Sunday, May 27, 2012

SpaceX Scores a First

The history of the U. S. A. in space changed in a fundamental way last Friday when the commercial firm SpaceX delivered its first payload of cargo to the International Space Station.  SpaceX's capsule Dragon successfully docked with the station and delivered much-needed supplies and equipment, a task formerly performed by the now-defunct Space Shuttle.  This culminates plans that go back officially to at least 2006, when NASA signed a Commercial Orbital Transportation Services Agreement with the firm.  CEO and primary financial backer Elon Musk said the achievement was "just awesome."

NASA has come in for a lot of criticism in these pages, but signing the agreement with SpaceX was a smart thing to do, especially now that events have vindicated the decision.  Of course, the larger hurdle of manned space flight remains in the future for SpaceX, and that job is an order of magnitude harder than hauling stuff, which is both disposable without moral qualms (other than the loss of money and time) and a whole lot easier to take care of in flight.  Humans in orbit require many times their weight of life-support and safety systems, which is one reason why the International Space Station is so much bigger than the Dragon capsule.  But let's give SpaceX its due and congratulate it on actually making money with a delivery to a manned space outpost.

Not that the firm is likely to be profitable yet in an overall sense.  Musk, a 40-year-old native of South Africa and founder of what became PayPal, is wealthy enough to afford to lose money for a while.  And it remains to be seen whether SpaceX will ever lead to a corporate space sector that profits from anything other than a few large contracts from governments.  In this sense, SpaceX is not that much different from the aerospace contractors that have been involved in NASA operations from the very beginning.

But Musk and SpaceX are now in the driver's seat, not NASA.  The Dragon was designed as well as built by SpaceX, and NASA is simply playing the role of a guy who wants some stuff moved, only instead of hiring a moving company to truck it across town, SpaceX made a delivery in orbit.

The hope is that firms like SpaceX will focus their organization and efforts on clear goals such as what Dragon just did, rather than running in all directions at once as we have so often seen NASA do in recent years.  Goal-directed behavior is not a guarantee of ethical behavior, or even success.  After all, the Nazis were very goal-directed, but their goals were evil ones.  But having a clear and measurable goal allows managers to answer the question "Do we need to do this?" easily and simply, and makes for good operational efficiency, a characteristic that NASA has been somewhat deficient in for the last few years.

Where does SpaceX go from here?  As I mentioned, there are plans for manned space flight.  Rocketry is a notoriously dicey field of engineering because full-up tests of entire systems are so hideously expensive.  If you build a radio, you can set it on your workbench and turn it on, and all it costs for the test is a few cents of electricity.  But to test a single-use rocket in a realistic way, you have to fire the thing and watch it go wherever it was designed to go—once.  If it works, you have to make sure you build the next one exactly precisely like the first, or else you can't be sure it will work as well as the one you tested.  This means that rocket design is not a business for the faint-hearted or under-funded soul.

Elon Musk is neither of these, and so we can look forward to SpaceX's next trick.  Every so often, I come across a student who has caught the space bug:  he or she wants to design rockets or even try out to be an astronaut.  Until recently, I listened to such people with decidedly mixed emotions, because the only business in town, practically speaking, was either NASA or a contractor tied hand and foot to NASA.  And the way NASA has been operating for the last decade or two, I was reluctant even to encourage such people.

But now that SpaceX is a viable organization and has proved itself in a big way, I would have no hesitation in recommending a career in commercial space exploration and related enterprises.  It's interesting that when NASA scored its greatest triumph, the July 1969 moon landing, Musk wasn't even born yet.  So clearly the generational torch is being passed, and that is a good thing.  The NASA way of doing things was good when NASA was fairly young, but Musk's SpaceX is a new start.  And Musk seems to be the kind of entrepreneur who benignly imposes his personality on his organization.  Such people can be hard to work for up close (witness the famed harsh perfectionism of the late Steve Jobs of Apple), but if the CEO's overall intentions are right, the organization can achieve a coherence and direction that makes it an attractive place to work.

Besides space, Musk has other interests, all of which he says he has chosen as ways of bettering humanity, which is what engineering should be all about.  His Tesla Motors has the eventual goal of making electric cars for the masses, although so far its only product is an expensive roadster.  And he has operated a charitable foundation for some years on the side.

It will be interesting to see whether Musk can develop to the extent of handing off SpaceX to other good managers as time goes on, rather than clinging to it after his usefulness to it has peaked.  He is presently chief technical officer as well as CEO, and that dual role doesn't seem likely to be sustainable for any length of time.  Let's hope that other entrepreneurs get into the space business to provide some healthy competition for SpaceX, and then we can say that we have truly made the transition from government-owned and operated space exploration to a full-up commercial model—that works.

Sources:  Besides the current news coverage of SpaceX's achievement reported by Associated Press, I consulted a news release by SpaceX at and the Wikipedia article on Elon Musk.

Monday, May 21, 2012

"Alas, Babylon" Revisited

A family is torn apart by war.  The wife, son, and daughter take refuge with a brother-in-law in rural Florida.  The twelve-year-old daughter happens to be looking out a window when a thermonuclear bomb goes off only a few miles away.  As the flash fades, the daughter finds that she is literally blinded, and cries out for her mother.

Grim stuff.  Just as the image of the exploding hydrogen bomb was etched on the daughter’s retinas, the image of the flash that blinded her is etched on my memory. On April 3, 1960, I was watching the TV show Playhouse 90’s retelling of Pat Frank’s apocalyptic science-fiction novel Alas, Babylon.  Rather than just showing a white screen for a few seconds, the producers of this black-and-white drama represented the nuclear flash by switching the entire scene to look like a photographic negative in which black looked white and white looked black.  At the tender age of six, I had never seen such a creepy thing before, and it terrified me.  I had nightmares about atomic attacks off and on for years afterwards.

Alas, Babylon was the most well-known early literary version of a genre with which we have since become perhaps too familiar:  the post-nuclear-holocaust survival story.  Published in 1959 and still in print today, it follows the fates of two brothers, Randolph and Mark Bragg, as full-scale nuclear war comes to the U. S. when the Soviet Union retaliates for an accidental bombing of a Syrian seaport.  Mark, an Air Force colonel, receives early warning that war is coming and sends his wife and children from where he is stationed at a nuclear-missile site in Omaha, Nebraska, to stay with brother Randolph in Fort Repose, a fictional small town in central Florida.  Once hostilities begin, Mark, along with several dozen million other Americans in most large U. S. cities, is vaporized, and Randolph gradually assumes leadership of a small self-sustaining community that forms around an artesian well on his property.  There is the requisite love story, a violent battle with roving highwaymen, and after a year of total isolation from the outside world, the tale ends with a helicopter visit from what is left of the U. S. government.

Pat Frank was a military publicist before he moved to Florida and began writing novels. Alas, Babylon is his most well-known work, and probably one of the most realistic novelistic treatments of how things might actually go after a total nuclear war.  But even in 1959, it embodied some wishful thinking.  Given its almost flat topography, Florida probably has few if any self-pumping artesian wells.  In a real nuclear-war disaster, water would be even scarcer than the novel implies.  If I were to try to rewrite the book today, I would set it on a ranch in far West Texas, which is one of the least likely locations for an enemy with any prudence to toss a nuclear weapon.  And I would use windmill-driven water wells and perhaps a wind generator in the plot to give our survivors some chance at staying in the twentieth century.  It would be no stretch at all to assume they would have plenty of guns and ammunition, because these things are nearly universal in that part of the country.

While it is true that nobody much worries about nuclear war these days, the simple mechanical facts that both we and Russia have enough weapons to do tremendous damage to each other have remained unchanged since 1959, though lots of other things have changed since then.  And you could make the case that today, with Iran striving to make nuclear weapons and Israel moving its itchy finger toward its nuclear trigger in response, that the world (if not the U. S. and Russia) may be approaching a nuclear crisis as serious as the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, in which the USSR tried to put nuclear weapons in Cuba and the U. S. blockaded their efforts.

Because nuclear war has fallen off the bottom of the lists of what most people worry about, our preparedness for such a disaster, which was never very good even at the height of the Cold War, is abysmal today.  The only way I can think of in which we are perhaps better off than Pat Frank’s fictional survivors of 1959 is in communications, and this advantage may be largely illusory.  One reason the Internet was designed with distributed resources that are robust against the failure of several nodes is that the military provided the original funding and wanted a system that could survive a nuclear war.  It is by no means clear that this robustness has been preserved to the present day, and I don’t know how many major cities you would have to vaporize before the U. S. Internet failed.  But it might not be that many.  Once the Internet and telecomm systems fail, all you have left is satellites (if the ground stations haven’t been vaporized) or ham radio.

In every other way, I think we are less prepared than in 1959—more vulnerable in terms of power networks, emergency food and water supplies, and an intangible but vital characteristic I would call community spirit:  a recognition that a lot of individual rights and freedoms would have to go out the window for even a small community to survive.  I’m sure there would be exceptions, but I’m afraid lots of people in this country would face such a national emergency with mindless, selfish panic that would both harm themselves and others, and reduce their chances of survival to zero.

I am not an off-the-grid survivalist living as though nuclear war was coming tomorrow.  But I do think it is wise every now and then to at least give a thought to what we might be called upon to do if the worst happened, and even one terrorist nuclear weapon detonated on U. S. soil.  All the same, let’s hope we never find out for real how we would react in such an emergency.

Sources:  Pat Frank’s novel Alas, Babylon was published in 1959 by J. B. Lippincott, and can be found today in paperback editions.  I consulted Wikipedia articles on Pat Frank and Playhouse 90 for this blog.

Monday, May 14, 2012

To Cloud or Not To Cloud?

The other day I was working in my lab with a new student, and we ended up with a lot of image data to transfer from his laptop to mine.  Because I personally date back to the days when computer data was transferred by means of a stack of paper IBM-type punch cards, my first thought whenever I want to move or store lots of data is to resort to some physical medium:  a hard drive or flash (USB) drive, typically.  But my student proposed using a service called Dropbox.  To use it once it was installed, all he had to do was to put the data in a file on his computer.  The software sent it over the Internet to some data center somewhere, and then sent the stuff to be downloaded to my computer where I could access it in a similar file.  And it was free, at least for the first two gigabytes of data.

Dropbox is an example of “cloud computing”:  the dispersal of computing resources onto the Internet, instead of localizing your computer power in a physical box or boxes at your site.  Radioastronomers came up with one of the earliest cloud-computing applications I’m aware of, when they wrote an application to process raw data produced by SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence).  If you wanted your computer to help in the SETI search in its spare time, you just downloaded their app and could take comfort in the knowledge that you were one of hundreds of people all over the country helping SETI look for extraterrestrials.

Nowadays, of course, cloud computing is a big deal business-wise, as companies recognize that outsourcing a lot of their IT needs makes more sense than trying to maintain their own physical system with all the hassles that involves.  But I wasn’t aware of the ethical implications of cloud computing until I came across an article by Dunstan A. Hope and  Ryan Schuchard on, an Internet publication for businesses interested in being more environmentally conscious.

It turns out that the “cloud” is, of course, no airy nothing floating around in the ether, but consists of servers, processors, power supplies, cooling systems, and (a few) maintenance personnel concentrated in “data centers” whose locations are not always public knowledge.  It’s understandable for security reasons that companies who run these centers aren’t just posting their addresses everywhere, but their geographic anonymity makes it easy to assume that the cloud really is a cloud, and has no needs for space, electricity, water, or other resources.  It’s a little like things were back before we started being environmentally conscious in general:  when you threw something away in those innocent times, you didn’t give a second thought to where “away” was.  But now we know better, or at least we should.

Large data centers run by outfits such as Google use so much power that they are located near sources of abundant cheap energy.  One estimate by the Environmental Protection Agency says as much as 1.5% of the U. S. electric power output is used by data centers.  This can be hydroelectric energy, such as The Dalles, Oregon’s Columbia River power, or coal-fired power plants in the Midwest.  It’s an open question, as far as I know, whether it’s more energy-efficient for 100 businesses to use the cloud-computing services of one data-center operation, or for them all to have their own computers in their own locations.  I suspect if the data center is run with an eye toward energy efficiency, it may be better energy-wise to use the cloud.  A new trend in data centers is to build them in arctic areas so that you can use natural cooling (basically running with the windows open, so to speak) even in the summer, rather than pay for expensive refrigeration machinery to cool the systems in hot weather.  But there are not that many arctic areas with abundant cheap energy, so there are problems with this idea too.

Besides the notion of energy conservation, there is the question of security.  I confess to an atavistic feeling that the best measure of security for my data is if I can hold its physical embodiment in my hands:  a flash drive, a hard drive, or a laptop where the data is physically stored.  But realistically, a better way to protect against data loss is to hand it to professionals who put it on multiply-backed-up remote servers such as the Dropbox people or many other Internet services provide.  I suppose some malevolent malware-writer could cause a wipeout of the data stored in an entire cloud-computing service’s files, but it would be hard, and not nearly as likely as a hard-drive crash on one individual’s computer.  I always keep backups, but backups can fail too, and there’s the bother of keeping track of the media, updating it as it goes to legacy status, and so on.  So cloud computing makes sense from a data-security standpoint.

Besides physical security, there is the question of somebody stealing data or otherwise gaining unauthorized access to it.  The banks have dealt with this type of problem since the first bank began using the first computer, and while Americans are notoriously sensitive about breaches of their personal financial data, nobody much seems bothered by the fact that your personal financial information is stored in scattered places around the country.  Of course, not all cloud-computing firms have security as good as bank data systems, but at least the precedent is there.  So I’m not so concerned about this aspect of cloud computing.

Whatever the ethics of the trend, it looks like cloud computing will be in our future more as time goes on.  If you use a cloud-computing service, you can make an effort to find out what their Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) rating is.  This is the ratio of the total power used by the facility divided by the power actually needed by the computing equipment.  A lower number (lower than 2) is better.  And if they provide such information, find out where their data servers are, and what kind of power they use.  Even if it’s billed as a free service, somebody’s paying for electricity somewhere, and you might as well be responsible enough to find out about it.

Sources:  The article “Cloud computing raises new ethics, sustainability issues” appeared at and was written by Dunstan Allison Hope and Ryan Schuchard.  I referred to the articles on data centers and The Dalles on Wikipedia.  And I use Google’s cloud-computing service to post this blog, although I always keep a copy on my laptop! 

Monday, May 07, 2012

Engineering, Freedom, and the 28th Amendment

In a talk I gave in Doha, Qatar last fall at an engineering ethics conference, I listed some cultural characteristics that seemed to be necessary for engineering to flourish.  One of the characteristics I listed was “freedom for organizations” to pursue projects in the marketplace of ideas and goods.  Of course, most engineering is done by commercial organizations called corporations, which are legally treated as persons in many ways.  In the U. S., this way of treating corporations goes back at least to the 19th century, and farther if you look into English common law.  But broadly speaking, any group of people doing something as a group can be regarded in the light of a corporation, and so even nonprofit outfits such as Wikipedia, local churches, and (I suppose) even high-school chess clubs could conceivably be regarded as corporations.

What has the nature of corporations got to do with engineering?  A threat to the existence of corporations is, indirectly, a threat to the flourishing of engineering.  And a threat to the freedom, and conceivably the very existence, of corporations has arisen from one Rep. James McGovern of Massachusetts, who used his position in the U. S. House of Representatives last November to introduce a proposed 28th amendment to the Constitution.  Now, amendments to the Constitution are among the most difficult legislative objects to enact, because they require not only the approval of two-thirds of both the House and the Senate, but also three-fourths of the state legislatures.  So in practical terms, the proposed amendment is very likely to fall by the wayside before it could get within hailing distance of actually becoming law.  But even a small danger of a terrible tragedy is worth paying attention to, as students of engineering disasters know.

Why would passage of this amendment be so bad?  Because it revokes all the rights and freedoms reserved in the Constitution for the people, from anything you can conceivably call a “corporation.”  Individual “natural” persons would still have freedom of speech, the press, religion, and so on.  But two or more of them together, as long as such a grouping could be construed as a corporation, would be at the mercy of Congress, which could do anything it liked in terms of regulation:  prohibit any action, tax the entity to death, or even prohibit its very existence.

The alleged rationale for this amendment is the 2010 U. S. Supreme Court decision (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission) that upheld the right of corporations to make political expenditures.  In the view of some, this decision gave too much power to deep-pocketed corporations, which can now buy political ads with impunity.  While there are deep and serious problems with the way political campaigns are funded in the U. S., the cure proposed by Rep. McGovern would be a great deal worse than the disease.

Just to give a specific example, consider this blog you are reading.  It is appearing through the courtesy of one of the largest corporations in the U. S.:  Google.  While I as an individual am venting my opinion on what Rep. McGovern is doing, it is the corporation known as Google which is actually putting my words out there for other people to read.  If the proposed 28th amendment became law and Congress took a dislike to anything—anything at all—that anybody said in any blog that Google puts online, there would be no obstacle whatsoever to stop Congress from passing a law that gave Rep. McGovern’s office censorship rights over everything Google does.  While there is a clause in the amendment that says nothing shall be construed to limit the “people’s” rights, the word “people” is explicitly defined in the previous clause to exclude corporations.  Because posting all those blogs is a corporate act—you can’t find the one individual at Google solely responsible for operating—it is not protected by that construal clause, and out it goes if Congress wills.

This matter came to my attention in a column written by George Will, and he has plenty of other examples of what havoc could result from the proposed amendment.  This proposal is only the latest in a series of unwise and intemperate actions that seem to be getting more frequent in Washington.

Freedom, though vitally important in a democracy, is not an absolute foundational right.  The enjoyment of freedom, for engineers as for everyone else, comes with the obligation to use freedom responsibly.  For engineers, this means thinking about the consequences of actions and projects that affect other people.  For legislators such as Rep. McGovern, it means considering the larger consequences of one’s proposed legislation, and how it could cause problems much worse than the original one it was designed to solve.  We can thank the wise and prudent framers of the original Constitution that they made the amendment process as difficult and cumbersome as it is.  It is hard enough to block ultimately frivolous and inimical proposals such as Rep. McGovern’s, but straightforward enough to allow enactment of changes for which there is sufficient national consensus.  But the fact that even one duly elected member of Congress could be so shortsighted and imprudent as to propose the de-personalizing of all corporations is a bad sign that wisdom and prudence are getting in short supply.

Sources:  George Will’s syndicated column on May 6, 2012 was entitled “Taking a Scythe to the Bill of Rights,” and can be found at many media outlets, for example—-taking-scythe-bill-rights.html.  Rep. McGovern’s own explanation of his reasoning can be found at the website, which also has a link to the text of the proposed amendment.