Re: Heated Criticisms About My Plutonium-238 Feature

September 20th, 2013
By Dave Mosher
The sign refers to a space heater, not the hot cells. Yes, I tricked you.

Hot cells at Idaho National Laboratory that are used to fuel NASA’s nuclear batteries. (The sign refers to a space heater, not the hot cells.) Photo by Dave Mosher

Yesterday, when Wired.com published my feature about the worldwide shortage of plutonium-238, I expected to receive a lot of negative feedback. The issue of NASA’s future is contentious, and the production of nuclear materials even more mired. I was a little shocked see much of it was positive, especially from the top three or four sources I interviewed for the piece over the course of two years.

Last night, however, I received an observant and candid criticism from a member of the National Research Council. I’ve decided to keep this person anonymous for now. Suffice it to say they contributed to the conclusive 2009 report to Congress on NASA’s plutonium-238 shortage. If you haven’t read it or heard of it: This is a study written by more than 60 scientists and engineers across a menagerie of brainy institutions. Their collective expertise is astounding, and their study concludes that plutonium-238 is the only suitable power source for deep-space exploration. The study also says restarting production of plutonium here in the U.S. is the only reliable means to get some.

So, I read this email carefully and did not discount it (unlike bullshit “NASA SHOULD USE FREE ENERGY!!” arguments that have choked my inbox). I’ve decided to share the NRC person’s letter — and my inline responses — in this post because it’s a wonderful way to highlight the dizzying, shadowy complexity that envelopes matters relating to plutonium-238.

A few orders of business in preface: Depending on who you are, what you care about, and what your security clearance is, the perspectives and information vary wildly on “The Problem.” I spent more time than I care to admit making the decisions that I did in my story. It was an extraordinary amount of work, and I knew some of my sources would not agree with the presentation of the facts. But they are the facts, and I needed to address my audience with and provide an honest interpretation of that information. Wired’s audience? People who care deeply about space exploration.

That’s what guided me throughout my reporting. It’s easy to derail a clear picture of a situation with caveats and segues and extraneous information that does not effectively change much. I wanted to, had to make sure my audience left with a basic understanding of the issue.

With that in mind, here we go.

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Plutonium-238, First Features And Skydiving

September 19th, 2013
By Dave Mosher

My very first big, fat feature story package just appeared on Wired.com. The article is the result of my whole-hearted attempt to bring clarity to a complex, drawn-out, and staggering problem that has dragged humanity’s ability to explore the solar system, kicking and screaming, to a cliff’s edge.

The tl;dr crowd can skip ahead to the piece now, if they wish (along three other articles that accompany it). Everyone else is welcome to enjoy some writerly Stuart Smalley reflection time at 4am.

I started researching this story in May 2011,  pitched it in September 2011, received the assignment in October 2011, and filed my first draft in November 2011. Between then and the intervening two years, I have filed at least three major revisions (primarily for lack of a news peg/overworked editors), adopted a dog, taken a new job, and gotten married. The journey hasn’t been simple or easy. And the waiting was hard. Very hard. (Thank you, friends and family, for putting up with my crap.)

From my vantage, writing that first feature was a lot like tortured skydiving.

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O’re the Ramparts We Watched a Park Ranger’s Taser

February 19th, 2012
By Dave Mosher

Yesterday afternoon my family and I visited Fort McHenry National Monument, where the U.S. national anthem “The Star Spangled Banner” was born in 1814.

Our visit that day started wonderfully but ended unpleasantly when a National Park Service ranger aimed his taser at my father over… (drum roll) …an alleged dog-off-leash violation.

<Insert ironic statement about the location and nature of this incident. E.g. “So much for the ‘land of the free.'”>

At right is a picture of the vicious, nasty, terrifying, 14-pound and taser-worthy hell hound named Mac.

Mac tried to befriend the offending park ranger and his backup during the incident. After they ignored him, he eventually got bored and took a nap in the grass of the monument’s spacious east lawn.

Did the park ranger abuse his authority? That’s not my decision to make — I’ll leave that to his superiors and the courts. But the fact is he aimed a weapon at an unarmed person — aka my father — and shamed his family in broad daylight in a public park jam-packed with other families.

Make no mistake, this could have been a lethal confrontation. My father is not young, and even the low-amperage jolt of a taser can spur cardiac events.

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Decorate Your Desktop Space With Space

November 14th, 2011
By Dave Mosher

I’ll keep this short: I decided to give my boring computer background a makeover.

Naturally, this space dork grabbed some of his favorite images of the universe and cut them down to 1920×1200.

Below is a gallery of space things you, too, can use as computer backgrounds for your widescreen monitor.

Enjoy!

Dave Mosher = Month at the Museum 2 Finalist

September 27th, 2011
By Dave Mosher

Want to hear something crazy? The Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago is hosting a contest called Month at the Museum 2 for one lucky roommate to live, breathe and eat science within their walls for 30 days and 30 nights.

The winner would serve as the face of MSI Chicago during the day. At night, it’s nerd vs. museum: Submarines, spacesuits, Apollo 8, airplanes, a fairy castle, plastinates, tornadoes, a coal mine and even a little town. For their troubles? $10,000 and a pile of gadgets.

Two months ago I applied, and the craziness has now reached fever-pitch: I’m one of six of MATM2 finalists.

The museum whittled the competition down from about 1,000 talented, charismatic and very nerdy people who applied, but they now want your feedback.

If you think MSI needs a lot of Dave Mosher in its life, please vote once per day, now through Oct. 3, 2011 at MonthAtTheMuseum.org I’ll be at the museum the morning of Oct. 5, where they’ll announce the winner during a live event.

It literally takes seconds to cast a vote, but if you’re like me you may forget. So I’ve crafted these daily calendar reminder buttons to help you out — one click and you’re good to go:

  • Tuesday 9/27: 0
  • Wednesday 9/28: 0
  • Thursday 9/29: 0
  • Friday 9/30: 0
  • Saturday 10/1: 0
  • Sunday 10/2: 0
  • Monday: 10/3: 0

Note: User of other calendar software? Save this .ics file to your computer and open it.

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Why Are There Always So Many Over-Sized T-shirts?

September 25th, 2011
By Dave Mosher

At every footrace for charity, street promotion or anywhere else free clothing flies off card tables, you find them: Mountains of T-shirts multiple sizes too big for most people to wear.

Last week, for instance, I strolled into a room to collect my free Andrea Bocelli concert ticket and T-shirt. No mediums or smalls in sight. Just box upon box of large, XL and XXL. Being the scrawny lad I am, I left disappointed.

Why does this happen every single time?

I’m not here to poke fun at those struggling with a larger-than-desirable figure. Au contraire. I’m simply posing a question that has, apparently, stumped the brightest minds of this planet since the T-shirt screamed into popularity in the late 19th century (thanks, Europe).

The human race has done well up to this point. We’ve already solved the how-to-board-the-airplane-quickly problem, the my-table-is-wobbly problem and other civilization-crushing conundrums. Surely, then, some grand theorem exists that could save T-shirts from the waste bin?

Nope. I’ve searched the scientific literature far and wide, and nothing is to be found.

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