Warren Olney Show: Mars Curiosity Landing — Featuring JPL’s Allen Chen and… Me!

JPL's Allen Chen, the Flight Dynamics and Operations Lead for the Mars Science Laboratory Entry, Descent, and Landing team. Credit: NASA/JPL

JPL’s Allen Chen, the Flight Dynamics and Operations Lead for the Mars Science Laboratory Entry, Descent, and Landing team. Credit: NASA/JPL

As the Mars dust settles — figuratively and literally — after a hugely successful Mars Science Laboratory landing, I was asked to appear on KCRW’s “To the Point” radio show with Warren Olney. I’ve chatted with Warren a few times and it’s always fun — he’s is a knowledgeable and inquisitive host with a passion for all things space. But Monday’s show was a little bit special. The “voice” of NASA JPL’s mission control was also invited.

Throughout Sunday night’s excitement, JPL’s Allen Chen calmly announced each stage of Curiosity’s entry, descent and landing from mission control. As Flight Dynamics and Operations Lead for the Mars Science Laboratory Entry, Descent, and Landing team, it was Allen’s job to remain cool, calm and collected throughout. Listen to hear what he had to say to Warren and myself:

Here’s Allen in action:

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On Gingrich’s Moon Base Plan (and Why It Won’t Happen)

A base on the Moon? That would be awesome! But it can't be done for profit... yet (ESA).

A base on the Moon? That would be awesome! But it can't be done for profit... yet (ESA).

For more on this topic, you can listen to me chat with BBC 5live’s Dotun Adebayo (from “Up All Night” on Jan. 28 — at 1hr 26mins into the show) and check out the Al Jazeera article (“Gingrich promises US ‘moon base’ by 2020“) I was interviewed for.

In case you haven’t heard, one of the Republican presidential candidate hopefuls, Newt Gingrich, has stellar plans for the U.S. in space. Should he make it though the GOP primaries and beat President Obama in this year’s presidential elections and make it to a second second term in office, the United States of America is going back to the Moon! *applause* *cheers* *ticker tape raining down on Times Square*

“By the end of my second term, we will have the first permanent base on the moon and it will be American!” Gingrich declared on Wednesday when he was outlining his plans for NASA and the U.S. space industry during his Florida GOP campaign.

A lot of what Gingrich said seemed to make sense — less NASA bureaucracy, more commercial investment, space prizes — but the one thing the majority of the media fixated on is the “Moon base” thing.

Generally speaking, any promises made during a presidential campaign, let alone a GOP presidential candidate primary, should be taken with a big pinch of salt. Gingrich, who has been hammered by bad press and negative ad campaigns by opponent Mitt Romney, decided to go “all in” during his Space Coast speeches in the hope of persuading Florida — a key swing state — that he was their man to reinvigorate the state’s major industry.

But it looks like his promises have gone a little too far.

Sending men to the moon during the Apollo era cost the U.S. $170 billion (in today’s money). This cost encompassed the development of manned space flight technology — from the massive Saturn V rockets to the Lunar Modules. But to set up a Moon base (an American Moon base no less) the costs of developing the technology, building the base, creation of a Earth-Moon transportation infrastructure and maintaining lunar assets for many years would spiral into hundreds of billions of dollars.

But it’s OK, NASA wouldn’t be expected to pick up the bill, which is fortunate as the U.S. space agency’s budget stands at less than $18 billion (for 2012). In 1966, 60 percent of NASA’s entire budget was pumped into the Apollo Program, so if that were to happen again, NASA science would be a thing of the past.

Using incentives, Gingrich’s plan is to heavily involve private industry. 10 percent of NASA’s budget will be set aside for industrial “prizes” — presumably X PRIZE-like programs. Also, the lunar surface would be a “free-for-all” — corporations would dig in, mine and pillage the lunar surface for its treasures. And then there’s science! Don’t forget the science! SCIENCE will be done, because science is all kinds of awesome.

But there’s a juicy fly in the ointment that Gingrich appears to be ignoring: Where’s the incentive?

As we’ve already established, spaceflight is really, really expensive. Setting up a Moon base would be really, really, really expensive. The International Space Station (ISS) took international collaboration to build and maintain (not forgetting that NASA can’t even access this huge chunk of orbiting real estate without asking Russia for a hand), so whether or not you think $100 billion is a lot of dough for an orbiting outpost, “hundreds of billions” seems like a reasonable estimate for a Moon base. NASA simply can’t “go it alone” to set up an American base, it would need to be an international collaboration, or there would need to be a huge investment made by U.S. commercial interests.

Now, I’m no businessman, so I might be wrong, but companies like to see a return on their investments, right?

We could see similar deals between NASA and private space companies to courier people and cargo into space (like the COTS program that invigorates partnerships like the one between NASA and SpaceX), but again, we’d need to see significant investment by a government agency: NASA. How to get out of this government-funded loop? Let companies profit from the Moon’s resources — there must be gazillions of dollars to be made from that, right?

No.

You’ll hear many people discuss Helium-3 with huge enthusiasm, which is found in abundance on the lunar surface. Helium-3 is the much-touted fuel for fusion power plants. Fusion power is the world’s cleanest, most abundant energy resource; whoever controls the supply of Helium-3 from the surface of the moon could stand to make trillions!

Oh… wait. Fusion power plants? Yeah, we haven’t invented them yet.

What about using the Moon as a massive resource of precious metals? After all, the moon is made from the same stuff Earth is made of, gold and platinum should be hiding in that Moon rock. Why not set up vast strip mines and refineries? Hell, it would be far easier to extract raw materials and refine them in-situ on the Moon than mining asteroids.

But once again, there’s a big problem; it would cost far more to extract, refine and transport the material back to Earth (let alone the huge health & safety/insurance concerns with flying the stuff back to Earth, reentering tons of materials over populated regions) than the profit a company could stand to make from such an operation.

So, in summary, to build a Moon base it would cost a lot of money. In the current political and financial climate, there isn’t a cat in hell’s chance of seeing a U.S. government agency like NASA footing the bill. Private investment would need to be found. But companies don’t like risking tens (to hundreds) of billions of dollars unless they can see some potential for profit. A Moon base, for now, is not an investment.

Also, the Outer Space Treaty forbids any nation from “owning” any portion of the Moon — so sending U.S. companies to mine the Moon could be a pretty awkward scenario. This alone invalidates the “American Moon base” idea if it was being used for anything other than science purposes. Seeing a mining operation pop up in the Sea of Tranquility would be like BP building a refinery in the Antarctic. Sure, it can be done, but the international fallout would be horrendous (another factor that might dissuade corporate investment in the first place).

The modern world’s economy is based on growth, profit and the politics they motivate. Making money from space, in the near term, doesn’t involve bases on the Moon. Profit and growth can be found in government contracts and investment in cheap space launch alternatives. Space tourism, in the near-term, is also showing some promise. These areas of growth focus on basic space infrastructure — simply blasting stuff into orbit is a difficult and expensive task, private enterprise is currently innovating to fulfill this need. And they are doing it for profit.

A few decades from now, when our planet finally has a viable, sustainable infrastructure in space, talk of Moon bases and company profits may make more sense. But talk of building a base (let alone a Moon colony) when we don’t even have the rockets or spacecraft to get us there, is a bit like saying I’m moving to Hawaii, but there’s no aircraft or boats to get me there and… oh, by the way… I have to ship the bricks of my house to the middle of the Pacific Ocean so I can actually build a house when I get there.

Try selling that profit-making scheme to the CEO of Home Depot.

For more on this topic, you can listen to me chat with BBC 5live’s Dotun Adebayo (from “Up All Night” on Jan. 28 — at 1hr 26mins into the show) and check out the Al Jazeera article (“Gingrich promises US ‘moon base’ by 2020“) I was interviewed for.

Astroengine Live CANCELLED… Until Next Week

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Apologies for the break in Astroengine Live service. Due to some uber-technical problems, I’m going to have to re-launch the show this time next week. Stay tuned for updates.

For now, check out my Astroengine Live archives and enjoy!

***

Earlier post:

It’s been a while, but Astroengine Live is back on the air, TODAY! It’s been a fascinating few weeks, so I want to share some of the stuff I’ve come across. I especially want to go into the current Wide Angle over at Discovery Space, “Surfing Spacetime”.

So tune in to the Badlands Radio feed at 4pm PST/7pm EST and all the timezones in between and far away

I’ll also be tweeting throughout the broadcast, so feel free to interrupt me on @astroengine.

See that Red Splodge? That’s Where Captain Jack Is

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Captain Jack at Badlands Radio (formerly Paranormal Radio) has been evacuated from the WPRT studios in Central Texas as tornadoes are sweeping through the area. His show is being covered by me until he can return, so be sure to tune in to find out more!

Last thing I heard was that Jack was in Brownwood (in what appears to be some pretty terrible conditions, looking at the radar picture above), attempting to return to the studio…

Listen to Badlands Radio NOW »

UPDATE: After 5 hours on the air, I get news from Jack that he and Selene are doing fine and returning to the studios. Be sure to check out the Badlands Radio for Jack’s eyewitness account of the tornado that caused so many problems in Central Texas.

Astroengine Live Bonus Show, Today at 4pm PST/7pm EST

You may have noticed I’ve been a little quiet on the airwaves these last couple of weeks. This doesn’t mean all the space news of the world has slowed, or I’ve been any less active article writing, it’s just that life seems to happen during my regular Wednesday slot and I have to keep cancelling!

But not today, I’ll be on the air at 4pm PST/7pm EST for an extra special show, just before Captain Jack hits the mic in his brand new and shiny Badlands Radio (formally known as Paranormal Radio).

For more information about how you can listen in to today’s Astroengine Live, go to the Astroengine Live section of Astroengine.com »

A Hole In Arizona

©Stan Gaz

This picture was posted by Phil Plait and I was mesmerized. Stan Gaz, the photographer of Meteor Crater in Arizona, will be laying on an exhibition in New York from April 30th to June 6th. If this is anything to go by, it’s an event you can’t afford to miss out on… if you’re in or near New York that is. As I am quite literally on the other side of the country, I’ll miss it, but here’s more info if you are more fortunate.

Astroengine Live Show #17: Not-So-Brown Dwarf

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In today’s show, I’ll be giving brown dwarfs some airtime. They may be considered to be “failed stars”, but are they? Also, I’ll be giving a rundown of the week’s space news with some surprises thrown in. Be sure to tune in at 4pm PST/7pm EST!

Get Involved!

Have any articles or stories you want to contribute? Have an opinion on anything in the world of space? Follow me on Twitter to send me live input when I’m on the air, or email me on astro@wprtradio.com and I’ll be sure to give it a mention. Eventually, I hope to have telephone call-ins, but for now, email will do.

Listen to Astroengine Live using the Paranormal Radio player. Or, pick up the podcast feed to activate your favourite audio software.

Astroengine Live Show #16: Planet X Returns!

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No, no, no, don’t panic! The ‘evil’ Planet X is still a figment of some doomsayer’s crazed imagination. I’m talking about the search for other large planets we have yet to discover in our Solar System. Although the hunt for Planet X probably ended in 1930 with the discovery of Pluto, it’s still fun to see what else is out there in the inky blackness of space. As a recent Astroengine article went crazy on Digg.com yesterday, I thought I’d showcase that little story on today’s Astroengine Live!

Expect a wholesome mix of space science too. Although I haven’t prepared a thing (and it’s fast approaching 5am!), I’m sure the live event will go without a hitch and it will be awesome listening fun. So be sure to tune in! 4pm (PST), 7pm (EST), midnight (GMT) and all the timezones elsewhere…

Get Involved!

Have any articles or stories you want to contribute? Have an opinion on anything in the world of space? Email me on astro@wprtradio.com and I’ll be sure to give it a mention. Eventually, I hope to have telephone call-ins, but for now, email will do.

Listen to Astroengine Live using the Paranormal Radio player. Or, pick up the podcast feed to activate your favourite audio software.

Astroengine Live Archives Updated (3 Shows)

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There’s six hours of new space news and opinion waiting for you in the Astroengine Live archives! You can listen in to shows 13, 14 and 15 via the Black Vault Radio Network widget on the Astroengine Live page on Astroengine.com, or you can download them via iTunes for some iPod goodness. Any problems listening in, please let me know.

Synopsis of each show and the dates they aired:

11th March, 2009 – Astroengine Live #13: I discuss some of the most interesting space news topics from the last two weeks. Included in the March 11th show:

  • Searching for exoplanets with the recently launched Kepler space telescope.
  • Religious dogma vs. 2012 doomsday theories.
  • When does virtual reality become physical reality? Does it even matter?
  • General news from Astroengine.com
  • The Carnival of Space and 365 Days of Astronomy (featuring the March 3rd podcast by Dave Mosher)
  • And a whole new playlist of music for your listening pleasure.

There’s a lot more besides, as the previous week’s Astroengine Live didn’t happen, so the “lucky” 13th show went ahead with double the dose of space news.

25th March, 2009 – Astroengine Live Show #14 (Bats ‘n’ Books): A run-down of the week in space, plus a special announcement of the upcoming book: “Astroeconomics: Making Money From The Vacuum Of Space” (a joint venture between BusinessWeek.com and WorldofWeirdThings.com blogger Greg Fish and Astroengine Live host Ian O’Neill). Also, I examine all the fuss about the free-tailed bat that died during the March 15th shuttle launch and plans to honour the endeavours of animals in space.

1st April, 2009 – Astroengine Live Show #15 (Carnival of Space Live!): In a very special edition of Astroengine Live and the Carnival of Space, I host the Carnival on Astroengine.com and gave it the run-down on Astroengine Live! A live Carnival has never been done, so if you want a show with over 30 space science topics squeezed into 120 minutes, this is the show for you!

Astroengine Live Show #15: The Carnival Of Space… Live!

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Show 15 of Astroengine Live is going to be a first. A first for me and a first for the Carnival of Space. I’m going to do it live. I was actually contemplating doing it 99% live, just having the entries for the 96th Carnival embedded in some show notes, but no, that wouldn’t be fair, I’d have to do two versions, one online and another on the air. I suppose the best thing about preparing the jumbo 96th Carnival before Astroengine Live is that at least I’ve read all the entries, in depth and thoroughly… erm… yeah, I did that, right? Well, I did, but having glanced through the entries, I’ve forgotten the details of many of them. So I’m going to run into Wednesday’s show and hope for the best, discussing the Carnival and whatever else comes to mind.

One thing is for sure, it’s going to be a rich and varied experience! I think there were 30 entries in the end, with only a few duplicates. That is either a blessing or a curse, but then again, I’ll only find out when I’m in front of the microphone.

So! See you at 4pm (PST), 5pm (MST), 6pm (CST), 7pm (EST)… or midnight GMT!

Get Involved!

Have any articles or stories you want to contribute? Have an opinion on anything in the world of space? Email me on astro@wprtradio.com and I’ll be sure to give it a mention. Eventually, I hope to have telephone call-ins, but for now, email will do.

Listen to Astroengine Live using the Paranormal Radio player. Or, pick up the podcast feed to activate your favourite audio software.