Monthly Archives: September 2008

The latest from the Kansas City Space Pirates

I received the following update from Brian Turner, captain of the Kansas City Space Pirates:

“Lots going on. We are quite busy around here. All of our scheduled testing is happening.

We recently returned from Detroit and had an eventful and ultimately successful round of testing. The troubles ranged from minor stuff like flood related detours stealing our sleep and poison ivy oil on the steering wheel, to a tracking system that was overwhelmed by the brightness of the very laser it was meant to direct, and… a fire.

OK, I will start with the fire. A dust cover adjacent to the laser path was overheated by reflected laser light. This led to a cascading failure resulting an impressive amount of black smoke and a tiny little fire. It is a rookie mistake made by us rookies. That ended day 1 of testing but the team pulled it together while the frustrated and exhausted captain went to sleep, They cleaned all the soot off of the high power optics and had us up and running only a little bit into day 2. Yes, another all-nighter for the cause. Good thing too, as on day 2 we found a solution to the overwhelmed tracking system and finished off our scheduled testing.

These are exactly the kind of problems that this type of controlled testing is meant to reveal, it’s just that having them does not exactly make me happy. The final result is that all of the other critical performance metrics were square on the numbers. We beamed power a short distance with a laser and ran our climber’s motor with it.

The competition has been delayed. Yes, this is the third time. But the facility that Spaceward is working on looks to be an excellent place for the competition. And we had hit crash schedule to keep with former date of Nov. 7th. So I have to welcome the delay. The new date has not been set but Dec. and Jan. both look to be out.

We leave this week for long range testing with the real laser.  We have a rather hairy to do list in the next couple of days to get all the systems together.  This test should reveal any last/hidden weaknesses in our systems.  We are still wrestling with some other issues, so we are not done by any means but I will feel much better when we have hard data on power conversion at the full KM range.

On a personal note my oldest and second largest customer’s owner died unexpectedly of a heart attack.  Alan was the guy that got me started in the career that I have today.  I will be quite busy filling in for some of his duties and training his son to be the new general manager.  Again, I have to welcome the competition delay. And if you ever find yourself wondering if you should call 911 when you’re having chest pains, I hope you risk saying yes rather than no.  I will miss him.

Most research projects would consider this upcoming test the end result.  But in the Space Elevator Games it is just one step along the way and is a big part of what differentiates this challenge from a “Lab” experiment.

Brian Turner
Captain
KC Space Pirates”

So, it sounds like they’re making good progress (and from this team, I would expect nothing less).  As I’ve said before, I think they have to be considered one of the favorites for this competition.

I am very sorry to hear about Alan’s passing and I can only agree with Brian’s recommendation of calling 911 if there is any question of an emergency.

An interview with Elon Musk

Over at SpaceFellowship.com, they have just posted an interview with Elon Musk, he of SpaceX fame (as well as PayPal, Tesla Motors and SolarCity).  The interview covered many subjects. including the Space Elevator.  He’s not a fan.

“Question: I know that SpaceX has plenty on its plate right now. However, any thoughts on using your techology after you go public on the construction of a Space Elevator? Private or Public?

Elon Musk: It will be a *long* time, if ever, before the economics of a space elevators make sense. Consider that no one has decided to build a bridge from New York to London and that would be way easier than building a space elevator.”

That’s an odd answer, to say the least.  Why would anyone want to build a bridge from New York to London?  We already have commercial shipping and air transport that gets things to/from one side of the pond to the other.  He really thinks we should drive between New York and London?  Rest stops?  Gasoline stations?  Restaurants?  In the middle of the Atlantic?  When someone can fly from New York to London in just a few hours?  I think he’s totally missing the point, especially considering a quote a little later on in the interview:

“Question: Do you have an estimate of when the common person will be able to take advantage of the fruits of the SpaceX program?

Elon Musk: Depends on how common. If we can make reusability work well, I think we can get the cost per person to orbit down to a few million dollars within eight to ten years. If reusability works well and demand is strong, so that we can distribute overhead over a large number of launches, it could one day get to under $1M.”

Under $1M“.  Gee, how exciting… :(

On the other hand, I do tend to agree with his assessment of Space Solar Power:

“Question: Should not NASA be funding research to make Space Solar Power possible in this time of energy crisis as they did in the 1970’s?

Elon Musk: No, I don’t believe in space solar power. It will never be competitive with ground solar power. The cost of converting the electron energy to photon energy and then back again on the ground overwhelms the 2X increase in solar incidence. And that’s before you consider the cost of transporting the solar panels and converters to orbit!”

It’s a very interesting interview – check it out.

(Picture of Elon Musk and the Falcon2 from here.  Click on it for a larger version.)

I keep telling you…

There was a very interesting article in the most current Newsweek titled “The Real Space Race is in Asia“.  I think the author is absolutely spot-on in his analysis.  I have long argued that the space race between India and China could wind up to be a driving force behind developing the world’s first Space Elevator (I’ve blogged about this here and here and presented this conclusion at the last two Space Elevator conferences I’ve attended).

I think that the possibility of a Dubai-India connection to jointly develop a Space Elevator makes all sorts of sense.  Dubai can fund this out of their ‘pocket change’ (only a slight exaggeration) – they certainly have the financial wherewithall and they are actively looking for projects to make money for them when their oil runs out.  A Space Elevator would be PERFECT for this.  The Indians have a real and growing space program.  They have a real military, are a nuclear power and have direct sea lanes to two of the most favored potential sites for a Space Elevator.  And, as the article points out, they are locked in an ever-increasing space race with the Chinese.  A Space Elevator would be an outstanding way for them to leapfrog the Long March…

Some money quotes from the article:

“China sees its spacewalk as a way of proving that it belongs with the United States and Russia in the top tier of space-faring nations. But its true opponent in this space race is not the West so much as its Asian neighbors—India in particular. India has in recent years transformed its space program from a utilitarian affair of meteorological and communications satellites into a hyperactive project that seems designed to make a splash on the world stage. Its robotic-exploration program is scheduled to launch a probe on Oct. 22 that will orbit the moon for two years.”

And…

“The United States and the Soviet Union were racing in the context of a cold war, but India and China are vying for leadership in a competitive marketplace of people and knowledge industries. It’s about developing technology, talent and markets.”

The article is highly recommended.  And remember, you heard it here first (and at Newsweek, second) :)

Will Japan be first?

That’s the implication of this article, published today in the TimesOnline (and linked to from the DrudgeReport – guaranteeing a HUGE audience).  I was excited when I read the headlines (“Japan hopes to turn sci-fi into reality with elevator to the stars“), but the article mentioned no new breakthroughs in this effort.

Having said that, the likelihood of the Japanese building the world’s first Space Elevator certainly cannot be discounted.  They are a technologically sophisticated and financially able people.  It is not at all beyond the realm of possibility that the Japanese could decide to wean themselves from the oil economy by launching a number of Solar Power Satellites (SPS) for their own use and the only way that they (or anyone) is going to be able to launch a significant amount of payload (i.e. SPS) into orbit is with a Space Elevator.

We’re all waiting for the breakthrough in carbon nanotubes and the accelerating pace of research into this field means, IMHO, that this is not far away at all; I think we will see ‘the breakthrough’ before this decade is out.  And, when that happens, the idea of a Space Elevator could move very quickly from an academic exercise to a new ‘space race’…

The article mentions the upcoming Space Elevator conference being held in Japan on November 15th and 16th.  I’m told that the English language progam for this conference will be available soon.  I’m going to be attending this conference and very much look forward to going.

The Japanese also had a large presence at the recent Space Elevator conference held at the Microsoft Conference center (I blogged about it here).  The picture, above, is of the attendees from Japan at this conference (click on it for a larger version).

The Japanese Space Elevator Association also has an extensive website (all in Japanese) which can be found here.

The JPL Space Foundation

One of the attendees at the recent Space Elevator Conference was John Lee.  I met John briefly, but was not able to spend more time with him and learn what he is up to.

A recent article in the Estes Park Trail Gazette gives a very thorough explanation of John and the organization he’s started, the JPL Space Foundation (JPL here stands for “John P Lee”, not the “Jet Propulsion Labs” that most of us think of when we see these three letters) and what they are doing.  From the article;

“In its Web site, the JPL Space Foundation urges people to ‘Help save the Earth, move to outer space!’

The foundation is ‘supporting affordable, reliable and safe access to space for all. Dreaming of space travel? Not rich but want to go into orbit? Enter our contest — each $20-plus donation earns you one chance to win a trip to orbit.’

In a more serious vein, the foundation exists to: raise money, promote space research, finance space missions, support space exploration and colonization and encourage educational programs related to space exploration and astronomy.”

John’s website also has a Good Search option you can use or download to your own website.  45% of the Money raised from this “…shall be placed in an interest bearing account to be used for research grants to develop the Space Elevator or any other technology that will offer an affordable access to space; plus any other activities that support the foundation’s Mission.”

Check out the website.  Thanks John!

When is a Space Elevator not a Space Elevator?

When it’s at Burning Man.  At this year’s just concluded festival (and I guess at earlier ones, too), they had a “Space Elevator” booth described thusly;

“Space Elevator, elevating from the trance communities in the San Francisco Bay Area, featuring psytrance, progressive trance, funky-electro beats and chill-out music on a 20,000 watt sound system, with local and international DJs from all over the world bringing their best music to you on the playa.”

There are several videos on YouTube about this event; a couple are included below:

If you do a Search on “Space Elevator” at YouTube and sort by date, all the videos (there are 5-6) will show up at the front.

Here’s a post by an organizer looking for DJ’s for this event.  I’m truly glad my 16 year old son didn’t know about this; he’s a part time DJ and this is EXACTLY the type of music he likes.  I’d have never heard the end of it…

This last video, while not at the Space Elevator camp, is my favorite.  Give it a few seconds and, I think you’ll be hooked…

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(Picture of Burning man from here)

Doctor Who visits The Great Space Elevator

Oh joy of joys!  Oh frabjous day!  There is now a new audio Doctor Who episode centered around the Space Elevator!!

Yes, Doctor Who fans, ’tis true, the Good Doctor, Jamie and Victoria Waterfield visit the Artsutanov Space Elevator, anchored in Sumatra on the earth end and the “Sky Satellite” in geosynchronous orbit at the space end.  This Space Elevator is electrically conductive, batteries are used on emergency climbers (which get to the top in no time) and has all sorts of other heresies, but who cares?  It’s Doctor Who!  This episode, like all Doctor Who episodes, has villains, narrow escapes, stupid moves by the protagonists (which never get them in unrecoverable trouble) and much derring-do.  It’s 70 minutes of great fun, outrageous plot twists, sexual innuendos (complete with a “scantily clad, female security guard”), glorious non-sequiturs and, the dialogue – oh, the dialogue!

“I come from the Space between the worlds”

“You will be converted – you will become part of us!”

“Now, let’s not be hasty…”

“The creature has consumed the Doctor!”

“They have to be completely insulated!”

“We’ll be returning earth to clear, sunny skies.”

And, best of all…

“Thank God for the thick, white foam!”

Glorious, truly, truly, glorious…  Earth is saved with Faraday cages, thick white foam and Fleming’s left-hand rule…

Highly, highly recommended and well worth the $7.99 download price.  Truly, this is a treat.  You can order it here, but note that you must register with the distributor (Big Finish) before you can order the download.  The download comes as a 96MB zip file, containing 21 tracks/chapters (.mp3 files) and the artwork shown above (click on it for a slightly larger version).

Click below to listen to the trailer – make sure your sound is turned up!

Big hat tips to elyssadc’s journal and the Tardis Newsroom

One suggestion; import the 21 tracks/chapters into a playlist and listen to it as a whole – it’s a lot better than clicking on and listening to each track separately.

If I told you once…

Here is an interesting article, titled “Trillionth Floor Please“, where the author discusses a new method of working with carbon nanotubes discovered by chemistry professor Fotios Papadimitrakopoulos and can use them, theoretically, to build a Space Elevator.  From the article:

The problem, says Papadimitrakopoulos (he tells people to call him “Papadim”), is that nanotubes have different properties. That’s important because nanotubes bearing the same qualities can interlock with one another. But until now, no one had figured out a way to identify and separate nanotubes according to their properties.

After working on this problem for seven years, Papadimitrakopoulos and his team had a eureka! moment: Molecules from Vitamin B2 can attach themselves to nanotubes in such a way that could distinguish different types of nanotubes. With a way to identify nanotubes, researchers can group them together according to their types.

This may work out – I hope it does, but I do have to take exception to the title of the article.  A trillion floors works out to an elevator that is over two billion miles long (2,272,727,273 miles to be exact) if one assumes a uniform floor height of 12 feet.  A sixty-thousand mile high elevator would have between twenty-six million and twenty-seven million (26,400,000 to be exact) floors, again assuming a uniform floor height of 12 feet.

If I told him once, I told him a TRILLION times; “Don’t exaggerate”… :)

Another type of ‘tether challenge’

I know, I said I wasn’t going to post anything else ’til I got back from vacation, but I was channel-surfing last night and came upon a program that was discussing a ‘tether challenge’.  Of course I was immediately hooked.

It seems that one of these new wind turbine ideas was being discussed; you’ve probably seen the videos of one;

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Anyway, they need a strong tether to a) hold this thing from flying away and b) conduct electricity into the grid.  They had a ‘tether challenge’ between a steel cable (diameter unspecified) and a cable made out of Vectran (diameter of .9 inches and copper-clad to conduct electricity).

Rather than match them directly against each other, they had the cables lift a series of cars.  The steel cable broke when attempting to add the fourth car to the load.  The Vectran cable came through with flying colors and was able to lift all six cars they had.

The rest of the show was about the wind turbine itself.

The show was titled “Infinite Winds” and is part of the “Discovery Project Earth” series shown on (naturally enough) the Discovery Channel.  I don’t know if it’s going to be re-broadcast anytime soon, but if it is, you might want to check it out.

Installing DSL for my mother…

This one is for you Ben…

Readers may have noticed a lack of posts over the past several days.  This is because I’m currently in NW Arkansas, visiting my mom, a trip I make every year around this time.

So I’m down here, installing DSL for my mother…

Mom (who is now in her 80’s) is not afraid of computers.  She and my dad were quite eager to learn about them and how to work with them.  They purchased their first computer sometime in the 1980’s, an Apple IIE (at least that’s what I think the model was – I’m a Windows guy).  When they first started using computers, I was living and working in Saudi Arabia.  I’d come home once or twice per year on business or vacation and always spent several days with them.  Answering their computer questions was always high on the list of ‘things to do’.

My professional career was spent entirely in the computer industry, mainly in software and working mostly with mainframes and minis (PCs didn’t come along until later on in my career).  I remember in particular one computer question my parents asked me; “how do you copy a file?”  I’m ashamed to admit that it took me the better part of an hour before I could figure it out (and I had to consult a manual).  Apple’s did not operate in the same way as IBM PC’s did and I remember thinking that my parents must wonder how I make any money in this field when I can’t even do something simple like copying a file without needing a manual.  To them, a computer was a computer…  It’s a good thing that the bank I worked at in Saudi Arabia was forward-thinking enough to use PCs early on or I would have had even more trouble copying that damn file.

After my dad retired, my parents moved to Arkansas – this was in 1989.  They brought their computers with them and I soon persuaded them to join the online revolution.  1989 was long before DSL, cable-modems or other high-speed access options to the Internet, so they signed up with the local provider (Arkansas.net) for dial-up service and have been using it ever since.  A couple of years ago, NW Arkansas finally moved into the 21st century and DSL became available in the area.  However, my mom didn’t want to change to it; she didn’t see what faster service would do for her (and, since her only online experience up to this time is email, I can see her point).  However, I visit her every year and spend several days there.  My sister and her husband do the same as does my oldest daughter and her husband.  All of us would LOVE to have hi-speed Internet access while we’re visiting her.  It took a year, but we finally convinced her to make the switch.  I received an email from her a few weeks ago saying that she had ordered hi-speed DSL from AT&T and was waiting for my yearly visit so that I could install it for her.

I lived and worked in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for about 8 years.  My first employer in the Kingdom was The Saudi Investment Bank (formerly The Saudi Investment Banking Corporation) and, during my tenure there, they purchased the second PC that IBM ever sold in the Kingdom.  For those of you who may remember such things, it was an IBM PC-AT.  It was housed in two PC-cases, with the cases connected by a large, thick cable.  We purchased the AT so that we could get a full 10 MB of storage (woo-hoo) and the first application we wrote on it was Payroll.  Back in those days, employees of most companies in the Kingdom were paid in cash.  Payday was always fun; we’d line up in the Treasury department, waiting our turn.  When we got to the front of the line, the clerk would look up our name, place a tick-mark next to it, and then retrieve our pay envelope from a box full of envelopes stuffed with cash.  In the envelopes would be our monthly pay, all in Saudi Riyals and all in cash.  Then 99.9% of us would walk downstairs to the Tellers and have them either deposit the money in our account or else wire transfer it back home.  My boss, the Operations Manager, thought that this was an odd way to do things; he’d have to have a clerk spend a man-day or two counting out our pay and putting it into envelopes and then we’d all waste productive time standing in line waiting to get our pay, and then the banking tellers would have to re-deposit our money in our accounts (and/or wire it somewhere).  So a home-grown Payroll system, written in dBASE II, was the first PC application I ever worked with.

After I moved back to the States, I started my own software company and, in the course of things, acquired several PCs of various makes and models.  My parents had moved to Arkansas by then and so on one of our family visits down there, I took a couple of my older, Windows-based PCs along and gave them to them.  I schooled them in the ways of Windows (I think we were running Windows 95 then) and got them to use email via the dialup connection.

And their old Apple?  If you visit the Southern Illinois University Computer Museum, you’ll see it on display along with a small placard saying, “Donated by Carl and Lois Semon”…

At home, I have a cable modem and absolutely love it.  The service is fast, reliable and relatively inexpensive.  My sole experience with DSL up until this trip was at the offices of CASA of DuPage County, Inc., a child-welfare organization that I am associated with.  CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) works with neglected and abused children who have come to the attention of the state’s child-welfare system.  When a case enters the system, a CASA Advocate is assigned and stays with the case until it leaves the system (the child either ages out or is adopted).  As Advocates, we spend time with the child, ensure that their living situation and services are satisfactory and report to the courts on the child’s status.  We attend court hearings, DCFS meetings, etc.  We’re different from the typical case-workers in that we are usually assigned only one child at a time and we stay with that child / case until it is dismissed.  Often times, we are the only ones who really get to know the child.  If a child is in the system for any length of time, their placement will change, their attorneys and GAL and Case workers will change, the judge will change, etc.  CASA’s are the only ones who stay with the child during their entire experience in the system.  We Advocates go through rigorous training, have to be certified and sworn in by the courts, and are required to attend ongoing training.  CASA is a national organization and is county-based; each local CASA ‘chapter’ serves the needs of one particular county.  I’ve been an Advocate for over six years now and take great pride in what they do and what I do with them.  In addition to being an Advocate for the local CASA office, I also donate my time to maintain their network of 8 computers, various printers, a scanner, etc., etc., etc.  Some years ago, I upgraded them to DSL to replace the dial-up service they had been using.  It was a pretty painless experience and has been working fairly well for us.  Earlier this year, in an effort to save some money, I had AT&T move our data service onto our fax line, thus saving us the cost of a telephone line.  This experience was just awful; it took 5 days to get this up and working and required a visit by one of their technicians to come out to our building to fix some issues they had with their telephone cable.  Our AT&T rep was no help; as soon as she heard there were problems, she scurried for cover, not to be heard from again.

Since this experience was still relatively fresh in my mind, I was a little bit leery about installing the DSL service for my mother.  But hey, it’s just DSL, right?  The product has been out for a long time, the technology is well known and stable, and it’s from AT&T.  What could possibly go wrong?

Actually, plenty…  I arrived at my mom’s Tuesday night.  I tackled the project first thing Wednesday morning because if things went badly, I wanted plenty of time to be able to fix them.  And this is MY MOTHER – I want to make sure it’s working and working well before I leave because I’m the one who badgered her into upgrading to this service in the first place…

When I arrived, the DSL kit was waiting for me.  My mom had already been billed for it on her latest AT&T bill.  In the kit is the installation CD, one of the better ones I’ve seen.  They really try to make it as simple and as easy-to-understand as possible.  Their audience is generally non-technical, just the ordinary family that wants a better Internet experience.  Each step is meticulously described and is illustrated to ensure that the instructions are as easy to follow as possible.  So, first step, install the DSL filters on all of your household devices plugged into the phone lines.  The kit contained four DSL filters but wait, there’s no filter included for a wall-mount phone – why?  They used to be part of the kit, but now all you get is a little piece of paper which says that if you call a certain telephone number, they will ship you one.  Joy.  The phone in the kitchen (which is the one used by my mom 95% of the time) is a wall mount.  Yes, AT&T will ship one to her in the next 2-3 days and it will arrive in a week or so.  However, I’ll be gone by then.  OK, I’m sure we can buy one locally, let’s move on (minus the phone in the kitchen which I’ve now disconnected).  Everything (else) gets hooked up and, joy, the DSL light starts flashing on the modem.  However, we get repeated error messages in the registration process.  Expecting incompetence and frustration, I dial the AT&T support line.  Surprise – the lady I talked to knew what she was doing, gave me a couple of URLs to use to finish the registration process and, Hurrah – we have high-speed Internet access!

And, hey, we can get the DSL filter for the wall-mount phone at one of the local hardware or computer stores tomorrow, so all is cool, right?  Silly me…

After dinner (and watching the Cubs lose – I’m a White Sox fan but my mom is a HUGE Cubs fan), I add her new AT&T email address (which I had to set up as part of the registration process) to Microsoft Outlook, the email client she uses.  It doesn’t work – won’t send or receive email.  Is it me or is it Outlook?  I go onto the AT&T webmail tool and that doesn’t recognize her email address either.  It’s past 10:00pm now, so the AT&T help line is closed.  However, there is an AT&T support-chat tool available.  So, I sign on and, after waiting for several minutes, get connected with “Lisa”.  I tell her my problem – she looks up my mom’s account and says that she has no record of it having DSL.  This in spite of me using it to chat with her AND my mom already being billed for it!  She tells me that to resolve this problem, I have to call AT&T Billing tomorrow morning (they’re closed now, too).  Billing?  I’m sure they’ll be a big help.

The next morning my mom goes bowling in her Wednesday morning league.  I give her the slip of paper which AT&T included in the installation kit and that has a picture of a wall-mount DSL filter (the one with the ‘helpful’ phone number on it).  She’s driving right by a Radio Shack on her way home, so I tell her to stop in, give the salesperson the piece of paper and have him/her sell her one of ‘those’.  Great idea, but Radio Shack is out of them, sigh.  In the meantime, while she’s gone, I’m steeling myself to call AT&T Billing to get my email problem sorted out.  However, I’m bright enough to call AT&T support instead and, surprise, yet another competent person takes my call.  After a brief explanation of the issue on my part, she directs me to yet another URL and has me re-register my mom’s new email address.  She also asks me which email client I’m using and then verifies with me that I’m using the right parameters (server names, ports, etc.).  And it all works!

So, outside of not being able to use her kitchen phone, all is good.  Lowes is out of wall-mount DSL filters, too, but the ‘local’ Best Buy (25 miles away) has two left in stock.  I have them hold one for me and we drive over and get it.  We drive home and I install it and Hurrah – my mom’s Internet setup has officially entered the 21st century!

I’m sure glad I was here to do this, I think my mom (or most anyone who didn’t have a computer-tech background) would have had great problems with this, culminating in a $150 service call to put things right.

And that’s how I’ve been spending part of this week.  Barring any late-breaking, significant news, I’ll be back to blogging about Space Elevator stuff next week.