May. 16th, 2010

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Of all the departments of the Federal government, NASA is probably the most open and public about new technologies. I mean, DARPA and CIA and NSA may be cutting edge, but none of those departments will have a Twitter "Tweetup" showing off (say) their workhorse cryptography-breaking supercomputer. Especially not to a group of 150 people who can instantly broadcast any passing thought to the world with a couple taps on a phone. I'm curious if the government would grant Secret or higher status to anyone who has a Twitter or Facebook or LJ account.

NASA, however, embraces the "new media" concept. After getting kicked around by budget cuts (1966 budget: 5.5% of Federal spending. 2010 budget: 0.52%), and the bigger issue of paradigm shifts between the oddly big-government and grandiose space vision of George W. Bush, then recently morphed by the oddly free-enterprise private-sector slant of Barack Obama, NASA sometimes seems simultaneously obsolete and cutting-edge. One NASA manager was asked this week, "What does NASA think about...", and the response was, paraphrased, "NASA is 18,000 employees. Are you asking what does the average employee think? The astronauts? The engineers? The top-tier of Directors?"

I have to say the rank-and-file NASA employees (and a couple retirees that were there), were almost visibly bummed out by the back and forth between Ares/Constellation , and by the shuttle program ending. I overheard debates between employees just chatting amongst themselves, supposedly out of earshot (but not to a Tweeter/LJer!): "Should we go to Mars?" "Sure, if we can." "I wouldn't want to be on that ship for 2 years." "Oh, definitely not, but I'd love to support it." That sort of thing. It was fascinating. I went to an engineering school, RPI, and I remember seeing a disconnect from reality my freshman year when a campus bowling alley employee who handed me my Lysoled shoes never looked up from reading an article about the Uranus flyby (which was happening at the time). These people think about space travel all the time. But, they do it realistically, and probably more realistically than us space fanboys/fangirls at the tweetup think about this stuff. Mars? Sure (many of us Tweeters thought) it's the next step past the moon, let's do it. Mars? Well, we're talking 2 1/2 years in a box, the NASA folks said worriedly, even in casual chats among themselves. Apollo was 3 days each way, and that was 40 years ago. Can we do that now?

The space shuttle is arguably the most complex piece of machinery mankind has invented. It never went to the moon like Apollo, or roamed on another planet several years beyond its designed life like the Mars rovers, or showed us the things that Hubble sees every day. But, it can launch something the size of a city bus, along with 7 or so people, and come back again to be used over and over. It put Hubble where it is. It brought up the majority of the International Space Station...even the parts that the Russians or the Canadians or the Japanese could build on the ground, but didn't have the technology or funding or national will (or even national acceptance) to put into orbit.

On the other hand, throughout the life of the program, there were five shuttles and now there are three. That may be unacceptable. Or, in perspective, we've had it pretty easy when it comes to exploration throughout history: I wrote a little essay once after the loss of Columbia about how deadly early New World exploration really was: http://petermarcus.livejournal.com/211110.html

As of Friday, there were three shuttle launches left before they're retired. There's some wiggle room for maybe one more mission (Atlantis, when it makes it back, will be prepped as a rescue mission should anything go wrong with the last two and could possibly be converted into a mission on its own), but for all practical purposes, the shuttle program is over after those three (or four) launches. Maybe a year or so ago the program could have been saved, but it's closed now. There are no more external tanks, for example, and with the production plant closed and employees moved on to other things, it would essentially require creating a new company with all the government vetting and oversight and red tape that usually goes into that sort of approval process.

In other words, it's not just a question of money. It's a fact of how the government, and its contractors, create a program like the space shuttle, and with the main suppliers already shut down, it's never going to start again.

Personally, I have some serious conflicts about the current state of NASA. On one hand, I think history has shown that private enterprise has done things more cheaply and efficiently than government. The current, tangible recession aside (almost entirely caused by private enterprise), there have been few milestones in government that have not been surpassed when private enterprise has caught up. On the other hand, one of the powers that government has is the ability to throw nearly unlimited amounts of money (our money) at a problem until it is solved.

Private enterprise is currently at the Freedom/Mercury level of NASA. Without government involvement, and sometimes in spite of it, private companies are currently putting civilians up to the edge of space, and putting satellites into orbit. Civilians are pretty far behind NASA -- NASA has spacecraft past the heliopause, and private enterprise can barely get something to sit in geosynchronous orbit.

In some sense, this almost defines the mission of NASA (what kind of profit motive to investors does the heliopause provide?) On the other hand, there's a lot of profit to be made in space, and maybe private enterprise should step in to reduce the inevitable bureaucracy and cash-sucking budgets against which government isn't designed to care about. I mean, the President or the Director of NASA might decide that Pluto is a worthy subject to study (and I happen to agree). So, throw $650 billion or $750 billion at it. It's just money already collected by the IRS. Solar power from space? A company would have to compete against coal and natural gas and nuclear plants already operating, no matter how environmentally friendly it is. But, if there's already a private enterprise launch system in place, the private sector can start thinking about it: "Hmmmm, the startup costs are bad right now, but then again, it's almost free power after that point. So at one point does it make sense to try?"

Setting aside the approach to mankind's destiny for a bit, I had an interesting Thursday and Friday.

NASA decided to host a "tweetup" for Twitter people (#nasatweetup if you're a Twitter person). Enter a lottery, and NASA would pick 150 Twitter people to watch the Atlantis space shuttle launch from the press area at Kennedy Space Center. Get there on your own, stay at a hotel on your own, but once you're on site, they'd give us a show. Over 1000 Twitter people applied, and I happened to have been one of the ones chosen.

It was a little weird for me for a bunch of reasons. Firstly, I'm not much of a Twitter person. We have a Twitter account for FotoCuisine, mainly as a marketing tool for our website FotoCuisine. Up to that point, I've tweeted maybe twice. It doesn't help that I was one of the founding engineers for the now defunct Utterz/Utterli, which was an early competitor to Twitter, and so I have a bit of technological rivalry/sour grapes about the whole thing.

Then again, I just got invited to meet astronauts and watch a shuttle launch from less than 5 miles (8km) away. I learned a new respect for Twitter very quickly.

We've seen shuttle launches from our backyard. In my life in Florida, I've probably seen over 40 of them, from here in Melbourne or Cocoa Beach or Orlando or Miami. The launch before this happened at the early hours of the morning, and, with two little kids, we didn't watch it, though it woke us both up shaking the house. In a sense, being 25 miles from Kennedy, it's part of the thrill and yet part of the day-to-day routine of living in Central Florida.

But, this tweetup was also the chance of a lifetime.

Following, is photos and commentary about the last couple days:
Read more... )

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