American Airlines’ Website Sucks

More than I year ago I wrote this post complaining about American Airlines needing to fix its website. Well, they have made some changes to it, but I still is mired with fundamental problems, so this post might be almost déjà vu.


The picture above shows the front page and its login section (red arrow). When I put in my account, name and password, it accepts it, but then it can’t resolve it for some reason, and it jumps to the error screen below.


There is no good way to get back, so the only way to move forward is to enter the account number again, and my password (red arrows above).



However, since they changed the requirement recently to add a name, the second screen fails, and it goes to the screen above, where I have to log in a 3rd time. This time I’ll be successful.

Summary: to get into,  I have to log in three times every time. I can’t figure out what the shortcut might be, and I am a software executive. How does my grandma buy a ticket at American Airlines?

Finally, when I was in, I had to purchase tickets for three separate reservations I had on file. After I had paid for the first one successfully, I didn’t know where to go. The screen below shows what’s there after the payment transaction is done. The only solution I could find was click on “My Trips” (red arrow below).


Unfortunately, that made it forget who I was and it came back with the login screen once more (below).


So, in order to purchase tickets for three reservations, I had to log into the site six times. Three times to get in before I got to the link “My Trips” and then three times to get to the payment screens to purchase.

This has been like this for more than a year.

American Airlines’ website really sucks.

Fascinating Tour of the International Space Station

This video is a guided tour of the International Space Stations (ISS). It’s almost an hour long and goes into all the main modules of the station. I was particularly fascinated by the rotations by 90 degrees or 180 degrees and the resulting shifts of point of view.

SpaceX Rocket Explodes after Launch

Today is a sad day for future space exploration. A supply mission of SpaceX to the International Space Station ended in catastrophic failure a little over two minutes after launch. The unmanned vehicle exploded. Here is a tweet from Musk, the CEO of SpaceX:

SpaceX 1

SpaceX was planning on starting manned missions by 2017. Whatever the failure was today, I suspect that the 2017 date will now be pushed out. I was rooting for the success of SpaceX. This is a major setback for them.

Here is the video of the event. The silence at the end is deafening:

The Dumbest Skeuomorph – Our Coffee Machine Timer


A derivative object that retains ornamental design cues to a structure that was necessary in the original, even when not functionally necessary.

Many common skeuomorphs were introduced by Apple due to a propensity by Steve Jobs for those mechanisms. For instance, the shutter-click sound emitted by many camera phones when taking a picture is an auditory skeuomorph. There really isn’t anything clicking, it’s just a sound it makes to make you feel like there is.

Another example in our house are the plastic Adirondack chairs in the back yard. The chairs imitate the design of the wooden Adirondack construction, but for no reason other than look like those.

The last coffee machine we bought employs a skeuomorph for the timer, but is has a number of annoying features of what I would call Crappy Design.

Coffee Machine

For instance, the knob labeled “Warmer Temp.” Why does it say Temp. only? Could they have not written Temperature? Then there is the knob itself. It’s a bidirectional knob. You can’t tell where the indicator is, and to make it worse, it turns round and round. There is no stop. So how exactly do you make it warmer or cooler?

Then on the left side there is the icon for a Sound, I guess. Where everything else is labeled with words, apparently here they could not write Beep or Sound, they had to apply this icon. Above it is a switch to turn the sound off, which does not work. The thing beeps no matter which side this switch is on, and it has done so out of the box.

Finally there is the skeuomorph – the clock. It’s a bright digital screen that shines a beacon through the kitchen in the dark, brighter than a nightlight. There is no way to turn it off. It shows a clock, with all three clock hands moving like an analog clock would. But the display is small enough that I really can’t see the time very well. We already have a clock in the kitchen, so I don’t really need another one provided by my coffee machine.

Then, to set the timer, you have to use the Min., Hr. and Set Delay buttons on the left. These are so unintuitive, I can never figure out how to use them, and so I don’t. When you hit the Min. (why not call it Minute?) button, the minute hand on the clock jumps a minute. When you hit the Hr. (why not call it Hour?) button, the hour hand jumps an hour. They obviously want to be cute with the clock, but skeuomorphism is supposed to make things intuitive. But what analog clock does this when you hit forward buttons? Those buttons were introduced when digital alarm clocks first came into being, to forward the displays.

Just like a writer should not mix metaphors, a designer should not mix skeuomorphs.

So there you have it. I introduced the word skeuomorph (didn’t you need to know that?), and I gave you an example of truly Crappy Design by Mr. Coffee.


My Battery Tester is Worth its Weight in Alkaline

Battery Tester

A few years ago I bought this little battery tester at Amazon for about 12 dollars. It takes AA batteries, like shown here, AAA, and 6 Volt. It must have saved me hundreds of dollars in battery cost by now.

Every time, before I am about to discard a battery, I test it first.

When the wall clock falls behind, it must be the battery. Before I go hiking, I replace my AAA batteries in the headlamp so I don’t run out. When my wireless keyboard or mouse act up, the first thing I do is replace the AA battery.

I have found that about half of the time, the battery that I was about to put into the recycle container was perfectly good, sometimes at 80% or better. I have started to save batteries at 60% or better in a little box from which I take my “new” batteries when I need them. I believe I buy half the batteries now compared to what I used to before I had this tester.

The battery in the tester in this picture shows 100% full, since all 5 LEDs are lit. This is a perfect, fully charged battery, that I was going to throw out.

This tester is great value for the money.

The Long Life of an HP Printer

I don’t care much for HP monitors and computers, but their printer technology, which is what they originally became known for, seems unbeatable. When I started our company in 1993, I first bought an HP 4L laser printer. It had a neat small footprint, cost about $500, and printed 4 sheets a minute – that was a whopping speed then. We soon expanded, and needed a laser printer off the server that all of us could access. So we bought an HP LaserJet 6P.

This printer was somewhat faster and had a sheet feeder in the back. After a number of years, when we bought the next enterprise printer for color printing, we reassigned the old 6P to the accounting office for check printing and occasional reports.

For 20 years, it just kept chugging away. Last week there was some problem with the drum, and we could have spent a hundred dollars on labor to get it fixed. So we decided to finally retire it.

The 6P just printed, printed, printed for 20 years – and I am sure it would have continued for another 20 years, if we had just wanted to spend the money to have it repaired.

With a bit of sadness and nostalgia, I bid it farewell.

Treating Siri with Respect

Jealous Siri

When I found this random funny post it occurred to me that anthropomorphism has taken on a whole new dimension in the last few years.

It started many years ago, when many of my readers weren’t born yet, when telephone answering machines became popular. The machines had little tape decks in them and callers could record messages. I remember people telling me they didn’t leave me messages because they “didn’t want to talk to a machine.” My response was always: “It’s not a machine, it’s me listening to your voice hours later. You’re not talking to anyone.”

But when humans talk, and when machines talk back, something happens in the human brain that anthropomorphizes the machine. We have all had the experience “talking” to a machine voice when we call our credit card company. We get frustrated when it doesn’t understand we don’t want one of its standard options.

Note how I used the pronoun it and not she, even though the voice is almost always female and seemingly always the same one.

The most famous talking machine is Siri, Apple’s trademark voice on its phones. Siri undeniably does more than talk. The image above is testimony to that. When we talk about Siri, invariably we talk about what she said, not what it – the machine – said. “Maybe you should ask Cortana for the movie times” is not something a machine would come up with, or so our brains reason, and we think of Siri as a person sitting somewhere just waiting for us to task her questions through our smart phones.

I use Google Maps for directions, and I use its voice feature. All is well when it tells me to turn left or right and leads me to my destination. However, if I decide to turn into the local supermarket to get a bottle of water and a candy bar along the way, it freaks out. It wants me to make a U-turn as soon as possible. It suddenly directs me around the block on side roads so I can get back to the main road where I should be. The chatter becomes annoying. I wish it had a “snooze” button that I could tap indicating, “yes, I know I am off course, but I just need to do this little thing before we can be on our way again.” I am sure somebody is working on that feature. But the overriding “feeling” I have when this happens is guilt. I feel like I am failing and the Google Maps program is frustrated with me that I am not getting it.

I have also felt bad for Siri when I have asked it questions repeatedly. Say I am looking for a Starbucks and it gives me a list of destinations, and I inadvertently pick the wrong one in the list and I can’t get back to the original list. Rather than navigating back, it’s easier to just invoke Siri afresh and start over again. After doing that three of four times I have found myself feeling awkward. What must it be thinking? That I am an idiot?

I have also noticed that I have the propensity to treat Siri with respect. I have said “please” and “thank you” before for its favors. I don’t like to ask the same question more than one time, and I don’t want to ask questions that it might think are stupid.

The borders between machines and humans are blurring.

What do you think, R2D2?


Outrageous Apple Pricing

Apple is the most profitable company in the history of the world. Last quarter, Apple made $18 billion profit. The most ever done before was Exxon with $16 billion for a quarter. Ever.

Apple’s market cap right now is around $750 billion, that’s about twice that of Exxon/Mobil, the company that was the largest and most valuable company in the world for decades.

I predict Apple will be the first “trillion dollar company” in the not too distant future.

Here is why:


I needed an adaptor to show my new iPad Mini on a projector for a demonstration. So plug it into an HDMI cable, I needed the “Lightning Digital AV Adaptor shown above.

I paid an outrageous $49 plus tax for this tiny piece of plastic and cable.

It made me sick, but I needed it.

And that’s how you build a profitable company.


Ruminations on Self-Driving Cars

Exciting Times Ahead

I believe that over the next 20 years, self-driving cars are going to revolutionize they way our world works unlike any technology we have seen in a long time, since, maybe, cars themselves a hundred and twenty years ago.

The Challenges

I recently read that Google’s self-driving cars have already logged 700,000 miles on California roads without driver intervention. But there are many challenges ahead for them.

Here is an article about simple things Google’s self-driving cars can’t handle yet, including bad weather, potholes, roads that haven’t been googled yet and handling road construction.

Elsewhere I read that there are three challenges that may seem innocuous at first that really get in the way. First is dealing with an empty parking lot. Picture a shopping mall after hours. There are no reference points, just faded marks in the pavement. The cars supposedly don’t know what to do with that.

Another problem is driving into multi-level parking garages. I am not surprised. I know many humans that hate driving in parking garages. They are often very tight, usually poorly lit, and traffic rules don’t apply. It is never clear which way is up or down, and whether a path is one-way or two-way. How would a self-driving car be able to deal with that?

Finally, handling traffic lights with the rising or setting sun right behind them. I must admit, I also have problems with that. I remember times when only careful management of the visor, quick glances at the lights, and following the lead of other cars around me was able to get me across the intersections and hopefully out of the blast-zone of the setting sun. A camera alone on top of a self-driving car would not have a chance.

All these examples are formidable challenges for self-driving cars. But they all can be overcome, not necessarily by software and algorithms, but by infrastructure.


When the telephone was first invented, many skeptics predicted that it would never work. After all, you’d have to run a wire to every house you want to call. That’s certainly never going to happen. Well, we all know that it actually did happen. Not only that, we have already leapfrogged that stage, and nowadays you don’t need to run a wire to a house anymore and still get telephone reception. The trick with making the telephone successful was not the technology of the phone itself, but the infrastructure around it: a wire to every house and every office in the country.

Before cars, when our only method of transportation was walking, riding a horse or a horse and buggy, the stage-coach concept revolutionized long-distance travel. The passengers rode in a comparatively comfortable closed cabin on cushioned seats, the cabin on strong springs, while a team of horses pulled the coach. The distance from station to station was just long enough for a team of horses to handle. The passengers reached the station, got refreshments while the horses were changed, and then traveled right on for the next station, and so on. Long distance travel in the horse and buggy age was not possible because of super horses, but because of the infrastructure of the properly spaced stations, and the people who serviced them.

When motor cars came about, critics said they would never work. You’d have to pave roads to everywhere you want to go. Besides, they’d break down in the middle of nowhere leaving you stranded all the time. And you’d have to put gasoline into them. You’d need filling stations all over the place. We all know that faster than anyone would have believed it, we built paved roads, interstate highways, gas stations are everywhere, and cars can go coast to coast without ever breaking down.

As traffic increased, the traffic policeman in the middle of the intersection directing the flow could no longer handle it and we invented traffic lights. Now traffic lights are everywhere, making mass automobile traffic possible.

It’s not the car that made the automobile society, it was the infrastructure built around the car.

What Robots Need

A self-driving car is a robot, before it is a car. Robots don’t need traffic lights. Robots don’t need white lines on the side of the road and double yellow ones in the middle. Robots don’t pass other robots in dangerous areas.

While we are currently in a transition period, and our robots need cameras to look at green and red traffic lights, sometimes outshone by the sun, this will not be the solution for the long-term.

Roads will be outfitted with electronic markers that give direction to cars. The robots will sense the edges of the roads by using such markers they can pick up at high speed, rather than having cameras try to find while lines or other obstacles.

The robots will have inter-robot communication. Cars next to each other will communicate with each other. This means that they will be able to drive 70 miles per hour bumper to bumper without jeopardizing anyone. They won’t need traffic lights in intersections. All the cars approaching from all directions will “negotiate” who goes first. Nobody will need to stop. Cars will simply zoom through in all directions, making sure that there is enough spacing for cross traffic. Stopping at red lights will become obsolete.

Freeways will not have two directions anymore. The cars will figure out how many lanes in each direction they need and just take them. Traffic will self-regulate.

Then, when a car gets to a point where it doesn’t know how to go on, it will simply pull over and issue the “take over, human” command. A joystick will pop out of the dashboard that will allow the human passenger in the car to guide the car up that dirt driveway, around the old oak tree, to grandmother’s house and safely park it in the grass without running over the flower beds.

Valet World

When our cars can handle themselves like this, we really don’t need parking lots anymore at airports, train stations, shopping malls or restaurants downtown. We will simply have our cars drop us off at the front door wherever we are going. Then the car will drive away to a parking garage that’s designed just for cars. The cars will stack themselves up like sardines. No humans will have to enter those garages, the doors of the cars don’t have to swing open, and the cars can simply sit in total darkness and wait until their humans are done with dinner, or shopping, or work, and call them back using their apps on their smart watches – or brain implants.

Cities will be clean again. The only cars on city streets will be those that are on their way to drop off or pick up their passengers. They will park in peripheral facilities away from the human activity.

If cars just come and pick us up and drop us off, why would we even need to own cars anymore? Cars could become just pods that pick us up at our houses or apartments and take us to the nearest mass transit station, or airport. On the other end of the mass-transit, we’d get off and another car would pick us up and take us where we’re going.

If we’re not going anywhere, we don’t need a car. So we won’t own any.

Cars will then likely just be electric. For longer road trips, it will work like the stage coaches. The car will take us as far as its charge allows it to go. It will find the nearest charging station. We’ll transfer to another car and on we’ll go.

Jetsons are Here

Our future with self-driving cars won’t be in Toyota Priuses with fancy software and camera and radar hood on top of the car. Our future won’t be flying cars like we all saw them with the Jetsons. Our future will be a different mass transit system altogether. And it won’t be the self-driving cars that make it all possible. It will be the infrastructure designed specifically for the robots.


Wormhole to Another Galaxy

I found this post today that talks about a wormhole to another galaxy that might be located in the center of the Milky Way. It’s an interesting article, it makes for fun speculation, but it had a sentence in it that gave me pause:

“But there’s more. We could even travel through this tunnel, since, based on our calculations, it could be navigable. Just like the one we’ve all seen in the recent film Interstellar.”

I reviewed that movie and enjoyed it a lot. In it, astronauts traveled to Saturn to enter a wormhole that connected to another galaxy. You can travel to Saturn in a few years, as they did in Interstellar. However, to get to the wormhole in the center of the Milky Way, we’d have to travel about 26,000 light years first. At the speed of light, we’d get there in 26,000 years. With space travel technologies we have today, we could get there in a few million years at the very best.

So writing the nonchalant sentence “we could even travel through this tunnel” makes it look just a bit too simple for me.

The trip to the other galaxy through the worm hole and back would take longer than it took for our prehistoric ancestors to climb out of the trees, enter the savannahs and eventually become space travelers.

Flashes of Consciousness in the Vast Dark

While we marvel about the possibility of millions, even billions of intelligent civilizations in the universe, we really only know for sure of one: our own. It has, as a sentient culture only existed for a couple of hundred thousand years. If I can classify civilization as a group of sentient beings that records its history, then we’re only about 5,000 years old as a civilization. If technology is the defining factor, we’re only about 150 years old. All these time spans are very short in the context of cosmological terms, where time periods are counted in millions of years, even billions. We also don’t know how long a civilization lasts. Our own has so far not lasted long, and there are some signs that we’ll do something stupid soon and it will have been a very short period indeed.

So let’s speculate that an intelligent civilization lasts about 10,000 years from first recording its history until flaming out and dying off.

Our universe is 13.77 billion years old and the Earth is 4.54 billion years old. There are almost half a million 10,000 year spans in 4.5 billion years. So our civilization, based on my assumptions here, lasts about half-a-millionth of the time span of the earth.

If other planets on other stars had similar timescales, and if there were half a million such planets in our galaxy, all forming about at the same time the Earth formed, we could conceivably have had half a million civilizations on these planets alone without overlap. This means every one of those civilizations could have existed throughout its entire life-cycle without ever knowing about the existence any of the others. All of them could have been advanced technological civilizations with active programs in place to scan the sky for signs of life. They still would never have seen a trace of any. They existed, but separated from each other by time.

This makes me think of camera flashes in a stadium:

Watching the short video above I can’t help but think of each of the flashes to be a 10,000 year civilization somewhere in our galactic neighborhood. The short video spans perhaps 10 million years of time. We’re one of them flashing right now, but we never saw those before us or after us. Yet they all exist.

Taking this thought process further: If the universe is 13.77 billion years old, and the Earth only 4.54 billion, there could have been several full solar systems that came and went before ours even started.

Let’s say a solar system formed when the universe was 5 billion years old, and matured to the current state of ours at 9 billion years. There could have been highly advanced civilizations in that solar system that never knew about ours, since our own sun had not even formed at that time.

So when we think about civilizations in the universe apart from ours, we have to think not only about those that may exist right now, but all of those that have ever existed, and now we can multiply the current estimates of possibly trillions (see my post about this here) to millions of trillions.

Meanwhile, it would be nice if we could finally find just one flash of consciousness in the vast dark. Just one.





Musings about a Comet

Mankind did a remarkable feat today: It landed a probe roughly the size of a washing machine on a comet (named 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko) which hurtles through space toward the sun at a speed of 40,000 miles per hour, which is more than twice as fast as the space shuttles traveled in orbit. No other man-made objects ever traveled that fast. The Apollo missions reached 25,000 miles per hour, and the Voyager spacecraft are in interstellar space now traveling at around 35,000 miles per hour.

To rendezvous with an object moving that fast, the probe has to move just as fast, and then match the orbit of the object. Scientists have likened this feat to a fly trying to land on a speeding rifle bullet. Good luck. But that is just what happened today. The European Space Agency Rosetta craft has been in space for 10 years traveling to the comet waiting for this rendezvous.

The agency published a phenomenal picture which puts the comet into perspective:

Photo credit: Matt Wang, Flickr: anosmicovni. European Space Agency

Here is the three-kilometer-wide comet sitting behind Los Angeles. How is this for size?

The asteroid that hit the earth 65 million years ago causing the extinction of the dinosaurs is estimated to have been about ten kilometers wide, or about three times this big.

Another fascinating thought is that the comet is still 317 million miles away from earth, which means that it takes radio signals 20 minutes to get here.

If the earth were the size of a tangerine (about 5 cm across), the comet would be 1.25 miles away from the tangerine and would be smaller than a speck of dust. Now we can visualize this: The Rosetta spacecraft traveled off the tangerine sized earth to hit a speck of dust one and a quarter miles away.


Ted Cruz and Barack Obama Should Leave the Internet Alone

Cruz Tweet

Ted Cruz has been blabbering about Net Neutrality being Obamacare for the Internet.

Ted Cruz – the Internet, and its neutrality, were around 20 years ago when you were still getting debating awards at Princeton. Obama was still an attorney in a Chicago law firm. The Internet was working just fine without you, Ted Cruz, and you, Barack Obama, messing around with it.

For anyone who doesn’t know what Net Neutrality means, and why this is important, you should read this piece in the Oatmeal. Your 7-year-old will understand it after reading this.

By speaking about ensuring Net Neutrality, Obama is doing the right thing at the right time. In a free Internet we trust.


aliens1There has been a lot of press lately about Boyd Bushman, a former Lockheed Martin and Texas Instruments engineer who died on August 7th at the age of 78, who left behind a video with claims about extraterrestrial life as evidenced by the Roswell aliens. Here is a link to one such article. It’s going to take a bit more than a story told by a goofy old man in a poorly made video, showing grainy photographs about something that supposedly happened 67 years ago, to make me buy into little grey men with big heads.

Before I give my thoughts, though, I should state that I am absolutely certain (and note I don’t use the word “believe” here) that there is alien life outside of our planet. There may well be alien life within our own solar system, in the water moons of Jupiter’s Europa and Saturn’s Titan and Enceladus. But that’s just our front yard. There are 100 to 200 billion stars in our own galaxy, and even if only one in one thousand of those stars has a planet that could sustain life, and if only one in one thousand of those planets actually has life, and if only one in one thousand of those planets has developed intelligent life, there are still 100 – 200 planets in our own galaxy that have intelligent life – aliens.

Then there are at least 100 billion galaxies in the universe as we know it. That means that there would be 10 to 20 trillion intelligent civilizations in the universe. We are just one of those. So yes, there are aliens.

However, the idea that aliens like those that Bushman describes, are humanoid, is utterly improbably. If they had developed from common ancestors with humans, it would be understandable. But it is hard to imagine how those brothers of ours left the Earth some 50,000 years ago and went to colonize a planet 65 light years away, with just enough evolutionary divergence to become bald, smaller, frailer and have bigger heads and eyes, but still retain two legs, with knees bent forward, ten toes and ten fingers, two ears, two eyes, a mouth, a nose and a skull above it all with a brain shaped like a large human brain. The odds of aliens being humanoid are infinitesimally small.

Bushman says that the aliens communicated with humans telepathically. Let’s assume for a moment that telepathy exists, and two brains can communicate ideas across “thin air” without any other means, even though there is not one shred of evidence that such a feat is actually possible. Then it would make sense that two humans, with the same communications gear (our brains) could communicate with each other by that method. My question is: does telepathy use language? Is telepathy bound by language? Two healthy humans with high IQs cannot communicate with each other if one only speaks English and the other only Japanese or any other language. Anyone that has ever traveled knows what that means. If you don’t know the language, you have absolutely no idea what’s going on in the other person’s head – all you have left is body language, and that does not convey complex concepts. But here we have alien beings, presumably completely unrelated to humans, with no shared DNA,  with completely different evolutionary background (even though they look like small frail humans for some reason), and they can walk into a room and telepathically communicate with humans?

We have shared our planet with intelligent beings for as long as humanity has existed. Those beings are the whales, dolphins most prominently. Dolphins are thought by many researchers to be just as intelligent as humans. They simply didn’t start developing tools due to their natural environment and the evolutionary path they took. But they have language. And in all the centuries that we have shared with dolphins, in the decades that researchers and linguists have tried to learn the dolphin language, we have not yet succeeded. And here are dolphins, which share a large amount of DNA with us, who live on our planet with us, and we can’t communicate with them.

But aliens just crash at Roswell, get transported to Area 51, and start teaching our engineers advanced concepts?

Bushman says that the aliens come from a planet that’s 65 light years away but the trip only takes about one hour. We humble humans have so far not found any evidence that it is possible to travel faster than light. That is not to say that someone else hasn’t figured that out. So let’s assume that these aliens indeed have ships that can travel 65 light years in an hour.

Why don’t they have a shuttle service and a spaceport here on Earth? We could travel to their planet for lunch and be back at the office mid-afternoon for a meeting. Think about the trade, think about the cultural exchange we could have with such an ability to travel? Why did they come here in 1947, and then every few years, in secret, to be spotted on misty nights in the woods, killing cows, abducting humans, just to hide again? What’s with the secrecy? If they knocked on my door, I’d let them in. If they wanted to take my blood samples, go ahead. If they wanted to take me on a trip 65 light years to their planet, I’d go in a minute, and so would another million people.

Why hide in Area 51 surrounded by old Lockheed engineers?

Then, of course, there is the question whether our all so secret government really could keep such a story covered this long. So when Obama got elected, and he asked to get a tour of Area 51 and see the aliens presumably still living there, they told him, no, that was classified? I don’t buy it. A story that big would not be kept under wraps. Somebody would be cleaning the motel rooms where the aliens lived. Somebody would be cooking for them. Somebody would be manufacturing suits that fit them. Somebody would be building weird stuff based on their technologies.

Yet, there is not a single tweet with a picture of one of them. There is no Facebook post. There is no picture on Instagram. Nothing. No leaks, no real evidence, in 67 years! That is not possible.

Ah, of course, there is Boyd Bushman, with his grainy photographs held up in his goofy video. Maybe I have it all wrong.

Space Disasters and Public Opinion

Commercial space exploration and tourism were dealt a major double punch in the last two days.

First an Antares rocket by Orbital Science Corporation exploded at lift-off. It was an unmanned rocket with a payload destined for the International Space Station, contracted by NASA. The rocket and payload were worth $200 million, and there was additional damage to the launch pad.

Then, yesterday, there was a catastrophic failure of Space Ship Two, the Virgin Galactic vehicle designed to take tourists into space starting in 2015. In this case, the catastrophe occurred during a high altitude test flight. Two pilots were on board, one died, and the other is seriously injured. No details have been released. I am actually amazed that one pilot could have survived such an explosion. I am sure we will find out the details eventually.

Already there are voices claiming that the private sector does not have enough of the Right Stuff to be successful in space, and that we might want to leave space exploration to the expertise of NASA, or the Russians, or the Chinese, or the Indians. David B. Grinberg’s column here is such an example.

Have we really forgotten the famous “O-ring disaster” that destroyed the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986? What about the heat shield failure in the Columbia catastrophe. What about the Apollo 1 fire on the launch pad?

The fact is, space travel and space exploration are very serious and very dangerous endeavors. With the technology we have today, to reach orbit, a space vehicle consists of more than 85% propellant when it sits on the launch pad. 85% is on the low side, as it was the case for the Space Shuttle. When a rocket with a capsule is launched, it’s more like 95%.

To visualize that, picture an aluminum can of Coca Cola. It contains 94% Coke and 6% packaging. A rocket, in comparison, usually has about 95% propellant and 5% packaging. A rocket is therefore more flimsy than a soda can. But it’s not benign soda that’s inside the package. In the case of the Space Shuttle external tank, it contains cryogenic fluids at 20 degrees above absolute zero (0 Kelvin), pressurized to 60 pounds per square inch and can withstand 3gs while pumping out propellant at 1.5 metric tons per second. On top of that, we put little capsules with tiny, soft and fragile human beings that need a constant temperature of 98.6 degrees F.

Space travel is dangerous. Rich and famous people like Justin Bieber, Ashton Kutcher, Leonardo DiCaprio and Stephen Hawking have signed up for $250,000 per flight on Virgin Galactic. Many will fly, and inevitably, some will die along the way, even though the risk with suborbital space travel, like it is in the case of Virgin Galactic, is far, far lower than it is with orbital flights.

This was a hard week for the space community. It was a formidable setback. But I am rooting for Branson and Musk and the many other visionaries who are building effective solutions that advance the human race and provide alternative ways for us soft and fleshy things to get off this planet.