System of Fear: A Dose of Radiation Reality

14 10 2013

In line with last week’s post, please see the below infographic, which paints radiation doses in the visual context of a sort of system of planets according to size (click to enlarge):

SystemofFearI

As is plainly evident, it’s shocking how much the public perception of radiation doses and negative health effects differs from reality.

(For example, in today’s perceptual climate, who would believe that a person could live within a mile of a nuclear powerplant for a thousand years before receiving the radiation dose from a single medical CT scan?)

If feedback to this is positive, I think I’ll make this the first in a series of similar infographics.  (Perhaps people would find it interesting/useful to next have illustrated the relative magnitudes of nuclear disasters?)

_______________________________________________

If anyone doubts the numbers in the above diagram, please feel free to investigate the references for yourselves!

International Atomic Energy Agency:
http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Factsheets/English/radlife.html

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency:
http://www.epa.gov/radiation/understand/perspective.html

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission:
http://www.nrc.gov/about-nrc/radiation/around-us/doses-daily-lives.html

U.S. National Council on Radiological Protection (via the Health Physics Society):
http://hps.org/documents/environmental_radiation_fact_sheet.pdf

U.S. Department of Energy:
http://lowdose.energy.gov/faqs.aspx#05

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Wonders of Flight and Patterns in Time

17 07 2013

Flight

Space Really Isn’t that Far Away

A quick note today on two thoughts resulting from the same image (above).

Taken with my phone while pressed against the starboard-side window during a recent cross-country flight, (I’ve been doing a lot of flying lately), the first thing you’ll probably notice about this picture is that I’ve inverted it.

Why?  Simply, it was for those who may not be quite as impassioned about space exploration as I am.

I did it to illustrate what I felt, as an aspiring astronaut, every time I look up and away from the plane at altitude.  Look at how close space feels here!  It’s almost as though you could touch it, or hanging from the Earth by your hands, stick your toes in it.

(At the time and altitude this picture was taken, the plane was nearly 10% of the way there!)

Now, under ordinary circumstances, the trick is that I don’t think people notice the sky darkening above them as they rise out of the lowest parts of our planet’s atmosphere.  Flip the image over to turn conventional experience on its head, however, and now it’s easier to see that the reality of space is much more in-your-face.

Instead of a simple window view from an airplane, the picture now shows (at least to me):

The Earth’s cumulus clouds, floating in a thin, cobalt band of blue atmosphere, puff outward over the infinite black abyss of outer space, shackled to the Earth only by the iron grip of our planet’s gravity.

Look again!  Note how suddenly, in the precise same image from a different perspective, space seems wildly close and our atmosphere amazingly thin!

Feel free to tell me if you think turning this image on its head provides the dizzying sort of effect I was going for – illustrating that space really isn’t so far away.  And next time you fly, maybe when no one is looking, try turning your head upside-down for a moment and peek outside.  You might be surprised at how it feels.

(As an aside, in the same way inverting the view from an airplane window can bring space closer to home, perhaps just by upsetting the way we look at other ordinarily-abstract, obscure, or esoteric pursuits, they might also be made to feel more real?  Two cents.)

Patterns in the Past

Secondly, immediately after taking the above photo, I was compelled to consider just how much of the conventional, hum-drum experience of modern life is anything but conventional when viewed through the lens of human existence.  The view was amazing!  But is there any way to quantify just how amazing or extraordinary many of our day-to-day activities truly are?

As it turns out, with a simple geometric expansion of time moving backwards, and after making some very, very generalized assumptions about human perception, it’s pretty easy to pick out a rough pattern in just how unconventional the experience of our modern world really is.

Allow me to show you what I mean.

Looking at the above image once again, (even right-side-up), I would argue that actually achieving that view with human eyes would have been considered:

  • Completely commonplace last year;
  • Just as commonplace ten years ago;
  • Truly wondrous a century ago;
  • Utterly fantastic (as in the stuff of fantasy) one millennia or so ago;
  • Completely unimaginable by our ancestors ten millennia or so ago.

That’s an easy order of magnitude with each step, (i.e., 1, 10, 100, 1,000, and 10,000 years, respectively).

Think on it – What we grumble at having to suffer through (TSA screening, layovers, jet-lag) would have been the very realization of the fanciful dreams of, say, the ancient Greek inventors, philosophers and mathematicians – to master the elements and achieve the power of flight!

(Contrast that with the reality that when flying today, many of us slide a shade down because the view above the clouds is too bright, and we read a book or nap instead!)

Patterns in the Future

However, in addition to attempting to highlight some of the wonder that may slip under our collective radars in the commotion of our modern lives, I also quickly realized that the above exercise has another, more functional and perhaps more surprising and seductive utility.

In a way, by walking through and establishing the (if only rough) time-perception pattern above, we actually can claim to have created a tool we can use not only in looking at ourselves and at the past, but also in looking forward.  It becomes a tool that gives us an intriguing and strangely mathematical window into what our future might look like.

So, if the logarithmic pattern I mentioned above can be said to generally hold true, then it certainly has something to say about our future.

It begins sensibly, but then it quickly carries us into (in my opinion) extremely interesting territory.  So, based on our ancestors’ perceptions and using flight as a guide, playing the aforementioned temporal pattern model forward from now gives us the following:

  • That which will be commonplace one year from now will have also been considered commonplace today.
  • That which will be commonplace ten years from now will have generally been considered commonplace today.
  • In a hundred years, that which inspires wonder in us today will have become commonplace.  (Spaceflight?)
  • In a thousand years, our most fantastic modern technological imaginings can and likely will have been made real.  (Interplanetary travel?  Colonies?  Medical immortality?  Mind-transferability to machines?  Teleporters?  Time Machines?)
  • In ten-thousand years, we will have accomplished feats that are unimaginable to us today.  (????)

What fun it is to try and imagine what the achievements of that last point might be!

Perhaps in recognizing a pattern, we can have a leg up on the game.  (How about it?  Could we use the McGee Scale to truly relate the passage of time to the rate of technological advancements within a civilization?  Does this work at all scales?)

The take-home here is that, with history as a guide, maybe nothing really is impossible to a self-aware and curious species given enough time, persistence, and trial-and-error…

I think I’ll play around with this and see if it holds up with technological advances other than flight… Thoughts welcome!





Revisiting Schmitt’s National Space Exploration Administration

27 06 2012

(National Space Exploration Administration logo, as imagined by Ben McGee)

Nearly a year ago, famed geologist, former United States Senator, and former Apollo Astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt recommended what to many was the utterly unthinkable:

Dissolve NASA.

To be frank, I agree with him.

While to those who have paid even a passing visit to this blog, such an admission may seem completely counter-intuitive.  But the reality is not that Dr. Schmitt has suddenly turned his back on his own legacy, nor have I on our nation’s triumphant space program.

Far from it.

Honoring the NASA Legacy

In an essay he released last year, Dr. Schmitt made a direct call to whoever becomes President  in 2013.  In it, he made clear that only by wiping away the bloated, competitive, politically-crippled bureaucracy that NASA has become and by forging in its place a leaner, more focused, dedicated Space Exploration agency may we honor the NASA legacy.

The claim made waves when it was released, ruffling the feathers of many of his own contemporaries, but (like most other calls for action) quickly flared out and faded away.  Well, I want to re-open the discussion, as this was (in my humble opinion) a damn good idea and one that deserves further promotion and consideration.

With this in mind, let’s revisit his logic.

Leadership has Failed Our “Window to the Future”

To quote Dr. Schmitt:

  • “Immense difficulties now have been imposed on the Nation and NASA by the budgetary actions and inactions of the Bush and Obama Administrations between 2004 and 2012.”
  • “The bi-partisan, patriotic foundations of NASA … gradually disappeared during the 1970s as geopolitical perspectives withered and NASA aged.”
  • “For Presidents and the media, NASA’s activities became an occasional tragedy or budgetary distraction rather than the window to the future envisioned by Eisenhower, Kennedy and the Apollo generation.”
  • “For Congress, rather than being viewed as a national necessity, NASA became a source of politically acceptable pork barrel spending in states and districts with NASA Centers, large contractors, or concentrations of sub-contractors.”
  • “Neither taxpayers nor the Nation benefit significantly from this current, self-centered rationale for a space program.”

It’s actually fairly difficult to argue any of these points, particularly considering the reality that Schmitt comes from a rare position of authority on all points.  He’s a scientist who has bodily walked on the moon and seen the inner machinations of our congressional system as an elected representative.

But, how could we possibly create a new agency from NASA?  Schmitt points out that there is already a precedent for this sort of evolutionary change…

The Precedent for Creating NSEA Has Already Been Set … by NASA

When NASA was formed in 1958, is was forged by combining/abolishing two other agencies.  The first was the famed National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), with its many familiar research centers, (e.g., Glenn, Ames, Langley,) which had been around since 1915.  It did not survive the transition.

The second was the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA), the innovative military space missile (and manned space mission) effort spearheaded by the legendary Wernher Von Braun.  All manned spaceflight and space exploration activities were stripped from ABMA and rolled into NASA.

In truth, Schmitt’s recommendations for what to do moving forward aren’t so drastic as they seem.

Indeed, based on a surprising amount of overlap between NASA activities and those of other scientific national agencies and organizations, they make the utmost sense.

Decommissioning NASA According to Schmitt:  A How-To Guide in 6 Easy Steps

  1. Move NASA’s space science activities into/under the National Science Foundation, (including Goddard Space Flight Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.)
  2. Move NASA’s climate and related earth science research into/under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  (My extrapolation: physical space science activities should be wrapped into the United States Geological Survey – with emphasis on the Astrogeology Science Center.)
  3. Place NASA’s aeronautical research under the purview of a reconstituted NACA, composed of Langley Research Center, Glenn Research Center, and Dryden Research Center.  (California’s Ames Research Center, Schmitt proposes, is now redundant and should be auctioned off to commercial spaceflight developers.)
  4. Procure spacecraft launch services exclusively from commercial providers, (SpaceX, ULA, etc.)
  5. Retire NASA as an official agency as the International Space Station is de-orbited by 2025.
  6. Have the 2012-President and Congress recognize that a new Cold War exists with China and “surrogates,” and in response create a new National Space Exploration Administration, “charged solely with the human exploration of deep space and the re-establishment and maintenance of American dominance as a space-faring nation.”

A Breakdown of NSEA: Young, Lean, Imaginative

What would NSEA look like specifically?  Schmitt lays out the proposed agency in compelling detail.

NSEA would gain responsibility for Johnson Space Center (for astronaut training, communications, and flight operations), Marshall Space Flight Center (for launch vehicle development), Stennis Space Center (for rocket engine testing), and Kennedy Space Center (for launch operations).

NSEA’s programmatic responsibilities would include robotic precursor exploration as well as lunar and planetary resource identification research, as with the Apollo Program.

Instead of grandfathering the NASA workforce as-is, the new agency according to Schmitt would be almost entirely recomposed and given authority to maintain a youthful workforce – “an average employee age of less than 30.”  Why?  Schmitt claims that, like with Apollo, “Only with the imagination, motivation, stamina, and courage of young engineers, scientists, and managers can NSEA be successful in meeting its Cold War II national security goals.”

(Of note is the fact that during the Apollo program, the average age of mission control personnel was 28.  The average age of NASA employees is now 47.)

Clearing the Legislative Hurtles Before Beginning the Race

With an eye toward the chronic challenges NASA faces due to regularly shifting budget priorities and directives, Schmitt regards that the legislation that creates NSEA would also be required to include a provision that “no new space exploration project can be re-authorized unless its annual appropriations have included a minimum 30% funding reserve for the years up to the project’s critical design review and through the time necessary to complete engineering and operational responses to that review.”

This is a much-needed safety net for the inevitable unknowns that are encountered when designing new spaceflight hardware.

The National Space Exploration Agency Charter

Finally, Schmitt penned a charter for this new space agency, which simply reads:

  • “Provide the People of the United States of America, as national security and economic interests demand, with the necessary infrastructure, entrepreneurial partnerships, and human and robotic operational capability to settle the Moon, utilize lunar resources, explore and settle Mars and other deep space destinations, and, if necessary, divert significant Earth-impacting objects.”

Simple.  To me, this breaks down as four primary directives:  Develop the tech to sustain a human presence off-world.  Utilize extraterrestrial resources.  Stimulate the American economy and imagination while affording us the opportunity to assert space activities as peaceful endeavors.  Develop the ability to protect Earth from NEOs.

I think this is a bold new direction, one which honors the NASA legacy, enables direct, decisive space exploration activities, and streamlines the country’s scientific bureaucracy.

Let’s talk seriously about this.

Semper Exploro.





A shotgun blast of suborbital science

15 03 2012

I’m pleased to report that I recently had the fortune to represent my spaceflight consulting firm Astrowright as a sponsor of, as well as present research at, the Next-Generation Suborbital Researcher’s Conference this past February 26-29 in Palo Alto, CA.  

Ashley presenting our voluntary "Flight Readiness" certification service at NSRC 2012!

Specifically, after nearly a year of research and client-training-data-mining together with my friend/ballet-dancer/anthropologist/excercise-scientist/astronaut-trainer/partner-in-crime Ashley Boron, our presentations centered this year on our frontier fitness services – Astrowright’s custom preflight fitness training program for space passengers-to-be and a “flight readiness” benchmark testing and certification program intended to help aspiring spaceflight pros demonstrate that they’ve got the Right Stuff

The three-day event was intense – with a flurry of presentations covering everything from spacecraft development and mental stress training to planetary science and research payload design.  If that weren’t enough, beyond the research presented at the conference, (for the interested, the program is available here,) the meeting was an explosion of exciting commercial spaceflight activity, from keynote speaker Neil Armstrong’s comparison of early X-15 flights to the current activity in civilian spacecraft testing to XCOR’s giveaway of a trip to space!

Unfortunately, I had only a single day to fly out there and fly back – one of the pitfalls of too many irons in the fire – but the experience in even that short amount of time, like the last one, was thrilling.  The conference smashed both attendance and support records, as well – Further evidence that the suborbital science community is nothing shy of a force of nature blasting the doors off the hinges of civilian spaceflight.

Like many of us have been championing for a while now, a paradigm shift truly feels in-progress.  Many networking and potential research and business opportunities arose as a result of NSRC 2012… and I can’t wait to tell everyone about them at NSRC 2013!

For more details on the conference and/or our presentations, visit the Astrowright company blog here.

Semper exploro!





Introducing Astrowright Spaceflight Consulting LLC

27 02 2011

This has been nearly impossible for me to keep under my hat for so long, but after nearly a year of preliminary work, I am thrilled to announce that Astrowright Spaceflight Consulting LLC is open for business (www.astrowright.com).

(c) 2011, Astrowright Spaceflight Consulting LLC

So, what is the venture specifically?

The firm offers a suite of spaceflight-related services, including orbital and sub-orbital spacecraft habitability assessments, ergonomics and human integration certification, preflight fitness and radiation dosimetry programs for those planning or scheduled to fly, spacecraft research payload operation, and microgravity instrumentation development.

We serve the complete range of spaceflight interests, from aerospace corporations and spacecraft manufacturers to academic institutions, professional astronauts, suborbital researchers, spaceflight participants, and interested individuals.

The high-energy, industry-centered team I’ve assembled includes experts in extreme-performance ergonomics engineering (military aircraft and formula-1 racing), exercise science and professional fitness training (for all levels of health, age, and commitment), as well as experts in physical science instrumentation and research, cryogenics, and radiological protection.

Perhaps most importantly, we all come from an industry/corporate environment, so we understand and can speak the language of budget and timeline, cost scheduling, and we know how to accomplish tasks on time and under budget.

For more information, visit visit www.astrowright.com, and to keep up-to-date on Astrowright offerings and events, please follow us on Facebook (Astrowright Facebook page) and Twitter (Astrowright Twitter feed).

No matter your interest in spaceflight, we can help you maximize your time in space.  Contact us to help you meet your spaceflight goals.

(Stay tuned for further developments!)









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