Jumping the Timestream – A Note from 08-09-2012

9 08 2017

Because no one can be certain about one’s own ability to participate in the future, I have a couple of ideas in the works that I’d like to post to the future just in case I (for some reason) don’t get around to it before then. 

First amongst these is this, an idea Chris Hackman and I developed while young astrophysics majors at the Univerisity of Wyoming in early 2000: 

The Antithetic Force

In my view the so-called Hubble Constant is in dire need of a reevaluation in the context of Dark Energy.  I believe the two phenomena are actually the same, and further, that they together represent the evidence of Gravity’s “missing pole” – that is, the push to balance gravity’s pull.  (In other words, “antigravity.”)

I call this force “Antithy,” which as I propose it is a fundamental property of matter – a repulsive force that increases in strength proportionally with distance (i.e., the father away two objects are from one-another, the more strongly they repel).  This is in direct conceptual opposition to Gravity, which is a fundamental property of matter – an attractive force that decreases in strength proportionally with distance (i.e., the closer together two objects are from one-another, the more strongly they attract). 

At first blush, this proposition seems impossible, as soon all objects would be accelerated from one-another beyond the speed of light and the universe quickly undergoes infinite expansion.  However, this conclusion is made without considering the very important spacetime curvature implications of General Relativity.  When looking at the cosmological implications of an Antithetic force from a higher-dimensional context, one quickly realizes that such a force produces an initially-expanding but self-closing universe.  The closure quickly solves Antithy’s own problem, for once closed, the Antithetic Force works in all directions, supplying a sort of repulsive pressure across the universe to counteract initial expansion and shepherd all of the matter in the universe into equilibrium positions with respect to all other matter (like a web of repulsive magnets on the surface of a sphere). 

With this in mind, on small cosmological scales, Gravity dominates.  On large cosmological scales, Antithy dominates.  Thus, Gravity/Antithy is not the weakest but the strongest fundamental force.

I strongly suspect that Antithy is why a consistent value for the Hubble Constant proves perpetually elusive, and Antithy supplies an additional force to explain the nature of “galactic bubbling” in cosmological structure as well as explain the presence of a force attributable to pervasive “dark matter.” 

There you go.  I’m trying as hard as I can to get this proposition into a publication for critical review, but tempus fugit. 

Consider this post a backup for posterity.


Ben McGee

August 9, 2012; 03:00pm

Everything You Wanted to Know About BEAM but Were Afraid to Ask

8 04 2016

Humanity’s first human-habitable inflatable spaceship, (or as those in the industry prefer to call it, “expandable” spacecraft), is soon to launch off-world.  Tucked inside a Dragon cargo transport‘s “trunk” and perched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, this momentous departure targets the International Space Station (ISS) and is slated to occur today.

The precious expandable cargo is itself a simple test article, (or as those in the industry are keen to refer to it, a “pathfinder technology demonstrator”), which was manufactured by Bigelow Aerospace right here in Las Vegas, Nevada.  Aptly titled the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, the craft is designed to attach to the ISS and stay put for at least two years to see how it behaves.

Now, media outlets large and small, having caught wind of this impending technological departure from the streampunk-like status quo, (where hulking, submarine-like cylindrical pressure vessels serve as our spacecraft shells), are repeating the same, few details with great enthusiasm.  However, general curiosity about BEAM’s design, structural elements, and expected performance is going generally unanswered.

Well, no more.  There’s no question too big or too small to answer, here!  So, for the intrepid of spirit, I hereby present the following 5-point breakdown of Everything You Wanted to Know About BEAM but Were Afraid to Ask… (using public-domain material, of course.)


1]  What are BEAM’s pair of small, antennae-like protrusions for, anyway?


BEAM’s aft bulkhead antennae? (Original credit: Bigelow Aerospace)

While they might look like tiny, satellite-TV-style dishes, these circular devices serve a radically different function.  Known as standard Flight-Releasable Grapple Fixtures, or FRGFs, they’re the means by which the ISS’s robotic arm will snare BEAM, yank it out of Dragon’s trunk, and plug it on to the ISS’s Node 3 module.


A Flight-Releasable Grapple Fixture, or FRGF, a necessary grip point for the International Space Station’s robotic arm. (Credit: NASA)

NASA provided Bigelow Aerospace with two FRGFs to install on BEAM as part of their contract.  Think of them as the receiving half of an enormous robotic handshake upon BEAM’s arrival at the ISS.


2]  What about the sleek, wavy metal collar on the ‘hatch’ side of BEAM?


Sleek style or something more? (Original credit: SpaceX)

As it turns out, this eye-catching part of BEAM’s exterior was manufactured by the Sierra Nevada Corporation and is known as a Passive Common Berthing Mechanism, or (you guessed it), a PCBM.  This is a standard mechanism for unpowered craft that can’t dock to the ISS using their own thrusters and must therefore be snatched up by the ISS’s robotic arm and manually ‘plugged in’ to one of the station’s active ports.


A Passive Common Berthing Mechanism, necessary for forming a tight seal with the International Space Station. (Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation)

The PCBM was supplied to Bigelow Aerospace by the Sierra Nevada Corporation as part of the NASA BEAM contract, and it was integrated into BEAM’s structure at Bigelow’s large North Las Vegas facility.


3]  So, what are BEAM’s walls actually made of?

BEAM softgoods

What makes sturdy spacecraft skin that can also crumple and fold for launch? (Original credit: Bigelow Aerospace)

Bigelow hasn’t released the specifics of the makeup of BEAM’s fabric walls, known as “softgoods.”  (Holding this extremely proprietary information close to the vest is unsurprising.)  However, despair not, curiosity-fueled space enthusiasts, for it turns out that much basic information about the Bigelow expandable spacecraft approach was published in a 2005 article in Popular Science, entitled, “The Five-Billion-Star Hotel.”

In the article, the walls of the expandable Bigelow “Nautilus” module under development at the time (later to be rechristened the B330 spacecraft) were described as having the following basic structure:

  1. “Five outer layers of graphite-fiber composites separated by foam spacers” that function as a micrometeorite and orbital debris (MMOD) shield.
  2. Moving inward, this is followed by a critical, intermediate layer known as the “restraint layer,” which serves as the load-bearing portion of the structure.  This layer is described as “a web of interwoven straps made of high-strength fiber.”
  3. Finally, the innermost layer, called the “air bladder,” is a “plastic film” that “keeps the internal atmosphere from escaping into space.”

Admittedly, it has been some time since the article was written, and details may have shifted somewhat in the intervening years.  -But, in a general sense, BEAM could be reasonably expected to follow the same sort of structural format.

For something a little more recent, one can also argue for a fairly close approximation of BEAM’s softgoods in another, modern inflatable spacecraft design.  European aerospace titan Thales Alenia Space (TAS), (responsible for the design and manufacture of the rigid shell backbones of the European Space Agency’s Automated Transfer Vehicle supply ships as well as the Cygnus cargo freighters, and others), has its own inflatable spacecraft design known as REMSIM.


A 2005 rendering of a REMSIM inflatable module, envisioned as a lunar habitat. (Credit: Thales Alenia Space)

Just as BEAM could be considered offspring of the cancelled NASA TransHab program, from which it inherited much of its technology and approach, so too does REMSIM descend from TransHab, making it a sort of European cousin to BEAM.   Standing for “Radiation Exposure and Mission Strategies for Interplanetary (Manned) Mission,” REMSIM was effectively the European Space Agency’s push (like Bigelow) to carry the TransHab torch into the 21st Century.  (REMSIM research and development is ongoing to this day.)

In landmark 2009 research presented at the International Symposium on Materials in a Space Environment, led by TAS researcher Roberto Destefanis, the REMSIM layers are revealed (and put through their paces).

Screen Shot 2016-04-08 at 7.15.18 AM

Softgoods layering details of the inflatable REMSIM spacecraft, a European cousin to Bigelow Aerospace’s BEAM. (Credit: Destefanis et al., 2009)

In the above diagram, MLI stands for Multi-Layer Insulation (think heat shield), BS stands for Ballistic Shield layer, and the rest are as described.  As can be seen, they generally agree with the Popular Science description of the Bigelow approach.

So, odds are, if you want to know what’s inside BEAM’s collapsible/expandable spacecraft skin, the REMSIM “stack” isn’t a bad place to start.


4]  Can BEAM really shield well against micrometeorite and orbital debris strikes?


Will BEAM’s soft sides stand up to space impacts? (Original credit: NASA JSC)

When many are introduced to the concept of an inflatable spacecraft, a natural first reaction is alarm.  On Earth, most inflatable objects are very vulnerable to punctures and ruptures (e.g., party balloons).  Wouldn’t an inflatable spacecraft be far more vulnerable than rigid aluminum modules to micrometeorites and bits of space junk zipping around at mind-bending orbital speeds?

Well, much like a Kevlar vest has no problem stopping a bullet, it turns out that expandable spacecraft have no problem holding their own against impinging space chunks.  While specific information on how well BEAM’s softgoods hold up under punishment is proprietary, we can return once again to REMSIM for a good example.


The aftermath of a micrometeorite impact test on a BEAM-similar expandable spacecraft design known as REMSIM, demonstrating that the inner layer remains unscathed. (Credit: Thales Alenia Space)

The Bigelow debris shielding approach, like REMSIM, uses what is called a Multi-Shock strategy.  Here, multiple thin, ballistic shield layers separated by some distance act to “shock” the incoming projectile and disperse its energy before it strikes (and potentially breaches) the pressure containment layer.

So, again returning to the 2009 Destefanis paper, REMSIM softgoods test articles boasted surviving getting blasted with half-inch aluminum spheres at speeds exceeding 15,000 miles per hour.  (This agrees with claims made in the aforementioned 2005 Popular Science article, which reports that Bigelow softgoods withstood a half-inch aluminum sphere impacting at better than 14,000 miles per hour.)  Not too shabby at all, and according to the research, meets or exceeds the debris protection performance of rigid ISS modules using traditional “stuffed” Whipple Shields.

This implies that BEAM’s protection factor against micrometeorites and debris is just fine, if not outright superior to rigid modules.


5]  What sort of radiation protection should we expect from BEAM?


This has been a big question, and one NASA has expressed particular interest in.  In fact, it’s one of the primary functions of BEAM to determine just how favorable the radiation protection qualities of a softgoods spacecraft are.

The problem with space radiation is that it is generally more massive and highly energetic compared to ionizing radiation encountered on Earth’s surface, which makes it difficult to shield.

The problem with talking about space radiation shielding is that it depends on a boatload of variables — the more active our Sun, the more it deflects even more damaging radiation from exploding stars in our own Galaxy (and beyond) but trades it for an increased risk of being hit with lower-energy but overwhelming solar storms.


Artist’s depiction of solar and cosmic radiation at the fringe of Earth’s magnetic field. (Uncredited)

Blanket statements about how anything shields radiation in space are therefore difficult to reliably make, requiring multiple models and depending strongly on orbit altitude, timing, and precise material breakdown.  As a result, experts tend to either sound uncertain or evasive.

Keeping all of this in mind, if we return to the 2009 Destefanis study one final time, we find it has something to say about this as well.

By placing test articles meant to represent different types of spacecraft and spacecraft materials in front of particle accelerators powerful enough to fling atoms as large and fast as those fired into the cosmos by exploding stars, researchers can reliably predict how materials will shield against space radiation.  This is exactly what the Destefanis study reports, using an iron-atom slinging accelerator at Brookhaven National Lab.

Screen Shot 2016-04-08 at 10.01.10 AM

Expected shielding performance of BEAM-like REMSIM compared with varying thicknesses of different materials and ISS module compositions. (Credit: Destefanis et al., 2009)

The results of the Destefanis work reveal that against the most damaging type of radiation experienced at the ISS (heavy Galactic Cosmic Rays), REMSIM shields nearly half as well (3%) as an empty ISS module (8.2%).  It achieves this with less than a third of the equivalent mass, demonstrating a pound-for-pound benefit in REMSIM’s favor, not to mention the unprecedented capability of squeezing into a tiny payload space during launch.

In a big-picture sense, the chart also reveals that REMSIM shields only 10% as well against heavy GCR as a fully-outfitted ISS module (3% versus 28.7%).  While this might sound terrible at first glance, this is due largely to the fact that Columbus is currently far from empty, ringed with equipment racks, piping, tubing, cabling, and supplies.  All of this extra material serves as supplemental shielding for astronauts located within.

By contrast, the basic REMSIM in this study is (like BEAM) completely empty, making the “10%” claim a somewhat unfair apples-to-oranges comparison.  However, numbers like these more closely match the current situation between BEAM and the rest of ISS.

So, ultimately, if the REMSIM-BEAM comparison holds, one might expect a similar ratio between GCR-radiation shielding measurements made in BEAM and parallel readings taken across the rest of the ISS.  And while the numbers might sound grim to the uninitiated, numbers like these are going to be exactly what NASA is looking for.


I hope the information compiled in this post has been helpful at least to some, and as always, feedback is welcome.

Semper Exploro!


Recalling Dr. Edgar Mitchell

24 02 2016



We recently lost one of humanity’s pioneers – one of twelve to step on another world and a man who made a distinct impact on me, though in an unexpected way.

Famous for his belief in extraterrestrial life and dabbling in the science of consciousness and extrasensory perception, he is most widely known for planting boot-prints on the Moon’s Fra Mauro Highlands during the Apollo 14 mission: his name was Dr. Edgar Mitchell.

A memorial was held today in his honor in Florida, but I won’t presume here to tread on the numerous articles detailing the many successes and fascinating aspects of his life.  Instead, I’d like to share a story that only I have – the brief tale of how, during a few quiet minutes, he kindly suffered my enthusiastic curiosity and changed my view of planetary exploration forever.

Boots on the Ground

It is a warm, spring afternoon in 2012, and the setting is the U.S. Space Walk of Fame Museum in Titusville, Florida.  Shortly after an interview with Dr. Mitchell held there that I participated in as part of a National Geographic Channel project, I find myself parked in a museum corridor with the affable astronaut while camera equipment is being packed up.

We have a couple of minutes to kill, and after pleasantries (and revealing my own astronaut aspirations, as I’m sure many who meet him do), I decide to make our remaining seconds of polite conversation count.  It’s also at this moment that the Director of Photography for the program is inspired to snap a photo:


Loitering with Apollo 14 astronaut Dr. Edgar Mitchell in the U.S. Space Walk of Fame Museum. (Image credit: Dave West)

Mercifully, I steer clear of the, “What advice would you have for an aspiring astronaut?” spectrum of questions.  (This is an explorer who’d ventured off-world during humanity’s lone period of manned lunar exploration, after all; he has much more valuable insight than opining on what looks good on a resume to a NASA review panel.)

Knowing that most of the details of the Apollo Program’s exploits have been well-captured in books and articles written during nearly a half-century of analysis and reflection, I aim to drill in on a single question I hadn’t yet heard an answer to.  A human question.

I simply ask: “So, what did it feel like to step into the lunar regolith?  I mean, what did it really feel like?  What was the sensation underfoot?”

His answer surprises me, (which, as a lifelong space obsessee, itself surprises me).  I thought I’d envisioned any of his possible answers, and I was wrong.

Dr. Mitchell cocks his head as he takes my meaning.  Then, he grins and thinks for a moment, (almost as if no one had asked him the question before), before replying:

“Honestly, I don’t really know.  The EVA suit was so rigid, we had such a tight timeline, I was so busy focusing on the mission objectives, and you’ve always got somebody chattering in your ear.” 

He shrugs and adds:

“By the time I’d have had time to think about something like that, the EVA was over and I was back in the lunar module.”

For a few moments, I’m flabbergasted.  “I don’t know” was the one answer I wasn’t really prepared for.  My mouth opens involuntarily, and I consider myself fortunate that I will it shut before I can blurt out, “What do you mean you don’t know?”

I mean, if he doesn’t know what it felt like to step on the Moon, who could?


Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell checking a map while on the lunar surface. (Credit: NASA)

The Reality of Exploration

Dr. Mitchell’s eyes twinkle slightly, almost as though he suspects the answer would catch me off-guard.  And then, several thoughts hit me in succession:

  • What an injustice that these explorers didn’t even have time to mentally record the sensation of their exploration!
  • But, wait – isn’t tactile information like that important?  Why wasn’t that made a priority?  An objective, even?
  • Doesn’t a sensory awareness of the surface beneath an astronaut relate directly to the ultimate utility an EVA suit on the Moon and the human factors of exploring beyond?
  • Don’t we need to know these things before we consider designing new suits and mission timelines for going back to the Moon and Mars?
  • Wait, did he just let slip a subtle indictment of micromanagement on the Moon?

But, shortly thereafter, the practicality sinks in.  Compared with larger, broader, more fundamental mission objectives, (e.g., survival, navigation, and basic science), smaller details like these were likely to be the first triaged right off of the priority list.  Especially considering that Apollo 14 was an “H-type” mission, which meant only a two-day stay on the Moon and only two EVAs,  they simply didn’t have the luxury of time.

Before I can continue the conversation, we’re swept away with a caravan to another location, and I don’t have another opportunity to pick up the discussion before we part ways for good.

In retrospect, the brief exchange forever changed the way I would view planetary exploration.  I consider it a true dose of lunar reality sans the romance.


Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell in the distance with the Lunar Portable Magnetometer experiment during EVA 2.

Lessons for Future Explorers

From this exchange, I was left with an indelible impression that every moment spent by future planetary astronauts on another world will be heavily metered and micromanaged.  Excursions will be rehearsed ad nauseam, and as a result, explorers in the thick of the real deal won’t be afforded much time to think about apparently trivial details like what it actually feels like to step on another world.

By all reckoning, it probably would feel much like another rehearsal.

But these details, even apparently small, do matter.  Things like suit fit, function, and feedback under different environmental conditions can have a huge impact on astronaut fatigue, injury, and mission success.  This is to say nothing of secondary geological information, (e.g., this type of regolith scuffs differently than that type), or the more romantic aspects of the sensation of exploration that are necessary for bringing the experience back home to those on Earth in a relatable way.

So, it should say something to us now that after traveling more than five football fields of distance on foot during the course of only two days, Dr. Mitchell couldn’t tell me what it really felt like to press a boot into lunar dirt.

Ultimately, the most unexpected lesson Dr. Mitchell was kind enough to impart was that unless we work to preserve these apparently smaller details of exploration, (as recalled by the limited number of explorers still with us who ventured onto the Moon), and unless we incorporate their implications into future plans, schedules, and designs, the path walked by future astronauts on other worlds will be more difficult than it should or need be.

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:


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


At the Right Place at the Right Time…

11 06 2014

Two BA-330 modules form Bigelow Aerospace's Alpha Station, with SpaceX's Dragon and Boeing's CST-100 depicted docked, (left and right, respectively). [Credit: Bigelow Aerospace]

Two BA-330 modules form Bigelow Aerospace’s Alpha Station, with SpaceX’s Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 depicted docked, (left and right, respectively). [Credit: Bigelow Aerospace]


On top of all of the other trouble I’ve been habitually getting myself into during the last several months, a series of unlikely and highly serendipitous events recently culminated in a sudden career shift.  -One that, I might add, I’ve been pressing for and gambling on for some time.

–And for longtime readers, it’s a shift that strikes to the very heart of this blog.  My unorthodox gambit toward the stars, it may appear, may have actually just paid off.

As of two weeks ago, I no longer make the daily drive to the deserted Nevada haunts of the former A.E.C..  Instead, I’m now under the employ of Bigelow Aerospace, LLC right here in Las Vegas(!).

There just aren’t powerful enough adjectives to describe how thrilling a development this has been for me.

(A Lack of) Details:

As a strictly private enterprise, security concerns regarding my activities at Bigelow Aerospace are paramount, so details I can reveal about my position and activities are consequently sparse.  However, I can say that my assignment as a Crew Systems Scientist in the Life Support Systems group, (in addition to serving as the company’s Assistant Radiation Safety Officer), presently has me diving into materials properties in the space radiation environment, with hints of larger project management responsibilities not far on the horizon…

I’ve never enjoyed work more in my life, and suddenly, it seems that everything has come full circle.

Looking Ahead

Growing up in Vegas, I have a deep attachment to the region.  That’s probably why I ended up moving back.  Meanwhile, my suspicion has long been (for a couple of decades, now) that aerospace is the cornerstone industry Southern Nevada has been waiting for and that our economy now so desperately needs.  (See: Assembly Joint Resolution #8, 1999, to learn about Spaceport Nevada and infer the crushing tale of the ahead-of-its-time initiative that might have changed the region as we know it…)  The synergy of Bigelow Aerospace’s location here, the company’s globally-unique, NASA-derived and improved spacecraft technology, and their recent sale of a module to the International Space Station is highly coincidental.

I feel it in my bones that it’s not only Southern Nevada’s legacy, (e.g., NASA Apollo training, NASA-AEC NERVA nuclear rocket program), but it’s Southern Nevada’s destiny to become an aerospace nexus.

Let’s see if I can’t do something about it.

Semper Exploro!

“Astronaut Politics” Meme

11 09 2013

One of the universally-championed benefits of human space exploration is not actually related to any physical activities performed while in space.  Instead, an important aspect of leaving our world is the change in perception that space exploration has upon astronauts themselves, and the societies that receive them, upon their return.

ASTRONAUTPOLITICSMEME_MITCHELLQUOTEIrrespective of country of origin, religion (or lack thereof), cultural background, or political ideology, and having seen firsthand the fragility of Earth in the context of the rest of the cosmos, a great majority of astronauts return as prophets of a unified Earth and humanity upon it.

Hearing what they have to say is powerful stuff, considering that they’ve lived through something still very, very unique to human experience.

Fighting Fire with Fire

So, as a bit of a social experiment, I took one of my favorite astronaut images and paired it with some of the more poignant, (if not also somewhat charmingly coarse), “overview effect”-inspired astronaut quotes as a meme (see image at right for an example) to inspire the question:

“How might the world be different if astronauts ran it?”

The six images I whipped up in series are included below – if so inclined, feel free to distribute at will.  (Attribution not necessary – I want to promote their opinions, not mine.)

They’re intended to trigger the consideration that the same training, rigors, education, problem-solving skills, decisiveness, and unique experiences required of and provided to those selected to venture off-world might also happen to make them ideal for leading us here at home.

I’d argue that we need more out there communicating the idea that supporting human space exploration has more behind it than the development of new technologies, probing the laws of our universe, figuring out if we’re alone in the cosmos, turning a profit, or even capitalizing on our species’ deep-seated impulse to explore.

By no means a new concept, many have instead suggested that with the apparently-universal nature of the Overview Effect and an increasing number of astronauts in our midst, conflicts may be given a broader or different context, and world contention might thereby diminish.  (It’s an admittedly lofty hope, but that’s no reason to avoid testing it; In my opinion, it provides all the more reason!)

About the Meme: Why That Picture?

The picture itself, that of future moonwalker Alan Shepard severely chomping on a cigar while leading ground control during the Gemini 6 mission to space, provides several subtly unsettling contrasts that I hope inspire thought or debate.  On its face, by depicting a very assertive, gruff 1960s American male stereotype, we’re shown a side of science and exploration that is not really depicted today.

Next, by just placing the picture of an astronaut (not in a spacesuit) in a vaguely political context, I feel that the concept of the explorer and the politician – two seemingly unrelated or even incompatible archtypes – are juxtaposed in such a way that the idea of an explorer-politician might be seen as something beneficial or even desirable.   (Many are unaware that several astronauts have, indeed, gone on to political careers after hanging up their flightsuits, John Glenn and Harrison Schmitt being two noteworthy examples.)

Further, however, is the fascinating contrast made by the impression of the picture and the content of the quotes superimposed over it.  Most today would consider the quotes to be promoting “liberal” leaning opinions, (i.e., ideas that those of a “hawk”-style international relations stance would consider to be fundamentally weak views,) – yet the majority of the quotes were made by military men epitomized by the stereotype the image suggests!

In addition to highlighting that no personality types, even those perceived to be warlike, are immune to the power of the spaceflight experience, this contrast visually assaults two modern myths currently operating in America’s evolving cultural narrative:

  1. That stereotypical, “20th Century male” (i.e., overt or hegemonic masculine) personalities or gender identities are synonymous with physicality and are incompatible with intellect.
  2. That the same personalities typified (or classified) at the time by masculine stereotypes are synonymous with aggression and conflict and are incompatible with humanist views.

Meshed with the deconstruction of a stereotype, (to the point, several of our “Right Stuff” astronauts, themselves amongst the most disciplined and committed military men of our country at the time, admitted to being moved to tears at the simple sight of the Earth from beyond,) it’s my hope that their message finds a memorable channel to the public, if not to a virgin audience.


For those inclined to do so, let me know what you think, and please copy and “fire at will,” as they say, on your social media outlet of choice.  Who knows?  These might not get a single view, or they just might plant a seed to someone whose eyes drift over it in the daily waterfall of social media that washes over us all.

Hopefully, discussions will result.

Having had their eyes opened, (perhaps metaphorically-dilated by the cosmic darkness to resolve a reality we’re evidently excellent at blinding ourselves to down here on Earth), I believe that there is a pressing social motivation for broadcasting the consistent messages carried back by humanity’s astronauts.

Especially given the increasingly-polarized political views on display these days, and considering the global, long-standing ideological conflicts that persist to this day, I think the message from our off-world explorers is becoming only more, not less, relevant with time.


The “Wow! Reply” – SETI Stunt, Science, or Threat?

22 07 2013

A little less than a year ago, the  National Geographic Channel (NatGeo) executed a truly novel crowdsourcing initiative that I feel is deserving of greater critical attention.

Hailed by some as innovative public engagement, derided by cynics as mere marketing spectacle, and condemned by others as a threat to our very way of life, hindsight suggests that this bold and yet somewhat understated event may have been the most significant contribution of the entire (and much maligned) television project.

The Wow! Reply

Specifically, the initiative’s concept was to solicit tweets from the public, collect and compress them into a digital package, and then “beam” the collective message into space as a potential reply to the famed, so-called “Wow! Signal.”

[The Wow! Signal refers to a 72-second-long radio signal picked up momentarily by SETI’s Big Ear radio telescope in Ohio on August 15, 1977.  As an enigmatic signal that appeared for all the world to represent Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) paydirt, it remains to this day arguably the strongest candidate for radio evidence of extraterrestrial life, though that isn’t saying all that much, as the signal has never been rediscovered for confirmation.  As a result, current SETI Institute director of interstellar message composition Douglas Vakoch has claimed that the signal has received more attention than it scientifically merits.  …But that’s a different story.]

In short, NatGeo was keen to supply anyone with access to a computer or smart-phone a chance to say something to the rest of the universe, all in promotion of its newest extraterrestrial-life-themed television show.  There were no restrictions on public participation or the content of anyone’s messages, save the 140-character limit built into Twitter tweets.

In my experience, this so-called “Wow! Reply” was a definite first:  An innovative collaboration between public media and research academia – in this case NatGeo and the famed Arecibo Observatory – that manifested as a public-outreach and active-SETI experiment on a global scale.

The Reply was ultimately successful (in that the interstellar broadcast was successfully performed from Arecibo), and the transmission was targeted back toward the location of the original Wow! signal precisely 35 years to the day from the original signal’s receipt.

An ambitious undertaking for an endeavor entirely conceived and funded to generate interest in a television show, indeed!

However, to understand the varied reactions to the Reply, it’s necessary to first explore how and why the Reply was crafted and executed in the first place.

Arecibo – the largest single-dish telescope in the world.
(Credit: National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center [NAIC]/Cornell U./NSF)

Designing an Interstellar Hook

The idea of the Reply was innovated by Campfire, a consulting firm specializing in “transmedia” storytelling (involving multiple media forms and channels).  The initiative itself was kicked off by soliciting Wow! Reply videos from celebrities and scientists, (to which I contributed).

Some of these videos were over-the-top, while others were serious and science-based.

A personal favorite is Stephen Colbert’s riff on the event.

-In any case, for something as seemingly esoteric as radio SETI, (which is essentially radio astronomy), this was an unprecedented amount of exposure!

Alongside, official word from National Geographic Channel was somewhat divorced from the show it was loosely designed to promote while being surprisingly inspirational and forthright in tone:

“We wanted to come up with some sort of social experiment where we would galvanize people to tap into the curiosity about whether there is life and intelligence elsewhere.”  (Courtney Monroe, NatGeo spokesperson)

“…curiosity around the Wow! Reply is rooted in one of mankind’s oldest unanswered questions: Are we alone in this universe?” (NatGeo Wow! Reply website)

“…[Intelligent extraterrestrial life] would have to decode [the Wow! Reply].  We have carefully structured our encoding and transmission so that it would be difficult to recognize the signal as anything random.  However, decoding the messages … They simply would not have the social context to do that. …no one involved in this project sees it as a truly scientific step toward finding intelligent life in the universe.  After all, this is not a SETI project. … But, that doesn’t mean it’s not a fun exercise, designed to provoke a whole range of questions and conversations down here on Earth – what do we believe is our place in the cosmos?  If we had to sum up the human experience for another civilization, what would we say?” (NatGeo Wow! Reply website)

Ultimately, one could say the Reply served its purpose, as more than 20,000 people tweeted specific messages on the appointed date (June 29, 2012) in order to be included in the transmission, and countless others were made more aware of SETI, radio astronomy, and the existence of the Wow! Signal as a result.

But forgetting the far-fetched and tantalizing possibility of contacting aliens for a moment, what of our own reactions to the Reply?

The Wow! Reaction… from Us.

Prior to the Jun 29 2012 tweet-collection date, there was significant and generally neutral-positive press coverage of the Wow! Reply, which crossed public and professional-level publications, including articles from Slashgear, Huffington Post, and Phys.org.

Unfortunately, however, any fanfare associated with the Reply was quickly siphoned and/or overshadowed by its association with the premier of a television show that, regrettably, communicated a much less scientific or exploratory message.

The press coverage quickly shifted toward neutral-negative, as seen in this NPR article, fading by the time of the transmission of the Reply itself to a simple, short blip on the newswire, exemplified by this NPR piece.

Then, coverage vanished entirely.

Now, a little less than a year later, the collective response from the scientific community and the general public on the Reply has been mixed, running the gamut from enthusiasm to fury.

Why mixed, you might ask?  What could possibly be perceived as negative about something that engaged so many people in the history of science, the wonders of radio astronomy, and possibility of life in the universe?

For the answer, let’s step squarely out of the realm of public media and discuss what NatGeo, wittingly or unwittingly, really engaged in when they conspired to undertake the Reply: METI, or Messaging Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.

The original 1977 print-out of what, based on the note written on the paper's margin, became known as the "Wow! Signal."

The original 1977 print-out of what, based on the note written on the paper’s margin, became known as the “Wow! Signal.”

Intragalactic Smoke Signals

Sending a message between stars may sound straightforward enough, but actually accomplishing the collection and broadcast of 20,000 tweets into space is a non-trivial technological feat in and of itself.

Addressing the problem of creating something even hypothetically translate-able by a non-terrestrial civilization is an altogether separate and even more daunting task.

Now, it should be mentioned that we – humanity – have been broadcasting signals into space since television broadcasts first began.  Our radio signals travel upwards and out into space in addition to traveling sideways where the antennae on our old TV sets would be best positioned to receive them.

Much like a beacon, these signals travel outward at the speed of light with time, some of which may have reached as far as 80 light years distant from us since then, (a radius that includes upwards of 5,000 stars!).  And crudely, like a smoke signal, the on-and-off of these transmissions has the ability to hypothetically alert another civilization (with the technology to detect them) to our presence on the galactic scene.

File:Arecibo message bw.svg

The 1974 Arecibo Message.

However, with all of this in mind and especially considering that SETI itself is approaching half of a century of maturity as a scientific pursuit, many are surprised to learn that a broadcast with the specific intent of transmitting information to – i.e., communicating with – hypothetical Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (ETI) has only been attempted eleven times in human history, nine of those being prior to the Wow! Reply.

Think about that.  Eleven times since we developed radio technology.  That’s the galactic equivalent of being trapped in a basement for a year and only calling out for help on the order of (very, very generously) 3 hours.

Not very good odds of being heard at all.

Most notable amongst these earlier transmissions was the Arecibo Message of 1974, a powerful, 210-byte message created by eminent SETI scientist Frank Drake and astronomer Carl Sagan, which was aimed at M13 – a star cluster located a cool 25,000 light-years from Earth.  (Read: It will be 25,000 years before that message reaches its destination! …but a quirk of astrophysics dictates that the stars won’t even be there by the time it gets there.  Everything is moving, after all.)

After that, it is interesting to note that the next message wasn’t even attempted until 25 years later, in 1999 (Cosmic Call 1).  The remaining six broadcasts were conducted in the aughts (2000-2010).

Now, and literally aimed a bit closer to home, we finally arrive at the NatGeo Wow! Reply on August 15, 2012.

The Wow! Reply Transmission

So, how was the Wow! Reply itself transmitted?  Using the Arecibo radio observatory’s formidable 1-megawatt  continuous-wave (CW) S-band transmitter, the project organizers used a 2380 MHz (12.6 cm wavelength) carrier wave to send what promotional materials referred to as a “global tweet” into space.

More specific technical details of the Reply’s assembly, construction, encoding, and transmission have been, somewhat surprisingly, fairly hard to come by.  Even more curiously, I was ultimately able to recover this information in a primary-source context only from an article removed from the National Geographic website not long after it was posted.   (I’m honestly not sure what to make of that.)

In any case, here goes.  Because of uncertainty in the source location of the original Wow! Signal, the Wow! Reply was targeted toward three different stars, which were each selected based on a trio of criteria.  Namely, they were selected based on their location, proximity to our own star system, similarity to our sun, (and I suspect a fair amount of opportunism with respect to the dish’s orientation at the time).

The ultimate winners were/are:

It’s a bit sobering to not just imagine but to know that these stars are not just numbers in a database but are actual stars, whirling about the Milky Way in the precise fashion that our sun does the same, dragging the Earth and the other planets along with it.

And like our Sun, we actually know that at least in one of these cases, these stars are also surrounded by actual alien worlds.  A system of planets not unlike our own.  Astronomers and planetary scientists call them Extrasolar Planets, or Exoplanets.

Comparison of the inner planets of en:55 Cancri and the innermost three planets of the Solar System.  (Credit: Wikipedia user Chaos syndrome)

Comparison of the inner planets of Wow! Reply recipient star system 55 Cancri and the innermost three planets of our Solar System. (Credit: Wikipedia user Chaos syndrome)

Specifically, there are at least five planets orbiting the yellow dwarf star within the 55 Cancri system (see the above image), one of which may skirt that system’s habitable zone. In other words, not only are they available to harbor hypothetical alien life, but one planet in particular (unceremoniously titled) “55 Cnc f” may even be able to support life as we already know it.

A heady endeavor, indeed.  But what is it we actually sent there (to arrive in the year 2053)?

To prepare the message to be delivered to each of these stars, all of the public videos and tweets were first converted to binary data.  Then, scientists at Arecibo were claimed to have added what they refer to as a “training header” to help a hypothetical recipient decode the message, as well as regular repetitions of header sequences prior to each tweet (meaning at least 20,000!) to help distinguish the signal from cosmic noise.

Then, at the power level mentioned above, which is roughly 20 times greater than the most powerful conventional radio transmitter, the enormous surface area of the Arecibo antenna would have boosted the signal to an effective power of more than 10 TeraWatts.

For reference, this is enough power (properly harnessed) such that Doc Brown could have sent Marty McFly back to the future more than 8,000 times.

Pretty powerful, indeed.  But then again, it would have to be.  The nearest star on the recipient list is, in conventional distances, 2,410,000,000,000,000 (nearly two-and-a-half quadrillion) miles away.

And as for how to make the 1 and 0 parts of the radio message, astronomers use what is known as a Binary Phase Shift Keying modulator that literally flops the carrier signal to represent up or down, or 1 and 0.

Now, having sent the Wow! Reply is one thing.  The idea that an extraterrestrial civilization could produce any meaningful information from it is another entirely.

Carl Sagan, one of the first serious proponents and implementers of interstellar messaging.

Carl Sagan, one of the first serious proponents and implementers of interstellar messaging.

Communicating with the Unknown 

The odds of translating an alien message is remote.  Vastly remote.  So remote, in fact, that NatGeo in their own description of the event declares the possibility to be zero:

“[An alien civilization] simply would not have the context to do that.”

So, was this all in vain?  Has the truth of the advertising and marketing aspect of this endeavor finally been laid bare?  Well, not necessarily.  While the broadcast may have been a blast of indecipherable binary code, it may still function as a lighthouse-style beacon, and further, it provides excellent context for explaining the difference between so-called Active SETI and METI here at home.

The Chief Scientist of Russia’s Institute of Radio-engineering and Electronics Alexander Zaitsev has eloquently laid out the argument for the difference between and importance of SETI and METI in his paper, “Messaging to Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.”

Quite simply, on the one hand the mission of SETI is to produce confirmation of extraterrestrial intelligence.  From this inward-directed vantage, messages such as the Wow! Reply seem to be of little value, as they present a disappointingly remote “shot in the dark,” as it were, of being received, translated, and acted upon.

However, METI proponents possess a much more outward-directed motive, which is to not only ideally communicate with ETI but also to inspire their Wow! Signal moments, even if they are unable to reply.  What a mental back-bend to consider such a possibility!

In Zaitsev’s words,

“METI pursues not a local, but a more global purpose – to overcome the Great Silence in the Universe, bringing to our extraterrestrial neighbors the long-expected annunciation “You are not alone!””

Clever work is being done today on the design of universally-translate-able METI, such has modulating the signal itself to represent physical elements, (e.g., invoking pattens in the radio wave itself so that it serves as the message), yet Zaitsev’s point is that doing so may not even be essential to fulfill a much more significant role to another civilization.

The Hawking Warning

So, that brings us to the next chapter of this interstellar adventure, which is the opposition to METI.  It’s easy to imagine the benefits of such a philosophically-lofty endeavor, e.g., inspiring a “first contact” moment with another civilization that has the capacity to, in turn, broaden our cultural horizons to include a galaxy that has satisfied one of our longest-standing questions – revealing that we are indeed not alone!

However, what of the potential pitfalls?

As it turns out, objections to METI are not new.  In reaction to the famed Arecibo Message of 1974 mentioned earlier, Nobel laureate and astronomer Martin Ryle championed that any attempted extraterrestrial messages be strictly outlawed, at least pending some sort of rigid global review and risk assessment.


In what may be seen through the lens of future history as either paranoid or prophetic, Ryle’s objections were repeated in 2011 by eminent physicist Dr. Stephen Hawking, who issued an infamous alert warning humanity away from attempting to contact extraterrestrial life.

For someone as engaged in public science outreach as Dr. Hawking has been throughout his career, the proclamation was seen by many as puzzling or counter-intuitive.  However, his concerns were based on hard historical data – something that is obviously difficult to come by when talking about any scenario for which we have no practical example.

In Hawking’s words:

“If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans … We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.”

Now, there is nothing saying that this must be the case, but the objection certainly merits critical thought.  If relevant, shouldn’t any attempts at interstellar contact be limited as these precautionists warn – at least until we possess a means of planetary defense?

And if the concern is not applicable, why not?  Can we be sure?  (This relates in a way to what I like to refer to as the Andromeda Strain and War of the Worlds spectrum for interplanetary or interstellar lifeform interactions…)

Jamesburg Earth Station, currently transmitting for the Lone Signal project.

Jamesburg Earth Station, currently transmitting for the Lone Signal project.

Domino Effect: The Lone Signal

In perhaps the most intriguing development of all, it appears that the concept of the Wow! Reply earned the attention of an entirely unexpected group – public outreach space scientists themselves.

Just last month, a crowdfunded METI/Active SETI program called Lone Signal began continuous operation at California’s Jamesburg Earth Station.  In a strikingly-similar sort of outreach initiative to the Wow! Reply, the objective of Lone Signal is to continuously transmit “tweet”-sized messages from the public toward Gliese 526, a red dwarf star located a mere 17.6 light years away.

Lone Signal began sending these transmissions on June 17 of this year.  If successful, they hope to activate a network of stations across the Earth, greatly enhancing our star system’s galactic profile, in a manner of speaking.

As for Hawking’s warning about the dangers of exactly such an increase in visibility to the brotherhood of advanced and potentially-threatening alien civilizations that may or may not exist?  Lone Signal’s chief scientist has stated that he believes any nearby advanced extraterrestrial civilizations are already aware of our existence due to radio leakage, and humanity’s previous high-power transmissions could be detected with relatively simple equipment.

While engaging the public in an active outreach program, Lone Signal hopes to resolve what is essentially another civilization’s Wow! Signal problem – since our previous broadcasts have been short bursts that have never repeated, any civilization just tuning in could have caught just a fragment.

Lone Signal aims to broadcast continuously for the foreseeable future, giving other civilizations that which we ourselves have yet to find: the power of confirmation.

The Wisdom of Active SETI and METI

You be the judge.  Was the Wow! Reply the first in a series of media efforts to engage the public in a world that extends beyond our horizons?  Was it simply advertising masquerading as science?  Will it be looked upon as the lure that attracted what may become an unprecedented future conflict over resources with life hailing from another star system?  Or might it hasten the day that we realize we are not alone in the universe, helping us resolve our internal quarrels and participate in a broader spectrum of interactions in our stellar neighborhood already in play?

Time will tell.

But this is the conversation I sincerely wish we would have been in a position to facilitate a year ago.

Comments welcome.

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