Thursday, September 29, 2005

NASA's Griffin on Shuttle and ISS

There's been a great deal of consternation about NASA Administrator Mike Griffin's remarks to USA Today that the space shuttle and the International Space Station were "mistakes."

When you read what he actually said, though, it's not as radical as the headlines make it seem.

On whether the Shuttle was a mistake: "My opinion is that it was. ... It was a design which was extremely aggressive and just barely possible."
On whether the ISS was a mistake: "Had the decision been mine, we would not have built the space station we're building in the orbit we're building it in."

Look at his words here. He was not saying it was a mistake to build a Shuttle. He was saying we built the wrong design. There are plenty of dedicated NASA engineers, then and now, who say the same thing. The politically-driven need to minimize R&D funding resulted in the adoption of the compromise partly-reusable design with the external tank (ET) and solid rocket boosters (SRBs). Granted, the all-resuable idea NASA preferred was even more aggressive in some ways, but it's hard to argue that we built the best of all possible Shuttle designs, in the light of two accidents related to the use of the foam-covered ET and the SRBs.

On the ISS, Griffin's words are also carefully chosen. He did not say we shouldn't have built a station. He said we should not have chosen this design in this orbit. The ISS program was changed fundamentally by the political decision to bring the Russians into the effort and move the station from a low inclination to its current 56-degree orbit, a track which is practical to reach from Russia but means the Shuttles launched from Kennedy Space Center must give up a signficant fraction of their payload capability due to the energy needed for the orbit change. Combine that with the continuing difficulties in obtaining and paying for Russian hadware, and it's hard to argue that the original Space Station Freedom concept would not currently be giving us more science at less cost.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The Giant Squid photographs

Here are the images released of the first-ever observations of a live adult giant squid:

Giant Squid

The researchers who are interpreting the images say they show an active, attacking predator, not the passive "ambush" predator some experts had thought Architeuthis dux to be. The squid, estimated at about 8 meters long, left a 5.5m tentacle behind, snagged on the baited camera trap, to confirm its specific identity. A. dux has been proven to reach 17m and might be considerably larger.

This is a terrific accomplishment by Japanese researchers Tsunemi Kubodera and Kyoichi Mori, of the National Science Museum and the Ogasawara Whale-Watching Association, respectively.

Richard Ellis, author of the most thorough book on the species, said, "This has been a mystery for a thousand years. Nobody knew what they looked like in the wild. These images will open the door to more detailed study of their life."

News Concerning Military Space Systems

The Department of Defense and its contractors have delivered extraordinarily capable space systems, but have had difficulty the last several years in fielding capabilities on time and on budget:

The current difficulties are being spotlighted by companies and analysts in the "small space" community, who advocate more research into cooperative contellations of smaller spacecraft, as opposed to relying almost entirely on a small number of large, complex platforms. Those people include the author of this blog, who has always advocated a "high-low mix." We will always need some "top end" spacecraft, but it's worth examining supplementing these increasingly complex assets with a larger number of smaller, less capable, but more affordable satellites. See:

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

First Ever Giant Squid Images

Japanese scientists have taken the first images ever of a live giant squid (Architeuthis dux). The squid attacked a baited camera trap at a depth of 900 meters. Despite numerous stranded or netted specimens and centuries of sailors' tales, the animal has never been captured on film or video.until now. Indeed, some experts hold that no direct sighting of a healthy (as opposed to injured or stranded) live individual has ever been verfified. The giant squid, known to reach over 17 meters in length and alleged to grow much larger, is a creature so bizarre it might seem more at home in the seas of another planet.

Read More Here

Amazing Bees

Asian honeybees overwhelm far larger wasps by surrounding each wasp with a compressed mass of bees, which increase their muscle activity and thus their energy output until the temperature in the ball exceeds 45.7 degrees C and the wasp dies. The bees can withstand an additional five degrees, providing a narrow margin of survival.

Two new lemurs discovered

The new species in this picture is a strong contender for the title of "World's Cutest Primate:"

The Intelligent Design Trial

This is a better article than most over the incendiary question of intelligent design.

Personal comment: As a Christian and a science writer, I never felt my faith threatened by anything we learn using our God-given intelligence. There is, I think, a reason the universe is capable of supporting intelligent life. We are meant to use our gifts. We are meant to learn, to question, and to understand.

What NASA Must Do Now

I recommend a good article by Keith Cowing of the NASA Watch site on what NASA must do to gain support for its future plans in a time of fiscal difficulties.

Space exploration will never be cheap, and it will never be completely safe. Making a case to the American people that it is nevertheless worth the effort is a task NASA must face up to. Oddly, the agency, while making great strides in regaining its focus under Michael Griffin, has been paring back the kind of educational outreach efforts needed for this task. An exploration program that takes a little longer because some of the money goes to education and public involvement is far better than an exploration program that ends up being canceled for lack of public and political support.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Hurricanes and Science

As we recover from Katrina and prepare for Rita, a lot of ink is naturally being spilled about the scientific aspects of hurricanes. A couple of common questions are “Can we do anything about hurricanes?” and “Are these storms linked to global warming and/or greenhouse gases and the Kyoto accord?”
On the first point, Joseph Verrengia of the AP has a good article explaining why the prevention or modification of hurricanes is not going to happen. There is just too much energy involved.


The claims that these storms are directly linked to President Bush’s rejection of the Kyoto accord are absurd, regardless of what one thinks of the merits of the accord (or of the President, for that matter.) Had Bush signed the accord immediately, the effect so far would have been too small to measure. His signature would have been meaningless in any event, since the Senate must ratify the agreement, and the Senate rejected it unanimously in 1999 – a fact the President’s current critics always forget to mention. I am no defender of this Administration’s policies on science or the environment, but the President gets a “not guilty” on Hurricane Katrina.

The only aerospace comic strip

The only one I know of, anyway. "Klyde Morris" covers the misadventures of the title character, the only ant licensed to fly an airliner. While the strip skewers the bizarre world of airline management, TSA screening rules, and so on, it also ventures into the realm of space exploration, offering wry and sometimes biting commentary on the timidity of our current approach to the final frontier.

The home page:

And three of my all-time favorite strips:

Happy Reading!

NASA Unveils Exploration Plan

NASA has unveiled the results of the Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS), the foundation for the Moon-Mars Vision for Space Exploration. While the approach described in ESAS for lunar missions makes sense (I, for one, have advocated a Shuttle-derived heavy lifter for a decade or two), NASA's public presentation was oddly short on context. The lunar program was presented almost as an end in itself, a slightly more capable Apollo, rather than as part of an integrated exploration strategy. There was also scant mention of the sicntific and educational aspects of such a grand endeavor.

Adminsitrator Mike Griffin's interview on the ESAS results is available here:

TIME's Jeffrey Kluger did a good job of encapsulating (no pun intended) the ESAS plan and its relative timidity compared to the bold Vision for Space Exploration. So did NASAWatch's Keith Cowing:,8599,1107112,00.html

It all may be moot, given the current climate of looking at every government agency to pay down some of the hurrican relief costs. But NASA could still do better.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

A Deep-Sea Snail With Iron Armor

A small but definitely interesting new discovery is a species of snail found in a hydrothermal vent colony deep beneath the Indian Ocean. The yet-unnamed species uses the iron-rich compounds available at its home vent colony to produce scales made of pyrite (fool's gold) and another iron sulfide mineral, greigite, which cover its soft foot.

See: Snail Armor

Friday, September 09, 2005

New Fluorescent Shark Caught on Film

The Fluorescent Chain Catshark, spotted for the first time last year, was recently confirmed via videotape. It's a striking-looking animal, about 1m long.

See the image here.

Top-notch Deep-Sea News blog

This blog collects the latest news on one of my favorite topics - new discoveries in the deep oceans of the world. It reminds us that hundreds of meters below the surface is a world very much like an alien planet, to which we are only visitors.