In addition to marking the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, this week also marks the 20th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope -- the first of NASA's four "great observatories" launched to observe the heavens from the heavens. (The other three are the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, which was deorbited in 2000, and the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Infrared Spitzer Space Telescope, both of which are still working).
Hubble, of course, is the best-known of the four, since it collects data in the visual range of light waves, giving us the spectacular Eagle Nebula starbirth photos, the Deep Field image of thousands of galaxies hidden in a tiny dark point of space, and a multitude of other awe-inspiring glimpses of the universe beyond our physical reach.
But the Hubble also represents a rare collision of worlds far closer to home, within NASA itself. Because for 20 years, it has been one of the only NASA programs to merge the human space flight side of NASA with the agency's scientific and robotic space flight contingent. The Hubble itself is a scientific instrument that does its work remotely, like any other scientific satellite. But unlike almost all other satellites, it was hand-launched by astronauts from the bay of the Space Shuttle and has been repaired by human astronauts no fewer than five times.
So in the highly segmented world of NASA, is the Hubble a triumph and justification for human space flight? Or proof that we can be equally thrilled, excited and humbled by our robotic explorations in space...and proof of how much more we can learn from non-human voyages and missions?
Dr. Story Musgrave has a unique perspective on the question, because he is, on the one hand, one of the most experienced and longest-serving astronauts in NASA's human space flight program, a veteran of six space missions over the course of a 30-year career. But he also worked on the development of the Hubble from 1975 onward and was one of the lead astronauts on the famous 1993 Hubble repair mission that corrected several early problems with the telescope, including a serious flaw in its primary mirror. And in an interview I did with him in anticipation of the Hubble anniversary, he was very clear about what he thinks NASA's priorities should be.
"Thank God they decided [the Hubble] needed to be fixable by people, because there were 13 early failures, which means you had problems in the basic design, materials, or quality," he said. "But the non-human program is more important to me than the human program."
Why? Because Hubble, Voyager, and other non-human satellites can reach further, address far more complex questions, and therefore have a far more inspiring and significant impact.
"I think [the Hubble] is as good a reason for being in space as there is," Musgrave says. "It's not a very powerful machine, but people are massively excited about it because it's a mirror for who they are. The whole thing about Hubble is, it gets after two existential questions. It doesn't answer them, and those questions will never be answered, but they are: What is the meaning, and what is the hope, of life here on Earth? Hubble is symbolic for a knowledge machine that is potentially able to link cosmology, theology, philosophy and astronomy. It is able to hold a mirror to humanity -- the kind of mirror that says 'What kind of universe is it, and what is our place in it? Who are we, and who should we be?'"
In contrast, Musgrave is sharply critical of the International Space Station, which he calls a "$100 billion mistake."
"[The Space Station] does nothing for nobody and it never has," he says. "The cost of space station is 300 Voyager-class satellites. We could have had multiple Voyagers landed or floating in the atmosphere on every planet and on every moon of every planet. That is what we gave up when we went with a jobs program, which is what the space station is. And that's an ungodly sin. And yes, I'm a human space flight person, but listen to me. That's what we could have offered the public."
But what about the inspiration that the astronaut program offers school children and the public at large? Musgrave scoffs. "If you sent multi-media robotic machines [into space], people would be unbelievably excited about going everywhere out there. And we could have gone everywhere. But we opted to stay in low earth orbit and do a jobs program because we had no imagination."
So what should NASA do next? Would Musgrave have NASA cancel the human space flight program entirely, when the Shuttles retire? Not completely. But he argues that NASA's segmentation into human and non-human space flight is a crippling division that needs to end.
"What needs to be done is to combine the robotic program with the human program. The programs should have been the same all along," he says, "and they should have served one another. I think human space flight needs to be put in partial hibernation. You continue to develop the capability, but send the robots first. They not only are there first to mine materials and show you how to live off the land, they themselves, in their exploration, would raise the question: do we need to send humans and, if so, where do we send them? The robots would pave the way, and answer your questions along the way. But that's not what NASA's doing. We're still talking 'the human program.'"
In that light, how does Musgrave view President Obama's new space policy? He's critical -- but not for the usual reasons people put forth about the importance of NASA centers for jobs, human space flight, the Moon, or Mars. He has concerns about building redundant capability if the commercial sector has to build its own launch and mission control facilities, as well as concerns about the safety and viability of a commercial space effort. "There has never been any money to be made in space except for commercial satellites," he notes, adding that private efforts to master space flight have not fared particularly well, in terms of safety and success, over the years.
But his big critique of Obama's policy is that it lacks what he considers two essential elements for success: specific vision, and a solid project management approach. To Musgrave, the specific goal is unimportant -- there are valid and inspirational reasons we could go back to the Moon, or to an asteroid, or send satellites to other planets or into deep space. All of which could help pave the way for future exploration, answer additional questions about the universe, and help develop "game-changing technologies."
But to achieve any of those things, he said, you have to take the approach NASA made famous in the 1960s, and which successful business program managers implement every day. "You say, here's what I want, here's when I need it, here's the approach, here's the requirement," Musgrave explains. "You put a Statement of Work out there, and you get the most creative people working on it, and you take the best ideas that come from that. That's project management. It's the way you drive new technology. And that's the way you DO something. We're no longer at the point where you do technology for technology's sake and then figure out how to apply it."
Musgrave is not a young man, and he's well aware of the obstacles to effecting change in an organization that involves as many Congressional interests and individual fiefdoms as NASA does. He understands Congressional resistance to any changes that might affect jobs back home, as well as how entrenched the different camps at NASA are. Indeed, he says it's a "valid question" whether the operational structure and approach of NASA could even be changed at this point without disbanding the organization as it now stands and rebuilding a new research institution from scratch.
But Musgrave believes it still could happen. "If you have a strong enough leader with an artistic vision of where we go next," he says, "the public is going to get behind it. Congress is not going to give you a good space program. You have to create it and sell it to the public, and the public forces it to happen. And you've got to do that in terms of good project management with a specific and achievable goal and a specific timeline, like we did in the 1960s." Even if, he says, the goal has to be less costly, because the funds are more precious now.
I've written six books for NASA and conducted hundreds of interviews with NASA managers, astronauts, employees, researchers, scientists and contractors in the course of researching those and other writing projects. And while the issues, choices, and challenges are complex, many of Musgrave's thoughts and critiques resonate with what I've heard from other sources. In any event, it's food for thought, as the Hubble marks 20 years in space, and we start looking at what and where we explore next, and how we go about it.
Rioting broke out on Monday in Baltimore—an angry response to the death of Freddie Gray, a death my native city seems powerless to explain. Gray did not die mysteriously in some back alley but in the custody of the city's publicly appointed guardians of order. And yet the mayor of that city and the commissioner of that city's police still have no idea what happened. I suspect this is not because the mayor and police commissioner are bad people, but because the state of Maryland prioritizes the protection of police officers charged with abuse over the citizens who fall under its purview.
The citizens who live in West Baltimore, where the rioting began, intuitively understand this. I grew up across the street from Mondawmin Mall, where today's riots began. My mother was raised in the same housing project, Gilmor Homes, where Freddie Gray was killed. Everyone I knew who lived in that world regarded the police not with admiration and respect but with fear and caution. People write these feelings off as wholly irrational at their own peril, or their own leisure. The case against the Baltimore police, and the society that superintends them, is easily made:
Freddie Gray's death on April 19 leaves many unanswered questions. But it is clear that when Gray was arrested in West Baltimore on the morning of April 12, he was struggling to walk. By the time he arrived at the police station a half hour later, he was unable to breathe or talk, suffering from wounds that would kill him.*
Gray died Sunday from spinal injuries. Baltimore authorities say they're investigating how the 25-year-old was hurt—a somewhat perverse notion, given that it was while he was in police custody, and hidden from public view, that he apparently suffered injury. How it happened remains unknown. It's even difficult to understand why officers arrested Gray in the first place. But with protesters taking to the streets of Baltimore since Gray's death on Sunday, the incident falls into a line of highly publicized, fatal encounters between black men and the police. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, a reserve sheriff's deputy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, pleaded not guilty to a second-degree manslaughter charge in the death of a man he shot. The deputy says the shooting happened while he was trying to tase the man. Black men dying at the hands of the police is of course nothing new, but the nation is now paying attention and getting outraged.
In Baltimore, where 25-year-old Freddie Gray died shortly after being taken into police custody, an investigation may uncover homicidal misconduct by law enforcement, as happened in the North Charleston, South Carolina, killing of Walter Scott. Or the facts may confound the darkest suspicions of protestors, as when the Department of Justice released its report on the killing of Michael Brown.
What's crucial to understand, as Baltimore residents take to the streets in long-simmering frustration, is that their general grievances are valid regardless of how this case plays out. For as in Ferguson, where residents suffered through years of misconduct so egregious that most Americans could scarcely conceive of what was going on, the people of Baltimore are policed by an entity that perpetrates stunning abuses. The difference is that this time we needn't wait for a DOJ report to tell us so. Harrowing evidence has been presented. Yet America hasn't looked.
This is the paradox at the heart of rioting in Baltimore. Protestors have been in the streets of Charm City for a week to demonstrate against violence by police officers. But when matters started to spin out of control Monday afternoon, the group dispatched to solve the problem was the police.
The context for these events is a slowly building anger, beginning with the arrest of Freddie Gray on April 12, his grievous injury in a police van that day, and his death on April 19. The 25-year-old black man's funeral was Monday. His life and death have prompted a series of questions about how the police interact with residents of Baltimore, particularly black ones, and about segregation and poverty in the city.
Cinderella marries Prince Charming. Aladdin weds Princess Jasmine. In 50 Shades of Grey, Ana falls for Christian. From bedtime stories to films, we are exposed to a repeated idea: that love, or at least lust, crosses class lines. In fiction, cross-class relationships either end in marriage and happily-ever-after, or else in dissolution and even death. But what happens in real life?
Last year, I set out to answer this question by interviewing college-educated men and women who had married partners from different class backgrounds, for my book The Power of the Past: Understanding Cross-Class Marriages. Not surprisingly, their relationships had little in common with the romances we see in the movies.Class had shaped each spouse so much that the people I interviewed had more in common with strangers.
“As a basic principle, we can’t tell you to stop recording,” says Delroy Burton, chairman of D.C.’s metropolitan police union and a 21-year veteran on the force. “If you’re standing across the street videotaping, and I’m in a public place, carrying out my public functions, [then] I’m subject to recording, and there’s nothing legally the police officer can do to stop you from recording.”
“What you don’t have a right to do is interfere,” he says. “Record from a distance, stay out of the scene, and the officer doesn’t have the right to come over and take your camera, confiscate it.”
Officers do have a right to tell you to stop interfering with their work, Burton told me, but they still aren’t allowed to destroy film.
On Monday, Americans watched televised images of riots and looting in Baltimore, Maryland, where days of peaceful protests sparked by the killing of Freddie Gray gave way to mayhem in at least several locations. As CNN broadcast scenes of young people looting a CVS pharmacy and police cars burning in the streets, its commentators, including anchor Wolf Blitzer, criticized Baltimore officials for allowing such flagrant lawlessness to transpire. "I keep asking where are the police," he said. "They seem to be invisible." In fact, law enforcement had come under attack by high school students throwing cinder blocks, dispersed that crowd, and had officers massed at several spots, just not the particular corner where the news helicopter trained its cameras. The anchor treated truths not captured on CNN's video feeds as if they didn't exist. Americans should avoid that sort of myopia.
Does Adam Sandler have an expiration date? Does his particular brand of slapstick—humor that's infused with a wan self-deprecation, that manages to be simultaneously silly and sociopathic, that once found Sandler punching Bob Barker in the face while informing him that "the price is wrong, bitch"—hold up? Is Sandler's own price now, finally, wrong?
Recent events would suggest yes. Late last week, in the course of filming Sandler's newest project, the made-for-Netflix Western spoof The Ridiculous 6, a Native-American cultural advisor and several performers and extras walked off the set in protest. (Sample characters: Beaver Breath, No Bra, Sits-on-Face. Sample line: "Say honey: how about after this, we go someplace and I put my peepee in your teepee?") As Allison Young, a Navajo actress who quit after being asked to do a scene "requiring her to fall down drunk, surrounded by jeering white men who rouse her by dousing her with more alcohol" told the Indian Country Media Network, “We talked to the producers about our concerns. They just told us, ‘If you guys are so sensitive, you should leave.’”
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Take a walk along West Florissant Avenue, in Ferguson, Missouri. Head south of the burned-out Quik Trip and the famous McDonalds, south of the intersection with Chambers, south almost to the city limit, to the corner of Ferguson Avenue and West Florissant. There, last August, Emerson Electric announced third-quarter sales of $6.3 billion. Just over half a mile to the northeast, four days later, Officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown. The 12 shots fired by Officer Wilson were probably audible in the company lunchroom.
Outwardly, at least, the City of Ferguson would appear to occupy an enviable position. It is home to a Fortune 500 firm. It has successfully revitalized a commercial corridor through its downtown. It hosts an office park filled with corporate tenants. Its coffers should be overflowing with tax dollars.