The “Big Dog” Robot

This video of the “Big Dog” robot by Boston Dynamics has existed for several years and some have undoubtedly seen it before. Regardless, it is well worth watching again. I never get tired of watching it. It is remarkable the capability of this robot in keeping balance and carrying loads on all terrains. In this video Big Dog climbs in the woods, keeps its balance when kicked, is more remarkable in keeping its balance when slipping on ice than most humans, trudges through snow and mud, jogs, and climbs rubble. Check this out.

Impressive isn’t it?

Now check out this spoof. In it’s own way it is just as impressive.

Perhaps both say more about human creativity than anything else. Enjoy!

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Announcing the Space Policy and History Forum #18

The next Space Policy and History Forum takes place on December 1, 2015, and will feature Michael Meyer, the Mars Exploration Program Scientist at NASA Headquarters, presenting “Astrobiology in Action.” Please note that this forum will be held at the Applied Physics Laboratory, not our usual  location. RSPV to Nathan Bridges,, by Monday morning (Nov. 30) if you plan to attend.

Astrobiology in Action

Space Policy and History Forum #18

by Dr. Michael Meyer

Lead Scientist for the Mars Exploration Program, Science Mission Directorate, NASA Headquarters

This image shows artist’s concepts of the planets in the Kepler-37 system, the Moon and planets in the Solar System (NASA / Ames / JPL-Caltech)

This image shows artist’s concepts of the planets in the Kepler-62 system, the Moon and planets in the Solar System (NASA / Ames / JPL-Caltech)

The idea that a planetary neighbor could have life has invigorated space exploration for decades, and as we saw with Viking, “negative results” quenched missions to the red planet.  However, finding life in “azoic” environments: hydrothermal vents, nuclear reactor cores, and deep subsurface, fueled the idea that a more sophisticated and measured approach would be fruitful in the exploration of extraterrestrial worlds.

In 1995, the Exobiology Strategy for Mars Exploration posited that martian life was possible and developed a five-step plan for discovering the potential for life on Mars that required a multi-disciplinary approach.  The credible scientific underpinnings and the 1996 announcement of evidence for life in the Mars meteorite ALH84001, boosted public interest and spawned the Astrobiology Program.  In 2007, An Astrobiology Strategy for the Exploration of Mars reconfirmed the step-wise approach and that Mars sample return should be the number one priority for astrobiologists, much less other planetary scientists.  Operating missions have furthered our concept of Mars’ biological potential and the 2020 caching rover will carry out Astrobiology priorities.  The results of these missions will reveal whether Mars provided—and possibly still provides—a home for life, helping to elucidate our place in the Universe.


Dr. Meyer is responsible for the science content of current and future Mars missions, and Program Scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory – Curiosity rover mission.  He was the Senior Scientist for Astrobiology and Program Scientist for the 2001 Mars Odyssey, Mars Microprobe mission, and for two Shuttle /Mir experiments.  The Astrobiology Program, started in 1997 with him as the Discipline Scientist, is dedicated to the study of the life in the universe.  He has managed NASA’s Exobiology Program from 1994 to 1997. Dr. Meyer was also the Planetary Protection Officer for NASA, responsible for mission compliance to NASA’s policy concerning forward and back contamination during planetary exploration. Dr. Meyer has been an assistant research professor at the Desert Research Institute, University of Nevada, and has served as Associate Director and in Research for the Polar Desert Research Center, Florida State University.  In 1982, he was a visiting research scientist at the Culture Centre for Algae and Protozoa in Cambridge, England.  Dr. Meyer’s interest is in microorganisms living in extreme environments, particularly the physical factors controlling microbial growth and survival.  He has conducted field research in the Gobi Desert, Negev Desert, Siberia, the Canadian Arctic, and veteran to six expeditions to Antarctica. His experience also includes two summers working as a professional diver / treasure salvager off the coasts of Florida and North Carolina.  Dr. Meyer earned a Ph.D. and M.S. in Oceanography, Texas A&M University, and B.S. in Biology, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Date and Time

December 1 (Tuesday), 4:00-5:00 P.M. Coffee will be served from 3:30-4:00 PM.

Location, Parking, and Access

Building 200, room E100, Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, MD. This is on on the south side of Johns Hopkins Road, right off of Route 29 ( (note that Building 200 is across the street from the main APL campus).  Those using GPS should enter address 11101 Johns Hopkins Road, Laurel. There is ample parking right next to the building and access to room E100 is unrestricted.


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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Changes in the Land”

Changes in the LandChanges in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. By William Cronin. New York: Hill and Wang, 2003 edition.

Perhaps it is appropriate that this book review be done at this particular time; since it is so much about the convergence of cultures in early America and how the use of resources changed as a result. This is especially important as we pause for Thanksgiving and the bounties that are so much a part of that national holiday.

William Cronin has been a leading figure in the study of the environmental history of the American West for a generation. This book is one of the reasons why. It is an elegant study, at once entertaining and enlightening as well as seminal in its characterization of the New England frontier and the relationships of the native population to the English immigrants in their homeland.

Cronin’s thesis is straightforward. As he characterized it: “the shift from Indian to European dominance in New England entailed important changes—well known to historians—in the ways these peoples organized their lives, but it also involved fundamental reorganizations—less well known to historians—in the region’s plant and animal communities. To the cultural consequences of the European invasion—what historians sometimes call ‘the frontier process’—we must add the ecological ones as well” (p. xv). So true, but that insight was lost on many earlier historians who had previously studied native/English interactions. What Cronin offers is a well-researched, effectively-argued, and finely-honed explanation of this situation.

Chapters on the landscape and its changes over time, the different natures of agriculture among the native and English populations, ownership and patterns of use, and the interactions of both communities bring this together in a useful manner. Accessing standard historical materials as well as works in archaeology, anthropology, plant and animal science, and climatology Cronin synthesizes a major historical episode in a new way.

His greatest conclusion, at least from my perspective, harkens back to the “frontier thesis” of Frederick Jackson Turner. Turner asserted, and I believe Turner was correct that this was the case, that the broad expanse of land available dominated the thinking of Europeans coming to America and prompted a structuring of the American experience along a specific path. Cronin makes the case that this European path was uniquely destructive to the New England ecology. “They assumed the limitless availability of more land to exploit,” he wrote, “and in the long run that was impossible” (p. 169). Ultimately, Cronin noted, “the people of plenty were a people of waste” (p. 170).

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America the Great?

As we enter into the Thanksgiving season it is appropriate to give thanks for those good things around us: our loved ones, the joys in our lives, the work and play we enjoy, and the happiness in our souls. But it is also a time to reflect on ourselves as a people. I call your attention to two different commentaries, both by the actor Jeff Daniels. In the first he plays the part of Joshua Chamberlain, a central figure in the battle of Gettysburg in the Civil War. Here he speaks to troops who want to return home after their enlistments had expired about why the U.S. was engaged in that conflict.

The second is from the HBO series, “News Room,” and offers a commentary on the current state of the United States as a nation.

One calls on the highest ideals humanity embraces. The other espouses a current conception and what we may do to reclaim our ideals.

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What Do You Do for an Encore after You’ve Been to the Moon?

NASA Administrator James E. Webb meeting with President Lyndon B. Johnson.

NASA Administrator James E. Webb meeting with President Lyndon B. Johnson.

As early as January 1964 NASA administrator, James E. Webb, had been asked by President Lyndon B. Johnson for a well-developed proposal of future space objectives after the Apollo Moon landings. Webb did not want to respond; instead he tried unsuccessfully to obtain another commitment from the President for a major space effort after the Moon landing. The consequence was that there were virtually no “new starts” for NASA during this period, and certainly nothing on the order of a new piloted launch system. This was reflected in the NASA budgets of the era.

NASA Administrator James E. Webb, who served between 1968 and 1968.

NASA Administrator James E. Webb, who served between 1961 and 1968.

Even though the NASA Administrator declined to define a serious plan for NASA’s future, the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) proved willing to do it for him. PSAC issued a report in February 1967. The Space Program in the Post-Apollo Period did not endorse anything as specific as continued exploration of the Moon, and certainly not a rush to build a Moon base. Rather it proposed an organizing theme: “a program directed ultimately at the exploration of the planets by man.” Without a commitment to continued aggressive efforts in space, when he left the space agency in October 1968 Webb was embittered by what he saw as a retreat from the aggressive space program of Apollo.

When Richard Nixon took office, he appointed a Space Task Group to study post-Apollo plans and make recommendations. Chartered on February 13, 1969, under the chairmanship of Vice President Spiro T. Agnew this group met throughout the spring and summer to plot a course for the post-Apollo space program. The politics of this effort was intense. NASA lobbied hard with the Group and especially its chair for a far-reaching post-Apollo space program that included development of a space station, a reusable Space Shuttle, a Moon base, and a human expedition to Mars.

The NASA position was well reflected in the group’s report on September 15, 1969, but Nixon did not act on the Group’s recommendations. Instead, he was silent on the future of the U.S. space program for more than a year after he took office. Finally, Nixon issued a March 7, 1970, statement that clearly announced his approach toward dealing with NASA and space exploration, “we must also recognize that many critical problems here on this planet make high priority demands on our attention and our resources.”

Post-Apollo planning demonstrates a negative impact of the Moon landings—an object lesson on how not to develop and sustain a long-term strategic program of human space exploration. It seems that in part because of the pressures to achieve Apollo on the schedule mandated by JFK, the technical solutions were not sustainable. At some level the program may not have been sustainable because it was so exceptional.

NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher meeting with President Richard Nixon on January 5, 1972, corning approval of the building of the Space Shuttle.

NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher meeting with President Richard Nixon on January 5, 1972, corning approval of the building of the Space Shuttle.

The central question for NASA at the successful completion of Project Apollo was how best to continue its overall space exploration mission. This was a consideration especially important at the time because of the environment in Washington. In 1969 the newly installed administration of Richard M. Nixon was already consumed with other crises: urban unrest, race riots, the Vietnam conflict and the anti-war movement, political radicalism of the left and the right, economic recession, welfare problems, and runaway budgets.

Most importantly, Nixon had to deal with a complex debate over the consensus of a vision of America as it had been articulated for more than a generation. This sustained criticism of national character and meaning plunged the U.S. into fundamental changes, political turmoil and activism of all stripes, and a counter-culture that rejected middle-class perceptions and social construction during the 1960s.

The result was a decision to retrench. NASA’s aggressive desires to undertake a space shuttle, a space station, a lunar base, and a mission to Mars never had much chance of success. The Space Shuttle did emerge from that process, but not in the manner in which NASA engineers believed would be the case. The United States is now nearly half a century since those events and still do not have a clear direction for the human exploration of space. Where might efforts go in the future?


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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Space Careers”

Space CareersSpace Careers. By Leonard David and Scott Sacknoff. Bethesda, MD: International Space Business Council, LLC, 2015. 232 pp. ISBN: 9781887022194. $20.00 USD.

This is a very fine book that offers an introduction to the space industry and the wide variety of jobs available to those who seek careers in this arena. Everyone wants to be an astronaut at some point in their lives. For me it was when I was 10 just before I wanted to be a policeman and just after I wanted to be a fireman. I became none of those things, and most everyone will be in the same category. What is possible, however, is to pursue all types of careers in the space community even if you do not become an astronaut.

From engineers to human resources to public affairs, even historians, there are many careers working in this industry. Some are federal positions for NASA or another federal agency, some are in the private sector. All of them can be rewarding and productive, to say nothing of exciting. I recently attended a conference for safety and mission assurance officers working for NASA. What a great group of people and how critical their efforts to the success of the space program. I knew people with those skill sets worked in the program, but I had no appreciation for how central their work was to every aspect of space activities.

This handy little book is an excellent introduction to possibilities for careers in space organizations. It offers aid in the application process, where to go for information about individual jobs, what to do to prepare for a career in the space arena, and how to navigate the range of opportunities that exist. If you are seeking a career in the space industry, this is a really good way to start your process.

I should offer in the interest of full disclosure, that I have known and been friends with both Scott Sacknoff and Leonard David for years. Regardless, the information presented here is most useful. Enjoy!

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My Favorite Sitcoms

I have enjoyed many situation comedies over the years, but here are my top five favorites  You may note that Seinfeld, Cheers, All in the Family, and several others are not on my list; I know they were great series but they didn’t make the cut for me. Perhaps in another life. Of course, my list may change in the future, but for now here are my top five.

  1. The Big Bang Theory (2007-Present): This is a great show that makes geekdom look cool. Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) and Leonard Hofstadter (Johnny Galecki) are great as physicists at Caltech who share an apartment in Pasadena, along with their three friends Howard (Simon Helberg), Raj (Kunal Nayyar), and Penny (Kaley Cuoco). Sheldon gets on my nerves but I really like Leonard, and Penny is a joy. My favorite episode so far is a sweet Christmas episode, “The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis,” in which Penny gives Sheldon an autographed napkin from Leonard Nimoy and his reaction is hilarious.
  2. M*A*S*H (1972-1983): This sitcom helped me get through graduate school; Alan Alda (Hawkeye Pierce) and a brilliant ensemble cast made every episode a treat. It was airing during my time at LSU (1976-1982) and it always gave me a wonderful respite from my studies. More importantly, it was a great series that voiced many of my concerns about war, society, and prospects for the world. I cannot choose one episode for this series as my favorite but there were seven that included Col. Sam Flagg (Edward Winter) that were brilliant. He first appeared in “Deal Me Out” in season 2, a crazed counter-intelligence officer who confirmed every stereotype imaginable. His scenery-chewing performances were great. Flagg’s best line: “Nobody can get the truth out of me because even I don’t know what it is. I keep myself in a constant state of utter confusion.”
  3. The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977): This is one of the classics in the history of television, the first show to depict a career woman. No one can forget the quintessential Mary and the newsroom at WJM-TV with Ted Baxter (Ted Knight) as the anchor, Murray Slaughter (Gavin MacLeod), and the incomparable Lou Grant (Edward Asner) as the centerpiece of an ensemble cast that also included Valerie Harper, Cloris Leachman, and Betty White. My favorite episode was “Chuckles Bites the Dust” (October 25, 1975), written by David Lloyd, about the death of a clown named Chuckles who is killed while grand marshal for a circus parade. At the parade, dressed as a peanut a “rogue elephant tried to shell him” and he died from his injuries. The newsroom laughs about this but Mary is shocked at their callousness, only to come apart with laughter during the funeral. It was a great episode.
  4. Barney Miller (1974-1982): I didn’t watch Barney Miller very much until I out of graduate school but then I caught it in syndication and loved it. Hal Linden in the title role was perfect; as the series captured the drama, humor, and inanity of daily activities in New York City’s fictional 12th Precinct, located in Greenwich Village. As I wrote about this in an earlier blog post, the premise of the show was that everyone is a bit off kilter. Most are not dangerous, but they are definitely weird. My favorite episode was when they arrested a fellow that everyone believed was crazy; he claimed to be an historian from the future who had used his time machine to come back to New York for field research. When he meets Det. Arthur Dietrich, the brainy intellectual in the squad room, he gushes, “are you THE Arthur Dietrich?” He lets it be known that Dietrich will do great, memorable, historic things in the future. It was a cutting edge show with a social conscience, multicultural before that was a trite term, and just excellent all the way around.
  5. The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd (1987-1991): Blair Brown in the title role was wonderful, as was David Straithairn in a supporting role. Molly Bickford Dodd was a divorced woman in New York City adrift in society, a bit bohemian, unable to cope with the realities of life, and constantly seeking solace. She always seemed a lot more sympathetic to me than the quartet of women from Sex and the City. It’s hard to find this dramedy anywhere, there is no DVD release and it never seems to get a run in syndication, but there are some nice clips on YouTube. My favorite line is from David Straithairn’s character who announced in a classic understatement that “I love books, good books, not bad books.” I agree.
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Redirect: The Narcissistic Narcotic of the “Tech Intellectuals”

curiosityThis is a brilliant blog post by W. Patrick McCray. You do not want to miss “The Narcissistic Narcotic of the ‘Tech Intellectuals’.” It deals with what many people are calling technology intellectuals. With Twitter, Facebook, and blogs like this one the world is filled with opinion, some of it dueling opinion and some of it not well-informed opinion. But with all of the discourse, are we really any better informed than in the past? Patrick has some really interesting thoughts on this. Check it out.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Interstellar Age”

The Interstellar AgeThe Interstellar Age: Inside the Forty-Year Voyager Mission. By Jim Bell. New York: Dutton Books, Published by the Penguin Group, 2015. xi + 321. Notes and further reading, acknowledgments, index. ISBN: 978-0-525-95432-3. Hardcover with dustjacket. $27.95 USD.

Part memoir, part anecdotal history, and part sermon on the delights of science, Arizona State University planetary scientist Jim Bell presents here a captivating story of the missions of Voyagers 1 and 2 to the outer edge of the Solar System and eventually beyond. Bell is a veteran of many space science missions, including several of the recent Mars probes. He brings an in-depth, nuanced understanding of the nature of big planetary science efforts and a deft writing style to this popular account of the Voyager mission.

Voyager had assumed legendary proportions before Bell’s book, although The Interstellar Age certainly adds to it. Conceived in the 1960s, launched in the 1970s, and encountering all of the larger outer planets of the Solar System between the latter 1970s and the 1990s, the Voyager spacecraft continue on an interstellar mission at the Heliopause where the Sun’s solar wind meets the interstellar medium. The twin Voyager probes might best be characterized, and this may be an understatement, “the little spacecraft that could.”

Jim Bell writes about how in the early 1960s several scientists realized that once every 176 years both the Earth and all the giant planets of the Solar System gather on one side of the Sun, making possible close-up observation of them all in what has been dubbed the “Grand Tour.” Moreover, the flyby of each planet could through “gravity assist,” something like a slingshot effect, increase velocity and reduce flight times between planets by several years. Such a configuration occurred in the 1970s, and the Voyagers took advantage of it.

Bell describes how politics entered into planning; even though the ­four-­planet scenario was possible NASA deemed it too expensive to build a spacecraft that could go the distance, carry the instruments needed, and last long enough to accomplish such an extended mission. With insufficient money for the Grand Tour, Voyager had to be down-scoped to a Jupiter/Saturn flyby. Nonetheless, engineers designed as much longevity into the two Voyagers as the $865 million bud­get would allow. NASA launched them from the Kennedy Space Center; Voyager 2 lifted off on August 20, 1977, and Voyager 1 entered space on a faster, shorter trajectory on September 5, 1977.

Hanging out with the science team during encounters while still a student, Bell describes how they achieved their objectives and then some at Jupiter and Saturn and then added flybys of the two outermost giant planets, Uranus and Neptune. Bell reports how as the two spacecraft flew, ground controllers reconfigured the Voyagers for extended operations. It was no easy task, the technology was old even then, but mission engineers and scientists made it work.

Eventually the Voyagers explored all the giant outer planets, 48 of their moons, and the unique systems of rings and magnetic fields those planets possess. They sent back to Earth well over 100,000 images of the outer planets, rings, and satellites, and took magnetic, chemical spectra, and radiation measurements. The two spacecraft returned information that revo­lu­tionized Solar System science, helping resolve key questions while raising intriguing new ones about the origin and evolution of the planets. Bell is at his best in telling the human stories of discovery, excitement, and public engagement.

By 2015 Voyager 1 had reached more than 130 Astronomical Units (AU) from the Sun, and Voyager 2 was at more than 107 AU. After picking up velocity from gravity assist, Voyager 1 has the greatest velocity and is leaving the solar system at about 3.6 AU per year. Voyager 2 has a slightly lower velocity, at 3.3 AU annually. They continue to take readings of the Heliopause.

It is very unlikely that either of these spacecraft will ever be seen by any alien civilization, but they are prepared if it ever happens. Thanks to Carl Sagan, one of Jim Bell’s heroes, they both contain messages from Earth. Affixed to the spacecraft’s exterior are gold-covered phonograph records and covers with instructions for use. Encoded on the records are 115 images showing scenes from Earth, audio greetings in several languages, and musical selections ranging from Bach to Chuck Berry. This “message in a bottle” is one of the most popular attributes of this mission, and Bell explains well its publicity value as well as its general “feel good” sentiment about the possibility of life beyond Earth someday encountering it.

If Apollo was the greatest achievement in NASA history, and I believe it was, the success of the Voyagers is also exceptionally high on the space agency’s list of accomplishments. Bell appropriately quotes historian Stephen Pyne on this significance: “The Voyagers were special when they launched. They have become more so thanks to their longevity, the breadth of their discoveries, the cultural payload they carried, and the sheer audacity of their quest” (pp. 291-92).

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My Trip to Shanghai, October 26-31, 2015

Roger Launius with the Pudong District in the background.

Roger Launius with the Pudong District in the background.

I recently had the opportunity to visit Shanghai, China, for the first time. What an experience. It is a city of contrasts and contradictions, as well as excitement and enchantment. Perhaps that is the case with every place worldwide, but it is abundantly clear for Shanghai. A center of European influence, Shanghai in the nineteenth century became one of the largest ports in the world and a giant in trade and industry. It has continue this into the present. With a population of some 24 million in the metropolitan area it is astounding. Traffic problems abound, of course, but so do skyscrapers and expansive thoroughfares. The heart of the city is the Bund, a waterfront lined with colonial-era buildings. One of them had been turned into a “Forever Twenty-One” store, oh my! Great restaurants abound. The Oriental Pearl TV Tower in the Pudong District, taller than the Eiffel Tower, dominates the skyline but it is far from the tallest structure in the city.

Jing'an Temple in Shanghai.

Jing’an Temple in Shanghai.

I visited the Jing’an Buddhist Temple that for me captured the essence of this remarkable city. Centuries old, of course, it rests in the center of the city with skyscrapers surrounding it. Visitors worshiped or just looked around, but the critical experience was when a monk in his proper robes left a ceremony to answer his mobile phone. How ironic. Visiting this sacred space was a high point for me. I have a Christian background and have visited many different religious sites around the world. This experience was as moving as any I have ever experienced. I watched as a old man and a small girl, I assume it was his granddaughter, both picked up burning incense and bowed, prayed, and signified at the four cardinal points in the center courtyard. Then, they took turns throwing coins into a stand in the middle of the courtyard. It was a great experience.

The reason I went to Shanghai was because a friend on the faculty at New York University-Shanghai, Alexander Geppert, invited me to come engage with his on the history of spaceflight and give a lecture to the public. I had a great time doing this. My public lecture, “Humans vs. Robots in Space” was well-attended and truly invigorating. It was discussed in the Shanghai Daily at this site. I had a grand time, and I hope all others did as well.

Launius in Shanghai

Alexander Geppert and me standing in front of a display in the Metro station about the Chinese space program.

I really enjoyed my time in Shanghai and I commend it to all who might want to visit. My thanks to my fine hosts at NYU-Shanghai and my thanks to all I met with and saw during my visit there.

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