A flying Armadillo

In recent news under the heading “Private Enterprise Goes to Space”, most of the press coverage has gone to SpaceX’s launch of the Falcon 9 rocket. This is a genuinely big deal, and it deserves the glowing prose, but it overshadowed an impressive test by a smaller private launch company called Armadillo Aerospace.

Here’s a video of the test. You’ve seen dozens of rocket launches. No matter! Keep watching, because you’ve never seen a rocket land like this before.

Making that work is hard. I’d ask you to take my word for it, but since I’m no longer a practicing aerospace engineer, you’d have to take my word for it that it’s worth taking my word for it. I work in software now, and you can safely take my word for it that software is easier than launching rockets. But then again, I just realized that I can name three companies that are hard at work on commercial launch services, and in each case, the funding has come from software: Armadillo Aerospace (Jon Carmack’s Doom/Quake video game empire), SpaceX (Elon Musk’s PayPal), and BlueOrigin (largely funded by Amazon‘s Jeff Bezos).

The moral of the story appears to be that software may be easier than rocket science, but it also instills a powerful desire to make science fiction come true.

The Doppelgänger Distance

In the latest American Scientist, I came across a book review of Paul Davies’ new book The Eerie Silence. It’s another take on the old Fermi Paradox that bedevils the SETI crowd. Very briefly, it goes like this: if aliens exist, where are they? It sounds flip, but the more you pick at it, the more you realize it’s a significant puzzle. Shouldn’t we at least be able to detect other civilizations, since they’ve had ten billion years or so to get busy? You’d have to guess that we’re arriving late to the party. Only… where is everybody?

In this context, Davies touches on the concept of the Great Filter (which I’ve discussed before). The idea here is that, gosh darn it, intelligent life IS rare. And why? Here’s a quote from the review:

… given that we don’t see any evidence that other intelligent creatures have taken over big chunks of the cosmos, some Great Filter must be operating to prevent life from evolving to the point of colonizing our galaxy. […] Perhaps we’ve already made it through the Great Filter and will go on to colonize the visible universe ourselves. But it may be the case that civilizations as advanced as ours typically go on to destroy themselves before they reach the star-hopping phase, and that we have a Great Filter in our future.

This is why I’m interested in the the Doppelgänger Distance. It’s the distance from earth at which, given our current technology, we could hear the noise made by an exact copy of the current earth, assuming this noise was arriving right now (i.e. don’t worry about the time of transit). The Doppelgänger Distance could grow with either the sensitivity of our ears or the noise of our voices. Assume the listener knows where to listen, but the speaker is making no special attempt to be heard.

As the Doppelgänger Distance gets larger, we can feel better and better about having passed through the Great Filter. This is because, even if we are eventually so foolish as to do ourselves in, at least we will have rocked the neighborhood (which neighborhood being our Twin-o-Sphere, or the spherical volume for which the the Doppelgänger Distance is the radius). Someone clever in the vicinity will have heard us. And more importantly, we will have heard them. So: if we don’t hear anybody at all, then maybe we’re the first. Which would place the Great Filter behind us (in all likelihood).

If we make it this far and then wipe ourselves out, that would totally suck.

Go For Launch!

We just did a space topic yesterday, but I can’t resist this video. It’s called Go For Launch!. That name makes me think of Okay Go and their recent Rube Goldberg-inspired video. And I think: you know, this space shuttle launch prep is a pretty wacked-out Rube Goldberg sequence too. Only it ends with a freakin’ rocket ship flying into space. All they need are some marbles and a better soundtrack.


The shuttle in the video is Discovery. She is primping for her penultimate voyage. The 25 year-old Atlantis has already flown her last mission. She survived 32 transits to the void and is now on her way to a retirement community outside Palm Springs where she hopes to play golf and Canasta with her surviving sisters.

Mindful videos and slow rocket launches

Videos these days are edited for a microscopic attention span. I’d love to see some statistics on the average time between cuts, but it must be getting shorter. A good example of this is videos of rock concerts. There are so many cameras for the video editor to draw from: cameras on stage, cameras on booms, cameras in the rafters, walking steadicams, crowdcams, guitar cams. As a result, we get whipped from camera to camera with neck-snapping speed. If you have, let us say, a particular interest in Eric Clapton’s finger work during the solo, you’re out of luck. You might get a few precious seconds of guitar closeup, but then it’s time for the Dramamine again.

I don’t object to kaleidoscopic spectacle on principle, but there are times when it’s really nice to sit and focus on exactly one thing. Here’s a spectacular example of that. This is a slow-motion film (500 frames/second!) of the very bottom of the Apollo 11 Saturn V rocket as it takes off on July 16, 1969. I’m betting that on multiple occasions you’ve seen one or two seconds of this video. But you’ve never seen the whole thing. Watch it. It features some high quality commentary from Mark Gray of Spacecraft Films.

That’s the real damn deal right there. Those massive hold-down arms clamp the rocket to the ground, and when they let go, they’re the last earthly object to kiss it goodbye. I’m a certified space geek, but I learned a lot watching this. I didn’t know about the flammable ablative paint on the pad equipment, and I had always wondered about the dark skirt of flame that stretches several yards below the nozzle’s yawning bell. Now I know. Mindful, stable video with expert commentary. Yum.

Since I’m on the topic, here’s your Apollo bonus link: Andrew Chaikin, author of A Man on the Moon, tells us something new about Apollo 13. Which do you prefer for your corpse: a cold eternal orbit or the fiery dispatch of a collision with your home planet?

Shuttle lift-off highlights

Here’s the kind of thing we used to see alongside a headline like HISTORIC IMAGE FROM SPACE or FUZZY BLOB WALKS ON OVEREXPOSED LUNAR SURFACE.


It’s no wonder people claimed the moon walk was fake. It wouldn’t be hard to fake this sneeze-and-spilled-ink furball. But we’ve come a long way since then. Cameras are cheap, and so is telemetry. That coupled with the fact that NASA is haunted by deadly launch mishaps means that a shuttle launch is one of the best documented events on the planet. Via the NASA_Ares Twitter feed, I came across this amazing video in which dozens of video streams from the STS-129 launch are merged into one artful reel. Please watch. If you’re impatient, jump ahead to 4:30.


STS-129 Ascent Video Highlights from mike interbartolo on Vimeo.

Links soft and links hard

Some months ago I was reading an article in American Scientist, and I thought it would be interesting to blog about it. If I had been reading the article online, it would have been a simple matter to tag it with my little WordPress bookmarklet that would insert it directly into my blog database. But I was at a Starbuck’s reading a magazine made out of paper. Without pen or paper, I was certainly doomed to forget about the article before I got around to blogging about it. Then I remembered my iPhone. Shouldn’t I be able to take a picture of the article and have it automatically find the article for me online? Shazam lets me find music this way, and SnapTell tracks down books. Lacking any such service, it occurred to me that I could at least take a picture of the page to remind me. Here’s the result.


There’s a URL in that mess somewhere, but it took some real work to figure out after a few weeks had passed. Not so helpful. Sure enough, this article got lost in the shuffle.

Yesterday, sitting in a different Starbuck’s reading Technology Review, I found an article that I want to write about, and this time technology was on my side. The article in question had a QR Code embedded on it. This made it possible, with the help of a free NeoReader app, to jump directly from a low-res grainy photograph to a URL. Once I had the URL, I could open it in Safari and then bookmark it with Instapaper‘s Read Later feature. This transferred it from the phone to the cloud where I could retrieve it from my PC later that night. That’s still a lot of steps, but easier and more likely to succeed than a scrap of paper.

Ironically, neither method gets me past the last hurdle: a content paywall. I can’t blame a journal for wanting to make money off their content, but it’s too bad that I can’t point you to more of the article than this: Engineers restore high-resolution photos of the moon.

The reason I wanted to link to that article is a personal connection. NASA scientists are rescuing a bunch of mildewing lunar photography archives that were scheduled to be destroyed. In the meantime, they’re working out of an old McDonald’s at Moffett Naval Air Station in Mountain View, California. Here’s the defunct McDonald’s. Zoom out and look at the giant dirigible hangars. My connection is that I used to work at NASA Ames. I used to eat at that McDonald’s. But when I was there, there were no Lunar Orbiter tape reels blocking access to the fryolator.

Private enterprise on orbit’s doorstep

Question: What’s this a picture of?


Answer: it’s a rocket trying to fit in at a lightning rod party.

Real answer: it’s the SpaceX Falcon 9, the biggest rocket ever made by a private company on its own dime. Big enough to carry humans into orbit, she’s down at Cape Canaveral waiting for her debut flight. In the meantime, her guardians are aware of two important facts. One, Florida is the lightning capital of the world. Two, rockets are giant bombs that resemble lightning rods. Accordingly, they have placed their darling in the middle of a lightning rod forest so as to frustrate any naughty nearby thunderbolts intent on tickling her. Here, for example, is a picture of space shuttle Endeavour getting the near-miss treatment.

The three space shuttles that remain (can you name the five original shuttles?) are now 30 years old and due to be retired real soon now. Without help from companies like SpaceX, NASA will be in a bad situation. So rather than competing with SpaceX, NASA is cheering them on. In fact, if you look at the flight manifest, you can see that NASA plans on keeping them busy for a long time.

Only last fall I was writing about SpaceX’s success launching a test rocket, and last month they successfully placed a paying customer’s satellite in orbit. Commercial space transport has come a long way. I wish them luck with Falcon 9… it’s a big jump up from Falcon 1, and if it’s successful it will really have them playing with the big boys.

Space-bound chimp “thrilled” about launch

Google reached some kind of agreement with the old Life magazine image archive. When I thought about Life, I remembered the coverage they used to give to the space program. I searched for “Mercury” and found our first seven astronauts in their magnificent and somewhat ridiculous silvery suits. Look at those boots! Honest to God, it looks like they’re about to go trick-or-treating. Either that or they’re headed to a fetish-themed club.

The search I did also turned up pictures of our REAL first astronaut: Ham the Astro-Chimp. They might call him Ham the Ham… check out this picture. LIFE: “Ham” mugging after Mercury space flight.. That’s an astronaut who’s not taking himself too seriously. Here’s a little more of the scene. I love the old-school NASA van in the background. It makes me want to put on some Juan García Esquivel music.

Pictures of the Sun

It’s fun to look at pictures of planets taken by our robotic eyeball extenders. We get to see things that are too darn far away to see with even the biggest earthbound telescope.

But there’s another kind of treat when we look at our own sun with new eyes from here on earth. We’re used to seeing marvelous detail in the moon’s changeless cratered face, but the sun is just a blinding fireball to our eyes.

When I look at a planet, I think “That’s a place.” I can imagine flying over it, or even stepping out of my little tin spaceship onto its surface. But the sun is always just the sun. Not really a place, just a white hole in the sky. My imaginary spaceship never goes there.

New telescopes (and a few space probes) are changing that. The featureless sun is really a charismatic world of curdling fire, boiling magnetic storms, and vast billowing exhalations of solar steam.

These pictures (from the Boston Globe’s Big Picture series) prove that the sun is a place jammed with personality: The Sun – The Big Picture. And if you want to know why they call it “solar wind”, be sure and look at the animation where a strong gust from the sun whips the tail off a comet

SpaceX launches private rocket

On Sunday, a private company called SpaceX launched a rocket into orbit. You remember all the commotion a few years ago about Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne. That was a private rocket too, so what’s the big deal now? Well… Burt Rutan’s space ship is definitely worthy of praise, but it only takes millionaires on suborbital joy rides. It’s a tourism game for the Drag-My-Rich-Ass-Up-Mount-Everest set. And you don’t even get that much space time for your $200,000. You can stick your tongue out and lick space at the top of your bounce, but that’s about it.

SpaceX, on the other hand, was designed not to win a competition but to put satellites into space for paying customers. Put another way, NASA is never going to compete with Richard Branson to put tourists into space, but SpaceX is now competing with NASA and every other launch vendor on the planet. And their launch manifest is full.

The launch on Sunday was actually the fourth flight, but it was the first that worked perfectly from end to end, proving once again that space flight is hard. Here’s a great video of the launch. I love the fact that there’s no sound. No countdown, no voice of Mission Control. Just fizz, ka-boom, and off she goes!

The launch site is on the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Here’s a fun exercise: can you find the launchpad with Google Earth by looking at the shape of the island as you fly away?