September 16, 2005

See-Through Concrete

Well, not exactly see-through, but there is now a type of concrete that passes light. Too cool! You could put walls around your garden or yard, and get more light than you otherwise would, among many other applications.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 01:38 PM | Comments (0)

Too Smart Airplanes

I was just reading an article about computing advances, and more than one futurist predicts we could have human-level intelligence in computers by 2020. I like this part:

Pearson said that computer consciousness would make feasible a whole new sphere of emotional machines, such as airplanes that are afraid of crashing.

Just what we need: Airplanes that refuse to take off.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 10:28 AM | Comments (0)

September 13, 2005

Smart Chimps

Wild chimpanzees capable of passing on knowledge of how to detect and destroy traps have been found in the West African nation of Guinea.
Very interesting. You can read more here.
Posted by Tom Nugent at 03:24 PM | Comments (1)

August 10, 2005

To the Moon, Alice!

If you have $100 million, you could take a trip to fly by the moon (read details at NYT, CNN). Each trip will have one crew member and two passengers, so you can't fly until there are two people signed up. If they get people signed up soon, the earliest trip could be as soon as 2008.

Hot damn, is all I have to say. $100M is a bit out of my price range, though; must be time for me to go buy a lottery ticket...

Posted by Tom Nugent at 01:40 PM | Comments (0)

August 07, 2005

Space Economics - Boring or Crucial?

One of my co-workers at LiftPort, Brian Dunbar, posted a link in his blog to an old article by Larry Niven about space economics ("How to save civilization and make a little money").

The great quote from the article highlights why space development is not all about technology development:

A. E. Van Vogt never worried about what a spacecraft cost. I don't think Isaac Asimov did either.

Nobody ever did until, in the 1950s, Robert Heinlein published "The Man Who Sold the Moon". And nobody did again for a long time. Imitating Heinlein used to be normal, but the science fiction writers of the day couldn't imitate this. None of us had trained for it. The excitement of travel to other worlds is in our nerves and bones, but where is the excitement in economics?

Then we watched mankind set twelve human beings on the moon for a few days at a time, come home, and stop.

We saw our space station built in Houston, orbiting too low and too slow, at ten times the cost.

Thirtieth anniversary of the first man on the moon, celebrated by grumbling.

My tee shirt bears an obsolete picture of Freedom space station and the legend, "Nine years, nine billion dollars, and all we got was this lousy shirt," and it's years old and wearing out.

Now is economics interesting?

Posted by Tom Nugent at 09:28 PM | Comments (0)

July 05, 2005

Decision-Making for Global Politics

I'm catching up on my Scientific American reading, and just finished the April issue. There's an excellent article titled "Shaping the Future" which discusses how to make robust policy choices in the face of scientific uncertainty about the future. Their biggest example is climate change, but they also mention sustainable development, bringing products to market, and many more. Their method, which focuses on flexible plans and then analyzes how any given plan would fare under a wide variety of possible futures, reduces the need for forecasting the future (the method traditionally used to decide policy, and the method most likely to be wrong). The full article gives more details, and is a great read.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 10:13 AM | Comments (0)

June 14, 2005

5 Degrees' Difference

It's impressive what a simple difference of 5 degrees latitude can do. Back in Boston, we were at roughly 42 degrees north, whereas here in Seattle we're at roughly 47 degrees north. I've been noticing that there's still light to be seen in the sky at 10pm! It's very faint, but definitely different from actual night. Of course, Boston was close to the eastern end of its timezone, and here we're close to the western end of our new timezone, which probably also plays a role. But I shudder to think what this means for daylight in late December...

Posted by Tom Nugent at 11:09 PM | Comments (0)

May 31, 2005

Age and Inventiveness

Ron sent me a link to a paper about increasing age of inventor at time of major inventions. The paper costs $5, but the abstract is online for free:

Great achievements in knowledge are produced by older innovators today than they were a century ago. Using data on Nobel Prize winners and great inventors, I find that the age at which noted innovations are produced has increased by approximately 6 years over the 20th Century. This trend is consistent with a shift in the life-cycle productivity of great minds. It is also consistent with an aging workforce. The paper employs a semi-parametric maximum likelihood model to (1) test between these competing explanations and (2) locate any specific shifts in life-cycle productivity. The productivity explanation receives considerable support. I find that innovators are much less productive at younger ages, beginning to produce major ideas 8 years later at the end of the 20th Century than they did at the beginning. Furthermore, the later start to the career is not compensated for by increasing productivity beyond early middle age. I show that these distinct shifts for knowledge-based careers are consistent with a knowledge-based theory, where the accumulation of knowledge across generations leads innovators to seek more education over time. More generally, the results show that individual innovators are productive over a narrowing span of their life cycle, a trend that reduces -- other things equal -- the aggregate output of innovators. This drop in productivity is particularly acute if innovators' raw ability is greatest when young.
I find it particularly interesting that they say the age range over which people are productive is narrowing, because it's taking longer to accumulate enough knowledge in order to make new contributions, but the amount of productivity later in life is not increasing at the same rate.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 01:18 PM | Comments (0)

April 19, 2005

Fun Science for Kids

Science Toys You Can Make With Your Kids looks like a really neat site for simple, at-home projects. I can't wait for Dorothy to get just a little older. (Yes, I know that, before I can blink, she'll be all grown up and I'll be wishing she was younger.)

Posted by Tom Nugent at 03:40 PM | Comments (1)

Fake Paper

It sure is getting easier to publish a scientific paper. You can have your computer write it for you! And if you find someone with almost no standards or feedback, then you can probably get them to accept it, too.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 10:41 AM | Comments (0)

December 01, 2004

James Cameron on Space

In a recent Wired magazine interview, James Cameron states very eloquently why space exploration and development is so important:

Everybody talks about the cost of going to space. But what about the cost of not going? Where would our economy be if the space race of the '60s had not happened? What if we hadn't been forced to come up with more-powerful computing to calculate trajectories on the fly while guys were on the far side of the moon in titanium cans? Where will we be in 20 years if we don't do something that captures the public imagination and inspires kids to give a damn about science and engineering again? What if we become Rome, blinded by the image of our own superiority while other younger, more vigorous cultures supplant us?

You may be asking: Shouldn't we solve our problems here on Earth before we go into space? There will never be a time when all people are satisfied, when all wrongs are addressed. We live better, more luxuriously, and longer now than at any other time in history. Cook, da Gama, and Magellan left behind shores wracked by death, disease, and social injustice - but they went, and their societies benefited. Our problems must be solved, but not at the expense of exploration.

Exploration is not a luxury. It defines us as a civilization. It directly or indirectly benefits every member of society. It yields an inspirational dividend whose impact on our self-image, confidence, and economic and geopolitical stature is immeasurable.

So, as the ones paying the tax bills, we have to shout out that we want this! Our shout has to be loud enough that in the mind of the politician, that fear-based processing algorithm, the fear of going becomes less than the fear of not going.

What are we waiting for? Let's go.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 09:17 PM | Comments (3)

October 28, 2004

Being a Future Astronaut

I'm going to be an astronaut (according to Virgin Galactic, that is)!

Yes, I admit, I signed up to get notices from Virgin Galactic even though I won't have $200,000 in the near future. Here's a letter they sent out a week ago:

Dear Future Astronaut,

Richard Branson and everyone on the Virgin Galactic team were delighted to receive your response to the Virgin Galactic website.

The support shown for this amazing project has been overwhelming and we will very shortly be in a position to discuss with you the next steps on your journey to become a Virgin Galactic Astronaut!

Over the next few days we will contact you again with more details, so there is no need for you to respond to this message.

Many thanks for your interest in Virgin Galactic.

Best wishes,

Stephen Attenborough
Head of Astronaut Liaison

I haven't heard anything more from them about details, but that's OK, because I can't give them money for a while anyway. But I certainly can dream, and plan.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 05:10 PM | Comments (0)

October 18, 2004

(Un)Lucky Satellite

A recent story from the AP (note that the link will probably change soon, but you can probably find it elsewhere) begins:

A section of a Chinese scientific satellite that was returning from orbit crashed into an apartment building, wrecking the top floor but causing no injuries, a newspaper said Sunday

The part I like is a quote by one of the inhabitants of the apartment building:

"The satellite landed in our home. Maybe this means we'll have good luck this year," the tenant of the wrecked apartment, Huo Jiyu, was quoted as saying.

I don't quite follow the logic here. A satellite landed in the wrong place and demolished your house. So that means you'll have good luck? Does this idea come from the It-can't-get-worse line of reasoning?

Posted by Tom Nugent at 08:13 PM | Comments (1)

October 12, 2004

Earning Wings

On the second leg of our flight out to Seattle, Dorothy was presented with "wings" by one of the Northwest Airlines' flight attendants. They give them to all kids.

Now that the FAA is awarding commercial astronauts' wings , I wonder how soon it will be until those wings become simple little plastic trinkets to hand out to children on space flights, rather than their current status as a rare status symbol. (Were pilots' wings also originally only assigned to airplane pilots, and whene did they start?) When that day arrives, then we'll know the space frontier has been irrevocably opened.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 07:21 PM | Comments (0)

October 04, 2004

X-Prize is won

Alright already. Since I'm being heckled (by those who apparently have nothing better to do with their work days ;-) ) for not immediately posting the latest X-Prize news, I'll do it now.

The X-Prize has been won! The X-Prize has been won!

So, does anybody want to give me $200,000 so that I can buy a flight from Virgin Galactic in 2006?

Posted by Tom Nugent at 12:38 PM | Comments (2)

September 29, 2004

SpaceShipOne: 1st of 2

I just watched the launch and return of SpaceShip One. It looks like things went relatively well, perhaps a bit of roll that they didn't want. But while watching the ascent, I noticed the "Virgin" logo on the rocket. Sounds like Sir Richard Branson has not only signed a deal to license the technology in order to build their own fleet of space tourist vehicles, but must have also added some sponsorship to the current work.

In any case, it's a very exciting day. Hopefully their second launch goes just as well, and we can start building a real space tourism industry.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 11:25 AM | Comments (1)

September 15, 2004

I Want It!!! Zero-Gravity Ride

According to a story on, the Zero Gravity corporation has been given FAA approval to perform zero-g flights for the general public. For about $3,000, you can take a series of parabolic flights to simulate Martian (1/3), Lunar (1/6) and then zero (0/1) gravity.

I want. A LOT! :-)

I know what is going on my birthday list and Xmas list. For the next 5 years...

Posted by Tom Nugent at 09:28 PM | Comments (2)

September 13, 2004

Success at Noreascon

My talk at Noreascon on the space elevator went very well. The room had seating for perhaps 50 people. The seats were filled, and people were sitting in the aisles, lining the walls, and crowding around the doorway. I only had 55 minutes for the talk, but I got lots of great questions. People are really excited about the possibility of building a space elevator because they realize the importance of developing a human presence off the planet Earth, and the space elevator is the most promising way to do it.

After the talk, I spent a couple of hours out in the hall talking with some of the people who'd been at the presentation. This meant I had to miss seeing Terry Pratchett's talk, but it was certainly worth it. I'm glad I got to spend the time with everyone.

And yes, as far as I can tell, I was the only person wearing a suit at the entire convention.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 11:27 AM | Comments (0)

September 03, 2004

Me vs. My Favorite Author?!?

I probably forgot to mention it here, but tomorrow morning I'll be giving a talk about the space elevator at Noreascon Four, the 62nd World Science Fiction Convention. If you're going to be there, come see me at 10am in the Hynes Convention Center!

I was just browsing the final schedule, and noticed, to my horror, that I'll be speaking at the same time as Terry Pratchett, who is perhaps my favorite author. Luckily, though, his 10am talk is aimed at kids, and in fact people aren't allowed in without a child in tow. So at least I'll have a change at getting the childless adults at my talk...

Posted by Tom Nugent at 10:26 AM | Comments (0)

August 07, 2004

A Real Race!

Yeehaw. It looks like there will definitely be a true race to see who wins the Ansari X-Prize. The daVinci Project just announced that their first flight (of two required within a two-week period) will be October 2nd, two days after SpaceShip One's first flight.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 10:07 PM | Comments (0)

July 27, 2004

X-Prize Attempt

"First X Prize attempt set for Sept. 29"

Yee-haw! :-) The result of the contest is not a foregone conclusion. Even though SpaceShip One did a test launch in June, there's a second team making their X-Prize runs at the same time in September. It'll be exciting to see how it all turns out. I just hope that none of them fail so bad as to kill the pilot, since that would really delay the sub-orbital tourism industry.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 04:41 PM | Comments (0)

July 02, 2004

The SS1 difference

Derek Webber wrote a good article for The Space Review about Scaled Composites' SpaceShip One and how it has changed the world.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 06:59 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

June 25, 2004

Super Tots?

This story at CNN mentions a genetic mutation that has created a baby boy who is amazingly strong. Apparently scientists have created this mutation in mice to create "super-mice" but this boy supposedly got the genes through natural processes. The story discusses using research based on this gene to help people with wasting diseases, but you have to wonder what will happen to this baby as he grows up. Will his life be drastically shortened due to heart problems? There's almost no mention of that question in the story.

Also what about when athletes start abusing related drugs? Will this cause problems like steroids do now?

Posted by Tom Nugent at 09:34 AM | Comments (1)

June 21, 2004

Space Tourism study

Space Adventures released the results of a survey of people who've already put down at least $10,000 as a deposit for a sub-orbital tourist flight.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 10:42 PM | Comments (0)

SS1 was a success!

SpaceShipOne's first flight to space was a success! They've now made history by sending the first privately funded and developed vehicle into space. Let the floodgates open!

Posted by Tom Nugent at 10:37 PM | Comments (0)

Prelude to space tourism?

Jeff Foust has written a great article titled "Prelude to History?" about Scaled Composites' SpaceShipOne and what they might be doing in the near future. It's exciting to contemplate.

Does anyone have a spare $100,000 they'd like to give me so I can buy a seat on one of those flights?

Posted by Tom Nugent at 08:15 AM | Comments (0)

June 15, 2004

SpaceX + Bigelow = space hotel?

From a Wall Street Journal / Barron's article (subscription required) about SpaceX is an interesting tidbit about one of their future customers:

Sometime this fall, Musk reports, the company will launch its first Falcon I rocket from Vandenberg Air Force base in California, carrying with it a U.S. Department of Defense communications satellite. Assuming that flight goes without a hitch, the second one will come in 2005, with the launch of a natural-disaster-monitoring satellite for the government of Malaysia. And Musk says a company called Bigelow Aerospace has booked passage on the first flight of the second generation SpaceX rocket, known as the Falcon V. That one, also expected in 2005, will carry a one-third scale model of Bigelow's planned inflatable space station. Really.

Bigelow Aerospace, if memory serves, is a company owned by hotel magnate Robert T. Bigelow, who owns the "Budget Suites of America Hotel Chain" that's looking to get into the space tourism business in a big way. All very interesting.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 09:14 PM | Comments (0)

June 11, 2004

The Woodstock of Space

June 21st, 2004, might just be the day that the world’s first commercial manned space vehicle might reach space. And the flight that day just might simultaneously be the first of the two flights needed to win the Ansari X-Prize.

I really wish I could go. Really really really. There is an extreme amount of excitement in the space enthusiast community about the X-Prize (recently renamed the "Ansari X-Prize") in general, and Scaled Composites' SpaceShipOne in particular. There are a couple dozen entries in the X-Prize competition, but it's looking like Scaled Composites could be the winner. And it may happen within the next couple of weeks! I've heard that all the hotels around the launch site are booked; the public viewing area is going to be packed.

If the Ansari X-Prize is won this year, it could perhaps mean commercial sub-orbital flights open to anyone with enough money by the end of the decade. Here's to hoping for the best!

Posted by Tom Nugent at 10:22 PM | Comments (0)

January 14, 2004

Space is hard

In his posting A Quality All Its Own, Rand Simberg highlights the simple truth that small numbers of space launches does not provide enough experience to improve quality and reliability of launchers.

Mark Oakley also talks about the vicious chicken-and-egg cycle of low demand vs. high costs of space access in his Breaking the Cycle posting.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 09:21 AM | Comments (0)

January 06, 2004

Rocketry is hard, part 1

(I'll give you fair warning: This blog entry is going to be only half-baked, a semi-stream-of-consciousness wandering about problems with chemical rockets, based on arguments I've gone through over the last couple of years. At some point in the future I'll likely clean it up, but for now, rambling is what you'll get.)

Rocketry is hard. Really hard. That is, to make a chemical rocket which successfully ignites and launches onto its intended path is a complicated piece of systems engineering. There are different kinds of "difficult" when you say that something is hard. In one (over-simplified) sense, making a space elevator is difficult mainly because of the extreme material requirements (i.e., something with a strength-to-weight ratio at least an order of magnitude better than Kevlar). Chemical rockets, on the other hand, are difficult because they require so many interdependent systems to be designed all at the same time. You have to iterate back and forth on your choice of and pressurization of fuel and oxidizer, nozzle cooling method, plumbing, heat transfer, thrust to weight ratio of the engine, et cetera, and et cetera, ad nauseum.

The big problem with chemical rockets is, well, that they rely on chemical combustion for propulsion. The basic idea of a rocket is to throw mass (your propellant) in one direction so that your rocket will move in the opposite direction. You want to throw the propellant with as high a velocity as possible, in order to be more efficient. You "throw" propellant generally by making it hot and then expanding it out a nozzle. Currently the most efficient way to generate heat in propellant is to combust it in a rapidly oxidizing environment — explode it, in other words.

There's just one minor problem with this design. Exploding chemicals are difficult to control. A rocket is generally 85-90% fuel and oxidizer, by mass, and so your rocket is pretty much a big pile of explosives, waiting for you to toss on a match. If everything goes right, you can control the flow of fuel and oxidizer, keep just barely on the safe side of your material limits, and direct your thrust in such a way as to put you into orbit. Any small leak of fuel, or just a tiny bit too much unexpected heat, or a control problem in your thrust, and you're suddenly S.O.L. (Shit Out of Luck, if you haven't seen the acronym before).

There's another problem with rockets: they don't get used very often. This lack of flight experience means that the design process has lots of guesswork in it, which must be compensated for by tons of testing. In the last few years, there have been about 60 rocket flights per year throughout the entire world. Compare that to the number of automobiles that have been sold, or even the number of airplanes that have been flown, and you'll begin to get some idea of the scale difference in testing and feedback that car manufacturers get, and what rocket builders get.

It's getting late, so I think I'll continue this thread some other time.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 10:38 PM | Comments (0)

January 05, 2004

2003 space launch pace

Jeff Foust wrote an excellent article dated December 29th and titled "A year-end reality check". In it he argues that the launch industry is in a funk, and not launching at a "blistering pace" as one newsletter claimed. Read his article for details.

In another article on the same date, also on the Space Review website, Taylor Dinerman discusses the rockets that should be the future of the launch industry, as opposed to its current, lethargic present. With luck, the X Prize will be won by one of these companies in 2004.

Posted by Tom Nugent at 12:09 AM | Comments (0)