Miles O'Brien

Reporting on space, science, aviation & tech.

Archive: Jun 2012

  1. “To the Moon, Liu Yang!”


    If you are not impressed with the Chinese space program, you are not paying attention. The just-completed Shenzhou-9 mission to the Tiangong-1 “stationlet” appears to be a stunning success.

    The three person crew (including China’s first woman taikonaut, Liu Yang) spent slightly less than two weeks in space.

    They arrived at Tiangong-1 on autopilot, conducted a series of unspecified experiments and then, most importantly, successfully docked Shenzhou-9 with Tiangong-1 manually – proving they can perform this crucial task in case “George” fails someday  (as mine tends to on short final in the clouds).

    My good friend Leroy Chiao and I had hoped to be there for the launch and landing of this mission. But after years of negotiating with the Chinese for some real access to their space program for a documentary, our proposal was flat-out rejected amid the controversy over that blind activist Chen Guangcheng.

    Leroy logged four space missions – three on the shuttle and one on the Russian Soyuz – which took him to and from the International Space Station – where he spent about 190 days as Commander of Expedition 10.


  2. Dollars and Dentists

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    This is a crisis you may not wish to think about. After all, who enjoys thinking about a trip to the dentist? On assignment for the PBS documentary series FRONTLINE, I have been thinking about dental care in America for the past year.

    And as it goes for so many things in this country, if you are poor, you do not have a lot of options. But this particular hole in our safety net is bigger than most. Think about it: if you are sick or injured in any other place in your body, and you arrive at an Emergency Room, you will likely get treatment. It is not the most efficient way to run a health care “system”, but it does provide a measure of care for folks in need who do not have the means to pay for treatment.

    But if you have a toothache when you arrive at the ER, the chances are you will be given antibiotics and pain medication and sent back out the door to go find a dentist. But where? Who will see a child on Medicaid – or the uninsured truck driver living paycheck to paycheck?

    They do not have a lot of options. But our free-market system is very good at finding a need and filling it. Private equity backed corporate dental chains are offering services to poor people who are in oral agony. But we found a lot of evidence these chains are pressuring patients into care they may not need.

    This is an hour that may be hard to watch for a lot of reasons. But it is an important issue that has not been aired out in a proper public debate. Until now. I hope you will watch tonight – on TV or online. I will be tweeting while the program airs this evening. So join me then – and let’s find a way to solve this problem.

  3. Venus Transit Fare

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    Who knew Venus had a subway, but the Transit there does run on time – although not very frequently – as in twice in a century, give or take.

    And if you are in North America, tonight is the night. Venus will pass between our perch in the Solar System and the Sun. This does not happen often because the Solar System is not lined up perfectly as it was in that model on your third grade teacher’s desk.

    The orbit of Venus is about three degrees cockeyed relative to ours here on Earth. So most of the time, the Planet of Love is aptly coy – passing above or below the sun.

    But every now and then, our orbital planes intersect and we get a chance to see “a little black spot on the sun.”

    If you miss this chance, you will have to wait 105 years. I have put this in my iCal in the hope they will be able to thaw me out of my cryogenic slumber in time to see it in 2117. But to hedge my bets, I will make an effort to be a part of this transitory event beginning this evening.

    The transit lasts more than six hours, but you need to be in the middle of Pacific to watch it ingress to egress (the terms of art among astronomers). It is too late for me to get to Hawaii, but there will be a way for those of us not so geographically fortunate to watch from that vantage point. Mauna Kea is just one of a dozen spots on the globe where observatories will be streaming live images of the Transit. NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center has a good site that will allow you to easily surf the streams. 

    My friend Fraser Crain over at Universe Today is planning an interactive Transitathon  over here. Venus Vision.

    If you are inclined to watch it “in person” as it were, you should follow the usual caveats for eclipse viewing. View it indirectly, through welder’s glass or mylar coated glasses designed to make it safe to gaze at the the Sun. You can find a great guide for safe viewing here.

    An armada of observatories based on land and in space will be homing on on this event – including the Hubble Space Telescope – which will be aimed at our Moon to measure how much the light dims as Venus passes in front of the Sun.

    Exoplanet hunters are excited about this event, because it will allow them to fine tune their technique of identifying possibly habitable planets outside our solar system by measuring the dimming of distant stars as a planet passes in front. It’s like measuring what happens gnat transits your headlight beam – and it is exactly how NASA’s Kepler observatory works.

    In the Age of Enlightenment, the rare Transit of Venus spurred what might be called the first ever Space Race. The great astronomer Edmond Halley correctly surmised that accurate observations of the beginning and end of the transit gathered from distant locations of the globe would allow scientists to determine the precise distance between Earth and Venus (exploiting the parallax effect) . This prompted several adventures and misadventures on the high seas during the Venus Transits of 1761 and 1769. Dr. Tony Phillips has a great account of Captain James Cook’s voyage to Tahiti to see Venus in 1769. He and his crew apparently ended up more enamored with the Polynesian women than the astronomical event. Love Planet indeed!

    The definitive account of these ultimately Quixotic attempts to measure the size of the Solar System using the Transit of Venus has just been penned by Andrea Wulf. “Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens” is a great read – with some fascinating detail about science in its Golden Age.

    Make sure you read the about Guillaume Le Gentil – the French astronomer who tried to measure the transits of 1761 and 1769, but was ultimately (spoiler alert) thwarted by war, typhoons, dysentery, sea sickness and thick clouds. Driven to the brink of insanity,  he returned to Paris eleven years later. There wasn’t exactly a brass band waiting for him. In fact, he had been declared dead, his estate distributed and his wife had remarried.

    Wow. Talk about a King of Pain!

    I was on The Takeaway this morning – talking with John Hockenberry about all of this. You can listen to it here.



  4. Elon Musk Unedited


    Elon Musk and SpaceX are on a roll. I am glad to see it, but it is worth remembering how risky the space business is. As they say in the financial services industry, “past performance is not a guarantee of future results.” In any case, Musk’s critics owe him something more than silence. He and his team have proven an awful lot with this stunningly successful vanguard run to the ISS. 

    Perhaps his detractors might want to take a moment to visit the SpaceX factory in Hawthorne, California. It is a hop and a skip from LAX. It is an impressive place.

    That is where I met Mr. Musk and interviewed him in January for my PBS NewsHour story on SpaceX that aired in April. 

    Below is a transcript of the interview. There is no doubt Musk thinks big. But more importantly, he takes action on his bold dreams. We talked about his vertical manufacturing philosophy, his plans for manned flight, the political battle he and other commercial space companies have endured, and his goal to homestead Mars.

    Miles O’Brien:   Why do you try to build so many of the components yourself?

    Elon Musk: Maybe two thirds or a little more of the value of the rocket is manufactured right here at SpaceX in Los Angeles County. We often talk about the demise of the American Manufacturing System as like, “Well, we’re building the most competitive rockets on earth better than China, Russia, Europe, or anyone else, and it’s right here in California in LA.”