Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Another David Souter?

As I frantically prepare for my imminent move, a good friend brought to my attention a couple significant articles linked by GodSpy on the President's nominee to the Supreme Court. (I figured the lives of millions of unborn children might be worth a few minutes away from panicked packing.)

Ask yourself: what do we really know about the President's nominee to the Supreme Court, Judge John G. Roberts, Jr? Why was he given a pass by liberal Democrats? As a recent New Yorker article says:

When we met last week in his Capitol office, it was clear that the Roberts nomination had come as a relief. “There were lots of people we didn’t want, and I made sure he knew what those names were,” Reid said....

Roberts, in Reid’s view, left no doubt that he would be very reluctant to overturn precedents. To do so, Roberts had said, the Court would first have to consider a series of objective criteria, two of which stood out: whether a precedent fostered stability in the nation; and the extent to which society had come to rely on an earlier ruling, even a dubious one.

Reid more than once compared Roberts to Justice David Souter, who was appointed by the first President Bush, in 1990, and today is widely detested by conservatives because he frequently sides with the more liberal Justices.

Perhaps Reid, who is at least nominally pro-life, is providing cover for a fellow pro-lifer.

But now consider this selection from the New York Times:

Judge John G. Roberts Jr., the Supreme Court nominee, gave advice to advocates for gay rights a decade ago, helping them win a landmark 1996 ruling… Romer v. Evans is considered a touchstone in the culture wars, and it produced what the gay rights movement considers its most significant legal victory.

Perhaps the Times is simply trying to unnerve pro-lifers? Maybe.

But you have to wonder how the pro-life base fits into Republican Party political calculus. Does the GOP think it can use the continuing the abortion controversy (created by the Supreme Court) to maintain the loyalty of religious conservatives? I pray that our leaders aren't simply and cynically playing us again.

  • Sheryl Gay Stolberg and David D. Kirkpatrick, "Court Nominee Advised Group on Gay Rights," New York Times (August 5, 2005).

  • Elsa Walsh, "Minority Retort: How a pro-gun, anti-abortion Nevadan leads the Senate’s Democrats," The New Yorker (August 8, 2005).

  • Wednesday, August 03, 2005

    Chasing Wind

    In today's New York Times, Eugene F. Kranz advocates sticking with the space shuttle. His mindless remarks are worth comment, but only because they represent the way too many people in this country "think."

    To read and listen to the coverage about the space shuttle, you would think NASA's mission team has taken careless risks with the lives of the seven astronauts who went into space on the Discovery last Tuesday. During the launching, foam fell off the external tank. For the risk-averse, the only acceptable thing to do now is retire the shuttle program immediately and wait for the divine arrival of the next generation of spacecraft. I am disgusted at the lack of courage and common sense this attitude shows.

    Mr. Kranz is right about one thing: the real problem is not the shuttle. But what he doesn't mention is that the real problem is NASA.

    Yes, Mr. Kranz, we should be willing to endure risk...for good reason. There was a good reason for the Apollo program; there is no reason for the space shuttle. It's called courage if you endure risk for a good purpose; it's called foolhardiness if you take chances for no good reason.

    One poor Darwin Awards winner a while back strapped a rocket to his car and flattened himself into the side of a mountain. Sure he did something risky. But no one calls him brave.

    (As General Patton wisely said, "No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country." I call that common sense.)

    Let there be no mistake: for all NASA's posturing, the shuttle is foolhardiness.

    Eugene F. Kranz, "From Giant Leaps to Baby Steps," New York Times (August 3, 2005).

    Personal Note: I'm away from home the rest of the week. Back next week, but busy with move preparations. Our culture is unreasonably fixated on the new, don't you think? Perenniel truths never go out of style: check out the Real Physics archives while I'm gone.

    Tuesday, August 02, 2005

    Vindicated in Pessimism

    Yes, NASA finally admits that it has to do something about those thingies hanging off the underbelly of the Discovery:

    NASA Sets Spacewalk to Repair Discovery's Heat Shield

    “In the end it came down to be a really simple decision,” said Wayne Hale, NASA’s deputy shuttle program manager, during a briefing here at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC). “We came to the conclusion that we don’t know enough to really feel good about this, so therefore the remedy is easy and we ought to go exercise the remedy.”

    One has to wonder if the delay in this official word of this "simple decision" originates in NASA management's ignorance or obstinance. That is to say, is the cause management's famous lack of technical training or its simple unwillingness to admit the embarrassing truth?

    CBS news article says

    NASA says the gap filler is not related to the debris that flew off Discovery during liftoff. The problem may not be as serious as the heat shield hole that doomed Columbia shuttle, but for NASA, this is no time to take risks.

    So we have multiple problems here. I hope the repair isn't simply "doing something" for CYA.

    UPDATE: Duncan Maxwell Anderson writes that removing freon from the adhesive to protect the environment has created the "popcorn effect" of loose tiles: The Shuttle's Achilles Heel: Ideology. Additional interesting commentary:

    It is impossible to integrate the contradictory. To whatever extent an engineer is forced to base his decisions, not on the realities of science but on the arbitrary, unpredictable, and often impossible demands of a politicized system, he is stymied. Yet this politicizing is an unavoidable consequence of governmental control over scientific research and development.

    Monday, August 01, 2005

    Scuttle the Shuttle

    I've got a lot of personal things on my mind these days, but the latest on space shuttle Discovery (STS-114) galls me enough to take the time to comment.

    NASA's official word:

    Discovery remains in good shape. In a press conference Sunday afternoon, mission manager Wayne Hale said, “There are no new anomalies to speak of.”

    Inspections of the reinforced carbon-carbon panels that protect the wing leading edges and nose cap appear to show no serious threat to a safe return to Earth. Engineers and mission managers continue to look at two gap fillers, extending from the Shuttle’s underside. The ceramic coated-fabric gap fillers are used to protect against hot gas from seeping into gaps between the Shuttle’s protective tiles. (viewed July 31, 11:00pm)

    Meanwhile journalists are too lazy or thick to do more than repeat the official line:

    Managers at Nasa have decided that Colonel Eileen Collins and her team of six astronauts will remain in orbit for one day longer than planned, to assist their two colleagues aboard the International Space Station (ISS) with some chores.

    A likely story: nothing wrong with the shuttle, but we need you highly trained specialists up there to change light bulbs....


    In actuality "no new anomalies" is just officialese for "situation normal: all f***d up."

    In grounding the shuttle, NASA is edging toward what it should have done a long time ago: the shuttle should be permanently retired. What's the point of the space shuttle? To ferry building materials and supplies for the International Space Station (ISS). What's the point of the ISS? To give a plausible reason for keeping the shuttle around.1 A nice, clean exercise in circular reasoning.

    In grad school an eminent astrophysicist (long since departed to another institution) let me in on a trade secret: NASA will cut the funding of any scientist who publicly mentions that there is no scientific justification for the shuttle.

    The reusuability of the vehicle's parts give us the idea that it's not as costly as disposable spacecraft. What the shuttle does right, such as launching satellites like Hubble and Chandra, could be done much more cost-effectively with an unmanned launch vehicle. Each shuttle launch costs over a quarter billion dollars. Sending humans into space is a costly enterprise. (Think about it: a human-friendly environment is very heavy. It also requires running safety checks on every piece of equipment sent along, so, for example, a spring doesn't pop off and kill someone.) Compare the shuttle's astronomical price-tag to something on order $10 million for an unmanned launch. And then NASA has the audacity to claim that doing science on the thing saves money! (Sure, over not doing science on the thing.)

    As I discussed in a previous post, the motivation behind the space shuttle is to spread public largesse to influential tech companies. (Nothing's so easy as spending someone else's money, is it?)

    With the Apollo program, we went to the Moon! With the space shuttle, we simply go around in circles... until we run out of orbiters... or astronauts.

    Nothing useful comes out of the shuttle program that couldn't be done more effectively in other ways.

    Bottom line: the space shuttle program is a highly-tech way to kill astronauts.


    1. Supposedly we need the ISS as a stop-over on our way back to the Moon en route to Mars. We're suppoed to believe that since the Apollo program our level of technology has regressed so we can't go directly to the Moon.