Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Falcon 9 About To Get Even Better Engines

SpaceX's Merlin 1D Engine Achieves Flight Qualification...

Hawthorne, CA – Space Exploration Technologies’ (SpaceX) Merlin 1D engine has achieved flight qualification, a major milestone for the next generation Merlin engine. Through a 28 test qualification program, the Merlin 1D accumulated 1,970 seconds of total test time, the equivalent run time of over 10 full mission durations, and is now fully qualified to fly on the Falcon 9 rocket. 

The program included four tests at or above the power (147,000 pounds of thrust) and duration (185 seconds) required for a Falcon 9 rocket launch. The Merlin 1D engine was also tested at propellant inlet and operating conditions that were well outside the bounds of expected flight conditions. 

SpaceX's testing program demonstrated a ratio of 4:1 for critical engine life parameters such as firing duration and restart capacity to the engine's expected flight requirements. The industry standard is 2:1.

“The Merlin 1D successfully performed every test throughout this extremely rigorous qualification program,” said Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO and chief designer. “With flight qualification now complete, we look forward to flying the first Merlin 1D engines on Falcon 9’s Flight 6 this year.” 

The Merlin 1D builds on the technology of the Merlin engines used on the first five flights of Falcon 9. With nine Merlin 1Ds on the first stage, the Falcon 9 rocket will produce nearly 1.5 million pounds of thrust in a vacuum. The Merlin 1D has a vacuum thrust-to-weight ratio exceeding 150, the best of any liquid rocket engine in history. This enhanced design makes the Merlin 1D the most efficient booster engine ever built, while still maintaining the structural and thermal safety margins needed to carry astronauts. Additionally, the new engine is designed for improved manufacturability by using higher efficiency processes, increased robotic construction and reduced parts count. 

Testing took place at SpaceX's rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas.  Watch the test here:

[Or full width here ] 

About SpaceX

SpaceX designs, manufactures, and launches the world's most advanced rockets and spacecraft. The company was founded in 2002 by Elon Musk to revolutionize space transportation, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets. Today, SpaceX is advancing the boundaries of space technology through its Falcon launch vehicles and Dragon spacecraft. SpaceX is a private company owned by management and employees, with minority investments from Founders Fund, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, and Valor Equity Partners. The company has more than 3,000 employees in California, Texas, Washington, D.C., and Florida. For more information, visit 

NOTE: Yeah, this is just a cut and paste of their press release, but I am such a sucker for SpaceX. If anyone else ever gets around to conducting commercial space flight I'll probably get all GaGa about them too, but as it currently stands SpaceX is the only game in town.

Later this year 28 Merlin 1D engines will be used to power the keenly anticipated Falcon Heavy, which. according to the National Space Society blog, "will be able to place more than two shuttle payloads in orbit in one launch at about 1/15 of the price of a single shuttle launch."  Very cool.

An Eternal Unanimity

On the Commonality of Mystical Experience Across Religious Traditions and the Sciences…

Here's a paper I wrote for Fr. Notebaart's Global Religions and Belief Systems (MIB 519) back in 2008 while working on my Master's.  He's using it for a course on Ritual this spring and I was surprised that I did not immediately recognize it.  It served primarily as a jumping off point for my favorite independent study of my HD program, which resulted in another paper, Seeking the Divine Light: Four Medieval Mystics.


What has the Taoist sage in common with a 21st century neuroscience test subject?  Saul of Tarsus with an ancient Rishi hermit?  The modern Buddhist with a medieval Jew?  What perception can the Sufi share with a European natural philosopher?  What would Katherine of Sienna recognize in the wisdom of Black Elk?  Some (the contextualist, or the dogmatist) will say they share nothing but the title of mystic; that their mystical experiences were each distinctly different as one religious tradition is from another.  Others see in all their experiences, over the last 4,000 or more years, a version of the same mystic encounter with something all but indescribable, but that reshapes their lives forever.

“In mystic states we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness. This is the everlasting and triumphant mystical tradition, hardly altered by differences of clime or creed. In Hinduism, in Neoplatonism, in Sufism, in Christian mysticism, in Whitmanism, we find the same recurring note, so that there is about mystical utterances an eternal unanimity which ought to make a critic stop and think, and which brings it about that the mystical classics have, as has been said, neither birthday nor native land.”

The Perennial philosophy, as described by Huxley and applied to the study of mysticism, holds that the mystical experience is the same direct contact with the absolute regardless the faith tradition of the mystic (Mahoney).  We can demonstrate that when mystical experiences over the millennia are evaluated carefully they appear similar, if not identical, and that when modern neuroscience is used to evaluate the mystical state we can be even more certain that the experience has a common origin.


As defined in Introduction to World Religions mysticism is: the search for direct personal experience of the divine.  In the same volume the term mystic is defined as: one who seeks direct personal experience of the divine and may use prayer, meditation, or various ascetic practices to concentrate the attention. Other definitions draw distinctions between mystics and mysticism – especially as applied to the leaders of specific disciplines, bodies of secret knowledge, and lengthy treatises on the nature of reality written in highly symbolic language – versus simpler mystical experience (Kanagaraj).

While the mystical experience is indescribable some have commented on the irony that many mystics spare no effort, or pages of densely worded text, in an attempt to try (McClendon & Smith; Gellman; James; Ernst). The mystical state is ineffable; it defies expression and must be directly experienced as a feeling rather than by the intellect.  There is a noetic quality; there are states of knowledge and insight. The experience is transient; it cannot be sustained for long.  While it may be facilitated the event is essentially passive (James). According to Deikman the mystical experience is typified by “Intense realness, unusual sensations, unity, ineffability, and trans-sensate phenomena” (Deikman 1966)

The Theistic Experience

The reports we hear in many tongues, over thousands of years, from a half dozen religions, detail the same theme, over and over again.  Mystics merge with God – the meta-mind, experiencing a sense of oneness and unitary consciousness. Put simply, mystical experience is characterized by a sense of union with God (Beauregard & Paquette). This can include Hindu state of ananda or bliss (Katra & Targ).  It may be characterized as an intimate union with a personal God – in the theistic sense, or take a non-theistic form of nirvana, or no-mind, as in Buddhism (Teasdale 2000).  They overcome the illusion of separateness and perceive that they are joining with God. Huxley described perceiving the Divine Ground and achieving universal consciousness (Katra & Targ). They enjoy a sense of cosmic revelation (Teasdale 1993).  Even Tillich believed the mystic perceives an inner light, an ultimate reality, and enjoys “inward participation in and experience of the presence of the divine” (Tillich).  The mystical experience may provide a sense of divine origin and essential truth (Dunner).  There is a supersensory experience of God, or Brahman.  The Hindu has the unitive experience that informs him, or her, that Atman is Brahman (Gellman).

The Non-theistic Experience

Those with a non-theistic perspective arrive at a state of the “unity of all things” (Thomas). The Buddhist experiences unconstructed awareness, an absence of experience (Gellman). The mystical experience is to some a direct contact with the absolute principle (Mahoney). Others may call it a direct non-dual experience (Forsthoefel).  There is a sense of the underlying unity of everything. The distinction between subject and object dissolved.  There is unity beyond the apparent diversity of reality, a complete perception of all that is.  The experience is one of breaking down barriers of perception to recognize the unity of all reality beyond the limits of time and space (Thompson). There is a transcendence of sense modalities, absence of specific content, images, or ideas, and a feeling of unity with the ultimate (Deikman 1963).  The mystic realizes that the perception of separateness is an illusion or misperception (Katra & Targ).  Canadian psychiatrist Richard Bucke, the author of Cosmic Consciousness, describes a mystical experience he himself experienced during a late night carriage ride home after an evening of metaphysical conversation with friends. On the other hand Bucke regards true cosmic consciousness as something rarely attained, and then only by men (Bucke; James).

Even scientists, who on one hand seem to be seeking a reductionist solution, still wax fanciful, describing pure consciousness events (Gellman) and absolute unitary states (Newberg, d’Aquili, & Rouse).

Despite the words chosen, according to John Kabat-Zinn “Every mystic of every time and tradition has awakened in wonder and rapture to the signs and of this eternal presence and known its mystery as one of relation and love” (Katra & Targ).  And, in the words of Ramana Maharshi, “We all go toward the same goal” (Forsthoefel).

The Method

The methods of achieving mystical states differ little over the centuries. Traditional techniques include renunciation – poverty, chastity, solitude and contemplative meditation – which help develop the discipline to exclude external and internal stimuli (Deikman 1966).

Yogic practice – exercise, diet, posture, breathing, concentration, & discipline – and devotional bhakti, is regarded as critical to prepare the initiate for the shock that came with omnipresence (Ullman; James).  Other Hindu meditative disciplines – tapas – include austerities such as fasting, sleep deprivation, silence, and isolation (Teasdale 1993).

Within Roman Catholic monasticism mystical pursuits called for asceticism, ethical purification, ritual routine, chastity, meditation, contemplative prayer, fasting, reflection, the imagination of holy scenes, and mortification of the body (Brosseder; Newberg; James; Johnson).

The mystical disciplines were open to women of the medieval cloister.  Teresa of Avila recommended that skill, concentration, emotional balance, and a cheerful disposition were to important to female practitioners (Armstrong 2000).

Eastern Orthodox quietists used hesychast prayer, specific bodily postures, special breathing control, and uttered prayer, as a means to seek to the divine light (Armstrong 1993). 

Students of the Jewish mystics needed to be carefully prepared, skilled, mature, and sexually healthy (married) in order to survive the disciplined ascent through the mind to God (Armstrong 1993).

The Sufi mystic engaged in fasting, vigils, and dikr – chanting the divine names. In addition Sufis engaged in ecstatic physical movement, and became known as “whirling dervishes” (Armstrong 1993; James)

Mysticism in Religious Traditions

In Hindu Advaita one strives to achieve ultimate experience of non-duality “Not Two” (Teasdale 2000).  Yoga in Sanskrit means unity or “one with God” (Katra & Targ; Armstrong 1993).

Buddhism is essentially a mystical practice.  The Buddhist seeks the experience of no-thing-ness and centers his or her practice on attaining recognition that separation is an illusion (Katra & Targ).  There are other accretions to the discipline that speak of relieving the suffering of others and joining countless millions of others in Buddha nature but that necessarily comes after the enlightenment experience. 

The Taoist seeks “unity with the Tao, which cannot be named…complete, all-embracing, the whole: these are the different names for the same reality denoting the One.” (Partridge).  In this way it shares with Buddhism a non-theistic mystical focus.

The earliest Jewish mystic may have been Moses himself.  A direct experience of God and receipt of the transmission of the Torah as a single sound “as the human mouth cannot speak and the human ear cannot hear” may be the description of a mystical unitive experience (Habito). Jewish mysticism includes Merkebah, Kabbalah, and aspects of Hasidism.  Jewish Throne-Chariot mysticism – a rigorously guided contemplation of the Book of Ezekiel – in the early Common Era served to map a path for estranged Jews back to God (Armstrong 1993). Kabbalah introduced the En Sof – the boundless indescribable nature of the God before creation and the ten sefirot – layers of emanations – through which the mystic must carefully ascend to merge with God.  Hasidism perceived that there was nowhere that God was not, arguably a sort of pantheism.  Devekut reinforced awareness of the immanence the divine in every day activities.  Hasidic Jews engage in action-oriented prayer (Armstrong 2000), which as we will see later, has implications for the brain’s role in shaping our perception of events.  While it may not be strictly related to this conversation Armstrong notes that St. Teresa of Avila was also the daughter of a Spanish converso – a Jew converted to Christianity (Armstrong 2000).

Roman Catholicism of the medieval period was a fertile ground for mysticism. From the anonymous authors of Pseudo-Dionysius and The Cloud of Unknowing, to Hildegaard of Bingen, Marguerite Porete, Lady Julian or Norwich, Joan of Arc, Miguel de Molinos, Catherine of Sienna. Therese of Lisieux, Ignatius of Loyola, Catherine of Genoa, to John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila there were mystics across Europe.  Some lived in peace and good health, others did not (McGinn; Ward; Broesseder). The monotheistic religions seem to be the most wary of the mystical experience as some interpretations tend toward pantheism or other heresies.  Roman Catholic mystics frequently described a marriage-like union of the soul with God which is initiated by God's grace and does not result in dissolution of the boundary between the Creator and His creation.  This would appear to side step the heretical utterances – I am God – some mystics were prone to. Sexual imagery is common in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic mystical writing but the orthodox are quick to interpret these images metaphorically (Gotz).  Meister Eckart, who was condemned posthumously, spoke of a love relationship between the human soul and Christ (McGinn).  Writers as recent as Keating believe that while the Ultimate Reality cannot be limited by any name or concept, spiritual attainment is the result not of individual effort but of oneness with the Ultimate Reality (God), a sort of divine grace. (Keating 2000). 

The Sufi sought to erase the duality between Allah and the purified human spirit, (Partridge). This was potentially even a greater heresy for the Muslim than the Jew or the Christian. Sufis were tolerated much of the time, but some, such as Razzazz al-Hallaj, were not so fortunate.  A Sufi who fell from favor and came to be regarded as a notorious heretic, al-Hallaj was flogged, crucified, dismembered, and burned alive for heresy (Gotz). Islamic mysticism is most strongly identified with the Sufis but may also be detected in Shiia, who also cultivated a practice of meditation.  The Imam was believed to transmit his secret knowledge of divine truth to his heir (Armstrong 2000).  One might even argue that Mohammed’s night journey can be interpreted as a mystical experience expressed in the religious language of his time (Armstrong 1993).

But What of Contextualism?

Contextualists, in this discussion also sometimes referred to as Constructionists, argue that experiences actually differ, that mystical experiences are qualitatively different in different religions, and that the mystical experience is inevitably shaped by the context of the subject and his or her religious tradition. Perhaps this was because each religions existing vocabulary was the only language available to describe such experience. Were the mystics expressing their common vision in the only religious language, along with its semantic filters, available to them?  Or were mystics wise enough to moderate their public utterances in order to spread the word without ending their mortal lives upon the fire?  As defenders of the One True Faith, the orthodox may have insisted that mystical experiences within its own tradition fall within the confines of current religious dogma, and believed that mystics from other faith traditions could be disregarded altogether.  As noted earlier the Roman Catholic Church and less frequently, Islam, have put mystics to death. One wonders if descriptions that more or less track with accepted dogma – at least on a shallow reading – weren’t motivated by the concern that careless descriptions of religiously significant events involving your unity with God could get you burned at the stake (McGinn; Delk).

Scientific Correlates of Mystical Experience

Neurotheology and spiritual neuroscience are terms being used to describe the pursuit of scientific evidence of the effect neurological states have on the perception of religious, spiritual, and mystical experience (Biello).  These experiences have even earned an acronym – RSME – or, religious/spiritual/mystical experience (Beauregard & Paquette).

Brain injury and illness may account for some notable religious experiences.  Persons with right hemispherical temporal lobe lesions experienced increased religiousness, even hyper-religiosity (Newberg & Lee). The life experience of mystics such as St. Paul and Sister Teresa of Avila are consistent with temporal or parietal lobe epilepsy (Powell; Robinson; Johnson; Beauregard & Paquette; Grassie). Dostoevsky “touched God” during his seizures (Holmes). After a childhood brain injury Ellen White – the founder of Seventh-day Adventist sect – experienced a drastic change in personality and began to have religious visions (Powell; Robinson).  While researchers can only make inferences from a careful examination of the scriptures, other historical religious figures may have been subject to neurological conditions. Moses exhibited hyper-religiosity, saw visions, and heard the voice of God. Saul of Tarsus was at first a Jewish religious zealot, had a conversion experience after collapsing, seeing a bright light, and being addressed by God, and then began his life of Christian evangelism. Mohammed first encountered the Archangel Gabriel after having been awakened from his sleep, and later had prophetic trances after losing consciousness (Powell; Robinson). 

Experiments conducted during brain surgery on conscious patients in the 1950s showed that temporal lobe excitation caused paranormal sensations, feelings of a spiritual presence, and cosmic consciousness, while activation of other areas of brain that deal with sight or hearing resulted in much simpler sensations.  In other cases, when lesions causing seizures, accompanied by auditory or visual hallucinations with religious content, were removed the religious experiences disappeared with the seizures (Powell; Fenwick). More recently Persinger’s Transcranial Magnetic Stimulator, also known as the “God Helmet”, uses weak but carefully focused magnetic fields to induce feelings of meaningfulness, floating, sensed presence by agitating the temporal lobes of the brain He has used the device on over 1000 volunteers and reports that 80% report profound experiences that would be life-changing if they didn’t know the event had been electronically induced (Robinson).

According to David Wulff of Wheaton College the consistency of mystical experiences across religions and cultures “suggest a common core that is likely a reflection of structures and processes in the brain.” (Begley & Underwood). Dr. Arthur Deikman, a pioneering American investigator observed that mystic experience as the result of contemplative meditation – concentration without thinking – is similar across time and traditions (Deikman 1963).  Deikman described this process as involving deautomatization – to make no longer automatic the “psychological structures that organize, limit, select, and interpret perceptual stimuli” (Deikman 1966).  Deautomatization results in changes of perception, time shortening, creation of stimulus barriers (which prevent distraction), changes in attachment to the object being contemplated, pleasurable sensations, merging with object of contemplation, and transfiguration of the contemplative scene (Deikman 1963). 

Using sophisticated Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography (SPECT) imaging, researchers have learned much about which parts of the brain are activated – and which are less active – during meditation and mystical experiences.  Rhythmic ritual behavior, Sufi dancing for example, changes the body’s autonomic responses, contributing to the occurrence of a unitary experience.  Whether focusing on a particular thought or banishing all thought, meditative practices modify the functions of orientation association area (in the posterior superior parietal lobe) giving rise to ecstatic states. This occurs when intense concentration in the frontal lobes results in deafferentation – the blocking of input that is normally processed by the parietal lobes. As noted earlier the researchers describe this peak event as Absolute Unitary Being. This state strongly correlates with that described as the Unio Mystica, the medieval description of the direct experience of God (d’Aquili & Newberg; Newberg, d’Aquili, & Rause; Powell).

Some contextualists continue to try to argue that research in this area is still confounded by language, that no two mystics describe precisely the same experience; that atheist mystics are impressed by the universe, while Christian mystics merge with God (Biello). But what is the contextualist to make of the findings that the experience as tracked using the SPECT instrument differs little whether a Buddhist concentrates on no-god or a Carmelite nun concentrates on God (Lattin).  The research is not unanimous in its findings – there may be no one “God Spot” in the brain – but the research continues (Biello).

The practice of chemically enhanced, if not induced, mystical experience is likely as old as humanity’s earliest experiences with fermented fruit or the wrong mushroom.  The earliest deliberate use of Entheogens – “God-inducing” or “spirit-enabling” chemicals – was likely in shamanic practice.  Shamans in the Americas still use mescaline, peyote, and psilocybin, as well as ahayuasca, a natural source of dimethyltryptamine, a powerful hallucinogen (Strassman; Grassie).  The legendary soma consumed by the Rishi, forest-dwelling renunciates who recorded the Vedic texts, may have been derived from a hallucinogenic mushroom (Robinson & Rodrigues). Ergotism resulting from accidental ingestion of rye ergot in the medieval Europe has been correlated with the rise of Jewish Kabbalah mysticism.  Rye ergot is the source of Lysergic acid diethylamide, LSD, a hallucinogen popular in the 1960s counter-culture (Deikman 1966; Newberg & Lee).  Ingestion of psilocybin had a significant effect on the religious experience of study participants in the 1962 “Good Friday” experiment (Freeman).  More recently a carefully controlled study at Johns Hopkins study showed that the careful administration of psilocybin under controlled conditions can initiate “experiences similar to spontaneously occurring mystical experiences.”  Subjects reported feeling “oceanic boundlessness” – oneness, “dread of ego dissolution” – unity, and “visionary restructuralization” – visions or hallucinations, at two to four times the rate of the control group.  Subjects also reported positive emotional effects twice as often as the control group (Griffiths, Richards, McCann, & Jesse).  These positive effects persisted 14 months after the test at which time the majority of subjects regarded the results of their participation in the experiment as spiritual significant (Griffiths, Richards, Johnson McCann, & Jesse). Perhaps a man of his time, William James regarded even alcohol as a means “to stimulate the mystical faculties.” He and others of his era also experimented with then new anesthetics such as nitrous oxide, ether, and chloroform as the means to access mystical states (James; Deikman 1966).

What might it all mean?

Theists and atheist alike take a strong interest in the mystical experience.  Neurotheology may demonstrate that God is a construct of the mind, which in turn is “merely” an emergent property of the brain.  Is religious ecstasy is an illusion, a neurological trick that bestowed an evolutionary advantage upon our ancestors? (Johnson; Holmes). The fact that there’s a neurological correlate to religious experience does not necessarily mean the religious experience is not genuine.  Our brains may be creating the experience, but they might also be simply responding to the experience (Newberg & Lee).

The spiritual neuroscientist may find in the brain’s complex pathways the means to apprehend the divine.  Perhaps “the God part of the brain” was given to us as a transceiver (Johnson).  “The brain is the hardware through which God is experienced” says Daniel Batson, a psychologist at the University of Kansas, “To say the brain produces religion is like saying a piano produces music.” (Vedantum).  If as Eugene Wigner says “logic comes after intuition” (Deikman 2000), perhaps religion is formed from and after the mystical experience. Religious inspiration for Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam may have been derived from these essential spiritual or mystical experiences (Teasdale 2000).  Those who have turned their back on institutions and dogma may be missing out on the possibility of direct personal experience of God through mystical or spiritual experience (Katra & Targ).  The calming and centering experience of meditation as practiced in other traditions have been applied to Christian practice by LaSalle, Bede Griffiths, and Wayne Teasdale (Johnston; Teasdale 2000) as well as to non-secular health, wellness, and healing settings. In time perhaps mysticism’s inclusive universalism may serve as a source of ecumenism, cross-culturalism, and interfaith practice (Teasdale 2000; Keating).


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