Wednesday, November 25, 2015

What Should You Expect from a NASA Social?'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) 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. 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'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 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 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.

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!" 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,, 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'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 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. 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.

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.

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 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.

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 isn't a body at'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.

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 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.”