Thursday, March 24, 2011

Sesquicentennial, Part XII: Two Presidents


Abraham Lincoln was now President of a truncated United States, and probably wondering why he ever wanted the job in the first place. Initially, Lincoln had decided to deal with secession by pretending that it was essentially irrelevant. But that wouldn't hold water for long.

In his inaugural address, he tried to assuage fears of precipitous action by stating as plainly as possible that he had every intention of enforcing the laws as written, and no intention of interfering with the institution of slavery. As odious as he personally found it, that was a can of worms he didn't want to open straight away. And he promised that there would be no use of force in the South ... but at the same time, he said that the Federal government would "hold, occupy, and possess the property and places" to which the Federal government held clear title.

The half-ton gorilla that had been sitting patiently in the parlor, that the Southern gentlemen had studiously ignored during their secession deliberations, was now displayed in full view for everyone to see. This had been the main point of contention ever since Major Anderson pulled stakes at Fort Moultrie and relocated to the more defensible Fort Sumter, out in Charleston's harbor. The Southern states were making a claim to political independence, but at the same time, they had to deal with the fact that, contractually and legally, the Federal government owned substantial properties within their claimed jurisdiction. They could never be truly "free" until those rights of ownership had been properly addressed.

Jefferson Davis knew this. From the very first, he had authorized commissioners to go to Washington to negotiate with the Federal government. Their goal was to barter for an acceptable price that the Southern states could pay that would satisfy the Federals, and allow them to depart in peace. Buchanan had listened politely, but made no commitment one way or the other. In this case, his inaction was justified. He felt that he had no right to make any decision at this point that would bind his successor to a policy he might not agree with. When the Presidency was handed over on March 4th, the Lincoln White House wouldn't even recognize them in any way. Their letters were met with a stony silence.

Lincoln was operating under the assumption that Major Anderson at Fort Sumter had laid in a sufficient store of supplies to last a prolonged siege. Perhaps he thought that the January mission had been successful. This was a major flaw in the Presidential transitions of the time: there was no official contact between the outgoing and incoming Presidents on matters of policy. Buchanan's people weren't on speaking terms with Lincoln's, and virtually nothing was passed down. It wasn't until after Lincoln had delivered his address that he learned about Fort Sumter's actual supply situation, which was pretty grim.

April 15, 1861. That was the date on which the supplies at Fort Sumter would run out. Beyond that date, Major Anderson could no longer feed his men. If they were not resupplied by that date, they would be forced to surrender the garrison shortly thereafter, or starve. Once again, the thoughts turned to a resupply mission.

General Scott was against the idea, even though the first resupply mission was undertaken at his urging. He knew who had taken command of the Southern forces massing against Fort Sumter, a Louisiana-born officer named P.G.T. Beauregard. Ironically, Beauregard's instructor at West Point had been Robert Anderson, who was commanding the Union garrison on which Beauregard's guns were trained. And Beauregard was an outstanding student. He was, in fact, probably the best military engineer that the Confederacy had.

Once again, this points out a fact that I had mentioned earlier: not having an entrenched Army bureaucracy, the Confederacy could immediately assign its best men to the most crucial assignments. They needed a crackerjack artilleryman commanding the works squaring off against Fort Sumter, not some buffoon who scarcely knew which was the business end of a cannon. And they had one in Beauregard. President Davis sent him to Charleston straight away, with a General's commission, to take command of the harbor's defense.

Scott knew this, and knew that Beauregard had been drilling his men for months now, waiting for the exact kind of operation Lincoln was now contemplating. The moment Beauregard's men spotted them, they'd blast ten kinds of Hell out of any Union resuppliers. On the other hand, Gustavus Fox, one of Lincoln's new advisors and an old, experienced Navy man, was certain he could slip into the harbor unnoticed, and resupply the garrison by night without Beauregard being any the wiser. Lincoln approved this plan, and Fox began assembling the men and supplies he would need for the expedition. His ships would stand to sea by April 9th, and should arrive with several days to spare.

Meanwhile, all eyes were on Charleston. Major Anderson watched the Confederate guns, and his own dwindling supplies. General Beauregard watched Fort Sumter, and the seaward horizon for any sign of Union ships. Everyone else watched, and listened ... for the bark of the guns couldn't be far away now.

The fort's fate would be decided, one way or the other, in a few weeks.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Video Del Fuego, Part XLII

In all of the excitement of the last week, one event has gone mostly unreported. The MESSENGER spacecraft has just entered orbit around the planet Mercury. This is significant, because in terms of required energy, this is about as hard as sending a probe out into interstellar space. As a result, we know almost nothing about the innermost planet. This is going to change once MESSENGER begins its survey mission on April 4.

We have now placed orbiters around every planet out to Saturn, and have currently operating probes at each of those except for Jupiter, Galileo having completed its mission back in 2003.

Congratulations to the MESSENGER navigation team on a job well done so far. Now, we get to see what Mercury's been hiding all these years.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Election 2012 Preview: Handicapping the Primaries

It's really too early for most of us to start thinking about the 2012 Presidential election. But for those who are planning on running for that office, if you're starting to think about it just now, you're already too late. The serious contenders have already begun to lay the groundwork for their local campaigns in key early states, and have begun to line up fundraisers, so that they have a nice, full war chest to begin the campaign season this summer. As always, there will be a number of parties that will contend for the office of President of the United States, but protestations of Greens and Libertarians aside, there are really only two parties worthy of serious consideration at this point: the Democrats and the Republicans. I've taken the liberty of gleaning the lists at Intrade, to get a sneak peek at what the early betting line looks like. (The numbers were current as of late afternoon on March 7th.)

The Democrats: Do we really have to have this conversation? In the modern term-limit era, only two sitting, eligible Presidents have not chosen to seek re-election: Truman and Johnson. And in that same era, only two Presidents saw a serious primary challenger for the nomination: Ford and Carter. The bottom line is that the Democratic nomination belongs to Barack Obama if he should want it, and all indications are, he does. The betting line bears this out:

Barack Obama: 89.5%
Hillary Clinton: 5.2%
Joe Biden: 4.0%

Vice President
Joe Biden: 90.0%
Hillary Clinton: 7.5%

Basically, no one unseats a sitting President who wants re-election. I wouldn't be so bold as to say it's outright impossible, but it's never happened yet. I'm inclined to say that barring some pretty spectacular events, it's not going to happen next year, either. I'm saying that partly because I think that's the reasonable way to bet, and partly because I really don't want to see the kinds of spectacularly horrifying events that would force it to happen. Also, an interesting point to note is that the last President to boot a VP for a re-election bid was FDR, who did it twice, and had three Vice-Presidents during his terms in office. It's a pretty solid lock that the Democrats are going to give the Obama/Biden ticket another whirl.

The Republicans: The Republican field is a far, far more interesting bunch. No one wants to commit. More to the point, no one wants to be the first to commit. Even more to the point, no one wants to commit before they know what Sarah Palin has in mind. Which is kind of funny, because ... well, see below:

Mitt Romney: 25.3%

Mitt Romney has a plurality of shares right now, and he's going to run a strong campaign. He'll do quite well in the early races. But he's got a couple of serious problems. First, ObamaCare is RomneyCare with the serial numbers filed off. I don't think that's a bad thing, but it's liable to be electric death with the Republican base. Second, he's a Mormon. And that's going to be a huge issue as the campaign rolls into the Bible Belt.

Tim Pawlenty: 13.5%

Tim Pawlenty does fairly well among Republicans who've heard of him. He's going to be fighting for name recognition amongst a fairly well-known field. His best option may well to be to sit this one out, and wait for 2016.

Mitch Daniels: 12.0%

Mitch Daniels is going to be vying with Romney for the mantle of the "establishment" candidate in this race. But this may not be the establishment's year, and Daniels may also be better served just sitting this one out.

Mike Huckabee: 9.4%

Mike Huckabee is well-liked amongst evangelical Republican voters, which is why he surprised everyone with early wins in the 2008 primaries. The "Oh, Hell No" reaction that kicked him out of the 2008 race may not happen again in 2012. Then again, it might. Huckabee's been courting the Tea Party vote, and we'll see over the course of this Fall and next Spring how well he's succeeded.

Sarah Palin: 7.0%

Sarah Palin either runs strongly in or leads a lot of early polls, and the conventional wisdom is that the race is hers to lose. And she may be just the woman for that job. She's got the star power and the charisma to mount a serious run at the nomination. But, can she put together a competent, effective team to get the job done? My feeling is that she's her own worst enemy. Her opponents' best strategy might be to attack her by not attacking, and thereby let her demolish herself.

Newt Gingrich: 6.2%

Newt Gingrich may well be the best-known of all potential candidates ... which is at once both his greatest strength and his greatest weakness. You know the "sweet spot"? Newt's in the place farthest away from it as far as name recognition goes: no one especially likes him, and a lot of people hate him like metastasized cancer. Expect his candidacy to hit the wall early and burst into flames.

John Huntsman: 5.6%

John Huntsman would also be well advised to sit this one out, although experience with a national campaign might be of value. His association with the current Administration cannot but be a disadvantage amongst the hard-core Right, and they're the ones who'll show up for the primaries and caucuses.

Michelle Bachmann: 4.0%

Michelle Bachmann is one of the darlings of the Tea Party movement, and may well be their favorite, provided that Sarah Palin isn't also in the room. She may also be quite mad. The good news here is that she probably still thinks of Balaclava as a glorious victory, and will probably do the political equivalent, and charge upslope at a prepared artillery battery. We can only hope.

Haley Barbour: 3.3%

Haley Barbour is deader than last week's fried chicken. No real chance.

Donald Trump: 3.1%

Donald Trump, if he should run, will mount an immensely entertaining campaign for a month or two, until he realizes there's no money to be made in it.

Chris Christie: 3.1%

Chris Christie is on the Intrade lists, but does he really want the job?

And The Winner...

Generic Democratic Nominee: 63.1%
Generic Republican Nominee: 35.0%


Barack Obama: 61.1%
Mitt Romney: 11.3%
Mitch Daniels: 5.0%
Mike Huckabee: 5.0%
Tim Pawlenty: 4.6%
Sarah Palin: 3.0%

Next year looks like it's going to be an incumbent's year. Employment will probably be up (it's trending upwards already), the stock market is doing well, and provided that the foreign situation doesn't go straight to pot, people will be feeling relatively safe. This is an environment that allows a current office-holder to sell his record, and one that makes a challenger's job that much harder. If you look back on the first-term Presidents who've failed to win a second term, you see one or more common factors: a bruising challenge for the nomination, a sour economy, or a bad situation abroad. I don't see any of those happening in the next eighteen months.

Bottom line: if you have any friends willing to take the bet, Obama/Biden '12 for the win is probably worth a buck or two.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Video Del Fuego, Part XLI

As it turns out, rocket science is actually pretty hard. Consider the recent launch failure at Vandenberg. The Taurus XL rocket is a direct descendant of the Pegasus launcher, which had always been fairly reliable. But for some inexplicable reason, they're having problems with fairing separation lately, with three of the last four launches having been failures.

Back in the day, a fairing separation failure wouldn't necessarily mean the vehicle wouldn't reach orbit. But operating margins were a lot more generous back then. Nowadays, if you have a hundred extra pounds hanging off the second stage, that's the difference between reaching orbit, and getting an up-close view of the South Pacific.

In any case, that prompted me to look for some pictures of launch failures. Why? No real reason. Except that the videos are pretty cool. But my search was sidetracked pretty quick, when I found about this guy who built a one-tenth scale model of a Saturn V. Yes, that's thirty feet tall, and yes, that's a flying model.

Here's a video of the rocket under construction:

I don't want to say that our professionals are overrated (mostly because I'm one of them), but I'm thinking maybe we ought to let our amateurs have a go at it for a while.