February 28, 2003
American Consulate in Karachi Attacked (Again)
The Pakistani News Service is reporting that motorcyclists shot up a security checkpoint at the American consulate in Karachi.
The above is a picture I took in 1986 when I spent a few months there. The Hotel Metropole mentioned in the linked news article is a fine old hotel, located just down the street. The Luftansa aircrew stayed there at that time - the SAS and SwissAir aircrew stayed in the Holiday in where I stayed. There wasn't a pool at the Metropole, so the Luftansa stewardesses came up and used the Holiday Inn pool.
You can read my photo essay of my Pakistani trip here
We are Stardust
Space scientists right here in St. Louis have identified and analyzed stardust through a microscope instead of a telescope. The stardust was collected by NASA by aeroplane and was contained in larger grains of interplanetary dust. Cool.
Irish Proverb 3
Quiet people are well able to look after themselves.
Boeing's entry in the Small Diameter Bomb competition had a successful first flight the other day. And there was much rejoicing.
February 25, 2003
Tuesday Morning Quickies
I'm in class again, so all I have time for is a couple of quick ones.
National Geographic has a swimsuit issue out on the streets. Yep, the magazine where you used to be able to see topless women as long as it was educational (and the women were ugly) has decided to picture less (but not by much) of good looking women. This reminds me of another thing we owe the French - the invention of lingerie. I know that's got to gall a lot of people out there, but the invention of the brassiere alone is worth our undying admiration; toss in all the other wonderful pieces of women's foundational garments (motto: to support yet reveal the good bits) they invented and you can see why I won't speak an ill word of the French no matter how idiotic their leaders are.
This morning on the way to work, I was almost run over by a mail delivery truck. I was getting over to get off the freeway and the distinctively shaped truck was flying (given that I was doing 70 miles an hour, he had to be doing well over 80) up the right hand lanes. I was tempted to report the truck as stolen.
And in health news, researchers have totaled up the cost of the common cold and put the price tag at 40 Billion (that's not a typo) dollars in the US alone. Americans spend more money on doctor visits for colds (7.7 Billion) than they do on going to the movies (6 Billion) -- which when you consider that doctors can't do anything for colds shows you just how idiotic we Americans can be.
New research shows that most people have had a song stuck in their head at some point in their life. No word on how much people spend on doctor visits to have them removed. The leading problem songs are "Who Let the Dogs Out" and Chilli's "Baby Back Rib" song ("Pop Goes The Weasel" is a perennial parental problem) - and I'm sorry if those songs take up residence in your cranium after just reading the titles here. I can see I picked the wrong line of work - I should have gone into the field of pointless research and churned out study after study about what kind of clothes people wear (slutty yet sophisticated is "in"), attitudes towards celebrities (we love to hate them), and what people think about earthworms (we know they're important, but they are kind of gross and we don't want to spend much time thinking about them).
February 22, 2003
Midwest BlogBash IV
I attended the blogbash last night. It was held in Kirkwood, where I was born and raised (I spent my formative years in California) at Two Nice Guys, which is a required dinner stop when my brother comes to town. I arrived early to a bar with three people in it. After asking one guy if he was Juan Gato and getting a funny look, I decided to just enjoy my Bass and wait for Juan to make the first move. Mr. Gato thoughtfully waited for me to get interested in Walker, Texas Ranger before asking me "Did you ask that guy if he was Juan Gato?" When I tore my eyes from Chuck Norris, he added "I'm Juan Gato, and I'm wearing shorts". I half expected the other patrons to stand and say "I'm Juan Gato", including the barmaid wearing the slinky top, but my Stanley Kubrick moment quickly passed and Mr. Gato and I began talking about the joys and sorrows of computer programming and then scoping out the fire exits. I don't know how long Juan had been there before me, but as there was but one empty glass at his table it was either five minutes or the barmaid was far more efficient than she looked. This was the highpoint of the evening, as I had this celebrity all to myself, and I was able to get him to expand on his truly revolutionary plan for mideast peace, but just as he was about to reveal all, all he could get out was "flowers, hugs, and most importantly" before he was cut off by the arrival of Charles Austin.
This was the highpoint of the evening, as I now had the undivided attention (Walker, Texas Rangerwas over and JAG was on) of the two most famous St. Louis bloggers all to myself. I was truly shocked as Charles didn't mention the name Richard Cohen all evening. But the evening wasn't over yet, and before Charles new beard could be fully commented on, J Bowen arrived bringing the highpoint of the evening along with a 2x4. J is a quiet man in person, but then so was E.F. Hutton. Subdued by such an august assemblage, I was only able to blurt out about Nan Wyatt's concurrent visitation down the street and my truly, deeply funny story about my father and Phillips furniture (a local Kirkwood institution) was left untold.
But then the highpoint of the evening occured when ozman Richard Fennessy showed up. He had just happened to read Tim Blair that day about a party in Kirkwood, and as all good ozmen do, he figured he should go to any party if he could find it. Mr. Fennessy and I got along famously as we are both Mac people (he's president of the Gateway Area Macintosh Users Group) and we both were involved in the Oberon and Collins submarines. International man of mystery Jim X showed up -- I'm not allowed to divulge any details beyond he used to have two blogs and he wants to start another, but has to wait until he can *wink* *wink*. Next came Jeffersonian, a man known to me via the Current Affairs forum on StlToday.com, but only virtually until now. He was followed by Christopher Johnson who was modeling his latest creation, the Midwest BlogBash IV T-shirt "Gato's Revenge" in tasteful ecru. Here at last was the highpoint of the evening, as a diverse range of insightful men firmly seated on their barstools debated the topics of the day.
Alas, nothing is permanent and my hour of departure crept up on me (no little cat feet were involved, as I am a dog person). Events were to rapidly overtake me with the arrival of Matt and his delectable wife Vicky, the highpoint to any evening. My participation in the conversation was somewhat limited as I was trying to eat my hamburger as quickly as possible so that I could do the thing I least wanted to do. Now things were really getting crazy, as Charles and Juan had wandered off to try to call Tim Blair. A search of the premesis, interior and exterior, revealed nothing, nor was Jim X able to shed any light on their disapperance. A clean cut Ryan Olson arrived at this juncture to be warned from Charles' seat. Sadly, I had to leave to help set up for my Pack's Blue and Gold banquet, but not before another couple (note: second woman) arrived whose names I didn't catch. Now, just as things were getting interesting, I had to leave. Saying my fond farewells, and before any pictures were taken, I marched boldy forth into the night, leaving the revelers behind, and Midwest BlogBash IV while continuing came to an end for me.
February 19, 2003
National Engineers Week
Not that most of you are aware of it, if only because there are no Hallmark Card for the occasion, but this is National Engineers Week, colloquially known as a celebration of all things geek. As I am an engineer, you can send me a homemade card (enclosing a check is optional) anytime this week. If that doesn't grab you, tomorrow is Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day, so named because, completely in keeping with stereotypes, there aren't enough women in engineering. I understand marketing (as per usual) overruled the engineers who wanted it to be called Engineering Needs Women! Day.
Actually, I've found engineering (turning ideas into reality) to be a rewarding career. Going into college, I was going to be a scientist, but you can't do much real science without a PhD, and I quickly discovered I didn't have what it took to stay in an academic setting for more than four years. So I went into aerospace engineering and have had a ball making things happen ever since.
Are the anti-war protests a sign of anti-Americanism? I think far more non-Americans are motivated by anti-Americanism than Americans are. I think there is a fringe, but a fringe only, of anti-war people in this country who are reflexively anti-American, who think the biggest problem in the world is American and who pretty much think America is always wrong and the root of all evil. Many, if not most, of those who are anti-war here aren't anti-American but anti-Republican. For them, the problem is that a Republican president wants to go to war. I've had several anti-war people tell me that if Clinton or Gore were President, they would have no problem with war against Iraq. They trust them, but they don't trust Bush. And I think you can see that in the different reactions to Clinton's wars than Bush's wars. They were for Clinton's wars, even when they didn't involve the UN or the US Congress; they didn't mind the use of ultimatum over diplomacy; they didn't mind civilian casualties, open ended commitments, nor the possibility of quagmires; in short they didn't demand the same things of Clinton they demand of Bush. And to be fair, there are people who would be far more wary of war with Iraq, if not against it altogether, if Clinton or Gore were President than they are with Bush as President.
Of course, there are plenty of people who are just anti-war period, and it doesn't matter who the President would be. And there are people who have good reasons to reject not any war but this war with Iraq, no matter who the President is. So clearly, for Americans to be against war with Iraq isn't necessarily, nor even likely, to be anti-American.
I'm all for letting your views be known - whether through weblogs, letters to the editor, (my personal favorite) buttonholing strangers at parties, or the old standby of protest rallies/marches. My third post on this blog, way back on October 3 of last year, said things like "I have to respect people who want to peaceably assemble to make a political statement" and "I bring this up just because this is America, and the two events [protest rally and Leukemia walk] were different expressions of civic mindedness American style, part of the warp and woof of community. In different ways, they are why I love this country." I draw the line at protests that aim to disrupt the lives of people who have nothing to do with the thing being protested against - such as protestors against a war shutting down a highway.
Dissent is as American as apple pie, and equally heroic in this country. There are generally no real costs to dissent in this country, unlike many other countries. You and your family can be imprisoned, tortured, murdered even in countries like Cuba or Iraq if you dissent. You can stand in front of the White House and express your opinion that Bush is another Hitler all you want, and nothing will happen to you, except perhaps other people will express their opinion of you. And frankly, isn't it their right to voice their opinion of you, as it is your right to voice your opinion or whomever or whatever? If someone says they think you are an idiot, you are not being repressed, you are not being silenced. There is no bravery in dissent in this country, no extra worth in dissenting views. Sure, the majority isn't always right, but then neither is the minority.
So by all means, speak your piece, march, rally, but do so in peaceable, law abiding way. And if you want to persuade me to your cause, please try to reason with me, reach out and show your interested in my good opinion; If you want to harden my opinion against you, then by all means shout slogans, disregard and disrespect me, and generally act out your feelings of moral superiority.
A Shameful Moment Of Weakness
I have a terrible confession to make. Last night not only did I watch part of American Idol, I actually dialed the phone and voted for Vanessa. Why did I do such a terrible thing? Well, she actually sang the notes of her song, and didn't warble all over the place, and when Simon told her that, as a compliment, she should lose a few pounds, her reaction was priceless. While she waggled her butt in the faces of America (and the judges) she told us how she had a booty like J Lo. I've seen J Lo's booty, and Vanessa, yours is nothing like it. But you got style, and that's better than J Lo's booty, or J Lo's body. When you sat on the couch with Ryan and recounted the experience by flashing two thumbs up, giving a big smile, and saying "you're fat!" I knew I had to vote for you.
February 18, 2003
Decent, Honorable Men Can Disagree
Walt Harrington writes about the Bushes, father and son, he knows in a particuarly good op-ed in the Saint Louis Post Dispatch.
"What I've never mentioned is that I didn't vote for George W. I disagree with him on the Supreme Court, environment, abortion, the death penalty and affirmative action. So I voted against this good and decent man. It pained me to do it. As an anointed liberal columnist for The New York Times, Maureen Dowd is paid to have strong opinions, to argue that if George W. Bush opposes affirmative action it's because he's an insensitive wealthy white man, one of the last acceptable slurs in our society. Well, I support affirmative action but there are good arguments against it. I support a woman's right to choose but there are good arguments against it. I oppose the death penalty but there are good arguments for it. Even as President Bush seems to be moving the country inexorably toward war, I can't fall back on the easy explanations of his critics: He's trying to prop up his sagging popularity, or avenge his father's failure to oust Saddam, or save the world for Big Oil. I believe George W. Bush believes Iraq is a deadly threat to the U.S.
It baffles me that grown people must convince themselves that those with whom they disagree are stupid or malevolent. It's a poison that creates uncivil debate and self-righteous political correctness. Yet, truth is, I didn't always think so open-mindedly. I used to be quite a self-righteous twit in my youth. Coming to know the Presidents Bush and Bush changed me, helped me learn that no class — rich or poor —has cornered the market on decency or wisdom."
Some of us have outgrown the self-righteous twit stage, some of us seem to be perpetually stuck in it, and some of us waver back and forth.
The Canadian Medical Association is happy that the Canadian Healthcare system is fair when it takes far too long to provide treatment. By that they mean that rich people wait just as long as poor people for their "elective" surgeries. The lead investigator said, "In a system of mixed private and public, and people buy their way to the front of the line, equity isn't an issue. That's not what the goal of the system is. But so long as there is this effective monopoly, we have to be sure that we're being fair to everybody and not discriminating on the basis of social position. And we're happy in this instance we've shown that." Well, fine and dandy. But the report didn't address the difference in wait times for wealthy Canadians who came to the United States to have their elective surgeries done -- thus buying their way to the front of a different line. It only took them seven years to complete the study -- which is considered speedy for Canadian medicine.
Chirac and the French
There's a lot of French bashing going on these days. Roy Blunt made jokes about France at the Missouri GOP convention. Cheese Eating Surrender Monkeys is a common description. Well, count me out on the French bashing, for a couple of reasons. On the military side, let me say just one word - Verdun. The joke about French rifle -- never fired and dropped only once -- not funny. Yes, the French capitulated in WWII - after the Brits were driven from the field (without their weapons, BTW) and the Germans thoroughly whupped them with the blitzkrieg. In some ways, its not clear that the French have ever recovered from WWI with its devastating loss of people or WWII with its humbling blow to their pride. And on the personal side, I have to say my own limited experience with the French runs counter to the stereotype of the aloof snob. I found them as warm and friendly as any other group. So while I think their political classes these days are deplorable, I don't think that warrants a general attack on the people themselves.
Jacques Chirac, however, has slimed himself:
"These countries have been not very well behaved and rather reckless of the danger of aligning themselves too rapidly with the American position."
"It is not really responsible behavior. It is not well brought-up behavior. They missed a good opportunity to keep quiet."
"I felt they acted frivolously because entry into the European Union implies a minimum of understanding for the others," Chirac said.
Chirac called the letters "infantile" and "dangerous," adding: "They missed a great opportunity to shut up."
"Romania and Bulgaria were particularly irresponsible. If they wanted to diminish their chances of joining Europe they could not have found a better way," Chirac said.
When asked why he wasn't similarly critical of the EU nations that signed the letter, Chirac said: "When you are in the family ... you have more rights than when you are asking to join and knocking on the door."
After that temper tantrum, Chirac has shown himself to be far worse than Bush. He clearly told the "junior" members to shut up and do as they are told by the senior, ie France and Germany, members. And it isn't just Chirac, European Commission President Romano Prodi said he was saddened rather than angry with the candidates because their pro-Americanism was a signal they had failed to understand that the EU is more than a mere economic union.
"I would be lying it I said I was happy," he told reporters. "I have been very, very sad, but I am also patient by nature, so I hope they will understand that sharing the future means sharing the future."
When all the new members join European Union, the influence of France and Germany within it is going to be diluted. And for now, anyway, all the Central and Eastern European countries that are joining still look to the US for leadership and don't feel the need to be a counterweight to US power and influence, which seems to be the overriding foreign policy principle of France and Germany these days. Given their much different recent political history, that attitude may last awhile.
February 17, 2003
Existential Questions At The UN
I suppose we're all pondering the same simple question: if the UN won't vote that a resolution has been violated, has it been violated? The diplomats there seem to agree with Captain Collins of the USS San Pablo (from the movie The Sand Pebbles) that what matters isn't the events of the day, but how we record those events.
Iraq is in violation of numerous binding UN resolutions, most of which date to the end of the Gulf War. The latest, Resolution 1441, makes it clear that Iraq's failure to disarm itself of weapons of mass destruction will result in "serious consequences". It isn't the job of the inspectors to disarm Iraq, or contain Iraq, or do anything but verify that Iraq has disarmed itself. Iraq clearly hasn't done that. The UN response so far has been to ignore its own resolution as to what constitutes a material breach and make up the rules as it goes along.
The UN is in the position of a nice parent with a bratty child. As long as the child knows that no matter how much mom and/or dad blusters and threatens no real punishment will be forthcoming, the child will continue in his bratty ways. He knows "I'm not going to tell you again" in fact means all I'll ever do is tell you, over and over, and hope you grow weary of the sound of my voice. In the UN case, not only is mom unwilling to follow through, she's trying to keep dad from doing anything either.
I happened to catch Saturday Night Live the other night. They had a skit where Bush announces that the US is no longer interested in Iraq anymore - they can do whatever they want, we don't care. I'm not sure what the joke was supposed to be (a feeling I typically get while watching SNL which is why I do it so rarely now), but it got me to thinking, what would happen if Bush really would make that declaration. How long do you think inspectors would be in Iraq - hours or days?
My Demographic Has Taken Over
The music of Led Zeppelin is used to sell Cadilacs; The Who and Heart is used by Nissan; Mountain Dew picked Queen; Office Depot figures BTO (Bachman Turner Overdrive, which was what was left when Burton Cummings left The Guess Who) can move product; Nortell is trying to sell with John Lennon and David Bowie. Movies aren't just comic book like anymore - they increasingly are adaptions of comics. I used to think Superman and Batman were just a phase, but Marvel is fighting back - X-Men, Spiderman, Daredevil, the Hulk. (BTW, if you're interested in buying comics from the eighties, let me know). And video games are a bigger business (8 Billion) than movies (6 Billion). It's obvious that my demographic has finally filtered up to the boardroom and taken over.
February 14, 2003
I've been in all day class the last three days, and tonight we have 5 twelve year old girls for my daughter's birthday party. Can you say head spinning? I though you could.
February 12, 2003
Axis of Weasel's Punishment
After France, Germany, and Belgium have blocked NATO aid to defend Turkey, there have been calls for some sort of response. Not that I favor anything beyond a better understanding of what the word "ally" means for Americans -- for instance England, Australia, and yes, Canada should spring to mind when hearing that word -- my thought would be the most appropriate thing to do (not that I want to do anything) would be to simplly kick all three out of NATO. The Germans would be free to attack France through Belgium again, only this time nobody would come to France's aid. Anybody else, and all the rest of a united Europe would rise up to defend itself. That's fair, I think. Besides, now that the Germans are such pacifists, it wouldn't be a big deal. And if these three countries want to help out in war, then by all means NATO can accept the aid with open arms. They just wouldn't get a veto is all.
This Isn't Arrogance?
I keep hearing how arrogant America and Americans are. Well, Belgium unilaterally claims a right to universal jurisdiction in human rights allowing Belgium's courts to try crimes against humanity and genocide, no matter where they were committed. And the Belgium Supreme Court just ruled that Ariel Sharon can be tried for war crimes dating back to the 1982 massacre at Sabra and Shatila refugee camps after he leaves office. All I can say is, you and what army are going to make the arrest?
February 10, 2003
NASA now says that the drag on the left wing of Columbia is consistant with assymetrical boundary layer transition, which it has seen on about a dozen prior occasions. The boundary layer is the part of the airflow where it changes from the freestream velocity somewhere abouve the surface to zero at the surface of vehicle. Boundary layers are either laminar or turbulent. In laminar boundary layers, the flow moves smoothly along lines which are essentially parallel with no mixing as you move away from the surface; in turbulent boundary layers, which are thicker and have more drag, there are eddy currents within the flow, so there is mixing and therefore increased heat transfer.
The P-51 Mustang famously had a laminar flow airfoil. For airplanes, the flow over the wing and body is typically laminar initially and then transitions to turbulent - and one of the factors that determines where that transition occurs is surface roughness. One part of wind tunnel testing is to make sure that the boundary layer transitions on the subscale model in the same location as it would on the full scale, full Reynolds number vehicle. Transition strip, which is a strip of high surface roughness, is placed in the location where this occurs so that aerodynamics measured will correspond to the flight vehicle. Apparently the flow over the space shuttle wing starts outs totally laminar, and then later transitions to mostly turbulent. What happened with Columbia (and other flights) was that one wing was rougher than the other, and thus that wing transitioned from laminar to turbulent much sooner, leading to higher temperatures and higher drag on that wing. The drag meant that the control rockets had to be used more to correct for the induced yaw, and in the past NASA's worry was that the control rockets would run out of fuel before the shuttle landed. So could the assymetric transition itself have led to to the loss of Columbia? NASA doesn't think so, and I have to believe the engineers who designed it wouldn't have let a predictable occurance like that have caused a vehicle failure. Of course, combined with another failure, it could have been a contributing factor.
I Can't Believe I Beat Juan Gato To This Story
An employee spilled 1,800 gallons of tequila when he tried to load an already full holding tank from a tanker truck just in from Mexico reports the Louisville Business Journal. The company spokesman was unconcerned: "Obviously, you'd like not to lose any (tequila)," he said. "But in perspective of things, it's a relatively small amount." The article didn't mention if the employee took a sobriety test following the accident.
Backyard Superfund Site?
The Consumer Products Safety Commision is reporting that wooden outdoor play equipment using lumber treated with chromated copper arsenate (CCA) increases the risk of bladder and lung cancer in children by somewhere between 2 and 100 in a million. The range is due to the uncertainty about how often children put their hands to their mouths and how long they play on the equipment. So the wooden swingset I built for my daughter nine years ago turns out to be a biohazard site. Great.
Bad News About Intestinal Bacteria
Well, Medical Science has found something bad about normal intestinal bacteria. It seems that endotoxins released by these bacteria during bypass sugery leads to cognitive decline in patients. Just for the record, I was the astute reader who tipped off Robert Musil to this finding. Yes, I enjoy him so much I remember posts of his from last August. It's a gift.
February 9, 2003
Belgium Joins the Axis of Weasels
The Washington Post reports that Belgium in solidarity with France and Germany will block a request of the US to provide military aid to Turkey in the event of war with Iraq. And Germany is working with France on a proposal that would include a deployment of UN troops to Iraq coupled with tripling the number of weapons inspectors - which immediately reminds me of the saying why should you expect different results if you keep doing the same thing. I guess one positive note out of all this is that France and Germany have apparently finally buried the hatchet after fighting war after war with each other and trading Alsace and Lorraine back and forth like a cheap baseball card. Maybe now that Iraq has rejected Blix's latest requests, Germany will bother to tell Powell what they've got cooking, instead of letting him read about it in the paper. Do you sometimes wonder if we ever get beyond high school?
Man and Machine Equal, Sort Of
The clash of chess titans Garry Kasparov and Deep Junior ended in a draw with a victory each and four draws. Kasparov spoke with CNN about the match:
"But at end of the day, it's not human, so that's why to win the game, to beat this machine, you have to be very precise, so it's quite unusual for human game, because normal game is always full of sort of inaccuracies if not mistakes, but why here, if you make one mistake, you are out of business."
"I think people recognize that chess offers a unique field to compare man and machine. It's our intuition versus the brute force of calculation. You cannot do it in mathematics, you cannot do it in literature. So chess is somewhere in between, in the crossroads, and we always wanted to know how our intuition could be measured by the machine's force of calculation?"
While Man eked out a draw with the Machine, our problem (speaking as the man I am) is that the Machines are getting better faster than we are. But I'm not worried about my job - until they invent a machine that can suck up to the boss, I feel secure.
February 7, 2003
How I Look At The World
I'm an incrementalist - bet you weren't ready for that. OK, what I mean is that I'm not looking for perfection, I'm looking for things to get better, realizing that all choices have pros and cons. It's like an optometrist checking your eyes - they keep giving you choices between two lenses- "is this better, or that?" And since I've hit the down slope after 40, I have to balance my near and distant vision. If I go for 20/15 with my contacts, there goes reading menus in romantic restaurants. Even bifocals are a comprimise. And that's life. You'll thank me later for saving you a hike up a mountaintop.
Kevin Murphy the lesser
There are a lot of Kevin Murphy's out there. While not as common as John Smith, the name, as a simple google search will show, has become common. Murphy has always been as common as dirt, but Kevin has enjoyed a surge in popularity after I was born. When I was growing up, I only knew of two other Kevin's (OK, 3 if you count St. Kevin, patron saint of blackbirds) but now we're everywhere - I once got an IM from a Kevin Murphy (back in my AOL days) who thought the mutual name was cause for some sort of celebration. There are three Kevin Murphy's who work for the same large company I do, which I know because as I'm listed first in the email directory, I get a lot of their email. Anyway, my referrer logs indicate that somebody came here looking for "Kevin Murphy" "the lesser", and apparently they found him. Kevin Murphy "the greater", according to Google, is a doctor in British Columbia. It's hard to argue, but I can work on being Kevin Murphy the wise, or Kevin Murphy Supreme Commander, or Kevin Murphy one hot tamale.
February 6, 2003
The demise of the Space Shuttle Columbia with seven astronauts onboard has raised important issues about NASA and space exploration. I once worked designing launch trajectories for Delta - I worked on the launches for IRAS, EXOSAT, and LANDSAT-D' before moving on to smaller, more deadly aeronautical programs. I almost went to work at Rockwell in their Shuttle Ascent group.
Rand Simberg (among others) at Transterrestial Musings has made many important points about space exploration. The space shuttle has been an engineering failure - it hasn't achieved, and will never achieve, it's cost, turnaround, and safety goals. The problem is, the replacement programs, such as X-33 (VentureStar) have been even worse failures. The problems with the shuttle date back to decisions made from the dawn of the program, both in terms of engineering and cost. Columbia wasn't destroyed by lack of near-term safety funding, of failure to pay heed to safety guru's demanding more money, but by the inherently risky nature of space travel and design decisions made thirty years ago.
And he's right to say we need to go back to first principles when it comes to space exploration. The problem has been we've never really had any, and so as time has gone on, we've tended to let the programs drive the goals, rather than goals drive programs. So the proper response should be to figure out what we want to do, assign priorities, realistically figure up the cost, and go to it. Will that happen? I doubt it. But here are a few of my ideas anyway.
The space program should do the following:
(1) Provide a permanent human presence in space,
(2) Explore the cosmos, and
(3) Exploit the unique environments beyond earth.
We need humans in space. But that doesn't mean we need to put humans in space when we don't need them. Before Challanger blew up, NASA made Space Shuttle it's only launch vehicle, eliminating expendable rockets, in an attempt to reach cost goals for the shuttle. So we were risking people to put up satellites, which we don't need to do. And we were also putting all our launch eggs in one basket, which blew up in our face. I think there will always be a place for unmanned launch vehicles -- they'll be cheaper because the safety requirements will not have to be as stringent.
Which brings us to safety and risk. One of the safety problems with the shuttle is that it represented a bunch of new technology. We now risk humans on the beta version of technology (sadly 30 years out of date now). Frankly, that's not acceptable from a safety standpoint. People shouldn't be risking their lives until we've tried out the technology on an unmanned vehicle, learned from the inevitable mistakes, and made improvements. While 100% safety is impossible, certainly we can use some common sense.
NASA has done a pretty good job when it comes to exploring the cosmos, but a lousy job when it comes to providing a permanent human presence and exploiting the unique environments beyond earth. There are many who seem to feel that NASA is standing in the way of these goals, and if they would just somehow get out of the way, private initiative would take care of them. I'm not so sure. The example of civil aviation is often cited, but while I think it provides a great notional roadmap, too many of the details don't match. NASA should develop the technology that can be transitioned to private industry, just as it did for civil aviation, but is the technology mature? A lot of aviation pioneers died from accidents; society has become much more intolerant of fatal accidents. Capital costs are orders of magnitude greater as well, with uncertain payoffs. There is no denying that aviation technology received huge boosts from military investments in the world wars, but there hasn't been any military interest in humans in space since MOL (Manned Orbiting Laboratory)was canceled in 1969. A couple modestly successful businessmen (AKA the Wright Brothers) could fund the development, design, construction, and test flights of the first aircraft. Can the same be said of launch vehicles, let alone space stations? That leaves tourism, so far the only money maker in manned space efforts. Is Disney ready to spend the billions required when the risks are large and the return uncertain? Is any company with the pockets deep enough ready to roll the dice on space? In short no. NASA needs to make the eventual privatization of space a goal (OK, make it number 4 up above) so that it's programs support that goal, but I don't think we're there yet.
Gotta Love Drudge
Columbia disentigrates upon re-entry; Colin Powell is calling the UN to battle; North Korea is warning the US of total war. Drudge links to a story about the decrease of shark attacks, which claims the decrease is due to a worldwide economic slowdown. Or it could just be the media has too many real stories to report on.
February 1, 2003
Columbia Ave Atque Vale
The space shuttle Columbia blew up today, killing the seven astronauts on board. It is a sad day for all of us, but especially for the friends and family of the astronauts. The space shuttle, and the space station for that matter, get very little news coverage anymore, unless something goes wrong. Space has become routine, so they say. It's not routine for the brave souls who rocket into space on a pillar of fire and return riding a wave of white hot plasma. It's not routine for all the people who work hard with the safety of those brave souls in mind. It's not routine for all of us who understand the hard work, dedication, and yes, risk taking associated with scientific and engineering advancement. I'm sure NASA will figure out what happened, if they don't already know, and it will be fixed, and we will return to routine. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a fighter pilot and an astronaut. Lousy eyesight and motion sickness ended those dreams. But I continue to dream about human exploration and advance into space - the final, unending, still beckoning frontier.