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Month: February 2018

Seeing the Future Through a Hole in the Clouds

Seeing the Future Through a Hole in the Clouds

When SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket left Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center on Tuesday, it confirmed the company’s commitment to establishing an ever-larger presence in space. And SpaceX is doing so as a private enterprise, a leader in an industry only vaguely foreseen just a few decades ago, at the time I was a science writer covering the nation’s space program on a daily basis.

As it lifted off, the Falcon Heavy became the world’s currently most powerful launch vehicle, capable of boosting 141,000 pounds (64 metric tons) into low earth orbit (LEO). The imagery of the giant rocket rising into the sky from the same pad where the moon rockets of the Apollo program took a dozen humans to the surface of the moon wasn’t lost on the tens of thousands of onlookers at Cape Canaveral. Nor was it lost on SpaceX founder and chief Elon Musk, who sent his personal red Tesla roadster – a product of another of his companies – with a mannequin at the wheel that Musk named Starman – after the David Bowie song – into deep space orbit around the sun.

The launch of the Falcon Heavy seemed designed to give birth to a renewed vision of space exploration, a vision that had gone off the rails from the fading days of the Space Shuttle program and which reached its nadir in June 2010. That’s when then-NASA Administrator Charles Bolden announced that the space agency’s primary mission was outreach to the Muslim world. Bolden said he had been charged with three missions by President Obama, this being the foremost one, and none of which had anything to do with space exploration. While the White House later insisted Bolden misspoke and that such outreach was not part of NASA’s mission, all indications were that there was little commitment to setting a new course for America’s drifting space program.

It was a different vision on Aug. 30, 1983, nearly 35 years ago, when the Space Shuttle Challenger left that same Pad 39A at 2:32 in the morning. The mission, officially named STS-8, just the eighth Space Shuttle mission, was the first night launch of the Shuttle. It also carried the first American black astronaut to fly in space, Guion “Guy” Bluford. But the element that often is omitted from accounts of that mission was the fact that its launch nearly was scrubbed due to the weather.

The night of Aug. 29-30 at Kennedy Space Center was marked with thunderstorms. Applying normal parameters, the launch almost certainly would have been postponed given the danger posed by a lightning strike on the vehicle or the conductive contrails of its solid rocket boosters. As I sat at my desk in the KSC Press Center that night, I had already completed the draft of my story stating that the launch had been scrubbed due to weather. I was about to file my story when a hole opened in the clouds over Pad 39A, the launch window was extended and the countdown resumed, and Challenger raced into space through that hole, lighting up the Cape like it was day and illuminating the night sky from Havana to Hatteras.

There was talk at that time, in the early years of the Shuttle program, whether the vehicle would ever be run like an airline, keeping to a schedule of frequent launches and dropping costs. I saw the willingness of flight controllers to bend the rules and launch through the hole in the clouds that stormy August night as a major step in that direction, and I said as much in the piece I finally filed. In some ways, my prediction was prescient, and Tuesday’s launch of the Falcon Heavy was the logical extension of what I saw through that hole in the nighttime clouds.

There were other things that I didn’t see that night, though. I failed to make allowance for things like political pressure, human miscalculation, and the arrogance of managers not willing to admit when they are wrong. In some cases – like launching Challenger in sub-freezing temperatures that clearly exceeded launch parameters on Jan. 28. 1986, or failing to heed the warnings of flight engineers regarding penetration of Columbia’s heat-protective tiles prior to the orbiter’s reentry on Feb. 1, 2003 – dead wrong.

The Challenger and Columbia disasters, like the fatal Apollo 1 test module fire of Jan. 27, 1967, remind us that space exploration is not without its risks, nor without its losses, including and especially human losses. At least until this point, space travel is not analogous to contemporary airline flight. I accuse myself of missing that key point in my STS-8 prognostication, but not of missing the point of where things were headed. And now, with private space enterprises, like SpaceX, Orbital ATK, United Launch Alliance, and others developing new vehicles, taking over more of the functions formerly unique to NASA, and putting private capital at risk, a new chapter is being written in America’s venture into space.

Make no mistake. America still has a long way to go before it reestablishes its place in space. It has always struck me as tragically sad that there are people alive on earth today who were born after the time when men walked on the moon. A dream humans held for thousands of years had come and gone, and now we are back looking into the heavens and dreaming of a return to the moon and beyond. And as impressive as Tuesday’s launch was, to put things in perspective, in 2018 the Falcon Heavy generated just half the lift of NASA’s Saturn V lunar rocket, first launched from the same Pad 39A on Nov, 7, 1967, half a century earlier. The Saturn V could lift 120 metric tons to LEO, a launch capability that has yet to be matched. So powerful was the Saturn V that its sound waves broke windows in Titusville, 10 miles away.

But the Falcon Heavy is not the end of SpaceX’s design train, and the company’s Big Falcon Rocket or BFR – the mundane name is actually Musk’s play on words, with the “F” a stand-in for another less polite word – will be a monster affair capable of lifting 136 metric tons to LEO. Musk sees the BFR as the rocket that will take colonists to Mars, or carry up to 100 paying passengers into space. Meanwhile, the company has been flying unmanned missions for years, and it expects to bring astronauts to the International Space Station aboard its smaller Falcon 9 rocket paired with its Dragon space capsule later this year.

The TSA isn’t going to be setting up security checkpoints at KSC any time soon, but an era when space travel becomes accessible to more and more people is increasingly easy to envisage, and in large part it’s due to the vision and perseverance of private space entrepreneurs. It’s an era that, while it will come a bit later than I saw at the time, there was a small glimpse of through a hole in the clouds one stormy night in 1983.

 

Photo of STS-8 launch by NASA

Haters Are Gonna Hate

Haters Are Gonna Hate

If you watched the State of the Union address this past Tuesday, you saw encapsulated the two faces of America at the outset of 2018. On one side of the aisle the Republicans for the most part cheered and gave standing ovations to just about everything President Donald Trump had to say. On the other side, the Democrats sat there stone-faced and belligerent, at times not even sure whether to applaud or not when the President said things almost anyone could get behind and support.

Having watched the address, I’d have to say it was – in the commonly applicable term – “presidential,” and touched on many of the issues that Trump voters, specifically, and a broad part of the population otherwise, are concerned about. And for once Trump didn’t step on his own small victory by tweeting contrary thoughts the next morning. That’s not just my assessment, either. A poll by CBS News – certainly no advocate for the President – showed that 75 percent of viewers approved of the President’s speech, including 43 percent of Democratic viewers. Eight in 10 viewers said they thought the President was trying to unite the country while two-thirds said the speech made them feel proud.

An unscientific viewer poll conducted by CNN – again, no friend of the President – showed that 62 percent of respondents said they thought the President was moving the country in the right direction. The percentage of viewers – 48 percent – who said they had a “very positive” view of the President’s speech was the same percentage who had a “very positive” view of President Obama’s first State of the Union address in 2009. Not bad for a president that, if you listen to most of what is reported in the media, is equivalent to the devil incarnate and the harbinger of Armageddon.

In fact, rising overall poll numbers for the President underscore that he’s tapping into many of the issues a wide range of Americans care about. But you’d never know that looking at the Democratic side of the aisle during Tuesday’s address.

While it would be too much to expect that everyone would agree with everything Trump laid out, there was enough juicy goodness there that just about any American could get behind. This was especially the case with the several moving examples of heroism, citizen action, and hardship that he called out, recognizing a number of guests in the audience for their accomplishments or experiences. Still, some House and Senate Democrats in attendance had a hard time digesting how it was the citizens themselves, and not Trump, who deserved the recognition.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi later criticized the President for the many guests he honored, saying he had nothing to do with their accomplishments. Of course, the President never claimed he did and, since President Ronald Reagan started the tradition in 1982, it has become a part of every State of the Union address to recognize the achievements of individual citizens, especially when they underscore the message and policy positions of the given president. Pelosi’s criticism came across as small, but it wasn’t the only statement she made that showed how out-of-touch she is with most Americans. We’ll get to that a bit later.

Now I understand that State of the Union addresses are partisan affairs, and one side of the aisle or the other is going to get more things to jump up and clap for than is the other. That was certainly the case when President Obama gave his addresses, when it was the Dems’ turn to applaud. And it clearly was the case Tuesday with President Trump’s address. Still, there are enough moments in any State of the Union address when, as Americans, both sides have reason for support and celebration. But to watch the Democratic side of the aisle in this State of the Union address, one was forced to wonder what exactly the Dems do stand for, other than abject hatred of the President.

Clearly the most telling moment came when the President said that the black unemployment rate had reached a 45-year low. That seemed like something everyone could get behind, along with his statement that the Hispanic unemployment rate had reached an historic low. But when the cameras panned to the Congressional Black Caucus – some members of which didn’t even attend the address – nary a hand clapped. Some sets of eyes cast about, reflecting doubt about what their owners should do. Many watching this display can be forgiven for asking what it would take for the black members of Congress to at least recognize something that has benefited black people, regardless how they feel about Trump or whether they credit him or his predecessor for most of that accomplishment. On PR value alone, this was a lost opportunity and showed caucus members as petty and petulant.

Another telling moment came when the President discussed immigration, and highlighted his proposal to offer a path to citizenship for 1.8 million “dreamers” – non-citizens brought here illegally by their parents as children – more than double the 700,000 that the Democrats would protect under their proposals. Perhaps the most memorable quote of the entire address came when the President said, “Americans are dreamers, too.” As the President made clear, his primary duty, as well as the primary duty of all members of Congress, is to look after the interests of Americans. Seemed reasonable enough.

But when Trump outlined his overall immigration proposals, aimed at benefiting American workers and citizens, things one would expect to be Democratic goals, too, the reaction was anything but supportive or even willingness to listen. Key parts of Trump’s proposals include eliminating the visa-lottery program and reducing chain migration based on family relations – something many concerned with immigration issues have supported for a very long time – not only didn’t they applaud, but there actually were boos from the Democrats. Of course, not much has been made in the media of this overt show of disrespect for the President, certainly nowhere near the brouhaha that erupted when South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson shouted out “You lie!” to President Obama during a 2009 address to Congress on healthcare issues. But we’ve come to expect this kind of double standard where Trump is concerned.

Another show of disrespect came when Illinois Rep. Luis Gutiérrez booked for the exit while the Republican side spontaneously chanted “USA, USA.” Gutiérrez later denied that his early departure had anything to do with the chant but rather that he was late for an interview appointment with Univision. Whatever the reason, it didn’t help the Dems’ optics.

If the Democrats have more to offer than intransigence and hatred of the President, it wasn’t clear what that was, either in the Democratic rebuttal to the President’s address or in those comments Pelosi made after the speech. The withered Pelosi, herself worth $101 million as of 2014*, called the bonuses and tax cuts worth thousands of dollars each that many Americans are getting as a result of the Republican-sponsored tax bill, “crumbs.” Now $2,000 or $3,000 may be “crumbs” to a multi-millionaire like Pelosi, but I wonder how many less monied Americans see those amounts that way. Even Costco CEO Craig Jelinek called Pelosi’s comments “unthoughtful.” Costco is one of 300 companies that so far have announced bonuses to be paid their employees as the result of the new tax bill, and that doesn’t even account for the benefits most working Americans will get as the result of greatly increased standard deductions on their tax bills.

The Democrat’s choice of Congressman Joe Kennedy III to deliver the party’s rebuttal to the President’s speech also reflected the Dem’s bankruptcy when it comes either to ideas or personalities. It would probably be too blatant a non-forced error to select a Clinton, so the party went back to the Kennedy name. Even many Dems asked what it says about the party when its leadership picks a Massachusetts politician, part of the Kennedy dynasty, himself worth $43.2 million*, to deliver an address focused on assisting working Americans.

Kennedy, grandson of the late Robert F. Kennedy, seemed an incongruous choice, even as he spoke in terms of Democratic identity politics, reverting at one point to the cliché of delivering part of his address in Spanish. So while the Dems argue that Dreamers are Americans, Kennedy spoke to them as immigrants, and not even immigrants who speak English. The further irony is that, as his party moves further and further to the left, Kennedy’s grandfather and granduncle, JFK, would today most likely be viewed as conservatives in comparison.

I came to the State of the Union address expecting Trump to do a credible job, and hoping he wouldn’t tweet it away the next morning, and I was gratified on both counts. I also expected a somewhat truculent and unenthusiastic Democratic side of the chamber, but I didn’t expect it to be as gloomy and seemingly hate-filled as it was. That came as a shock even to skeptical me, and it tends to underscore the existence of this phenomenon that has come to be dubbed Trump Derangement Syndrome. That may be a non-clinical term or condition, but like any disorder, it distorts judgment and leads to non-productive actions.

That’s what I think is going on with the Dems. They seem intent on being haters and not much else, and haters are gonna hate. Whether anything more productive comes from them, that remains to be seen, all the more so after Tuesday’s performance.

* Source: members-of-congress.insidegov.com