As much as we play up the importance of scientific research, President Obama's NASA budget shows that it's the risky human side of the space program that draws attention and funding for the nation's space program.
This week marks the 50th anniversary of John Glenn's Friendship 7 space flight--the third in NASA's Mercury space program and the first of those flights to successfully orbit the Earth. Coming as it does, only a week after President Obama released his 2013 budget priorities for NASA, the milestone anniversary, with all its triumphant photos and memories, provides a reminder of why the new NASA budget is skewed the way it is. It also says something, for better or for worse, about what most of us prefer, when it comes to great undertakings.
Since its inception in 1958, the space side of NASA has had a dual personality, in more ways than one. The biggest duality has been the obvious split between "manned" and "unmanned" missions, which paralleled to a large degree a second split between science and engineering.
Even scientific satellites require engineering know-how to actually reach space or perform experiments there. But the "manned" efforts (or "human spaceflight" missions, as they are now generally called) have always been primarily engineering challenges. My uncle's former father-in-law worked for the rocket manufacturer Rocketdyne during NASA's glory days of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. And one of his favorite phrases, in fact, was, "there is no such thing as a rocket scientist."
Aside from the obvious human element, the difference between scientific and "manned" missions, is the end result. Successful scientific missions bring back, or enable, discoveries: greater knowledge about science, the universe, and the planet we call home. In contrast, the success of human spaceflight missions has been counted primarily in humanachievements: the first man off the planet, to orbit the Earth, to orbit the moon, or to land on the moon and return safely to Earth. We proved we could build and successfully operate (with a couple of glaring exceptions) reusable spacecraft that landed on a runway. We set endurance records for humans living in space. We proved we could build something in space.
Scientific satellites are also engineering achievements, of course. But we don't sell planetary probes as a way of proving our human greatness. We sell them as a way to discover more about Mars, or Jupiter's moons, and about whether life ever existed there. The emphasis of the scientific missions, in other words, is on the intrinsic value of knowledge they produce, which is to say, on something other than us.
And therein lies the crux of the problem with scientific missions. Or, at least, the problem when it comes to getting public funding and support.
President Obama's proposed 2013 budget trims NASA's overall budget, but only by a small amount. The noticeable shift is that it reduces funding for scientific planetary missions by 20 percent, while almost doubling the budget for continued work on future human spaceflight missions. Almost $3 billion is being allocated to further development of a heavy-lift booster rocket and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. Another $3 billion is slated for continued support of the space station, even though that project has received enormous criticism for how little return on investment it has produced, overall. Story Musgrave, one of NASA's most experienced veteran astronauts, even called it little more than a "jobs program" and a "$100 billion mistake."
Planetary science missions, done remotely with spacecraft and robots, are far less costly. Yet, at the same time as the budget for human spaceflight is increasing, the 2013 budget calls for a reduction in planetary science mission funding from $1.5 billion to $1.2 billion. Why?
One could argue, of course, that discovering water, or traces of microscopic life, on Jupiter's moon, Europa, will not transform our understanding of life or the universe. And that might very well be true. But if the standard for funding was missions that they offer transformative knowledge of life or the universe, flying astronauts back to the Moon or to Mars (as opposed to highly capable robots) wouldn't pass the bar, either. What those human missions do provide are athlete-heroes to cheer.
Looking at the news photos of John Glenn, riding in a ticker-tape parade with President Kennedy after his successful orbital flight, it's easy to see why human spaceflight gets so much more funding and support. "In the winter of 1962," the opening line in a New York Times article about the anniversary began, "the nation needed a hero."
For as much as we try to play up the science fair whiz kids who create robots and technology, we're still very attached to the explorer/athlete/star champion model of hero. Designing a robot to explore Mars is a kind of "team personality" achievement: an effort by a team player and builder who works in concert with others to put something or someone else forward (in this case, a robot or satellite) to get the glory. And we still get much more satisfaction in cheering on the star who actually does the glorious deed themselves. Especially if the deed involves physical feats or physical risks to self. We idolize the quarterback, not the lineman who makes it possible for the quarterback to make that play. The race driver, not the crew. The player who scores the basket, not the guard who makes the assist. The brave astronaut who repairs the Hubble Space Telescope in space, rather than the guy who designed the fix in the first place.
In the case of robotic or satellite missions in space, the human achievement is primarily mental, and takes place on the ground, in a lab, with lots of career and project risk, but little physical danger. And the big end prize that comes out of the process is the esoteric reward of knowledge. That doesn't quite match the thrill of our hero winning an Olympic Gold Medal or our team winning the Super Bowl or the World Series.
In the 1980s, the television show Cheers, which revolved around a neighborhood bar in Boston, opened with a series of vintage photos from real local watering holes. The image I remember best shows a beaming bartender holding up a newspaper with a 4-inch banner headline across the top proclaiming, "WE WIN!!!!!" Imagine a similar headline proclaiming,instead, "WE LEARN!!!!!!" Right. You can't. And that's the point.
Discovery is about expanding our understanding of something else. Achievement is a much more satisfying ego stroke about ourselves. Our heroes are the stand-ins for ourselves; for what we get to see we are capable of doing. And physical achievements--for whatever reasons we still prize the physical so highly--get us more excited than academic ones. Perhaps physical achievements are easier to get our hands and minds around. Or perhaps it's the competitive element that many of those physical achievements contain. We beat the Russians, or we bested Nature, or we bested ... well, something. Whatever the reason, the truth remains ...we may give academic achievers prizes for enabling discoveries, but we don't give them 4-inch banner headlines or ticker-tape parades.
Keeping a human alive in space is far more costly and complex than sending a robot on the same mission. There is, to be sure, an argument that in the process of designing the life systems to sustain a human crew all the way to Mars and back, for example, we will further technology to a point where we can then figure out how to make a more distant step possible. On the other hand, there's a pretty strong argument to be made for pushing the boundaries first robotically--both to develop the physics, propulsion and materials technology to make deep space travel possible at a much more reasonable cost, and also to explore what parts or objects in space might be worth following up on with a human mission.
There are other factors in the decision, of course. The human spaceflight side of NASA creates a lot of jobs, in a lot of states. So shelving it for the foreseeable future would have serious political and economic ramifications, which no politician wants to face. But it would also require us to readjust our notions of what's worth a 4-inch headline. And I'm not sure we're there, yet.
Could we change that? Maybe. But it's not simply a rational issue of the best investment of funds for NASA. It goes much deeper than that. The fact that we get more excited about competitive endeavors that have a human at the center of them, and entail real, physical risks and consequences, might make us slightly egotistic, or self-centered, or even primitive in some way. But it is also an inclination that is, for better or worse, very human--and goes back in history a very long time.
There’s no escaping the pressure that U.S. inequality exerts on parents to make sure their kids succeed.
More than a half-century ago, Betty Friedan set out to call attention to “the problem that has no name,” by which she meant the dissatisfaction of millions of American housewives.
Today, many are suffering from another problem that has no name, and it’s manifested in the bleak financial situations of millions of middle-class—and even upper-middle-class—American households.
Poverty doesn’t describe the situation of middle-class Americans, who by definition earn decent incomes and live in relative material comfort. Yet they are in financial distress. For people earning between $40,000 and $100,000 (i.e. not the very poorest), 44 percent said they could not come up with $400 in an emergency (either with cash or with a credit card whose bill they could pay off within a month). Even more astonishing, 27 percent of those making more than $100,000 also could not. This is not poverty. So what is it?
Terms such as “racial conflict” fail to describe the challenge Obama faced, or the resentment that has powered Trump’s rise.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Barack Obama’s election as the first black president was supposed to usher in a golden “post-racial” age but instead was met with racial conflict, a battle Obama failed, in his role as conciliator-in-chief, to either predict or control. The conflict has blossomed into a war, producing Donald Trump’s racial-angst-fueled campaign and the anger of Black Lives Matter protesters. At the heart of this racial conflict is Obama’s divisive presidency.
If that storyline sounds familiar, it’s the tack that many analyses have taken as they try to tease apart the interconnected issues of race and politics. It’s an exercise––an important one––that writers attempt every few months. Two years ago, commentators chronicled “unrest over race” in Obama’s legacy, and even before that speculated at racial tensions or unrest that might ensue should he ever lose an election. One recent column by Peniel Joseph in the Washington Post chronicles Obama’s failure to stop the “open warfare” of racial conflict during his term in office.
Heidi Cruz got an elbow to the face—will Melania Trump get much more?
Ted Cruz stood on stage Tuesday evening and announced to the world that he would be suspending his campaign for the presidency of the United States. Just weeks earlier, the soon-to-be-former candidate had nearly convinced the Republican establishment that, contrary to both inclination and history, he might be its savior. His exit would effectively hand the nomination to a man the senator himself had called a “sniveling coward,” a “pathological liar,” “an arrogant buffoon,” and “Biff Tannen” (a Back to the Future reference that no doubt took some serious consideration).
In this particular moment of crisis and reconciliation, Heidi Cruz stood at her husband’s side, ready to meet his embrace as he turned from the lectern and (symbolically, at least) away from a party that had very nearly been his to lead. They embraced for eight seconds—Cruz’s face obscured from the cameras, an intimate moment between two partners.
With Donald Trump its presumptive nominee after his win in the Indiana primary, the GOP will never be the same.
NEW YORK—Where were you the night Donald Trump killed the Republican Party as we knew it? Trump was right where he belonged: in the gilt-draped skyscraper with his name on it, Trump Tower in Manhattan, basking in the glory of his final, definitive victory.
“I have to tell you, I’ve competed all my life,” Trump said, his golden face somber, his gravity-defying pouf of hair seeming to hover above his brow. “All my life I’ve been in different competitions—in sports, or in business, or now, for 10 months, in politics. I have met some of the most incredible competitors that I’ve ever competed against right here in the Republican Party.”
The combined might of the Republican Party’s best and brightest—16 of them at the outset—proved, in the end, helpless against Trump’s unorthodox, muscular appeal to the party’s voting base. With his sweeping, 16-point victory in Tuesday’s Indiana primary, and the surrender of his major remaining rival, Ted Cruz, Trump was pronounced the presumptive nominee by the chair of the Republican National Committee. The primary was over—but for the GOP, the reckoning was only beginning.
The party’s current iteration is tailor-made to defeat xenophobia and take down Donald Trump.
The bad news is that the Republican Party will now almost certainly nominate the most dangerous presidential nominee in modern American history. The good news is that the Democratic Party is built to defeat him. The reason is straightforward. The Democratic Party has become, to a significant extent, an anti-racist party. The Republican Party has not.
In an anti-racist party, politicians who demonize historically discriminated-against groups are either forced into retirement or, at the least, forced to apologize. Obviously, what constitutes bigotry is not always self-evident. But if many of the members of a historically discriminated-against group perceive something as bigoted, that’s usually a good hint.
Donald Trump’s nomination could be a death knell for policies that Republicans in Congress have championed for years.
Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell didn’t have a whole lot to say on Wednesday, a day after Donald Trump became the presumptive standard-bearer of their party.
You’ll have to forgive them if they needed some time to cope; their dream of enacting the conservative agenda that has been a bedrock of Republican policy for a generation might well die with Trump’s nomination.
Trump is undoubtedly a short-term political threat to Ryan, the House speaker, and McConnell, the Senate majority leader. His unpopularity with the general public could drag down Republican congressional candidates across the country, hand control of the Senate and maybe even the House to Democrats, and cost both men their august job titles. But the bigger and potentially more durable threat that Trump poses to Ryan and McConnell is what his nomination means for the conservative vision of government that they have been pitching to Republican voters, activists, and donors for the last eight years. Just wait until 2017, they’ve pleaded: With a conservative partner in the White House, Republicans would be able to enact the deep spending cuts, entitlement reforms, tax overhaul, and repeal of Obamacare they’ve long dreamed of.
The accepted wisdom says to sit tight when the market tanks, but a couple of groups don’t heed that advice.
Even though it’s precisely what many financial advisors tell their clients not to do, it’s understandable that a tanking stock market scares some people into cutting their losses and selling their shares. Understandable, maybe, but it wouldn’t be off-base to guess that those who divest are inexperienced or too poor to weather market volatility.
But a new paper that looks at assets sales during the financial crisis suggests that that might not be a totally accurate representation of who sells during a crisis. Jeffrey Hoopes, Patrick Langetieg, Stefan Nagel, Daniel Reck, Joel Slemrod, and Bryan Stuart, the paper’s authors, looked at a highly volatile period during 2008 and 2009 in order to investigate who was most likely to sell off their holdings, and what assets they were shedding. To figure out the “who” they looked at IRS data on those who paid capital-gains tax on asset sales and matched it up with demographic information from Social Security files and the Survey of Consumer Finances, such as age and income level.
Nearly half of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to pay for an emergency. I’m one of them.
Since 2013,the Federal Reserve Board has conducted a survey to “monitor the financial and economic status of American consumers.” Most of the data in the latest survey, frankly, are less than earth-shattering: 49 percent of part-time workers would prefer to work more hours at their current wage; 29 percent of Americans expect to earn a higher income in the coming year; 43 percent of homeowners who have owned their home for at least a year believe its value has increased. But the answer to one question was astonishing. The Fed asked respondents how they would pay for a $400 emergency. The answer: 47 percent of respondents said that either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all. Four hundred dollars! Who knew?
What jargon says about armies, and the societies they serve
JERUSALEM—“We have two flowers and one oleander. We need a thistle.” Listening to the Israeli military frequencies when I was an infantryman nearly two decades ago, it was (and still is) possible to hear sentences like these, the bewildering cousins of sentences familiar to anyone following America’s present-day wars. “Vegas is in a TIC,” says a U.S. infantryman in Afghanistan in Sebastian Junger’s book War. What does it all mean?
Anyone seeking to understand the world needs to understand soldiers, but the language of soldiers tends to be bizarre and opaque, an apt symbol for the impossibility of communicating their experiences to people safe at home. The language isn’t nonsense—it means something to the soldiers, of course, but it also has something to say about the army and society to which they belong, and about the shared experience of military service anywhere. The soldiers’ vernacular must provide words for things that civilians don’t need to describe, like grades of officers and kinds of weapons. But it has deeper purposes too.
Trump’s only viable road to the White House requires him to improve his standing within a group that has favored the GOP, but been cool to Trump.
It’s entirely possible that for all the talk about the gender gap, Donald Trump could prove more competitive among white women against Hillary Clinton than it appears today.
But Trump faces at least as much risk that white women could seal his doom in the general election match-up against Clinton that now appears certain.
How could both things be true? The answer is that the electorate’s changing composition makes it virtually impossible for Trump to prevail in November unless he not only wins most white women, but also carries that group by a convincing margin. Even a narrow lead for Trump over Clinton among white women would likely ensure his defeat.
The good news for Trump is that the Republican edge among white women has widened substantially since 2000, providing him a foundation on which to build. The bad news is he faces enormous, possibly unprecedented headwinds in defending that advantage. “There is something really basic, elemental, going on here with women reacting to [Trump],” said the Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg, who has polled extensively for the Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund, a liberal voter mobilization group. “Every signal he’s sent that has built up his support with men and Republicans has had the opposite effect with women.”