All posts by Rand Simberg

Shake and Shake The Catsup Bottle

OK, I give up, American media. Which is it? First you’re frustrated because we’re in a “quagmire” (oh, we know, you’d never say such a thing–it’s just that some unnamed “others” are starting to use the word). And besides, those horrible Northern Alliance types (who just a couple of days ago you sagely informed us were undisciplined, and still using actual (gasp!) horses for cavalry) were incapable of mounting a serious offensive against the battle-toughened, death-seeking, fanatical, unbeatable Taliban. And our bombing was having little effect.

But wait! Now, somehow, those incompetent NA types seem to have those supermen Taliban invincible warriors on the, well… run. And now you’re not happy about that, because as I type this, you’re complaining because we haven’t yet put together a “broad-based government” to replace them, and of course, it would be worse to let the NA take Kabul, when we could let those humanitarian souls, the Taliban, continue to hold it.

Let’s face a few facts here. First of all, no, the Northern Alliance are not a bunch of Sunday School teachers. When it comes to enlightened democracy and western values, they leave much to be desired, as they’ve demonstrated in their past behavior. But is anyone really going to argue that they’re worse than the Taliban? A general in (I think, WW II) once said crudely, but accurately, that “war is a set of shitty choices.” No, it’s not ideal to let the Northern Alliance take Kabul, but it’s preferable to allowing the Taliban to keep it, particularly if its falling maintains the momentum of deteriorating morale of their fighters, and that of those idiots who would go to Afghanistan to fight beside them. We have time, eternity even, to fix whatever problems are incurred by a takeover by the NA.

Second, wars are not smooth, predictable affairs. They are chaotic, and catastrophic, in the mathematical sense. One can pound a position for days, or even weeks, and think it impregnable, when it suddenly, inexplicably crumbles. So it is not surprising to anyone familiar with military history (which lets out most of the modern press corps) that a military campaign can seem bogged down–even in a “quagmire”–and suddenly see the tide turn. To bring it down to a level that even a journalist can understand, having experienced it in some soda shop or diner, there was an old and simple poem that I remember from childhood (perhaps by Ogden Nash?).

Shake and shake the catsup bottle

None will come, and then a lot’ll

Apparently, we’ve finally shaken the catsup bottle enough in Afghanistan.

A New Beginning

It was an improbable-looking harbinger of a new age in space.

Tiny, white, at the east end of the Mojave Airport runway, it looked fragile and miniscule next to the support truck, and surrounded by busy ground crew, readying it for its upcoming public debut. Finally, they moved away, leaving the pilot, Dick Rutan, in the cockpit. The Long-EZ chase plane approached it from the rear at a couple hundred feet, and we could see the sudden shimmering of heat in the cool desert air over the craft as two toggle switches were flicked in the cramped cockpit, and twin engines of the XCOR Aerospace EZ-Rocket were lit.

It took it no time at all to start heading west into the gusting wind, its long wings wobbling tentatively as it was buffeted by the ever-shifting forces of the invisible medium in which it was about to take flight. About the time it was almost level with us, a few seconds after we first heard the roar of its engines, Rutan rotated the nose, and it almost leaped off the runway. The sound was similar to that of a jet, of which there are many in Mojave, and loud, though not as loud as, say, a fighter on afterburners.

It started to climb, more rapidly than I’ve ever seen any Long-EZ ascend–the chase plane couldn’t keep up with it. It made a slow turn to the left, still climbing at a seemingly-impossible, ever-steeper angle as the propellant load rapidly decreased and its acceleration increased, until it finally leveled out at what appeared to be several thousand feet, and the chase plane eventually caught up with it, albeit at a lower altitude.

There were some scattered clouds at altitude, and we occasionally lost the planes in them. But they were scattered only, and we eventually reacquired the object of our momentary devotion. As it headed back west over our heads, we could hear the engines start to sputter as they became starved for oxygen, and then a sudden eerie silence as the rocket engines were shut down, and the altitude was too great to hear the faithful pistons of the chase plane.

The two planes made slow, beautiful circles over the airport, gently spiraling down over a period of several minutes until, finally, as they approached the east end of the runway, they dropped gear, made a final sharp left bank, lined up and gently touched down, buffeted once more by the capricious gusting winds. The Long-EZ braked and taxied back over to the viewing area, and the EZ-Rocket slowed to a stop at the end of the runway, to be towed back to the waiting crowd.

OK, I know. You’re asking, why is this a big deal? We are (literally) in a war to save western civilization. Millions are starving in the world. Millions (often the same millions) live in depradation and slavery. An airplane just crashed in Queens, and we don’t know why. So just why am I wasting bandwidth talking about a home-built airplane that has a couple little (400-lbf thrust each) lox-alcohol rocket engines installed where the pusher prop used to be?

To ask that question is, to me, akin to asking, what was the big deal about the fact that a couple bicycle mechanics in Dayton, Ohio put a crude gasoline engine and propeller on a big kite, and managed to controllably get it off the ground, for a shorter distance than the wing span of a Boeing 747, almost a hundred years ago?

First of all, I think that space is important, for lots of reasons, but primarily for its potential for future human freedom. But I’m not going to argue that here–I’ll just assume that people who read this weblog agree.

As I pointed out in my recent disquisition on the wrong-headed Economist editorial of a couple of weeks ago, what is keeping us from getting into space in the way that many of us want is its unaffordability to any but governments. And what is keeping it unaffordable is the fact that only governments do it, and they don’t do very much of it, and when you don’t do very much of something, the unit costs get very high.

While we need technology development, we don’t need it in the way that NASA likes to think (with billion-dollar failures like X-33, to develop unobtainium, and fancy new propulsion systems). The only technology that we need is to integrate what we have in hand into actual vehicles, and learn how it works, and what doesn’t work, and fly it, day in and day out, and accumulate hours on engines and airframes, just the way we do with airplanes.

XCOR Aerospace is doing just that.

And, I should add, our need for technology development is nowhere as intense as our need for market development, and sensible FAA regulations, and a rational (as opposed to the “Right Stuff”) approach to space operations. What XCOR Aerospace (and other companies–I don’t mean to slight anyone, but I am writing about the XCOR rollout here) is doing will contribute to that also, in a way that NASA is not, and cannot.

While EZ-Rocket doesn’t fly high, or fast–unlike NASA’s reusable rocket programs–it actually flies. And in fact, though it doesn’t fly particularly high, or fast, it is a testament to the neglect of this field that, had XCOR bothered to call the appropriate French certification agency to have them witness today’s flight, they would have simultaneously awarded it the new world’s records for height, speed, and time to climb for a rocket plane.

It not only flies, but it can, given small amounts of money (equivalent to just a fraction of the overruns on programs like X-34 and X-33), fly every day, or twice a day, for mere hundreds of dollars per flight. And the experience developed from it can lead to bigger, faster rocket planes, that can also fly every day, or twice or thrice a day, and teach us how to fly rocket planes, and by selling experiment time, or even (heaven forfend!) rides to wealthy people who want a thrill, make a little money while doing it. We may have rocket racing competitions, sponsored by ESPN, or the Xtreme Sports Channel, or Pratt & Whitney.

And the records will get faster, and higher, and the revenues will grow, until we are offering rides to orbit, and people (with fortunes less than Bill Gates and Larry Ellison) are buying. And then some crazy fool will develop a space suit, and haul up enough parts to build a space hotel, and we’ll offer week-long stays, instead of barn-storming joy rides. And someone else will actually rent space in the hotel and perhaps do some research, or figure out how to build something bigger, like a Mars mission vehicle, that can be afforded by the Planetary Society, or the Mars Society, or even the (renamed?) National Geographic Society.

Why isn’t NASA doing this? They are institutionally incapable of it. NASA gets its funding, unfortunately, not to get us into space, but to maintain the jobs base in places like Houston, and Huntsville, and Cocoa Beach, and Huntington Beach. And even if NASA wanted to do something like this, and the Congress agreed to fund it, they still couldn’t–there are too many government procurement regulations, and budget cycles, and fragile ricebowls to be protected. NASA can’t do this because…well, because, as Hayek and others have pointed out, socialism doesn’t work. Capitalism does.

There are two fundamental drivers to progress–greed and fear. Because we initiated our space activities in the middle of a struggle between fundamentally-incompatible ideologies, almost four-and-a-half decades ago, the focus was on the fear. We made some progress, but ultimately, and in a most politically-incorrect (but traditionally American) manner, we must now harness greed. XCOR has figured this out, and their efforts, as well as those who emulate their philosophy, will ultimately open up the space frontier for all.

New Attack?

Not necessarily–airplanes crashed on takeoff before 911, and they will in the future. That’s just statistics, and a risk that we’ve learned to live with, and will again. But apparently an American Airbus 300 just went down in Queens after takeoff from La Guardia, and the authorities have closed all New York area airports and locked down Manhattan. Not clear yet whether this is just precautionary, or if they know something that we don’t. But accidents do happen, even in the wake of the attacks.

More information should be available later this afternoon, when I get back from the XCOR rollout.

2 PM Update:

Most of y’all are certainly aware of this now, but I should correct the above–it was out of Kennedy, not La Guardia. And it looks as though my initial reaction was correct, this was an accident, albeit a disconcerting one in the current environment as to timing (Veterans’ Day), and location (New York–in fact in a neighborhood in which many police officers and firefighters reside, including Mike “kiss my royal Irish ass” Moran). I still think, though, that this is just a very unfortunate coincidence, but if it was deliberate, it will have no effect except to further steel our resolve against the cave dweller and like-minded monsters.

Time Notices XCOR

I mentioned this briefly last night, but as a follow up, XCOR’s EZ-Rocket has been named one of Time magazine’s Inventions of the Year. I’m going up to Mojave this morning to see the rollout (weather permitting–the first Alaskan rainstorm of the season is heading toward southern California this afternoon), and I’ll provide a report (including a discussion of why this company, and others like it, are important to our future in space) when I get back.

The Rest Of The Story

While most the media is half reporting, half ignoring (apparently the network morning shows have barely mentioned it) the story that George Bush actually won the Florida vote and the election (for the…what, fifth, sixth, seventh time?), and that Gore has yet to win a single recount, John Lott and Jim Glassman have teased out some interesting revelations from the statistical data that has gotten totally lost in all the mendacious noise and spin about “black disenfranchisement” in Florida. It turns out that the most likely voters to have spoiled ballots were black Republicans in counties with Democrat voting commissioners. Apparently, to whatever degree there was any hanky panky to keep blacks from voting, it was mostly directed at that roughly one in twenty misguided souls of African descent who had the temerity to not be Democrats. Now one in twenty doesn’t sound like much, but it comes to over twenty thousand, and as Lott and Glassman point out, it’s about twenty times the winning margin…

(Rare) kudos to the LA Times for publishing this.

Outlines Of The Future Middle East?

Interesting article in tomorrow’s Jerusalem Post. Apparently King Abdullah (Jordan, not Saudi) has been coming up with some interesting proposals and mooting them around the region. The Arab states will guarantee Israel’s right to exist in exchange for a Palestinian state. The devil’s in the details, of course, but the very notion that the Arab world would not only recognize Israel’s right to exist, but actually defend it (at least on paper) is a revolutionary one. An interesting quote:

“Abdullah is understood to have canvassed the idea with the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, and with several north African states, but major barriers have been encountered in Syria, Iraq, and Iran.”

Hmmmmm….lessee now. Iranian objections may become moot if there is a pro-western popular uprising there, which is looking increasingly likely. Syria and Iraq are predictable in their opposition. Just one more reason to move them to the top of the list after we sort out Afghanistan.

Finally, note that it doesn’t say that the House of Saud is objecting. Maybe they really are getting a little nervous over there…

His Wish Is Our Command

“‘America can’t get me alive,” bin Laden was quoted as saying. ‘I can be eliminated, but not my mission.”’

He’s probably not up on the latest news, hunkered down in his cave and all, but the President has already expressed our national indifference as to his metabolic state when we get him. If he wants to be taken dead, we will be pleased to accommodate him–it’s actually easier. Maybe he should sign up with the crack suicide squad just to further ease things.

New Yorker Treason Update

Junaid’s statements and actions could prompt charges which carry the death penalty if he sets foot on U.S. soil again, legal experts said.

“This sounds prosecutable under the Sedition Act,” said former federal prosecutor Sean O’Shea. “It would call for the death penalty.”