The Real Hoverboard is the world’s most boring swing

Sometimes we get technology proposals from films, science-fiction films or even comedy science fiction films.

Take the hoverboard, the magical skateboard-without-wheels used by Marty McFly in “Back to the Future Part 2”. You could even cross water with it.

Image from the “Best of the 80s” blog

Young nerds of the 1980s must have thought: “that would be the coolest thing ever”. Of course it would.

But now in 2014, for only $10,000 each, you can now ride a hoverboard for yourself. It won’t cross water, of course, or even roads, sidewalks or shopping malls.

And you can’t do any tricks at all.

Watch the thrills!

It’s called the Hendo hoverboard, and it has its own Kickstarter page. It’s basically a load of strong magnets under a board which you can ride on a copper plate. And there’s a cool blue light there as well.

Call me cynical (and I am not most of the time), but what you have here is the world’s most boring pendulum exercise. As a child I used to imitate the same range of motion by standing on the swing on my family’s swingset. But other than seeing how far I could swing before launching myself onto the lawn, it wasn’t that exciting.

But it was more exciting that the Hendo hoverboard and cost a lot less.

I think that’s its proved that skateboards with wheels are far more interesting than any hoverboard, if only for the danger of breaking several bones trying to do the most ridiculous tricks.

The self-driving car is an accident waiting to happen

A fascinating article from Slate on Google’s self-driving car technology and what are really the limits of artificial intelligence.

A good technology demonstration so wows you with what the product can do that you might forget to ask about what it can’t. Case in point: Google’s self-driving car. There is a surprisingly long list of the things the car can’t do, like avoid potholes or operate in heavy rain or snow. Yet a consensus has emerged among many technologists, policymakers, and journalists that Google has essentially solved—or is on the verge of solving—all of the major issues involved with robotic driving. The Economist believes that “the technology seems likely to be ready before all the questions of regulation and liability have been sorted out.” The New York Times declared that “autonomous vehicles like the one Google is building will be able to pack roads more efficiently”—up to eight times so. Google co-founder Sergey Brin forecast in 2012 that self-driving cars would be ready in five years, and in May, said he still hoped that his original prediction would come true.

But what Google is working on may instead result in the automotive equivalent of the Apple Newton, what one Web commenter called a “timid, skittish robot car whose inferior level of intelligence becomes a daily annoyance.” To be able to handle the everyday stresses and strains of the real driving world, the Google car will require a computer with a level of intelligence that machines won’t have for many years, if ever.

The problem is not avoiding other traffic or even pedestrians (although how a computerized car deals with jay-walking pedestrians and cyclists is the sort of thing that I would be fascinated to see really work).

The problem is the artificial intelligence to deal with the road and signs itself:

…the Google car was able to do so much more than its predecessors in large part because the company had the resources to do something no other robotic car research project ever could: develop an ingenious but extremely expensive mapping system. These maps contain the exact three-dimensional location of streetlights, stop signs, crosswalks, lane markings, and every other crucial aspect of a roadway.

That might not seem like such a tough job for the company that gave us Google Earth and Google Maps. But the maps necessary for the Google car are an order of magnitude more complicated. In fact, when I first wrote about the car for MIT Technology Review, Google admitted to me that the process it currently uses to make the maps are too inefficient to work in the country as a whole.

And here’s the greatest hard problem of artificial intelligence – unlike humans who can drive roads that they have not previously encountered before or which have temporary signs or speed restrictions to which humans can read and modify their behaviour in response, computerised vehicles need to know where literally everything else is, in advance.

…the maps have problems, starting with the fact that the car can’t travel a single inch without one. Since maps are one of the engineering foundations of the Google car, before the company’s vision for ubiquitous self-driving cars can be realized, all 4 million miles of U.S. public roads will be need to be mapped, plus driveways, off-road trails, and everywhere else you’d ever want to take the car. So far, only a few thousand miles of road have gotten the treatment, most of them around the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, California.  The company frequently says that its car has driven more than 700,000 miles safely, but those are the same few thousand mapped miles, driven over and over again.

Another problem with maps is that once you make them, you have to keep them up to date, a challenge Google says it hasn’t yet started working on. Considering all the traffic signals, stop signs, lane markings, and crosswalks that get added or removed every day throughout the country, keeping a gigantic database of maps current is vastly difficult. Safety is at stake here; Chris Urmson, director of the Google car team, told me that if the car came across a traffic signal not on its map, it could potentially run a red light, simply because it wouldn’t know to look for the signal. Urmson added, however, that an unmapped traffic signal would be “very unlikely,” because during the “time and construction” needed to build a traffic signal, there would be adequate opportunity to add it to the map.

Which brings me to the main point – what are the compelling economic and social reasons why driverless cars are more desirable than ones with human drivers? I can’t see any from here.

Have Google (or anyone else) considered that commuting or simply travelling from one place to another without driving yourself already has a much more economic solution?

I think Google would have better luck with another hard science fiction favourite: the flying car. At least there are no pedestrians or traffic cones up in the air – yet.

It seems to me that the problem could be solved by having a road system built with driver-less transport in mind, but that’s the sort of thing that puts the whole concept in the bracket of “completely uneconomic” or just “hard science fiction”.

Send your name into space on Orion’s maiden flight

This in from NASA:

October 7, 2014

RELEASE 14-275

Send Your Name on NASA’s Journey to Mars, Starting with Orion’s First Flight

Send your name to Mars on Orion

Image Credit: NASA

If only your name could collect frequent flyer miles. NASA is inviting the public to send their names on a microchip to destinations beyond low-Earth orbit, including Mars.

Your name will begin its journey on a dime-sized microchip when the agency’s Orion spacecraft launches Dec. 4 on its first flight, designated Exploration Flight Test-1. After a 4.5 hour, two-orbit mission around Earth to test Orion’s systems, the spacecraft will travel back through the atmosphere at speeds approaching 20,000 mph and temperatures near 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit, before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.

But the journey for your name doesn’t end there. After returning to Earth, the names will fly on future NASA exploration flights and missions to Mars. With each flight, selected individuals will accrue more miles as members of a global space-faring society.

“NASA is pushing the boundaries of exploration and working hard to send people to Mars in the future,” said Mark Geyer, Orion Program manager. “When we set foot on the Red Planet, we’ll be exploring for all of humanity. Flying these names will enable people to be part of our journey.”

The deadline for receiving a personal “boarding pass” on Orion’s test flight closes Friday Oct. 31. The public will have an opportunity to keep submitting names beyond Oct. 31 to be included on future test flights and future NASA missions to Mars.

To submit your name to fly on Orion’s flight test, visit:

Join the conversation on social media using the hashtag #JourneyToMars.

For information about Orion and its first flight, visit:


Well my name is on the flight! Now to send my family’s names as well…

To boldly go…in space in microchip.

Send an all-woman crew to Mars…its cheaper

This article from Slate on the discovery (whisper it) that women generally have a lower weight and a lower metabolic rate than most men, therefore the first manned mission to Mars should be predominantly or all female because it would be cheaper to launch women and keep them fed on Mars.

Last year I [author Kate Greene] took part in a NASA-funded research project called HI-SEAS (Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation). It required that I and five other crewmembers live as astronauts on the surface of Mars. We didn’t leave Earth, obviously, but for four months we were cooped up in a geodesic dome on the side of the very red, very rocky, very Mars-like Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii. Our food, water, power, and communications were limited, and we were only allowed to exit the habitat if we wore mock spacesuits. So many Martian hassles, so little glory.

Author Kate Greene during a mock Mars mission.

Author Kate Greene during a mock Mars mission.

Courtesy of Sian Proctor

This was the first HI-SEAS mission—a third starts this month—and it was designed mainly to study the types of food Mars explorers might eat. I was the crew writer, blogging for Discover and the Economist, and since I had the scientific background and interest, I conducted a sleep study, too.

I collected and managed the crew’s sleep data over the course of the experiment. One device we used to track sleep was the sensor armband from BodyMedia, which also provides estimates of daily and weekly caloric expenditure. While I didn’t know which data belonged to which subject due to anonymity requirements, I could see each subject’s sex. Over time I noticed a trend.

Week in and week out, the three female crew members expended less than half the calories of the three male crew members. Less than half! We were all exercising roughly the same amount—at least 45 minutes a day for five consecutive days a week—but our metabolic furnaces were calibrated in radically different ways.

During one week, the most metabolically active male burned an average of 3,450 calories per day, while the least metabolically active female expended 1,475 calories per day. It was rare for a woman on crew to burn 2,000 calories in a day and common for male crew members to exceed 3,000.

We were only allowed to exit the habitat if we wore mock spacesuits. So many Martian hassles, so little glory.

The data certainly fit with my other observations. At mealtime, the women took smaller portions than the men, who often went back for seconds. One crew member complained how hard it was to maintain his weight, despite all the calories he was taking in.

The calorie requirements of an astronaut matter significantly when planning a mission. The more food a person needs to maintain her weight on a long space journey, the more food should launch with her. The more food launched, the heavier the payload. The heavier the payload, the more fuel required to blast it into orbit and beyond. The more fuel required, the heavier the rocket becomes, which it in turn requires more fuel to launch.

Wait, according to feminist theory, the physiological differences between the sexes are socially conditioned. That’s why men have much greater upper body strength.

But I digress…

The cost of a Mars mission has gone down since 1989, apparently

According to Robert Zubrin, aerospace engineer, author, and president of the Mars Society, a round-trip mission to Mars could cost as little as $30 billion. While this is a low-ball estimate that ignores many of the details, it suggests that a manned Mars mission might not cost $450 billion, an amount proposed by NASA in 1989 that many believe is close to the upper limit for such a mission. Many of today’s estimates tend to be around $100 billion.

Its not just that I’m a pragmatist (or pessimist) but you’ll never, ever get the US Government to spend as low as $30 billion anywhere. Just look at the budget for the War on Terror or the War on Drugs.

Which gets me back to my previous comment, that if mankind really, seriously want to go to Mars, then more than one country needs to be involved.

Harry Jones, of NASA Ames Research Center, says that he too noticed the average female and male calorie requirement differed significantly and published on the topic in the early 2000s. “For a Mars mission, life support will be a major cost,” he says. “It is expected that oxygen and water can be recycled, but not food. Reducing the crew’s calorie requirement would cut cost.”

But is it a significant cost relative to the cost of lifting everything else?

Besides which

As reasonable as an all-female Mars mission is from an economic perspective, some might find the idea offensive. After all, it’d be an expedition that fails to represent half the world’s population; an all-female Mars crew would strike many as exceptionally biased.

Then again, space-mission design has always been biased in one way or another. Exploration in general is nothing if not political, dictated by the people with the money and power to choose the face of the expedition. Right now, it’s unlikely that those with the power to do so would agree to fund a crew of small female astronauts even to save money.

Again I think its more likely that the crew will probably be 2 male and 2 female, or 3 male and 3 female.

If it ever happens at all.

MIT – Mars One is not feasible with current technologies


This popped into my mailbox via Slashdot from The Examiner:

The Mars One project created a great deal of fanfare when it was first announced in 2012. The project, based in Holland, aspires to build a colony on Mars with the first uncrewed flight taking place in 2018 and the first colonists setting forth around 2024. The idea is that the colonists would go to Mars to stay, slowly building up the colony in four-person increments every 26-month launch window. However, Space Policy Online on Tuesday reported that an independent study conducted by MIT has poured cold water on the Mars colony idea.

The MIT team consisting of engineering students had to make a number of assumptions based on public sources since the Mars One concept lacks a great many technical details. The study made the bottom line conclusion that the Mars One project is overly optimistic at best and unworkable at worst. The concept is “unsustainable” given the current state of technology and the aggressive schedule that the Mars One project has presented.

Yes, and that’s only the good news. The project is extremely expensive and uses technologies that don’t exist yet, putting the whole idea solidly in the realms of hard science fiction.

The actual report (link here) makes clear how far Mars One is from reality:

Our assessment revealed a number of insights into architecture decisions for establishing a colony on the Martian surface. If crops are used as the sole food source, they will produce unsafe oxygen levels in the habitat. Furthermore, the ISRU [in-situ resource utilisation] system mass estimate is 8% of the mass of the resources it would produce over a two year period. That being said, the ISRU technology required to produce nitrogen, oxygen, and water on the surface of Mars is at a relatively low Technology Readiness Level (TRL), so such findings are preliminary at best.

Translation: the technology needed to keep people alive on Mars for extended periods starting in 10 years’ time hasn’t even demonstrated here on Earth.

A spare parts analysis revealed that spare parts quickly come to dominate resupply mass as the settlement grows: after 130 months on the Martian surface, spare parts compose 62% of the mass brought from Earth to the Martian surface. The space logistics analysis revealed that, for the best scenario considered, establishing the  first crew for a Mars settlement will require approximately 15 Falcon Heavy launchers and require $4.5 billion in funding, and these numbers will grow with additional crews.

Translation: This will be at least very expensive, far beyond the costs of any television reality series or any Hollywood franchise ever envisioned.


Our integrated Mars settlement simulation revealed a number of significant insights into architecture decisions for establishing a Martian colony. First, our habitation simulations revealed that crop growth, iflarge enough to provide 100% of the settlement’s food, will produce unsafe oxygen levels in the habitat. As a result, some form of oxygen removal system is required – a technology that has not yet been developed for spaceflight.

The technology needed to do this one critical function does not exist as of today

Second, the ISRU system sizing module generated a system mass estimate that was approximately 8% of the mass of the resources it would produce over a two year period, even with a generous margin on the ISRU system mass estimate. That being said, the ISRU technology required to produce nitrogen, oxygen, and water on the surface of Mars is at a relatively low TRL, so such findings are preliminary at best. A spare parts analysis revealed that the mass of spare parts to support the ISRU and ECLS systems increases significantly as the settlement grows – after 130 months on the Martian surface, spare parts compose 62% of the mass transported to the Martian surface.

The logistics of keeping the Mars colony from collapsing for lack of spares will be a massive drain and require constant re-supply from Earth.

Finally, the space logistics analysis revealed that for the most optimist scenario considered, establishing the first crew of a Mars settlement will require approximately 15 Falcon Heavy launches costing $4.5billion, and these values will grow with additional crews. It is important to note that these numbers are derived considering only the ECLS and ISRU systems with spare parts. Future work will have to integrate other analyses, such as communications and power systems, to capture a more realistic estimate of mission cost.

It will be extremely expensive, so much so that even a first world economy like the United States would balk at the cost.

My suggestions for getting to Mars

Rather than this be seen solely as a blog of space negativity, I would like to suggest how Mars could be conquered.

It is clear from the outset that getting humans to Mars, landing them safely (something not mentioned in the above report but a very hard problem that hasn’t been answered yet) and keeping them alive on Mars is a problem which demands political and economic will from the United States, Russia and China, together with India and France to produce an international consortium to solve the technological issues of the human exploration of Mars.

And they should set a hard target of getting to Mars in 20 years, not 10.

I believe that the technological problems of Mars exploration by humans can be solved with human ingenuity, but it will require economic and political will by countries who are currently at war (Russia in the Ukraine, the United States in Syria/Iraq) and on opposing sides.

I also believe that it would be far less expensive and get better technological result to explore Mars by robot, using such technologies as dirigibles and ground penetrating radar as well as solar and especially nuclear technologies for power.

But Mars One isn’t going anywhere. It really is hard science fiction.

Reference: AN INDEPENDENT ASSESSMENT OF THE TECHNICAL FEASIBILITY OF THE MARS ONE MISSION PLAN, Sydney Do et al, paper presented to the 65th International Astronautical Congress, Toronto, Canada IAC-14-A5.2.7 Link to paper (PDF)

Scientific mistakes in “The Martian” – Part 1

This is the first in a series of many on this subject, since this book was the main inspiration for the blog.

A recent entry into the hard science fiction literary genre has been the debut novel of author Andy Weir called “The Martian”


Now “The Martian” has been described (by its author amongst others) as “Robinson Crusoe on Mars”.

The Story

A Mars expedition has to hastily leave after only 6 days on the Red Planet and in the chaos, one of the astronauts is injured and presumed dead and the remaining crew leave without him. Except that he is still alive and drags himself back to the ‘Hab’ to find that he is utterly alone and with no means of communication with anyone else.

The rest of the story is told mainly from the astronaut’s perspective as he “McGyvers” through series of technological and physical challenges to remain alive long enough to be rescued by a succeeding mission that he knows will land on the other side of Mars four (Earth) years later.

Critical praise

It certainly has got great reviews on Amazon (4.7 out of 5 stars at the time of writing). It appears to be a best seller and it is already in pre-production as a film to be directed by Ridley Scott with Matt Damon strongly tipped for the lead role.

More importantly, it is presented as hard science fiction – a relatively rare genre in a world saturated with space operas like Star Trek and Star Wars. All of the solutions to problems in the book are based on science with no magic tricks, space aliens or magical technological solutions.

What’s not to like? From my perspective as a science wonk, what could be better?

It even gets a rave review from a real astronaut:

“A book I just couldn’t put down! It has the very rare combination of a good, original story, interestingly real characters and fascinating technical accuracy…reads like MacGyver meets Mysterious Island.” (Astronaut Chris Hadfield, Commander of the International Space Station and author of An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth)

And yet…

And yet, though I tried to like the book, I found that its full of scientific mistakes.


Why can’t I suspend my disbelief just this once and enjoy some science-based fantasy?

And so, dear reader, over the next few weeks and months I will be demonstrating some of the major scientific errors that I found in the book.

I don’t claim that I would be a better writer than Andy Weir, but I know a little bit more about space travel and Mars than some.

Article: The End of the Space Age

Another article from 2011 published by The Economist called “The End of the Space Age” which points out some very sobering truths about the Final Frontier.

It is quite conceivable that 36,000km [the orbits of the geostationary satellites] will prove the limit of human ambition. It is equally conceivable that the fantasy-made-reality of human space flight will return to fantasy. It is likely that the Space Age is over.

Bye-bye, sci-fi

Today’s space cadets will, no doubt, oppose that claim vigorously. They will, in particular, point to the private ventures of people like Elon Musk in America and Sir Richard Branson in Britain, who hope to make human space flight commercially viable. Indeed, the enterprise of such people might do just that. But the market seems small and vulnerable. One part, space tourism, is a luxury service that is, in any case, unlikely to go beyond low-Earth orbit at best (the cost of getting even as far as the moon would reduce the number of potential clients to a handful). The other source of revenue is ferrying astronauts to the benighted International Space Station (ISS), surely the biggest waste of money, at $100 billion and counting, that has ever been built in the name of science.

The reason for that second objective is also the reason for thinking 2011 might, in the history books of the future, be seen as the year when the space cadets’ dream finally died. It marks the end of America’s space-shuttle programme, whose last mission is planned to launch on July 8th (see article, article). The shuttle was supposed to be a reusable truck that would make the business of putting people into orbit quotidian. Instead, it has been nothing but trouble. Twice, it has killed its crew. If it had been seen as the experimental vehicle it actually is, that would not have been a particular cause for concern; test pilots are killed all the time. But the pretence was maintained that the shuttle was a workaday craft. The technical term used by NASA, “Space Transportation System”, says it all.

But the shuttle is now over. The ISS is due to be de-orbited, in the inelegant jargon of the field, in 2020. Once that happens, the game will be up. There is no appetite to return to the moon, let alone push on to Mars, El Dorado of space exploration. The technology could be there, but the passion has gone—at least in the traditional spacefaring powers, America and Russia.

The space cadets’ other hope, China, might pick up the baton. Certainly it claims it wishes, like President John Kennedy 50 years ago, to send people to the surface of the moon and return them safely to Earth. But the date for doing so seems elastic. There is none of Kennedy’s “by the end of the decade” bravura about the announcements from Beijing. Moreover, even if China succeeds in matching America’s distant triumph, it still faces the question, “what next?” The chances are that the Chinese government, like Richard Nixon’s in 1972, will say “job done” and pull the plug on the whole shebang.

Which means that if China, now one of the richest countries on Earth (if measured by balance of trade) won’t bother going to Mars because its too expensive, what are the chances that anyone will?

Because unless there are untold riches on Mars that cannot be got simpler and cheaper here on Earth, then the robotic exploration of the Solar System is where we’ll be in 25 years’ time.

For myself, I applaud the ISS being de-orbited. Will anyone tell me what scientific discoveries were made on the ISS that even remotely justify $100 billion?

The whole thing is one enormous boondoggle. Just imagine what problems here on Earth could have been solved with $100 billion.