Weekly output: Falcon Heavy (x2), family-plan wireless math, Strava privacy, Web-site defacements, Tech Night Owl

This week was more exciting than most: I returned to the Kennedy Space Center for the first time since 2011 to see the liftoff of the most powerful rocket to leave American soil since 1973. I still can’t quite believe that I pulled that off… but I have the photos I took around Launch Complex 39A and the audio of the launch I recorded from the KSC press site to remind me that I did.

2/6/2018: SpaceX successfully launches the world’s most powerful rocket, Yahoo Finance

Two posts about the Falcon Heavy appeared at this Web address. The first was a curtain-raiser I filed late Monday explaining the significance of the Falcon Heavy. The second was a launch story–written in advance so I only had to add descriptions of the liftoff and the subsequent landing of the outer first-stage boosters–that my editors subbed in Tuesday afternoon. I also had a third post mostly ready that you didn’t read: a just-in-case piece about an unsuccessful launch that became irrelevant minutes after 3:45 p.m. Tuesday.

If you didn’t get a chance to see the pre-launch story at Yahoo, you can still read it at the Internet Archive, as shown in the screengrab above.

2/7/2018: The family cell-phone bill: How to find savings on shared wireless plans, USA Today

A reader complained that last week’s USAT column on cheaper alternatives to unlimited data for a smartphone didn’t offer any insight about saving money on shared-use family plans. Dear reader: story assignment accepted.

2/7/2018: The Strava social exercise app can reveal your home address, Yahoo Finance

I was grateful for this chance to redeem my prior Strava coverage: a study by a mobile-security firm that revealed how that exercise-tracking app’s geofenced privacy options can pinpoint a Strava user’s home address instead of obscuring it.

2/10/2018: Kuwait interior-ministry site hacked, Al-Jazeera

The Arabic-language news channel had me on to talk (overdubbed live into Arabic) about a recent episode of a hacker in Saudi Arabia defacing the site of Kuwait’s Interior Ministry. There’s a long history of this kind of digital vandalism, and fortunately the host mainly asked me about that instead of Gulf politics.

2/10/2018: February 10, 2018 — Kirk McElhearn and Rob Pegoraro, Tech Night Owl

I talked with host Gene Steinberg about the Falcon Heavy launch, Strava’s privacy issues and Apple’s new HomePod speaker. Gene’s other guest was Kirk McElhearn, who’s long been among my favorite Apple reporters.

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Launch logistics: Booking a trip to see Falcon Heavy fly on three days’ notice

I’ve had the idea of covering the first launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket in the back of my mind for the last few years, but I didn’t book my travel for Tuesday’s launch until Saturday afternoon.

I was waiting for a confirmation of the schedule from the company that would be more solid than a notional “No Earlier Than” date, and which would then let me know if I could still attend a Yahoo Finance cryptocurrency conference in New York on Wednesday. Besides, I knew that D.C. and Orlando often represent a cheap city pair.

The schedule details I needed from SpaceX arrived shortly after noon Saturday, so I got to work–one travel component at a time.

Having to reach the Kennedy Space Center by 1:15 p.m. to visit Launch Complex 39A ruled out some decent mid-day fares. But Southwest’s site showed a 6 a.m. nonstop out of National for only $50. Sold!

Then I canceled the D.C.-NYC Amtrak reservation I’d had for Tuesday night (I appreciate that the railroad still lets you do that for free until 24 hours before departure) and booked a Tuesday-night flight from Orlando to New York to replace it.

I went with United for that leg, spending a little extra (a still-reasonable $155) to fly on an airline where my frequent-flyer status would allow a free same-day-change to a Wednesday flight to Newark if a launch scrub required that. A few more clicks to book a rental car and one night’s lodging, and I had launch travel solved… or so I thought until an hour after a liftoff that got pushed back to 3:45 p.m. by upper-atmosphere winds.

At that point, the “OMG! OMG!” shaking had stopped, I’d filed my copy, and Google Maps indicated that the usual 45-minute drive from KSC to Orlando would run an hour and 15 minutes. Nope! As horrendous post-launch traffic dragged Google’s arrival estimates past my flight’s boarding time, I called United to see if they had space on the morning’s first MCO-EWR nonstop, a 5:36 a.m. departure. They did.

After dropping off my rental car and getting through a mercifully quick security checkpoint (is there a better exhibit for TSA Pre or Clear than MCO?), I ran to my original flight’s gate and saw for myself that the plane was gone. I called United back, the rep bailed me out of the consequences of my overly-optimistic travel tactics by putting me on that 5:36 a.m. flight for free, and then I opened my laptop–tethering off my phone because the airport WiFi didn’t let me connect–to book a hotel barely two miles away for $90.

By then, it had been some 10 hours since I’d last eaten, so I treated myself to a nice dinner at the airport. (If you, too, get stuck at MCO and want something more original than the terminal’s fast-casual brands, head upstairs to McCoy’s in the Hyatt Regency). After a prolonged wait for the hotel van, thanks to no visible signage indicating that these shuttles could pick up at either of two spaces on the B side that sit maybe 800 feet apart, I was in bed by around midnight.

I somehow woke up one minute before the 4:15 alarm I’d set on my phone and was through security 40 minutes later. You can image my relief at seeing my upgrade clear, then having a quick NJ Transit ride from EWR to Manhattan help wrap up this prolonged commute by 9:10 a.m.

A long and informative day ensued with Yahoo colleagues, most of whom I hadn’t seen in months, and various cryptocurrency experts. But then my travel luck ran out again when my train to D.C. left more than an hour and a half late. Twitter, not Amtrak, informed me that this was the result of a tragedy–a northbound Acela striking and killing a person walking along the tracks in the Bronx, which led police to close the railroad for two hours.

That meant I didn’t get home until nearly 1 a.m, almost 21 hours after my day had begun. But I did get to sleep in my own bed, and I came home with two posts filed from KSC that more than covered my travel costs as well as dozens of photos (since edited into a Flickr album) and one unusual recording that you can hear after the jump.

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Weekly output: Amy Webb, unlimited data, connected-car privacy, commercial geoint, U2F adoption, ECPA reform

The next few days will be a little crazy–starting with a 6 a.m. flight tomorrow to Orlando. I’m returning to Central Florida for the first time since 2011 to cover SpaceX’s attempt Tuesday to launch the Falcon Heavy rocket, the most powerful launch vehicle the U.S. has seen since the Saturn V. Assuming no scrubs, then I’m flying up to New York Tuesday night so I can cover Yahoo Finance’s cryptocurrency-focused All Markets Summit Wednesday, after which I will be delighted to sleep in my own bed once again.

1/29/2018: Fireside Chat with Futurist Amy Webb, State of the Net

I interviewed Amy at this tech-policy conference. She started with some harsh words about Washington’s ability to forecast future tech trends (her stock in trade), which probably didn’t go over very well in the room even if many policymakers around here need to realize the limits of their vision.

1/31/2018: Unlimited wireless data is here to stay; so is the need to check your options, USA Today

A new study by OpenSignal finding that download speeds at AT&T and Verizon have rebounded after a slump the research firm blamed on their shift to selling unlimited-data plans provided a news peg for this column reminding readers that they may be able to save money by opting for a limited-data plan–as unfashionable as that may be.

1/31/2018: Why a car can’t protect your privacy as well as a smartphone, Yahoo Finance

Watching a few panels at the Washington Auto Show’s public-policy day last week got me thinking about how Google Maps and connected cars each treat your location history–only one lets you inspect, edit, export and delete that information, and it’s not the one that requires an oil change.

1/31/2018: The Vanguard of Commercial GEOINT, Trajectory Magazine

This is the cover story for the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation’s quarterly magazine that holds up reasonably well for the first three-fourths or so–after which comes a bit on Strava that now looks problematic.

2/1/2018:  The authentication solution government has been slow to adopt, Fifth Domain

I’ve been meaning to write something about what’s held up the usage of “U2F” security keys–the cryptographically-signed USB fobs that can protect your Gmail or Facebook account from both phishing and the loss of either your phone number or your phone. This new government-cybersecurity site gave me that opportunity.

2/2/2018: The email privacy hole Congress won’t fix, Yahoo Finance

A couple of years ago, I started thinking that whenever Congress finally passed reform of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, it would be fun to write a post recapping how long that took. Well, that hasn’t happened, so I decided to use Groundhog Day to instead write a post recapping how long Congress has failed to fix this obsolete law.

A sort of homecoming for Discovery

The space shuttle Discovery completed her last journey a week ago. An airport tug towed the shuttle, with tiles and insulating fabic looking toasted or outright torched from 39 re-entries, into a display hall at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center.

It was not an altogether joyous occasion. The proper home for a spacecraft is space, not a museum. Discovery might have kept flying for years longer–had the Bush administration not acted on the recommendations of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board to retire the shuttle, after which the Obama administration reaffirmed that decision while adding two last flights to the schedule.

During the handover ceremony itself, former senator and two-time astronaut John Glenn said the shuttle was “prematurely grounded.”

But there are reasons why we only have three space-flown shuttles to retire to museums after building five. Challenger’s remains sleep in a missile silo at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station; Columbia’s occupy part of the 16th floor of the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center. Neither spot is open for tourist visits, although anybody designing a manned spacecraft should find a way to pay their respects there.

What makes me mad, not just sad, is seeing people use this occasion to break out a “The End” stamp for the space program.

Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, for instance, pronounced Discovery’s final trip “a funeral march”–apparently unaware that the shuttle’s would-be successor, the behind-schedule and over-budget Constellation program, had been fired for cause. CBS’s 60 Minutes aired a “Hard Landing” episode that suggested the battered Space Coast economy will never recover. (For all of of that episode’s neglected angles, I hated seeing that the bar I stopped in for lunch after STS-134’s launch had closed.) Editorial cartoons have proclaimed that manned space flight has reached the end of its road and now amounts to a museum piece.

But like many people of a certain age, I know the difference between today and the last extended interregnum in American spaceflight. One of my first memories of television was watching a rocket launch that must have been the U.S. half of 1975’s sole Apollo-Soyuz Test Program mission. I had to wait almost six years to see another liftoff live on TV. No American got close to orbit until the Sunday morning in 1981 when I woke up early and excitedly to watch Columbia take us back.

We are not witnessing a re-run of that era. If you want to see an American spacecraft, you don’t need to go to a museum. Step outside on a clear night, when the timing lines up, and you can’t miss a light brighter than any star gliding in front of all of them–the International Space Station, occupied nonstop by U.S. astronauts since November of 2000.

Back on the ground, NASA is designing the biggest rocket the U.S. has flown since the ’70s–although the Space Launch System’s projected expense and limited utility alarms me.

But unlike the ’70s, we don’t have to hope that the government does everything right. In Florida and Virginia, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are getting ready to run cargo to the ISS in privately-developed spacecraft. SpaceX and three other firms are also competing to bring up crew next and free us from having to pay Russia for transportation to the station. (Note to Congress: Reducing the funding for this project is one of the most foolish and shortsighted things you’ve done lately.) In a year or two, the rich should be taking their own suborbital flights, no NASA contract needed. (Note to Virgin Galactic PR: call me.) And in Seattle, some well-heeled tech entrepreneurs think they can make a business out of mining asteroids.

The dream is alive.

Damnit, I hope I’m right about that.

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