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Do we still want to go to Mars?

Hot take: I dunno.

Before the U.S. put the first man on the moon, before the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, people thought aliens lived on Earth’s nearest planetary neighbor.

The belief sparked fear in some — and outright panic when Orson Welles broadcast reports in 1938 of a Martian invasion drawn from the novel “The War of the Worlds.”

But it inspired others to question: Are we alone in the universe?

“Perhaps the single, most consuming scientific question of the space program is: ‘Does extraterrestrial life exist in our solar system?’” rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun wrote in a 1969 proposal to send humans to Mars.

In the decades since, even after scientists concluded the aliens of science-fiction fame do not live on Mars, the Red Planet has captivated the world’s imagination unlike any other.

It’s been the subject of countless movies, books and TV shows. It’s been an inspiration for folklore. And it’s been a desired destination for dreamers — a barren, dusty terrain that could offer scientists a look at what may lie ahead for Earth.

But a human mission to the Red Planet was out of reach in the 1960s. And it remains elusive today.

Top NASA officials have tentatively aimed for a human mission to Mars in 2033, but even they admit that timeline is aggressive. NASA still needs to develop a spacecraft capable of transporting humans to Mars; a method of propulsion to cover the distance more quickly; and a surface-landing vehicle that can handle the Martian climate.

Can NASA get it done in 14 years?

“I don’t know,” replied Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations.

“It’s a function of how much (progress) the program can make,” he told the Houston Chronicle in April. “The technology and the hardware is reasonable, but can we get the budget? That I don’t know.”

Some question going at all. The U.S. already has successfully landed eight robotic missions on the Red Planet.

“It’s kind of questionable about what there is to be gained,” Apollo 7 astronaut Walt Cunningham told the Chronicle. “You have to find some rationalization and justification in order to spend what it costs to go to Mars.

“I think that’s a long shot right now.”

On the one hand, I think there’s a lot to be learned by planning and executing a manned flight to Mars. I feel like as much as private firms are now in the space business, the public sector needs to continue to have a strong presence, if only to ensure that the knowledge gained by space travel remains in the public sphere. On a strictly parochial level, someone is eventually going to do this, and I’d rather it be the US than China or Russia.

Against that, it’s fair to question the value of the knowledge we’d get from a manned flight versus an unmanned flight. This would cost a ton of money at a time when there are higher priorities. It’s far from clear that this is something the public wants, and this is one of those times when having the President get behind it would not help at all. (I felt a little queasy just typing that out.) The idealist in me would love to see this happen. The pragmatist is far from convinced.

Uber’s vision for the future

I feel like this is more wishcasting than real planning. Still, some of it may happen, and if nothing else we should be aware of what it’s all about.

When Uber envisions the future, it not only wants to put urban air taxis and drones in the skies. It also wants to transform how people navigate cities and how they live in them.

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said the San Francisco-based tech company wants to turn today’s cities that are getting denser and more polluted into “cities of the future that are fundamentally green and built for people.” To do that, he said, cities need transportation options that range from cruising down the street on an electric scooter to commuting through the skies.

“We want not just to be the Amazon of transportation but also the Google of transportation,” he said.

One of the first places Uber wants that to play out is Dallas-Fort Worth: It’s one of the first three markets for Uber Elevate, an initiative to launch the aerial ride-sharing service.

[…]

Uber gave a progress report and made splashy announcements at its third annual Uber Elevate Summit. It announced the first international market for the air service: Melbourne, Australia. It revealed that Uber Eats is working with McDonald’s to deliver Big Macs and fries by drone. It touted the progress of six aviation companies that are designing the aircraft. And it dived into specifics, such as economics, safety and FAA-required certification. It showed off its different modes of transportation, from its new self-driving Volvo SUV to electric scooters.

Through splashy presentations and showroom floor exhibits, Uber and its business partners tried to build the case that urban air taxi service is not a far-fetched idea but one that’s coming to fruition.

Uber went public in May. The tech giant’s growth has been fueled by venture capital, but it is spending billions of dollars and has yet to turn a profit. That hasn’t slowed development of its aerial ride-sharing service. It expects to start flight demonstrations next year and launch commercial service in a few cities, including Dallas, in 2023. Eventually, it wants the urban air taxis to become autonomous.

Mark Moore, Uber’s director of engineering for vehicle systems, said he’s already seen some of the aircraft take flight. He declined to name the companies that are flight testing, saying they’re keeping quiet for competitive reasons.

“It’s incredibly impressive,” he said. “They’re nothing like helicopters.”

We first heard of Uber Elevate back in 2017. They had a goal at that time of rolling out a demo in 2020, so as far as their public pronouncements go, they’re on schedule. There re other operators in this space, one at Texas A&M that is working on flying motorcycles, with a test date of 2020, and a different kind of flying vehicle, based on battery power, that is farther away from reality. Beyond those two, we’ll just have to take Uber at their word that there are other companies testing prototypes now.

The challenges are not just technical.

Moore said the next four years will focus on demonstrations that “prove out the safety, noise and performance” of the vehicles.

In 2023, he said it will launch to paying customers in Dallas — but with a limited number of vehicles and limited operations. He said he expects five aircraft per manufacturer at launch. That will grow to about 50 per manufacturer in 2024. But, he said, some manufacturers may not be ready in time.

In Dallas, the average trip is expected to be 20 to 25 miles, Moore said.

But one of the major questions is whether Uber can win over regulators and the public. Unlike other tech innovations, early adopters won’t just use a new kind of technology. They’ll fly in public, so that affects the people driving, walking or living on the ground below, whether or not they choose to opt in.

[…]

“Uber is obsessed with making these vehicles as quiet as possible,” he said.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s acting administrator, Dan Elwell, said he’s enthusiastic about urban air taxis but acknowledged that their development gives him more to worry about.

“Everyone is riveted by this, especially me, but then I put on my FAA regulator hat and I got a whole new bucket of stuff to lose sleep over,” he said in a speech at the summit. “What you see is the ideal way to transporting people across cities. When I look at it, I see car-sized vehicles with multiple rotors hanging over dense urban populations.”

All that was discussed in the first Uber Elevate link I posted above. Noise is also a concern – much is done to abate highway noise for residences, but the only way to do that for aerial vehicles is to make the vehicles themselves as quiet as possible. How t ameliorate the “death from above” concerns, well, that’s going to be a key question. All this from a company that burns money faster than 747s burn jet fuel. I’ll keep an eye on this, but don’t be surprised if the next major update is that the timelines have been pushed back.

Flying motorcycles

Look out above.

A team of engineers at Texas A&M University is participating in the $2 million-plus GoFly Prize competition, an event sponsored by the aerospace company Boeing to challenge engineers to develop flying devices that are relatively quiet, fit in the garage and can carry one person for 20 miles without refueling or recharging.

The College Station team, called Texas A&M Harmony, and its motorcycle-like device has so far received $70,000 as a winning team in the competition’s paper design and prototype phases. It’s now preparing for the final competition in which teams fly full-scale designs in early 2020.

[…]

“People have been trying to build flying cars for the last 70, 80 years,” said Moble Benedict, team captain and assistant professor in Texas A&M’s Department of Aerospace Engineering. “We still don’t see flying cars anywhere. And that’s because there are some inherent issues with the designs people are coming up with.”

Some designs would produce flying transports that are too loud for neighborhoods, he said, others that are too large for the typical commuter. The GoFly Prize competition addresses such problems by requiring that competing devices be no larger than 8½ feet in any direction. And from 50 feet away, they can’t be louder than 87 decibels – the sound level of a hair dryer.

“At first we thought this was impossible,” Benedict said. “We thought these were unrealistic requirements from GoFly. But then we said, ‘Let’s try it.’”

They soon came up with Aria. Like its namesake, the operatic aria sung by just one person, the flying device is designed for one person sitting upright. Two stacked rotors, essentially large fans that sit on top of each other and turn in opposite directions, enable it to fly.

The Aria could reach top speeds between 80 mph and 90 mph when the driver throttles forward. A flight computer stabilizes the vehicle and allows it to be controlled with a flight stick, almost like playing a video game. For the GoFly competition, the team will pilot the vehicle remotely and have a 200-pound dummy in the driver’s seat.

The rotors are specially designed to hold down the noise and not to pester neighbors when early-morning commuters take off for work.

“It won’t sound like a swarm of hornets in the morning,” said Farid Saemi, the team’s lead on electric powertrain propulsion and a doctoral student studying aerospace engineering.

Between this and the Uber flying cars that are (supposedly) being tested by NASA, 2020 could be a banner year for flying vehicles. Or possibly a banner year for internal combustion engines falling from the sky. I don’t envy the next head of the FAA when the rulemaking process gets started. The cost of thie A&M flying motorcycle is $500K, and I presume that’s without the customization options. Start saving your pennies now if you want one of these babies, is what I’m saying. I’ll try to keep an eye on these developments, while hopefully remaining safely under cover. The downtown tunnels have never looked better.

NASA to test Uber’s flying cars

Just simulations, thankfully.

NASA will soon begin testing in Dallas how Uber’s on-demand air-taxi concept would affect crowded areas.

Uber is in the midst of designing an air-taxi service, called UberAIR. Officials hope to conduct flight demonstrations starting in 2020 and start operating commercially in Dallas and Los Angeles by 2023.

And on Tuesday, NASA announced that it would help the company “ensure a safe and efficient system for future air transportation in populated areas.”

“NASA is excited to be partnering with Uber and others in the community to identify the key challenges facing the [urban air mobility] market, and explore necessary research, development and testing requirements to address those challenges,” Jaiwon Shin, associate administrator for NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, said in a statement. “Urban air mobility could revolutionize the way people and cargo move in our cities and fundamentally change our lifestyle much like smartphones have.”

Under this agreement, Uber will provide NASA with its plans for implementing this cutting-edge ride-share network and NASA will use computer modeling and simulations to determine the impact of this kind of aircraft. The simulations will take place at NASA’s research facility at the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport.

NASA personnel will analyze safety issues that could arise from small passenger-carrying aircraft flying through the airport’s airspace during “peak scheduled air traffic,” according to the space agency.

See here for the background. There are still a lot of issues to be worked out, and there’s no real reason to think any of this is practical. But hey, we were promised flying cars, so onward we go. I just hope they remember to simulate a few falling-debris scenarios, because I’m pretty sure we’re going to need to know what to do with them.

That sinking feeling

We’re a little lower to the ground these days. Or maybe it’s just that the ground itself is lower.


Chris Milliner, a postdoctoral fellow at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, used observations from the Nevada Geodetic Laboratory and the University Nevada-Reno statistics department to determine that the Houston metro area was two centimeters lower because of the load of the widespread floodwaters on the Earth’s crust.

The simple explanation? Water is heavy. About a ton per cubic meter.

“GPS data show that (the flood) was so large it flexed Earth’s crust, pushing Houston down,” Milliner said Monday via Twitter.

Elaborating on Tuesday, Milliner said there’s no reason to worry. It should be a passing thing.

“This should be a temporary drop,” he said in an e-mail. “Once floodwaters recede, we should expect a similar, but opposite elastic response of the crust, i.e., uplift. Similar to if you were to jump on-and-off your mattress.”

Milliner referred to the phenomenon as local elastic subsidence. He said it is seen in most areas that experience significant seasonal changes in water or ice.

So we’ll probably bounce back, in the literal sense, which is nice. I recommend you click on the tweet link and read through the discussion. We all knew we got a crap-ton of rain, but holy mackeral is it amazing to be confronted with an illustration like this of just how much rain we got.

Who wants to go to Mars?

I imagine that sounds like a pretty good option to a lot of people right about now.

Wealthy business leaders like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are creating buzz around and making progress toward the exploration of deep space, experts said Wednesday during SpaceCom in downtown Houston.

“I think we’re entering an era of philanthropic private funding of grand visions in space that start with our own solar system and eventually lead to humanity going to the stars,” said Pete Worden, chairman of the Breakthrough Prize Foundation and former director of NASA Ames Research Center.

Worden and other panelists discussed going to Mars and beyond during their presentations at the George R. Brown Convention Center. Such exploration, Worden said, will require public-private partnerships between international businesses and governments.

His enthusiasm lies with exploring the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri. To do this, Worden discussed the Breakthrough Starshot project. This involves small, ultra-light nanocraft – miniature space probes attached to lightweight sails – that will be pushed up to 100 million mph by a ground-based light beamer, according to the project’s website.

“I’m hoping sometime here later this century, maybe in 2076, hopefully sooner, we will fly by the nearest star,” Worden said.

Other panelists focused on human space flight to Mars. NASA wants to get people to Mars in the 2030s.

“Why send humans to Mars? It is the closest habitable planet,” said Brian Duffy, vice president and program manager at Orbital ATK. “And if the human race is ever going to be anywhere else in the universe, then Mars makes the most sense.”

2076 is a little out of my reach, and I’d be too old in the 2030s for it to be practical. But even if I’ll never get to do it I support space travel, and often I think it will be necessary for the future viability of the civilization we have now. I just hope we can get the engineering problems solved in time. If you’re sorry you missed out on SpaceCom, don’t worry – it will be back next year, in December.

The dark side of SpaceX

Be careful what you wish for.

People who live in Boca Chica Village, all 26 of them, knew Elon Musk’s SpaceX company would put the South Texas town on the map after it was selected last year as the world’s first commercial rocket-launch site. Now, many want SpaceX gone and their obscurity back.

The residents say SpaceX representatives told them recently they would be required to register with the county, wear badges and pass through checkpoints on launch days, which will occur about once a month beginning as soon as next year. During a 15-hour launch time frame, their movement around the village could be restricted. If they happen to be picking up groceries past a designated “point of no return,” forget about going home.

SpaceX’s proposed methods to enforce the safety rules — sweeping the beach with drones and video surveillance — aren’t helping matters. While the rules still might change, all this makes residents wish SpaceX would go away, with some even talking about acts of civil disobedience or maybe a lawsuit.

“I’m like, ‘Are you out of your mind?’ ” said Cheryl Stevens, 55, who settled in Boca Chica Village a decade ago in search of quiet, rustic beauty. “It’s like Nazi Germany.”

[…]

Boca Chica Village, in one of the state’s poorest counties, sits on a dusty fleck of land between wind-swept sand dunes, emerald marshes and a desolate white beach. It’s officially called Kopernik Shores, after the famous Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, which now seems a small irony. The community of about three dozen houses, filled with mainly seasonal blue-collar workers and retirees, originally was built by a Chicago real-estate developer in the 1960s.

Experts say the safety issues are real. David Kanipe, an associate professor in the aerospace-engineering department at Texas A&M University and retired NASA engineer, said that during Cape Canaveral shuttle launches, viewers typically were required to be at least three miles away from the site. Boca Chica Village is less than two miles away. Residents could be exposed to dangerous chemicals used during launches, such as hydrazine, and falling debris in the event of an explosion, he said.

In June, an unmanned SpaceX rocket burst into flames minutes after it left Cape Canaveral. In the following days, beachgoers were warned to stay away from any toxic rocket debris that washed ashore.

“I’m not sure I’d be comfortable living that close to it,” Kanipe said.

Read the whole thing, it’s kind of an amusing story if you’re not on the business end of it. I suppose this issue will come up again, as more private space launch companies emerge and need places to do their thing. Let Boca Chica Village serve as a cautionary tale and a starting point for negotiations about the procedures for launch days. See this 2007 Austin Chronicle story if you want to know a bit more about the history of this little town.

To the moon with David Adickes

Awesome.

Before David Adickes walked out his door to get to a news conference Wednesday, he decided to paint a 12-13 inch model of an Apollo astronaut perched on a roughly 5-inch base that he was holding.

The 88-year-old artist and sculptor had used colors of the American flag. His right hand reaching for the sky, the astronaut was “wearing” a white suit with a red stripe on each limb, red and blue buttons on the front and an American flag on the left shoulder. Tucked to his side with his left hand was a white helmet, complete with a gold visor.

“And then the phone started ringing,” Adickes said. “So, I’m late,” he added before walking upstairs into a conference room where some project backers were gathered to hear more details about the enterprise.

The model in Adickes’ hands foreshadowed what he hopes will be done in “about a year plus” – a 100-foot version of it in statue form. It will be in what will become a Webster business park catering to the aerospace sector.

If everything goes right, the statue will be bigger than Adickes’ Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin statues.

[…]

Adickes added that his latest statue will be done in 10-foot sections brought to the site and hoisted up by two cranes and let down over two big pieces of strong steel, like a “skeleton in each leg.” The process will be “pretty much seamless,” but any seams will be fixed throughout the process. He is working on an 8-foot model of the statue he says will be done soon.

“I’m going to then cast two plaster versions of it,” Adickes said. “One of them will be portable, and we’ll use it for gala events … and the other one will be the one that we’ll use at the shop.”

Originally, the astronaut was to have a backpack, its right arm raised to its head in a salute. However, Adickes got rid of the backpack and decided to have the astronaut’s hand wave instead.

“Because when he got back from the moon, in the case of Neil Armstrong, or all of them, they leave the backpack behind and they wave and say, moon, very cool, everybody should go there,” Adickes said to the amusement of some in the conference room.

I don’t really have anything to say here. I’m just an unabashed fan of David Adickes, and it makes me happy to know that he’s in the process of creating another one of his signature statues. I can’t wait to see the finished work.

A better year for seaweed

Good news for Galveston beachgoers.

In a lucky break for Galveston beachgoers and the Gulf Coast’s tourism industry, the masses of seaweed that plagued the area last summer seem to be turning toward the Caribbean and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

The mats of Sargassum, now carefully tracked by a NASA app unveiled Thursday, drift in from the Atlantic on Gulf currents. At a crossroads near the Yucatan Peninsula, the seaweed either turns toward the Texas Coast or is swept back to the Atlantic Ocean, Robert Webster, a marine science researcher at Texas A&M University at Galveston, said at the 2015 Gulf Coast Sargassum Symposium.

“Most of the Sargassum has made that right turn,” Webster said. “They are getting killed in the Yucatan.”

Last year the seaweed took the Texas route, landing in volumes believed to be the largest inundation in history, possibly because massive flooding from Venezuela’s Orinoco River swept so many nutrients from floodwaters into the Gulf that it caused the Sargassum to flourish. The Orinoco is one of South America’s largest rivers and its mouth, although flowing into the Atlantic, is close to the Caribbean.

[…]

Although it may have its good attributes, cities want to get as much warning as possible to prepare for Sargassum landings. A new app developed by NASA, also unveiled at the symposium, uses satellites to spot seaweed and predict where and when it will land. Anybody who wants to know how much seaweed is on its way to Galveston beaches and when it will arrive can go to sargassum.tamug.edu to see orange dots representing seaweed floating across a satellite map of the Gulf of Mexico.

The automated system will replace a manual system, called the Sargassum Early Advisory System, developed by Texas A&M University at Galveston and maintained by students, said Duane Armstrong, chief of the applied science and technology products office at NASA’s John C. Stennis Space Center.

The original SEAS website is here. It points to a new website here, which is where I found that embedded image. The sargassum.tamug.edu didn’t have anything on it but a license agreement when I looked at it, but it may not be fully ready yet. In any event, I just thought this was cool.

New frontiers in giant statues

David Adickes will bring his art to Webster.

The City of Webster is planning a 20,000 square-foot space-themed attraction with a towering astronaut statue to beckon visitors along I-45.

According a proposal unveiled this week, the city’s five-acre tract of land on the northwest side of I-45 and NASA Parkway will be home to the Apollo and Beyond Center, which will educate visitors on the Apollo space program and the area’s rich NASA history.

Officials have enlisted the talent of famed Houston sculptor and painter David Adickes to create an 80-foot statue of a spacesuited Apollo astronaut planting an American flag at the front of the attraction.

There is a proposal for a 50-foot pedestal under the astronaut, which would house a small museum and make the astronaut a total of 130 feet tall. part of the proposal is an elevator to the top of the statue allowing for a 360-degree view of the area.

If the statue of the astronaut goes to plan, it would be taller than the Sam Houston statue that Adickes created for Huntsville. Sam is 67 feet tall with a 10-foot pedestal below him. Adickes’ Angleton-area statue of one of Texas’ other founding fathers, Stephen F. Austin, is 60 feet tall and has a 12-foot pedestal.

Adickes has told the Apollo Center that the astronaut statue will take a little over a year for him to create. The blueprint for the A7L spacesuit that will be depicted in the statue is coming from NASA.

As an unabashed fan of Adickes’ sculptures, I wholeheartedly approve of this. More giant statues, I say. I’ll need to plan a trip to Webster to see the finished work.

Friday random ten: To the moon

In honor of Neil Armstrong, for whom Texas Liberal has a nice roundup of obituaries, here are ten songs about the moon:

1. Fly Me To The Moon – Trinity University Jazz Band
2. Yellow Moon – Neville Brothers
3. Blue Moon Revisited – Cowboy Junkies
4. How High The Moon – The Manhattan Transfer
5. Bad Moon Rising – Thea Gilmore
6. Walking On The Moon – The Police
7. There’s A Moon In The Sky (Called The Moon) – The B-52’s
8. Rising Of The Moon – Maggie Drennon
9. Man On The Moon – Ferraby Lionheart
10. The Man In The Moon – Andy M. Stewart

I have many more moon songs – it’s quite a popular theme for musicians – but I thought these were a fair representation. What are your moon songs?

Pluto stamp petition

It’s the least we can do.

The proposed stamp, designed by Dan Durda

Two decades ago, the Postal Service issued a series of stamps depicting Earth, its moon, and the spacecraft sent to explore each of the other planets in the solar system.

The 10th stamp, featuring tiny, distant Pluto, was the only one to read “not yet explored.”

Those three words have annoyed Alan Stern ever since. Stern, an associate vice president and scientist at Southwest Research Institute, was making plans at the time for what would become the New Horizons mission to Pluto, which launched in 2006.

Now Stern, principal investigator of the mission, along with astronomer and artist Dan Durda, is trying to set the record straight. The scientists have designed a new stamp for Pluto, and they have launched a petition drive to get the post office to issue it when New Horizons reaches the dwarf planet in 2015.

And the old stamp? It has provided a little motivation for the whole enterprise.

“We took one of those old stamps that said “not yet explored,” and we put it on our spacecraft and are flying it to Pluto, as kind of an ‘in your face’ thing,” Stern said.

See here for some background, as well as a picture of the 1990 “not yet explored” stamp. Here’s the SWRI page about their quest, and here’s the petition. “Dwarf planet” or not, this deserves to be commemorated. They want to turn in the signatures by March 13, which is the 82nd anniversary of Pluto’s discovery by Clyde Tombaugh. Show Pluto a little love, won’t you?

Friday random ten: The final frontier

This is a little late, as this was happening while I was doing the Songs of the Century, but here’s my tribute to the last flight of the space shuttle:

1. Space Oddity – David Bowie
2. Space Truckin’ – Deep Purple
3. Outer Space – Ace Frehley
4. Hillbillies From Outer Space – The Vaughan Brothers
5. Pipes In Space – The Rogues
6. Spacemen Rockin’ In The House Next Door – Feo y Loco
7. Planet Claire – The B-52’s
8. Rocket Man – Kate Bush
9. Fly Me To The Moon – Trinity University Jazz Band
10. See The Constellation – They Might Be Giants

In more timely news, the Rice University MOB gave tribute to NASA at its show this past Friday, which involved the creation of a 2/3 scale model of the International Space Station, rendered in cardboard and laid out on the football field. Here’s the video:

Can your band do that?

Saturday video break: Space, the final frontier

In honor of the last flight of the space shuttle, I give you Elton John’s “Rocket Man”, as interpreted by the one and only William Shatner:

Of all the Shatnerian performances in the world, I think that one is the Shatneriest. Every time I thought it couldn’t get any more awesome, he kicked it up another notch.

Ticket to Mars

To boldly go where no one has gone before, and not come back.

How would you like to take a trip to Mars? That’s right, only to Mars. There would be no coming back.

[…]

The idea was floated by two scientists, Paul Davies of Arizona State University and Dirk Schulze-Makuch of the University of Washington, in an article in the Journal of Cosmology. One of the journal’s editors, Ron Becker, said that as the hundreds of e-mails flowed in from prospective Mars explorers, the initial reaction of both researchers and journal staff was to dismiss them as not serious. But that changed as it became apparent that many of the correspondents were quite sincere.“Our initial goal was to find a way to develop a human mission to Mars that could actually take place, that wouldn’t cost so much that it would be impossible to pull off,” Davies said. “And the one-way trip, as we costed it out, would be about one-quarter the price of a there-and-back mission.”

“But the response told us the spirit of exploration remains alive around the globe and that some people understand that the science involved would be extraordinary,” he said. “Just like with earlier explorers, they are prepared to set out knowing they won’t come back, but willing to do it because their time on Mars would be so remarkable.”

The idea, which is clearly not what NASA managers have in mind for Mars exploration, has now led to the release of “A One Way Mission to Mars: Colonizing the Red Planet,” a compilation of articles from the Journal of Cosmology, plus some additions from scientists with the Mars Society and others.

Among the articles in the book are “The Search for Life on Mars,” “Medical Care for a Martian Transit Mission and Extended Stay on the Martian Surface” and “Sex on Mars: Pregnancy, Fetal Development and Sex in Outer Space.” The authors include dozens of NASA researchers, some former astronauts and some scientists and advocates who have pushed for decades (with no success) for a human mission to Mars.

I’ll bet that makes for some interesting reading. My personal preference would be for all of the people who don’t want to share the planet with anyone who isn’t like them to be the first ones to go, but I suppose it’ll be the space geeks and dreamers instead. Perhaps they can be next. Would you take a one-way trip to Mars if you could?

Saturday video break: Fluuuuutes! Innnnnnn! Spaaaaaaaaace!

You’ve never seen a flute duet quite like this before:

I’m hard pressed to think of a better way to salute the 50th anniversary of the first human being in space. The song they’re playing is the opening bars of Jethro Tull’s Bourée, in case you’re curious. Many thanks to Making Light for flagging this.

Why the moon?

I understand the politics of the fight against NASA cutbacks. Jobs are at stake, even if they are being funded by those evil, dirty, not-job-creating federal dollars. But I’m still puzzled by the whole thing.

Texans have so little clout in Washington nowadays that when U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, now Sugar Land’s Republican Congressman, wanted to meet privately with NASA chief Charles Bolden, he had to buttonhole the former astronaut after a House panel hearing.

And although thousands of Houston-area jobs are at stake, Texans in 2008 did nothing to help usher Barack Obama into the White House. Furthermore, history shows previous lobbying efforts to salvage massive NASA projects have never succeeded.

“There’s not a single case where a major cancellation in the space program has been overturned by external lobbying,” says space historian John Logsdon, former director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute. “Congress defers to presidents on space because you can’t run a space program from Capitol Hill.”

Still, Texans vow to press ahead to overcome the decision to end the Bush-era $108 billion project initially envisioned to return astronauts to the moon by 2020.

Let’s put the politics aside for a minute. Why exactly do we want to go back to the moon? What is it we hope to learn from going there that we didn’t learn from all of the Apollo missions? What larger goal are we moving towards that these missions would help us achieve? From the time the Constellation program was first announced, the reason for it has been unclear to me. When I read about the political fight going on now, I see lots of talk about jobs, but basically nothing about the scientific value of more manned flights to the moon. So I want to know, what is the Constellation program for?

The other thing that strikes me about this is that in typical fashion, President Bush’s announcement of Constellation brought with it a large financial commitment for his eventual successor for which he himself provided no means to pay. Given the concerns that some people, like Pete Olson and John Cornyn and Rick Perry, say they have about the deficit and how much money the federal government is spending, what’s the justification for the $100 billion this will cost? Yeah, yeah, I know, it’s different when it affects you. I get that, but I don’t get why anyone thinks this is something on which President Obama is likely to be flexible. It’s not like Olson has shown any willingness to support anything Obama does. I mean, if Obama called up Pete Olson today and said “I’ll give you everything you want on NASA if you vote for the health care bill”, would anyone expect Olson to take the deal? I think we know what the answer to that would be. So why does Olson expect to get something with nothing? More to the point, why does anyone who voted for Olson think he’d be able to?

Space travel: Not as high tech as you might think

It may be the final frontier, but that doesn’t mean we’re using bleeding edge technology.

[The International Space Station’s] 44 primary computers that do everything from guide the station around Earth at 17,000 mph to monitor for fires are powered by Intel 386 processors, first built in the mid-1980s, with a clock rate of 16 megahertz. To put that in perspective, today’s processors are measured in gigahertz, a speed increase by a factor of 1,000.

Needless to say, the task of maintaining the network of computers on the station humming along is more difficult than, say, putting together a home network.

I suppose it isn’t exactly a trivial matter to do upgrades on it. Funny how this sort of thing was never a problem on Star Trek – “Open a channel, Lt. Uhura.” “I can’t, Captain, their version of Skype is totally incompatible with ours.” Gives me hope that we’ll get this problem licked one of these days.

Friday random ten: To the moon!

So, I didn’t get around to the news about NASA finding water on the moon until after I’d published my Friday Random Ten for last week. But the great thing about Fridays is that there’s always another one coming. So here I present to you ten moon songs.

1. Bad Moon Rising – Creedence Clearwater Revival
2. Blue Moon – The Marcels
3. Fly Me To The Moon – Laurie Berkner
4. How High The Moon – Charlie Parker
5. Kiko And The Lavender Moon – Los Lobos
6. Lua De Sao Jorge (Moon Of St. George) – Susanna Sharpe and the Samba Police
7. Moon Over Bourbon Street – Sting
8. New Blue Moon – Traveling Wilburys
9. Shine On Harvest Moon – Asylum Street Spankers
10. There’s A Moon In The Sky (Called The Moon) – The B-52s

What’s mooning about on your iPod this week?

From the “I hate you! Now give me some money!” files

Republicans think the stimulus package was bad public policy and an ineffective waste of money, except for the money that comes to their districts, in which case it’s all good.

Texas’ top lawmakers in Congress want President Barack Obama to pony up some of the $787 billion in economic stimulus money to rescue NASA’s manned space program and ensure that astronauts one day will travel beyond the orbiting international space station.

Twenty-eight Republican and Democratic members of Texas’ 34-member delegation, led by Republican Sens. John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison, delivered their appeal by letter on Monday, days before Obama is expected to hear a White House panel of experts recommend greater spending.

The lawmakers asked Obama to divert $3 billion from the unspent portion of the economic stimulus package that continues to be doled out as part of an economic recovery plan stretching over two years.

The two senators and 19 Republican House members who signed the letter voted against the economic stimulus in February; the seven Democrats who signed the letter voted for it.

“Boldness does not come cheaply (in space) and in a venture that is inherently risky, we have an obligation to provide the adequate resources to make these worthy goals safe, attainable and sustainable over time,” the lawmakers wrote the president. “Since the stated purpose of the stimulus package was to secure good jobs and stabilize our economy, there is no better investment that could be made than the addition of up to $3 billion to NASA” in the next fiscal year.

[…]

The letter was drafted and circulated by Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land, the freshman lawmaker whose congressional district includes the Johnson Space Center that serves as the hub for 20,000 direct and indirect jobs in the greater Houston area.

“Investing in space is well worth the return on investment” in the effort to “secure good jobs and stabilize our economy,” Olson said in a statement.

Funny how that works, isn’t it? John Coby and Think Progress have more.

Monday election tidbits

Just some news and notes that I thought were worth passing along…

KPRC had a longish story on the hoax email that was sent in the name of Christians for Better Government. Whoever pulled this particular dirty trick sure got his or her money’s worth for it.

– Council Member Mike Sullivan tells CM Peter Brown that NASA is his turf.

– Speaking of Peter Brown, he’d like to know what your vision for Houston is.

– At Large #1 candidate Stephen Costello releases a video.

– Not really election-related, but there will be an interesting conference later this week called Megaregions+MetroProsperity: Sustainable Economics for the Texas Triangle to discuss high speed rail and other transportation-related matter. Go to TexasTriangle.org for more information.

– District F candidate Robert Kane talks to neoHouston.

– HISD Trustee candidate Adrian Collins, one of three people challenging incumbent Lawrence Marshall in District IX, launches his campaign website.

UPDATE: One more link to add. Turns out that “What recession?” video clip was a dirty trick by the Hutchison campaign. Whatever. I’ll say again, Rick Perry is the last person in the state who gets to complain about that sort of thing happening to him.

To the moon

Today is the 40th anniversary of the day that man walked on the moon. I was three years old when this happened, and I have a very vague memory of watching it on TV. There’s a lively discussion going on about where NASA should go from here – some folks, like Greg, think the space-exploration business should be turned over to the private sector – but I’m not interested in that right now. I just want to celebrate the accomplishment, which to me seems more amazing now than it was then. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, I salute you. Thank you for what you did, and for inspiring us all to truly imagine a world with no boundaries.

Lampson to NASA?

Former Rep. Nick Lampson, who was a big advocate for NASA while he was in Congress, is now on the short list to become NASA’s administrator.

The 64-year-old Stafford Democrat, whose Houston-area congressional district included Johnson Space Center, has joined a short list of prospective nominees for the $177,000-a-year post.

Former astronaut Charles Bolden Jr., a retired Marine Corps major general, also remains in contention, in part because of support from Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., chairman of the Senate panel that oversees NASA.

[…]

The selection of a NASA administrator has dragged on for months. It has been complicated by political divisions within the NASA community, rival candidates favored by Texas and Florida lawmakers and a White House distracted by a national economic crisis.

A bipartisan group of 14 lawmakers — including seven Texans — recently wrote Obama to express their concern about the absence of a NASA administrator.

Freshman Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land, who defeated Lampson in November’s congressional election, said he found the lengthy delay “extremely troubling,” especially with NASA’s budget being considered by the House and critical decisions over program milestones mounting.

“I’m very concerned that five months after the election, we’ve still only heard rumors from the administration regarding the next NASA administrator,” said Olson, who serves as ranking Republican on the House panel that oversees NASA.

[…]

Scott Pace, a former NASA official directing George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, said Obama would be looking for a two-person leadership team on which the administrator enjoys a strong relationship with the president and Congress — and the deputy administrator would have broad technical expertise. “Between the two officials, you need to be able to operate up and out to the White House, Congress and the public — as well as manage down and into the agency,” Pace said.

Lampson, a political moderate with friendships that cross party lines, could help the $18 billion-a-year agency negotiate the treacherous political shoals of Capitol Hill.

Lampson was formerly the chair of that panel on which Olson now sits. I’ve heard rumors for months about Lampson being appointed to run NASA; I don’t even remember where I first heard it. It makes a lot of sense, and he’d be a great fit for them. I wish him the best of luck in this pursuit.

To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations

It’s not quite boldly going, but it’s still pretty darned cool.

The universe may be filled with Earth-like planets — worlds where extraterrestrials might flourish.

But these planets were once considered too small to spot, even with the latest in space technology.

Now, many astronomers believe NASA’s $600 million Kepler telescope, which is scheduled to shoot into space this week, will help to clear up the mystery.

Named for Johannes Kepler, a 17th-century German astronomer who studied planetary motion, the telescope is designed to search 100,000 stars in the Milky Way for Earth-sized rocky planets where water could flow and form streams, lakes and oceans.

Some astronomers believe the spacecraft could eventually find about 50 Earth-like planets.

“If we find that many, it will certainly mean life may well be common throughout our galaxy,” said William Borucki of NASA’s Ames Research Center, the astronomer who leads the Kepler science team.

“On the other hand, if we don’t find any, that is still a profound discovery,” he said. “It will mean that Earth must be very rare. We may be the only life in our universe.

“It will mean there will be no Star Trek.”

Dude. There will always be Star Trek. It just may be a little different. Regardless, I look forward to hearing of Kepler’s discoveries.