Friday, December 28, 2012

Human Biological and Cultural Evolution in Space Colonies

Yipee! My feature article in Scientific American is now on news-stands! Starship Humanity A shorter recap is on an interview at There will be plenty of naysayers, but I think they're particularly short-sighted.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

All In

All In -- meaning that all of my energy, mental and physical, all of my resources, financial and personal, are in the project now. I'm working at a high level of intensity, building lists and then knocking them down one item at a time. In the coming year I'll bring the suit to flight-worthy status, earn my balloon pilot license, and build the gondola, replacing all of the wood of the mockup with aircraft aluminum.

Above, the newly-reconfigured cockpit: suit pressurization gas and breathing gas are controlled on the left panel (completely rebuilt since 9am today!); all electrics and the balloon burner levers are on the right panel; all flight monitors (e.g. altimeters, vertical speed indicator etc) are up above. The front is unobstructed so that in emergency I can disconnect from the various hoses and go right out the... front of this sucker! Everything is still in wood and zip-ties, with exposed wiring etc, as I dial in the final arrangement. Everything must be in easy range of my hands when I'm fully pressurized, yet clear enough to bail in the event of emergency. The suit determines the size of the seat, the seat determines the size of the gondola/cockpit, the gondola/cockpit determines the size of the balloon, the size of the balloon determines the n and volume of fuel tanks...So 'hard wiring' anything into place at this time would be foolish.

Also a photo of PVC fittings now being replaced with beautiful, shining stainless steel! The center fitting is coming out soon; not sure that I actually need it.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas & System Development

A great family Christmas, followed by more work on the suit: today, installing two stainless steel fittings and some modifications to the seat armrests. In the mean time, two photos from the pool test: me with John Haslett, my expedition partner since 1998, and one of divers Ross Smith and Jeff Groth walking me backwards into the deep end of the pool, where they strapped me into the flying seat and ran through some pressurizations and depressurizations, while I communicated with John on the radio. Video still in process!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

My Interview with Scientific American Now Online

My recent interview with Scientific American, regarding human evolution off-of-Earth, is now available online.. Plenty of people dislike the concept of humans migrating from Earth, but I see it as an insurance policy for civilization and our species. If someone delivers cheaper and more reliable space access than we have had in the past 50 years -- and it appears that will occur as more inventors are engaged in private space-access development -- then eventually I think we will be colonizing space, yielding that insurance policy. One recent reaction to my article and interview is awfully wrong about how human evolution works, and I'll be replying to them presently. For the moment, here is their reaction, filed under 'Crap Futurology'! I expect more resistance to--and misunderstandings of, both evolution and space colonization ideas--than acceptance of them. That is fine with me. I think they're stuck in old ideas. Some old ideas -- e.g. mutation, migration, selection and drift shaping evolution at every generation -- are fine, as they've been shown to be facts. But others, e.g. 'humanity will never be able to colonize space' are not facts, but only premises. I'll press on :p

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

This photo accompanies the previous post (see below). From left to right, John Haslett--my buddy of 15 years of expeditions, and the world authority on the sailing characteristics of the aboriginal sailing vessels of West Ecuador, based on his years of building and sailing replicas (John came up from LA to learn the system and work as Flight Command for the balloon expedition)--me, Kevin of the FRANK FILM team, and Melissa and Brandon O'Learey of the FRANK FILM team. Thanks all!

Film and Dive Crew Photos

An exhaustive three days of tests resulted in an immersion test, where I was strapped into the flying seat 10 feet deep in a swimming pool, with attendant divers watching for problems and monitoring the suit for leaks. Suit came through with flying colors, no problems! Processing photos and video now. For the moment, two photos (for some reason this first photo is not showing, so I will try to post it separately): in the first, from left to right, John Haslett--my buddy of 15 years of expeditions, and the world authority on the sailing characteristics of the aboriginal sailing vessels of West Ecuador, based on his years of building and sailing replicas (John came up from LA to learn the system and work as Flight Command for the balloon expedition--me, Kevin of the FRANK FILM team, and Melissa and Brandon of the FRANK FILM team. In the other photo, after the pool test, from left to right, Ross Smith (archaeologist / diver), Jeff Groth (President of the Oregon Scuba Club and a highly-experienced diver and ex-commercial diver), kneeling is Kevin again, standing behind him my nephew Hayden Smith, then my brother Mark Smith, then John F. Haslett, Melissa and Brandon again, and Karen Ulbright (local diver) and then me. I can't adequately thank these folks for spending a cold day in a freezing pool (Mark's!) to help all of this work. Mark saved the day with a wine cork to plug a hose connection I'd left open, and with the humorous phrase "That's one small sip for mankind," when early in the test I inhaled a bit of poolwater (not a suit failing but an oversight of mine in prepping the suit for the test...this was solved easily) :)

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Back to Central Oregon!

One of my climbing partners, McRee Anderson, recently visited from Arkansas, and we had a great time in the volcanic-rock, juniper-scattered rock-scape of central Oregon. It was great to catch up with McRee, learning about his new family and his recent expeditions in Africa and Central America. And a long campfire allowed us to revisit many fine mountaineering adventures together, including a lightning storm that stopped us dead in our tracks in the Canadian Rockies, hail in the Colorado Rockies, gruesome avalanche escapes in the Cascades, and plenty of others.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Breathing Gas Check

15 seconds of video showing today's BG (breathing gas) check. Direct link.

Saturday, December 1, 2012


"I wish to have no Connection with any Ship that does not Sail fast for I intend to go in harm's way." Captain John Paul Jones, 16 November 1778, in a letter to le Ray de Chaumont.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Recently I was interviewed by Weiden & Kennedy's 'American Dreamers' project about my stratosphere balloon expedition. The interview now appears as a chapter in American Dreamers, alongside essays by Ariana Huffington, Stan Lee, the Mars Society's Robert Zubrin, and many others. These days I'm working late into nights--and sometimes early in the mornings, before work--to prepare a special and exciting test that I hope to make before Christmas! More on that, later. For the moment, pulling a fitting and installing beautiful stainless steel :)

Friday, November 23, 2012

New Through-Fitting

What a beauty! A brand new, shining stainless steel through-fitting for the pressure suit :) Bye bye to those PVC fittings-- they worked to prove the concept, but stainless steel has no possibility of cracking at low temperatures (e.g. -70F at my target altitude of 50k feet) and I can crank these fittings down to complete airtight status, whereas when I really went at it to tighten down the PVC fittings, they often 'mangled' under the extreme torque forces. Once this fitting is in and tested, I'll get the rest; I will try to reduce the number of fittings to just three, or four at most, rather than the five at present. Also, a photo of recent sewing on the helmet liner, now fully integrated with the oral-nasal mask, which is completely sealed and functional.

Sunday, November 18, 2012


There is not much to say about this!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Program and Further Testing

Above, the core flight simulation program, which I wrote on a bus commute after plenty of thought, a checklist, and an image from a recent pressure test with my buddy Brad Fortier. Slowly, the pieces of the puzzle drift into position!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Pressure Release Fitting Leak

Bubbles forming at the automatic suit pressure release fitting indicate a leak after I spray the unit with soapy water. I'll replace this fitting, which is only supposed to 'crack' or release pressure at 4psi, not the 2psi in the suit at t his photo. A pressure release is important as if the suit pressurization fitting is stuck in the 'ON' position it will want to fill the suit indefinitely, leading to a blowup! A cosmonaut once had his suit get into this terrible position and had to manually dump pressure so that he could fit back into the spacecraft hatch! Hairy stuff! He was gambling with the bends, but what else could he do? Won't happen to me! Second image is just a footage still of today's pressure check.

Friday, November 2, 2012

New Publications

New items in press that have kept me captive of the keyboard and calculator for the last few months: "Building an Adaptive Framework for Human Space Colonization" for Proceedings of the 2012 NASA/DARPA 100 Year Starship Study Conference and "Humanity's Starship" [working title] as a feature on space colonization for Scientific American in early 2013. Also, "Estimating Populations for Interstellar Colonization Craft: Population Genetics Issues " for Acta Astronautica, journal of the International Academy of Astronautics (this is coauthored with two other people and authorship will be settled sooner rather than later). Hoo eee ----space calls :)

Sunday, October 28, 2012

New Helmet Liner

It looks like Frankenstein's Monster, but it works, and that is all that matters. I cannibalized the original Russian helmet liner and spent four hours hand-sewing panels of mesh into a proper skullcap (the old one was a poorly-fitting bag) complete with a sweat-absorbing brow band, ear cups for the radio microphones, and strap attachments for the oral-nasal mask. One more item off of a long, long list. Today; further pressure testing. That's about done, as I am confident that I now know the location and cause of all leaks, and that I can deal with them all, mainly by replacing all plastic fittings with metal, which I can crank down tighter than the plastic, and which also poses no risk of cracking at the -70F temperatures at high altitude.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Fittings Work

Working on fittings today. It's a real thrill to go from an idea that comes to mind on the streetcar, to a drawing, to getting the hardware, and then building and testing it, and finding that...HOT TAMALES, it works!!!

Sunday, October 21, 2012


You must begin somewhere! I am getting connected with the international Project Hyperion group by working on basic genetic and cultural issues of multi-generational starships. I can bring to the discussion and plans a knowledge of human genetics and bio-cultural evolution (the topic of a feature I recently wrote for Scientific American, which will be published next year). This weekend I crunched some numbers and came up with 18k humans as the minimum number I would want to send out as a sustainable population of humans in multigenerational starships. Actually that is a minimum number multiplied by a safety factor. The formula for the number is subject to all kinds of adjustment, but you must begin somewhere. Now this figure and its formula go on to the propulsion people, to see what its mass implies for their plans...The idea is not to build anything now, but to have, at the end of the century, the capacity to build and send out interstellar starships carrying human (and their domesticate) populations suststainable over multiple generations.

"Project Hyperion – Manned Interstellar Flight

Many studies of interstellar craft focus on vessels that are unmanned. This is because the task of starship construction is considered sufficiently challenging without the additional complexity of creating an environment where humans could survive for decades or even centuries. Project Hyperion will tackle this specific challenge head on and perform a preliminary study that defines concepts for a crewed interstellar starship. Major areas of study include propulsion, environmental control, life support, social studies related to crewed multi-decadal/multi-century missions, habitat studies, communications, psychology of deep spaceflight, mission objectives and ethics of sending humans to the stars. Like with all complex system developments, a major challenge is to merge the results from the domain-specific sub studies into a coherent system design. This shall be accomplished by using up-to-date systems engineering approaches like concurrent engineering and model-based systems engineering"

More than 30 years ago, my Dad bought a book for me at NASA-Houston, titled "Space Settlements: An Engineering Strudy". In it he wrote that he thought that some day humanity would colonize space, and that he thought that I might be a part of that effort. I am putting a lot of work into fulfilling that dream, to which I fully subscribe. After all, we buy insurance for our own lives, and space colonization is just an insurance policy for humanity and civilization. We humans have plenty of problems, and colonizing space will not solve them, but it would prevent all of our eggs, so to speak, from being in the same, fragile basket.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

1-Hour Pressure, Communications and Checklist Test

Super-low resolution clips, but the better quality will take some time to process. Great hour-long test tonight with Chuck on the radio. We identified a lot of problems--the function of tests!--and my TO DO list doubled in size! Closing Faceplate (direct link): Chuck launches the simulator while I'm sealed in the pressurized suit (direct link):

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Pressure Suit Project Synopsis

Local story on the pressure suit aired tonight -- thanks to Tim Becker for doing a great, condensed story -- I think it turned out well and communicates the basics. Direct link here.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Cockpit Mosaic Photo

Even with a fisheye lense, I can't capture the entire cockpit in one photo, so this image is stitched together from three images. On the left, gas management (breathing gas and suit pressurization gas), on the right, electrical controls (on the bottom is the new, red battery switcher from main to backup battery) and on the top, some of the main flight monitors (vertical speed, altitude and so on). A few tests with me in the seat, pressurized in the suit and simulating (by radio) a 3-hour flight, will allow me to adjust and then 'lock in' this essential design, so that I can build the real cockpit from aircraft aluminum and some other materials. These tests ensure that with the suit pressurized, I can reach and operate controls, and in the worst case, bail out easily -- that's why directly in front of me there is nothing to get in the way of getting out of the seat and bailing straight out the front.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Woo hoo, another good test! Tonight KOIN TV came to shoot a segment for Monday. Chuck Sullivan, who's run the communications for expeditions for some years (we also wrote a book together some years ago!), came to help with the suit -- but more importantly to start working out comms with me. He took the headset and we talked through the radios for a while, while he was running the flight simulator and I was in the pressure suit, seated in the balloon car mockup (on the right), getting used to clearly communicating quantities, alarms, rates, going over checklists and so on. Photo shows Chuck being filmed as he talks about running the simulator program etc.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Versatile Humankind!

One of the great videos I use to illustrate the point that we human primates are more versatile than one would expect from biology alone! Sulbin the South Seas hunter.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Suit Leak Rate Data

Some basic data on the pressure suit leak rate; the diagram shows the leak rate, in cubic feet per hour (on the Y axis) and variation in the leak rate over an hour, broken into 5-minute intervals (on the X axis). Long story short, the variation is explainable as a result of me tinkering with the pressure a little here and there, which I will not do next time; and the leak rate is averaging 10 cubic feet per hour (286.3 liters per hour) with the suit pressurized to 3psi, about 6 cubic feet per hour (175.2 liters per hour) at 2psi, and about 4 cubic feet per hour (110.4 liters per hour) at 1psi. These leak rates are significantly higher than most NASA pressure suits, however, they are entirely acceptable considering that I can easily carry a 30 cubic foot suit pressurization gas tank, which would suffice for the trip up to 50k and then back down to about 30k, where I can open the visor again (though still breathing 100% oxygen through the oral-nasal mask). Wednesday a TV crew will be here to shoot some footage, and later in the week another radio interview. Plenty to do to prepare for these!

Friday, September 28, 2012

Getting High

I get high from teaching. After a lecture, my mind is racing, I feel light--almost rising out of my sneakers--and that thrill comes from having seen, in even just one student, the face of a person learning something new, something that perhaps they never imagined. I walk faster, I feel happier and my mind, after a lecture, is at its most active, linking previously-unlinked ideas. The few minutes o f walking from the lecture hall back to my office is a critical time! A lot happens then. This high can last for a few hours. This is my 11th year of teaching, and I am realizing that the only way I can keep up engaging my students is to keep myself engaged, with new overheads and new evidence--some of which knocks out old ideas, other of which supports older ideas. I am a lucky, lucky man to have found employment doing precisely what I love to do...but to keep it up, I must always incorporate new material, new evidence that keeps me laughing and gasping at its that I can keep my students laughing, and occasionally gasping, with the joy of unexpected knowledge :)

More Photos from the WIRED Shoot

Above, Dan Cronin helping me with the suit coolant hoses, and giving me a drink of water. Photographer Jose Mandojana has posted a few more photos from the WIRED shoot at his blog -- Thanks Jose!

Monday, September 17, 2012

WIRED story on my Pressure Suit

Recently, WIRED ran a story and a video on the project. Link is here: the still photos are at the top of the page, the video at the bottom. Tonight, a leak rate test! The system is very close to ready for testing in a pressure chamber!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

100 Year Starship Study

Headed home from the 100 Year Starship Study conference in Houston, Texas. My paper was on some genetic and cultural issues implicated in a 100-year (say, 3-human-generation) interstellar starship voyage. I'll dive much more deeply into this matter in a paper and a book chapter that will derive from this talk, looking at a number of population genetics and demographics issues. At the conference, plenty of interesting discussion points came up! At the social--after two days of papers on such a range of topics as antimatter propulsion, quantum radar, and advanced textiles--the actor LaVar Burton (among others of a panel of celebs) was clear, funny and eloquent on the reasons to put into action this project to, by 100 years from now, have the capacity to build and propel a starship with a colony of humans aboard, to another star. Humans, individually, buy insurance to avert disaster in the future. Our species should do the same. Plenty of projects and organizations in our history have persisted for a century, and of course in Europe, cathedrals often took more than a century to build. At low expense, spread over this time (which also prevents us rushing into things), this project seems reasonable. Of course, we have plenty of issues to address on Earth -- but it is possible to do more than one thing at once, and you have to keep an eye on the future, and plan for it, lest it come up and smite thee :)

In the photo, retired astronaut and 100 Year Starship Study director Dr. Mae Jamison (left), National Museum of African Art Director Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole (center) and actor LaVar Burton (right) have a laugh during a wide-ranging, informal discussion of many aspects of space colonization. Who would have believed, 40 years ago, that the 100YSS Director would be a female, African-American astronaut???

Lower photo shows a new book in the early gastrulation stage!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Neil Armstrong

Neil Armstrong, back in the lunar module in 1969, after a quick walk on the moon. He is exhausted and thrilled. He is also breathing 100% oxygen (which he's been breathing for several days at 5psi, a third of what we breathe here on Earth), at 1/6 Earth gravity, so he has a different character of face than any of us has ever seen. This is the countenance of a man who, in his youth, dreamt of leviation.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Yo Yo Ma

There's a reason that the most talented cellists play this music!

RL Stevenson and his Treasure Island Map

"As I pored upon my map of Treasure Island, the future characters of the book began to appear there visibly among imaginary woods; and their brown faces and bright weapons peeped out upon me from unexpected quarters, as they passed to and fro, fighting and hunting treasure, on these few square inches of a flat projection. The next thing I knew, I had some paper before me and was writing out a list of chapters." -- Robert Louis Stevenson

Flight Simulation Program

Back when I was an undergrad in England, a good buddy of mine was a crack programmer who taught me some things about computer programming. Now I've used that knowledge to write a simple program simulating my balloon flights. The program runs on an ancient Mac that I pulled out of a closet. Using a simple formula that takes into account many variables that result in buoyancy force of the balloon (the essence of balloon aviation) it simulates ALT = altitude, FPM = feet per minute ascending or descending, FUEL = fuel consumption (not being monitored just yet), OAT = outside air temp in F, BET = balloon envelope temperature, OXY = oxygen supply (not monitored either just yet), APSI = ambient atmospheric pressure in PSI and some other variables. This sim will be run many times, and refined, with me in the suit / cockpit mockup, communicating with my buddy Chuck Sullivan, who will run the sim and coordinate things like running the burner and bailout scenarios while I'm in the pressurized suit, communicating by radio. By running sims we can get a handle on things like how we communicate, power and gas consumption rates, how long it takes to do certain things, and so on. Another piece of the puzzle in place :)

Electrics Rebuild

Complete rewiring today, getting the system set for fully-pressurized simulations coordinated with the flight simulation program. This will give me concrete information about flight times and consumption rates for e.g. battery power (though I don't have the solar panels I'll use to keep a 'trickle charge' into the 12v DC system), suit pressurization gas and breathing gas. It will also ensure that I can reach all the switches and other actuators with the suit pressurized, as well as totally disconnect from the system to stand up and bail out in the event of emergency.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Restraints Installed

Quick video of seat restraints installed in the cockpit mockup. Another small item off the list!

(direct link)

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Checklist Development

I spend a lot of time thinking about checklists--they're the only way to be sure all goes well. I imagine circumstances and plan out what to do in those cases, then formalize them into lists of actions. On the one hand, checklists are invaluable; everyone from serious divers to aircraft pilots use them. On the other hand, you mustn't be a slave to a checklist if conditions differ than what you expected...and if you step far outside your front door, that is what you find!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Back to Work!

A month and a half break from the physical system allowed me to think about it at times, and in my notebook I designed four systems to build. Today I took a couple of hours and $10.00 to build a prototype of one, a mechanical and automatic suit pressure regulation valve; it admits suit pressurization gas into the suit, but then shuts off the gas supply when a certain pressure is reached. If suit pressure drops, the system kicks back in and brings it up again to healthy pressure. This PVC prototype, if it works, will be even easier to build in metal. It replaces the 12v DC solenoid, for the same function, that I like except for the fact that it requires power, and batteries fail, and I don't want something so critical as suit pressure to rely on power. Second photo shows cleaning old rubber cement from around a through-fitting, a little detail that will improve the seal.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


Fantastic - next, to Berlin to study developmental genetics, and write. Then back to the pressure suit project, which will kick into high gear in the Fall.

Friday, July 6, 2012

More Santa Cruz Island

Anchored at Little Scorpion Bay, and some other photos. I have breathed in sea air, tasted the sea again and I have been instructed by a sea lion to depart his fishing grounds! A minute under the waves, examining one of these wonders, and it is hard to come back up to a world of childish politics and short-sighted plans for the 'future'. Somehow, I will be weaving evolution, the natural world, and human history and prehistory into the next thing I write.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Skin Diving Santa Cruz Island

I just shot this photo of starfish clinging to a rock in a marine sanctuary off California. There is a whole domain of marine biology that investigates the fascinating world of the 'interface' between the sea and the atmosphere above the sea. These life forms do just fine at lower tide, exposed to air, as well as at higher tide, when they're completely submerged...

We shot video for a TV project for a week and I think we have some great material 'in the can'. Now, like all TV projects, we see what the Execs think of it :)

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

From "Hyperion"

My favorite poet, John Keats, never disappoints! This is from 'Hyperion':

"As when, upon a tranced summer-night,
Those green-rob’d senators of mighty woods,
Tall oaks, branch-charmed by the earnest stars,
Dream, and so dream all night without a stir,
Save from one gradual solitary gust
Which comes upon the silence, and dies off,
As if the ebbing air had but one wave;
So came these words and went..."

When I am a broken shambling skeleton, staggering down a street, this--if I can remember it--will be my treasure, just as it is today! Nobody can take these words from my mind and nobody can rob me of this treasure.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

An Exercise in Patience

Time to stop messing with plastic fittings, and move to metal (samples in lower image), which won't crack at low temperatures. This fitting, which I'm working with a large wrench, has given me a lot of trouble; it won't seal, despite my closest examination and cleaning of threads etc. Before I get the metal fittings, I'll finalize decisions RE how many and of what type I need. With these replaced, I'm sure I will knock out the final leaks. Right now the leaks are very small indeed, but I'm going to knock them lower.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Cockpit Mockup Build

Top photo: 'The System' overtaking my whole home! Lower photo: took apart the testbed and started building the cockpit mockup; this lays out controls and monitors in the flying configuration. A thousand details to attend, but it's coming along.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Review of "Going Interstellar" in Scientific American Online

My review of "Going Interstellar", now online at Scientific American.

Flight and Power Panel Rebuilds

Finally went to work on taking apart the flight instruments panel, and the main power control panel. Still not at a perfect configuration with the instruments, but it's a lot better this way and can now be mounted in the cage, above and in front of the seat (on a swing arm so that I can quickly get it out of the way if I need to bail out), so that I can start to run simulations of flight -- me pressurized in the suit, which is now very close to a 'flyable' state -- with a near-real arrangement of my basic indicators and controls. A close examination of the electrics panel reveals that it's not up to the job (loose fittings, chinzy fittings) and will be replaced, but that's a minor matter. I secured power lines with tiny zip ties to prevent 'jiggling' from disconnecting connections, and labeled the lines to make them easier to manage when the box is built around the switch panel. Doing this, I broke open one switch -- a headache to rebuild it, but now I know what's inside a switch, and can therefore make a better choice when I get the final switching panel.