Friday, July 8, 2011

The End of the Shuttle Era

The final launch in the merely thirty year old Space Shuttle program happened earlier today. Though the program certainly has its detractors, for me at least the real legacy of the Shuttle is one of imagination. Starblazers, Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars, and Star Trek were all things I watched as a young boy, and the Shuttle made them all seem possible. Back then I had never made a budget or studied Physics, I was just someone looking up into the sky and wondering what new wonders we would find.

Somehow it seems fitting that the final Shuttle mission belongs to Atlantis. We have gone from Enterprise envisioning the future of space travel and carrying the proud name and legacy of American engineering with her, to a legend that has sunk from our sight. The greatest achievement of the Shuttle program may be that launches stopped being a big deal. I'm still not sure what societal forces make such a thing possible. Sending people into space has lost none of its impact on me. It's incredible, dangerous, audacious, expensive, and utterly astounding.

Upon the completion of mission STS-135, the U.S. government will be out of the manned space flight game for the foreseeable future. You can't really blame them at a time when there are real issues that require attention, and yes, money. It will be left to the private companies to try and create viable businesses out of space flight. It's even possible they will succeed, and I certainly wish them well. With the Constellation program dead and the James Webb telescope in danger, NASA's direction remains unclear. My increasingly hypothetical children will have no Apollo program, no shuttle launches, and maybe even no Hubble-like photos of the cosmos to inspire them. And then what?

Let's face it, the vast majority of people will not even notice, let alone care. The Shuttle will become a part of history. Less expensive robots will carry on with the science. Space isn't going anywhere. Perhaps the names Enterprise, Challenger, Columbia, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour will represent a unique time in human history. But maybe someone will look back at the Space Shuttle and see not the past, but an example of the way to the future. You can cut funding, you can end a program, but you can't kill an idea. The Shuttles, the scientists, engineers, pilots, and countless others that made them real, leave behind an inspiring legacy. And what has been done once can be done again, even better, if you have a little imagination.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Quick Hits to Catch Up

I've had several things sitting in the potentially-interesting queue for far too long. In the name of catching up, here comes the dreaded link-post!

In the category of Watching the Watchers we have:
From the land of programming:
  • A nice little screed on process killing passion. This one also generates a decent Quote of the Moment with, "A project where you decide before you start a product cycle the features that must be in the product, the ship date, and the assigned resources is a waterfall project." The comments are fairly reasonable too.
  • An opinion piece on why the current practices regarding foreign workers in the science and engineering industries hurts, and more importantly discourages, American workers.
Over in green tech:
  • Scientists at MIT are working on a catalyst that can split water into hydrogen and oxygen simply by being exposed to sunlight. The resulting hydrogen can then be used as a power source via burning or a fuel cell.
  • Others are working on creating batteries with charging profiles more like supercapacitors, that is to say really quick. Since I'm more interested in going the other way to supercapacitors that can replace batteries, I'll note that the basic premise of the improvement in that article sounds quite similar to research going into graphine supercapacitors talked about in this article and this one.
  • Before leaving the land of the supercapacitor, here's one more article about combining material types to try and gain the best properties of each.
Yes, I realize I had enough material there for three full posts. But hey, it's a holiday.
[caption retained out of respect for the source site, with which I have no affiliation]

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Watching the Watchers: In Which I Change My Position On Fission

For a long time, I have supported nuclear fission as the best of a bad group of choices for large scale power generation. It doesn't depend on geography the way solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal power does. It doesn't produce airborne pollution. And, costs remain competitive with fossil fuels. (Though the costs are going up across the board, enough so that in some areas wind power is now competitive with nuclear.) Of course, the little matter of radioactive waste remains. For the most part, I trusted that proper safety and disposal was in the best interests of the nuclear power industry, in spite of the failure of the Yucca Mountain national nuclear waste repository.

In recent years, we have seen government fail over and over to address pressing long term issues, including the aforementioned waste disposal. The Fukushima disaster highlights the dangers of stored nuclear waste, and the US has been without a comprehensive plan for decades. The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico shined a light on the all-too-cozy relationship between industry regulators and the industry they are supposed to police. And now the AP's Jeff Donn gives us a massive article showing that the nuclear industry, favoring continued operation of its aging reactors, and the profit compared to new infrastructure, over safety. I know it's a lengthy read, but I think it's well worth the time.

In light of the influence industry now holds over government, trusting that altruism will win out over the Darwinian game of growth and profits that the stock market imposes on the deregulated utility companies appears to be putting our faith in a very fragile, possibly already broken, system. And so, I live and learn. As of now, I'm completely off the nuclear bandwagon. Alternative, renewable energy sources continue to improve every year. Putting the investment into the infrastructure needed for those technologies instead of a new generation of nuclear reactors seems to make complete sense. The time has come to stop thinking of the best of a bad set of solutions and start thinking about some that can actually be good.