Resting On Our Laurels

20 07 2016

Forty-seven years ago, a small spacecraft from Earth set down on the surface of the moon. There were two humans onboard, with a third remaining in orbit. Everyone on Earth- or at least those who had access to global information- looked up into the sky at that moment in awe. For a brief moment in time, everyone on Earth connected to international news looked skyward and said, “D-a-a-a-a-amn!”

Since that day, almost a half-century ago, ten more humans travelled from Earth to visit our nearest neighbor in space. They conducted some scientific tests and collected a lot of samples.Then, they all came back home. By any standards, the Apollo program was an amazing technical achievement. Never mind the fact that it would never have happened if not for political and military posturing by earth’s two most powerful nations, it was a truly amazing feat of engineering and science.

Since December in 1972, when Apollo-17 departed, no one has gone back.Think on that for a moment: the high-water mark of manned spaceflight ended forty-four years ago.What happened? Why did we stop?

The late Carl Sagan also wondered about this. He wrote an article in 1989 saying, among other things, “The Moon is no longer unattainable. A dozen humans, all Americans, made those odd skipping motions they called ‘moonwalks’ on the crunchy, cratered, ancient gray lava- beginning on that July day in 1969. But since 1972, no one from any nation has ventured there. Indeed, none of us has gone anywhere since the glory days of Apollo except into low Earth orbit- like a toddler who takes a few tentative steps outward and then, breathless, retreats to the safety of his mother’s skirts.

Once upon a time, we soared into the solar system. For a few years. Then we hurried back. Why? What happened?

For one shining moment, humanity looked out at the vastness of space and knew that the stars were in our future. Then we turned our backs on the stars and went home. Despite the fact that semi-literate children in countries without regular electrical service now walk around with pocket radios with more computing power than any of the Apollo spacecraft, we’ve never gone farther than low-Earth orbit.

Apollo cost the US about $25 Billion at the time. Adjusting for inflation, that runs to a bit over $100 Billion today. One hundred billion dollars today is only about 16% of the US Defense budget (roughly $600 Billion), or a hair under 3% of the entire US budget ($3.54 Trillion).

By the way, do you know how much of the current US budget goes to NASA? $18.5 Billion. Basically one half of one percent (0.52%) of the US budget is used to fund NASA. That’s for everything at NASA- toilet paper, administrator salaries, office supplies, and space.

To put all the data into words: NASA has been achieving amazing science and developing mind-blowing technology, putting robot spacecraft into orbit around planets, moons, asteroids, and comets and dropping robot scouts onto the surface of Mars on a budget consisting of the spare change Uncle Sam found under the couch cushions.

Those robots are doing some outstanding work. For some exploration, they’re actually preferable to humans. But the robots just aren’t as adaptable as a Mark One, Mod Zero educated plains ape. For one example, the Opportunity rover has been on Mars since 2004, and has travelled a bit more than 26 miles in those twelve years. On Earth, humans routinely run that distance in a few hours.

Humans are far more versatile and adaptable than our robots. But they require a lot of very heavy equipment and infrastructure to get them to the exploration site and keep them in working order long enough to get some science done. This is a significant downside to manned spaceflight, but something we can fix. It just takes time and effort-which means money.

We are totally getting our money’s worth out of the Space program using robots, but manned spaceflight could be accomplishing so much more. All it takes is money and the will to use it. We have the money. Hell, trim 5% off the military budget and give it to NASA. That’s roughly $30 Billion dollars more for space exploration, and the military obviously doesn’t need it- the US spends more on our military than the next dozen countries combined. Almost forty percent of all military spending on Earth goes to the US military.

Granted that we need our military to be the best in the world, even by American standards this is overkill. Let us put some of that cash to use out in space, instead. Let us also note that I am not NASA’s friend. Too many scientists and engineers are being sidelined by paper-pushers and politically-connected bozos. But they are the best game in town, so we (the US) has to use NASA, or nothing.

It’s been 44 years since the last humans left the moon. We have been resting on our laurels for far too long. Humans from the United States once walked on the moon. Sooner or later, more humans will be exploring and exploiting the solar system. If we don’t get off our collective asses, we can be fairly certain those people exploring and exploiting the system will not be speaking English.

 

Current status: Pissed off

Current music: The Future Soon by Jonathan Coulton

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Fractal Commentary

27 08 2012

I have some bad news for you all- we live in interesting times.  For those of you nodding at your screen and saying, “Duh”, allow me to remind you that the phrase “may you live in interesting times” is a traditional Chinese curse.

Dual Tragedy

Neil Armstrong died this past weekend at the age of 82. Assuming there are some readers of my intermittent tripe who don’t know anything that may have happened before disco, Neil Armstrong was the first human to walk on the moon. From all accounts, he was generally self-effacing and a genuinely good person, and there are damned few people like that. That makes his death a tragedy- irrespective of his fame. The other tragedy is the fact that America has actively retreated from the literal heights reached by the Apollo program in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

This is not to say that good science and engineering is no longer being accomplished. ar from it. Curiosity was successfully dropped onto the surface of Mars, the Russians have managed to work past their launch vehicle issues and successfully deliver supplies to the ISS, a private US company managed to do the same thing, the European Space Agency has launched a series of exceptional satellites for peering into the dim past of the Universe, CERN has very probably identified a Higgs particle, etc. The tragic bit is the fact that we are unable to repeat a forty-year-old scientific and engineering achievement today. NASA says we won’t be capable of sending humans back to the moon for at least thirty years. There will almost certainly be Chinese and possibly Russian manned missions to Luna long before Americans can return there.

We could really use a few more humans like Neil Armstrong and his Apollo teammates these days.

Alarums and Excursions

A disgruntled former employee’s poor decision-making skills were widely splashed across the headlines in New York city last week as yet another example of a mass shooting. The usual suspects quickly leaped in to denounce America’s gun culture, lament the senseless tragedy- and coincidentally put forward their own pet theories and solutions to take political advantage of the situation. Almost as horrible as the shooting itself, in my opinion.

Alas for the “American Gun Culture” narrative, it turns out that the Bad Guy only shot one of the victims of the “mass shooting”. The remaining people wounded or killed were all shot by two police officers trying to take down the original gunman. That’s right, two of “New York’s finest” blasted out sixteen rounds at the Bad Guy from about eight feet away and missed more than half their shots. Nine completely innocent bystanders were wounded by the wild shooting- three of them critically. The cops did manage to kill the Bad Guy, if that’s any consolation. It certainly doesn’t make me feel any better about the competence of US police forces in general and NYPD in particular.

Basic firearms safety rules, for those of you who haven’t learned them yet: 1- Always assume any firearm is loaded until you have personally verified it. Even if it is not loaded, treat every firearm as if it was- ALL THE TIME. 2- Never point any firearm at anything you do not wish to immediately shoot. 3- Know your target and what is beyond it. Even if you are Wyatt Earp reborn and never miss, modern firearms are very likely to over-penetrate- especially at the literal spitting distance of most gunfights. Anything on the other side of your target is likely to get shot as well as the target. 4- Keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot. “Ready to shoot” means that you have a valid target, you have properly aimed at that target, and you know where the bullet will go past (or through) the target once you shoot. Until ALL of these requirements have been met, keep your booger-hook off the bang-switch. These are universal firearms handling rules, but somehow “New York’s finest” managed to forget them. Yes, they were under pretty serious stress, but that would not have been a legal excuse for non-police under identical circumstances. We expect our police to be trained to handle such crises.

For a period of perhaps thirty hours, the usual suspects took to the airwaves and internet to proffer their own politically-derived solutions to the “gun problem”. Far too many of those who try to prevent erosion of the rights of civilian firearm ownership immediately jumped into the fray by claiming that the gunman could have been stopped sooner if only more civilians had been permitted to carry firearms in the historically gun-averse city. I am philosophically opposed to New York’s traditional hostility for civilian firearm ownership, but: (A) I do not live in New York, so it’s not my business; and (B) they’re objectively wrong. Given the notoriously poor marksmanship of the rank-and-file NYPD and their demonstrated equally poor target acquisition skills, I’m reasonably certain that the number of dead and wounded would probably be much higher if civilians on the scene had tried to use their own weapons to stop the original shooter. The NYPD would likely have ventilated half the city trying to put down what they would doubtless see as multiple shooters.

On the other hand, those who are hostile to civilian firearms ownership were ever so quick to put forth a bewildering number of legislative restrictions on civilian rights to keep and bear arms. There were the usual idiotic suggestions that all would-be gun owners be required to undergo rigorous psychiatric screenings, limiting the number of firearms any one person was permitted to own, mandating training and licensing of all gun owners before allowing possession, etc. The typical knee-jerk attempts to keep firearms out of the hands of “undesirables”. The problem is that none of those measures would have prevented the most recent shooting, nor would they have prevented Columbine or Virginia Tech. The people who advocate restricting firearms to police and military personnel are also having trouble with the fact that all but one of the people killed and wounded in New York were shot by the supposedly well-trained police.

Once it became clear that NYPD had caused all but one of the casualties at the Empire State building, the story disappeared rapidly from the headlines.

Zen and the Cartoonist

If you haven’t already found it, please point your web browser to Zen Pencils. The artist takes quotes from literary or otherwise notable public figures and draws inspirational cartoons around those quotes. There are several strips which will probably make you think.

Speaking of Cartoons

I note that Jen Breeden from The Devil’s Panties (one of the webcomics I read regularly) is trying an experiment at getting rid of advertisements. She is basically extorting money from her readers with the threat of allowing the ads to return. All seriousness aside, Jen asks her readers to donate money to defray the site’s operating expenses. As long as the donations exceed the cost of keeping her site running, she keeps the comic ad-free for the next month. Good for her. It seems to have been working so far. Please give her some money if you like her work.

That’s all for now. I shall withdraw until such time as some new public iniquity arises to wake me from my torpor and return to vent my spleen all over the internet. Given that this is an election year, it’s good odds that time might be measured in hours rather than days, but I’ll do my best to resist the temptation to wallow in the politics.

Current status: Annoyed

Current music: Mandelbrot Set by Jonathan Coulton





So Much For Space

14 02 2012

I’m none too fond of NASA. In lieu of advancing the frontiers of manned spaceflight, NASA spent a couple of decades wasting time and energy on the pretty-but-largely-useless shuttle program. The space shuttle could have been a worthwhile component of a larger drive toward orbital manufacturing, followed by exploring and exploiting the inner solar system. Could have been. What it turned into was a political show-horse which leeched desperately-needed funding from actual science and exploration projects and essentially crippled the US space industry when the photogenic but limited-utility orbiters were inevitably retired without a useful replacement vehicle. The stupidly wasted opportunities over the last three decades make my blood boil.

NASA has managed to pull off some staggeringly good science in spite of the shuttle debacle. Rovers on Mars; robot spacecraft visiting other planets, moons, and asteroids; orbiting sensors watching the solar weather; and the enormous work of searching for and tracking potential Earth-impactors were all getting accomplished during the lean years when the lion’s share of the funding was poured down the shuttle rat-hole. Despite my misgivings about NASA management in general and the shuttle program in particular, the non-shuttle folks at the agency have been almost textbook examples of making bricks without straw. My mixed feelings about NASA aside, I am firmly convinced that a robust presence in space- specifically meaning more than just low-Earth orbit- is a key underpinning to continued US economic and military superiority.

The US got a huge amount of payback for the money spent on the Space Race in terms of follow-on technologies and spin-offs. We also got the infrastructure to maintain a constellation of satellites which continue to provide vital real-world service for our high-tech civilization. Learning how to put men on the moon taught us how to safely and reliably put stuff into orbit, which in turn gave us the ability to see and hear most of what goes on all over the world. This ability- taken for granted by the average American citizen- is literally priceless, and gives the US an enormous military advantage in preventing or fighting future conflicts. Our ability to see/listen-in on potential enemies and communicate with friendly units anywhere on the planet is a direct result of the US space program. Our current military peerlessness is based on it.

Despite all of this well-documented benefit from the space program, there are loads of people in this country who are chomping at the bit to gut or eliminate the US space program in a stupid rush to be penny-wise and pound-foolish. The Apollo program cost the equivalent of about $200.oo per US citizen when it was running. This was (and is) a bargain of stellar magnitude by any measure, but there are people in this country- sadly including many of our professional political class- who shriek and gibber about “wasting” money on space when we could be spending that money on vote-buying schemes here on Earth. The truth is that the US could have funded fifty Apollo-style missions for the price of a week of combat operations in the Sandbox. The space program has delivered proven real-world benefits for the money. Can our military adventures in the Middle East make the same claim?

When the current administration chose to retire the shuttle fleet, I was among many who were unhappy with the decision (they were lovely bits of engineering, and I’m a sucker for well-designed equipment), but accepted it under the assumption that the budget formerly allocated to the shuttle fleet might be turned to more useful ends at NASA. That assumption turned out to be so much wishful thinking. The people I once chastised for what I deemed hyperbole about “abandoning space” turn out to have been correct, as shown by the latest budget proposal from the White House.

In a time when the US is falling behind in science and engineering- historically American strong suits- the President has decided to throw the fiscal worrywarts a bone called NASA. In the interest of appearing to be financially prudent, the President is scaling back the poster child for American engineering and technological progress. How many kids will struggle through the tough scholastic requirements for engineering and the sciences when the biggest market for those fields is cutting back funding? Fewer NASA programs means fewer companies will be getting money to design and build spacecraft. Those companies will therefore have a reduced interest in hiring new engineers and technicians. Tighter NASA science budgets mean fewer science missions, which in turn mean less interest on the part of universities and businesses to employ scientists. Fewer engineers, scientists, and technicians being hired reduces the need for students of those disciplines. So much for American excellence in engineering and the sciences. The one thing America is traditionally good at is being put at risk to create the impression of fiscal restraint.

You want fiscal prudence? Try trimming back on wasteful military adventures. Stop paying farmers to not grow food. Stop paying those farmers who do grow food to turn perfectly good corn into largely useless ethanol for fuel. Trimming a few million dollars from a few NASA programs is the height of folly when we waste billions on the items I just mentioned. And those are just the ones I thought of while typing. Anyone willing to do a little research could almost certainly find more. Please do, by the way.

Reducing America’s presence in space- which is what the current budget amounts to- is a bold statement to the effect that the US is no longer looking outward. We’re no longer interested in pushing the boundaries of what we can do, because we seem to be more interested in wallowing around in what we can’t. This attitude has historically been a symptom of a civilization in decline. I’m not interested in contributing to the decline of the United States of America. I’m interested in science and engineering and technology, not least because those things make life better for everyone- including Americans. As an American, I want to do well while doing good. The technology we build today will help feed, clothe, and heal the people of tomorrow. Reducing the overall level of misery on the planet also reduces the competition for resources and the need for military genital measuring contests. This helps make the world to come safer and more stable than the world we live in now.

Why us? Why should America expend the time, money, and manpower to maintain a presence in space? Because- flawed and occasionally idiotic as we may collectively be- a future with an America strong in technology and the sciences is more likely to be a better future than one built in the absence of a US presence in space. Rest assured, humans are going to explore and exploit the solar system. I think it would be better for humanity as a whole if the ones who speak English didn’t have to use foreign currencies to buy tickets as passengers on another country’s spacecraft.

Current status: Peeved

Current music: Life’s Been Good by Joe Walsh





A Smattering of Miscellania

24 07 2011

When I post an article here, I prefer to focus on one subject- or at least, on a series of deeply inter-related topics. This gives me space to delve into the facts and occasionally extrapolate the consequences of those facts into the future. Sometimes, however, the topic du jour does not lend itself to such analysis and discussion, which would result in a very brief posting with commensurately less value. At other times, there are so many topics in the news that I have trouble providing the depth of focus those events deserve. This is one of those times.

NewsCorp

According to most researchers not directly involved on either side, Montgomery Burns’ Rupert Murdoch’s publications have been conducting illegal raids into the cell phones of newsmakers for a considerable period of time. Aside from being illegal, the information so gathered is unlikely to be considered newsworthy to anyone with an IQ higher than room temperature. The now-defunct News of the World, however, pandered directly to the prurient interests of the stupid. The editors of that rag therefore gleefully published every hint of salacious gossip they could squeeze out of those illegal downloads- and profited mightily. All that is bad- unquestionably immoral as well as illegal.

Those same researchers have concluded that many other publications and news organizations use essentially the same slimy tactics to draw in readers/viewers, and thereby increase their ad revenue. For this, they should all be lined up outside Parliament to answer for their misdeeds. NewsCorp’s goons went completely beyond the pale, however. Where Murdoch’s henchmen really jerked the trigger was when they hacked into the voice mail records of a missing girl who later turned out to have been murdered. Completely erasing any vain hopes that they might yet retain a few shreds of human decency, the hackers deleted some of the voice mails in order to allow more voice mails to be recorded for them to profit from. There is some evidence that NewsCorp personnel also tried to hack into the voice mail records of victims of the 9/11 attacks for the same purposes. If either claim is true, the perpetrators should be lined up against a wall and shot.

There is an unspoken bargain between the media and the public. We put up with many of their questionable antics as part of the price we have agreed to pay for unfettered access to the truth. In return, the media are supposed to report the facts and occasionally give their opinions on the significance of those facts. We have accepted that certain public figures will lose a significant amount of privacy as a result of this bargain, but those who become newsworthy through no fault of their own- like young women who get kidnapped and murdered, for example- should be allowed as much privacy as possible by the media. News organizations which breach this public trust should be scoured from the Earth with fire. The survivors should then take the lessons to heart, and we could then return to factual news reporting in lieu of the “journalistic, infotainment-like art product” we are now subjected to.

Putting the “Final” in Final Frontier

I’ve written about NASA before, and rarely in a positive way. In a generation, NASA went from the bleeding edge of space exploration to bumming rides into orbit from the Russians. The US has received great benefits from our exploration of space, not least of which is a lot of national pride. That pride has been misplaced for at least a couple of decades. NASA turned away from sustainable manned space exploration in favor of the shuttle program. If the shuttles had been used as originally intended- as part of a generational effort to send humans throughout the solar system- the US space program would not now be in its current sorry state.

Relying on private industry to return Americans to space will be a very long wait. The return-on-investment from space exploration takes a very long time, and the up-front non-recoverable expenses are enormous. There’s a reason the Russian, European, Chinese, and Japanese governments run their respective space programs- only government have the cash to undertake such dangerous work with the pay-off taking generations.

In their short-sighted ignorance, Congress is turning the country’s back on space. Never mind the material benefits we’ve already received from space exploration, just considering the military advantages of mastering space makes this decision a turning point in America’s destiny. We have stopped looking forward, and started turning inward. Historically, societies which do this tend to decline rapidly.

I’ve said this before, and it’s still true: Humans will explore and exploit the solar system. Those humans will almost certainly not be speaking English.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

When the news first broke about the carnage in Oslo, almost everybody immediately jumped to the conclusion that Islamic extremists were responsible. This could perhaps be understood, given that Islamic extremism gets most of the press these days. What is less understandable is the fact that few of those who publicly denounced the massacre in Norway as the result of Islamic fundamentalism have come forward to admit they were wrong. Another fact which is less than understandable is the relative paucity of news coverage on this side of the Atlantic. As soon as the bomber/shooter was revealed to be a right-wing christian conservative xenophobe, the coverage dropped off precipitously.

Granted, US news organizations are traditionally uninterested in news overseas which doesn’t involve Americans, but the speed at which this story dropped below the fold is astonishing. Apparently, you can;t sell newspapers or advertising space unless the atrocities are committed by muslims.  We need to get past this blind spot and face facts- there are a lot of loonie-toons out there. I guarantee that several people knew the shooter and many more read his facebook. Those people could have called attention to the fact that he had lost his ticket to the rationality train and this tragedy might have been prevented thereby. We also need to come to grips with the fact that almost every single muslim you meet is just an ordinary person going about his or her life just like you are. He or she is entitled to believe what they wish, providing their actions on those beliefs do not intrude upon the rights of others- just like you. I have no use for Islam, or any other flavor of religion. That said, my personal desire to have no truck with gods does not make me hate those who want to believe. Instead of focusing on the fact that another person might believe something differently than you do, try paying attention to how they act. Minding your own business is the very best rule for a civilized society. The fact that so many are unwilling or unable to mind their own business is direct evidence that our society is no civilized.

To Be or Not To Be

… in a world of shit. That is the question. Whether ’tis nobler to ignore the manifold stupidities coming out of Washington or endure the intelligence-destroying fumes throughout the Logic-Free Zone in an attempt to forestall a global economic disaster.

Leaving my butchery of Shakespeare aside for the moment, the gaggle of criminal imbeciles we’ve elected to Congress are playing a game of Chicken- with the life and livelihood of most of the planet as the stakes. No matter who “wins”, we all lose. For those of you who don’t understand the extent of the crisis, let’s review a couple of basic facts:

1- The US currency is what is known as “fiat” currency. This means that it is backed up by nothing more than “the full faith and credit of the US Government”. In other words, you can buy something with a dollar because everybody agrees that it is a viable medium of exchange. There are some very good reasons why this is so, but there are risks.

2- The US dollar is the world’s reserve currency. Translated, this means that the dollar is accepted all around the world for almost any purchases. Many other currencies measure their value against the US dollar. The US government makes a modest amount of profit from these facts, and our current consumer-based economy is absolutely dependent upon it.

3- One of the biggest outstanding debts in the US budget are Treasury bonds. The US borrows money by selling bonds, with a promise to pay the buyer back with more money than the original purchase. US treasury bonds are considered the safest investment on the planet, and everybody buys them. The US enjoys extremely low interest rates when borrowing money as a result of the stellar reputation of our bonds for safety. Congress- specifically, the House of Representatives- decides how many bonds the government can sell. This is known as the Debt Ceiling.

4- The Debt Ceiling was actually reached back in May of this year. This means that the US government can only pay out what is currently coming in. In order to buy more time before a default, the US government started cutting back on some functions to allow Congress to raise the debt ceiling and keep the government operating.

5- The US takes in about $200 Billion each month in revenues (taxes, fees, etc). We pay out about $330 Billion each month. Once we reach the end of our current reserves, many government functions will be completely shut down for lack of money.

In the event Congress fails to pull their heads from their collective asses, the President will have to make a whole bunch of difficult choices on which bill gets paid. Failure to pay interest on our outstanding debt  (currently estimated at $400 Billion per year) would cause economic upheaval all over the world. Leaving all that aside for a moment, it would also cost the US our current low interest rate for debt. Among other things, our annual debt-service payment would rise to somewhere north of $600 Billion per year. Any future borrowing would also be subject to higher interest rates, creating a self-perpetuating spiral of default and higher payments.

Now let us examine some of those real-world repercussions from a US default. Financial institutions all around the world would take a beating as customers try to convert their savings into usable forms. International trade would be severely affected for decades until a stable reserve currency could be created. US business would find it harder to do business overseas as credit dries up. Several million government workers- including the military- would suddenly find themselves going without a paycheck. Companies which provide goods and services to the government would stop getting paid and no new orders for their goods and services would be coming in. Furloughed government workers would have to dramatically cut back on expenses until the mess gets straightened out, and some of them will go bankrupt. The businesses which provide goods and services to those people would take a large financial hit from which many will not recover. The people thrown out of work as a result of this will all be looking for unemployment benefits, which the states will be unlikely to be able to pay. State services which are partially or wholly funded by the Federal government such as Medicare and Medicaid will suffer funding cuts, which will affect the services they can offer.

The ripple effects of a default would leave chaos and catastrophe in their wake, both here and overseas. Yet our elected officials are playing political games with the lives and livelihoods of billions of people at stake. Whether or not the debt ceiling gets raised, the stupid antics of the clowns-in-office is putting the country’s credit rating at risk. Our government’s inability to do their fucking jobs without playing political fuck-you games is a greater threat than any number of homicidal religious fanatics.

That’s All Folks

That’s all for this week. Don’t forget to stock up on booze, porn, and ammunition. You can use the ammo to protect booze and porn you’ll be trading for food.

Current status: Disgusted

Current music: Pumped Up Kicks by Foster the People