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.

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Escape Trajectory Artifacts at WAC-7

7 01 2013

Artist depiction of Pioneer 10. (Credit: Don Davis for NASA)

Just a quick update today on something I’ve been excited to talk about for some time:

I’ve been working during the past year with Dr. Colleen Beck of the Desert Research Institute on long-term planetary science/space archaeology crossover research, the first fruit of which has just hit the cyberverse.

In short, in an upcoming presentation at the Seventh World Archaeology Congress in Jordan on the 18th entitled, “The Bottle as the Message: Solar System Escape Trajectory Artifacts,” Dr. Beck and I are assessing what our escape trajectory spacecraft are really saying about us…  and how the famed Sagan/Drake engraved plaques and records intended as tools for extraterrestrial intelligence under a distant future recovery scenario may actually be serving as a scientific red herring in our own minds when compared to the extraordinary informational value of the spacecraft itself.

More to follow (and a slew of lingering posts on other topics)!





Xenoarchaeology: Reality and Fantasy

3 05 2012

Archaeological evidence of extraterrestrial involvement with ancient human civilizations, as seen in the movie, “Prometheus.” (Credit: Fox)

Cultural Xenoarchaeology

For reasons I can’t immediately explain, (the recent rash of technical publications addressing the concept of “xenoarchaeology” or “non-terrestrial artifacts” nonwithstanding,) there is a tantalizing idea cropping up in a number of recent and upcoming films and television programs.  (See: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Prometheus, Ancient Aliens.)

This concept, simply, involves the discovery of archaic evidence of the existence of Extraterrestrial Intelligence (ETI) and/or evidence of physical interactions of ETI in Earth’s (and mankind’s) past.  All of this, arguably, might be lumped under the auspices of the protoscience Xenoarchaeology.

Perhaps this increase in popular consumption of the idea that aliens have been around longer than we have indicates a mounting social awareness of cosmic deep time and the possibility of extraterrestrial life as it is stirred together with our classic, collective existential questions: “Why are we here?” and, “Are we alone in the universe?”

However, these pop-culture expressions and depictions of xenoarchaeology stray pretty far afield of what “scientific xenoarchaeology” would actually look like.

Separating Xenoarchaeology Fiction from Fact

In most part built upon ideas originally popularized by Erich von Daniken decades ago, (and fictionally by H.P. Lovecraft before him,) these modern concepts invoke the assistance of ETI in the development of human civilization as the “gods” of the religions and mythologies of antiquity.  However, this view has long since been shown by archaeologists to be entirely speculative and lacking in any direct, physical supportive evidence, (i.e., it is pseudoarchaeology.)  This stands in contrast to the physical archaeological evidence that does exist to directly support the idea that we humans created civilization, agriculture, the pyramids, etc., without need of assistance.

While the idea of meddlesome, elder-brother or mentor-type ETI is admittedly thrilling, the concept as it relates to xenoarchaeology does not automatically become scientific and in fact differs significantly from the groundwork currently being laid out for scientific xenoarchaeology.

Allow me to provide a few examples of where reality and fantasy diverge:

  • The practice of much fictional xenoarchaeology takes place on Earth, whereas future scientific xenoarchaeologists will likely find their skills of most utility on other worlds during in situ investigations.
  • Fictional/pseudoscientific xenoarchaeology typically centers on terrestrial features of human civilization, (e.g., pyramids, temples, large-scale geoglyphs,) whereas proposed xenoarchaeological investigations will likely center on extraterrestrial features of a possible artificial nature on other worlds.
  • Fictional xenoarchaeology usually assumes the involvement of ETI with a given feature of interest and works from there, whereas scientific xenoarchaeology will be required to rule out all other natural planetary, biological, and geological possibilities before hypothesizing ETI.  (In fact, ruling out features as xenoarchaeological in nature and disproving those making pseuarchaeological claims will probably be the most frequent uses of the existence of a true, scientific practice of xenoarchaeology.)
  • Xenoarchaeologists of popular fiction conduct investigations with their bare hands, whereas scientific xenoarchaeologists will primarily use remote sensing techniques, (satellites, robotic rovers,) to investigate/collect data.  (Or, if they are very lucky, they might one day even conduct work from within a spacesuit or biological quarantine facility.)
  • Fictional xenoarchaeology attempts to find evidence of ETI in terrestrial archaeological sites or artifacts, whereas scientific xenoarchaeology will rely on the fact that ETI was not involved in terrestrial archaeological sites and artifacts in order to construct relationships and methodologies that will be useful in the evaluation of a potential site of completely alien/unknown character. 

I could go on, but hopefully the potential difference between xenoarchaeological reality and fantasy, (like popular depictions of most sciences,) has been made clear.

Why Xenoarchaeology at All?

When considering the concept of scientific xenoarchaeology, invariably the question arises: “Is there a need for xenoarchaeology as a science at all?” 

Admittedly, this question is a good one.  Pseudoscience aside, there are currently no pressing sites of xenoarchaeological interest.  Why, then, expend the effort?

Well, let me first point you to the established field of astrobiology.  This is a field devoted entirely to the origin, evolution, and possibility of extraterrestrial life.  Associated with the field are multiple related academic journals, societies, and even college degree programs. 

Astrobiology is legitimate.  Yet, we have yet to discover even the smallest extraterrestrial microorganism.  Yes – Astrobiology, the scientific study of alien life, is currently conducted in spite of the complete absence of the known existence of alien life.  The field thrives regardless.  Why?

Astrobiology thrives because its underlying assumptions are viewed to be scientifically sound.  Life occurred on Earth, and considering the pantheon of worlds being discovered around other stars, by all modern physical and biochemical reckoning, signs seem to point that it will only be a matter of time until we discover life elsewhere.  (By similar reasoning, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence [SETI] continues its vigilant watch for technological [radio] signs of life in the galaxy, and few nowadays write off the pursuit as being in vain.)

The assumptions underlying the scientific development of xenoarchaeology are, indeed, indentical to those above.  And further, given the ambiguity of the term “intelligence” and modern knowledge of many cosmic threats that can cause mass extinctions, (novas, gamma-ray bursts, asteroid impacts, etc.,) it seems even more likely that material evidence of extinct extraterrestrial life will be encountered prior to the fortuitious discovery of life itself while it is still alive. 

That is, if I were a gambling man, I would wager that xenoarchaeologists get an opportunity to evaluate ultimately definitive evidence of extraterrestrial life prior to astrobiologists.

Xenoarchaeological Relevance

In the final analysis, popular depictions of xenoarchaeology are useful in that they engender a more sophisticated (if not completely sensationalized) view of our place in the cosmos and the possibility of intelligent life in it.  On the technical side, considering the current absence of evidence of extraterrestrial life, xenoarchaeology as a scientific pursuit is equally justifiable to astrobiology and SETI. 

Further, I would argue that like astrobiology, taking the time to rigorously conceptualize a scientific field tangential to those that exist but centered in an extraterrestrial context will help us see ourselves from a clearer scientific vantage; this will invariably serve to enhance our understanding of terrestrial archaeology, anthropology, biology, and yes, even astrobiology.  (Developing an additional means to address some of the planetary pseudoscience out there, e.g., Martian Cydonia, can’t hurt, either.)

And who knows?  Perhaps our space exploration investigations are only a rover or two away from the discovery of that first Martian or Titanean burrow or petroglyph, which history will remember as a moment that literally changes everything. 

My view is that it’d be far better in the event of such a discovery to be proactive and have scientific xenoarchaeology prepared, (in at least a cursory sense,) instead of being reactive and leaving the scientific establishment scrambling to catch up. 

In this sense, perhaps science could stand to learn a thing or two from Hollywood.





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!





NASTAR: Day 2 – Under Pressure

10 05 2011

Today was even more incredible than yesterday.  (The camaraderie between those of us in Class #4 is developing as we learn more about one-another, and the time is flying by.)  The training is in all respects a dream-made-reality, and it certainly doesn’t disappoint.

So, alternating coursework and practical training during day two of the NASTAR Center’s Suborbital Scientist Training Program quickly sent us into one of the world’s most advanced machines.  This device, in turn, carried us quite literally right up to our bodies’ physical limits … and we were grinning all the way.

The NASTAR Center STS-400 "Phoenix" centrifuge.

The machine in question is a long-arm, multi-gimbal centrifuge: the Environmental Tectonics Corporation model AFTS-400.  NASTAR’s individual unit is called the “Phoenix.”

It’s objective?  -To provide the most realistic, intense, and accurate simulation of extreme, dynamic gravity that a person can experience while still sitting in a simulator.

The beautiful machine is deceptively large and amazingly quiet for its size and force.  -Massive enough to dim television sets in the area for blocks, (though the construction of an onsite electrical substation nipped that in the bud,) yet sophisticated enough to be able to reverse the drive motors during deceleration and use them as generators to dump nearly all of the “spinning” energy back into the power grid.  (Yes, I’m glancing at those of you who continue to insist that space isn’t or can’t be “green.”)

A view from inside the centrifuge bay.

As a person who has a distinct appreciation for large, finely-tuned mechanics, upon entering the centrifuge bay I was immediately reminded of the precision required of the motors and rigid arms supporting a mountaintop observatory.  The weight support and manipulation ability of those machines is truly inspiring.  However, whereas I would have described a giant telescope as having a placid, confident, almost Zen-master quality to it, the Phoenix seemed eager, hungry, and almost a bit restless, like it wanted to move.

And it did.

Our training here was broken up into two fundamental parts as we learned to experience (and the techniques to manage) g-forces along two planes with respect to our bodies: down our spines and straight into our backs.  Both of these sorts of accelerations come into play during spacecraft operations; we were taught to recognize them in kind so that we would know what to do during a normal profile when both types of g-forces are mixed together.

The Phoenix - really starting to move.

(I must also take a moment to specifically note and recognize Glenn King, whose excellent instruction, reassuring voice and extraordinary attention to detail let us know we were going to be just fine every step of the way.  Thanks, Glenn!)

We were each individually walked down from the observation area and out into the bay, where we were given a briefing on the centrifuge interior, components, displays, and communication systems.  Our seats were adjusted to suit us, and then we strapped in.

Once inside the centrifuge, it’s hard to not let your adrenaline get the better of you.  -And man, when that thing starts to move, it really means business.

The requisite "smashed face" shot.

The feeling of the g-forces is hard to describe unless you’ve done something like it before.  It feels like a completely even set of weights is distributed not uncomfortably across the surface of your entire body.  However, since there was nothing physically (mechanically) on top of you, the experience wasn’t at all like being smothered.  It just felt, to me at any rate, exactly like what it was – moving extremely quickly.

So, once inside, we experienced different strengths of force in different directions, working our techniques up to support us at the maximum intensity we would be feeling during tomorrow’s “full” flight, which we were told is based exactly on the flight profile of the SpaceShipOne as it went to space and back.

Afterward, we debriefed and performed some additional training relating to the logistics of attempting to perform six separate experiments (or objectives) within the confines of a single spacecraft with only a two-or-five-minute window of opportunity while the craft is beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.  Spacecraft providers take note: Total Chaos.  (Fortunately, we only lost a couple of trainees due to the impaling objects we were unable to get stowed by the time of re-entry…)

With that, and somewhat exhausted (though thrilled) from the day’s worth of physical training, we headed back to rest up prior to the “big flight” tomorrow.  More to follow…





NASTAR: Day 1 – Sky High

9 05 2011

[[NOTE: I apologize for the 1-day lag.  It’s also finals week in grad school.]]

Today was truly extraordinary – the training more utilitarian than I could have imagined.  I’m still attempting to process it all.

Watching an ETC centrifuge spin test.

The day began with general introductions and a tour of the NASTAR Center along with the extensive onsite manufacturing facilities (housed and operated by parent company, the Environmental Tectonics Corporation).  There’s no place like this in the world, and that’s the very reason that they manufacture and deliver centrifuges and pressure chambers to customers all over the world.

For starters, why centrifuges, pressure chambers, and aerospace?  The link is fairly simple – in the case of a centrifuge it’s to simulate the force of traveling in a high-performance jet aircraft or spacecraft without actually having to sit in one; in the case of a pressure chamber, it’s to simulate the effects of extreme high altitude while leaving both feet on the ground.

NASTAR does both.  And today, we were going to dive straight into the latter.

NASTAR Center's hypobaric chamber.

After a bit of classroom training, we began our practical education in physiological effects of oxygen deprivation experienced at an extraordinary altitude, like 25,000 feet.

At such an elevation, (which is not quite as high as cresting Mt. Everest, but close,) there is not enough ambient oxygen to adequately supply the brain.  If the brain runs out of oxygen, it begins to shut down higher-function systems, until eventually one passes out (see: hypoxia)… and if not returned to an oxygenated environment quickly, passes out for good.

Well, why worry about the ambient environment if you’re going to be inside a spacecraft?  -In case something goes wrong, either with the on-board life support system or with the integrity of the spacecraft seal.  You need to know how to recognize the sometimes subtle and confusing symptoms of oxygen starvation in yourself so that you can quickly react, get yourself on supplemental oxygen, and figure out what the problem is.

Pre-"ascent" preparations inside the hypobaric chamber.

So, as we graduated from the classroom portion of the morning, we were thoroughly trained on the oxygen supply system, (the very same system used by the civilian astronaut pilots during the SpaceShipOne flights, I might add,) and then we entered the chamber.

Unexpectedly, this act of simply entering the pressure vessel felt something like psychological training for entering a real spacecraft.  You knew going in that you were going to be sealed into a higher-risk situation, where they were going to actually pump the atmosphere out around you.  This wasn’t a test or a computer program.

By going in, you were committing your physical body to a very real experience.  The training you’d just been attending was of specific importance, or else you could get into serious trouble by misusing equipment, hand signals, commands, etc.

It was exciting, a little alarming, and very, very real.  No do-overs.  (It begged me to ask myself the question, “In today’s “feel-good” world, how often is this type of practical test – one with physical consequences – seen anymore?”)

Two training-mates pass the time while breathing pure oxygen prior to going to full altitude.

Safety was made first priority, all life-support and communication systems were double-checked, and we were briefed repeatedly prior to beginning.  Then, the hatch was sealed, and began the exercise, which was executed in phases to allow our bodies to purge nitrogen and avoid the “bends,” or decompression sickness.  The chamber creaked like a submarine as the pressure inside was slowly lowered to the equivalent of tens of thousands of feet higher elevation, and then we took our masks off.

The results?  I’m quite pleased to report that jazz trombone actually appears to have more specific applicability to aerospace than I ever conceived.  Whereas most begin to feel the onset of hypoxia effects in 2-3 minutes, I made it a full 9 minutes and eleven-seconds without any serious side-effects before the instructors shrugged and told me to put my mask back on(!).

I'll be honest. I've been waiting a lifetime to learn these oxygen regulator systems...

(I should note that many of my classmates also exhibited seemingly superhuman oxygen-deprivation tolerance. I’ll have to check whether or not any of them are also musicians…)

We were brought back down to local pressure without incident, and everyone came out with a better sense of how their own bodies react to being oxygen deprived so they will recognize it later.

As for me?  I didn’t lose color vision, motor coordination, or experience tingling or numbness as others do, but I started feeling the marked “need” to take deep breaths, (which not all do,) slight dizziness, and my attention to detail began to drift.  -In all, extraordinarily useful details to know when faced with an emergency scenario.

To cap the day’s events, the need for a spacesuit was driven home by a rather fantastic (and frankly horrifying) in-person pressure demonstration that I won’t ruin for those considering attending on their own.  Suffice to say, when I make my first space flight, I’ll be sure it’s from a provider that makes a pressure suit part of their standard package.

(Of course, no spacecraft is designed for its occupants to need a pressure suit during planned suborbital flights.  It’s the unplanned events – and the old Eagle Scout in me – that make me want to be prepared just in case.)

We’ve all been energized by the day’s events, and it seems none of us can really wait for the g-force centrifuge training tomorrow.  More to follow…





Paradigm Shift

28 02 2011

The Next-generation Suborbital Researcher’s Conference (NSRC) is in full swing, and the momentum here is staggering.  We’ve had a very good showing to start and have gained invaluable feedback… and it’s only the first morning.  As was mentioned by Dr. Alan Stern earlier this morning, this is Silicon Valley, the year is 1979, and commercial spaceflight is the personal computer.

A paradigm shift is happening right now.

The future many of us have been working toward is truly nigh.  More to come soon.








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