Curmudgeons Corner

Random thoughts on politics, current events, popular culture, and whatever else interests me.

Mark R. Whittington is a writer residing in Houston, Texas. He is the author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction, including the novel of suspense Nocturne which he coauthored with his wife, Chantal, The Children of Apollo trilogy, The Last Moonwalker and Other Stories, Gabriella’s War, The Man from Mars: The Asteroid Mining Caper, and Why is it So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?

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Thursday, May 31, 2007
 
Robot Guy has an analysis of the current space effort entitled "Why Do Space At All." The analysis contains all of the usual complaints about NASA. It is bureaucratic. It wastes money. It is not using the right hardware to go back to the Moon.

The first two complaints are certainly true, but I think irrelevant. The third is debatable (and indeed is being debated ad infinitum, ad nauseum.)

Any government agency tasked with doing anything is going to be bureaucratic and waste money. It is in their nature. Complaining about that fact is sort of like complaining that a Bengal tiger tends to maul and eat other living creatures. The trick is not to wish that NASA did not behave like a government agency, but to find ways to reduce those bureaucratic and wasteful tendencies as much as possible.

Providing focus on a single mission, which the Vision for Space Exploration tries to do is one way. Encouraging innovative programs, such as COTS and the Centennial Challenges is another.

Balancing out NASA's bureaucratic and wasteful ways is that it has access to far more money than any private business could realistically have. A lot can be done with 16, 17, 18 billion a year, even considering NASA's infrastructure needs.

That leads us to the third complaint and there I am in the midst of a puzzlement as to why it persists. Despite the hyper ventilation from certain quarters, there seems to be no evidence that the Orion/Ares approach is so dysfunctional that it is bound to fail. Is it the absolute best way to get back to the Moon? Define "best."

In the best of all possible universes, with no budgetary and political constraints, it probably isn't. But we don't live in that universe; we live in ours. So we have to make do.

And, really, isn't complaining about Orion/Ares sort of like complaining to President Jefferson that Lewis and Clarke were not going to get to the Pacific is the best possible way. It would be inconceivable two hundred years ago to suggest that the best way to cross the Louisiana Purchase would be to walk and paddle about in collapsible boats (which had all sorts of problems that would sound familiar to rocket scientists today.) But the answer would not be to hold Lewis and Clark back while we argue over methods.

The first mass migration to the American West took place using Conestoga wagons. But the really interesting fact is that most people who went west in the 19th Century took the train. Neither technology was directly the result of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. But their exploration did show that the West was worth going to, worth settling.

I suspect that is what will happen with VSE. Most people in this century will not migrate to space because of any transportation technology developed by VSE. But because those future astronauts will have explored the Moon, Mars, and asteroids, discovering resources that will enrich our species, those that follow will develop the means to get at those resources cheaply and reliably. A lunar base will serve as a destination, given a lunar COTS program especially, for those inventive folks who want to go back to the Moon on their own dime.

It is therefore not NASA's job to build the rockets (or space elevator) that will get you beyond the Earth. That is your job. I suggest getting to it.

Addendum: Robot Guy responds with some ideas of his own.


 
NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has proclaimed himself to be a global warming skeptic. Look for the inquisitors of the Church of Global Warming to demand he recant and, failing that, to be fired and then burned at the stake.


Wednesday, May 30, 2007
 
Jeff Kueter sounds the alarm on Chinese space ambitions.


 
Ken Murphy has his own report from ISDC, with a focus on film and the arts.


 
Using the Moon as a platform to monitor climate change on the Earth.


 
More about those radiation eating fungi.


 
How science has been inspired by Star Wars.


Tuesday, May 29, 2007
 
Tom Olson has some advice that every space entrepreneur needs to pay heed to.


 
The security measures surrounding the production of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows rivals that of most military space launches.

Meanwhile a judge in Georgia turned back a silly attempt to get the wizardly one banned in schools on a (I'm not kidding) a church/state seperation basis.


 
Mother Sheehan has given the world the greatest gift anyone could ever bestow by capitulating on capitulation and promising to shut up.


Monday, May 28, 2007
 
Abraham Lincoln said it much better than I could ever:
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

As it was on November 19, 1863, so it is even more so today.


 
Paul Spudis discusses what he feels is going right and what he feels is going wrong with the Vision for Space Exploration. He even has an alternative method of getting back to the Moon--L1 rendezvous (with a fuel depot) using a Shuttle C.

Addendum: Dr. Spudis' presentation can be found here.

One comment. Unlike other concepts, Dr. Spudis' has certain attractive features, which include a better potential for adding on a commercial infrastructure. My only question is that it might be a little too ambitious for a first generation lunar transport. I can see encouraging private companies to build and maintain the L1 Depot as part of a Lunar COTS program.

Ok, second comment. I still don't see any problems with political sustainability (at least in comparison to any other concept) in the current scheme. Most polling shows that most people will swallow a NASA that consumes 1 percent of the federal budget, which is higher than anyone right now contemplates. We'll see if the Congressional effort to add more money succeeds or not.

Spudis is dead on about a simple definition of the mission.


Sunday, May 27, 2007
 
Looks like the Chinese now want to add air craft carriers to their Navy.


 
The Orion does seem to be making some progress toward actually becoming real, despite some of the misgivings previously noted.


 
Glenn Reynolds gives his impressions of the International Space Development Conference just concluding in Dallas. The one major change from the ones I've attended in the past appear to be that the space entrepreneurs actually have funding and are actually working on stuff. That's encouraging.

Some what less so is that there also seems to be a somewhat fatalistic view about the Vision for Space Exploration, one that seems based not so much on how its actually proceeding, but on disappointments of the past, at least from Glenn's perspective. My reading of the political situation is somewhat different, of course, though things can certainly change.

Even so those who confidently predict the demise of President Bush's Vision for Space Exploration remind me of Harry Reid proclaiming that the Iraq War is lost. At best both are somewhat premature. At worse, both sentiments are a kind of Vietnam Syndrome. Iraq (or any large scale military involvement) is Vietnam to Harry Reid and his ilk. VSE is the space shuttle, the space station, X-33, or name your favorite space boondoggle to others.

(On the other hand, I got to admire, in a left handed fashion, anyone who thinks that he's going to sell Barack Obama on Mars colonies. It reminds me of two ladies I met fifteen years ago who were pretty sure that Ross Perot would buy into Zubrin's Mars Direct concept.)

One reason that a lot of hope is being invested in the private sector is the perception that it is less subject to the vagaries of politics than is NASA. That may be true or it may not be. We'll find out the first time one of those sub orbital tourist rockets filled with rich folks makes a hole in the ground. My fear is that if we're not careful, the trial lawyers will feast like a school of blood crazed sharks and the space tourism industry will be strangled in its crib. Leaving hope for a space faring future, where?

Glenn concludes with a quote that on the surface sounds good, but on close examination is really pernicious:
And the best line on space policy is actually an old one from Rand Simberg, but it represents how the next Administration, of whatever party, ought to approach the subject: "It's not NASA's job to send a man to Mars. It's NASA's job to make it possible for the National Geographic Society to send a man to Mars." Indeed.

This sets up a phony controversy that has the potential of being as tiresome as the robots vs humans fight. Public vs private space development is, in my way of thinking, a false dichotomy. There is room in the great scheme of things for both. The COTS program is a prime example of that. There would be no COTS program were it not for the International Space Station, as great of an example as it is of government waste.

What is NASA's job? Well, to send a man to Mars and make it possible for National Geographic to send a man to Mars. I suspect that the first will be necessary for the second to occur.


Saturday, May 26, 2007
 
Pete Worden discussed NASA's new virtual island in Second Life and what it means for public participation in the exploration of space.
"We can walk or fly along with a lunar rover as it makes its way over the lunar landscape," Worden said. "Your avatar can explore along with those of scientists and engineers managing the mission."

Worden said that, in this manner, everyone can participate in space exploration. "When the next people step onto the surface of the Moon in a little over a decade, your avatar could be with them," he noted.

General Worden went on to say:
By matching the attributes of cyberspace with small, inexpensive space probes using micro-satellite technologies, a new world of space exploration is feasible, Worden suggested. "As we expand into and settle the solar system...we'll all be going."

"This is not your father's space program," Worden said. "The new technology of virtual life in cyberspace means we can all participate in the vision for space exploration. The revolution in nanotechnology means we can do pretty surprising things in very small packages too."

Worden told SPACE.com that one of the key objectives of the vision is to activate the private sector to activate opportunity. Using the cyberspace tools and techniques being created via partnerships at Ames Research Center, individuals can design projects, analyze data, "or just go along for the ride," he said.


 
NASA wants commercial participation for the return to the Moon.


 
Some tasty rumors about Indiana Jones 4. Possible spoilers.


 
John Carmack discusses the Pixel lunar lander prototype.


 
Congressman Nick Lampson, who won Tom Delay's Texas House seat last year, spoke upon the effort to increase NASA's budget by about a billion and a half dollars. Lampson, a liberal Democrat who finds himself representing a conservative House district, has rested his hopes of remaining in Congress in this undertaking to deliver for the large number of NASA and contractor employees that are his constituents. "Anonymous" makes a comment that actually approaches the truth in that the effort would have far more of a chance if the Republicans still controlled the House and Tom Delay was still Majority Leader. However, it is somewhat interesting to hear of an effort to plow more money into NASA than to siphon funding out, as has been the case in previous years.


 
Alan Boyle provides a round up of plans for private space ventures at the ISDC.


 
Happy 100th birthday, John Wayne, American.


Friday, May 25, 2007
 
Looks like Rosie's mouth has bought her the Royal Order of the Boot from The View a bit early.


 
Happy 30th birthday, Star Wars.


 
Captain Ed questions the accuracy of a couple of new media polls showing support for President Bush and the Iraq War slipping.



Thursday, May 24, 2007
 
Meet four heroes who gave the last full measure of devotion.



 
Jim Benson of Benson Space has rolled out the design of his Dream Chaser suborbital space ship.


 
I wasn't going to comment on Greg Easterbrook's inane article in Wired because I tend to think that the best way to deal with him is to ignore him. But Rand Simberg decided to go to the trouble of demolishing Easterbrook and, while I agree with most of his criticism of the article, I caution one and all to take Rand's larger points with caution. My own prescription for space (which includes far more than dealing with what NASA does and does not do) is far more enlightening, IMHO.


 
See some new footage from the upcoming Babylon 5: The Lost Tales direct to DVD film.


 



This test brought to you by Blakeney Manor.

Find out:Which Scarlet Pimpernel character are you?



 
Victor Davis Hanson suggests that America's greatest strength is that Americans worry too much.


Wednesday, May 23, 2007

 
John Edwards, former Senator, former Vice Presidential candidate, current Presidential candidate, has a strange and unique way for dealing with the War on Terror. His strategy is to deny it is real.

Amazing. It is a strategy that Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, and Machiavelli combined could not have conceived of. It's brilliant too. How can how anyone be accused of surrendering in a war when the war does not exist?


 
Fungi that eats radiation.


 
The James Webb Space Telescope will have a docking ring installed to allow for astronauts on board an Orion to visit and do some repairs.


Tuesday, May 22, 2007

 
The Reagan Diaries is now out, apparently demonstrating now and for all time how the slur of "amiable dunce" was wide of the mark.


 
Heart felt condolences to David Livingston of the Space Show on the death of his mother.


 
Apparently ER, the once famous show about emergency room doctors that, among other things, launched the career of George Clooney, has jumped the shark with an anti war screed that might have been produced by Al Qaeda.


 
Rich Lowry gives Michael Moore the the beating he so well deserves.


 
A joint Russian-Chnese robotic expedition to Mars. Meanwhile the Chang'e 1 is being prepared for the Moon later this year.


 
NASA is taking pains to reassure people that the recent NASA-Roskosmos contract for ISS resupply will not compete with any arrangement that will arise out of the COTS program.


Monday, May 21, 2007
 
Drive: A Television Series Roaring Down the Highway to Hell


 
As I confidently predicted a month ago, the Democrats have blinked and will now fund the War on Terror sans conditions. Captain Ed is triumphant.


 
Victor Mackey of The Shield


 
Jeff Foust interviews Chris Carberry, who runs the Moon-Mars Blitz, a citizens' lobbying effort for space exploration on behaf of the Space Exploration Alliance.


Sunday, May 20, 2007
 
What if the Battle of Trafalgar was fought in a more politically correct age?
Nelson: "Order the signal, Hardy
Hardy: "Aye, Aye, sir
Nelson: "Hold on, that's not what I dictated to the Signals Officer. What's the meaning of this?
Hardy: "Sorry sir
Nelson: (reading aloud): "England expects every person to do his duty, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religious persuasion or disability. What gobbledygook is this?"
Hardy: "Admiralty policy, I'm afraid, sir. We're an equal opportunities employer now. We had the devil's own job getting "England" past the censors, lest it be considered racist."

Read the whole thing.


 
Michael Moore is notorious for producing fraudulent documentaries, such as Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, which were proven to be political screeds filled with errors and down right lies that nevertheless appealed to a certain segment who just wanted to believe so much that not even the truth could set them free,

Sicko, Moore's assault on the American health care system, seems more of the same. It's already causing controversy (which Moore laps up like a cat does cream) with it's exploitation of ill 9/11 first responders, its lies about the Cuban health care system, and its lies about the Canadian health care system.

The last bit is so outrageous that not even the Canadians are buying it.


Friday, May 18, 2007
 
Never Mind: Prince Harry Will Not Be Going to Iraq


 
One of the common slams against NASA's return to the Moon program is that it is not "politically sustainable." People making that charge don't generally provide any details, though it is suspected that they envision President Hillary Clinton or President Obama cancelling the program the very second their hand comes off the Bible in January, 2009. This will happen, it is supposed, because NASA choose to develop new launch vehicles (Ares 1 and Ares 5) instead of using "commercial vehicles", those usually cited being some version of the Atlas V heavy.

Now leaving aside the counter argument that the Atlas V can't do everything the Ares 1 can do and that refurbishing the Atlas V might cost more than it would take to simply build a new launcher to order, if it could be done at all, the idea seems predicated on the notion that members of Congress care about hardware. I can assure you that they don't. They either support going back to the Moon or they oppose it and they don't particularly care how it's done.

Ahah, say the critics, but did not the Democrats slash over a half billion out of the exploration budget? Again, that doesn't prove anything since it was not predicated on hardware. No serious person would suggest that the half billion would not have been taken if, say, NASA had chosen the Atlas V option that so many internet rocket scientists seem to favor.

And there seems to be a push not only from some members of Congress but by industry to not only restore the cuts, but to bring the NASA appropriations up to the authorized level, about a billion and a half over what has been proposed for FY08.

Will this move succeed? Maybe, maybe not. But supposing that it does, there should be some red faces among the Internet Rocketeer Club.


 
The demotion of Pluto from a planet: the controversy that will not die.


Thursday, May 17, 2007
 
A lunar rover garage is under development, though it looks like a "lunar rover carport" or even a "lunar rover bunker" to my eyes.


Wednesday, May 16, 2007
 
Lockheed Martin wants to land an oxygen extraction factory on the Moon to provide future astronauts with breathable oxygen.


 
So Nancy Pelosi wants to change the House rules to allow for raising taxes without the formality of a vote. Can one actually do that in a democracy? I suppose the Democrats can.

Addendum: Looks like the House Republicans have defeated Pelosi's evil plan.


 
We've been told that the debate is over and that man made global warming is an established fact now agreed upon by scientific consensus. But it seems now that the consensus is crumbling.

The only thing left for Al Gore is to declare all of these scientists heretics, excommunicate them from the Church of Global Warming, and start up the Environmental Inquisition.


 
Anti war activists for hire and other tales of the Iraq surrender movement.


Tuesday, May 15, 2007



 
Farfur the Martyr Mouse: The Palestinian Answer to Barney the Dinosaur


 
In which I imagine A Scene from the Hillary Clinton Presidency.


 
Pearl Harbor, the start of a new alternate history series by Newt Gingrich and William Forstchen is now out. The premise is that the attack on Pearl Harbor is conducted far more aggressively.



 
Apparently J.K. Rowling's next writing project is an encylopedia of Harry Potter's wizarding world.


Monday, May 14, 2007
 
The Fall and Rise of the Historical Epic
The historical epic, first revived in the modern era by Gladiator and thought to have been killed by a series of bombs, including Kingdom of Heaven, King Arthur, and Oliver Stone's Alexander, seems to be rising from the dead. It may be that the success of 300, which was just as creative in its cinematography as it was on its take on the Battle of Thermopylae, has had something to do with it. Or maybe there is always an appeal for swords and sandals, no matter how many bad epics have been made before.


 
The Israeli War of Independence created a large number of Jewish refugees, given the boot from Arab countries. Because the State of Israel took them in and generally treated them better than the Arab states ever treated the Palestinians, their plight is not often heard about.


 
Donald Beattie argues about spending statistics at NASA.


 
Earth's need for energy is just going to increase in the coming year. Taylor Dinerman space and lunar based solar power as the answer. And then there is this:
Most of the technologies needed for these systems are already being developed as part of NASA’s Vision for Space Exploration. The giant Ares 5, with its LEO capacity of 100-plus tons, will naturally be the principal way to get the first sets of equipment to the Moon’s surface.

A commercial application for Ares after all, it seems.


 
Jim Oberg dicusses and debunks some myths surrounding the so called Mercury 13.


 
Wayne Eleazer rejects the usual justifications for a space program and then offers the following:
We need to state, up front and forth with, that manned space exploration represents the ultimate act of self-actualization for the human race in general and the United States of America in particular. We need to say that we need to send humans “out there” in order to feel that we—as a race and as a nation—are complete, individually and collectively. It’s not just about demonstrating leadership. It’s not just about satisfying the questing human spirit. It’s about all those things, but especially, it is about what we should do next after we have satisfied our lower-level needs. We all really think that; let’s not be afraid to say it out loud.

I'm not sure I would be entirely comfortable using that in front of a committee of Congressmen or stock holders.


Sunday, May 13, 2007
 
House Democrats are preparing a full assault on your right to speak and to seek redress.


 
A unique house has been built to store papers and artifacts of J. R. R. Tolkien. Thanks to Sharon Rowe for bringing this to our attention.


 
There were no winners in this year's NASA's Regolith Excavation Challenge.


Friday, May 11, 2007
 
It looks like that Katee Sackhoff (aka Starbuck) will play the "original" Bionic Woman who, apparently, turned evil in another reimagining of a classic 70s scifi TV series. Michelle Ryan plays Jamie Sommers, the role first played by Lindsey Wagner thirty or so years ago.


Thursday, May 10, 2007
 
Jim Gordon wants to build a wind farm off Cape Cod. His problem is that a lot of rich, liberal folks, including the Kennedys, support wind mills in theory, so long as they do not have to look upon them. Oddly enough he is supported by a motley group of people including Greenpeace and writers from the Washington Times.


 
The design for the Orion is evolving as well. Discussion here


 
The Direct Launcher folks have a new version of their alternate return to the Moon plan. Follow the discussion here.


 
Looks like Orlando Bloom may be starring in another historical epic, this time as a young ancient Roman engineer working on the aqueducts near a little resort town called Pompeii.


 
I should like to vent for just a moment on a pet peeve of mine. That is the phenomenon on the Internet of people using pseudonyms, claiming to be NASA or NASA contractor engineers or managers, trashing some aspect of or the entire Vision for Space Exploration. This is one example of what is causing my complaint.

The first problem I have with this practise is that no one can possibly know whether the person writing the article or making the post is who he or she claims to be. It speaks to credibility. The Internet is too filled with people who lie about who and what they really are not to be suspicious.

But, more than one person has responded to me when I bring this up, don't you know that if any employee of NASA or its contractors dares to offer dissent, then they will be retaliated against or even fired?

Well, alright, let us concede the idea that the US space program is like a Stalinist gulag filled with people terrified of speaking out against obviously flawed policies. My response is very blunt and perhaps will not make me popular.

So what?

If anyone working in the US space program thinks that the way the VSE is being implemented is flawed or that the VSE is itself flawed, then it is his or her duty to speak out and to butch up and use his or her own name. We're talking about billions of tax dollars, some of them mine.

I know at least a couple of people, here and here who work in the aerospace industry and are not afraid to express concerns they have and to put their real names and reputations on those expressions. I may not agree with Rand and Tom (and a few others) all the time, but I do have respect for anyone who speaks their mind unafraid and honestly.

I do not have any respect at all at people who use pseudonyms or call themselves "anonymous" and take shots, secure in the knowledge that they will not be called to account. I have a word for such people. They are cowards. Even worse, they are ineffective. No one but a few like minded people on the Internet is going to pay attention to attacks on the VSE by "Name Withheld by Request." People who could affect change or have explanations demanded of them can safely ignore such shots.

Sure, if you're honest and and don't try to hide, you might lose your job. But I'm told that there are plenty of jobs for engineers out there. Besides, if these people are right and the Vision for Space Exploration is going to implode, they're going to be looking for work sooner or later anyway. Best to get it over with now and avoid the rush.


 
I look at Great War on Terror Films that Never Were.
Does anyone remember that remarkable scene in Rambo IV: Holy War when Stallone, as the aging John Rambo, caught up with Bin Laden and engaged him in a brutal knife fight? Remember the line just before Rambo shoves his blade into Bin Laden's brisket? "Say hi to the seventy two virgins!"

I should be surprised if you did, since that movie never got made.


 
I discuss Methane Rockets.


 
The Second Carnival of Space is up.


Tuesday, May 08, 2007
 
So now Pelosi and the Democrats may sue the President over Iraq. The precedence for such a thing is not very promising for such a move.


 
Despite some initial scepticism from the physics community, cold fusion keeps coming up.



 
Michael Barone, the smartest political and social analyst in the country, sees some interesting trends. To summarize, middle class people are fleeing liberal dominated regions of the country and are migrating to conservative dominated regions. As a result, places like LA and New York will soon start to resemble the Third World, with lots of poor immigrants and an upper crust of the well heeled who can afford to deal with high taxes and the other aggravations of liberal government.


Monday, May 07, 2007
 
A person calling himself "Russell Saunders Jr." takes a shot at the Vision for Space Exploration.
As events unfold, it appears that the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), the President's plan to return humans to the Moon and then onto Mars, is on the classic pride-before-the-fall trajectory. In the spirit of collegial exchanges, I offer the following observations and thoughts for our recovery. To my fellow rocket scientists and space enthusiasts, the time has come let go of last century's space dreams and start working toward a more contemporary future.

I remember when with great hubris I predicted the end of the space station program in 1993, with the election of Bill Clinton. The space station, in much worse shape than even VSE is imagined to be, survived.

Also, "contemporary future?"
Given the evidence and historical patterns, I estimate that the Vision will be abandoned in 1 to 7 years. Even the best scenarios play out like the history of the Space Station: schedule slips, busted budgets (both meanings), pork infestation, and still not able to complete its mission. Don't blame NASA, its supporting aerospace industry, congress, or even the big W. Don't expect them to devise a solution, either. The trends are more deeply ingrained than any bureaucracy can grasp. It is simply history repeating itself. The optimistic flipside is that history is equally replete with successful upstarts taking over when the big boys falter.

I'd like to know which "historical patterns" "Russell" is talking about. So far we don't see any of the sort of budget overruns and the type of schedule slippages that plagued the space station. The one schedule slip resulted from a half billion dollar shortfall caused by Congressional incompetence which may or may not be retified. As for upstarts, well, we'll let "Russell" expound.
For those who don't know, pride before the fall refers to the pattern when mature organizations falter in the face of new challenges. Instead of adapting to contemporary opportunities and constraints, the organizations gut themselves in a last-ditch effort to recapture old glory. Failure becomes evident only when their "new" product fails to garner the expected enthusiasm. That failure is exacerbated when younger organizations step up to answer contemporary needs.

So far so vague, and somewhat arguable. Dittmar, Gallup, and now Zogby seem to suggest a little bit of enthusiasm for the VSE.
Compare this pattern to NASA and its supporting institutions. Using Mike Griffin's own words, NASA is doing "Apollo on Steroids" (2005). The allusion to falsified enhancements (steroids) is just too poetic to go unmentioned. Now consider the budget realities, which Wesley Huntress Jr. described as "Apollo on food stamps" (2006). To be a bit more specific, funding plans for this Vision were lowballed by roughly a factor of 2-3 (Averaging $2.4B/yr requested versus $6.7B/yr required [Congressional Budget Office 2004]). And now even these lowballed requests are coming in under-funded. Combined with ever-present unexpected expenses (e.g. Station overages, Katrina repairs), NASA is gutting itself to feed the Vision. Oddly, when Griffin responded to criticism about NASA's internal science cuts at a Goddard Space Symposium (Mar. 20th, 2007), he inferred that the cuts were because the science missions, themselves, were lowballed [Issues].

The list of NASA's internal cuts is too long to list here, but for illustrative purposes, here's just the items jettisoned during that same week as Griffin's lowball speech:


NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (research on the edge to sustain preeminence)
Red Planet Capital (commercial, entrepreneurial innovations to support the Vision)
Lunar Robotic Precursor Program (scouting ahead for the astronauts' Moon base)
Advanced Life Support (How to keep the astronauts well after we send them out there)
Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (something for the International Space Station to do)

Now we're getting specific. Now I think all of these things ought to be funded, though in the absence of an exploration vision, why we would need any of "Russell's" laundry list I'm not sure. Someone else might suggest that the VSE is providing NASA with much needed focus and that those programs that don't immediately mesh with it have to take a back seat.
Additionally, as an example of our degraded preeminence in aeronautics, Europe's Airbus A380, flew over our nation's capital that same week.

"Russell" has apparently not heard of Boeing's new 787, which seems to be selling like proverbial hot cakes. Degraded preeminence indeed.
It is a telling sign of the times that also during that same week, Elon Musk's SpaceX, an emerging low-cost launch company, test-launched their Falcon-1 rocket. Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin filed plans with the FAA for another round of launch and landing tests. Sir Branson's Virgin Galactic has booked 200 people for spaceflights planned to begin in 2009. New Mexico is getting ready to vote on building a spaceport to accommodate these commercial ventures. And there are others. This progress is just 3 years after Burt Rutan won the Ansari X Prize for the first private spaceflight. In step with the classic scenario, these upstarts are doing what the incumbent can't. This is likely to become the venue of future human spaceflight.

Now, I'm a big supporter of commercial space (and of NASA's efforts to support it, like COTS, which "Russell" fails to mention since it would conflict with his narrative of NASA as dinosaur), but there are some inconvenient truths. No private person has flown in space since the Ansari Prize was won. Musk's Falcon 1 did not acheive orbit, though the folks at SpaceX feel that they've gotten enough data to declare the new launcher operational. These things don't matter, I suspect, in the long run, but so far the promise of commercial space lays in the future, just as the promise of the Vision for Space Exploration. And no few of the companies that are being celebrated today are going to fail. That's the central truth of business.
Typically incumbents will deny the trends and just intensify their retrograde efforts. The upstarts are dismissed as irrelevant when judged against the established visions.

Besides ignoring COTS, "Russell" is also ignoring the Centennial Challenges, possibly because the facts conflict with his narrative.
In this case, those visions are a half-century old, specifically the iconic images of Colliers magazine (1952-1954). This Man Conquers Space plan started with winged reusable space shuttles, large military-like space stations, missions to the Moon, and finally flotillas to Mars. It became the vision, blinding us to alternatives. In contrast, robotic space exploration, entrepreneurial joy rides, concerns about doomsday asteroids and the health of our planet, and the broader participation of the public just don't fit this old paradigm. After a half-century of intoxication on Colliers, it is beyond the incumbents to adapt to new opportunities and constraints.

Yeah, NASA has really neglected robotic space exploration and all of those other things these past few years. Again "Russell" ignores facts that conflict with the narrative.
Old-school enthusiasts argue that they just need more support, like back in the Apollo days, but lasting forever. They pine for another Sputnik moment, presumably now from the Chinese. But rather than excitement, the launch of the first Chinese astronaut (2005) and the more recent news of Chinese/ Russian collaborations on Mars explorations, met with indifference. Consider, instead, the findings of a recent survey, where younger citizens are more inspired by Mars rovers (84%) than by sending humans to the Moon (29%) [Workshop, Dittmar 2006]. There is interest in aerospace, but just not in the bygone visions.

"Russell" cherry picks one part of a broader poll conducted by Dittmar which showed very broad support for the VSE when all age groups are included. Again, ignoring facts that conflict with the narrative. As for the Chinese, I seem to remember that Senator Mikulski, a liberal Democrat who would ordinarily not be concerned by foreign threats, seemed bothered by the idea of the Chinese getting to the Moon first. I think that by "indifference" "Russell" is projecting his own and is assuming that most others share it.
When it comes to funding, predictable support exists. NASA's budget has been steady for years, hovering around $17 Billion, +/-5% (in 2007 dollars) [Trends 2007]. Granted, this is not enough to fulfill the Colliers visions and fulfill the responsibility for preeminence in air and spaceflight, but this is what our society has chosen to devote through NASA. Which do you think is more realistic; notching up the budget in perpetuity, or finding different worthy goals that are more affordable and applicable than 1950's icons?

Here "Russell" sets up a straw man. NASA is not following the Colliers vision. For one thing, it is abandoning the winged space shuttle and is investing in space craft being developed by the private sector.
Imagine what the artists and pioneers behind the Colliers vision might have done with our current situation; knowing the ease and effectiveness of robotic exploration, the potential for citizen joyrides into space, the shift from cold war to global economics, the societal impact of seeing our Pale Blue Dot from space, the interconnectedness across the world via the Internet, the revelation that an asteroid impact killed the dinosaurs, and the implications of global warming. For example, picture a future where you can tune into live video and sound from rovers on Mars; the Saturn moon Titan; or swimming in the oceans of the Jovian moon Europa. Imagine taking your turn at driving a lunar rover, remotely. Imagine booking a one-nighter in an orbiting hotel. Imagine the security from knowing that your home planet is under constant watch to protect its environment and to deflect incoming asteroids. There is plenty of good stuff from which to cast new, inspiring, and productive visions.

Space exploration as a glorified video game is new, but is not inspiring nor productive.
While our traditional space program continues its fatal trajectory, entrepreneurs are creating a new paradigm of human spaceflight. The thrill of space is being brought to the people rather than being the sole province of an elite astronaut corps. What is missing is the means to take full advantage of robotic exploration, addressing Earth protection, and sustaining preeminence in the research to keep us economically ahead of the game. Aerospace prowess requires keeping our visions up to date too, rather than clinging to retro rockets.

I'm not sure how the work of entrepeneurs conflicts with the Vision for Space Exploration. It seems to me that the two complement one another. Claiming that dreams of exploring strange new worlds is "old hat" only demonstrates the incurable cynicism of the person making the claim.
Perhaps it will take the fall of "the vision" before the rest of the upstarts, those pioneers who can step up to this challenge, can emerge. For my colleagues in the aerospace arena, I say start working on a backup plan. I know I am.

How reassuring that someone who refuses to give out his name is working on a backup plan. I await it with hushed breath.


 
Soon, perhaps, stem cells will help the blind to see.


 
A methane rocket has been successfully tested.
Engineers have successfully tested a rocket powered by methane--the first of its kind for spaceflight. Future generations of the new engine could use Mars, Jupiter, Saturn's moon Titan and other planets and moons as celestial refueling stations, allowing for lighter spacecraft and easier lift-offs from Earth.


Sunday, May 06, 2007
 
Jeff Foust has discovered something that we knew all along. That is that the results of polls are often caused by how the questions are worded.
Last month I noted a recent poll that showed how willing the public would be to cut NASA funding versus other federal programs, which appeared to be more evidence of just how low a priority the space program is in the eyes of the general public. However, a new Zogby survey, conducted in mid-March and released late last week, offers a different opinion. According to that poll, 71 percent oppose “any cut” in the NASA budget, with one in three advocating an increase in the budget. The Zogby release also notes that 49 percent of respondents give NASA a positive “job approval” rating, and 80 percent see having a space program as critical to national prestige.

Imagine that.


 
Does this mean I can now drink Perrier again?


Friday, May 04, 2007

 


 
Apparently House Democrats now believe that global warming is an intelligence matter.



 
Prince Harry Deploys to Iraq: Continuing a Twelve Century Tradition of Military Service


Thursday, May 03, 2007
 
A mile stone has been reached in the Centennial Challenges program The astronaut glove competition has been won. Congratulations to the winner, Peter Homer.


 
RIP Wally Schirra


 
A list of overused science fiction cliches.


 
The latest in the Ring of Fire series is now out:


 
There can be only two explanations as to why John Murtha told Chris Mathews that General Petraeus did not meet with members of Congress when in fact the General did meet with them, including John Murtha. Either Murtha flat out lied or John Murtha is suffering from some kind of dementia. Either way, he should resign from Congress in disgrace,


Wednesday, May 02, 2007
 
Are House Democrats getting ready to raid the NASA budget to fund a two billion dollar increase of the National Science Foundation? Dave Weldon (R) Florida seems to think so.
U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon, M.D. (R-FL) today excoriated the Democratic leadership for failing to allow a vote on an amendment he proposed that would have kept Congress from raiding NASA's budget to fund a 40% increase for the National Science Foundation (NSF).

"It's increasingly clear that Democratic leaders have our manned space program in their crosshairs," said Weldon. Weldon noted that at the hearing to introduce his proposal Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-CA), who sits on the powerful Rules Committee, said he opposed the amendment because he was 'not convinced' of the need for human space exploration.

If true, astonishing.

Addendum: Jeff Foust detects a certain disconnect between Rep. Weldon's rhetoric and his actions. We've noted this tendency of members of Congress to say one thing and do another before.


 
The hassles of air travel in the War on Terror are spawning alternative air taxi services that may well be affordable, at least for the frequent, business traveler. Here is one example.


 
Travel to Mars: The Greatest Adventure of the 21st Century
NASA planners, when confronted with that question, always mention the search for extraterrestrial life. It's a compelling argument, especially for scientists. But life on Mars is very likely to be confined to microbes, which would, one suspect, be only of passing interest at best for most people who are not astrobiologists. Theres is also the question of when one decides that the search for life on Mars is fruitless, given the vast size of the planet. One could search for centuries and not be entirely sure that a Martian microbe is not lurking under the very next rock.

Dr. Robert Zubrin suggests a more compelling reason to go to Mars. It would be the same reason that the settlers went to Jamestown exactly four hundred years ago and Plymouth a few years after. We will go to Mars to settle the planet, to create a new branch of human civilization. Ultimately we will use our technology to terraform Mars, to make it into a New Earth, to make it habitable as it was billions of years ago, before its atmosphere leached away and its seas receded into desert. Beginning that process would be the greatest adventure of this century, eclipsing every human undertaking hitherto. It will ensure the long term survival of the human species and provide a frontier for the human imagination.


 
The watchfull administrators of Clements High School in Houston have discovered and forestalled a dangerous terrorist in their midst. It seems that a Clements student was playing a shoot 'em up video game called Counterstrike which allows one to create the virtual venue of ones gun battles. The student choose Clements High School.

Now there is no evidence that the student every desired to replicate his video game experience in reality. Nor has the student actually been charged with anything. Nevertheless, one cannot be too careful, so the student was booted out of school and has been assigned to an "Alternative School" to finish the 12th Grade. He has been called a "terrorist threat" and will likely not graduate with his friends.


 
The Fantasy Novelist's Exam.

If you have written a fantasy novel and can answer any of the questions herein truthfully "yes", delete the manuscript at once.


 
What if an astronaut dies on a deep space mission? Some kind of burial in space occurs to me.


Tuesday, May 01, 2007
 
PTC124: A Potential Treatment for Cystic Fibrosis and Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy


 
Mitt Romney commited the ultimate gaff by admitting to reading and liking Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard.

No, no, this will not do. Mitt really needs to read some quality science fiction with themes that will appeal to the voters.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein would burnish the theme of the struggle for liberty, though the concept of "line marriages" might stray too close to Morman stereotypes.

I'd also recommend Avatar and Tau Zero by Poul Anderson, both epic celebrations of space exploration.

From Clarke? Well, Rendeavouz with Rama, Earthlight, and The City and the Stars.

Voyage by Stephen Baxter is also recommended.

And, of course, I would be remiss if I did not also suggest the fine novel


 
How to Stop the Sky from Falling. Slightly updated from a previous version published a number of years ago.


 
We saw Next last week. My suggestion is to give it a miss unless you are a real Nicolas Gage fan.


 
Christopher Hitchens gives George Tenet the back of his hand. As well he might. Tenet's book seems to be so factually challenged that not even the media has been able to ignore that fact.