Tuesday, July 28, 2009

40 hours in Boulder

I just returned tonight from one of the World's hotbeds of Planetary Science research: Boulder, Colorado. It's here that you can find Colorado University, the Southwest Research Institute and the Space Science Institute which probably give boulder the highest per capita concentration of planetary scientists anywhere. Since this blog nominally has something to do with my search for employment, I should mention that I was in town interviewing.

While there I also had the chance to catch up with some old friends. Most notably, Oleg Abramov really did his adopted town proud, I think. In some ways the walking tours of downtown and two separate hikes (one of which was a bit of an adventure; getting trapped on top of one of the flatirons during a thunder storm) were probably representative of the place. It's certainly not the place for people who prefer to remain indoors.

I was impressed with all I saw and I would be proud to call that city my home in the future, should I get the opportunity. Maybe next time I'll have more then 40 hours to look around the place!

The view from my hotel window!

Convective cloud as seen from the front range of the rockies.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Pragmatism and Vision on the occasion of an Anniversary

Today is July 20th, 2009 – the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. One thing I can assure you is that before the day is out, a great deal of ink will have been spilled on both looking backwards and forwards to the past and future of NASA. Childhood memories of that fateful step will abound, as will calls for a bold new way forward, or assurances that we are already on our way back to the Moon, Mars and beyond. Some may even speculate about colonization or draw comparisons between the initial exploration and ultimate return to Antarctica. But the fact remains that there seems to be no real urgency in the air. Something seems to be missing.

Like any living creature, an agency needs a sense of purpose in order to survive. This purpose is articulated through achievable and desirable goals. For many agencies and government departments this is a straightforward exercise. Each of their overall goals can be broken down at many levels into prioritized subtasks to be carried out by individual people. The organization remains relevant and current through constant re-evaluation and by pruning off side tasks. Altogether, this is a remarkably pragmatic process.

While this formula works well for many departments, NASA has always been a little different. At the start it was very pragmatic, and very highly focused on “placing a man on the moon and returning him safely” prior to 1970. But since then the ultimate goal of the agency has broadened and become more ephemeral then most, despite attempts to bring it into the realm of the pragmatic. What is NASA’s purpose today? At its most broad (2002-2006) is was: “To understand and protect our home planet; to explore the universe and search for life; to inspire the next generation of explorers ... as only NASA can.”

But what does this somewhat circular statement really mean? Is NASA a builder of rockets and spacecraft and maintainer of an elite corps of explorers? Or is it a funding agency for fundamental knowledge about the earth, solar system and the universe? Or is it an inspirational vehicle whose benefits are indirect and therefore inherently less measurable? In many ways, all three have come to apply, giving a very broad set of potential mandates which defy attempts at focus.

To make matters worse, each area is in tension, and even within each subgroup there are many disagreements. To illustrate, let me recount a conversation I had a few years back in Tucson with another planetary scientist and an astronomer. Each of us felt that NASA’s overarching goal was to explore the universe, but we disagreed about the way to go about it. The other planetary scientist felt that human exploration was critical, despite the cost, since only “boots on the ground” would inspire the next generation of explorers. At the time, I felt that shuttle launches were a waste since for the cost of each we could explore several places in the solar system robotically. The astronomer felt that we should instead be investing the money in fundamental astrophysics because it alone could answer the big questions about the universe.

If three people closely aligned in interest and profession can have this kind of debate within a single phrase of the motto, it begs the question as to whether these areas are really reconcilable. Thus, should NASA be split up?

There is certainly a good argument to be made that terrestrial, planetary and astronomical research could be conceptually accommodated under the National Science Foundation (NSF). As well, with the new Global Exploration Initiative, the way forward through 2030 seems to be largely settled and negotiated with international partners. An agency entirely focused on implementing this plan might be more effective. It would also mean less uncertainty for those of us working within the field for whom funding seems to be framed as a zero sum battle between the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) and the Space Exploration Directorate (SED) for limited resources.

Ultimately you have to ask the question: why does NASA even exist – why do we do this? Despite all the arguments about technology transfer, innovative management examples and fancy mattresses, it isn’t about the tangible benefits (though these are real and important). One part of the equation, still relevant even after Apollo, is national pride. We want our nation to be a leader in space, and we are willing to pay a certain amount for that. Another is the appeal of the unknown and our curiosity about it, the visionary aspect. This pioneering spirit has been close to the hearts of many Americans, even if it is not lived day to day, and is probably the reason that per capita spending on space agencies in the US is the highest in the world at about $56 per person. Compare that to $17 for Japan, $9 for Canada, $7 for Europe, and $1.10 for India.

But even the per capita funding within the United States has fallen from a peak of almost $180 (adjusted for inflation) per person in 1965 (when the federal budget was much also smaller). Why has this drop-off occurred? Paradoxically, it could be a sign of increasing prosperity on Earth combined with the decreasing novelty of space travel from which the average citizen sees little direct benefit. For instance, grand plans for cities in space from the 1960s and 1970s looked good when conditions at home were poor, but lost their lustre when things improved. “Going to work in space” may have helped people relate to NASA in the 1980s, but it wasn't long before they started to question why they were being asked to cough up $2 every time someone needs to ride the space bus. Finally, today there is very little non-governmental space industry that is viable, so there isn't a whole lot of direct interaction.

So what can an agency caught in transition do? Crewed exploration purely for the benefit of simply refining science works well for Antarctica, but may be too costly to be done off planet. Of course, this may be a good way to stimulate industry, as the return to the Moon is trying to find out. But if we want to have a more relevant mission statement then a make-work program, instead we need to use our resources to answer the big questions. It’s no longer enough to have flags and footprints and after Apollo, I’m not sure that just landing on Mars or some other piece of real estate in the solar system, exotic as it is, will be enough. We need to capture the public’s imagination if we are to justify the expenditure of so many of their tax dollars. Thus we don’t so much need a place to go as a quest of sorts. Mallory’s famous quote no longer suffices.

And what could be better then determining the role played by life in the universe? This is a theme that we all can relate to at a fundamental level. Who hasn’t wondered about their place in the world? It’s a dream that we can chase, from Mars, to Europa and Enceladus and beyond. So let’s go to these places and focus intently on getting there and uncovering the story. Let's be sure to communicate our enthusiasm to the public so that they can share in our adventure.

This idea is just one of several possibilities. But no matter what we choose to do we need to be sure that along with the ‘how’ we’ve got a good answer for the ‘why.’ I’d happily pay 56 bucks for that.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

And now a brief word from Dr. Tyson

Those of you who get the research channel (or in Canada those with Rogers Digital - check under TV/Documentary Channel on ROD*) might be interested to check out a chat with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium sponsored by HHMI. In it he describes his early career and answers questions from students. It becomes obvious early on why it is that he is such a great spokesperson for our profession. He's certainly an engaging personality, ("Illuminating and Entertaining" as the host summed him up) and has a talent for reducing concepts down to their essentials, not unlike my own advisor Peter Smith.

It's a lesson that we all can take to heart and one he summed up with an interesting anecdote. Early on in his career he described an encounter with the media in which he tried to explain, in scholarly fashion, why "wobble" wasn't quite the right term for describing the doppler method for detecting extrasolar planets. It turned out that his gyrations to demonstrate were the only thing that ended up on screen. From then on, he has made sure to have one two and three sentence descriptions in plain language of just about every topic in astronomy. This ensured that the message that he wanted to get across to the public did so directly, without misinterpretation or edit.

I try to remember that oft quoted phrase "If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter" typically attributed to Blaise Pascal. Conciseness is a challenge, especially for myself, but I aim to improve it! It's also very important to maintain this directness. Many of us are publicly funded and should be able to describe what we do to a broad audience. Besides, it's more fun anyways when we can share our passion and energy with a broader audience!

One final comment on the documentary: while I applaud Tyson's response to a student asking about challenges, I have to warn anyone considering Science that it tends to be more gray in practice. Tyson responded by telling the student that blind alleys abound in Science and it's not whether you make the big discovery or not that defines you as a Scientist, but instead your ability to regroup and make it around obstacles. Even a negative result is a publishable result. This is a good ideal, but I wonder how much hiring committees get caught up in trying to hire superstars with first author articles in the most prestigious journals. Likewise on the opposite side, it's a bad sign that "Experiment didn't work out" is not an uncommon reason for leaving the field (see an anecdote buried in this article describing the difficulties of working in Science: http://philip.greenspun.com/careers/women-in-science ).

*UPDATE: the lecture is now available online. Click on the image above or type http://www.hhmi.org/grants/Cech_deGrasse/index.html into your browser.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

ITAR, Roth and Friedman

While most of these essays will be showing up about every two weeks, noteworthy events will justify an added comment. One such event was the recent conviction and sentencing of a University of Tennessee professor, J. Reece Roth in a case involving the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, better known to us spacecraft types as ITAR. You can read about the specifics of the case here: http://www.knoxnews.com/news/2009/jul/01/ex-ut-prof-gets-4-years-mishandling-defense-secret/.

ITAR is the law of the land in the United States, is enforced by the State Department and covers the export of defence technologies. While it mainly applies to military hardware it also applies to DoD-sponsored research, (as in the Roth case) the activities of defence contractors and, spacecraft and launch systems. As such, many NASA activities are covered by ITAR provisions and I can tell you from personal experience that these regulations are taken very seriously.

I should also mention that the term “export” is meant very broadly and information or equipment does not have to leave the country in order to be considered exported. Simply allowing a foreign national unauthorized access or taking a laptop with contract information abroad will satisfy the export provision. As well, many types of information that might not seem at first glance to be sensitive are covered. These include spacecraft instrument deck layouts, for instance. Often as a result, international treaties are required to secure international participation.

(Note: This may not always be the case. There has been talk of reclassifying spacecraft and launch hardware under the commerce department to free up this area. Much of this is due to a loss of market share in the commercial launch market to Europe since the late 90s.)

However, this all adds up to an inconvenience for those of us who are not US Citizens who would like to make a contribution to spacecraft and planetary science. In some cases, we cannot even apply for positions, while in others the compliance requirements put us at a competitive disadvantage compared to others. Even in the mildest cases, we often can not be included in many of the important decision making processes.

But I am ok with that. During my tenure in Arizona, I knew that I was a guest, even though - to the credit of those around me - I was always treated as an equal with the rest of my classmates. (Granted I am Canadian, so it was often forgotten that I was not, in fact, American myself) I am thankful for the opportunities that I was able to advantage of, and all the help I received over those years. As such, it is not for me to criticize why these rules exist. The US has a right to protect the technologies developed within its borders and a duty to provide the best opportunities for its citizens.

But it should be pointed out that these restrictions and the vigour with which they were enforced as shown by the Roth case may have the effect of discouraging talented individuals from outside the country from immigrating. (More potential pitfalls are discussed over at wikipedia in the controversy section: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Traffic_in_Arms_Regulations) As Thomas Friedman of the New York Times points out, this could impact economically on the continued leadership of the United States in many technical fields.

While I would not go so far as he does in suggesting that all PhD recipients at US universities should be granted citizenship “stapled to their diplomas,” clearly fewer barriers before and after graduation would help retain top individuals. Further, given the serious expense involved with advanced training, often at the expense of the state or federal government, retention would be an admirable and cost-effective goal.

In the end it seems that Roth’s violation was more to the letter of the law, rather then to the spirit in which the law was enacted. Even the compliance officers at the University of Tennessee expressed their surprise in their report (http://www.ncuraregioniii.com/Handouts/C19.pdf) that a conviction was obtained without any evidence that national security was compromised. However, his activities continued even after he was informed of the ramifications. It was this flouting of the regulations which ultimately seems to have resulted in his conviction, and for that neither the prosecution nor the law can be faulted.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Do we need “All of the Planets, All of the Time”?

A colleague of mine with whom I have written a paper or two, Andrew Schuerger, announced at LPSC one year the existence of life on Mars. While it was a little tongue-in-cheek, his point contained an essential truth: that given the decontamination procedures in use, viable microbial life had almost certainly been transported to Mars on the inside of spacecraft. This was not idle speculation, nor was it entirely novel; cameras retrieved by the Apollo astronauts from the Ranger Lunar Landers still carried culturable bacteria after years of exposure to vacuum and radiation on the surface of the moon.

Even so, this doesn’t mean that we can expect to see carpets of green radiating out from our landed spacecraft any time soon. In fact, what organism are present are most likely in the form of dormant and hardened spores since Mars remains a pretty harsh place for even bacteria to grow. Further, anything viable on the exterior of a Martian spacecraft or on the surface would be killed within at most a few months of exposure to UV, depending on where it fell (you can take a look at http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2007Icar..192..417M for more details on these extreme cases).

This begs the question as to whether procedures used to decontaminate spacecraft and prevent forward contamination (not to be confused with reverse contamination by any extraterrestrial microbes, the type popularized by movies like the Andromeda Strain), collectively known as planetary protection and administered out of the Planetary Protection office of NASA in the United States, are really necessary.

One reason for wanting extra stringent sterilization is scientific. You need to have a very clean spacecraft to prevent any sensitive life or organic-detection equipment from inadvertently showing a false positive. To prevent this, severe decontamination measures are often taken. For instance, the Robotic Arm on the Phoenix Lander was enshrouded in a “bio-barrier” until after landing. But as we didn’t want to come to Mars to “discover” terrestrial organics on the scoop, this was an important precaution.

The specific level of sterility required varies by destination. The Robotic Arm employed by Phoenix needed to be as clean as it was as a result of its potential contact with the ice table in a region where life or its traces were possible. By international agreement, COSPAR has designated four levels of these regions which require progressively more stringent planetary protection measures (category five relates to reverse contamination http://cosparhq.cnes.fr/Scistr/Pppolicy.htm). The level of protection ranges from none, for a level one body like the moon to full sterilization for access to so-called special regions of Mars or Europa, the only two level four bodies in the solar system.

There are a few locations that may come as a surprise. Even orbiters of Mars are designated as level three, while a Venusian lander is rated at level one, mainly because there is nothing we can do to a spacecraft on Earth that is as destructive as what the venusian environment will do in-situ.

Either way, exploring a special region can be a costly or even a prohibitive burden on any space mission. Sterilization for the Viking Mission cost almost US$320 million, adjusted for inflation, or about 70% of the cost of an entire discovery-class mission.

More significant is the potential impact on mission operations. Often there are financial pressures which require reducing the functionality of hardware, a process known as descoping. This is true of nearly any mission, large or small. Cassini, a burly flagship, had its scan platforms eliminated while Phoenix, a bare-bones Scout, saw its Direct-To-Earth antenna and descent imager descoped. Thus, as a significant expense, one can cut costs dramatically by avoiding any region that requires special procedures altogether.

This is having a large impact on our exploration of Mars. Both ESA’s Exo-Mars and NASA’s Mars Science Lab, each a flagship-class mission, are avoiding special regions to pare back costs.

As well, it is arguable that an opportunity to study Europa might have been lost by the requirement of disposing of the Galileo Spacecraft in Jupiter’s atmosphere and not having it strike Europa. This could have been observed from the ground, or timed to coincide with the passage of the New Horizons spacecraft, which passed through the Jovian system on a gravity assist in February, 2007. The resulting plume could have told us a great deal about the composition of the Europan surface. Even if it had not been placed on a collision course for the moon, the spacecraft could have continued collecting data until it ran out of orbit-maintenance propellant and allowed to become derelict.

It is true that we do not want to contaminate these places to the point that we can no longer study them. But what makes these regions special is also what makes them interesting and desirable targets. As such, I have to wonder if the best is not the enemy of the good in this case. As much as we can learn incrementally from non-special regions, the rewards of exploring these other areas are potentially much greater. Space exploration is a public enterprise, and nothing grabs the imagination of our funding base more then uncovering more about the potential for life in the solar system and our place in it. If we continue to ignore these places because we set such a high bar for their exploration, we risk loosing this valuable support.

Perhaps we should be thinking in terms of resource management. Anyone who has had a cold can appreciate the resourcefulness of the little Von Neuman machines which are terrestrial microorganisms. But evolution cannot operate in the absence of reproduction and even in special regions, conditions are not exactly clement. The chances of terrestrial contaminants merely venturing beyond the level of dormant spores, not to mention thriving and replicating, anywhere on the Martian or Europan surface is low.

As such, perhaps we could consider setting aside areas where limited local contamination is permissible. This would preserve the special regions as a whole while allowing us to get answers to our biggest outstanding questions. As well, recall that any directly interacting part or life detection sensor will need to be incredibly clean to avoid false positives, so even this compromise does not increase the risk much. As Andrew has said, there is life on Mars within our landed spacecraft. But if it is confined to that barest of inhabitable niches, then the planet remains protected.

Either way, the point may be moot soon. With boots-on-the-ground human exploration planned for not long after the current pair of missions to Mars, contamination becomes inevitable. After all, it’s hard to sterilize a creature that is 10% by mass bacteria.

For more information, you can check out this helpful Nature News article: http://www.nature.com/news/2009/090520/full/459308a.html