Wednesday, August 31, 2005

New Orleans

Katrina Flooding
Originally uploaded by terpkristin.
My thoughts and prayers are with those in NO and their families, not only residents but rescue personnel and others touched by this disaster.

This picture is a shot from, where it shows the flooding. If you follow the link to the flickr page, I've made a note on the page where I think my brother's place is. I'm hopeful that he was in an area high enough that his place isn't flooded, though he DOES live on the ground floor so I suppose is susceptible to looting, too.

If anybody has information on what's going on in the French Quarter (more specifically, the 3100 block of Royal Street), I'd be obliged if you'd share it with me. Leave a comment here or send me an email.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

More on Lance Doping Allegations

An article was posted yesterday at VeloNews with the title, "Top lab official wonders if delayed testing is possible," seems to confirm my doubts about yesterday's allegations that Lance Armstrong used EPO during the 1999 Tour de France.

The article includes statements from Doctor Christiane Ayotte, director of the Doping Control Laboratory at Montreal's Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique (Canada's top anti-doping laboratory). Her statments include:
  • "'We are extremely surprised that urine samples could have been tested in 2004 and have revealed the presence of EPO,' Ayotte said in an interview with VeloNews on Tuesday. 'EPO--in its natural state or the synthesized version--is not stable in urine, even if stored at minus 20 degrees.'"
  • "Ayotte explained that as part of WADA's efforts to 'harmonize' testing protocols among anti-doping laboratories worldwide, the Paris lab had created the model to allow the application of 'qualitative rather than quantitative' standards when interpreting test results.'That has to be the only explanation, because otherwise, I've been a liar all these years,' Ayotte said. 'I have been instructing everyone at all of the organizations not to expect to reproduce an EPO adverse finding if more than two or three months has elapsed since the sample was originaly taken.'"
  • "Ayotte said that procedure aside, the Armstrong story in L'Equipe also raises a critical ethical question raised by the release of such data, without the possibility of follow-up tests.
    'I am very worried about the circumstnces about the way such information might have been leaked,' Ayotte said. 'We are fully allowed--and it is our duty--to investigate samples to make sure that if there is an adverse finding, it is properly reported. In this case, however, the director of the laboratory acknowledges that it cannot be deemed a doping offense because 1) the athlete has retired and 2) he is placed in a situation where there is no way to have the sample re-tested or verified.'
    'It seems to me,' Ayotte continued, 'that this whole thing is a breach of the WADA code. We are supposed to work confidentially until such time that we can confirm a result. By no means does this mean that we sweep a result under the carpet, but it has to meet a certain set of requirements.'"
So, it seems this will probably never leave Lance, but without a way to prove any of it, I'm guessing he's going to have a big libel suit on his hands.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005


That was the headline seen on the front page of a popular French sports newspaper, "L'Equipe." The article, in French, can be found here. For those of you who don't feel like running it through a translator or don't remember much French, the BBC ran an article about the allegations, entitled "Armstrong denies drug allegations."

Now, as everybody reading this probably knows, I'm a fan of Lance. I'm sure he was given steroids AND some type of EPO drug as he recovered from cancer, though I also believe he did not use any performance-enhancing drugs over his 7 consecutive Tour de France wins. Even if I weren't a fan of Lance, though, as a scientist, I'd have a lot of problems swallowing this new allegation (well, this new iteration of the allegations, as these allegations have been tailing him since he first won in 1999).

Here are my reasons for thinking that this article is just more "Lance-bashing" by the French press and that the allegations are unfounded:
A) They're doing guilt by association. The BBC says, "The paper said there were 'characteristic, undeniable and consequent' signs of EPO in what it claimed were Armstrong's urine tests, carried out by France's national anti-doping laboratory in Chatenay-Malabry. The laboratory said in a statement that it had 'conducted EPO tests on samples from the 1998 and 1999 Tour de France races'.

But it said it could not confirm that any tests it had conducted belonged to Armstrong."
The key phrases, in my opinion are, "...what it claimed were Armstrong's urine tests..." and, " could not confirm that any tests it had conducted belonged to Armstrong." I know that this is France, not America, but since when has guilt by association held up as "undeniable proof"?

B) He's been tested over and over and come up negative. I've read that he has had more drug tests than any other athlete, and anybody familiar with statistics knows it's MUCH more likely to get a false positive than a false negative. Multiple false negatives are virtually unheard of.

C) In addition, the BBC article notes that, "Tests on the samples were carried out in 2004 because cycling's governing body did not start using a urine test for EPO until 2001, the paper said." SO. The TdF testing group held on to the samples for 5 years before testing?!?! Who's to say ANY of the samples hasn't been contaminated some how in an effort to smear Armstrong or any other cyclist?

D) This is SO FAR after the fact that it seems ludacris to bring it up now except to fight his image. I mean, the race was in 1999, but the samples were not analyzed until 2004 and then they waited until after the 2005 Tour de France to try to discredit Lance? That just doesn't make sense. If this testing was done in 2004, why not mention it THEN as "credible proof" (albeit wooly in my scientific opinion) of his alleged doping activities? Why hold onto it through 2005's TdF? Lord knows the French have allegated that Lance has done this for a long time, I think they'd lust for "proof."

E) Note, this came up because of something posted in one of the forums I subscribe to, where somebody asked why we don't give Barry Bonds or anybody else the same benefit of the doubt that we give Lance when it comes to performance-enhancing drugs. As far as Bonds or any other athlete involved in denying taking performance enhancing drugs and actual testing for said drugs, well, for me, the proof is in the pudding, as it were. Bonds, as far as I know (and I admit I don't know much) hasn't been tested, yet categorically denies taking performance-enhancing drugs. Palmiero denied taking them, but tested positive. It seems that of all the people involved in this type of allegation, Lance has the complete package, having been tested more times than most other athletes and testing negative and denying taking performance enhancers.
It's one thing to deny taking these things. It's another to be tested. And it's wholly another to test negative. Lance has all three, which as far as I know, no other athlete tied to performance enhancing drugs has.

Maybe I'm just being optimistic here, but I find the entire thing wooly, particularly in the age of the sample (and unknown contamination, because I *WOULDN'T* put it past people to contaminate it, even if it was thought to be secure), the lateness of the publication of the result, and the lack of credibility admitted by the study authors. Personally, I think this is the kind of sour grapes that might be used in a good French whine.

On one of the forums I read regularly (one within the online soccer management game, Hattrick), somebody posted this little bit on EPO, which I thought might be useful for anybody who doesn't know what it is: "
Why people call EPO roids is beyond me....EPO isn't anywhere related to steroids. It boosts red blood cells so your muscles get more oxygen, hence allowing them to work better longer. It has nothing to do with making muscle grow faster."

This was later followed up by "It's a fancy way of blood doping. I mean, the "old fashioned" way of doing it is to take blood out a month or so before an event, then infuse it back in just before the event. So EPO just does that without the blood bank in the middle (i.e. it does it chemically)."

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Discovery Is Home

This morning, the shuttle Discovery touched down at 0812 ET at Edwards Air Force Base in California. It was as perfect a landing as was expected, and watching it on TV was a neat experience. The videographers used an IR camera so viewers could follow the landing from the orbiter being a speck in the sky all the way to touchdown, despite the darkess at EAFB. It was a beautiful landing, and I think I speak for most of us saying "Welcome home, Discovery, great flight!"

Monday, August 08, 2005

Shuttle Landing Delayed

Shuttle Discovery's landing has been waved off for 24 hours due to low cloud cover. Though conditions are "technically" GO for landing, the officials in Houston do not feel comfortable with it, based on how unstable the weather has been today. There will be 2 opportunitiess tomorrow for a Kennedy Space Center landing and 2 opportunities for an Edwards Air Force Base landing.

1st for touchdown at 0408 CT
2nd for touchdown at 0543 CT

1st for touchdown at 0713 CT
2nd for touchdown at 0848 CT

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Discovery: No 4th EVA Required

Well, the thermal blanket that had been a concern is no longer a concern. Engineers ran some simulations of what might happen with the "puffed up" bit of thermal blanket near the cabin and were unable to tell if it would remain in tact or would potentially fly off during re-entry. The possibility that it might fly off during re-entry and hit (and damage) another part of the orbiter sparked questions about doing a 4th EVA on this mission, to cut off the extra bit of blanket and therefore remove the problem all together. However, after testing mockups in a wind tunnel, engineers have decided that they don't think a piece of this blanket will fly off. Thus, the need for a 4th spacewalk has been eliminated, and Discovery is 100% cleared to re-enter and land on Monday morning. This is great news, now we just need for the crew to come home safely for the first mission since the Columbia tragedy to be an overwhelming success.

Finally, YES, the various administrators in the past (probaby Goldin, most of all) SHOULD have considered upgrading this fleet of shuttles LONG before now. But, NASA's budget is fairly miniscule (a fraction of 1% of your tax dollars go to NASA funding), and I honestly believe they took an attitude of, "Well, it's still working, so why bother." I'm not saying I agree with this philosophy, but with so many other things that NASA does, I'm sure that the "functional" status of the shuttle fleet was considered to be "good enough" and thus the previous administrators wanted to spend the money elsewhere. In particular, the late 80's and 90's were an era of many satellites and orbiters to study other planets (Mars, Jupitur, Saturn), as well as increased robotic exploration of Mars. Other science going on at NASA address space survivability. There are a number of experiments going on to determine what to do about consumables (including determining how best to grow plants in 0g and how to recycle wastewater). Also, there has been a lot of ongoing research on human factors for spaceflight. This includes physiological experiments, experimenting and engineering to figure out how to do medicine (diagnostics and treatment) in space (what would happen if an astronaut got appendicitis while on orbit?), and also studing hyman psychology and experimenting with it, all in preparation for longer-term space travel. In light of this, it may be somewhat easier to understand why, with a seemingly well-functioning shuttle fleet, the administrators have opted to do other things with their money than figure out what to do next. I'm not saying it was the "right" decision, but it may be understood why it happened.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

"Easy" Fix For Shuttle

In today's 3rd EVA (spacewalk) of the Discovery Return to Flight mission (STS-114), astronaut Stephen Robinson was able to remove the protruding gap-filler from two places on the orbiter's belly, thereby fixing one of the biggest concerns for NASA officials prior to clearing the vehicle for the scheduled re-entry and landing. The gap-filler was some material placed between a few of the tiles near the forward landing gear to ensure that the tiles did not hit eachother during the vibrations on launch. It serves no other purpose, which is why officials gave the green light to simply removing the material. Also on today's EVA, astronaut Soichi Noguchi worked on a some minor, scheduled things on ISS. Noguchi was also stationed in a position to act as a "relay" between Robinson and ISS should direction communication between the two have failed for any reason. Today's EVA lasted 6 hours.

Though an hour was scheduled for the repair/removal of the gap filler, it took Robinson "about 12 seconds" to pull out the protruding material. That is, the material came out quite easily and did not even require the improvised saw which was constructed for the EVA--Robinson was able to pick it out with his fingers. Today's spacewalk was a first for ISS and NASA: it is the first time that the ISS' robotic arm, SSRMS or CanadArm2, was used to hold an astronaut below the orbiter, and was the first time that work has ever been performed on the belly of the shuttle while in orbit. Cameras on the shuttle's robotic arm, SRMS or CanadArm, were used to give the astronauts in ISS, the flight controllers, and engineers, a better picture of what was going on during the "repair." It was as historic as the first shuttle mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, and further expands our capabilities for on-orbit repairs.

I'd like to step back and say something here, about the press coverage of this particular EVA, but before I can do that I think I should remind readers about my background briefly. I have a Master of Science in Aerospace Engineering. My thesis, "Analysis of Robotic Grasp Requirements for Telerobotic Satellite Servicing," required in-depth study of what humans have done in space, and what they may have to do. With this understanding, I then analyzed how robots could do similar tasks, and developed a grasp taxonomy (classification scheme) for robots. My work on my thesis, combined with my experiences in robotics and working with robots in neutral buoyancy at UMd's Space Systems Laboratory, made me quite confident that this repair operation would be accomplished. That is, I didn't expect it would be necessarily "easy," but I knew that the engineers in Houston tried their removal methods in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab at Johnson Space Center, and knowing what humans are capable of in space, combined with knowledge of how CanadArm2 works and its capabilities, I was confident that this would be a successful repair.

My frustration came in hearing the press talk about it. They seemed to harp on the "never been done before" aspect of it, which considering the very nature of spaceflight, seemed absurd, or as I so often put it, "making a mountain out of a molehill." Spaceflight is not easy. EVA is not easy. There is almost nothing "standard" or "routine" about it, no matter how many times we've been to space in ANY vehicle, there is always something to be learned and something new to be done. Though I imagine that even the NASA engineers and astronauts were somewhat unnerved at the first thought of what they'd have to do, there was a fairly quick realization and acknowledgement that it was certainly possible, and not necessarily as intimidating as it seemed at first glance. I'm proud to see what was accomplished today, and I hope that the press coverage of the success of today's activities will spur further interest in spaceflight and maybe even inspire the next generation (i.e. those in elementary, middle, and high school now) to consider engineering jobs and further our national investment in the space program.

The next big task for Discovery will be to come home safely. The re-entry and landing are scheduled for approximately 04:37 US Eastern Time on Monday morning. Though the tiles, gap-filler, and wing leading-edge reinforced carbon-carbon have all been inspected, repaired (in the case of the gap-filler), and cleared for re-entry, the vehicle is still not 100% cleared. Engineers believe that a thermal blanket below the crew cabin may have been struck by a piece of debris, "possibly a paper cover for one of the orbiter's thrusters," which has caused an 8" section of the blanket to "puff up" on the hull. Right now, engineers are attempting to determine if the blanket can rip off and possibly hit the shuttle upon re-entry. However, the engineering analysis on this topic is expected to be completed and presented to NASA officials within 48 hours, so I assume we'll hear the results soon thereafter. Full details on this story can be found at

Monday, August 01, 2005

Confirmed: 3rd EVA on Discovery

With tonight's status update briefing, it has been announced that the 3rd EVA by Discovery's astronauts will include a task to remove some protruding gap filler. It was noted that the gap filler is protruding in 2 places on the belly of the shuttle: in one place it protrudes about 0.9 inches, while in the other it protrudes about 1.1 inches. It is feared that these protrusions may disrupt the airflow around the orbiter during re-entry, which may cause increased heating on some of the protective tiles. It should be noted that NASA officials do not think that this protrusion was caused or is in any way related to the falling foam from the external fuel tank. Rather, they believe that this gap filler was "shaken" loose by the high vibrations on launch. This will be the first time that a repair of this nature has been attempted.

The full story at the BBC may be found here.

Discovery Astronauts Complete 2nd EVA

Today astronauts completed a second EVA, this time repairing a gyroscope on ISS that has not worked properly since June, 2002. Gyros are used on ISS (and many other satellites) to maintain its orientation in space. The astronauts spent 7 hours, 14 minutes working, and the gyro is doing well now (despite an early glitch where a connector was not connected properly), according to NASA.

According to NASA engineers, they are not yet comfortable clearing Discovery for landing yet. There are two places where some "gap filler" material is sticking out between tiles, and it is feared that this material may disrupt the airflow around the belly of the orbiter on re-entry, causing extra heating on certain tiles "downstream" of the where the filler is sticking out, which may be more than those tiles are designed to handle. I've heard it said that the engineers want less than 1/4" of this gap filler to be exposed, though in at least one place, there is over an inch exposed. Flight administrators may call for this material to be trimmed down during the third EVA of this mission, though the issue is still being studied. In that case, one of the astronauts would work from the end of Shuttle Remote Manipulator Arm (CanadArm) and cut/file it away. The 3rd EVA is scheduled for Wednesday.

I am still awaiting word of the results of the analysis of the reinforced carbon-carbon on the leading edge of the wings of the orbiter. This information is expected later today or tomorrow.

A good link for following along with the progress of the mission and the status updates is's Return to Flight page.