Sunday, January 29, 2012

One Of These Days, Alice...

Recently, Newt Gingrich caused a stir in the run-up to the Florida GOP primary by suggesting that, by 2020, a Gingrich Administration would set up a permanent base on the Moon. Leaving aside the question of whether or not it's a good idea ... Actually, never mind, that's a good discussion to have. There are several good reasons why we want to do that, eventually. But there are several equally good reasons that there's just no way in Hell we're going to get there from here by 2020.

One reason is radio astronomy. The biggest problem with radio astronomy is interference. We use radio for everything. We use it to talk to each other, to share pictures and music, to share information. We use it to find out how far airplanes are from one another, and to keep passenger airplanes from running into mountains. Our power lines leak radio frequency energy, even though we'd really rather they didn't. All of this makes radio astronomy, the science of exploring the universe by analyzing the radio frequency radiation coming at us from deep space, a very tricky discipline indeed. Wouldn't it be nice, if you could put a radio telescope somewhere that was shielded from all of Earth's radio frequency output?

Another reason is clean energy, albeit indirectly. If you were to put farms of solar power panels in geosynchronous orbit, you could beam clean energy down from space 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Building them is a fairly tall order, and it would be cheaper to haul the building materials up from the Moon than it would be to haul them up from the Earth.

You're free to disagree with me on this, of course, but I'm convinced that an outpost on the Moon is a good idea for our long-term future, not just as a nation but as a species. But it's vitally important that we do it right. And there's just no way to do it right in only nine or ten years. Let's make a quick outline of what needs to be done in order to get there from here.

First, you need a mature transportation infrastructure. The longest pole in this tent is efficient, reusable transportation to and from low Earth orbit for both crew and cargo. You're going to be moving a lot of cargo both up and down, so you need to be able to do it cheaply, and on a reliable, dependable schedule. You also need to be able to develop the technology for in-space refueling, so that you can store fuel and supplies at an orbital supply depot. You'd also like to have really efficient engines for space propulsion, so that you can be as miserly with that fuel as possible. Finally, you will need to develop closed-loop life support, so that your base can be as self-sufficient as possible. Now, where have we heard this before? (Hold on to that thought. We'll come back to it later.)

Given all of that, here's how you'd need to proceed:

(1) Stockpile some fuel and supplies in low Earth orbit.
(2) At the same time, haul up some parts, and assemble a couple of cislunar freighters.
(3) Load the freighters with fuel, supplies, and parts.
(4) Once they arrive in Lunar orbit, they will assemble a second fuel and supply depot.
(5) Once back in Earth orbit, load the freighters with fuel, supplies, parts, and a couple of lunar landers.
(6) Once back in Lunar orbit, the landers will take the parts down to the surface, and begin construction.

This way, you have a sustainable supply chain to keep the project going for as long as you need to. And there's no way to do this in only ten years. Oh sure, if we already had all of the enabling technologies, we could make it happen. But we don't. And therein lies the problem. Some of us learned the wrong lessons from Project Apollo.

Project Apollo left us with an awesome legacy. Six flags and twelve sets of footprints stand in eternal testimony to what we can do as a nation when we plant our feet, fix our eyes on the ball, and swing for the fences. But it also leaves a false impression that we can do anything -- literally anything -- with only nine years' notice. And that's not necessarily true.

We have a lot of hard work to do before we're ready to undertake the challenge of building a permanent outpost on the Moon. We've barely begun that work. If we undertake the "Flexible Path" option outlined in 2009's Augustine Commission report, we will have done the lion's share of the preparation by 2020. Then, and only then, can we realistically undertake the task.

Anyone who tells you different is either lying, crazy, or just delusional. Although in Gingrich's case, it may well be all of the above.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Election 2012: The Winter Of Our Discontent

OK, now we've had one caucus and two elections, and we've had three different candidates win them so far. It's been a wild ride so far, and there's no indication that things will settle down anytime soon. So, let's brush off our crystal ball, and see what it portends. As always, our numbers are courtesy of Intrade, and are current as of this Friday afternoon.

Democratic Party: Seriously, I need to stop doing this. But I am an engineer, and it offends me to leave anything out. Still: all of the important filing dates have passed, and no one worth mentioning has stepped up to try to unseat Barack Obama within his own party. Also, despite the pundits constantly trying to whip up a controversy, Obama's not going to dump Joe Biden as his Vice-Presidential nominee. It's going to be Obama/Biden for the Democrats this fall, unless a crate of bricks falls on either or both. (Which ain't gonna happen.) So I'm not even going to bother looking the numbers up. This one's a lock.

Republican Party: This has truly been a spectacle to behold. Three races, three different winners, with Florida on deck next week. This isn't over yet, not by a long shot. Still, Vegas does have one clear favorite.

Mitt Romney, 86.2%: His polls have been up and down more than a speed freak on a jet-powered pogo stick, but the wagering public still thinks very highly of Romney's chances to win the nomination. But I wonder if he's overpriced at this early date in the process. After all, he does have several serious problems as a candidate. For one, he seems very out of touch economically with the average Republican voter. For another, as I've said before, Obamacare is Romneycare with the serial numbers filed off. And, here's the thing that's really going to hurt him in the South, a lot of evangelical Christians aren't entirely convinced that Mormons are Christians. So, until the campaign swings through several Southern states, it's early days yet to anoint Romney as the inevitable nominee. All that said, he's got funding and organization, and plenty of it. Those will help him out. Especially since one or more of his opponents are liable to have spectacular melt-downs in coming months.

Newt Gingrich, 5.2%: Speaking of melt-downs ... Newt is fueled by emotion, primarily rage. Rage is a useful servant but a perilous master. More than that, without a friendly audience to bounce off of, his debating style is significantly hampered. He got a big bounce off his South Carolina win, and will probably get a significant bounce out of his next Southern win. It'll come. He's got a strong base of support down South. It looks like he's the winner of the "not-Romney" primary, although there are still a few minor contenders for that crown. But I don't think he'll win the nomination. Conservatives like him somewhat, but he's disorganized, prone to rage, and has a propensity for spouting off weird ideas. And speaking of weird ideas...

Ron Paul, 3.0%: Some die-hards are still plugging for the old guy. He had a brief surge a while back. But we all know that the NFL will open an expansion team in Ulan Bator before Dr. Paul comes within shouting distance of the nomination. Which is probably just as well: some of his ideas, like abolishing the Federal Reserve and going back on the Gold Standard, are just plain nuts.

Rick Santorum, 2.5%: After Iowa, I had predicted that Santorum would be the go-to candidate for the social conservatives. This ... hasn't quite turned out to be the case. Santorum looks like he's skipping Florida entirely, and is taking the weekend off. That's probably a prelude to punching out of the campaign entirely, if he fails to find traction in the Bible Belt. He'll probably stick around for Super Tuesday, but may not last much longer than that.

The Rest: No one else is above 1%. Since our last check, we've lost Rick Perry, who endorsed Newt Gingrich. Perry goes back home to Texas, where he pretends to run the state while Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst does all the heavy lifting. In two years' time, we'll see if Rick Perry runs for another term as Governor or not. And in four years' time, we'll see if he reloads for another go at the brass ring in 2016. He just might. He's got four years to undo the damage this goat-rope of a campaign has done. Don't underestimate this man: his political skills are first-rate, he just wasn't ready for the national stage. He will be ready next time.

And the winner is... Intrade gives the Democrats the edge, 53.7% versus 44.3% for the Republicans. The economy is starting to look up, just a little, which makes it harder for a challenger to unseat an incumbent.

Bonus Feature! Our man Newt has big ideas. One of those big ideas is to award a prize for building a Moonbase. Normally, I'd be all over that like a cheap suit, but I don't think we can get there from here just right now. But, just so you can see what sort of swinging pad Newt has in mind, here's a fine bit of television from the 1970s. It's got Barbara Bain in a jumpsuit, so it can't be all bad.

Remember, kids, vote early, and vote often!

Friday, January 06, 2012

Election 2012: Raucous Caucus

Well, that was certainly interesting.

The first official results of the 2012 election are in, and the first blood has been drawn. As it turns out, not even Iowa would vote for someone with Marty Feldman eyes, and thus endeth the Bachmann campaign. Incidentally, this is why I'm an engineer by trade, and not a professional pundit: I really thought her ground game and virtual "hometown" status would have meant more. But instead, she becomes an object lesson, along with Trump, Perry, Cain and Gingrich in the deadly peril of peaking too soon.

You know who didn't peak too soon, at least for Iowa? Rick Santorum. His was the great good fortune to rise in the polls just as Gingrich was sinking. His wave crested at precisely the right moment, and he rode it to a second-place finish, just behind Romney. The interesting thing is that each of the top three finishers represents one of the GOP's three major blocs, who aren't always on speaking terms with one another.

Back in 1980, there were also three blocs, just not the same three. You had the "old guard" Republicsns, you had the social conservatives, and you had the anti-Communists. There was some overlap. Enough, in fact, that Ronald Reagan was able to forge a durable alliance amongst them that lasted for ... well, long enough that the label "anti-Communist" would become dated. We recently celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the Soviet Union's demise.

Today, the first two blocs are still there, broadly speaking. The third has changed. Some call them libertarians, but I'm not sure I'd agree with that label. But as I said, the top three finishers in Iowa each tapped into one of those constituencies: Romney is the choice of the Old Guard, Santorum is the current flavor-of-the-month for the social conservatives, and Ron Paul has galvanized the libertarians.

But even more so than thirty years ago, the three factions aren't necessarily on speaking terms. There isn't as much overlap as there once was. Which means that this race is, among other things, a struggle for control of the party. To wit: which faction, or coalition of factions, is in charge?

Iowa settled nothing, but it exposed an interesting question. The lead, and the eventual nominee, will provide the answer. If Romney is the nominee, it means that the Old Guard has reasserted its authority, or at a minimum that it has forged a coalition, most likely with the social conservatives. If it's Santorum, or even Perry, it means that the social conservatives have seized control. A Ron Paul candidacy would mean the libertarians are in charge, but come on, we all know that Satan will drive to work in a snowplow before that happens.

The next few contests won't clarify much. I do expect that we'll see clear leaders emerge for each faction. We will also probably see a down-select to a two-way race by March ... Which is another way of saying, one of the three factions will basically be edged out.

One way or another, we'll find out what these Republicans are made of.

Remember, vote early, and vote often!