Thursday Throughput for 3/28/2019

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Michael Siegel

Michael Siegel is an astronomer living in Pennsylvania. He is on Twitter, blogs at his own site, and has written a novel.

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  1. Avatar Oscar Gordon
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    01: It’s been 40 years, those suits have got to be getting ripe, I don’t care how well you wash them. Quip aside, how in the hell do we not have better suits? I’ve seen tons of articles talking about new suit concepts, and contests to develop new suit technologies, and somehow no one has managed to give NASA a line item for getting some new suits?

    I’m mean, sure, each one is essentially a tiny spaceship (especially if they have the MMU!), but that is key equipment!

    (Yes, I know the suits at the links aren’t fit for a space walk, but they do show that the technology has advanced and we could pretty easily have new EVA space suits.)Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Oscar Gordon
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      says:

      Like the characters in Middle Earth, we wander through the great things that other people built long ago… incapable of building similar despite our certainty that we are more advanced because we came afterwards.Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Jaybird
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        We can build them, it’s just a case of spending priorities. Politicians really care about astronauts when they can be a photo-op, or when they blowup. But the day to day kind of stuff, like having EVA suits that didn’t see the turn of the century…

        I will be curious if, once this fades from the news cycle, will the Democratic controlled house still care enough about this intersection of science and feminism to put it in the budget and keep it there?Report

        • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Oscar Gordon
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          Can we? I know that the military keeps buying some types of planes in small quantities, just enough that the manufacturers don’t scrap all of the specialized “tools and jigs” necessary. IIRC, the EMUs run about $12M each, which is perfectly reasonable for a small “spaceship” — but there’s a good chance that since none have been purchased for decades, all of the manufacturing knowledge and infrastructure for them is long gone.

          One of the things that NASA turns out to be pretty bad at is knowledge retention beyond 10-15 years.Report

          • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Michael Cain
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            says:

            Honestly, I don’t know that I’d want them trying to follow what was done back in the 70’s. Things have come a very long way, and people are still working the problem, even if no one has actually ordered up an EVA suit in a couple of decades.

            The fact that we’ve been doing EVAs for 4 decades will strongly inform the changes that need to be made. We’ve learned a lot about what that environment does to material and people in that time.

            We should start from (mostly) scratch.Report

            • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Oscar Gordon
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              says:

              The Z suits are an ongoing project, on which NASA has spent a cumulative $200M. The biggest problem seems to be that NASA can’t make up its mind, and is unwilling to build three different suits, so is looking for one design that is suitable for EVAs in micro-gravity, for the surface of the moon, and for the surface of Mars.

              Standard tech problem: when do you say, “good enough”, and build it?Report

    • Avatar George Turner in reply to Oscar Gordon
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      says:

      China’s Shenzhou suit costs about $12,000. That’s a lot of money for something you’re not going to wear very often.Report

    • Avatar Morat20 in reply to Oscar Gordon
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      says:

      Last I checked they were working on it, but I suspect that the problem traces back to the usual budgetary politics.

      In short, NASA can’t plan anything well, much less follow through, because Congress keeps jacking around with funding and priorities pretty much yearly.

      Did you hear Pence decided we’re going to be back at the moon by 2024? I mean he didn’t allocate money for it, or hand NASA a time machine so they could have sufficient time, but NASA now has to pretend — and spend money, lest they piss of the WH, on what is effectively sheer, condensed stupidity.

      “We have a return to the moon plan. It’s not by 2024, because we want people to actually get there and also not die and also not require unicorns to fly them there. We have a reasonable time frame to do a very complicated thing, using very complicated tools that aren’t fully built — whose budget, I might add, keeps getting jacked around — and now this idiot walks in, decides 2024 is the new goal, and we HAVE to waste money, effort, and time pretending we take this seriously.”

      The Space Station took so long to build, and cost so much, because about every three years Congress would unilaterally change the funding, design goals, size, number of people it would support, and which nations were and weren’t part of it. And then two years later, Congress would get angry because it was behind schedule and over cost, and slash the budget. Then the next year it’d change all those goals and the budget again. And the whole time NASA was basically painstakingly trying to keep some sane design thread going, using whatever spit and bailing wire it had handy to keep valuable engineers onboard rather than quitting for a job in a sane field.

      If that’s what happens with high profile goals (Wasn’t Bush enamored of Mars? Then during the Obama years it was new lifters, then the Moon, then cancelled lifters, then not the Moon, now the Moon again but privately, and now the Moon in 5 years using an imaginary rocket. I think I missed a Mars in there), I can only imagine what sort of ridiculousness happens to something terribly boring like “space suit design”.

      SpaceX has a huge advantage from the simple fact that Musk isn’t replaced with a different “visionary” with a different pocket size and a different vision every two years.Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Morat20
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        says:

        Honestly, this is the reason we should let private interests take the lead with Space, because our politicians can stay on task any longer than the latest news cycle (which isn’t saying too much, since most corporate types have an attention span measured by the quarter).Report

        • Avatar Morat20 in reply to Oscar Gordon
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          Space is unaffordable without government money.

          The only reason privatized spaceflight is working is pretty simple: The magic of contracts. The government doesn’t really care if it jacks itself around (say, strangling half of a NASA project, or making a change that requires a complete redesign and re-verification process that doubles the cost), but they do have issues trying to jack around companies with 5 year contracts to do specific work.

          Moreover, there is enough private space industry to basically ‘paper the gaps’ over.

          I’m involved enough in aerospace to assure you that SpaceX floats on a lot of government money, for instance. It helps having a de-pocketed set of investors.

          But frankly, NASA — or hell, much of government — could do work just as well if they had a longer budgetary time horizon. “Five year plans” have a bad smell to them for a reason, but even something as simple as Congress holding itself to commitments longer than a single budget cycle would help.

          NASA was never able to replace the Shuttle because, at least count, Congress had authorized and then canceled at least three separate replacements. And each re-authorization had a different enough goal (and enough institutional knowledge and engineers were lost) that NASA couldn’t just pick up where they’d left it.

          I know a number of the folks working on those projects ended up at SpaceX.

          It’s weird that the military can push through a jet from initial request for proposals to delivery over ten years without these dropouts, but NASA core requirements can’t go two years without someone yanking something until it breaks. Then again, NASA’s budget is a rounding error to the DoD.Report

          • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Morat20
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            says:

            Oh, I know the private companies live on government funding, but as you say, a contract is a contract. SpaceX isn’t going to agree to a contract that could be unilaterally renegotiated or pulled every year or two, at least not more than once or twice.

            It’s probably getting close to time when NASA exists more as a funding agency than a doing agency, where they spend the bulk of there time reviewing proposals and issuing grants, contracts, etc. Kinda like the (IIRC) NIH does.Report

      • Avatar George Turner in reply to Morat20
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        NASA has the problem that many older, large, bureaucratic organizations have, which is the accumulation of lots of rules and procedures that can be used to make sure that nobody can get anything done.

        They knew they had to replace the Shuttle after the Columbia disaster in February of 2003. Sticking as close they could to the Shuttle components that they’d been flying for 20 years seemed like the fastest way to roll out a new rocket, at least after abandoning the Ares 1, which was the world’s largest corn dog. So they decided to modify a Shuttle external tank, propel it with the same RS-25 engines as the Shuttle, and use the 5-segment booster that was flown for Ares 1.

        Well, it took NASA two years to build a new launch tower for Ares 1, and then at least eight years to modify it for the SLS. But it developed a significant lean so they think they’ll just use it once. They’ll have spent about $1.3 billion on it by then. That’s for a launch tower, not a MARS rocket.

        The rocket is coming even slower, and may launch the manned EM-2 mission in 2022, if all goes well. The time span from the Columbia disaster to flying the first manned mission with the SLS will be longer than it took to go from John Glenn’s mission in Friendship 7 to flying the Space Shuttle Columbia into orbit.

        Alan Turing said the reason the Americans beat the British to build the world’s first computer is that the American’s wanted a computer, whereas the British wanted a well managed computer development program. That’s an apt description of the situation with the SLS. It’s a well managed program that will never build flyable hardware in any significant quantity. It will launch so infrequently that each launch will be a test launch.

        The program has already cost $14 billion as of 2018, and by the time it flies a manned mission it will have cost about $22 billion and put 200 tonnes into LEO in two launches. That cost is enough to have bought 244 Falcon Heavy missions, which is the rocket that sent Musk’s Tesla roadster past the orbit of Mars, and 244 such launches would have put 15,500 tonnes into LEO, not just 200 tonnes.

        And Musk has said it would be trivial to throw together a Falcon Super Heavy with four Falcon 9 first stage boosters around the core instead of two, and that would have a bigger payload to LEO than the SLS Block 2 and only cost about $135 million a launch. Estimates for the cost of each SLS launch, ignoring the sunk program costs, are $1.5 to $2.5 billion.

        It’s simply not a sustainable program because there’s a competitor with a far better product, launching far more often, for somewhere between 7 and 12 percent as much per per pound to orbit, not including reusing the boosters, which will make the cost ratio for the SLS even worse. The people who write the checks are eventually going to explain that to taxpayers.

        The extended development delays and costs on the SLS program also raise other kinds of questions surrounding rocket development programs that are reusing hardware developed in the 1970’s, but that stretch for almost two decades without flying anything.

        At some point I think it becomes ethically wrong to launch a rocket like that because its designers and builders have basically grown up beside it, letting the constant presence of its smooth aluminum skin become a comforting part of their lives. NASA retirees can return to Michoud, trace their hands along it, happy that it’s still there for them, just like it was when they first got a job at NASA.

        I don’t think that should change. We’re eventually going to travel into deep space, and someday an astronaut is going to land on a planet controlled by apes. The sight of the still unfinished SLS is how he’ll realize that the planet is Earth.Report

  2. Avatar Jaybird
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    says:

    ThTh4: While I understand that HFCS conspiratorial thinking is conspiratorial thinking and conspiratorial thinking is bad, there are a lot of correlations with HFCS that I wouldn’t mind seeing more studies investigate.

    Plus, whenever I see official denials, I get jumpy.

    Report

    • Avatar Morat20 in reply to Jaybird
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      says:

      I find it interesting how quickly we ended up banning trans fats. My recollection is it went from “These seem pretty bad to you” to “But we can’t get rid of them, they hold all our food together! Do you know how runny the peanut butter will be?” to NY banning it and then suddenly everyone just ditching it.

      My peanut butter is still creamy. Apparently it was not the food additive of necessity.

      Of course the science on how awful trans fats turns out to be was pretty straightforward, and HFCS’ role in overall health doesn’t seem nearly so linear and neat, but as you note — it’s showing up as a correlation in so many places that it’s definitely a bit worrisome and definitely worth of some more intense study.

      It’s at least simple to sub for with regular sugar, although that would cause a small price rise. I find it hard to believe the rather small differences between sugar and HFCS (a slight difference in the rations of fructose to sucrose, and the fact that HFCS the sucrose and fructose aren’t bonded to each other) would make much of a difference at all, but then again we’ve been learning lately that small changes in your gut biome can make a huge difference in health, so…

      Yeah, I’d like to see some focused studies. Worst case, if it turns out to be problematic, at least the solution is straightforward.Report

    • Avatar Bert The Turtle in reply to Jaybird
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      I agree that HFCS is the current demon du jour, but I’m not inclined to reject these results out of hand. I scanned the linked article and it looks like they didn’t include cane sugar sweetened water as a second control. My understanding is that there’s other evidence out there that sugar promotes tumor growth. Which makes sense if you consider that sucrose is a nice, easily converted source of energy for cellular growth.

      It would be more interesting to me if the HFCS had a different effect on tumor growth than sugar. But I didn’t see that addressed in the article.Report

      • Avatar Michael Siegel in reply to Bert The Turtle
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        says:

        I’m leery of HCFS myself. I’m not sure it’s healthy at all and I wish we didn’t have the subsidies/tariffs that make it standard. However, I am always hesitant to embrace health panics and there is a tendency to take any study showing HCFS is bad at full faith.Report

  3. Avatar Pinky
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    ThTh8 – That planet should be called a super-India, not a super-Jupiter. Unbearable heat, horrible storms, and carbon monoxide. Still, this is a fascinating field of study.Report

  4. Avatar Road Scholar
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    says:

    ThTh2: I think the suggested shift from talking about “significance” to “compatibility” would be a good move, if for no other reason than the word “significance” carries a connotation of “importance”, which is wholly unrelated to the actual concept they’re trying (or should be trying) to convey. Another good move would be to quit thinking of statistical significance (or compatibility) as a binary yes/no but more of a sliding scale of “how likely are these results showing something real?”Report

  5. Avatar Road Scholar
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    says:

    ThTh01: It’s sort of ironic when you consider that the first space suits were built by Playtex, a company known mostly for manufacturing ladies unmentionables.Report

  6. Avatar Rob McMillin
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    says:

    I heartily applaud the locution “nontroversy”, and plan on using it at every ripe opportunity. I see I will have no shortage of targets.Report

  7. Avatar Slade the Leveller
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    says:

    [ThTh1] Just how much getting ready of the suit is there? I would have thought you’d be able to jump in one pretty quick. What if you had to evacuate the station.Report

    • Putting on the diaper to absorb/confine wastes the life support can’t handle. Putting on the “long underwear” that contains the active system that actually cools/heats the astronaut. 45 minutes of breathing pure oxygen to get enough nitrogen out of the blood to avoid a serious case of the bends. 15 minutes to don the suit proper.

      The emergency evacuation plan is the two Soyuz capsules always docked at the station.Report

    • Avatar Morat20 in reply to Slade the Leveller
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      says:

      Slow. I’m not even sure it can “technically” be done solo, but I know in practice it requires at least one person aiding the astronaut. Two is better. Even in zero-G.

      It’s big, stiff, cumbersome and awkward. Doing anything in it is worse.

      It’s a tiny little person-shaped spaceship, after all, that has to handle air, pressure, temperature, life support, humidity, and a dozen other things, in (to sadly quote the movie Armageddon) “The worst environment imaginable”.Report

  8. Avatar Mike Schilling
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    says:

    Beresheet (buh-ray-sheet) literally means “in the beginning”; it’s also the Hebrew name for the Book of Genesis, because it’s the first word of Genesis (“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”)Report

  9. Avatar Kolohe
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    says:

    Thth1 – I had not idea the ISS had only 5 years left. Will there still be a permanent human presence in space in 2025?Report

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