Chair Force Engineer

Friday, September 29, 2006

Patently False

Bill Sweetman is barking up the Aurora/Blackstar tree again, claiming that the Air Force is secretly flying exotic aircraft. How does he know this? From the patent applications filed by aerospace firms, of course!

The harsh truth is that people don't need to have any clue what they're doing in order to get a patent. All that's necessary is patience, a slick drawing, and a sizeable amount of money. Nobody ever said that the thing you're patenting has to work.

Case in point: several years ago, some stupid-ass pilot with no engineering background came up with an idea for a seaplane. He hired an artist to draw it, then obtained a patent. He showed the patent to a professor at my university, who immediately recognized the unfeasibility of the design. Sensing a unique challenge, the professor tasked his senior design students with redesigning the concept plane into something that could work.

At the end of the semester, four teams of college students had created a workable, practical seaplane. But it didn't look a thing like what the dip-shit pilot had in mind.

If Boeing, LockMart and NorthGrum have built exotic aircraft in secret, there's no way we'd learn about them from publicly-accessible patents. They might try patenting the general concept that makes the airplane in question so exotic, but the sketch and technical description would probably not bear much similarity to the real thing.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Failin' Parsons Project

The media is making a big deal about sub-standard work performed by The Parsons Corporation in building the Baghdad police academy. Sadly, this failure of oversight in the defense acquisition bureaucracy is pervasive. I've met too many high-ranking government civilians who are far too happy to grab their ankles when it's time to determine a contractor's award fee. They say that I'm too young to be so cynical. I think that they're too old to be so naive.

When a contractor signs up to fulfill a contract, that company gives its word that it can deliver precisely what the government wants on the schedule that the government dictates ahead of time. If they know they can't do the job, they shouldn't agree to the contract. If they fail in making an honest attempt to meet specs, the contractor should at least let the government know that fact in a timely manner. Contractors who can't deliver should be punished harshly. The problem is that the government wants to maintain good relations with contractors and believes that award fees send a political message.

It's time we start getting tough, resolute people in the acquisition bureaucracy who won't put up with sub-standard work on the part of lazy contractors.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

If I was in charge of Force-Shaping

As many people are painfully aware, the Air Force is currently undergoing a process called "Force Shaping." This is a polite way of saying that 40,000 personnel will be cut so we can buy more airplanes. The only people not spared the axe will be the pilots.

Thinking about the problem rationally, this is the approach that I would take towards force-shaping and "recapitalization of the fleet" if I were General for a Day.

1) Make fighter pilots the primary target of force-shaping. Let's think about it. How many fighters are in Jihad Joe's Air Force? Zero. The F-22 is irrelevant in the current World War, and fighter-type planes are only needed for close air support of the ground-pounders. The Air Force needs less manned fighters and hence less men to fly those fighters.

2) Cancel further F-22 production and dramatically reduce the size of the F-35 buy. Again, this ties in with #1. While we may someday have to fight a "peer" who can match our air superiority, we will also have time to develop unmanned aerial vehicles that will fulfill the roles of the F-22 and F-35. Perhaps fighter UAV's won't be as lethal as the F-22, but they can be built cheaply and make up for their deficiencies by having strength in numbers.

3) Buy aerial systems that are actually relevant in the current World War. We really need C-17 cargo planes because we've been flying the current fleet extensively to meet the Air Force's transportation and humanitarian missions. We can never have too many Predator and Reaper UAV's, either. These drones have proven themselves repeatedly in their ability to provide reconnaissance as well as picking off high-value targets.

4) Delay the large order of tanker aircraft until the 787 is mature. Back in the70's-80's, the Air Force made a penny-wise, pound-foolish decision to re-engine some KC-135's with TF33 engines while waiting for the newer and more expensive CFM56 engines. The TF33-powered KC-135E has less capability and a higher lifecycle cost than the CFM56-powered KC-135R.

We are headed down the same path with the 767 and A330 tanker programs. The Air Force will be buying an outdated airframe when a more fuel-efficient one is just around the corner in the form of the 787. In this case, waiting a few more years and spending a little bit more will give us a more capable airplane with a lower lifecycle cost.

Without a Trace

NASA recently made public the details of a 2009 "test flight" for the Ares I rocket, referred to as "Ares I-1." The big point of contention is the use of a standard shuttle SRB with a dummy fifth segment added between the SRB and the dummy upper stage. The test begs the question, how traceable are the results of this test towards the final Ares I?

To be fair, dummy upper stages used to be the way that rockets were incrementally tested. Saturn I flew its first few missions as the Block I with an inert upper stage. But it should also be noted that the Block I first stage was very similar to the Block II first stage, and the first stage of the Saturn IB that was to follow. Schedule expediencies led NASA to do away with incremental testing (which, for rockets like Falcon I, might have been a better idea than all-up testing.)

This Ares I-1 mission will unfortunately not have the degree of traceability to the final Ares I that I would like to see. The four-segment SRB of Ares I-1 will burn out around Mach 4, while the 5-segment SRB should reach Mach 6. The nozzle design for Ares I-1 will probably be the same as the original shuttle SRB, and the parachutes will be unchanged too.

I won't say that the test is a total throwaway. The aerodynamics, structure, avionics and control systems will be largely validated through this test. The Ares I-1 will probably pass through Max-Q with similar results to the real Ares I. Still, I don't see why NASA can't wait for the 5-segment SRB to go through a few static firings and use that instead. Rushing ahead with a test using the 4-segment booster (when your real desire is to fly the 5-segment booster) is just Faster, Cheaper, and Crappier.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

NASA ignores while Atlas shrugs

Lockheed Martin is truly on a roll in the manned spaceflight business. First they won the Orion contract, then they joined an industry team which is poised to win the Ares I upper stage. Now, a year after the ESAS report said that Atlas V couldn't be man-rated, Lockheed Martin makes a convincing case that the single-core Atlas V is well-suited for manned spaceflight. Finally, Lockheed is working with Bigelow Aerospace to use the Atlas V to launch passengers and cargo to a Bigelow space station in the 2009 time frame.

I've said before there is nothing inherently wrong with using a Delta or Atlas for manned spaceflight (just as the Atlas D was used in the early 60's.) I felt that the "highly lofted trajectory" was a convenient cop-out for NASA so they could justify an all-new development like Ares I rather than competing with DoD for launches. In light of recent developments, my suspicions take on some degree of credibility.

Admittedly, the Atlas V 401 can only launch a ~9 MT capsule, while Orion will weigh around ~25 MT once the escape tower and service module are included. That's why many people have argued that NASA should use a smaller capsule. Back in summer 2003, Jeff Bell argued for a 4-man capsule that could be carried on a single-core Delta or Atlas. Bell's line of reasoning was that one engine on the first stage was more reliable than three, although structural factors of safety also play a role in LockMart's logic.

Unfrazzled by the throw-weight issue, LockMart is aggressively promoting the "Phase I" and "Phase II" evolutions of the Atlas V. Phase I would widen the upper stage to match the 5.4 meter payload fairing, while Phase II would combine the new upper stage with a 5.4 meter first stage, using one or two RD-180 engines. The evolved Atlas V would essentially be a new rocket, but it's necessary for launching an Orion-sized capsule.

A commenter on the NASA Spaceflight forums made the point that with an established price of $20 mil per flight and an Atlas V costing ~$138 mil per launch, it will be hard to turn a profit. The price per launch will certainly drop if Lockheed Martin launches 14 manned Atlases per year versus the paltry few they've launched since 2002. (Admittedly, 14 launches per year is probably close to the manufacturing capacity of LockMart's plant.) Also, Bigelow is proposing an 8-man capsule. I don't know how feasible this is, as Gemini came in at 3.85 MT and Apollo's command module alone was 5.8 MT. Can Bigelow cram 8 space adventurers into a 9 MT capsule?

It's exciting that an industrial monster like LockMart, once thought to be trapped in the old space paradigm of infrequent and expensive missions, would be seriously considering space tourism. It will be nostalgic if humans fly into space on an Atlas again. If the venture is a commercial success, we may even see the evolution of the Atlas V into a wider rocket designed for launching Orion-sized spacecraft.

I get the feeling that NASA should have put all its eggs in the COTS basket, but baselined the Atlas and Delta as boosters for COTS (here, I assume that the single-core Delta IV can also be man-rated.) NASA could have then evolved to a larger booster and a larger capsule for a moon mission, while leaving frequent, commercially-viable manned spaceflight as a legacy. This commercial route might take longer to return to the moon than the VSE approach, but it would have been the right way forward.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

It Takes an Asshole

Whenever somebody new arrives at AFRL, most people are quick to make the judgement "He's a nice man." That's all well and good, but the history of AFRL (and practically every other government agency) shows that nice guys finish last. It's the assholes who get the job done.

Let's face it: an average government civil servant will spend nine straight business days sitting on his/her butt, and then take a day off on every other Friday. At the same time, equipment vendors are keen on settling for less when they run against a challenge that they feel can't be accomplished. The people who are viewed as "nice guys" get that reputation because they tolerate the idleness that is inherent in civil service. People get to be known as assholes because they actually force government mules to work and force vendors to produce what they promise.

Nice guys build bricks, assholes fly satellites. That's the way life works.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Birdie Fly Home

Space Shuttle Atlantis is currently orbiting the earth as NASA tries to mitigate two issues which may block reentry: bad weather and a mysterious object near the shuttle.

The weather issue will always plague manned spaceflight. At least the shuttle can land at Edwards Air Force Base, or even White Sands, NM if it runs low on supplies. The mystery object is another issue, far more serious. Perhaps it's a critical piece of the thermal protection system. Even if its not, there's still a chance that the object collided with the shuttle and damaged the TPS.

The least NASA should do is to order another inspection of the orbiter with the boom. There's also the chance that NASA could dock the shuttle back with the ISS, but that might be delayed by the current Soyuz expedition. My hope is that, if NASA exercises the ISS lifeboat option, it does so for sound engineering reasons rather than "just because we can."

If redocking does occur, it might be temporary to allow for more extensive heat shield tests. If NASA did sacrifice the orbiter and launched a rescue mission, the political fallout would immediately end the shuttle program. Even if the orbiter was saved through a patch-job and flown back under computer control, the shuttles would be sent to the museums immediately after.

The mystery object is likely a benign item that flew from the payload bay, and it probably did not damage the shuttle. Then again, the old engineering models predicted that falling foam was supposed to hit the underside of the wing rather than the fragile leading edges on Columbia. Another inspection of the TPS would make NASA safe rather than sorry.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

More on "The Northrop Curse"

I was thinking some more about "The Northrop Curse" mentioned on the blog. Some more discussion is warranted on Northrop's big flyoff defeats.

B-35 vs. B-36
The Flying Wing which had so enthralled Jack Northrop was finally realized in the XB-35. Unfortunately, the XB-35 had a few strikes against it from the start. Its weapons bay was too small for first-generation atomic bombs to fit in. The gearbox which turned the contra-rotating propellers was too complex. The prop-powered bomber would have been too slow to evade enemy jet fighters.

History shows that the B-36 was chosen for production instead and its speed was later boosted with the addition of four jet engines. Undaunted, Jack Northrop pressed on with the YB-49, which replaced the four piston engines of the XB-35 with eight jets and the necessary vertical stabilizers (required after losing the stabilizing influence of the props.) The fuel-thirsty J35's of that era boosted the Flying Wing's speed, at the expense of its range. By this time, the Air Force had relegated the B-49 to the reconnaissance role, before cancelling the program outright in 1950. The case for the flying wing was certainly harmed by the Glen Edwards crash (which was caused by an ill-conceived, low-altitude stall test, where the aircraft's structural limits were exceeded in the recovery attempt.)

A-9 vs. A-10
I don't know enough about the A-9 vs. A-10 flyoff, but it's clear that the Air Force obtained a classic, rugged anti-tank aircraft in the A-10. The Warthog does have numerous advantages in the way it was laid out; the engine faces are shielded from small arms fire by the wing trailing edge, and twin rudders provide redundancy. The A-9 had vulnerable, low-mounted engines located in the wing root, and it only had a single tail. Still, Northrop engineers should feel vindicated that the A-9's basic layout was duplicated in the Su-25 Frogfoot.

YF-16 vs. YF-17
By most accounts, this flyoff was no contest. The YF-16 which was selected for the Air Force had superior speed, range and maneuverability relative to the Northrop-built YF-17. The caveat here is that the YF-17, designed without the then-unproven fly-by-wire control, was a more stable bombing platform. The twin-engine layout of the YF-17 was also a plus for the air-to-ground mission. The YF-16 was supposed to be a day fighter with very limited ground attack capabilities. Instead, the F-16's ground attack capabilities have grown exponentially more important over the aircraft's life. The F-16 eventually became a low-end replacement for the venerable F-4 Phantom II. If Air Force planners had foreseen this change in requirements, perhaps the YF-17 would have been selected instead.

F-16 vs. F-20
Northrop's F-20 was the ultimate evolution of the F-5 series. It also took the same guiding philosophy of the YF-16: a lightweight, highly maneuverable fighter that would win a dogfight without being saddled with ground support duties. The F-20 was an 80% solution, coming close to the F-16 in many aspects of performance while still being affordable. The F-20's case was hurt by two fatal crashes and an absence of orders from the US Air Force, which would have reassured foreign customers. Northrop wanted to sell F-20's as aggressor aircraft to the US Navy, but General Dynamics sold the F-16N at a price that was too good to be true. The last straw was the relaxing of arms import regulations which prevented many countries (especially Taiwan) from buying the F-16. While the F-20 was a good bet for countries that couldn't get F-16's, there was just no beating the real thing once it became available.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

A quick take on COTS

In order to sustain the space station when the shuttle retires in 2010, NASA absolutely needs the Commercial Orbital Transportation System to work out. Recently, two contracts worth a combined $500 million were awarded to SpaceX and Rocketplane-Kistler to develop COTS vehicles. I had a few thoughts about NASA's selection and what it means for the space station and private spaceflight.

The choice of SpaceX's Dragon represents the most conservative design (with the exception of Spacehab's approach, which would have used existing, expensive Delta & Atlas rockets.) It's a two-stage rocket (Falcon 9) with a semi-ballistic capsule on top. Contrary to my previous speculation, reentry occurs with the blunt end of the capsule facing forward. I like the simplicity of SpaceX's approach. The caveat is that while the design is safe and conservative, it's being built by a team that has yet to put a rocket into orbit. SpaceX deserves the chance to fix Falcon I and advance with their current plans, but NASA's schedule will probably not tolerate any further launch failures from SpaceX. A big firm like Boeing or LockMart could make the Dragon proposal work, but at great expense to the government. Hence, NASA wants to see the upstart succeed.

RpK's K-1 is the most conservative possible design for a reusable launch vehicle (unlike Falcon 9, which is reusable in a similar sense as the Shuttle SRB.) That being said, reusable will be inherently more complex than the expendible rockets. RpK is taking an opposite business approach to SpaceX: while SpaceX does a lot of in-house fabrication to save money, RpK is farming a lot of their work to established (read: too bloated for their own good) aerospace vendors like LockMart and Orbital Sciences. The K-1 is going to require significant funding in addition to COTS if it ever reaches completion.

It's in America's interest to see both vehicles succeed. While K-1 is an elegant solution to the space station resupply mission, it's clear that it won't be ready on NASA's schedule. In the short term, the priority should be placed on getting Dragon and Falcon 9 flying (which may explain why NASA gave more funding to SpaceX than RpK.) There's still a reasonable chance that SpaceX can get Dragon flying by the time the shuttle retires. That should minimize the length of time where the station has no down-mass capability, relying on expendible Progress and ATV freighters for support.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Aerobraking and aerocapture

In a recent post on Selenian Boondocks, Jon Goff comments on the essential development of aerobraking if we are to build a spacefairing society. His analysis is excellent, and I wanted to build upon what he said, in terms of how it applies to Mars exploration and why NASA should attempt it.

Part of Robert Zubrin's Mars Direct plan was that you'd save a large mass of propellant by aerobraking into a parking orbit around Mars. The friction between the spacecraft and the Martian atmosphere was expected to provide the complete velocity change needed to change from the interplanetary transfer to Mars orbit. This is a very daunting problem. Too much velocity change means you fall out of Martian orbit, while not enough will send you on an unpleasant trip back into interplanetary space.

NASA has made strikes in multi-pass aerobraking at Mars, but hasn't committed to doing it all in one pass. Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Odyssey and Mars Recon Orbiter have all used on-board propulsion to capture into highly elliptical orbits, followed by use of the solar arrays to aerobrake and lower the apoapsis of the orbit. The landers (Pathfinder and the two Mars Exploration Rovers, plus the ill-fated Polar Lander) have all made direct entries at Mars instead of braking into orbit before deorbiting.

To be fair, aerobraking on a single pass does present a lot of challenges. One must have an accurate atmospheric density profile at the time of atmospheric entry, a control system that can maintain a predetermined path leading to the correct velocity change and trajectory, and a structure that can withstand the thermal and atmospheric loads. I would liken it to bringing the shuttle back through the atmosphere, except that on Mars there's no mission control to guide you back down in real-time.

I am aware of no NASA effort to develop single-pass aerobraking, and previous Mars Design Reference Missions have used either propulsive capture or direct entry. (Propulsive capture wasn't as big of an issue for the plans that used nuclear thermal rockets, which offer almost double the Isp of LOX-LH2.) Clearly, somebody needs to step up to the plate and aerobrake in a single pass if we want a robust architecture for interplanetary travel.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Truth is out There

Last Friday, I stopped in the tourist trap that is Roswell, NM (on my way down US 285 to Carlsbad.) I take a detached view of the UFO phenomenon in general, with the perspective that, whether real or fake, it's an entertaining part of the American national mythos and cultural heritage.

The "International UFO Museum" has "tourist trap" written all over it and appears very chintzy. The building isn't very large, and the exhibits are hung on a series of pegboard walls that line a central aisle. There are plenty of photos and artifacts from the era, plus framed affidavits from alleged witnesses to the UFO crash. It certainly reminds me of the roadside "rattlesnake museums" and other shady, small-town attractions. Roswell's Main Street has a foul odor, reminiscent of horse manure. Perhaps it's from the aircraft boneyard at Roswell's airport.

In an attempt to be "fair and balanced," the museum does have a significant portion dedicated to Project Mogul (the balloon train that listened for Soviet nuclear tests in the late 40's) and a frightening orange test-dummy named Harold.

My idea of a "fair and balanced" UFO museum would include the "Hall of Hoaxers," chronicling the people whose lies and tall-tales have made the Roswell incident even more sensationalized. Of course, museum co-founder Glenn Dennis would have to take his place in the "Hall of Hoaxers," having made up the story about the nurse who told him about alien bodies before mysteriously disappearing. My bet is that the alien bodies are being served as burgers at the saucer-shaped McDonalds in Roswell.

So what really caused the Roswell incident? If the statement given by rancher Mac Brazel to the newspapers on July 9, 1947 is accurate, the Project Mogul balloon is the best fit. I'd certainly trust the newspaper statement of 1947 instead of the faded memories, the details brough out under unreliable hypnotic techniques, and the stories that have been tainted by desires for monetary gain.

Even the original reporting of the Roswell Incident was tainted by money. When Mac Brazel first found the debris in the pasture, he didn't think it was worth reporting to the authorities immediately. It wasn't until he talked to the Proctor family that he heard about the flying saucer phenomenon (which had only started during the previous month) and a $3000 reward for the recovery of a flying saucer.

At the same time, you have to wonder why the Army Air Force would treat a balloon with such an extreme degree of secrecy. Then again, even the modern Air Force goes to extreme lengths to protect the taxpayers from finding out how much of their money is being wasted. During the early Cold War, secrecy and paranoia ran hand-in-hand. In such an atmosphere, it's easy to see how a balloon could inflate into a flying saucer.

Glory Days: When Grumman Kicked Ass

A recent post on the Astronautix.Com blog laments the "Northrop Curse," which has seen Northrop lose out on some of the largest defense contracts of the past 60 years. The only big win for Northrop was the B-2, where the government hamstrung the competing Lockheed-Rockwell proposal by forcing them to use a low-risk, faceted approach to stealth. The B-2 win would later come back to haunt Northrop, as the selection of the F-22 over the superior F-23 was widely viewed as payback for the B-2 source selection (and the B-2's cost overruns.)

But Northrop Grumman's other namesake, the old Grumman Aircraft Engineering Company, could hardly be called a loser. Leroy Grumman's company practically invented modern naval aviation. Grumman's biplanes were pioneers, even in an age when the biplane was on its way out with most air forces (except for the US Navy, which took an extremely cautious approach.) The Grumman F4F Wildcat was the best naval fighter we had at the start of World War II, and it was one of the first naval aircraft with folding wings. While the superior tactics of American naval aviators made the Wildcat a success, Grumman continued to innovate, and created the F6F Hellcat which became the most successful fighter of the Pacific theater in World War II.

When it came to jets, the Navy was still gripped by the extreme conservatism that slowed the transition from biplanes to monoplanes. Jet planes were slow in coming, and even when they did arrive, the Navy insisted on straight-winged designs that couldn't hold a candle to the Sabre and MiG-15. Grumman came to the rescue with the F9F Panther, the Navy's first successful jet fighter. After observing the MiG-15 in Korea, Grumman turned up the heat another notch by putting swept wings on the Panther and renaming it the Cougar.

The modern Navy owes a lot to Grumman, thanks to aircraft like the Tomcat, Intruder & Prowler, and Hawkeye & Greyhound families. It's no wonder that Grumman's rugged and reliable aircraft created the mythos of "The Grumman Iron Works."

How does the Grumman Iron Works tie into Orion and Northrop's bad fortune there? First off, it should not be lost on us what a wonderful job the Grumman team (led by Tom Kelly) did in designing and building the Apollo Lunar Module. While Boeing may own the assets of McDonnell (Mercury & Gemini) and North American Aviation (X-15, Apollo CM, and Shuttle orbiter,) it asked Northrop Grumman to lead its Orion team because of the Apollo LM experience that it expected Northrop Grumman to retain.

The problem is that the defense giants of the new millennium have fallen greatly since their glory days, many decades ago. The "Grumman" part of Northrop Grumman is just a name that the current company has largely forgotten. The Grumman headquarters at Bethpage and the Grumman factory at Calverton aren't a part of Northrop Grumman anymore. The people who made the Apollo LM great are all retired or dead (Tom Kelly passed in 2004, God rest his soul.)

I've been hard on NASA's Scott Horowitz in many of my rants, but I think he's 110% correct in saying that neither the LockMart team nor the NG-Boeing team has any experience in building manned spacecraft. After all, it's been 15 years since America's last manned spacecraft, Endeavour, was completed.

What is industry to do about its lack of experience? The answer is simple: study what made the Grumman Iron Works so great back in its heyday. Remember the devotion of Tom Kelly and the rest of the Grumman team who made their mission the central focus of their lives between late 1962 and the first LM flight on Apollo 5 during 1968. Display the same ingenuity that Grumman did in shaving the weight of the lander down from the five-legged concept of 1962 to the spider-looking LM that emerged.

When Leroy Grumman founded his company in 1929, he was still building aluminum biplanes and seaplanes. He had no idea that his company would be fighting the Marianas Turkey Shoot, breaking the sound barrier, landing men on the moon, or instilling fear into the Soviet air force (as only the F-14 Tomcat did.) Leroy Grumman lived to see all of these things before he died in the early 1980's. Similarly, what can this industry expect to see in the lifetimes of the engineers who are just entering the business? I'd like to believe that we can all harness the qualities that made the Grumman Iron Works so great, even though these qualities have been seemingly forgotten for the present by the overly-consolidated defense industry. Returning to the moon will be just a start. Where will the journey take us? Much like it was when Leroy Grumman started, I think that our ultimate destination will lie beyond what we can possibly imagine.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Space News Roundup

Orion Source Selection
Congratulations are in order for Lockheed Martin upon winning the contract to build the Orion Spacecraft. I wish them all the best as they build America's next spaceship, which may be our exclusive means of manned spaceflight for several decades.

There has been a lot of hand-wringing by pundits who expect a repeat of Lockheed Martin's X-33 disaster. I think they will be shocked and amazed by what results. X-33 was a Skunk Works project, and while the Skunk Works builds great Stealth Fighters and Blackbirds, they never built a rocket or spacecraft before the X-33. Hopefully Orion will be built by the former Martin personnel who worked on the Mars probes and Titan rockets, and the Convair folks who built the Atlas.

If I had to feel sorry for anybody, it would be the NASA people who had to perform the source selection. I've done two source selections before, both on a much smaller scale than Orion, and I can say that it's Hell on Earth. Imagine being forced to read over massive technical proposals for at least a week while sealed in a stuffy room and bound to not say a word about how shitty the proposals are. Yes, source selections suck, and Orion must have been a black hole.

Ansari the Ambassador?
NASA Watch reports that the State Department is nervous about what Anousheh Ansari might say when she flies in space this month. She is, after all, a self-appointed peace ambassador. Well, I wouldn't worry about her praising the current Iranian regime, as her family fled Iran when the Shah was deposed. I think that she will ultimately be an inspirational figure for all people of Iranian descent, particularly Iranian girls. Yet it's also important to remember that she could not achieve the great success she's had without the freedom that America offers. As long as Iran lives under the laws of Shiite Fundamentalism, no Iranian citizen will be able to achieve the highs of Anousheh Ansari without leaving Iran.

Clearing the IAU's Neighborhood
Pluto is no longer a planet, in the eyes of the International Astronomical Union. The IAU has lost a lot of credibility in my eyes. Not because I have a particular attachment to Pluto, but because they've chosen a definition for planet that is being subjectively applied. Apparently Pluto hasn't "cleared its neighborhood," but neither has Earth or Jupiter or Neptune. Pluto is smaller than the eight other planets, but it's still big enough for planetary formation processes that result in a spherical body.

The IAU should have arrived at a definition that looks at whether a body is nearly spherical (due to the presence of planetary-formation mechanisms,) whether its orbit is around a center of mass that lies on the sun but no other body (which would exclude the moons of existing planets) and whether it meets a minimum average radius (which would eliminate spherical artificial satellites from consideration.) "Clearing the neighborhood" should have nothing to do with it. Under the criteria I suggested (which were rejected by the IAU prior to the "Clearing the Neighborhood" stupidity,) the door is opened for the asteroid Ceres and the Kuiper-Belt Object UB313 (a.k.a. Xena) to become planets. Pluto would still be a gray area, because the center of mass between Pluto and its moon Charon lies between the two bodies. This more sensible proposal, rejected by the IAU, would have refered to Pluto and Charon as binary planets.