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Cosmic Log: April 8-14, 2006

Science editor Alan Boyle's Weblog: Readers weigh the promise and peril of nanotechnology. Plus: Iranian in space? ... Good Friday feedback ... Paparazzi at Mars ...  Small step for a space hotel ... DARPA linked to rocket prizes ... Remembering the shuttle's first day ... and more.
An artist's conception shows a transport vehicle with four molecular-scale "wheels" and a blue paddlewheel motor that is powered by light photons.
An artist's conception shows a transport vehicle with four molecular-scale "wheels" and a blue paddlewheel motor that is powered by light photons.Rice University

April 14, 2006 |
Yes or no on nano? Still more nano news has come to light in the wake of this week's provocative pronouncements from techno-seer Ray Kurzweil on the future of nanotechnology. The topics range from the creation of nano-generators to molecular-scale nano-motors and even a potential nano-product recall.

And the beat goes on: The University of California at Berkeley establishes its first endowed academic chair in nanotechnology ... Berkeley and Nanomix develop a nano-based electronic nose ... Venture capitalists talk up "green" nanotechnology.

Is the march of nanotechnology proceeding even more quickly than Kurzweil predicted, under the general public's radar screen? Kurzweil noted that nanotech already has a firm technological foothold in society, and that the nano-bio-robotic revolution could result in machines with the intellectual capability to match humans by 2029.

Cosmic Log correspondents came up with observations that were just as thought-provoking as Kurzweil's own musings on the subject. Here's a sampling of the e-mail:

Robert Indech, Ph.D., P.E., Norcross, Ga.: "As a research physicist, and having submitted nanotechnology patent applications for re-engineering of solar cells (continuous-run manufacture process), high-efficiency redesigning of automotive catalytic converters, radically increasing critical temperature of superconductors, separation of uranium isotopes, and development of a method of controllable (hot) hydrogen microfusion, Kurzweil is correct on the potential of this new technology, but significantly off on how long it will take to transform the society. It will be much faster than he projects. The true danger is the inadequacy of our lawmakers to set up a proper legal structure for a smooth accommodation of the next industrial revolution."David: "Of course he's not exaggerating. This is something that President Bush should be a little more concerned about. It seems that our safety just keeps getting the crumbs off the table."Judd Mann, "I would suggest Kurzweil's prophesies to be conservative, at best. 'How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world that has such people in't!' The question is, will this be Miranda of 'The Tempest,' or John Savage of 'Brave New World'?"Bill Economidis, Toronto: "I think he's bang-on, but I think 2029 is a bit early for projecting computers will match the capability of the human brain. I say it's 2036."John Summers, Baltimore: "I feel that those of us who grew up with the promises of K. Eric Drexler (also known as 'the Father of Nanotechnology') know all too well what the implications of nanotechnology are, both for benevolent and not-so-benevolent uses. It is my opinion that the exponential growth of fields such as genetics, robotics and artificial intelligence will continue to drive us further as a species — in what direction, I would leave to the educated speculations of futurists such as Ray Kurzweil. Hats off to you, Mr. Kurzweil!"Byron Raum, Beverly Hills, Calif.: "Exciting as it may sound, unfortunately, Kurzweil is talking through his hat. Computer power might have increased exponentially through the decades. The ability to actually use that computing power is increasing linearly. The best computer programmer is perhaps — at best — five to 10 times more productive today than his peers 20 or 30 years ago. This is not due to inherent ability, but having tools that are somewhat better. In fact, it is possible to even make the argument that the average programmer is far less competent today than the average programmer 20 years ago. ... There's an old saying in computing: 'Isaac Newton said that he had seen farther than most because he had stood on the shoulders of giants. Well, in computing, we mostly stand on each other's feet.' This is far truer than any of us like to believe; rather than make progress, we keep inventing the same technologies over and over again. We know how to do a finite number of things with computers, and actually doing something new is extremely difficult, and rarely done."Christopher Messina, Columbus, Ga.: "The accuracy of Kurzweil's predictions is not as important as raising the general level of scientific understanding throughout our society. Society tends to fear what it doesn't understand (e.g., genetic research, cloning) and embrace too heartily that which it does understand and may no longer need (e.g., conventional weapons research). Fear of science goes hand in hand with ignorance, which is a greater threat than the science itself because it leads to poor public policy. A great example of this is the Manhattan Project, which created the first weapons of mass destruction. While most Americans may agree that nuclear bombs are a threat to the survival of the human race, would we have been better off letting the Nazis discover them first out of our own fear of what destructive power such research may uncover? At the end of the day, I'd rather run the risk of burning my hand with fire than have no choice but to eat my meat raw."Joe, Florida: "Kurzweil is exaggerating the promise of nano. Like so many other avant-garde technologies, the scientists, researchers, and zealots all rush in headfirst without considering the drawbacks and frequently without enough knowledge of the actual forces at work, figuring they will experiment as they go. It's dangerous to release little-known, little-tested materials out for the public to mingle with and not have a definitive remedy in case something does go wrong. I'm not saying 'gray goo' is completely possible, but it's not out of the question — and certainly with the experimentation being conducted by researchers in synthetic biology, the irresponsibility leaves room for these unaccounted-for possibilities."

refers to the idea that self-replicating nanobots could run rampant like so many robotic locusts, consuming resources at an exponential rate and eventually turning the biosphere into carbon-gray nanogoo. I asked Kurzweil about the gray-goo scenario, and he observed that it was the nanotechnological parallel to the bioterror nightmare — certainly something to worry about, if we get to the stage of creating nanobots capable of creating copies of themselves. Read on for more reflections on the promise and peril of nanotech.

Ken Murray: "All I can say is that we better figure out how to quarantine nano.  If we don't, I think the effects will be harsh on the biology of people and worse on the environment.  I'm not a doomsdayer, but I can see the problems.  People will develop problems and we won't even know what is causing it.  Environment and biological creatures will probably pay the biggest price."Solutions? We will have to come up with some high-tech way to detect nano particles that are foreign to our bodies. (You know this won't happen.) If we don't come up with that, then hopefully we find a way to disperse the species to other planets to protect us from ourselves. (You know this won't happen.) Nano legislation. (Can't happen — they can't legislate anything, and you can't stop progress.)"OK, forget what I said earlier...  We are doomed!"Jim: "Hurry up. Society needs the benefits of nanotechnology yesterday. Build them fuel cells and computers ASAP and get this war-mongering, energy-hungry cycle we are in out of here. Save the world."Delmar: "Can this be the beginning of the end of mankind's humanity? The thought of nanotechnology helping us evolve into a higher plane is very exciting, yet at the same time terrifying. With the old standby of atomic weapons there was an even footing.  Everyone dies if one goes off. With nanoviruses, someone can pick and choose who lives and who dies by picking out one unique characteristic and attacking it. There should be a regulatory entity formed now to control what we can do with nanotech and what we must not do."Nanovivian, Shanghai, China: "Everything has two sides. So does nanoscience and nanotechnology. We can just take the good side of nano and try to make our life better than before. I am happy to be in the field of nanoparticles and carbon nanotubes. It's really interesting."Paul S., Schenectady, N.Y.: "The possibilities are amazing to say the least about nanotechnology. As with any 'new' technology, the effects won't be seen until years later. That can be said with past and current technological/scientific breakthroughs. From pesticides to the internal combustion engine, the 'pros' were apparent, but the 'cons' weren't evident until years later. I'm all for advancement in science and technology, but at what cost? If we can right the wrongs from past endeavors with this technology, what is going to save us from nanotechnology? I guess that what makes for progress in science/technology ... a never-ending cycle of past problems."J., Chicago: "The predictions mentioned by Ray Kurzweil and predictions in general are great ways to make press and sell books, but rarely in our society do we have the length of memory to determine accuracy. While an interesting future may be portrayed, there are real obstacles to these advances. Most notably and absent from the article is the spiraling cost of development for new technologies. In addition, certain ideas like solar technologies will not advance nearly as quickly as expected, simply because the politics of energy will prohibit investment required to create reality. As with many futurists, there is significant glossing over of the economic, regulatory and ethical constraints that need to be overcome in order to bring the type of advances proposed into the mainstream. Blurring the interface between humanity and machines will present challenges heretofore unexperienced by the relatively crude technologies currently in place."Anonymous: "I think the benefits are great, but for every benefit, I can see hundreds of abuses. This really scares me. Think of the Internet and the people who introduce viruses, worms, spyware, spam, hijacks, scams, online predators, and such; and think about what they can do with nanotechnology.  These people could invade your bodies, and you would not know about it.  They could detail your every move, and sell the results to other companies.  They may be able to watch you use the ATM or input a password, and leave you with absolutely nothing the next day.  They could make you do things you don't want to. If they can make you hold your breath underwater, they can also stop you from breathing.  If they can stop viruses, they can also introduce them. They can attack anything they want at the molecular level, and what's to stop them?  You can't see them.  You can't detect them.  Even if you did, it would be too late.  There are thousands of people out there who would be willing to use any sort of technology for evil.  Security?  Nanotechnology could allow just one person to wipe out civilization."Adam, Brisbane, Australia: "Kurzweil is not exaggerating either the promise or the peril, and he is right to say nanotech is here — even if it is currently just passive nanotech. Active nanotech will be exciting in its prospects and unpredictable in its perils. One thing it won't be is man-eating clouds of nanomachines — like in Michael Crichton's 'Prey' — because tiny nanomachines will move about as fast as any nanoscale organism, i.e., very slowly. The peril will come from engineered byproducts being inadequately disposed of or actively made to harm."

It's interesting that longtime Cosmic Log correspondent Adam Crowl brings up "Prey." I just listened to an audio-book version of Crichton's nano-nightmare novel. "Prey" hasn't yet been made into a movie (a la "Jurassic Park") but it's still worth listening to — or reading — as a fictional thriller, shot through with flashes of real-life science (a la "Jurassic Park"). That makes it a perfect selection for the Cosmic Log Used-Book Club, which highlights books with cosmic themes that have been around long enough to show up at your local library or used-book shop.

But don't take "Prey" too seriously as a scientific work: For the specifics on where "Prey" falls short — and where it hits the mark — check out this excellent review by physicist Freeman Dyson from The New York Review of Books. For another perspective on the rogue-nanobot nightmare, take a look at this discussion at Fast Company's Web site.

And if you want to be more than just an armchair participant in the nano revolution, keep your schedule clear for Nanotech 2006 in Boston (May 7-11), or the Singularity Summit at Stanford University (May 13), or NanoBusiness 2006 in New York (May 17-19), or the Food and Drug Administration's nanotechnology public meeting (sometime this fall).

April 14, 2006 |
Iran in space? Iran would just love to buy a ride to the international space station, according to remarks attributed to the head of a Russian think tank on Iran policy.

"The idea of the flight of the first Iranian cosmonaut into space is very attractive to Iran in light of the ambitions of this country to become the key country not only in the region, but also in entire Islamic world," Russia's RIA Novosti news service quoted Radzhab Safarov, the director of the Center of the Study of Modern Iran, as saying during a visit to Tehran this week. (Moscow News picked up the report.)

Safarov reportedly said that "the Russian side does not object to this," and that Iran will "very soon" make a formal request.

NBC News space analyst James Oberg passed along the RIA Novosti report, and also noted that Safarov apparently played a role in an unsuccessful Iranian bid to acquire Russia's Mir space station during its final days.

In the current political climate, the chance of an Iranian's launch to the international space station would seem to be roughly equivalent to the chance of a snowball's launch to Hella. But if the Russians did want to go ahead, Oberg wonders about the ramifications: "We thought an American millionaire or a rock star would be embarrassing — this development could be a cosmic-scaled space headache. So far, it remains only speculation, by experts never before known for their insights into space events."

April 14, 2006 |
Good Friday feedback: Today commemorates Jesus' crucifixion — and in a backhanded way, the day commemorates the treachery of Judas Iscariot as well. This year, the unveiling of the "Gospel of Judas" has put a different spin on the tale of orthodox Christianity's most hated man, and the controversy over the manuscript is far from over. Here's a selection of your e-mail observations on the Gnostic gospel:

Steve Burkey: "Again, the existence of these documents is nothing new. The Gnostics had a fairly large body of writings in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. What is unfortunate here, at least in the TV reports, is the use of the word 'authentic' for this manuscript, leaving the uninformed person with the impression that Judas wrote this. The early church fathers, and finally the Council of Nicea, had to sort out what was apostolic, i.e., which writings could be traced back to eyewitness sources. For the gospels, it was Dr. Luke, Paul's associate; John Mark, an early disciple; and the original disciples Matthew and John. And here's the kicker: For these documents, of which there are literally thousands of full codices and fragments, all date to within a century of the original penning, with some of John's to within 30 years. So for authenticity, and accuracy to the historical record, these are overwhelmingly true. Several hundred years later, the Gnostics had an agenda, presenting the idea that our physical bodies are inherently evil and something to be freed of. Not a Christian idea. And one that was appropriately rejected by the church."Jon: "To say that Judas was singled out as special is contrary to scripture that says God is no respecter of persons. If Judas was special, then why were none of his writings passed on and read? If Judas was special and just did what Jesus wanted, then why did he go out and hang himself afterwards? The four gospels that were read and passed on were all in agreement with each other, and these continued on in Jesus teachings and contributed to the furthering of the 'good news,' which is what gospel means. Judas was doing what he thought was best in order to move Christ to take up His earthly kingdom rulership. He was acting on his own wisdom to try to force something to happen. Prophecy written in the Psalms was fulfilled and recorded in the Acts 1:16 concerning Judas' death and his being replaced as a disciple."Syl: "If they would include all the originally discarded material found over the millennia, the Bible might approach a readable authentic volume of what actually occurred 2,000 years ago, not some horror story designed to scare hell into nice folks who don't know a miracle from a snowball in hell. Skip the make-believe and tell the true story of Jesus' wife and kids. Censorship and attempts at mind-control still exist today. Starts with mind-meld and tithing. Keep 'em dumb and keep 'em happy. It has worked on some of the people for millennia."Bruce Roberts: "I think it is great that Jesus is getting so much exposure from these silly stories. He is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords and will soon return to set up His Kingdom!  Amen!"Mara: "The reason that Christianity is in such a mess today is that everybody seems to have forgotten that the Bible as we know it didn't come down as a fax from above. It was written some time after Jesus' death. Those who made the decision to 'edit' the contents were human, just as we all are, and if we are realistic, had their own agenda. They were still dealing with some older beliefs and religious rites that [held to] the 'more-than-one-god' theory. So dates were changed regarding birth, death and whatever else seemed appropriate at the time. The Jesus that they wanted portrayed had to be "perfect,' had to be betrayed and die a terrible death."If you put all of this in today's context, we really haven't changed that much. There are still those who can't get enough money, others who 'worship' at the feet of the power and control icons. Still others believe that if you don't believe the same way that they do, then you are obviously a bad person and an instrument of the devil. They have no tolerance for anyone or anything that is not exactly as they think it should be. As an aside, I think that they are either very weak in their faith, or just want others to believe as they do to assure themselves that they are right (and of course will go to heaven).The 'Jesus' that I grew up with didn't seek out the money men and didn't curry political favor. His life was devoted to helping those who were less fortunate that he was — the sick and the helpless. Again, we seem to have forgotten that, as we tend to want more and more. ..."

April 14, 2006 |
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
'Nova' on PBS: 'Dimming the Sun'
The Economist: Not a black and white question
Science @ NASA: Venus meets a planet named GeorgeThe New Yorker: Jesus laughed

April 13, 2006 |
Interplanetary paparazzi: Hot on the heels of the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, two more cameras aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have sent back their first test images.

The two instruments are the Mars Color Imager, also known as MARCI, and the Context Camera. Both those cameras are shepherded by San Diego-based Malin Space Science Systems, which also plays a role in the imagers aboard the other two NASA orbiters circling the Red Planet: Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey.

Cosmic log
Cosmic log

Pictures from MARCI and the Context Camera will supplement close-ups from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's highest-resolution imager, known as HiRISE. In today's image advisory, Michael Malin of Malin Space Science Systems said he was pleased with the initial pictures, which were taken from a distance nearly 10 times farther away than the probe will be during science operations.

"The test images show that both cameras will meet or exceed their performance requirements once they're in the low-altitude science orbit," Malin said. "We're looking forward to that time with great anticipation."

MARCI's first picture shows a wide-angle view of the Argyre Basin, a huge impact structure in Mars' southern hemisphere that measures more than 600 miles (1,000 kilometers in diameter). The picture was assembled from red, green and blue filtered views, and has more of a greenish cast than we usually associate with the Red Planet. That just shows that some fine-tuning still needs to be done in the camera's color balance.

Cosmic log
Cosmic log

The first pictures from the Context Camera show wide stretches of Martian terrain from Valles Marineris, the solar system's grandest canyon, to Argyre Basin. One long image documents the same region pictured in the first image from the HiRISE camera. That illustrates exactly what the Context Camera is designed to do: to provide a wider context for the mosaic of close-ups that HiRISE will provide during the full-fledged science mission.

That mission is due to begin this fall, after a series of "aerobraking" maneuvers. NASA said one such maneuver was executed on Wednesday — a short thruster burn that nudged the spacecraft to within 66 miles (107 kilometers) of the surface.

"This brings us well into Mars' upper atmosphere for the drag pass and will enable the mission to start reducing the orbit to its final science altitude," said deputy mission manager Dan Johnston of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

By this fall, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will be making a nearly perfect circle around Mars every two hours. Once science operations start, HiRISE should be sending back images with a resolution of 1 to 2 meters per pixel, the Context Camera will provide long swaths of imagery with a resolution of 6 meters per pixel, and MARCI will be documenting daily changes in Mars' atmosphere and on the surface.

April 13, 2006 |
Small step for a space hotel: For years, Bigelow Aerospace has been working on an inflatable prototype module for a space hotel that could conceivably be connected to the international space station and serve as a destination for deep-pocketed adventure travelers. In fact, the motivation for the Bigelow-funded America's Space Prize is to promote the development of orbital spacecraft that could transport space tourists to the hotel.

Now the first launch of a prototype module, known as the Genesis Pathfinder, is on the Russians' schedule for June 13, as noted by Clark Lindsey on RLV and Space Transport News. The launch would be notable not only because it's one small step for Bigelow's space hotel plans, but also because it'd be a rare civilian launch from a military missile base, using a converted Soviet ICBM. For more about the "swords-into-plowshares" angle, check out this  Log item as well as this archived report from NBC News' James Oberg.

April 13, 2006 |
Better living through science on the Web:
The Guardian: Scientists mix the perfect cocktailBBC: Natural light 'to reinvent bulbs'
LiveScience: Body movement generates electricity
New Scientist: Print me a heart and a set of arteries

April 13, 2006 |
DARPA, NASA team up on prizes: The Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is considering joining forces with NASA on contests that will offer prizes for reusable rockets as well as vehicles that can launch and land vertically like a lunar lander, according to the organizers of the annual X Prize Cup festival.

The NASA prize proposals were first publicized at last October's "Countdown to the X Prize Cup" in Las Cruces, N.M., and the first contests are scheduled for this year's X Prize Cup exposition, due Oct. 20-22 in Las Cruces.

The X Prize Foundation has been working on the draft rules for the Lunar Lander Challenge for weeks, and it hasn't yet laid out the official rules or said much else about the contests. However, a schedule of events posted to the X Prize Cup's Web site — and pointed out to me by an anonymous Cosmic Log correspondent — listed the two contests as headline events, and mentioned that DARPA as well as NASA would be furnishing the $3 million in prizes.

The Lunar Lander Challenge will offer $2.5 million, with another $500,000 prize designated for teams that "launch their reusable rocket ships multiple times in under 24 hours," according to the Web page.

A spokesman for the X Prize Foundation, Ian Murphy, confirmed that DARPA was involved in the planning for the prize program — but he emphasized that the "rules of the prize aren't set yet," and that the necessary corporate sponsorships aren't yet final either. Murphy said the full details are to be announced next month. He also said the Web schedule would have to be fixed — and sure enough, after we spoke, the reference to DARPA was removed.

A couple of weeks ago, DARPA spokeswoman Jan Walker told me that follow-ups to last year's robotic-themed DARPA Grand Challenge were under consideration. At the time, she said it was too early to talk about what form those future challenges might take. (Update for April 13: Walker said in an e-mail that she was researching my request for more information, "but I do know that Ian is the one who's going to have competition details, rules, and such information.")

February's draft rules for the Lunar Lander Challenge call for rocket-powered vehicles to lift off from point A, climb to a height of at least 100 meters (328 feet), touch down at point B, then retrace the route to return to point A. The idea is that some of the technologies created for the contest could someday be used in real lunar landers.

The reusable rocket challenge, meanwhile, is apparently a recasting of NASA's Suborbital Payload Challenge — with more emphasis on reusability.

The schedule for X Prize Cup lists other tasty highlights as well, although the lineup probably should be viewed as tentative at this point:

  • "See hundreds of amateur rockets compete for $50,000 in prizes."
  • "Watch 20-plus flights over the two-day Expo."
  • "Win a flight to the space station or a ride on Zero-G."

Stay tuned for further details in the days and weeks ahead.

April 12, 2006 |
Remembering the shuttle's start: The space shuttle fleet observes its 25th birthday today — and to mark the occasion, here's a reminiscence from someone who was there at the birth: NBC News space analyst James Oberg, who worked at NASA's Johnson Space Center for 22 years before becoming a widely respected writer on outer-space matters:

"The very first space shuttle mission, on April 12, 1981, almost ended soon after it began. Fortunately, the unexpected problem was not observed when it occurred, so the crew and mission control didn’t know how frightened they should have been."I recall that my team saw nothing of the problem, either. My duty station was a console in the 'Staff Support Room' for the 'Propulsion' console in the main mission control center room, and our responsibility was monitoring the engines and tanks associated with the Reaction Control System (the RCS, the 42 small jets on Columbia’s nose and tail) and the Orbital Maneuvering System (the OMS, the two midsized engines at Columbia’s back end). The front-room position’s call sign was 'Prop,' my experienced partner’s call sign was 'OREO' (we made that up to be cute — it stood for OMS/RCS Engineering Officer), and I answered to the handle 'Consumables' — I watched the gas gauges."We all knew that nobody had ever flown this kind of spaceship before, and that it hadn’t been tested — it hadn’t even been designed to allow it to be tested — in an unmanned shakedown launch. We had designed numerous emergency 'outs,' and the crew had an ejection seat and a pressure suit originally designed for SR-71 spy planes. But the whole team was energized by the proper mix of controlled fear and quick-thinking ingenuity, and by a hunch that it might be barely enough to make this actually work."Unlike television dramatizations of space launches, we didn’t watch a televised view of the launch — that was forbidden as too distracting. We watched, instead, TV screens with tables of numerical and graphical data, as well as alert light panels — red, yellow, green — that indicated discrete events and conditions of concern. And we had practiced for two years to recognize signs of trouble that would require a rapid change of plans for the astronauts aboard the spaceship. Part of the training had been to pare away any extraneous data inputs that would only distract us from what we needed to know."What we didn’t see — and, fortunately, what the crew didn’t see, either — was exactly what happened when the shuttle’s three main engines lit up, and then its two massive solid-rocket boosters, or SRBs, fired to push it up into the air. Nobody had ever test-fired all these engines together, in a simulated launch pad or any other test stand. Nobody took seriously what then actually happened."The SRB ignition threw flames down into the space beneath the launch pad, where heat-armored sloping surfaces channeled the flow off to the side — there to catch unlucky birds and other creatures whose quick-fried body parts would provide feasts for other scavengers in the days to come. But the flames didn’t all get deflected safely."In the initial burst of flame there also were grains of unburned solid fuel, scraped loose by the ignition. Unlike traditional gunpowder skyrockets that usually burn from the bottom to the top, SRBs have a long central passageway from nose to tail, and incendiary mortars fire at the nose, downward, to ignite the entire inner surface of that cylinder. This ignition swept some debris out with the first burst of flames."Those grains, surrounded by flame, immediately ignited — in the 'flame pit' directly below the shuttle. A concussive shock wave from this unexpected explosion blew in all directions, including upward towards the tail of the slowly receding spaceship."That blast wave smashed into the shuttle, hitting the tiled protective shields around the engines and other aft structure. The forces were about five times higher than predicted — but then, the shuttle had been built with a safety factor at least twice the expected stresses and strains of flight. The tail structure momentarily strained, and held."The blast wave also swept over the trailing edge of an aileron-like hinged panel that was a flush extension of the shuttle’s underbelly, called the 'body flap.' Tilting it up or down during atmospheric flight gave the spaceship control over its nose up-down rotation (its 'pitch'). The flap is driven by hydraulic force from lines that are pressurized by their own generator."As we later — fortunately, much later — learned, the blast shoved the body flap out of position, forcing it against its own internal hydraulic pressure to bend through an angle clearly visible in pad television views (and in on-board telemetry). Pre-flight estimates had suggested that it was an angle much too large for safe operation. The compression of fluid in the flap's hydraulic lines might have been enough to crack or rupture them.."After the flight, mission commander John Young was shown those videos. His reaction was severe. 'Had I known the body flap had been deflected so far off position,' he told associates, 'I’d have concluded the hydraulic lines had been ruptured and the system was inoperative.' "Without a working body flap, a controlled descent and landing would have been extremely difficult if not impossible. The pitch control thrusters might or might not have been enough to provide control. The shuttle might have tumbled out of control and disintegrated at very high speed and altitude. There was one and only one option available to him to save his life and that of his co-pilot, Bob Crippen."'I’d have ridden the vehicle up to a safe altitude,' he later stated, 'and while still in the ejection envelope [the range of speed and altitude for safely firing the ejection seats] I’d have pulled the ring.' The two men would have been thrown clear, and Columbia would have been destroyed a few seconds later by a range safety officer’s command to the onboard explosive charges."His thinking may have been that waiting much longer would have brought him into flight regimes where he couldn’t get back down to low enough altitudes for ejection, if the body flap was later confirmed failed. There would have only been a few dozen heartbeats in which to make the 'save-my-life' decision — if he had been aware of the extent of the actual deflection."It would have been years before the next shuttle — Challenger — would have been ready to fly, if the U.S. had ever gotten up the nerve to try again. And the recovered debris may not have been in good enough shape to determine that the ejection had been commanded based on a mistake. The hydraulic lines were not damaged, and they functioned perfectly."For the next two days, the flight crew and Mission Control kept careful eye on the performance of the spaceship. It ticked along like the proverbial watch. When it came time to return to the atmosphere, I was off duty, but at my office listening to the air-to-ground conversations that confirmed that a safe entry had been achieved."Only later did we learn that all of our margins, and all of our planning, had only just barely been enough to succeed on that launch day. We also learned that we had definitely not been aware of all factors affecting split-second safety decisions.  These were sobering lessons, and the experience provided a recipe for future flight safety — if it had been followed. History would later teach us, alas, that it was a recipe we let ourselves forget."

Here are additional reflections on the 25th anniversary of that first shuttle flight, the 45th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's historic spaceflight and the state of the space effort on "Yuri's Night":

Joe Latrell, : "Yuri's Night is a great cause for celebration. So is NASA's transformation into the new Apollo-type program. The question of 'Can they pull it off' will be on the minds of everyone who has an interest in spaceflight. I don't see them making the 'Vision' stick when it is apparent that NASA cannot shake loose some of its baggage. Management is making decisions, some workers get ticked, and NASA reverses itself. The problem is that management is being reactive, not proactive. You can't run a program with that kind of thinking."NASA is also big on empty promises. The ATK Stick for launching a crewed vehicle might work, but how can management be off by a whopping 200 percent? If they were a public firm, heads would be rolling. Are they soliciting bid for alternatives? It doesn't look like it. If the rest of the Vision for Space Exploration looks like this, there won't be a VSE in very short order."What will happen is that private industry will step to the plate and bring in a new way of thinking — like it or not. This will be one where corporate accountability, risk taking and pure chutzpah will get the job done."Dennis McClain-Furmanski, Lawton, Okla.: "The 'current plans' of the space program are now, as always, proposals. They can be changed at any time, and probably will. We have had operational vehicles and programs canceled which could have made significant progress years ago, many of them cheaper than the chosen alternatives, but were never given the chance. For my money, it's not a program until it leaves the launch pad. And even then, it's riding the precarious whims of the government welfare program and the aerospace companies it feeds."Will Mari, Snoqualmie, Wash.: "The transitional state the manned space program is going through is a very good thing, for sure. As sad as it is, oftentimes it takes tragedies to make concrete action not only desirable, but also doable. Furthermore, even prior to the tragic loss of the Columbia, NASA was looking at extending the life of the space shuttles with an eye toward retiring them anyway, so the development of the economical (and safe) Crew Exploration Vehicle sooner rather than later is a win-win situation for everybody."

April 11, 2006 |
What's next for nano? As we've seen over the past week, the nano revolution isn't merely near — it's here. The plus side is that nanoparticles can work as a cellular-level delivery method for targeted cancer drugs. The minus side is that working with nanoparticles could represent the next generation in occupational hazards.

The general public may just be getting introduced to nanotechnology in daily life, but for inventor and high-tech seer Ray Kurzweil, nano is practically old news. Kurzweil sketched out some of the next steps for nano during today's Global Horizons conference, held at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles in cooperation with the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Kurzweil is famous for developing projections of technology's pace that seem wildly speculative at the time, but turn out to be pretty conservative. The exponential rise in computing power and Internet connectivity is the primary example, with Kurzweil projecting that computers will match the capability of the human brain by the year 2029.

That could set the stage for what Kurzweil calls a societal "singularity" by midcentury. The term is borrowed from astrophysics, where it refers to black holes or the Big Bang — that is, phenomena that lie beyond the event horizon of current scientific laws and are thus unpredictable. In his latest book, "The Singularity Is Near," as well as in this article on, Kurzweil says it may be similarly impossible to predict what human life will be like after the human-machine singularity.

But how can the exponential pace of technological change possibly keep going with current technologies? Kurzweil says it can't — and that's where nanotechnology enters the picture. For example, when it comes to computing power, we're already in a transition from technologies based on silicon chips to technologies based on 3-D molecular computing.

"Nanotube circuits are working," he said. "In fact, nanotube-based memory is going to hit the market next year," he said. "It's very much a mainstream view that we will have three-dimensional circuits working well before 2020."

And then there's the biotech revolution — which Kurzweil sees going hand in hand with the nano revolution. Better computing power as well as a better understanding of how the genome works and better brain imaging techniques should combine to enable scientists to replicate the workings of the human mind, he says.

In the shorter term, nanotech is being used in techniques under development for treating diabetes as well as cancer. Kurzweil also referred to the years-long effort to develop nanorobotic red blood cells called "respirocytes."

A biological system can be "very suboptimal compared to what we can engineer once we understand its principles of  operation," he observed.

"If you replaced 10 percent of your red blood cells with these robotic versions, you could do an Olympic sprint for 10 minutes without taking a breath, or sit at the bottom of the pool for four hours," he said. "So, 'Honey, I'm in the pool' could take on a whole new meaning."

Sometimes Kurzweil makes it sound as if there's no problem that nanotech can't solve. Global warming? "We can actually solve that, and I think we will within a few decades," he said.

"If we captured 1 percent of 1 percent — one part in 10,000 — of the sunlight that falls on the earth, we'd meet 100 percent of our energy needs," he said. That's not possible today because of the current state of solar-cell technology, but nanoengineered solar panels and nanoengineered fuel cells could hit that target in 10 years, Kurzweil said.

At the same time, Kurzweil realizes that there are down sides — not only to the nano revolution, but to the genetic revolution as well.

Some of those down sides are more soluble than others. For example, the concern about the potential toxicity of nanoparticles should be addressed in the same way that regulators and scientists address potentially toxic chemicals today. "It's not a new type of issue," he said.

But genetics, nanotechnology and robotics may indeed raise brand-new perils, and in the shorter rather than the longer term. For example, in genetics, "the same knowledge and tools that will enable scientists to make great strides in cancer and heart disease can also empower a bioterrorist to create a bioengineered biological virus that would be much deadlier than an atomic bomb," Kurzweil said.

"The tools and the knowledge to do this is actually much more widespread than for an atomic bomb," he observed. The potential for creating stealthy, super-deadly viruses thus represents a "new existential threat."

"The good news, though, is that we actually have the tools to do something about it," Kurzweil said. "RNA interference can stop biological viruses because viruses are basically genes wrapped in protein, and by suppressing that genetic information, you can actually stop a virus with RNA interference."

New vaccine technologies could also ramp up society's defenses to cope with bioterror threats. But Kurzweil said it might take the equivalent of a Manhattan Project to create the kind of rapid-response system for countering bio-attacks — or other attacks that increasingly tech-savvy adversaries might come up with.

Kurzweil has called on the federal government to spend $70 billion on the next generation of defensive technologies. (President Bush recently proposed $7 billion for such programs, which led Kurzweil to joke that he was "just missing one zero.")

"What we do need to do is to accelerate the development of these defensive technologies, and make investments in them," he said. "But technology is a balance between promise and peril, and you don't have to look past the 20th century to see that."

What do you think? Is Kurzweil exaggerating the promise, or the peril, or both? Send in your thoughts about this brave new world and I'll pass along a selection of the feedback later in the week.

April 11, 2006 |
Wonder and whimsy on the World Wide Web:
American Scientist: All about shock waves (via GeekPress)
The Onion: MIT fraternity accused of robot hazing
NASA: Help us explore the moonMcSweeney's: NASA's 'Dear Elton' letter

April 10, 2006 |
Space history's big day: Wednesday marks not one, not two, but three milestone anniversaries for space fans. Yes, it will be 45 years since Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in outer space on April 12, 1961. And it will be 25 years since the first-ever space shuttle flight, taken by NASA astronauts John Young and Bob Crippen on April 12, 1981.

But wait ... there's more: It will be the fifth anniversary for Yuri's Night, the rolling global party initiated on April 12, 2001, by George Whitesides (now executive director of the National Space Society) and Loretta Hidalgo. Just as on that first night, musicians and artists, explorers and researchers will be gathering at more than 70 venues from Cape Canaveral to the South Pole to celebrate past achievements, future inspirations ... and just plain have a good time.

In my own stomping grounds, Party Central is Seattle's Museum of Flight, with former NASA astronaut Bonnie Dunbar in charge as the museum's president and chief executive officer.

Dunbar told me that she was first struck by the grand convergence of U.S. and Soviet space anniversaries while she was in Russia in 1994-95 for a year of training. "It had never occurred to me that they shared an anniversary date, and I thought that was a special thing to celebrate," she said.

So she was glad to get the museum on board for an event that will feature Stardust principal investigator Don Brownlee, Robert Hoyt of Tethers Unlimited and Mars Viking researcher James Tillman. She was also glad to play host to five bands that are exploring the final frontiers of music.

"You have to take that leap sometimes if you're going to reach a new generation," she said. "How do you expose them to flight, and get them engaged? I find that when the young people get through the door, they understand that this is inspiring to them. It gives them a mission in life, and an understanding for aviation and space and engineering and science."

It also gives them an understanding that the thrills of space exploration and appreciation aren't just for folks the age of John Glenn or Neil Armstrong.

But Wednesday is more than the occasion for a party: It's also a time for reflecting on the legacy of the space program. In the past few years, people have been fixed on the tragedy of Columbia's loss, and the implications for the shuttle fleet's future flights. The tragedy tends to overshadow the benefits of the shuttle program.

"Without the shuttle, there wouldn't have been a Hubble Space Telescope. ... Without the shuttle, there wouldn't have been our method of putting the international space station together and bringing the science back," Dunbar said.

In fact, Dunbar says there's an activity almost anyone can take part in, even if they can't get to Wednesday's global party. She recommends checking out NASA's satellite sighting guide to find out when you can spot the international space station as a "star" moving through the sky. It so happens that the station will be visible over stretches of the United States this week as a morning star, so you'll either have to be an early riser or a late, late partier.

"You can go out and say, 'Oh, yes, that's space — that's where people are,'" she said.

This week also affords an opportunity to reflect on NASA's future course, as detailed in this story.

Space reporter Philip Chien is the author of "Columbia: Final Voyage," a newly published book on the shuttle Columbia's mission and crew as well as the circumstances of its loss. Here are his anniversary-week reflections on Columbia and its place in history:

"After the Apollo 1 fire, we continued to try to go to the moon. After Challenger, we continued to fly the shuttle, although some of its uses were tweaked. After Columbia, the U.S. made the decision to retire the fleet and develop a replacement — a far different result from the previous accidents. ..."

Exactly how was the result far different?

"The Apollo and Challenger accidents didn't change the focus of the space program or direction. Only the Columbia accident has resulted in the decision to retire the shuttle instead of keeping it flying with duct tape and band-aids. Had the Columbia accident not occurred, we would have completed the space station by now, and we'd only be flying logistics flights with supplies and making long-term decisions on how to keep the shuttle fleet running — because [there would be] no 'national desire' to fund a replacement for the shuttle."

The implication would be that Columbia's loss shook up the space program enough to spark the current plan to return to the moon and go on to Mars.

What do you think about the transitional state of the space program? Is it a cause for celebration, mourning or second thoughts? Or is it just no big deal? Send in your (concise) observations, and I'll pass along a selection of your feedback later in the week.

April 10, 2006 |
Good guys and bad guys on the scientific Web:
Technology Review: Could biotech help the bad guys?
Science News: Revealing covert actions
Slate: The Federal Bureau of LudditesSciam Observations: Let slip the geeks of war

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