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Lunar Scientists Want to Hitch a Ride on America's Next Moonshot

At the beginning of the month, Vice President Mike Pence announced that the US, at long last, will go back to the moon. At least, some day. Pence didn’t give a date, details, or even a ballpark cost during his speech at the opening of the National Space Council.

But he did give a morale boost to 200 attendees (a record) at NASA’s Lunar Exploration Advisory Group, which held its annual meeting this week in Columbia, Md. These scientists hope to piggyback onto any future US moonshot so they can answer questions about the origin of the solar system, as well as test the kind of experiments they hope to run on Mars. And these days, they’re about as giddy as lunar scientists can get.

“I’m excited to get boots back on the ground,” says Debra Needham, a planetary scientist at the Marshall Space Flight Center. Needham studies how volcanic activity formed the rocky bodies—Mercury, Venus, Mars, Earth, and the moon—and this month she published a paper hypothesizing that the moon may have had a hazy atmosphere. Building on Earthly observations of gas-releasing lavas, her work suggests that the moon’s atmosphere could have formed when surface volcanoes belched out gases that settled onto pockets of cooling rock—a volcanic smog that may have lasted 70 million years before dissipating. “I’m saying that it happened,” Needham says. “But I’d like to prove it.”

Proving it, for Needham and her colleagues, means going to places on the moon that were never explored by the Apollo astronauts in the 1960s and 1970s—including the far side of the moon where radio communication with Earth is more difficult. Needham and others believe there may be areas there that have ice, for example. NASA scientists are also interested in the South Pole-Aitken Basin, which is the moon’s biggest and oldest impact crater. They want to know what kind of material might still be there from the early days of the solar system. “Now we want to go back and sample these ancient terrains,” says Needham.

Already, NASA is working with scientists to fulfill their lunar ambitions. “The moon has the history and evolution of our solar system written on its surface, if we can get there,” says Jim Green, NASA director of planetary science. “The moon has been important planetary science since day one, that hasn’t changed. What’s changed is our interest in going there.” And while the federal moonshot is still just a plan, Green is reviewing proposals from scientists who want to put experiments on upcoming commercial rockets.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said in February that he plans to fly two astronauts around the moon in late 2018, while MoonExpress has received a federal authorization for a commercial landing on the moon, something it hopes to do beginning next year. NASA’s decision to fund science on commercial space vehicles “is a huge step,” says MoonExpress CEO and founder Bob Richards. “That signals to my investors and customers that NASA is serious about paying for instruments to fly commercial missions.”

Space commerce stands to gain much more than launch contracts, of course. Mapping the moon’s composition and underlying geology goes hand-in-hand with developing mineral resources for future space colonies, says Clive Neal, a lunar scientist at the University of Notre Dame. Neal wants to look for deposits of volatile compounds on the moon’s surface such as oxygen, carbon dioxide, potassium, sodium, and zinc. “You go and look at these volatile deposits and ask where did they come from and how did they get there,” he says. “But also how can we refine it, can we move them out, can we use them to produce fuel.”

In the meantime, many other national space agencies are headed to the moon, including Japanese, Indian, Russian, and Chinese space agencies. NASA’s Green emphasizes collaboration with other agenices; he says he has invited Russian space agency officials to an upcoming conference in California to select potential lunar landing sites for the Luna 25 mission, a robotic lander that Russia says it will launch in 2024 to scout for a potential Russian moon base.

And lunar supremacy is the furthest thing from his mind. “China can get there first,” says Green. “To me, that’s great. The solar system should be explored for humanity. I’m delighted they are interested in going.”

But Harrison Schmitt, a former astronaut and geologist on the final Apollo 17 mission in 1972, feels differently. “Space is geopolitical and it’s important for the United States to be there,” Schmitt said in an interview at the LEAG conference.

“The situation now is not unlike the Apollo days,” he says, when the US was locked in a Cold War over technological and military dominance with the Soviet Union. Today, he believe China could gain an edge in developing lunar resources if the US government doesn’t push for a greater presence on the lunar landscape. “We just should not be absent from space,” says Schmitt. “I could not imagine if China was dominating space. We have to be competitive. It’s imperative from a historical point of view.”

Schmitt’s view echoes that of VP Pence. Last week, he said, “We will return American astronauts to the moon, not only to leave behind footprints and flags, but to build the foundation we need to send Americans to Mars and beyond.” Waiting in the wings of this new space race are scientists. They might not care who wins the geopolitical game, but will take a ride any way they can get it.


Scientists Studied the Daily Lives of 1,000 CEOs. Here's What the Best Ones Did

Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

I adore it when I read fine articles that tell me all great CEOs get up at 5 a.m., eat two boiled eggs, swim butterfly better than breast stroke and sleep only three hours a night.

You’d think, wouldn’t you, that at least some CEOs do things their own way because, somewhere deep inside, they’re still individuals.

Still, scientists need to find common traits upon which they can get grants and sell books. 

(Yes, of course I’m kidding. They need to make speeches too.)

I was moved, therefore, by a group of scientists from deeply venerable institutions such as Harvard Business School and one of my alma maters, the London School of Economics, opining on what makes a great CEO.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, they explained that they examined the day-to-day lives of 1,000 CEOs, in order to understand whether boiled eggs really did have that much influence.

Yes, I made up that last part. 

I’m not, however, going to make up the conclusions from this study.

“Our evidence suggests that hands-on managerial CEOs are, on average, less effective than leaders who stay more high-level,” say the scientists.

I pause for your shock, your horror and your aghast grunts of glee.

It seems that the CEOs who didn’t meddle in every detail of every decision were, on the whole, a touch more successful that those who floated in the ether, said important things at the occasional company meeting and appeared a lot on CNBC.

I fear that there is no one formula. Any more than there is no one formula for losing in the MLB playoffs. Why, look at the Washington Nationals. They find different ways every time.

I worry, though, about this research.

You see, it “used machine learning to determine which differences in CEO behavior are most important.”

Ah. Oh. 

The algorithm was, apparently, agnostic. How odd. I generally find that algorithms tend to worship the God that created them.

Still, in the end the machines concluded that, in essence, some CEOs were down-in-the-dirt meddlers, while others enjoyed “relatively more interactions with C-suite executives, personal and virtual communications and planning, and meetings with a wide variety of internal functions and external stakeholders.”

The parts of the researchers’ conclusions I enjoyed most were their description of what CEOs did all day.

Many an employee would really like to know.

Well, CEOs spend 25 percent of their days alone. On the driving range, you might imagine. Or reading self-help books.

But here’s the part that made me reach hurriedly for a very fine glass of Cabernet Sauvignon: 10 percent of their days are spent on “personal matters.”

That’s not “personnel matters.” I can only guess it’s getting their hair coiffed and buying the odd yacht or two.

The researchers seem to lean the way of leaders — rather than managers — as the more successful CEOs. They do concede, however, that some businesses need a CEO who pokes their nose into everything. 

My own conclusion, then, is that the most successful CEOs are the ones who takes a look at a company and then realize the sort of CEO this company actually needs.

And then deliver on that insight.

I should add that, in my experience, some of the most successful CEOs have been the ones who knew how to negotiate themselves a vast payoff, just before the excreta sailed inexorably toward the fan.

But it all depends how you measure success. Naturally, these researchers tended to look at painful concepts such as productivity and profitability.

Leader CEOs seem to have engendered greater rises in productivity. 

Does that mean that people preferred to work for the leader type? I suspect so. They weren’t butting into their business so often, I imagine.


Scientists Are Getting Closer to Making Edible Gelatin Robots That Can Function Inside Your Body

They could be able to heal you or provide nutrients.

In the near future, you may be able to eat a robot that will heal you or provide nutrients.

It may sound like science fiction, but researchers are closing in on the creation of an ingestible robot that can perform a variety of functions from within the human body.

At the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in Vancouver last week, researchers from Switzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) presented a prototype of a gelatin-based actuator, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ magazine, Spectrum.

Actuators are the components that allow a mechanism to physically move. So, while doctors can already insert machines like pacemakers into your body, those are stationary and also require invasive surgery.

It’s unlikely that the gelatin robots are very tasty, but they would have a wide variety of applications. The researchers in their paper explain that “the components of such edible robots could be mixed with nutrient or pharmaceutical components for digestion and metabolization.

“Potential applications are disposable robots for exploration, digestible robots for medical purposes in humans and animals, and food transportation where the robot does not require additional payload because the robot is the food,” they add.

And the robots wouldn’t be limited to just human use either.

“Fully edible robots would help to study how wild animals collectively behave. The robots could also take a role of animals prey to observe their hunting behaviors, or to train protected animals to do predation,” the researchers write.

“Once medical components are mixed into the edible composition, the robots could help preservation of wild animals or heal inside of the human body,” they add.