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.
The Michigan billionaire’s confirmation hearing was heavy on partisanship and light on substance.
Donald Trump advocated on the campaign trail for a $20 billion federal school-voucher program. But during her confirmation hearing on Tuesday evening, Betsy DeVos, the president-elect’s choice to lead the U.S. Education Department, said school choice should be a state decision. She framed school choice as a right for students and families. And she said during the hearing that she was committed to strengthening public education for all students.
While the Michigan billionaire has backed charter schools and vouchers, which let families use public money to pay for private schools, DeVos would not, she said, try to force states to embrace school choice. But a number of organizations, largely Democratic, that had raised questions about DeVos’s commitment to expanding charters and vouchers and about her family’s financial holdings and religious causes were unlikely to find much more of the hearing reassuring.
How America’s best and brightest once again steered the country to failure
They were the best and the brightest. But, most of all, they believed they were right. Although the scale of disaster was considerably different, the same that was said of those who oversaw foreign policy under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson could be said of the Obama administration.
These were academics, intellectuals, and technocrats who were not only very smart; they took pride in being practical, grounded in reality, and wedded to facts. After the supposed anti-intellectualism and ideological rigidity of the George W. Bush administration, many of us welcomed the prospect of a president who was cerebral and professorial. Even those sympathetic to President Barack Obama’s foreign-policy instincts, however, will agree that it didn’t quite go as planned.
Why Nixon's former lawyer John Dean worries Trump could be one of the most corrupt presidents ever—and get away with it
Sometime early last fall, John Dean says he began having nightmares about a Trump presidency. He would wake in the middle of the night, agitated and alarmed, struggling to calm his nerves. “I’m not somebody who remembers the details of dreams,” he told me in a recent phone call from his home in Los Angeles. “I just know that they were so bad that I’d force myself awake and out of bed just to get away from them.”
Few people are more intimately acquainted than Dean with the consequences of an American presidency gone awry. As White House counsel under President Richard Nixon from 1970 to 1973, he was a key figure in the Watergate saga—participating in, and then helping to expose, the most iconic political scandal in modern U.S. history. In the decades since then, Dean has parlayed that resume line into something of a franchise, penning several books and countless columns on the theme of presidential abuses of power.
Why some people are withdrawing from mainstream society into “intentional communities”—and what the rest of the country can learn from them
VIRGINIA— For the last eight years, Nicolas and Rachel Sarah have been slowly weaning themselves off fossil fuels. They don’t own a refrigerator or a car; their year-old baby and four-year-old toddler play by candlelight rather than electricity at night. They identify as Christian anarchists, and have given an official name to their search for an alternative to consumption-heavy American life: the Downstream Project, with the motto to “do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.”
As it turns out, exiting the system is a challenging, time-consuming, and surprisingly technical process. Here in the Shenandoahs and central Virginia, a handful of tiny communities are experimenting with what it means to reject the norms of contemporary life and exist in a radically different way. They seem to share Americans’ pervasive sense of political alienation, which arguably reached an apotheosis with the election of Donald Trump: a sense of division from their peers, a distrust of government. The challenges of modern politics—dealing with issues like climate change, poverty, mass migration, and war on a global scale—are so vast and abstract that it’s difficult not to find them overwhelming. But instead of continuing in passive despair, as many Americans seem to do, the people in these communities decided to overhaul their lives.
In its fourth season the BBC show turned its main character into a superhero, and lost everything that made it special in the process.
This story contains spoilers through the most recent episode of Sherlock.
Christopher Nolan is a truly brilliant British creative talent, which makes it all the more ironic that his work seems to have (at least temporarily) unmoored two of that nation’s greatest fictional heroes. In dampening the palette and tone of superhero movies so spectacularly with his trilogy of Batman movies, Nolan created a domino effect that stretched all the way across the ocean, transforming James Bond from a louche, debonair intelligence agent into a tortured, self-medicating hitman, compelled by the death of his parents to hunt down a series of increasingly psychopathic villains. And, as “The Final Problem” revealed on Sunday, Nolan’s influence has similarly transformed Sherlock. A wry detective drama with a twist has turned into a superhero origin story, complete with agonizing childhood trauma, terrifying antagonists with improbable powers, and a final showdown in an ancestral home burned to the ground.
A history of the first African American White House—and of what came next
In the waning days of President Barack Obama’s administration, he and his wife, Michelle, hosted a farewell party, the full import of which no one could then grasp. It was late October, Friday the 21st, and the president had spent many of the previous weeks, as he would spend the two subsequent weeks, campaigning for the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. Things were looking up. Polls in the crucial states of Virginia and Pennsylvania showed Clinton with solid advantages. The formidable GOP strongholds of Georgia and Texas were said to be under threat. The moment seemed to buoy Obama. He had been light on his feet in these last few weeks, cracking jokes at the expense of Republican opponents and laughing off hecklers. At a rally in Orlando on October 28, he greeted a student who would be introducing him by dancing toward her and then noting that the song playing over the loudspeakers—the Gap Band’s “Outstanding”—was older than she was.
How the FSB's loyalty to Russia's president made it the country's most powerful intelligence agency
It’s tempting to look to the playbooks and historical traditions of the late Soviet Union to explain the audacity of today’s Russian intelligence activity, from its meddling in U.S. elections, to apparently killing Kremlin opponents abroad. But these activities are not just products of old ways or new geopolitics. They also stem from a shift in the activities of Russia’s political police force, the infamous Federal Security Service (FSB). Originally established to protect the Kremlin’s rule at home, it has increasingly moved into Russia’s foreign operations.A new cohort of secret policemen, ignorant of the traditions of spycraft and secure in Putin’s protection, has fundamentally altered the nature of Russian intelligence.
“Trump’s wall is already under construction,” Wole Soyinka says. “Walls are built in the mind.”
Wole Soyinka, the first African writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, once fled to the United States from Nigeria. Now the fickle winds of politics are pushing him in the opposite direction.
Back in the 1960s, jailed for alleged associations with rebels amid the outbreak of the Nigerian Civil War, Soyinka composed protest poems on toilet paper in solitary confinement. “The man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny,” Soyinka wrote in the collection of prison notes he later published. In the 1990s, the Nigerian strongman Sani Abacha confiscated Soyinka’s passport after the playwright urged Nigerians to stop paying taxes in defiance of military rule in the country. Soyinka managed to sneak out of his homeland and take refuge in the United States—a period he described to me as his “political sabbatical, because I never accepted, really, that I was in exile.”Abacha sentenced Soyinka to death in absentia. Soyinka’s crime was said to be treason.
The president-elect has yet to name a secretary of agriculture, a delay that has caused controversy and illustrated the difficulties governing will pose.
Three days before Donald Trump is to be inaugurated as America’s new president, just one Cabinet agency lacks a nominee to lead it: the Department of Agriculture.
The pick has become mired in politics and drama, unsettling the agriculture industry and potentially imperiling Trump’s standing with some of his most ardent supporters—the residents of rural America. In the process, it has become a case study in the difficulty Trump will face as he begins to govern, as his sweeping promises and catchy slogans run up against competing interests.
Already, the delay in picking an agriculture secretary has caused alarm. “The lack of quick and decisive action on picking a new Secretary of Agriculture by the Trump administration has given rise to charges that agriculture is not a high priority for the incoming president,” columnist Gary Truitt wrote recently in Hoosier Ag Today. “While this may or may not be true, the fact that this was the last cabinet post to be filled has raised concerns and will produce some challenges for the new nominee.”
Surfing the app on a trip back home can be a way of regressing, or imagining what life would be like if you never left.
My parents moved out of my hometown almost as soon as I left for college, and therefore I am obsessed with the idea of other people’s hometowns. Over any major holiday or break from a work schedule, hometowns become a sort of time travel, a way for people who have made adult lives elsewhere to return to their origin story.
Going home for the holidays can act as a kind of regression. Most of us know people, whether our friends, our partner, even our own parents, who suddenly turn into their teen or pre-teen self once they step foot in the house where they grew up. My mom used to say that whenever my dad got within 50 miles of his mom’s house, he suddenly became a teenage boy. Our hometowns become a kind of permission and hideaway, a place where we don’t have to be ourselves, where our actions don’t count and we get to be briefly less visible than we are in the adult homes we’ve made for ourselves elsewhere, the places where we expect ourselves to take action and achieve things and move upward through each day. For many of us, hometowns allow the luxury of a brief period of stasis, a rare few days of doing nothing.