Sunday, February 28, 2010

Farewell to a visionary artist

Miles O'Brien says farewell to the great aerospace artist Robert McCall. From the poster for the movie 2001 to the National Air and Space Museum to the stained glass windows of an Arizona chapel, painter Robert McCall memorialized our vision of space in a way that will long, long outlive Robert, who has passed away at age 90.
Ad Astra, Robert...

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Certifying spacecraft for human flight

Former Space Shuttle program manager Wayne Hale explains the philosophy of rating a spacecraft as safe for humans. He notes NASA's existing standards were written for government spacecraft and are being revised to apply to commercial vehicles on which NASA may purchase seats. Some 40,000 standards, he writes, applied to the Space Shuttle.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Google Earth visits the graveyard of aviation

These are the first high-resolution images available via Google Earth of the Boneyard at Davis-Monthan AFB, where over 4,000 U.S. military planes are stored in the dry desert conditions. Some are eventually cut up for scrap; some are used for parts for still-operational U.S. and Allied planes; a small minority are pulled out, repaired, and put back to work, usually via a transfer to foreign militaries. It's a strange monument to the technological prowess of 20th-century America.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Orca kills trainer at Sea World

An experienced trainer standing in a waist-deep portion or an orca tank was pulled in deeper and killed by an orca named Telly, which grabbed her around the waist and shook her violently. Both trauma and drowning were cited as causes of death. It is not clear whether the whale intended to harm her or was being playful. This particular orca was a longtime behavior problem and had been involved in the deaths of another trainer and an intruder in past years.
COMMENT: I'm not about to engage in any speculation on this tragedy, but I posted it here because I some media outlets will doubtless be quoting people who think it improper if not downright evil to keep any whale in captivity. I understand the argument: these are intelligent, emotionally complex animals, and their captivity should at least be limited to established organizations with very large tanks and expert staff. After a trainer was bitten at another Sea World park in 2006, staff were forbidden to swim with the whales during shows. The main reason I am reluctant to say "release them all" is because captive whales, despite horrific incidents like this, have done enormous good for all whales by demonstrating they are smart and usually gentle creatures. Videos just don't have the impact of millions of people every year seeing whales close up. I'm not sure what the right action to take in the aftermath of this incident might be.

Monday, February 22, 2010

NASA budget documents submitted for FY11

Among the interesting bits and pieces in this submission are the shutdown costs of the Constellation project: $2.5 billion dollars. To STOP a space exploration initiative. (Breaking contracts is expensive.)

Friday, February 19, 2010

Updating the Eastern Cougar

The US Fish and Wildlife Service is currently working on a status update concerning the maybe-extinct-but-I'll-bet-it's-not Eastern cougar. This article mentions that along with a sighting in an unlikely place, a skeptical Virginia wildlife officer, and some other cougar news.

"Very next day, the cat came back / thought he was a goner but the cat came back..." - American folk song

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Was this the first written language?

Those spectacular cave paintings in France may not have been the most spectacular things in the caves. Particular shapes, mostly simple geometric icons like a semicircle, appear on cave walls over and over again. By an odd coincidence, there are 26 such repeating shapes. Writing is thought to have appeared only about 5,000 years ago: if this set of symbols is in fact a form of written language, it would push that barrier tens of thousands of years into prehistory.

Humans can't handle lightspeed travel

Relativity, writes the author of this piece. "... transforms the thin wisp of hydrogen gas that permeates interstellar space into an intense radiation beam that would kill humans within seconds." She quotes William Edelstein of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine to the effect that Star Trek's Enterprise crewmembers would get over a thousand times the lethal dose of radiation.
COMMENT: Duh, that's what deflector shields are for :) .... seriously, I think that if you assume we can find ways to travel that fast, we can also solve these pesky side problems. It may take a couple of hundred years or even a couple of thousand, but, if I could bet with my future self, I would be willing to bet faster-than-light travel will eventually happen.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Olympics: Go Quatchi!

From the Vancouver Olympics site: "Quatchi is a young sasquatch who comes from the mysterious forests of Canada. Quatchi is shy, but loves to explore new places and meet new friends."
COMMENT: He also leaves smaller footprints and smells much better than his alleged relatives. Sasquatches probably make good competitors only in the Summer Olympics, where they can do hammer throw and shot put and other brute-strength events. When there's no Olympics... well, there's always the NFL.
There might have been a point to this post, but I can't think of it now, so what the heck.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Bolden on international cooperation

NASAWatch has a link to a Twitter feed from a meeting between NASA Administrator Bolden and JSC employees where Bolden reportedly made the following statements in response to questions: "As long as I'm here, the new program is going to be international in nature. It's easy for [an?] administration to back out if it is just the US." Also: "We don't go places by ourselves anymore" and "When fighting wars, we don't go fighting alone. Coalitions are formed."

COMMENT: Bolden covered many subjects. NASA apparently asked after the fact that this feed be pulled, and I have not linked to it here. I can't vouch for the tweeter's word-for-word accuracy. I'm strictly a private citizen passing on an already-posted item that may give an important insight into the Administrator's view on cooperation in turbulent times.

Monday, February 08, 2010

ESA likes NASA's new direction

The 18-nation European Space Agency will likely engage in more joint projects with NASA as the latter invests more in space science after the cancellation of the Constellation program (if that cancellation is approved by Congress). ESA's Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain lauded the US move to extend its participation in the ISS and suggested inviting three more nations, India, China, South Korea, to be ISS partners. He added that, "for Earth science we have only an occasional cooperation. What I have talked about with Charlie Bolden is the possibility of dividing up roles for future Earth observation missions.”

Several ESA candidates for the agency's next major space science mission, likely to invite cooperation from outside the agency (one idea would be Japanese-led) are worth noting:

Sunday, February 07, 2010

The US abandons moonbase - who will build it?

The new NASA budget abandons the idea of an American lunar base, which has been one of the U.S. goals in space (albeit not consistently pursued) since before NASA existed. Assuming the U.S. stays on its present course, when and by who will a lunar base be built? By an an international coalition? By China?
Buzz Aldrin thinks we can put a coalition together. So far, there's been no serious attempt to try, but the new budget direction makes it an important option to look into. (To be fair, any such attempt can't really be mapped out until we see what form the 2011 budget takes when eventually passed by Congress.) Russia has talked about a human lunar mission by 2025 China and India have made less firm projections... all kinds of ideas are in the air. What will happen? Stay tuned.

The snake that ate crocodiles

Titanoboa was was biggest snake we know of, some 14 meters in length and capable of eating all kinds of things 60 million years ago in what is now northern Columbia. Researchers have now identified one likely prey item: a new species of prehistoric crocodile, whose fossils were found in association with the great snake's. Cerrejonisuchus improcerus was about two meters long and, as one scientist put it, "both predator and prey" in this ancient ecosystem.
COMMENT: Hey, anything about 14-meter snakes is just cool.

New mouse from Venezuela

Yes, we keep finding new mammals - 408 in the last 15 years, by one count. Make it 409 with a cute rodent from South America. Heteromys catopterius is a new member of a group called the spiny pocket mice. The Overlook Spiny Pocket Mouse hangs out above 700 meters on mountain slopes in northern Venezuela. There's a good discussion in the linked article about how species are differentiated on habitat and characteristics.

First film of rarest gorilla

From last month, but I thought it worthwhile to catch up on this one. The subspecies known as the Cross River gorilla numbers a few hundred individuals in Nigeria and Cameroon. Incredibly, this is the first time one of the world's largest apes has ever been filmed.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Ancient tribe disappears forever

The Andaman Islands, east of India, house ten distinct tribes with their own languages.
Make that nine tribes.
Boa Sr, a lady of around 85 who just died in India, was the last member of the Boa tribe and the last person alive who knew its language. Her tribe had lived on the islands for perhaps 65,000 years.
COMMENT: There is a growing (if late) concern with the threatened indigenous peoples of the world, and you can read plenty about it, thanks in part to the London-based group Survival International. Very rarely, though, is the problem crystallized in a single heartbreaking moment. Dedicated linguists and anthropologists are trying to salvage what they can out of a legacy of warfare, neglect, exploitation, and policies by larger nations which were, at the very least, misguided.


Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Archaeology's fakes and frauds

On this page, you will find collected a fascinating cabinet of curiosities - the fakes and hoaxes that have bedeviled archaeology for centuries. These range from the famous (the Cardiff Giant) to objects generally forgotten today. My favorite: the Calaveras cranium, a modern Native American skull buried as a joke in a California mine over a century ago, may be the most influential, as some anomalists still present it as genuine evidence of an ancient human civilization.

Monday, February 01, 2010

NASA: A Major change in direction

The proposed FY11 NASA budget is out, and it goes beyond the leaks and speculation and actually cancels the Constellation program with the Ares I rocket and Orion capsule. It will take some time to see how the radical change in direction is put into effect (if Congress approves it first, of course), but the key point is that the US government will no longer fund a NASA-run capability to launch astronauts into LEO. It will look to Russia and then to commercial providers for that. NASA will get a modest budget boost and will use that for a longer commitment to the ISS, more robotic missions, and other non-Constellation programs.
COMMENT: Private space launching companies are thrilled, but Congresspeople from Florida and Texas are going to push back hard. Look for some compromises, perhaps lower-level continuation of Ares work as a step toward a long-range heavy-lift program, and maybe - maybe - continuation of the Orion with the actual launching outsourced. It's too soon to say anything else with any degree of confidence.

REALLY EMPHATIC VERSION OF USUAL DISCLAIMER: I speak here ONLY as a private citizen / space historian.