Another One Assimilated

I’ve been weeding the blogroll garden a little. I’ve divided my former space/science section into two separate ones, and I’ve added a new one to the space section–Spaceship Summer. Its author, Derek Lyons, says that it is “dedicated to information about space tourism, the X-Prize, and CATS (Cheap Acess to Space).”

Derek has been known on at least one occasion, in, to disparage the blogosphere.

Welcome to the evil empire, Derek.

The Starship Free Enterprise

The Economist has a good article on SpaceShipOne. There’s only one problem with it:

…it is difficult for his competitors (as well as everybody else) to work out what a ticket might actually cost.

A back-of-the-envelope calculation gives some idea. Mr Rutan says his highest costs are staff for the pre- and post-flight check-ups. He has a few dozen staff and, at one point, had a plan to run SpaceShipOne once a week for five months. Assuming each of his staff cost $120 an hour to employ, it would cost a minimum of $60,000 per tourist for staff alone.

That assumes that his entire staff is dedicated to SpaceShipOne operations. He has many other projects to which they would charge, so a SpaceShipOne flight won’t bear the full burden of his standing…well, not army, but perhaps a large squad, or perhaps a platoon. So I think that these are overestimates of his overhead costs.

Penal code reform

There’s an important story that’s not getting enough press, so I figured I’d blog it to try to raise the profile a bit. Supreme Court Justice Kennedy just accepted a report from the ABA on the dysfunction in the US penal system. The upshot is that we are pissing away huge amounts of taxpayer money incarcerating nonviolent drug offenders thanks to mandatory minimum sentences created by politicians trying to seem tough on crime. The same political dynamics lead to the idiocy of alcohol prohibition. The ABA commission website has the text of the report, summaries, and some other useful material on the subject.

The system is deeply flawed, even if you think drug laws are a good idea. It makes no sense whatsoever to sentence a street level dealer to twice the amount of time given to someone who commits assault, but that’s the way things are right now. We desperately need reform of the whole penal system – perhaps this report can begin the process.

Flawed Premises

Eli Lehrer has the right solution, for the wrong reasons.

I’ll explain why a little later, when I get a minute.

Actually, looking at what I just wrote, I realize that people are going to think, “Great. Now he’ll go off somewhere and get hit by the beer truck, and it will be like Fermat’s Last Theorem, and it will take centuries to figure it out.”

I’ll try to get to it later, honest. In the meantime, I can leave it as an exercise for the students in the comments section, and maybe I won’t have to.

Why, Yes, I Am Busy

Why do you ask?

I’m in the middle of helping figure out lunar/Mars transportation architectures for a client in response to NASA’s Broad Area Announcement, and have little time to post. Fortunately Andrew’s picking up some of the slack, and Clark Lindsey has an amazing number of interesting links this week (check out yesterday’s edition as well as today’s).

Also, Jay Manifold has been collecting media reactions here and here. As Andrew reports via Pat Bahn, the “giggle factor” is dissipating rapidly, if not gone completely.

Things are definitely heating up.

[Update at 9:25 PM PDT]

Here’s another non-giggling piece from Newsweek.

A Pleasant Evening

I just got back from a pleasant evening hanging out with some of the local space geeks (Clark Lindsey, Jeff Foust, Phil Smith, and Pat Bahn). The main topic of conversation was obviously SpaceShipOne and the ramifications of the flight. Two noteworthy things came up. First of all, Pat confirms that the giggle factor is pretty much dead as far as investors are concerned. He can’t go into details for obvious reasons, but he speaks from direct experience. Everyone suspected this would happen, but it’s nice to have real data. The second point that came up which I thought I’d mention is this: In the SS1 development program so far there have been four incidents in which the pilot saved the plane. The landing problem on the December 17th test, the uncommanded nose rise on the August 27th test, the computer failure on the May 13th shot, and the roll problem on the most recent flight. In an unmanned system each one of those would most likely have lead to loss of vehicle. The lesson is clear – pilots are good. Again, no surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention to alt-space, but it’s nice to have further confirmation.

Orbital Survivor

Dwayne Day says that the next frontier for reality teevee will be the high one.

My friend Dr. Day has long been a skeptic about commercial human spaceflight, but like many others, he’s slowly coming to his senses… 😉

Seriously (like most of his work) it’s a carefully researched and interesting history of the intersection between private manned space and television over the past several years. Amidst the rubble of the past failures (as is often the case) it may be about to finally succeed.

Education Reform

Via a comment on this post, I came across an interesting blog that I hadn’t seen before. The topic is k-12 education reform, something close to my heart since both my parents were high school teachers, my Mom for her whole career, and my Dad while he was in the Peace Corps[*].

I came out of an education system with high stakes testing, so I’m fairly comfortable with it. It seems to me that some sort of testing is necessary in order to measure teaching effectiveness. The stakes for the student should not be all-or-nothing, though. The ideal is testing that measures school performance, but which constitutes only a part of the student’s grade. The teacher and school should be assessed on aggregate test scores across all students, presumably with some cross comparison with other schools in similar circumstances (since it doesn’t make sense to compare inner city schools to suburban magnet schools, for example). The process of actually measuring school performance isn’t simple, but it is necessary to have some sort of feedback mechanism that focuses teacher and administrator attention on a meaningful performance metric.

Testing is a bit of a fad these days, which is a mixed blessing. At least some testing schemes are stupid and destructive (all or nothing tests that track students into the smart kids track or the regular track, for example). The diversity of schemes being tried suggests that at least some will work, and hopefully the good ones will be adopted by other states and school districts. In the meantime some of the kids being experimented on will suffer needlessly thanks to political stupidity, but the alternative is kids suffering due to political neglect, so it’s not obviously a losing proposition.

Anyway, go dig around the site a bit. Even if you don’t have kids, you are directly affected by this.

[*] incidentally, IMO the Peace Corps is probably the best investment in foreign relations that the US has ever made. High level bladiblahblah doesn’t last longer than the leadership of the foreign countries being engaged. Massive aid projects line the pockets of corrupt bureaucrats. Actual US citizens interacting one-on-one with local people and materially improving their lives spreads American ideals into the grassroots, and inoculates at least some people against rabid anti-Americanism in a way that lasts long after the volunteer has gone home.

Back In LA

I just drove back down from Mojave. While I was up there, people who were watching the news might actually have a better idea than I do of the actual flight results, because I couldn’t get into the press conference, and none of the reporters who did were talking until they’d filed.

There’s some discussion going on in this post that the damage to the vehicle may have been more severe than thought. If the fuselage literally “buckled,” that’s a Very Bad thing, and I’m not sure what it means except that either their design is wrong, or its execution is. Of course, there was damage on the last flight as well, and they flew this one. I don’t know when they were planning to announce the Ansari X-Prize attempt, but I suspect that if they’d had a picture perfect flight today, it would have come sooner than it will now. I’m betting on at least one more flight test before the official attempt, particularly since it seemed to be underperforming as well (it barely achieved altitude, and it wasn’t carrying the ballast to account for passengers).

More tweaking ahead. Of course the fact that it’s tweakable is exactly the point of the program.

[Update a couple minutes later]

Kevin Murphy has a play by play.

[Another update a couple minutes later still]

Here’s Leonard David’s account based on the press conference.

[Late night update]

Jeff Foust has the best reporting on the flight that I’ve read so far.