Apollo and Dionysus

Neil Armstrong, in the LM after his historic lunar EVA with Buzz Aldrin

As I write this, it is 50 years to the moment after the Lunar Module Eagle ascended from the surface of the Moon, carrying a victorious Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin up to their rendezvous with crewmate Mike Collins in the Command Module Columbia. Although I am too young to have personal memories of this event, I’ve been following the mission on its 50th anniversary through the web site Apollo in Real Time. It’s been exciting, and I, like many others involved in the space industry, have been driven introspective.

Why did we send Apollo 11 to the Moon, and why should we keep sending people to explore space?

The first question is all about geopolitics. The United States sent Apollo 11 to land on the Moon because the country wanted a very public way to demonstrate the superiority of its technical capabilities over the Soviet Union. The deep political worry at the time was that the USSR would not only beat the US to the Moon, but that they would emplace weapons there that the US could not counter-target — messing up the strike and counter-strike strategies underlying the insanity of mutually assured destruction. So, the US also decided to conduct its lunar landing in a way that would establish a specific set of norms for space exploration activities: We do this on behalf of all the people of Earth. We are here for science and knowledge. We show the world everything we do, as we do it. We come in peace, for all mankind. Apollo 11 literally left a model of an olive branch on the Moon.

But now the race is long over, and the norms established are taken for granted (if we remember them). Why continue? I find this a difficult question for me to answer — partly because I don’t believe several of the common arguments to be very compelling. Those arguments are science, spinoff technology, and inspiration.

Science is the easiest to dispense: our robotic probes reach across the Solar System, relaying extensive data back to scientists on Earth. The time, effort, and expense of sending a human mission to, say, Mars, absolutely dwarfs the cost of a robotic science mission. As an example, a recent report estimated the cost of a 2037 Mars mission as $120 billion (not including some other significant developments like a precursor lunar landing); the NASA Science Mission Directorate puts a cost cap of about $600 million on Discovery-class missions like the InSight lander, meaning we could send 200 robotic missions for the cost of one human mission. We would have to make sure that the science output of a human mission is at least 200 times better than the science of a robotic mission, and I’m not sure that’s a case one can make. Likewise, while space exploration, and human spaceflight in particular, has produced a great deal of technology that we now use on Earth in engineering, science, medicine, and daily life — those “spin-off technologies” are, almost by definition, ancillary benefits of a development program that had a different objective. This isn’t a bad thing (and NASA investment is far better at spinning off technology than, say, military investment)…but if we as a society have the goal of getting those technologies, we would just fund their development in the first place, rather than hoping that useful spin-offs come out of another program.

It seems to me like inspirational power is the most common reason cited to continue human spaceflight activities. Here, for example, is the current NASA administrator on Twitter:

Whenever someone tells me that the United States needs to inspire more students to study scientific and engineering fields, I want to ask them: What comes after this great inspiration? When a student says that NASA activities make them want to study math and science — are we, as a nation, going to invest in a technical education system to support their ambitions? Because, right now, we do not; those students are left hanging with the means already at their family’s disposal. And then suppose that these inspired students do get a degree in science or engineering: what do they do with it? Supposedly there has been a “STEM shortage” for years, but I do not see it materializing in a shower of job offers for recent graduates. Where are the university science departments desperate to fill vacant professorships? Where is the bipartisan call to expand the civil services of NASA, NOAA, NSF, CDC, and other national scientific agencies? Where are the private research and development organizations with a backlog of open lab positions to fill? Where are the engineering firm recruiters waiting eagerly outside the doors of college engineering buildings? Our lack of national investment in technology, research, and development belies our stated goals. And, in the vacuum, our previously inspired students are off to Google and Facebook to tweak the algorithms for selling users’ private data to advertisers.

My engineer’s brain struggles with the fact that I can come up with other rationales for human spaceflight, but they seem somehow squishier than the arguments above — the ones I don’t find very resonant after a little thought. After all, the arguments I described so far seem quantifiable: number of undergraduate degrees awarded in STEM fields. Number of scientific papers written by human spaceflight researchers. Number of commercialized technologies. Maybe the solution is to look at the problem with something other than an engineer’s brain.

I think the purpose of human spaceflight should be to expand human life out into the Solar System.

I also think that the reason we don’t often hear this statement articulated is that spaceflight proponents (especially NASA staff) don’t believe this argument will resonate with the public, but I believe they are wrong about that.

People get invested with spaceflight when the engineers, scientists, and astronauts involved connect spaceflight with human experience. Look at Neil Armstrong’s contemplative words as he took his first steps on the Moon. Look at Chris Hadfield singing “Space Oddity” aboard his own tin can. Look at the engineers at JPL whooping as a robot touches down on Mars. And look at the way these things catch the public eye, in a way that a purely technical accomplishment does not. Human experience has a value all its own — despite seeing the pictures and reading about the scientific results, I still want to ask the surviving Apollo astronauts, what was it like?! No, really, what was it like, on the Moon? I think it is worth having people living and working in space, for the sake of connecting the awesome experience of our cosmos to our humanity, and for creating an enduring example of what humans can achieve when we pull together and decide to build something.

Ultimately, I want to see permanent human habitation in space and on other planets. Beyond the romantic notions, there are some simple economic drivers that ought to push us in that direction. Any economic model that assumes growth, on a finite planet, is going to run into trouble eventually — and considering some of the anticipated resource shortages connected to the climate crisis, that point may come sooner than we think. (For another thing, with the world’s most powerful militaries blindly chasing “capabilities” in a way that brings us ever closer to nuclear war, I’d feel a lot more comfortable for the future of humanity if some of us were outside their reach.) No place that we’ve yet discovered will be as amenable to human life as the Earth, even in the face of climate crisis or asteroid impact, but that fact does not mean that we won’t eventually need to have humans off the Earth’s surface.

Now, if that’s really the winning justification for human spaceflight — having humans living in space and developing a culture that connects back to people on Earth — then that implies some changes to NASA’s objectives. Instead of having astronauts “learn to live and work in space,” NASA ought to get people actually living and working in space. This brings to light another reason why we may not see human habitation put forward as the reason for human spaceflight: I am asking for a major, concerted effort on NASA’s part; one that emphasizes long-term approaches to human spaceflight and spacecraft at the expense of the Apollo short-term race approach. We should be looking at regular launches to low Earth orbit, major development effort on in-situ resource utilization, designing and building large habitats that are amenable to long-term human life and work, and allowing a great deal of autonomy to the people in space. But, just as it’s nearly impossible for the US government to close unneeded military bases, it’s proven impossible to reorient NASA from the same kinds of work that has been done at each NASA field center for decades, going all the way back to the 1960s.

Which brings us, of course, to the reason why no humans have set foot on the Moon since the Apollo program: politicians like to have NASA, but they don’t like the implications of having NASA do things. Having NASA do things requires allocation (and re-allocation) of resources. They’ve tried to have it both ways, for decades, by splitting the difference. And we’re left trying to justify the space program as it is, with unconvincing arguments, instead of having a rationale behind the total human spaceflight endeavor and building a space program to satisfy that rationale.

Having a resonant driving force behind human spaceflight could help NASA maintain consistent direction in the decades to come. Do I have the winning argument? I really don’t know. But one thing’s for sure: the arguments we’ve been using so far aren’t working very well, if holding human spaceflight to steady progress is the goal.

Posted in Politics, Science, Space | 2 Comments

Ethical Engineering Means Choosing Your Work

I once heard a shocking comment from a colleague at a previous job in the aerospace industry. My colleague told me, “Joe, I think you’re a lot like me – you don’t really care about what your work is for, so long as it involves solving challenging problems.” I walked out of that conversation with a notion solidifying in my mind: if that company had that impression of me, I had to get out.

When engineering students, or young professionals, think about engineering ethics, they usually deal with topics narrowly pertaining to their problem-solving work. For example, making sure that they report correct results, that they do not misrepresent their data, or that they raise issues they find to their management. Human safety is often the main focus, especially preventing injury or loss of life due to improper operation of the engineered system. A classic example is the o-rings on the Space Shuttle Challenger‘s solid rocket boosters: an engineer had an ethical obligation to raise his concerns to try and save the crew, and the engineering management suffered an ethical failure in refusing him.

But what abut the ethics involved in the proper operation of a system? There is an aspect of engineering ethics that rarely gets attention in engineering instruction: an engineer’s ethical responsibilities in choosing which projects and programs to work on. A wonderful essay by Darshan Karwat on this subject appeared on the Union of Concerned Scientists’ blog recently. As an aerospace engineer – a canonical “dual-use” discipline, meaning it has both civilian and military applications – I offer my own opinion here. Continue reading

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“The Last Jedi” is Exactly My Star Wars

I’ve seen “The Last Jedi” a couple times now. And I liked it very much! Here there be spoilers. Continue reading

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Scientists Should March

Scientists are planning a “March for Science” in Washington, DC and many other cities on 22 April 2017. Some commentators seem to think this is a bad idea, because it would politicize science.

Before I continue, let me suggest the form an intellectually honest debate about global warming would take:

Scientists:

Global warming is happening.

It will cost $X to stop and/or mitigate global warming. If we do not stop and/or mitigate it, it will cost $Y to deal with the resulting property damage, logistical problems, loss of standard of living, food supply shortages, disease outbreaks, and security threats. $Y is much bigger than $X.

Democrats:

Okay. We think that from an economic, social, and security standpoint, we would be better off paying the smaller amount up front, $X, than having to deal with all those problems individually later on.

Republicans:

Okay. We think that the impact to certain market sectors would be too great to pay the $X up front. We think we are better able to pay installments of the larger cost $Y later on, as those various problems crop up.

Now, allow me to summarize the form the actual debate about global warming seems to be taking in the United States:

Scientists:

Global warming is happening.

It will cost $X to stop and/or mitigate global warming. If we do not stop and/or mitigate it, it will cost $Y to deal with the resulting property damage, logistical problems, loss of standard of living, food supply shortages, disease outbreaks, and security threats. $Y is much bigger than $X.

Democrats:

Okay. We think that from an economic, social, and security standpoint, we would be better off paying the smaller amount up front, $X, than having to deal with all those problems individually later on.

Republicans:

Global warming is not happening.

Scientists:

But we just told you that it is, and presented our evidence, and told you the cost of ignoring–

Republicans:

Stop doing science.

It’s easy to say that scientists should keep themselves in the business of producing scientific evidence and scientific conclusions, and stay out of the business of figuring out how to act on those conclusions. Science, after all, doesn’t tell us anything about morality or ideals, it just describes what happens in the world.

What does someone do, though, if they hold a particular position, and science produces definitive evidence suggesting that their position does not give them the result they want? In my field of engineering, the correct response to this scenario is to redesign my system so that I do get the result I want. I have to trust that the most up-to-date scientific theory is the most accurate description available of how my design will actually work, regardless of what I want my design to do. However, more and more, we are seeing a different strategy emerge in the field of politics: attack the science itself. Cast aspersions on the scientists. Talk about presenting “alternative facts,” as though physics behaves differently depending on one’s ideals. Cut off the ability of scientists to conduct their work, if one thinks that they will uncover evidence disfavoring one’s suggested course of action.

This is not a good way to solve problems.

What I believe scientists are standing up for in their march is simply the idea that decisions should be based on evidence. Conclusions should be based on a strong argument. Engineers know this. Businesspeople know this. Doctors know this. Scientists know this. Politicians should, too.

Scientists may not be perfect people, and an individual scientist’s conclusions may not be completely correct. Lots of factors feed into this: the tenure process, aggressive university publishing policies, limited funding, and severe competition leading to hype. But that is why we conduct science as a community, and as part of a larger iterative process. Scientists as a whole are always improving the state of knowledge. Others follow to correct and refine previous knowledge. As such, the current state of the art does represent the best available scientific description of the world. And, in many cases, that description has been converging. So, I can say with confidence: Global warming is happening, and human-caused, and has real economic costs. Vaccines don’t cause autism. GMOs are fine to grow and eat. The collapse of the bee population is going to cause big problems for agriculture. Coal power is just more expensive than natural gas (and, soon, wind and solar). Tax cuts for the wealthy are not as effective at stimulating the economy as government investment. No refugee from the Middle East has committed a terrorist attack in the United States. American police shoot black people at a disproportionately high rate. These are all things we can measure, facts based on evidence. There are no alternatives.

What do we do about these things? Do we do anything about them? Yes, those are questions for politicians to debate. But I can tell you this definitively: cutting off support for the science that produced evidence of a problem does not make things better. Politicians who advocate doing so are not going to help solve those problems, and we all need to remember who they are and how they are exacerbating our problems.

That is why scientists should call attention to their work and to their efforts. They need to remind everyone that evidence matters and decisions based on evidence matter. They need to remind people that experts have expertise. This march is not just about science, it is about the very idea that we can observe the world and use our observations to inform our expectations about the future. It’s about stating the reality of reality as opposed to “alternative facts.”

The idea that scientific evidence is a description of reality is not a political statement. I can understand how that might be hard to grasp, though, for a party whose paragon once took an incorrect position and said, “my heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.”

Guess what? The facts and evidence were right.

Posted in Politics, Science, Skepticism, Social commentary | 1 Comment

We Can’t Grow Forever – so What?

Two interrelated opinion pieces appear in today’s New York Times. The first is an essay by David Brooks about how the economic growth of the 21st century compares unfavorably to that of the heady 20th century. The second is the Editorial Board’s argument that data does not support the idea that automation is responsible for recent economic malaise.

Brooks’ piece resonated with me because I hold the opinion that, regardless of your position on regulations, taxes, the environment, or public policy, a nation simply cannot grow forever. Whether we are talking about population size, economic output, available resources, or territorial holdings, there is simply a fundamental limit to what is available on the Earth. I think we are starting to see these limits reflected in our growth path, as Brooks writes. Extractive industries provide a good case study: I don’t think we’d have deep-water drilling if shallow-water drilling remained lucrative, and I don’t think we’d have the economic case for fracking if the easy-to-reach resources were still as worthwhile to get. Similar principles are going to apply to any resource or population.

The notion of the Earth being finite seems to bother economists. If our population does not continuously grow, then our output doesn’t grow. The United States’ trajectory through the 20th century was predicated on the idea of continual growth, which spells trouble if we try to carry that path forward. This is where the editorial comes in: In order to succeed and provide for our citizens in the 21st century, we need new policies.

The United States’ economic policies over the last several decades have been basically Republican policies. (I want to explicitly draw a distinction between “Republican” policies – across-the-board tax cuts, cutting regulation, and increasing defense spending – and “conservative” policies – market-based solutions, revenue-neutral ideas, and the like – because they are very much not the same.) Somehow, the Republican party has managed to sell themselves to many Americans as the small-business-friendly, growth-promoting, income-increasing party that they are not, instead of the giant-multinational-conglomerate-favoring, uber-wealthy-CEO-catering party that they are. In a world where more and more people are gunning for fewer resources than they could have a half-century ago, those policies may be the exact opposite of what we need. So are we going to get the policy reforms we need under Republican leadership? Certainly not. My generation is going to inherit a world of rapidly rising income inequality (not to mention sea levels).  Because, I think people wanted to buy one thing when they elected Republicans last November, but they got a lemon.

The frustrating thing to me is that I believe the Democrats have it right, in terms of policy philosophy. Maintaining a strong economy in the future world is going to be about efficiency. We’re going to have to find new ways of going about our business so that we can make more with less. We’re going to have to find ways to incentivize building robust products that last a long time, instead of selling consumers on the idea of constant upgrades. We’re going to have to find efficient ways for society to reduce its overall costs while balancing individual needs, like all buying health insurance so we don’t pay more at the ER. We’re going to have to power our homes with home-grown renewable energy, not just because it’s good for the planet but because it’s going to be cheaper and more readily available in the long term. We’re going to have to go back to what we learned in elementary school: reduce, reuse, recycle!

And we’re going to have to figure out how to make economic growth out of that, as our population starts to shrink. That clearly requires policy changes. Blind cuts to regulations so that we can dump pollution in rivers won’t solve this problem; tax cuts that go mostly to wealthy corporate boardmembers won’t solve this problem; more nuanced approaches are needed. The solutions are likely carefully crafted, market-based plans involving a full portfolio of cuts, new regulations, and taxes.

Many of those will be conservative solutions.

(Probably, at this rate, ones put forward by the Democratic Party, like the ACA.)

A ray of sunshine here: At the state and local level, politicians are trying to solve problems. This involves recognizing what the problems are, and trying to implement a plan to address them. It also involves trying a new plan when the first one doesn’t work.

So, let’s watch carefully over the next few years: What works? What doesn’t?

And who put forward which ideas?

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Donald Trump will fail as President, but we must still resist him

Donald Trump will fail as President.

Let me explain that statement a little, by defining what I mean by “fail.” Trump will fail to accomplish most, if not all, of the goals that he has publicly stated he wishes to accomplish. (He may, of course, accomplish goals that he has not publicly stated, like enriching himself by manipulating the office of President or severely curtailing civil liberties. But we can’t really know what those are, so I will leave them aside for now.) The reason is simple: most of his stated goals are flatly impossible.

Take, for example, his pledge to “unleash” the coal industry. He plans to do this by rolling back Obama Administration regulations. However, those regulations aren’t the reason why the coal industry was in trouble in the first place. Coal was in trouble because it’s too expensive. Natural gas is cheaper. Even wind and solar are getting cheaper than coal! The only way to “unleash” coal would be through a massive campaign of government subsidies. Good luck getting Paul Ryan to sign up for that, Mr. Trump!

Or, for another example, look at Trump’s vow to put the US military “on display” by increasing the military budget to buy more ships, tanks, and planes. But the military development and procurement processes these days are decades long – so even if Trump doubled the military budget, it could be ten or twenty years before there’s any visible increase in American military capability!

Trump also says he wants to bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States. He wants to do this by renegotiating free trade agreements. This won’t work at all, though – the reason why lots of manufacturing jobs dried up in the US is more because of automation than trade and jobs moving overseas. A terrific example is the Carrier plant where Trump claimed to save jobs from moving to Mexico. Part of the large taxpayer-funded incentive package Trump gave to Carrier was assistance investing in their Indiana plant. Guess what Carrier is investing in? Automation! If that automation cuts the need for more jobs than Trump saved, he produced a net loss for American workers.

I could go on, of course. There’s the infamous travel ban that doesn’t target terrorists, but instead targets terrorists’ victims. There’s his pledge to provide healthcare for everyone, which there’s really only two ways to accomplish: give it to everyone (a single-payer system), or require everyone to get it and give them assistance if needed (Obamacare). His promises regarding GDP growth or budget-balancing don’t square with any projections, assuming he cuts taxes the way he promised. His rhetoric and stated goals are populist, but his policy proposals and cabinet appointments are corporatist. A wall along the Mexican border will have to traverse rugged mountains and sovereign Native territory, and there is no way for the US to get Mexico to pay for it.

He’s simply not going to do any of the things he wants, because he cannot. But I think patriotic Americans need to fight against him whenever we can anyway.

The first reason to resist Trump is because, though he may be a snake oil salesman, he’s a good salesman. He knows how to use your own brain against you. His administration appears to be on a concerted campaign to gaslight us – to get us to question the veracity of any information presented to us by anyone other than the administration itself. They invent fake terror plots, fake definitions of words, fake counts of people, fake reasons why the President can’t disclose his business dealings, and fake historical events. This process isn’t benign, and it is insidious. Removing references to Jews from the Holocaust, for example, has long been an anti-Semitic tactic.

So, we must constantly be on our guard. We cannot assume that the administration has our best interest in mind. We cannot even assume that what they say is accurate. We have to carefully screen their statements against facts available from reliable sources, and we have to defuse their gaslighting with knowledge of how they are trying to manipulate us. (Seriously, read that article!) We have to resist. If we don’t, who knows what they will try to sell us on?

The second reason to resist Trump gets back to my definition of failure as failing to accomplish his stated goals. I am quite sure that Trump has unstated goals. If he didn’t want to hide anything, why would he keep insisting against disclosing his tax returns, for example? Unfortunately, there’s no way to know for sure what those unstated goals are. But we can probably get some idea by looking at the stated goals of his closest advisers. Steve Bannon, for example, apparently said that he wants to bring the entire American system “crashing down,” and he has been explicit about his desire to curtail civil liberties, especially for non-whites and non-Christians.

Even if Trump fails to do the things he campaigned on doing, he can do a lot of fundamental damage to civil society in the meantime. The confusion over enforcement of the Muslim travel ban illustrated perfectly how, even if the Administration’s orders are unconstitutional, unethical, and flagrantly immoral, they could ram them through for some time before the courts could catch up. (The legislative branch of government has yet to do so!) Voting restrictions on minorities or the poor, more travel restrictions, profiling by law enforcement, permit and grant awards, and other avenues allow the executive branch of government a great deal of power. Therefore, we must fight back: we must challenge his orders in the courts as rapidly as Trump signs them, we must pressure our representatives to stall Trump’s legislative agenda and restrict executive power where it’s abused, and we must remember to keep our voices heard in all spheres of government. Remember, Trump lost the popular vote, and his electoral college victory hinged on the votes of 0.025% of the population – in an election when less than half of voters actually cast ballots. He has no mandate. His Republican allies’ mandates rest on gerrymandering. With such a weak base of support, there is an opening for us. We must seize it.

For the sake of all those too weak to fight back, all those who would be victimized by Bannon’s place on the National Security Council and Trump’s executive orders, we have a moral, ethical, and patriotic obligation to fight back. Because although Trump will fail, his failure cannot come soon enough for our communities.

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Voting with my Feet

I recently made a major life decision: I left my job. And after the US presidential election last month, I feel that my decision was precisely correct. I want to explain my motivation, because I believe that there are important policy issues in play that many people do not think about. I also believe it’s especially important to raise these issues among scientists and engineers.

First of all, everything in this post reflects my personal opinion.

I used to work at an engineering company that does most of its work as a military contractor. My discipline is spacecraft engineering, and this company occasionally offered work on space systems. It was that spacecraft work that attracted me to the company in the first place. I got to design algorithms for a constellation of NASA hurricane-monitoring satellites, and I got to help out with some experimental satellite programs. However, for the several years I worked there I struggled with the fact that space work was sort of a side project for this company. The main revenue stream came from building weapons. The kind of weapons nobody in their right mind should ever consider using.

I recall hearing many ways to rationalize participation in weapons projects: we are defending our nation; if we don’t build these, someone else will; this is just an interesting engineering problem we’re solving regardless of the applications. I could never make any of the rationalizations work for me. That last one, in particular, I found fundamentally disturbing. If we, as engineers, don’t consider the possible applications and implications of our work, then I think we lack the moral standing to do that work – even if our work was not used as we intended. If our projects kill, then we have blood on our hands. I did not want that to happen to me.

There was a particular class of weapon that inspired an existential dread in me. (Fortunately, though I learned about these systems, I never had to work on one. What I know of them comes from the media, as exemplified by the links below.) It’s called a hypersonic weapon, or sometimes a “prompt global strike” weapon. These are weapons designed specifically to travel as fast as a ballistic missile, though they could carry non-nuclear warheads. The problem with these weapons is that their purpose is to penetrate air defenses like that possessed by only a few specific (and often nuclear-armed) nations – Russia and China, for instance. It doesn’t take much of a stretch to imagine that American development of hypersonic weapons would make such nations think that they are our intended target! Furthermore, their design is to move quickly, maneuver erratically, or otherwise act in a manner that could be confusing to opposing radar operators. Russian missile-warning satellites have a historical track record of mistaking things like scientific sounding rockets or sunlight glinting off clouds for an American nuclear missile attack – against which Russian doctrine dictates a nuclear response. So do we really want to confuse those early-warning systems further? Even if the American weapons are non-nuclear, firing one in the vicinity of Chinese or Russian air defense creates an unacceptably high probability of accidental nuclear war. Russian officials may even have suggested that they would respond to a hypersonic weapon with nukes, on purpose.

The really crazy thing is that former President George W. Bush agreed with me and discontinued an experimental hypersonic vehicle program for exactly the reason I outlined: unacceptable risk of accidentally causing nuclear war. What the US is developing now are actually President Obama’s weapons. Obama thought that his Defense Department would rely on American technological superiority to deter any potential adversary. Instead of our weapons having the most powerful blasts, they would have other fear-inducing qualities. They would strike the quickest and be able to penetrate any defense. In addition, with non-nuclear warheads, these weapons are not limited by nuclear arms treaties and might even be useful to generals fighting a smaller-scale conflict like the one against ISIS. Ironically, though, these non-nuclear weapons could very well set off a nuclear counterattack anyway! Worse, Obama touched off a volatile hypersonic arms race among the biggest military powers of the world. Now several nations are rapidly developing the ability to accidentally trigger a global nuclear holocaust by setting off the US’s, Russia’s, or China’s Cold War-era automated response systems.

Though I didn’t work on those weapons, my former company had an intent focus on military programs. I feared that it was only a matter of time before they ran out of civilian spacecraft work and assigned me to something nefarious. Hypersonic weapons are only one terrifying example. Missiles, drones, cyberweapons – work on all these things and more is common in engineering companies. Given the Pentagon’s push for “disruptive innovation” – really, just think about how scary that phrase is in connection with the military! – I figured the prospects for a guy who wants rockets only to explore space were likely to get worse. Ultimately, I decided that it was up to me to vote with my feet, uphold my moral convictions, and deprive both my former company and the military of my engineering talent. So I got a new job, at a facility that doesn’t do any weaponry. I’ll be working on telecommunications satellites, and weather satellites, and imaging satellites, and space probes. That was how I cleared my conscience. But to do so, I had to move across the country to find an aerospace industry facility that didn’t build weapons. Others with the same moral dilemma may not be so flexible.

Now enter President-elect Donald J. Trump. In a primary interview, he suggested the use of nuclear weapons, in Europe, as a means to fight ISIS. He has reiterated many times how important he thinks it is to be “unpredictable” with his nuclear policy. He wants to abolish the deal that pushed Iran from being months away from developing a nuclear bomb to a decade away. He has publicly stated that the US should pull back from defense commitments in Europe and Asia. He has suggested that he would be okay if Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia all became nuclear powers. He has offhandedly proposed bombing various American enemies, large and small. And he wants to dramatically increase US military spending. With merely a phone call as president-elect, Trump caused an international incident. All this is likely the product of willful ignorance: He is refusing security briefings, and he doesn’t believe the information presented in those he does attend.

A Trump world is a world with more nuclear-armed powers and more instability. I do not have confidence in his ability to refrain from policies that make nukes more risky, or even from ordering a nuclear attack himself. Furthermore, I have little doubt that, given the option to launch a “non-nuclear” hypersonic weapon at some target that peeved him, Trump would pull the trigger. An all-too-possible result: global nuclear war and the end of human life as we know it.

If that happens it will be Trump’s fault, and not mine. I left the weapon-mongering subfield of engineering, and so I will not help him do these things. Not even in a small way. My decision feels secure. But, thanks to his election, the safety of the world isn’t.

I think we all learned something from this election: the price of silence. The media failed to challenge Trump on his most egregious or insensitive claims. Republican party statesmen failed to hold their own convictions as his fortunes rose, and instead held their tongues over each new outrage. Ordinary Americans failed to discuss the issues with their family and friends outside of Facebook’s echo chamber. And then, on Election Day, voter turnout was historically low. We’re seeing repercussions for bigotry and harassment already, and Trump’s decision to pack his cabinet with generals – violating the American principle of civilian leadership of the military that goes all the way back to George Washington – makes me extremely skeptical about future military strategy and weapons development. That’s why I wanted to to write this piece: We, as Americans, all need to think hard about how our tax money is going to be spent on the military, and whether that spending makes us safer or not, regardless of the jobs it secures for our communities. If the military money doesn’t make us safer, or especially if it makes us less safe, then perhaps we can find other ways to sustain jobs with federal funding: say, basic research and infrastructure investment. We need to keep a sharp eye on our federal policies and keep in close touch with our representatives in Congress.

Trump is a man who tolerates no disagreement, and doesn’t hesitate to unleash a horde of GamerGate-style trolls to harass and threaten people who question him. Furthermore, the congress is going to be full of spineless, unprincipled people like Paul Ryan, who condemned Trump’s moral failings…short of withdrawing their endorsement of this man who could keep them in power. They will not be an effective check on Trump. So one thing I am doing in response to Trump’s election is finding ways to live my policies, and letting my behavior in the market speak to American policymakers and companies for me. We signed up with our home energy provider to receive 100% renewable energy. We’re donating to the ACLU, and SPLC, and Brady Campaign, and Planned Parenthood, and Natural Resources Defense Council. We’re getting newspaper subscriptions to the New York Times and Washington Post. We’re buying into programs that offset the heavy carbon emissions of airplane flights. We’re putting a priority on getting fuel-efficient cars. When we do buy fuel, we’re going to try to buy from European companies like Shell that have tied their executives’ bonuses to carbon-reducing efforts (and to avoid ExxonMobil, which waged a decades-long disinformation campaign after its own research scientists became aware of the occurrence and causes of global warming).

And, in that same vein, I left my job at a weapons manufacturing subcontractor.

There is power in voting with one’s wallet and one’s feet. In particular, I think engineers need to consider carefully the applications and implications of the work we do. Especially any engineers given the choice of contributing to the most devastating weapons we can imagine, or weapons that do the most damage against civilians, or devices that are overly provocative to other nations. If our work falls into the wrong hands – say, an “unpredictable” American president who won’t rule out weapons of mass destruction and has advocated targeting civilians – then we share in the responsibility for the consequences. I would like to encourage other engineers out there to devote some thought to how they can also find ways to use their skills to make our world a better place.

Because, in Trump’s new world, we as individuals are going to need to spend a lot of effort to make things better. Hopefully, there will be enough of us to counteract him.

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