Martian Smackdown

by guest blogger Ken

Okay, smackdown is probably a bit melodramatic, but it got your attention. A glass of cold water in the face is probably a closer description, but Griffin certainly put his foot down with the Mars science community.

More on that in a bit. I had to cut my vacation short because I’ve got some Loan Committee profiles due as a result of my recent reassignment back into airplane finance at the bank (since I’m the one with the experience), but nevertheless did have a valuable experience.

I did manage to get in a good day of EPO work. It’s the newest and hippest acronym, standing for Education & Public Outreach. The established institutions are starting to recognize that education involves more than teachers, and there are lots of interests competing for peoples’ time, and so an effort to reach out and engage needs to be made.

Dr. Spudis opened with a talk on “What is the Value of Returning to the Moon” (um, I got in a bit late and missed a chunk of it) Like Ms. Gay, I sat in on a mixed workgroup. We had a couple of local teachers and some folks from JSC Astromaterials curation. And me, the banker. One thing is certain, it was not the usual dialogue, but they did get some basic themes/memes I put out there:
-space is a field of endeavor where the U.S. has a competitive advantage.
-What is the opportunity cost of doing this space thing? What is the opportunity cost of not doing this space thing?
-Doing this space thing is one of the reasons the world invests in the U.S., because we manage to do these kinds of crazy things, and everyone else gets to benefit. They don’t expect the favorable and shared results of Russia or China that they do of the U.S.

There was a lot of good ideas and opinion generated on the topic of “What do scientists and educators need to share about the Moon and future lunar exploration with their audiences?”, and I have a little grist to work over in that regard. Lunch was in the Library of the LPI. They’ve got a lot of Moon globes, but they don’t have one marked up in Chinese.

I did manage to show off a few of my toys. The genuine fake Moon rocks from Jensan Scientific were a big hit. A surprising hit was my 3D topographic gravipotential thingamajig. One of the websites on Lagrange points features a gravipotential map to illustrate the overlapping gravitational spheres of influence of the Earth and Moon. I went to a local hobby supply shop and bought some 8.5×11 black foam craft sheets. I think I needed around 40 or so (with mistakes) to build it up. I started from the center circle and started working outward, one layer per isotropic line (or whatever the correct word is for the lines on a topographic map). My main goof was my assumption that the Earth-Moon system was a dimple in the Sun’s gravity well, but someone informed me that the centrifugal force becomes increasingly important the further you get out, so my corners that climbed up should have sloped down.

The main effect is to show the saddle point at L1, and the plateaus at L4 and L5. It’s definitely an eye-catching tool.

In the afternoon, Pamela and I were in the same group on New Media audiences. It was clear that the grayhairs weren’t real clued in on the kind of stuff that’s going on internetwise to spread space messages. While Selenian Boondocks and Out of the Cradle don’t get quite the traffic a Universe Today or Astrocast or Transterrestrial Musings gets, there is still a bit of a sense of community. Second Life was touched on (shout out to Robbie and Jessie at CoLab!), and I’m sitting here wondering at the irony of a person sitting at a computer terminal running a SL avatar that visits a SL Lunar Library to read a book. I shudder to think of the copyright issues.

Twitter and RSS feeds and that sort of thing were touched upon. I noted that NASA can’t just transfer their old NASA TV tapes to YouTube. They actually need to create new media, that takes advantage of the new way things get organized and distributed on the internet. Putting an RSS Feed button to get any AP newswires is not exactly the best way to approach the topic. Both Pamela and I agreed that the communication is also much more ‘personalized’ on the internet. That means to me that the PIs need to be unmuzzled and put to blogging intermittently about their projects for everyone in the world to see. (Which does already happen to some extent, but it’s not an ‘institutionalized’ process) It might contain uncomfortable information, but it’s not like there exists a world without uncomfortable information, and sunlight is the best disinfectant and it may be that a reader has an idea that they post to the comment section of the blog post that saves the day. That’s the power of the free flow of information on a global scale. It’s a messy and chaotic process, with much idiocy from idiots involved, but you tap into a huge knowledge base.

Overall I think it was a valuable exercise, not because we solved the problems of the world, but because our different backgrounds make for a richer dialogue. That’s how new memes get cultivated. I planted a few memes of my own, but I’ve also got new ideas from others that are stirring up the soil in my brain.

There was a little bit of networking afterwords and folks got their registrations for the main conference out of the way. I saw Bernard Foing, whom I know from the Space Generation Forum nearly a decade ago in 1999. He told me a bit about the ILEWG conference in Florida this fall in conjunction with LEAG and someone else. I made sure to introduce him to Pamela in the hopes that she might be able to get an AstronomyCast out of it. Talked with Dave Dunlop from the Moon Society for a while. I do need to get my act together and try to see about forming a Moon Society chapter here in Dallas. The sensitivity concern is that it will draw membership away from the NSS of North Texas chapter. I would argue no more so than the local Mars Society, which has actually contributed members to NSS-NT.

I excused myself to go make my traditional run to Half-Price Books over on NASA Road 1. The old location was empty so I had a moment of panic, but then saw that they’d relocated to the refurbished strip mall on the other side of road. I’m glad I did, as I managed to pick up a hardcover copy of NASA SP-4205: “Chariots for Apollo – A History of Manned Lunar Spacecraft” from 1979. I’d been kicking myself after passing up a softcover copy down in Austin, but found this one for the same price (less after coupon), as well as a couple books on the Soviet Space Program that I’ll be adding to the Lunar Library.

Back to LPI for the Reception, I ran into Bethany from the 2002 Ames NASA Academy on the shuttle from the parking lot. Ames Astrobiology Academy had come to D.C. as one of its ‘field trips’ (like we at Goddard went to Langley, Wallops, KSC, JSC, and HQ). I arranged and chaperoned their visit to a Congressional hearing where they actually got to huddle with one of the Reps in the back of the room during the hearing, as well as Administrator O’Keefe afterwards (photo #1 in Meeting with NASA Leaders). My sly political objective was to try to build institutional support within the organization for the NASA Academy program, while giving the Administrator ammunition to use during his Congressional hearings. It’s one thing to drone on about the educational programs that NASA has to cultivate a future workforce, it’s quite another to have a score of fresh-faced young grad students, some of the brightest minds in our nation, stand up for the Senators, and chat with them after the hearing. It also served to round out the curriculum of the Research Assistants, who were being groomed (and some now serve as) future leaders of NASA, with a taste of the political environment in which NASA operates. It was Win-Win all around. Of course, the one time we let them go into town unchaperoned they ended up hitting the Romanian Ambassador’s car and creating some diplomatic drama, as well as missing the internet webcast I had arranged with the ISU SSP, a special seminar on Astrobiology that we got to watch at the Goddard Academy.

I ran into Bob Richards from OpTech and one of the Goooogle Lunar X-Prize teams. He knows me from ISU, of which he was one of the founders, along with Todd Hawley and Peter Diamandis. When Bethany wandered by in the buffet line I made sure to introduce her to Bob, and reminded her that Dr. Soffen had modeled the NASA Academy program on the ISU Summer Session programs (since it pre-dated the Masters program). She of course was thinking about doing an SSP, when they get to another one of the really cool locations. My first introduction to the SSP was when they did a webcast from Thailand (IIRC) to the Space Generation Forum in Vienna in 1999.

Which reminds me. In this whole ‘communicating with Gen Y’ thing, one thing that everyone seems to be forgetting is that there is an entire generation that’s been into this whole thing from the beginning – Gen X. Heck, who do you think was doing the coding? The deer in the headlights looks one can see in the greyhairs whenever the younger folks talk about this stuff is actually a bit scary. I do wonder what percentage of NASA employees are aged 26-44.

One thing I noted during the reception was that there were a lot of younger faces than I usually see at this sort of thing. Including a number of lovely young ladies (of course the ones I really felt drawn to were already taken, which is par for the course). There were a lot of international folks as well, and I was pleased to hear a good bit of French. It was a short night, though, as I had to get back to the hotel to do some work.

Monday morning I stopped by the Publishers Room, where they were exhibiting all of the latest titles on space. There are a few that I really need to pick up for the LL. I then hopped back up to LPI to visit their Library during normal business hours to see what other goodies I might be able to pick up, then over to Space Center Houston to visit their gift shop. I did pick up another copy of “Kids to Space” to give away, and some tchotchkes. Space Center souvenirs, down the road towards IH-45, had a few more goodies, including a print of Michael Whelan’s “The Ultimate Sandbox” which they had recently uncovered in their storeroom.

Back at the hotel the afternoon was mostly gone, but I did talk to some more folks I knew. The capstone of the day was of course Mr. Griffin’s address to the International Planetary Science community.

It wasn’t pretty, and Mr. Griffin would probably be the first to tell you that. Pamela Gay has a pretty good summary of the proceedings in “Michael Griffin Redux”, but our perceptions of what went down are a bit different. I recommend reading it before proceeding.

I Am The Invited Commenter

This one was uncomfortable. It’s not uncommon for a questioner to preface their question with a brief comment to try to give the respondent a sense of the context in which the question is being asked. Mr. Griffin did not want that context, but she stood her ground and laid it out anyway. This is where he started laying out the idea that Mars science cannot consider itself to be entitled to a stable level of funding year-to-year. He asked the pointed and entirely appropriate question to the effect of what space science programs does the Mars community consider expendable so that they can maintain their currently high level of funding? Many forget that the Mars program found considerable favor in the Goldin years, especially once they adopted the FBC (Faster, Looser, Cheaper) mantra. Publication of “The Case for Mars” in the mid-90s offered a well-spring of (false?) hope for a generation still smarting from Challenger and inheriting a space program from their parents of going around in circles. The impression I get is that they were less sold on the idea of the actual architecture so much as the idea of Mars as the best other place in the Solar system for a long-term human presence, and so for a jaded and cynical generation living in a world of Baby Boomers it offers a slim hope to GTFO.

He kept re-emphasizing that funding for Mars science was returning to its 25 year average, and it’s not as if there wasn’t funding for Mars missions prior to 1990. I do seem to recall a flagship getting lost out around Mars back around that time (which served as part of the impetus to consider the FBC approach). This will allow NASA to direct funding to the Outer Solar System in accordance with the desires of the National Academies as expressed in the last Decadal Survey. Outer Solar System is getting a much lower grade than Mars, and needs some attention. Mars is not the only object of study in the Solar system. It’s not going to zero, but Mars has been hogging the limelight for over a decade and they need to share the stage with someone else. This point was emphasized again towards the end

You are an insect

The Gen Yers are obviously starting to feel their oats, so Bethany got up and asked the question of where these changes to the Mars budgets was going to leave this bright young talent pool of youngsters who have lived and breathed Mars their entire lives?

His response: Don’t specialize. Specialization is for insects.

So after telling her she was an insect, he elaborated that she may need to go do something she’s not interested in. Here’s where I have a fundamental disagreement with Mr. Griffin, but it did help to clarify one of my insights.

Here we have a young leader of her generation. She had the cajones to actually get up and ask a question of the single most important person in civil space. And the single most important person in space told her that everything she was working toward was stupid and misdirected. Great, just freaking great. This young woman obviously needs to be cultivated so that she can continue to grow as a scientist and a professional. Not crushed.

My approach would have been to note that while the scope of work in the Mars field was to be reduced, there are several factors to consider:
1) The top levels of NASA are on the edge of retirement, and have already begun to do so. This means your boss will likely be moved to a different responsibility in the near future where he’s needed within the organization. That means someone will have to replace him.
2) Yes, the pool of direct Mars laborers will be reduced overall. What this means is that the organization is going to be looking for the best and brightest to be kept. You therefore need to aggressively position yourself as one of the best and brightest and someone the program can’t do without.
3) Specialization is not stupid. However, the modern era forces us to look at skillsets. It helps to have several different skillsets with very sharp tools, not just one skillset with the sharpest tools on the planet. Generalists are important, but generalists need the specialists to be the sort of ‘Rain Man’ in the room that knows the more about an important topic than anyone else in the room, so that when the question of “What is the capacitance charge of the intervoltage overthruster on the interociter?” it can be answered with the answer, not an “I’ll have to get back to you on that one”.

The key difference is that I look at talent in the context of cross-training. Staff will be needed for different projects. The composition depends on the special strengths that each participant brings to the team. Oftentimes, it makes sense for the organization to cross-train an employee with a new skillset that complements their existing skillsets and makes them a greater asset to the organization. They may need to go work in a different department for six months or a year, but are better-skilled for it. It’s also a way of keeping staff engaged when their particular specialties aren’t needed at the moment, but you don’t want to turn them loose in the market.

I may be biased in this regard. While I am wholely and completely a generalist, and have an entire workbench of skillsets, I am nevertheless working to become the most knowledgeable person of my generation with regards to the Moon. It’s hard to get more specialized than that, but then again I am looking at it from a different perspective. I see opportunity – there aren’t a whole lot of Gen Xers out there. Most of the Gen Xers hopped on the Mars bandwagon. Most of the rest don’t care about space other than as a deep space fantasy like Star Trek or Star Wars. So there will come a time when the old guard has shuffled off and I will be the go-to Moon guy.

And this leads me to my insight. Mr. Griffin has no passion for his job as Administrator. Jon may have goofed recently in calling Griffin ‘President’, but Mr. Griffin used the same title on himself Monday night. Not because he may see himself as a contender in the Presidential elections, but rather because he is the ‘President’ (Mr. Bush) in the role of NASA Administrator. He brings nothing of himself to the position, but rather serves as a conduit for others. In all honesty the political calculus that I read from his talk Monday chilled me. The best example was when he said that it is not the job of NASA to educate people, it is NASA’s job to inform them. It is the responsibility of the Department of Education to educate people. NASA is not ‘selling’ anything, it merely provides facts. This led to the rather uncomfortable question by the EPO person from LPI who asked then what her job was supposed to be if not ‘Education’ and Public Outreach?

I agree with Mr. Griffin that it is not NASA’s job to educate Americans about space. Where I disagree is that NASA can provide an ENORMOUS amount of help in education efforts. Heck yes it’s the job of NASA astronauts to go into classrooms and alight stars in childrens’ eyes. Heck yes NASA needs to be making posters and lithographs and CD-ROMs and webpages, and it also needs to provide context for those things. Sending a teacher a Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter poster is okay, providing local planetarium staff (as an example) with content training and them sending them around to the schools with handout materials is hugely powerful. This is why JPL does the Solar System Ambassador program.

In my view Mr. Griffin is providing no leadership to the organization. I understand the linguistic subtleties of “Administrator”, but even an Administrator brings some character to his position, and is given some authority to swing around. The sense that I get from Mike is that his role is really that of a clerk, in the context that he is just processing directives from elsewhere. There is no self-identity in what he does, but rather he is, not just represents, the ‘President’ (GWB) in his role as NASA Administrator.

To be clear, when he says he is being honest, I believe him that he is telling the truth. I question, though, whether what he tells is the whole truth (and suspect not), and whether that is by virtue of knowing what he may and may not disclose in public, or whether he just doesn’t have the whole truth and therefore can’t give it.

Overall, I think the impression he tried to convey was that he was trying to be as fair as he could to everyone in a really crappy environment (which I think he is within certain parameters). The Mars folks are not ‘entitled’ to any particular level of funding, any more than anyone else is entitled to that funding.

One thing that we have in common is that we worked on Mars Sample Return for JPL. Mr. Griffin said his work was 30 years ago. I worked on an MSR RFP for JPL while interning at Boeing HSF&E during my ISU MSS studies. The report is probably on the internet somewhere. My main role was as what we called the “Wall Nazi”. We had 100 slides up on the wall. Nothing went up or came off without my say so and I was ruthless in that. I also worked on the Science Architecture with one of the guys from MEPAG (Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group), with frustrating results. A typical session:

“Okay, so I’ve reviewed the MEPAG objectives and I think I have a pretty good handle on what they’re about. What would you consider to be the most important objectives that could be met by a sample return?”
“They’re all important objectives”
“Yes, but we can’t answer them all with a sample return mission. Which do you think are the obvious candidates for discarding”
“Well, we don’t want to discard any of the objectives if they might be met by a sample return”
[Thumps head on desk multiple times]

I was later told (perhaps jokingly) that this was why I was assigned the science architecture, since no one else wanted to deal with the frustration of trying to understand the scientists and get them to make decisions. When JPL got to my slide during the presentation they got that ‘WTF is this?’ look about them. Not one of my prouder moments, but I do have a blown-up printout of the report cover signed by the team in a poster tube around here somewhere. Even while we were working on the RFP the launch date to consider was slipping to the right.

After Griffin’s talk I was feeling chilled, and decided that given my new work responsibilities I should get home and back to work on the bond profiles. Driving north, downtown Houston was framed by the usual spectacular Texas sunset, and once I cleared the storm front the waxing crescent Moon could be glimpsed through the clouds near the top of my driver side window, descending slowly as I worked my way through the miles, till finally it was an enormous deep red cup perched on the horizon as I neared Dallas. In my view, an enormous cup of opportunity, but the deep red reminded me that Mars is still out there.

In the latest Moon Miner’s Manifesto, Peter Kokh suggests/strongly urges that the Moon Society help build an economic case for Mars, since the Marsophiles haven’t been able to come up with anything substantial and if the Moon can be seen as supporting markets farther out (and not just Mars), then that helps build a stronger case for both. I’ll sheepishly admit that I’ve spent time thinking about Mars, and how it might provide economic opportunity worthy of the 6+ month supply line to Mars. Anything volatile is right out given the dangers from impacts. Cultural artifacts of extinct Martian civilizations would be worth it, but that’s a veeery long shot as far as I’m concerned. I doubt there has ever been even the simplest of life on Mars, and the main question that my MSR experience left with me was to wonder to what extent billions and billions of years of dust and grit and aeolian affects would create effects that would mimic those of water. I don’t doubt that more than a few comets have been delivered to Mars, but I doubt there’s as much easily available water as everyone seems to be hoping.

Okay, this went on a bit longer than I expected. I’ll leave with a quote from a rather interesting sci-fi series from 1990 recently issued on DVD. The story is about a number of university age students studying on a spacecraft parked in orbit around Callisto out at Jupiter. There’re no aliens, no wormholes, nothing sci-fantasy about it. Everything works by the laws of physics (though I’m not so sure about the shots of the various shuttle dockings). It’s from episode 39 of the pretty-good-so-far, if a bit soap opera-y, “Jupiter Moon”, where young orphan and computer whiz/hacker Timmy has to be sent back to Mars to treat an immune response issue he seems to have developed. His big sister doesn’t particularly like Mars.

“I hate Mars. It’s suburban and full of tourists”

The following two tabs change content below.

Latest posts by lunadyne (see all)

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Martian Smackdown

  1. Anonymous says:

    Ummmm.. possibly, it’s a generation thing — I’m 61, which pretty well establishes me — but it’s always been my very very strong opinion that recipients of Federal government largess should not belabor the taxpayers for additional spending.

    E.g., the head of the FAA is perfectly justified in describing the costs and benefits of improved aircraft monitoring systems to congressional committees and perhaps even to Kiwanis meetings, but it’s beyond the limits for him/her to attend meetings and urge the attendees to write their Congresscritters in support of such systems. The Army Corps of Engineers shouldn’t arm twist local politicians to get approval for dredging local rivers. School principles shouldn’t go out of their way to lecture newspaper reporters on why particular bills being considered by Congress are Good For The Kids and why others bills Will Harm The Children. Etc.

    It strikes me Griffin may feel some of the same aversion. I understand it must seem terribly old fashioned to most people born after say 1970.

    -mike shupp

  2. murphydyne says:

    I guess 1967 is close enough. I suppose I don’t really see money invested in NASA as largesse any more than I see tax money invested in highways as largesse. I do see money given to individuals who contribute nothing back to their community in return as largesse. I view money given to farmers to not grow crops as largesse. I view alot of things NASA does as largesse, but I don’t view NASA itself as largesse.

    I agree that an Administrator shouldn’t ‘sell’ an individual system or program, but he darn well better be selling his team and his organization as a strong asset for America. (and making darn sure that is in fact the case) If he’s doing it well he won’t need to belabor the taxpayer’s to write their Congresscritters.

    If the community decides that high-value-added (though often in quite intangible ways) professions like science and engineering are important, then it behooves the government to use all of its resources to that end.

    In the end, I did not get the impression that Griffin was trying to belabor the audience to drum up more support. It came across more as ‘it’s pointless to really do anything, this is the way it is. You’re welcome to try though’.

  3. Karl Hallowell says:

    The issue of why to go to Mars surfaced recently in the NASA space flight forums. There were some basic observations:
    1) Science – Mars is a complex object both with a great deal of history, potential for life, and unique geology.
    2) Variety of resources – Mars has all the basic ingredients that a Terran ecosystem needs. Mars is a fair source of hydrogen and nitrogen. There’s some speculation that Phobos and Deimos may have resources like water that would make them among the best sources in any near term colonization effort of the Solar System.
    3) Access to cislunar – Mars cargo requires less delta v than Earth cargo to reach anywhere in cis-Lunar outside of Earth’s surface and suborbital trajectories.
    4) Second best environment – the conditions are mild as they’ll get off of Earth, making Mars one of the most likely place for a permanent colony.

    The science struck me as being the item of single largest value. It also has no competition from elsewhere. I think any effort to generate an economic return on Mars needs to consider that.

    Second, the combination of points 2) and 3) means that Mars is a potential source of hydrogen, carbon, and nitrogen for the Moon. If there’s not an economic source of hydrogen, then we can always supply it from Mars (especially if water is present on one of the martian moons). Nitrogen and carbon are harder to extract, but if you can scoop a reasonable amount from orbit, it’s probably better delta v than scooping Earth atmosphere from LEO.

    Finally, Mars should be a good spot for a backup civilization. This is an intangible benefit, but one that could have significant value to Earth at some point.

  4. Michael Mealling says:

    What’s with the assumption that colonization has to happen at the bottom of yet another gravity well? There are plenty of NEOs that have the same materials as Mars without all that gravity getting in the way.

    I find the moon interesting enough to visit/develop due to its proximity to other economic activity. And when it comes to economics delta V isn’t as important as time. Most of the time Mars is going to be economically to far away whereas the moon is always only a week or so away.

    But for me the goal is always smaller bodies in interesting orbits with interesting mineable features.

  5. Karl Hallowell says:

    Michael, what NEO asteroids have nitrogen, carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen in easily extractable form?

    As I see it, for bulk materials like the above elements, one doesn’t need to be that responsive. Just set up the supply chain and let it go. Demand on the Moon isn’t likely to change over short time scales. If it does, one can build up reserves and use those.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *