Thursday, July 31, 2008

Beyond the Space Shuttle: Rouge Scientists have a better plan

...and they need our help to spread the word...

What problem would be so important that NASA scientists and engineers would be willing to work independent, unpaid, on their own time, to find an alternate solution?

For the last two years those familiar with and interested in space, science, and technology (like me) have heard and have been excited about the development of a new rocket, one planned to not only replace the Space Shuttle, but also to eventually return to the moon. This project is called "Ares", with the two designations, "Ares I", and "Ares V", being the names of the two rockets being built. Upon hearing about it, I thought the plan was done, the course was set, and NASA and the scientific community's mind was made up. It seemed like a good idea to all-- or so I thought.

A couple weeks ago I learned about something that has radically changed my view of the Ares project -- it is that there is a problem big enough with the Ares project that at least 57 NASA and some other independent scientists and engineers are willing, unpaid and during their free time, to develop an alternate proposal to that of Ares, called Jupiter.

Wow -- that caught my attention. However, the first article I read didn't give a whole lot of details, and primarily gave NASA's point of view on the issue. But since learning more, I'm beginning to understand where these scientists are coming from.

The issue is political

I have noticed that many articles about the Jupiter project miss the whole reason these scientists are doing what they're doing. Many of the articles emphasize that the proposed Jupiter design claims to be "safer" and "cheaper", which is true. But if all these scientists had was a safer and cheaper design, would that be sufficient cause to risk losing their job over? Nobody is doubting that NASA is capable of building a safe and operational rocket, that can do everything they have outlined it to do. The real issue is political. These 57 scientists strongly believe that if NASA were to go the direction they are going now, and then lose political backing half-way through, then America would end up losing much of our space program's infrastructure that is in place today. We would be set back to the days prior to the Space Shuttle!

The original plan of the Ares project was to reuse tried-and-true technologies in a new form so to be a new and more capable rocket then we've had before. However, it hasn't happened quite like that. The Ares design today is much different than the Space Shuttle, and uses many technologies which are new or still in development. It's different enough that many aspects of the current shuttle, such as the shuttle launch-pads, manufacturing processes, etc., in addition to the skills and knowledge of experienced engineers on these topics, will all be replaced. If at the point of transition political backing was lost, that is where so much would be lost. Also realizing that these changes are causing the completion date of Ares to be pushed all the way to 2015, and realizing that Ares requires the development of two rockets, not just one, the chance of losing political backing is too big for comfort.

Instead, these rouge scientists have come up with an alternate plan. They propose to do what we were going to do in the first place -- stick with what we have: the space shuttle parts that already have established designs and fabrication plants and experienced engineers to support them. Use those parts and build us a rocket that does the exact same thing as Ares! And we'll build ONE rocket which can fulfill the purpose that the two Ares rockets fill, cutting development costs even further. These scientists have a preliminary design, and have named their concept "Jupiter". Yes, not only is it a bit safer, but the important thing is that it'll be developed faster and with smaller development cost, thus having a far greater chance of being completed within the timeframe of political support! In addition, it offers to maintain the vast majority of the current infrastructure of engineers, manufacturing facilities, launch pads, and other important parts of the space program. It also offers to do with one general rocket design what the Ares project intends to do with two. All in all it has a far greater chance of overcoming political hurtles.


More and more people need to know about this project, because for the good of our country's space program, this proposal deserves a full-fledged review by NASA. So far it has only received an unofficial review, and in some cases NASA is simply ignoring it. Maybe NASA knows what they're doing, and for reasons unknown to the outside public there are better reasons to stay with Ares. But on the other hand, maybe NASA just doesn't want to lose face when their much-publicized Ares project is abandoned! Either way, the answer will only become apparent after a full official review. After so much work, unpaid, and putting their own jobs on the line, these scientists deserve it.

Spread the word!

Link to News Article about the Jupiter Project

Sunday, July 20, 2008

How important is the iphone?

There has been a lot of hullabaloo about the new apple iphone. The world of technology is full of over the top hype. The Segway is a perfect example. It was claimed that it was going to "Change the world". In reality, it has become a very good niche product for those who can afford it. The palm pilot had its day when everyone wanted an electronic organizer. Today they have been superseded by the blackberry smartphone. However, countless people have abandoned the electronic world and have returned to pen and paper after an unexpected crash erased all of their data. Amazon's Kindle device (an e-book reader connected to a nation-wide wireless network) is another hyped device that claims it will change how people read books forever. The kindle has repeatedly sold out, but I don't know anyone that has one and most people don't even know what it is.

Which brings us back to the iphone. Is the iphone another fad, or is this a product that is here to stay?

Maybe we should look at electronic services/products that have changed the world. The first three that come to my mind are to personal computer, the internet, and the cell phone. The personal computer has allowed individuals and companies to manage an incredible amount of data on a regular basis. The internet has allowed everyone to pass that incredible amounts of data to anyone that wants or need it. There is no question that these two inventions have transformed the world economy.

The cell phone has had just as profound but different effect on the world. There is no question that cell phones have effected business, but the major impact has been on the individual. Most people in the world have no need for a personal computer. I known that sounds ridiculous, but it is true. Only in richest countries in the world do normal people own a computer. Everyone else uses internet cafe's. However, most of the world has a need for a cell phone. We recently passed the 50% mark in worldwide cellphone use. Over half of the world's population has a cell phone. That is very remarkable. Round that to 3 billion and it is easy to see that even 1% market share means 3 million phones. With the stakes that high, the competition will be more fierce than ever, which means that consumers will get better products.

This is where the new and improved iphone comes into the picture. Up till now, phones have thrived on variety. Some basic features are common to most cell phones, but their implementation can be quite different. Every phone essentially had its own operating system. You are lucky if you can move contacts and ringtones over to a new phone, don't even think about software.

What it comes down to is that these phones are accessories to the real package, the network. It is network that allows serious business to take place, not the phone. This is all fine and dandy until someone invents a phone that people actually can do things on. The blackberry was the first phone to really do this, but it was limited. Internet was second class and the variety of software available was limited.

The iphone changes this. Suddenly, the internet is the real internet, and starting in July, developers can make all sorts of software for the iphone. The iphone is no accessory. It has the potential to be the main course, a heavy lifter, dare a say it, an essential tool.

The development of the cell phone is almost the reverse of the personal computer. The personal computer had spreadsheets, games, word processing, and more, but until the internet came along to connect them all, they were of limited interest.

The cell phone has always been on the network, but very limited in what it could do on the network, beside talking, and more recently, texting. The iphone combines a computer, the internet, and the cellphone. It is a platform that can explore the limits of what a pocketable, networked computer can do– and the sky's the limit.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Global Warming and the Rise of a Hero

I think I've finally figured Al Gore out. It took a while, but I think I finally understand.

I was reading an article today (found here) about Al Gore and his "grand vision" for America to become "carbon free" within the next ten years. According to the article, this action will "solve global warming, end U.S. dependence on foreign oil, and rein in energy prices". What caught my attention was that it will "solve global warming"!

Solve global warming! The problem which, according to the National Geographic "presents the greatest test we humans have yet faced"? One which will supposedly bring death and destruction and storms and rising ocean levels, all caused by the huge amounts of carbon dioxide that people are releasing into the atmosphere! Wow, to solve that is quite an accomplishment.

Realize, that I am not arguing that the whole global warming idea is a hoax, necessarily, or that it's not really real. Certainly, to a reasonable degree carbon emissions by people has affected the environment and evidence shows that to a reasonable degree reducing our carbon emissions will have a positive effect. I agree. But let's GET REASONABLE about this! For one thing, ASSUMING AL GORE IS RIGHT, and that Global Warming is a horribly important issue for the world to address, then what effect will America, which releases a FRACTION of the world's man-made carbon emissions, have, EVEN IF it was to become "carbon free"? Let's see... man's emissions of carbon already are a very small fraction of the total output in the world (a lot comes from volcanoes and other sources), and America is a fraction of that... so America becoming carbon free, reducing the total output by a fraction of a fraction... that will SOLVE GLOBAL WARMING! Yes! We did it! And it was all thanks to Al Gore. He's our hero.

So this is what I was thinking... maybe Al Gore came up with this pretend crisis (Global Warming), so we could all come to a pretend solution, so that when in the end all the catastrophes don't happen, it'll all be Al Gore's doing, and we'll all raise him up as a hero and a world leader and .... you get my drift.

Anyway, just a thought.


P.S. The other two reasons, "end U.S. dependence on foreign oil and rein in energy prices" are far higher on the priority list. We should focus on those. And becoming "carbon free" would definitely help in those two areas a great deal. However, becoming "carbon free" so suddenly, economically speaking, is probably not the best option. The best course of action economically probably involves using energy sources which do emit carbon to a certain degree, but perhaps and hopefully less than today.

Another small thought -- all the Global Warming advocates speak up wind and solar energy a lot. But my understanding is that current technologies don't really make just those two sources of energy a feasible option, as they may only create a small fraction of our needed energy even with a lot of focused effort. Is this true? Am I right that in fact nuclear energy is the best option for our future energy needs? Or can wind and solar really do it on their own?

And what about the other problem I've heard about-- that the high demand global warming has created for ethanol is causing grain-farmers to create mainly corn, therefore making a shortage of other grains such as wheat. Is this true? What effect will that have on our economy?