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.
Stories of gray areas are exactly what more men need to hear.
The story of Aziz Ansari and “Grace” is playing out as a sort of Rorschach test.
One night in the lives of two young people with vintage cameras is crystallizing debate over an entire movement. Depending on how readers were primed to see the ink blot, it can be taken as evidence that the ongoing cultural audit is exactly on track—getting more granular in challenging unhealthy sex-related power dynamics—or that it has gone off the rails, and innocent men are now suffering, and we are collectively on the brink of a sex panic.
Since the story’s publication on Saturday (on the website Babe, without comment from Ansari, and attributed to a single anonymous source), some readers have seen justice in Ansari’s humiliation. Some said they would no longer support his work. They saw in this story yet another case of a man who persisted despite literal and implied cues that sex was not what a woman wanted.Some saw further proof that the problems are systemic, permeating even “normal” encounters.
Allegations against the comedian are proof that women are angry, temporarily powerful—and very, very dangerous.
Sexual mores in the West have changed so rapidly over the past 100 years that by the time you reach 50, intimate accounts of commonplace sexual events of the young seem like science fiction: You understand the vocabulary and the sentence structure, but all of the events take place in outer space. You’re just too old.
This was my experience reading the account of one young woman’s alleged sexual encounter with Aziz Ansari, published by the website Babe this weekend. The world in which it constituted an episode of sexual assault was so far from my own two experiences of near date rape (which took place, respectively, during the Carter and Reagan administrations, roughly between the kidnapping of the Iran hostages and the start of the Falklands War) that I just couldn’t pick up the tune. But, like the recent New Yorker story “Cat Person”—about a soulless and disappointing hookup between two people who mostly knew each other through texts—the account has proved deeply resonant and meaningful to a great number of young women, who have responded in large numbers on social media, saying that it is frighteningly and infuriatingly similar to crushing experiences of their own. It is therefore worth reading and, in its way, is an important contribution to the present conversation.
Steve Bannon stonewalled a House committee, then promptly agreed to an interview with the special counsel—the latest example of how Mueller is moving ahead as lawmakers feud and spin their wheels.
On Tuesday, Steve Bannon spent hours behind closed doors with the House Intelligence Committee. It was rough. The former White House chief strategist stonewalled lawmakers, they said, even after members from both parties issued a subpoena. Then, on Wednesday, CNN reported that Bannon has struck a deal with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team for an interview.
The disparate results obtained from Bannon neatly symbolize the difference between Mueller’s probe and the various congressional panels, all of which are in their own ways investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election and what role the Trump campaign played in it. The congressional panels are high drama, but low results, riven by procedural hurdles, partisan foodfights, and what appears to be interference from the White House. Mueller, meanwhile, has kept his head down and his lips sealed, with most news about his probe emerging from outside sources or from court documents, but all appearances suggest a team moving slowly but inexorably and effectively forward.
A viral story highlights the lingering difference between the language—and the practice—of consent.
It was true that everything did seem okay to me, so when I heard that it was not the case for her, I was surprised and concerned. I took her words to heart and responded privately after taking the time to process what she had said.
I continue to support the movement that is happening in our culture. It is necessary and long overdue.
That was Aziz Ansari, responding to a story that was published about him over the weekend, a story that doubled for many readers as an allegation not of criminal sexual misconduct, but of misbehavior of a more subtle strain: aggression. Entitlement. Excessive persistence. His statement, accordingly—not an apology but not, either, a denial—occupies that strange and viscous space between defiance and regret. I was surprised and concerned. I took her words to heart.
Entertainment glorifying or excusing predatory male behavior is everywhere—from songs about “blurred lines” to TV shows where rapists marry their victims.
Edward Cullen. Chuck Bass. Lloyd Dobler. Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That guy from Love Actually with the sign. The lead singers of emo bands with their brooding lyrics. Many of the romantic heroes that made me swoon in my youth followed a pattern and, like a Magic Eye picture, only with a little distance did the shape of it pop out to me. All of these characters in some way crossed, or at least blurred, the lines of consent, aggressively pursuing women with little or no regard for their desires. But these characters’ actions, and those of countless other leading men across the pop-culture landscape, were more likely to be portrayed as charming than scary.
Romance often involves a bit of pursuit—someone has to make a move, after all. And there’s certainly a spectrum of pursuit: Sometimes supposedly romantic gestures in pop culture veer toward the horrendous or illegal; sometimes they’re just a bit creepy or overzealous. But revisiting some of these fictional love stories can leave one with the understanding that intrusive attention is proof of men’s passion, and something women should welcome. In a number of cases, male characters who were acknowledged to have gone too far—by, for example, actually forcing themselves on women—were quickly forgiven, or their actions compartmentalized and forgotten.
Coates says he is "mystified as anybody else” over West's critique.
If there’s real beef between the Harvard philosopher Cornel West and The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, Coates says he doesn’t understand it. West is a vocal critic of Coates and his status as a public intellectual.
Coates addressed the controversy at a panel Tuesday hosted by The Atlantic, saying he remains confused why the feud started in the first place, and that he can’t seem to find a huge difference in the things West has spoken about and what Coates himself has written.
Coates spoke about the first time he saw Cornel West 20 years ago, and found it surreal to have that same person “write critical things about you when they have so clearly not read your work.”
“I am mystified as anybody else” about West’s argument, Coates said, adding that he hopes people read Race Matters, West’s groundbreaking 1993 book.
The mass death of 200,000 saiga provides a dark omen for what might happen to wildlife in a changing world.
It took just three weeks for two-thirds of all the world’s saiga to die. It took much longer to work out why.
The saiga is an endearing antelope, whose bulbous nose gives it the comedic air of a Dr. Seuss character. It typically wanders over large tracts of Central Asian grassland, but every spring, tens of thousands of them gather in the same place to give birth. These calving aggregations should be joyous events, but the gathering in May 2015 became something far more sinister when 200,000 saiga just dropped dead. They did so without warning, over a matter of days, in gathering sites spread across 65,000 square miles—an area the size of Florida. Whatever killed them was thorough and merciless: Across a vast area, every last saiga perished.
The parents of teen internet celebrities get a crash course in a new kind of fame while trying to maintain boundaries for their newly rich and powerful children.
When then-14-year-old Jonas Bridges ran down the stairs of his Atlanta home shouting, “Dad, I’ve got 1,000 fans!” his father, Rob Bridges, hardly took notice. A few days later Jonas barreled into the living room again, saying, “Dad, I’ve got 3,000 fans now.” Again, his father brushed him off. Several days later, Jonas told his father, “I have 5,000 fans now and if I get to 10,000 I’ll get paid for it.” Finally, Rob Bridges turned to his wife and said, “Denise, what the hell is he talking about?”
What Jonas Bridges was trying to tell his father was that he was rapidly becoming famous on YouNow, a social video platform where he had begun hosting live-streams from his bedroom under the pseudonym “woahits_jonas.” Before his parents knew what was happening, Jonas had amassed an army of online fans for his vlogs and prank videos. Before they could grasp quite what his newfound fame meant, Jonas had begun raking in serious cash.
For the GOP to stick it to Democrats, it's going to have to stick together first.
Updated on January 17 at 3:45 p.m. ET
If ever there was a moment when House Republicans could use some much-needed party unity, this is it.
The federal government is on the brink of shutting down Friday at midnight, and the GOP wants, first, to keep it open, and second, to blame Democrats if it can’t. But both of those goals depend on Speaker Paul Ryan wrangling 216 of his 238 members to vote for a temporary spending bill that one top conservative likened to “a crap sandwich with moldy bread.”
GOP leaders unveiled their latest stopgap proposal on Tuesday night and are eyeing a vote on Thursday. It would keep the government running for about another month, and includes sweeteners for each party. To entice Democrats angry over the lack of a deal on immigration, the bill would enact a long-awaited six-year reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program. To win over conservatives, Republicans have attached—what else?—tax cuts: The continuing resolution would delay the enactment of several taxes included in the Affordable Care Act, such as those on medical devices, high-end insurance plans, and health insurers.
Call them “accessory dwelling units” or “granny flats”—small living spaces built on existing lots could help make cities more affordable.
When Kol Peterson moved to Portland, Oregon, in 2010, affordable housing was a priority, as it was for many newcomers in this city’s booming real-estate market. He looked at two frequently discussed options for high-cost cities—tiny houses on wheels and communal living—but decided on another option: accessory dwelling units, or ADUs—also known as “granny flats,” or basement or garage apartments.
ADUs weren’t yet common in Portland—that year, the city issued only 86 permits for them—but when Peterson did the math, he decided that building one was his best option. “I could buy a house, construct an ADU in the backyard, and live in the ADU while renting out the house,” he said. That’s what he did: He bought a home in the city’s King-Sabin neighborhood, built a two-story mini-home in its backyard, and moved in. The experience, he says, has been life-changing: “Building an 800-foot ADU eventually eliminated my housing costs, and I’m living in my dream house.”