Thursday, May 24, 2012

From Towel Day to SpaceX and Transparency Grenades

For Douglas’s sake, don’t forget your towel today! 5/25/12 is not just the annual Towel Day to honor the genius of Douglas Adams, but Super Towel Day (5 + 25 + 12 = 42!!!!) A day that won’t recur for another … century, when the cosmic solution to life, the universe, and everything just may be revealed.

Why a towel?  It is, after all …. “the massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value – you can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a mini raft down the slow heavy river Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or to avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (a mindbogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you – daft as a bush, but very ravenous); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough. Most importantly, a towel has immense psychological value…” So long Douglas, and thanks for all the fish…

Huzzah for Elon and his team at SpaceX for a successful liftoff with their Falcon 9 rocket, followed by the Dragon capsule docking with the International Space Station  -- the first hook-up with a commercial spacecraft. It's a new era with state and enterprise, both being intelligent and forward-looking for a change.

Last month, I was privileged to visit the magnificent SpaceX facility near Los Angeles, where Elon showed me the Dragon capsule.  Next step: reliably delivering vital cargo to the ISS. SpaceX has long-range plans to use Dragon as the basis for a crewed capsule to take astronauts to the space station, and eventually to Mars. Onward and upward...

And now we know something about BlueOrigin, a private entrepreneurial project by Amazon's Jeff Bezos, which appears to be a capsule whose lifting body shape will allow a great deal of cross-range maneuvering while hurtling at hypersonic speeds.  Also, ATK Inc of Utah has a candidate system for lifting capsules to Low Earth Orbit, and there are others, as well!  Privatizing this stuff was way overdue.  You'd think the folks who wanted this for decades - who yell endlessly for more private-commercial approaches - would give Obama some cred for finally doing it. 

==Trending toward the Future==

As this is being posted, I am at the Annual Future in Review... or FiRe ... conference in Laguna Beach, California, a gathering of tech entrepreneurs and venture folk and such, where I am the regular/resident futurist scifi-guy. I'll be helping run the "CTO Challenge." This year's topic - developing a plan to help all consumers use tech to better know what they are eating -- part of the 'quantified self movement.'  Also I will interview famed and sagacious author Kim Stanley Robinson, whose novel, 2312, has just been released.

How to identify the trends and ideas that will endure, leading to radical change, re-defining the world of tomorrow? Wired offers valid pointers: look for cross-pollinating ideas that span disciplines; surf the exponentials; look for virtuous cycles; and plan on increasing levels of openness and transparency.  Okay, I'll steer you to these tricks, since WIRED blabbed about them.  But still, they barely scratched my own, personal top ten Secrets of Master Prognosticators!

Here's one forward-looking concept... developing space-age travel here on Earth. ET3 -- Evacuated Tube Transport Technologies -- plans to go with an idea many of us discussed in the 1980s... riding maglev capsules in airless, friction free tubes at high speed (and low energy cost) at very high speed... say New York to Beijing in 2 hours.  Worth a web visit just to see the cool illustrations. And someday....

A $1 billion ultra high-tech city is about to be built – for a population of zero! CITE, the Center for Innovation, Testing and Evaluation will be a testing ground for intelligent traffic systems, self driving vehicles, green energy, resource recycling, smart grid networks, etc – a laboratory for emerging technologies from both public and private sectors. (No one to complain when electricity or water is shut off.)  The project will mimic a mid-sized city of 35,000, and will cover about 15 square miles. Location in southeast New Mexico. They’ll need security to keep the people out…

Honda has revealed plans for a rolling stool it now calls the Uni-Cub which users steer by the seat of their pants. Roll-over Segway!

Was Steve Jobs planning to build an “iCar”?  Huh!  In TINKERERS I showed a billboard: NEW FOR 2024, THE HONDA/APPLE iCAR!

And now for something completely different... algae farming! It’s a big deal (and I portray it in my new novel.) At long last, the glimmers and tentative hopes are apparently scaling up, led by members of the Mars family (yes, the candy makers) who have developed processes to take sewage from farms and cities, combine it from CO2 from factories, mix it under copious free sunlight, and put out oxygen and “green gold.” I’ll be meeting Heliae's CEO at this week’s “Future in Review" conference, in Laguna, California. 

==Looking downward==

Some call me a "transparency radical" because I push the notion that increased levels of light are generally likely to benefit us all, rather than harm us.  At least, light nourishes our science, democracy, markets and individual ability to hold the mighty accountable.  But I am no radical.  The Transparent Society discusses legitimate boundaries and exceptions.  Want to see radicals?  Have a glimpse at the "Transparency Grenade!" Toss it into a space and it collects and re-transmits detected network traffic and audio.  Deliberately provocatively made to resemble a Soviet grenade.  As art?  cool!  As a practical suggestion? Not so much...

I recently participated with many scholars in Phase 2 of the Drones At Home project -- a 2-day conference organized by the gallery@calit2 and the Center for Research in Computing and the Arts, under Professor Sheldon Brown. There were panels, screenings, and art openings, including presentations by Alex Rivera, the creator of the wonderful little sci fi film SLEEP DEALER and a brilliant one-hour, one-man performance play, Unmanned, about the rise of drones and cyborgism in modern life, by Jordan Crandall.

And while we're on the subject, see this: How killer drones are changing the way we conduct war.The Pentagon maintains a fleet of 19,000 drones, for aerial surveillance and reconnaissance, as well as targeted strikes, killing at least 3000 individuals classified as terrorists -- as well as 800 civilians, according to human rights groups.

NASA's Dawn mission scientists have released a  video depicting the satellite's fly-over of the distant asteroid, Vesta, a "proto-planet" in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

==Cool Stuff==

Always been a big fan of "powers of ten" style zoom-in and zoom-out graphics and films that bring home the incredible ranges of scale that we must deal with, in our puny, brittle minds.  Now see the latest, a super-cool slide-able illustration that really brings it home. Dizzingly fun: An interactive scale of the universe that takes youfrom a hydrogen atom to a cell to a human to a star to our galaxy, local super-clusters and beyond. Explore!

Last time, I linked to the terrific Teaser and the incredible Preview-Trailer and teaser by Patrick Farley for my new novel, Existence

Now have a look at our totally revised website.  A total makeover from the old

I've just had a slew of audio books released from Audible: The Postman, Earth, Kiln People, Startide Rising and more...

While we're showing off trailers, here's a glimpse at one concocted by Orbit, my publisher in the U.K., for their special, limited edition, "3-D cover" for the first printing of EXISTENCE.  They are going for a much starker, less traditionally sci fi marketing approach.


Josh Freeman said...

Those Honda Uni-cubs seem just a short step from Wall-e style hover chairs. You don't even need to stand up anymore!

Jonathan S. said...

Give Obama credit?? There's at least two nutjobs in our local paper that are claiming SpaceX is really a government program - that the Falcon booster is a modified Air Force rocket, and the Dragon capsule is just the Ares with a new label! And there's no convincing them otherwise, no matter how many links you provide - it's all part of the Conspiracy, you see...

The Transparency Grenade reminds me of another site I frequent, the SCP Foundation (a fictional group that contains things too dangerous or bizarre for the world, like SCP-682, the Unkillable Lizard of Hate, or SCP-008, the Zombie Virus - or, for that matter, SCP-343, who may or may not be God). One of the Groups of Interest the Foundation tries to keep tabs on is a dadaist art collective known as Are We Cool Yet?, which uses SCP objects to create (sometimes horrifying) art installations. A glass grenade that taps into wireless communications would be right up their alley...

Rob said...

Feh. That Universe-magnifier only goes down to the proton level. I want quarks and leptons in my magnifier!

sociotard said...

Link Dump Time!

Democracy Is for Amateurs: Why We Need More Citizen Citizens

science fiction writer Elizabeth Moon argues that everyone should be given a barcode at birth

Why Foreign Banks Are Shunning American Millionaires

Jumper said...

Great idea by Moon. Now bad guys have a motive to cut me open to extract my barcode / chip to spoof the cops. I feel more secure already.

Ian Gould said...

Not to minimize SpaceX achievements but we should remember that the shuttle program was supposedly run by a private sector entity: the United Space Alliance Joint Venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

The principal problem with NASA over the past 20-odd years hasn't been government involvement, it's been politically-connected defense contractors operating on no-bid cost-plus contracts.

One of the real challenges with the future programs to hire private corporations to service the ISS will be avoiding the problems with the United Space Alliance.

(Arianespace is also a nominally private sector company although it contracts services to the ESA and is partly owned by EU governments. The Ariane rocket series and the ATV capsuel have been successful but the company hasn't exactly been a world-changing innovator.)

Tony Fisk said...

I gather that Dragon has just received the go-ahead to approach the ISS.

Tony Fisk said...

Transparency Grenade? Thy name is Siri!

Ian Gould said...

@Josh, spend a week in tokyo and you'll have a better idea of what the Uni-cub is desgiend for.

Many Japanese cities have roads that date back to the 19th century or earlier and they've never been widened.

In lots of areas people and cars mix in areas narower than a single traffic lane in the west with the result that traffic is reduced to 10 MPH or less.

I think that's what the Icub is designed for - reducign the crowding in those areas and offering people an alternative ot driving.

On a different note: we've discussed Thorium reactors here previously. I remain skeptical about molten metal coolant systems but there's a very interesting article in this week's New Scientist about using Thorium reactors to burn high-level radioactive waste (while also possibly getting around the need for an external neutron source to initiate the Thorium fission.)

Ian Gould said...

And Dragon has docked.

The oen big remaining challenge for this missiosn is the return and whether the samples and equipment they're bringing back survive it intect.

David Brin said...

Jonathan S... there's only one way to deal with nit-jobs like that. In front of witnesses, ask them how SURE they are... lead them out on a limb. So sure they feel fine demeaning the president of their country.

"We'll if you are THAT sure then give me odds. Let's make a bet. Give me 5:1 odds and TAKE MY MONEY!"


What? You don't want my money? Okay then 1:1 odds. But that proves you AREN'T so sure, after all. STill... at 1:1 odds you're SO sure... let's bet a month's salary each. Witnesses and signed contracts and fair party holding the money.

Um... one week? A day's salary? The money I would have earned not listening to your blowhard, outright lies?

David Brin said...


Dragon is half the size:
And shaped entirely differently.

Tell them real men accept challenges, take wagers, and apologize when proved to have been blowhard dunces.

David Brin said...

Oh, Orion will carry up to 4 passengers. Dragon up to seven. At present, Orion has been shifted to become an exploration vessel.

Acacia H. said...

You have to wonder if Orion will be tossed out as a waste of money in two years when SpaceX comes out with a man-rated Dragon. Though let's be honest: if you're going to have an exploration vessel, you don't want a capsule. You want something a little bigger. In essence, you want a mobile space station module... preferably something with a centrifugal section for sleeping in so that astronauts have several hours of apparent gravity each day to reduce bone loss.

It would be funny if the Dragon Heavy comes out and starts ferrying even more components to the ISS, like said segment for centrifugal rotation, so they can study its effects and if it will help lessen the damage of prolonged stays in space. While the ISS was a waste of money initially... once private industry gets involved, I could very well see it coming to actual use. If only because private industry likes to get some level of profit back form investments.

Rob H.

Paul451 said...

Scientists have invented a new material to allow you get the sauce/ketchup out of the bottle. (Or the mayo.) With video proof.

Truly we live in an age of wonders and possibility.

Acacia H. said...

You know what would be a useful feature for an alternative Dragon capsule? One that can open up to allow large objects to be placed within it in the vacuum of space. This would allow for the return of objects like the ammonia tank that failed on the ISS and is still attached to the station - I know NASA would love to get it back to figure out why it failed prematurely.

Rob H.

David Brin said...

Sorry Robert. Y just flashed on the jaws-opening capsule-swallowing ships from James Bond's YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE.

Tony Fisk said...

...I remember that scene. Another case of private enterprise overtaking NASA

Paul451 said...

Rob H.,
I've always thought the station needed two workshop modules. One pressurised with an inert atmosphere, separated from the rest of the station by an airlock to prevent contamination. Astronauts would get their air via face-masks, which would also protect their eyes/ears/lungs from crap floating around (probably wear simple dust-suits as well.) Lets them do stuff they can't risk inside the station-proper, such as anything that produces dust or other small particles, or weird smells, but which can't tolerate being outside. Hoses from the face-masks would simply plug into outlets along the walls, which run off the stations regular life-support systems.

(Basically, a giant version of the glove-box they currently use for such things.)

The second would be unpressurised, but would make for safer EVA's since there's no risk in losing tools (or astronauts), and the capsule itself handles much of the thermal regulation and micro-meteorite protection, allowing much simpler low-maintenance spacesuits. Which allows astronauts to work on things without it bringing them into the station, and without everything else on the station coming to a halt to monitor the EVA. As with the face-mask in the pressurised workshop, if the EVA suits could be plugged into outlets along the wall, offloading air-supply, power and thermal requirements to the module's and station's life-support systems, it would make the suits even simpler. Outer hatch could be large, and simple since it doesn't have to hold pressure.

In the case of the ammonia tank, they'd bring it in the EVA-shed, then pull it apart to find the failed part. (Valve?) Then they could send that part back to Earth, or take it into the pressurised workshop to run tests or fix it themselves.

(Guy on NASAwatch makes a point that the ISS doesn't even have a washing-machine. Clothes are disposable. Which is very retro-futuristic, I guess, but bodes ill for long-term space habitation when we've spent $100 billion on a space station, but haven't done the most basic work on how to live in space long-term.)

(rislam 1099: Harry Turtledove's new alt.history series.)

Ian said...

So has there been any discussion of a private sector entity takign over the US section of the ISS at the end of its current planned operational life circa 2020?

(The Russians apparently plan to separate their bit and keep it in service as the core of a new Russian station.)

Anonymous said...

Give Obama credit? Perhaps for not cancelling the contracts... These programs began many years ago under very different administrations. Obama did not start any of this.

Stefan Jones said...

Spotted on Twitter:

"We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions and god-like technology" E.O. Wilson

I don't think Wilson is quite on target regarding us. I think there's hope for progress and maturity.

But what a great swipe at the Star Wars setting!

Jumper said...

Cool series of alternate actually planned moon missions

I actually began here

Ian said...

Anonymous, the CCDEV program that funded the development of the Dragon vhicle was established under the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009.

You mgiht want to think abotu that the nxt tiem a Republican blasts "stimulus" and boasts about how they voted against it.

Acacia H. said...

Technically that says it was funded under ObamaStimulus. It may have been initially proposed by Bush and crew and then never funded properly, as so many of Republican mandates tend to be. (Republicans seem to think they can pass laws and claim "we're being compassionate to the poor!" and then calm their own base by saying "sure, we passed the bill but we're not funding it. So no taxpayer money will go for it!") (To be honest, there are times Democrats do similar things.)

Rob H.

Paul451 said...

Dragon is funded under both CCDev and COTS. The current flight is COTS. Although CCDev funding later came from the Recovery Act, CCDev was initially proposed at the end of Bush's term. Both COTS and CCDev came about under Bush. Mainly due to the reforms attempted by Sean O'Keefe, who Bush appointed to try to control NASA's costs.

The problem was he actually tried to do what he was asked to do, not what they wanted him to do. Rookie mistake. Low cost programs like COTS, and proposing man-rating a commercial launcher instead of building an over-priced Big Rocket shuttle-replacement. The primary NASA contractors (especially ATK, which was being excluded from the trough) and all the shuttle operations people hated him, so Bush replaced him with an ATK-approved Mike Griffin, who promptly cancelled most of the big science missions (*) and pushed Constellation's Big Rocket, with emphasis on throwing money at ATK.

(* Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter, Terrestrial Planet Finder, Space Interferometry Mission, and cut life-science by 80%.)

Commercial Crew, I suspect, only came about because of they realised that Constellation's Ares rockets would be too expensive to service the ISS.

Bolden (or probably Lori Garver) convinced Obama to return to O'Keefe's basic idea. Kill the hideously overbudget/overschedule/unsafe Constellation and move all launch operations to commercial launchers, focus NASA on deep space human and science missions. Of course, that go the same response as it did the first time, (no Big Rocket, no pork for Primes, no safe jobs for shuttle-ops) and Congress forced another Big Rocket onto the budget, sucking up all funding that could be used for something actually interesting.

Personally, in light of the publicity surrounding Dragon, I'd like to see Obama point out the contrast between SLS funding and the money given to SpaceX (about 3-5%), and contrast the relative progress, then announce that he's officially directing NASA to conduct SLS in the same fashion. To have multiple competing aerospace companies trying to build the 70ton launcher under fixed-price fixed-milestone contracts. From what I remember of the wording of SLS's enactment, they could do this and still be complying with the letter of the law, so he wouldn't need any Congressional authorisation. And if the Big Rocket pork faction in Congress pushed new wording that prevented Obama's directive, he could veto it, just as he threatened to do when they defunded CCDev.

(tryICT XIII - When Ice 9 Tea is not enough.)

Acacia H. said...

That makes sense. I remember how things bounced about at NASA... though initially I bought into the whole Constellation program test flight, which was basically a waste of money intended to delude people into thinking progress had been made. It's a pity that politics once more got in the way of the Space Program... and I must admit that one of the things I love about SpaceX is how this one company that so many deride as "not ready" and "amateur" has created a rocket that proved viable and able to reach the ISS on its third test flight (and second for the Dragon capsule).

What's more, look at the innovation that SpaceX has put into Dragon. Everyone has used rocket-towers that get ejected after launch and are not reusable. SpaceX? They are building it into the sides of the rocket for multiple purposes: emergency ejection for nearly all stages of flight, and then once the capsule is done it's used (with parachutes) to slow its descent and allow for a precision landing that's far safer than dropping the capsule in the ocean or slamming into the ground like the Russians do.

Hell, I've been half-expecting sabotage from agents working for the Republicans to try and undo this hard work with a fiery explosion just to make Obama look bad and kill private space industry. But perhaps that's just my cynicism ramped up to 100.

Naturally, Republicans will dismiss this accomplishment and claim that it's private industry, not Obama's funding. And they may even try to cut the budget for NASA further claiming "well, they don't need it. Let's have private industry do everything out of their own pockets."

But I can't help but think SpaceX with Falcon and Dragon have managed to catch the hearts and imaginations of Americans... much like Apollo once did. Here we have a private company that is doing things differently than NASA... and proving it can be done. And Republicans will have a devil of a time trying to dismiss this accomplishment. After all, this has sparked interest in space and science... and attempts to dismiss it is a slap in the face of private industry, the cornerstone of what Republicans claim they're for. (They're not. They're for Oligarchy. With their buddies in control.)

Given that Russia's space program is decaying and falling apart, the European Union is on the verge of being sundered, and China is finding its growth is faltering and will likely in turn cut ITS space program... it will be private industry that leads humanity into space in the 21st century. I just wonder what form it will take.

Rob H.

Ian Gould said...

"China is finding its growth is faltering and will likely in turn cut ITS space program..."

China might hold its space development budget to a real increase of only 10-20% per year.

But I think it highly unlikey.

Acacia H. said...

China wants to build up its military so it becomes the next military world power. The Chinese government sees the U.S. as a threat because of the nature of our elections, which allow loud-mouthed braggarts who want to claim China as an enemy so to gain political power. Seeing these elements could gain control at any election, China will work on weapon programs that can quickly sink our Pacific fleet and replace it with their own, if necessary.

Given the reduced growth and the need to increase social and infrastructure spending to keep its own populace in line, something has to give. That will end up being China's space program, especially as they're seeing the other Powers losing interest in space.

Rob H.

sociotard said...

Teen solves Newtons 300 year old riddle

David Brin said...