Archive for the ‘Space’ category

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.

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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 http://www.AAAS.org.

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.