It’s been 17 years since the first part of the International Space Station was launched into orbit and since then it’s become a symbol of humanity’s ability and desire to go further in space. The fact that NASA and Roscosmos have remained cooperative throughout all the tumultuous times that their parent countries have endured speaks to the greater goal that they both seek, along with all of the other participating nations. However, just like any other piece of equipment, the ISS will eventually wear out requiring replacement or significant revamping in order to keep going. The current plans are to keep it going through to 2024 however past that date it’s likely that the ISS will meet its firey end, burning up in a controlled re-entry back to Earth.
Russia had made its intent clear when this fateful time arrived: it would detach all its current modules and then form its own space station in orbit to continue operations. Such an exercise, whilst possible, would be non-trivial in nature and by Russia’s own accounts would likely only give those modules another 4 years worth of life before the maintenance costs on the aging hardware outstripped any potential benefits. Thus the pressure has been on to start looking towards designing a replacement orbital space station, one that can support humanity’s activities in space for the next few decades.
Roscosmos recently announced that they had committed to building the ISS’s replacement with NASA with the details to be forthcoming. NASA, whilst praising Russia’s commitment to continuing ISS operations to 2024, didn’t speak to a potential future space station. Whilst they didn’t outright deny that NASA and Russia aren’t or won’t be working on a future space station together they have said in the past that they’d hope that the private space industry would be able to provide such capability soon. That’s looking like it will be happening too, given that Bigelow is hoping to ship their BEAM module to the ISS by the end of this year.
There’s every chance that NASA and Roscosmos have been in talks behind the scenes to work on the next generation space station and Russia simply jumped the gun on announcing the collaboration. It does seem a little odd however as their previous announcement of breaking away from the ISS when the deorbit date came was rather…hostile and most expected NASA and Roscosmos to simply part ways at that point. Doing an about face and announcing a collaboration is great news however it just seems odd that NASA wouldn’t say something similar if they were actually doing it. So either Russia’s just really excited to make an announcement or there’s a larger play happening here, but I can’t imagine NASA being guilted into committing to building another ISS.
I’m hopeful that it’s not a lot of hot air as the ISS has proven to be both a valuable science experiment as well as an inspirational icon to spur the next generation to pursue a career beyond the Earth’s surface. We’ve learnt many lessons from building the now football field sized station in orbit and the next one we build can be that much better because of them. That, combined with the numerous benefits that comes from international collaboration on a project of this scale, means that there’s still an incredible amount of value to derive from something like the ISS and I hope Roscosmos’ ambition is based in reality.
As most of you are aware sine I won the little blogger competition that Lifehacker ran last year they invited me to tag along for the culmination of their World of Servers gig at TechEd North America. That meant I’ve spent the better part of a day travelling from Australia to New Orleans and whilst I won’t bore you with the details of the rather uneventful journey (save for me being “that guy” who was late for his flight because he simply didn’t hear the boarding announcement) I thought I’d give a little comparison to the last time I was here, nearly 3 years ago now.
For starters the flight over was much better than the last time I went, all because instead of flying Delta I was on Qantas. My wife and I lucked out somewhat last time as we managed to score a whole row of seats to ourselves on the way up (not on the way back) but flying solo this time around I was pretty impressed by the little marginal differences between Qantas and Delta that made the experience a little more tolerable. I’ve also become a bit better at sleeping on planes than I was back then (I think that was my first truly long haul flight, actually) and I managed to sleep through most of it.
Not that it helped my jet lag at all, as the headache I’m currently enduring will attest to.
New Orleans seems like a great place, all of the locals I’ve talked to so far have been really easy going. I didn’t get to see much of it as we got in at around 6pm and we’re going to be heading out to the venue at 6:40am tomorrow but there’s an odd dichotomy going on in the buildings, much like that I saw back in Montreal. I figure that’s mostly due to the destruction that hurricane Katrina wrought here all those years ago but thankfully it looks like quite a few of the older buildings survived.
Tomorrow we’ll have the opening TechEd keynote and then we’ll be off to our first round of sessions. I’ve predominately aligned myself with the enterprise/cloud space and whilst I haven’t been able to fill every session with something along that idea there’s been more than enough on offer for each time slot to keep me occupied. I’ve already had a couple clashes which has led to some tough choices about which ones I actually want to attend. That was made somewhat worse when Angus Kidman (the man behind much of Lifehacker Australia’s tech news) said that the TBD sessions would all be Windows Blue related. I’ll probably have to have a look at reworking it once I get a little downtime, probably during the keynote.
So if you’re coming here for your daily dose of tech/gaming/whatever related news I’m going to disappoint you for a little while but I’ll be doing wrap up posts every day over on Lifehacker Australia which I’ll be sure to retweet on my Twitter account. Mostly I’ll just be posting about the various exploits I find myself in whilst I’m over here in New Orleans and, time willing, sharing a few photographs that I manage to snap.
I’m no conspiracy theorist, my feet are way too firmly planted in the world of testable observations to fall for that level of crazy, but I do love it when we the public get to see the inner workings of secretive programs, government or otherwise. Part of it is sheer voyeurism but if I’m truthful the things that really get me are the big technical projects, things that done without the veil of secrecy would be wondrous in their own right. The fact that they’re hidden from public view just adds to the intrigue, making you wonder why such things needed to be kept secret in the first place.
One of the first things that comes to mind was the HEXAGON series of spy satellites which were high resolution observation platforms launched during the cold war that still rival the resolution of satellites launched today. It’s no secret that all space fairing nations have fleets of satellites up there for such purposes but the fact that the USA was able to keep the exact nature of the entire program secret for so long is quite astounding. The technology behind it though was what really intrigued me as it really was years ahead of the curve in terms of capabilities, even if it didn’t have the longevity of its fully digital progeny.
Yesterday however a friend sent me this document from the Electronic Frontier Foundation which provides details on something called the Presidential Surveillance Program (PSP). I was instantly intrigued.
According to William Binney, a former head of the National Security Agency the PSP is in essence a massive data gathering program with possible intercepts at all major fibre terminations within the USA. The system simply siphons off all incoming and outgoing data which is then stored in massive, disparate data repositories. This in itself is a mind boggling endeavour as the amount of data that transits the Internet in a single day dwarfs the capacity of most large data centres. The NSA then ramps it up a notch by being able to recover files, emails and all sorts of other data based on keywords and pattern matching which implies heuristics on a level that’s just simply mind blowing. Of course this is all I’ve got to go on at the moment but the idea itself is quite intriguing.
For starters creating a network that’s able to handle a direct tap to a fibre connection is no small feat in itself. When the fibres terminating at the USA border are capable of speeds in the GB/s range the require infrastructure to handle that is non-trivial, especially so if you want to store that data later. Storing that amount of data is another matter entirely as most commercial arrays begin to tap out in the petabyte range. Binney’s claims start to seem a little far fetched here as he states there are plans up into the yottabyte range but concedes that current incarnations of the program couldn’t have more than tens of exabytes. Barring some major shake up in the way we store data I can’t fathom how they’d manage to create an array that big. Then again I don’t work for the NSA.
As intriguing as such a system might be there’s no question that its existence is a major violation of privacy for US citizens and the wider world. Such a system is akin to tapping every single phone and recording every conversation on it which is most definitely not supported by their current legal system. Just because they don’t use it until the have a reason to doesn’t make it just either as all data gathered without the suspicion of guilt or pretence to commit a crime is illegitimate. I could think of many legitimate uses for the data (anonymous analytical stuff could prove very useful) but the means by which its was gathered eliminates any purpose being legitimate.
The last day of any holiday is always filled with a wide gamut of emotions. We woke up naturally a good 3 hours before we needed to check out and spent that time lazily packing our bags for the day ahead. Our flight wasn’t until 10pm that night so we would have a good 10 hours before the time we had to leave the hotel and the time we had to catch the plane back home. Whilst we still had tickets to the San Diego Zoo I wasn’t too keen to drive the 2 hours there to see it, nor was I too confident that the drive back would be less than 2 hours. Instead we decided to spend the day shopping in downtown Los Angeles for gifts and generally lazing about before the 14 hour flight home.
After checking out and grabbing our car from the valet we headed towards a mall I had managed to find through Yelp. It was a traditional American outlet mall with everything being outdoors and the only indoor area being the food court on one of the upper levels. We spent many hours perusing through the various shops, picking up gifts for our family members that we hadn’t yet accounted for. Time was passing slowly and after what seemed like forever we collapsed in Barnes and Noble for some coffee and free wifi. It was only 4pm around that time meaning that going to San Diego was out of the question so we decided to hit up a movie to pass the last few hours before we’d charge over to LAX.
Arriving at one of the local theatres we discovered that the movie we had decided to see, Skyline which had been endlessly hyped during our entire trip, wasn’t available at this cinema. Undeterred we decided that we’d check the others to see if they were showing it. Strangely none of the theatres near us were showing it meaning we’d have to choose something else. Not really enticed by any of the options we went for Due Date since it was a comedy, figuring some light hearted fun would be the ticket. We bought our tickets but the show wasn’t on for another 45 mins, so we went into the attached mall.
Just as we entered the mall we spotted a puppy store (yes just puppies) and like any young couple we decided to go and ogle those cute little things. Really it wasn’t unlike any other pet store apart from the fact they had 3 “play rooms” set up at the back where you could pick a puppy and then take it there to play with it. I saw 2 families in separate rooms falling for this ploy, knowing full well that they’d be hard pressed to leave without their children’s new found playmate. Afterwards we spotted a Disney store and went in to grab a couple things that Rebecca wanted to get but hadn’t had the chance to last time we were there. We made our way back to the cinema which had the smallest rooms I’ve ever been in. It was really nice though as all the seats were comfy leather couches and the front most rows were giant futons you could lie back on.
After the movie was done we started the drive back to the rental car place to return our ride of the past week. I always remember these kinds of trips distinctly as that’s usually when it starts to sink in that the holiday is really coming to a close and all the memories start to flood in. I remembered so many things: the blazing Florida sun on my skin, the roar of the Corvette, the bitter cold kiss of Montreal, the sleepless city of New York and the child like wonder I rediscovered in Los Angeles’ theme parks. All of this was running through my head as we dropped off the car and took the shuttle to LAX where we checked in for our flight home.
The flight home went by much quicker than the flight there with the working entertainment system making sure many of those hours passed with ease. As we landed in Australia I felt those mixed feelings that any traveller has when they return home. Relief at the familiarity yet a sense of mourning that the trip is over, not wanting to let go of it. The feelings continued all the way back home and stayed with me until I fell asleep that night.
And now here I sit 3 days later recalling those experiences and the emotions come flooding back as if I was just boarding the plane back in Los Angeles. They will not soon be forgotten as the month Rebecca and I spent in the Unite States of America was more than just a holiday to us, it was our first true escape from our everyday lives that either of us have had. Sure we’ve both travelled before but never independently for this amount of time and because of that our perspective has changed radically. Time will tell if these feelings stay with us, but I feel this is tantamount to what happened to me almost 12 months ago which resulted in The Plan. One thing is for certain though, my heart now yearns for more experiences like these and my determination to make them happen has never been stronger.
It was almost 20 hours ago that I woke up to the rude sound of my alarm, blaring out random garbles in a feeble attempt to wake me from my slumber. Today was the day I’d set out for the USA and my first plane was due to leave at 8am, just 2 hours away. Wait laid before me was a grand total of 20 hours of flight time and an entire day lost to the mere act of travelling. Still my wife and I were excited for our first long trip overseas together, even though we’d be spending the first 10 days of it apart. With all that running through our heads we made our way to the airport thanks to our good friend Danne, who volunteered his services not only as a chaffer but as our house sitter as well as we gallivanted around the lucky country.
The flight over was not as bad as I had expected. I’d been on a long haul flight before, 8 hours to Japan back in 2001, but this was going to be 13 hours and 33 minutes. The prospect was made even more uncomfortable by the fact that upon checking in we were told that there would be a seat between us, and no indication if it was filled or not. Luckily for us it wasn’t and we enjoyed the extra space and convenience that it provided. I was able to get 6 hours or so of sleep but Rebecca, as always, struggled to get even a couple minutes. She didn’t seem any worse for wear because of it though, but I guess after dealing with insomnia for so many years you get used to running on nothing. The food and service was quite good for the ticket price we paid, I was wholly expecting to get nickel and dimed for each and every little thing but Delta Airlines felt almost identical to the Qantas flight we had taken hours earlier.
A long 13 hours later we were in LAX, the thriving hub of transportation that it is. After disembarking we were lead to immigration where they took not only our entire set of fingerprints but also our photo. I’d known for a long time that the USA had been doing this and whilst I didn’t object to doing it, I still didn’t feel completely comfortable with this piece of security theatre. Still it was painless at least and once we were out of there our bags were waiting for us, ready to be picked up. After spending a confusing 30 minutes trying to figure out where each of us had to go (Rebecca is going onto Canada, myself Orlando) we finally found the shuttle Rebecca had to take. Mere minutes later it arrived and she was whisked away to LAX Terminal 2 where she would catch her flight to Canada.
I stumbled around trying to find my way into the terminal that would take me to my final destination on this leg of my journey, getting hopelessly lost in the desolate landscape of LAX. I eventually found my way there through a long corridor that started evoking images of Orwell’s 1984, with a loudspeaker blaring warnings and my footsteps echoing in the lonely fluorescence. Then I was greeted with the friendly face of the TSA and my first ever American airport security check. They went over everyone’s ID with a UV light, took people’s bottles of water, made everyone take off their shoes and frisked about 1 in every 5 passengers. Suddenly the Australian security checks seemed mild in comparison. I got through with barely a second glance, but yet again I had that terrible feeling that my civil liberties were dying as the USA’s paranoia. This country didn’t make the greatest first impression.
I tried fruitlessly to find wifi and a working ATM, the lifeblood of my generation. None of the ATMs could do a cash withdrawal on my cards, even the Westpac one that’s apparently in cahoots with the Bank of America (which I was trying to use). All the wifi hotspots were either secured or paid portals leaving me disconnected and alone. I did nothing for almost an hour before sitting down to write this, thinking there was no point if I couldn’t publish it right away. Still writing is a great way to pass the time and I still had over an hour before my next flight was scheduled to depart.
The flight to Orlando was painful, even though I lucked out with the emergency exit row. Neither of my temporary travel friends were interested in striking up a conversation and the jet lag was setting in with vengeance. Couple that with my bony ass being unable to find comfort in the seats and it was 5 hours in the air that couldn’t go fast enough. I eventually found solace in one of the books I had picked up (Pandora’s Star by Peter F. Hamilton) and managed to pass the majority of time without too much fuss. Then came the dreaded moment, would my luggage be there to greet me when I landed?
Although I’ve never lost anything through the airports I still have a healthy paranoia about them. If it’s anything but a direct flight I always think it’s going to get lost in the airport machine, doomed to bounce endlessly around the globe while I lay stranded, devoid of my clothes and other miscellany. 10 minutes after landing however there my bag was, just as I had left it at LAX 6 hours earlier. Flush with the victory of picking up my luggage I made a break for my hotel for the night, the Hyatt Regency at the Orlando airport.
Unbeknownst to me the large atrium I had walked through to get my bags was in fact the hotel itself. After grabbing my keys I went to my room, which as it turns out is quite opulent. After quickly changing into something more comfortable I went to the gym for a quick workout before making my way out for dinner. I decided to try the in hotel restaurant, McCoy’s Bar and Grill. The food was so-so but the Californian wine was quite good and the service was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. This definitely was capitalism taken to the extreme where minimum wage workers fight their way out of there by providing you the ultimate in service. Having dinner out in Australia feels like getting spat in the face by comparison.
And now I’ve resigned myself to finishing off the $30 bottle of wine I have beside me and watching the Discovery channel until I pass out. Hopefully my plan skirts around the horrible jet lag I felt earlier, but either way tomorrow I take on the challenge of trying to drive on the wrong side of the road in a Toyota Corolla, in preparation for one of the reasons I came here: to drive a corvette around Florida for a week.
With the world still reeling from the myriad of celebration events signalling the 40th anniversary of America’s greatest achievement in space to date you would be forgiven for forgetting about the primary reason they went there, to beat the Russians (then the Soviet Union). Over time the stories of the United States greatest competitor have been drowned out and there are many little know facts about their aspirations to get to the moon. Granted part of this was due to the secrecy of the Soviet Union of the time who wanted to belittle the American’s achievements by making it look like they weren’t interested in a race at all. With the arrival of Glasnost almost 20 years ago all the secrets came out, and the reds secret dream for the moon was revealed. It makes for quite an interesting story.
For a long time the Soviet Union held the lead in the space race. Back in October of 1957 they surprised everyone by launching the first ever artificial satellite Sputnik-1, which the United States played down at the time but in fact sent them into quite the flurry. With this simple move the Soviets then aggressively built upon their success by sending several more sputnik class vehicles into space. This all culminated in April of 1961 when they succeeded in sending Yuri Gagarin into space and orbit, making him the first human to travel into outer space. Yet again America was shaken to the core, as they had believed that their aggressive pursuit of space had put them ahead again. This did little to stop the Americans however, and they continued to actively pursue the further goal of landing on the moon.
The next 3 years saw the Soviets achieve several firsts in space namely mutli-manned crews, longer duration flights and extra-vehicular activities but after that their manned accomplishments seemed to end. They continued sending probes out (to Venus and to the Moon) however any further progress appear to have been ceased. The official line at the time was that they had already won the space race and were no longer interested in fighting the Americans. However behind the scenes the tale was far more interesting.
In order to win the race to the moon the Soviets developed a lunar lander called the Lunniy Korabl which would take a single soviet cosmonaut to the moon for a couple of hours and return him home safely. This was a marked change from their original plan which was to assemble a massive lunar lander in earth orbit before attempting a moon landing. The idea was that they could use only 1 of their heavy lifting rockets to win rather than the 3 they had originally planned. This was the glimmer of hope that kept their program going although they were to suffer another failure which would knock them out of the race completely.
With the United States already well on the way to successfully launching their first heavy lift vehicle the Saturn V the Soviets needed a similar launch vehicle if they were going to have any chance of getting to the moon. Enter the N1 rocket which made some different trade offs in order to achieve their goals. Whilst the rocket produced more thrust and was cheaper overall than the Saturn V it lacked the payload capacity. Additionally the insanely complicated arrangement of rocket engines on all stages (30 engines vs the Saturn’s 5) plus the added complexity of 5 stages (Saturn had 3) lead to an incredibly fragile launch system. Adding in the additional complexity that the rocket had to be fully assembled first at their construction plant, disassembled so it could shipped, and then reassembled at the launch center. All of these issues lead to all 4 N1 rockets that were built as flight ready to fail, with the longest flight lasting only 1 minute and not even making it into stage separation.
It’s an unfortunate trend for the Russian space endeavours as they are usually the pioneers in the field (check out their impressive list of firsts) but fail to take it any further then that. Whilst a lot of this can be blamed on the political turmoil they have suffered throughout their space program they also have a very ingrained belief in “if it works, don’t change it” as demonstrated by their continued use of the Soyuz space vehicles. For the most part though this works well for them, and for a while they will be the only government owned way of getting to the International Space Station (although NASA is probably more likely to buy rides from SpaceX than the Russians if they can avoid it).
As the old saying goes “history is written by the winners” and it pays to look back and see what the people who were on the other side achieved despite the eventual outcome. Truly we owe much of where we are today in terms of space endeavours to the Russians as they blazed the path that we now tread.