Saturday, July 27, 2013

Are the days of the lone inventor behind us forever?

As I stood in Thomas Edison’s reconstructed laboratory in Dearborn, Michigan last week, I was struck by how Mr. Edison’s invention process was the beginning of the end – the end of the lone inventor or scientist working solo in his or her laboratory, unlocking the secrets of the universe or coming up with the next big invention that would change the world.  Thomas Edison took the work of the lone, creative inventor and, like any good child of the Industrial Revolution, industrialized it.  Sure, he was brilliant and no doubt the intellectual author of the many inventions credited to him. (The electric light and phonograph are but two examples.)  But, if he hadn’t had the army of technicians and fellow inventors working alongside him, I seriously doubt that he would have been so productive.

Is this a bad thing?  No, necessarily.  In my day job, I work for NASA.  And one thing I’ve learned in my 23 year career is that space technology development is inherently a team effort.  To design a spacecraft or technology to work in space takes the expertise of many discipline-specific scientists (physicists of all kinds, chemists and mathematicians) as well as mechanical, electrical, structural and thermal engineers.  Without their highly-specialized training and expertise, new space technology innovation would be impossible.
This is true in the ‘pure’ sciences as well.  Gone are the days of Madame Curie discovering radium in a laboratory with only her husband as a research partner.  Today the Higgs Boson was found by a team of hundreds of physicists using a multi-billion dollar particle accelerator that only European governments could build.  (We almost built our own, but that’s another sad story.)

And yet… At the core of each of these modern discoveries and inventions is often a single individual.  This person is the one who makes it all happen.  The Werner Von Braun who convinces a president to fund Project Apollo; The Robert Oppenheimer who is the driving force keeping the Manhattan Project on track to developing the atomic bomb; The Thomas Edison who works with his team until all hours of the night until they finally found a material that they could use to make a working light bulb.  The power of the individual is alive and well – it is just more complicated for him or her to create and invent because this person now has to spend half his time selling and managing.   Today’s inventors and scientists need to be communicators, managers, creators and technicians.  Individuals still matter, but they must be multidisciplined.  Let’s hope our educational system is up to the task of equipping them with the tools they will need to be successful.

Friday, July 12, 2013

America (almost) had a nuclear rocket in 1970

Did you know that the United States was developing a nuclear rocket in the 1960’s that was to fly astronauts into deep space, beyond Moon, after the completion of the Apollo program?  The program was called NERVA (Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application) and if it had been funded through completion, then we would have today a rocket capable of taking people to Mars, Venus and beyond using only about the half the fuel that is required to take the same voyage using traditional chemical rockets.

Before it was canceled by the Nixon Administration, the NERVA Program successfully demonstrated a functioning nuclear rocket engine in the Nevada desert.  An untested but still functional nuclear rocket engine was on display at The US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, AL for several years before it was moved back to the Marshall Space Flight Center where it is standing today.   That’s me in the picture, standing in front of the NERVA engine with Kelvin Long (Editor, Journal of the British Interplanetary Society).

I’m not recommending or advocating – just sayin’.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Mars by 1978!

Last night my wife showed me an article in the June 15, 2013 issue of Science News that made me wince.  For those that don't read it, Science News provides an easily accessible summary of the week's science stories for in a less technical format than a journal.  It's a great resource for non-scientists interested in science and for scientists who may have expertise in one field but not in all.  (For example, this physicist likes to keep up with the latest breakthroughs in biology and geology.)

The article she pointed out was really a retrospective feature in which the magazine will give headlines or excerpts from articles published in previous issues.  In this case, the article was from the June 15, 1963 issue and titled, "Thirty Years to Mars."  The gist of the story is that the author of the 1963 article fully expected that we would land people on Mars in the late 1970's and certainly no later than the end of the 20th Century.  For those that aren't keeping up, we missed the mark and are still waiting on people to go to Mars.

It also speculated, "Even before man lands on Mars, however, the question of whether some form of life exists there will be answered ... next year when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration will send Mariner on a Mars fly-by."   Multiple spacecraft and landers later, we're also still waiting on a definitive answer as to whether Mars ever harbored life.

The pace of progress in human space exploration has been slower than anyone in the 1960's could have imagined.  Our robotic probes have fared better, but even they haven't been able to answer the fundamental question of life on Mars.  So, do we sit back and lament the situation or do something about it?  I much prefer the latter.  And so should anyone who cares about the long term future of humanity.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Space Junk, Part 1

There are over 500,000 pieces of debris in Earth orbit placed there by humans.   Fortunately, space is big and the probability of anything colliding with this junk is low – but it isn’t zero.  This was illustrated in the near miss between NASA’s Fermi Gamma Ray Telescope and a derelict Soviet spy satellite that nearly collided with it last year.  The NASA mission controllers had to maneuver the spacecraft out of the way or it would have been hit, and destroyed, by the collision in much the same way an American Iridium Satellite was destroyed by a defunct Soviet-era Cosmos satellite in 2009.  That collision shattered both satellites and places thousands more pieces of debris into orbits that will last hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The relative speed between the satellites when they collided was about 26,000 miles per hour.

The first junk entered space at the dawn of the space age when we began launching our first rockets.  Only recently have several countries agreed to try and stop the growth of space debris by limiting the amount of time a new satellite may remain in orbit after it completes its mission.  This usually means the owner of the spacecraft has to make sure it either de-orbits and burns up in the atmosphere or is moved to a higher ‘parking orbit’ out of harm’s way.  But not all countries have signed up and that’s a problem.

The amount of debris is still growing and the probability of more collisions happening grows with it.  If we don’t do something, then there will come a day that there is so much junk up there that any new satellite will be hit shortly after it launches and we will lose the benefits of space entirely.

You can learn more about Space Debris by visiting NASA’sOrbital Debris Program Office or by reading my latest book, Sky Alert: WhenSatellites Fail.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Who was Vannevar Bush? Why you should know

The government/industry partnership that existed from WW2 through ~1980 fueled the technological innovation that defined the USA and we are still benefiting from the partnership today, though the pipeline is beginning to run dry.  With the ascendance of applied research and connecting all research with specific economic return targets plus a lack of understanding by policy makers of how fundamental research historically provided unknown-at-the-time economic benefit decades later, we entered a period of R&D decline in about 1980 that we still suffer from today.

Governments demand accountability from those receiving taxpayer-funded research dollars.  And they should.  But results from fundamental science don’t appear in the country’s health, economic or military pipeline overnight.  Sometimes it can take decades from the first promising scientific observation to a tangible product.  Sometimes that product is simply an increase in human knowledge without a physical ‘widget’ ever being produced.  Sometimes the results from fundamental research help a researcher in another field make a breakthrough by simply learning of someone else’s seemingly unrelated research.  (This is another reason scientific conferences are important – at topic for a future blog entry.)

Industry isn’t any better; in fact, it may be worse.  The bottom line, a return on investment, is what matters in the world of business.  This is where applied research is more reasonable.  In counterpoint, don’t forget that Bell Labs performed fundamental research that led to incredibly profitable technologies.  Still, with an eye on quarter-to-quarter profitability, sustained research funded by industry doesn’t happen very often.

Policy makers should familiarize themselves with the life of Vannevar Bush and rethink the current government/industry partnership model.  We need to return to the post-WW2 model that Bush helped put into place.  This partnership led to an incredible period of research, technological creativity and innovation – a history lesson worth understanding.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Flying in space without fuel

One upon a time there was a project called ProSEDS.  It was a little experiment that would have demonstrated a new type of space propulsion using a long, thin conducing wire called a “space tether.”  The neat thing about space tethers is that they can propel a spacecraft without using any fuel – they aren’t rockets.  Tethers can propel a spacecraft by using something called the Lorentz Force, which is generated when a wire carries a current in the presence of a magnetic field.  The electrons that make up the current carry an electric charge and are deflected by the Earth’s magnetic field.  Since they are trapped in the wire, the entire wire is deflected (pushed), pulling the spacecraft along for the ride.

The ProSEDS experiment would have shown that these electric forces can be used to spacecraft propulsion and paved the way for a whole new generation of propellantless spacecraft circling the globe and never running out of gas.  But the ProSEDS, for which I was the project scientist, was canceled in the wake of the Columbia disaster and the next space tether propulsion experiment to fly was Japan’s T-Rex in 2010.  To the best of my knowledge, there are no tether missions planned to fly anytime soon though there have been several proposed (EDDE and TEPCE are among them).

For more information about space tethers, check out the Wikipedia site (it is well done and very comprehensive) and Chapter 15 ofLiving Off the Land in Space (the book I co-authored with Greg Matloff and C. Bangs).  

Friday, July 5, 2013

Solar sailing to the stars?

I learned today that I will be the second speaker at the Icarus Interstellar Congress in Dallas next month.  My talk will follow Greg Benford’s and will be about solar sails, one of the few real technologies that might be able to take us to the stars.

Solar sails use light, as their name implies, to ‘sail’ through space.  They don’t need any fuel and they can operate wherever there is enough sunlight, or laser light, to make them go.  They’re low thrust, meaning they don’t have a rapid acceleration, but it is constant – potentially enabling them to go faster than any rocket ever made.  And, most importantly, they’re now real.  In 2011, the Japan’s IKAROS mission showed the world that a large sail (over 40 feet on each side) can deploy in deep space and navigate using only the pressure of sunlight.  NASA plans to fly its own sail, the Sunjammer, next year.  Sunjammer, named after a solar sail in a short story by Arthur C. Clarke, will be over 100 feet on a side and scalable to much larger sizes.

This is a far cry from the Texas-sized sails we’ll need to reach Alpha Centauri, but it’s a start.

Thursday, July 4, 2013


Last weekend, I attended the LibertyCon science fiction convention in Chattanooga and participated in several panels. Once of the most interesting was a discussion of “The End of Civilization.” The panelists (mostly authors and scientists) discussed ways they thought the world -- human civilization -- might end. It was interesting enough to post the initial listing here:

@Michael Z. Williamson “The Yellowstone Supervolcano”
@Tedd Roberts “Drug research run amok”
@Steven Cobb “Asteroid impact”
@Julie Cochrane “A Carrington Event”
@John Ringo “A bioengineered virus”
@Patrick Vanner “Cyber attack”
@Llian Price “Infectious disease”
@Catherine Asaro “The Singularity”
And, finally, my initial contribution “Online virtual reality addiction”

The list grew during the hour-long discussion – what’s your favorite?