Sunday, April 19, 2009

A Day of Budgets

On Thursday I attended the American Association for Budget and Program Analysis (AABPA) 2009 Spring Symposium- "Transforming Crisis Into Opportunity."

I actually went to the conference because I had been selected as a finalist for the first annual research competition for the Marykathryn Kubat Award put on by the AABPA. I had submitted a research paper I'd done for an economics class entitled, "Cost-Benefit Analysis of the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program." I made a poster to present the findings and had given a short presentation to the judges at a reception the night before.

I had my poster set up all day at the conference and answered people's questions. There were actually people from NSF at the event, and it was really interesting to talk to them, since they knew the details of the program I was analyzing.

The speakers were also really interesting - it's a pretty good time in history to be learning about economics and the budget. The last speaker was Stan Collender. He wrote "Guide to the Federal Budget," which is one of the most assigned texts on the subject. (In fact, I had it assigned for one of my classes!) He also writes a blog - Capital Gains and Games - which I recommend if you're interested in the subject of the budget and the economic crisis. He also happened to be hilarious, not quite what you expect for an expert on the federal budget.

At the very end of the conference, they announced the winners of the student competition, and I was very excited to find out I had won! (They chose three winners, and each of us will be featured on the website and receive a cash prize.) Awesome day!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Masters

This weekend Jeff and I, as well as my Mom, Dad, and brother, are in Augusta, GA, to see the Masters. I'm not really a golf fanatic, but I do know about the Masters and some of the main players, so I've been pretty excited about going. We have two tickets, and my Mom, Dad, and brother, who are bigger fans than I am, are using them most of the time, but Jeff and I had our turn this morning. No cameras (or cell phones... or much of anything) is allowed inside, so the only pictures I have are from outside the gate.

We were inside for about six hours, but it flew by. We started out by setting our chairs down at the end of the 16th hole. At the masters, you can set up your chairs and leave them, and nobody will bother them at all - not even move them a little.

We headed to the green of the second hole as the first golfers started coming through. We had a great, unobstructed view of the golfers coming over the hill and then putting.

After about 9 golfers had gone through, we headed to "Amen Corner" - hole 11, 12, and 13 are all in the same area, and you can stand there and watch people finish 11, go through 12, and tee off on 13. It was pretty cool, and again we had a great view - just behind the people sitting in chairs, so no one was in blocking our view

We grabbed some food, too, which is incredibly affordable - soda is $1.50, chips are $1.00, and sandwiches are about $1.50. Not bad. The soda comes in a collectible Master's 2009 cup, too.

After watching the first few golfers go through 11 and 12, we went to hole 16, where we'd left our chairs. We spend a little time there - the tee is straight across a little pond, so they hit right towards you, and then when they putted, they were about 30 feet from our chairs - you can see their expressions, even.

Our time was ending by then - the six hours really went by quickly - so we hurried to hole 6 to see Tiger Woods go through. When he teed off, his ball hit the flag pin - so cool to see! We followed him to hole seven and watched him tee off there - he was about 15 feet from us when he walked from the tee to the green.

Then it was time to give over the tickets to my Mom and Dad for the rest of the afternoon. Very cool though - I was excited to go back and watch the rest on TV! Seeing the Master's live was a pretty awesome experience. The golfers are incredible, as you'd expect, but even just the course itself is beautiful to see. High-seventies and sunny, blue skies, green grass, and pink azaleas.


On Thursday, Jeff, his parents, and I headed to New York passover dinner. We first met up with his grandparents and brother in Manhattan for lunch before heading to Westchester County to his Aunt and Uncle's place. As always, dinner was very nice, and Jeff's Uncle led everyone through the traditions of the holiday.


This is the one nice thing about having to get up early for work meetings at Virginia Beach.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Four Seasons

Scott Circle is right near our house and has some nice trees and a statue. Since I walk by it almost every day, I decided to use it to capture the changing seasons. I took the Summer photo last August and the Spring photo today.

Cherry Blossom Festival!

Jeff and I biked (on the cool "Smart Bike DC" bikes) over to see the Cherry Blossom Festival today. It was extremely crowded, but still very pretty and fun to see.

Yuri's Night

Last night Jeff and I went to Yuri's Night - a world-wide space party. It goes on around April 12th each year to celebrate the first human flight in the world (Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin).

The party was at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center near D.C. You can check out the website to see if there's a party in your area!

Lake Titicaca Arches

I was playing around with Picasa, and created this photo - it's made up of archways on the islands of Lake Titicaca.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Military Space

I was surprised to see, at a globally-inclusive space conference, that there were protesters. Though it wasn't completely clear, through the costumes and signs with angrily rhyming slogans, what their problems were. (Generally, I'm irritated by protesters, since to get their message across in a loud and splashy way, they generally have to forfeit any effort to support their cause with well-reasoned discussion or carefully thought out arguments.) These people seemed to be protesting against military use of space, which irritated me quite a bit.

I understand that some people may have an aversion to war and military activities in general, and in space, which seems like an area of peaceful exploration and activity, military activities can seem out of place. (I even recognize that some people believe in full pacifism or are "anti-war", but I think the question of whether militaries should exist in general is a different issue than military use of space. I also feel that this level of pacifism is impractical, and on some level irresponsible, but I won't get into that now...)

Anyway, I felt like giving them some facts about military use of space, but since they were so busy shouting odd things, like, "Hey murderers, space is for NASA," I felt like they might not be so interested in engaging in a reasonable intellectual discussion. So instead, I've decided to give some of my thoughts on this issue here.

First of all, I think it's important to point out that, like many other technologies, military space development was essential to creating the capabilities that NASA and commercial companies use now. It was intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that provided the foundation of rocket technology (this is why everyone's so concerned about the North Korean launch now). Furthermore, many of the space assets the military built and operates are essential to everyday civilian life. GPS is an Air Force system - a system they have made freely available to everyone in the world, allowing development in countries around the globe. The best space situational awareness program in the world, which monitors where objects are in space, is also a military system (originally developed for missile warning). The data that the U.S. military gets from this program is shared for all human space activities, including those undertaken by China - a country with whom our military doesn't generally share sensitive data. This military program is essential to the safety of our astronauts. I wonder if the protesters were aware of this?

I imagine they're thinking more of space as it directly benefits the military, with satellite communications, surveillance satellites, and GPS-guided missiles. But even these uses, I would argue, should be welcomed by people who want to preserve innocent life and reduce damage. Good communication links help reduce mistakes or mis-communications. It allows pilots at a base in Kansas, often young people in the air force, to pilot UAVs gathering surveillance data in Iraq, keeping them out of harm's way. I know there are some mothers very happy for that technology.

Surveillance (or spy) satellites have done a lot to add to world security. Due to surveillance data, we can see that treaties are being followed and detect threats in advance. The increased transparency among nations improves understanding and even trust. This helps to avoid conflicts that could otherwise occur due to flawed data or the possibility of threats. Issues identified early can be addressed through diplomatic efforts. Generally, this trend of increased transparency allows increased peace.

In the past, militaries would have to use large bombs and take out whole areas to ensure they hit their target. As GPS-guidance systems have evolved and become more advanced, the precision with which bombs can be dropped has increased dramatically. Due to this, the U.S. military has started developing much smaller bombs. This decreases collateral damage. It allows the military to protect civilians while very specifically targeting only military targets. If war is going to happen, wouldn't you much prefer that these space technologies were used?

Maybe the protesters had other issues or arguments, but I guess I'll never know. Anyway, I hope someone finds these ideas interesting or thought-provoking.

U.S. Leadership in Space

Given the changes occurring in global space activities, an issue that came up frequently was the United States' leadership in space activities. Does the United States need to increase funding to ensure it remains the leader in space? Should it recognize that it's too expensive or just unnecessary to maintain its advantage in this environment, and allow other nations, like China, to take the lead? Is there some kind of middle ground? There were proponents of each of these theories.

Maintain Leadership: Some felt that it is essential that the United States maintains its strategic leadership in space activities. This feeling was particularly strong in areas of national security. Proponents argued the military benefit of having the most technologically advanced force in the world is essential, and to lose that advantage could have a serious impact on our security. In areas such as exploration, America's leadership is seen as central to its national prestige. The United States is a nation of leaders, and some believe that identity is essential to its society.

Leadership Unnecessary/Impossible: Another attitude was that the United States should stop clinging to the out-dated idea that it must be the leader. Some believed that given the pace of other nations, such as China and India, this would be a futile effort - other countries will catch up and overtake our capabilities in some areas. It's possible China will beat the United States to the Moon or to Mars, but that's not seen as a problem within this group. Others felt that it would be more (cost) effective for the United States to focus on partnering with other nations, rather than leading. Future trips to the Moon or to Mars should be a global effort, not something done competitively on a country-by-country basis. The United States should stop putting money into keeping ahead of other nations in space security and other areas, and instead should work with others to benefit from their investments.

Middle Ground: This is where my personal opinion on this matter lies. I recognize that the space community is changing - new countries are getting involved and advancing rapidly. I think that's great, more activity and investment in space is exciting and moves us forward as a world. I do think the United States should try harder to engage international partners and cooperate to combine efforts and investments, avoiding redundancy and allowing the world to do more with less. I recognize that some technologies and capabilities are sensitive, but I think these need to be carefully identified, so that cooperation can take place in all other areas. This helps us to avoid the situation where our space industry is at a disadvantage due to regulations that require extensive bureaucracy to acquire technologies from U.S. companies, while the same technologies can be acquired from other nations without these issues. (Oh, ITAR.)

However, I also believe that the United States' leadership in space activites is why it is one of the most exciting countries to be in for working on these activities. I think for the United States to give up its leadership identity and fall into the background would be a mistake. Luckily, I don't believe leadership and partnership are mutually exclusive. I think the United States should remain a major player in space activities, and should continue to elaborate a strategic vision for the future, while still partnering with other nations. Maybe the United States doesn't need to (or can't?) be the leader in every area of space, but it should strive to lead in areas where it has strategic strengths. I think the United States should always be a part of any global effort to explore the universe, and should help to develop the vision for the future. It just doesn't have to do it alone.

The Next Space Age

The theme of the 25th National Space Symposium was "The Next Space Age." I wrote summaries of each speaker and panel, which you can find on the National Space Symposium Website. Speakers tended to address the changing aspects of the space industry, including growing costs, the increase in the number of countries that are using space, and the advances in capabilities of other countries. They noted that space activities are no longer the exclusive arena of the United States and Russia, but now include Europe, China, Japan, Iran, and others.

Speakers talked about the increase in commercial space activity, and the importance of how space is used in everyday life. (You probably know GPS and Sirius/XM Radio depend on satellites, but did you know that satellites are required to allow ATM banking transactions, pay-at-the-pump services at the gas station, and precision farming? Almost all of the weather predictions, including those for hurricanes and natural disasters, depend on satellite data. And there are many, many more uses, but I won't try to list them all here.)

They also talked about the increasing risks to space assets - it's very difficult, if not impossible to protect satellites from threats, including jamming or disabling the satellite using a laser or by destroying it. Even a non-state actor could easily pose a threat. Given the great dependence of society on these assets, this is a growing concern.

Another theme was the growing importance of international cooperation in space. Since the cost of space activities are so large, countries will need to work more closely in the future. This is not only true for exploration and space science, but also for monitoring climate change and even for space security.

It's important to monitor where objects are in space to prevent collisions, a capability called Space Situational Awareness (SSA). The United States currently operates the most extensive SSA system, but Europe (mostly France), and Russia have some capability as well. Commercial satellite companies have telemetry data, which tells them where their own satellites are located. Speakers talked about the possibility of combining these data sources to create a more robust SSA system. This would benefit everyone involved, because instead of building new sensors and duplicating each others efforts, they can combine their existing assets to have greater precision. However, this process will not be easy. In addition to commercial satellites and debris, there are national reconnaissance (spy) satellites in space. Sharing information on these is necessary to prevent collisions, but is clearly sensitive. Information sharing methods among nations, or even between the government and commercial companies have not been developed. It will be interesting to see how this progresses in the future.

National Space Symposium

I just got back from a week at Space Foundation's 25th National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, CO. It was a great experience - I had the opportunity to watch a lot of very interesting panels and speakers and meet a lot of interesting people.

I'm going to write other entries about the actual content of the symposium, but I thought I'd have one blog entry about the fun side-events and highlights.

Opening ceremonies was awesome! There was an orchestra, which played mostly space music - Star Trek and Star Wars theme songs, among other things. Behind the orchestra, on a giant screen, they played video of space highlights - photos and video from actual missions throughout history, news paper clips of space achievements, and computer-generated vidoes of future plans. I really think space is the industry with the most cool and inspirational media in the world. Who can't be amazed by the hubble photos of the galaxy? How can you not feel that the moon landing was an incredible event for all of mankind? I could have watched those videos all night. Also, as an appointed confetti-cannon-operator, I got to watch the whole thing from the catwalk and had an amazing view!

Another cool aspect of opening ceremonies was that they awarded the "Space Achievement Award" to China's Shenzhou 7 Manned Space Flight Team. The China delegation that accepted the award included Dr. Zhou Jianping, chief designer of the China Manned Space Program, and Taikonaut Zhai Zhigang. (A Taikonaut is a Chinese Astronaut, kind of like how Russia calls their astronauts Cosmonauts.) Also, Zhai was the taikonaut that carried out the space walk during the mission!

I was extra lucky, because at the reception after the opening ceremonies, I had the chance to meet the Taikonaut Zhai Zhigang. He was really nice, though he didn't speak English. I used my one Chinese phrase to say, "Hi, my name is Mariel." (Thanks to Janet for teaching it to me about six years ago on a Chinatown bus trip to NYC.) Some colleagues said later that the Chinese delegation was really impressed with how friendly and supportive everyone at the conference was. Among national space activities, there is often a lot of competition, and relations between the United States and China have not always gone smoothly, so this was a great thing to see.

On each evening of the conference there was an event to give people the opportunity to meet each other and talk (and with 7,500 attendees, you don't ever run out of people to meet). Wednesday night was "hospitality night," where companies host parties with nice food, drinks, and usually some give-aways. One of the funniest was run by Harris, which had a super-hero themed party and gave away boas and light-up glasses. Wednesday night also included fireworks, which were incredible over the backdrop of the mountain and the freshly fallen snow (we had a blizzard that afternoon).

The final evening of the conference there was a dinner, with Bill Nye (the Science Guy!) as a speaker. I've watched hours and hours of his show, ever since I was pretty little - I even remember our teaching playing it during class in Middle School (At John Glenn Middle School, actually - I was destined for space even then). In fact, my sister and I can both still sing the theme song from memory. Anway, while I was finishing up my notes from the day, Bill Nye was in the auditorium getting the AV set up for this speech. It was so odd to hear such a familiar voice (hours and hours of watching his show, I'm telling you) and look up to see him right there. He was talking to Neil DeGrasse Tyson (arguably the most famous astrophysicist in the world - the guy responsible for making Pluto not a planet, he's been on The Daily Show, Latenight, and lots of other things). I have met Neil before, and he's very friendly, so I worked up the courage to take this chance to go say hi and get a picture. It was pretty awesome - if only my middle school teacher could see me now!

Bill Nye's speech on the last day was really entertaining. He talked a lot about climate change, showing pictures and talking about scientific trends. He made a couple points that I thought were interesting. He noted that fixing the environment wasn't just something he wanted to do because it was nice, it was something he wanted to do for himself, to make sure he could continue to live here comforably - he argued that people can't just think of it as a altruistic activity, but rather as something fueled by self interest. He also argued that people have been put off by environmental groups telling them to "do less" - drive your car less, use electricity less, etc. He said this was impractical - instead we need to develop technologies to "do more with less." We can't continue with business as usual, but we can't just stop doing things. He talked about green technologies, like solar and wind. He acknowledged that these need to get less costly and more efficient, but argued that that shouldn't stop people from adopting them now. "Why do you re-model your kitchen?" he asked, "Because it's cost-effective? No! Because it's cool!" His house runs on solar energy, and he said he gets a lot of satisfaction out of watching his energy meter run backwards all day.

He talked about future technologies that will help us advance. For example, he talked about the promise of carbon nano tubes, which will be light and strong and cheap. Eventually everything could be made out of carbon. In thirty years, kids would ask, "Did you really use to drink out of cups made of stone?" And we'll say, "Yes, and we had to lift them over and over, it was practically impossible!"

Overall, his speech was interesting and entertaining. He was funny, and it was cool to see him present live. I had a great time at the 25th National Space Symposium - hopefully I'll get the chance to see the 26th!

Peru Panaramics

I finally put together a couple of Panaramics I took in Peru...

Plaza de Armas in Cusco

Machu Piccu first thing in the morning

Wednesday, April 1, 2009