Category Archives: Skepticism

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.

Back to the Future

This week, NASA launched the Orion spacecraft on a test flight. I have a conflicted viewpoint about this event. To me, Orion is both exciting and deeply disappointing.

On the one hand, Orion is NASA’s first entirely new spacecraft for human crews in over twenty years. There have been only seven in American history: Mercury (first successful flight in 1959), Gemini (1964), Apollo (1966), Skylab (1973), Space Shuttle (1981), Space Station (1992), and Orion (2014). Those dates have been getting unacceptably distant from one another, and it is wonderful to see NASA getting its game back on. Test flights are NASA’s business. The agency is supposed to operate in the proving ground of technology. I want to see it doing new things, and the Orion flight was a reasonable first step towards NASA getting back to its roots. Those roots, after all, were triumphant!

On the other hand, though, Orion falls far short of what NASA could, and should, do. The spacecraft is an improvement over the last capsule NASA designed – the Apollo Command Module – but it is an incremental improvement rather than a revolutionary one. As an example, one of the technological advancements NASA has been touting about Orion is its glass cockpit. But this is the era of the iPad: in such a mass- and volume-constrained environment as a space capsule, the glass cockpit is simply not innovative – it is obvious. (For examples of innovation in space vehicles, try inflatable habitatsrockets that fly back to their landing pads or crew shuttles that could land at any normal-sized airport runway.) To make matters worse, not only is Orion an incremental step in capability from the early ’70s, but its development is horrendously stretched. For reasons that are political, programmatic, and cultural, rather than technical, the next flight of Orion will be in 2018. A human crew will not use the capsule until after 2021, at which point it will be almost a decade old itself.

I think the most bitter disappointment is the concept of what Orion will do when it finally does have astronauts on board. The current plan is to build the world’s biggest rocket, the Space Launch System, and use it to send an Orion crew to asteroids and Mars. I’m all for visiting those places, but the “giant rocket with space capsule” architecture – the architecture of Apollo – is a recipe for one-shot visits to other worlds. After the first astronauts return from such “flags and footprints” missions, there is a very strong risk of program cancellation. I don’t want to see our space program cancelled.

An Orion capsule riding a Space Launch System rocket is not even close to how I would design a sustainable, long-term space program. A much better approach is to use many different spacecraft, and specialize them for individual purposes. Think of the Apollo Lunar Module: it was a flimsy, silly-looking vehicle that was exactly suited for the prospect of landing and taking off from the Moon’s surface. Instead of building on Apollo and Space Shuttle heritage to make an “all-purpose” space capsule, I would like to see NASA lean on its Space Station experience to design a set of interplanetary transport spacecraft. These vehicles would stay in space for their whole lives: we would assemble them in space, launch them out of Earth orbit rather than from Earth’s surface, and we’d never use them to carry astronauts up from and down to the ground. Whenever they need more fuel, we’d send only the fuel up to them – not a whole new vehicle. When we need to rotate astronaut crews, we could always hire SpaceX.

That sort of multi-vehicle concept offers some big advantages. First of all, it’s much more flexible than giant, infrequent, one-shot missions. Second, it’s far more efficient and cost-effective. Think about this: 20% of Orion’s mass is its heat shield, a component only needed for the last ten minutes of its mission. If Orion is returning from Mars, then that means our Mars return rocket needs to be huge in order to push that heavy heat shield on its half-year-long journey back to Earth. And if the heat shield and Mars return rocket need to be huge, then the Earth departure rocket needs to be enormous. Instead, though, we could forget sending the heat shield to Mars in the first place. Forget having the vehicle that goes to Mars also be responsible for landing on Earth. When the astronauts come back from Mars, you just send a little rocket with a little capsule into Earth orbit – just enough to bring the astronauts to the ground. The lightweight interplanetary spacecraft stays in space.

In 2011, when Congress ordered NASA to begin work on the Space Launch System, internal NASA studies came out that agree with my assessment. Multi-vehicle approaches that we can re-fuel and re-use in space are more efficient and cheaper than SLS. They will also get astronauts to other worlds much sooner. Most importantly, such approaches won’t be reliant on one-and-done missions. They will be much more likely to keep our explorers in space.

That is why, while I applaud NASA’s successful demonstration of the ability to launch new vehicles, I hope the agency moves on quickly from Orion, and begins work on a new fleet of exploration vehicles to stay in space.

Despite tactical errors, Bill Nye is right

Tuesday night, Bill Nye (the Science Guy) had a webcast debate with Ken Ham, founder of the Creation Museum. In many respects, this was a silly idea. Nye wasn’t going to change any minds, and I think he fell into the traps creationists try to set: distracting him into side issues, for example, or redefining the terms of the debate. Moreover, the Creation Museum benefited monetarily from the event.

I admire Nye for being willing to make the attempt, but in the end, I think the event was a wasted opportunity. The whole reason for the debate was not to contest the relative merits of creationism versus science. Rather, the spark for the event was Nye’s contention that teaching creationism in schools is dangerous. And I agree with him – for two fundamental reasons that Ham illustrated beautifully throughout the debate, but I don’t think Nye ever articulated. Continue reading Despite tactical errors, Bill Nye is right

The Most Important Issue

I’ve seen some political surveys recently that ask respondents to pick the most important issue to them from a predefined list, and I’ve never had any of these lists include what I think is the most important issue facing our country right now. This is probably because it’s hard to condense my issue into a pithy phrase. Generally, I would go for a choice such as “science and technology policy” or “research, innovation, and education,” but items like those almost never appear in the poll options.

We live in a fast-moving world, and I am concerned about the United States’ ability to keep up. Perennial stories crop up in the news of how US students’ test scores are falling in science and math, how high technology is moving to India and China, how other countries are committing increasing resources to clean energy, space stations, or Moon probes. Companies in the US are much more focused on next-quarter profits than they are on research and development. Congressmembers routinely attack the National Science Foundation and National Institute of Health for wasting taxpayer money by spending it on basic research. In such a climate, I am worried about whether, in the next decade or two, the US will cede global leadership to other countries. The problem isn’t just money, but also the level of public awareness, understanding, and engagement of the work coming out of places like the NSF and NASA.

This is not just an idealistic policy issue – it’s also an education issue, economic issue, and national security issue. Do we want to create high-paying, rewarding jobs? We can do so by investing in high-tech infrastructure. Do we want American companies to innovate? We need to make sure they have incentives for longer-term R&D. Do we want our transportation systems to be safe from terrorist threats? Then we need intensive research on efficient and sensible ways to identify concealed weapons. Do we want true energy security for the long haul? Then we need to pursue technological solutions for renewable or clean energy sources. Do we want our military to remain effective and safe? Then we need to give our soldiers, sailors, and airmen the latest technologies. Do we want our children to be able to compete in the global marketplace when they grow up and start looking for work? We need to equip them with the best tools we can. And do we want our policymakers to make informed and well-considered decisions about all these issues? Then we need to make sure they are well-educated about science and technology, too!

I want candidates for office to advocate enhanced support for the NSF, NIH, Department of Energy, and NASA. I want them to stand for infrastructure investments. I want them to speak highly of science and engineering scholarship or fellowship programs. I want them to care about basic research. I want them to commit federal dollars to programs that clearly enhance our capabilities and quality of life, but corporations won’t pursue because of their myopic short-term goals. I want them to openly consult the smartest people they can find when considering these issues.

That’s what I think is the most important issue in America. Science and technology policy. Science and math education. High-tech infrastructure. Secure energy. The value of intelligence and critical thinking. In short: the future. Continue reading The Most Important Issue

Why to be Skeptical of Mars One

Dutch company Mars One offers a plan to start colonizing the Red Planet by, ostensibly, 2023 – starting with a “colony” of four and growing the base every year.

Stephen Colbert's take on Mars One

There are a lot of reasons to be skeptical of this plan. Don’t get me wrong: I would love for these guys to succeed, and I think that – with concerted effort – their timeline is achievable. But there are a few technological red flags. Going from what I see as least to most severe:

  1. Mars One gives a rover top billing in their plan, saying that the rover will scout out the best location for the planetary base. The concept of having a robot autonomously assemble a base before humans ever arrive has a great deal of merit; however, a rover is not going to scout out the prime real estate on Mars. I once asked this guy if, since the MSL Curiosity has a much higher power budget than the MER Spirit or Opportunity, it would be able to drive at a higher speed and really cover Martian distance, to get to different science targets. It turns out that, even with more power at its disposal, there are thermal constraints on how fast motors can drive the rover’s wheels. If Mars One sends a rover, it’s not going to be scouting colony locations. It will be going to the colony’s location.
  2. Mars One wants to use the SpaceX Dragon capsule as a Mars lander. I’m a big fan of SpaceX, and I’m sure that they are thrilled that somebody is looking at Dragons as a Mars vehicle. However, one of the things I learned during my time at NASA is that the MSL is about at the upper size limit for things we can land on Mars using current techniques (aerobraking, parachutes, airbags, etc). Dragon is going to take a lot of development to land on the Martian surface. And it’s going to need a lot of fuel to do so.
  3. I’m not sure there’s enough room in their proposed colony for four people plus the equipment necessary to provide food for those four people. I think they need more inflatable greenhouses, at the least. But this is an point about which I’m not the expert.
  4. Mars One claims that no new technology is necessary to achieve their goals. This statement, I have to say, is bogus. They rightly identify in-situ resource utilization as the best way to provide air, water, and food for their colonists. We need to develop the technology to do that. The colonists need to be shielded from radiation while in transit. We know solutions that might work, but we need to develop and implement the technology. Furthermore, the colonists are going to need products that go beyond the most basic: How will they produce any medicines they require? How will they conduct surgeries with such a small staff? How will they maintain their colony? This project will need a very high level of automation and/or telepresence support from Earth – involving technologies that exist only theoretically today.

Planetary Resources: Prospects and Challenges

A number of well-funded and well-connected entrepreneurs are kicking off Planetary Resources, a company devoted to harvesting materials from near-Earth asteroids.

Now before you go scoffing (or wondering how to “greatly enable” things) – this is by no means a crazy idea. Many of the technologies one might want to prospect asteroids are not difficult to conceive of today. Commercial launch services seem to be on the brink of an explosion. And, yes, there certainly are resources on asteroids! I’m eager to welcome to the space community a group that is willing to embrace greater risk in order to reap greater rewards.

I’d like to point out just a few of the challenges Planetary Resources will face, and why asteroids might be an interesting target for resource exploitation.

First of all, asteroids boast uniquely available resources, if only we can get to them. Some classes of asteroids are wholly or partially composed of metals – or even other useful substances, such as water or carbon compounds. It might be easier to access those resources on an asteroid, if it has a “rubble pile” structure, than it would be if we have to drill down into the surface of a planet or moon. We are also not likely to have to drill or dig as far. Once we get our precious asteroid resources in hand, it’s also much easier to move them to another space destination than it would be from the surface of a moon or planet: we just have to give the blocks of metal a shove to push them out of the asteroid’s wimpy gravity well!

Second, having resources available to us in space would be a tremendous boon. The biggest obstacle to the commercial, industrial, scientific, academic, Starfleet, or any other kind of development in space is straightforward to identify: launch costs. What if we could take that all or part of the way out of the equation? What if, instead of building spacecraft on Earth and launching them into space, we instead build them right where we need them, and shuttle asteroids or special components up as necessary?

The challenge preventing us from jumping right on a von Neumann-style space exploration architecture is that we will have to develop this remote-controlled manufacturing base. Figuring out how to steer robots in space is not an unsolved problem, but figuring out how to control a robotic mining and fabrication facility is something else. I don’t think it’s intractable – but there are going to be a lot of difficulties with reliability and robustness. I don’t think Planetary Resources has self-replicating machines on its immediate business plan, but it is going to face some similar obstacles: how does the robot (or human miner, even) dig into the asteroid in microgravity? How does the miner get ore to the surface? What other processing has to happen?

Then, once the resources are in hand, what will Planetary Resources do with them? It is very tempting to make statements about the value of those materials to the global market…but, remember, it’s always harder to send a spacecraft to a destination and back than it is to send it one-way. If we want to return asteroid mine products to Earth, we will have to boost them with delta-vee of the same order as that we used to send the miners on their way – which means we need to send return vehicles with the miners. Perhaps the mining can solve its own problem by providing fuel for its return rocket, but still, the cost and complexity of the mission will mount up. On top of that, once the resources get to Earth, we will have to decelerate, capture, and eventually do-orbit them. All that takes energy: de-orbiting, in particular, is tricky because we often rely on ablation to carry away the energy from an object moving at 7 km/s…and we don’t want to burn up the resources we just spent all that time and effort extracting. For that reason, I think it may make more sense to keep those resources in space and find ways to use them there.

From Planetary Resources’ descriptions of fuel depots and expanding the exploration of space, that may be what they intend.


A reporter from This American Life did something interesting for today’s broadcast: she brought together a ninth-grade global warming skeptic and the executive director of the National Earth Science Teachers Association together in the show studio for a discussion. (Audio available here.) The dialogue was reasoned and civil. In quick summary: the scientist presented the skeptic with the best evidence available and went through the logical arguments, from temperature/CO2 correlations to ice core measurements. The skeptic then asked, “well, what about the following things?” – and presented some common climate-change-skeptic arguments (for example, why has there been higher snowfall in recent years in some places). The scientist went through each, point by point, and explained the science behind each and whether or not that science was relevant to the overall climate picture (for example, warmer temperatures allow the atmosphere to hold more water vapor, giving the higher snowfall – and, besides, our day-to-day weather experience is separable from the trend of the climate).

At the end, the reporter asked the skeptic how convincing the evidence was. Did she buy it? In short: no. She said that she could see how the scientist’s explanations could account for all the data, but… The ninth-grader then said something very astute here. This is a similar situation to the debates between scientists and educators and creationists. You have some people who can be convinced, and some who accept the theory, but then there are also some people who won’t buy the scientific results no matter what. In other words, when we want to believe something, we tend to believe it. Regardless of evidence.

Next, the reporter asked the ninth-grader if the scientist could do something to sway her opinion, and what that would be. The ninth-grader thought for a moment, and decided that if she just had all the arguments from both sides laid out in front of her, and she got to make her own decision, then she would be more likely to accept the scientific consensus.

I have mixed feelings about that conclusion. On the one hand, I would like to laud this ninth-grader for her desire to weigh all the evidence and arguments and make an informed decision. (I definitely want to laud her for her presence and attitude on the radio. She was quite reasonable and did a great job expressing herself.) But, on the other hand, the scientist was right to point out that when we are trying to account for the behavior of the universe, our belief has no bearing on reality. And, if this ninth-grader really wants to make all her decisions and form all her opinions this way…she’s got several lifetimes of study, schooling, and degree programs ahead of her.

I wonder to what extent this sort of attitude is systemic in American society. Politicians and pundits challenge scientific findings on the basis of belief, politics, “common sense,” and “gut feelings.” School board candidates get elected by saying that they will “stand up to the experts.” We are supposed to feel that we live in a free country, that everybody’s opinion is valid, and that anyone can make a decision on any issue. While I think that everyone has (and should have) that potential, I am not comfortable with the recent anti-expertise trend that I think may result from that philosophy.

Let me provide a concrete example: suppose I go to the emergency room because there is something going dramatically wrong with my body. I don’t want to try to suss out a diagnosis using only common sense, and I don’t want a doctor who will base his medical decisions on similarly fuzzy impressions. I want the best doctor. I want an expert doctor. I want a doctor who knows all the details of the human body, how drugs and lab tests and surgical procedures work and interact, and how all that knowledge applies to my situation. Similarly, if I have a legal problem, I want an expert defense lawyer – because, though I have the right to defend myself and I’m decent at expressing my opinions, I know that a competent prosecutor could run circles around me. Heck, if I have a car problem, even though I’m an engineer for a living and I learned all about combustion cycles and the principles of mechanics in my physics classes, I want an expert mechanic to fix my problems. I’m a smart and capable guy, but I don’t have the time or desire to become an expert in all these things – so I rely on other people.

“Common sense” is great for some things, such as solving interpersonal problems. But common sense didn’t get us to the Moon, or win the World Wars, or invent the modern computer, or eradicate smallpox. Expertise did those things, and many more.

In the case of climate change, the expert scientists have long held a consensus conclusion. Most of the arguments denying global warming come from politicians and commentators. If we all were willing to go through the effort of learning the scientific process, learning the techniques and tricks that scientists use to produce their results, combing through and analyzing the data, and weighing our conclusions against other studies, then this debate wouldn’t be happening the way it is. Nor would it be happening so if we accepted the conclusions of those experts who did devote their lives to all that data analysis and research. But it seems that Americans all want to make their own decisions on the matter – that they want to think that their beliefs, rather than data-driven conclusions, describe the way the universe works.

After the data is analyzed, though, there is an important role for common sense to play: determining the policy actions, if any, informed by expert conclusions. If economic conservatives want to accept that climate change is happening, but adopt the position that we should not take any action to prevent it, then I can respect that viewpoint as intellectually honest even if I disagree. But when such people deny climate change entirely, well…I wonder what kinds of doctors they want treating them.

The Science is Real

It worries me when I see public figures, or aspiring public figures, disparaging scientific work because it is not compatible with their personal positions. The public gets to hear phrases like, “that’s only a theory,” or “that scientific theory has holes in it,” or “it’s not proven, we don’t know for sure yet;” all of which are meant to cast doubt on the validity of one scientific conclusion or another. The problem (and this is, of course, a point of subtlety that often causes proponents of science to look like they have a weaker argument in the public’s eyes) is that all those things are true for scientific findings. The good thing, though, is that none of those statements should be disparaging – if only lay people had a better understanding of the scientific process.

Scientific theories are “only” theories, yes…but “theory” is actually one of the highest terms of honor an idea can attain in the world of science. A “theory” is only accepted as such if it has graduated from the world of hypotheses after rigorous testing. A scientific theory represents the best possible idea humans can conceive of how part of the world works. And if a new theory comes along, in order to be better than the old theory, it still has to explain the same phenomena and fit the same data. Old theories often remain as subsets of new ones, rather than being discarded entirely.

Even then, when a theory represents the best understanding we have of the world, to say that it “has holes” or is “not conclusively proven” is not to say anything at all. Science is not a process of logical argument from immutable premises – it is a process of induction from observable data. We observe new data all the time, and our theories must adapt to that data if they cannot account for new observations. The most fundamental scientific theories still leave some phenomena unexplained, but that does not make them totally invalid. The theories of Newtonian or Einsteinian gravity don’t account for quantum behaviors, but knowing that does not mean that the next time I jump in the air I won’t come down to Earth again. Our best theories cannot be “proven” and cannot be “airtight” – but we can look at their track records to figure out how confident we should be in those theories. Every single time I have jumped in the air, I have fallen downward again. While the amount of observations I have are finite, and I cannot prove with 100% certainty that the next time I jump I won’t fly off into space, the best human understanding of the way the universe works says that I will be disappointed. This sort of thing – a “theory” – is what non-scientists often call a “fact.”

What I see from some public figures these days is a campaign of anti-intellectualism that I think could be extremely damaging to our society. Don’t let those scientists or experts tell you what to do; they don’t know what your problems are! Never mind that they dedicate their entire lives to studying and gaining a more complete understanding of highly specific things…so that you don’t have to. If we as a society tried to solve every problem with “common sense” and common sense alone (assume enough people have common sense to attempt that strategy…) then we would never have invented vaccines, or automobiles, or light bulbs, or computers. We would never have been able to navigate ships, cultivate barren lands, deal with chronic illnesses, or travel to the Moon. (The same thing, by the way, is true for religion.) No, to do those things requires an methodical accumulation of knowledge that stretches beyond a single lifetime…and so our society invented experts. Good thing, too!

Hand in hand with their anti-intellectualism, I see some speakers getting top billing on hungry 24-hour news networks by making intellectually dishonest  arguments. The difference between a scientist and an ideologue, as I see it, is this: When a scientist sees a data point that he or she cannot explain with the best scientific theories, then the theory has to be changed to account for all the data, both old and new, because the observations happened the way they did. But when an ideologue sees a data point that he or she cannot explain with his or her best worldview, then the worldview remains immutable and the data point is called into question. In their speech, ideologues make data and observations into matters of belief, so that eventually it sounds like the scientific theories those data support are also matters of belief. Thus, individuals can choose to make up their mind to believe, or not, in climate change, or evolution, or medicine, or gravity, or thermodynamics, or electrons. And somehow, we are to suppose that the universe will bend itself to the worldview that we choose to believe in.

By implying that scientific theories are things we can believe in or not, ideologues accomplish two important goals: first, they make the debate about the existence of the theory or even the existence of the supporting data, instead of about how our society should use or respond to the consequences of the theory; second, they turn the theory into something that they can dismiss in a few words: “oh, I don’t believe in X,” or “I’m waiting for scientists to prove Y,” without having to make a rigorous argument. How much scientific work would it take to prove a theory to an ideologue who doesn’t like its implications? Impossibly much, I think. Continue reading The Science is Real

The Drive

Imagine, if you will, that a US government agency invented the automobile.

And for forty-five years, nobody else but the National Automobile Sales Agency produces any cars in this country. Not because of any particular regulation, you see – but because cars are complex machines that require precision workings and careful construction. They are expensive and require a significant investment in infrastructure. So, not everybody has a car, though plenty of people out there want one. And those people have to buy the cars developed by the US Car Program. Imagine. If you will.

Now suppose that the first batch of cars that the National Automobile Sales Agency were some real hot rods. They could tear all over the place, they looked downright sexy, and they inspired envy in all but the most curmudgeonly of observers. These cars were a source of national pride. People would travel from far and wide just to get a look at a Car Program showroom – or even just to meet those test drivers who shook down the cars on the federal test tracks.

But then, about thirty years ago (15-odd years after the car’s introduction to American drivers), the government decided that just blasting all over the roads wasn’t a great use of this invention. So the National Automobile Sales Agency set out to design a car that could be a workhorse for people. Suppose they rolled out something like those late-’80s-and-early-’90s Ford Taurus wagons that used to be all over the place. Functional, not that stylish. They can do a lot of things that you need. However, for the sake of this argument, let’s suppose that these wagons weren’t all that reliable. Or, at least, they worked long enough for all your errands and trips – but after each trip, you had to take it to the shop to get it looked at. This became so commonplace that everyone with one of these wagons just built a trip to their favorite Car Program mechanic into their travel itineraries, and the mechanics all did the same overhaul on every wagon that rolled into their shops. All this got built into the expense of owning an automobile, which climbed far above the initial sticker prices.

For some people, business was great.

And this went on for thirty years.

Then, forty-five years after the first National Automobile Sales Agency hot rods burned up their desert test tracks, an American start-up company unveils…oh, let’s say the Tesla Roadster. They plan to start marketing them as soon as they can, and they get initial support from the Car Agency, but they’re mostly on their own so it’s tough to get going.

But they do. After a couple test drives, they even win a highly publicized performance award. And then they start taking pre-orders.

Meanwhile, another American start-up company is working on prototypes. Their progress is less meteoric than Tesla’s, and they suffer some initial setbacks that make them something of a temporary laughingstock in the automotive enthusiast community. But then they roll out a model that has a couple reeeeeal good test drives. It’s something small, kinda sporty, useful, and most importantly, it comes at a fraction of the price that the Car Agency’s wagons have gotten to. Let’s say it’s a Honda Civic. But this company isn’t done shaking up the automotive community! Immediately after sales start on the Civic, this company announces that it plans to develop…hmmm…I know, the Subaru Outback! It’s comparable in functionality to the National Automobile Sales Agency wagon, but promises higher reliability and low, low prices. What’s more, this company has some additional plans – for a massive thing they call the “pickup truck.”

Now, the National Automobile Sales Agency is at a crossroads. It has big plans and big ideas. It hasn’t spent those thirty years with the wagon idling…but there are issues of cost, and infrastructure. If it had a much more economical way to get access to cars, it could get some sweet road trips going. So it starts thinking about ending production of the venerable, respectable old wagons. Instead, it would just buy some Civics and Outbacks and…”trucks” (when they come along) from this company. With all the extra cash it saved from buying those cars instead of building its own wagons (which, really, are far too expensive to keep on the road at this point and are old enough for antique plates in some states), the Car Program will purchase the infrastructure it needs to set up things like highways and bridges and interstates – things that will really enable Car Program drivers to go far, and go see the sights, and visit just about anywhere in the country. You know – the things that all Americans imagined the Car Program would be doing, before those wagons became so darned expensive and the ordinary citizens stopped paying attention to them.

Because, you see, the National Automobile Sales Agency gets its mandate and direction from Congress. Some Congressmen and -women come from districts that have profited extensively from the Car Program. Members of their districts are the mechanics who service all those wagons, keeping them on the road. Members of their districts are the gas station attendants fueling up those wagons. And members of their districts are the National Automobile Sales Agency employees building and selling those wagons.

(Well, actually, that’s not quite correct. I should have said, “and members of their districts are employees of large automotive corporations that have been subcontracted by the National Automotive Sales Agency to build and sell those wagons under the Agency banner,” but that sounds less appealing and doesn’t work as well for these Congressmen and -women when they are going for political soundbites.)

So, to Congress, the Car Program represents jobs. And, unlike many programs designed to stimulate the economy and create work for citizens, the Car Program is popular. People remember what those hot rods could do, and the mystique of those first test drivers still lingers throughout the country. Despite the promise that exists if the Car Program stops making its own wagons and contracts out for newer cars, Congress punts and punts, trying to keep the wagons on the road.

(Again, that sentence is not quite right. It’s not so much that the Car Program would “stop making its own wagons” and instead buy them from someone else. It’s more like the program would switch subcontractors – to one which offers a more competitive product.)

Eventually, they grudgingly decide that the Car Program does need something new, but instead of telling the Program to do the procurement and design work on their own, they direct the Agency to develop a hot-rod-pickup-truck-sedan-RV-Ferrari-flatbed. (That’s what kind of car design I imagine would come out of a Congressional subcommittee.) And they make sure to apportion parts of this work out to as many states as they can.

But still, some politicians decry this move. They are afraid of all the Taurus wagon jobs that will be lost if the Agency moves to something new. So, despite the facts that the wagons are thirty years old, they are unsustainably expensive to operate, they aren’t taking the Car Program to all the places it could (or should want to) go, and that the Outbacks made by the start-up company have pretty much already obsoleted the hot-rod-pickup-truck-sedan-RV-Ferrari-flatbed (not to mention the older Taurus wagons), these politicians argue that the wagons should be kept on the road artificially. Just to keep the wagon-related jobs going. (For a truly ironic twist, a lot of these politicians are Republican.)

And I sit here and think, “But I want to drive on the highway. I don’t want to pay very much, but I still want to see the Grand Canyon. I want other people to do the same. And I think the Car Program could get back to its roots, and really push the boundaries of what we can do with cars – if it isn’t saddled with the burden of having to re-think all the same problems of wheels and engines. If it just buys perfectly good (and inexpensive!) cars from this start-up company, it will free up resources to develop all those bridges and ferries and tunnels that can take cars places that they’ve never been able to go before. Because the strong suit of the National Automobile Sales Agency isn’t that of being an entrenched bureaucracy full of sinecure positions – it’s of taking the big risks that the private companies never will and thus giving our entire society the big benefits of those long shots.”

In case you haven’t guessed it, I didn’t give the Car Agency the acronym “N. A. S. A.” for nothing.

You see, it’s the day that the Space Shuttle Endeavour – my favorite space shuttle, the only one I got to see launch in person – took flight for the last time. And the headlining articles about the launch were things like this: “Workers Left Rattled By Final Shuttle Launches.” The biggest concerns: Where will all the Shuttle Program jobs go when the Shuttle stops flying?

In that article, one Space Coast resident is actually quoted as calling the retirement of the 30-year-old Shuttle program “insane.”

I sympathize with the human aspect of the story, but at the same time…”insane?” I think not. To me, the most important thing about the space program is the space travel. I think it would be insane to keep the Shuttles flying for much longer. I wasn’t stretching the truth much in my little scenario – in some states, the Space Shuttles could have antique license plates. If they were cars. The Space Shuttle Program is older than I am. Okay, Congress, I grew up steeped in space enthusiasm, got a physics degree, got a Ph.D. in spacecraft engineering, and now I’m ready to push the boundaries of space exploration all the way to – oh, what? You want NASA to keep doing the same thing it was doing before I was born, just to keep certain specific jobs safe? No, thanks. Suddenly the “Space Age” really does look forty years old to me.

What strikes me as really insane is the Congressional shortsightedness that has kept NASA from following through on a coherent vision to replace the Space Shuttles. I had no problem with President Obama’s plans – look at the numbers: SpaceX developed a rocket just as capable as Ares I, but SpaceX managed to leapfrog the Constellation schedule and blow the Constellation program budget out of the water. I can totally understand pointing at the Falcon launch vehicle and Dragon capsule and telling NASA, “Hey, um, how about you just buy some of those?” It just makes good business sense. And it would let NASA spend its valuable time and resources on doing the things that I really would like to see the agency do. The things I know it could be capable of, because it once was. Like go to Mars, or put an way station in deep space, or send robots to sail the seas of Titan, or build self-sustaining habitats so that people can really live and work in space. As if directing NASA to do those things won’t create tons of high-paying jobs to replace or exceed the losses!

But instead, Congress fought tooth and nail for an extra Shuttle launch and ordered up the hot-rod-pickup-truck-sedan-RV-Ferrari-flatbed. And they have no idea where that clunker-to-be is supposed to be going. It’s pretty much set up to fail, and I am completely convinced that the Virgin Galactics, SpaceXs, and other new-space companies of the country (and the world) are going to be light-years ahead NASA in the coming decades unless Congress gets some long-term thinking going in its science and space committees.

These last Space Shuttle launches are bittersweet events – as is the end of any program marked by eye-opening achievements. The last launches were always going to be bittersweet – especially for idealists like me.

But there is a right way to do this. As I said, if there’s some long-term thinking in Congress again – giving NASA lofty missions and appropriate resources, without designing its hardware by committee – we could do this the correct way. The way we used to do it.

You see, Gemini XII was the final flight of the Gemini program. No more Gemini were launched after that. The spacecraft were grounded, retired, and mothballed to museums. But that final flight wasn’t so bittersweet.

Because less than a year after Gemini XII, the first Saturn V rumbled skyward, and less than a year after that, astronauts on board Apollo 7 gazed down at the Earth.

To the Moon, Again?

During a quick lunch break today, I read about H.R. 1641 on Bad Astronomy:

To direct the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to plan to return to the Moon and develop a sustained human presence on the Moon.

(Hilariously, this bill is titled the “REAL Space Act.”)

Like Phil, I think it’s interesting that this act puts a focus on national security issues. I think that’s a stretch – nobody today feels that China getting to the Moon would be as much of a threat as the Soviets getting there in the ’60s. Still, the military and security rationale for having a sustained presence in space is a powerful one. After all, while Armstrong’s first and Cernan’s last words on the Moon put peaceful exploration front and center, Kennedy’s original speech proposing the goal of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” contained, just a couple paragraphs previously, this:

Recognizing the head start obtained by the Soviets with their large rocket engines, which gives them many months of leadtime, and recognizing the likelihood that they will exploit this lead for some time to come in still more impressive successes, we nevertheless are required to make new efforts on our own. … But this is not merely a race. Space is open to us now; and our eagerness to share its meaning is not governed by the efforts of others. We go into space because whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share.

Got that? Free men must share! The Soviets will exploit space! As Neil deGrasse Tyson paraphrased in a speech, we chose to go to the Moon…in order to kill Commies. Beating the drums makes for a powerful emotional argument, and it’s how our government decides to do a lot of things, from Moon landings to interstate highways.

Personally speaking, I have mixed feelings about this “REAL Space Act.” On the positive side, I think bill represents the way Congress should be treating the space program: giving it lofty goals, and assuring it of funding to support those goals. Oh, what a lovely world that would be!

Still, I’m becoming more and more cynical about Congress and NASA. Congressmembers have fallen into the habit of treating NASA like a big, fat, popular-and-thus-untouchable pork barrel. For instance, in the most recent NASA authorization bill, Congress did not specify where NASA was to go…but they specified exactly what NASA was going to build to go there (a heavy-lift rocket), what technologies NASA was to use on it (solid rocket boosters), and which manufacturer was to supply them (ATK). Oh, that must have been a wonderful bill for ATK, but I have severe doubts as to how much good that approach does for the space program. Instead, I like the approach of giving the space program broad objectives and letting NASA’s engineers make engineering decisions, and this bill seems more amenable to that approach.

However, I’m not sure that going to the Moon in 10 years is a good enough objective. It took us about eight years to go from 15 minutes of human spaceflight experience to landing on the Moon…in the Sixties. With, you know, vacuum tubes and slide rules. My point is: if we really wanted to, I mean really wanted to, we could dust off old blueprints, pull out a big pile of money, and be on the Moon again two or three years from today. What this new bill lacks is something that makes it sound more like we’re going to be doing something that will qualify as a great achievement for the 21st century.

The key might be that “sustained presence.” If the goal is not just to put people on the Moon in 2022, but to have people there and keep going

That needs to be spelled out. Congress might think it too science-fictiony, but I think words like “asteroid” or “Mars” or “colony” need to get top billing here.