Friday, January 25, 2008

Rocket Man

From Newsweek:

Virgin Galactic revealed the designs for its tourist spacecraft. A NASA expert critiques the effort.

Um, what?

A NASA expert critiquing Burt Rutan and Richard Branson?

A NASA expert? What's he going to say - "Um, Burt? Your spaceships don't blow up enough! And they don't cost enough! And they look funny! And um, well, they're all reusable! Madness! Madness!"

I'm reminded of that Far Side cartoon: the one where the cows are building a ramshackle rocket ship in the middle of their pasture and the farmer is leaning on the fence and shouting derisively, "Stupid Cows, you'll never get that thing to fly! What's it run on? Hay? Maybe you'll make it to the moooooooooon! Ha hahahahaha!"

Man, I miss The Far Side.

And really I'm snarking here, the NASA expert is actually none other than Homer Hickam, writer, veteran, and, yes, former NASA engineer. Author of Rocket Boys (the basis for the movie October Sky), and a major expert on manned spaceflight. So, yeah, I guess he's qualified to critique Virgin Galactic's efforts. And it's less a critique and more just observations on the project, most of which are quite favorable.

Also, there are no designs or drawing of Spaceship 2, White Knight 2, or anything else in the Newsweek article. And Hickam doesn't discuss Rutan's design.

So, seriously, poor choice of headline there, Newsweek.

Not that I actually consider Newsweek a source of actual news, but still you'd think somebody there would have done a bit better with the headline.


Anyway, I've got to go move 10 inches of snow out of my very large driveway. So that I can take my son, who has strep throat, to the doctor. So, you know, I'll be gone for a while. Cheers.


  1. News reporters are incorrigible Statists - if the government doesn't do it, something's wrong with it. (Note I didn't say incorrigible Liberals - Bush has proved there are plenty of people on my side of the aisle who see the State as the solution for everything that ails you, they just have a different definition of what ails you).

  2. Sorry to hear about your son. Been there, done that last year.

  3. I actually like Newsweek. Although I do take it with a grain of salt.

    I linked through to pics of their concepts through the Huffington Post. You can find them at http://www.flightglobal.com/articles/2008/01/23/221031/pictures-virgin-galactic-unveils-dyna-soar-style-spaceshiptwo-design-and-twin-fuselage-white-knight.html if you're interested.

    But yeah, not their first team on this one.

  4. Personally, I don't see anything wrong with the headline. I think you're conflating the word "critique" with "criticize". They're not quite the same. Just my $0.02.

  5. Federally and state managed initiatives are a world where work is awarded to the lowest bidder.

    If you are riding a rocket to a destination 350 km above the earth's surface, do you really want to rely on least-cost technology? Or would you rather the selection was based on quality and track record?

    Nonetheless, I feel what Virgin is doing is really cool - somewhat in line with the spirit of Heinlein's "The Man Who Stole The Moon".

  6. Hugh, point taken.

    Jeri, It's Burt Rutan - in this case I'm pretty sure 'least cost' does not equate to 'cheap' (or in NASAese - 'explosion'), just saying.

    I'm a huge fan of this concept, and companies like Virgin Galactic - the only way we're going to get out there is by commericial endeavor. If we wait for NASA and our elected leaders, we'll be riding in Russian made rockets to the Chinese moon base (and no, I'm not a "America must be first" guy, "National Pride Demands It!" however, I don't think we ought to be last either. Personally, I'd like to see us pool our resources and go to Mars together, but that ain't going to happen, so there you have it).

  7. "Personally, I'd like to see us pool our resources and go to Mars together, but that ain't going to happen, so there you have it)."

    Having lived in both of those countries, I don't want to see the Russkies or the ChiComs get any more space technology than they already have untill they have some radical cultural and political restructuring.

  8. the NASA expert is actually none other than Homer Hickam, writer, veteran, and, yes, former NASA engineer. Author of Rocket Boys (the basis for the movie October Sky), and a major expert on manned spaceflight.

    ...and West Virginia native.

    Don't forget the West Virginia native part.

    (Yes, West Virginians are required by a secret state law to point out that native personages of importance are in fact from WV.)

  9. John, agreed.

    Jeri, riiiiight. I knew Hickam was from WV, but the only other famous person I can think of off the top of my head is Chuck Yeager.

    I have served with a number of folks from WV in the Navy - they all said the exact same thing - they didn't want to dig coal or work in the chicken processing plant and the was exactly zero other options, so they joined the military.

  10. Oops, John, what I should have said was: Agreed, so we'd better get our American asses into high gear - because China is going to the moon, come hell or high water...

  11. Well, there's Pearl S Buck, Kathy Matea, and Johnny Statts.

    There's also some actress who was in the superhero movie about the... assassin maybe? The only thing I remember is she held her weapons wrong.

    Plus Don Knotts (his brother lived down the street from us when I was little). But I never actually met him or anything.

    Plus the guy from "My Big Fat Greek Wedding"

    But yes, if you're from Southern WV, the only way to stay out of the mines is to get an education or to join the military. Or go to the military to get an education.

    Which is why we have to point at all the people that made it. :)

  12. I'm puzzled by the snark: I went back and re-read the Newsweek article to make sure it was the same one I read earlier this week--Hickam is generally positive:

    "It should be very safe.... computer models look good."

    "That design is pretty neat."

    "Burt Rutan and his folks thought out of the box... and it works."

    "Burt Rutan is the rock star of space. Yes, you can absolutely trust him. He still knows how to use a slide rule, for one thing."

    And the first page has an embedded video with computer animations of WK2 in action.

    Whence the negativity? It sounds like at least one NASA expert is seeing the private space race as complementing NASA's mission, not competing with it. Which is the right way to look at it.

  13. Eric, No negativity at all and I agree that Hickam was overall very positive about Spaceship 2.

    What I thought was funny was the Tagline line "NASA critiques Virgin Galactic" or words to that affect.

    Considering NASA's recent record, and Rutan's, I thought it was funny. That's all. The snark is entirely on my side, not Hickam's.

  14. Eric, AND the real reason, was that Newsweek made it sound as if NASA itself was doing the critique, not Hickam. Hickam hasn't worked at NASA for years. He's a writer these days, and has been for quite a while.

    Any snark was intended towards Newsweek, not Hickam or Virgin Galactic. NASA, well, screw them, I don't care if they get snarked or not.

  15. Eric - didn't see the WK2 video. Apparently my ad-blocker had completely suppressed it - there was just a grayed 'advertisement' there. I turned the ad-blocker of for a minute and saw it. Thanks for pointing it out.

    As I've mentioned elsewhere, sometimes I'm an idiot.

  16. Speaking of flying, how's the weather in Anchorage in April? I'll be laying over there for a few hours on my way to Taipei with TWO KIDS UNDER 6. SHOOT ME NOW!

  17. Anchorage weather in April is usually fairly crappy. Cold, wet, windy. Sorry, John.

    And long airplane rides with children are precisely why they make cold medicine for kids - and the booze cart for adults. Just saying.

  18. I miss Far Side as well. That was humor...

    And as far as the spaceship stuff, I really don't have much to add.

  19. Nathan the contrarian says,

    I didn't look at any of the links or read any of the article(s), 'cause I'm a lazy git (I've been hanging out with Brits this week so excuse the affectation).

    I saw this design on the news a couple of nights ago for about 10 seconds and had two immediate reactions. The first was that everybody on the damned thing will have paid a fortune for the ride. There are three fuselages with six sets of windows and four out of six sets of windows have a view of...another fuselage. They want you to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to look at the side of a freaking airplane? WTF?

    The second reaction was that they didn't show the seating plan for the aircraft, but I was wondering what happens when you walk up to the check-in desk and some perky girl says, "I'm sorry, all the window seats are taken. Would you prefer and aisle or a center seat?"

    Jim mentions that he's admitted to being an idiot before. I have admitted to being an ass before. :-)

  20. Nathan, you were seeing the launching configuration. The paying passengers ride in the center hull, which is actually Spaceship 2. The outer hulls and the the large lifting wing is White Knight 2. If you look carefully, all three hulls nose sections are identical - and so are the flight controls, and flight control are duplicated in both WK hulls. Rutan did this for a reason, so that pilots for both vehicles could be easily trained. I.e. basically the second hull in WK becomes a trainer on every flight, for both WK and SS2.

    At altitude, SS2 detaches from WK2, and fires it's rocket. My understanding is that when it is at apogee, the wing is put in 'shuttlecock' position and the view in unrestricted for all 6 passengers.

    Ahhh, I just reread that last line, I suspect you know all of this.

  21. No Jim, I didn't know any of that because, as I said, I posted my blathering without reading anything about it, thus retaining my God given right to spout off on subjects, about which, I know absolutely nothing! This helps to keep my "ass creds" healthy. :-)

  22. "Ass Creds"

    There are credentials? Man, what's that certificate look like?

    I've seen the original SS1 in National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian in DC. It's extremely cool. Rutan's a certified genius. Wish I had $200K in petty cash, I'd sign up to ride SS2.

  23. This is always cool to see. I was definitely eager to see what this would look like - totally agree with you that the only way we're ever going to get to the point of having a permanent presence in space is the commercial route. Now, there's always the possibility that we'll end working in the Microsoft(tm)Philonium Mine on Ganymede, but I'm willing to take that chance.
    I know no one cares, but I'm a bit of a 3d animator, and I put together something along these lines - a short animation of the first space-built orbital transfer vehicle for Earth-Mars travel.
    It's a Quicktime file, about 380MB in size, and damn near HD quality.
    I understand it's huge, but I think it's pretty cool. As a quick glimpse, here's an straight image.
    Anyhow, sorry to spam.

  24. At this stage, it's pay a hundred grand to go up and come down again. Even with a limited view, you get several seconds of true weightlessness and to say that you've been to space. A complete pragmatist might therefore conclude that Virgin Galactic is just running an extremely expensive roller-coaster ride, and that POV isn't wholly wrong.

    But that POV is also a blinkered POV: the long-term picture is that private spaceflight will have to start small and expensive as a stepping-stone to becoming grander and cheaper. And I think there's a good argument that private spaceflight is the future of manned space travel. Indeed, my druthers would be for NASA to get out of manned spaceflight altogether and focus on unmanned exploration--at present, we have a warped situation where NASA is being pushed to spend money on dangerous and inefficient manned missions at the expense of robot missions of the sort that have consistently outperformed expectations in the past.

    (This may get me yelled at, but there's no compelling reason for Americans to go to Mars and no good excuse for us not to have the solar system crawling with unmanned probes. Let the private sector handle "adventure" and let the public pay for science.)

  25. Howie, when the spam includes pictures of such incredible detail and sophistication, I'm inclined to be charitable.

    Nice work, very nice.

    Eric said there's no compelling reason for Americans to go to Mars and no good excuse for us not to have the solar system crawling with unmanned probes. Agreed, though we probably mean that in a different way. There is no compelling reason for men to go to Mars. But that's exactly why we should, for no other reason than the adventure. Compelling reasons will present themselves after we get there, just as they've always done.

    Let the private sector handle "adventure" and let the public pay for science.

    Absolutely. And I would caveat that with "if the public paid for the science, then the public has paid for full access to the results. Propulsion, materials, lifesupport science, software, exploration data etc - belongs in the public domain if it was derived from public monies through government agencies. Which in turn should reduce the overall development costs of private spaceflight. Ultimately, I'm a huge fan of private exploration and development.

    I think you made some extremely good points in that second paragraph regarding POV and I agreed.

  26. Oh, I definitely hope we eventually have people running around the solar system--I'm not sure we will, but I am and have been a science fiction geek since I started walking. It's mainly a matter of who pays for it. The private sector usually doesn't have much incentive to do pure science or to open-source the results--but they are good at doing things because they're cool or there's some speculative profit-angle.

    And I agree 100% that the results of publicly-funded science should be public; that's why it should be publicly-funded in the first place (the private sector might sit on a discovery as a trade secret, which is part of the reason the private sector usually isn't as good at the whole "pure science" thing).

  27. "the private sector might sit on a discovery as a trade secret, which is part of the reason the private sector usually isn't as good at the whole "pure science" thing)."

    Eric - I'm an Industrial scientist. While we in Industry are not as good at pure science, sitting on secrets is not the reason. I've got some old posts from Toilet Paper With Page Numbers (my defunct blog)that I'll repost on Refugees. But here's the crux of why I disagree:

    We were required to write a non-thesis related grant proposal project to look at something outside our major. Mine was on trying to get protein drugs such as insulin through the gut. I sat in on a lot of pharmacology lectures. Some of these guys went from molecule to molecule, stuffed them down rats' guts and watched what happened. They observed the results and went on to the next molecule. One prof said "life is too short to conduct multiple dose experiments". But in order to test out long term effects, and to even come close to making a drug, you have to do the same experiments again and again. Industrial scinetist excel at this becuase htey are not incented to publish every other week. Becuase of the publish-or-perish syndrome, Academics are the ADD sufferers of the research world - hopping from novel thing to novel thing. Industrial scientists are the pedants - worrying away at a single issue until it's ocmpletely understood and therefore commercializable.

    That is why there is only one major drug I know of that was discovered by NIH - Tamoxifen.

    There are a lot of smart people out there. If the state of science is such that an industrial researcher can have an idea, someone else will, too, so patents are by far the best way to go. Trade secerets are for basically random cocktails such as the formula for Coke, or for little finesses of manufacturing technique. The big ideas are circulating in a lot of people's heads at once - and don't forget the threat of reverse engineering if you're not covered by a patent. And a patent is a publication (I list mine on the publications section of my CV) - it reveals almost everything needed to repeat the invention, and the rest is probably known to those skilled in the art, as the lawyers say.

    With the patent system, at most an Industrial lab will sit on a discovery until the patent is issued (~ 2 - 5 years depending on the issues at hand).

    You have to be so far ahead of everyone else's learning curve that you're into SF land in order to think that a trade secret is going to protect you.

  28. Thanks for the correction. And I hope my comment didn't imply that old bogus argument about whether-or-not "pure science" is better (or worse) than "applied science" (assuming there's even a distinction, which is itself arguable). The only thing I was trying to get at was who has the incentive to fund what kind of projects; unless you're a philanthropist, there's less incentive to pay for projects that may have no obvious commercial applications. For the public, on the other hand, any increase in knowledge improves the public weal.

  29. John and Eric, thanks guys. Both of your comments have driven me in a direction I hadn't thought of before, at least not in detail.

    I think John's expert comment regarding private sector vs public science actually backs up Eric's original opinion.

    Personally, I think the only way we're going to get out there is if somebody in the private sector can turn the science into profit. Profit has been the driving force behind sustained exploration and colonization (for good and bad). Take the oil industry, for example. Exxon and BP geologists have explored portions of the globe that no one would have ever gone to, if not looking for profit. Followed by industry, and the things necessary to support it. Ultimately, I think real space exploration will have to be done the same way.

  30. Jim - Eric and I agree that Industry is not the place to do a lot of basic research, but the misconception that Industry sits on basic research in the form of trade secrets is something that is propagated by the media. I've even run into Academic scientists who think this, not understanding the difference between academic and indstrial basic research. Where does the media think we applied scientists come from? We get our degrees in Academia, our ideas don't spring out of our heads fully formed like Venus on the halfshell.

    True, companies can only afford to do so much basic research (although they do more than the media gives them credit for) before the bean counters start asking for the ROI. Rightly so.

    But the message is pounded into people over and over again that somehow industrial scientists are able to screw the world by reporters who assume that Academics are altruistic (snort).

    I think this gets back to your original premise - the media so distorts science reporting that no one except for people who live in that world really know what's going on. That's why I like the explosion of the blogosphere - I can go find the blogs of experts in, say, electronic intelligence gathering ;-) and get the real story, rather than relying on someone who wasn't smart enough to major in anything real, but still wants to filter the information that the rest of us receive.

    If you searched the world for people who can speak eloquently but are still the most breathtaking morons, outside of Hollywood you'd have a hard time finding bigger examples than most journalists. I've been involved in 3 or 4 major news stories, and every single time some basic pieces of the story were mis-reported. I certainly didn't want to jump on Eric for having been misled - there's no reason to think hard about this subject unless you live in it like I do, and I know Academics who should know better who still don't acknowledge how much they owe to Industrial scientists. No offence meant, Eric.

    If the voting public is presented with different options to solve the problems of space research, they have to understand how the system works, and how the two sides are actually symbiotic on each other - "pure" scientists could not do their work without the equipment made commercially by applied scientists, and Academics break ground that is later exploited by the commercial scientists.

  31. No offense taken--I said something stupid and should have known better (in fact, do know better) and deserved to be called on it. Sadly, my "excuse" isn't so much having been led astray by journalists, as it was laziness at the time of the offense. If I'd put more thought into what I was dashing off, I would have said a different dumb thing instead of the dumb thing I actually did say. :-)

    (And hey, you think science journalism is bad, I can probably name the decent legal journalists on one hand with fingers left over, and they've all been to law school.)

    Anyway, mea culpa, and again: thank you, John, for the corrction and explanation.

  32. (Speaking of "should have said a different dumb thing"--unfortunately, I can also think of several lousy legal commentators who have been to law school and should be ashamed of themselves. Or their former deans should be.)

  33. The recent ramblings at CBS of one Dr. Gupta on CV disease have left several CV docs and researchers of my acquaintance sputtering with rage. Dus seriously needs to go back to school and learn how to interpret a study.

    The problem comes in 2 forms. The general science reporters are just plin stupid - journalism ranks as a gut major at aevery school I've taught at or been associated with.

    The other problem is bringing someone like Gupta. He's got the piece of paper to impress the yokels but, even leaving aside the fact that a med student with a C- average is still a doctor, he's a generalist. But evryone in the newsroom defers to him as if he's God, so he begins to forget to call the real experts when he hits an area he doens;t know too much about the science of - and for a GP that's pretty much everything.

    I have a feeling that's the dynamic with legal reporting, right? Some criminal defense lawyer or DA who goes into jounralism is pretty tempted to act like they know something about contracts law or bankruptcy law when the story comes up? I sure wouldn't go to my local DA to draw up the contract for my patent, but I've been down the contracts road a few times. To the layman, a lawyer's a lawyer.

  34. Hell, fellas, I thought it was just us in the military when it comes to 'expert' opinions on the news.

    Journalist put on a flak jacket and a helmet, then sit around the pool at the Hilton and suddenly they're experts on military operations and tactics. I've actually been involved in several operations that ended up on the national news, reported completely wrong. Hell, when we took down the Mina Al Bakr oil terminal in the first hours of the war, I had a CNN reporter not 3 feet from me for most of the operation - and she still managed to get it completely wrong. She was totally unqualified to be there, but she had a cool designer flak jacket and a thousand dollar pair of boots - so there she was. A week later we got a fairly famous male anchorman onboard, he wasn't interested in interviews or reporting. He showed up with his stories already written - he just needed the authentic military setting to report from, and needed to look like he was on the front lines - and said as much to us (strangely enough, he began to experience all kinds of technical problems immediately following that statement, he left soon after).

    I've figured for a while that Gupta was full of shit, just like the rest of CNN, but your comment, John, confirms that opinion for me. Thanks

  35. Jim - I know a couple of CNN and WSJ reporters personally, and from what I can tell, you can pretty much assume everyone involved with major news reporting is full of shit.

    The major project I'm working on was reported by a business reporter (and an "expert" on my industry) to be already on the market. Wish he'd told me, it would save me the next 4 years worth of work.

  36. Hah! Yeah, that sure would be nice wouldn't it?

  37. There are several problems with press coverage of the law.

    Part of it is the stupidity of many reporters. I (sadly) have to agree: as far as I could tell when I was at a university with a J-school, there weren't a lot of bright bulbs burning over there.

    Part of it is widespread ignorance. The truth is that shockingly few people--even educated people--have read the Constitution or understand how the common law works in America. Few people seem to understand the role of the courts or of the various players in the legal system. Few people seem to understand procedure, or the differences between civil and criminal law, or jurisdiction.

    And yet the law is especially susceptible to people thinking they're lay experts (think of all the folks you know who think they know how to draw up a contract or beat a speeding ticket, and now imagine them working for the local paper). To the layman, anyone's a lawyer, it's just that lawyers have a scam going to make money at it. This is the one aspect in which you science folks have an edge: at least a good share of the public thinks you guys have to know math or something.

    Another problem (and one that extends to coverage of fields like science and medicine) is that much of what happens in the law isn't actually interesting to witness: the results might be astonishing, but sitting in a courtroom watching someone cite cases or waiting for a judge's decision can be as fascinating as watching a petri dish or waiting for a computer to tabulate data.

    This contributes to another problem: the law is often about nuance. "Court Vindicates X!" is much more dramatic (i.e. "newsworthy") than "Based On Similar 1984 Utah Case, Judge Dismisses Plaintiff's Suit Against X But Some Claims Are Dismissed Without Prejudice And May Be Refiled If Court's Order Isn't Reversed On Interlocutory Appeal If Granted". It's not unusual to read a newspaper article making some sweeping claim, and then find out upon reading the actual opinion that it was far less grandiose (the same thing happens in the sciences, with the media frequently trumpeting something like, "Pet Monkeys Cure Cancer!" instead of "Small Study Shows A (Possibly Non-Causal) Correlation Between Monkey Ownership And Atypically Low Incidents Of Cancer In Surveyed Population; More Studies To Follow".

    (On the "lawyer's a lawyer" note, you'd also be surprised how many people don't understand that public defenders and prosecutors are lawyers--I'm an assistant public defender in North Carolina, I should mention. My favorite was the time I was asked how many years you had to be a public defender before you could become a district attorney, and then how many years you had to do that before you could go into private practice. You can tell how inexperienced a public defender is by whether or not he gets offended by that kind of thing.)

  38. Eric, thanks. I really enjoyed your comments on this post - and I've learned a couple of things. I have kind of skimmed around your blog (been limited on time lately), but now I really want to go back and read your observations on the law and the legal profession in detail. Again, thanks.

    I would say this to you though, you said n the law isn't actually interesting to witness: the results might be astonishing, but sitting in a courtroom watching someone cite cases or waiting for a judge's decision can be as fascinating as watching a petri dish or waiting for a computer to tabulate data. I think that's because you're in the wrong job - public defender. See, I understand Navy JAG is much more exciting: as a lawyer you get to pilot F-14's onto a carrier deck, go behind the lines in Croatia, rescue submarines, and say things like "You can't handle the truth!" :)

    - Heh, heh! Sorry, couldn't resist. I said to Janiece a while back, just once I'd love to see an episode of JAG that was realistic - The one where LT Harm Dangerwood (or whatever his name is) spends two weeks working over time to complete 500 Special Powers of Attorney for a deploying combat unit... Good God! Ensign, the copier has jammed, call the SEAL Xerox repair team!

    No? Probably not.

    For what it's worth, most intelligence work is just about as exciting. Hours, days, weeks of shifting through pieces of data. It's like watching somebody assemble a jigsaw puzzle without knowing what the final picture is, from millions of pieces thrown into a box where most of them aren't part of your picture - and in fact, somebody keeps changing the picture as you assemble it, making some of the pieces you've found irrelevant. Not nearly as exiting as those Tom Clancy movies make it out to be.

    But every once in a while...

  39. Huh--I figured being in military intel meant you got deposited on submarines by helicopters in raging storms and a bad day at the office involved members of the IRA following you home (a bummer, but still a good source of stories at family reunions). Also, you work for James Earl Jones, which has got to be freakin' sweet except for the times he tries to sell you phone service or finds your lack of faith disturbing....

    Feel free to poke around my blog and comment on anything you find comment-worthy--I love having guests--but I hope you won't be disappointed if there's not that much law-related stuff on it. I rarely handle it on my own blog for various reasons--mainly escapist. Mostly, I'd rather write about writing and music and science and computers and books and movies--nerdy stuff I'm into when I don't have to get into costume and fight for... errm... crime.... MWT, my sister and I were having a great little chat about a young octopus who's attached to his Mr. Potato Head toy and I'm sporadically blogging a Pink Floyd box set. The few times I have done law on the blog, I usually apologize and claim I'm never doing it again. But please, anyone who wants to drop by, come on in.


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