Science Monday: The Martian

I have not read the book (yet) or seen the movie (yet), but I thought this interview with the author was intruiging:

Weir gets into one of the big reasons I support the space program and wish we had one that was ten times bigger. As long as the human race is confined to this planet, we are vulnerable. A single event can render us extinct or at least destroy our civilization. I’ve long thought we should build a vault of human knowledge so that, in the event of a survivable catastrophe, civilization could eventually be rebuilt. But the ultimate “civilization insurance” would be space colonization.

That’s decades away. As Weir notes, the big problem is getting things into orbit, which remains hideously expensive. But I also love his approach to this problem: let industry figure out how to get cargo into orbit cheaply (with NASA funding cutting edge research). That might mean new rocket tech, that might mean magnetic slingshots, that might mean a space elevator.

The solar system, if not the universe, is there for the taking. Do we dare do it? The difference between doing it and not doing it may very well be the long-term survival of humanity.

New Horizons is Alive and Well

The last time we did a flyby of a planet, I was in high school. It was 1989 — Bush the Elder was President — and we had a TV on in my physics class showing us a live feed from NASA of the Voyager 2 flyby of Neptune. I was enthralled … everyone was. Here was a world we had only glimpsed through a telescope and now it was so close you could touch it.

(I could say something about that inspired me to enter astronomy but that would be a lie. I liked astronomy but it never occurred to me to do it for a living until my junior year of college.)

I felt some of that excitement last night as we awaited the signal from New Horizons that would indicate a successful flyby. And today we have some stunning images coming down. Here is Charon, Pluto’s moon, that was a dot even for the Hubble Space Telescope:


You can read some of the details of the picture over at Bad Astronomy.

It’s impossible for me to express how much I love this … all of it. I love the fiddly engineering and amazing work that go into planning a mission. I love the facilities down at Goddard where they do every test imaginable on the hardware of upcoming missions. I love watching the rockets leap from the pad on a pillar of fire. I love the seemingly impossible task of sending a probe over a nine-year three-billion-mile mission and having it still work. I love the technical jargon as the Mission Operations Center monitors the spacecraft (a lot of which I now understand, having worked for a NASA mission). I love the excitement space aficionados and even hardened astronomers feel as the images come down and reveal a distant and mysterious world. It is all exciting and wonderful and thrilling and inspiring.

Here’a closeup of that heart-shaped region of Pluto.


Pluto has vast mountains of ice, canyons miles deep, a surface that was repaved within the last hundred million years by some process we can only guess at right now. In a few hours, New Horizons gathered data that will keep scientists busy for years and may change our understanding of the Kuiper Belt.

I’ve said this before about our space program: this is the way to waste taxpayer money. You want to talk to me about American exceptionalism? This is American exceptionalism. America is defined by many things but our exploration of space has to be our country’s greatest achievement. We’ve sent probes to every planet; we’ve put men on the moon; we’ve glimpsed the fires of creation through space telescopes. No other nation can match us. Russia sorta could for a while (and right now, they’re embarrassingly the only means of getting astronauts into space). Europe sorta can in their European way. India and China are trying to get things going. But when you really break it down, we are the country of space. We are the explorers. We are the pioneers. And this a commitment we should be devoting more resources to, not less.

Last year, the Houston Chronicle ran a great series about the foundering of our space policy. The big problem I see is that no President has been really committed to it. They come up with their pet projects — a mission to Mars, an asteroid capture, a return to the Moon — and that gets vaguely funded only to have another pet project to take its place when the presidency changes hands. What we need is a more realistic long-term strategy, something NASA can commit to for the next twenty years or more. NASA’s focus should be astrophysics, identifying potentially dangerous asteroids, continuing to explore the Solar System with unmanned probes and, most importantly, trying to devise cheaper ways of getting people and cargo into space. The last part is the only way human exploration of space will ever be feasible.

This should go hand-in-hand with supporting private space programs and commercial exploitation of space. What I’d really like to see is a bunch of billionaires get together, pool their funds, and set a course for the next few decades of private space flight, with NASA committed to supporting them.

But that’s tomorrow. Today, enjoy the amazing pictures of a distant world coming down from New Horizons. And thank your stars that you’re part of a species smart enough to think of this and a country rich enough and daring enough to pull it off.

(Post Scriptum: I said this on Twitter, but will mention it here. I sometimes get asked what I think about Pluto no longer being a planet. My opinion is this: call it what you want.

I understand why the change was made. If Pluto is a planet, that means Eris, Haumea, Ceres and Makemake have to be planets, to be consistent. And it means that, in a few decades, we might have identified hundreds of planets. Pluto is very different from the other planets and much more like the vast sea of Kuiper Belt objects that probably lurks out there. This doesn’t take away from Clyde Tombaugh’s achievement. On the contrary, he discovered something even more amazing than Planet X.

But … I really don’t think it would have killed us to just call Pluto a planet for historical reasons. Consistency is, after all, the hobgoblin of small minds. And Pluto doesn’t care what you call it.)

Space Oddity

I’ve had the privilege of meeting a few astronauts before. They really are amazing people: intelligent, motivated and creative. So this video from Commander Chris Hadfield is both awesome and unsurprising in its awesomeness.

(I know he’s Canadian, but I’m still putting this in the “America, fuck yeah!” category because … you know … space and stuff. Plus, I always agreed with what Lazarus Long said: Canada is a part of America where the people are too smart to pay taxes to Washington.)

One Giant Step


Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, has died, his family said Saturday. He was 82.

“We are heartbroken to share the news that Neil Armstrong has passed away following complications resulting from cardiovascular procedures,” Armstrong’s family said in a statement obtained by CNN affiliate WKRC.

Armstrong underwent heart surgery this month.

“While we mourn the loss of a very good man, we also celebrate his remarkable life and hope that it serves as an example to young people around the world to work hard to make their dreams come true, to be willing to explore and push the limits, and to selflessly serve a cause greater than themselves,” his family said.

Armstrong did not maintain as high a profile as many of the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo astronauts, preferring to spend his time teaching and raising his family. But I remember, on the 25th anniversary, his expressing disappointment with our lack of follow-through on Apollo.

Armstrong was much more than “spam in a can”. His quick thinking saved Gemini 8, he ejected from the “flying bedstead” practice lander moments before it crashed and his skilled piloting kept the Apollo 11 lander from smashing into a huge unforeseen rock that was in the flight path — a real-life lunar lander video game. We are extremely fortunate to have been blessed with such men. And I hope we will one day again have a space program worthy of their legacy.

Update: More from Phil Plait. He wonders if we should have a holiday for Armstrong. I wouldn’t go that far (and he would have opposed it). I think we have enough holidays already. But I do think July 20 should recognized, maybe as Astronaut Day or something. Landing on the moon is the greatest achievement in human history.

Curiosity Lands!

First go here to learn all about how NASA planned to land Curiosity on Mars. Then check out this picture Curiosity sent immediately after they fucking did it:

Let’s keep our fingers crossed that everything continues to function as the probe powers up and gets to work. As I’ve said before on NASA, this is the way to waste taxpayer money.

update : Mars Orbiter caught Curiosity as she parachuted down:

Some scientists get it.

The other day Hal had a real good post up about how, yet again, liberal social science types – talk about an oxymoron – had found that conservatives hated science, proving how dumb they are. Of course the devil was in the unreported/hidden details. What conservatives objected to wasn’t science, but how politicized so many people claiming to be doing science, but really doing nothing of the sort, were, but considering the source and the narrative, you would never, ever find that out either from the social science types behind this survey or the LSM. Of course the comments, despite Hal’s best efforts, devolved into an argument about AGW, which for conservatives is the de facto proof of why they distrust the so called scientific community peddling this nonsense.

Like Hal, I was hoping to avoid this post resulting in the same rehash of the same tired arguments, but the fact is that, this story, dealing with scientists at NASA finally getting tired of the cultists leading the AGW collectivist agenda and their shenanigans, actually serves to up my credence of the members of the scientific community, and hence is relevant.

Basically we have people that want the scientific process to actually be allowed to work, and to let the truth come out for a change pointing out that relying solely on blatantly false and unscientific models, rather than the empirical data – you know the stuff that the AGW cultists conveniently destroyed misplaced – is not just bad practice but unscientific. We can rehash the argument about how loaded with crap these models are, with the same people coming to the defense of the indefensible, but I do not even want to bother. The fact is the empirical data wouldn’t be so easy to rig, unless they engage in the massive massaging of cherry picked pieces of said data, like we found out they did after the East Anglia revelations, and then destroyed the data, yet again, to prevent people from understanding what a crime they committed.

I also do not think it is a coincidence, and very relevant, that the people behind this letter are former NASA scientists. They are likely retired older people from back in the day, where/when they took scientific work seriously, and would have had a huge problem with the politicized bullshit the left pushes as science these days, and/or people that left or where removed from NASA for not toeing the political line. I am sure the MSM will do its best to not report any of this controversial news – I looked but found nothing – and if NASA holds true to form, they will ignore or give lip service and not much else to this request. After all, the money is there for those that give big government what they want, and what they want is the narrative that lets them push the “man made” nonsense their new world order and tax schemes are predicated on.

Still, it does show some scientists, even if they are old, take science seriously. Hopefully we get a lot more of this too. It would help to make people resort to well informed decisions and enhance the trust that is sorely lacking in the block of politicized left leaning community that pretends they are scientist like those beholden to the church of AGW.

What, No Seatbelts?

In commemoration of the Space Shuttle Atlantis (and to provide Hal with some morning wood, is it morning where he lives?), take a gander at this:

There is some nifty little zoom out/zoom in buttons at the bottom, don’t forget to pan up so you can check out the ceiling.

I figured NASA was in decline after NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden made his “foremost” mission at head honcho to improve Muslim relations:

and third, and perhaps foremost, he wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science … and math and engineering,” Bolden said in the interview.

That poor co pilot doesn’t even rate a seat cushion.

And I had my heart set on going to astronaut school, but from the looks of that cockpit I think my fall back plan of pirate school is a better choice.

Ad Astra

This is going to be a bit of a long rambling post. But it’s on a subject close to me personally and professionally.

As most of you know, I’m a professional star-gazer and a lifelong fan of space exploration. And right now, the state of space is in flux.

On Friday, the shuttle Atlantis blasted off for the 135th and final shuttle mission. The Space Shuttle has had a long and somewhat checkered history. On the one hand, it has cost billions of dollars and 14 lives. On the other, it has enabled the construction of a space station, the launch and repair of spacecraft that have vastly expanded our understanding of the universe and has fired the imaginations of millions. I remember watching the early launches and landings in elementary school and the thrill they gave us. STS-41-C, when Challenger captured and repair Solar Max, fascinated me. And I remember standing in a cold March morning, watching STS-109’s dawn launch from the VIP seats. It lit up the landscape right as the sun rose, arced through a cloud and thundered over the Atlantic. It was a spectacle that warranted near-biblical metaphors. As I’ve said many times, that is the way to waste taxpayer money.

It will be some time before we have any successor to the Shuttle. Three administrations in a row have bumbled around with their “plans”. And while private industry is gearing up to take over many launch duties, exploration remains on hold. I was born in 1972, the year of the last moon mission. I never dreamed that incompetent bumbling, political hackery and a singular lack of vision would keep us from fulfilling the promise that Apollo delivered. Yet here we are, in 2011, and the stars are further away than they were on the day I was born.

As disappointing as our manned space flight has been, however, NASA’s science programs have been as stunning a success. Voyagers 1 and 2 continue to send back data from the edge of our solar system with 33 years and 10 billion miles on their odometers. The Spirit rover, designed to explore Mars for 90 days, instead explored it for 2000. Hubble, now a grizzled veteran of 21 summers and 100,000 orbits, has changed almost every branch of astrophysics. NASA has launched or been partners in over 30 space telescopes, almost all of which have been spectacularly successful. (Take it from an insider: the builders know what’s on the line and engineer the hell out of their satellites. They are built to succeed).

Now how can I, a conservative-libertarian, support such things? Well, I have a personal stake, of course: I’ve had the privilege of working on and analyzing data from several space missions. But fundamentally, it comes down to my belief that basic science, pure science, is one of the few things government should be doing. de Tocqueville put in best in Democracy in America.

If those who are called on to direct the affairs of nations in our time can clearly and in good time understand these new tendencies which will soon be irresistible, they will see that, granted enlightenment and liberty, people living in a democratic age are quite certain to bring the industrial side of science to perfection anyhow and that henceforth the whole energy of organized society should be directed to the support of higher studies and the fostering of a passion for pure science.

Nowadays the need is to keep men interested in theory. They will look after the practical side of things for themselves. So, instead of perpetually concentrating attention on the minute examination of secondary effects, it is good to distract it therefrom sometimes and lift it to contemplation of first causes.

Applications are for the private sector; exploration needs the occasional boost from the public.

I can’t find the quote but de Tocqueville also worried that Americans, being so imminently practical, would not indulge themselves in great monuments and achievements for the ages. NASA, both in exploration and investigation, crushes that fear. Apollo was a greater achievement than all the wonders of the world put together. If humans ever do escape this planet and make themselves almost immune from extinction, it will be the greatest achievement in the history of history. Our satellites have found hundreds of new worlds and looked back to the dawn of the universe itself. Aristotle would be green with envy.

I bring this up, of course, because the House just unveiled their budget proposal for NASA, which cuts 10% of NASA science and ends JWST — NASA’s next big science mission. I have mixed feeling about this. JWST is massively over-budget and has had a myriad of technical problems, which has been hurting other missions. On the other hand, it would be an incredible mission if it took place and its backers insist the big problems are behind them. And the current proposal doesn’t move the money to other missions; it just makes it disappear.

As someone who supports steep budget cuts, I’m constantly looking for things to kill. And I’m glad the GOP is taking on ethanol, our bloated transportation budget and, just maybe, our outsized defense budget and entitlements. But basic science is one of the few things we should prioritize and one of the few things that was not run up in the recent budget explosion. I recently saw a talk from a NASA higher up. With the expected cuts, we will, by the end of the decade, have entire regions of the electromagnetic spectrum that are as invisible to us as they were to cave men. A flat level of funding for 2012, with JWST continuation contingent on a top-to-bottom review of the program, would hold the line on the budget without hurting the future and darkening our electronic eyes, perhaps forever.

(Space science has its practical side, as well. Any time you are talking space science — from detector technology to control systems — you’re talking about things that have practical, frequently military uses. One instrument I’ve seen uses a holographic glass technology used for the Heads Up Display of fighter aircraft. Science is one of the few government endeavors that actually has an economic multiplier, although how great it is — estimates range from 2 to 10 — is debatable.)

The GOP talks a lot about American exceptionalism. As an insider, I can tell you that there are few fields where America is more exceptional than astrophysics. In terms of degrees granted, papers published, missions launched and discoveries made, we eclipse the rest of the world combined. Around the globe, America is astronomy. Can we not find a way to keep our budget under control without sacrificing that?

Feel free to blast me in the comments if you think that I’m just pleading for my own slice of the federal pie. But I’m trying to be as objective as possible. Even before this became my life — and who knows if it will be for much longer — I loved this stuff. As I said — this is the way to waste taxpayer money.