Fulcrum Ruminations

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Shuttling off to Buffalo

The space shuttle is up.

No wait, it's grounded . . .

No, wait, it's good to go!!


NASA arranged the most thorough launch coverage ever for the lift-off of space shuttle Discovery this past week. All seemed to go well, until review of the truckloads of video showed pieces of stuff breaking off of the external fuel tank again. Oh, and the shuttle seems to also have hit a bird, of all things, a second or two after launch.

A careful inspection of the shuttle, first from on-board equipment and then from the vantage of the space station as Discovery executed a slow "backflip," has revealed no appreciable damage. Ship and crew should be safe from the tragic accident that befell Columbia two years ago.

But here's the thing: the space shuttle is old. It's late 1970s - early 1980s technology. The airframes are still in good shape, but the computers are ancient, the instruments somewhat dated, and the whole contraption a good deal more rickety than is generally appreciated.

Don't get me wrong, I think the shuttle program has been an amazing, historic success overall. Tons of useful science has been done, the state of the art of aerospace engineering advanced by leaps and bounds. Mission after mission of pure scientific achievement. In my view, it's been well worth the money spent on it.

But it's old. It's creaky. It's more dangerous than anyone really thought. Time to retire the remaining ships (that would be Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavour for those of you keeping score at home) and build the new, improved Space Transportation System.

From my layman's perspective, I'd say have a dual-track arrangement. First you've got some variant of Big Dumb Booster for slinging cargo, instrumentation, fuel, and whatnot up to orbit. We should probably work with the Russians on this idea as their approach to space launchers seems to be somewhat more robust than ours. Then a small vehicle for sending crews and minimal cargo, something along the lines of the European Space Agency's Hermes space plane perhaps. The small size of the space plane makes launching it less expensive than the current shuttle (you might even be able to do a Pegasus-style launch if you get the engineering right) and also means we can have a bunch of them instead of just four. The low-tech, non-man-rated Big Dumb Booster is also relatively cheap to operate and if you lose one, it's not such a big deal. You can essentially crank those out like toasters since they're not crammed full of ultra-high-tech bits.

Then I'd add some facilities to the Space Station to make it into a Mission Control Light, as it were. Give it the capacity to do everything Houston Control can do, only it's up in orbit. It could also serve as a "construction shack" for putting together segments launched via BDB for interplanetary missions or manned trips to the Moon and Mars.

Recent developments in the private sector indicate to me that the tech and imagination to do big things in space is ready and available. We just have to get the dead hand of the government as out of the way as is practical. Put NASA back to doing pure R&D, then turn it over to private enterprise to make it work, perhaps with government seed money to get things started.

That's how I see it, anyway.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Show Him The Door

Evidence is mounting that Bush political strategist Karl Rove may have been the person who leaked the identity of then-CIA employee Valerie Plame to the press. This compromised a clandestine agent and by extension put at risk anyone Ms. Plame may have been "working" for intel.

There's legal debate over whether what Rove did constitutes an actual crime. I don't see that that matters. If he did commit a crime, the investigation should eventually bear that out.

What troubles me is Bush's statement of some months ago that if the ongoing investigation revealed who was involved, they would be "taken care of." The inference clearly being that they would be punished in some manner. Rove, of course, is Bush's closest political advisor and by all accounts is a personal friend to the President. Bush has not commented overtly on the matter yet, with the White House doing the usual bob-n-weave about "ongoing investigations" and all that. But he's apparently also passed up a couple opportunities to defend Rove, aside from being seen chatting with him (out of the range of press corps microphones) on the way to or from an appointment.

I can see Bush's plight. Rove is a friend and Bush, despite what anyone thinks, does stick by his friends. He also can't just cave in to demands that Rove be removed from the White House, as that would cost him political "face." But, he must also distance himself from Rove until something more definitive comes along. My problem is that given Bush's earlier statement, to retain what credibility he still has he must push Rove out the door if Rove was in fact the source of the leak.

And it goes without saying (tho I'll say it anyway) that you do not compromise clandestine agents. Ever. No matter Rove's motivation, and it seems as I write this that the motivation was petty partisanship, that is simply not done. It shows a grotesque lack of regard for proper conduct for the sake of cheap and momentary political gain.

In other news, Chief Justice Rehnquist is out of the hospital. Good deal.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Round and Round

Another day, another savage and barbaric terrorist attack. London's turn to feel the wrath of these subhuman murderers this time.

Obviously timed to coincide with the G8 summit, this latest outrage will hopefully serve to put a little backbone in the European Union. The Brits have historically not responded as planned to this sort of thing . . . ask the IRA about that.

Altho a splinter group of Al Qaeda has claimed credit, it remains to be seen as I sit here typing this who the actual perpetrators might have been. I just know that at least forty innocent Britains are dead, hundreds more wounded, and London was thrown into chaos for a few hours.

Does it tire you, gentle reader, this bizarre and unending habit of the human race of slaughtering one another? It wearies me, I know that. And yet, vigilance must be maintained until everyone learns to love their neighbor as they would their brother. If you disarm the village, the first barbarian to come over the hill ruins everyone's day. You have to make sure there's no more barbarians waiting on the other side of the hill. That's the trick.

We're not there yet.