The Long View 2003-02-05: Powell at the UN; Columbia; Impossibilities

In a followup to Sunday's repost of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, here is a newsgroup post detailing why you couldn't have possibly matched the orbit of the shuttle to the ISS, among other things.

John wasn't a physicist or an aerospace engineer, so not knowing this bit of orbital mechanics is excusable. Providing a fast answer on almost any topic is what the internet is best at, after all.

Here is a prediction John did pretty well on:

This is a slim silver lining on a very dark cloud, but manned space flight will probably be accelerated by Columbia. There is more political will to create a serious launch system than there was after the Challenger disaster. There is also much more economic and military incentive; it is intolerable that billion-dollar satellites are still rendered useless by small assembly errors, things which could be fixed by a man with a screwdriver. The key to making space accessible is to keep NASA as far away as possible.

Private space companies like Virgin Galactic, Scaled Composites, and of course SpaceX have come a long way towards making spaceflight cheaper, faster, and safer. We can only wish them further success.

Powell at the UN; Columbia; Impossibilities
This morning, US Secretary of State Colin Powell gave the detailed presentation of evidence against Iraq that had to be given. President Bush, wisely, did not try to fit this list of details into his State of the Union Address last week. The UN was the proper venue, and Powell gave a solid, factual briefing. In the context of the Security Council, it was gripping. The recordings of Iraqi officers conspiring to hide evidence of weapons programs was particularly effective. The images of material being moved from important sites just ahead of the UN inspectors were a worthy homage to Adlai Stevenson's famous Cuban missile photos. Unlike Stevenson, Powell is not a windbag, so his narrative account of Iraq's links to Al-Qaeda also carried great weight.
Effective though the presentation was, it remained theater. The fact is that the claims the Secretary of State presented can be verified only through occupation. Everybody knows that by now. It is interesting to note that the French representative did not respond to Powell's address by advising that the inspections be allowed to take their "natural course." Rather, he said that the inspections need to be doubled, tripled, augmented in depth and sophistication. Maybe a permanent UN "High Commissioner for Disarmament" should be installed in Baghdad. The German representative, Joschka Fischer, seemed to second these meaningless evasions.
As Daniel Schorr noted after the session, the responses that the Security Council representatives gave had been prepared beforehand. Even though the Council's members were represented for this session by their foreign ministers, the foreign ministers had no power to make policy on the spot. That is the difference between a legislature and a convention of ambassadors; the latter is what the UN remains. In any case, maybe the governments will think better of the matter, after they have had the opportunity to analyze Powell's speech. Those with an open mind may be in a position to verify some of his intelligence reports. To me, it seems unlikely that any of the governments in question really entertain doubts on the matter. The good office of Powell's speech will be its effect on American public opinion.
* * *
The Columbia disaster is the sort of public event that the Internet handles well. As soon as the ship went down, suggestions began to appear online about what NASA should or should not have done. Here is a newsgroup post that addresses some of my own bright ideas from Monday, particularly the widespread proposal that the shuttle astronauts might have gone to the space station. I have yet to see numbers on this, but here is a reasonable answer:
The shuttle might, perhaps, have had enough maneuvering fuel to go as high as the station's orbit. The problem was that the orbits were in different planes. Shifting the plane of the Columbia's orbit to match the space station's would have needed almost as much fuel as it took to launch.
Astronauts on extravehicular activity are supposed to stay within line-of-sight of the shuttle's crew compartment. It was unthinkable that an astronaut might have gone underneath the ship to look for damage. Therefore, it was unthinkable to send a tile-repair kit on the mission. It could still turn out that the disaster was not connected with the tiles. Nonetheless, the disaster has reminded us that NASA engineers still think of humans in space as spam in a can.
This is a slim silver lining on a very dark cloud, but manned space flight will probably be accelerated by Columbia. There is more political will to create a serious launch system than there was after the Challenger disaster. There is also much more economic and military incentive; it is intolerable that billion-dollar satellites are still rendered useless by small assembly errors, things which could be fixed by a man with a screwdriver. The key to making space accessible is to keep NASA as far away as possible.
* * *
Doubtless you have seen the gloating by the Iraqi government over the destruction of the Columbia, and the claims by Islamicists that the incident was the judgment of God. If you are looking for unlucky omens, you could not have found a better collection: on what is probably the eve of a war against the the ancient capital of Islam, a prime symbol of American prowess falls apart over the president's home state, bearing an Israeli fighter pilot who had helped derail Iraq's nuclear program in1981, plus an immigrant from India, that other civilization which annoys the Islamicists so much.
Thinking about omens rarely does any good. Still, anyone requiring reassurance might take a look at G.K. Chesterton's famous poem, Lepanto. It's about the naval battle of 1571, in which the Ottoman fleet was driven from the western Mediterranean, and Italy saved from invasion. The poem contains this odd passage, in which "Mahound" calls on supernatural forces to aid the Moslem cause:
Black Azrael and Ariel and Ammon on the wing.
Giants and the Genii,
Multiplex of wing and eye,
Whose strong obedience broke the sky
When Solomon was king.
If these entities did attend the battle, they did not do the Turks a lick of good.
* * *
Speaking of things that aren't supposed to exist, I go through life finding that physical effects I had always assumed to be impossible really aren't. There is an example in one of the first books I ever read, Arthur C. Clarke's Against the Fall of Night. The faster-than-light space ships made sense to me. So did the computer that could manufacture things by thinking about them. What made me gag was a description of moss whose heredity had been modified to make turf luminous. The very term "genetic engineering" had not been coined when I read the book.
A more common science-fiction notion I also recoiled from was invisibility. Well, take a look at (or through) this! A cloak of invisibility! Well, it will be a cloak of pretty good camouflage, once they get the bugs out.
A time machine would be the last straw.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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