Swooping in on NASA

By Phil Plait | February 12, 2010 1:30 pm

skepticalitySwoopy from Skepticality interviewed me about NASA, and the whole shebang is now live (you can also just grab the MP3).

I talked about Obama’s plan for NASA, the JREF, Pluto, Mars, my tattoo (sorry, folks, no news there), and doted on Swoopy maybe just a little because she is made of awesome and win and unicorns. She and co-host Derek run the Skeptic and Podcasting tracks at Dragon*Con, because that’s just how cool they are.

Skepticality is the original skeptical podcast, and still one of the best. You really should subscribe to it if you don’t already. And if you do, you are already smart and good-looking and likely to be President one day.

MORE ABOUT: Skepticality, Swoopy

Comments (20)

  1. Levi in NY

    Honestly, I wouldn’t want to be President. I’m incapable of keeping my one-room apartment in order, much less a whole nation. If anybody entrusts that kind of responsibility on me, we’re screwed.

  2. Maybe if we send a probe to Uranus maybe then they can contact congress.
    Also if there are any jobs with your uber secret project I might know someone.

  3. SLC

    Another jeremiad against human space flight by Dr.Plaits’ favorite physics professor, Bob Park. Of course, as we all know, Dr. Park doesn’t know what he’s talking about according some in these parts.

    Anyone who still dreamed of a Moon base for human expeditions to Mars and beyond had a rude awakening this week by President Obama’s FY2011 budget request to Congress. This is an asking budget; its significance for space lies in what it did not ask for, namely a human mission back to the Moon. Incredibly, Apollo 11 made the first moon landing with vacuum tube electronics. Astronauts are now equally old-fashioned. Congress will hotly debate these matters in the coming months, but there won’t be an appropriation bill before October. International obligations make it difficult to withdraw from the ISS but that may well be the last human outpost in space, at least for a very long time. The asking budget calls for increasing NASA science by 11 percent. NASA will be free to do science, which it does very well.

  4. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Park is most noted for his critical commentaries on alternative medicine and other pseudoscience, as well as his opposition to manned space travel and space development.[2] [Wikipedia]

    Why do I get the feeling that it wouldn’t matter what the US administration did or didn’t do? (Or for that matter, any administration.)

    But Park is likely wrong – the chinese plan to do taikonauts and space stations both.

  5. Bill



  6. If I run for president, will I have to wear a tie?

  7. SLC (#3): I’m curious: do you have anything new to say?

  8. MadScientist

    Obama has plans for the JREF, Pluto, Mars, and your tattoo? Tell the guy to go mind his own business!

    @SLC: “Apollo 11 made the first moon landing with vacuum tube electronics …” Really? I’ll admit there were some circuits with some tubes on the ground and I don’t know much about most of the electronics in the capsule and other instrumentation, but an awful lot of instrumentation in flight had transistors. Perhaps someone more knowledgeable can tell us if tubes or transistors dominated, but there was definitely a lot of transistors. Besides, calling a tube “old fashioned” is nonsensical; we still use tubes for many things today because there are simply no equivalent solid state devices – in a few cases theoretical limitations predict that we can never have equivalent solid state replacements. There are areas where solid state devices rule and others where tubes rule.

  9. Rob

    Stupid and ugly here… but I could still be president. (Lookit George W. for cryin’ out loud!) Oh wait, no I can’t… I’m Canadian. :)

  10. SLC

    Re Phil Plait @ #&

    That’s a fair question so let me post a link to an article by someone who agrees with Dr. Plait, which appeared in todays’ Washington Post and which excoriates President Obama for taking Bob Parks’ advice. Given a choice between listening to Bob Park and Steven Weinberg or Charles Krauthammer, I think I’ll go with the physicists, rather then the psychiatrist and neocon columnist.


  11. If you click my name it will take you to clavius a great resource on the moon landing, It will point out simple integrated circuits were available in the sixties.

  12. SLC

    Re Phil Plait @ #7 & Torbjörn Larsson @ #4

    1. Prof. Park has addressed the issue of a Chinese expedition on to the moon his web site and his response is “yawn”.

    2. The argument for human space flight seems to come down to a spirit of adventure and exploration, much like Columbus, Magellan, and their contemporaries. That’s all well and good, but in these times of massive budget deficits, this is an adventure that we can’t afford, particularly as it will detract from scientific discovery from robotic missions which will have to survive on short rations.

    However, let me state the case this way. Returning to the moon with astronauts is a big so what. We did it 40 years ago with far inferior technology. I think that a far more exciting discovery is potentially within reach with present technology, namely the possibility of life in the oceans of Europa. Imagine a robotic mission to Europa in which a TV camera or other such device is lowered into one of the vents in the ice sheet and discovers a shark (or other living creature) swimming around in the Europaen ocean. That would, IMHO, be the greatest discovery in the history of the human race.

  13. Why can we not go to the moon and send a robot to Europa. The budget for NASA is less then one percent of the current budget so the argument that cutting the budget to the man space program will affect the budget is kind of silly. The only reason we are not on the moon and maybe Mars now is because of politics not technology. It is a testament to humans in general that we have been space and to the moon. Eventually, hopefully we will have feet on the ice on Europa. Maybe for the space Olympics.

  14. amphiox

    I don’t see any point in the U.S. returning to the moon right now, not until we have the tech and economic wherewithal to set up a permanently inhabited colony and send at least 100 people at a time, at least once a year. Since it will certainly take some time before we have the capability to do this, trying to go back now is just a waste of resources replicating stuff we’ve already done before.

    The exploration part of the manned space program should focus on direct trips to Mars and maybe a landing or orbit of a near-earth asteroid. (Doing this will also help us get a lot closer to doing the moon colony.)

  15. MadScientist

    @SLC: Humans in space has always been about a joy ride (but some science was achieved). Many rocketry people like Bob Goddard and Werner Von Braun were inspired chiefly by the thought of exploration. The same is true today; science is secondary. Whether or not it is the fiscally or ethically responsible thing to do is not so important to these people. There are many people who would risk being killed in a launch catastrophe for the opportunity to go where no one else has been before. I believe money is better spent on remote controlled missions, but I wouldn’t pee in the human space travel pool – I think the travel would be pretty awesome even if not really useful. However, unlike most rocketry people I would be more keen on developing technologies and techniques for sustaining life on a long trip (or in a remote area like the moon) – for me, those basic problems must be solved before going all gaga and flying in every direction. I wouldn’t want to be the first human corpse on Mars (not that I’d be accepted in any space program anymore).

  16. Ellindsey

    Apollo gwasn’t vacuum tube technology, an Apollo guidance computer using vacuum tubes would have been far too heavy. It used some of the first mass-produced integrated circuits in existence, as well as a lot of transistors. I don’t actually know of any tubes used anywhere in the Apollo craft itself.

    I’m curious if Phil has any more information on what he said about the Ares I-X launch being basically a sham.

  17. Gary Ansorge

    17. Ellindsey

    The first computer I worked on was the Univac 1108(1969), which was sold as a third generation machine [1)tubes,2) transistors,3) integrated circuits] though it was really only generation 2.5. Most of that computer was transistors, resistors, capacitors, inductors. Only the registers (with 177 base 8 addresses) were integrated circuits.

    The military had, at the same time, the YUK 7(a mil-spec, hardened Univac 1108), which, as I recall, used all integrated circuits and was 1/10th the physical size of the Univac 1108.

    I’m pretty sure the onboard computers on Apollo were similar to the U 1108, a mix of solid state and integrated circuits.

    Russian satellites used tubes in those days, which proved much more reliable than solid state devices in hard vacuum, since vacuum evaporation of printed circuits and redeposition of conductive thin films was a real problem. We eventually solved that problem and now integrated circuits are much more reliable than vacuum tubes in the same environment.

    GAry 7

  18. Ferris Valyn

    Ellindsey – you asked about the test being a sham – let me cover the major points

    First, its important to understand what the Ares I rocket is (and isn’t)

    Ares I consists (from the top down) consists of, at the top, the launch abort system (the long pointy thing at the top). Below that is the Orion Capsule/Service Module. Under that is the 2nd stage, which uses what is called a J-2X engine. Below that the 1st stage, which consists of a 5 segment rocket, based on the 4 segment Solid Rocket Booster on the shuttle (the 2 things on the side of the shuttle, when it launches), although the propellant grain and burn is different. Also, if memory serves me correctly, the guidance systems that were planned for Ares I are still under discussion, and might be largely handled by the Orion spacecraft.

    The Ares I-X rocket consisted of a mass simulator of the LAS & Orion Spacecraft, a Mass simulator of the 2nd stage, a mass simulator of a single segment of the SRB, and a modified 4 segment shuttle SRB. In addition, the guidance system was a modified Atlas V guidance system.

    In other words, the top was different, the 2nd stage was different, the first stage was different, and the guidance system was different. Now, I have no problem doing test flights – I think they are great things, and its important to remember they are tests. But, for test flights to be valuable, they need to test the actual flight hardware

  19. SionH

    Once I’m president, you’ll all become British again and have to learn the metric system. Muah ha ha ha!


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