Timestream Post: A note from 01.07.2011

7 01 2016

Bulls-eye! 1989 movie "Back to the Future Part II" depicts (invents?) a 60" widescreen, flat-screen TV and correctly hangs it above the mantle nearly 20 years before they were actually invented...

In the spirit of this experiment, I send this message half-a-decade into the future.  (Truthfully, I hope to positively litter the digital timestream with notes, showing that cyberspace may not only connect us through space, but also through time.)

First, my greeting:  Hello, 2016!  This is a year made nearly famous by films such as Back to the Future, Part II – where in 1989 the distant future year 2015 was depicted as a fantastic realm of flying cars, keyless entry, ubiquitous cybernetic implants, widescreen-flatscreen TVs, governmental weather control, 3D movies (without glasses), hoverboards, video calls (Skype?), video eyeglasses, and electronic roofies.

Reading the list five years out, 50% isn’t bad.  Do the remaining few years close the gap?  If not flying cars, do electric cars break the entry barrier at least?  I wonder…

So, what preoccupies me today?  Unsurprisingly, it’s space travel.  The future of space travel, to be precise.  In a move that some may consider pure insanity in the midst of an economic Great Depression, I decided last summer to start a spaceflight consulting firm, which I hope to incorporate and launch in the next few weeks.  To that end, I’ve been building a coalition of industry professionals during the last six months who I hope to become private space pioneers with me, and I entered an abstract for one of the company’s services – spacecraft ergonomics – into the Next Generation Suborbital Researcher’s Conference next month.  The meeting is only the second meeting of its kind, and one I hope will lead to frenetic networking, and ultimately, clients!

I’ve been working with a design studio, Studio Rayolux under brilliant designer Thad Boss, to develop a brand for the company, which I believe I’m calling “Astrowright Spaceflight Consulting.”  We’ll see if it sticks.

So, my question to the future is simply this:  Did it work?  Did the company get off the ground?  Did I get off the ground?  Can industries be forged during a time of economic strife and emerge triumphant?  Inquiring minds want to know!

Until then, take care, faithful readers.  Go for your dreams and never look back!



January 7, 2011.

January 7, 2011. 5:01pm.

Nuclear and Atomic Radiation Concepts Pictographically Demystified

10 10 2013

Greetings, all.  Today I’m attempting a different, largely pictographic approach to demystifying the concept of “radiation” for the layperson.

Despite the hype, radiation is a natural part of our planet’s, solar system’s, and galaxy’s environment, and one that our biology is equipped to mitigate at ordinary intensities.  It’s all actually surprisingly straightforward.

So, without further ado, here goes – a post in two parts…

PART I – Radiation and Radioactivity Explained in 60 Seconds:

The Atom

This is a generic diagram of the atom, which in various combinations of the same bits and parts is the basic unique building block of all matter in the universe:


This somewhat simplified view of an atom is what makes up the classic “atomic” symbol that most of us were exposed to at the very least in high school.

Radioactive Atoms

However, what is almost never explained in school is that each atomic element comes in different versions – slimmer ones and fatter ones.  When an atom’s core gets too large, either naturally or artificially, it starts to radiate bits of itself away in order to “slim down.”  This is called being radio-active.

So, there’s nothing to “radiation” that we all haven’t been introduced to in school.  Radiation is the name given to familiar bits of atoms (electrons, protons, neutrons) or beams of light when they’re being flung away by an element trying desperately to squeeze into last year’s jeans… metaphorically-speaking, of course.

Here is a diagram illustrating this process.  (Relax! – this is the most complicated-looking diagram in this post):


So, when a radioactive element has radiated enough of itself away and is no longer too large, it is no longer radioactive.  (We say it has “decayed.”)

That’s it!

That’s as complicated as the essential principles of radiation and radioactivity get.  It’s just basic chemistry that isn’t covered in high school, (though in my opinion it should be!).

PART II – Take-Home Radiation Infographics

So, in an effort to help arm you against the rampant misinformation out there, here is a collection of simple diagrams explaining what everyone out there seems to get wrong.  (Feel free to promote and/or distribute with attribution!)

First, what’s the deal with “atomic” energy/radiation versus “nuclear” energy/radiation?  Do they mean the same thing?  Do they not?  Here’s the skinny:


That’s all.  “Nuclear” means you’ve zeroed in on an atom’s core, whereas “atomic” means you’re talking about something dealing with whole atoms.  No big mystery there.

Next, here is a simple diagram explaining the three terms used to describe radiation that are commonly misused in the media, presented clearly (click to enlarge):


(Armed with this, you should be able to see why saying something like, “The radiation is releasing contamination!” doesn’t make a lick of sense.)

Now, here is a diagram explaining the natural sources of radiation we’re exposed to everyday on planet Earth:


And here are the basic principles of radiation safety, all on one, clean diagram (click to enlarge):


The End! 

Despite the time and effort spent socially (politically?) promoting an obscured view of this science (or so it seems), there is nothing more mysterious about radiation than what you see here.

Please feel free to contact me with any questions, and remember:  We have nothing to fear but fear itself!

Semper Exploro!

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!

Why try to become an astronaut / astrowright?

27 08 2010


Two NASA astronauts participate in construction and maintenance activities on the International Space Station; May 21, 2010. (Credit: NASA)

When I reveal what my professional aspirations really are, I get this question a lot.  -More than most would probably imagine.

What with the risks and the trials, the personal expense and the unknowns, why seriously work to venture into a frontier where so many of the necessities of life are nonexistent?

Sure, people talk and joke about being an astronaut when they grow up, but if-and-when one really considers going – when forced to really, seriously consider the realities of space travel in the modern era – people shy away.

The thought can be frightening.  It’s new.  For the most part, human space exploration is still in its infancy, and there are considerable (and likely unconsidered) risks.

Beyond the necessity of riding a controlled explosion out of the atmosphere, so much of what we take for granted, like air, water, food, atmospheric pressure, warmth…  It must all be taken with you.  Emphasizing the point, one of my closest friends (and a fellow astrophysics student at the University of Wyoming at the time) used to call me crazy for even considering leaving the comforts of planet Earth.  It definitely wasn’t for him.

So, for the sake of what is perhaps only a little introspective clarity, here it is:  Why do I want to leave?

Basically, I feel a compulsion toward the unknown.  While the dark, foreboding abyss beyond our current understanding and knowledge is terrifying to many (most?) of us, there’s another way to look at the coin.   For while the unknown may harbor risks and dangers, the unknown is also a place where anything is possible.  That’s where the discoveries are made.

The sensation of true discovery, (which admittedly I’ve only gotten a taste of once or twice,) is particularly intoxicating to me.  I don’t want to spend my life reading about others forging into the unknown; I want to be there, where the action is, where new history is being made.

Striking off into the blank spaces of our knowledge and experience, surprises are in store.  -And in a word made so much smaller by our mastery of global communication and connectedness, where so much in life is now predictable, surprises are a rare thrill.

I’ve had enough of studying what other have studied before, seeing what countless others have seen before.  For science, for posterity, for enhancing our understanding, and for sheer, personal desire, I want to be one of the ones to set human eyes on things for the first time.

A new life and everything that comes with it awaits above – new politics and policy, new science and new commerce, new challenges and victories – it is all ready and waiting for us to arrive to experience it.

That, my compatriots, is why I want to get off the rock.

I invite you to join me.

%d bloggers like this: