Saturday, July 23, 2005

The King in Yellow

Well, he's just about done it again. There's not much else to say.

The story of his recovery from cancer hsa been told almost ad nauseam, but I don't think it's possible to over-emphasize the magnitude of his achievement.

Coming back to good health from testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain would have been a pretty inspiring story all by itself. He didn't have more than a 50-50 shot at sucking air a year after his diagnosis, much less walking or even riding.

But that wasn't enough. Not only did he recover, but he returned to his former job as a professional athlete.

But that wasn't enough. He entered the Tour de France in 1999, arguably the world's most punishing athletic event, and won. Not three years after being damn near dead, he won. And kept on winning, for an utterly unprecedented six straight years, soon to be seven. I seriously doubt that we'll see his like again in our lifetimes.

But, at the close of his incredible career, I find myself looking forward in anticipation.

For the past several years, the outcome has been something of a foregone conclusion. No one was hard enough, tough enough, or strong enough to beat Lance for twenty-four racing days in July. He's so far ahead of his competitors that no one can touch him. He's been known to pass other riders in time trials where they start two minutes apart! Think on that -- he can start two minutes behind, and beat the next guy to the finish line. That's dominance, folks.

But netx year, it's wide open.

For the last seven years, we've been watching the field fight like mad for the only two podium spots realistically open to them. But next year, the top spot is up for grabs. Will Jan Ullrich sack up and prove to be the natural bookends to the Lance Armstrong era? Or will Ivan Basso, who has come up second two years straight, take command? (That's the way I'd bet.) Or will someone we haven't heard of yet come from nowhere and surprise us?

It's going to be a righteous scrum next year. The King has had an incredible, legendary seven-year run, but tomorrow, the crown will be laid at the finish line. We'll have to wait twelve months to find out who the next King will be.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

This Just In

Just last week, I wrote about our new treaty with India. Well, we've got another pal to add to the list:


That's pretty sweet, since it gives us a commanding location with respect to the Straits of Malacca. Given the growing piracy problem there, that's a good deal for Singapore. They need help, and signing up the world's most powerful navy is a smart move for them. And they've got a pretty sharp little force themselves, so it gives us a useful friend in an important spot.

It's also another shot across China's bow. If they get jiggy, they just might have a spot of trouble getting oil tankers through. They'd have to go from the Persian Gulf, past India, through the straits of Malacca ... any of those places sound familiar?

Thought so.

Mind you, Singapore would be just as happy if things didn't spiral down the drain so precipitously. They also have fairly decent relations with China, and would like to keep it that way. But that's OK. We're recruiting allies, not client states. And come to think of it, we'd be just as happy keeping things nice and peaceful, too. The whole point of this exercise is to throw just a bit more confusion and uncertainty into the thought processes of the Chinese General Staff. The more uncertain the outcome of a military engagement, the less likely anyone's liable to pull the trigger.

Containment, while it does not work for fanatics or madmen, works just fine with folks who are within shouting distance of rational. And that looks to be what we're after, here.

Someone's doing some damn fine work over at State. I'd be somewhat less than heartbroken if she wound up with a bit of a promotion in November 2008.

The Free Man's Burden

This is a habit I simply must break. Great literature should not be toyed with. However, even the greatest of poems can be improved with a new era's perspective. In a slightly different form than the original, it still has much to say to us. And so:

The Free Man's Burden

with apologies to Rudyard Kipling

TAKE up the Free Man's burden -
Send forth the best ye breed -
Go bind your children to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild -
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.

Take up the Free Man's burden -
In patience to abide
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
An hundred times made plain,
To seek another's profit,
And work another's gain.

Take up the Free Man's burden -
The savage wars of peace -
Fill full the mouth of famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch Sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hopes to nought.

Take up the Free Man's burden -
No tawdry rule of kings,
But toil of serf and sweeper -
The tale of common things.
The ports ye shall not enter,
The roads ye shall not tread,
Go make them with your living,
And mark them with your dead !

Take up the Free Man's burden -
And reap his old reward,
The blame of those ye better,
The hate of those ye guard -
The cry of hosts ye humour
(Ah slowly !) towards the light:-
"Why brought ye us from bondage,
"Our loved Egyptian night ?"

Take up the Free Man's burden -
Ye dare not stoop to less -
Nor call too loud on Freedom
To cloak your weariness;
By all ye cry or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent sullen peoples
Shall weigh your Gods and you.

Take up the Free Man's burden -
Have done with childish days -
The lightly proffered laurel,
The easy, ungrudged praise.
Comes now, to search your manhood
Through all the thankless years,
Cold-edged with dear-bought wisdom,
The judgement of your peers.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Back to the Final Frontier

On Wednesday, July 13, if all goes well, the good ship Discovery will light off its solid boosters and climb into space, the first American manned space flight since Columbia disintegrated during re-entry on February 1, 2003.

Despite my slightly conflicted feelings about NASA, this is a good thing. When a horse throws you, the thing to do is get back on and ride as soon as possible. It's poison to be ruled by your fears.

On the other hand, you really oughtn't to make the same mistakes repeatedly.

On the surface, the Columbia and Challenger accidents don't seem to be too much alike. But, if you look behind the curtain at the management decisions that made the failures possible -- even probable -- disturbing similarities come to light.

There were some unsettling pre-shocks in Bryan Burrough's book Dragonfly. In an organization where safety is a priority, you'd expect that the Safety Officer to be one of the most respected astronauts. Someone with a lot of experience, someone whose ability and reputation were beyond reproach. NASA's Safety Officer was none other than ... Blaine Hammond. An able man, certainly, but one who was marked (probably unfairly) as a washout. He'd never get another flight if he stayed with NASA for another hundred years. So why was he Safety Officer? Quite possibly because no one really paid any attention to the Safety Officer.

It's worth noting that Dragonfly was written in 1999, a full FOUR YEARS before the Columbia incident.

Yes, sports fans, four years. Those of us who were paying attention knew that something was rotten in Denmark, but were utterly powerless to do anything worthwhile about it. We were relegated to crossing our fingers and praying.

So in hindsight, it's plain that the moment something went south, disaster could not be too far behind.

Back in the day, that sort of jackassery would not have been tolerated. They ran a proper shop back in the days of Chris Kraft and Gene Kranz. Important information was disseminated as soon as possible, to anyone who needed to know. They brought the crew of Apollo 13 home alive and (mostly) well, depsite massive damage to half the ship.

Not so in the oh-so-modern CYA era. Denied were the photos that would have told the engineers the real state of the vehicle. Not even on the table were measures to attempt a rescue, if the worst was indeed true. The true extent of the damage could well have become known in time, and Columbia could have gone into a low-consumption mode, awaiting rescue by Atlantis. They'd have had to gone to three shifts at KSC to get the work done in time, but it could have been done.

We can only hope that the appropriate lessons have been learned for real this time. It's a dangerous enough business as it is, without preventable errors creeping in.

But I do have guarded hope in the future. The new Administrator, Michael Griffin, seems to be dedicated to fixing what's broke with NASA.

I can't say that I know Dr. Griffin, although I do own a couple of his books. He's well known, with good reason, as a scientific and technical expert. He quite literally wrote the book on spacecraft design, and it's a pretty good book, too. He's also got some administrative and political chops; he was President-Elect of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics when he was tapped for the top job at NASA. He's got a clear vision of what NASA ought to be doing, and how it ought to be done. The things he's doing are, for the most part, what I'd do if I were ever appointed Head Dictator over the American space program. Wielding a great red axe at the top Center levels, as he's done, is a good start.

So. At long last, we're back in the manned space flight business, after yet another hiatus. And just like last time, this will probably be the safest mission for the next decade, with nothing left to chance. Barring unforseen disasters, we can expect a good, safe flight. And even if something does go slightly cubist, Eileen Collins has some of the best hands in the business. If anyone could bring a sick bird home, she could.

Let's hope the hurricanes stay away for the next couple of weeks. Good luck and Godspeed to the crew of Discovery.