It's not easy being a NASA researcher. You can spend years of your professional career working on a particular project, only to have it abruptly cancelled because a new Administration takes office or ... well, the country just shifts its sights and priorities. And your particular project no longer fits on the list. It's happened so many times over the agency's 50-year history that it's almost predictable. And the reasons for those shifts are numerous, and sometimes complex.
But as a piece in this week's Science Times noted, NASA is coming to yet another research fork in the road. I saw this one coming back in January 2004, when President George W. Bush announced we were going to go back to the Moon, and on to Mars ... and then didn't actually allocate any extra money for the effort. NASA slashed other research budgets and drastically shifted program priorities to comply with the new directive, and began developing the basic technology the first steps of the effort would require.
It was clear to me, even at the beginning, that the program was more of a nice PR moment than any real commitment or serious priority. Money talks, and the money wasn't allocated. What's more, a new President is now in power, and he's indicating that more budget cuts in the program may be in the offing. So after decimating science and aeronautical programs to fund Moon and Mars-oriented technology development, the agency finds itself, once again, facing the possibility of having to tell its researchers, "never mind." It's "a hell of a way to run an airline," as the saying goes.
But in the article's discussion of possible funding and program options, one particular comment caught my attention. One cost-saving option on the table would be to bypass a Moon landing, and concentrate research efforts on a series of long-duration space flights (the type that a Mars mission would require). But Gabrielle Giffords, chairwoman of the House subcommittee on space and aeronautics, reportedly commented that she didn't find that option particularly exciting, and didn't imagine her constituents would, either.
My first thought was, "why does space research have to be exciting?" Do we require cancer research to be dramatic material for prime-time viewing? Of course not. All we care about is results. But the human space flight program, some argue, exists primarily not for its scientific value, but for its inspirational value. In which case, I guess its "excitement" factor becomes more relevant.
On the other hand, it's not entirely clear what Giffords meant by her comments. Perhaps she wasn't arguing that the space program ought to be a lightweight version of "exciting," as in "ready-for-prime-time photo ops," but exciting in the sense of its potential impact. And if that's the case, then I agree with her. Research, in cancer, technology, or space, should hold exciting potential for advancement or discovery. Even if the "big bang" advancement lies some distance in the future.
But what constitutes exciting? To some people, developing the technology to allow humans to live for extended periods of time on another planetary body is incredibly exciting. "So far, we haven't been space explorers. We've been space backpackers, taking everything we need to survive with us," says K.R. Sridhar, a scientist and engineer who developed oxygen generators for NASA's Mars research program, only to have the project cancelled just before launch. Maybe living on Mars doesn't sound like a particularly fun or worthwhile experience. But developing the technology to allow humans to live beyond planet Earth ... that's kind of exciting. And perhaps even important, if we want our species to have the ability to survive cosmic disasters.
On the other hand, there are lots of other exciting research possibilities in space that don't involve the cost of a human space flight effort. The Kepler telescope, launched in March, is designed to search out planetary bodies orbiting distant suns at the right distance (ergo temperature) to allow water, and life as we know it, to exist. The telescope uses a sophisticated photometer to measure dips in brightness in the suns, indicating the passage of planetary bodies in front of them. By the size and frequency of the shadows, scientists will be able to determine the planets' orbital distance from the suns.
What does that do for us? As they've gained knowledge about just how massive the universe and numerous its galaxies are, scientists have become more confident that there must be life elsewhere. If Kepler can narrow the search down to some candidates with at least the first prerequisite for life (distance from a medium-sized sun), they might be able to do further scans, with other instruments and telescopes, to determine if elements like ozone, CO2, or oxygen exist in those distant atmospheres. What then? Kepler's principal investigator, a scientist named Bill Borucki, who championed the idea for decades before finally convincing his peers to support the research, said in a recent interview with Newsweek that eventually, we might launch "a probe that can travel near the speed of light and gets there, shows us pictures, listen to their radio stations and television stations, and gives us a much better understanding of this new planet."
If that's not exciting, I don't know what is.
NASA's researchers have struggled for years with how to keep the public interested in what they do, because doing anything in space is expensive. NASA, and its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) were formed to tackle problems and explorations that don't have a clear commercial benefit, and so aren't likely to be pursued by commercial companies, or are too risky to be pursued by commercial companies. And even with the advent of more commercial space companies, that difference in goals and risk-tolerance still exists. But since the public is footing NASA's bill, there's additional pressure for its work to appeal to a voting public with many more near-term concerns than how to save the species if an asteroid threatens or the sun explodes.
So although there's worth in any new knowledge or technology ... with limited resources, choices have to be made. Some already question the value of the International Space Station which, in the Moon/Mars plan currently on the books, would be dismantled only five years after its completion to free up funds for the next effort. A lot of other research was sacrificed to fund the Space Station. We surely don't want to keep doing that, if we aren't really excited about the results we get in the end.
We have a lot invested in the human space flight program, and the impact of dismantling it would be huge. Jobs, infrastructure, and knowledge now in place to pick up any new project would disappear--or at least scatter. Which means rebuilding it later, if we wanted to do that, would be an onerous task.(Dismantling it would also be politically tough, because of the jobs and local economic impact involved.) But maybe, radical as it might seem, "in the neighborhood" human space flight is something NASA can now turn over to the commercial sector. And maybe, especially in a time of tight budgets, NASA's money would be better used funding many smaller but very exciting projects like Kepler, and doing the risky work of figuring out how to explore the universe beyond our eight small planets. Rockets, after all, don't need humans on them to test new technology in ion or other propulsion systems, and even habitat technology like oxygen generators.
Then, if Kepler's descendants one day find a planet that looks suspiciously like a big blue marble, and has some interesting sounds bouncing across its ionosphere, we might have a reason to put humans back on the top of research rockets. A really, really, exciting one.
The president declared his own inauguration a national holiday. But the language he used says something more.
You could be forgiven for forgetting the National Day of Patriotic Devotion—technically, it happened before it was ever declared. Donald Trump established it with a stroke of a pen sometime after his inauguration; the official proclamation appeared Monday in the Federal Register.
That bit isn’t all that unusual. Presidents christen National Days Of Things all the time. President Barack Obama, for example, proclaimed the day of his own inauguration in 2009 a “National Day of Renewal and Reconciliation,” calling “upon all of our citizens to serve one another and the common purpose of remaking this Nation for our new century.” He annually declared September 11 to be “Patriot Day.” But “Patriotic Devotion” strikes a different note—flowery, vaguely compulsory.
A No. 1 bestseller by a respected physician argues that gluten and carbohydrates are at the root of Alzheimer's disease, anxiety, depression, and ADHD. What to make of the controversial theory?
“If you could make just three simple changes in your life to prevent, or even reverse, memory loss and other brain disorders, wouldn’t you?”
So asks Dr. David Perlmutter, in promotion of his PBS special Brain Change, coming soon to your regional affiliate. Three changes. Simple ones. Wouldn’t you?
The 90-minute special is a companion to Perlmutter’s blockbuster book on how gluten and carbs are destroying our brains. In November it became a New York Times number one bestseller. Since its September release, as Perlmutter told me, “It’s never not been on the bestseller list, frankly.”
“Is it still number one?” I asked. A pause over the phone as he checked. In modern interview style, we were both also on our computers.
With a penstroke, President Trump withdrew the U.S. from Trans-Pacific Partnership, imposed a federal hiring freeze, and reinstated the ‘Mexico City policy’ on defunding international abortion-related services.
President Trump marked his first full business day in office with three major executive orders, each one aimed at fulfilling campaign promises he made last year.
His most significant order immediately withdrew the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multilateral free-trade agreement between the U.S. and eleven other Pacific Rim countries. The pact, aimed at counterbalancing China’s growing economic clout in east Asia, was among the Obama administration’s signature foreign policy achievements and a cornerstone of the pivot to Asia.
But the agreement also drew its share of domestic criticism on both sides of the campaign aisle. Both Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who initially supported it, and her primary rival Bernie Sanders criticized the pact for not doing enough to support American workers. Trump was among its most vociferous critics, at one point calling it “a continuing rape of our country.”
The HBO documentary delves into the disturbing 2014 case of two Wisconsin girls who say they stabbed their friend to appease a bogeyman-like figure.
One late spring day in 2014, three girls entered the woods in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Two walked out unharmed. A 911 call made not long after revealed the hazy outline of a vicious attack—one of the girls had been found by the side of the road covered in blood, having crawled there to get help. In the days and weeks that followed, details emerged that were no less disturbing: The three girls, all 12 years old, were best friends. The victim had been stabbed 19 times with a 5-inch blade and had barely survived. After being taken into police custody, the other two girls told interrogators what had happened: They had lured their friend into the woods to kill her so that they could appease someone called Slenderman.
Narcissism, disagreeableness, grandiosity—a psychologist investigates how Trump’s extraordinary personality might shape his possible presidency.
In 2006, Donald Trump made plans to purchase the Menie Estate, near Aberdeen, Scotland, aiming to convert the dunes and grassland into a luxury golf resort. He and the estate’s owner, Tom Griffin, sat down to discuss the transaction at the Cock & Bull restaurant. Griffin recalls that Trump was a hard-nosed negotiator, reluctant to give in on even the tiniest details. But, as Michael D’Antonio writes in his recent biography of Trump, Never Enough, Griffin’s most vivid recollection of the evening pertains to the theatrics. It was as if the golden-haired guest sitting across the table were an actor playing a part on the London stage.
“It was Donald Trump playing Donald Trump,” Griffin observed. There was something unreal about it.
One of the women who accused Trump of sexual misconduct has sued him for defamation after he labeled her claims false.
Donald Trump is now president and not just a private citizen, but that doesn’t mean he’s free of the controversies that dogged him in his former life.
Last week, a few days before Trump’s inauguration, former Apprentice contestant Summer Zervos sued him in New York state, accusing the president of defamation. Zervos, who’s represented by the famous lawyer Gloria Allred, was one of the several women who accused Trump of sexual assault or misconduct prior to the election. She claims that he kissed her and pressed his genitals against her non-consensually. Trump denied those claims, saying all of the women who had accused him had made their stories up. So Zervos sued him for defamation.
“I wanted to give Mr. Trump the opportunity to retract his false statements about me and the other women who came forward,” she said, as my colleague Nora Kelly reported. She added that she would withdraw the suit if Trump said she had been truthful. That seems unlikely, since a spokeswoman dismissed the suit immediately.
Saturday’s unprecedented show of opposition punctured a core myth of the Trump presidency. Will it change his behavior? And can it be sustained?
George W. Bush campaigned as a uniter, not a divider, then presided for eight polarizing years, provoking protests like the one against the Iraq War on February 15, 2003, that sent hundreds of thousands of Americans into the streets of major cities. Those protests stopped neither the Iraq War nor the reelection of the president.
Months after Barack Obama was sworn in, on April 15, 2009, protesters associated with the Tea Party held rallies in 350 cities, attracting more than 300,000 Americans. They were angry about the financial crisis, the Bush administration’s response to it, and the progressive agenda of the polarizing new president and Congress. The following year, 84 Republican freshmen joined the House during the 2010 midterms. By 2012, the Tea Party had fueled victories for politicians including Rand Paul, Mike Lee, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Scott Brown, and Nikki Haley. President Obama’s ability to advance a domestic agenda was all but finished, though he retained enough popularity to be reelected easily in the 2012 campaign.
Press Secretary Sean Spicer continued to suggest on Monday that the media is attempting to undercut the president.
After harshly condemning the media over the weekend for its coverage of President Donald Trump’s inauguration, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer struck a less combative tone during a press conference on Monday. But he nevertheless continued to argue that the media is trying to undermine the president, and stood by a debunked statement that the inauguration drew the “largest audience” of all time.
“I believe we have to be honest with the American people,” Spicer said at the briefing, responding to a reporter’s question about his commitment to truth-telling. He added: “I’m going to come out here and tell you the facts as I know them, and if we make a mistake I’ll do our best to correct it.” Later, however, he lamented that there is a “constant theme to undercut the enormous support” he said Trump has. “There’s an overall frustration when you turn on the television over and over again and get told that there’s this narrative.”
An ethics watchdog group is suing President Trump over his continued failure to distance himself from his company.
Updated on January 23 at 4:02 p.m. ET
Despite assurances that he would do so before assuming the nation’s highest office, President Donald Trump has still not taken any of the steps he promised in order to mitigate his conflicts of interest. Though Trump has repeatedly stated that he would remove himself from the day-to-day operations of his businesses—a step that, as has been repeatedly noted, would actually do little to resolve his many conflicts—publicly available documents related to his businesses suggest that Trump has not even filed the requisite paper to do so.
Due to the size of the Trump Organization and its many offshoots, the president removing himself from his positions of authority would leave a long paper trail, requiring Trump to file “a long list of documents in Florida, Delaware, and New York,” according to ProPublica. But as of the afternoon of Trump’s inauguration, none of the authorities ProPublica reached for comment on the subject had received the requisite paperwork. Moreover, looking at the publicly available records on Trump’s largest companies, including his namesake organization and foundation, which are based in New York; his Mar-A-Lago Club, golf course, and holding company, which are operated out of Florida; and his recently opened hotel in Washington D.C., revealed that no changes had been made to their purported ownership structures. And though Delaware’s laws regarding limited-liability companies makes information regarding Trump’s many LLCs difficult to attain, ProPublica was able to confirm with state officials that no changes had been made to the ownership structure of Trump’s largest businesses there.