Wednesday, November 19, 2008

NASA should stop making rockets

A colleague of mine at work sent me a link today about an astronaut losing a tool bag in space during a space walk to work on the international space station. That seems as good a lede

as any to introduce a thought I've had for a while: NASA needs to be gutted.

Now, I like scientific research as much as the next guy — probably more than the typical next guy, actually. And despite my general preference for a small federal government, I do think the federal government needs to play a major part in funding science. Some of the most interesting and useful things we enjoy in the modern world have their origins in pure scientific research, and that's the kind of research that individuals and private companies have the least to gain from in terms of ROI.

My problem with NASA isn't that the government is spending so much money on research, it's that we're getting virtually nothing in return. We're not even trying to do real research anymore; manned missions these days are just excuses to fix whatever piece of the shuttle broke on the way up, and maybe pop another module to a space station that seems to be its own raison d'ĂȘtre.

In fact, one of NASA's points of pride is that its rovers and probes now use cheap, off-the-shelf parts. NASA sees that as proof that it's learning to work on a budget; I see it as proof that its innovative days are over. I'd rather spend $500 million and have learned something new than spend $100 million for what is, essentially, an expensive toy.

And while I'm trying my best to bite my tongue and not delve into a rant about the agency's all-consuming obsession to find water on Mars, suffice it to say that my world would be not be rocked in the least if they found ice there, or even evidence of Martian bacteria.

Where does that leave space research? At the risk of shedding my usual pinko hue for a deeper red, it's time for government to just get out of the private sector's way. The X Prize produced more innovation in space travel in eight years than NASA has since inventing the shuttle in 1981. If we want to make space travel a part of daily life, NASA's space missions should be gutted and the money appropriated to incentives in the private sector.

To be fair, there is still a substantial amount of pure research the government does through NASA. In particular, space telescopes and probes are giving us fascinating new insights to the universe. We've all but confirmed that black holes exist, and much of that research has been in the past decade; we're seeing farther and farther out, and thus farther and farther back in time. NASA should keep these research projects; but it should start shifting away from the job of getting the satellites themselves into orbit.

And please, can we stop talking about manned missions to Mars until we have a reason to go there? "Because it is there" is a great reason to go where no man has gone before, but George Mallory didn't cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

McCain's and Obama's speeches

It's late (I'm starting it at 2:15 AM)., so please excuse me if this isn't well written or thought out. Tomorrow (ie, "later today") or Thursday I'll follow up with some more reflections, but for now, I'd like to scratch out a quick note on my take on McCain's concession speech and Obama's victory speech.
I thought Obama's speech was very, very good. It was definitely celebratory (especially near the beginning, where, as my mom pointed out, it was even somewhat self-aggrandizing), but especially towards the end, had some very good points. His call to arms, as it were, was not as succinct or powerful as Kennedy's "ask not," but it resonated strongly with me. And while I usually dislike personal anecdotes, I (begrudgingly) liked his story of Ann Nixon Cooper. It drove through the message that the world has changed over the last 100 years in literally unimaginable and unpredictable ways, and it's up to us to make sure that the world 100 years from now will be better, even if we know we cannot begin to predict how it'll look. The big challenge will be to get people to actually commit to that commitment.

I also thought McCain's speech was very good. It was disturbing, of course, to hear the boos and taunts, but I can't be sure Obama's supporters wouldn't have done the same had they lost. And although I was a bit torn at first about McCain's focus on Obama's ethnicity, I now think it was appropriate. Clearly, this is a huge leap forward for the black community, and it's important that we have an official voice (not just the media) declare it as such explicitly. Obama say that, though; it would make it look like he really had been running as a black candidate, not just a candidate, and would strongly undermine and alienate his broad-based support. McCain had the grace to say what nobody else could: everything else aside, the fact that America was able to elect a black president is a huge deal and represents phenominal progress from a dark past.

Finally, a thought on cheers. I've never been one for the 1-2-3 cheers. But as I was listening to the speech in my car, it occurred to me that if you have to have one, "yes we can" isn't bad at all. It carries no jingoist message (c.f. "U S A!"), nor does it mindlessly focus on any one issue (I'm looking at you, "drill baby drill"). But most importantly, it's a very versatile message. The "we" can be practically any subset of the group that cheered it at the various Obama rallies -- youth, blacks, optimists, liberals, the elderly, whites, etc -- and the things "we" can do are just as mutable. The scariest part of unified cheers, to me, is that they dehuminize the cheerers and unify them into a mob; but "yes we can" inherently counteracts that tendency.

And now, enough ramblings. It's bed time.