or exploration. I became disillusioned with NASA and what it stood for. As I tried to sweep up my shattered dreams of being a proud member of the armed forces (Air Force ROTC) and a member of the next generation of "rocket science" engineers, I continued in fits-and-starts with my education at CU Colorado Springs. I stayed abreast of space activities through memberships in the National Space Society and the Planetary Society. I read about the current happenings in Aviation Week and Scientific American, all the while fighting my way through the morass of higher education. Eventually I migrated from my interim studies as a Physicist, back into the school of engineering and finally graduated with a BSEE.

In the mean time I had thought of getting my private pilots license, of joining a group of private aviation developers (Eclipse Aviation, Adam Aircraft), anything to get back into my dream of aviation and space science. Eventually I was left with living vicariously through my friends who had jobs in the aviation community--a community that I still had not obtained citizenship to.

That is where I come back to on this 40 year anniversary. I have not witnessed a man on the Moon in my personal memory--oh sure, there is the footage, the photos, the sounds; but the closest I have come is my memories of Pathfinder's landing on Mars (4 Jul 1997). Its success, of course was shortly followed by the losses of the Mars Climate Orbiter (23 Sep 1999), the Mars Polar Lander (3 Dec 1999), and later the disastrous loss of our second, original STS OV, Columbia on 1 Feb 2003. NASA finally got the "recovery" boost it needed with the successes of Sprit (4 Jan 2004) and Opportunity (25 Jan 2004) landing on Mars--two semi-autonomous robots, not humans.

It was with Columbia that I finally gave up on NASA and turned to the possibilities offered by private enterprise. After following the highlights of the X-Prize and the various competitors vying for press and money, it was obvious where that trophy would go: the future winner had finally thrown their hat into the ring when Scaled Composites joined the race. I had the chance to witness this best new prospect for private space exploration when Scaled took their first baby steps with the White Knight and SpaceShipOne. I actually got to see the toddler walk when Robert, Jeff, and I flew out to the Mojave Desert to witness the first private attempt to graze the firmament by the space-plane marked N328KF (21 Jun 2004). Not long after that, we learned that the design was to swing into full production with the SpaceShipTwo, under the guidance (and with the finances) of Sir Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic. There has been progress but not the grand leaps that I expected from the commercialization of such a bold venture. It seems that private space may be plagued by failure as much as NASA. Scaled suffered an accident, loosing three members of their team on 26 Jul 2007. And later that year a valued member the modern-day explorers club, Steve Fossett, was lost to the wild blue yonder (c. 3 Sep 2007).

I started writing this blog entry back in July of this year and got depressed. I found myself putting it off until now. Why? Because, I have had to contemplate the thought that the flame of exploration is dead. I had hoped it was not, but I fear that I no longer have the drive which I once did back in the 1980s—back then I thought I could change the world and I thought I would be a member of the first generation to know space as a homestead for my children. Now I see that four decades have pass for the most well know of the astronaut generation. Neither he nor I have seen anything more impressive than an expensive looking glass in orbit around our wet orb, peering at the prize but no longer seeking to land on its shores.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Volumes in Perspective

I was talking with Paul Kalthoff today about the “biomass” of the human race. I was driving into work and looking over at Pikes Peak (since traffic was running slow on the highway), and thought to myself that we humans really are small compared to that mountain. In fact, I thought to myself, I bet we could throw the whole human race into some imaginary volume hidden behind the peak. Little did I know how much I over estimated, after spending about 10 minutes with Paul doing mental calculations we figured that the whole of the human race would take up only around a cubic kilometer. Here is what I found later that evening:

An accurate estimate of the average volume of a human being was a little hard to come by. However, a rough estimate was proposed in a number of sites found in a Google search that hypothesized the following: the human body is approximately the density of water (1.01kg/l []), the average mass of the human body is around 70kg [], so the average volume of a human comes in around 70.7 liters.

Next is the simple math of translating a human into a cubic meter:
1hu = 70.7l = 0.0707m^3
1m^3 can hold a little more than 14 people (assuming you hit the puree button on the blender):
1m^3 = 14.1443hu

So how many people are on this planet? That you can find all over the internet:
6.790062216E+9 (July 2009 estimate [])

So, again some simple math shows that we human beings, one of the most prolific forms of dry-land life, would take up the massive volume of around:
480E+6m^3 which of course equates to 0.48km^3

That’s right! We add up to less than half a cubic kilometer.

When you read articles that state “The biomass of human bodies now exceeds by a hundred times that of any large animal species that ever existed on land.” []
You are left with comparing that to what: how much we use in resources? How about how much biomass was morphed into coal?

Just for some perspective, comparing the human race to the volume of coal mined on a yearly basis [], I found this interesting article that noted in 2004 approximately 2.1km^3 were mined. So we could pack the mass of the human race into the hole left over from three months of mining coal.

So it would take just a small portion of the top of Pikes Peak (think about a 1km x 1km x 480m box) to hide the whole of the human race.

If you are a visual person, click on the capture of Google Earth where I mapped a 1km line across the Peak.

We are so small.
And yes, I know I’m weird.


Thursday, April 2, 2009

Manmade global warming, huh?

What happens when a non-scientist (Seth Borenstein, Boston University, BS Journalism []) reports on science: [original link is dead, try this one:,4675,SCIQuietSun,00.html]

Note the second sentence in the AP report…

WASHINGTON – The sun has been unusually quiet lately, with fewer sunspots and weaker magnetic fields than in nearly a century. A quiet sun is good for Earth: GPS systems are more accurate, satellites stay in orbit longer; even the effects of manmade global warming are marginally reduced, though just by three-tenths of a degree at most. [emphasis added]

If I am not mistaken, the sentence is drawing a connection between fewer sunspots and a lower temperature. Is that not reducing the effects of sun-made global warming?

Also, I think the effects of global warming are supposed to be on the order of about 0.1ºC to 1.0 ºC per decade over 50 years [] or 1.4ºC to 5.8ºC over the next century [], or 0.74ºC over the last century and 2.4ºC to 6.4ºC in the 21st century worst-case [], depending which source of hysteria you reference.

Hmmm, sunspot activity accounts for 0.36ºC to 0.54ºC in one year (main statement in first paragraph does not use units, forth paragraph from bottom notes Fahrenheit) and Cicerone states that “manmade heating effects are 13 times greater than the variations from solar activity.”
That would mean that manmade heating is expected to move temperatures by 4.68ºC to 7.02ºC a year!

Does nobody actually check these numbers?
I guess the general public is just willing to swallow whatever they are fed, as long as it sounds official.