LDRS and BALLS

January 7, 2009

I’m hoping to get up to Potter, NY on the Fourth of July weekend to attend Large and Dangerous Rocket Ships (LDRS) 28, one of the biggest annual launches in the world.

I’ll probably fly one or two rockets of my own, but mostly go to see the big projects, such as a 3/4 scale Patriot Missile Dan Michael is flying.

But LDRS isn’t really dangerous, though the rockets are large. But the really crazy stuff is flown at BALLS in the Black Rock desert, a launch that I hope to one day attend. Here’s the press release, and two of my favorite excerpts:

As a demonstration launch of experimental motors and airframes designed using the top technologies in the field, this is a venue for projects that are not flown publicly because of safety and legal restrictions. Here you will find large rockets that utilize complex clustering or staging techniques, metal construction, and home-brewed propulsion systems.

Because of the nature of activities children are discouraged. It is nearly impossible to concentrate on a large potentially dangerous project and watch your child at the same time. No children will be allowed.

Not “bringing children is discouraged”–“children are discouraged.”

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Back to Blogging

January 5, 2009

Throughout my last few years of college, blogging provided an invaluable outlet as I struggled to develop a personal philosophy/worldview in a relatively isolated and non-progressive corner of these United States. Becoming a secular humanist in a small Arkansas town while attending a private, extremely conservative Christian university wasn’t exactly the easiest transition possible. But, the Interwebs were a great blessing, and gave me the chance to engage with a broad range of people both near and far.

Then all of a sudden I graduated (relief!) and moved to Washington, DC (more relief!) where I soon realized that, to most people, religion just isn’t that big of a deal. I think that most secular people are not raised with the intensity of belief and/or clarity of philosophy that comes from being raised in and around a Christian university/community. Really, this applies to most religious people as well. So, since writing about theology, philosophy, and politics and dialoguing with people outside of Arkansas were large reasons for my blogging habit, life in the District alleviated some of those needs. The other factor that led to my blog silence from July to December ’08 was that a good chunk of my work time involved blogging. Since I’ll be starting a new job in a week, and I’ve gotten a little more settled into life in DC, I think it’s time to get back to blogging.

This Spring should be an interesting time. I’m living in a group house with great housemates, enjoying the biweekly meetings for a fellowship program I’m in, training for a the National Half-Marathon, possibly taking evening Chinese classes and working toward a medium-term goal of teaching English and studying Chinese in China, working a new job, and, of course, going to Barack Obama’s Inauguration and following the fascinating political developments ahead! Should be busy, eh?

So, in my spare time, I think my blogging will focus a little on each of the following:

Book Reviews–that is, if I have time to read.
Politics–I’m a blogger in DC. This is obligatory.
Religion–It’s fascinating, no matter where you stand on the details.
Rocketry–I’ll be getting the small mid- and high-power rocketry fleet I brought with me to DC ready for some flights this spring and summer, and watching how the Obama administration shapes its space policy.
Photography–Some from my cross-country road trip in August, some from around DC…
Science–Trying to keep my interest in molecular biology and other fields up to speed (I love ScienceBlogs).
China–Big and getting bigger.

It’s good to be back!


Obama Considers Merging NASA, Pentagon Programs

January 5, 2009

Bloomberg reports that “Obama’s transition team is considering a collaboration between the Defense Department and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration because military rockets may be cheaper and ready sooner than the space agency’s planned launch vehicle, which isn’t slated to fly until 2015…”

Good idea.

I’ve had some considerable hesitations about the Constellation program since first reading about it. One huge point in Constellation’s favor is that it’s not the Space Shuttle–a program that has served some useful purposes but largely wasted the best part of the potential of the last 35 years of American space flight by blockading us in low-earth orbit and castrating our imagination while sucking up just as much funding as more ambitious–and thoughtful–projects might have consumed. So at least the Constellation is intended to do more without getting us stuck in lovely, expensive dreams of reusable space-planes. But Constellation’s ambition was never matched by the necessary concordance of national leadership and popular support necessary to really carry the funding through to completion. Part of the problem is that, while using modifications of some existing technology (like the Space Shuttle SRB’s), developing a new system for manned space flight is really expensive, and can unnecessarily drain resources from unmanned missions. This isn’t necessarily bad–if the manned missions are ambitious (and well-funded) enough to achieve something worthwhile.

Space policy is difficult because administrations only last four to eight years, and the development of a single mission from inception through R&D to flight readiness is often several times that span. So when the Bush administration held up Constellation without giving it the funding necessary to make truly solid (ie, irreversible) progress before 2009, it was hard to take seriously.

So, taking some of the nice ideas of Constellation (trying to get past near-earth orbit sometime soon) while cutting a lot of the cost of developing new launch vehicles when the DoD already has nice resources available seems to make a lot of sense. Military space programs have always had massive funding yet little publicity. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) published this overview of military and civilian space programs in 2003. Like most CRS reports, it’s invaluable but dry. On the first page you get this telling note:
“Tracking the DOD space budget is extremely difficult since space is not identified as a separate line item in the budget. DOD sometimes releases only partial information (omitting funding for classified programs) or will suddenly release without explanation new figures for prior years that are quite different from what was previously reported.”

The distinction between American military and civilian space efforts serves a few purposes. One is that the less secretive NASA drives public interest in space through education programs. Another is that NASA has programs that have no immediate national security benefit, like robotic exploration missions (keep an eye on NASA’s Pluto-bound New Horizons craft).

But these benefits of having a civilian space program will not necessarily disappear with greater collaboration between the Pentagon and NASA. The major benefit would be eliminating parallel programs to save millions or billions in development costs. Some of this is likely already done, but agency turf wars likely prevent much more.

I would hazard a guess that, especially abroad, the distinction between US-funded civilian programs and US-funded military programs is not especially strong in the public mind. Why? Partly because NASA has a long history of military collaborations. NASA draws on US military pilots for Space Shuttle pilots and commanders and flying military personnel from other countries, such as Ilan Ramon, an Israeli Air Force pilot who perished aboard Columbia. NASA also flew several classified missions lofting military payloads aboard its Shuttle fleet. So the distinction is already blurry.

And, of course, everyone knows (and most people say) that the only reason the US would be likely to fund renewed exploration efforts (going back to the Moon or possibly to Mars) would be to compete with another nation. Given that the Russia’s Sputnik spurred us through Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, it makes sense that China’s current push to go to the Moon could drive us to go back. Is it a prudent investment or a mindless arms race? Hard to say. But if we’re going to do these things as a show of national might, why not be honest about it and do it as a true military-civilian collaboration, and save some money along the way?