Ron Wyden

Why he must resign:

The shocking revelation: Senator Wyden has been, for more than a decade, a willing accomplice to a plot to undermine the American political order and to overthrow the Constitution by infiltrating agents of radicalism into the highest reaches of the federal judiciary.

The nefariousness of this undertaking cannot be overstated. The monsters advanced to positions of power with Senator Wyden’s assistance include dangerous extremists whose ideology “represents a breathtaking retreat from the notion that Americans have fundamental Constitutional rights.” His agents take “a very dangerous view to our liberty” that “harkens back to the days when politicians restricted a people’s rights on a whim.”

Wyden’s anti-constitutional conspiracy “is couched in the sort of jurisprudence that justified the horrific oppression of one group after another in our first two centuries.”

This is cruel, but fair.

[Update a couple minutes later]

Former Obama official: “Why liberals should back Neil Gorsuch.”

[Update a while later]

Orrin Hatch on senate Democrats: “I don’t care what they want at this point.”

Neither do I.

[Update Thursday morning]

If you want to get non-hysterical takes on Gorsuch, the Volokh Conspiracy is your go-to place.

Fourteen Years Ago

Here were my first thoughts when I heard the news about Columbia (don’t know what happened to comments on the old posts). And scroll up from here for a flurry of follow-up posts in the hours and days afterward.

[Update a few minutes later]

I think that this post from the following day, is worth a repost. You can see much of the thinking encapsulated in it that later was expanded into the book.

Let me preface this post, before I expand on yesterday’s apparent political incorrectness, by stating, for the record, that I am not a Vulcan. Nor am I an android. I’m not even a human being whose heart consists of a tiny grain of flinty stone, undetectable except with a scanning tunneling microscope.

I feel for the families and friends of those who lost their lives in yesterday’s catastrophe, just as I feel for the family and friends of anyone who suffers such a loss. What I don’t feel is a personal loss, as though they were my family or friend. I didn’t know them, and neither did ninety nine percent of the American public that now grieves their loss, until yesterday.

I do personally grieve the loss of the space shuttle orbiter Columbia, because I did know it. Very few people saw it both lift off from Florida, on its maiden flight, and land in California, back in May 1981. I’m one of them.

I worked many years for the company that built it. I helped do preliminary planning for some missions for it.

I also grieve its loss as a symbol of what we might be able to accomplish in space, given sensible national space policy (a commodity that continues to remain in short supply).

The crewmembers of that flight were each unique, and utterly irreplaceable to those who knew and loved them, and are devastated by their sudden absence from their lives, and to paraphrase what the president said after September 11, seven worlds were destroyed yesterday.

But, while this may sound callous, the space program will go on just fine without them. They knew their job was hazardous, they did it anyway, and by all accounts, they died doing what they wanted, and loved, to do. There are many more astronauts in the astronaut corps who, if a Shuttle was sitting on the pad tomorrow, fueled and ready to go, would eagerly strap themselves in and go, even with the inquiry still going on, because they know that it’s flown over a hundred times without burning up on entry, and they still like the odds. And if yesterday’s events made them suddenly timorous, there is a line of a hundred people eagerly waiting to replace each one that would quit, each more than competent and adequate to the task. America, and the idea of America, is an unending cornucopia of astronaut material.

When it comes to space, hardware matters, and currently useful space hardware is a very scarce commodity. People are optional. A Shuttle can get into orbit with no crew aboard. It could return that way as well, with some minor design modifications (actuators for nose-wheel steering and brakes, and gear deployment). But no one gets to space without transportation. Many of us would walk there if we could, but we can’t.

Yesterday, we lost a quarter of our Shuttle fleet. The next time we fly, we’ll be putting at risk a third of the remainder. If we lose that one, every flight thereafter will be risking half of America’s capability to put people into orbit.

So, when I grieve the loss of Columbia, it’s not because it was just a symbol. What I truly grieve is the loss of the capability that it not just represented, but possessed. That vehicle will never again deliver a payload or a human to space. It cost billions of dollars to build, and would cost many billions and several years to replace. That was the true loss yesterday, not the crew. I think that people realize this on some level, but feel uncomfortable in articulating it.

But I’ve always viewed space, and space policy, through a different lens than most people, as anyone who reads this weblog regularly has come to realize.

Why do people so uniquely mourn the loss of astronauts? Before the space program, before Mercury and the Right Stuff, the host of military test pilots that provided that first seven were killed on a regular basis in the exercise of their duties, and their funerals were attended by only family and friends, with little publicity. Something happened in 1960. As Wolfe pointed out, they became the gladiators of our age, in a (hopefully) bloodless competition on the high frontier against our enemy the Soviets. They became a symbol of our technological ability, and in order to win the propaganda battle, they had to leave the planet and return alive. The loss of the vehicles that delivered them to the heavens was insignificant, because they were designed to be thrown away after they served their purpose, once, but if we lost astronauts, it was a sign that we were losing the Cold War.

With the advent of the Shuttle, and even with the end of the Cold War, we retained the same sense that space symbolizes our nation’s might and prowess, in a way that an aircraft taking off does not. So, though they’ve become so seemingly routine that we no longer televise them, our national pride continues to ride with each flight.

But most of us are brought up to believe that “people are more important than things.” While true in some abstract philosophical sense, this notion often bumps up against reality–when we decide how strong to build a car door, when we put a dollar amount on the value of a human life for the purpose of determining the cost/benefit of government regulations, etc, but we still believe that there’s something unethical or unsavory in valuing inanimate objects, regardless of their ability to provide pleasure, sustenance, or life itself.

So when we are shocked by the loss of something so vital to our national psyche, and so seemingly useful to our ambitions for spaceflight, it is natural to transfer the mourning from the vehicle to its inhabitants.

I don’t. I forthrightly state that to me, it was the loss of the vehicle itself that was of the greatest importance, and that we have to build such vehicles to be more reliable, even if they are to never carry crew or passengers, because we cannot afford to lose them. That’s why the notion of “man-rating” a reusable launch system, or space transport, is so nonsensical. If it’s not reliable enough to operate economically, it’s not reliable enough to carry people. The operating economics will be the design driver to reliability, not the payload, regardless of the degree to which it’s considered valuable, or even invaluable.

And by that criterion (as well as others), Shuttle has always been a failure, in terms of its ultimate stated program goals of providing affordable, routine, safe access to space. There is plenty of blame to go around for this, but the seeds of that failure were planted in the constrained budget environment of its development thirty years ago, and it’s not something that can sensibly be fixed now, regardless of how many bandaids in the form of “Shuttle improvements” we attempt to put on it. We need new vehicles, and new approaches to developing them.

And one follow up from yesterday’s flamefest. I received this delightful email from a Douglas Cudd, from League City, TX (presumably a NASA employee or contractor):

Let me just say that I concur and would like to reiterate what Donald Sensing has said before. Also, let me say you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. Maybe I’m a bit mad, or maybe it’s because I’ve been in the MCC since last night at 10, but let me just say that as much as I like to criticize NASA management, NOW IS NOT THE TIME when you have a f***ing body count, you heartless pile of s**t.

Columbia, OV102, was not the least valuable, as you put it, because it was oldest and heaviest. The Chandra observatory launched on STS-93 could not have been carried to orbit in any other vehicle OTHER THAN OV-102. And not outfitting it for ISS docking? That again made it perfectly suited for heavy, EDO equipped missions, like 107. It was, however planned to dock to the ISS during STS-118.

So, I don’t mind your idiotic, myopic rantings. But in the future, why not at least try to get your facts straight? Or are you one of those guys that got an Estes rocket when you were 12 and never grew up?

Well, I’m sorry that Douglas worked so late in the MCC, and as I said, my heart (I really do have one, honest) goes out to him and all of the people in Houston who did have a deep personal loss yesterday, in both humans and hardware. I’m not sure where I criticized NASA management yesterday. I don’t in fact think that they are responsible for what happened, at least not in the way they were seventeen years ago. As I said, what happened yesterday has been a long time coming (longer even than many of us expected back in the early eighties–it was always considered one of the most likely failure modes for a mission), and was a result of decisions forced by pinchpennies in Congress.

As to which orbiter is the most valuable, I would continue to contend that it’s easier to outfit one of the other vehicles for EDO than it would have been to put Columbia on a diet, and if some sadistic fiend put a gun to Ron Dittemore’s head and told him that he had to sacrifice an orbiter, Columbia is probably the one that he would have chosen, given the current priority of ISS support. But I’m willing to hear counter-arguments.

Not that it really matters, of course, since we did indeed have no choice. I was simply, perhaps inappropriately, in off-the-top-of-my-head comments in the immediate aftermath of the news, attempting to find a silver lining in a very dark cloud.

[Update a few minutes later]

Sadly, old comments seem to be munged in the WordPress database, but here is the old archived post from that month, complete with comments. You can follow the rest by clicking each one. I’m glad I didn’t lose the haikus from the contest.

[Update a while later]

Here is the Fox News column I wrote (it was the only one they ever paid me for, because they specifically requested it). I’d forgotten this:

What does it mean for the future of the space program?

Ironically, Monday was the day that NASA’s new budget was to be revealed, presumably including the addition of funds for a new nuclear reactor program for use in space. This event puts into question all of NASA’s current planning, including budgets for whatever new plans might emerge from the investigations.

But consider that in 1986, there was no critical requirement to fly shuttles. No important experiment wouldn’t occur, no elections would be lost, if we didn’t fly. So, for almost three years, we didn’t fly.

In 2003, we have a space station in orbit with three crew aboard, and plans to rotate them indefinitely. Even with ramped-up support from the Russians, we cannot afford not to fly the shuttle for almost three years. But Saturday, we lost a quarter of our total shuttle fleet, a component that cannot be practically replaced. We can support the station with a three-orbiter fleet, particularly since Columbia was not generally used for space station missions, but another such event will mean the loss of a third of the remaining fleet.

In fact, though, it was two and a half years before they flew again (just as was the case with Challenger). And fourteen years later, we still don’t have a space nuclear reactor program, let along the reactor itself.

[Update a while later]

Here’s the piece (also requested) that I wrote for National Review that week (I think the first time I ever wrote for them).

[Update a few minutes later]

It’s always interesting to go through old blog posts and see how much, if any, my thinking has changed over the years. But as I read through these, the answer is not much:

The Shuttle, as a program, is now, and always has been, a failure, in terms of the original goals set out for it. Now, it is a dead program walking. It may fly for a few years now, but I suspect that at the end of the day there will be a consensus that we have to have different means (and I mean this word in the plural sense) of getting people to and from orbit. Different in the sense that it is safe, affordable, often, routine, and varied. No more monocultures.

Fourteen years later, no thanks to Congress, it’s finally starting to happen.

[Update a while later]

Another golden oldie: Leftist Groups Decry NASA Demonization.

[Mid-morning update]

My vision for space, fourteen years ago:

he problem with our space program isn’t that we no longer know the astronauts’ names. We should strive for a future in which we don’t know the astronauts’ names, just as today we don’t know the names of the millions of “aeronauts” (i.e., airline passengers) who take to the skies each day. Our problem is that right now, we have the worst of both worlds–space has become sufficiently routine that it’s become boring, except when we have spectacular failures, but not so much so that it’s affordable for the rest of us.

I too want to see men (and women) return to the Moon, and walk the red sands of Mars, but I want to see much more. My vision of our space future is not another grand, no-expense-barred, government-funded expedition to another planet, which most of us sit back on the ground and contentedly watch, cheering on our astronaut heroes, and buying baseball trading cards with their names on them.

No, I have a much broader, inclusive vision for space.

It involves a low earth orbit with coorbiting tourist hotels and resorts, with orbital sound stages and sports venues, for filming movies and broadcasting new types of dance and games. There are research laboratories, in which experiments are conducted in biotechnology and nanotechnology, that might be too hazardous to be safely performed on earth. There are interorbital transports to allow easy passage from one platform to another. There are orbital hangars for constructing the ships that will take people off to other orbs, and for inspecting and maintaining the space transports about to undergo the potentially hazardous entry back into earth’s atmosphere, avoiding any more incidents like that which occurred on February 1.

There are cruise hotels continuously transiting between earth and Moon, with ports of call to the lunar surface, perhaps to settlements there–more tourist resorts, and perhaps industrial facilities, processing the resources of that sphere into useful products–metal forged for the construction of more ships, silicon for solar cells that will provide power for the spaceborne, and ultimately even provide clean unlimited energy to the home planet, life-giving oxygen and water, food, and rocket fuels.

Perhaps asteroids have been brought into higher orbits to be similarly mined for their own precious metals, or water and carbon compounds. They may even be asteroids that were otherwise potential threats to the planet, now being managed and harvested instead.

And all of it is sustained not by a massive government bureaucracy that must go annually to Congress, hat in hand, begging for the funds to continue it.

Rather, it will largely pay for itself, by providing services, products and entertainment to real markets–the millions of people who would work, play, and yes, explore space if the cost were within their means. And the level of activities implied by it means that it will be within their means, as the unit costs of space operations drop, and the world grows wealthier. And we won’t know the names of the people going to and from space, because there will be far too many of them. But we won’t need to, and the occasional accident, even a fatal one, will be no more newsworthy than a bus accident.

It hasn’t changed much, but it’s much closer to fruition than ever before.

Biting Commentary about Infinity…and Beyond!