Tuesday, March 26, 2013

spaceships and hot air balloons

Hello, everybody.

Yesterday I took the day off work. I was depressed for a number of reasons. Things with my family have been kind of sad lately. My boss could tell last week that I was feeling down. He wanted me to take some time off last week. But I didn't want to. Then I found out that the Colorado Aerospace Day was taking place yesterday. So I asked my boss at the end of last week if I could take yesterday off, though I didn't tell him why. My boss said that was fine.

So yesterday I attended the Colorado Aerospace Day at the State Capitol in Denver. The day was put on by the Colorado Space Business Roundtable, which is kind of a networking organization for members of the space industry in Colorado.

Colorado is actually the second biggest space-industry state in the United States, as measured, I believe, by the number of people employed. I think this is largely because of two really big space companies operating out of Colorado: Ball Aerospace and Lockheed Martin's United Launch Alliance.

But there are also a number of other really interesting companies operating out of Colorado, such as DigitalGlobe and Sierra Nevada Corp, which manufactures the Dream Chaser manned space vehicle.

There are actually a lot of other satellite, component, engineering, and software companies in Colorado dedicated to space. Colorado is also the world headquarters of the Space Foundation.

I only attended the event in the morning. After the morning session there was a lunch and then an afternoon networking session. The morning networking session was set up in the two central rooms of the Capitol. About twenty different organizations had booths up. I spoke with a few different organizations.

I spoke with the Denver Office of Economic Development, a Commission within Denver that supports business growth by bringing new companies into Denver, by supporting companies that already operate in Denver, and by encouraging startup businesses within Denver. This doesn't just include space businesses. But since space is such a big industry in Denver, space is one of the Commission's focuses.

I didn't ever actually see a live person at the Ball Aerospace booth, although there were some interesting mockups of satellites, as well as some literature on some of Ball's new satellite programs.

But I did manage to speak with a representative from the United Launch Alliance for a little while. I think one thing I've been trying and trying to figure out about the space industry is, what really would be the reality of commercializing space? What are the real commercial applications of space? And in what way would people be able to demonstrate the potential of return on any commercial investments in space?

I asked this question to the ULA rep. It seems to me that a lot of ULA's money is coming from NASA right now, and I wanted to see what strategies ULA might have for making money outside of NASA. But the answer I basically got was that a lot of the work ULA currently does with NASA could be seen as commercial.

The ULA person and I spoke a little bit more about the commercial applications of space. But it didn't sound like there were any out there. The goals of NASA seem to be focused on research and exploration, knowledge for the sake of science, so to speak, without any other aims. The ULA person said that, even with the commercial space programs that are going on right now, namely SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, those aren't really commercial programs as much as they are the dreamchildren of two very imaginative entrepreneurs.

I spoke with the people from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the Space Foundation as well, trying to get an idea of whether and how space is really put forward, in any spheres outside of the space industry itself, as a commercial opportunity.

The person from the AIAA made a good point that space has always provided good commercial opportunities in terms of technology transfer -- the use of technologies that have been developed for space for more mundane purposes. One of the main examples of this has always been, I think, Corning Ware.

But I think the main fact really remains that there is a whole field, wide open, for the commercialization of space. I don't feel like I'm alone in having thought that there must have been a whole bunch of people out there, working on ways to create commercial applications for space travel and habitation. But there really don't seem to be. It's kind of exciting. There really is a whole field, wide open.

After that I wandered around Downtown for a little while. I went to the Tattered Cover bookstore for about an hour. Then I went to the library. I finished reading The Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes. The book is basically about the Romantic Age of British Science.

The Age of Wonder starts with the story of Joseph Banks, a scientist who traveled with an astronomy mission to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus, I believe, across the sun. Joe Banks eventually formed a strong relationship with the Tahitians and began to observe them closely and in a scientific way, establishing, in a sense, the science of Anthropology. Joe Banks later became the head of the Royal Society in England.

Joe Banks remains an influential figure throughout the rest of the book. The book moves on to tell the story of William Herschel, a man of German origin, I believe, who started his career as a musician, but moved more and more into the observation of the heavens with telescopes. Herschel became obsessed with creating  his own telescopes, creating better and better telescopes, and minutely observing the heavens, eventually discovering a new planet -- Uranus.

Herschel's story is also the story of his sister, Caroline Herschel, who helped Herschel with basically all of his astronomical observations. Caroline also made discoveries of her own, mainly of new comets. These discoveries came as the result of observations Caroline made on her own, while she was conducting what she called "sweeps" of the sky.

There is a kind of break in the story which I, honestly, didn't quite get -- even though I enjoyed it -- which narrates a sort of "arms race" between Britain and France. The object of contention: hot air and hydrogen balloons. The story of the invention of hot air and hydrogen balloons, the first flights, and the flights between Britain and France are told in all their glorious eccentricity.

The story also includes a section on Mungo Park, who kind of served as Joe Banks' protege in travel. Mungo Park made two journeys deep into Africa. On his first journey he nearly died -- was, in fact, left for dead on more than one occasion. And on his second journey he actually was killed.

The most interesting part of the story, in my opinion, however, concerns the great chemist Humphry Davy. Davy's story is most interesting to me because it includes the circle of Romantic poets -- Coleridge, Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary Shelley are the ones most mentioned, I believe, with Coleridge actually befriending Davy, attending Davy's lectures, and even contributing to some of the Royal Society's scientific lectures, if I understand Richard Rhodes' narration correctly.

Erasmus Darwin plays a poetic role in some of the passages relating to William Herschel. But his works, though, I believe, influenced by Herschel's work, seem more to back up what Herschel is saying. The works of Coleridge, Byron, and the Shelley siblings, however, seem intimately linked with Davy's science and philosophy.

Davy himself is also somewhat of a poet. And I think one very good point Rhodes raises in his book is that some of the scientific documents left behind by people like Humphry Davy are, in themselves, good examples of Romantic literature.

What's also interesting about Davy is that he is seen as a scientist and an engineer. One of the pivotal moments in Davy's story is his creation of a safety lamp, a lamp which prevented flames from igniting the methane gases down in mine shafts. Before Davy's invention, scores of people at a time would die horrendous deaths due to the ignition of methane gases by lamp flames. But Davy, through careful observations and labors, used his understanding of chemistry to create a lamp that would not explode the methane gases.