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:

WhatSocietyThinksIDo

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

Cheers,
Ben





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!





The Science Behind “Chasing UFOs” – Episodes 7 and 8

1 09 2012

The Chasing UFOs team: Erin Ryder, me, and James Fox (left-to-right) interviewing Brigadier Jose Pereira. (Credit: Dave West)

Well, so I’ve gotten a little behind here on the personal blog, life’s unexpected twists and turns being what they are.  However, for completeness’s sake, I’m including links to my final two web contributions to the National Geographic Channel’s TV series, “Chasing UFOs.”

Without getting nostalgic, it’s been a heck of a ride.  Based on the content of these blogs, I think many would rightfully conclude that much of the scientific angle of the show wasn’t featured in the way I expected or would have preferred.  However, having the opportunity to engage – and more specifically – to try and deliver real planetary science content and a critical and logical scientific viewpoint to public discussions of astronomy, the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and the realities of spaceflight, is something I will forever appreciate.

So, without further ado, for those who might like to delve more deeply into (or simply know more about the science behind) the National Geographic Channel series “Chasing UFOs,” including global thermonuclear war and Brazilian UFOs, misidentified marmosets, upside-down moons, volcanoes and “dirty” lightning, and oil field interlopers from space, look no further!

Episode 7, “Alien Castaways” :

http://tvblogs.nationalgeographic.com/2012/08/09/the-science-of-chasing-ufos-alien-castaways/

Episode 8, “Alien Baby Farm” :

http://tvblogs.nationalgeographic.com/2012/08/17/the-science-of-chasing-ufos-alien-baby-farm/

Many thanks to everyone who supported me in this project, either directly or indirectly by reading these blogs.  My foray into ‘reality TV’ was at the very least an valuable education for me in the realities of TV, and at the end of the day, it was a real kick in the pants.  I had the opportunity to interact with a broad cross-section of people from around the world that I would have never had the opportunity to speak with otherwise, and hopefully as a result, at least a few were inspired to look into what we really do know about the night sky and spaceflight, and to wait just a little longer before leaping to the “It’s aliens!” hypothesis. =)

In closing this season out, I say Semper Exploro! – or, “Always Explore!”

Cheers,

Ben





Profiled in Vegas Seven Mag!

16 08 2012

Deanna Rilling, a high-school friend of mine who now writes for VEGAS SEVEN recently reached out to do an interview about all of the trouble I’ve been getting into lately.  Well, the article came out – and if you’re interested in hearing me talk about growing up in Las Vegas, the relationship between jazz improvisation and frontier science, my role on a National Geographic television series, and my high hopes for the aerospace industry in Nevada, read on!

The article link is as follows:  “Head in the Stars





The Science Behind “Chasing UFOs” – Episode 5

23 07 2012

For those who might like to delve more deeply into (or simply know more about the science behind) the National Geographic Channel series “Chasing UFOs,” including megaton extraterrestrial explosions, aerostats to space, and correlation pitfalls, look no further!

Direct link-through to my article on the NatGeo TV blog can be found here:

http://tvblogs.nationalgeographic.com/2012/07/23/the-science-of-chasing-ufos-abducted-in-arizona/

Cheers!

Ben





Science outreach, crossing the mainstream divide, and “Chasing UFOs”

24 05 2012

Hosts James Fox, Me, and Erin Ryder during the filming of National Geographic’s “Chasing UFOs.” (Credit: David West)

I know there will be quite a lot on this here at the Astrowright blog in the coming weeks and months, but to begin very briefly, I’m excited to report that I’m set to appear on/host a National Geographic series next month (somewhat sensationally) entitled, “Chasing UFOs.”  

The project zeroed in on the “top 5%” – the most bizarre or inexplicable – of all alleged unidentified flying object cases in history.  However, unlike previous programs, in addition to firsthand interviews, we physically travel to the site of each alleged event, whether on a mountaintop or in the Amazon, to see if any material evidence exists to support extraordinary claims.

Aside from the “field adventure” component, the show’s presentation is novel in that three different viewpoints are represented in each case – skeptic, believer, and “agnostic.”  I’m thrilled that NatGeo has endorsed including someone like me on a project like this – essentially allowing the scientific/skeptical viewpoint to be heard. 

This is ultimately why I decided to engage in the project in the first case. 

For those who have been reading this blog for any length of time, it is obvious that I sit squarely on the skeptical side of the fence.   (In my view that’s the side that history ultimately bears out.)  However, I’m also comfortable enough in my own “scientist” skin to be willing to dive into any question, even if it has been (perhaps justifiably) shrugged off by mainstream academia.  This is particularly true when it concerns something for which there is a great deal of public interest and that exists in such close proximity to my personal passions – planetary science and space exploration.  In my view, the important thing to note is that people curious about UFOs are asking the right sorts of questions:

  • “What is going on in the night sky?”
  • “Are we alone in the universe?”
  • “What is the possibility of extraterrestrial life?”

-And with pseudoscientific, speculation-riddled and archaeology-confounding programs out there like “Ancient Aliens,” if scientists refuse to engage in mainstream media and contribute to the conversation, the conservative scientific viewpoint will rarely (or worse, never) be heard or explained.  If it is obvious to an astronomer that a flashing “UFO” is simply light from Venus on the horizon taking a long path-length through the atmosphere, and he or she doesn’t bother to explain it, science doesn’t stand a chance in the face of a passionate “talking head” declaring it to be proof of extraterrestrial intelligence in our own skies.  We fail twice – first to capture an excellent learning moment and secondly in that we ultimately succeed only in disenfranchising a curious public with respect to the scientific establishment.

As anyone in the sciences knows, STEM outreach needs all the help it can get.  We have to engage.  (And who knows?  I’m open to the possibility that people have really seen something extraordinary if evidence backs it up, though I would be just as excited were it to be exotic high-altitude electrical phenomena as opposed to green men from Mars.)

So, here goes.  Set the time circuits for June 29, 2012 at 09:00 on the NatGeo channel.  I haven’t seen the finished product myself, but I know what we did and guarantee it to be an action-packed, thought-provoking ride. 

Tune in and please feel free to let me know what you think!





The plural of “anecdote” is not “data”

18 04 2012

Clarence Darrow during the 1925 Scopes Trial. (Credit: US Library of Congress)

The title of this post is tongue-in-cheek, but it makes an important point.  Just because many people believe, assert, or convey something does not immediately graduate whatever they report to become scientifically-reliable or even scientifically-useful.

This is actually symptomatic of a larger cultural issue here in the US.  Frankly, the dichotomy of what people choose to believe when it comes to personal testimony versus hard, scientific data in our society amazes me.  -And not in a good way.

There are numerous instances where hard-and-fast data hasn’t convinced a jury (or social group) of the reality the data demonstrates, and conversely, there are numerous examples of personal testimony that would easily have a jury condemn a suspect to death that would never stand up under scientific peer-review.

The simple reality is that people at-large simply seem to trust one-another more than (or in spite of the lack of) the presence of verifiable, hard data.  With, in many instances, grave consequences.

So, how have we arrived here?

Science as the most successful “reality tool” ever invented

How can this be?  How, in a world so clearly affected, governed, and reliant on the fact that scientific inquiry is the most reliable means to establish what is real and what is not, is there so much skepticism toward data, science, and scientists?

  • Don’t believe me about the success of science?  Look at everything, from the performance of the thousands of controlled explosions under the hood of your car to the molecular processing running the electronics of the iPhone in your pocket.  From landing probes on other worlds to controlling nuclear reactions with finesse to generate power.  From predicting the behavior of atoms in a lab to predicting the astronomical curvature of light halfway across the universe – the simple fact is that science is the best tool to understand reality – discriminate what is real from what is not – ever conceived by humankind.  If scientific data or the scientific process were inherently unreliable, then these achievements would be plainly impossible.  We would simply not be able to master reality in the way that we have using the scientific method if it didn’t always work.  (Left to ourselves and our naturally-unscientific methods of investigating the world, we can come to believe that dances influence the weather.  That earthquakes are a result of hedonism.  That illness is a result of possession by evil spirits.  You see the point.)

To many, it seems that “data” is a mysterious, possibly corruptible thing; that magician-scientists are able to distort it to “prove” anything.  That’s not the worst of it.  It also seems that scientists themselves are often placed in a different camp from the rest: Unconvinced by tearful assertions or compelling testimony, they are seen as aloof, cold… inhuman, even.

This conception of the scientist is something I’d like to explore, and I think it all begins with a single statement:  None of us likes to believe that we, as humans, are as fallible as we are.  So, what makes a scientist different?

Scientists recognize that we, humans, are terrible scientific instruments.

We are.  We’re awful.  Primarily, our data-recording mechanism (memory) is inherently flawed, governed by perception, emotion, expectation, bias, and it changes over time.  Further, there’s no way to do a direct download from memory to verify what a person is saying is an accurate description of their memories… or worse, if what they say is even true at all.  We also make connections that simply aren’t there, unable to discriminate coincidence from cause-and-effect.

This is why scientists rely on instruments that are not corrupted by feelings, fear, or excitement.  The colder and more calculating the instrument, the better the data it collects and records.  Even with these technically “unbiased” instruments, scientists subject to these flaws are still in the loop, which is why all ultimately-respectable data and analysis is brought before a group of other scientists to review (peer-review) to help ensure that the scientist has not unwittingly corrupted his own data.

All this because humans are terrible scientific instruments.

Meanwhile, despite these rather damning flaws, non-scientists seem to believe that they (and other people) are, in effect, excellent scientific instruments.  Human testimony is amongst the most effective tools to convince a jury of peers.  With all respect, putting a hand on a holy book and conveying a sense of sincerity (even if manufactured) has a way of graduating the “data” a human being reports to a plateau above actual data that can be scientifically verified, ignoring the fact that memories can be wrong(!).

Further, the validity of scientific data is often secondary to whether or not the scientist delivering the data “seems” credible, ignoring the fact that the data and data collection process can be assessed on its own merits.

Quite a disconnect.

What can we do to rectify the disconnect?

I’ve been thinking about this quite a while, and aside from training everyone in society to be a scientist, (which not everyone wants to become,) the only solution I see is to improve public relations.  Science is essentially failing a PR war, one waged both intentionally and unintentionally by those unsettled by a purely clinical view of the universe.

We need help to convince people that scientists are specialists in understanding how to collect good data and how to effectively wield data to construct a reliable, useful view of the universe.

  • NOTE: We can choose to believe any view of the universe we please, but choosing for instance to believe that offering a sacrifice to Zeus every spring will keep floods at bay is not a reliable view of the universe.  It will still flood no matter if I make an offering or not.  I may, in turn, assert that Zeus is fickle as an explanation, but then my view becomes neither a reliable nor particularly useful one.

We need more scientist heroes in our social dialogue.  Instead of having scientists always be the “dangerous ones who have gone too far” in our films and television shows, they should be portrayed as they are – venturing into the unknown that terrifies many of us in order to help us all better understand and (ultimately) prosper in our universe.

Having “mad” scientists all-too-frequently portrayed as antagonists – heedless, obsessive, or impious –  breeds a deep-seated distrust of science that is propagating through the entire social mind.

The truth is, I believe the sooner people understand that the plural of “anecdote” is not “data” – that even if millions of people believe in or even attest to something, (whether it be a flat Earth, astrology, UFOs-as-aliens, miracles, or that vaccines cause autism,) their cumulative belief doesn’t make their claims scientifically true or even scientifically useful – the sooner scientists will find the support they need for doing all the things we want to do: Cure cancer, create clean, powerful sources of energy, travel between stars, etc.

Food for thought!








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