Leaving Bigelow Aerospace

20 03 2016
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Image of the 2100-cubic-meter “Olympus” mockup in the A3 Building at the Bigelow Aerospace main campus in North Las Vegas.

While I can’t speak too explicitly about the circumstances surrounding my departure, it’s time for me to update these chronicles to report that I’ve left my position as lead human factors analyst and radiation modeler/instrument designer at Bigelow Aerospace.

I expect that this news may perplex many readers who know how long I’ve been working toward a position precisely like the one I held at Bigelow, and the confusion would be well-founded without a view to the many experiences I’ve had these last two years.

Clarity, perhaps, may be best expressed (without violating company Non-Disclosure Agreements) in the immortal words of a certain legendary Jedi.  Quite simply, Bigelow Aerospace’s destiny “lies along a different path from mine.”  …at least for the foreseeable future.

A Little Context

It’s taken me some time to compose this post in large part because the entire Bigelow Aerospace experience has been an exercise in extremes.   Frankly, I haven’t been sure how best to distill what exactly it is that’s happened in the nearly two years since I started there.

Those who follow the industry will recall that Bigelow suffered a recent round of deeply-cutting layoffs, reported as between 20% and 30% of the staff.  While I was not amongst those shown the door shortly after the New Year, I will admit that this event did influence my decision to leave.

However, in the interests of moving forward, I’d like to focus here not on the motivation for my leaving, but rather, on revealing what it is that I’m walking away with.  Much, as it happens, can be learned by just spending a little time working at a small NewSpace company in the thick of the newest “Commercial Space” movement…

Interdisciplinarity is the New Black

Versatility and adaptability are not just advantageous attributes for those seeking gainful employment at a small NewSpace firm like Bigelow… They’re demanded by the nature of the work.  There, one doesn’t just wear ‘multiple hats.’  Those with the most longevity become experts at balancing and nimbly flipping between a spire of dynamic headwear as they sprint from need to need.

For instance, any of my given Bigelow mornings might have started with a conventional task, like formalizing human factors safety requirements or recommendations.  Before long, however, I’d be interrupted by a “fire drill” research effort – something like identifying power requirements or a mass budget for a particular life support system aboard the International Space Station.  This could be followed by performing a critical document peer review that a co-worker needs turned around quickly, which I’d barely have finished before getting pulled in as a “fresh pair of eyes” for a meeting on something I’m only tangentially related to, like power system depth-of-discharge.  Then, after managing a few more minutes on the task that started the day, I’d get entangled with having to help manage something like an unexpected spot audit for the radiation safety program or helping to bend Swagelok tubing for a looming deadline.  Finally, we’d be informed at the end of the day of an impending emergent project or task we hadn’t seen before, which would be our new priority one.  So it went…

My point is that, in much of the NewSpace world, companies’ smaller sizes make it a great commodity to be able to serve a useful role at any number of conference tables, laboratories, or shop floors on a given day.

Making Big Dents (whether you want to or not)

In many conventional aerospace firms it might be difficult or at least extremely time consuming (years) to make a ‘dent’ in the company, i.e., contribute in a way that makes a noticeable and lasting mark on a program or programs.  No so with smaller NewSpace firms.  (Quite the opposite, in fact.)

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The officially unofficial Bigelow Aerospace Crew Systems Program patch I designed in 2014. (Our motto, “Homines Ante Omnia” means, “Humans Before All Else,” or more loosely, “Crew First!”)

Take for instance the latest incarnation of the Crew Systems group at Bigelow Aerospace, which I helmed.  From designing the program’s first complete Concept of Operations on down to performing practical evaluations of physical items and procedures for future crew astronauts, I had an unprecedented opportunity to get my hands on the meat of a division’s scope of work, tasking, priorities, approach, and hiring.

In fact, I was shocked at how quickly I was given enough rope to really create something unique that pushes the envelope… (or hang myself if I didn’t think it through.)  Such is the nature of the beast at companies that must be nimbly staffed and move quickly to adapt to the needs of an emerging market.

Unfortunately, for the smallest companies, it seems that making a dent is almost a certainty.  This is true even (or perhaps especially) for those who under-perform.  In this case, missteps by even one engineer or manager have a capability to cripple an entire program or cost the company years in terms of lost time when work has to be re-done.

Don’t Get Too Attached

Given market fits and spurts or the risk of R&D grants not being renewed before something is ready to go primetime, etc., the odds are pretty high of a specific project you’ve been working on getting shelved, at least temporarily. Not to despair, though — if the company is still around, it usually implies that management is following the money/clients to more successful work.

(Take even the patch I mentioned above: after a management changeover, much of the earlier work we’d accomplished needed to be re-approved.  However, as a super-low priority, getting something as programmatically-cosmetic as a patch approved by upper management slipped between the cracks upstairs, and so to this day, the logo became officially unofficial.  Perhaps this will remain a vestige of our work to be replaced by a future incarnation of the Bigelow Aerospace Crew Systems group.)

Be Ready to Learn

I mean this in the truest sense.  Prepare yourself.  I’ve learned more about the aerospace field in the last two years than I did during a lifetime of leisure reading as an enthusiast and years of academic work on the subject(!).

Specifically, be prepared to hinge your skull back and brain-guzzle for the first few months, if not the first year.  The pace is breakneck and the content oh-so-alluring for those who share a passion for space.

The lesson types are threefold:

  1. Academic-style learning, that being more along the lines of facts and figures, e.g., “What kinds of tanks are used to store oxygen outside the Quest airlock on the ISS, who makes them, what are their properties, and how much do they cost?”
  2. Programmatic learning, e.g., “What do we need to get this piece of hardware from TRL-2 to TRL-9?”
  3. Lessons-learned – potentially the most valuable, e.g., “If only we had this particular expertise, we might have been able to meet this deadline or fill this critical knowledge/experience gap!”

If anything, my time at Bigelow taught me that if you’re not ready to learn, then NewSpace isn’t for you.

Looking Ahead

Despite the fact that my first foray into the aerospace contracting world is behind me, 2016 promises some exciting adventures.  With a little more time and energy available to me to devote to the blog, research, finishing up a Master’s Degree, and pursuing some field adventures of the cataclysmic kind, stay tuned for a lot more from Astrowright…

…and as always, Semper Exploro!





Recalling Dr. Edgar Mitchell

24 02 2016

 

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We recently lost one of humanity’s pioneers – one of twelve to step on another world and a man who made a distinct impact on me, though in an unexpected way.

Famous for his belief in extraterrestrial life and dabbling in the science of consciousness and extrasensory perception, he is most widely known for planting boot-prints on the Moon’s Fra Mauro Highlands during the Apollo 14 mission: his name was Dr. Edgar Mitchell.

A memorial was held today in his honor in Florida, but I won’t presume here to tread on the numerous articles detailing the many successes and fascinating aspects of his life.  Instead, I’d like to share a story that only I have – the brief tale of how, during a few quiet minutes, he kindly suffered my enthusiastic curiosity and changed my view of planetary exploration forever.

Boots on the Ground

It is a warm, spring afternoon in 2012, and the setting is the U.S. Space Walk of Fame Museum in Titusville, Florida.  Shortly after an interview with Dr. Mitchell held there that I participated in as part of a National Geographic Channel project, I find myself parked in a museum corridor with the affable astronaut while camera equipment is being packed up.

We have a couple of minutes to kill, and after pleasantries (and revealing my own astronaut aspirations, as I’m sure many who meet him do), I decide to make our remaining seconds of polite conversation count.  It’s also at this moment that the Director of Photography for the program is inspired to snap a photo:

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Loitering with Apollo 14 astronaut Dr. Edgar Mitchell in the U.S. Space Walk of Fame Museum. (Image credit: Dave West)

Mercifully, I steer clear of the, “What advice would you have for an aspiring astronaut?” spectrum of questions.  (This is an explorer who’d ventured off-world during humanity’s lone period of manned lunar exploration, after all; he has much more valuable insight than opining on what looks good on a resume to a NASA review panel.)

Knowing that most of the details of the Apollo Program’s exploits have been well-captured in books and articles written during nearly a half-century of analysis and reflection, I aim to drill in on a single question I hadn’t yet heard an answer to.  A human question.

I simply ask: “So, what did it feel like to step into the lunar regolith?  I mean, what did it really feel like?  What was the sensation underfoot?”

His answer surprises me, (which, as a lifelong space obsessee, itself surprises me).  I thought I’d envisioned any of his possible answers, and I was wrong.

Dr. Mitchell cocks his head as he takes my meaning.  Then, he grins and thinks for a moment, (almost as if no one had asked him the question before), before replying:

“Honestly, I don’t really know.  The EVA suit was so rigid, we had such a tight timeline, I was so busy focusing on the mission objectives, and you’ve always got somebody chattering in your ear.” 

He shrugs and adds:

“By the time I’d have had time to think about something like that, the EVA was over and I was back in the lunar module.”

For a few moments, I’m flabbergasted.  “I don’t know” was the one answer I wasn’t really prepared for.  My mouth opens involuntarily, and I consider myself fortunate that I will it shut before I can blurt out, “What do you mean you don’t know?”

I mean, if he doesn’t know what it felt like to step on the Moon, who could?

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Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell checking a map while on the lunar surface. (Credit: NASA)

The Reality of Exploration

Dr. Mitchell’s eyes twinkle slightly, almost as though he suspects the answer would catch me off-guard.  And then, several thoughts hit me in succession:

  • What an injustice that these explorers didn’t even have time to mentally record the sensation of their exploration!
  • But, wait – isn’t tactile information like that important?  Why wasn’t that made a priority?  An objective, even?
  • Doesn’t a sensory awareness of the surface beneath an astronaut relate directly to the ultimate utility an EVA suit on the Moon and the human factors of exploring beyond?
  • Don’t we need to know these things before we consider designing new suits and mission timelines for going back to the Moon and Mars?
  • Wait, did he just let slip a subtle indictment of micromanagement on the Moon?

But, shortly thereafter, the practicality sinks in.  Compared with larger, broader, more fundamental mission objectives, (e.g., survival, navigation, and basic science), smaller details like these were likely to be the first triaged right off of the priority list.  Especially considering that Apollo 14 was an “H-type” mission, which meant only a two-day stay on the Moon and only two EVAs,  they simply didn’t have the luxury of time.

Before I can continue the conversation, we’re swept away with a caravan to another location, and I don’t have another opportunity to pick up the discussion before we part ways for good.

In retrospect, the brief exchange forever changed the way I would view planetary exploration.  I consider it a true dose of lunar reality sans the romance.

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Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell in the distance with the Lunar Portable Magnetometer experiment during EVA 2.

Lessons for Future Explorers

From this exchange, I was left with an indelible impression that every moment spent by future planetary astronauts on another world will be heavily metered and micromanaged.  Excursions will be rehearsed ad nauseam, and as a result, explorers in the thick of the real deal won’t be afforded much time to think about apparently trivial details like what it actually feels like to step on another world.

By all reckoning, it probably would feel much like another rehearsal.

But these details, even apparently small, do matter.  Things like suit fit, function, and feedback under different environmental conditions can have a huge impact on astronaut fatigue, injury, and mission success.  This is to say nothing of secondary geological information, (e.g., this type of regolith scuffs differently than that type), or the more romantic aspects of the sensation of exploration that are necessary for bringing the experience back home to those on Earth in a relatable way.

So, it should say something to us now that after traveling more than five football fields of distance on foot during the course of only two days, Dr. Mitchell couldn’t tell me what it really felt like to press a boot into lunar dirt.

Ultimately, the most unexpected lesson Dr. Mitchell was kind enough to impart was that unless we work to preserve these apparently smaller details of exploration, (as recalled by the limited number of explorers still with us who ventured onto the Moon), and unless we incorporate their implications into future plans, schedules, and designs, the path walked by future astronauts on other worlds will be more difficult than it should or need be.





What the world thinks spacecraft scientists/engineers do…

18 11 2014

Well, ramping up to the birth of our second child, (daughter Sloane on 08/05/14!), I’ve been completely absorbed by family by night and the incredible clip at work at Bigelow Aerospace by day.  -And amidst it all, I’ll admit that there is a visceral seduction in the elbow-grease-saturated chaos.

So, with this in mind, during one of my recent sleepless expanses I had the midnight inspiration to create a “What the World Thinks” meme.  It targets (with a little wry self-awareness) the increasing number of us toiling to break open spaceflight in the 21st Century the way pioneers did so for aviation in the early 20th:

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Feel free to use/forward freely, and Semper Exploro!

Cheers,
Ben





“Astronaut Politics” Meme

11 09 2013

One of the universally-championed benefits of human space exploration is not actually related to any physical activities performed while in space.  Instead, an important aspect of leaving our world is the change in perception that space exploration has upon astronauts themselves, and the societies that receive them, upon their return.

ASTRONAUTPOLITICSMEME_MITCHELLQUOTEIrrespective of country of origin, religion (or lack thereof), cultural background, or political ideology, and having seen firsthand the fragility of Earth in the context of the rest of the cosmos, a great majority of astronauts return as prophets of a unified Earth and humanity upon it.

Hearing what they have to say is powerful stuff, considering that they’ve lived through something still very, very unique to human experience.

Fighting Fire with Fire

So, as a bit of a social experiment, I took one of my favorite astronaut images and paired it with some of the more poignant, (if not also somewhat charmingly coarse), “overview effect”-inspired astronaut quotes as a meme (see image at right for an example) to inspire the question:

“How might the world be different if astronauts ran it?”

The six images I whipped up in series are included below – if so inclined, feel free to distribute at will.  (Attribution not necessary – I want to promote their opinions, not mine.)

They’re intended to trigger the consideration that the same training, rigors, education, problem-solving skills, decisiveness, and unique experiences required of and provided to those selected to venture off-world might also happen to make them ideal for leading us here at home.

I’d argue that we need more out there communicating the idea that supporting human space exploration has more behind it than the development of new technologies, probing the laws of our universe, figuring out if we’re alone in the cosmos, turning a profit, or even capitalizing on our species’ deep-seated impulse to explore.

By no means a new concept, many have instead suggested that with the apparently-universal nature of the Overview Effect and an increasing number of astronauts in our midst, conflicts may be given a broader or different context, and world contention might thereby diminish.  (It’s an admittedly lofty hope, but that’s no reason to avoid testing it; In my opinion, it provides all the more reason!)

About the Meme: Why That Picture?

The picture itself, that of future moonwalker Alan Shepard severely chomping on a cigar while leading ground control during the Gemini 6 mission to space, provides several subtly unsettling contrasts that I hope inspire thought or debate.  On its face, by depicting a very assertive, gruff 1960s American male stereotype, we’re shown a side of science and exploration that is not really depicted today.

Next, by just placing the picture of an astronaut (not in a spacesuit) in a vaguely political context, I feel that the concept of the explorer and the politician – two seemingly unrelated or even incompatible archtypes – are juxtaposed in such a way that the idea of an explorer-politician might be seen as something beneficial or even desirable.   (Many are unaware that several astronauts have, indeed, gone on to political careers after hanging up their flightsuits, John Glenn and Harrison Schmitt being two noteworthy examples.)

Further, however, is the fascinating contrast made by the impression of the picture and the content of the quotes superimposed over it.  Most today would consider the quotes to be promoting “liberal” leaning opinions, (i.e., ideas that those of a “hawk”-style international relations stance would consider to be fundamentally weak views,) – yet the majority of the quotes were made my military men epitomized by the stereotype the image suggests!

In addition to highlighting that no personality types, even those perceived to be warlike, are immune to the power of the spaceflight experience, this contrast visually assaults two modern myths currently operating in America’s evolving cultural narrative:

  1. That stereotypical, “20th Century male” (i.e., overt or hegemonic masculine) personalities or gender identities are synonymous with physicality and are incompatible with intellect.
  2. That the same personalities typified (or classified) at the time by masculine stereotypes are synonymous with aggression and conflict and are incompatible with humanist views.

Meshed with the deconstruction of a stereotype, (to the point, several of our “Right Stuff” astronauts, themselves amongst the most disciplined and committed military men of our country at the time, admitted to being moved to tears at the simple sight of the Earth from beyond,) it’s my hope that their message finds a memorable channel to the public, if not to a virgin audience.

Feedback/Distribution!

For those inclined to do so, let me know what you think, and please copy and “fire at will,” as they say, on your social media outlet of choice.  Who knows?  These might not get a single view, or they just might plant a seed to someone whose eyes drift over it in the daily waterfall of social media that washes over us all.

Hopefully, discussions will result.

Having had their eyes opened, (perhaps metaphorically-dilated by the cosmic darkness to resolve a reality we’re evidently excellent at blinding ourselves to down here on Earth), I believe that there is a pressing social motivation for broadcasting the consistent messages carried back by humanity’s astronauts.

Especially given the increasingly-polarized political views on display these days, and considering the global, long-standing ideological conflicts that persist to this day, I think the message from our off-world explorers is becoming only more, not less, relevant with time.

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Treatise: Abandoning OldSpace’s Conceit

30 07 2013
Should this be considered space exploration?  "Pilot Felix Baumgartner jumps out from the capsule during the final manned flight for Red Bull Stratos in Roswell, New Mexico, USA on October 14, 2012." (Credit: Red Bull Stratos)

Should this be considered space exploration? “Pilot Felix Baumgartner jumps out from the capsule at 126,720 feet during the final manned flight for Red Bull Stratos in Roswell, New Mexico” (Credit: Red Bull Stratos)

Space Exploration is suffering an identity crisis.

Like atmospheric flight before it, space exploration is evolving to include a spectrum of public and private participants, motivations, and goals.  However, even amongst space enthusiasts and professionals, there is much (mostly friendly – I’ll get to that) debate regarding just what exactly it is that qualifies as worthy space exploration.

This debate tends to set itself up in terms of convenient binaries:

Human or robotic?  Public or commercial?  Lunar or Martian?  To seek out an asteroid where it orbits or capture one and bring it back to us?  (There are many more…)

Determining who or what is qualified (or makes someone qualified) to wear the title of “astronaut” and engage in space exploration seems to be the source of much of any contention amongst engaged parties.  And, in certain corners, the resulting conversation tempestuously swirls around whether or not some current private efforts to reach space even qualify as exploration at all.

With this in mind, and before the conceptual landscape becomes any more confusing or inconsistent, let’s take a detailed journey through the convoluted and fascinating history of just what it means to explore space and – not always coincidentally – to be considered a space explorer.

In this way, a new appreciation of the promise and potential of so-called NewSpace activities might be produced – one that thwarts brewing, (and in my opinion, shortsighted), negative bias amongst those in the established space exploration community…

Apollo 17 Lunar Module cabin interior after day 3 on the lunar surface: Helmets and space suits on the engine cover at left with Astronaut Gene Cernan looking on.  (Credit: NASA)

Apollo 17 Lunar Module cabin interior after day 3 on the lunar surface (12/13/72): Helmets and space suits piled on the engine cover with astronaut Gene Cernan at right. (Credit: NASA)

Deconstruction of the Space Explorer

It used to be considered that human beings had to bodily participate, a la the Lewis and Clark Expedition, in order for something to be considered “exploration.”  In this light, robotic space missions were once seen only as tantalizing forerunners to the delivery of human bootprints, when the real exploration began.

Now, however, based in part on funding, politics, and the march of technology, the robots have claimed much of the exploration center stage as competent cosmic surveyors, jaw-dropping photographers, and even mobile geologic laboratories.

While not autonomous, their successes have led many to seriously question whether human beings will ultimately have a primary role in space exploration, if any significant role at all.

Meanwhile, those who still endorse human ingenuity and adaptability as key components for space exploration face a simultaneous conceptual quandry.  Once something clearly defined in nationalistic terms, (and intentionally invoking, let’s be honest, Greek-demigod-like associations), the conceptual waters of the 21st century human space explorer have also been permanently muddied.

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Spaceflight participant Anousheh Ansari prior to her launch to the Int’l Space Station aboard a Soyuz spacecraft, 11/’06. (Credit: NASA)

Anyone who crosses the invisible and somewhat arbitrary 62-mile altitude line to “outer space” can be honestly called an “astronaut.”  However, a healthy handful of space tourists are now included in the fold of human beings who have crossed the threshold to space to become astronauts.  To make the landscape even more confusing, many have advised (NASA included) that out of respect and/or accuracy we should refer to these self-funded astronauts as “spaceflight participants,” not tourists.

So, are these participants to be considered explorers in their own right even if they are not considered career astronauts?  Or are they simple sightseers along for the ride with the true explorers?

Is or can there be a difference between a spaceflight participant and a tourist or sightseer?

Astronaut-Explorer: Still Synonymous?

Whatever the semantics dictate, with hundreds of additional, willing, and self-funded future astronauts waiting in the wings, it is reasonable to ask whether or not being an “astronaut” even implies space exploration anymore.

Is it the intent of the trip or tasks to be performed that is or are the key distinguishing factors between thrill-seeking and exploration, (i.e., is science to be performed)?  This might be a sensible definition, yet in asking this question it is noteworthy to point out that many of the astronaut-spaceflight-participants have performed scientific work while in space.

Despite this fact, many in the what I like to call the “OldSpace” community, (namely current or former NASA employees and contractors with a more traditional view of space exploration), balk at the idea that these participants represent legitimate space exploration.  This seems to imply that it is only professional astronauts that are to be considered the explorers.

However, the logic of making such a distinction quickly falls apart when considering the countless private expeditions throughout human history that have opened continents, frontiers, and knowledge to human awareness.

So, this is my first point.  We’re woefully vague when it comes to describing those who travel to or work in space.

Peering more deeply into the issue, one of the primary issues is the qualification of someone to become an astronaut.  Right now, by strict definition all it takes is a suitable increase in altitude for someone to earn their astronaut wings.

Is this an accurate or meaningful way to define an astronaut in the first place?  (Or do we need a new or different definition altogether?)

The nose of the Gemini-9A spacecraft over the Pacific Ocean during the second spacewalk in NASA history, on 5 June 1966.  (Credit: NASA)

The nose of the Gemini-9A spacecraft over the Pacific Ocean during the second spacewalk in NASA history, on 5 June 1966. (Credit: NASA)

Where is Space, Anyway?

Like a poorly-woven sweater, the more one pulls on this thread of questioning, the faster the whole thing unravels.  Consequently, it may be here that we find the clearest junction from which the many different views of space exploration begin to diverge.

Classically, “outer space” is considered the region encompassing the rest of the universe beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.  That’s simple enough.

However, we now know that the most rarefied portions of the Earth’s atmosphere (exosphere) extend out to more than 62,000 miles away from the Earth’s surface(!), while the more conventional uppermost portions of the atmosphere extend to 200-500 miles in altitude (thermosphere).  Yet at all of these fringe heights, the atmosphere is still little more than individual atoms zipping around a vacuum, separated from one another by so great a distance that they are practically indistinguishable from outer space.

To make matters more impractical, these altitudes vary by several hundred miles depending on how much solar activity is warming up the atmosphere at the time.

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View of Earth’s horizon as the sun sets over the Pacific Ocean as seen from the Int’l Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

So, where do we draw that magic line separating atmosphere from space?  Let’s take a look at the reality from the ground up ourselves (so-to-speak),  and you can decide whether or not you would have placed the dividing line to “space” where current convention has drawn it:

  1. Humans can generally function well without supplemental oxygen to an altitude of roughly two miles above sea level, or 10,000 feet.  I don’t believe any reasonable argument can be made that any region located hereabouts represents “outer space.”
  2. However, by the time one reaches little more than three times that, (at 36,000 feet, or 7 miles in altitude – the cruising flight altitude of most commercial airline traffic), not only would a would-be explorer require supplemental oxygen, be he or she has (surprisingly) already emerged from three-quarters of the bulk of the Earth’s atmosphere.  (That’s 75% of the way to space by mass!)
  3. By the time one reaches 12 miles in altitude or about 62,000 feet, (a.k.a., the Armstrong Line), In addition to oxygen, a pressure suit is absolutely required in order to prevent the moisture in one’s mouth, throat and lungs from boiling away due to the low pressure.  (Sounds awfully space-y.  Are we there, yet?)
  4. The atmospheric layer known as the stratosphere extends upwards to 170,000 feet, or 32 miles, and contains the planet’s ozone layer.  This is now a height that is above all but rarest, upper-atmospheric clouds.
  5. From there to roughly 50 miles (264,000 feet) is the Earth’s mesosphere, the region of the atmosphere where most meteors burn up upon entry due to friction with the atmosphere.  (Does the fact that meteors really encounter the atmosphere here mean that this is the real boundary to space?  Or are we already there?)
  6. The thermosphere extends from there to an average of 300 miles (1,584,000 feet) in altitude, where atoms in the atmosphere can travel for the better part of a mile before running into one-another.  The International Space Station is located within this layer, and I don’t think anyone would argue that we’re now definitely in “outer space.”

Where would you put the dividing line?

Current international convention, known as the “Kármán Line,” places it at 62 miles in altitude, or roughly 330,000 feet.  That’s out of the mesosphere and just peeking into the thermosphere.

Confusingly, however, (and perhaps unsurprisingly after reading the above), the U.S. has separately defined an astronaut as anyone who reaches an altitude greater than 50 miles, or 264,000 feet, in altitude.

Captain Joe Engle is seen here next to the X-15-2 rocket-powered research aircraft after a flight. Three of Engle's 16 X-15 flights were above 50 miles, qualifying him for astronaut wings under the Air Force definition.  Engle was later selected as a NASA astronaut in 1966, making him the only person who was already an astronaut before being selected as a NASA astronaut. (Credit: NASA)

Captain Joe Engle, a living example of the inconsistency surrounding use of the term “astronaut,” standing next to the X-15 research rocketplane. Three of Engle’s sixteen X-15 flights were above 50 miles, qualifying him for astronaut wings under the Air Force definition, and Engle was later selected as a NASA astronaut in 1966. This makes him the only person in history who was technically already an astronaut before being hired as a NASA astronaut. (Credit: NASA)

Been There, Flown That?

According to current convention, one needs to cross either 50 or 62 miles in altitude to reach space.  Yet the above altitude list demonstrates that what most would refer to as a spacesuit (a pressure suit) is required by anyone attempting even 1/5th that altitude.

Clearly, walking through the above exercise demonstrates that the human experience of “outer space” is reached far lower in altitude than these conventions currently dictate.  Further, it’s clear to see that a would-be astronaut has escaped more than 90% of the atmosphere by mass well before reaching the Kármán Line.

(To reiterate, this is a rub even between the U.S. and international bodies, whose definitions of the dividing line to space differ by more than 63,000 feet!).

Hence, this is where serious debates about space exploration begin.  For example, when private spacecraft aim to achieve suborbital spaceflight altitudes of 40 miles, such as XCOR Aerospace’s Lynx Mark I, they do not currently break through either the U.S. space line or the Kármán Line.  Consequently, any passengers aboard cannot be technically called “Astronauts” by the most generally-accepted definition of the term.

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XCOR XR-5K18 “Lynx” main engine test on the flight weight fuselage. The Lynx Mark I is designed to achieve an altitude of 200,000 feet, or roughly 40 miles. (Credit: XCOR Aerospace)

However, as anyone can see in the above list of altitudes and physical characteristics, 40 miles above Earth not only has long achieved the human experience of “space,” but it skirts the boundary above which even meteors pass by at many tens of kilometers per second (where entry friction would make even a sparse but significant atmosphere quickly known) without noticing anything appreciable.

Outer space, indeed!

However, particularly, from the OldSpace corner, I’ve personally detected the prevalent sentiment that since this sort of travel doesn’t even reach “space,” it therefore could not possibly be considered exploration, much less fruitful exploration.  Even those private efforts that do breach the Kármán Line are often scoffed at as repeats of old triumphs and rejected under nearly the same pretense.

So, in an effort to thwart what I see as burgeoning (and perhaps  unconscious) resentment within the more traditional segments of the space establishment with respect to new, private space technology, projects, and the human travelers that will utilize them, let’s delve further toward the heart of this identity crisis.

While the advent of space tourism (or participant-ism) began in the early 2000s, it is with one specific event that to my heuristic eye the socio-technical deconstruction of our once-clean concept of the human space explorer truly began:

The 2004 clinching of the Ansari X Prize by the private flights of Virgin Galactic‘s SpaceShipOne.

SpaceShipOne released from the White Knight mothership beneath a crescent moon. (Credit: Scaled Composites/SpaceDaily)

SpaceShipOne released from the White Knight mothership beneath a crescent moon. (Credit: Scaled Composites/SpaceDaily)

Suborbital: Not Space Enough?

Objectors to the idea that spaceflights like that performed by SpaceShipOne can be considered fruitful space exploration point out that SpaceShipOne was only a suborbital spaceplane, boasting speeds far less than those required to reach orbital velocity.

(Translation:  Suborbital spacecraft only have enough steam to peek out into officially-defined space for a few minutes before falling back to Earth.  In contrast, bigger spacecraft, like NASA’s former Space Shuttle or SpaceX’s Dragon, can power all the way up to orbital speed and remain in space until they choose to slow down and fall back to Earth or are slowly brought down by atoms in the sparse upper-atmosphere.)

Further, these objectors often and rightfully point out that these very low-altitude portions of outer space, referred to collectively as “suborbital space,” have already been traversed hundreds of times by astronauts.  (Indeed, more than 250 times during the Space Shuttle Program alone.)

SpaceShipOne’s achievement itself was a modern replication of the 1960s’ X-15 Program, the pioneer rocketplane that produced the world’s first astronauts and gathered invaluable research for NASA’s Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle programs.

Hence, arguments against the concept of private suborbital space exploration typically conclude that, with all of this in mind, there’s no more exploration to suborbital spaceflight than driving down a paved road.  Suborbital spaceflight participants are therefore not explorers, nor can what they engage in while there be called space exploration.

Particularly amongst the old guard of space science, “exploration” is therefore reserved for those pushing the frontier in higher orbits, cislunar space, trips to near-Earth asteroids, Mars, and beyond.

Astronaut pilots Brian Binnie (left) and Mike Melvill helped Burt Rutan win the $10 million Ansari X Prize by completing two manned space flights within two weeks, each piloting SS1.  (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Astronaut pilots Brian Binnie (left) and Mike Melvill. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

However, before throwing in the towel on 21st century suborbital space exploration, we must address the reality that SpaceShipOne managed to privately achieve what until that time had only been accomplished by global superpowers – no small feat!  Further, it was a feat that led the FAA to award the first (and so far, the only) commercial astronaut spaceflight wings to pilots Brian Binnie and Mike Melvill.

Surely they can therefore be considered pioneers, and exploration seems a fitting term for their achievement.

Peeling the veil farther back, it’s true that so-called space tourists began purchasing trips to the Mir space station and then to the International Space Station as far back as 2001.  In order to participate, these private space adventurers had to endure and successfully complete the very same training as their Russian cosmonaut counterparts.

The intriguing question that follows is this: If what government-sponsored astronauts were engaged in was and is considered to be legitimate exploration, wouldn’t by extension the same label apply to all on the same voyage assisting in the same work?  If someone were to have purchased their way aboard Shackleton’s Endurance, would they be considered any less an explorer today?

Of course not.

Then, what of our oceans as a parallel?  They have been traversed hundreds of thousands if not millions of times in the last several centuries.  Does this mean that no exploration may be conducted on the Earth’s oceans in the 21st century?

Surely not.  Context is key.  (One may explore climate effects, seek out undiscovered ecological niches, probe poorly-mapped coastlines, explore archaeological evidence of our past activities, wield new technology to tease new data from an old environment, and that’s not even scratching the ocean’s subsurface…)

Just so, objections to suborbital spaceflight as legitimate space exploration logically fall apart.  In even greater degree than with Earth’s oceans, there is ample room and conceptual research justifications for the legitimate continued exploration of suborbital space.

So what’s the real issue here?  Why is there any resistance at all?

Evolution.

Or, more specifically, how we as a culture always tend to get evolution wrong.

An evolutionary path of spaceflight depicted.  (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

A depicted evolutionary path of spaceflight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Getting Evolution Wrong, or

“How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love NewSpace”

As a geologist, I’ve become very sensitive to a sort of teleological conceit that people tend to carry into the common understanding of biological evolution.  In other words, people tend to incorrectly believe that life evolves toward something.

We culturally call something that is more advanced more evolved, and we characterize something unsophisticated to be less evolved or primitive.  When something loses ground, we even say that it has devolved.

Well, much as the term “theory” is almost universally misused compared to the scientific meaning of the term, (people usually mean that they have a “hypothesis” when they say they have a “theory”), the terms “evolved” and “primitive” are fairly universally misused and misunderstood.

They’re relative terms, not universal terms.

One could paraphrase this misunderstanding by assessing the belief that there was a sort of biological, evolutionary destiny for algae – that given enough time and opportunity, the little, green “organism that could” would eventually evolve to become a human being.

This, in turn, reasonably translates to a belief that we as humans are more “advanced” than algae, and that we’re therefore “better” than algae.

One of the International Space Station solar arrays, which converts sunlight to energy.  (Credit: NASA)

One of the International Space Station solar arrays, which converts sunlight to energy. (Credit: NASA)

Many are consequently shocked to learn that all of these beliefs are untrue, based on a series of logical fallacies.  Science, quite surprisingly, shows us that quite the opposite is true.  Life will evolve in any number of convenient directions, even those that seem backwards to our modern perceptions.

Yes, human beings benefit from large brains, acute stereoscopic vision, and an uncanny ability to communicate, which we have wielded to our great advantage.  Algae cells possess none of these tools.  However, algae can convert sunlight into sugar using only a modest supply of water and carbon dioxide.  Our best attempts to use our “advanced” brains to perform this very same and ancient task have failed to come within even a fraction of li’l algae’s efficiency.  (Would that human beings achieve this apparently “primitive” feat, the human civilization would have permanently solved the social issues of hunger and starvation!  …That’s fairly “advanced” biological processing, if you asked me.)

So, by which yardstick are we to define “advanced”?  Conceit leads us to select our own attributes as more advanced, yet this is not scientific.  It’s arbitrary.

For a more specific example, the fossil record reveals in several instances that seaborne life, adapting to a changing and increasingly food-rich land surface, eventually (over the course of thousands or tens of thousands of generations) made feet of fins and took hold on land.  However, this same land-based life, under reverse pressure for food back toward the sea, over time reversed the trend and converted its feet back to fins once again.

The erroneous interpretation here, (like assuming that we’re more advanced than algae), is that feet are more advanced than fins.  The reality is that they are simply different biological tools that may be used, abandoned, and returned to if necessary or useful.

“More evolved” simply tracks the progression of evolution forward through time, whereas “more primitive” describes a rung in an organism’s ancestry.

(It is perfectly reasonable, then, in the reverse-adaptation scenario mentioned above, to have a situation where fins are more evolved than feet!)

In short, we see that instead of propelling itself toward a single destiny, life is flexible.  It responds to the pressures of the outside world, wherever they lead.  Evolution, therefore, is not so much the story of the noble rise of algae to one day become more “advanced” animal life to one day become even more advanced human beings who might one day build rockets to explore the stars…  Instead, biological evolution is a complex, daunting, nonlinear story of life surviving at any cost; adapting to any niche it can, and capitalizing to its fullest on whatever biological skills were close at hand.

So, too, is the same error present with our perception of spaceflight and space exploration.  As a modern, parasitic sort of conceit tagging along with our understanding of space history, we presume a linear destiny has been in play, when in fact it has not.

The original image above, a logo occasionally promoted by Virgin Galactic, intentionally relates evolution to spaceflight.  Ironically, it plays to both the incorrect and correct views of evolution.

People tend to view space exploration itself as a teleological journey toward more distant and exotic locations, describing it in apropos biological terminology as a migration of life toward a destiny amongst the stars, to new colonies, etc.

MarchofProgressThis is a feeling certainly visually-evoked by the above image of evolving spacecraft, a nod to the famous “March of Progress” illustration of 1965 simplified at right.  However, this view relies on the conceit that farther distances are more advanced or “better” than short-range flights.  When looking at the facts, this simply isn’t the case.

For instance, a phone in a pilot’s pocket aboard SpaceShipOne would have had literally thousands of times the computing power of the Apollo Lunar Module (LM) guidance computer, (to say nothing of SpaceShipOne’s onboard instrumentation).  SpaceShipOne, also leveraging new developments in the technology of aerodynamics, composite materials, GPS location and tracking, and with the novel innovation of a feathered wing configuration for reentry, was a much more technologically-advanced spacecraft than the LM.

The LM, it is also true to say, could not possibly have successfully produced aerodynamic lift or had enough thrust to land on the Earth, two feats SpaceShipOne performed with apparent ease.  But SpaceShipOne only poked its head out into space, whereas the LM both landed on and departed from the moon while enabling its passengers to perform extra-vehicular activities – all impossible feats for SpaceShipOne.

So, by which yardstick do we define “advanced”?  Here, our same algae/human conceit rears its head.  But clearly, destination and the level of technological advancement of a spacecraft are not related.  They are simply different.

In fact, looking more closely at the above diagram, this truth is actually captured.  An observer will note that the second to the last, most “evolved” spacecraft is actually the LM.  The final step in the sequence is SpaceShipOne, a ship whose maximum designed altitude does not come within 0.03% of the distance to the Moon.

It is this conceit, I believe, that is also at the heart of OldSpace’s reluctance to (or perhaps even resentment of) embracing private space exploration efforts and those who engage in them as space explorers.  We don’t like the messy version of evolution.

We prefer our teleology.

070326_bigelowview_hmed_10a.grid-6x2

Bigelow Aerospace’s Genesis 1 orbital module, a first-of-its-kind inflatable spacecraft boasting superior micrometeorite resistance than rigid modules. (Credit: Bigelow Aerospace)

Evolving Our View of Space Exploration

In almost back-to-back recent events, what to me is an example of the true nature of the conflict between the many colliding conceptions of astronauts, space explorers, and space exploration was brought into sharp relief:

On the one hand, a NASA historian who I greatly respect alleged to me that private suborbital spaceflight and even new, commercial orbital space modules and transportation systems (which have recently received NASA funding to enhance the U.S. space infrastructure and give scientists more platforms and opportunities to conduct research),  were patently unworthy of NASA dollars.

Existing Russian and U.S. systems should be relied upon, and the already pinched NASA budget, he implied, should be saved and consolidated for the more worthy endeavor of exploring truly uncharted planetary territory.

Would I ever argue against probing the possible subsurface seas of Europa, the lakes of Titan or even the permafrost-spiked upper latitudes of Mars as worthy exploration?  Certainly not.  I became a geologist for precisely these sorts of explorations.

However, this bias once again recalls our comfortable teleological conceit.

Nearly simultaneously with this conversation, I gave a talk at the 2013 Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference where I championed the use of suborbital flights to gather new information to explore how low-dose, high intensity radiation exposures may affect the human body.  This untapped research, in turn, could help guide and revise radiation safety measures and protocols right here on Earth.

Admittedly, such work is not as thrilling or romantic as forging ahead into the uncharted lands of new worlds.  However, I would argue to the teeth that this research also presents a completely legitimate form of space exploration, one with potentially even more immediate application to life at home than exploring other worlds.

Likewise, expending the effort to create a private, orbital space transportation system may not seem to be breakthrough space exploration work.  However, the simple addition of more players, minds, and motives has the very real possibility of producing quantum leaps – at the very least by assaulting the status quo.  (On that note, keep an eye on SpaceX’s Grasshopper test program…)

This exemplifies what I see as the root of OldSpace’s resistance: The idea that ground already trodden has nothing left to teach us; That if it has been done before, especially by the hallowed pioneers of early NASA, it cannot be improved or expanded upon while possessing a legitimate claim to space exploration.

If this conception is as prevalent as it seems to me to be, it is with no small amount of urgency that we must confront this bias head-on.

Chiefly, such a perception amongst researchers and professionals in existing aerospace firms creates an entry barrier so impenetrable that private space exploration firms and the innovation that comes with them would be thwarted before they even had a chance to prove themselves in the space market.

Secondly, even if unwittingly held by those on grant review panels, in academic positions of leadership, or even in elected office, these perceptions would threaten the ability for new ideas, techniques, and novel research to receive the support they need to see the light of day, to the detriment of us all.

Like an accurate view of biological adaptation over time, we should afford our cherished concepts of space exploration the freedom to evolve with the pressures of the modern era.

The history of NASA spin-off technologies shows us that even one of these space-based innovations, which may not initially seem as teleologically-advanced as setting foot on Mars, may radically change life on Earth for the better.

Another, seemingly innocuous line of research explored in even the nearest atmospheric shores of so-called Outer Space could trigger the long-sought paradigm shift that at last transforms humanity into a thriving, spacefaring civilization.

Private, professional scientists preparing for hypobaric chamber astronaut training.  (Credit: Ben McGee)

Private, professional scientists preparing for hypobaric chamber astronaut training. (Credit: Ben McGee)

Reconstructing Space

When undergoing suborbital scientist astronaut training myself, a journalist for Newsweek who was there to chronicle the three-day training experience remarked something to the effect of, “People want to go to space because space is special, and the people who go there are therefore special.  So, isn’t it a problem that the more people go to space, the less special it all becomes, and fewer people will ultimately want to go or be interested in/by space?”

Essentially, he was wondering if our work to make space more accessible to both citizens and researchers wasn’t ultimately self-defeating.  It’s a fair question.

However, is that really what draws people to space?  Is it really simply the remoteness of outer space and a desire for the prestige associated with having been where so few have gone before?

Frankly, while I can’t speak for anyone but myself, this seems like the perception of someone who does not personally wish to engage in space exploration.  Of all the people I have known who wish to loose the bonds of gravity and touch the great beyond, it isn’t for bragging rights.

Instead, it’s a deeply personal calling – like those drawn to deep-sea or antarctic ice shelf research – something that seems to draw like-minded or like-willed people to the science frontiers to plunge their own hands past the realm of comfort and viscerally shove on the limits of knowledge and human experience.

By my internal compass, this is what separates mere sightseeing from honest exploration.  Bragging rights versus knowledge.

Adventure may be experienced in either case, but only in the context of the latter could a successfully-completed spaceflight ever be considered a failure, (e.g., if the experiment wasn’t successfully performed or a data-logger malfunctioned, etc.).  This is a healthy benchmark for an explorer, which becomes comfortably similar to how we define exploration here on Earth.

From this perspective, it finally occurred to me what it is that we really need in order to resolve these ongoing debates about space exploration and worthiness.  Quite simply, in order to allow space exploration to blossom, we must let space itself evolve…

…Our collective conception of space and astronauts, that is.

Pilot Felix Baumgartner jumps out from the capsule at an altitude of 24+ miles during the final manned flight for Red Bull Stratos, 10/14/12. (Credit: Jay Nemeth)

Pilot Felix Baumgartner jumps out from the capsule at an altitude of 24+ miles during the final manned balloon flight for Red Bull Stratos, 10/14/12. (Credit: Jay Nemeth)

Closing Thoughts

No matter where we determine the arbitrary dividing line separating the atmosphere from space to be, and irrespective of the motives of those who desire to travel there, the reality is that space is no longer an abstract location.  It’s a place.

In fact, “space” is many places.

Space includes suborbital space, near-space, low Earth orbit, the International Space Station, geosynchronous orbit, cislunar space, the Moon, Mars, asteroids, and all other natural and artificial celestial locales and bodies that now more than ever beg us to recognize them for what they are and pursue what they each, separately, have to teach us.

In so vast a series of environments, both literally and conceptually, there is ample room for all types of exploration, from the public and pure-science motivated to private and profit-oriented; From testing the farthest, uncharted reaches of deep space to surveying the near-space regions just beyond our atmosphere about which we have so much yet to learn, (take the recent discovery of upper-atmospheric sprites and elves as an example).

Just as the same, cerulean blue oceans beckon tourists to cruise in luxury within giant floating hotels, lure fishermen away from land to harvest food from the sea for both business and pleasure, and attract scientists to study its biological, geological, and climatological mysteries, so too will space invite a spectrum of sightseers, explorers, workers, and businessmen.

Consequently, I endorse an extremely broad and inclusive view of space exploration.  For example, while only half-way to even the most liberal current altitude line for reaching space, the Red Bull Stratos “space jump” served several significant space exploration research functions.

Specifically, in addition to wearing the trappings of spaceflight (i.e., pressure suit, pressurized capsule), the jump collected data invaluable to those currently modeling suborbital spacecraft passenger ejection systems, scenarios, and high-altitude parachute systems.  Likewise, prior to the jump (which broke several records), medical and physiological science had no idea what the effects of bodily crossing the sound barrier would be(!).

Further, I believe time will show that, long after our lingering 20th century biases have fallen away, legitimate exploration of all realms applicable to space exploration will be perfectly justified and therefore persistently embraced as such.

And in that case, exploration of each of these different regions of space and near-space will remain vibrant until the boundaries of our knowledge have been pushed so far outward that our civilization’s use of space makes it simply unrecognizable to us today.

It is then, perhaps, that space exploration will finally have abandoned our conceptual conceits and eliminated the vagueness of our young descriptions of the realms beyond our world and those who choose to work and explore there.

-And from the general term Astronaut-explorer I expect a new range of titles will have descended:  Astrographer, Stratobiologist, Orbital Engineer, Suborbital Astronomer, Selenologist, Areologist…

________________

Comments welcome.





Why Support Human Spaceflight?

7 01 2013

NASA plans to test the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle in low-Earth orbit in 2014. (Image credit: NASA)

It seems that an eternal question plagues conversations about the future of commercial or governmental spaceflight: “To man (a spacecraft), or not to man?”

-This query is one I am often posed when I reveal my own spaceflight ambitions.  Many wonder why we bother with the incredible expense of sending humans off-world when critics argue that 1) the same or better work could be performed with robotic spacecraft; 2) laboratory experiments in space add little value to what we can achieve here on Earth; or 3) that in the context of state-supported spaceflight these activities divert crucial funds from other social needs.

Well, as it would turn out, former NASA Director of Life Sciences Dr. Joan Vernikos has answers.

Defending Human Spaceflight

Astronaut Edward H. White II, pilot on the Gemini-Titan 4 spaceflight, is shown during his egress from the spacecraft. (Image credit: NASA)

Astronaut Edward H. White II, pilot on the Gemini-Titan 4 spaceflight, is shown during his egress from the spacecraft. (Image credit: NASA)

In a sweeping article she authored back in 2008 for the medical journal Hippokratia entitled, “Human Exploration of Space: why, where, what for?”, Vernikos exposes the many failings of these criticisms while highlighting a spectrum of commercial and societal applications for human space research.

  • For starters, she points out that the repair and upgrades of the Hubble Space Telescope – universally hailed as not only the most important telescope in history but also as one of humanity’s most successful scientific endeavors – was only possible via the use of skilled and trained astronauts.
  • Expressing a fair amount of foresight, Vernikos then goes on to point out that commercial space travel providers (see: SpaceX) will rely on the knowledge gained from human spaceflight to support a safe and secure experience both for researchers and adventurers.
  • There’s the classic and no-less-relevant argument that human explorers have capabilities for innovation, troubleshooting, creative problem-solving, and adaptation simple unavailable to robotic counterparts.  This is particularly useful when utilizing very sensitive instrumentation and performing research with many unknowns or variables.

But these points, suitable defenses on their own, pale in comparison to Vernikos’s description of the commercial enterprise that grew out of the Shuttle-era…

Exploring the Space Applications Market

The reality of trickle-down consumer technology and products that were originally developed for human spaceflight applications is breathtaking.  It truly seems that anyone who downplays the commercial and social trickle-down benefits of tackling the challenges of human spaceflight simply hasn’t done their homework.  For example, Vernikos (here emphasizing her medical background) describes in detail that space exploration is directly responsible for:

  • The ubiquitous reflective, anti-UV, anti-glare coating on eyeglasses
  • Small-scale blood-testing (requiring drops instead of vials)
  • The entire field of telemedicine
  • In-utero fetal monitoring
  • Genetic pathogen-detection sensors
  • Telemetry computing for the civil and environmental industries
  • Enhanced breast cancer diagnostics using the Hubble Telescope digital imaging system
  • Tissue engineering
  • Enhanced antibiotics generation
  • Bed-rest countermeasures

-And this is just the tip of the iceberg.  In this way, Vernikos promotes redirecting attention to the idea of the “Space Applications Market,” which is the name she gives to the commercial arena where these NASA-driven technological and knowledge advances are incorporated into commercial and societal applications.

Instead of the microgravity-tended orbital commercial manufacturing or power-generation facilities that many assumed would be the means by which commercial enterprise would capitalize on human space exploration, it’s been the smaller-scale technological innovations and applications that make a (if not somewhat obscured) powerful impact both on the economy as well as on our daily lives.  Just look at the above list of advances in health technology and medical know-how.

-And new research suggesting a possible link between exposure to ionizing radiation in space and neurodegeneration – an accelerated onset of Alzheimer’s Disease – means that the greatest medical advances as a result of human spaceflight may yet be ahead of us.

All it will take is support for human spaceflight.





Telepresence, Androids, and Space Exploration

13 06 2012

Our culture is replete with examples of androids and humanoid robots in space.  From David in Ridley Scott’s brand-new film, Prometheus, to the iconic C-3PO in George Lucas’s Star Wars, androids and humanoid robots are often portrayed as our trusted servants and protectors, capable of tasks we ourselves cannot or will not perform. 

Further, the related idea of a person using a surrogate, technological body to survive harsh environments is nearly as old, most recently exemplified by the title character’s lab-grown hybrid body in James Cameron’s recent film Avatar.

These notions are sensible ones for three primary reasons:

  1. Space travel and planetary exploration of any significant distance or duration presents a harsh environment from multiple fronts – psychological, physiological, temporal. 
  2. Maintaining a human form-factor means that these androids will be able to use the same equipment and vehicles as has been designed to accommodate the rest of the crew, a clearly efficient attribute. 
  3. It has been shown that human beings interact more comfortably in may cases with anthropomorphized machines – easing crew comfort.

Well, it appears that reality is finally catching up to these sci-fi archtypes (or, arguably, proving that by defining our expectations science-fiction often acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy.)

Roscosmos’s SAR-400

Russian telepresence android SAR-400 at a workstation. (Credit: RSK)

As detailed in a story from The Voice of Russia here, the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, has long been developing the SAR-400, a telepresence robot they term an “android.”  (Note: The definition of what qualifies as an android is still a little loose.)  SAR-400 is designed to act as an astronaut surrogate whenever possible, particularly during spacewalks, to reduce safety risks to the humans aboard the International Space Station (ISS). 

While no plans to send a SAR-400 to space have been announced, this project is extremely similar to a beleagured NASA project of parallel design and scope that is already aboard the ISS.

NASA’s Robonaut-2

Robotics Industry Association President Jeff Burnstein shakes hands with GM-NASA telepresence android “Robonaut 2.” (Credit: RIA)

The NASA Robonaut project, with a lengthy history dating back to conceptual work performed in 1997, is a telepresence robot sharing a nearly identical design with the SAR-400 that is intended to perform work in space and on planetary exploration missions.  (On an interesting side note, during the early 2000s Robonaut’s cosmetic “head” bore an uncanny resemblance to the highly-recognizeable Jango/Boba Fett costume helmet of Star Wars fame.) 

This culminated in 2011 with the launch of a test Robonaut-2 (R2) to the International Space Station.  While the robot has been configured to integrate with the station systems, the robot has seen little real use due heat-dissipation and other technical difficulties.  However, limited tests are proving favorable and increasing the likelihood that that future semi-autonomous telepresence robots will be considered part of the crew.

Robonaut project manager Roin Diftler is quoted as saying that their final objective is “…relieving the crew of every dull task and, in time, giving the crew more time for science and exploration.”

Implications for human space exploration

In a very direct way, this technology reopens the classic debate about whether or not the future of space exploration involves astronaut human beings at all.

Opponents to human-based space exploration cite costs and logistical complications, while proponents note that human beings still exhibit unique learnining, problem-solving, and innovation capabilities necessary for frontier work that are far beyond the ability of modern artificial intelligences. 

Bishop (341-B), a benevolent android and space crewmember from the film “Aliens.” (Credit: 20th Century Fox)

Perhaps, instead of replacing humans on the frontier, the future will be a hybrid approach as has been the case so far.  As R2’s program manager implied above, perhaps the ultimate solution is to cater to our strengths – in androids, an unblinking sentinel, able to perform repetitive or tedious tasks without tiring and work in dangerous environments without suffering the effects of stress; in humans – creative problem-solvers and pioneering explorers with the ability to innovate, and perhaps more importantly, to inspire.

In this light I’m strongly reminded of Bishop, the “synthetic person” artificial intelligence from the James Cameron film, Aliens.  A good guy strictly governed by Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, Bishop is shown to accompany space crews into unknown territory, operate equipment, pilot vehicles, perform analyses, reduce data, and save the day on multiple occasions. 

Might Robonaut-2 and the SAR-400 be the equivalent of a real-life Bishop’s distant ancestors?  Time will tell.  

However, in this character, science fiction has erected a sensible guidepost for what future android integration into space crews for the purpose of enabling human space exploration would look like.








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