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.

John


Unwinding a Sean O’Keefe Assassination Plot

August 10, 2010

This morning I was saddened to wake up and learn of the crash of a floatplane in Alaska carrying former NASA head Sean O’Keefe (and former Senator Ted Stevens). It was initially feared that O’Keefe was among those killed, but I am glad to learn he and his son were among the survivors.

In thinking about Sean O’Keefe, I am reminded of what a controversial figure he was at NASA, felt by most I worked with to be far too willing to leave vital and exciting science back on the ground in order to meet or slash budgets and impress the political machine that put him in power, andthat he hoped had plans for him beyond his NASA post.  The worst offense came when he  decided to let Hubble die unserviced back in ’04, using as a scapegoat the foam strike issue which suddenly came onto everyone’s radar with Columbia’s destruction.  I was part of many discussions which looked unkindly at the sudden cost and risk aversion, at a time when the same administration sitting on top was willing to risk vastly greater sums and vastly greater numbers of lives prosecuting wars of dubious value.  O’Keefe’s ultimate legacy and the fondness I’ve heard expressed in more recent years has come somewhat undeservedly from the inarguable success of the twin Mars Explorer Rover (MER) programs, and O’Keefe’s pursuit of FBC (Faster Better Cheaper), ISS not withstanding.  MER succeeded not because of O’Keefe but in spite of the cost cuts associated with him.  I think O’Keefe is remembered favorably as Reagan has been, their policies may have been flawed, their methods may have been meritless, but no one can argue with the outcomes, and neither do people have a stomach for deeply questioning them.  I remember a quote from my high school Latin I class that went something like, “Victories are never questioned by the victors.”

What many do not know is that O’Keefe was a member of the elitist, secretive Bohemian Club, and participant in their Bohemian Grove rituals; his participation has been an open secret within space circles.  Much has been suggested about the roles these players have in remaking the world, our America, and the space which surrounds us all.

While it is too soon to meaningfully speculate on whether the plane crash qualifies as a tragic accident or a devious plot, it’s not too soon to remember O’Keefe’s impact on NASA, not too soon to look at his still early role in leading the American branch of the increasingly important European Aeronautic, Defence, and Space Company (EADS), not too soon to wonder what conspiratorial filaments might manifest in these upcoming days, and whether they will join together to support the weight of larger truths.  I hope, as I always do, that the world is simpler than that, that what we see is what there is, but more intelligent people than me think differently and who am I to say they are wrong.

On a personal note, I am truly glad Sean O’Keefe has survived, and sad to learn that Mr. Stevens and five others did not. But we must live with what the facts are, and the tragedy that exists because of them.

John


Cover-Up on the ISS?

August 9, 2010

I got an email yesterday from someone I used to know slightly at NASA Lewis. He ended up retiring a decade after I moved on. He did some contract work on shuttle and ISS systems. We were never close but a thermodynamics buddy of mine who was also briefly at Lewis would mention this guy now and again as they crossed paths, and more so when they consulted on the same project about five years ago. My friend was no fan of this guy, not because of his work, which was solid as far as I ever heard, but because this guy had an extremely abrasive personality and was given to some pretty off-color humor.

I’m not sure how I ended up being on the receiving end of this guy’s email, the email itself was sent with the recipients hidden in the BCC field. I have no idea to how many people this was sent, but presumably quite a few if I ended up on the list.

I’ve been following the reported PVTCS issues on the ISS and they’re peddling a load of crap. They knew this wasn’t a simple PFCS failure before they did the first EVA. The timetable and procedures are all wrong for a normal PFCS replacement. My best guess is a micrometeorite strike of the PVR, causing coolant pressure loss and contamination, overworking the PFCS until it failed, or a direct PFCS strike with coolant contamination. It’d hardly be the first time they covered up a strike of the ISS. You heard from Jack? I haven’t spoken to him since the fall conference, wonder if he knows something.

Some Googling identified the PVTCS as the entire cooling system, the PFCS appears to be the pump module, and the PVR is the radiator.

I’m not sure I buy the validity of what this guy is saying, I am not at all familiar with the ISS systems. I forwarded it to my friend to see what he thought and got a one line response, “That asshole is just pissed off he lost his fat shuttle contract.” There’s no love lost between the two of them, and my friend’s a pretty toe-the-line sort of guy, so he isn’t likely to go against what NASA reports.

I am not aware of NASA covering up any significant micrometeorite strikes. I remember reports of a few serious ones to the shuttle, found as part of the stepped up imaging after the tragedy following the foam strikes, and those were hardly kept from the public. Something as large as the ISS is bound to be routinely hit, given its many years in orbit, and thus such strikes would hardly be news worthy, unless perhaps the risks to astronaut safety are greater than is widely known. I can imagine NASA might be motivated to keep such a danger quiet at a time when it’s being forced to mothball the shuttle fleet and terminate its plans to return to the moon. The ISS is NASA’s last stand in space, and they would not be expected to give it up without a fight. But are they covering up the nature of the PVTCS failure on the ISS? I’m not yet convinced.


The Things that Matter and the Things that Don’t

July 18, 2010

My wife left me two weeks ago, on Independence Day. Actually that’s not factually correct, she made me leave her, the kids, and the home. She intends to file for divorce. I suppose I could have made her move out instead, or at least put up a fight, but it would have been a Pyrrhic victory. The bulk of the life I care about that doesn’t involve them can easily fit inside the trunk of my car, and the closet of the extended stay motel room in which I’m currently staying.

I suspect there’s at least one moment in most people’s relationships where each person is forced to make a choice about how vulnerable each wants to allow themselves to be. We have all done things we’re not proud of, we’ve all been aspects of ourselves we’re not proud of, we’ve all got secrets we keep because we’re afraid of what others would think of us if they knew. I wonder how many of us have truly been honest with our spouses, told them the things we knew they might not be able to accept, the things which might make them leave.

My wife and I had been doing a lot of counseling. I’d been going individually twice a week to try to get control of my emotions and anxieties and life, and we’d been going as a couple once a week in an effort to reconnect and undo the damage the wear and tear long relationships produce, as well as address some of the unique issues our circumstances have created.

At some point in the process I began to seriously weigh telling my wife the whole story about my leaving JPL, and the mind shift and fears which followed. The flirtation with the idea became an obsession with the idea. Telling the internet your secrets provides some relief, but the internet can’t give you a hug, it doesn’t know you, it hasn’t known you. The internet can never tell you everything’s going to be alright in a voice louder than a whisper. I wanted to tell her, I needed her to tell me.

A few years ago during a bout of insomnia I fell into watching true crime TV shows. Often enough they’d feature a story where an unsuspected killer spontaneously confesses to his prison cell mate or his pastor or his friend. And it’s not long before his perfect crime is undone by his own hand. As a viewer I couldn’t help but think, “How stupid are they?” While I accepted that guilt and conscience are very real psychological phenomenons, how could these people not have wrestled those urges into submission, just as easily as they had the morality which should have prevented their crimes? I suppose I better understand the mind of the confessor now. I knew what might be lost if I was honest. I knew it might cost me my marriage. I did it anyway. And now I’m paying the price.

While I may wish I’d never told her any of it, I now realize it was inevitable. Maybe I would have told her in a month, a week, or a year, but I would have told her, and she would have left me. The compulsion to share was too great, the need for acceptance too great.

I can’t blame her, I suppose, but I do. My anger at her is putting a functional life out of reach for the present. I’ve been delaying client after client, rescheduling meetings into next month, and using each project as an excuse to push back the deadlines of every other one. My days have looked like nights. Sleeping too much, drinking too much, embracing the idiocy of the idiot box, and reading lunatic ravings like my own on the web. Anything to avoid or justify the present.

My wife was always the practical one. She loved me for being a dreamer, able to take her to worlds she could only dimly imagine. And I loved her for grounding me, just enough to see my ideas and dreams get traction in the real world. I owe what I have to her, which is curiously said in both thanks and damnation. We were a highly functional match, and for many early years a passionate and loving one. But age changes us, life changes us, takes from us our capacity to tolerate differences. And soon we’re just left separated by a giant chasm of dissimilitude. Still, you cling to the perpetual hope that you can get it back, that the gap will close, or that perhaps some invisible bridge remains to let you meet in the middle when you most need to. Ultimately I felt constrained by her pragmatism, grew resentful of the me I may have been in some parallel universe unfettered by a wife who countered so many of the ideas I’d gleefully share with an argument beginning with the phrase, “Now be realistic…” And she would have been better off with a husband who didn’t aspire to more than he was, who was satisfied with being a loving husband and a good employee, who didn’t think his destiny was much bigger, a destiny borne on the back of some idea or invention he hope to nurture from dream to reality. We both meant well. I didn’t mean to be the bad husband, she didn’t mean to be the bad wife. But often enough the things which attract us to our spouse turn into the very things we come to hate about them.

Her religion doesn’t permit of much that is unusual, at least unusual for them. One could well argue that the story of Christ is highly unusual, and were it not for its embedding in two thousand years of social history, few would accept it as anything but a peculiarly implausible fairy story, as unbelievable as any UFO, bigfoot, ghost story. But her beliefs are backed by all that cultural embedding, and her religion responds as if threatened by claims of the unapproved paranormal. She doesn’t go so far as to say the paranormal is the providence of the Devil, but I suspect she believes it. Her dogma was the source of my fear of sharing, most of the reason for my silence, and why I knew this might not end well.

The end came unexpectedly, as they always do. I spent so much of my life anticipating fears, worrying about the unlikely worst-case scenarios of the obvious situations that surround me. I worry about the infinitesimal chance that my plane will crash on its way to Pittsburgh, but I head off on a camping trip with my boys without giving a moment’s thought to the pain of a pulled muscle which turns out to be a near fatal case of acute appendicitis. The worst of life comes without warnings. And even when we do accurately anticipate unavoidable horrors (the deaths of those we love, the course of our own diseases) we are spared nothing through the endless anticipating worry. We’d be better off living like moderate fools surprised at every reasonably unavoidable horror.

My wife caught me, saw “troubling” web pages open on my computer. I felt like a Caucasian husband with a Caucasian wife caught looking at a site devoted exclusively to Asian fetish porn; her reaction operated on multiple levels. She was troubled at the general subject matter, troubled at the very specific subject matter, and let her mind read deeply into just what this specific corruption of my interests and intellect said about me, about us. I limit almost all my research and absolutely all my personalized browsing and posting to one cheap, disposable, anonymous netbook. I ordinarily keep the computer in the bottom of my desk drawer when not in use, underneath two outdated and unusuable laptops. I ordinarily keep the computer locked down so rebooting, suspending, hibernating, or screen saver activation will lock the console and require a password. As with all such failures of security, it only takes one mistake and one wrong moment for that mistake to occur. I was installing a number of updates and some new software and had thought I’d be in the house alone until evening. After the third or fourth password prompt triggered by the screen saver activation my laziness got the better of me and I disabled its password prompt. I took a shower. My wife returned home early after errands, her sister no longer needed help setting up for the family barbecue. My wife went in to my office to tell me she was back, and finding me gone thought she’d take the opportunity to print out some directions she was going to need the next morning. I cycle through so many computers she didn’t think anything of getting on this unfamiliar netbook. She has no interest in gadgets, and she’s just as happy I don’t bother her as I once did introducing her to each new one I buy; besides she views their expense as profligate. Because the installations were going slowly I was reading quite a few fringe sites in Firefox as the disk slowly churned its new bits, periodically prompting me for approval.

I came around the corner to my office unsuspecting. I immediately had the dread of being caught, and the guilty look of being caught. My face doomed any chance I had to play off my browsing activities as the fruits of boredom. “What the hell is this?” set the tone for everything else she had to say.

Most of us flawed humans have irrational responses waiting for activation on particular subjects. Hers had been biding their time. I hadn’t brought up any of these fringe topics in years, they had introduced unpleasant discord a decade or so before, back when my only interest had been academic.

Without being aware of it, I had apparently been hinting at or cowardly suggesting that my troubles had their origins in the paranormal. I suppose it was my confessional toe dipping itself in the water while I was sleep walking through recent weeks. This was all the confirmation she needed, the whiff of perfume clinging to the collar of a suspected cheater. I had a choice, I could have probably gotten away with whitewashing it all, making up some elaborately confused but compelling lie. But her anger invited mine, gave me a voice. And so I told her. I’ll never forget her expression. I imagine it’s a face paranoid schizophrenics get used to seeing, frozen on the faces of those witnessing lost, loudly quasi-interactive rants. My voice was calm, though, but perhaps too calm, resigned. I don’t know how much she heard, I’m sure it became too much and she checked out early on. Regardless, she heard enough.

Instead of the comforting hug I had long hoped for, craved, I got what I had always known I would, something along the lines of, “John, you need serious, serious help. I can’t help you, the kids can’t help you, and the fact that you’ve kept all these… delusions to yourself for so long tells me you refuse to help yourself. What’s all this counseling been for? Why have you wasted my time? Their time? Your time? You’ve not been honest with the psychologists, and more importantly you’ve not been honest with me… I can’t do this any more, I don’t want to do this any more. I don’t deserve this, the kids don’t deserve this.”

The remainder of the conversation continued on that theme, with me too devastated to offer much protest. The evening ended with me getting no barbecue, seeing no family, and getting to see only a handful of safe and sane fireworks set off in the parking lot of the motel where I spent that first night. My accommodations would improve slightly in the days that followed, but not my life; a pool and jacuzzi in the building hardly makes up for the unending hours of devastating solitude, and the anticipation of an uncertain future.

I fear all this time alone isn’t helping my mental state. I spend my hours alternately numbing my faculties and consuming vast quantities of variable conspiracy/paranormal information. Conspiracy/paranormal writings make for deeply unhealthy reading. I have come to believe that if you read too much of someone’s insanity their mental contagion may spread to you, at least for a time. In the realm of the conspiracy/paranormal it’s almost impossible to tell who is insightfully sane and who is merely ravingly clever.

John


The Big Lie of the Space Race

May 22, 2010

This was originally included in the story I haven’t had time to complete, The Feynman Constant.

When Sputnik 1 entered orbit on October 4, 1957 America’s cold war confidence was badly shaken. The starting pistol had been fired in the space race, and we had faltered badly off the line. But we were determined to sprint the rest of the distance and cross the finish line first, a finish line that everyone came to quickly see as the moon.

A race isn’t a race without an opponent, and without the red menace pitted against us we surely would have leisurely ambled our way to the moon instead of run, just as we are now only leisurely ambling our way to mars. Ask anyone who worked the space program in these early days and they’ll tell you it was the greatest time in their professional lives, an entire lifetime of career fulfillment lived in just a decade. And it was what our country and perhaps the world so desperately needed in that instant, a way out from under all the cold war nuclear anxiety, a way to channel the tension into a more positive and contestable domain.

Not everyone believes it all happened the way it did by accident. Many within NASA felt and I suspect many continue to feel that the many frightening Soviet space firsts were the result of an intentional, passive collusion by the highest element(s) of our own government who saw the great advantage of a population and a congress initially horrified to find themselves in second place, willing to write the blankest of checks in the hopes that it would be enough to restore us to technological preeminence.

We could have gone into space at least a year before we did, but the Eisenhower administration set us on a different course. Project Orbiter which would have placed a satellite in orbit atop one of Werner Von Braun’s V2-descended Jupiter rockets was curiously rejected in favor of a much riskier and more complicated Project Vanguard. It was only a few years later, after Sputnik succeeded and a hastily launched Vanguard TV3 spectacularly failed in an explosion on the launchpad with a nervous American population watching that the Explorer program would get its chance.

In just three months NASA was able to build and launch Explorer I, a satellite hastily built by JPL deployed atop one of the Jupiter-C IRBMs that Von Braun built for the Army. We could have done that earlier. We should have done that earlier. The Soviet rocketry program was being closely watched by the CIA through its network of spies and through reconnaissance flights. Eisenhower was routinely briefed on the Soviet progress. By some accounts Eisenhower had more than six months warning that a Russian attempt to enter orbit was imminent, but he chose to stay the slow Vanguard course. With Sputnik’s launch a cover story was quickly invented by the Eisenhower administration to explain the intelligence gap, according to them, this was a quick and dirty Soviet project begun and completed in less than 30 days, hence the lack of adequate warning. The Soviets were only too eager to adopt and repeat this particular lie as it only made them seem all the more capable, able to so rapidly put together a successful and ambitious mission.

And the Russians were capable. The USSR put the first two satellites in space, Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2. The USSR put the first animal in space, Laika the dog. The USSR put the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin. The USSR conducted the first EVA, via Alexie Leonov. The USSR sent the first probe to the moon, Luna 1. The USSR even sent the first probes to other planets, to Mars (Marsnik 1) and to Venus (Venera 1). But we’ll never know how many of these early first we lost because one of our hands was tied behind out back.

The plan worked beautifully. NASA got its blank check. Kennedy took over from Eisenhower and rallied an entire nation behind the mission to the moon. And we would eventually win the race, handily; the Soviets would never even cross the finish line. And the incalculable investment we made in the technology to get us to the moon has paid dividends and provided jobs ever since. So we won in every way that mattered except one, we were dupes.

I would like to believe that we will grow into a more honorable future, where our leaders do not trick us, because they are better men than that, and where we would not let them, because we are wiser men than that.


Voyager 2 Has Flipped Its Bit

May 12, 2010

I was just alerted to this story by one of the followers of this blog…  Last month Voyager 2 began returning some unusual signals.  This story is being reported by alternate news outlets as suggesting that aliens have tampered with Voyager 2.  NASA’s own take on the story is quite a bit more conventional.

I’m afraid most of my readers will be disappointed, but I feel confident a conventional explanation is the correct one.  I’ve seen something similar happen before.

As I detailed in Curiosity of Spirit, cosmic rays can have peculiar and devastating effects on electronic hardware. In most cases, like that of Spirit, a computer’s memory can be altered, perhaps even regions of it made unusable.  I remember a meeting I was pulled into at GRC in 1992 or 1993.  A recently launched military spy satellite had suddenly become effectively unresponsive.  It continued to transmit, but its responses were unintelligible, and it didn’t appear to be receiving or reacting to messages transmitted to it.  Ordinarily NASA wouldn’t be involved since it was a military project, but other agencies were apparently being cursorily queried for ideas as the satellite was soon going to miss a burn without which it might pose a risk to other satellites.

We were being asked to spend two hours brainstorming and come up with whatever we could.  Like Voyager 2 the basic protocol was still received as expected, but the contents were no longer readable. Initial theories related to a problem with the memory used to buffer the transmissions, problems with the logic boards, problems with a recent software update, etc.  The engineer who shared the office next to mine suggested something that fit the facts perfectly. “What if the encryption key was somehow changed?” A discussion followed and by the end of the meeting this became the leading theory, that a cosmic ray or some other event had bit flipped one or more bits in the encryption key used to encrypt data for Earth and decrypt data from Earth.  With the key no longer matching the key on Earth, the satellite was effectively speaking a different and incomprehensible language.  Someone relayed our guess to whoever had asked us to be involved and about two weeks later we learned that this was in fact what happened.  Apparently it was no easy task figuring out what the key had now become.  NSA was drawn into it and put their considerable resources to bear in trying different alterations of the original key to make a new key which could decode the received data.  It took them most of those two weeks, a stable of computers, and billions of combinations tested, to find the new key (which was only a handful of bits away from the original).  Once they had the new key, all communication and control was restored.

I’m pretty confident that Voyager 2 is suffering from a similar bit flip problem.

John


Probing the Mystery of Spirit’s Censors

May 4, 2010

An article in last week’s Sun newspaper was entitled “NASA: Evidence of Life on Mars”. The piece opens very confidently:

NASA scientists last night unveiled compelling evidence of life on Mars.

A special mission to the Red Planet has revealed the likely presence of a form of pond scum – the building blocks of life as we know it.

NASA unveiled the results of the recent Opportunity and Spirit probes sent millions of miles through the solar system to discover signs of extraterrestrial life.

Sadly, NASA reacted quickly and explained that the newspaper must have simply misunderstood the results their scientists had presented.

It got me wondering, though… In my Curiosity of Spirit document I was forced to admit that Rich and I were never able to figure out just what was being censored in the images from Spirit. We couldn’t see anything worth suppressing in the thumbnails they were using to make the determination. We wondered if perhaps they were using some special filters to process the images to bring out subtle artificial or organic patterns in the image. Rich and I made a few attempts with various guessed filter settings, but we gave up as we saw nothing obviously unfamiliar pop out of the thumbnails.

I now begin to wonder if perhaps The Sun accidentally misunderstood it correctly. What if Spirit really had photographed something akin to “pond scum”. What if those mysterious persons who were looking at the Spirit thumbnails transmitted over the faster than light connection to Earth were using filters to process the images which would make organic material coating certain portions of rocks more visible. Rich and I unaided would have likely missed the discolorations, and thus their significance. I am increasingly convinced this may be the right answer to the mystery; it fits the facts so neatly.

It would be a far easier case to prove with the images (and regions) they suppressed, but if we assume they accidentally let a few images slip through, then there is still a chance; the thumbnails would surely have been hard to work with, there’s no way they could have noticed everything.

If anyone reading is available to assist in the analysis of the Spirit imagery, testing various filter settings to see if we can draw out possible organic features, please contact me.

John