Sunday, October 25, 2009


I'm sitting in front of a rusty gate closed by a chain and padlock. Birds are chirping behind me and I hear crickets in the woods on both sides. I feel a peaceful serenity and solitude at the end of this torn up road. In the distance in front of me, beyond the gate and a row of low trees rise two towers of steel webbed girders, adorned with propellant and oxidizer tanks and cranes that look as if they have been caught in a spider's web waiting to be consumed and sucked dry. I can not see the base of the towers; they are obstructed by different kinds of trees. A low pitched whirr is coming from the base of the towers, perhaps some sort of refrigeration system? A wren calls out. The road that I am on, at the southern end of Redstone Arsenal and the Marshal Spaceflight center, is cracked and the asphalt litters the road in spots with pebbles. A wasp just performed a flyby of my computer screen. Perhaps he wonders why someone has come here to sit on the hood of his car and type into his computer. The wildlife gets louder. Perhaps they are more comfortable now that I have been here for a while. I wonder how the wildlife reacted when the mammoth F-1 engines were tested at this test stand in the 1960s.
This morning, my manager told me that the engineers had not considered the magnitude of the acoustic shock from the engine, and with no suppressing countermeasures, windows for miles around were broken out by the shockwave. That was the first time the engineers working on that engine had operated something so powerful. Perhaps only weaker than the atom bomb, but the F-1 engines sustained continuous explosion, while a nuclear bomb is over in an instantaneous flash.

I hear a clang. The whirring stops. When the airplane overhead moves on, I expect to hear no man made sounds at all. Only the birds and crickets inhabit this place, along with the inanimate man made objects.

Two walkers approach me from behind, and give me a nod. They reach the gate, turn around, and return back down the winding wooded avenue.

30 minutes ago I stood in front of the Jupiter C, Redstone, Saturn 1, Hermes, and V2 rockets lined up in a row about a mile north of where I sit. The Jupiter was riveted together, like a vintage airplane with round rivets that protruded from the metal, unlike modern airplanes where the rivets are flush. It looked like something that was put together a long time ago. These rockets weren’t that big, either. I looked up at the Redstone rocket, which carried Allan Sheppard into his suborbital flight so long ago. I could be on top of that, I thought. It's not even that tall. I did a full walk around the Jupiter C. The V2 Stood next to the Hermes. It's comical bulbous pointy shape pointed to the sky. "I aim for the stars" was the name of the movie made about Von Braun. "But sometimes I hit London," a satirist suggested as an addendum to the title. That V2. Here in Alabama. Far from Penuumbre where it was conceived and manufactured. It came to these woods in Alabama with the designers to show the hunters how to begin the ascendance above the atmosphere. This same machine above me at the time served as a beacon along the trail to the stars, whereas if it had been picked before one of the other V2 rockets in the final days of World War Two at Penuumbre it could have been one of the rockets that killed 168 people at Woolworths in New Cross, London. Its brother V2, which actually struck Woolworths, could be the one standing erect at the Redstone arsenal in 2009. Would it feel survivor’s guilt like the Apollo moon walker Eugene Cernan felt guilt for not being shot at in fighter planes over Vietnam because her was flying in space missions to the moon?

The V2 rocket and Von Braun both came here to Alabama to shake their dark past of fatal slave labor from Jews and merciless arbitrary killing against the people of London. They came to Alabama, with no pretentions about their past, but a dogged determination to make good with the evil gift that had been a mainstay of Nazi desperation in the waning days of World War Two. Still, here at the Redstone armory, both Von Braun and V2 were saddled side by side with the development of the nuclear-carrying ICBM missiles. Hitler had pushed rockets for war in the 1940s, and in the 1960s, Von Braun was not free from the clutches of a country that used every advance in space exploration to further the military technology of missiles.

I pondered on the simple calculations that I had done the night before as I took my propulsion midterm exam. Those formulas that I employed to answer the arbitrary questions, did the engineers who built this hardware really know them much better than I did when they were grappling with the Redstone rocket design? I saw the smooth tubular shell of the rockets. "How complicated is it in there?" I wondered. As I looked carefully, I saw a bird pecking about inside the rocket inside the mesh. That bird was more familiar with the inner workings of the rocket than I was. When I draw my sketches on paper for a homework problem, they are so simple. I know that there are mysteries that the engineers had to discover and uncover as they built these rockets. The unseen intricacies underneath the white painted skin are what has become ingrained in these Alabama hunters. It's that mystery that has been frozen into these steel webbed towers that rise before me. They wait for us to build again.

I hear a rocket firing to my left. It is still going. Is it an engine? It sounds throttled back. The birds complain, breaking out into shrieks. I still hear the sound. It sounds like metal being dragged across the floor. It sounds like a waterfall.

The rocket is throttled up again. It sounds like sparks flying. It sounds like standing under a shower head, echoed through the hilly wooded countryside. I can’t imagine anything other than a rocket test that could make that noise. Now I hear crows in front of me beyond the trees beginning to caw. Perhaps they have had enough. Or maybe they are going to go and see what I can only imagine as I sit here.

These test stands wait here. They stand ready for America to build new engines, to try new technologies never before built by man. These towers are sleeping giants ready to roar to life with the birth of the engineering artifacts that will carry other men’s dreams, other men’s fears, and other men’s pride forward and upward through the atmosphere to unknown worlds and lands..

Men like Von Braun, who walked this very road countless times from the time that the government brought him here to this army base in 1960 with a mandate to put America on the Moon. Some of the Alabama country folk stopped hunting deer in the forests to start building rockets. They never stopped hunting deer, they just moved to other forests. One of the first things that I heard here in Alabama was when I got my security clearance at the Arsenal entrance: A group of locals were standing outside the security post and one said: “When I was gutting a deer this weekend…” in a deep southern drawl. I smiled as I headed to the rental car. These Alabamans didn’t put down their guns when they picked up their tools to construct this oddity in the universe; this portal to change. Where hunters ascend to Knowers. Doers. Makers. Be-ers.

I sit here, surrounded by birds, the very creatures that moved Wilbur and Orville off the sands of the beach in Kitty Hawk. An airplane flies above me now, a creature of man’s making that further moved men to build spaceships and rockets. I sit in front of the towers with their mechanical whirr (it started up again). The towers are creatures that are moving me to some future transcendence. What is it? I can envision interplanetary voyages, as the Wright brothers and Da Vinci envisioned flight when seeing the birds; as Goddard, Oberth, and Braunn envisioned space travel after seeing the airplanes. I see the current day spaceships, the test stands before me right now... I envision permanent settlement on the Moon and Mars. I envision simplified reliable rockets bringing up satellites, experiments, people, and energy into space. I envision a people who identify themselves not with their country, but with their planet and solar system. I envision knowledge spread among the people.

The walkers return again. The same walkers, dressed in sweatshirts and jeans. How many times do they make this trip? I asked them what the noise was earlier. They didn’t even notice. They told me, in their Alabama accents, about how different parts of the arsenal were used to test army missiles and NASA motors. They didn’t notice the sounds. It is such a regular occurrence to them that it only enters their subconsciousness. Those sounds are as natural to them as the birds and crickets.

I set the laptop down and walk down a small street that comes off the dead end where I sit toward the sound that I heard earlier. Perhaps I will catch a glimpse of the source of the noise. Writing on the back of a receipt that I find in my pocket, I make note of these things: The street is covered with dead tree bits. I pass a white blockhouse with a silent diesel generator installed on the side. The blockhouse can’t be larger than 15 feet by 8 feet. Next to it stands a rusty radio tower, consumed with vines. The old-school antennas atop the tower point toward the source of the sound. In big blue letters 4692 is written on the side of the building. A little further down the road, I meet another rusted gate, this one marked with a small white sign with C-12 painted on it, the paint mostly washed away by years, rain and sun. The padlock is rusted, the barbed wire atop the gate is rusted. An old metal mailbox bolted to the gate has been bent to the point that it no longer closes. I see through the open top that the bottom has been rusted out. What type of letters were delivered here, next to the sign that reads "DANGER: Explosives Keep Away." Perhaps the neighbors dropped off letters asking the workers to keep down the noise. Perhaps the wives of the engineers dropped off lunch in the little box? The gate itself has had vines growing from one side all the way to the other, only to die years ago. The dead vines now cross through the gate, past the padlock, as if to confirm the prohibition of access and the permanency of closure. The road continues past the gate in a straight line, ending in trees far away. Dead branches from the encroaching forest lay in the path, not even causing enough of a nuisance to warrant removal.

When I return to the car, a different walker passes by. He wears mesh shorts and is listening to headphones. He walks decidedly to the gate and taps the little white "C-18" sign as a token of reaching the end of his lap. And this is the end of my lap.

This is Huntsville. This is the Redstone Arsenal. This is the Marshal Spaceflight Center.

For me it is, anyway.

As I ready to leave, I hear once again the sound of rushing water, sparks, a metal plate being drug along the ground, or whatever it is.

I guess this place isn’t sleeping after all.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Now is the Fork in the Road for the President and Committee

The Augustine commission is wrapping up. A great summary of one of their last public meetings can be found here.

I think that this panel has their heads on straight: commercial space needs to be putting people in LEO, not NASA,

NASA doesn't have enough money to do explore anywhere anytime soon

Mars is the ultimate goal

Prizes for companies that accomplish milestones in space are a good thing to do...

Yeah, I think that those are the general points.

Tell the committee what options you think that they should recommend to the president.

Tell the president what options you think he should choose. I have.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Awesome Day

Today was pretty awesome.

At 9:15, I went to the 5th floor of my building for a presentation by the crew of the Hubble Space Telescope Space Shuttle mission. People were shy, so the seat right in from of the 7 astronauts was wide open. I sat as they thanked the Boeing company for what we do, and watched a video presentation that Greg Johnson, the pilot, had created about the mission. None of the other astronauts had seen it yet, either, except for the Greg.

The video was amazing. They did a bazillion spacewalks and swapped out the fridge sized telescope instruments that analyzed the stars in different ways. They put on new thermal insulation, the ripped of a handrail that was in the way of getting at the instruments, they swapped out the gyroscopes that let the Hubble point at stars when it is focused way in, and they did open heart surgery on some of the computers, removing dozens of screws at a time, pulling out circuit cards, and putting in new ones.

The most amazing part of the presentation was not the video, but something that all of the crew members did during the video, and I was front row to see it:

Scott Altman, the commander, was explaining how after they had completed their work on Hubble, they released it from the robotic arm. After that, he said something like: "I gave 10 short bursts on the thrusters after we released the Hubble. Even though we weren't moving and it was, it seemed to pass right over us. Because it was so large, it was an imposing sight." Now, that doesn't sound so impressive as the other things that they did, but as the crew watched that part of the video (on the monitor behind me and in front of them) as it showed the massive, amazing Hubble pass over the top of the orbiter.

As I looked at the faces of the crew, all of their eyes were wide. They remembered the awesomeness of that moment, and I had a front row seat to the first time that they had seen it on film since being there. One bit her lip. They all sat almost taught as they relived that moment, and I had a candid peak into an unplanned non-verbal communication from the crew: They were awestruck, even though we in the crowd were less affected. How could we have been? We were sitting on our duffs watching a video. They were remembering the experience that they had lived.

So, Astronauts think that their job is cool. It's not like they practice it so much that it becomes wrote. It is even more amazing to them than it is to all us fanboys because they actually know how awesome it is in a way that words, movies, press conferences, and pictures will never convey.

After the presentation, I asked Scott about the rescue mission that would have happened if their shuttle had been damaged from falling foam. He told me that they had two boxes of power bars that they could have survived on for almost a month while they waited for the rescue shuttle to arrive. They would all have to suit up and climb along a rope strung between the two orbiters and he didn't have a space suit his size on his shuttle: the rescuers would have to bring one for him.

They finished the questions and I asked Drew Fuestel about the merits of a masters vs a PhD program in Planetary Science. He said that masters degrees were the baseline, and people with PhDs were differentiated. I asked him because he is a geophysicist, which is what I want to study at CalTech come 2011 and the completion of my USC masters program in astronautical engineering.

I left that event and drove to the mission control building, where Duane Ross, head of Astronaut selection and training, was speaking to a pretty small group of mission control employed astronaut wannabes about the selection and training of the astronaut class of 2005. That was cool. This was the guy who pics and trains the astronauts. One of the people that was in that astronaut class was Jose Hernandez. The reason that I recognized him in the pictures of his field geology and survival training pictures is because yesterday, when I was in building 4 giving some presentations to my bosses bosses NASA counterpart, I was waiting for the elevator next to this man. Someone walked by and congratulated him on the successful launch of the shuttle on Wednesday, because that meant that he was going to go up soon. I figured that he must be an astronaut as we rode up the elevator together. (I told him that I was going to the 4th floor, and he was kind enough to push the button for me.) That night, I looked him up, and he has a pretty amazing story. So it was cool to come full circle so fast and hear about his selection and training a day later. I asked Duane Ross a couple of questions, as well, like: "Is it more important to develop specialty skills, like experience with hydrology, or get familiar with the more standard things that everyone has to be familiar with, like getting scuba certified?" He said that there were 14 people on the selection board and that there were 14 opinions. That very type of question was asked, he said, and there was no consensus. He said that the most overriding factor was the answer to the following question: Would I want to fly a mission with this guy?

When his presentation was over, I went up to him and discussed the education thing a little bit more, and then went back to the Boeing building. When I got back to my desk, Drew Fuestel was in the row of cubicles right next to mine. He was at my desk in a few minutes and I had the Boeing photographer, who was following him around, take a picture of us with the massive-lensed camera she was carrying around. That should be a good looking picture. (All of the astronauts were in their blue flight suits, which is cool.)

So he left and I got back to work. My job rocks.

Needless to say, after writing this post, I feel a little bit more motivated to slog through the math class that I am doing for USC tonight. 3 credits in 6 weeks. Ouch.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Wiki Design: from Toasters to Spaceships

Participatory Exploration. Frednet. Lunar Boom Town. Open Luna.

These all deal with the concept that we are trying to take the brainpower of the interested public and use it to solve the technical, political, and business problems that confront our efforts to expand into space. I conceived of a tool that can facilitate this.

Look at Wikipedia. According to last year's annual report (check it out in your spare time, Nick,) there were "approximately 100,000 active editors (defined as users who made more than 5 changes in the last month)." 100,000! That's a huge number of people!

With the 11 million articles on Wikipedia, you can be sure that many of these editors are fueled to participate in a wide range of articles by the synergistic combination of articles that they can work on. In other words, editing in Wikipedia gets "sticky" (Check the definitions at the bottom)

So here is the point. Crowd Sourcing is good. Better Crowd Sourcing is better. Better Crowd Sourcing can be had by implementing a dedicated web based methodical structure that fosters and requires attention to the essential questions of systems design.

So I am hatching this idea for something that could be a Wikimedia project, specifically for designing things. It would work a bit like this:

You come to the wiki design sight and tell it that you want to start a new design. It asks you some basic questions like what your primary objective of need is, what kind of system it is (Vehicle, building, processing machine, etc.), Does it require data processing, etc.

The site shepherds your thoughts into a rudimentary top level systems architecture framework by asking you questions like: what does it do? And how might it do that?

It gives you some templates for functional and physical breakdowns, templates with high level headings for a system specification document, and you, the user get as detailed or a vague as you want at this point.

So then your site is live and anyone can come in and populate the content, like with Wikipedia, but unlike Wikipedia, some powerful organizing tools and templates are integrated with the content.

Some of the possible features:
  • Integrated 3D modeling web app that helps with part numbers and hierarchy of parts
  • Expired patent and journal search that lets you link relevant patents to functions or subfunctions
  • Discussion and voting tied to specific elements of the system definition.
  • Commenting on parts of the system definition (Saying things like: "This design is horrible. If it were 3 inches long it would have way more strength and only add a small amount of length")
  • Chat with other members of the project
  • robust and targeted permissions to set "baseline" requirements, functions, components, interfaces, etc
  • Automated quality check that alert users to possible functional overlaps, shortfalls, etc.
  • Autocheck to make sure that users don't give functions titles that are nouns or verbs as titles to items.
  • Freedom of Information Act Request facilitation.
  • Reuse of components, functions, etc from other projects. (Got an idea for something with wheels? Pick from a myriad of projects in which the wheel was defined already!)
The idea is that most people don't know beans about systems engineering, requirements, or interfaces. Design by committee, forum posting, voting, or by blind feel with no knowledge or application of systems engineering is not an effective method of harnessing the domain knowledge that many people do have.

So who is with me? Let's storm the Wikimedia foundation and get them to put this thing online so that we can go about the business of designing space vehicles in style!

Friday, June 19, 2009

A Penny for Your Thoughts, Really, Just a Penny

So I am mentoring this team of interns who are at Boeing for the summer. Their task is to come up with some sweet ideas and see who has the best one.

Straightforward, right?

Well, the space business has had a way of attracting dreamers for over 50 years, and dreamers have a way of coming up with ideas, and so in 2009 it is a little hard to come up with an idea that hasn't already been thought of.

Ask yourself: What was wrong with all the space ideas that people have thought of up until now? Weren't they any good? Why don't we just go work on those, rather than keep coming up with ideas that we think we are the first ones to have thought of (Until we do a little bit of research and find out that it was someone's thesis in 1974.)

So when I asked the interns to start thinking of ideas, I told them that what they really needed to do was think of an idea that would work. An idea that Mother Boeing could plunk down some cash and go do on a reasonable time frame. That's where the real genius could come in on their part.

Hint: The way to go up and down is a gumdrop shaped capsule on top of a rocket with some rubber stuff on the bottom to take the heat when it reenters.

Once upon a time, there was a guy who thought about sending humans to Mars for the first time. I don't know what his name is. I bet that no one does. It's a thought that many people will inevitably have when they look at the sky with a knowledge that there is a place out there called Mars. Was the person who thought of it first a genius? or was he just paying attention.

So the real value doesn't come in until the idea is thunk, in a do-able way, and then it is done. That's where the lasting value is.

You want to send humans to Mars? To the stars? You can't think them there! Get a degree or job in the space business and make it happen! lobby congress, throw down some cash for stock in an aerospace company and vote for board members who will do the best.

Ladies and gentlemen, people tried to fly for a really long time. Da Vinci had the helicopter and hang glider pretty much nailed down a long time ago. A lot of people failed to implement in the interim. We are languishing in the awkward phase of our technology where we have all these great ideas for expanding permanently beyond low earth orbit but we haven't put it all together just right yet.

I suppose that the purpose of this post is to get people thinking differently about how and what it will take to get humans out doing more of the things in space that we all want humans to do (colonize, mine, explore, learn, etc). What is going to help us cross the threshold is thinking of the standard ideas in new ways. It's like you have to know the rules to break them, right? Well, the rules are the ideas that come to our heads naturally when we look up at the stars and imagine how we go there. The ways to break the rules are thinking about politics, human nature, economics, business, and how the laws of these areas can be bent, avoided, or harnessed to enable progress.

Be the change you want to see in the world. The best way to predict the future is to create it.

So for the interns that I am working with, you are coming from a fresh place, hopefully. Take what new things you bring to the table and think of something different, or think of the same thing in a different way. You are approaching the same brick wall that countless brilliant people before you have hit their heads against. Wilbur and Orville weren't necessarily much smarter than Da Vinci, they just thought about things in a different way and pulled together a few technologies that Da Vinci didn't have to succeed in implementing the standard dream of so many who wanted to fly.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Constant of Change

So I'm going to try something new.

I just finished reading Project Orion, by George Dyson, and it has me feeling all political-e. If you havent seen it, I recommend the TED talk by George Dyson to get you started

Project Orion was an amazing and controversial plan to propel spaceships by nuclear bombs. I know, I know, you are thinking of a bunch of ways that that wouldn't work. Well, you are wrong. It would work, and it was studied to death by a bunch of people a whole lot smarter than you and I for a decade in the 50s and 60s and the conclusion is that yep, it would work. And it wouldn't be that expensive.

Because of politics, the effort was killed. That kind of makes sense too, right? Image the political ramifications of blasting spaceships around with nuclear bombs.

Anyway, I felt all sad but motivated when I was done to change the world in a positive way my making the political climate more conducive to space exploration. I'll spare you the details of my whole thought process, but the end result is the following:

I'm going to try to integrate my life, ambitions, and ideas into a more holistic effort. For those of you who don't know me, which is pretty much everyone reading this blog, I like thinking up move script ideas, and although you might doubt it, I actually think that I have some talent with it.

Did you know that Elon Musk produced a movie?

Arther C Clark, after thinking up geosynchronous orbits and some cool GPS applications in the 40s and 50s, made stories and movies

So there go two heroes of mine who have been great visionaries in multiple areas dealing with the advancement of spaceflight in our culture. If they can use their passions to bring compelling stories to the public, why shouldn't I? I think I'll write some scripts over the next few decades for some cool movies that convey compelling messaged wrapped up in a universe where America and Humans are explorers in space.

Business: So I got this minor in Management from BYU. Call me overconfident, but I think that I have a good head for business and fantasize, like a lot of you, about running some company some day that builds spaceships. We will see where my contacts and duties at Boeing take me over time. Way down the road, maybe I can do like Franklin Chang-Diaz and start a cool company based off of an idea, or maybe I can make like Brewster Shaw and run the space exploration division of a huge aerospace firm. Or Maybe I can make like Robert Curbeam and manage a division of a space contractor company.

Space: I'm going to lay it on the line. I'm an astronaut wanna-be. I just finished a Masters Certificate in Space Systems Engineering from Stevens Institute of Technology, and I'm enrolled in an online masters Degree from University of Southern California in Astronautical Engineering. I'm planning on doing another Masters degree or PhD in Planetary Science from either UCLA or Caltech in January 2011 in Los Angeles, and after that I'm coming home to Houston to sink my freshly sharpened teeth into whatever manned spaceflight programs are happening here. Maybe I'll top off my educational pursuits with a degree in space architecture from University of Houston or an Texas MBA at Houston.

Sometime in there, I'm going to start applying for the astronaut program.

Up till then, I need to run in the mornings, do marathons and triathlons, get scuba certified, probably fix up a Volkswagen minibus, and other things that amazing astronauts seem to always be doing.

My daughter Lucy is 2, and my son is 7 months. I am going to spend tons of time with them and have more kids with my awesome wife.

Church, God, and spirituality is a big part of my life and it is going take up a lot of my time.

And I'm going to start double posting at and
I can have my cake and eat it to, when it comes to which blog should I put my post at. Not all of my posts, of course, but why should I limit myself?

So the point of all this is just to say that I'm going to try and use as a place to integrate a lot of the digital fragments of my life journey. Maybe just living my life passionately and openly can motivate people to be more proactive and positive about the space exploration. Look for sidebars and links to change to be a little more personal.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Just Before Sleep Inspration

So I'm laying in bed about to fall asleep, when this bizarre thought pops into me head: Scanning passes at low resolution and high sensitivity for space remote sensing or ground based observatories should provide necessary data to generate high resolution imagery.

Yeah, I know. Who thinks up these things right before they fall asleep. Let me share the details with you all. Because I'm sure that's why you come to anyway...

Ponder on this image of MOLA instrument altitude profiles of MARS as you read.

Think about itPlay with it

Overlay linear paths of intensity that criss cross the target. Match up the "altitudes" of the topographic profiles of flux intensity. To make an analogy, If you were fixed at a certain spot above the ground and you scanned many straight lines across the ground, you should be able to dump all those altitude profiles into a computer which can match up altitudes of the different lines to reconstruct the 3d topography. So If there is a non-uniform peak that you cross with 50 lines at different angles, as long as you have some cross cutting lines that can tie everything together, you should be able to reconstruct the peak by giving all of the lines a common point in two dimensions (the peak) and use the cross cutting line(s) to determine the only possible set of altitude profile orientations (through the peak) that would not violate the altitudes in the cross cutting line.

After you determine that this principal works, you realize that you don't have to have all the lines going through the same point, but any number of straight lines that criss cross each other will contain the data necessary to reconstruct the topography at an average resolution as fine as the average distance between the lines in the region of interest.

The number of cross cutting lines you need before you can determine the orientation of lines and points of intersections of the lines is finite.

So, If you have a very high sensitivity instrument with high signal to noise, you should be able to sweep it across a bright celestial target and combine the sweeps, just like you do with the laser passes on the peak, to generate the high angular resolution image.

Bottom line: Itty bitty telescope scanning bright celestial object yields nice picture.