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.
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 protestors 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.
After a five-month delay, Loretta Lynch made history last week. On Thursday, the Senate confirmed Lynch as the next U.S. attorney general, the first African American woman ever to hold this Cabinet position. Her long-stalled nomination sometimes seemed in doubt, held hostage to partisan jockeying between Democrats and Republicans. But one political bloc never gave up, relentlessly rallying its support behind Lynch: the black sorority.
During her initial hearing, the seats behind Lynch were filled with more than two dozen of her Delta Sigma Theta Sorority sisters arrayed in crimson-and-cream blazers and blouses, ensuring their visibility on the national stage. These Delta women—U.S. Representatives Marcia Fudge and Joyce Beatty among them—were there to lend moral support and show the committee that they meant business. The Deltas were not alone. The Lynch nomination also drew support from congressional representatives from other black sororities: Alpha Kappa Alpha members Terri Sewell and Sheila Jackson Lee took to the House floor to advocate for a vote while Sigma Gamma Rho members Corinne Brown and Robin Kelly and Zeta Phi Beta member Donna Edwards used social media and press conferences to campaign on Lynch’s behalf.
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.
I’m not a dog person. I prefer cats. Cats make you work to have a relationship with them, and I like that. But I have adopted several dogs, caving in to pressure from my kids. The first was Teddy, a rottweiler-chow mix whose bushy hair was cut into a lion mane. Kids loved him, and he grew on me, too. Teddy was probably ten years when we adopted him. Five years later he had multiple organs failing and it was time to put him to sleep.
When I arrived at the vet, he said I could drop him off. I was aghast. No. I needed to stay with Teddy.As the vet prepped the syringe to put him to sleep, I started sobbing. The vet gave me a couple minutes to collect myself and say goodbye. I held Teddy's paw until he died. Honestly, I didn't think I was that attached.
In her new book No One Understands You and What To Do About It, Heidi Grant Halvorson tells readers a story about her friend, Tim. When Tim started a new job as a manager, one of his top priorities was communicating to his team that he valued each member’s input. So at team meetings, as each member spoke up about whatever project they were working on, Tim made sure he put on his “active-listening face” to signal that he cared about what each person was saying.
But after meeting with him a few times, Tim’s team got a very different message from the one he intended to send. “After a few weeks of meetings,” Halvorson explains, “one team member finally summoned up the courage to ask him the question that had been on everyone’s mind.” That question was: “Tim, are you angry with us right now?” When Tim explained that he wasn’t at all angry—that he was just putting on his “active-listening face”—his colleague gently explained that his active-listening face looked a lot like his angry face.
A magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal early on Saturday, centered 10 miles below the surface, less than 50 miles from the capital of Kathmandu. At least 2,200 are already reported to have been killed by the quake and subsequent avalanches triggered in the Himalayas. Historic buildings and temples were destroyed, leaving massive piles of debris in streets as rescue workers and neighbors work to find and help those still trapped beneath rubble. Below are images from the region of the immediate aftermath of one of the most powerful earthquakes to strike Nepal in decades. (Editor's note, some of the images are graphic in nature.)
This week we have images of a Chilean volcano, migrants shipwrecked in the Mediterranean, the "Blue Forest" in Belgium, Kim Jong Un atop Mt Paektu, the Boston Marathon, Orcas hunting on a Patagonian beach, Saudi attacks on Yemen, tule elk along California's coastline, and much more.
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.
In the fall of 2011, the U.S. Secret Service orchestrated a sting operation. The target was a Vietnamese man named Hieu Minh Ngo. Investigators believed he was a big-time identity thief who sold packages of data known as “fullz,” each of which typically included a person’s name, date of birth, mother’s maiden name, Social Security number, and e-mail address and password. Criminals could buy fullz from Ngo for as little as eight cents and then use them to open credit cards, take out loans, or file for bogus tax refunds. They could also pay Ngo for access to a vast database of people’s personal records.
As part of the operation, an agent attempted to buy the identities of hundreds of U.S. citizens. In such illegal transactions—be they for drugs, guns, or stolen identities—finding a payment system that both sides trust can be tricky. Cash is safest because it leaves no record. But handing over a briefcase stuffed with bills isn’t an option when the parties are on opposite sides of the planet. Ngo suggested an alternative. In an e-mail to the agent, he offered simple instructions: “Please pay to our LR: U8109093.”
Soon, thousand of police officers across the country will don body-worn cameras when they go out among the public. Those cameras will generate millions of hours of footage—intimate views of commuters receiving speeding tickets, teens getting arrested for marijuana possession, and assault victims at some of the worst moments of their lives.
As the Washington Post and the Associated Press have reported, lawmakers in at least 15 states have proposed exempting body-cam footage from local open records laws. But the flurry of lawmaking speaks to a larger crisis: Once those millions of hours of footage have been captured, no one is sure what to do with them.
I talked to several representatives from privacy, civil rights, and progressive advocacy groups working on body cameras. Even among these often allied groups, there’s little consensus about the kind of policies that should exist around releasing footage.