Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Learning a Lesson: The Colbert Conundrum

NASA is learning the power of the internet and social computing – the hard way. NASA has one of the better sites on the web with a good design with a wealth of news, feeds, archival data, and multimedia to be experienced and enjoyed by all followers of the space program. NASA can be found on Twitter and Facebook and with the NASA channel available via streaming video on the web, or carried at least partly by local government channels on cable or via satellite they would seemed to have mastered all means of media. However, NASA’s good intentions were disrupted by those whose business it is not just to "inform" or in this case "perform", but disrupt and exploit media channels. Enter Stephen Colbert.

The comedian who almost falls into the category of being famous for being famous since I can’t seem to place what he’s actually accomplished that’s meaningful. Colbert recently rallied his troops to win a NASA sponsored “name a space station module” contest. To my knowledge Colbert has done nothing to advocate for the space program and I’m sure his legions of followers don’t have the passion for space exploration as the rest that voted in the contest.

I’m sure a the majority of space supporters never dreamed that the contest would be hijacked by someone directing people to a website to vote, but we shouldn't have been surprised and neither should NASA. Any Facebook user will tell you that causes pop-up everyday and thousands join as the movement spreads. There isn’t much humor in what happened since it will inspire future copycats and deprive many of a chance to participate in something they’re passionate about. The likes of Letterman, Leno, Limbaugh, Stern and Winfrey could have easily marshaled followers to do the same. Kudos to Colbert for thinking of it first or I should say kudos to the rest who thought it an act below the standards of decency to do such a thing.

There are many deserving names that could go on the module. There are those that lost their lives to keep the dream of space exploration alive. Many more that dreamed and sacrificed to make the space program what it is today. When Colbert puts his money where his mouth is and cuts NASA a check for the naming rights to the module equal to the taxpayer costs to build it then I’ll be all for it. Until then, name it after someone deserving who has actually made a contribution to the program. Name it after an American soldier who died during the Iraq or Afghanistan war. Name it after the police officer who has fallen in the line of duty. Name it after the countless heroes in America, but don't name it after Colbert. A man who has reaped the spoils of the American dream, but has given so little back.

If NASA ends up naming the module after Colbert I’ll feel different about the agency. No less passionate about space exploration, but disappointed that we let a comedian jump to the head of the class by duping the agency and the public. Different because he is undeserving and until every single deserving person ahead of Colbert in line gets their due Colbert can wait, and a long wait it would be. It was a hard lesson to learn that there are people that don’t play by the rules of decency. There are too many deserving people whose name could be on that module. Colbert would be an ant among giants in that field. This stunt proves one thing we already knew. He’s just not that funny.

NASA Gets It Right

The successful launch of Discovery on Sunday March 15th after weeks of delays and the safe landing on Saturday March 28th was a clear demonstration of NASA “getting it right”. When you have a program that has the highest visibility and you suffer not one, but two tragedies that resulted in the loss of human life, vehicles and delays in the program you absolutely cannot afford anything but 100% success on every mission.

Prior to the successful launch, Discovery had been delayed several times due to mechanical and fuel related issues and inside the world’s most complicated machine any anomaly has the potential for disaster. The Space Shuttle is asked to operate at the extremes of machine performance. From high performance turbo pumps that spin at 28,000 rpm and deliver an Olympic size swimming pool worth of fuel in twenty-five seconds at -423 Fahrenheit degrees to a combustion chamber that burns the fuel at 6000 F is both impressive and frightening. Failure alone of one of the blades in the turbo pumps due to fatigue or a manufacturing defect is enough to cause loss of vehicle. The Shuttle is arguably the most complex machine humans have ever built and may ever build at least for the foreseeable future. As evidenced by this launch NASA has learned from its mistakes and mitigated the Shuttle’s risk as well as can be expected given the tasks the vehicle is asked to perform.

The accidents with Challenger and Columbia could have happened on any mission and had Challenger not been buffeted by higher than usual upper level winds the slag that temporarily plugged the leak in the booster may have held long enough for the shuttle to make it past the point of danger. Had Challenger survived, the discovery of a close call may have prompted a change in minimum temperatures to launch, but likely wouldn’t have driven a booster design change or a review of the other safety issues on the vehicle.

Likewise, had the block of foam that struck Columbia missed the leading edge of the wing it likely still would be classified as a “maintenance issue”. The loss of the crews of Columbia and Challenger did save lives. Mistakes were made that could have altered the outcome in both instances, but those mistakes have made the program safer.

Prior to Challenger it was easy to enjoy the launch of a shuttle, but we were na├»ve to the true dangers and risks in operating such an extreme performance machine. Post Challenger we started to understand the magnitude of things that could go wrong that hadn’t. Post Columbia we learned a little more. What has been lost in the success and the tragedy is that we’ve flown the Space Shuttle one-hundred and twenty-five times barely half of the fleet’s designed life and behind that are the men and women who on this and every other mission made sure that the complexity of parts including the valves, engines, the miles of wiring, thermal protection system, tires, brakes, software and the other million components were safe to fly. Congratulations to the crew of Discovery for a successful mission and thanks to the thousands on the ground that make the flight a safe one.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The North Korean Threat:: Bringing Terrorism to Space

The dynamic of world politics, people and cultures is indeed fascinating. We spend a significant amount of time trying to understand the vast diversity of living creatures on this planet, but don’t seem to spend near enough time trying to figure out how we ended up with such a diversity of intelligent creatures who consistently end up at war with each other or at the least threaten each other’s livelihood’s by whatever means at there disposal. It’s not an easy answer to resolve and throughout history we watched a few successes where countries have turned from dreams of world conquest to world cooperation and others that have consistently stood on the side of tyranny and oppression perhaps none more so than North Korea. Technically, North Korea is still at war with it southern neighbor. However, South Korea is an example of what a country can do when it embraces openness, entrepreneurship and a spirit of individual expression and freedom. The South Korean economy thrives and is a financial success and technological leader. North Korea however is a closed society with a dictatorial ruler and can barely feed its people much less offer it resources to the world. Another consistency with countries that stand on sides opposite to the Western democracies is the tendency to resort to a military buildup and to advance weapons of mass destruction.

That brings us to where we are now. Sitting on a launch pad in North Korea is a three-stage Taepodong-2 missile purported to test North Korea’s ability to put a satellite in orbit. In the early days of the American and Russian space program the only difference between an intercontinental ballistic missile and a manned rocket was the payload. I’m generalizing here – the statement is true although some modifications were made to “man rate” the vehicles, but my point is the same technology is used for both. In the case of the Americans and the Russians the quest to perfect a ballistic missile came first then utilizing it to put satellites and humans in space was a byproduct. For countries like North Korea and Iran such a development is not permitted. The world would not sit by and watch radical regimes build weapons that could wreck havoc on neighbors and other targets around the world.

With a three stage Taepodong-2 missile poised on a launch pad in North Korea we sit again in a position similar to the launch of the Iranian satellite. It should be noted that the Iranian launch vehicle is a direct derivative work of the North Korean rocket. It is North Korean technology. Iran has worked closely with North Korean to purchase hardware and technical expertise to assist with their program and will be on hand to watch this launch. Under the guise of a space program both countries have developed a launch capability that could reach countries with which both have had longstanding feuds. North Korea’s rocket if successful could hit American soil in Alaska or Hawaii and if the payload were lightened even the West Coast. Of course, such a blatant attack would be foolish and the retribution would be so great that even radical regimes like North Korea and Iran wouldn’t risk their nation’s existence for a one-shot attack.

However, much like my previous writing on Iran’s launch the ability for North Korea to commit a “terrorist” act is not limited to delivering a warhead via a rocket. The greater threat is that these capable, but relatively unsophisticated rockets will be used as the equivalent of a “roadside” bomb in space. As we’ve seen from the Iranian launch the maximum altitude is exactly the operating parameter of the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station. An anti-satellite mission under the umbrella of a “test” or merely the “accident” of a fledgling space program or even for defense purposes would be similar to tests by the U.S. and the Chinese. It would be a difficult “crime” to enforce given that other countries have done the same without any punitive actions. As we’ve seen, the Shuttle and the ISS recently had to dodge space debris that were remnants of the Chinese test. Such an act by North Korea could be highly disruptive to peaceful operations in space and could endanger the lives of all humans operating in space and the hardware they utilize.

The opportunity is to act now. North Korea and Iran shouldn’t be allowed unmonitored access to put vehicles in space given their cloak of secrecy, outspoken aggression and pursuit of destructive intentions towards those that stand in their way. Under international supervision and monitoring North Korea and Iran can enjoy the peaceful usage of space for exploration and advancing technologies can benefit their people. Without supervision it can only be assumed that North Korea’s motivation is something other than stated and the use of ballistic missiles or anti-satellite capabilities is the true intent. It seems unlikely that Japan or the United States will shoot down the North Korean rocket attempt. Given that this rocket has not had a successful launch yet by the North Koreans and has suffered from structural failure makes a mishap during launch or an “accident” in space not out of the realm of possibility. If we do shoot down the launch attempt we will have set a precedent that all launches from “Axis of Evil” countries will not be permitted unless they are monitored and cleared by an international governing body. It would also create another regional conflict that would involve the Koreas, China, Japan and the U.S while almost certainly bringing in Iran and the Middle East conflict and large players like Russia and China would likely fall on the side of the Axis and not the Allies.

There are no easy answers to these problems, but one thing is certain. Countries that will risk all to inflict loss of life and pain on their ideological opposites are truly dangerous and cannot be allowed to progress in the development of weapons to wage war on a more horrific scale. We’ll all be watching this week at the planned launch takes place and we’ll all be waiting to see what steps will be taken to ensure that North Korea’s use of rocket technology isn’t a threat to anyone.