Saturday, February 13, 2016

A Song of Ice and Firing Stands

Ice cares not if you have AWD, Mr. Subaru.
I love Huntsville, Alabama. Really, I do. In fact, it's one of my favorite places to visit, and were it not for me being so far along in my career, I'd likely be looking to call 'Rocket City' home. However, the city that helped build America's manned space program hides a sinister secret - a "monster" who looks to snatch unsuspecting motorists from the apparent safety of the elevated arterial roadway and hurl them willy-nilly into the concrete barriers separating travel lanes from the near interminable drop to the ground below.

I know this monster. I've met this monster. I've *survived* this monster. On my birthday, of all days, this beast chose to rear its ugly head and attempted to add me to its collection of broken and charred victims. But not this day. My trusty steed - the venerable Forester - quickly leapt into action, deftly dodging left...then right...as we were locked in an epic battle with Huntsville's silent killer: snowy roads.

OK, perhaps it wasn't quite so dramatic...but I *did* do a bit of dodging to the left and right...mostly because I started sliding on the ice and was doing all I could to keep from hitting the wall, or the other cars sharing the road with me. I don't care how good a driver you are, or what kind of car you drive, ice is the great equalizer. With the 'pucker factor' having risen to dangerous levels after my brief, but near-catastrophic, encounter with the icy roads, I decided to get the heck off the 'skyway' and move down to the surface streets, which I hoped would be clearer.

I liked the framing of this shot. That's it.
So, what dragged me out of a safe and warm hotel room in a city nearly four hours from home? NASA was hosting a Social event at many of their Centers across the country to mark the 2016 'State of NASA' address by Administrator Bolden. Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville was one of those sites, and had invited nearly twenty social media participants to visit the Center.

I know that I've visited MSFC many times - often writing about the trip here in my blog - and I almost feel like it's "my" Center. In fact, I had been to Marshall a scant two months prior to report on the near-completion of the stand meant to stress-test SLS's massive liquid hydrogen tank. Nevertheless, my passion and interest in our nation's space program is such that I could likely visit the Center weekly and not tire of it, or feel jaded about the major role Marshall has played - and continues to play - in America's space flight heritage.

Being the Center responsible for designing, testing, and validating SLS, one would expect any Social event at MSFC to focus heavily on that vehicle...and this day was no exception. Marshall's newly-appointed Center Director - Todd May - greeted the group, welcoming us to the Center and gave us a brief overview of Marshall's activities over the past year, and then took a moment to answer questions.

Marshall Space Flight Center Director Todd May
With the possibility Congress could direct NASA to launch the proposed 'Europa Clipper' mission on SLS, I asked May if the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) - which operates under Marshall's "umbrella" - could accommodate that need along with the tentative flight date of EM-2. According to May, though the nominal production rate for SLS will support a cadence of one flight per year, capacity at MAF will allow for a surge rate of two SLS launches per year, and a 'spike' capacity of three per year. Any cadence higher than that, or a sustained rate of two-plus vehicles per year, would require expansion at MAF.

After a few more questions, the group heard from two engineers working on the SLS program - Michelle Tillotson and Nick Case - before heading to the avionics area. There, engineers and programmers are 'tweaking' SLS's flight computers, followed by simulated launches, to gather data about how the rocket will perform throughout nominal - and off-nominal - flight profiles. Even a shortened simulated launch can generate several terabytes of data for the engineers to examine. As various components of SLS move from design to testing to qualification stages, that real-world performance data is integrated into the testing regime. In fact, shortly after the successful test of the new 5-segment booster in March 2015, Orbital ATK had delivered the raw data to the SLS engineers in Huntsville.

Yes, I took a selfie at a rocket test stand. Not ashamed.
Departing the avionics area, the group boarded the bus to travel to the test stand area at Marshall. This part of the Center has a rich history - here, von Braun and his team tested many of the rockets which would carry America's astronauts to Earth orbit...and beyond. Situated between the two SLS test stands currently under construction is the massive firing stand used to test the mighty Saturn V rocket. It's hard to imagine the sound which must've roared through the Tennessee River Valley when those engines were tested.

Though quiet this day, the stand nonetheless presented an imposing sight: its massive concrete and steel structure stood as a testament to the power it was built to restrain. With snow continuing to fall in fits and spurts, and a healthy wind chill to boot, the group was invited to take an elevator ride midway up the structure to get a view of the two SLS stands being built nearby. Once complete, those stands will push, pull, and twist the core stage's liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellant tanks, stressing them to flight limits, and beyond, to ensure SLS will be the safest vehicle to launch crew and cargo.

Les Johnson - Dep Mgr, NASA's Advanced Concepts,
compares the thickness of the sail to one's hair (or lack thereof).
Thoroughly chilled to the bone, we dutifully boarded the bus to head to the 'flat floor' facility to meet with some engineers working on secondary payloads which will fly on SLS. One of the more interesting payloads is a solar sail. This 86 square-meter sail is made out of a material the thickness of a human hair - 2.5 microns. The 'pressure' of sunlight will push on this material, accelerating the sail at a slow, but steady, pace without requiring fuel or engine. Smaller sails have been tested previously, but SLS will give these smaller secondary payloads the unprecedented opportunity to go beyond their usual "playground" of low-Earth orbit (LEO) and operate in cislunar space. Without the drag of Earth's atmosphere, thin though it may be in LEO, the sail should be able to accelerate slightly more rapidly (though 'rapid' is definitely a relative term when one is talking about the pressure of sunlight), providing more meaningful data to scientists.

Our final stop of the day was back at the US Space and Rocket Center. There, the group was given a tour of the new International Space Station (ISS) exhibit, which includes a scaled-down version of the real-life Payload Operations Center (POC) at Marshall, along with a "high fidelity" replica of many of the ISS modules. Save for the lack of cables, computers, and various clutter one many expect to find on an operational space station, the ISS mock-up is an accurate analogue to the real deal.

This is on the ISS. Really.
One of the more amusing stories came from 'Paycom Penny' (Penny Pettigrew). The astronauts on-station can speak with the ground operations not only through the expected ISS-ground radio communications, but also through more traditional means - a.k.a., a phone call. Pettigrew recounted an instance when she was heading home from a shift at the POC only to have her cellphone ring as she was on the highway. CallerID doesn't identify it as 'Space Calling' (though how awesome would *that* be?!?), so she wasn't necessarily expecting there to be an ISS-based astronaut on the other end of the call. Penny said when an astronaut calls, you'd better believe that's a situation when one pulls over to the side of the road to give the caller one's undivided attention.

Knowing that I had to take the long route back home in order to avoid the snowy conditions through the mountains, I excused myself from the last, optional bit of the day and headed home. As always, the Social was thoroughly enjoyable, and it's always nice to meet fellow space enthusiasts.

I would like to thank the people at Marshall, and at the Space and Rocket Center, for inviting the group out to take part in this NASA Social event. It's incredible to consider that a "normal person" like me has the opportunity to participate in something like this.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Another one of my interests: Astronomy

I made this. Really. Well, the picture...not the Moon.
After reading some - or all - of my previous posts, one may come to the conclusion that I only like rockets. And complaining. OK, fair enough - I guess I *do* like both (especially complaining), but that's not all - I also have quite the fondness for astronomy. In fact, the 'astronomy bug' bit me almost as early as the 'rocket bug'.

Considering the speed with which I succumbed to the "fever", I must've been highly susceptible to their infection...and, quite honestly, I wouldn't have it any other way. If one has to be bitten by something that molds their life and interests, why not something so basic - and exciting -  as exploration?

However, just as with my experience with rockets/spaceflight, my interest in astronomy did wane for a while. Must've been a time in my life when happiness was difficult to come by...and if I wanted to pay a bajillion dollars for a shrink to figure it out, I'm sure they could nail down the cause. However, since I didn't win the lottery...I'll choose to look forward rather than to the past.

My first telescope was a gift from my parents: a 60mm Bushnell refractor. It was mounted on a simple tripod, with basic alt-azimuth (up/down - left/right) controls, and had a couple of eyepieces. Though not the best telescope, and I quickly outgrew it, it's what helped foster my interest in looking at the heavens.

If my first telescope was a bicycle with training wheels, my second was a 3/4 ton truck with a manual transmission. A gentleman in my local astronomy club was selling one of his telescopes: a huge 8" Newtonian reflector on a German equatorial pier mount. Being a gainfully-employed, and very naive, teenager, I jumped at the chance to get this beast. Unfortunately, my skills and knowledge weren't nearly up to the task of making use of even a little bit of this scope's capabilities, so it sat - more often than not - in my room as a piece of decoration. A very large piece of decoration.

Rather than let it continue to languish, I sold it to someone else in the club when I went off to college. Better to let someone else love it rather than have it gather dust. And thus started my 'Astronomy Dark Ages'. I was still interested in the night sky, and I followed news and discoveries with great interest, but I was now a sidelined observer rather than actively participating.

Fast-forward about twenty years, and I began to feel the urge to get another telescope. We happened to be in a store that had their scopes on sale, so I snagged a Meade 114mm computerized reflector for a hair over $200. It's not the best scope...but at that price, from a brand like Meade, well...I couldn't pass it up. Unfortunately, living in metro Atlanta, light pollution here is a huge issue, so the scope didn't get used as much as I would've liked. After a couple seasons of taking it out to look at the Moon...and Jupiter...and Saturn...and the Orion Nebula...well, it kinda sat unused for a while. Until today.

I've taken it out of storage, dusted it off, and cleaned the cobwebs out from the tube. Now to get some batteries and hope the tracking motor isn't as bad as I remember it (I hope I was just doing a poor job of aligning it). Next clear night, I plan to take it out to reacquaint myself with the wonders of the night sky. Until then, I'm relegated to taking pics of the moon (like the one above) with my DSLR.

How do I get started? Is it expensive?
As with any hobby, astronomy can be as cheap - or as expensive - as one wants it to be. In fact, all that is required is the Mk I Eyeball. That's it. Just look up at the stars. Take it all in. Get to know the sky in your part of the world (yes - the sky can look markedly different depending on where one is located). Read online content about naked eye observations, and learn the major constellations. All of this can be had for the low, low price of 'time'.

Once you feel you're ready to progress beyond simple stargazing, you may feel the pull to get a telescope. There's nothing wrong with that...but BEWARE the siren's call of 600x zoom telescopes (and the like) from the big box retailers. If the seller's key metric is the zoom power of the telescope, run...run away.

Also, you might want to first decide what type of astronomical viewing you want to do, and let that influence what type of telescope to consider. Though all telescopes do basically the same thing - gather the light from a distant object, magnify it, and direct it to your eye - some perform better at certain tasks than do others. If you're going to only be looking at bright objects, such as the Moon...Jupiter...Saturn...etc., then a simple (but decent) refractor may be all you ever need (especially if you live in a heavily light-polluted area). Are you more interested in faint, deep-sky objects? Then you might want to invest in a "light bucket" - a.k.a., Newtonian reflector. How about a 'jack of all trades' (but kinda pricey) scope? Then a catadioptric scope (like a Schmidt-Cassegrain scope) may fit the bill. Also, you may already have something handy to extend your stargazing just a bit: binoculars. Even simple 7x35 binocs can give one an entirely new view of the night sky.

If it's still a bit murky, which is entirely understandable, I would recommend you seek out a local astronomy club to see what they have. Talk to the club members, get their advice, and take a look through their eyepieces. From my time belonging to an astronomy club in my hometown, I can readily testify that there's almost nothing more enjoyable to amateur astronomers than to share with others.

The fine people over at TMRO have produced a set of videos (Space Pods) explaining the differences (and a bit of history) between the three types of telescopes mentioned above:

Refractor

Reflector

Catadioptric

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Strike three...but still a hit. (Part 1)

She's a beaut, Clark. But will the weather cooperate?
I'm a lucky guy. I know that. I've seen the world's largest solid rocket booster test-fired in the Utah desert. I've been awestruck by the raw power from a single RS-25 engine fired for nearly nine minutes from a test stand in coastal Mississippi. I was present when Orion made it back to Kennedy Space Center (KSC), fresh from her maiden flight atop a Delta IV Heavy in December 2014. I have been in - and on top of - that iconic cathedral of space flight: the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). I've spoken to, and shared a handshake with, both the Administrator and Deputy Administrator of NASA. I have done so many things with NASA, and its space flight partners, over the past eighteen months that one could be forgiven for thinking that I've seen and done it all. While there is no doubt that I've been blessed beyond words, the fact remains that - out of three tries - I have yet to see a launch in-person. Really.

"How is that possible?!?", you may ask. "Certainly a space nerd like you has seen the Space Shuttle take flight! Or what about the numerous other launches from KSC or Wallops Island?" Sadly, no - I wasted my opportunity to see the Shuttle launch because I thought it would always be there and never made plans to see it...so I can't even count that as a missed try.

I was waitlisted for Orbital's third, and ill-fated, resupply launch from Wallops Island in October 2014. Strike one. In December of that same year, I was invited to cover SpaceX's CRS-5 launch from KSC as a media representative...and was notified of a scrub - along with a lengthy delay - of the launch just as soon as I completed the 450 mile drive to Titusville and was checking-in to my hotel. Yet another launch I was to not see - strike two.

Knowing that, it's understandable that I was exceptionally excited to receive the last-minute invite from the NASA Social team to take part in the OA-4 (Cygnus) Social - I might finally get to see a launch! I immediately booked a room for the week and started making arrangements for the trip. As soon as the long-range weather forecasts became available, I would periodically check to see how things were looking. In a nutshell: not good...but not awful. I was cautiously optimistic.

Looking for explosives...or sandwiches. But mostly
explosives.
Arriving at the KSC Press Badging Office for "Day 0" (it was a bonus, optional day for the Social), I was immediately reminded of what makes these events so much fun...and why they can sometimes be more engaging than the events that I cover as "traditional" media: the people. I don't think I've ever seen a social media attendee that wasn't genuinely excited to be there...and it shows on their face and in their conversation. How can one *not* enjoy being with such an enthusiastic bunch?

Seeing some familiar faces - but many more new ones - we all went about introducing ourselves, welcoming the newcomers as they trickled in. It's worth noting that the people selected by NASA to attend the Socials are always diverse - in age, gender, ethnicity, background, and pretty much in every other way imaginable - and this time was no exception. Tech industry? Check. Alternative music radio and media representative? Yep. Street artist? Absolutely. Professional photographer? No doubt. Amateur astronomer? Of course. Court system manager? Ditto. And the list goes on. I felt conspicuously "plain" in comparison to the interesting people around me...and that's a good thing - I'm kinda boring.

Armed with my camera, smartphones (yes, plural...don't judge me), and not-infallible memory, I departed the Press Badging Office with my fellow enthusiasts for a day filled with loads of info and cool hardware...and visits to sites awash in history...and to see the progress of NASA's commercial partners as they prepare to take on the mantle of providing human access to low Earth orbit (LEO) as NASA moves on to the next phase in its charter of being the world's preeminent home of human space exploration: the Space Launch System (SLS).

"Let the launch be the icing on the cake, not the cake
itself." NASA's Jason Townsend. Dang it, now I want
cake. I should never write when I'm hungry.
The NASA Social team - from HQ and KSC - had a full three days lined up for us, hopefully culminating in the launch of Orbital ATK's Cygnus (the S.S. Deke Slayton II), atop United Launch Alliance's (ULA) reliable Atlas V rocket, in the evening of the final day. NASA's Jason Townsend, in addressing the group, gave sage advice: hopefully the launch would be the icing on the cake, and not the cake itself, as we were going to be given access to people and areas generally unavailable to the public.

As with past Socials, the NASA team went above-and-beyond. One of our first stops was to see testing of actual hardware used to support the launch of SLS - the umbilical connections which will provide power, and other resources, to the heavy lift rocket and to the Orion spacecraft. One of the interesting things about this stop is that this is the *actual* hardware to be used for SLS, not some test article that will never be used once testing is complete.

We then had the pleasure of visiting Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41), the site of some of NASA's most famous uncrewed missions: the Viking landers (Mars), Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Juno (Jupiter), and New Horizons (Pluto)...and the future site of launches of crewed flights in Boeing's CST-100 Starliner. The construction at SLC-41, in support of these crewed missions, is well underway...with the superstructure of the crew access tower nearly complete. Here, both NASA and ULA personnel discussed the future of the launch site with the group, and allowed us quite a bit of free reign to take pictures and ask questions.

Launch Pad 39A has history. Lots and lots of history.
Departing SLC-41, the group next stopped at a place etched into my memory ever since my childhood - Pad A at Launch Complex 39. Originally used for Saturn launches, then for the Space Shuttle, the facility has since been leased to SpaceX for their Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy programs. There, we heard from Carol Scott - NASA's commercial crew liaison to SpaceX - about the construction occurring at the site and SpaceX's vision for how they'll make use of the pad. While saddened to learn that the Rotating Service Structure at the site will soon be removed, seeing the massive 'strongback' - which will be used to lift the rocket to a vertical position - was fairly exciting. That means progress is definitely being made at the site, with the launch of the Falcon Heavy (hopefully) taking place some time next year. It should be an incredible spectacle to see.

Taking a break for lunch, the group descended upon the poor, unprepared staff at the cafeteria. I'm not sure that they - or the other KSC workers - are accustomed to seeing a horde of space fans lined up, looking to consume whatever food happens to be left. I know that Sonny's BBQ ran out of just about everything well before the group made it through the line. One of the nice things about the lunch break - besides eating, that is - was having the opportunity to speak, at length, with some of the fellow attendees. Truly a fascinating bunch.

Stomachs full, but still eager for more spacey goodness, the group then headed to the NASA News Center complex where we had a chance to charge our various electronics and take care of personal business for a bit.

What was once used for the Shuttle, is now being used
for the Boeing CST-100 Starliner.
One of our last stops of the day was at Boeing's CST-100 processing facility, housed in the old Orbiter Processing Facility #3. There, we learned that we were the first social media group to be allowed inside the building since the refit for the CST-100. That was pretty cool to hear...but the best stuff was yet to come. In the high bay, they have the structural test article for the CST-100. This will be what's used to validate the design before building the final, crewed version. During the Q&A inside the bay, we learned that the CST-100 will return to Earth under parachute...and on land (at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico)...with six inflatable airbags used to help cushion the landing. The craft will be able to tolerate the loss of a parachute and a single airbag and still return the crew within acceptable load limits.

Our final stop of the day was at the massive Mobile Launch Platform. Situated near the VAB, this platform and tower combination will be what SLS sits on as it makes its way from the VAB out to Pad 39B. Currently, Pad 39B is being renovated with a "clean pad" architecture, meaning the platform, tower, and rocket will all come out to the launch area - devoid of any pre-existing tower structure - as an integrated unit...just like the Saturn V. I look forward to the day I see America's next great exploration vehicle make its 3.5 mile journey out to the pad.

And so drew to a close the first day of the Social. As soon as I can, I plan to recount days two and three of this excellent Social. In the meantime, why don't you go take a look at what some of the other attendees had to say about their experience:

Paula Kiger - Perspicacity
Marty McGuire (Backyard Astronomy Guy) - YouTube Channel and website

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

What Should You Expect from a NASA Social?

So...you've been selected for your first NASA Social event. Congratulations! Are you excited? Is your inner (or outer, depending on your personality) 'space nerd' jumping for joy? You're soon to take part in something that, traditionally, members of the general public have not been able to witness from such a privileged vantage point. Maybe it's an engine test...or a planetary encounter...or a 'crown jewel' of Socials - a launch! Whatever the occasion, you're sure to be both impressed, and overwhelmed, during the event. 

Through the graciousness of NASA and their Social Media team - both at NASA HQ and at Marshall Space Flight Center, I've been lucky enough to have been selected for several Social events, among which were: the unveiling of the 'Welding Wonder', the world's largest rocket-building tool that will help build America's next great launcher - the Space Launch System (SLS)...to witness the awesome fury of the firing of the upgraded solid-fuel booster at the QM-1 Social, which will help power SLS to orbit...and the incredible sight and sound of a full-duration test of the RS-25 engine, four of which will continue to power SLS to space as part of SLS's core stage. Hopefully my experience can help you maximize your enjoyment of this special event.

What Should I Bring?

Don't let this happen to you...
Everything! Or nothing! Well, not 'nothing'. Considering that it *is* a social-media based event, I would suggest you bring whichever portable tools are necessary in order for you to chronicle your experience and share it with your followers. Some Socials include tours of restricted-access areas where photography is prohibited...and there are even some where no electronic devices (not even key fobs) are allowed. Unless you have a photographic memory, it may be worthwhile to bring along a notebook and pen/pencil for taking notes. Trust me.

Also, unless you have some super-special devices, you're likely to be looking for a power outlet to top-up the charge on your various and sundry gadgets about halfway through the day...if not sooner. You'd be well-advised to bring along a portable charging device (no RTGs, please) as outlets are habitually in short-supply. I've seen many 'Socialeers' use, and swear by, the portable charging systems. If you have one, bring it. Since I often tote around my laptop, I use its battery to provide a charge to my phone(s) and camera(s).


What Should I Wear?

Clothes, please. Oh...you were looking for something a bit more helpful than that? Fine. Often, NASA will give a basic outline about clothing requirements - no shorts or dresses, no open-toed shoes or flip-flops, etc. Even though an event may be occurring in coastal Mississippi during the dead of summer, if NASA says 'no shorts', they mean it. Really.

I generally wear a hat - not just to cover my thinning hair...but I like hats - and have generally had no problem with that. I recall there being one high-security place that disallowed head coverings, so I had to leave it on the bus...but that's a rare occurrence.

With NASA having a myriad of locations across the country, and with weather being somewhat unpredictable at times, it may make sense to layer clothing and/or bring a light jacket...or something heavier as necessary. Oh - definitely wear comfortable shoes...you'll be walking. A lot.

Since many of the events have an outdoor component, things like sunglasses, bug repellant, water, or even light snacks might be worthwhile to consider. No one knows you better than you do - so bring what you think you may need.


Who Will Be There?
Is that NASA Administrator Bolden? Yes...yes, it is.
One of the coolest things about a NASA Social, other than the subject of the social itself, is the broad variety of people attending the event with you. I've met so many people: an engineer from Bigelow Aerospace, a Twitter employee, a fashion designer, and a WWE Diva just to name a few. Add the prospect of meeting astronauts, NASA engineers, research scientists, and maybe even NASA's Administrator - Charles Bolden, and I believe it's possible that you might have almost as good a time learning about your fellow attendees and speakers as you will seeing all the cool NASA stuff at the Social.

I've made many friends and acquaintances at the Socials...some of whom I've come to call very close friends. While your "mileage" may vary, rest assured you'll be in the company of people with an interest and passion for NASA and its various missions/directives. Make the most of it. Really, if a diehard introvert like me can do it, so can you.

What Else?
I cannot over-stress simply taking the opportunity to observe...to sit and watch what's going on...especially if this is your first event. I still have to remind myself of that occasionally. For instance, at the QM-1 booster Social in Utah, I was so busy taking pictures and videos of the two-minute test that I actually don't remember it as vividly as I should. Sure, I snapped some cool pictures and impressive video, but I do regret not taking the opportunity to simply watch the spectacle happening before me. Don't make the mistake of not fully appreciating the moment - you'll have plenty of time to tweet, text, blog, etc., later.

Did I miss something? If there's anything else you'd like to know, feel free to leave a comment below. Thanks for reading, and congratulations on being selected!

Friday, October 23, 2015

Get off my LAN!

You tell 'em, Grandpa!
OK, I'm going into 'crotchety old man gripe mode' for this blog post. To be fair, there are some people who will proclaim that I'm *always* a crotchety old man, so they may not notice much of a change in tone with this post. Nevertheless, I have a bone to pick over the state of modern technology and feel the need to write about it.

Traditionally, I'm an early adopter. Perhaps not "bleeding edge" early...but definitely "cutting edge" early. I'm a gadget fiend and an admitted Apple fan...and while I may give Apple preference in my tech acquisitions, I am by no means a 'tech bigot'. However, over the past couple years (or so), I've noticed that I've become less inclined to hop on the 'latest and greatest' bandwagon.

Case-in-point is the new AppleTV. I love my AppleTV - in fact, I own three of them (one Gen 2 v1 - the first black, puck-ish device, and two Gen 2 v2 devices - the model currently available for $69). I pre-ordered the Gen 2 v1 when it was announced a few years ago, and it was instrumental in helping me 'cut the cord' with Comcast. As more content became available for it, there was less of a need to pay a cable provider for a multitude of channels that I would rarely, if ever, watch. Goodbye, Comcast. The AppleTV (ATV) became the entertainment hub in my house.

I then purchased a second ATV - Gen 2 v2 - for a second TV. Did I upgrade my first ATV when the newer version came out? No...there was no need. Both were able to deliver the content that I needed, with the only real difference being the newer model supported 1080p resolution, whereas the old one did not. I didn't need/want the higher resolution on either TV, so that difference was meaningless. I only retired the Gen 2 v1 when it started exhibiting freezing problems and random resets. So, now I have two active Gen 2 v2 ATVs in my home. And they work just fine.


This will make things worse.
Feed me, Seymour.
However, in a special event Apple held on September 9, 2015, a new ATV - featuring local storage, Siri, a touch-sensitive remote, a beefier processor, and support for apps - was unveiled. Outwardly, it looks much the same as the current model...though a bit taller. Who cares? I don't need apps for my TV, the remote looks like it's something expensive to replace, and I don't want to talk to my TV. When I turn on the idiot box, I want to be entertained - JUST GIVE ME THE SHOWS THAT I WANT TO WATCH. 

The new ATV does nothing to address the convoluted mess that is current state of digital entertainment. In fact, I contend that it will make things worse. I don't want to be nickeled-and-dimed to watch shows and movies - that's why I pay for Netflix and Hulu Plus...and the occasional purchase from iTunes when I don't want to wait for the content to appear on the other two. Heck, even YouTube has quite a bit of compelling content.

However, with the "appification" of content, one can be assured that the proliferation of multiple, exclusive streams from which content will be available will make one's monthly entertainment bill just as expensive - perhaps even more so - than traditional cable TV. To wit, CBS now has an app on the current ATV...but it doesn't do you any good unless you subscribe to their portal. Oh, yay - another monthly bill to allow me to watch content. Thanks, but no thanks, CBS - I'll just wait to watch your stuff if/when it shows up on one of the major streaming services for which I already pay. Or not at all. I really don't care. I don't need a Siri search to tell me that 'The Big Bang Theory' is available to watch on a service to which I don't subscribe. That's not helpful at all.

Thankfully, ABC, NBC, Fox - and many other networks - still make their content available on Hulu Plus the day after airing. I can easily live with that...though it IS irritating that some shows (like NBC's 'The Blacklist') are no longer offered. I fear it's only to get worse.


I don't pirate...but I can understand why some do.
One step forward, a million frickin' steps back.
The whole model for digital content is a broken mess of legalese and red tape. Everybody wants their cut. OK - I get it...you deserve to get paid for your work. Fair enough. However, when those contractual limitations are a hinderance to content consumption, technology ISN'T the problem. There's nothing new that can be invented, programmed, developed, etc., that will fix the craptastic nature of the beast until that mess is fixed.

In today's world, there's no technical reason one would need to subscribe to multiple providers in order to watch a handful of shows. Hell, have we regressed to the "good 'ol days" of C-band satellite dishes with decoders for each of the channels/satellites we want to watch? Doesn't appear like much progress to me. Aggregate providers - like Netflix and Hulu - are where it's at. I don't mind paying a few dollars more per month to those services PROVIDED they have all the content. Conversely, "lone wolves" like CBS won't get a penny from me until they fully integrate with someone like Netflix or Hulu.

</rant>
That's why I'm in no way excited about the new AppleTV - it does nothing to address the problem plaguing digital content. Nothing. And that's why I won't buy one.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

I'm tired of the fanboys...

I haven't written on any particular topic lately...not for lack of ideas; rather, I've been a bit busy. Life always seems to get in the way of the fun stuff...but so it goes if one is a responsible adult.

If you've been adventurous and read my first post, you know that I've been a fan of spaceflight for as long as I can remember. However, though that fandom has been long-serving, I'm embarrassed to admit that it hasn't always been at the forefront of my thoughts and actions. In fact, I only cursorily followed the Space Shuttle program as it wound to a close. Sure, I knew it was ending, and I was quite irritated about that (still am, to a degree)...but I didn't really know why, and I had no idea what was to come next...and my inner space nerd went into hibernation.

New Space...and the demise of NASA?
Occasionally, 'Space Nerd Curt' would awaken from his apathy-induced stupor when a particularly compelling space-related article would be posted online, or show up in my Twitter feed (you do follow me on Twitter, right? RIGHT?!? If not, go ahead and give me a follow - it won't hurt a bit: @Crow_T_Robot).

Periodically, something would pop up about some company called 'SpaceX'...the brainchild of a tech billionaire...and how they were going to change the face of spaceflight. Me: "Oh, look - some guy with a ton of money (and an ego to match) and time to kill is going to do something that only well-funded nation-states can accomplish. Yeah...right. Not. Gonna. Happen." Nevertheless, curiosity was piqued.

Then I would see a story discussing, with the Shuttle retired, NASA was basically dead. And I believed it. No, I didn't think NASA had closed its doors, but I truly felt it was an agency without a mission...a ship without a rudder...a "shining" example of a nation in decline. Some may argue that's exactly the case.

Re-awakening the Space Nerd
Much like the story of a bear waking from a long winter's slumber, 'Space Nerd Curt' began to stretch and yawn...and was looking for his fill of spaceflight info.

After letting my Twitter account languish over the years, and using my Facebook account for the inane fluff that most of us use it for, I started actively seeking out stories and articles about the current state of spaceflight. To that end, there was no shortage of sites purporting to have all of the space info one may need/want.

NASA was being directed to build a Saturn V-class (or bigger) launch vehicle, while several 'New Space' companies were beginning to make some headway in their respective fields. Was 'space' dead? Sure didn't seem like it. From all appearances, exciting times lay ahead.

Frenemies and the Decline of Space Journalism
Hey, you know what? SpaceX was actually able to put together a pretty decent launcher. Sure...they did it by leaning heavily on NASA's expertise...and didn't have to lay out a ton of their own capital for a ground-up R&D program...but no one can deny that they (eventually) made a good-ish rocket. It's amazing what one can do when they stand on the shoulders of a giant...and while SpaceX no doubt understands where they'd be without NASA's help, don't expect them to like it or often speak about it.

Though the grumblings were there prior to the first successful Falcon 9 flight, there was a growing choir of fanboys singing the praises - both real and fanciful - of SpaceX after that launch in . "NASA is old news!"..."SpaceX is the future of spaceflight - NASA is dead!"..."SpaceX will get people to Mars FIRST!"...et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. To the SpaceX partisans, it was only a matter of time before the first boots on Mars were delivered by a Falcon rocket.

Me, too, Jared...me, too.

Additionally, a disturbing trend seemed to be emerging - many people writing space news stories were no longer traditional journalists. They were industry pundits...op/ed writers...famous personalities...and even bloggers. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with those people writing their opinions - hell, I write about this stuff and I don't have 1/10th the inside info that these people have - but I'm just an opinionated bozo writing about something that interests me. However, these people/outlets are being presented as space journalists/journalism. It isn't, and they aren't. Journalists are supposed to write a story - presenting the facts - not take a side. Sadly, that no longer appears to the be case. They'll bash NASA all day long, but treat SpaceX with kid gloves.


This...this is the goal. OK, so it's track from a rover
on Mars, but you get the point.
What gives? Is there a quid pro quo? "Say something nice about us...or derogatory about NASA...and we'll *really* appreciate it." ::wink, wink:: Do I have proof? No, but I'm not a journalist...just a guy throwing out a supposition for consideration. I have no real 'dog' in this fight. If SpaceX succeeds where others have failed (or have yet to succeed), then great! More power to them. If NASA does the same, that's awesome! Blue Origin? Boeing? ULA? Ditto, ditto, ditto. If your goal is to get people off this planet and into space, quit your griping about the other guy. Does that mean you shouldn't care about budgetary issues on one side...or undelivered promises on the other? No...but the partisanship being shown by many space fans would make an SEC football fan feel at home. Sad.

What do you think?

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.