More Airline Insecurity

Allow travelers to acquire, from their local federal building, an “Airline Security Test Baton.” This would be a smallish, coded, metal object in a variety of different shapes. If the traveler can smuggle this small object onto an airliner, and gets into the air, he publicly presents it to the nearest flight attendant and claims his prize:

Twenty million dollars.

Within a week, I guarantee you that airlines will become appropriately desperate about effectively conducting searches which will turn up these batons – and any other thingy that passengers might be interested in smuggling aboard.”

This sounds good at first hearing, but I think that it has some problems that would quickly show up if you do a gaming sim. Imagine the incentive to bribe airline security and ground personnel in such a scenario–it would become a lottery for them as well. They’d balance the chances of getting caught against a large share of the reward. The rewards and, ahem, disincentives, would have to be structured very carefully.

And even if they did get it right, and achieve their zero-defect goal, I’m afraid that if airlines did what was necessary to avoid having to pay out the twenty megabucks, their procedures would become so onerous that I personally would drive everywhere, even cross country, rather than endure them. Many others would follow suit, with devastating results to the economy. It would probably revive passenger ship travel to Europe and Asia to levels not seen since the advent of passenger jets.

My other concern is that, like the Congressional bickering over “how,” not “whether” to better disarm us in aircraft, it misses the real point of how to deter/prevent airplane hijackings (or school shootings). It presumes that tighter aircraft security (like gun control) is a feature, rather than a bug, and that doing even more of what has been shown to be a failed strategy will somehow result in future success.

Rather than catering to the Nervous Nellies who won’t “feel” safe until postal-worker-like civil servants are going through their body cavities, I’d rather see an intelligent public-education campaign–I think that we now have fertile ground for it. We have to separate the perception from the reality.

Prior to 911, the perception was that flying was safe from hijacking (due to all these “security” measures), whereas the reality, as 911 showed, was that we were very vulnerable, because we had been lulled into complacency by those same security measures. Since 911, the perception is that we are in flying danger, when in fact the chances of another hijacking are now very low, because we are more wary when we fly, and we are mad as hell, and aren’t going to take it any more (as demonstrated on the Pennsylvania flight that, due to cell phones, switched paradigms in real time that day). I feel quite safe, but also quite put upon, when I fly now, and I am deterred from traveling by air not by fear, but by extreme annoyance and inconvenience.

What we really need is for Tom Ridge, or better yet, the President, to explain this, and make a speech like that one United pilot did shortly after 911 (reportedly, to passenger cheers).

“We are at war now. We are all in the army now. Get to know your seat partner. Work out a plan pre-flight. If anyone attempts to harm anyone else, or take over the aircraft, attack them, with whatever you have handy. Defend yourselves and your loved ones. Defend the flight crew. Defend the aircraft.

Defend your country.”


We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: sending people into space is pointless.

They say this as though it’s a fact, rather than an opinion, and a rather uninformed opinion at that.

It is dangerous, costly and scientifically useless.

Yes, human spaceflight is currently dangerous and costly, but to read this sentence, and the rest of the piece, one would infer that these are intrinsic features of space, rather than contingent properties of the way that we’ve chosen to go about it for the past four and a half decades. To say that it’s scientifically useless is flat-out wrong. It may not currently provide scientific value commensurate with the cost in dollars and risk, but its value is certainly not zero. And the statement itself betrays a common and damaging misperception among journalists and policy makers alike–that science is the raison d’etre of space.

But this clearly can’t be the case, because if the purpose of space is science and science alone, NASA, even the unmanned bits, would never be able to justify the money that it gets. Just compare NASA’s space science budget (leave out Shuttle and station for the moment) to the National Science Foundation’s budget. It dwarfs it. Add the manned portions back in and it becomes much worse. If one were to measure only by federal expenditure, space science would be more important than all other types of science combined, if the purpose of space spending were for science. But we know that it’s not–it is for national prestige, foreign relations, jobs in favored congressional districts, national security, etc. Science is a very low priority, but it makes for a more idealistic and lofty-sounding motive than the real ones. To continue with the editorial…

Most of these crises have been budgetary (the combined cost of the International Space Station and the fleet of space shuttles needed to service it is almost $5 1/2 billion a year). But even the explosion of a shuttle in the mid 1980s, which killed its crew and a civilian passenger, was not enough to close down the manned-spaceflight programme.

They write this as though it’s surprising, as though.. “of course, we should quit doing something simply because we have a setback and a few people die.” People die every day, in lots of ways. Vehicles have accidents and are destroyed by the dozens. Yet we continue to fly, to drive, to ride bicycles, to…well, get out of bed. They don’t explain why we should treat human spaceflight differently than other human endeavors, and give it up in the face of a little adversity; they simply seem perplexed that we don’t. Well, so much for the first paragraph. On to the next.

At the moment, this is kept alive by three things. The first is showmanship. NASA feels (correctly) that it has to keep the taxpayers on its side, and also (more dubiously) that manned flights are the way to do that.

I should stop here to point out that if this is true, that NASA is probably in violation of the spirit, if not letter, of the law. Federal agencies are not supposed to lobby or drum up support for themselves among the populace or the policy makers. Of course, if this were a crime, most agencies would be doing hard time…

Second, the space station helps diplomatic relations with Russia, the number-two partner in the enterprise, and also keeps lots of Russian rocket scientists out of the pay of countries such as Iraq and North Korea.

Well, that’s the theory. But not the effect, based on the evidence. Ask Congressman Weldon, and he will be pleased to show you unclassified evidence that brand-new IMU’s from Russian ICBMs have been showing up in Iranian (and probably Iraqi) missile technology.

Also, I suspect that ESA, Japan and Canada will be a little miffed to find out that Russia is the “number-two partner,” particularly since the Russians have had trouble coming up with the money for their end (quite a bit of it, including the US contribution that was supposed to go to hardware, somehow got diverted to Mercedes sedans, summer dachas, yachts, Cayman accounts, and whatnot).

They also (perhaps because they’re a pseudo-European publication) fail to mention the fact that by involving ESA and Japan in the ISS, we minimize the (already quite low) probability that they will go off on their own and actually doing something useful or interesting in manned space–it keeps them on the reservation, as well as the Russians.

And by the way guys, there’s no such thing as a “rocket scientist.” They’re called engineers.

Third, and most disgracefully, it puts billions of dollars into the pockets of aerospace companies like Boeing. It is, in other words, a disguised industrial subsidy.

Well, sure. This is true, as far as it goes. But they neglect to mention the billions of dollars that also go into the various empires, fiefdoms, and duchies at the major NASA centers, like JSC, Marshall and the Cape, which also keeps various congresspeople and Senators on key appropriation and authorization committees happy.

So, OK, they’ve gotten some of this part right.

There is now a chance to change direction. In the past few days both Daniel Goldin, the agency’s boss, and Joseph Rothenberg, the man in charge of the space station and the shuttle programme, have resigned. New brooms can therefore sweep. And, during his time, Mr. Goldin pointed the direction in which they should be sweeping. He conceived, and delivered, “faster, better, cheaper” unmanned scientific missions. In the old days, a mission could cost up to $1 billion. Now, stuff gets done for a fraction of that sum. Mars Odyssey, which has just gone into orbit around its intended target, is regarded as expensive at $300M

Well, let’s see if I understand the logic here. Mr. Goldin, champion of “betterfastercheaper” is leaving, therefore now is the time to implement FBC. Huh?

And notice, again the emphasis on science, as though there’s nothing else in space worth doing. Newsflash, guys. Science is not very important.

NASA knows, even if The Economist doesn’t seem to, that if they tried to justify what they are doing on the basis of science, they’d get almost no budget at all, as already discussed.

Also, while I actually do like the idea of launching planetary probes cheaper and more often, it’s a little simplistic to compare Mars Odyssey to, say, Galileo. One has to look at bang for the buck as well–the expensive battlestar galacticas really did provide a lot of science, when they worked. Also, we must take into consideration the fact that many of Goldin’s FBC missions were total failures (because, f’rinstance, someone forgot to convert from nautical miles to kilometers, and so they had controlled flight into terrain). But at least NASA can fail much more cheaply these days…

“Faster, better, cheaper” is a hard philosophy to apply to the manned side of the agency’s remit.

More unsubstantiated and unsubstantiable opinion masquerading as fact.

How do they know this? Has NASA ever actually tried to do FBC manned spaceflight? Noooooo, because it doesn’t need to be fast, or good, or cheap–as already described, it just has to provide jobs in Texas, Alabama and Florida, and midnight basketball for the Russians, and in fact it does those things better if it’s slower, worse and more expensive. Or do they mean that it’s hard precisely for those political, as opposed to technical and economic, reasons? They don’t say, but they should, because the two cases require entirely different policy prescriptions.

First, therefore, America should kill the space station.

Meaning what? Abandon it to the elements (to eventually fall on our heads)? Put it on the auction block? Cut it up into pieces and return it in the Shuttle? This is a very vague recommendation.

That would upset Russians and the aerospace industry, but would have a negligible impact on science.

And that’s OK, because science is the only thing of any value, right?

And if all those Russian rocket scientists are still seen as a threat, a liberal showering of American work permits ought to disperse it.

Sure, as long as the “rocket scientists” (I hate that stupid phrase) aren’t competing for jobs with those good ol’ boy engineers down in Texas and Alabama and Florida and California, and their congressmen don’t get accordingly upset. Midnight basketball for the Russians in Russia is entirely a different matter than the same thing in the US.

Second, a plan for phasing out the shuttle fleet should be devised. Throway rockets can do the job perfectly adequately.

Well, that begs the question: What is “the job”? To read the last paragraph of the editorial, which waxes eloquent about what wonderful things NASA could do in space science if they weren’t distracted by all that yucky shuttle and space station stuff (and which I won’t include to attempt to stay out of “fair use” trouble), “the job” is science uber alles, and anything that anyone else wants to do in space be damned. And no need to come up with anything better than Shuttles–expensive expendables are good enough, for now and into the foreseeable future, as long as Congress comes to its senses and gives the planetary scientists all the taxpayers’ money that they need to fly on them.

And finally, leaving aside the Simon Legree management style, the lack of accounting and accountability, the clinically-diagnosable schizophrenia, the War against The Worm, letting George Abbey run the agency into the ground, and the annual lies to Congress, the real problem with Dan Goldin was that he had the same mind set as the editorial writers at the Economist. His goals for NASA weren’t to reduce the cost of access, or to allow ordinary people and companies into space (as evidenced by his manic vendetta against Dennis Tito’s flight) or to use space to solve earthly problems. No, in his strategic plan, his long-term goals were to look for planets in other star systems, and search for life, or meaning. Rather than get serious about whether or not cheap access to space could exist, he was more interested in if God exists, or if ET exists.

This editorial is breathtaking in its narrow-minded naivety. Editorial writers, like much of the public, seem to operate under a set of false assumptions. Some of them are:

  • The primary purpose of a government civil space program is science and exploration
  • Space is really really hard, and really really expensive, and this is an intrinsic characteristic of it, and it always will be, and its difficulty and expense has nothing to do with the dunderheaded way that we’ve been doing it since the beginning of the Cold War
  • Because space is soooooo expensive, only governments can afford to do things there
  • If only we’d quite wasting money on all this manned space stuff, we could shift the money that we’re currently spending on it to that much more valuable and interesting science
  • That if we could only convince the politicians and the public how wonderful space science is, we could just get them to fund that adequately (where adequately is more money than all other federal science expenditures combined), and we wouldn’t have all these silly turf fights, and lobbying by these evil aerospace corporations

Here’s the scoop folks. Space is expensive and dangerous because it’s done by the government, for governmental reasons. And it’s done by the government not because it’s too expensive for anyone else to do it, but because we simply fell into that rut in 1958, after Sputnik, when rather than being viewed as a new sphere of economic activity, to be developed in the time-honored American free-enterprise manner, it instead became a propaganda battlefield in the Cold War, to be developed in a socialistic way to demonstrate not that capitalism was better than socialism, but rather, that democracy was better than totalitarianism. We didn’t set it up as a competition of economic systems, because we wanted to keep the AFL-CIO and UAW on board at home, and the Eurosocialists on board abroad–both would have been offended at a brazen display of capitalism, but were comfortable with NASA as a democratic-socialist state enterprise. And after we won the Space Race, and even after we won the Cold War, we remain stuck with a socialistic space program.

Yes, we probably need to figure out how to make lemonade from Shuttle and station (notice that the editorial writers don’t get into any of the messy details about how one “kills” it). But what we really need to do is get people to stop equating NASA with space, and start identifying and quantifying markets, and putting together business plans, and building infrastructure to satisfy them, and to rearrange federal policy to encourage, rather than discourage, capitalists from doing these things, because the reason that space is expensive is, simply put, because we hardly do any of it. If Ford spent a billion dollars developing the Mustang (which is a reasonable approximation of what it costs to develop a new car model), and only built half a dozen of them, even Bill Gates wouldn’t buy one. But NASA would.

Once we drive down access costs by increasing space activities, The Economist’s (and Dan Goldin’s) sacred space science will become cheap and abundant as well. I used to have a sig on my emails, and it still applies: NASA’s job is not to send a man to Mars. NASA’s (and the rest of the federal government’s) job is to make it possible for the National Geographic Society to send a man (and woman) to Mars.

Biting Commentary about Infinity…and Beyond!