The Big Lie of Weird Life

December 3, 2010

Much is being made today about NASA’s impending ‘weird life’ announcement, the discovery of a life form that isn’t built from the same stuff as everything else. Unfortunately out of ignorance and a desire to get hits and boost advertising revenue most of the reportage has the facts or at least the spirit of the discovery wrong.

While mildly interesting, the discovery is largely academic, and not all that surprising. Sure, it could suggest life existing elsewhere could more easily adapt to available chemistry, but I doubt few exobiologists would have supposed otherwise.

All that was announced was that a known bacteria was able to thrive in an environment where one of the fundamental building blocks of life (phosphorous) was in short supply, and another, arsenic, was offered in the environment as a substitute. Arsenic is a similar molecule, same column on the period chart, which means it bonds similarly. And a scientist discovered that this bacteria was able to use arsenic instead of phosphorous to build its cells, DNA, etc.

The life is still Earth-like, still very familiar cells building themselves from very familiar DNA. This discovery is the equivalent of a car designer proving you can build a car body out of fiberglass instead of steel. Interesting, useful, good to know, but at the end of the day it’s still a car, it hasn’t become a space ship.

Exobiologists inside and outside of NASA have long theorized, and most likely expect, that life evolving on other worlds would be fundamentally different. And no doubt we will one day find such life, even if we don’t immediately recognize it.  Perhaps it is already here, perhaps it us, or perhaps it hides within us or within this particular bacterial.  The proof of extraterrestrial origins may lie in the used or unused portions of the DNA we’re only just beginning to map and understand.  (For those who wish their mind blown, I suggest reading about non-coding regions of DNA, formerly known as “junk DNA”, which are thought to include remnants of ancient viruses, abandoned biological abilities, and more.  It is in these non-coding regions we may ultimately find the best proof of our origins.)

The announcement from my former employer was a disappointment to the many who misunderstood it to be something more. To my mind it certainly paled in comparison to the far more significant announcement made in 1996 when we found evidence of life in a Martian meteorite that fell to Earth. I well remember when my colleague “Bernie” came into my office and excitedly told me that they’d scheduled a press conference to announce possible ancient life on Mars and that Goldin was behind it.  You don’t forget a moment like that!  (I think Bernie was wearing a red tie and tan pants, and I was wearing a tie my dad had gotten me a few years before for job interviews, it had paisleys on it.)  I jumped on my terminal and sure enough I found the notice by Goldin and the scientists, and an abstract for the research.  I kept waiting to hear Goldin or someone from PA back off the announcement which was still a few days off, add a few more caveats to what was being disclosed.  To my surprise the press conference went off just as planned.  We were all excited, newly emboldened for the missions to Mars which would follow.  It was all the talk around our center for days if not weeks, and I doubt this recent announcement is having that sort of impact.

One reader of this blog alerted me to Richard C. Hoagland’s recent statements about the announcement where he apparently suggested this was a step in a secret agenda of “disclosure”.  Given the reduced significance of this new announcement, relative to the one 15 years ago, I just can’t see it that way.


My Space Summit Bet

April 13, 2010

As many of you know, President Obama heads to Kennedy tomorrow to reveal his vision for the US space program. NASA lost that vision back in late January when Obama released his budget to congress and the Constellation program which was to take us back to the moon by 2020 went unfunded. Left in serious jeopardy, too, were the Ares launch vehicles meant to replace the shuttle and take us to the International Space Station and then on to the moon. (I blame ATK more for putting Ares in jeopardy than Obama, but that’s a whole different topic.)

Ever since the late January budget everyone has been wondering what NASA would do, what its new mission really would be. The White House and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden tried to put a happy face on things and express excitement that we would be returning the focus to near-Earth science while we encourage the move towards more commercial development of space vehicles and technology. But few were satisfied with that direction and many, including former astronauts and moon walkers, were openly rebelling. With that as a backdrop it was announced that Obama would hold this soon to be historic space summit. Everyone whose life revolves around NASA wants to know what Obama will say. Has he radically changed his mind? Or have we just not understood the vision behind his budget?

I have some ideas.

Just before the budget was released in January there was an uptick in the number of calls I was getting about my consulting services. I have resumes in some of the aerospace consulting databases and I usually field 2-3 calls a week from possible clients and at least 1 a week from a recruiter. Most of the calls are full of sound and fury signifying nothing. The jobs aren’t appropriate to my skills and the recruiters don’t have any idea what they’re really looking for. Suddenly a week or so before the January budget the volume of inquiries doubled, and they began to get more focused. Suddenly I started to get calls from people who knew what they were looking for. The volume stayed high for most of February before returning to an elevated and stable 3-5 calls a week, and 1-2 recruiters a week. And so it continued until last week. Once again, about a week before a major space-related announcement, the volume of people contacting me has gone up, only this time, way up! In the last week I must have fielded about 15 calls, of which there were at least 5 recruiters. And the most fascinating thing is, again, many of these contacts were very specific in what they were looking for. So far this week the trend continues.

I had suspected Obama’s budget signaled an intriguing and significant shift, that his aim was to privatize the new space race, to make the space program a commercial success many of us Americans could indirectly benefit from (while some, like myself, directly benefited). The calls I was getting seemed to back up that notion. Clearly quite a few companies were gearing up for something, or at least putting out feelers to ensure that they would be able to secure the resources they’d need when the starting gun was fired in this new race.

Here are some things I’ve noticed about the calls I’ve been getting:

  • My resume lists my involvement in several Mars projects (not MER). Many of the contacts over the last week have expressed significant interest in this involvement, despite my rather significant involvement in other work, work which is arguably far more significant. This has been unusual.
  • My resume has for twenty years listed my foreign languages: French and Spanish. In all of those years I don’t think any prospective employer or HR person looking to get me on a project has ever actually mentioned that one line item on my resume. Twice in the last week I have been asked to clarify my fluency in French and Spanish. This has been unusual.
  • My career has placed me at several NASA centers, but it has never placed me overseas. The space program here has always been fairly insular, despite some token ventures with other nations. Twice in the last week I was asked if I would be able to relocate overseas. This has been unusual.
  • My background includes a good deal of design related to creating autonomous systems, machines that do their work somewhat independent of our direct guidance, often because they will be at such a distance from Earth that direct guidance is impossible or impractical. A handful of the callers seemed to express significant interest in this background. This has been unusual.

Clearly the people who are calling me think they know something. I have no way of knowing if they truly do have insider information about what’s coming or whether they are just making educated guesses. Surely if Obama was planning a major shift his policy people would have needed to reach out to those companies and industries likely to be affected and learn if those companies and industries would be ready to meet his new policy goals. Perhaps this is how and why they think they know something.

If I had to bet (and I wouldn’t bet much, since I don’t have much to go on)…

President Obama will announce significant incentivization of the private space technology sector, enlisting the help of prominent figures and companies to do so, laying out an ambitious long term course to Mars, and the short term democratization of near-Earth travel. His plan will focus on commercializing space, making it profitable and growth-oriented, and making it something we all will be able to visit within our lifetime. He will seize on this as an opportunity to unite all the nations of Earth through a common goal and a forged common history, enlisting the aide of RKA, ESA, JAXA, CNSA , and ISRO, and encouraging their own nation’s private space technology growth.

If anyone wants to bet $5 on it, let me know.


UPDATE 4/15/2010:

Transcript of Obama’s Speech

I conceded I lost the bet.  I owe blog poster Carol’s charity $5.

President Obama hit on a few points I’d said he would, the focus on a long term Mars mission and the major incentivization of the private aerospace sector.  However, he didn’t hit on creating a unified international effort as my deductions led me to suspect, nor did he invoke the chicken-in-every-pot-esque vision of all us Americans getting the opportunity to ride into space within our lifetimes.  Ah well, I warned everyone it was a risky bet.  Still, I remain stubbornly a bit surprised.

A Curiosity of Spirit (FULL DOCUMENT)

April 7, 2010

If you already read Parts I through III and want to skip the preface, you can jump to the beginning of Part IV.


I am publishing this story somewhat hastily in response to the hue and cry on the Above Top Secret forums. Apologies in advance for those areas that I would have improved or omitted entirely had I spent more time thinking about what others wanted to hear and less time thinking about what I wanted to say. I attempted, where it occurred to me, to explain the terms and workings of the things I mention, but I may have forgotten to explain some items which could cause confusion and/or Google searches. I will attempt to update this document in the coming weeks as I have time, to improve the clarity and eliminate elements which may unnecessary or uninteresting to others.

This began and remains a personal journey, an attempt to reconcile and understand my own history and work. If you find it interesting, great. If you don’t, oh well.

The experience I’m about to relate marked the beginning of the end of my NASA work, the end of the beginning of my awakening. The transparent and noble institution I believed I knew was hiding something.

For those who want a synopsis, I’ll try to post one in a few days. Most of you already know parts of it, and I felt it most important that I first get down as many of the specific details as I could to ensure that people wouldn’t accuse me of the greater crime of making extraordinary claims without providing context and specifics.

It is fitting that I publish this today, the 9th anniversary of the launch of Mars Odyssey, the orbiter that made possible so much of the Mars rovers’ good science (in spite of all who have sought to limit it).


P.S. – I hastily inserted chapter headings to try to break up the text logically and make it more readable. These don’t correspond to the original posting in parts.

Chapter 1: Spirit’s Missing Time

Last January I was at JPL on a project when a colleague of mine in the unrelated MER program was working a Spirit glitch. Spirit is one of the two rovers still operating on Mars. Spirit’s expected mission was for a little over 90 days long, but six years later the rover is still operating. Spirit has performed well beyond expectations, but even the best robot is going to have its off days. One of these off days was in late January 2009. My friend and colleague, who I’ll call Rich, was a senior software engineer on the team tasked with maintaining the mobility flight software, the code that controlled the rover’s movements and experiments.

Spirit had refused an instruction. It had been sent instructions to move, it acknowledged receipt of those instructions, but it did not move. In and of itself that was not highly unusual, the rover is given license to ignore move requests it does not believe it can fulfill successfully or safely. But not only did Spirit not move, its non-volatile flash memory was missing data about its motionless hours. Through a separate subsystem they were able to estimate that it had been awake for at least an hour during the gap, but what it had been doing or why it had decided not to move was unknown. Imaging before and after the event showed no change, cameras, IDD, suspension values, terrain; all were the same. This was the mystery my colleague and his team were engaged in solving. Why did the rover ignore its command to move? Why did the rover record nothing? Presumably the one question would answer the other.

They ran a battery of system checks and all appeared nominal. A refusal to comply can have its origins in the rover having lost track of its orientation, so they attempted to recover this with an on-board program that uses the panoramic camera and accelerometers to locate the sun and determine its own orientation from that. After an initial unrelated failure in this procedure (the accelerometer package was off) they were able to reacquire orientation. After a bit more testing and investigation, with more nominal results, the rover driver (RP) once again prepared move orders that were vetted and ultimately uplinked. This time the rover moved as expected, and recorded its activities to flash.

The most probable explanation for the initial faults (the failure to move, memory loss, loss of orientation) was cosmic rays. Cosmic rays are energetic particles, usually protons, capable of disrupting electronic systems they come in contact with. With all systems once again performing as they should, it would be hard to explain any other way. And this can happen, cosmic rays have been suspected in the transitory failure of other satellites, orbiters, and landers. The potential for problems has been amply demonstrated in labs on earth, and as a result Spirit’s electronics are somewhat hardened, to the degree reasonable for its expected exposure.

As part of working the problem, before Spirit had reacquired orientation, Rich had done a few things to dig deep into the mystery. He had dumped portions of Spirit’s memory to see what he might find through a forensic examination back on Earth.

Read the rest of this entry »

Today is the Day

April 7, 2010

Last night I was up until 2 AM finalizing my story of what I experienced January through March 2009.  I will post the rest in its entirety today at roughly 7 PM Pacific.  I have meetings until early to mid afternoon, and it will then take me a little while to format the document for WordPress (for some reason the conversion causes my paragraphs to merge together and a few other characters to be lost or converted).

I am posting this notice because my previous post of Monday disappeared and I subsequently had trouble accessing this blog.    I reinstated the previous post, but its timing may confuse people who are checking this blog today.  Hopefully this new post clears that up.

I had to move the time back 2 hours, I apologize.  My wife had designs upon some of my time.

Ongoing Delays

April 5, 2010

I am still not yet done committing my experience of early last year to paper. I am trying to abide by my promise to simply post it all when it’s done. I remain a few days away from that goal. My new target is Wednesday. I am only scheduled to work a partial day, which should afford me the remaining time I need.

I spent quite a few sequestered hours this weekend writing, too many according to my wife. I was also able to fit in several hours today after work. I did sneak away for a walk at one point to clear my head and I couldn’t help but realize I felt deeply annoyed as I remembered that so many people seemed to expect me to share all this so differently. Quite a few comments on the Above Top Secret forums when I originally posted seemed to feel I was using a lot of words to say nothing of importance. And from all the questions I got from people about aliens I suppose by comparison nothing I say could measure up to the claims running rampant there and elsewhere. Perspective is such a funny thing, for me these details are so important, these conclusions so profound. Every detail in this story represents a huge moment for me, ultimately culminating in a grand paradigm shift. Small steps towards a giant leap in my understanding of the world, and the NASA I’d served officially and unofficially for years. To others maybe it will truly amount to nothing. My new alternate reality can’t hold a candle to their alternate reality. Still, my new reality is important to me, and that will have to be enough.

NOTE: This was originally posted April 5, 2010 10:37 PM. The post disappeared the next day. I did not remove it. On or about the same time my WordPress account stopped allowing me to post or edit items, every attempt resulted in a backend script error on WordPress. I contacted WordPress about both issues and they resolved the posting/editing problem this morning.  They did did not recover or explain the lost post.  I had the proof it had been successfully published, as I still had a tab open from several days ago of me viewing the published post.  I will from now on externally save copies of my posts and be on the look out for this issue  recurring.

Baseless Attacks

April 3, 2010

I can’t believe I even need to address this, but I’ve received several messages from people suggesting that Rich and I are merely disgruntled employees pursuing a vendetta against JPL. That is ridiculous. Neither am I going to comment on the specific allegation that he or I are named plaintiffs in the litigation regarding the HSPD-12 implementation at JPL. That’s ridiculous and unfair. Your awareness of that lawsuit clearly shows that you now work or have worked at JPL. The fact that the lawsuit has resulted in an injunction against NASA implementing new HSPD-12 investigations for non-sensitive positions, and the fact that the federal court found NASA had violated employee’s privacy, shows your profound insensitivity on this issue, and that you are on the wrong side of this argument. Several close colleagues and subordinates have had their career path gravely altered by the needlessly personal and intrusive examination of their lives that HSPD-12 required. If you’ve worked at NASA or JPL for any length of time I’m sure you’ve seen that too. If you imagine our national security and national technology secrets are somehow secured by this farcical make-work smokescreen, you are a heartless fool.

As for the suggestions that Rich and I were passed over for MSL, you clearly haven’t read what I’ve said. I was not part of MER and MSL wouldn’t have been the appropriate place for me had I remained at JPL. You have no idea whether or not Rich has moved to MSL, I will neither confirm nor deny that. Even if he hasn’t moved yet, it means nothing. Excellent people remain needed on the MER team for some time to come; there will be plenty of time to transition later.

I am surprised and disappointed by this simplistic attack on our credibility. If you have worked at JPL as it seems, attack me on facts. What have I said that is factually untrue? I am a scientist, I endeavor to separate my personal feelings from the observations I make and the conclusions I draw from them. Those observations and conclusions are what I try to relay here. I wish that you who likely call yourself fellow scientists took the same objective view in debating these points that you do to your science.

I am working to post the conclusion to my journey tomorrow, but I felt I needed to address these allegations now.


A Curiosity of Spirit (Part III)

March 30, 2010

This post is now superseded by A Curiosity of Spirit (FULL DOCUMENT). Please consult and comment on that document.