Archive for June 2007

The Admin and the Marble

June 26, 2007


I like the Planetary Organization. I really do. But in this case, I think that they (or at least, op-ed writer Louis Friedman) are just wrong. Here’s the back-story.

Last month, NASA Chief Administrator Mike Griffin went on Public Radio (the radio show Morning Edition) and caused a bit of a ruckus when he said “to assume that [global warming] is a problem is to assume that the state of Earth’s climate today is the optimal climate.” and then asked the question “which human beings … are to be accorded the privilege of deciding that this particular climate that we have right here today, right now is the best climate for all other human beings?”

Friedman writes:

It might be reasonable to accept that this was only a faux pas by a blunt, bright guy who likes to be unconventional. Indeed, Griffin has expressed regret about his comments. But that misses a greater point – this was a major opportunity to promote his agency, the U.S. space program and their value to the public at large. He downplayed one of NASA’s most valued and widely recognized functions – teaching us about our own planet and monitoring it from the unique vantage of space. In doing so, Griffin also undermined public support for his most cherished program – the Vision for Space Exploration.

Um, yeah. That’s space exploration. The Earth is in the opposite direction.

And that’s been the problem. Ever since the Apollo astronauts turned their cameras around and took the first famous “big, blue marble” photo of the Earth, the photo that inspired the first Earth Day (and, not coincidently, Al Gore) NASA has been floundering. With few exceptions, the agency has been unable to answer one simple question: “What should it do next?” The so called Mission to Planet Earth (full disclosure – it kept me employed for about 2 years) was what school children call make-work. It felt that way from the inside, too. Oh, there was stuff to be done, and even science to be had, even while earth-pointing. But it was still make-work.

Griffin need not have apologized. He was correct to point out that global-warming hysteria flows from the deadly sin of pride (and it’s close associate, arrogance). He was, of course, too polite to spell it out so rudely as I. Moreover, Friedman is simply wrong to assert that NASA’s mission is in part (or in whole) to teach us about Planet Earth, or that this is a particularly valuable function of NASA. It is not. AURA does it better, as it should, by charter. Indeed, little of what NASA does is (or should be) of direct value – let Burt Rutan find a profit in space. That’s his mission and goal. I applaud his courage and entrepreneurship.

And the direction that NASA should be looking is outward.

Candidate Bloomberg

June 23, 2007

From NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s graduation address at JHU in Baltimore:

Each one of you has had two important principles deeply embedded in you through your association with this amazing institution: An unwavering allegiance to the power of science and a profound commitment to use that power to help people. And this is a good thing, because now more than ever, these two fundamental concepts are being ignored, or are under attack.

Oh really?

That isn’t exactly (or even remotely) the detached, careful language of the scientist, but the emotive, inspiring language of the preacher, the prophet—not of science, but of scientism. Scientism is the belief that all answers of any significance can be answered and best addressed by science.

Oh man. Carl Olsen left only a smoldering rubble at the link above. Christians aren’t always so brutal.

New Horizons Latest

June 22, 2007

There’s a new PI’s Perspective column up at the New Horizons web site. Alan Stern puts a night cap on the activities that followed the spacecraft’s passage through Jupiter’s magnetotail. NH’s close encounter with the planet began, you recall, on Feb. 28. Just now the very last of the data has been received back, and is undergoing preliminary analysis before being turned over to the public.

One thing he wrote particularly caught my eye:

To prepare for hibernation, our mission operations team has been analyzing data from the five-day hibernation test we did in April, and testing spacecraft items like the backup navigation gyros and the fuel-cutoff valves that could be used if the spacecraft senses it’s in danger while operating autonomously in hibernation.

Hey! That’s me and my team he’s talking about! Well, almost. We merely tested the autonomous fault-protection system. Still, I feel like a proud, well, uncle.

With these various preparations behind us, our mission ops team is ready to move into “real” use of the hibernation mode, which we’ll use 75% of the time from now until 2014 to reduce wear and tear on our electronics.

That’s what it’s about.

Pioneer Anomaly

June 22, 2007

It’s been reported for year (yea, unto decades) that the Pioneer spacecraft (launched outward from the solar system in the early 1970s) are not exactly where physics tells us they should be. Speculation has it that this is evidence of a mysterious, ‘new’ force of nature or possibly evidence that Newton and Einstein were wrong about gravity (close, but ultimately wrong).

But maybe <a href=”http://space.newscientist.com/article/dn12070-exotic-cause-of-pioneer-anomaly-in-doubt.html
“>that’s not so. Kjell Tangen, a physicist at the firm DNV in Hovik, Norway:

suggests conventional physics – such as drag due to dust grains in space, or the emission of heat from small nuclear generators on board, known as RTGs, in some directions more than others – probably causes the anomaly[.]

For my money, what’s amazing is that these ancient spacecraft are still providing us an opportunity to do science.

The New Ten Commandments

June 21, 2007

…of the road.
Boy, I was actually surprised to see these, and to be honest, I thought it a bit of light-hearted fun at first. It’s not.

All in all, I don’t think it’s a bad idea for the Pope to remind us that there are moral aspects to everything in life, including driving. And the Lord knows that I needed to see these words (for apparently, the gentle reminders of the AstroWife were not getting through my thick skull sufficiently).

But the humor has been irresistible.

Guitar Greats

June 18, 2007

There’s a lot of good guitar players around. There’s a lot of great ones. If you make your list of all time greats, you have to include Clapton (of course), Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan (not to mention Jeff Beck and Carlos Santana).

If your tastes in guitar greats runs towards the blues, you can’t not list B.B. King and Buddy Guy. If you appreciate old-style country, then you know Chet Atkins.

Some on my list aren’t often considered “guitar players”, but are generally underestimated because of other talents – Paul Simon comes to mind, as does James Taylor.

Some have “cult followings”, like Richard Thompson, whose playing I appreciate, but whose music is just too melancholy for my tastes. Or Danny Gatton (just try any of the samples on this page. I suggest Harlem Nocturne first).

But world wide, there’s been only one considered the best in the world. And up until his death in 1987, that man was Andres Sagovia. Until now I hadn’t bothered to pay attention to whom his successor might be. But it might be John Mclauglin (playing here, with his wife, Katia Labeque).

Goodbye, Mr. Wizard

June 13, 2007

I was one of (probably) millions of children in whom he nurtured an interest in science.

Don Herbert died Tuesday at age 89.

Mr. Herbert held no advanced degree in science, he used household items in his TV lab, and his assistants were boys and girls. But he became an influential showman-science teacher on his half-hour “Watch Mr. Wizard” programs, which ran on NBC from 1951 to 1965.

May he rest in peace.