SpaceX and NASA, sitting in a tree

Today SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft made history by being the first commercially built vehicle to dock with the International Space Station. So, yay for commercial spaceflight! I’ve always said I’m going to spend my first million dollars (HA!) on a ticket to the moon. But as I argue in an article published by GOOD yesterday, the grand-triumph-of-capitalism narrative that’s being repeated ad naseum isn’t the whole story.

In reality, Dragon’s mission is not a libertarian adventure. Rather, it is the result of a deeply collaborative effort between SpaceX and NASA that could change the way we go to space, just like past public-private partnerships that gave us railroads and commercial air travel.

Dragon makes its way toward the International Space Station. It successfully docked this morning. Photo courtesy of SpaceX.

Not only does SpaceX need NASA to lend it some of its hard-won legitimacy, it also needs the agency’s money to get its still risky business off the ground (pun intended). And NASA needs SpaceX, too. If the space agency is really going to send people to Mars and beyond in the next few decades, it needs to start outsourcing routine trips to low Earth orbit and dedicate its increasingly limited resources toward exploratory missions ASAP.

Finally, a fun/sad fact I learned while reporting this story: it will take the astronauts on the space station TWENTY-FIVE HOURS to unpack the cargo Dragon is delivering. Truly every kid’s dream job!

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DIY Particle Physics

In honor of the blog’s new name, an article about people who build their own cyclotrons, via symmetry.

For many of those obsessed, the only way to satiate their hunger for these machines is to build their own. There are no guidebooks or instruction manuals, and if you bought the raw materials off the shelf, it would cost around $125,000. On average, amateur cyclotrons take two to three years to build.

“It didn’t take long to become obsessed….Where I would be without the cyclotron project I cannot even begin to imagine.” —Tim Ponter. Photo by Tim Koeth, via symmetry.

The amateur cyclotron builders mentioned range from high school students to college professors to Fermilab scientists. To bring down the cost of their hobby they scavenge old equipment, a technique familiar to the first cyclotron builders. Columbia’s cyclotron, for example, was built partly from salvaged parts in the 1930s. It ended its life as scrap metal.

The cyclotron’s heyday as a cutting-edge research tool is mostly over, though they are still widely used in medicine. The largest one ever built is 60 feet in diameter and is still running at the Canadian physics lab TRIUMF. The smallest involves a single electron trapped in a magnetic field and is perhaps more appropriately called an artificial atom.


Drink Like an Aztec

Most of my recent trip to Mexico City was spent researching (i.e., drinking) pulque, an ancient alcoholic beverage made of fermented cactus sap. The resulting article was just published in The Daily.

Pineapple pulque at Las Duelistas in downtown Mexico City. Photo by Beto Adame for The Daily.

Pulque is not a drink for the faint of heart. Once used by the Aztecs as a ceremonial beverage, it is made from the fermented sap of the maguey cactus and has a thick, silky texture reminiscent of an alcoholic lassi and a raw flavor that epitomizes the phrase “acquired taste.” Often blended with sugar and various kinds of fruits or vegetables to make flavored “curados,” pulque combines the probiotic kick of kombucha with an intoxicating effect that can feel mildly hallucinogenic. One friend described his first sip as “unsettling.” Another lost the feeling in his fingertips after downing a mug-full.

Read the full story here.