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 addressed the quadrennial gathering like a campaign rally—talking to a group devoted to service as if it valued self-interest.
Donald Trump continued his ongoing tour of cherished American institutions on Monday night, delivering yet another jarringly partisan speech to an apolitical audience—this one, comprising tens of thousands still too young to vote.
During the campaign, his performance at the Al Smith dinner—where presidential candidates roast their rivals and themselves every four years—devolved into overt attacks on his opponent. Shortly after his election, he stunned CIA employees by delivering a campaign-style stump speech before the agency’s Memorial Wall. On Saturday, he surprised the crowd of uniformed personnel at the commissioning of the USS Gerald R. Ford by imploring them to lobby Congress in support of his agenda.
Why is President Trump badmouthing his attorney general, why doesn’t he just fire him, and what does he hope to accomplish by pushing him out?
Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III has spent much of his career making enemies. The Alabaman’s strident views have won him plenty of detractors, from civil-rights activists to fellow members of the Senate. But in Donald Trump, Sessions believed he had finally found a champion and fellow traveler. Instead, it seems Sessions has found his most formidable enemy yet.
Trump is now on his second consecutive day of publicly humiliating the attorney general on Twitter, following an interview with The New York Times last week in which he said he wished he’d never appointed Sessions. The attorney general’s decision to recuse himself from investigation into Russian interference in the election infuriated Trump, who has repeatedly tried to end the investigation, including by firing FBI Director James Comey. Instead, Comey’s firing resulted in the appointment of a special counsel to take the case. Here’s Trump’s latest broadside against Sessions:
The internet’s favorite fact-checkers are caught in a messy dispute.
On Monday, the editorial staff of Snopes.com wrote a short plea for help. The post said that the site needed money to fund its operations because another company that Snopes had contracted with “continues to essentially hold the Snopes.com web site hostage.”
“Our legal team is fighting hard for us, but, having been cut off from all revenue, we are facing the prospect of having no financial means to continue operating the site and paying our staff (not to mention covering our legal fees) in the meanwhile,” the note continued.
It was a shocking message from a website that’s been around for more than 20 years—and that’s become a vital part of internet infrastructure in the #fakenews era. The site’s readers have responded. Already, more than $92,000 has been donated to a GoFundMe with a goal of $500,000.
Partly, it’s simple rage. Mueller threatens Trump. And when Trump sees someone as a threat, he tries to discredit and destroy them—conventional norms of propriety, decency and legality be damned.
But there’s another, more calculated, reason. Trump and his advisors may genuinely believe that firing Mueller is a smart move. And if you put morality aside, and see the question in nakedly political terms, they may be right.
The chances that Mueller will uncover something damning seem very high. Trump has already admitted to firing former FBI Director James Comey over the Russia investigation. Donald Trump Jr. has already admitted to welcoming the opportunity to get dirt on Hillary Clinton from people he believed were representatives of the Russian government. Even if Mueller doesn’t accuse anyone of a crime, he’s likely to paint a brutal picture. And that’s just on the question of election collusion and obstruction of justice. If Mueller uses Russia to segue into Trump’s business dealings, who knows what he might find. An all-star team of legal and financial sleuths, with unlimited time and money, and the ability to subpoena documents and people, have been let loose on the affairs of a man whose own autobiographer called him a “sociopath.” No wonder Trump is scared.
Without insurance, millions of Americans will find themselves in dire financial straits as they struggle to pay for medical services.
Senate Republicans are working to pass legislation scaling back government support for health coverage, with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell calling for a vote on Tuesday to begin debate on a bill whose precise contents remain unknown. “Every Republican running for office promised immediate relief from this disastrous law,” President Trump said on Monday, referring to Obamacare. “But so far, Senate Republicans have not done their job in ending the Obamacare nightmare.”
Even without more specifics on the details of the legislation, one thing is clear: The options under consideration would increase the number of uninsured by 15 to 30 million over the next 10 years, the Congressional Budget Office has estimated. A consequence of this will be not only a loss of access to medical services, but an increase in financial crises for millions of American families. Insurance, after all, is also a financial product, protecting people from economic ruin.
There is plenty of reason to be confident that if ISIS could reliably and easily make a dirty bomb, they would do so.
In the last three years, I have not spent much time wondering whether ISIS has access to radioactive material. I know they have had access, because I had a hand in getting it to them.
In 2005, while working for an air cargo company in Mosul, I delivered a large wooden box, marked for consignment to the University of Mosul. To fly it in, we needed a special plane, an Antonov-12, whose cargo hold was cavernous compared to our usual 727s and DC-8s. The box contained, according to its air waybill, radiological imaging equipment for the university’s teaching hospital. The next day, workers from the hospital met me at my office, and I gently forklifted the crate into their truck. The load seemed off-balance, and I winced when I heard a corner of the box splinter as we strapped it down. But they drove away, and unless that million-dollar piece of medical equipment fell off the back of the truck and ended up strewn across the road, it probably made it safely to the hospital, where it was captured by ISIS nine years later.
As pay TV slowly declines, cable news faces a demographic cliff. And nobody has further to fall than the merchant of right-wing outrage.
Updated at 12:05 p.m.
October 7, 2016, will be the 20th birthday of the Fox News Channel, and at the moment, the network is experiencing the soap-operatic highs and lows typical of any teenager on television. In many ways, the summer of 2016 may go down in Fox News history as the company’s nadir. Its founder and leader Roger Ailes has been dishonorably dispatched, the remaining executives are dealing with a flurry of sexual harassment lawsuits, and one of its most public faces, Sean Hannity, has ignominiously remodeled himself as a gutless Trump whisperer.
And yet Fox News’ fortunes are ascendant, at least in the most quantifiable sense. The network’s annual profit in 2015 soared by about 20 percent. For the first time ever, Fox News has been the most-watched cable network among both primetime and daytime viewers for several months, with a larger audience than its nominal rivals, CNN and MSNBC, combined. Led by “The O'Reilly Factor,” Fox News doesn’t just have the best-rated news show on cable television; according to The Wrap, it has the 13 best-rated news shows on cable television.
Thirty-one-year-old Ezra Cohen-Watnick holds the intelligence portfolio on the National Security Council—but almost everything about him is a mystery.
Just 24 days into his tenure as Donald Trump’s national-security adviser, Michael Flynn was forced to resign, having reportedly misled Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with Russian officials. When Flynn departed, the men and women he’d appointed to the National Security Council grew nervous about their own jobs, and with good reason. The new national-security adviser, General H.R. McMaster, promptly began clearing out Flynn’s people, among them Dave Cattler, the deputy assistant to the president for regional affairs, Adam Lovinger, a strategic affairs analyst on loan from the Pentagon, and KT McFarland, Flynn’s deputy, who was eased out with the ambassadorship to Singapore. Even Steve Bannon, among the most powerful people in the White House, was removed from the meetings of the NSC Principal’s Committee, where he had been installed early on in the administration.
A study suggests time-saving services like meal delivery and housekeepers boost life satisfaction—for the purchaser, of course.
Recently, my boyfriend and I grew tired of 9 p.m. dinner fights and pizza orders, so we signed up for Blue Apron. Now, our fridge is filled with individually wrapped celery stalks and 1-ounce packets of aioli, ready to be transformed, cooking-show style, into an edible meal—even after a 14-hour workday.
We live in the suburbs, so when I have an after-work event, I hail whichever car-sharing service had fewer labor abuses that week and try not to ever mention it to my Marxist father.
And a month ago, after realizing I would need approximately 900 shift dresses to fulfill my moderating duties at the Aspen Ideas Festival, I tried a service that shops for you. I had to return all but an overpriced blouse, but at least I didn’t have to leave the house, look at it, or even click on anything first.
But psychiatrists, psychologists, and other mental-health professionals have been especially careful about not speculating about the president’s mental state. Well, some of them have been. (It’s not like this question has been left unexplored entirely, however, including in the pages of this magazine.)
But, officially, many psychiatrists and psychologists are cautious, and for good reason. Leading professional organizations like the American Psychiatric Association have underscored the importance of upholding what’s known as the Goldwater Rule, which says psychiatrists should never give opinions about the mental state of individuals they have not directly evaluated. The name refers to a controversy that erupted after the 1964 presidential election, when Senator Barry Goldwater won a libel suit against a magazine that printed the opinion, shared by about 1,000 psychiatrists, that he was mentally unfit for office.