Culture: December 2015 Archives

Aliens, bunny-killing rovers, and a Moon base: What all is NASA "hiding"?, Ars Technica

"Spend any time around NASA public affairs specialists, as I do, and you'll eventually get the eye roll. It comes when someone inquires about aliens or faked moon landings or all manner of other nonsense. One of the more recent eye-rollers originated in Russia, where officials said sea plankton was growing on the exterior of the International Space Station. (It wasn't.) "If you think that's bad, you should Google 'NASA hiding,'" one space agency official told me. So I didand here are the first five things I found."

Keith's note: Of course NASA does not help itself with the conspiracy crowd when it funds quackery such as the warp drive project at JSC and the LENR project at LaRC - both of which defy conventional physics, have yet to yield any reproducible results, and for which NASA is not even willing to reveal budgets or objectives.

Keith's note: On 17 November 2015 NASA issued a press release titled "NASA Awards Two Robots to University Groups for R&D Upgrades" regarding NASA JSC's R-5 robot. At the time I asked "Is JSC's R5 Droid Worth Fixing?". I sent NASA PAO a simple request asking "How many applications/proposals were submitted? Which schools submitted proposals?" PAO replied "Thanks for reaching out to us. To answer your question, it's not our practice to share information about the number of proposals we received or which proposals were not selected. The two university groups were chosen through a competitive selection process from groups entered in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Robotics Challenge. The NASA challenge was limited to U.S. university participants in the DARPA Robotics Challenge finals." (see Never Ask NASA a Simple Question)

Gee, all I wanted to know was how many organization submitted proposals and NASA refused to tell me that simple number. What now had me wondering was why NASA was so shy about providing such a simple answer. I did not ask who had applied, simply how many universities had applied. Hmmm ... could it be that only two universities applied? If so, how did it happen that they knew to apply? Did NASA drop hints to potential submitters? Do recall that the R-5 robot has been somewhat of a failure and JSC would just love to pull something successful out of this mess.

R-5 is not the droid you were looking for.

Developed in secrecy by NASA JSC, R-5 competed in the DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials 2013 and tied for dead last. Indeed, the R-5 was not even able to get out of its own way in some portions of the competition. NASA never really explained what this robot was for or why it developed it to have a female shape and form.

After a period of silence, NASA decided in 2015 to haul out their failed R-5 droids out of storage and see if anyone could fix them. Since NASA could not/would not fix them, why not ask if others can help? Not a bad idea. So they asked universities to help them fix the broken robots.

When the two university teams were announced (no doubt highly capable). I wondered how many others had applied and what the interest was in this sort of thing on a national level I was also interested in how hard NASA had worked to actually find the best teams. Mostly I was interested in the number - so I asked PAO. And I got the odd non-response response that PAO provided me.

Not getting an answer I submitted a FOIA request on November 2015. Actually I submitted it twice since the NASA online FOIA submission website was broken that day. Here is the text of my FOIA request:

Keith's note: There is no mention of this amazing photo (or many other stunning photos) to be found at this ISS gallery page or at Scott Kelly's Flickr, NASA2Explore Flickr, NASA_JSC_Photo Flickr, NASA Earth Observatory Flickr, etc. No higher resolution version, no mention of what part of Earth's surface is shown, when it was taken, etc. To be certain having crew members tweet things from orbit to 13.5 million people is great - but so many chances to vastly enhance this reach are missed every day.

Yes, I am complaining about the way NASA sends pictures from space (more or less directly) to my iPhone many times a day. NASA could be spreading this magic elsewhere so very easily.

POTUS and FLOTUS' Favorite Songs, Movies and Moments of 2015, People

"The movie Barack most enjoyed this year was The Martian, starring Matt Damon ..."

The Golden Globes think 'The Martian' is a comedy, New York Post

"... Thursday's nods for Matt Damon as best actor and "The Martian" as best picture in its comedy/musical categories are hilarious. After 2015's Globes "comedy" nominee "Birdman" went on to a Best Picture victory at the Oscars (beating the Globes' dramatic best picture winner "Boyhood"), the studios have doubled down on their efforts to gerrymander films into the less competitive comedy categories for best picture and acting awards."

NASA and "The Martian", NASA

"NASA has collaborated on this film with 20th Century Fox Entertainment, providing guidance on production design and technical consultants..."

Keith's note: CRISPR was leading Pluto in the Science magazine poll until NASA decided to skew the results by using its 13.5 million follower Twitter account to tell people to vote for Pluto. No doubt the mission's PI will be jumping up and down and crowing about how popular Pluto is when in fact NASA stuffed the ballot box.

In case you are wondering what CRISPR is, in a nutshell, it is a revolutionary process whereby genetic information can be edited - added, deleted etc. with extreme precision. Its potential for correcting genetic errors that cause disease and developmental problems, its potential to develop new genetic therapies, and its potential for genetically modified organisms for agriculture is truly immense. CRISPR and allied technologies has the potential to affect the lives of everyone on Earth. New Horizons, on the other hand, is just one of many things that happened in 2015 that certainly add to our overall knowledge - but with little direct potential to materially impact everyone's quality of life. New Horizons was not a "breakthrough" as this poll seeks to discuss. CRISPR is. For NASA to be trying to use social media tip the scales in a decidedly unscientific online poll is deceptive. There are better things NASA could be doing with its social media prowess than this.

Just because NASA can use its social media presence to make a loud impact does not necessarily mean that it should automatically do so - without exercising some strategic thought to decide if it is truly the best use of that power. NASA should focus on explaining the whole #JourneyToMars thing, spreading planetary climate change information, education, advanced technology, etc. and let the biomedical "breakthroughs" have their day in the sun.

New Horizons will never save a single human life. CRISPR will.



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This page is an archive of entries in the Culture category from December 2015.

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