A Phoenix/Dawn Compromise

Guys, I figured it out. Here's how we can make everything work out between the conflicting launch of Dawn to the asteroids and Phoenix to Mars. It's a brilliant plan and totally lacking in technical feasibility. I think it could work. I mean, what's the worst that could happen? Just launch the thing and figure it out later.

Here it is.

Keep Dawn on the launch pad. Send it to Mars.

Put Phoenix on the launch pad as scheduled. Send it to Ceres.

Everyone's a winner! Especially Dana, who wouldn't have to stay in Florida until Dawn's September launch and can come to the party at his own apartment tomorrow night.

Dawn rescheduled for September placement in museum

Errr... not really: NASA Mission to Asteroid Belt Rescheduled for September Launch. But, just taking it off the top of the Delta II rocket and putting it in the National Air and Space Museum instead of stowing it until a September launch -- someone will just drop a wrench on it in storage anyway -- is thinking one step ahead of the game. Dawn doesn't want to launch.

However, the real question on everyone's mind: will Dana still be at the Cape next weekend doing reverse I&T on Dawn or will he be back here for the Frenchy Bob Bastille Day party with his roommates?

Update: Since Dawn has been loaded with (poisonous) hydrazine, it can't be displayed in a museum. Fine. Here's another idea: chuck it.

Silly Mars Society...

For whatever reason, my @uiuc.edu email address still works; normally the university shuts it down a few months after graduation, but not mine. I don't know why. It still works for me.

That allows me to get gems such as the following email from the Mars Society:

MARS IS UNDER ATTACK! IT IS TIME FOR THE MARS SOCIETY TO MOBILIZE TO SAVE HUMAN MISSIONS TO MARS!

Agh! Loud noises! The person that sent this email clearly subscribes to the school of ALL CAPS MEANS THAT I AM REALLY REALLY SAYING SOMETHING IMPORTANT LISTEN TO ME.

Memo: Mars is not under attack.

I joined the Mars Society for one year (2003) as a university student. I'm not sure what's been going on in Mars Society lately, but they've been sending out emails about current/past members registering for the Mars Society Yahoo Group. Probably they're out of money, and the best way to get more is to suddenly act interested in people. These three emails are probably equal to the total number that I received as a member that year.

Not everyone from the Mars Society is totally nuts. I have some "normal" friends that are stationed at the Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station (FMARS) in northern nowhere, Canada. OK, maybe I'm taking the liberty of calling someone from Quebec--my fellow ISU SSP06 classmate Simon--normal. Also good to see Ryan and Mel up there--met them in Toronto at the 2005 International Lunar Conference where they were reviving SEDS Canada, thanks, as always, to Bob Richards.

SGAC + money = ...

Why does this make me uneasy? Actually, maybe uneasy isn't the precise word -- maybe I feel bad, or sorry, or something like that. Maybe it's because I know Chris Boshuizen is asking his friends -- past SGAC folks: the names on that list -- to donate to SGAC, which in turn goes to pay his own salary. $_Jessy + $_Robbie + $_Mark + $_Julia ~= MonthSalary_Chris. And I hope that the mystery donation isn't like the last mystery donation we received in SGAC, which was something that we are expected to pay back; sounds more like a loan than a donation.

I wouldn't want to be in his position, certainly -- effectively asking my friends to donate money for my salary. It would feel weird. If you ask me, having a paid executive director might be better suited for a foundation that is built for taking money and turning it around to pay for overhead costs. SGAC isn't the right format for that. (This is why I enjoy working on the seds.org server, adding information to the wiki, advising students, etc. -- I don't get paid for it. In fact, I can't get paid for it, and that's the way I like it. Thus my hobby is only a burden on myself... and maybe Ryan McLinko of SEDS-USA who deals with a lot of my emails.)

Mo' money: how much does the Space Generation Congress cost? 305 euros for students and 370 euros for non-students. How much does the similarly-timed and -placed SEDS International Conference cost? (sorry, you have to open a .pdf brochure to verify) INR 500 for Indian students, INR 750 for foreign students, INR 1500 for Indian non-students, and INR 2000 for foreign non-students.

Compare:

SGC SEDSIC
Student (euros) 305 euros 9.23 euros (Indian)
13.85 euros (Foreign)
Non-student (euros) 370 euros 27.69 euros (Indian)
36.92 euros (Foreign)
Student (INR) INR 16,525 INR 500 (Indian)
INR 750 (Foreign)
Non-student (INR) INR 20,046 INR 1500 (Indian)
INR 2000 (Foreign)

Conversions done via xe.com.

Now, the exception: if you pay after today (and there is probably some leeway with this -- SGAC is not evil), the prices change to 355 euros for students and 420 euros for non-students.

SGC SEDSIC
Student (euros) 355 euros 9.23 euros (Indian)

13.85 euros (Foreign)

Non-student (euros) 420 euros 27.69 euros (Indian)

36.92 euros (Foreign)

Student (INR) INR 19,235 INR 500 (Indian)
INR 750 (Foreign)
Non-student (INR) INR 22,757 INR 1500 (Indian)
INR 2000 (Foreign)

Also, I have a suspicion that Rs. 16,000 is a lot more for an Indian than, say, someone from the US or Western Europe. That might mean pricing out the local population, which isn't a good play because for us foreigners, it costs quite a lot to even get to India -- between $1200 and $1500 from DC. (Not to mention the unintentional disrespect: no Indian keynote speakers) We'll see what happens. Best of luck to the SGC organizers -- I think they'll do something good -- but I won't be there to see it; instead of paying 370 euros/$495 (!), I'll be down in Vellore with the SEDSIC people, helping.

September will be a judgment call for SGAC. They've signed up for their SGC venue, throwing in their bet for this game. They've tied their organizational debts/expenses to the SGC costs... at least I hope so, how else could it cost 370 euros for a three-day young professional and student conference? The five-day International Astronautical Congress -- the larger conference that SGC tags along with -- costs 250 euros for young professionals and 100 euros for students.

We'll see.

U of Illinois joins Google Book Search digitization project

Illinois, CIC Join Google Book Search Project

The Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) -- the Big11Ten plus University of Chicago, formerly of the Big Ten -- are scanning books for Google. Good to see Illinois in this project.

Paula Kaufman, UIUC University Librarian:

"Now, we can search every word in every
volume and make connections across works that would've taken weeks or
years to make in the past.

"

Update: On a roll: Illinois unverifiable excellent statistic engineering love: ARWU/Engineering

Tell el-Amarna

I have a fascination with maps that is probably better classified as an obsession...

Doing a little bit of searching in Google Earth -- the finest "drug" I know -- I found the location of Tell el-Amarna, which I learned about in this article in LiveScience: Ancient Egyptian City Spotted From Space. Here is Tell el-Amarna -- at least, as shown in the satellite image in the article -- in Google Maps.

New astronaut gloves

Peter Homer wins the $200k Astronaut Gloves Competition: link to Discovery Channel.

I'm in favor of the Centennial Challenges, such as this, that say to citizens, "Hey, we're missing this key technology, can you figure it out for us?" When you give someone a limited budget -- and I mean a real limited budget based on your personal savings or small donations, not a limited multibillion dollar government budget -- they are required to be innovated to fit their own financial constraints. In this case, a guy goes to public stores until he finds the equipment and materials he needs, and then does it. It's a different mindset. When you have lots of money, it's no problem to spend lots of money to create a solution; when you don't have it, you don't spend it. You must create new configurations for existing things or tease your long-time crazy idea into a feasible manifestation.

A larger question that surfaces in my mind from this: what sort of roles and tasks should NASA have? In this case, they benefit from getting a relatively cheap solution, and then applying it. Is NASA's role to develop technologies for spaceflight, or to apply them? If you were to create a list of what NASA should do, what would it contain? Could you move the Earth atmosphere observation missions to NOAA and the Earth science missions to USGS? Could you give the volatile, high-risk technology development problems to others -- government or private -- to solve on the the cheap, and then focus on applying the solution?

I don't think that "solve on the cheap" works for every technology problem, nor is every proposed solution worthwhile, but the gloves are, in my opinion, a good example of prize money well spent.

The great space industry workforce shortage hoax

I'm going to come back to this later -- it's sleep time on the East Coast -- but I think that the oft-trumpeted impending shortage of engineers in the space industry workforce is a myth.

I've just come across an article in Issues in Science and Technology, "Where the Engineers Are," by Vivek Wadhwa, et al. The quote that most sticks in my mind, though I have not finished the article:

"...we found no indication of a shortage of engineers in the United States."

I hope to read the article soon, and do a bit more research on the topic. I'd really like to blow someone's mind with this concept -- at the least, raise the question -- because I've heard the "workforce gap" refrain so many times from space cadets and space realists without considering if it was a verified claim. Considering it now, it seems to exist of its own momentum, passed on by people who are anxious that their beloved craft may be in peril. (On the contrary, this would be a good thing because it seems there is a ready supply of young engineers to take over; however, perhaps there are other aspects such as production that are lacking.)

It looks like this article raises another issue that I wondered about: how can the number of engineers in India and China increase so dramatically without incurring problems with the quality of the number of engineers produced. Meaning: (1) is the student to instructor ratio dramatically increased? (2) or is the number of instructors dramatically increased? In either case, more engineers does not mean more better or equal quality engineers.

This doesn't mean that I'm entirely pleased with the US education system either -- it's not bad, but there is no facet of our country that I would want to improve more than this. To me, this topic of the "shrinking workforce" builds into education: people -- some with lobbying influence, I presume -- wave their arms at the hot topic in hopes of making a windfall on it, and eventually the hot topic takes on a perpetuated life of its own, supplanting what should always be the most important point: to provide the highest quality education possible, in my opinion, regardless of the intended industry in which it is applied.

All hypotheses for now, however, I call shenanigans; let's have a look under the hood and see.

AIM in orbit

Wednesday was an interesting day in the office. In the afternoon, we were invited to the auditorium to watch a live feed of the launch of the Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesophere -- better known as AIM -- mission. AIM was launched on a Pegasus XL from Vandenberg AFB.

Orbital does quite a few things, but Pegasus is the only product that I was really familiar with before joining the company. Before going to the auditorium, I didn't expect many people to attend; I imagined: surely everone else has seen a Pegasus launch. (But I knew that eventually all of the engineer/gophers would peek their heads out of their offices/holes and come for the free snacks, at least.)

For a long time, the only feed on the screen was of the L-1011 -- say it like "L ten eleven" --  Stargazer sitting on the runway with Pegasus slung underneath, the occasional cutaway to stone-faced people in the mission control room speaking on microphones; hours of checklists for those few seconds of fire. Eventually the L-1011, sensing the ennui, left the runway and climbed to cruise altitude. Knowing this with a sort of extra sense, people began to fill the room, the screen now consisting of rotating images of (1) the carrier plane and rocket from below-right; (2) the rocket nozzle from the belly of the plane; and (3) the stone faces, the missile men, the telemetry diviners.

Beside me, a friend who previously worked at the FAA whispered along with the various countdowns. The group murmured satisfaction as Pegasus waved its tailfins on cue. Mostly: anticipation.

Pegasus dropping from the carrier plane is absurd because at that moment you see it for what it really is -- a big, heavy, steel canister -- falling out of the sky. The gods must be crazy. Ignition and boost is an elegant affair, not the herk-and-jerk that I expected, but a smooth glide first forward and down, then up and away. That first ignition, then the second, then the third were each met with affirmative murmuring -- not celebration, mind you, because nothing matters at the end of the ride unless the spacecraft detaches from the third stage. And it did separate, received by only a polite applause in the auditorium, perhaps because in the end it's only a few seconds of fire after months of development. (The joke goes like this: How many engineers does it take to launch a rocket? One, the guy who presses the button.)

(And, of course, all of the popcorn was gone.)

Apparently things are going well with the mission; an excerpt from an email sent at work today:

The launch was perfect.  AIM has a requirement to maintain a precise sun synchronous orbit, and does not have propulsion for any fine tuning. Therefore, we needed a precise orbit insertion from Pegasus, and they nailed it.

Anyway: great to see a standing-room only crowd watch a guy press a button.