Exposing PseudoAstronomy

November 14, 2014

The Good and Bad of NASA Publishing Spacecraft Images Online


This was my second blog post for Swift, published late last week:

You wouldn’t know it by listening to many conspiracy theorists, but NASA is by far the most open space agency in the world when it comes to publishing data from spacecraft. By law, the teams that built and run the instruments on these missions must publish their data within six months of it being taken, except in rare cases when an additional six-month extension can be granted.

Contrast that with the Chinese and Indian space agencies, which still haven’t openly published data from missions that completed several years ago. Japan is better, as is the European Space Agency (ESA), but neither of them supply data as readily and easily as NASA.

In addition to the rules for depositing the raw, unprocessed data, NASA’s PR department, along with the PR arms of most missions, publish some of the data online almost as soon as it’s taken. This is great for the public; it’s also terrible for skeptics.

Allow me to explain by way of example: The LCROSS mission. This was the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite that infamously sparked conspiracies that NASA was “bombing” the moon. The mission was to launch a projectile at the lunar south pole where there are permanently shadowed regions, and have the spacecraft fly through the plume formed by the projectile’s impact to try to detect water. If water were found, it would be a boon for crewed missions to the moon because astronauts could mine the water there instead of bringing their own.

The big event took place the night (in the US) of October 9, 2009. Within just a few days, photographs taken by the spacecraft were published by NASA online.

This was really good for the public. We got to see early results of what had been a very hyped event with observing parties taking place across the nation, including at the White House. It helped keep public interest longer than just one evening. It shared data with the people who paid for it: taxpayers.

LCROSS Landing Site

LCROSS Landing Site

So what’s the problem? These images show several things: The most basic of photographic processing without things like dust on the camera removed (which is always done for science images), color (the camera was black-and-white, so the color is completely an artifact of the press release image), brightness enhanced a lot such that most of the surface is white, and the PR release image is a JPG file format, meaning that there are JPG compression artifacts that manifest as blocky blobs.

For most of us, that doesn’t matter. We get the point that this is showing a bright glow caused by the impact of the spacecraft’s projectile. In NASA’s before shots, that bright glow is not present. A tiny flash of light that the world was watching for, with tens of thousands of people across the night side of the Earth staring upwards. (Unfortunately, it was cloudy where I was.)

Pseudscientists, on the other hand, don’t get that. There exists a large group of space anomalists that look for anything in a space photograph that they don’t immediately understand and use that to claim fill-in-the-blank. One of the most prolifically published modern people who practice this is Richard C. Hoagland. He took the NASA press release, increased the brightness even more, and claimed that the rectilinear, colored structures, were in reality infrastructure (tubes and pipes) by the “secret space program” and that the public space program had bombed them because the folks at NASA had finally found out about the secret bases on the Moon.

NASA Image PIA10214 with a Close-Up of "BigFoot"

NASA Image PIA10214 with a Close-Up of “BigFoot”

This will seem absurd to most people. But not to some. And, this is just one example; innumerable others exist. Every image published online in the easy-to-access public websites of the Mars rovers are poured over by anomaly hunters in the same way. Among other things, they search for rocks that are then said to look like apartment complexes, fossils, Bigfoot, all kinds of terrestrial and aqueous animal life, boots, a pump, and very recently, a water shut-off valve (to just name a few). Most of these are basic examples of pareidolia (creating a pattern in otherwise random data), or imprints actually caused by the rover equipment, but these are usually facilitated by the low-resolution and highly compressed JPG image format.

Do I think that NASA should stop being so open? No. I think that people are always going to find ways to find anomalies in images and claim it means something special. It’s the nature of the phenomenon, and pseudoscientists are always going to find something anomalous with something. And, the moment that NASA starts to restrict access to data, claims of censorship and hiding things will become even louder than they currently are.

I’m part of the planning team for the New Horizons mission that will reach Pluto in July of 2015. When the PI (Principle Investigator) of the mission, Alan Stern, announced that some of the data would be released on the web as low-resolution JPG images as soon as we get them, I have to admit I cringed just a little bit. And I felt bad for doing it. Dr. Stern has the absolute best of intentions, and he wants to keep people interested in the mission and share the data and let people see results from what is probably a once-in-a-lifetime mission, especially since the data downlink to Earth is going to be done over several weeks (due to the craft’s vast distance from Earth).

But, he will be making it very easy for anomaly hunters to find anomalies made by an intelligence — just not understanding that that intelligence was the software that produced the image.

Going forward, I don’t think there’s any good solution. But, this is something the skeptical community should be aware of, and it shows that there’s always a downside to things, even when you think there isn’t.

June 23, 2014

Podcast Episode 113: The Blue-Haze Limb of Mars


While the color of
Mars is red, some photos show
Blue on the limb. Why?

While I’ve already addressed the True Color of Mars (episode 74), one remaining – and unmentioned – twist is the blue haze limb that is sometimes visible as the upper atmosphere in color images taken from Earth orbit; this episode addresses those. And, it’s a completely different phenomenon than just a crappy understanding of image analysis. Real science ensues!!

Feedback makes up over half of this episode. I talk about Episodes 112 (why Russell Humphreys thinks that magnetic fields should decay to begin with and how he made his prediction), 109 (a follow-up interview of Marshall Masters from just a few days ago), and 111 (general feedback and criticisms of the Cydonia movie).

Finally, TAM is less than 2.5 weeks away, and I’d love to meet my adoring fans you folks who tolerate listening to me every now-and-then. Please let me know if you’re going AND interested in meeting up. Otherwise, I may have to spend all my time with a Hershey chocolate -lover, and we don’t want that now, do we?

And über-finally, I got a special e-mail while I was recording this episode. Listen to it all the way through to hear it. :)

Oh, and super-düper-finally, about the release schedule: Some of you may have noticed has been a bit off lately. The excuses are the usual, but ostensibly, the podcast is “supposed” to come out on the 1st, 11th, and 21st of the month. And that’s how I date them in the RSS feed. But, in the intro, I state that this is an episode for a certain third of the month, so that’s been the justification in my head for being able to get it out a little late. And looking at my upcoming schedule, I think that you can probably expect more of the same at least until September. They should be on or about the 1st, 11th, and 21st, but won’t necessarily be exactly on those dates.

April 10, 2014

Alien Lights or Cosmic Rays on Mars


Introduction

I was not going to talk about this because I didn’t think I had much to add. And I thought it was stupid. And, I’ve had run-ins with UFO Sightings Daily before (well, one).

But, people keep talking about it, so it at least deserves a mention here.

Origin Story

Everybody likes a good origin story. Wolverine made quite a lot of money.

The timeline, so far as I can tell, is that UFO Sightings Daily “discovered,” on April 6, 2014, and then posted, on April 7, 2014, the following:

Light on Mars in Curiosity Image (from UFO Sightings Daily)

Light on Mars in Curiosity Image (from UFO Sightings Daily)

An artificial light source was seen this week in this NASA photo which shows light shining upward from…the ground. This light was discovered by Streetcap1 of Youtube. This could indicate there is intelligent life below the ground and they use light as we do. This is not a glare from the sun, nor is it an artifact of the photo process. Look closely at the bottom of the light. It has a very flat surface giving us 100% indiction that it is from the surface. Sure NASA could go and investigate it, but hey, they are not on Mars to discovery life, but there to stall its discovery. SCW

Houston Chronicle Posts

It would’ve been relegated to everything else of random bright spots in images except that the Houston Chronicle‘s reporter Carol Christian decided to write a story about it.

And then two people posted to my podcast’s Facebook page (thanks Linda and Maryann). And Doubtful News picked it up, as did Phil Plait.

What Is It?

It’s a cosmic ray. >99% chance. Here’s what happens: High-energy particles constantly stream throughout the universe. We’ve been detecting them for decades, and their energy varies considerably.

Electronic imagers typically work when a photon – a bit of light – kicks up an electron within a pixel. Those electrons are counted after the exposure is done, and that’s how you get your image.

When high-energy particles randomly stream into a detector, they are higher-energy than the photons we’re usually trying to collect, and they appear as bright streaks. Digital cameras that you use for normal photography have algorithms to remove those as known noise sources, so you typically never see them. We also see them more rarely on Earth because many are blocked by the atmosphere.

Those of us who use research-quality cameras on telescopes, however, see them all the time. In fact, Phil said the exact same thing: “I’ve worked with astronomical cameras for many, many years, and we see little blips like this all the time.” (It’s nice when we agree.)

Right now, some of my research is focusing on using images from the Cassini spacecraft in orbit of Saturn, studying some of Saturn’s moons.

Rhea from Cassini (W1594713967_1)

Rhea from Cassini (W1594713967_1)

Here is one image of Rhea, taken by the ISS camera. It’s a raw image, about as original as you can get with respect to almost no processing has taken place. And look at all those stray bits of light! Pretty much every single one of them, including the two long streaks, and including the dots, are cosmic rays.

More evidence? Courtesy of Phil Plait, we have an animation:

Light, No Light (Phil Plait)

What’s nice is that this is from Curiosity’s NAVCAM, which has a pair of cameras. From the right camera, we have the bright spot. From the left camera, we don’t. The reason that you’re seeing a small shift in position is due to parallax between the two cameras (by design, since this helps tell distance). (FYI, Mike Bara, who addressed this just a half hour ago on Coast to Coast AM, claimed that the cosmic ray was the least likely explanation, and while he posts the parallax GIF on his website, he said he refused to name the source because “I dislike him [Phil Plait] intensely.” Despite showing a another image that Phil linked to, so clearly he read Phil’s blog. Mike’s seemingly only explanation for why it was not a cosmic ray is that he said it didn’t look like other cosmic rays people are pointing to. That’s like me saying that a rose is not a plant because all the examples of plants you’re showing me are trees. It’s a class of object, every cosmic ray on a detector looks a little different, especially when you have blooming factored in (see the next section).)

Why a Rectangle?

Either the cosmic ray hit at an angle, so we see it as a streak (see above example ISS image), or, as is also common with CCD images, when an individual pixel collects too much light, it tends to overflow, and spill over into neighboring pixels, almost always along columns. We call this “blooming.”

But Wasn’t It Seen In a Second Image in the Same Spot a Day Later?

Mike made this claim, and I saw it from a commenter on Phil’s blog. Thus far, no one has actually posted or linked to such a second image that I can find. If anyone has seen this claimed image, please let me know. And by “please let me know,” I mean providing the NASA image ID so I can find it. I know that Mike put an “Enhancement of April 3rd image” on his blog, but it’s useless for proving anything without the ID it came from.

Anything Else?

Maybe? This post might be slightly premature, and it’s a bit stream-of-consciousness, but I wanted to get it up before bed. The station on which I was listening to Mike on C2C decided to cut out the second half hour because of some crash somewhere, something about people dying, breaking news, etc. When I get the full audio, I may add to this, but it sounded like George was taking the interview in a separate direction after the bottom-of-the-hour break, though a caller may have brought it back up.

Let’s be clear about a few things, though:

1. The object is seen in one camera, not in another, despite the two cameras taking an image at the same time of the same spot.

2. There is a claim that it showed up in another image a day later, but so far as I can tell, this is just a claim and no one has pointed to that image. If it exists, I’d like to see it and I’ll re-examine my curt analysis.

3. We see similar artifacts in other Mars images, and we see them all the time in space-based cameras, and we see them generally in all electronic cameras (at least those that don’t get rid of them for us).

4. The story comes from UFO Sightings Daily and only became mainstream because a reporter at a somewhat mainstream paper picked it up.

So, what could it be? Aliens? Architecture that glints just right so it’s only in one camera of two that are right next to each other imaging something a few miles away? An impact flash from a crater forming? A dust devil reflecting the light just right? Lens flare?

Or a cosmic ray? I don’t think any of those previous explanations are likely, I think this is most likely.

Bara, as with other UFO / aliens protagonists, say that Curiosity should live up to its name and drive over there and investigate. Yup, take days, power, money (gotta pay the ground crew), and investigate what is very likely to be a high-energy particle that made it through the atmosphere and onto a camera’s CCD.

What do you think?

Edited to Add (10 hrs later): Per Phil’s latest blog post: “Except not really. Another expert on Mars hardware said it may have actually been a “light leak”, a bit of sunlight that somehow got into the camera through a hole, or crack, or seam somewhere in the hardware. He also says it may be a sharp reflection of sunlight off a glinty rock. Those are certainly plausible, though right now we don’t have enough evidence to say for sure which of these explanations may or may not be the right one.” Yup, another possibility. As is a defect in the camera sensor itself (see discussion in the comments to this blog post).

February 17, 2014

Interview for a Japanese Program on the Apollo Moon Hoax


Introduction

Two weeks ago, I was contacted by a Japanese production company, asking me if I’d be willing to do a short interview for a program that they are producing – and probably broadcasting – around March or April. In Japan.

I agreed, and I was sent a few different questions to get an idea of what I should prepare. I had only heard of some of them, so I did some research and, as a way to prep, I wrote up “brief” responses. Obviously I wasn’t reading while being recorded, but it was a way to organize my thoughts.

And get a free blog post. So, here are ten interview questions and my responses, as prepared. On the show, they weren’t all asked, and a few additional ones were, so I don’t think I’m pre-empting anything by putting these online. Please note that the questions were originally in Japanese, translated into English, and I have edited them a bit for grammar.

Interview Questions and Answers

1. Why did the moon landing conspiracy surface? Did it start with the 1976 book written by Kaysing Conspiracy?

For anything before the internet era, it’s really hard to pin down the start of anything — all you can do is find the earliest example, but there could always be something before that that you simply could not find.

Bill Kaysing’s book in 1976 was the first book to claim that it was a conspiracy, yes, and the very fringe Flat Earth Society was one of the first organizations to do so in 1980.

However, there are various people who were NASA watchers back during the Apollo era who have variously claimed that even in the late 1960s, there were some people who were claiming that it was all a hoax. But, in terms of contemporary, printed material with a definite copyright date, Kaysing’s book was the first.

2. Do you know what the initial reaction to Kaysing’s book when it was just released was?

[No …]

3. Following the book’s publish, the movie, Capricorn One, was released. Do you think the movie was released because of the public’s initial reaction to the Kaysing’s book?

It’s likely it was written due to general hoax sentiment, not due to Kaysing’s book in particular, but it would be interesting to have gotten a contemporary interview with writer-director Peter Hyams to learn his motivation. He said, “There was one event of really enormous importance that had almost no witnesses. And the only verification we have . . . came from a TV camera.”

It’s important to mention that NASA actually helped with the production of the movie, loaning them equipment as props, including a prototype lunar module. If NASA were trying to cover up an Apollo conspiracy, one might think they would not have helped make a movie about them covering up a Mars landing conspiracy.

Do you know how much attention the book and movie received at that time? Was there any media coverage about it?

I don’t know about the book, but the movie became one of the most successful independent films of 1978.

4. The conspiracy theory surfaced in the 70s, and media brought it back again in the late 1990s and early 2000s, such as FOX’s TV special program, “Conspiracy Theory” and the book, “Dark Moon,” which are about the moon landing conspiracy. Why do you think the media covered this topic again after decades?

I’m not sure, but the 1990s saw a resurgence of missions of the Moon and Mars by the United States. People who believed in the hoax could then use that to gain traction. And, if you find a sympathetic producer, or even one who thinks that they can get ratings by making something so sensational like the FOX docudrama, then you can get your show made.

5. The points that conspiracy theorists bring up: Despite the fact that there was a large amount of thrust, there was no blast crater left on the moon.

There’s no real reason to have expected a “blast crater” in the sense of an explosion. There was some disturbance of the ground under the nozzle, but it was a blast as in a blast of air.

You can also use very basic math to show why you wouldn’t expect one: If you use the specifications, you can show that the pressure under the engine was only about half a pound per square inch. The average adult when walking exerts about three times that pressure. When you clap your hands together, you exert more pressure than the lunar module’s engines did on the surface of the Moon.

If astronauts did land, there should have been a large amount of dust floating around, yet we can see no sign of dust on the space suits or their surroundings.

There actually shouldn’t have been. This is a case where your every-day experience on Earth does not prepare you for what to expect on the Moon. If I take dust and blow on it in this room, it billows out and slowly falls down after swirling around for a long time.

But, there’s no air on the Moon. Any particle that’s kicked up will go up and then drop right back down. There’s no air to suspend the dust. In fact, you can go to movies of the lunar rover and see it kick up dust and fall right back down to the surface which requires the vacuum of the Moon rather than an air-filled sound stage on Earth.

6. About the “identical background” claims on Apollo 16 mission footage, how do you dispel this claim? Some people (such as Phil Plait) have said that it’s just a simple error with the video. They say that Erick Jones, who is the editor of the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal, says that those two clips were taken about only a few mins apart. According to our research, the “identical background” video clips were taken from the NASA-sponsored documentary video, “Nothing so Hidden.” And the documentary is produced by other production company outside of NASA. Therefore, our understanding is that it’s an error on editing stage of production: the production company took wrong clips and audio and used in the documentary. What do you think of our theory?

Makes sense. This is an innate problem with conspiracies: You have to suppose this vast maniacal group of people trying to hide the truth, so you can’t trust them on anything. And yet, this claim requires you to trust an original claim that was shown to be in err and not trust the correction.

There was a lot of footage taken on the Moon, a lot of audio and video. Stuff gets mislabeled, put in the wrong box, or edited wrong in production of documentaries afterward. Despite all attempts, the people involved were only human, and mistakes are bound to happen. You shouldn’t contribute to a conspiracy what simple human error can very easily explain.

-How did NASA usually archive footage back then during the Apollo project

[Explanation courtesy of “Expat” of the Dork Mission blog, who worked with the BBC during the Apollo era on the Apollo missions.]

Everything was transferred to 16mm film, by the kinescope process. A contractor, The AV Corporation of Seabrook (just a few miles from JSC, or MSFC as it was then known) handled all media requests. They had a pretty good catalog. No doubt there were also copies for internal use. By the time I made a documentary about Skylab, AVCorp was out of the picture and NASA’s own film editors worked with me to search the archive.

If mastering on film seems illogical by today’s standards, it wasn’t back then. The point is that film is independent of TV line standards. In those days transcoding between the US and European standards was a highly imperfect process. All our documentaries were produced on film anyway, so a video release would just have been a nuisance for us and the end result would have been degraded.

As late as 1981, when I was location producer for the BBC coverage of STS-1, I had BBC engineers getting on my case and refusing to transmit images shot by a US-based ENG (video) crew. We had to go through a ridiculous pantomime pretending that it was a film crew instead. By the time we sent the material back to London via satellite, how could they tell?

-For what purpose did NASA produce these documentary videos of the Apollo project?

A better question would be, why wouldn’t they? Practically every government agency has a public relations department, tasked with disseminating their work to the public and gathering support and more funding. In addition, Apollo returned a lot of useful science that we’re still using today – including myself in my own research – but it was also a world-wide public relations endeavor to prove that the United States was better than the Soviets. Of course you’re going to make documentaries and put out material to make people aware of it and such a triumph of human engineering.

7. Why do these theories continue to surface even until today? Do you think it’s because we now have easier access to footage from space? Is it a sense of distrust of NASA?

I think there are a lot of reasons. One is of course a distrust of government. Another reason is that people like to think they know secrets, and a conspiracy is a big secret.

Another reason is that a lot of the lines of evidence that people point to for the hoax are not easily explained because they are contrary to our experience on Earth. For example, one claim is that there should have been stars in the sky because the sky is black, so it must have been night like on Earth and at night you can see stars. But, the sky is black because there’s no atmosphere, it was actually daytime, and the cameras were set to properly expose the lunar surface and astronauts for day. You can’t capture photos of stars with those settings. But, the time I just took to explain that was much, much longer than just throwing out the, “there should be stars!” claim and it’s much easier given our every-day experience to think that there should be stars, rather than take the time to understand why there aren’t.

8. Why hasn’t NASA given their opinion on the Apollo moon-landing hoax ever since 2001? (What is the reason NASA doesn’t answer the conspiracy theorists?)

I would guess because they don’t want to give it any more publicity. It’s a lose-lose-lose situation for NASA:

a. If there is no official statement, conspiracy people will point to that and say that NASA won’t even defend themselves.

b. But if there is an official statement, then conspiracy theorists will say that NASA took the time to respond to them so there must be a controversy and they must be hiding something and you can’t trust anything the government says anyway.

c. In addition to that, Congress will wonder why they should be paying NASA to respond to ridiculous claims, and so NASA risks having their budget cut.

This happened maybe a decade ago when NASA was going to pay James Oberg, an American space journalist and historian, to write a book dispelling the hoax claims. And NASA lost-lost-lost: First, conspiracy people said it was a disinformation campaign; second, Congress wondered why NASA was spending money to do this; and third, when NASA cancelled it because of the outcry on all fronts, the conspiracists claimed NASA cancelled it because it really was a hoax.

Not Related to the Moon Hoax

9. There are still images taken by the Voyager of Saturn that Dr. Norman Bergrun, as author of “Ringmakers of Saturn”, claimed to show a UFO. What do you he possibly mistook it for? This is an example article about Dr. Burgrun’s claim.

Bergrun’s process was to take photos that were published in things like newspapers and magazines, put them under a microscope, and take a photo of them through the microscope’s eyepiece, and then look for weird tings. When going through that process, you are going to find weird things. Every example of a spaceship or alien or whatever that he has can be VERY easily explained by dust or gunk getting in the photo, or uneven illumination, or film grain, and the anomalies he found do not appear in ANY other version of the images.

In fact, one such example that Bergrun points to as a UFO is a bright speck in the bottom of an image, except the bottom part of that image is clearly NOT part of the image that Voyager took because the rings cut-off about 20% of the way from the bottom. This shows that the photo he’s using is a reproduction, including blank area, and he’s pointing to image anomalies caught in that duplication.

- And there are the 1996 infrared photos by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1996 [SJR– actually, 1995], and some people insist that that is a UFO. What do you think of it? What do you think it possibly is? The refereed photos are shown here.

They look like moons to me. Each exposure was 5 minutes long, and stuff moves in 5 minutes. In fact, one of the outer-most moons that’s within the rings, Atlas, goes around Saturn every 14 hours. In the time that photo with Hubble was taken, it went about 0.6% of its orbit, which would mean it should be a bit elongated. Every moon interior to it would be even longer because they would have moved farther in its orbit in the same amount of time.

10. In addition, there is now footage that NASA releases to the public on their homepage, and this footage or stills sometime show space debris or mini-jets that NASA has captured. Then, some people look at those debris or mini-jets, and introduce them as UFOs on the Internet. Why do you think people often do that?

I think people “want to believe.” They are going to look for any sort of anomaly or object they can’t explain and then say that, because they don’t know what it is, it is aliens. In skepticism, we call this an “Argument from Ignorance” – they are ignorant of what it really is, so they make up what it is in a way that fits their preconceived ideas.

Final Thoughts

The interview was more focused on the origin of the conspiracy and a bit more on general conspiracies than on debunking particular claims made by hoax proponents. I have no idea how I came off on camera – this was my first “real” moving-picture-type interview other than for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science that I did at TAM last year that has yet to be put online (but apparently they ARE working on it!). We’ll see.

They might send me a DVD copy when it comes out. I know my mom wants a copy.

November 21, 2013

Podcast Episode 93: The Importance, Methods, and Faults of Peer Review


How work is reviewed
Within the fields of science …
Vers’s pseudoscience.

This one’s an unconventional episode where I talk about one of the most basic ideas and processes in science: That of Peer Review.

As I gear up to do an episode every few days in prep for my trip to Australia, Dec. 16 – Jan. 21, more of these different kinds of episodes will be coming up – and episodes with just the main segment and not other ones like Q&A and Puzzler – and I’m also planning/conducting a lot of interviews to make putting out episodes over those ~5 weeks easier on me. There’s also still the reminder to let me know (if you haven’t yet) if you’re interested in participating in the 100th episode spectacular. To do so, you should have a decent microphone and be able to ad lib and come up with crazy ideas.

May 21, 2013

Podcast #75: Young-Earth Creationist, David Coppedge, Sues NASA for Discrimination, and He Loses


You’re just a jerk. Don’t
Sue NASA for religious
Discrimination.”

I’ve been wanting to do this episode for three years now, and I finally get to: The case of David Coppedge, who sued NASA for religious discrimination (he was an employee), a case that was trumpeted by the Discovery Institute … and early this year, the judge rejected every single one of his arguments.

The episode is an interview with a legal professional who is going by the name of Harold Ormansky (or “Harry”) – a pseudonym because of various issues with his name being associated with this kind of stuff. But I can vouch for him. And anyone who may recognize his voice due to this person’s other endeavors will agree. But, let’s keep his real name on the “q-t” or “d-l.”

The main interview is about a half hour long, and then I go through a few points of clarification. All of the other normal segments will be back for the next episode.

April 18, 2013

The State of NASA Funding for Research


Introduction

I debated for awhile about whether I should write this kind of post or not. It’s not really related to the topic of “pseudoastronomy,” though when I thought about it more, a popular claim amongst the “alternative” people is that scientists have practically unlimited funding and they are paid such to uphold the status quo.

I had my link, I write this post. :)

How Scientists Get Funding

First, I recommend you read this post, “Where Do Scientists Get Funded” (though hopefully the grammar in the post is better than the title — not sure how I came up with that title).

The jist of the post is that we live in a time that only started maybe 100 or so years ago where governments realized that for a healthy society, a progressive society, and one that can keep ahead in the world, the government needs to support basic research and development. And by “support,” I mean “fund with money.”

There are numerous science and science-related fields that do NOT rely significantly on government support. Engineering is perhaps an obvious one. Medical research pulls from both. Geology pulls from both but probably dollar-wise, industries such as oil, gas, and coal fund the most geological research (I’m guessing here, so don’t yell at me if my numbers are wrong).

Then there are fields where the majority of the funding comes from government research. In broad brush strokes, I would say that the “basic science” fields such as physics, astronomy, most of chemistry, and similar disciplines get most of their funding through government grants. Why? Probably because the benefit to industry isn’t as obvious. Why should a company like Boeing care about how many extrasolar planets are out there?

I can say pretty much without fear of being wrong that the vast majority of professional astronomers in the USA are funded through NASA and/or NSF grants.

Let’s talk about how you get a NASA grant.

Getting a NASA Grant

In February each year, NASA releases the call for proposals to their massive “ROSES” program (Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences). ROSES has dozens of sub-programs that distribute awards ranging from $50k/yr for light research to several $million/yr for instrument and/or missions. Separately, there are also calls for institutes (like NASA Astrobiology Institute, or the NASA Lunar Science Institute) which are generally around $1-2 million/yr, and there are calls for mission proposals (which as we learned with Curiosity can cost several $billion over a decade or so).

That overview aside, most basic research is funded through ROSES. ROSES has 102 separate programs you can apply to, though not all of them are available every year.

The basic research ones, such as those that I apply to like LASER (lunar stuff), MDAP (Mars Data Analysis Program), or PGG (Planetary Geology and Geophysics), tell you that they expect to give X number of new awards this funding cycle that will average $100,000 per year. So if I’m writing a 3-year proposal to PGG, I should try to get my total budget to be about $300,000 regardless of what I’m doing or how many people I’m supporting or what my institution charges in overhead (usually 2-3x what I would get in salary) or how many trips I need to go on or what equipment I need.

Then you write the proposal, submit it, and cross your fingers. A panel reviews the proposal and decides what they think its scientific merit is, how cost effective it is, and whether it’s relevant to that program (for example, if >20% of your proposal is to analyze existing Mars data, then you can’t apply to MFRP because it’s not relevant to MFRP (Mars Fundamental Research PRogram); or, if you don’t include some of the required material like a CV, we vote non-compliance which goes in relevance). Each panel is actually broken into several sub-panels, like within LASER you may have a geology sub-panel, exosphere sub-panel, materials sub-panel, and geophysics sub-panel. (I have never been on a LASER panel so I’m guessing here based on other ones I’ve been on, but due to confidentiality I can’t say what those are.)

Each sub-panel then ranks the proposals based on their scores (scores are 1-5) and also gives them a word grade based on the score, from Excellent (5) to Poor (1). You can also get split scores like Very Good / Good (3.5). Anything below Good (3) is considered unfundable no matter how much money is available.

Alright, I’m making this longer than it needs to be … so we rank the proposals and set a “water line” of “MUST FUND” and “Please Fund If There’s Money!” Then we send that to the program director who makes their recommendation to some other people at NASA.

What this all means is you propose, it’s reviewed, ranked, and then decided on. The problem these days is where that water line is, and why it keeps raising.

Falling Funding

NASA, as a federal agency, is beholden both to Congress for setting its budget, and the President for setting its direction and priorities (though sometimes Congress mandates some priorities in the bills it passes). NASA’s budget has been effectively stagnant relative to or decreasing relative to inflation for the past few years. And yet, it has been mandated each funding cycle to change direction and fund something new.

For example, the latest is some asteroid mission that made the news a week or three ago. That money has to come from somewhere. Each year that NASA gets more money, though, a large portion of that is already earmarked for stuff that it has already committed to. And yet with each new mandate, new funding for it is not provided. So, like someone who just got a flat tire but is on a fixed income and already has other bills, the money for that unforeseen expense has to come from something else. Usually, that’s SMD (Science Mission Directorate). Which funds the basic research. Which funds a lot of astronomers.

See where I’m going?

For the last several years, the fraction of successful proposals has been falling at NASA. To the programs that I apply, this past year, the success rate was roughly 17%. This is down from around 25-30%. That may still seem like a lot. Let’s put it a different way.

When I was on some grant review panels, our sub-panel had around 17-19 proposals. We were told that out of our sub-panel, we may get to fund up to 4 or 5 in one program I was on, and 3 in another I was on. Those were lucky – that was a 25% one where the program director had somehow managed to earmark more funds for their program. That means that about 15 of those others, despite some getting Very Good or Very Good / Good scores, were rejected.

New Lows

I work in a lab with on the order of 100 other research scientists. We were recently sent an e-mail asking us to come talk with the director of research if we were having funding issues. After I went to talk with him, he told me that this is the worst he’s seen it in over 30 years. As of that time, 1 RA (Research Associate) was below 100% funding. But, within the next 6 months, >10% of people are in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, NASA’s had travel freezes, pretty much all state institutes have had hiring freezes (so if someone quits or retires, that person cannot be replaced), and now the President’s budget recommendation calls for all education and public outreach to be removed from individual agencies that actually do that kind of research (like NASA, or the Department of Agriculture or Energy), and moved to either the Department of Education (formal education), National Science Foundation (education research), and the Smithsonian (outreach).

The way it currently works is that the researchers actually doing the research partner with people and pay people from the same grants to do education and outreach about that research. For example, every single space mission has a mandatory Education and Public Outreach (EPO) component that funds basic things like their website, and free educational material for teachers. If this proposal were taken and implemented as-is, the likely scenario is that all that money would be zero’ed out (or maybe just all future missions, and the current ones would be grandfathered in), and then all new EPO would have to be proposed through the DOE, NSF, or Smithsonian.

I can see trimming the fat of bureaucracy, but this seems like instead of trimming the fat off a cut of beef to get to the meat, they’re just throwing the steak away and going with chicken. An entirely different animal that will take a long time to get used to and, regardless, can’t fit the same needs as the old one, no matter how hard it tries.

Final Thoughts

I understand that as a somewhat political post, people are going to say that there’s no problem here, that scientists should “get real jobs” and/or not rely on someone else’s tax dollars to pay their salary. Fine. This post is not for you.

For other people who do think that funding basic science research is important, I’m writing this post to give you more of an insight into the process and insight into current problems that we face now. Obviously, this post has been written with specifics that are near and dear to me in mind. With that said, funding rates from the National Institutes of Health are roughly 5%. And somehow homeopathists can get NIH funds.

I also write this with a nod towards Pamela Gay’s blog post from last night, “Fighting Funding Cuts and Sequestration,” though I think the original title (based on the URL) also had an, “And Fighting for Our Lives” at the end. Her post is a direct request for funding support for her various projects. I want to be clear that I am not asking for donations in my post, nor am I begging you to make a donation to her. I will say that I am involved with one of her projects, “CosmoQuest,” which is generating data that we’re using for research and, in fact, right now writing a paper on that should be submitted to a journal late next month (11 coauthors … it takes awhile to get everyone to sign off on a paper).

If, after reading this, you think this is an okay situation, that’s your prerogative. If you don’t, then I recommend that you contact your congressperson and/or senator and tell them that. And feel free to mention the fact that if young scientists today can’t get research funding, they only have two options: Find work in their field in another country, or choose a different career. In either case, that means that in 2-3 decades, the US will be faced with a serious deficit of those people, the very ones we need to stay ahead. In their stead, we’ll have people who think that pink beams of energy were photographed coming out of pyramids, that there’s a ziggurat on the moon, that clouds from space appear brighter than land because light from them takes less time to reach the camera, or that comets prove the universe is 6000 years old.

March 16, 2013

Podcast #68: Expat in Hoaglandia – A Fantasia of NASA Conspiracies


This episode is just 6 seconds short of a full hour. I interview Expat – who was my first guest ever back in Episode 10 – about numerous political and technological conspiracies of Richard Hoagland as generally applied to NASA. I learned quite a bit during this interview, and I hope that you do, too, and find it interesting as well.

There’s a quick New News item at the end, but all the other segments are skipped so as not to detract from Expat.

Upcoming episodes that I mentioned at the end include: the True Color of Mars, the Ringmakers of Saturn, 2012 Doomsday Revisited, a Young-Earth Creationist suing NASA, and a Nancy Leider clip show.

December 21, 2012

Podcast Episode 58: Post-December 21, 2012 Solstice – We’re Still Here


This post/podcast is going out as we pass through the December 21, 2012, solstice at 11:12 AM GMT. We’re still here.

That’s all.

December 10, 2012

2012 Mayan Doomsday: One Post to (Almost) Rule Them All


Introduction

This post is headed up exactly 11 days before the winter (in the northern hemisphere) solstice of 2012, assuming I got the time zones correct.

You know … THAT day. The one “everyone” is saying – or at least “everyone” is saying that the Mayans said – that the world is going to end. Or we’re all going to become higher vibrational spiritual beings. Or Planet X will swing by. Or some such other stuff.

In other words, only 11 more days people can suckle the milk from the teat of a meme that has frightened people, bilked them from money, made them see a pretty bad movie, and various other things.

If you’re just finding this blog through an internet search and don’t follow me regularly, perhaps you can tell that I clearly put zero stock in such things. In fact, the main purpose of this post is to create a “master” post for the majority of my 2012-related posts and podcasts. I’ve been known to suckle a bit myself, and there’s no harm in doing another post that’s just a bunch of links … it’s a public service, ¿ya know? to have ‘em all in one place.

After all, the majority of people coming to my blog these days are coming here due to searches for 2012-related doomsday stuff.

The Posts and Podcasts

The main blog posts:

I have also written a few posts that are tangentially related to the 2012 subject:

And my podcast episodes so far on 2012 and Planet X:

And podcasts on which I have been interviewed on 2012:

Other Sites

Why would you be going to other sites?

Well, if you must, I highly recommend 2012 Hoax.org.

Regrets

My one main regret is not doing my planned eBook on the subject. It was going to be free, but I just never got around to writing it. Even just as a compilation of blog posts. :(

I suppose my other main regret is that I have yet to do a post or podcast episode on the sun and 2012. The podcast episode will be coming out in 5-6 days, though … so, still have time, and it’ll come out.

Saving Face – Help Me Look?

All that said, there are lots of people who have made several explatives’-worth of money on 2012 stuff. I have to think that some of them are going to try to save face and back-pedal and make excuses.

If you find any, PLEASE LET ME KNOW! You can do this very easily by posting a comment in the Comments section below this post. I want to do a podcast episode on it early in 2012 (like February-ish).

End Stretch

So far, I really haven’t seen too much escalation of this stuff now that we’re less than two weeks away. Supposedly some people in Russia are worried, but I don’t know if that’s just the press making a big deal out of a few people.

Even Coast to Coast AM hasn’t really ramped stuff up — I almost expected that the producers would be having a 2012’er or Planet X’er on several times a week, but that hasn’t happened. Looking at their schedule for this week, Dec. 9-12 (what’s posted), we have Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, the fiscal cliff, some mob-JFK show, and the “Watchers” and a cosmic battle with L.A. Marzulli. Only the last one is remotely 2012-ish. Perhaps “not with a bang but a whimper” is apropos.

Oh, and NASA’s come out with their “nothing’s going to happen” stuff, but the people who believe that “something” in 2012 is going to happen are rarely going to believe anything that NASA or any other part of any government says. It’s perhaps unfortunate, but that’s the case.

So that’s that for now. See ya on December 22.

Edited to Add (11/12/2012): Apparently now, even the Vatican is getting in on this, saying nottin’s happenin’. Which makes sense, considering that their holy book contains text that states no human (fairly sure it says “man,” but I’m generalizing here) will know the day nor the hour of the end stuff it talks about. Well, and the Maya, to them, are pagans so nothing they do should be taken seriously since the Vatican has a monopoly on spirituality, or some such thing.

Next Page »

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,380 other followers