Saturday, August 15, 2015

Mars is just a little bit closer now...

What follows is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying...well...quite a lot, actually.

On a hot August day in coastal Mississippi, NASA and Aerojet Rocketdyne tested an engine which will help power America's next great rocket - the Space Launch System (SLS) - to destinations beyond low Earth orbit...something that no crewed vehicle has accomplished in more than 40 years. But first, a bit of exposition is in-order.

After the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, and the cancellation of the nascent Constellation program shortly after that, many considered NASA to be 'dead'. In fact, I've spoken with several people who ardently believe that NASA was shut-down after the Shuttle program ended. Nothing could be further from the truth.

While it is true that no crewed launches have occurred from US soil since the Shuttle was 'put to pasture' (which is a shame...and perhaps a topic for a later blog entry), lack of manned flights does not equate to NASA being a moribund agency. The dynamics of spaceflight have changed in a relatively short time. No longer are rockets the domain of deep-pocketed governments - private companies are now competing to take cargo and crew to low Earth orbit and the Internal Space Station (ISS) is now host to many non-governmental experiments.

Where does that leave NASA if not to launch astronauts to the ISS? Exploration, that's where...and that's the purpose of SLS - to be an exploration-class vehicle to take humans back to deep space, and to destinations which were the domain of fanciful dreams just a few generations ago. In order to do that, hardware must be tested...and re-tested...and tested again. That testing and validation were the driving forces behind Thursday's test.

Complete RS-25 assembly.
Photo courtesy Aerojet Rocketdyne.
Not your grandfather's rocket engine
Though the RS-25 engine is essentially the same as the Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME), there are some significant differences, key of which is the engine's "brain" - the controller. Many years have passed since the initial design of the SSME...and while it may have received an occasional update over the life the Shuttle, SLS required something a bit...'smarter'.

Aerojet Rocketdyne had been testing a modernized variant of the Saturn-era J-2 engine (the J-2X), which was to be used in the now-canceled Constellation program...and was in contention to be used as the upper-stage engine for SLS. Though down-selected in favor of the RL10, the modern controller from the J-2X could be modified to work on the RS-25.

Beyond testing the new controller, the engine will also be running at higher thrust levels than it did during the Shuttle's tenure...and the cryogenic propellants will reach the engine at a colder temperature and higher pressure. Though fully capable of pushing more power than it did on a Shuttle flight, engineers desired to not do so as the engine would be subject to greater 'wear and tear'...and since it was meant to be a reusable engine, that additional stress would result in higher costs.

However, since SLS isn't going to be reusable (other than, perhaps, the Orion crew capsule), engineers are comfortable pushing the engine harder, with each of the four engines producing approximately 550,000 pounds of thrust.

RS-25 in testing conditions on the stand.
Photo courtesy Aerojet Rocketdyne.
These go all the way to '111'
With the engines now projected to deliver 111% of the original design's thrust, a mighty roar was sure to be heard across the bayou of southern Mississippi. To quote a good friend: "Any day that NASA gives you ear plugs is pretty much guaranteed to be a good day."

This was to be my second static engine test, the first of which was for the upgraded Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) in Utah earlier this year. At that event, we were warned to not look directly at the exhaust plume. Thinking that the 2.5 kilometers between us and the booster should be sufficient to attenuate the blinding brightness, I chose to look at the exhaust. Ouch - the light...IT BURNS! I think I had spots on my vision for the next hour or so.

So, since NASA had seen fit to provide us with earplugs, I was not going to question the need for hearing protection - the plugs were inserted as soon as ignition time neared. Though I heard no countdown, certain visual clues indicated the time was near...well, that and the clock inched towards 4:00 PM, which was when the test was supposed to occur.

I guess you just had to be there
Through the cushioned protection of the earplugs, the engine roared to life with a mighty 'WHOOSH!' followed by a loud, sustained crackle and roar and cloud of steam. Nothing I've ever done in life could've prepared me for the visceral experience this engine test would be. Even the SRB test in Utah paled in comparison to the symphony of sight, sound, and feeling from the RS-25. While the SRB was a distant 2.5 kilometers away (about 8,200 feet), the RS-25 would be a scant 1,200 feet away.

While my expectations for sight and sound from the event were easily surpassed, I was wholly unprepared for the FEELING of the engine. Every crackle and thump from the engine was accompanied by a tangible pressure wave. I could feel it in my chest...I actually *saw* shirts flutter in concert to the waves...and this was only one engine! Imagine the cacophony which will accompany the four engines from core stage's full-burn test in two year's time.

I don't know if you watched the event live, or if you have since seen replays like the one below, but there is nothing - NOTHING - that can compare to the experience of being there. I am truly sorry that I lack the skill to convey the wash of emotions and feelings that I felt with this test. Yes, it was that impressive.


What's next?
NASA and Aerojet Rocketdyne will analyze the data from the test, and perform a few more tests and should wrap-up design validation before the end of this year. After that, the next big event will be the core stage 'green fire, which will be all four flight engines firing at once - something that hasn't happened at Stennis Space Center since the days of Apollo.

SLS is a big deal. It's big for NASA...it's big for America...and, yes, it's big for humanity. The successful test brings us one step closer to the moon, to Mars, and beyond. I don't know about you, but I'm excited. The rumors of NASA's death have been greatly exaggerated. Not only that, but I think the agency's most incredible accomplishments may still be ahead of us. 

Monday, August 3, 2015

Nest Thermostat - a 1.5 year review...

Ah, the Nest Thermostat...how I love it so. However, is it a love borne of a supportive, and useful, piece of technology...or that of the desires of a gadget fiend to sate the hunger of acquiring more in his 'tech arsenal'? Well, after having lived with it for nearly 18 months, I'm ready to give my verdict...but first, a little backstory.

The thermostat that I had been using was a simple, 'dumb' digital thermostat which was included with the new HVAC system I had installed in 2007. Why 'dumb'? Because all it could do was display the temperature and operate in the mode the user selected - heat, cool, fan auto/on, auxiliary heat. That's it. It wasn't even programmable. And, if I'm being honest, I don't think it ever really worked that well. But hey - it was 'free'...well, it was included in the $7,000.00 HVAC installation, so perhaps 'free' isn't the correct word.

Anyway, it had done its job...plugging away...helping to keep us cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Year after year, season after season, it sat there - stupidly - sending a signal to the HVAC unit to heat or cool as the condition warranted and then sending another signal to turn off when the temperature had been reached. Until one day it didn't.

One weekend morning in March 2014, I began to emerge from my slumber and heard the HVAC system running. It had been a cool night, so the fact that the heat was running wasn't unusual. After a few minutes, while still lying in the bed, I heard the system turn off. As I lay there, pondering whether or not to get up, I heard the faint sound of the heat re-engaging. Knowing that wasn't right, I immediately sprang up to check the thermostat - maybe one of the kids had messed with it...I hoped.

Nope...no such luck. The thermostat indicated that the system wasn't running, and that the inside temperature was several degrees higher than the set temperature...yet the system was obviously still cranking out heat. After several minutes of troubleshooting, it was apparent that the thermostat was to blame. I knew that installing a thermostat to pre-existing wiring was a pretty simple task, so I headed off to a home improvement store to get a replacement.

But what kind of replacement? Another 'dumb' unit? How about something a tad smarter - something that could be programmed? Or...maybe...that awesome piece of HVAC hardware for which I'd been lusting for a while: the Nest Learning Thermostat. But was it worth it? At $250, it is significantly more expensive than other, less "intelligent" thermostats...but it has a svelte appearance, and the gadget fiend in me *really* wanted it. After a few minutes of internal debate, I opted for the Nest and headed home, ready for a quick installation.

Installation
Prior to even needing a new thermostat, I'd watched several videos about it...and almost all of them made it a point to say how easy the Nest is to install. Having seen many people, of vastly different skill sets, install it, I had little trepidation about the task ahead. After removing the faceplate from the old thermostat, I proceeded labeling the different wires as to their function (labels are included in the kit). Labeling complete, I unfastened the wires and removed the old thermostat from the wall...exposing a large, ugly hole in the drywall, from which the bundle of wires emerged.

As I examined the set-up, it was obvious that I would not be able to mount the thermostat directly to the wall. Though unfortunate, as it would diminish from the aesthetics a bit, Nest had included a mounting plate for just such a situation. However, using this plate meant that the length of the wires was just a tad too short. So I had to get the wire strippers out to cut the cable sheath so the individual wires would be the correct length. It took a bit of finagling (that's a proper engineering term - trust me), but I eventually had the wiring complete and the Nest mounted. After a quick boot-up process, it was now time to configure it. Was installation as easy as I was expecting? No...but it wasn't that difficult, either.

Configuration
Configuring the Nest was pretty simple. One connects it to their wireless network (you do have a wireless network, right?), answers a few simple questions, and then selects which mode to enable (heat, cool, heat/cool). One can get configure many, MANY more options via the web interface and/or the smartphone app.

Usability and Worth
OK, here is the information about which one is likely the most curious: How easy is it to use, and is it worth $250? To answer the first part, very. The settings, both on the thermostat itself and on the web/smartphone interfaces, are easy to understand and implement. Some settings - such as 'auto away' and 'time to temperature' - are only available once the Nest has had time to 'learn' the individual characteristics of one's home and HVAC system.

As for the latter part of the question, maybe. Yes, that's right - it might be worth $250...or it might not. It all depends on what one expects to get out of it. I hoped to see a noticeable decrease in my energy bill, but I didn't. Apparently, since I had set the Nest to the same temperatures that I had used on my 'dumb' thermostat, I was already in an energy-efficient 'zone'. Additionally, it is rare that my home is wholly devoid of people, so the Nest's 'auto away' feature was almost never utilized. Therefore, I was disappointed that I was unable to have the Nest 'pay' for itself in any real capacity.

However, I do enjoy being able to check, and change, the temperature from the comfort of my bed...or couch...or chair...or from halfway across the country. Not only can I check the temperature, but I can get a humidity reading, too...which was quite helpful this past Spring. Though the inside temperatures weren't bad, the humidity had risen to the point of concern for mold growth. Yes, I could "feel" that the humidity was high, but having definitive proof was definitely helpful.

Of course, all of this information at one's fingertips might also have a downside: I tended to micro-manage the HVAC settings. In a clever ploy to entice energy conservation, Nest gives a 'green leaf' indication on the thermostat if the settings are deemed to be 'energy efficient'. Much as an economy meter in a car may encourage one to drive with a lighter gas pedal, the green leaf may prompt one to turn the temperature up/down a few degrees to earn that coveted green leaf. I know I did that. In fact, I had the settings configured so that I earned a leaf EVERY DAY. I was in the top 5% of users in my area. Good, right?

Well, not so much. With all the 'good feelings' from the leaf awards, I could buy a coffee at Starbucks...so long as I also had $5.00. In the meantime, the people in the house were miserable because the humidity was unbearable. I live in Georgia...and if you've ever been here, you know that we're not known for our dry summertime air. With the AC running less, there was little opportunity for the HVAC system to pull the moisture out of the inside air. Dropping the temperature by 1 degree Fahrenheit (from 78F to 77F) made all the difference in the world. Humidity dropped nearly 20 percentage points and the house was comfortable...but I lost my leaf. Though I still occasionally feel that competitive tug, I've since given up on earning any awards for energy conservation. I don't know if Nest *really* differentiates geographic areas in their definition efficiency...but if they don't, I think it's important they do so since 90F in Atlanta is far more uncomfortable than 90F in Albuquerque. 

I also feel that Nest is missing out on a key supplemental product line: remote sensors. Though our house has two levels, we only have one HVAC system. If Nest were to produce a remote sensor I could place in the basement area, the main thermostat may conclude that simply turning on the fan for 15 minutes to 'stir' the air might reduce temperatures enough to preclude running the compressor for a while. Seems like a simple enough addition to the line.

Conclusion
Would I buy the Nest Thermostat again, given the opportunity? Possibly...but I would also take a closer look at some of the other systems out there. Seeing as how I gained no savings by integrating a smart thermostat, the key selling point (beyond price) is going to be the device's feature set and extensibility. There are more competitors in the market today, and though Nest is still the frontrunner, they're no longer the only player in the game.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Hello, Pluto!

Artist's rendition of New Horizons at Pluto. Credit: NASA
Unless you've been living under a rock for the past couple of days, then you likely know that NASA's New Horizons probe recently accomplished its primary mission: perform a flyby of Pluto to collect data and pictures to send back to scientists on Earth. It was the culmination of 9.5 years of travel to that far-off world (so far away that it takes light approximately 4.5 hours to cover the distance), though only the beginning for the scientists who will examine the data for years to come.

Interestingly, it will take nearly 16 months (yes - MONTHS!!!) for the full payload of data to make its way back to Earth. Why? Because, at best, New Horizons can only communicate at 4,000 bits per second (bps)...and, sometimes, as slow as 1,000 bps. "But this is NASA! My home cable modem is much, MUCH faster than that! What's their problem?!?" Physics...physics is their problem. Not only is New Horizons 4.5 light-hours away (and growing), but the transmitter on the craft only operates at 12 watts. It takes NASA's largest receivers here on Earth - the massive 70m dishes located at various locations around the globe - in order to discern the meager signal from the background noise. Let that percolate in your gray matter for a moment: 12 watts - approximately 1/5 the power of a typical 60 watt household light bulb - and it's billions of miles away! NASA can perform some comms 'gymnastics' to bump up the effective speed a bit, and Emily Lakdawalla does an excellent job of going into much greater detail than I could - it's definitely worth a read.

What next?
Now that New Horizons has had its Pluto encounter, is the mission now complete? Will it be left to drift aimlessly through the cosmos? No, not by a long shot. Firstly, it must now transmit all of the science data that it collected during the flyby. Secondly, scientists have the opportunity to direct New Horizons to visit another Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) - objects inhabiting the zone of the Solar System beyond Neptune's orbit.

Though the target has not yet been selected, the list has been narrowed to a handful of objects. No spacecraft has ever visited a KPO, and doing so presents an excellent scientific opportunity to observe something that may well indicate the make-up of the early Solar System. The limiting factor is neither fuel nor technology - it's funding. NASA needs continued funding to pay for the personnel to staff the operations center and for the resources required to maintain communications with the craft. I hope that our elected leaders see the huge return on the investment from this program and continue to fund it.

Is Pluto a planet now?
As far as I'm concerned, Pluto was *always* a planet...and continues to be so. In fact, though my position was originally borne by tradition, the more we learned about Pluto from New Horizons further convinced me that it's a planet. Unfortunately, I'm not the final arbiter in making that decision. I've spoken with some people that wholeheartedly feel that planetary status is something to be reserved for larger celestial bodies, and that Pluto fails to meet this criteria. Additionally, they argue there could potentially be hundreds more 'planets' in the Solar System if we use Pluto's characteristics as an entry-level baseline. Well, what of it? "The more, the merrier!", I say. To me, if an object is gravitationally spherical and doesn't directly orbit a non-stellar body, then it's a planet.

"Ah HA! Pluto and Charon orbit a shared center of mass, which is outside Pluto's body! See? Even by your definition, it isn't a planet!" Well, no...not at all. Notice that I said "doesn't directly orbit a non-stellar body." Empty space isn't a non-stellar body...it isn't a body at all...it's simply empty space. At worst, this would make Pluto and Charon a binary planetary system. Further bolstering Pluto's status as a planet is that it harbors an atmosphere. "Ahhhh! Well, Titan has an atmosphere, too! In fact, it's denser than Earth's atmosphere...but it's classified as a moon. So, is Titan now a planet?" Nope. It orbits Saturn.

Other criteria used to disqualify Pluto's inclusion in the 'Planetary Club' is that its orbit is wonky (yes - that's a highly scientific term. Trust me.). Not only is its orbital plane significantly tilted in comparison to the rest of the Solar System, but its orbit is very eccentric (meaning: it's far less 'round' than the others). Well, whoop-dee-do. So what? That has to be one of the lamest criteria being used to bump Pluto to 'dwarf' status.

Do I think Pluto will now be reclassified as a planet? Maybe...but probably not. The most likely outcome is that there will be a re-write of the entire classification system (rocky planets, gas planets, ice planets, dwarf planets, etc.) so that they're all technically planets...but are each grouped according to physical properties. Honestly, I'm not necessarily opposed to that. It'll be interesting to see how this plays out, especially as the data starts flowing in from New Horizons.

USA! USA! USA!
Wow! I admit that the display of national pride during the flyby brought a tear to my eye. While I have always harbored a love of our national scientific/exploration endeavors, that sort of display not often seen in today's 'politically correct' environment. My country might not do everything right...and, if we're being totally honest, it does quite a lot wrong...but which other nation has come close to our record of planetary exploration? American taxpayers, I don't think you know what a gem you have in NASA. Contact your elected leaders and encourage them to give NASA more than the pittance they currently receive. Imagine how much more NASA could do with extra funding.


Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Why Should You Apply for a NASA Social?

Part of the group from the QM-1 NASA Social
One of my first blog entries, waaaaay back in 2014, was meant to be an encouragement to those that may be thinking of applying for a NASA Social event, but - for whatever reason - were reluctant to do so. Now that I'm a 'grizzled veteran' of four NASA gatherings, I thought I would revisit the topic and share some of my insights and observations.

Prior to applying for my first NASA Social, I would frequently see tweets from many of the 'space people' I follow on Twitter discussing some super-cool NASA project, often with the #NASASocial hashtag. As I had not heard the term 'NASA Social' before, I assumed that it was an event catering to industry insiders and space journalists. Considering the 'behind-the-scenes' access that was being displayed via that simple hashtag, I thought it a reasonable assumption.  

Sidenote: you *are* following NASA on one of its many active social media accounts, right? If not, head over to the NASA social media page for links to all the 'social media goodness'. 

After a bit of research, I realized that the NASA Social wasn't intended for industry insiders; no - it was meant for the average, everyday, space enthusiast with a passion to share their experience with the world. It took but a second for me to realize: "Hey - I can do that!" I have loved the space program for as long as I can remember, and the realization that I could be a "part" of it, regardless of how minute that involvement might be, was one of the absolute coolest things I had ever considered.

Then self-doubt crept in: "Why would NASA want me there? I'm just a network engineer in a school system. I don't have nearly the amount of social media followers these other people seem to have. There's no point in even applying...I won't get picked." So I didn't apply. I would continue to see numerous tweets about events NASA was holding...events in which I had a keen interest...but I felt I had nothing special to contribute. So I wouldn't apply.

Finally, and I have no idea what sparked the initiative for me to do so, I applied for an event - the unveiling of the #WeldingWonder (or, more appropriately, the 'Vertical Assembly Center'...but, if we're being honest, #WeldingWonder does sound a bit more...awesome..right?). I reasoned that it didn't seem as "impressive" as other events (launches, rover landings, etc.), so there was a high likelihood that I might be selected. Additionally, being the engineer that I am, I was extremely interested to see this aspect of building America's next great rocket.

Though initially waitlisted, I was eventually extended the invitation to visit NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility and Stennis Space Center for an incredible tour of the facilities that are critical to building SLS. I met many great people - some of which I now proudly call friend, shook hands with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, and had one of the most memorable experiences in my life. Seriously.

You might say: "But Curt - I'm not an engineer. I'm just a travel blogger...or fashion writer...or nature photographer...or...insert whichever non-space vocation you want to here...why would NASA want me there?" Because there is already a bevy of space-centric journalists and industry bloggers out there that are reaching the same types of people. However, if you have an interest in space - and enjoy sharing that interest with others - then you're EXACTLY the sort of person NASA would love to have at one of their events.

So, please...if you're 'on the fence'...trying to decide whether or not to apply for one of the upcoming NASA Socials...don't let that voice of self-doubt prevent you from applying for an incredible life experience. To quote hockey great Wayne Gretzky: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Summertime is Busy Time in a School System...

I know it's been a while since I've posted anything, but I'm focusing on quality over quantity...or, at least, that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it. Actually, things have been busy at work and I didn't feel much like writing once I got home. Many people think that school system employees love the summers because students are gone; let me tell you, in the Technology Department, summer is our busy time. Many big projects are in progress and there is only a short amount of time to get them done before the teachers and students return. Couple that with the fluid access availability to the schools thanks to the 'Floor Nazis' (a.k.a. - custodians), and the best laid plan is a wreck within the first week of summer break.

The voters in our county continued their support of the district by passing a bond referendum last year. As our school system is one of the largest in Georgia, and among the fastest-growing in the country, property and sales tax revenue alone is insufficient to keep pace with the rampant growth (we add, on average, nearly 1,800 new students EVERY YEAR). This bond is to fund, among other things: technology improvements, new schools, and expansions at pre-existing schools. As soon as teachers were done with post planning, in came the construction workers, HVAC contractors, and staff from the Technology Department ready to commence on a summer full of work.

One of our (and, by 'our', I mean the Technology Department) largest summer projects is to upgrade the district's wireless networking hardware. We have been using some form of wireless technology in our system since 1998, and have been at the forefront of instructional implementation of wireless hardware. Sometimes, though, that cutting-edge nature can sometimes "backfire". Our last, large technology bond (in 2007) was to provide building-wide wireless coverage...for notebook computers. Tablets and smartphones weren't really a "thing" then (sidenote: Has it really been 8 years since the iPhone was released??? Wow.), so the design for device placement was for the more robust antennas found in laptops.

With the proliferation of handheld devices used for Internet access, the wireless design quickly became inadequate. Unfortunately, providing more coverage isn't as simple as heading to the neighborhood electronics store to pick up a new access point - there is a finite amount of usable RF (radio frequency) spectrum that can be used for wireless networking, so one must be careful when designing the layout so that the spectrum isn't made *worse* due to poor design. Additionally, security and quality of the hardware/software was a critical concern. This meant that only enterprise-grade hardware would suffice...which translates to higher cost, and since this all occurred at the height of 'The Great Recession', funding was in short supply. Therefore, we had to hobble along with an insufficient design until the budget supported augmentation/replacement.

Over the past few months, we have pored over multiple designs in an attempt to find something that strikes the right balance of client performance, cost, and manageability...all while moving to the faster, but shorter-range, 802.11ac standard. We believe we've found that 'perfect' combination and hope to be providing faster and more pervasive wireless network for our nearly 48,000 users and their nearly 60,000 unique wireless devices. Yes, those numbers are correct - we have more devices on our network than we have users, which means that some students bring more than one device with them. Supporting such a large number of devices, ranging from handheld gaming systems to full laptop computers...and everything in-between...can be a Herculean task if not properly designed and managed.

Students and teachers of Forsyth County Schools - yes, we know that wireless coverage has been a major point of complaint over the past few years. Unfortunately, there wasn't much we could do about that until the passage of this latest bond referendum. Thankfully, the voters of the county see and understand the need for us to maintain/expand our technology so that the district can continue to provide an exception instructional experience. This will be a summer-long project, and it's only one of the many important projects we'll begin when the buildings are "empty". Thank you for your patience.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Things I think I think...I think.

I know it's been a little while since I've posted anything - darn that writer's block! Of course, I just write for fun...and it's been busy at work lately...so you get what you get. I know I generally write about space-related topics, with an occasional tech tidbit thrown in...and this post will continue the trend, with some other items sprinkled-in. I welcome your input and would love to have a reasoned discussion on any/all of the items below.

Soyuz Progress M-27M Failure
Short response: I hate that the ISS won't receive this shipment of cargo and supplies. I know the astronauts aren't in dire need of supplies, but it's not as if everything that was sent was superfluous. I also hate that we have to rely on the Russians for anything. SpaceX's first successful crewed flight to the ISS can't come soon enough, and I hope OrbitalATK is able to quickly recover from the Antares failure. Couple that with ULA's reliable Atlas V and Boeing's forthcoming CST-100, and I hope we never need a scrap of anything launched from 'Mother Russia' ever again.

Long response: Probably best if I just stick with the short response.

Apple Watch
I briefly covered my preliminary thoughts about the Apple Watch in a prior blog post, but now that it's been released, have a changed my mind? No. Well...probably not. Ok...maybe. Crap. I don't know. I'm generally an early adopter, so that drives me towards wanting one. But the smugness that seems to emanate from Apple (more so than usual) over the thing makes me want to throw up in my mouth. Also, I'm still not quite sure how I'd use it. I might rather save my money for something else...maybe a GoPro. Or a new kayak. Or a replacement DSLR for my aging D50. All I know is that it's not taking a whole bunch of willpower to refrain from ordering an Apple Watch...and that might be telling me all I need to know about it.

NASA's EM Drive
Have you seen the news? NASA has designed an "impossible engine" that will open up the stars to humanity! Or so the stories would have you believe. While I'm not an engineer, I'm highly skeptical that this is what people think it is. I don't know why...but I don't believe it. I *want* to believe it...and I sincerely hope that it IS a game-changing method of propulsion...but something in my gut doesn't feel right. Well, it's either that or the refried beans I had with dinner...but I'm sticking with 'skeptical'. Hopefully we'll hear more about it soon - I'm interested to see what others, beyond a small group of "insiders", think about this.

iPhone 6 Plus
I had been using a Samsung Galaxy S4 as my work phone for a year (or so) and often complained about the unwieldy size of the phone and its cumbersome use one-handed. Once the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus were released, I purchased an iPhone 6 to replace my iPhone 5 (which was handed down to my daughter) because I thought the 6 Plus would be too big and suffer from the same issues as the Galaxy S4. Fast forward a couple months and I upgraded my work phone to an iPhone 6 Plus (thanks, Dr. Stringbean!)...and I love it. Absolutely love it. I'll admit to being a bit of an Apple fan, but I'm a tech geek, in general. I wanted to like Android...but I never felt "at home" with it. Now that I'm back on iOS on my work phone, I've found my workflow is much smoother - contacting the technicians at the sites is more seamless...sharing files to other users is foolproof...and it's a more polished experience. Couple that with the exceptional display, which isn't nearly as bulky as it might appear, and the iPhone 6 Plus is a great phone. I wish I'd gotten one sooner.

Blue Origin's Test Flight
I don't know about you, but this seemed to come out of nowhere. I had heard nothing of an upcoming test, nor did I really take much stock of Blue Origin. I made the mistake once before not believing in an internet billionaire, and now I've done it again. I guess I really need to alter my perception of the capabilities of these "new space" companies and how quickly they might be relevant. I'm a huge fan of NASA and of a national space program...but maybe it's not so far-fetched to think that private space entities will soon surpass our national endeavors. I'll have to keep my eye on them...and, perhaps, not immediately dismiss the next Musk or Bezos that comes along. These are exciting times.

Our Lady of Perpetual Beta - a.k.a., 'Google'
We're testing some software that allows us to integrate Google's Cloud Print capability into our district's Active Directory infrastructure. It works far better than I expected save for one thing - a user must accept a shared printer via a full desktop browser before the Cloud Print capability will work on a mobile device. Really? That's not terribly convenient, Google. I know 'Google Cloud Print' is still in beta, but that's a pretty big stumbling block. Please fix it.



OK - that's all for tonight. I'm sure there's a bunch more I could have discussed that would bore you to tears, but I'll leave it at that. If there's something that piqued your interest or raised your ire, please leave a comment - I love a good discussion. Until next time, thanks for reading.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Let's light this candle! Part 3

The QM-1 NASA Social group and Astronaut Stan Love.
The day began just as early as had the previous one, yet was very different - we were going to see the world's largest Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) test-fired. Though the people at Orbital ATK (OATK) had cautioned us that many people - space enthusiasts, locals, etc. - would likely make their way out to the public viewing area, I don't believe many of us in the Social group understood what that meant, or gave a lot of weight to it...but we would soon be shown that they knew what they were talking about.

What had been a dark and nearly solitary drive to the OATK facilities the previous day turned into a steady stream of vehicles forming a nearly unbroken line for many miles. While it was a bit heartwarming to know that interest in various aspects of the space program was still strong, I must admit that I was a bit concerned whether or not there'd be room for everyone.

People...lots and lots of people.
Luckily, the throng of vehicles was moving at a steady pace...and a great majority of them weren't going to the private OATK/NASA Social area...so all was well, right? Wrong. Oh, so very wrong. I haven't played musical chairs since I was a kid, but the frantic 'dance' to get a parking spot was a pretty close approximation to what happens in the mad scramble to grab a seat once the music stops. As the valid, lined spots filled, many people decided to settle for any available spot of asphalt. I was grateful that I successfully fought against the urge to hit the snooze button to get some more sleep - a delay of a few minutes might've meant the difference between getting a space or not.

Upon snagging one of the rapidly disappearing parking spots, I gathered my stuff and headed inside to the lobby. While waiting until time to board the bus, I took a moment to take a look around at the people that were milling about packed elbow-to-elbow: these weren't just some poor schlubs like myself...in the crowd were high-ranking military officials, industry big-wigs, and even a few astronauts! Although, in my mind, I *knew* the QM-1 event was a big deal, I'm not sure I quite realized how big of a deal it was until I saw these VIPs all in the same room. With me. Cool.

Colorful sunrise seen prior to heading to private
viewing area.
After a while, the room began to empty as people boarded the waiting buses that would take us to the private viewing area. We had a couple of stragglers still inside the building, but that gave us the opportunity to see a gorgeous sunrise from the windows of the bus. After the short delay, the bus departed and delivered us to the spot from where we would see the test-fire. Several members of the group, including me, headed to the viewing area as soon as we stepped off the bus so we could take some pictures of the booster, which was 1.25 miles (approx. 2.01 kilometers) away. Seeing how far away it was, there was a small concern that the event might not be as impressive as I thought. We'll revisit that concern in a bit. While I was examining the viewing area, one of our fellow NASA Social people came out to our group to say that there was a speaker in the NASA Social trailer waiting to talk to us.

One of these guys is cool, funny, super-smart,
and an astronaut. The other is me.
The NASA Social organizers had arranged for Astronaut Stan Love to speak with our group. While I have had the pleasure of listening to astronauts speak prior to this, I must say that Astronaut Love is - hands down - one of the most energetic, enthusiastic, engaging, entertaining, and interesting speakers I've yet to encounter. I hope that NASA and the Astronaut Office knows what a resource they have in Astronaut Love...I think he's an excellent representative of the organization and could help generate a lot of interest and excitement in crewed space flight.

Love was peppered with questions, running the gamut from history...to geo-political...to deep science...and even aliens. He performed deftly, and was quite candid in some of his responses...something for which I was immensely appreciative. Some of my favorite exchanges/responses (mostly paraphrased):

  • Love: On my mission, I didn't exercise. I thought it wasn't really necessary for the short amount of time I was in space. However, upon returning to Earth, I'd lost 8 pounds of muscle from my legs. People, if you go to space, EXERCISE!
  • Attendee: What do you think about cooperation with what might be geo-political foes?
    Love: It's cheaper than fighting them.
  • <after discussing the enormous hurdle of life-support in deep space>
    Attendee: What do you think of Mars One?
    Love: <pause> I believe I have already answered that.
Love stayed with the group for much longer than had been arranged, even joining us on the trip up to the booster after the firing.

Pano of the 'Media' section of the viewing area. SRB is down the road.
With the Q&A session now over, it was time to move to the viewing area for the static fire test. The test had a multi-hour window in which to occur (permission is granted based on weather conditions - no one wants the exhaust/debris cloud to pass over populated areas) and was running a few minutes behind. We took the opportunity to chat with each other, and talk with those around us. One of our group, a high school teacher, took the time to set up a Skype call with her class as the clock ticked-down to the firing. Very cool, and I love her dedication - I would've loved to have had a teacher like that in high school.

As the clocked neared -01:00, I prepared my cameras - both my always-with-me iPhone and my old-but-trusty Nikon D50. The announcer counted down, and when he reached T-10 seconds, I began recording:


Just as thunder follows lightning, it took several seconds for the booster's roar to reach us (in the video, you can hear the announcer call "Plus five" just before you hear the booster). What followed was an impressive display of sight and sound. The booster's flame was so bright that looking at it for more than a short period of time wasn't recommended...and the sound of the booster was every bit as impressive as I thought it would be, counter to my earlier concerns. The burn lasted for slightly more than two minutes, right in-line with expectations.

After retiring to the trailer for lunch, the group was taken to the test area for some pictures and to be able to see the SRB from a much closer position. Stepping off the bus, the smell of spent rocket fuel was strong...but non unpleasant. OATK workers were busy securing the area, and we were restricted from approaching too closely, but there was no problem finding a good place from which to take pictures. Even though the test had occurred nearly two hours earlier, the area was still quite warm from the flames, and the aft portion of the booster was being sprayed with water to accelerate cooling. Fun fact: The deep layer of sand over the concrete structure below the booster is turned to glass from the intense heat of the flame.

All-too-quickly, we were rounded up and told to get back on the bus...thus drawing to a close the QM-1 NASA Social. I can't speak for others, but I had an exceptional time. Both NASA and Orbital ATK did an outstanding job of arranging an informative and entertaining event, and it's something I will remember for the rest of my life. I enjoyed reacquainting myself with some NASA Social alum from previous events, and loved meeting new and interesting people from this one.

I hope that you have learned something about NASA and/or the space program that you didn't know, and I appreciate the time you've taken to read this. I took a ton of pictures of the entire trip, and have shared them in a Flickr album as there was no practical way to include them in the blog entries - feel free to take a look. Until next time, thanks for reading.
Thanks for reading!