As you may be aware, I also daylight as a graduate student. For an update (with pretty pictures!) on what’s been going on in research land, check out my blog post on our lab website.
Space exploration needs more antifragility. For those unfamiliar with the concept of antifragility, (this includes the word processor I’m using) here the quick definition from the appropriately titled book, Antifragile:
“Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.”
If the spectrum from fragile to antifragile were like the rainbow, with antifragility on the violet side, the standard spacecraft would fall in the land of bright, pulsing red. They have literally been likened to museum pieces that we delicately place on the self (orbit) and then take a deep breath, step away, and hope nothing unexpected happens. Think of the two space shuttle disasters or any of a slew of other spacecraft failures – one small unaccounted-for factor raises it’s head (a chipped cracked tile, metric-to-english conversions) and billions of dollars or worse, human lives, are lost.
This way of doing things cannot continue if space flight is to expand beyond its current scope. Something will break. The spacecraft we build now are like the Death Star – glorious sterile shrines to engineering prowess – that come to a shuttering end from any disturbance to the tiny chink in their armor. Instead, we should move towards making spacecraft like the Millennium Falcon – when a part breaks (all too frequently) the replacement is often actually an upgrade, making the ship far more awesome than when it rolled off of the manufacturing line.
The interesting and unanswered question is how does one make spacecraft truly antifragile? Material that absorbs micrometeorite impacts to become stronger? A radiation shield that generates energy for the protected crew? It’s both exciting and hard to puzzle out how to benefit from unknown unknowns.
Update 6/1/2013. This is exactly the sort of fragility that rears its head all the time under the current space technology paradigm.
Today, the asteroid mining company Planetary Resources launched a Kickstarter campaign to finance a publicly accessible space telescope, called ARKYD. It is continuing a trend that I hope will continue: space-centered crowdfunding campaigns. Some are successful, some less so, but each one further normalizes the idea that the government no longer needs to be the primary player in space exploration.
The telescope itself is not a particularly impressive piece of technology. However, I would argue that the technology isn’t the point. Instead, the exciting aspect is demonstrating the feasibility of an entirely private space venture (funding, building and launch) that doesn’t rely entirely on billionaires with cash to burn.
As noted in this article, Planetary Resources and its backers could fund the project without the Kickstarter funds. A friend of mine pointed out that this raises a few issues. I don’t see any of them as a problem:
1. Planetary Resources shouldn’t take other people’s money because they already have enough to fund the project and the Kickstarter money won’t fully fund it anyway.
The president and chief engineer of planetary resources freely admits “Though that total wouldn’t fully fund the construction and launch of a public-use ARKYD, the money would mean there was an “appropriate level of interest” among the public for the project to go forward”
The point is interesting, that Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sources don’t have to just be about raising money that wouldn’t otherwise be available, but can also function as a sort of ad hoc prediction market.
2. Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sources are for small independent projects to get funding, but are now being taken over by large companies that don’t actually need the money.
The independent projects are still there and still being funded. The great thing about the whole process is that it is entirely voluntary – nobody has to give money to anything they don’t want to (as opposed to, say, government projects.) Projects like ARKYD simply expand the kind of projects available to fund – an option they clearly appreciate considering the amount of money already donated. If anything, large companies launching crowdfunding campaigns helps the smaller projects because it draws more attention to crowdfunding as a whole.
3. Crowdfunding is just a sneaky way for big companies to get around investor protection laws because if the project doesn’t go through, they owe the contributors nothing.
I honestly don’t see any difference between people spending money with the expectation of a profit and spending money with the expectation of awesome. Either way, there is some amount of risk involved as well as smart spenders and dumb spenders. If anything, the crowdfunding campaigns of a ‘non-indie’ company (where’s the line? I’d say a bunch of guys who’s business plan is to mine asteroids are pretty far out there) is more accountable because they have a reputation on the line.
The bottom line is that the more space related anything going on, the better. The closer we can get space activity to the Silicon Valley model of ‘try fast, fail fast’ the better, and these crowdfunding attempts are a step in the right direction.
This chain of emails is unaltered except for the removal of identifying information:
On Thu, May 2, 2013 at 3:09 PM, Benjamin Reinhardt <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
Hello, Would it be possible to get more information regarding the rejection decision on my paper for Conference 2013? Thank you.
On Fri, May 3, 2013 at 9:33 AM, Session chair <session email@example.com> wrote:
Benjamin, On behalf of myself and my co-Chair, Dr. Other Session Chair(CC’d), let me pass on what information I have regarding the reviews of your paper.
Each paper received at a minimum two (2) peer-reviews. In the particular case of the subject paper, one review rated the paper as overall above average, whereas the second rated it as poor. The first reviewer provided no comments. The comments provided by the second reviewer were:
“While the overall concepts presented in this paper are promising, the paper itself spends too much time discussing the use of FemtoSats in broad terms and not enough time introducing and explaining the particle filter. Furthermore, the paper leans heavily on one particular reference which was written by a separate group of authors and which has yet to be published, which damages the theoretical foundations. I think this could be a very strong paper if the authors re-focus the work to better introduce the overall equations of motion and the nonlinear filter.”
The combined average score for the paper was low, which combined with the specific issues raised by the second reviewer is why it fell below the line with regards to acceptance. Given the large number of papers we were processing (95) and given the short time coupled and wide variety of technical subjects (even within the Spacecraft area) it was not possible for Dr. Other Session Chair and I to personally check each paper to provide a cross check. I regret to be the one to have to pass this news on, but it is everything I have to give you at this point. Best Regards, Session chair
——– Original message ——–From: Benjamin Reinhardt <firstname.lastname@example.org> Date: 05/03/2013 12:35 PM (GMT-07:00) To: Session chair <session email@example.com> Subject: Re: Paper Comments Request
Session chair, Thanks for your quick response. I am a little confused, as my paper did not mention FemtoSats at all. Did you send the correct set of comments? Thank you, Ben Reinhardt
Session Chair@gmail.com> Thu, May 16, 2013 at 2:02 AM Reply-To: session chair <session firstname.lastname@example.org> To: email@example.com
Benjamin, We resolved the issue. You should have received an acceptance for subject paper from the Conference Organization website. Let me know if thats not the case. Apologies for the confusion. Regards, Session chair
Peer review, a hallowed tradition of science, clearly has problems. Note that if the second reviewer had done the same as the first reviewer and neglected to write a comment, there would have been no way for me to know that my paper had been rejected because it had been mistaken for another.
Months earlier, I (who could have been anybody) submitted a paper and was given the option to review other submissions. It seemed like it’d be good practice, so I offered to review two papers.
Something seemed off about a system where they sent an un-vetted reviewer papers vaguely related to his claimed area of research and asked him to carefully judge them with pride in his work and faith in the peer review process as his only incentives to do a good job. My suspicions were clearly justified.
Skin in the game: It’s just as important in science as anywhere else.
If you’ve been paying attention to space news recently, you’ll know there’s a lot of conflict in congress concerning the course that they want NASA to take. It’s like a bunch of small children fighting over a teddy bear – in the same way that the bear isn’t fun for anybody with its arms ripped off, NASA is useless when it is paralyzed by being told to undertake a slew of different directions.
Jeff Faust at the Space Review goes into details, but here’s a quick summary of NASA’s directional conflicts:
- SLS vs. Commercial crew
- Going to the Moon vs. Mars vs. an asteroid vs. capturing an asteroid and THEN going to it
- Space science missions vs. earth science missions vs. manned missions
It’s this last category that’s most concerning because it has space advocates at each other’s throats, as opposed to just politicians (from whom we wouldn’t expect any better.)
Everybody wants their own missions to be funded, and so the space scientists attack the manned missions, the earth scientists attack the space scientists, and those in favor of manned space attack science missions. Embarrassingly, this last case includes myself.
The problem here is two-fold. The infighting both prevents a more holistic, productive approach to space exploration and focuses what should be excitement on negativity instead.
We shouldn’t look at money for one type of mission as stealing from another – space activities should be able to be more holistic, with developments used for one type of mission contributing to the rest. This is often not the case, but should be something to shoot for.
More importantly, by fighting over space exploration, all of us space geeks are missing the bigger point: we’re all on the same side. It’s like the situation in A Song of Ice and Fire (that’s the Game of Thrones series for you TV-show-only-folks): the warring of the great houses while the inhuman Others gather in the North.
The Others are not the people who advocate different missions than those we’d prefer, but the plethora of people who oppose space exploration all together.
Today, the NYT writes about yet another bizarre interplay between government and private incentives – in this case, the helium market. The upshot seems to be that the days of getting a free balloon for getting your braces off might soon be over.
A spike in the price of helium will probably lead to a number of negative effects: higher prices for electronics, more restriction on a lot of scientific equipment that requires liquid helium, sad children. However, I have a secret reason for wanting the price to go up -there is a source of helium that the article completely neglected: The Moon.
The moon is likely to have stores of helium (and especially helium-3, a rare isotope that will be useful in the fusion reactions that are always 50 years away) locked in craters that have never seen sunlight and thus are cold enough to freeze the normally gaseous element.
Sadly, the likelihood of the price of helium skyrocketing high enough to spur actual sky-rocketing is probably quite low. Helium is found in most natural gas deposits but at low enough concentrations to not be worth extracting for now. In reality, tapping this source will probably be more cost-effective than hauling it from the moon, but one can always hope…
For more humor, go back and read the post in a helium-induced Mickey Mouse voice.
Saturday Space Stories!
Ordered from least to most probable:
Verdict: while the simulator is a very cool real thing, close quarters space combat with robots-that-have-evolved-into-people while searching for a new homeworld is rather unlikely.
Stratolaunch and Orbital Sciences are working on a much larger version of the Pegasus rocket that might even be able to launch humans. The current Pegasus launches from several thousand feet in the air (carried by a plane) as opposed to the ground, like most rockets. Although expensive for its weight, it allows for much more versatility in the launch timing and orbit placement: if there’s a storm in Florida (or wherever the launch pad happens to be), instead of scrubbing the launch, the plane can just fly somewhere else. Unfortunately, it can only handle small payloads … for now.
Verdict: Lots of CGI and not much else, but I am cautiously optimistic.
Finally, a little bird told me that the details of this announcement might be kind of awesome.
Verdict: Barring NASA’s budget being completely revoked in the next two weeks (not entirely out of the question) the announcement is definitely going to happen.