Archive for the ‘Space’ category

WASF, Part ∞

November 23, 2016

If we can’t see it, it won’t happen, climate change edition:

Donald Trump is poised to eliminate all climate change research conducted by Nasa as part of a crackdown on “politicized science”, his senior adviser on issues relating to the space agency has said.

Nasa’s Earth science division is set to be stripped of funding in favor of exploration of deep space.

After all, we can’t have any of that nasty left wing bias that reality imposes:

There is overwhelming and long-established evidence that burning fossil fuels and deforestation causes the release of heat-trapping gases, therefore causing the warming experienced in recent decades.

[Trump campaign advisor Bob] Walker, however, claimed that doubt over the role of human activity in climate change “is a view shared by half the climatologists in the world. We need good science to tell us what the reality is and science could do that if politicians didn’t interfere with it.”

Walker is, as one expects from Trumpistas, simply lying. Half of the world’s climatologists do not doubt the fact of human-driven climate change, unless you include those who got their advanced degrees at the University of Exxon’s Koch School of Science.  Ostriches and sand ain’t in it.


This is a hugely consequential move.  There are two technologies that are essential to modern climate science: large scale numerical modelling made possible by the insane advances in computing power and associated computer science over the last several decades…and remote sensing, the ability to monitor earth systems on a planetary scale.  That’s what NASA — and for the forseeable future, no one else, brings with its earth science programs.  Kill that and we not only lose data going forward, we degrade a capability in an intellectual infrastructure that will take a long time indeed to restore:

Kevin Trenberth, senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, said as Nasa provides the scientific community with new instruments and techniques, the elimination of Earth sciences would be “a major setback if not devastating”.

“It could put us back into the ‘dark ages’ of almost the pre-satellite era,” he said. “It would be extremely short sighted.

“We live on planet Earth and there is much to discover, and it is essential to track and monitor many things from space. Information on planet Earth and its atmosphere and oceans is essential for our way of life. Space research is a luxury, Earth observations are essential.”

This is a call your representative kind of issue.  It’s going to be difficult, certainly, if Trump really does go down this path, but NASA is enough of a pork barrel, and some GOP senators, at least, are not wholly clueless on this issue, so it might be possible to avoid the worst outcome.  It’s necessary to try.  If and as I hear of organized campaigns on this, I’ll bring the news  here.


PS: that laser like media focus during the campaign on issues like climate change sure was impressive, wasn’t it?

C. C. Pierce, Carl Eytel and George Wharton James in a horse-drawn wagon on the Butterfield Stage Road in the Colorado Desert, c.1903. (Eytel was a painter associated with the “smoketree school” of artists working on desert subjects; James was a journalist and photographer.)

Don’t Even Think About Being The Coolest Person On (Above) The Planet…

May 12, 2013

…that slot is taken:

Tip o’ the hat to Commander Chris Hadfield (@Cmdr_Hadlfield) aboard the International Space Station.

October 18, 2012

Good work by the LA Times  yields ~2:40 of pure pleasure


You’re welcome.

Annals of Stupidity Update–More on the GOP Hates Science beat

July 24, 2011

I didn’t get around to  flagging this on the day, but I’ve just arrived in Shanghai, and the China connection in the folly below reminded me I’d meant to write on this one.

I’m here to take part in a workshop for East Asian journalists on covering climate change, and for science journalism instructors to think about how to teach this odd craft.  This is exactly the kind of exchange IMHO, that might be kind of useful in a world in which a range of issues facing the public demand both knowledge and analytical skill manifest across society, if anything like democratic informed consent is ever to be achieved.

Sadly, this is not a priority for your modern GOP.  In fact, it is something that our empiricism-averse friends on the right actively seem to oppose.

That’s the conclusion I draw from this New York Times article, published just a little over a week ago:

A proposal by Rep. Frank Wolf, a fierce critic of Beijing, would slash by 55 percent the $6.6 million budget of the White House’s science policy office. The measure was endorsed by a congressional committee this week, but faces more legislative hurdles, and its prospects are unclear.

IIRC, this blog (others) have been on aspects of the GOP fear of technical cooperation in any form with China.  Wolf in particular has sought to block US-China exchange of information about their space programs, which the GOP has already banned, despite

….one benefit of basic forms of cooperation, such as sharing data and basic design criteria, could be to learn a little more about China’s opaque space program. Since 1999, the U.S. effectively banned use of its space technology by China. That also has a commercial downside for American producers in an increasingly globalized marketplace.

“Renewing civil and commercial space cooperation with China … is not a blank check and need not provide China with sensitive technologies,” wrote James Clay Moltz of the Naval Postgraduate School in testimony at a congressional hearing on China’s civilian and military space programs in May.

Economic and national security costs don’t seem to bother Wolf, who has already succeeded in attaching a ban on NASA-China Space Agency cooperation to a bill that made its way through committee in the House this month, (which is to say, fortunately, it’s still a long way from becoming law).

But that act against US interests is not sufficient to slake Wolf’s thirst for stupid.

Because of what he alleges to be Science Advisor John Holdren’s violation of the earlier rules on US-China contact on space, he now wants to crash the entire enterprise of providing high-level science advice to the President.  Holdren’s “crime”:

Meeting twice with China’s science minister in Washington during May.

Uhhh.  The top US science advisor meets with the relevant minister from, you know, the world’s most populous nation, one which is developing enormously rapidly, and oh, by the way, holds a gazillion or so in US government debt…and that great sin of conversation Wolf says, means that  “The Office of Science and Technology Policy is in violation of the law,”

Wolf’s remedy? Cut either 55% or all of the OSTP’s budget


Anyone who thinks that the Republican Party is actually a political institution capable of governing and suitable to be entrusted with a share of power is not paying attention.  They’re a cult.

That is all.

Image: Quentin Massys, An Allegory of Folly, early 16th century.

I do believe I’ve used this one before.  But I just can’t quit it, because there are some motley characters out there who so fit the image.


Soshalist Obama’s Secret Plan to Bring Kenyan Mooslim Communism To Outer Space

February 5, 2011

So, in 2010, while distracting the nation with a smokescreen of trivialities like the creation of  death panels to murder grandma in the name of health care reform and the government take over of a reform of the financial system, that relentless enemy of all things capitalist, Barack Hussein Obama, snuck past an unsuspecting public his real plan:  NASA now leads the government take over of the high ground! Yup, the final frontier itself.

Or not, as today’s New York Times reports.

Last year, the Obama administration pushed through an ambitious transformation for NASA: canceling the Ares I rocket, which was to be the successor to the current generation of space shuttles, and turning to the commercial sector for astronaut transportation.

The story focuses mostly on the work of Sierra Nevada Space Systems, which sounds as if it has done a number of very clever things, including leveraging prior work by NASA on a space-plane design (itself derived from a spy-plane photographed Soviet experiment).  That project had been discarded under the former and not-much-missed administrator Daniel Goldin, but Sierra Nevada’s use of the external shape of the earlier vehicle allows them to grab all the wind test data NASA collected before the original project went poof.


What’s this?  Under Obama’s administration, smart and nimble private companies are aiding the government in the achievement of national goals while seeking profit?


Next thing you know, Richard Branson will sign up to handle the passanger trade for the new space hoppers.

Oh wait:

Virgin Galactic, the spacecraft division of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin empire, signed on as a strategic partner in December. Among the possible roles that Virgin could play is selling seats on the Dream Chaser.

That dastardly Obama.   You know he’s not a real American because he’s so damn sneaky.

Image:  Y’all know this one, right.  Anyway:  Vincent van Gogh Starry Night, 1889

Because I’ve Got Too Much On Today to Blog Seriously…And I’m Feeling Spacey…And Did I Say That I Love You….

March 3, 2010

Can’t be an orbital kind of day without casting mind and ear back to tone deaf, (sic!) cult-hero, sonwriting/producing murderer-suicide Joe Meek* and this hit:

And just to make sure the weirdness gets its full run, consider this make-my-backbone-quiver, oh-my-fsm-I’m-back-in-Second-Grade-classroom-film-experience account of the machine that forged some untraceable synaptic connection to yield the song above:

*a)  You couldn’t make Meek’s story up, and b) perhaps not everyone’s mind thinks telecommunications satellites and the strange, strange world of London’s early ’60s music scene when they feel that wave of not-enough-coffee disorientation, but apparently I do.

Because it’s Friday: One Giant Step For Who? department….

March 6, 2009

And Spare A Thought For…

December 25, 2008

The Beagle 2 Lander — lost. presumed wrecked on this day 2003.

Not only is it appropriate to remember this one-among-many-failed space missions on the eve of the Darwin year, but it serves as a more general reminder of how hard it is to do science.

If the stuff we wanted to know (is there/was there life on Mars?; what underlies the remarkable order we observe in the universe?; what explains the odd fact that the object typing these letters is aware of itself typing these letters?; and so on) was easy, then everyone would do it and/or we would know all there is to be known.

Ain’t happened yet; doesn’t seem likely that it will.  The little Beagle, silent this last half a decade gives one minor insight into why.  So raise a glass to it, and to those who thought the gamble worth the risk of sending it off in the first place.

Happy Newton day all, again.

Image: Chasma Boreale, a feature of Mars’ north polar ice cap.  NASA Mars as Art gallery.

McCain Hopes We Like Stupid: Space Policy edition

September 1, 2008

(Warning:  A Palin-free politics/science post follows!):

As a way to get back after a summer holiday into one of this blogs main strands, how about a bit of an examination of what the two major candidates for President think about the appropriate approach to space exploration for the United States?

The issue is not the most important of science initiatives the Feds are involved in, IMHO, (basic research funding and support for graduate education top it by far, in my priority list, as do a number of applied areas in which the government is the lead or sole meaningful funder.)  But it does go to how both men think, and it also addresses one of the sillier MSM and GOP memes — that Obama is a pretty speaker with no substance, no specifics.

So — as Werner Wolf would say….let’s go to the videotape.

The short form: McCain wants to spend a lot of money on manned space, with a view to getting humans first back to the moon, and then on to Mars, on something like the original Bush timetable. Obama largely agrees with the manned space initiatives first articulated under Bush but emphasizes robotic space science, new vehicle development, and earth monitoring systems, not to mention the need for international collaboration far more than McCain.

For the details — check out McCain’s space policy statement here, and Obama’s here.

Now for the blogger’s gloss: McCain’s approach to this issue is instructive on several fronts, none of which should give those interested in the future of an American presence in space much comfort.

First, there is the mail-it-in quality of the McCain issue presentation: a few paragraphs of windy rhetoric followed by bullet points. For example — read this:

Senator McCain understands the importance of investments in key industries such as space to the future of our national security, environmental sustainability, economic competitiveness, and national pride as a technological leader.

I’m glad McCain’s campaign thinks he understands important stuff. I’d be more inclined to believe it if the claim were followed by anything other than a bare list of the things that be might affected by investments in space. Maybe this is my elitism ™ showing, but this kind of stuff is pure boilerplate, the kind of thing you get out of congressmen’s offices when some senior aide shouts down the chain “we need a position on sea turtles…” or whatever. OK for the representative from somewhere or other, but not so good for someone who will actually have authority over NASA.

There could be a simple explanation for this kind of slipshod stuff: the folks over in McCain-land may understand that it doesn’t matter what the campaign promises now for anything that fall under the discretionary spending side of the federal budget.

Lots of people have by now pointed out that putting together McCain’s tax policy, his commitments to a balanced budget (though if you believe in that as a “commitment” I refer you to the fate of similar promises made by George W. Bush), and his support of military spending, there is nothing left– and I mean nothing — for most of the rest of what the government currently pays for. My version of this can be found here.

(There is another possible way out of this budget trap for McCain. He could slash Social Security and Medicaid. I’m not saying he will; but if in fact he were to deliver on the stuff he says he will do, there really aren’t many choices: raise taxes a bunch or cut spending out of the big ticket items. In other words…don’t hold your breath).

Quick Obama break. Compare his policy statement to McCain’s. It is a fairly high level, aspirational document too — that’s the genre after all. But point by point, where McCain has a single, “trust me” promise, Obama lays out some specific goals he expects to reach. For example, on an area close to my heart, NASA’s great observatories, here’s Obama’s paragraph:

Supporting Space-Based Observatories: Platforms like the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra XRay Observatory, the Gamma Ray Observatory, and the Spitzer Space Telescope have yielded some of the greatest scientific discoveries of the last century. Obama is committed to a bold new set of such platforms and programs to expand our knowledge of the cosmos.

That is, compared to the McCain aspirational graph above, even in the “mom and apple pie” section of the policy statement, Obama shows that someone on his staff knows not just that NASA does big expensive stuff (McCain’s point) but that expensive stuff has paid for specific missions that have accomplished important and well known science.  Who’s the windy, pretty speaker here?

In any event, don’t take my word for it. Read both campaign’s statements and judge for yourself.

Back to the third point, the buried lede of this post.

This is what McCain has to say about his decision to pursue human space exploration:

Although the general view in the research community is that human exploration is not an efficient way to increase scientific discoveries given the expense and logistical limitations, the role of manned space flight goes well beyond the issue of scientific discovery and is reflection of national power and pride.

Here’s Obama on the same subject:

Human spaceflight is important to America’s political, economic, technological, and scientific leadership.

McCain says, in essence, that expert opinion is irrelevant. In essence, the quote above says “I know this is a stupid way to spend money, but I’m going to do it anyway because it makes me feel good (and it shows I carry a big stick).”

Obama, by contrast, says, without disdain for anyone, that human space exploration produces a number of benefits, including but not limited to its scientific value.

You could argue that McCain gives a justification for his choice with the reference to national pride and power.   But drilling down one more level still doesn’t rebound to McCain’s credit, IMHO:  his reason for ignoring the experts is emotional:  pride and power are abstract, feel-good goals, not actual, definable outcomes.

To repeat, contrast that with Obama’s claim that focusing resources is a means to address a number of particular ends:  enhancing economic and technological development, as well as giving the US a political tool with which to engage other nations ( if you don’t know what this is about, think about the intensive diplomacy that goes into organizing foreign astronauts on the space shuttle or cooperation on the international aspect of the ISS).

The differences are kinda subtle — but the point is that words uttered by Presidents or potential presidents matter.  McCain’s emphasis on just the topline of feeling and force does not give me much comfort

And the difference in affect offers at least a small window on both men and both potential Presidencies, I think. McCain in his space policy statements — one rather minor corner of the President’s responsibilities, to be sure — gives a hint about his (or his circle’s) mind works:  check off a constituency, say as little as possible, and ignore rather than address criticism that you don’t like.

Obama’s rhetoric, the way he frames his choice offers an affirmative argument for his policy choices, and at least some detail (far more than McCain) about the specific expectations, the content of those policies.

Which kind of mind, which kind of judgment would you rather have in a President?

(You can see the actual space policy proposals from John McCain in all their richly executed detail below the jump.  I can’t pull the Obama details from the PDF file that is my source for this comparison.  Here’s the link again if you want to check out.  If you do, you’ll find that in comparison with the thin gruel below, Obama’s policy positions begin on page two of a six + page document, and, notably includes and education component to go with the mission and tech/economic development ideas included within the policy.)

Image: Caspar David Friedrich, Two Men Contemplating the Moon,” 1819.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.


More on the fate of science under Bush (and McCain?…)

May 9, 2008

See this comment from Kevin on the Daily Kos thread responding to the McCain/science post below.

Kevin wrote:

Thoughts from a Cancer Biology graduate student (8+ / 0-)

I’m new to the site, but I just thought i’d throw my two cents in here. I’m finishing up my PhD in Molecular Cancer Biology at Duke University and I hope to give you some insight as to how bad things are getting in the scientific community. When i first entered graduate school in 2002, nearly 25 percent of all new grants were being funded by the NIH. Now, slightly more than 10 percent are. This has led to limited job opportunities for graduating students, a smaller group of professors holding a larger piece of the NIH pie (fewer new ideas and perspectives on complex and longstanding problems), and will surely have long lasting consequences on the ability to recruit new brilliant minds as the job market continues to decline.

I urge all to speak to your congressmen, and speak up about a problem many will talk about and few will actually do anything for. You can also find out more information at the American Association for the Advancement of Science website

Technology is at the heart of almost all new invention. At a time when we need great thinkers to solve problems inherent in the U.S. and clearly the rest of the world (i.e. global warming, petroleum dependency, health sciences research and yes, even our countries defense capabilities) the Bush administration has taken away funding and slowed the progress that we’ve been moving towards in all these areas. Unless steps are taken soon, our ability to solve these problems will be greatly compromised in order to pay for a war we dont need, and tax cuts we cant afford.

Pay close attention to the key number in Kevin’s post: there has been a nearly 60% drop in grants funded by the NIH over the education of one graduate student. Similar cutbacks are occuring at other major science and engineering funding agencies.

Everything Kevin says about the consequences of such a decline is true: fewer grad students; fewer jobs for newly graduated researchers (not to be confused with graduated beakers); shrinking incentives for technically or mathematically skilled undergraduates to consider science or engineering basic research as a career, and so on.

The larger consequences follow on with shocking speed. It takes a long time — decades — to build up a research infrastructure. Labs, space, machines — but above all people who have ideas and time and room enough to pursue ideas that don’t work out (most of them) and the few that do. (Take a look at this NOVA program about Judah Folkman for the virtues of persistence and the absolute necessity of an ongoing flow of grad student and post doc money to produce important results.)

As Kevin argues, it takes much less time — years, maybe a decade, to unravel the technical capacity to do research. To take an example from the engineering side of things. As late as 1973, with the launch of Skylab, the United States possessed the ability to lift large payloads into orbit, and to carry manned missions as far as the moon, all using one of the true monuments of 20th century technology, the Saturn V rocket. That was the moon rocket’s last flight. Within a few years, though much of the infrastructure of the moon missions remained, the core manufacturing capacity to build more such rockets was lost.

The consequence: Skylab was designed to remain safely in orbit until 1981, two years past the scheduled debut of the Space Shuttle, which would be deployed to dock with America’s space station (yup, we had one thirty five years ago), and move the facility to a higher orbit.

Then Skylab’s parking orbit deteriorated early, in 1979. The shuttles, behind schedule, were unavailable. The last Saturn Vs had already long since been mothballed and placed, in some cases, on museum display. The production line had been shut down for almost a decade. A decade after landing men on the moon, the US had exactly no space vehicles capable of carrying humans to near earth orbit.

And now, even though the shuttle does exist, we lack anything approaching the heavy life capacity the US space program possessed forty years ago. Hence the very costly, unlikely-to-finish-anytime-soon Ares rocket development project, now scheduled for first flight in 2015, forty three years after the last American walked on the moon.

That is: to put it in the words of that noted analyst of science policy, Joni Mitchell,

Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you’ve got
‘Til its gone

To return to the core theme of this post, this blog, and Kevin’s comment: John McCain’s priorities for federal spending put science funding in deep danger. If we continue to gut funding for basic science research and education, we face the loss not just of specific projects left undone, but of the capacity to do the cutting edge science and technological investigation that is the foundation of our prosperity and our national security.

Usually I illustrate this blog with fine art. But this clip from a seminal work in American motion picture history seems more appropriate somehow.