Sean O’Keefe

This AP story doesn’t say who’s aboard, but I’m hearing other reports that he was aboard the plane that crashed in Alaska.

He’s a former administrator, so it will have no effect on policy, obviously, but condolences to his friends and family if he and/or his son didn’t survive.

[Update a while later]

More over at NASA Watch.

Mike Griffin

…continues to defend the indefensible. Clark Lindsey has a response. Others have commented on this particularly bit of misleading the uninformed:

Griffin also suggested that the plan didn’t put much thought into the decision to defer a human return to the Moon in favor of a mission to a near Earth asteroid by 2025. The made that choice, he suggested, “apparently without realizing that the delta-V to get to almost all asteroids is higher than the delta-V to get to Mars” with similarly long travel times and limited launch windows. “In a number of ways reaching asteroids can be harder than reaching Mars.”

While I agree that it’s unlikely that much thought was put into the 2025 asteroid mission, this is disingenuous. No one said that we’re going to visit “almost all asteroids,” or even one in the main belt, so the velocity needed to get to “almost all asteroids” is irrelevant. All that really matters is the delta-V to get to the one that we choose, and there are many earth crossers with very low requirements.

On the subject of his comments about new technologies, I would expand on Clark’s critique. Mike says:

He was skeptical of the plan’s emphasis on “gamechanging” technologies to enable human space exploration. “Any time I develop a new technology I potentially change someone’s game,” he said. “Without a plan, I don’t know what game, I don’t know if it’s the game I ought to be changing, or if it’s a high-value game or a low-value game, but I’m going to change something, so it’s pretty easy to promise that I’ll do gamechanging technologies.”

He added that such technology development programs can be prime targets for future budget cuts, either by the Office of Management and Budget or in Congress. “The Congress surgically removes those programs and spreads the money to goals that they have in mind,” he claimed. “No congressman or senator ever gets credit for a technology program. Congressmen and senators get credit for projects.”

The first statement is simply gobbledygook (to be kind). It’s real simple, Mike. The plan is to explore the solar system with human beings. The current “game,” which you reinforced with Apollo on Steroids, deliberately eschewing the use of any new technology, is unaffordable and unsustainable, the complete opposite of what the Aldridge Commission recommended that the VSE must be. Any technology that dramatically reduces the development or operational cost, or increases the amount of activity that can be performed for a given cost, is a “game changer” and a high-value one. Deferring for now the development of heavy lifters and replacing them with propellant depots (as the Augustine panel members cited as a “game changer”) would be one example.

As for what congressmen or senators get “credit” for,” all he’s really saying is that unless it’s a big jobs program, it’s not politically sustainable. That is all the more reason to get the commercial people in the game as soon as possible, so that they can rely on things other than porcine motivations for continued space activity. And as the events of the past few months show, it’s clear that when the price per pound is astronomical, even pork can’t survive forever, even if it was accomplishing useful things toward the goal of opening up space, as Constellation was not. So given the choice between politically unsustainable hyperexpensive launchers and politically unsustainable useful new technologies, give me the technologies.

The Big DNA Letdown

Thoughts on the (so far) overhype of genetic sequencing.

I think that there are going to be huge breakthroughs in health and longevity, but our understanding of genetics is currently much too dismal for them to come from DNA analysis in the near term.

My understanding is that the DNA is a recipe, not a blueprint. And while even with a blueprint of a house, the final product is still dependent on the carpenter, it is at least specified. A recipe can have much more varied outcomes, depending on the cook, and the available resources and ingredients.

Remembering History And The Fallen

And passing on the memories to a younger generation:

It goes without saying that re-enactors take what they do very seriously. But the mistake is often made in assuming that it is all about dressing up and playing army and searching for that transcendent moment when the present falls away and the past is once again alive. Just as important to these re-enactors is the act of honoring the fallen, of making sure their sacrifices — often the supreme one — are never forgotten.

As I watched through the day, this same spirit seemed to imbue the Scouts with a similar sense of pride and purpose. These were Silicon Valley kids after all, their lives filled with Facebook and World of Warcraft, MTV, and SATs. Many have seen their parents lose jobs in the last couple years; and many will soon choose a lesser, cheaper college because their families can no longer afford the tuition. And more than one Scout couldn’t join us on this trip because of tight family budgets. And yet, as difficult as times are, marching in the heat in a scratchy wool uniform with a rifle on your shoulder put things into context for the boys. It could be much much worse. They could be dumped into a grave in Ball’s Bluff, or standing at the Angle, watching as canister blew to bits boys their age on the other side, and nervously awaiting the bayonets of Pickett’s and Pettigrew’s on-rushing howling divisions.

This reality hit us all, men and boys, most deeply when Captain Mullin’s wife Katie, in her long, traditional dress, delivered to each of us packages “from home”: hand-addressed packets of string-tied butcher paper bearing replicas of stamps of the era. Inside, in an extraordinary effort by the ladies of the 71st, we found, wrapped in wax paper, gifts of lye soap, dried fruit, peanuts, shortbread, handkerchiefs embroidered with our initials (and a medicinal bottle of whiskey for me, the colonel) and, most touching of all, hand-copied versions of real letters from home of the era. No instant messages, no emails, not even a cellphone call from home — in 1862 this might be all that a young soldier might hear from home in months.

I don’t think that either side of that war was fighting for universal health care, mortgage bailouts, or bloated public-employee pension plans.


OK, several people have asked, in off-topic comments and email, about this announcement by SpaceX from last week, and wondering why I haven’t noted it.

Two reasons: first, a lot of it is in a piece I wrote for Popular Mechanics last week, and expected to run last week, and I didn’t want to step on the story here. Second, I didn’t think it was that big a piece of news. There’s little here that hasn’t been known for years to people who have been following the company and Elon’s plans. All it does is flesh out numbers on the thrust of the Merlin 2 and payload for the BFR.

As for whether I think that it is a challenge to my ongoing jihad against heavy lift, well, maybe. As I told Max Vozoff at lunch the other week, I’m not opposed to heavy lift in principle — I just think that it is unnecessary at the present time, and that it will be ghastly expensive if done using NASA legacy hardware and work force (and perhaps even ULA-legacy hardware, too, though that will be somewhat more affordable). If Elon can make it work economically, then more power to him, but I expect him to do it on a fixed-price contract that has to fairly compete with solutions not requiring it. For instance, if he wants to bid for propellant delivery, and thinks that he can beat the price at the depot of other bidders, go for it. I just don’t want the taxpayer to subsidize the development of what I consider an unneeded vehicle.

Biting Commentary about Infinity…and Beyond!