The Zeitgeist Ad

Way back in 2015, the marketing team for General Electric released this terrible commercial:

The ad really does not make me think GE is a good company or entice me to work for them. But it stuck with me, and I have come to realize that it inadvertently captured some core challenges of our society. Below is a transcript. I’ve taken the liberty of naming the characters.

Grizzled Dad, holding sledgehammer: I’m proud of you, son. GE! Manufacturing. Well, that’s why I dug this out for you; it’s your Grandpappy’s hammer, and he would have wanted you to have it.

Milquetoast Mom: It meant a lot to him.

New Hire: Yes, GE makes powerful machines, but I’ll be writing the code that will allow those machines to share information with each other. I’ll be changing the way the world–

Grizzled Dad, incredulous: You can’t pick it up, can you?

All stare at each other uncomfortably.

Grizzled Dad: Go ahead. You can’t lift the hammer.

Milquetoast Mom, condescending: It’s okay, though, you’re going to change the world!

When I think about the intervening time from 2015 to now — rampant anti-intellectualism, rejection of institutions and expertise, rising embrace of violence, a slew of right-wing pontificators about masculinity — this aggravating and insulting little commercial becomes a meditation on generational divides, the shift in the US (and wider European-American) economy from products to services, the complexity of technology in our society, gender roles, and the glorification of physical strength and bullying.

You have the New Hire — presumably also a new college grad and, in 2015, a Millennial — who is just doing what he’s been told to do: get educated, learn to code, and seek a promising job opportunity. He’s found something that uses his skills and has become passionate about the application. (Not to mention the fact that his starting salary was almost certainly six figures.) He’s comfortable with himself and his choices: he’s relaxed, well-dressed, and not only familiar with his own new role but eager and able to explain it to others. He’s even diplomatic! His gentle correction of his father is a validating “yes, and” rather than a confrontational “well, actually.”

Then you have the Grizzled Dad. As the father of a new graduate in 2015, he could be Gen X, but he’s portrayed as older, so my read is Boomer. He’s proud. We don’t know what he does (or did) for a career, but we know he’s proud of his father — specifically his father’s physical strength. He’s thinking of an idealized past when the expectation was that the man of the house would go out and work to provide for his family, and that man needed nothing but his own body to do that successfully. (Very successfully, I might ad: look at the background living room. A two-story house, everything precisely positioned, painting on the wall, polished antique furniture, full china cabinet, decorative muntins in the window, hats and coats arranged for going out. This couple is well off.)

We also see clearly that he doesn’t understand what GE wants his son to do, and he doesn’t respect it. Rather than adopting a perspective that maintains the connection to the New Grad’s grandfather and recognizes how each of the three generations of this family have built upon the success of their predecessors, rather than asking for any details about the new job or expressing any interest in New Grad’s career opportunities, and rather than taking any pride in the fact that GE values the New Grad’s expertise and skills, the Grizzled Dad cuts him off and openly belittles him. The barb he slings at his own son demonstrates the only thing that the Grizzled Dad does seem to respect: physical strength. The world may have changed, become more complex, and become a place where new and different skills are valued — and his reaction is to simplify everything down to the increasingly irrelevant question: “can you lift the hammer?” Even his son’s “yes, and” correction — presented in the kind of validating way that younger Americans would be encouraged to use, a few years later, as allies and “upstanders” in talking with family members — simply can’t share space in the Grizzled Dad’s value system: physical strength matters, respect elders. No room for other things.

If the viewer is meant to see through the eyes of the New Grad, this is insulting. For this commercial to work as humor, the viewer must take the Grizzled Dad’s perspective. We are meant to side with a bully. (Who is making fun not only of his son, but also of GE, in fact. It’s a bad advertisement.)

Finally, we have the Milquetoast Mom, who I named that because she’s dressed in the same colors as the background walls and furniture. Her minor role is to quietly validate her husband and then fade into the background again. Until, that is, she joins in the belittling of her son, and when I examine her wording compared to what her son said earlier, it’s clear that she doesn’t understand or want to understand either. (Her version of this is passive-aggressive instead of the outright antagonism of her husband, though.)

This commercial popped unbidden into my mind after I read Christine Emba’s long essay in the Washington Post about men, their shifting role in our modern culture, and the right-wing tendency to prescribe violence and misogyny in order to fill any gaps. The producers and writers of this ad had put their finger on something similar. They realized that the cultural, technological, and — most of all — economic changes of the last few decades were a driver of inter-generational tension. They also realized that the older generation might — could? would? — react with antagonism. Bullying. Physical strength. The year after this commercial first aired, Donald Trump figured out he could build a winning Presidential campaign out of the idea “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!” and that the answers to questions like “what’s ‘it?'” or “what should we do about it?” didn’t really matter to his appeal. Then he ran an entire Presidential administration on the idea that being a bully was serving his constituents, and ended his term with violence. It worked well for those who value physical strength above all else.

But it’s okay, honey, you’re going to change the world! We’ll just be sitting here among all the trinkets we bought instead of investing in your generation, thinking about your disappointingly skinny arms.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a better resolution to all this than the one the commercial offers: smile and nod, knowing that the Grizzled Dad’s opinions will soon be just as irrelevant as his father’s hammer, hoping that the right-wing politics of the last seven years are a last gasp of tired ideologies, and wait for my generation to finally gain a critical mass in positions of influence.

It’s Always Windfalls for the Military

One of the US Congress’ items of business for the end of the year is passing the National Defense Authorization Act. This funds the US military budget, and the act always draws immense bipartisan support, even despite a few ancillary culture-war issues injected into it this year. Here are three things about this act I wish citizens and journalists were more aware of.

One, US military spending is scored on an annual basis — unlike in any other area of policy funding, where the Congressional Budget Office scores spending and revenue over a 10 year timeframe. What this means, practically for us citizens, is that when you see that the NDAA authorized a military budget of $860 billion when the Democrats were advocating for a $2 trillion infrastructure investment not so long ago, those aren’t really the numbers to compare. You should multiply the military budget by 10 to put them on the same footing: $2 trillion infrastructure investment vs. $8.6 trillion military budget, both over 10 years.

Two, there’s a constitutional reason why Congress has to re-authorize military spending every single year. The Framers, fresh off living through an experience where their own government had an army oppressing its own citizens, wanted to build a system of protection into the US Constitution to prevent their new government from being able to do the same. Traditionally, 1700s European governments did not maintain “standing armies,” instead they raised armies only when needed for defense (or attack), and sent the soldiers back to their civilian lives when the conflict was over. It was extremely unusual for the British government to be keeping soldiers active all the time. The Framers viewed a government keeping a standing army in peacetime as having only one purpose: to use force against the civilian populace, as they experienced in the decades leading up to the American Revolution. So, they built what they thought was a poison pill into the US Constitution: they forced Congress to vote every year to re-authorize the military. Surely enraged citizens would oust any Senator or Representative dumb enough to keep voting for a military in the next election? This worked for a while: there was no “US Army” until the Civil War; the country relied on individual state militias for its defense.

Three, in its entire history, the Pentagon has only ever conducted one financial audit, in 2018, which it failed. I bet when I say “they failed an audit,” you imagine that they couldn’t fully match up expenditures against incomes on all their balance sheets — you know, something down in the details. But, in fact, the problem was more that when auditors asked Pentagon departments for their incomes and expenditures, the answer they got was, “We don’t understand the question. You expected us to keep track of what and what?” The Pentagon apparently has no concept of the idea that it’s funded by US taxpayers and is supposed to be a good steward of that money. Worse, the Congressmembers and Senators who represent us are unwilling to force corrections to the US military system, because of its role propping up jobs in their states and because they fear their opponents would attack them as not sufficiently supportive of “the troops” if they don’t pour endless piles of cash into military development programs.

I worked on military programs for a portion of my career. Once, assigned a duplicative, mind-numbing analysis project that nobody could ever express any purpose for, I decided to exercise my creative abilities by coding up some labor-saving tools so that I could accomplish the purposeless work quickly and then devote more of my time to more interesting and valuable projects. However, I then got in trouble with my boss for not spending the full amount of hours I’d been assigned on the project. When I pointed out that I’d accomplished the required work, my boss told me that the most important thing for our project was to spend all the (taxpayer) money we’d been assigned that year, because otherwise we’d get less money the next year. I quit that job.

Congress could probably cut the US military budget in half without affecting troop levels or readiness at all. The current funding levels are unconscionably wasteful in peacetime. And reducing them would do more to reduce the size of government than any other ideas anyone has put forward in my lifetime.

I don’t know what we want to be any more

My job is to explore space. The work I do, day to day, involves figuring out how to get space probes to exotic parts of our Solar System, so that scientists can investigate the inner workings of the planets and flesh out their understanding of humans’ place in it.

One of the strangest things to me about my job is that I agree with almost none of the reasons popular in space media for why this is an important and worthwhile endeavor. National prestige? No, I would be happy to work with scientists who aren’t funded by the US government. Finding resources in space for us to exploit on Earth? Nope, not only is that not what science is doing but I think it would be ultimately unproductive. Inspiring the next generation to pursue STEM careers and fill a supposed “STEM gap?” Heck no — I was inspired to study STEM in order to explore space, not to help a tech company sell surveillance or to fill up jobs in the military-industrial complex.

I explore space, I want to explore space, because I want to be part of something greater than myself. I want my work to help build a monument of scientific achievement that will stand for generations. I want to reach, to dream, to aspire, to learn, and to create. I want to explore space for the same reasons an artist or a poet wants to do what they do.

I think people in my field are afraid to say that. The reason is, I suspect, because we fear the obvious rejoinder: why are you wasting time and resources on that when we have so many problems to solve here on Earth?

My answer has been that it’s not a binary choice: We can feed the hungry, and have poets. We can heal the sick, and have art. We can make a better life for people on Earth, and explore space. But more than that, I think it is part of the measure of a society what we aspire to do and create for tomorrow, not just how we react to the events of yesterday. That’s why I explore space, and why I think it’s important that we — our nation, our society — continue to explore space.

But looking back over the last few years, I have a problem.

I have been completely caught off guard, emotionally and intellectually, by the approach my society is actually taking.

We faced a national disaster in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we collectively decided, nah, we’re just not going to bother to do anything about this. A million people died as a result, most of them easily preventable deaths.

The looming crisis of catastrophic climate change is turning into a global disaster before our eyes, with wildfires, heat waves, hurricanes, floods, and other events rapidly racking up body counts and property damage, threatening our way of life in the near future with everything from decreased production to reduced military effectiveness to food shortages to logistical challenges that will dwarf anything we saw in 2020, and we collectively decided, well, I guess you’ve just got to get what you can while you can. So much for the next generation.

Inequity is a scourge on our national economic effectiveness, not to mention inhumane to those experiencing it, and we have collectively decided, if the worst-off among us have no bread to eat, then it’s on them to find cake. Just so long as the rest of us can’t see them.

Madmen enter our schools with devices designed to make human bodies explode, kill innocent children and young adults, and our society has decided, oh, well, too bad, and we hold a moment of silence while we wait for the next one to happen. Meanwhile, we traumatize kids with intrusive security measures and drills that will remain ineffective so long as we keep fetishizing access to violence. The recurring Onion headline is so biting because it is an exact measure of the depth of our failure.

We are, to put it simply, no longer a nation that tries to solve its problems at all. What solution-oriented programs we have continue only on inertia, not because we are trying to improve the parts of our society that need attention. What aspirational efforts we have also seem to continue on inertia, not because of a national drive to be better. So here I am, attached to a vestigial aspirational effort and arguing that we could do both while our society around me is deciding to do neither.

We got here because one of America’s major political parties has spent decades pushing a message that boils down to the insistence that government should not solve problems, or heck, government should not do anything except for a few legacy activities that benefit the relatively privileged. As a result, we have built a system where we don’t help the sick, we don’t help the poor, we don’t plan for the future, we don’t create opportunities, we don’t innovate, we don’t address the root causes of crime or oppression, we don’t educate our kids, we don’t even keep our kids safe from harm. And these things seem to have become our national values, so that enough voters feel a patriotic and political obligation to continue not solving the problems that face all of us. Now, only those of us who started with money have a chance.

I fear for the future because we live in a nation where that same party can win most state and federal representation with less than half the vote, is actively working to secure power regardless of future vote outcomes, and is willing to deploy violence and intimidation if it doesn’t get its way. For a brief window, though, we have a chance to ask ourselves: Is this really the kind of society we want to be? We really want to be the society who rearranges deck chairs on the Titanic, because oh, well, this is what being ‘Merican is, and we don’t want to see the iceberg so we just won’t?

It didn’t used to be.

I wish we could aspire again.

I wish we could solve basic national problems again.

The fact that we have collectively decided not to is so frustrating to me because it cuts right to my self-image.

The only thing I know of to do in response is vote for Democrats, and press them to safeguard our democracy.

Cathedral Galaxy Regional Maps and GM Resources

Complete Set of Region Maps

The Cathedral Galaxy setting is now complete with a full set of regional maps, each highlighting a particular area of the galaxy and an aspect of the setting. Extra lore and artwork are scattered throughout, in addition to the larger overview map and establishing descriptions of each region posted here. Enjoy!

My next step is writing a story in this galaxy. I will not make any statements on how long that will take!

In addition, I’ve had a few people ask me about setting role-playing games in the Cathedral Galaxy. That idea intrigues me, and I’m happy to learn that players are interested in using my universe for their games. So, I have put together some lore and gameplay reference materials that you may use. Click through to read more.

Game Master References

Updated 23 September 2022

Continue reading Cathedral Galaxy Regional Maps and GM Resources

Fiction: The Slow Invasion

Some time ago, I got the germ of an idea for a science fiction story after thinking about the ridiculousness of aliens invading the Earth for its resources. Basically, most raw resources that aliens could find on Earth are also present in other places in the Solar System…without a big gravity well to get down into, and without pesky native species to fight. With our limited space capabilities, we would have to sit here and watch as all the asteroids and moons in the system got stripped. I sat on this idea half-written for a while, until — during the COVID-19 pandemic — I realized something: this is a story about the climate crisis, and it includes some of the feelings I’ve been grappling with about our society’s declining ability to engage with the problems facing us. So, I’ve finished the story, and shared it with a few people.

The general feedback I got from early readers was that, while this is a neat exploration of an idea in the vein of Clarke or Asimov, it lacks character-driven development. And I agree…but I couldn’t think of a good way to add that without it seeming pasted on (or making the story completely about the character-driven problems, and having the alien invasion be the thing pasted on) and avoid muddling the whole point behind the story. So, since I think the lack of character-driven action will make a magazine unlikely to pick it up, I’ve decided to post the story in full here:

“Can I see, Mommy?” 

“No,” said Terry. She hunched closer to the monitor for a moment, then leaned over to scribble a note on her pad. Hailey’s day care let out early that day, but her parents were still engrossed in their work at the observatory. So they split their attention.


“Hmm?” Dan glanced up. “Oh, sure. Here you go.” He hefted his daughter above the edge of the desk.

“Daniel! I don’t want her to see her whole future evaporate!”

“She’s too young to know.” Dan’s brow furrowed. “Besides, it’d be more like her great-, great-, great-, …” 

“That’s not helping, Dan.”

On the monitor, a repeating loop of sixteen false-color frames showed the telescope’s view of Neptune. Small sparks flitted among the dance of moons. In a time-compressed view spanning several days, some touched down and lifted off. Some of them dove into the outer atmosphere of the ice giant itself.

Hailey flapped an awkward toddler hand at the keyboard. Dan grunted and put her down.

“I’mna gonna evvaprate!” she protested.

“Will anybody even recognize this as a threat?” he asked. “I mean, there are a few groups doing asteroid mining at a proof-of-concept level…but getting to stuff around Neptune is decades, maybe centuries, away.” 

Terry rubbed the bridge of her nose. The alien craft had been in the Neptunian system for months. By now, it was clear – from albedo changes of the moons and careful examination of the changes to the aliens’ orbits – that they were mining and removing material. Water and nitrogen ice from Triton, hydrogen and methane from Neptune’s cloud layers – all valuable resources for a spacefaring civilization.

Continue reading Fiction: The Slow Invasion

New Map of the Cathedral Galaxy

The Cathedral Galaxy: so named to evoke an awe-inspiring structure; something built over generations. Eons before the advent of starflight, the Ancients – Progenitors, Precursors, Archaics, Elders – constructed a galaxy-spanning civilization. They learned to harness energies, manipulate matter, and gather information on a vast scale, ultimately building a network of wormhole passages across the galaxy. At the height of their power, they encountered a malevolence from outside the galaxy: some think an evil intent, some say a natural phenomenon. Nobody yet knows what happened to the Old Ones. Perhaps they died. Perhaps they absconded. Perhaps their essence remains embedded in the constructs they left scattered through the galaxy – some still functioning at mysterious purposes, some long torn down by the forces of gravity and radiation. Perhaps the Elders even remain alive. After all, ages after empires have risen and fell and risen again, no one has penetrated the dense, irradiated Cathedral at the galaxy’s heart.

The Cathedral Galaxy map

Thousands of years ago, the first modern peoples discovered the principles of spatial trajection. With this starflight capability, a ship could disappear from normal space and, a fixed time interval later, reappear some light-years away. They soon found ruins of the Prior civilization. Eventually they located the Founders’ great Anchors, entry points to the wormhole network, providing instant transit – much better than time-consuming and energy-intensive trajector jumps. Many other peoples followed suit, and the wormhole passages thus became channels of commerce and information allowing galactic civilizations to be built again. Through their history, the peoples of the galaxy have always been keenly aware of those who came before – and all that has been lost, exemplified by the nonfunctional wormhole gates drifting near many of the active Anchors. Now, the galaxy has reached a relatively stable state. Decadent empires, considered republics, brave adventurers, learned researchers, inventive scavengers, and noble warriors make their home in this galaxy, from the populous core nations to the empty frontier fringes. 

It is a galaxy of both promise and stillness at this moment in time. After eons, what is an extra nova in the uninhabited core? What is a rumor of new Anchors opening, or existing Anchors closing, but a rumor? And what is an archaic megastructure activating instruments, seeming to seek for something outside the confines of the galaxy, but a relic running an obsolete program…?

Original line art

I have been mulling an improved map of the Cathedral Galaxy for some time, and finally bit the bullet. (Here’s the original.) For this improved and expanded version, my method was to draw the line art in black pen on white paper, then invert a photograph and color/manipulate it in Photoshop. I’m pleased with the result.

This galaxy is full of places to explore, including the settings for my short stories “Between Wrecks,” “In the Arena,” and “Conference.”

Amseile, a proud young realm nestled in two star-forming nebula regions. After uniting from several independent systems in 18k450, Amseile fought a devastating war with Shobah with lasting effects on galactic politics to this day.

The Axiom Republic, a large, baroque state of learning and cultural achievement. The Republic’s central location in the galaxy means that it contains many Precursor artifacts such as the Spire and Taron’s Throne, as well as celestial phenomena like the emission nebula Twin Idols, dust clouds of Onyx Space and Silver Run, the active Sapphire cluster, and the end-of-life star Khalkeus that sheds heavy elements.

Harrow’s Core, home of two enigmatic peoples who believe, among other strange ideas, that the galaxy itself is a living organism. There are rumors that a secret and powerful Archaic weapon prevented other polities from absorbing the Core during their expansionary phases.

The realms of what the core nations call the Exiles, nearly cut off from the rest of the galactic network by a quirk of the arrangement of wormhole passages: Babylon, a decadent theocratic empire; the Free Worlds, a xenophobic and militant confederation; and the Underworlds, domain of a people stereotyped by the rest of the galaxy as the Dead Ones – according to one legend, the last of the Ancients, but robbed of their faculties. The Panther Nebula, a dust cloud with an obviously recognizable shape from throughout the Burial Grounds, signals adventurers away from this region.

The Far Reaches, a spiral arm of the galaxy with a sparse population but many lesser Elder relics.

The Imperium of the Triumvirate, once a vast empire, now reduced to three closely allied provinces each under its own despot: technologically advanced, aggressive, and lacking restraint. The Imperium’s skirmishes are not always with other nations. Aoreu is known for the exotic star-forming Menagerie, but the true symbol of the Imperium is the Coliseum, a Progenitor-built sphere surrounding a white dwarf, where biomechanically modified beings battle for citizens’ amusement.

The Mariner Worlds, a loose affiliation of wanderers, not all native to this sparse region or even to the galaxy itself.  Among these worlds are Harbor, a focusing construct partially surrounding an unusual dwarf star that appears on the verge of collapse to a neutron star; Haven, a resource-rich protoplanetary disk; and the Lighthouse, an array of transmitters and instruments aimed into the extragalactic medium.

Shobah, a nation of rigid structures and protocols, home to a sect of Librarians who believe that the Ancients discovered all knowledge it is possible to find, and therefore focus all research on the ruins scattered throughout the galaxy. Knowledge gleaned from the Ancient wrecks helped Shobah fight off Amseile’s incursions in the war.

The Traders’ Rim, where the layout and performance of the Channel Anchors make the region vital for speeding commerce and communication among the central galactic states from the Imperium to Shobah. Traders are some of the few people grudgingly accepted into the Free Worlds, making them a tenuous link between that region and the inner galaxy. Prominent landmarks in the Rim include the blue giant Azure, the black hole Point of No Return, and the planetary nebula Mokid’s Eye.

The Ramparts, filled not only with ancient artifacts from the First Ones, but also with the remains of several civilizations that died out before contact with others.

The Sea of Relics, a span with a high proportion of Elder artifacts – many of them still functioning, such as the cryptic information repository at Bastion. Radiation from the active jets of The Pillar keep this region relatively uninhabited. The Burial Grounds, on the other hand, collects fragmented wrecks of Archaic constructs after gravitational tides and cosmic radiation have weathered and broken them down.

The Well of Ghosts, a devastated region scattered with burned worlds and detritus from the Amseile-Shobah wars. It stands as a monument to the terrible power of starflyers’ weapons.

Not all peoples of the galaxy are rooted to a location. The Waygehn had the misfortune of evolving close to the end of their star’s life, and are now spread throughout the Axiom Republic, Traders’ Rim, Imperium of the Triumvirate, and Amseile to form their own political super-entity. Many Waygehn located functional-but-inert relics and retrofitted their own systems onto the ancient hardware to form great arkships and wandering space stations.

Variant map without region borders

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.

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 Ethical Engineering Means Choosing Your Work

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:


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.


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.


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:


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.


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.


Global warming is not happening.


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


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.

Quantum Rocketry