Calling the Space Privateers

6 09 2012

Closeup of pioneering planetary geologist Jack Schmitt at the LRV (Lunar Rover) with Earth overhead during Apollo 17 Lunar EVA #3. (Credit: NASA)

Today, I’d like to offer a rejoinder to Michael Hanlon’s article from The Telegraph a couple of weeks back, entitled, “There’s only one question for NASA: Is anybody out there?

In it, Hanlon offers an argument against regular human space exploration in favor of dedicated robotic missions devoted exclusively to astrobiology research.  Whether via orbiters, landers, rovers, or telescopes, he argues that working to answer the question of whether or not we are alone in the universe has the advantages of  “being scientifically valid, being relatively cheap and connecting with the public imagination.”

Some concessions about the efficiency of human explorers aside, Hanlon makes it perfectly clear how he feels about all research that isn’t astrobiology-related, deriding the Space Shuttle program as “pointless” and the International Space Station as an “orbiting white elephant.”  He lauds the recent spectacular landing of the Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity, as a model mission, while dismissing the broad appeal of human exploration to the public as “nebulous” and merely “vicarious excitement.” 

Well, despite Hanlon’s opnion, there are good and valid reasons to support human space exploration.   Because the manned-versus-unmanned space program argument has been done to death, I won’t rehash the whole diatribe here except to offer three quotes:

  • “Robots are important also. If I don my pure-scientist hat, I would say just send robots; I’ll stay down here and get the data. But nobody’s ever given a parade for a robot. Nobody’s ever named a high school after a robot. So when I don my public-educator hat, I have to recognize the elements of exploration that excite people. It’s not only the discoveries and the beautiful photos that come down from the heavens; it’s the vicarious participation in discovery itself.”  — Neil deGrasse Tyson
  • “The greatest gain from [human] space travel consists in the extension of our knowledge. In a hundred years this newly won knowledge will pay huge and unexpected dividends.” — Werner von Braun
  • “The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space program. And if we become extinct because we don’t have a space program, it’ll serve us right!” — Arthur C. Clarke/Larry Niven

However, there is a much more intriguing aspect to Hanlon’s article, one that likely went largely unnoticed; A particular line in Hanlon’s article caught my eye, where he supercedes the tired, man vs. machine debate and instead advises that NASA should “leave the flag-planting, for now, to the privateers and to other nations.”

The privateers!

To my knowledge, this is amongst the first times the word has been used in a human space exploration context.  Let’s take a closer look.

The SpaceX Dragon commercial cargo craft is pictured just prior to being released by the International Space Station’s Canadarm2 robotic arm on May 31, 2012 for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. (Credit: NASA)

In its 16th-to-19th-century context, “privateer” referred to a private individual or seafaring ship authorized by a government during war to attack foreign trade shipments.  These charges weren’t the equivalent of a charter, as the privateering ships went unpaid by the government.  Instead, they relied on investors who were willing to gamble on lucrative captured goods and enemy ships. 

This made the privateer fundamentally different from a mercenary.  In my mind, they became something more akin to Adventure Capitalists.

While not a direct parallel, the usage of this term in the modern space exploration context invokes tantalizing suggestions.  Might the government issue a non-binding license to claim unused space resources (satellites, junk) by their own or other nations, or perhaps to operate in proximity to national assets, (such as the ISS), in the act of attempting a rescue?

In this case, would private industry underwrite the cost of a spacecraft launch for tens of millions of dollars if the case for a suitable potential reward be made?  Might such a reward be measured in terms of salvaged materials or serviced satellites?  Perhaps purchasing a rocket and a spacecraft to have on standby in the event of an on-orbit astronaut emergency (medical, technical) would be lucrative if a successful rescue mission were independently launched and the crew recovered?  (Is a modest 100-200% return-on-investment too much to ask for the value of averted disaster and the possible loss of highly-trained human lives?)  In this context, venturing to fund a privateer is no more risky than drilling an exploratory oil well – the trick is nailing the reward. 

“Space Privateering,” then, suggests a new form of orbital venture capitalism that exists irrespective of government charters.  It means having a ship, a launch capability, and the foresight to use them when and where it might matter most to planetside governments and/or corporations.

So, how about it?  Are any corporations willing to bet against the house and fund privateers as international rescue, salvage or repair ships?  Would the FAA consider rapid privateer launch licensing?

I say we work to find out.  Calling all space privateers!


Radiation, Japan, and Irresponsible Reporting: Part IV

29 05 2012

(Credit: Jeremy Gwin)

This post has been lying in wait for quite some time.  I thought it best that I let it simmer and distill for a while… The truth is that I was simply getting too frustrated with the Fukushima coverage to compose a sensible post.  Now, with a little extra time and perspective, please allow me to present Part IV (relative to previous Parts I, II, and III) of my attempt to throw a cup of knowledge onto the raging inferno of misinformation out there relating to “radiation” and the media/cultural fallout (ahem) from the reactor failures in Japan. 

Just how bad is it?  Read on.

Media Blunders

A year ago, just when I thought the tide was turning on the sensationalistic coverage of nuclear reactor incidents in Japan and elsewhere, the media pulled another wave of cheap stunts.  -I had been just about ready to bury the hatchet, and I suddenly realized that it needed sharpening.  Much sharpening.

With (it seems) an ebb-and-flow that correlates to how sensational (or boring) other news is at the time, adding to my deep-seated suspicion that “radiation”-stories are linked to low ratings, the Fukushima coverage swung ’round from simple paranoia and approached raving madness.

Let’s start with this article:

(Credit: The Coleman Company)

When we get into the guts of the piece, the info finally comes out that the amount of radiologically-impacted water in question included only 15 tons and that it was low level radioactivity that was discovered.  That’s important info!  Nay, the most important info.    “Low level” radioactivity includes Coleman lantern mantles, tritium watch luminescence, and americium in smoke detectors – things you already own, wear, or have in your house. 

(Indeed, as I have mentioned in the past, you yourself emit low levels of gamma radiation – see: Potassium-40).

Then, let’s move on to this Fox News article about radioactive isotopes found in breast milk in Japan:

First, the good.  The title of the report states that “radioactive substances” have been found in the breast milk of several Japanese women.  That’s good.  At least we’re moving beyond misnomers like, “Radiation found in breast milk.”

However, then there’s the bad.  And it’s really bad.  The amount of radiation discovered is given no real context.  (The author perhaps didn’t understand it in the first case.)  In fact, while the activity of radioactive material discovered is explained to be nearly a hundred times beneath any safety limit, the critical information is that these limits themselves are far below the range where any negative health effects are to be expected.  Further, if a similar survey were performed in the United States, (with no relation to Fukushima,) radioactive substances would be identified in a proportion of the population.  Seriously.  -And contrary to what stark opponents would have you believe, there are such things as incidental doses of radioactive material.  Our bodies are built to withstand it.  (Radioactive material is naturally-occuring, after all.)

Down the Misinformation Rabbit Hole

Then, we go from bad to worse.  Surprisingly, the top recent offender here was on CNN.  In what I can describe as nothing more than a blatant scare segment, I found myself completely floored when Dr. Michau Kaku, a theoretical physicist whose popular books I greatly admire, was guilty of not only fanning the irrational fear of “radiation,” but he himself uttered the greatest fear-mongering statement I have ever heard.

‘We “came close” to losing northern Japan!’

…What?!  Lost it?  You mean, Dr. Kaku, that the county turned left instead of right, and a clerk at the front of the store had to call on the intercom to get Northern Japan to reunite with the rest of the country?

Liquid Disposal Inc. chemical superfund site. (Credit: EPA)

C’mon!  Unbelievable, and patently untrue.  The Fukushima cleanup will be a difficult but not insurmountable decontamination and decomissioning project.  -This is no different than a cleanup of a historically-toxic steel mill or other major industrial installation that has the potential to release contaminants into the environment.  (See: Superfund Projects.)

Scary Because it Sounds Hip

Then, there’s reporting from the likes of the following articles, (and I otherwise completely love Gizmodo,) spewing misused terminology and editorials-as-fact like Linda Blair does green soup in the Exorcist.

No one has the right to a radiation-free existence, a statement that is assailed in the first story.  A giant gravity-driven nuclear fusion reactor lights our sky every day.  Hundreds of thousands of similar fusion reactors bombard our planet with cumulative radiation at all times from space.  Radioactive material resides in a great proportion of the rocks around us and bombards us from all sides.  And even plantlife, rich in potassium, hits us with radiation whenever we near it.  Our DNA repair mechanisms arose in such an environment, and it typically causes us no concern at all.

Godzilla, a surviving prehistoric oceanic dinosaur mutated and angered by atomic blasts. (Credit: Ishirô Honda)

And regarding the second story, relating a fission reactor to an atomic bomb borders on criminally sensational.  Terms like “terriby dangerous” and “particularly lethal” are tossed about to great effect with no apparent understanding of their context.  And while relating Fukushima to Hiroshima in “bequerels” – a unit of radioactivity – they speak about the release of cesium as though it is in terms of mass.  It is not!  The activity of the Cs-137 released to the environment in bequerels is very different than the amount of Cs-137 released to the environment in grams – and activity decays with time.  So to say Fukushima is the equivalent of 168 “nukes,” (another misnomer,) mixing up descriptions with unit types, and tossing around editorial qualifiers, it is completely clear that the author has no idea what he is really talking about.  -Only that he fears it and apparently wants a catchy lead line.

  • To the point: The human body possess ~4.4 MegaBequerels of activity from Potassium-40.  The radiation released from the population of the United States just standing there already amounts to more than a TeraBequerel.  The rocky mountains contains millions of TeraBequerels of radioactive material, if you want to quantify it that way, (which is odd.) 

Literally, though while not encouraged, the Fukushima release is a drop in the bucket.  A statistical bump.  It’ll be scientifically traceable for years to come, but it won’t cause Godzilla to emerge from the seas to destroy Tokyo.  And it certainly isn’t the equivalent of “168 Nukes.”  Or at least, not in the way the author seems to be intending it.

Piracy-induced Global Cooling, and Other Correlation Fallacies

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this completely insane and somewhat retracted story claiming that a bump in infant mortality had been attributed to the slight rise in detectable radioactive material breezing over the United States after the Fukushima incident:

Modern radiation detection instrumentation is extraordinarily sensitive.  We regularly detect single photons interacting with a detector crystal, log it, and perform statistics conducted over several hours or days.  This allows scientists to make statements like, “A 30% increase over background,” which is essentially measuring 30 times zero. 

So, the levels of radiation detected over the U.S. in this case were far, far beneath what a human body would even notice on planet Earth.  (Let me put it this way – the radiation intensity of a granite countertop would wash out the signal.)  The idea that this “gee-whiz”-grade radiation could have caused anything to infants – in such a short span of time (!) – was patently ridiculous, and physically impossible.  (There is no mechanism for such a miniscule amount of radiation to have casued any damage that led to infant death in such a short amount of time.)

(Credit: Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster)

I am reminded of the now-classic Flying Spaghetti Monster example of a correlation fallacy which states:

  • Since global temperatures have gone up as seaborne piracy has been eliminated and the world’s oceans made more secure, a lack of pirates in the ocean demonstrably causes global warming!  Therefore, to combat global warming, we must put more pirates out on the seas!

This is an over-the-top example of how correlation does not indicate cause-and-effect.  Just so, the authors of the aforementioed study sought to politically paint radiation as a “bad guy” and simply found a correlation, making no effort to tease out cause-and-effect.  As was later made clear, there isn’t any in this case. 

Yet another example of rampant cultural anti-radiation/radiation science bias.

Wading through the Spin

Honestly, the situation at the Fukushima reactors is no picnic, without a doubt.  However, needless sensationalism in the media continued, especially when the category of the accident was upgraded to level 7, “the same as the Chernobyl disaster!”    

… *sigh* … Let me try to untangle this one. 

The important thing here is that a “level 7” event has no ceiling.  That’s it.  Once something crosses the threshold, whether just met or far exceeded, the event would be classified the same.  The Fukushima event is much closer to the former, whereras Chernobyl is more the latter.

In reality, despite the classification, the Fukushima incident is still more like Three Mile Island than Chernobyl for very specific reasons.  (The Three Mile Island nuclear accident is still synonymous with nuclear terror, yet how many people were killed?  Zero.  In the end, radioactive iodine was detected in local milk at a dose much less than one would receive from ingesting a single banana.  This is how badly the scenario has been spun.) 

Risk.  It’s all about risk.  Three Mile Island arguably did not perceptibly increase the risk of negative health effects to people in the region at all.  Now, look at the risk involved with cars.  The automobile involves combustion explosions, toxic chemicals, sparking fires, asphyxiating fumes, deaths from vehicle malfunctions or accidents, etc.  By simple math (number of injuries, illnesses or deaths per year,) cars are extremely dangerous – far, far more dangerous than nuclear reactors – and if you subscribe to anthropogenic (man-caused) climate change, running these CO2-spewing devices all over the world has a much greater potential for ecological impact than do nuclear reactors, ignoring the fact that most underground fuel storage tanks at gas stations regularly leak into the environment(!).

If the media waved the risk of driving cars in everyone’s faces the way nuclear power gets hammered, everyone would immediately call for banning cars… and this is especially pointed considering that tens of thousands of people actually die annually on the roads, as opposed to the zero annual deaths due to nuclear powerplants.

Let’s look at the risks of death in context:

  • Annual traffic fatalities in 2010:  ~33,000
  • Annual deaths in 2009 due to common chemicals:  ~1,500
  • Annual deaths due to nuclear powerplants and/or radioactive waste:  0

(The irony here is that the ionizing radiation exposure that is actually likely to cause an increase in cancer is the one no one really fears:  Medical x-rays and MRIs.  We’re getting more of them these days, and because this is ionizing radiation just like that being emitted by Fukushima, cancer statistics will likely see a bump as a result.)

Airline flight attendants receive a much higher radiation dose than any nuclear powerplant worker due to their proximity to cosmic rays (radiation) from space.  No one worries about flying, and everyone worries about the nuclear powerplant next door.

(For a concise versionof the nuclear safety argument, see my comment string here: )

A Final Thought

In terms of environmental impact, the Fukushima incident is arguably less significant than the Exxon Valdez or the BP oil spills, and it is on-par with the superfund sites I mentioned earlier.  Not rosy, but not the end of the world. 

So, how is it that so much fear and panic has been generated, trumping so many other more prevalent risks, when it is based literally on hot air?  It is a mystery to me. 

Perhaps it can be attributed ultimately to a habit of fear regarding radiation.

If we imagine the alternative – a culture providing socially unimpeded support for atomic and nuclear energy, power, and technology, (since our culture already awards this to toxic chemical technology,) we may well have already solved many of the energy problems of today.  Ancient stars worked tirelessly to produce the radioactive elements common in the deep Earth and sprinkled throughout the planet’s crust.  Misused, they are harmful.  Wisely used, they present energy sources with the ability to outlive our planet and our star.  (Talk about efficiency!)

In any event, my final point is to simply keep a critical eye open when it comes to media coverage of radiological events.  Watch for how infrequently health physicists or radiological engineers who are speacialists in nuclear technology are interviewed.  -And hopefully, if you’ve arrived at the end of this long-winded tirade, this has given some food for thought. 

Until next time!

Excalibur back in British Isles!

23 02 2011

One of the two Excalibur Alamz Limited (EA) space stations being delivered to the Isle of Man. (Credit: JCK, Ltd, IOM)

…commercial spacecraft manufacturer/provider Excalibur Almaz (EA), that is.  And they ferried two partially-constructed commercial space stations with them.

The Almaz Crew Module as premiered in Russia earlier this year. (Credit: Excalibur Almaz)

A primary competitor to Bigelow Aerospace on the commercial space station frontier, EA has leveraged 20th-Century Russian military space technology in a bid to accelerate a fully-functioning private spaceflight program to orbit.  Because it is based on preexisting technology, (which was originally known as “Almaz,”) primary elements of the spaceflight system have already been through flight testing, giving EA a distinct research and development (i.e., cost) advantage.  They’re currently working to update the Almaz space system.

Should EA’s number of flights grow to six a year or more, (according to their recent press release,) it would be economically-feasible for them to launch and sustain the legacy space stations on-orbit for government and academic research as well as space tourism.

If EA is able to complete their modernizations quickly, they’d be at a distinct advantage compared to Bigelow in that EA is developing both spacecraft and space stations as part of their program.

Bigelow is reliant on someone else’s spacecraft to reach their inflatable habitats.

Thinking outside the circle

6 11 2010

There’s a new coalition of businesses and organizations on the block.  Called the Coalition for Space Exploration, the group recognizes the many benefit of space exploration to society, and they’re going to take the message to the people.

According to their mission statement, the Coalition plans to “ensure the United States remains the leader in space, science and technology by reinforcing the value and benefits of space exploration with the public and our nation’s leaders, and building lasting support for a long-term, sustainable, strategic direction for space exploration.”

I think it’s high time someone took up this cause!  I’ve personally always taken issue with NASA’s PR machine, and though NASA does a great job in producing material for the public, it’s never been so great (in my opinion) at getting it out to them.

The Coalition for Space Exploration is currently shopping for interested members and partner organizations.  Sporting a cool position video, a news clearinghouse, and a blog, there’s a fair amount of content for an organization that hasn’t been around long.  Check them out if you get a chance.

Considering how important I think space exploration is to our future, I can’t imagine a more worthy cause.

The art of emergency response

24 06 2010

I spent this past weekend on a training exercise with the Nevada-1 Disaster Medical Assistance Team, or NV-1 DMAT.  On a part-time, voluntary basis, I serve as a Logistics Officer for the federal emergency response team (currently under NDMS instead of FEMA), which involves monthly meetings and periodic training in preparation for deployment to the next Katrina disaster, for example.

Me training with the Nevada-1 Disaster Medical Assistance Team. June 19. Credit: NV-1 DMAT

This particular Saturday, we partnered up with the FEMA’s Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) Nevada Task Force One (NV-TF1) and spent time practicing the rapid set-up of emergency shelters (and associated electrical and communications equipment) that will be used as portable hospital rooms, triage areas, command posts, sleeping quarters for the responders, etc.

The take home message for me is that emergency response is an art, and one that must be practiced.  Familiarity with equipment is key.  It’s hard enough to set these things up in a warehouse, and it was immediately obvious that every second more proficient we became was one fewer future second spent standing in the sweltering humidity of a tropical depression in a cloud of blood-sucking insects.

In short: Be prepared.

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