The Long View 2007-02-22: Dry Jovians; Goracle; Endless Things

Spitzer Space Telescope  By NASA/JPL-Caltech -, Public Domain,

Spitzer Space Telescope

By NASA/JPL-Caltech -, Public Domain,

I too would like to find some way to colonize space, but damned if I know how to make it economically possible. Tech billionaires are making it possible to reach space more cheaply, but it still isn’t clear what people could do in orbit or on other astronomical bodies that would be useful.

Dry Jovians; Goracle; Endless Things

How is manned space exploration different from astronomical space exploration? The chief difference so far seems to be that the only things the manned flights discover are appalling design flaws in the spacecraft, while space-based astronomy is always coming up with scientific surprises. A good example of the latter is the recent report, based on results from the Spitzer Space Telescope, that the atmospheres of two superhot, Jovian, extrasolar planets have no detectable water:

The discovery was also in keeping with the history of planets orbiting other stars, or extrasolar planets, which has been nothing but a series of surprises over the last 10 years as planetary systems out there have so far looked nothing like our own. Alan Boss, a theorist at the Carnegie Institution who was not involved in the work, said: “This is a field where observers are leading the way. The scorecard should read, ‘Observers 200, Theorists 0.’ ”

Indeed, these results are an insult to the new scientific method, which is more about tweaking computer models than uncovering mere facts. But be that as it may, these discoveries are yet another illustration of the fact we are in space for two reasons. One is scientific exploration; the other is a public works program that should be, ultimately, aimed at human settlement.

I am not one of those people who think that only private entrepreneurs have a role to play in the development of space. However, I do think that there should be two, separate, federal agencies to manage these different functions. They need different hardware and they have distinct constituencies.

* * *

Evil spambots have been making ever bolder attacks on this site's forum. Deleting them has become a daily chore. Therefore, I would like to thank Clan Orb for making public an easily accessible list of the ISPs of those damnable entities that have been banned from its own forum. Clan Orb is a World of Warcraft site. I can't say that I am greatly familiar with WoW, but I admire the graphics.

* * *

The notion that climate-change environmentalism is a religion has become so common that even the newspapers have heard of it. At any rate, the Globe & Mail has:

They came in their hundreds to hear him speak, and even those left standing outside the crowded hall would not be deterred from lingering in the proximity of the Baptist prophet from Tennessee.

It wasn't any old-time religion that drew these believers to Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto, but a concept they feel is every bit as crucial to humanity -- global warming -- that made them want to get close to Al Gore, the impassioned former U.S. vice-president, as he delivered his now famous Inconvenient Truth about climate change.

Like many a bygone leader who happened along at a key moment in history, Mr. Gore -- who has been sounding the environmental warning bell for years -- has suddenly inspired the kind of faith and fervour in others that he insists will be needed to overcome such a monumental problem.

"From my perspective, it is a form of religion," said Bruce Crofts, 69, as he held a banner aloft for the East Toronto Climate Action Group amid a lively prelecture crowd outside the old hall....Across the driveway in front of the hall, a large banner exhorted the crowd to "Heed the Goracle." Belonging to a fledgling group called ecoSanity, it was still there hours later, as Mr. Gore enjoyed a reception at the adjacent Simcoe Hall and the dispersing crowd voiced its praise.

We pass over in silence the anomaly of god-fearing conservatives using the word "religion" as a term of invective. We do not, however, pass over the term, "The Goracle," which sounds too good to be true for the political opponents of global-warming activism. Here is the sign mentioned in the story above; it links to the ecoSanity website:

This had been an
image of the 
"Heed the Goracle" 
banner mentioned above, 
but it has 
been removed, 
along with the 
ecoSanity site on 
which it was

Were we dealing here with agents-provocateurs? My suspicions only increased when I came across this review by John A. Baden at the Acton Institute of Eco-Sanity, by Joseph L. Blast, Peter J. Hill, & Richard C. Rue:

In addition to providing brief but reasonably complete treatments of the various "crisis of the month-club" events, Eco-Sanity helps unmask the attorneys, MBAs and "scientists" who posture as selfless defenders of the public interest. These opportunists use the perceived importance and legitimacy of their mission as a cloak to conceal the pursuit of personal gain. Decency and the canons of science are ignored as laws and politics are twisted for private ends.

Perhaps I should have confined myself to the latest scientific method by simply speculating about the elegances suggested by the data. However, I spoiled a perfectly good conspiracy theory by emailing ecoSanity about whether they had any connection with the book of similar name. Here is their reply (I delete the name of the writer, though I don't think he would mind being mentioned):

Thanks for writing! Nope, no connection. However, we did become aware of the existence of the book after the name occurred to us and we began the title search process. As it was the only match we found and written a good while ago, we proceeded to embrace it. And we have not read the book, just summaries, etc. We're an impassioned, Grassroots effort that also does a lot of volunteer work with Greenpeace in Toronto and we're working hard (with little funds) to get phase one of the full website up in a couple of weeks. Please don't hesitate to be in touch further about this or any other concerns you may have. Hope you feel supportive.

Frankly, I don't think I would be all that supportive, but they do seem to be on the up-and-up [or so I thought until the site disappeared a few hours after I mentioned it]. That does have a downside from their point of view, however, since it means that ill-disposed persons may now use "Goracle" in good conscience. [The matter has grown ambiguous.]

* * *

Fans of John Crowley will have noted that my site now has a review of his upcoming novel, Endless things, the conclusion of the Aegypt series. (I had been told the publication date was May; now the publisher is talking about June.) In any case, interested parties may order now, if they are so inclined. Note, too, that the other three volumes in the series are soon to be reissued.

Fans will also be interested to learn that the author has his own blog, Crowley Crow.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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Linkfest 2017-06-03

Speaking from experience: a note on mysticism and religion

Niall Gooch's attempt to expand on a distinction between a mystical experience and a religious one.

Three Polish Poems

BD Sixsmith agrees with Niall in poetic form.

The History of U.S. Government Spending, Revenue, and Debt (1790-2015)

Morphing graphs on US government spending over time. 

Stratolaunch rolls out giant aircraft

Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, continues testing on his launch vehicle.

How to build a fallout shelter

The Swiss have always taken preparedness to a new level.

This data set took six years to create. Worth every moment

Every US department now rolls up budgeting data into one source.

New evidence that lead exposure increases crime

A series of analyses to test Kevin Drum's theory that lead exposure explains much crime in the US.

Why we should love null results

Knowing what doesn't work is important too.

The Long View 2004-01-15: Stellar Conservatism

Space, the last refuge of the right

Space, the last refuge of the right

In an interesting libertarian-ish interpretation of James C. Bennett's article in the National Interest, John says this:

Bennett is not wholly averse to technological determinism. He argues that networking technology undermines the sort of states, even the democratic ones, that engage in extensive economic redistribution. This is because the new technologies will make it possible for the revenues from private enterprise to flow through channels the state cannot reach. 

Which I think is pretty much where the libertarian-ish sharing economy typified by Uber and AirBnB has ended up. As Steve Sailer noted:

Frequently, a major competitive advantage of the new High Tech modes is the widespread assumption that laws against overt and disparate impact discrimination don’t apply to them because they are new and high tech and thus can’t be anything like evil old white male ways of making money.

I'm don't think this counts as a prediction, but it does strike me as interesting.

It is also interesting to me that John felt that the drive to space in the twenty-first century was coming from the conservatives in America. JFK famously launched us to the Moon, and LBJ was in charge for most of the Apollo Program, but nearly fifty years later, America has largely lost interest in the idea. Insofar as scientists trend liberal in America, NASA and JPL probably trend left politically, but I would be interested to know where popular support for either manned or unmanned space exploration actually lies in America. I'm not certain that it maps well to the blue state/red state model at all.

Stellar Conservatism

In the current (Winter 2003/04] issue of the The National Interest, there is an article by James C. Bennett that may be the key to understanding President Bush's new Moon-to-Mars space initiative, though it does not mention space policy at all. The piece is entitled Networking Nation-States: The Coming Info-National Order. It begins thus:

The early years 20th century was filled with predictions that the airplane, the automobile or the assembly line had made parliamentary democracy, market economies, jury trials and bills of rights irrelevant, obsolete and harmful. Today's scientific-technological revolutions (epitomized by space shuttles and the Internet) make the technologies of the early 20th century -- its fabric-winged biplanes, Tin Lizzies and "Modern Times" gearwheel factories -- look like quaint relics. Yet all of the "obsolete" institutions derided by the modernists of that day thrive and strengthen. The true surprise of the scientific revolutions ahead is likely to be not the technological wonders and dangers they will bring but the robustness of the civil society institutions that will nurture them."

Bennett is not wholly averse to technological determinism. He argues that networking technology undermines the sort of states, even the democratic ones, that engage in extensive economic redistribution. This is because the new technologies will make it possible for the revenues from private enterprise to flow through channels the state cannot reach. They also make it possible for people to engage in politics far beyond their national borders. The result will be the loosening of the ties that bind the modern nation-state, and the simultaneous cohesion of larger, looser constellations of "civic societies." The constellations will be based on interest and affinity. The most advanced so far is the Anglosphere.

* * *

A curious point: Bennett's Anglosphere Institute seems to have no website, though the notion is webfauna if ever I saw any. However, he does have a book on the subject coming out soon: Anglosphere: The Future of the English-Speaking Nations in the Internet Era. Cecil Rhodes would be so pleased.

* * *

I would state Bennett's observation about the conservative effect of new technology much more strongly. It was, I believe, Marvin Harris who remarked in Cannibals and Kings that the result of his being a full professor at a major university was that he was able to take long vacations at the beach. There he could collect mussels and otherwise do what his hunter-gatherer ancestors had done all their lives. At low levels of technology, civilized people have to live in regimented herds and do uncongenial, repetitive work. They are exposed all the while to uncontrollable epidemic disease. As society becomes more advanced, more and more people can lead a sanitized version of the neolithic life. They enjoy some degree of physical isolation in detached dwellings; they deal regularly with a small "pack" of just 20 family and friends; and they can eat all the meat they want. Yum.

Even the Enchanted World is back, in the form of all these communications devices that chirp and talk and otherwise intrude themselves like vindictive banshees. The wired world is not arbitrary, but recapitulates the participation mystique, in which the borders of consciousness blur between people and things.

* * *

The interesting point about the drive to space is that it is now coming from the conservative part of the spectrum. This was not at all the case when John Kennedy announced the goal of putting men on the moon. In those days, political conservatism still meant a fair degree of skepticism about the possibilities and benefits of technology. It also implied an almost superstitious dread about transgressing traditional limits. Today, at least in America, conservatism increasingly means the determination to continue the modern, liberal democratic project, a key form of which is the ever-expanding physical frontier. It seems to be the libertarians who are keenest to get into space. The Left, in contrast, seems increasingly hostile to the idea that some people, however few, might escape.

* * *

The president's proposals seem little more than an attempt to begin turning the lumbering oil tanker that is NASA in a new direction; colonization has in fact never been high on NASA's list of things to do. I am not altogether reassured by the most important aspect of the proposal, the call for a Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV). Though that project would have the good effect of scrapping NASA's plans to build the useless Spaceplane, the CEV seems to be nothing more than an updated version of the Apollo series.

If private initiative does not do something to supplement these efforts in the near future, we could see a reenactment of the less desirable of the two major continental railroad-building strategies of the 19th-century. In America, the early continental rail-network was heavily subsidized by the federal government, but the actual work was done by entrepreneurs who were risking their own capital. Private markets soon gave the network a life of its own. In Russia, in contrast, the government built a railroad straight from Europe to the Pacific, for reasons of prestige and military convenience. The transportation system artificially created satellite settlements, but the Russian Far East never really paid its own way, and now the whole region is in danger of abandonment. The same could happen to space.

As for Bennett's post-national future, I think that his faith in the novelty of modernity is misplaced. Government always expands to enclose the economy. That is very close to being a law of history. If the networked world is, in some ways, a return to the fairy-tale world that human beings find so congenial, we should remember that more fairy tales allude to the Holy Roman Empire than to the Hanseatic League. 

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2003-08-28: Buckets of Bile

Sadly, I find that I missed a couple of images John included in this post when I used wget to download his entire website. The Internet Archive also lacks them, so I think they are lost forever.  Darn, I think they would have been doozies. 

As for the purpose of going to space, I think the T-shirts Greg Cochran made up in 2013 sum up my attitude nicely.

Buckets of Bile

Anyone in immediate need of a Bush-denunciation site should take a look at Too Stupid to Be President. It has superior multimedia (by which I mean my middle-range PC can handle the animated cartoons easily) and it alludes to every failing of the current Administration, real and imaginary. The odd thing is that, though the Bush Administration provides ample occasion for humor, the site is consistently unfunny. This is true about the opposition to GWB in general. The Democrats seem to have decided that they have exhausted the matter by calling Bush a lying moron. If nothing else, this is a debilitating artistic error. The invective against Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon was memorably hilarious, precisely because it demonized them, indeed Satanized them, rather than belittled them.

Actually, for an Administration whose opponents say has been caught in a series of bald-faced lies, the Bush people are disconcertingly serene. It is not at all like the Carter Administration, when the wheels began to fall off the White House under less pressure than Bush is experiencing now. It wholly lacks the disorder of the Nixon and Clinton Administrations, with their routine defections and backstabbings. The Bush White House looks like nothing so much as the Eisenhower White House: solid as a rock and boring as a brick.

Could it be that they know something we don't? The chief blow to the Bush Administration's prestige has been the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Some of the principal contenders for the Democratic nomination have based their primary campaigns on the charge that the Administration deliberately misled the country about the weapons before the war. This is almost certainly giving hostages to fortune. One notes, for instance, that the World Herald Tribune is reporting that critical equipment and materials, as well as weapon stocks, were trucked out of Iraq to Lebanon's Bekaa Valley in January. Other reports suggest that there is quite a lot of documentary evidence about a concealment and diversion plan.

Again, there is no hard public information on this subject yet. Nonetheless, it is a good bet that the Bush people will be in a position to credibly embarrass their opponents when the time comes.

* * *

If you want tall tales from the Middle East, you cannot do better than MEMRI (The Middle East Media Research Institute). This site provides translations of stories from Arabic and other languages in the region. The serious use for the site is as a source for local perspective, which is often sober and thoughtful. I suspect, though, that a lot of their traffic is generated by people who view the site for the same reason shortwave listeners used to tune into the news broadcasts from Communist Albania: the reports say the damnedest things.

For instance, as I write this, there is a featured piece on military cannibalism by American forces in Iraq. (Islamists read stories from Liberia too, apparently.) All through the Afghan and Iraq wars, there were reports of amazing Taliban and Baathist victories, indicative of a level of systematic self-delusion not to be found outside the BBC. My favorite recent report is about an Islamist group (Abu Haf's Brigades) taking credit for the recent blackout in the northeastern United States and in Canada. They claimed to have knocked out the grid by attacking two power stations; then they claimed credit for looting and chaos. They seem to have simply reused old reports from the Bad Black out of 1977, when there was considerable disorder.

I myself was briefly blamed for the Good Blackout, by the way, the one that happened in 1965. If not precisely a precocious child, I at least aspired to be a mechanically inclined one. At that time, I was trying to build a radio transmitter, though I succeeded only in causing a little static on one or two TV channels. When the blackout occurred, it did not affect my neighborhood directly, but it did knock out all radio and television (no cable then, of course). I was, I believe, the first on my block to suspect that something big was happening. I called a friend and told him to turn on his television.

"What channel?" he asked.

"Any channel," I answered.

A few moments of silence passed. Then he pounded back to the phone and demanded, "What have you done!?!"

I denied everything. I still do.

* * *

Speaking of bad engineering, I see the new report on the Colombia disaster blames the culture at NASA. This is not as nebulous an accusation as it sounds. I recently saw an otherwise unmemorable movie, Mission to Mars. The mission goes wrong, of course, but the astronauts display prodigies of ingenuity. One does an unscheduled spacewalk to repair a hull breach. In fact, they all abandon ship and move to a supply craft, using a can of hairspray as propellant, or something like that.

The screenplay seems to have been written essentially as an advertisement for NASA. The NASA of Apollo XIII really was something like the NASA in the film. The crew and Ground Control saved the mission through improvisation, which meant mostly using the abilities of the human beings on the spot. The NASA that guided Colombia to destruction, in contrast, had all the daring and flexibility of a social welfare agency under investigation for the death of a foster child.

Congress is debating, once again, what NASA's mission should be. They all seem agreed that manned space flight is useless and yet must be maintained. The difference of opinion is whether it should be spectacularly useless, as a there-and-back-again mission to Mars would be, or parsimoniously useless, as continued make-work micro-gravity experiments in LEO would be.

Might I suggest that the real reason, and the only popular reason, for having people in space is for purposes of colonization? If you want to do that, you spend money in ways different from the ways you would spend it on pure science, or even on the economic exploitation of space. For one thing, it means that you don't send expeditions, but colonists. Within the limits of current physics, settlement can occur only on Mars and the Moon. That is the extent of the Final Frontier; it's perfectly manageable, and should not be unbearably expensive. Can we please get on with it?

* * *

Finally, returning to the subject of artistic error, I was recently prevailed upon to do a poster for a 911 memorial concert. "Do us something eschatological," they said, "perhaps a contemporary version of the New Jerusalem."

Okay: so I did Poster One.

Then they said, "That's very good, but isn't it a little, well, scary?"

"Of course it's scary," I replied with dignity. "It's the the friggin eschaton!"

No doubt they will use it, but they also sent me some traditional imagery to work with. This resulted in Poster Two.

That poster has cherubs. Pudgy, useless cherubs. 

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly


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The Long View 2003-04-22: Pandemics

This bit about SARS is interesting twelve years later. Influenza is interesting. The official mortality rate went up compared to what John had here, from 5.6% to 9.6% according to the WHO. Unfortunately, better record-keeping doesn't always equal better stats. This number is likely to be a massive overestimate, since only the sickest get counted in official tallies.

Influenza, and other similar diseases that infect both animals and humans, is no joke. It is easy to dismiss, especially since many of the deaths are concentrated in the elderly. We haven't had anything nearly as bad as the 1918 Spanish Flu, but such a thing would probably be much, much worse in an age of frequent air travel. You haven't seen panic yet.

I also got a laugh from John's comment on The Stand. Of course, if resistance to the virus in that book were a gene, then it would run in families. King isn't really a sci-fi author, so perhaps that lapse is forgivable. One might postulate that the gene in question was a de novo mutation, of which everyone has about 100, but those get passed down too, changing frequency depending on their relative fitness. So, unless everyone involved got the same de novo mutation at birth around the same time, it would still run in families.

This post also features a mostly successful prediction: private space companies would be capable of routine manned spaceflight in ten years. Private spaceflights are becoming routine, although manned flights are a little less so yet.

As a sanguine soul, my first reaction to the advent of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) was the observation that it's not as bad as the great influenza pandemic that occurred around the end of the First World War. Now I learn that the mortality rate for SARS is actually four times higher, though the absolute number of deaths from SARS is still infinitesimal in comparison to the tens of millions who died between 1917 and 1919. Even more disturbing is this headline from The New York Times : Death Rate from Virus More Than Doubles.
Normally, mortality rates for new infectious diseases fall fairly quickly. This is partly because treatments are developed, and partly because physicians learn to spot asymptomatic cases of the disease. The jump in the world-wide SARS mortality rate to 5.6% is almost certainly a statistical mirage, which will disappear when reporting improves. Even the idea of "world" statistics for SARS means little, considering the different ways the disease behaves in each country. On the other hand, it is possible that the virus is mutating quickly, and the changes in the statistics reflect real changes in the lethality of the disease.
We know that SARS has already had an appreciable effect on business in Asia. The travel industry in particular is in sackcloth and ashes. If the disease is not contained, or otherwise made manageable, SARS could also create a new issue for the US presidential election of 2004. Forty million people in the US have no health insurance. Many others, like me, have deductibles so high that they will not visit a doctor until they are at death's door. This kind of health system is inefficient even at the best of times. In conjunction with an epidemic disease that kills one out of 20 victims, it would be a template for a public health catastrophe.
The question of health insurance in the US has long been discussed in terms of esoteric notions of "portability" and "choice." The political system lost sight of the fact that the first function of any health system is to preserve public order by detecting and treating epidemic disease. You can't fight the Black Death with tax incentives.
* * *
Here is a very small pet peeve. Readers may be familiar with Stephen King's novel, The Stand. That is the one in which almost the entire population of the world is killed by an influenza virus; designed in a weapons lab, it mutates after a victim contracts it until it finally kills him. The only survivors were people with a certain rare gene, which granted immunity. The book dwells on sad scenes in which each of the rare survivors lose their families.
May I ask what Mr. King's editors thought they were about? If immunity were genetic, then it would be passed down in family lines. We learn late in the book that a single parent with the gene will provide enough immunity for their children to recover from the virus. Whole families should have lived through the plague. This anomaly has been bothering me for years.
* * *
Speaking of minor peeves that have been bothering me for years, a bunch of them met at the University of Chicago recently and declared that modern critical theory was a waste of time. We learn this from another Times article, The Latest Theory Is That Theory Does not Matter
The panel discussion at which this declaration of intellectual bankruptcy occurred was organized by Critical Inquiry, a noted journal of theory. There were more than two dozen participants, including Henry Louis Gates Jr., Homi Bhabha, Stanley Fish, and Fredric Jameson. As the Times mildly observes, "the leftist politics with which literary theorists have traditionally been associated have taken a beating." People's political hopes are often disappointed, of course. The tragedy for this crew was that, when you took away the politics, there was nothing left.
It's the students you feel sorry for. At some point, they must have liked literature. They intuited that it was important; that was why they majored in it, or went on for graduate degrees. By and by, their healthy instincts were corrupted, while their prose became more unreadable and ideologically subservient. At the Critical Inquiry panel, however, they would have learned that they damned themselves to no purpose. As Stanley Fish told them: "I wish to deny the effectiveness of intellectual work. And especially, I always wish to counsel people against the decision to go into the academy because they hope to be effective beyond it."
"Effective" here does not mean helping others to become better people, or adding to knowledge for its own sake. One deluded student complained "how much more important the actions of Noam Chomsky are in the world than all the writings of critical theorists combined." Noam Chomsky has been shilling for concentration-camp states for 30 years. The impotence of scholarship for these people means their regret that they did not succeed in turning their own country into North Korea.
One panelist did try to defend the life of the mind, as he saw it: "intellectual work has its place and its uses...[y]ou can have poems that are intimately linked with political oppositional movements, poems that actually draw together people in acts of resistance." The notion that you can also have poems that are good as poems, that civilization exists in part so that there can be poetry, is completely absent. So, of course, is any value in literature aside from its use as political propaganda. The panelists' problem is that now even they cannot deny it can't do that, either.
Critical theory has sacked the liberal arts. The theorists, in their folly, have driven away the funding and the graduate students from the departments they came to dominate. No doubt, after the panelists die or retire, literary studies will recover. The next time, maybe, they will be about literature.
* * *
On the subject of next times, I often correspond with people about the future and historical significance of manned spaceflight. It is easy to be unfair about NASA (as perhaps I have been myself), but it is pretty clear that the era of manned flight that began in the 1960s was a false dawn. In some sense, we have to begin again.
"Why," you ask? Because it's there. As C.S. Lewis once observed about the question of life on other planets, this is a matter that people are either passionately interested in or find too repulsive to discuss. "Passionate" may be too strong a word to describe my interest in spaceflight, but certainly I support it. I am therefore greatly encouraged by headlines like this: Passenger-Carrying Spaceship Makes Desert Debut.
The spaceship in this case is the work of the ingenious Burt Rutan. The flight he hopes to make in the near future will be suborbital, but he does claim to have a full, reusable launching system, capable of reaching LEO. This is not a prototype, he emphasizes: this is hardware. He says that manned flight could be routine within the next ten years.
I have been hearing that since I was eight years old. The difference now seems to be a convergence of private investment and the slow accumulation of off-the-shelf technology. This time, maybe there will be an industrial-technological breakthrough. Manned spaceflight may yet be The next Big Thing. I would much prefer that to nano-technology, which I dislike almost as much as wireless.
* * *
Even if our timeline does begin to overlap that of Heinlein's The Man Who Sold the Moon, we could also be threatened by vampires in the streets, many of them tourists.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The Stand
By Stephen King

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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The Long View 2003-02-03: The Columbia Disaster

It isn't hard to be critical of NASA for the Columbia disaster, no one is going to make a movie about how well the space agency handled the situation. However, the bit about spending lots of money to design a pen that worked in space is half-true. We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars at NASA before giving up, and then a pen manufacturer developed one that he sold for a modest price, a few dollars. [$4 at the time, about $30 now adjusted for inflation]

The Columbia Disaster
Ron Dittemore, the space-shuttle project manager, gave an obviously stressful press conference yesterday. At several points, he addressed the question of why NASA did not determine with certainty the condition of the heat-shield tiles, even though NASA was aware they might have been damaged on lift-off by insulation foam from the fuel tank. He explained that large telescopes on Earth could not have taken satisfactory images of the area in question. He did not make clear whether the crew had the equipment to go outside and look for themselves. He did say the crew could not have fixed damage to the tiles even if they had discovered any. Here is a characteristic passage from the news conference:
"The predominant team will be the engineering teams related to the orbiter vehicle itself. And the types of disciplines are structures and mechanics, integration teams that understand the environment and the transport mechanisms between the external tank and the wing orbiter. You have thermal experts, tile experts and it goes on and on...[W]e also engage the operational functional areas: the astronaut corps, our operations flight control arena, our safety and quality and mission assurance experts...And all these people were engaged. All of them heard the story. All of them reviewed it to their satisfaction.. And the consensus, unanimous consensus was as I represented to you earlier, it was not a significant event."
Now consider this excerpt from Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, about Gulliver's visit to the flying island of Laputa:
"Those to whom the king had entrusted me, observing how ill I was clad, ordered a tailor to come next morning, and take measure for a suit of clothes. This operator did his office after a different manner from those of his trade in Europe. He first took my altitude by a quadrant, and then, with a rule and compasses, described the dimensions and outlines of my whole body, all which he entered upon paper; and in six days brought my clothes very ill made, and quite out of shape, by happening to mistake a figure in the calculation. But my comfort was, that I observed such accidents very frequent, and little regarded."
Would that all accidents were so trivial.
* * *
How shall I put this? The point of having human beings in space is that they can handle the unexpected. Sending out a crewman to check the hull for damage is precisely the kind of thing that crewmen are for. It must take years of miseducation to reach a point where the obvious way to examine the skin of a ship is to use a telescope 300 miles away. Even if the crew could not have fixed the tiles, was it really impossible to prolong the flight until relief or resupply could be arranged? If the resources of the shuttle were really so close to exhaustion, then could the shuttle have docked at the International Space Station? Again, isn't that sort of improvisation what human space-flight is supposed to be about?
[After I posted this, a friendly reader, Brett Thomas, emailed to point out that the Columbia did not have suits for extravehicular activity, and it did not have a docking hatch to use with the space station. As he also pointed out, they might have used the suits at the station to ferry the Columbia's crew. The station crew could, of course, have also checked the tiles. Fuel to get to the station would have been the only decisive question.]
NASA is a blocked and damned organization, the kind of institution that Northcote Parkinson used to skewer. These are the people who spent $25 billion to build expendable skyscrapers to fly to the moon so that fighter pilots could "explore" it for a few hours. These are the people who spent tens of thousands of dollars to design a ballpoint pen that could work in space, until someone mentioned that the Russians used pencils.
And then there is the shuttle itself: the horse designed by a committee. It was supposed to be a taxi for quick manned access to space. It was supposed to be simple, modest in size, completely reusable. Most important of all, it was supposed to require only a small ground crew. After years of demands from institutional science and the military, it grew in size and number of functions until it was nearly as unstable as an early version of Windows. A small city is needed to keep the shuttle flying, at long intervals, and at some risk.
* * *
NASA does for manned space travel what the UN does for world order: the result of all the activity is to ensure that there will be less of the desired product.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site