Sunday, September 06, 2009


Nothing brings you back to Earth quite like a groundhog. The view from the glass hallway outside my office:

This little guy and his relatives are undermining the Canadian space program, or at least its building, despite the best efforts (so far carrot-baited traps and other non-explosive means) of the maintenance staff. On the positive side, I now know the difference between a groundhog (furry tail) and a muskrat (rat tail), thanks to the opportunity for up-close inspection of non-road-kill.
This is just a Cocoa Beach souvenir shop, not a commentary on the space program. I hope.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Remarkable experiences

Sorry for not posting more, folks. Although I am doing many cool space things, most don't really lend themselves to anecdotes. Plus, I'm not supposed to talk about CSA stuff without running it past the powers-that-be, and a few flippant remarks on a blog just aren't worth that kind of effort.

That said, there are cool space things going on that have nothing to do with my work. For example, Guinness (as in the beer, but not as in the book of world records) is celebrating its 250th anniversary with a contest. First prize is a trip to space on Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo. Woo hoo! You'd better believe I'm putting in an entry every single day. Second prize is also mighty cool: a night out (or under?) in the Guinness Underwater Bar, a submarine which is also a pub (spubmarine?). Third prize: a day in the studio with the Black Eyed Peas.

So, third prize for me it is, then.

Look, I'm sure the Black Eyed Peas are fun people and excellent musicians, and they're obviously very successful. It's just that one of these things is not like the others:

  • A studio.

In the hope that I could choose which prizes I was entering for, I actually read the contest rules. No, all prize winners are drawn from the same pool, but there was some interesting stuff in the small print. For example:

"The Promotion is open to residents of Austria, Belgium, Cameroon, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Gabon, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Ireland, Ivory Coast, Japan, Kenya, Malaysia, Nigeria, Portugal, Singapore, Spain and the Canary Islands, Sweden, Switzerland, The Netherlands, United Kingdom and all states of the United States of America except California and Utah (the "Participating Countries") of legal drinking age in their country, state or province of residence."

A mighty list. And yet:

"Participants from the Ivory Coast will not be eligible to win the SPACE Prize."

What, does the Ivory Coast have a law against microgravity? Did Richard Branson once have a bad prawn there, and is he still holding a grudge? Does anyone have any idea why Ivory Coasters can't be flung into space?

I'm just hoping that there a lot of Black Eyed Peas fans in Cote d'Ivoire, and that Guinness allows swapsies.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Newbie at the CSA

I started work (finally!) at the Canadian Space Agency on Thursday. The work itself hasn't settled down enough yet for a potted summary, but a few early observations:

The gorgeous building was designed by Starfleet (aka WZMH Architects), and is ready to to take off the instant we figure out what dilithium crystals are and how they work. In fact, that's my job for the next six months. Unfortunately, I'm neither a doctor nor a geologist, so that joke just isn't going to work.

Security is taken very seriously and seems very effective, but has its... moments. We have these cards that allow us to get through doors (six between the main entrance and my office, three between my office and the nearest toilet). Some of said doors are circular, miniature versions of those you find at better department stores. The catch is that, for security reasons, only one person is allowed in at a time. So, if the next person holds their card up to the sensor a moment too early, the mechanism immediately locks, causing the previous person's face to slam into the glass. One of these contraptions is at the cafeteria entrance, allowing for some excellent people-watching over lunch. [CSA security people: you're doing a wonderful job, and I'm sure these doors are absolutely necessary. Please don't purge me from the system.]

Here's the sweetest thing - my gym:

Better believe I'm motivated!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Thurs June 11

Technical Tour of The Institute for Biomedical Problems

On the last day of the conference, attendees were taken on one of three technical tours. I (with some regret, as all three sounded fantastic) chose the tour of the Institute for Biomedical Problems, Russia's main center for space exploration human factors research, and home of MARS-500. Our group was small -- better for conversation -- and included several top-notch HF researchers, such as the very charming Chiaki Mukai.

There were fascinating tidbits in every corner, such as a display of Russian space food, with a familiar-looking bottle in the middle:

and a doll kitted out with the Center's "Penguin" suit, which is threaded with bungees to force the body's posture muscles to work out in microgravity:

This is the center that monitors the astronauts' physical and psychological states:

The interactive highlight was getting to play with the lab equipment. I clobbered my way to the front of the group to volunteer for the dry immersion tank. The idea is to simulate weightlessness by floating in water, while protected from the actual wetness by a giant tarp. It was like being swallowed by a flabby waterbed. Here's me going...




I hogged the dry immersion tank, so it was only fair that someone else got to try the vertical treadmill:

Finally, we got to see the MARS-500 facility, where a six-member crew is locked in, simulating the journey to Mars:

They're about 3/4 of the way through their 105 day pilot study, so we couldn't go in, but we did spend some time in the control center, watching the all-male crew pump weights (playing to the audience to some extent, I suspect). I'm going to submit a study for the full 500-day experiment, so who knows - I might be back!

Friday, June 05, 2009

Cosmonautics Museum

Today my target was the Cosmonautics Museum. I came out of the metro, and started my usual confused reorientation. "Let's see. The map shows that green area, and the station is here, so the museum should be in this general direct- oh."

Say what you will, the Russians can do monuments. Check out the march of progress:

Even Laika is gazing sternly at the future:

There was a row of stars approaching the monument, marking significant moments in the Russian space program. Oddly, there were several at the end of the row that hadn't been used yet. They'd clearly been saved for future accomplishments, and yet the last one inscribed with a date (there were several with just names) was from 1975:

Does this mean that Russia isn't as proud of its space program post-1975, or did I miss the point completely?

The museum itself was an excellent collection of hardware and mementos. I wasn't supposed to take pictures, but I couldn't resist this one:

Note the universal symbols for "this way up" (upper right) and "fragile" (upper left), and instructions for cosmonaut extraction. Sensible, of course, given that the capsule might go wildly off-course before landing, but I love the idea of the cosmonauts being urgently offered a glass of wine the moment the hatch opened!

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Moscow, June 3, 09

In sharp contrast, the Russian shuttle-like prototype, Buran, has found its final resting place in Gorky Park, as part of a slightly shabby, slightly surreal fun fair (Other attractions include a haunted house shaped like Mount Rushmore. Go figure).

Buran's rusted shell is now home to a 4D (i.e. 3D plus shaking) cinema, showing a six minute feature ("Space Creeps") so unpleasant that, after one minute, I chose to shut my eyes and just endure the bumps and jolts for the remainder.

Poor Buran.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Air and Space Museum, Dulles, May 31

Any aviation enthusiasts with a longish stopover in DC should check out the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, a short bus or taxi ride from the airport. It's basically a giant hangar full of wonderful flying machines - anything that was too big for the Air and Space Museum on the Mall. The star of the show is the shuttle Enterprise:

I'd also like to recommend a book I picked up there, Into That Silent Sea: Trailblazers of the Space Era, 1961-1965, by Francis French and Colin Burgess. It is full of anecdotes in context from the people who made early space exploration happen in both the US and Russia. Some of the stories contradict each other, but that's part of the appeal.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Humans In Space Symposium

In two weeks, I'm off to the AIAA Humans In Space Symposium in Moscow, where I also hope to observe the MARS-500 100-day pilot study, which is in progress. Then it's back to Montreal, where I will be on sabbatical at the Canadian Space Agency. More on all of these later!