Friday, January 26, 2007

Important Safety Announcement

I realize that safety is very important to NASA, it's important to me too, but sometimes I think the safety folks at JSC must have too much free time on their hands.

This is the important safety message we were greeted with this morning:


All of us at JSC have seen the Space Center Houston tram taking visitors on a tour of this center. A safety issue has come up when the tram is parked and awaiting the return of the visitors from their visit into one of our buildings. Some JSC personnel, when faced with the long tram in their path, have decided to step over the trailer hitches that hold the tram together instead of walking around. This unsafe act could lead to injuries. We recommend you take the extra moment to safely walk around the tram after ensuring that it is not about to begin moving. Safety at JSC is everyone's business.

Point of contact: Dave Youngman, x41336


Thursday, January 25, 2007

On the Senate Side...

Apparently, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee also organized their subcommittees yesterday.

The former "Science and Space" subcommittee is now the "Space, Aeronautics, and Related Sciences" subcommittee. And there is now a subcommittee called "Science, Technology, and Innovation" which presumably will cover the rest of science. The space subcommittee with be chaired by Bill Nelson (FL), with Kay Bailey Hutchison (TX) as the ranking member, so they just flip-flop their roles from the 109th.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Science Subcommittee Chairs Chosen

The Science Committee announced today the subcommittee chairs for the 110th Congress and we also found out that it has reorganized it's subcommittee structure. Not only have they added a 5th committee dedicated to Investigations and Oversight, but topics have been redistributed in the other four committees as well. Below are the new subcommittee mastheads I designed last weekend (yeah, I still do a little pro-bono work for the science committee now and again)and my personal take on the new structure and chairs:

The only committee that remains untouched is the Space and Aeronautics subcommittee. That committee even retains Mark Udall (CO-2) (who was ranking member last session) as it's lead. Mark did a great job as ranking member and I'm sure he will continue to be a strong advocate for space despite the loss of his science legislative assistant (she abandoned the Hill for law school last fall). His new LA was an intern on the science committee staff while I was there, so I know firsthand that she is fabulous. Her background is in science, though more environment than space, but I have no doubts that she will get up to speed quickly. While Mr. Udall is generally supportive of the President's vision, his record shows that he is also very concerned about the recent cuts in science and aeronautics. He has pushed hard for the Hubble repair mission and for terrestrial remote sensing. His district is home to the University of CO as well as Ball Aerospace and other aerospace industry.

My Congressman, Nick Lampson (TX-22)has been named chair of the subcommittee on Energy and Environment. Yay Nick! Nick's record shows that he's somebody who gets things done and I think that he will really have a chance to shine here. As much as I love Mr. Udall, I am a little disappointed that Nick didn't get Space, but I'm sure that this new subcommittee will be a very important one in this congress. And I'm sure that Nick will still have a voice on space issues as a member of the space subcommittee.

Brian Baird (WA-3) will take the helm of the Research and Science Education subcommittee. Science Education is a topic that has traditionally been handled by the Research Subcommittee, so I don't think a lot is changing here except the name. (which just reflects the weight that Chairman Gordon's give to importance of education). Rep. Baird replace Darlene Hooley, who was ranking member in the last session and is not returning to the Science Committee this year. Rep. Baird is beginning his 4th term and I belive that this is his first chairmanship, so congrats Mr. Baird!

David Wu (OR-1) has been selected to chair the Technology and Innovation subcommittee. I imagine that this encompasses what's left of the former ETS (Environment, Technology, and Standards) subcommittee now that Environment has joined forces with Energy. I suppose this committee is also a reaction to all of the competitivness discussions from last Congress, which I'm sure are going to continue. I'm glad they broke up Environment, Technology, and Standards. It was too long to say and nobody outside of the Committee know what the heck ETS was. Mr. Wu may be most familiar to you from his recent declaration of "faux Klingons in the White House" but he did a good job as the ranking member of the ETS subcommittee, and I think he'll do just fine as chair.

Finally, Brad Miller (NC-13) is the chair of the new subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight. Mr. Miller is beginning his third term in the House and I believe that this is also his first chairmanship. I'm interested to see what this committee does. Personally, it seems to me that the best oversight can be accomplished by those who know the most about an issue, i.e. the committee that covers that issue. I'm not sure that you will get better oversight by distancing the problem from the committee that handles the agency with the problem. Like I said, I'm not really sure how this is going to work, but I'm sure they had reasons for doing it, so I hope they prove me wrong. I am positive that we will see more oversight under the Dems than we did with the Republicans in power, so do I hope that this committee will be busy.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Moon Dust on NPR

A discussion of Moon dust was featured on NPR today, including a mention of the meeting I'm going to next week at Ames (aka The Big Dust Up).

Friday, January 19, 2007

Beagle 2: A Fortunate Failure

A friend at work sent me this link to a 2004 article by Jeff Bell (Univ of Hawaii) on why it's a good thing that the Beagle 2 crashed. Did I say article? Rant is probably a better term, but it's a highly entertaining rant. I particularly enjoyed his description of MetSoc meetings...
Year after year, distinguished scientists with impeccable records of measuring obscure isotope ratios would step up to the podium and give 10-minute slide talks about how their particular pet isotope PROVES BEYOND A SHADOW OF DOUBT that (e.g.) tektites are actually volcanic glass bombs ejected from Io!!! Other isotope scientists in the audience would roll their eyes uncontrollably, and then in the question time methodically demolish this insane model with an assumed air of seriousness, bringing up dozens of other isotopic ratios that totally disproved it. The speaker would smilingly admit that he knew nothing about those other isotopes, having spent the last 30 years in his lab measuring his own pet isotope with no spare time to read the Journal of Obscure Isotopes.

Ahhh, good times.

Many returning, and some new, faces on the House Science Committee roster

Democratic committee members were officially assigned to the House Science and Technology Committee yesterday. Quite a few are returning members, though there are a few new names as well.

Returning from the 109th:
* BART GORDON, Tennessee (Chairman) - a good guy who really cares about science, he will do a great job leading this committee.
* Jerry F. Costello, Illinois
* Eddie Bernice Johnson, Texas
* Lynn C. Woolsey, California
* Mark Udall, Colorado - a heck of a mountain climber, and a real advocate for environment and space issues, also the former ranking member of the Space Subcommittee (and personally, one of my favorite congressmen).
* David Wu, Oregon - who is definitely not a Klingon and was the ranking member of the ETS Subcommittee.
* Brian Baird, Washington - who you may have seen holding his own (and holding Stephen's sausage) on Better Know a District earlier this week.
* Brad Miller, North Carolina
* Daniel Lipinski, Illinois
* Michael M. Honda, California - was the ranking member of Energy.
* Jim Matheson, Utah
* Russ Carnahan, Missouri
* Charlie Melancon, Louisiana - from what's left of the district just south of New Orleans.

Notably not returning:
Sheila Jackson Lee and Al Green, both from the Houston area, which is a bit of a loss for JSC (though we did pick up Nick!), plus I really liked Al Green (We shared a moment - the first speech I wrote that was read on the House floor, I wrote for Al, who was enjoying his first shot at controlling floor time. It was for some silly and forgotten resolution congratulating the women of NASA for their contributions to the space program, but it was kind of a big moment for both of us). Also Darlene Hooley, who was ranking member of the Research subcommittee.

Returning from the 108th:
* Nick Lampson, Texas - My own congressman from Texas' 22nd district, I'm so excited to have Nick back on the science committee. I expect great things from him.

New Faces:
* Gabrielle Giffords, Arizona - A new congressman, she comes with a business background and is quite proud of her environmental record.
* Jerry McNerney, California - Another newbie,who has no biography up on his webpage yet, but comes from a district east of San Fransico, not too far from NASA Ames.
* Steven R. Rothman, New Jersey - Now in his 6th term, he sits on Approps as well, and also considers himself an environmentalist.
* Mike Ross, Arkansas - In his 4th term, he is a Blue Dog and also sits on Energy and Commerce.
* Ben Chandler, Kentucky - This is his 2nd term, he's also a Blue Dog, and has a seat on Approps, which is pretty good for only his 2nd term.
* Baron P. Hill, Indiana - A newbie with no bio up on his site yet
* Harry E. Mitchell, Arizona - This newbie is a former gov't/economics high school teacher and Mayor of Tempe.
* Charles A. Wilson, Ohio - A newbie with a business background who also sits on Financial Services and is strongly committed to public education.

And there are still two vacancies yet to be filled (sadly Science is not really one of the more competitive committees).

On the Republican side, members returning from the 109th Congress include:
* RALPH HALL (Texas), Ranking Republican Member - a former Democrat, he flipped sides with the Republican revolution
* Lamar Smith, Texas
* Dana Rohrabacher, California - Former Reagan speechwriter and avid surfer, he's very outspoken and big on using space for defense purposes.
* Ken Calvert, California - was the chairman of the space subcommittee
* Roscoe G. Bartlett, Maryland
* Vernon J. Ehlers, Michigan - one of the two physicists in Congress, and he won't let you forget it, but generally a nice guy who's really passionate about science.
* Frank D. Lucas, Oklahoma
* Judy Biggert, Illinois - former chair of the energy subcommittee
* Jo Bonner, Alabama
* Tom Feeney, Florida
* Bob Inglis, South Carolina
* Michael T. McCaul, Texas
* W. Todd Akin, Missouri
* Randy Neugebauer, Texas
* Mario Diaz-Balart, Florida

Returning from previous Congresses:
* F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin - he's been in Congress since 1978 and even served as Chairman of the Science Committee from 1997-2000.

New members:
* Phil Gingrey, Georgia - Entering his third term, he is a pro-life OB-GYN with an undergraduate degree in chemistry.
* Brian P. Bilbray, California - served in Congress from 1994-2001 and returned in 2006, he is interested in energy and environmental issues.
* Adrian Smith, Nebraska - A newbie with no bio posted yet.

The Republicans also have one vacancy still to be filled.

As far as Committee staff, I noticed that Dahlia Sokolov, one of my fellow fellows, and former officemate, successfully made the leap from Republican staff to Dem staff. She'll be working with the Research Subcommittee, on oversight of research and education programs at the National Science Foundation. Yay Dahlia!

Subcommittee chairs were supposed to be named this week, but so far, no word on that front.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

This made me laugh today...

For the Battlestar Galactica fans - if you haven't seen this yet, you have to check it out. The blooper reel from the season 3.0 cast wrap party. Very funny, careful though, some NSFW content!

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Jack's Back

24 has finally returned, and in fine style, if you're really into torture, that is. I'm sure tonight's torture scenes were no worse than some of the previous seasons (that one with the power sander still tops the list as far as I'm concerned). I guess it's just been a while and I had forgotten. I definitely found it a bit disturbing, but of course, that's the point, it's supposed to be disturbing. It's supposed to make us question our beliefs and think about the price of our safety and our freedom. Which, yeah, it does pretty well, but mostly, it's an hour a week of heart-pounding non-stop action. I'm so glad it's back, even if I have to look away from the torture occasionally.

TVSquad dug up this handy and impressive web page that lists all the people that Jack has killed (and how he did it - complete with pics and video of every kill) in his efforts to keep America safe. 136 people in the first 5 seasons, that's slightly more than one person an hour. Of course, he added to the body count tonight, including the dude he took out vampire-style. Gross.

Tomorrow is the exciting "conclusion" to the premiere (anybody else think it's odd that the promos are calling hours 3 and 4 a conclusion?). I'm thinking about playing 24 Bingo.

Friday, January 12, 2007

This made me laugh today...

The Tools of Public Transportation

I admit that since moving to Houston, I miss the DC metro. As I sit in the ridiculous NASA Road 1 traffic (seriously people, my 3 mile commute should not take 30 minutes), I often wax nostalgic about my metro experiences. This post though, reminded me of some of the less attractive aspects of public transport. I had almost forgotten about the pole-spooners.

More news on NASA's 07 budget

Well, it's not looking good for science. This article in Aviation Week talks about the funding situation and Griffin's priorities for making up the 1/2 billion in shortfalls due to the continuing resolution situation.

"We will find what we believe are the lowest priority half-billion dollars in content, and we'll extract it, across the agency," he says, stressing that does not mean programs at the core of the redirected U.S. space program as defined by President Bush almost three years ago.

"I will do everything I can to keep Orion and Ares I on schedule," he says. "That will be right behind keeping shuttle and station on track, and then after that we'll fill up the bucket with our other priorities."

None of this is surprising of course, and Griffin really has no choice, there just is not enough money to go around. The important thing is that the money we have for science is spent wisely. Griffin's plan, as he's said many times in the past is to target "...a fairly new, lower priority effort where not a lot of money has already been invested, and by stopping it now you can react and not have to spend future money that you know you're not going to get." This, in the abstract, is the right plan, but reality is never quite so simple.

The truth is that from the day he took over, Griffin has already been facing an impossible task, expected to accomplish too much with too little. Unfortunately, the continuing resolution issue has seriously compounded his problems this year. I wish him luck.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

What kind of American Accent do you have?

This was kind of a fun quiz. Apparently I cannot escape my roots, even after being away for nearly a decade, I guess I still sound like a Minnesotan:

What American accent do you have?
Your Result: The Inland North

You may think you speak "Standard English straight out of the dictionary" but when you step away from the Great Lakes you get asked annoying questions like "Are you from Wisconsin?" or "Are you from Chicago?" Chances are you call carbonated drinks "pop."

What American accent do you have?
Quiz Created on GoToQuiz

Going Metric on the Moon - update

So NASA apparently made the official announcement yesterday that we are definitely going metric on the Moon. also has some comments on the topic.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

The funniest thing I found on the internet today

Ever play that game where you add "in bed" to the end of your fortune cookie fortune? This guy has substituted "pants" into several hundred lines of Star Wars dialogue. For example, "These aren’t the pants you’re looking for." Enjoy.

What does the continuing resolution mean for NASA?

For those of you that don't follow the congressional budget on a regular basis, you may not be aware, but last year's Congress failed to do their job, passing budgets only for Homeland Security and the military, the rest of the budget bills were punted for the next Congress to deal with. This is not that unusual, Congress often has trouble completing all the budgets before the end of the year. Some year's (like 2005) they end up lumping everything together into one huge "omnibus" bill that no one has time to read or evaluate, but everyone votes for because they want to go home. Other years they pass a "continuing resolution," or CR, that sort of puts everything on hold until after the holidays, keeping all the budgets at last year's levels until things are sorted out. That's what's happened this year, but the CR expires on Feb 15th and the new congress has decided to do something somewhat unusual, they are just going to extend it until the end of the year, effectively skipping over the 2007 budget so they can get to work on the 2008 budget.

The way a CR works is that it requires that funding be held at either 2006 levels or the level of the President's 2007 request, which ever is lower. This basically maintains the status quo and keeps spending levels down, which in theory doesn't sound so terrible. The problem here is that beyond the simply inflationary increase that we are missing, NASA and most non-NIH sciences were due to get a pretty hefty bump this year thanks to the Vision for Space Exploration and all the Competitiveness Inititive stuff.

This article in the NYTimes gives a pretty good summary of what the current budget delays means for science research and talks about some of the specific projects that are being threatened. There are only two sentences about NASA: "Missions at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration are also threatened, with $100 million in cuts. Paul Hertz, the chief scientist at NASA’s science mission directorate, said potential victims included programs to explore Mars, astrophysics and space weather." I'm not sure where exactly that $100M figure comes from, I assume that's only from SMD (the Science Mission Directorate), not all of NASA, I'm pretty sure the total NASA shortfall is quite a bit more than that, not even including the extra $1B that the Senate was trying to get added to the '07 budget.

My fear is that NASA will compound these science shortfalls by stealing even more from SMD to feed the ESMD Monster (the new Vision stuff). This sort of budgeting is not just a short term problem that can be fixed next year. The truth is that many of NASA's finest scientists are in "soft money" positions. They rely largely or entirely on grant money to feed and clothe themselves. Those grants are becoming harder and harder to get as R&A (research and analysis) funds are drying up. If they don't get grants, they leave the field, and chances are, they aren't coming back. I see up and coming scientists (myself included) realizing that spending more time writing proposals than doing science and constantly worrying about where the next paycheck is going to come from is not really the lifestyle we were looking for when we signed up.

Friday, January 5, 2007

Women, Politics, and Fox News

There is some scathing commentary on Fox new's coverage at News Hounds of Nancy Pelosi's historic swearing in yesterday that I thought was pretty interesting:

"Pelosi does not fit the mold of "fair and balanced" femininity espoused on Fox News: women are either innocent victims, like Natalee Holloway, or they are whores, like the accuser in the Duke lacrosse rape case. Pelosi threatens to upset Fox News entire world view. And that's worse that repealing Bush's tax cuts. "

I'm not sure that this is exactly "fair and balanced" reporting either, but the article does make some interesting points. Like how Fox kept using the banner reading "Congressional Catfight" in talking about Rep. Jane Harman still being upset after Pelosi failed to reappoint her as chair of the House Intelligence Committee. It does really tick me off when a disagreement between two intelligent women is called a "catfight".

Apparently Pelosi referred to herself yesterday as the most powerful woman in America, which Fox and Friends questioned, and there I have to agree with Fox, we all know that Oprah is the most powerful woman in America.

And in a totally unrelated note, was anyone else scared that the tiny little girl (I assume one of Pelosi's grandchilden) was going to drop that baby (I assume one of her other grandchilden) she was barely holding on to as Pelosi was enjoying her photo-op moment with her gavel?

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Going Metric on the Moon

It was announced last month at the 2nd Exploration Conference in Houston that we are going to use metric units on the Moon. This was a big announcement, a decision that was not made easily or lightly, one that will have far reaching ramifications.

Surprised? If you are a scientist, you are probably shocked to hear that NASA is not already using SI units. If you are an engineer, you're probably not at all surprised. And if you are neither, you probably don't think much about units unless you're in Europe and trying to figure out what outfit to wear if the daily high is 23 degrees C.

The Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988 actually requires (with certain exceptions) all Federal Agencies to use the metric system in their procurement, grants and other business-related activities by the end of 1992 (that's 15 years ago!), and yet NASA is still measuring things in feet and inches much of the time. This act, which ammended the Metric Conversion Act of 1975, was yet another attempt by the Federal government to coax America towards Metrication by leading by example. Unfortunately, it turns out that NASA and it's contractors are just as resistant to change as the rest of the American people.

What is wrong with us? We all know the metric system is better. As a scientist, I use the SI units all the time and yet, if someone asks how tall I am - I'm 5'4", if you want that in meters, I need to get out a calculator. I remember the big push towards metric when I was a kid; my brother and I even had this great board game (Metricat10n) that taught us all the SI prefixes. But it all kinda fizzled out didn't it?

For NASA, one of the issues is the mixing of the two systems. Some things are done in metric, some are still in English units. That can lead to serious problems like the highly publicized and embarrassing loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter in 1998 where NASA and most of the contractors worked in metric units but one contractor, Lockheed Martin, provided data in pound force seconds instead of newton seconds. Oops.

I was not party to the discussions leading up to last month's big decision about the Moon, but the rumors I heard suggested that several of NASA major contractors were strongly against metric. Switching is too expensive. Period. If forced, they would do it, but they would only make changes "on the back end" - i.e. they would do everything in English units and then add a line of code at the end that would convert the values into SI. Extra lines of code, of course, add extra risk, something NASA really hates.

I'm very happy that NASA has decided to stick to their guns on this one. I hope the changes are not just cosmetic, I hope they really push the contractors to do more than add code. The transistion may be difficult, but it will be worth it in the long run, it will ultimately be safer, and more efficient, for us, and for our international partners (if we're serious about having them), and for the poor astronaut who only has to carry one set of wrenches when he heads out the airlock to fix that stupid solar panel again.