All posts by Rand Simberg

Ronald Reagan, RIP

I’ve refrained from commenting on President Reagan’s ninety-first birthday, because many have commemorated it much more ably than I could hope to do. But Peggy Noonan’s piece in tomorrow’s (or today’s, given that most readers will see this in the morning after I’ve written it) Opinion Journal, prompts me to make a point that I suspect few others will.

Journalists feel an honest compassion for Mr. Reagan’s condition–everyone is saddened by the thought that this great man who was once so much a part of our lives no longer knows he was great, no longer remembers us. It’s big enough to be called tragic: this towering figure so reduced by illness. Part of it too is a growing appreciation of Nancy Reagan, who is doing now what she did for 50 years, protecting him, protecting his memory and his privacy. Only now she does it 24-7 at the age of 78, and without the help and comfort of the best friend of her life: him. She told me some months ago how to this day she’ll think of something and want to say, “Honey, remember the time

The Politics Of Shuttle Maintenance

Ignore the chest beating by Congressman Weldon in this press release about the NASA decision to move Shuttle Orbiter refurbishment from Palmdale, CA to the Cape. This is a good example of why space is expensive.

A little history: the Orbiters (the part of the Shuttle that actually carries the people and payload to orbit, and comes back) were built by Rockwell in their old North American assembly facility up in Palmdale, in the desert north of Los Angeles. Back when they were being tested out of Edwards AFB, a few miles north, and landing there, it made sense to do modifications and upgrades there as well. In addition, there were originally plans for the Shuttle to launch out of Vandenberg AFB a hundred miles west on the coast.

But since Challenger, any planned Vandenberg Shuttle operations were abandoned, and almost all flights landed in Florida as well as taking off there. They only land in California now if the weather doesn’t allow a Florida landing. Thus, the center of gravity of the Shuttle program has really shifted to the Sunshine State, ever since the late 1980s. At that point, it would have made sense to just do the refurbishment at the Cape as well, saving quite a bit of money in infrastructure.

But politics reared its ugly head, as it always does on government programs. Rockwell (now Boeing) and the California congressional delegation lobbied to keep the work out there, and the Clinton Administration, always sensitive to Golden State concerns, obliged.

That was then, this is now. A confluence of events have conspired to get the government to finally do the right thing, even if (as is usually the case) for the wrong reason. In the wake of the space station fiasco, NASA desperately needs to find cost savings. George W. Bush, though he’d never admit it, has probably written off California. And Palmdale will probably get enough new defense business to make up for the loss anyway, given Mr. Rumsfeld’s predilections. And the President’s brother is governor of Florida, with a reelection coming up this year.

So Congressman Weldon saw an opportunity to finally get the Shuttle work brought to the Cape, and he seized it. As a result, NASA will save tens, perhaps hundreds of millions in costs of ferrying Orbiters back and forth between coasts, and the overhead costs of the facility in Palmdale. Thus, the cost of Shuttle launches will drop a little, on average, in future years.

Add up dozens of stories like this, big and small, and it becomes clear that high launch costs are not because it takes thirty-thousand feet per second of velocity difference to get to orbit, but because it takes votes from lots of different Congressman. And this will remain the case until we develop a viable and robust commercial launch industry.

Yes, Even When Lives Are At Stake

In Enterprise last night, I was struck at how sometimes the writers Just Don’t Get It, and make the ship’s crew look like fools. If you didn’t see it, Archer and T’Pal are kidnapped and being held for a ransom of weapons to aid the local rebel cause. The Vulcans show up to the rescue, and inform the crew that “Vulcans do not negotiate for hostages.” Commander (?…what is his rank anyway, I’ve never been able to sort out ranks on ship, other than the Captain, but I haven’t been paying that close attention…) Tucker gets upset and whiny, and asks “Even if lives are at stake?” thus presumably demonstrating the moral superiority of the warm and emotional humans over the coldblooded and logical Vulcans.

Yes, Trip. Especially when lives are at stake. Of course,the writers don’t grant the Vulcans any kind of logical rejoinder–that negotiating for hostages simply ensures future hostage taking, and that sometimes lives have to be risked both on principle and to save the lives of many future hostages (the stance which, by the way, the U.S. government has appropriately taken in the Daniel Pearl case). No, they simply look Vulcan and disgusted. I wonder if the script was written pre- or post-911?

Oh, and whooooeeee, how about that little game of twister/simulated-sex scene that they had Archer and T’Pal do in their escape attempt? In prime time, too. Are they reviving the sexual tension from the first episode, or just trying to keep up with the competition?

Distaff (And Distressed) Whistleblowers

Will Vehrs says:

…look for any number of follow-up articles on the relative honesty of women versus men, profiles and interviews with the distaff whistleblowers, and maybe even a comparison with the women of the Clinton years, such as Susan McDougal.

Of course, Susan was practicing omerta. But, actually, of course, there were female whistleblowers galore during the Clinton years, most notably Linda Tripp, who, while most well known for her involvement in l’affaire Lewinsky, revealed lots of unrelated unseemly and probably even illegal activities. There was also Jean Lewis, RTC investigator in Whitewater (they went after her private emails). And the doctor who was practically drummed out of the military because she questioned the Ron Brown autopsy. Not to mention Gennifer Flowers, Dolly Kyle Browning, Kathleen Willey, etc.

Of course, in contrast to the brave souls exposing Enron improprieties and illegalities, whistleblowers (particularly female whistleblowers) on the Clinton Administration were not heralded by the media–they were vilified, via the “nuts ‘n sluts” whispers emanating from the White House and parroted by an adoring press.

I continually found it ironic that the feminist movement was so eager to defend a president who not only eviscerated their hard-fought legislative victory in workplace sexual harassment, but used women, both figuratively and literally, as toilet paper…

Space Transportation Commentary

Frank Sietzen is the new President of the Space Transportation Association, a trade association that promotes the U.S. launch industry. He gave a speech today at the FAA Space Transportation Forecast Conference, that has some good policy recommendations, but some troubling ones as well.

In the aftermath of the dark events of September 11th, the crucial role that the aerospace industry plays in the American economy was made plain to us all. In an administration that didn’t seem to discover us, or who thought a space program was closet space in the old EEOB, space suddenly became a critical element in national economic stability, and as an important tool in winning the war against terrorism.

The new leader selected for NASA, Sean O’Keefe, repeatedly referred to his agency as an element of U.S. national security. Vice-President Cheney confirmed this emphasis at O’Keefe’s swearing in a few weeks back, as has several recent studies and reports, especially SecDef Rumsfeld’s report of a year ago.

We at STA welcome this emphasis, because it suggests that it will bring new attention to the state of our industry, and how the administration, the Congress, and our industry itself can join together to bring new life and new capabilities to our work.

I welcome it as well, if it results in a more focused policy toward the high frontier.

This follow’s FAA’s landmark study last year that charted spacelift’s role in the U.S. economy, a staggering $60 plus billion as measured in jobs and economic activity.

Unfortunately, much of that is Shuttle and Air Force launch budget, and the emphasis is more on job creation/maintenance than on reducing the cost of access or creating wealth.

But like every other element of the aerospace industry, space transportation needs a coordinated effort to address our weaknesses and set us anew on the path to opening up access to space.

The Bush administration, thus, must match this rhetoric about the importance of space to national security with more than words. Therefore, the Space Transportation Association is today calling for the administration to reestablish a central organizing body for space within the Executive Office of the President modeled on the previous National Space Council. Space issues clearly need an emphasis and advocates in the White House beyond any one single agency or one agency’s space agenda. Vice-President Cheney could chair such a group to give it the attention and the visibility that space issues deserve.

I agree with this recommendation, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. And while it would be helpful, it’s not necessary, as long as the agencies are coordinated in some manner. It may be possible for Cheney to play this role without the formal re-creation of the Space Council.

If the administration means what it said during O’Keefe’s swearing in about it believing in NASA, it can also act to make the NASA administrator a cabinet-level post. That is, if it really means what it says about space and space matters.

Ummmm…no.

Until we decide what NASA’s overall role in space policy should be, this would be premature, and possibly inappropriate. We have to take a much broader view of federal space policy, and consider the roles of all government agencies. After that, if we decide to make an explicit decision that NASA should take the lead (I certainly wouldn’t recommend it), then it might make sense to make the head of that agency a cabinet level. But it’s much too early to determine that now.

This emphasis on space as an element of national security also means that we should see more U.S.-led space programs and priorities, managed here at home with clear objectives and clear schedules to match. The old multilateral approach of the Clinton years might be fine for foreign policy objectives, but in the final analysis it should be U.S. industry that benefits first and foremost from space dollars, and our technology base that is enhanced and grows as a result.

Of course, such emphasis on our home-grown needs is a two-way street. We therefore would hope that our own members and American primes would seek partnerships with our own U.S. subs whenever possible before looking offshore.

I am not saying that use of foreign space assets or partnering with foreign suppliers is bad. Quite the contrary. But I am saying is that is isn’t always good for the U.S. industrial base.It cannot be in the national security interests of the United States for us to wake up in a few years to find a single U.S. launch vehicle maker, or one liquid rocket engine maker, or one solid rocket builder. We’ve seen the results of consolidation, and now it is time, not for more diversification, but to make better use of our own industry. To give more attention to its needs, how we can grow it, how we can make it stronger and more competitive and solid.

Not sure exactly what Frank’s proposing here, but to the degree that it constitutes some kind of protectionism, that would be a tragic mistake. The way to grow domestic capability is not to coddle the industry (and few industries on the planet are more of a hothouse plant than aerospace), but to put into place policies that will broaden markets and grow it.

The problem with space is not that it’s consolidated–that’s a symptom. It consolidated because there was insufficient business to support as many players as it had (though both NASA and the Air Force were actively encouraging mergers after the end of the Cold War, the most notable and mistaken of which was the United Space Alliance that currently operates Shuttle under NASA contract).

This renewed emphasis on space should include Capitol Hill. There are too many committees spread across the House and Senate that deal with U.S. aerospace programs and policies. We therefore, call upon the Congress to look to reform the existing committee structure to better manage their legislative and budget oversight functions.

Another good suggestion that will go absolutely nowhere.

Our political leaders have been calling for consolidation in our industry for years. Well, they got it. Now it is time for them to do a bit of consolidation of their own!

Fat chance.

The way aerospace programs are managed also needs some reforms. We find attractive the idea of blending aeronautics and aerospace technology research and the general and commercial aviation programs into a national development of a single supersonic-to-low orbit rocket vehicle that can support both the passenger and cargo markets. And such a program should get a new program office not nestled inside any one agency or bureaucracy.

I am vehemently opposed to this. The history of government developing launch systems is not an encouraging one, and there’s no reason to think that what Frank proposes here will be any better. Also, the notion that there should be a “vehicle” to get us to space is the kind of thinking that got us into trouble with Shuttle, then National Aerospace Plane, then X-33. We don’t need a “vehicle.” We need an industry, and markets to support it.

…But the rhetoric about aviation and space being brought together to help fight terrorism should be followed by a stable, funded, long term vision that results in a high volume human and cargo reusable vehicle in the next decade of this century.

Such a vehicle, and a strong industry that embraces it, is the best answer to long term U.S. space industry competitiveness.

Again with “the vehicle.” No, the best answer to industrial competitiveness is to wean the industry away from the government mammary, and to encourage the development of many vehicles. No bureaucrat at NASA can know what the most cost-effective space transports will look like, nor should anyone pretend to. That is for a market to determine. What the government needs to do is to create that market.

We are also encouraged by the new commission on the future of the aerospace industry. With Bob Walker as its chair, and with the work of such commissioners as John Douglass and Buzz Aldrin, we think that creative, realistic solutions to our industry’s concerns will emerge from their deliberations. Solutions such as tax-free bonds to stimulate entrepreneurial launch firms, and making infrastructure repair and reinvigoration as national space goals, as important to our future in space as returning to the Moon or heading for Mars, either of which will require a competitive launch system and the spaceport to send it there.

This makes some sense, though the devil’s always in the details of tax incentives. The problem with tax incentives for entrepreneurs is that taxes are usually the least of an entrepreneur’s problems. The only way to make this effective is to ensure that investors get an attractive tax break from their space investments that can offset other income. That will be a tough sell politically.

Overall, I hope that STA will be taking a more private-enterprise approach in the future. I suspect that, unfortunately, there’s some pressure from some of their members (e.g., Boeing, Lockmart) to not deviate too far from conventional wisdom. We really need a different organization to look after the interests of space entrepeneurs, because their interests are far too divergent in some ways from those benefitting from the status quo to be properly represented by a single trade association.

For President Of What– Mars?

Neil Boortz points out the following website, obviously put up by a person in a pitiable state of mental defectiveness, that proposes to launch that most long-awaited of noble causes–the presidential candidacy of Sheila Jackson Lee.

This is either amusing or terrifying, depending on how seriously you take it.

Hmmm…If she needs a limo for a trip of a block and a half, I wonder if she’d use Air Force One to go from the White House to the Congress for the SOTU…

[Update at 7:17 PM]

Reader John McGuinness points out:

According the article it’s a Ford Contour, which Ford no longer makes, so it’s obviously a year or two old. And, to paraphrase My Cousin Vinny, a Contour could never be confused with a limousine.

Well, I was just going on the reporting. Regardless of the type of vehicle, even to require a bicycle to get a block and a half indicates a sense of entitlement that’s beyond my comprehension. Perhaps a sedan chair would be the most appropriate.

Email Policy

In today’s Daily Dish, Andrew Sullivan comments on the boorishness of publishing private emails. He’s right–for as long as I’ve been on Usenet (many years), posting an email without the sender’s permission has been considered a gross breach of netiquette. Somehow, this well-established courtesy has not leaked over to the web, and people who are more recent Internet users (such as much of the journalism community). In a world of tiny digital cameras, and instant mass production of anyone’s electronic musings, privacy is becoming a scarce commodity (as is trust).

So I want to establish the policy for this web site. I always follow the rule of not publishing emails on Usenet, unless granted permission, but at this site, I’ve always assumed that if someone sends me a comment about it, that they have no problem with republishing it–sort of like a letter to the editor. Now I want to make it explicit: if I receive commentary on the site, the default will be that it is publishable, using the sender’s name, unless a specific request is made to not publish it, or to publish it but allow retention of anonymity.

And as a note to all webloggers, it might be useful to come up with some common policies or netiquette, if we can reach a consensus, and maintain it at a website somewhere (perhaps hosted by Blogspot?) for both bloggers and readers.

Gender Bias In Maine

A judge has ruled that women may jog naked in the Pine Tree State. Apparently the law concerning public nudeness and lewdness is quite specific in stating that the genitals must show.

Now I’m not now, nor have I ever been (Shirley MacLaine’s weird beliefs notwithstanding) a woman, but I can’t imagine how one could display female genitals while jogging, at least not without slowing down progress considerably. And even if I could imagine it, I don’t want to.

The trial was short:

Female Defendant: Did you see my genitals?

Arresting Officer: Not that I recall

Female Defendant: No further questions, your honor. Defense rests.

Clearly this is a law that discriminates against (most) men. It will have to be rewritten. One wonders just how they’ll handle it. They can’t go after bare chests, because then the women could still jog wearing nothing but bikini tops. Maybe they can look for guidance to the Olympic ice skating competition.