Friday, October 30, 2009

Video Del Fuego, Part XXIII

Today, Video del Fuego once again lives up to its name, with the NASA TV feed of Wednesday's Ares I-X launch:

Which goes to show you that even an underpowered rocket looks pretty darned impressive, close-up.

The Rockets' Red Glare

At 11:30 Eastern Time on Wednesday, NASA's first new rocket design in nearly forty years began a brief test flight, flying some 25-30 miles high and 150 miles downrange. The first stage was mostly a complete Ares I first stage, with the upper stages being all boilerplate ballast. Performance-wise, everything looked all right, from what I can tell. The prototype first stage did pretty much what a first stage has to do: lift the stack up above most of the atmosphere, and accelerate it to somewhere around Mach 5. What I'm curious to find out is how the vibration loads worked out. Preliminary design revealed some vibration problems early on, presumably the prototype incorporates some kind of vibration absorber. It'll take some time to spin the data down, though; it may be weeks before they know, and weeks after that before the report comes out. And it'd be nice if Ares I had enough lifting power to haul a six-man Orion capsule into orbit, being that the International Space Station has a crew of six... Still, a job well done for the Ares crew. But that's not the only interesting thing happening over in NASA-land.

Unless you've been paying close attention, you won't have known that the Augustine Commission has released its final report on America's manned spaceflight program. It's an interesting document. Basically, it outlines two problems: selection of goals, and marshaling the resources to achieve those goals. The two are related, in that the amount of resources you allocate determines what kinds of goals you can accomplish.

The fundamental fact is this: the United States is willing to spend between half to one percent of the Federal budget on space flight. Not more, and not less. The spectacular failure of Von Braun's post-Apollo plans was entirely due to his failure to realize this fact. No one today has that excuse. Over the last 35 years, the give-and-take of politics has quite firmly established what the American public is willing to pay.

Nevertheless, given that the current budget is at the low end of that range, there is room for some growth. And some growth is necessary, if we want to explore beyond Earth orbit. Basically, the FY2010 baseline budget won't allow any operations beyond Earth orbit. You just can't get there from here. But a modest increase -- and, relatively speaking, one half of one percent is a modest increase -- will provide enough resources to develop the vehicles and technologies to enable meaningful, useful exploration.

Mind you, I don't think that a flags-and-footprints jaunt would be either useful or particularly meaningful. But, exploring the far side of the Moon, where no one's been yet, or exploring the polar regions where we've recently discovered water ice... These are well worth doing. So would a flyby of a near-Earth asteroid, which would give us more information about a class of celestial objects that we really need to know more about.

I don't especially care how we go about doing it. I prefer the "Flexible Path" options outlined in the report, because that seems to give us a sufficiently flexible infrastructure to do whatever we want to do. That would be a better way to spend the taxpayers' money, in my opinion. The irony is that Ares I isn't part of any of those options. Ares I isn't part of any of the options, aside from the "program of record" entries. As I said earlier, Ares I is sadly underpowered, and the project probably isn't long for this world. The report makes that fairly clear. But the ultimate goals aren't in any real danger, since there are other rockets that can do the job.

Now, the decision rests with NASA management, and with the White House. They will have to take the recommendations of the Augustine Commission under advisement, and figure out how we go forward from here. We know where we are. We know where we want to end up.

Now, we have a better idea how go get there.

[Addendum, 1Nov09: Mr. X over at Chair Force Engineer has a wealth of recent posts about the Ares 1-X launch, the Augustine Commission report, and the Constellation program in general. Well worth a look.]

Friday, October 16, 2009

Texas Chooses a Governor (Sort Of)

Fall is my favorite season in Texas for a number of reasons. We like to say that we only have two seasons, Summer and Winter, separated by thunderstorms. That's not entirely true. Fall is different from both Summer and Winter. It's God's way of saying He's sorry for the soul-destroying fury of the Summer sun. Once the thunderstorms are out of the way, the weather is simply marvelous. The sky is a pristine dome the color of fine Toledo steel, there's warm sun and cool breeze in perfect measure, and the plant life begins to take a well-earned rest from the labors of Spring and Summer. But those aren't the only reasons I look forward to Fall. For one, that's when football season starts again. And for another, in odd years, it's when the primary season gets underway. Every even year, we're either electing a President, or a Governor.

The office of Governor in Texas is, by design, fairly weak as most states go. The executive powers that some states vest in a strong Governorship, we split up between the Governor and the Lieutenant Governor. They're elected separately, and have occasionally been from different parties. That makes for interesting news, when the Governor has one set of ideas and the LG has something completely different in mind. This tends to confuse recent arrivals from other states. Well, at least other non-Southern states; I think most Southern states have a similar set-up. I say jokingly that Texas' Constitution was written with the primary purpose of infuriating Yankees, but that's not too terribly far from the truth. That it kind-of, sort-of works is an unexpected benefit.

So, I'm always interested to see who lines up to pay a very steep price to win a job with less authority than your average Wal-Mart manager. This year's race looks very interesting indeed, at least on the Republican side.

The two leading challengers on the Republican side are the incumbent Governor, Rick Perry, and the current senior Senator, Kay Bailey Hutchison. This is a very interesting contest. Not from a policy standpoint ... from a social standpoint. You see, Perry is a Texas A&M alum, while Hutchison went to the University of Texas. If you know anything at all about the rivalry between those two schools, you know this is gonna be a good one. It's old-money versus blue-collar, patrician versus plebeian. The University of Texas has always seen itself as Texas' premier, flagship University, while Texas A&M has always resented that status. Given that Hutchison was a cheerleader while she was at Austin, and Perry was a yell leader down at College Station ... the alumni networks may well have an effect on the outcome of this primary. Plus, you just know this race is going to start at least one fistfight at a sports bar.

With that out of the way, here are capsule reviews of each candidate:

Rick Perry: What I said about him last time still stands, more or less. Except that he appears to be busying himself by quashing an investigation into a case where it looks like we might have executed an innocent man. This is certainly not going to look good on his resume, to the extent that Republican voters actually care about this sort of thing, which is not much.

Kay Bailey Hutchison: Mostly harmless, as Republicans go. I have to say, I do like her notion of limiting Governors to two terms. Usually it's not necessary, since we get tired of the bums after a while, but Perry has hung on for an unconscionably long time. If she turfs him, I won't cry.

Larry Kilgore: He served in the U.S. Air Force, and was stationed at Cheyenne Mountain. The confinement evidently drove him stark raving mad, which explains his fervent support for secession. Dude, please. The legality of secession was decided in the famous case Davis v. Lincoln by Judge Ares Slayer-of-Men at Appomattox Court House in 1865. Have you really forgotten how it worked out for us last time? Did you think that it somehow magically became easier now that the Union has atomic weapons? Do you really want the garrison at Fort Hood to roll out and explain the finer points of the consequences of secession to you via 120-mm smoothbore? Dumbass.

Debra Medina: Dunno. But, being CEO of a medical consulting firm, I think she's got a bee in her bonnet about health care reform. God alone knows how she thinks that being Governor of Texas is going to help with that.

And now, the Democrats:

Kinky Friedman: Ah, my main man, back for another try, this time as a major-party candidate. The question is, will the Democrats of Texas take him seriously? They ought to. Aside from Friedman, the field looks pretty sad and pitiful. And you have to admit, a campaign for Governor of Texas can't have many slogans better than "How Hard Can It Be?" and "Why The Hell Not?" Unless I get an outstanding reason not to, he's who I'm liable to vote for.

Hank Gilbert: He's a rancher, and ran for Agriculture Commissioner back in 2006. One may assume that was a post he was eminently suited for. But I wonder how that expertise is supposed to translate to Gubernatorial excellence. For one, managing the Legislature is less like herding cattle than it is like herding cats; and for another, that's the Lieutenant Governor's job anyway.

Tom Schieffer: Now, he looks like a fairly capable ... Oh dear God, no! Look, we already had one Governor who used to own the Texas Rangers. The thing is, the Rangers stink on ice. Sure, they start the season strong, but come August, the funk of failure begins to loom over Arlington like a storm cloud, and that train's never late. Anyone whose main claim to fame is owning that particular goat-rope is someone you don't want to elect as dog-catcher, much less any post of significant authority. Oh wait, we're not talking about a post of significant authority, are we? Well, he might just do in a pinch.

The primaries are on March 2, 2010. Remember, vote early, and vote often!

Saturday, October 03, 2009

The Wheels of Justice

Much has been written about the recent arrest of Roman Polanski in Switzerland, and about the ongoing extradition proceedings that may lead to his sentencing in California for a thirty-year-old rape case. I think just about everything has been said. There's nothing to add about the natural disgust most of us feel for what he did thirty years ago. Nor is there anything to add about the disgust most of us feel about the glitterati springing to a convicted rapist's defense. The transcripts and court documents are there for those who wish to acquaint themselves with the facts. What he did isn't a matter of spin, opinion, or belief; they are accountable facts and matters of public record. But one question looms large for me, and has gone mostly unanswered.

Why Switzerland? Why now, and not ten or twenty years ago?

In international affairs, Switzerland is like the eccentric rich uncle that shows up for holiday dinners, but otherwise doesn't get involved in family disputes. They maintain diplomatic relations with just about everybody, and do trade with just about everybody, but for most of the last five centuries have stayed out of wars or contentious relations with their neighbors. Not that they've gone pacifist: for most of the Middle Ages, Swiss pikemen were Europe's name-brand mercenaries, and in the modern era Switzerland's reserve army consists of damn near the entire adult population. Still, prosecutors the world over have long cursed Swiss privacy laws, and the Swiss authorities haven't really been super-diligent about looking for fugitives within their own borders. If you made it to Switzerland, you were a free man as long as you kept your nose clean. And if your money made it to Switzerland, so far as anyone else was concerned it essentially ceased to exist.

Recently, this has begun to change.

It's difficult to say with certainty when, or why, but it's clear that the Swiss electorate has had something to do with it. In 2002, they narrowly approved a referendum enabling Switzerland to join the United Nations as a full member. A similar referendum had gone down by a 3-to-1 margin only sixteen years earlier, in 1986. To me, that seems like the watershed. Then, earlier this year came the stunning news that Swiss authorities would begin to cooperate with tax fraud investigations in the United States, something that would have been utterly unheard-of ten years ago. And now, we see similarly unprecedented cooperation in an extradition case for an international arrest warrant.

I know approximately what has happened, and when,, but I am no closer to understanding why. Why, after close to 500 years of patiently minding its own business and politely telling the rest of the world to sod off, are they suddenly acting ... well, normal? Sure, I could point to a sea change in the Swiss electorate, but why did that happen?

There's a fascinating story in there that some journalist could write, if they could be pried away from the lurid details long enough to do the legwork. But lurid details are where the money is. And so, the question remains...