On Sunday, skydiver Felix Baumgartner stepped out of a high-altitude balloon and plummeted 40 kilometers back to Earth. I wanted to watch it live but missed it due to an appointment I had to keep. I heard it was heart-pounding, and Twitter went nuts over it. I wish I had seen it!
Still, my feelings on it are mixed. While I really am glad it got people excited, I couldn’t shake the feeling it wasn’t more than a stunt. A cool stunt, but a stunt. It was plugged as a way to learn more about spacesuits and all that, but I had my doubts. Having it sponsored by a sugary caffeinated energy drink marketed to teens also made me a bit wary.
I was thinking of writing something up about it, but then my friend and space historian Amy Shira Teitel wrote an excellent piece crystallizing my thoughts, so go read her article for more in that vein (which is also mirrored on Discover Magazine’s blog The Crux).
But what I really wanted to write about was this image I saw around Twitter and Facebook:
Why do I want to write about this? Because, in a nutshell, it’s everything wrong about attitudes on our space program. If I sound a little peeved, I am. Here’s why.
This meme was started in a tweet by revulv. I suspect it was just a joke, and to be honest it’s funny enough; I smirked when I read it. But someone took that joke and added the picture, and then it got spread around. And I can tell by the comments I’m seeing people really think it’s true – this idea has been around since the Shuttle retired, and it’s unfair. It’s simply not true.
First, as Amy points out in her post, Baumgartner’s jump was a record breaker, but he wasn’t in space. Our atmosphere thins out with height, and doesn’t really have an edge where air ends and vacuum begins. Because of this, there’s an arbitrarily agreed-upon height where we say space "starts" – it’s called the Kármán line, and it’s 100 km (62 miles) above sea level. Baumgartner was less than half that high. When I talked about his jump I used the phrase "edge of space", which is probably fair. He was in a pretty good vacuum by ground standards, but in space itself he was not.
Second, he wasn’t in orbit. A lot of folks confuse being in orbit and being in space, which is understandable. When we say something is in space that means it’s just higher than that arbitrary limit. You can get there via rocket by going straight up 100 km and then back down, for example. That’s a suborbital flight.
But being in orbit is different. An orbit is where you are free-falling around the Earth. Think of it this way: in orbit the Earth is pulling you down to the surface, but you’re going fast enough sideways that you never actually hit (to paraphrase Douglas Adams: orbiting is learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss). Your velocity down and your velocity to the side add together to give you a circular (or elliptical) path.
Baumgartner used a balloon to go straight up. He wasn’t in orbit.
And that’s two of the three things that bother me about that meme picture: he wasn’t in space, and he wasn’t in orbit, two things the US has rockets that can do.
Now, some people will point out that in fact the US cannot do that, at least not with people. We don’t have any rockets rated for human flight into space.
That’s true, but brings up my third point, the most important, what a lot of people don’t seem to get: you need to add the words "right now" to the end of that sentence.
We can’t launch humans into space right now. But in just a few years we’ll have that ability. In spades.
SpaceX is working on making sure their Falcon 9 rocket is human-rated for flight – even as I write these words they have a Dragon capsule berthed to the International Space Station. ATK is another. There’s also Sierra Nevada, Blue Origin (which just had a successful engine firing test), XCORR, and others. Let’s not forget Virgin Galactic, too. [Update: D'oh! Shame on me, and ironic too: I forgot to add Boeing and ULA's work on this as well.]
Both SpaceX and ATK think they’ll be ready to take people into orbit in 2015. Virgin Galactic and XCORR may be ready to do commercial suborbital flights before that date. [Note added after posting: I want to be clear; these are not NASA programs, but some have contracts with NASA, and I'm talking about the US as a nation, not necessarily as a government space program.]
The Space Shuttle was retired in 2011. We’re in the middle of what’s planned to be a five year gap where the US can’t take humans into space. Mind you, when the Apollo program shut down there was a nine year gap before we had a program to take humans to space again (with the exception of a few Saturn flights to orbit for Skylab and the Apollo-Soyuz mission; even then there was a six year gap until the Shuttle launches began).
My point? Things aren’t nearly as bad as people think. Yes, the Shuttle is retired, but to be brutally honest, while it’s an amazing machine, it could not nor would it ever be capable of taking humans beyond low-Earth orbit. It also cost way more than promised, and couldn’t launch as often as promised. I’ve made this point before, and it’s one we need to remember. Getting to space is not easy, and if we want to do it we have to do it right.
And let’s not forget we are still throwing rovers at Mars, probes at Jupiter, and one satellite after another into Earth orbit. We’re still going into space, if by proxy. Humans won’t have to wait much longer.
We need to learn from the past and keep our eyes on the future. By looking at the past we can see by comparison things are not so bad right now; we’re just in a lull before the storm. We’ll soon have not just the capability to put humans in space, but many capabilities to do it! Space travel will be easier and cheaper than it ever has been since the dawn of the Space Age.
My goal is to see nothing less than the permanent colonization of space by human beings, and I strongly suspect we are not that far from achieving it.
Science is cool. I know that, and you probably know that, but a lot of people still don’t.
That’s just one of several posted on Buzzfeed. They’re all funny, and some are gross, which is also funny.
This is the same museum that ran really funny TV ads earlier this year, too. In my opinion they’ve set the standard on how to reach out to folks and get them interested in the natural world. The ads are funny, which gets your attention; makes an odd, seemingly out-of-place statement, which keeps your attention a bit longer; then uses the phrase "We can explain", which brings the message home. Awesomeness.
My pal Veronica Belmont hosts a show on TechFeed called Fact or Fictional, where she investigates the science of a movie based on viewer suggestions. She recently took on the
wonderful fantastic gawd-awful piece of festering offal "Armageddon", talking to scientist Joe Hanson, who writes the terrific It’s OK to Be Smart blog.
Let’s just say they agree with me about the movie:
If you want to learn how we’d really prevent an asteroid impact, and why we need to take this seriously, I gave a TEDxBoulder talk about it. It’s a real threat, but one we can prevent if we choose to do so.
So I sit down to go through my email, and it’s the usual slew of press releases, spam, space enthusiast questions, and marriage proposals. No, wait, I don’t get those last ones. Still, it’s a lot of email.
The opening line is, "I’m a fan. Of you. Of space. Of inspiring curiosity about science. "
I love hearing that. The email is from Kim Boekbinder, an independent pop music artist, and she wants to make a space album. Or more accurately an album of music based on and inspired by space and astronomy, and in the email she’s asking me to be an advisor on it (along with Matt Everingham). She also links to her first song from the album: "The Sky Is Calling". I listen to it, and I’m hooked.
Here’s the song:
I know, right? Kim’s awesome. By the way, she fed an image of the Tarantula nebula through an audio program to create the background for that song. So, yeah.
Kim’s raising funds to get this album [wait for it, wait for it] off the ground [hahahahahaha! I kill me], so she’s got a Kickstarter page for it. As I write this she’s already more than 1/3 of the way to her goal of $30k, which is great! I’d really like to see this album get made. She and I have been chatting back and forth, and every time I send her some astronomy note, she gets really excited and wants to write music about it.
So if you can, kick in some filthy lucre for her. I’ll note that when she got to $5k she wrote a short and quick song based on a post I wrote about the expansion of the Universe. Seriously. And when she got to $10k she wrote a short song about Mars Rovers.
If you want a taste of more of her music, she has some you can listen to on her website. Note: One of them is massively NSFW. You’ll know when you get to it.
The past couple of years has seen a lot of artists looking to include more science in their work (see Related Posts below). Maybe that’s always been there, but what I know is that recently they started contacting me. I think that’s fantastic. After all, isn’t a Hubble picture art? Doesn’t seeing a photo from Curiosity make your heart beat a little faster? Doesn’t something like this pluck at the wires connecting the two halves of your brain?
Science and art are inextricably linked, and I’m more than happy to help more people solidify that connection. So thanks, Kim, for your unabashed love of science. I hope we make beautiful music together.
I have been remiss about keeping up with the new season of Doctor Who – I have the episodes recorded but haven’t had a chance to watch yet, so no spoilers, sweeties! – but this has not in any way tarnished my love for the show.
But love has different levels, different strengths. While I do very much enjoy the show and think about it a lot as any geek does, I don’t think I would say I worship it. Still, I had to smile as I watched this video by Mike Rugnetta at the PBS Idea Channel, where he asks: is Doctor Who a religion?
It’s a funny idea, and he certainly brings a lot of evidence to the table! If I were taking the question seriously, I’d say it’s not a religion unless people actually believe the show is real. Otherwise, it’s more of a philosophy.
But then, of course, there’s this. Hmmm:
Thinking on this more, though, I suspect that if I had to start a church of Who, it wouldn’t have the Doctor as the central figure. Clearly, if you watch this, you’ll see it’s Karen Gillan who possesses supernatural powers.
Of course, my choice of Ms. Gillan here has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that when I attended the Doctor Who panel at Comic Con this year and went up to take this photo, she looked right at me:
Sigh. My heart may belong to River Song, but what can I say? Unlike the Doctor, I’m only human.
Tip o’ the sonic to Nerdist.
In May I attended SpaceFest IV, a gathering of space enthusiasts, astronauts (who, I suppose, are legit space enthusiasts), astronomers, and more. It’s a lot of fun, and great to see old friends and meet new science geeks. I missed last year’s, unfortunately, but was happy to be able to go this year again.
While I was there I was interviewed about the Mayan apocalypse, Symphony of Science, and building a real Enterprise. It was an eclectic series of questions.
I hope there’ll be another SpaceFest next year! I had a lot of fun, and I bet a lot of you reading this would too.
In early September, the day after Dragon*Con, I traveled with some good friends to Huntsville, Alabama to raise money for Space Camp. We put on a show called Rocketfest – it was the brainchild of singer/siren Marian Call, and we had a fantastic time.
[Click to vonbraunenate. From left to right: Joseph Scrimshaw, Ken Plume, Marian Call, moi, Molly Lewis.]
But don’t just believe me! My friend Melissa Kaercher went there too, and wrote a brief blog post about it. Melissa’s also a great photographer, and took the wonderful shot above of all of us posing under the huge full-scale Saturn V model suspended from the ceiling.
You can see more of these photos on her Flickr page. I kinda like the photo inset here, too. Noble, isn’t it? I didn’t wind up buying the jump suit, but Molly Lewis got herself one. Melissa’s pictures of her – of everyone – are great.
The concert was streamed live using Google Hangouts, and the whole thing is archived online:
[My part starts at 1:18:50, but you should watch the whole thing!]
It was HUGE fun, and we raised money to help get kids to go to Space Camp, which fills me with joy. It was an amazing place to visit, and if you’re ever anywhere Hunstville, it’s well worth your time to check out.
I do so love to make fun of the movie "Armageddon". I know, it’s such an easy target, but still.
I talk about the movie when I give public lectures about asteroid impacts, because a lot of people have seen it – so it’s a nice common point of contact – and because it really goes out of its way to get so much stuff wrong.
The premise of the movie is that a giant asteroid is going to hit the Earth and wipe out all life. I’ll skip a vast amount of silliness and get to the thing that really made me laugh out loud when I first saw the flick: to prevent the impact, astronauts plant a nuclear bomb below the surface and detonate it. This splits the asteroid in half, and (SPOILER ALERT!) the two pieces are flung apart at sufficient velocity that they pass our planet on either side, missing us, and the world is saved!
Well, not so much. I saw the movie when it came out in 1998, and after I got home from the theater – and after the Tylenol kicked in – I did a little math. We know how big the asteroid is, and what it’s made of – that gives us the mass (and therefore the mass of each half after it’s split). We also know how rapidly it’s approaching the Earth, and how far it was from the Earth when the bomb went off. That then can be used to figure out how fast the two halves separated (they had to separate by at least the Earth’s diameter to miss us).
An object in motion has energy, called kinetic energy. It depends on the mass of the object and its velocity – the more massive it is, or the faster it moves, the more kinetic energy it has. In the case of the Armageddon asteroid, the two halves got their kinetic energy from the bomb, so by calculating the kinetic energy of each piece you can find the explosive yield of the bomb.
I did that. The bomb would have exploded with roughly the same energy output as the Sun. In other words, it would have been a 100 billion megaton bomb. Yikes.
As I write this I am in Huntsville, Alabama at Space Camp! I’m here for
RocketFest, a celebration of space with music, talks, and a Saturn V full of fun stuff. We’re doing this to raise money for the U.S. Space & Rocket Center Foundation.
We’ve set up a live Google+ Hangout, and if all is well it’s embedded below. It starts at 2:00 Central time (19:00 UTC), and you’ll see performances by Molly Lewis, Ken Plume, Joseph Scrimshaw, and Marian Call.
You can donate to this great cause at the RocketFest page!
And here’s the video!
Yeah, you know how this comic is going to end, don’t you?
Wow. I am constantly amazed by how a silly drawing can still be poignant. But then, if you didn’t cry at Jurassic Bark, you aren’t human.