Archive for December, 2009

Captain Underpants and the Illusion of Security

December 30, 2009

DESHAILES, GUADELOUPE – I doubt there are many people who would look forward to leaving this little piece of paradise. I am sitting on the deck of a sailboat anchored in the harbor of this quaint fishing village.

I just finished a hot croissant delivered by an enterprising young man plying the water on an inflatable dinghy (deftly prying Euros from my wallet with inflated prices – C’est la Vie!). The sun is shining, the breeze is steady and the temperature is 80°F.

What could be wrong with this picture?  Nothing except what dutifully drops into my Kindle every morning via Whispernet (as opposed to the old Eastern Whisperjets…)

The absurd, inane, horse-out-of-the-barn response to the Christmas Day “Fruit of the Boom” Bomber-wannabe gives me even more reason to dread the trip back home.

My Kindle tells me my family and I will face long lines, lots of questions, pat down searches and an hour of lockdown time in our seats before landing. It is as if my ruler-brandishing first-grade teacher Sister Grace took over Delta Air Lines. “Books away – feet on the floor – hands on your desk – eyes straight ahead…”

It is brilliant thinking like the new seat arrest rule that should tell you a lot about our ill-conceived approach to thwarting terrorists who continue to find plane loads full of innocent Americans to be tempting targets. I don’t suppose future terrorists might try to light some portion of their clothing 61 minutes before landing do you?

What about the baby who needs a bottle or a passy on descent and is crying his lungs out?  God help him, his mother and the rest of us…

We put the jerk in knee-jerk with the way we respond to threats.

Our Homeland Security Czarina Janet Napolitano tried to spin the whole thing into a triumph of our security apparatus. At least she didn’t get a “Nappy, you’re doin’ a heckuva a job!” from our Commander-in-Chief, but the Sunday talk show gaffe was one of those moments when the political Cuisinart jams on a big chunk of reality (it does, indeed, bite).

And of course we all know the Brief Bomber laid bare what I have suspected for a long time: that our no nail-clipper, no-hair gel, shoes-off, laptop-out security apparatus is little more than a Potemkin Village. It gives the appearance that we are doing something real  – when all we are really doing is providing travelers a false sense of security – and often a real sense of frustration.

Let’s see: a young man embraces radical Islam and starts spewing some twisted, violent vitriol. His respected, influential father tells the CIA that he fears trouble and the US should revoke his son’s visa. The young man arrives at an an airport without any luggage and buys a one-way ticket to Detroit – with cash. And no one even arches an eyebrow? Come on people…you don’t have to be a security expert to know something was not right with that deal.

There was a time after 9/11 when I would routinely get selected for additional screening whenever I purchased a one-way ticket (which was fairly often given the vicissitudes of the TV News business).  And I was using a corporate Amex card – flying an airline where I had logged a million miles. I used to grumble about it (silently, of course) because I assumed no future terrorist would be so stupid (or cheap) to buy only a one way ticket.

But, as I mentioned, I am no expert.

Here is what any moron can see as plain as day: our $40 billion dollar post-9/11 airline security net is a total joke – a White Elephant of epic (and potentially tragic) proportions.

The truth is the only aspect of our post 9/11 defense that has turned out to be 100% effective are the passengers themselves. Without really thinking about it we have become an airborne militia – all watching and ready to kick al Qaeda butt at the drop of… a pair of trousers. It began in Shanksville – it effectively thwarted the shoe-bomber – and now Captain Underpants.

Which brings me to my big worry: ever since Richard Reid tried to light up his sneakers, we have all had to remove our shoes before boarding. The logical conclusion in this illogical system: government sanctioned panty raids.

Your mother always told you to wear clean underwear.

Or maybe we should just get it over with and fly like the fat, old French guys I see strolling around this little cute Caribbean town: in Speedos and plastic sandals.

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And the Rumors Start

December 21, 2009

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Precious little has been said about the specifics of Charlie Bolden’s Wednesday White House meeting with Obama on the future of human spaceflight.  But a “Science Insider” blog post over at AAAS has tongues wagging.  We can’t vouch for the content…and the post is anonymously sourced…so who really knows?  It is worth a look-see, for your reading enjoyment.

But on Friday, the White House said no final decision has been made.

“The meeting with Bolden was informational, not decisional,” said Nick Shapiro, White House spokesman.

“The President confirmed his commitment to human space exploration, and the goal of ensuring that the nation is on a sustainable path to achieving our aspirations in space,” Shapiro said. “Against a backdrop of serious challenges with the existing program, the Augustine Committee has offered several key findings and a range of options for how the nation might improve its future human space flight activities. The two spoke about the Administrator’s work at NASA and they also discussed the Augustine Committee’s analysis.”

Human Spaceflight – Let's Light the Candle!

December 21, 2009
President Barak Obama and now-NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden meet at the White House, May 23. 2009.  Official White House photo by Pete Souza.

President Barak Obama and now-NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden meet at the White House, May 23. 2009. Official White House photo by Pete Souza.

But just what kind of candle will U.S. astronauts be strapped onto in the post space shuttle era?

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden dropped into the White House  the other day – and met with the President Obama to talk about what is next for the space agency.

We are told the meeting went well – that no decision has been made – but it will come soon – and when it does the President himself will make the announcement.

If you are a tea leaf reader – that last little tidbit bodes well for those of us who want the US to stay in the manned space racket.

Would Obama stand before the the nation and give a speech which says in essence “We choose NOT to go to the moon…because it is too hard and too expensive”? Unlikely, I think. Just my two cents here.

The White House space confab comes four months after the Augustine Committee shared its thoughts on what the US should – and should not do in the in the after shuttle years.

No matter which course Team Obama chooses – it means giving NASA about 3 billion dollars more a year – or stop sending humans to space.

So the Space Nation waits for word – hoping for a puff of white smoke from the conclave.

Let’s begin with a word from one of the August members of the Augustine commission – former NASA astronaut, and our good friend Leroy Chiao.   Watch below, or read the transcript of our interview.

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The Commercial Space Race Heats Up

December 21, 2009
DragonLab In Orbit.  Courtesy:  SpaceX

DragonLab In Orbit. Courtesy: SpaceX

Although the Augustine Commission did not offer up “recommendations” – it is clear they want NASA to focus on moving beyond low earth orbit – creating some space – if you will – for entrepreneurs to boldly go where only the government has gone before.

The man in the vanguard of this push is one Elon Musk – the PayPal multimillionaire – who now heads SpaceX. The California company won the NASA contract to build rockets that will deliver cargo to the International Space Station – but Musk hopes to do more than that – one day offering a ride to orbit for human beings.

SpaceX plans to test its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon space capsule in early in 2010.

Former NASA astronaut Ken Bowersox is working on safety issues for SpaceX.  Watch below, or read the transcript of my interview with him.

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"This Week In Space" – Part 1

December 21, 2009

twis300Welcome to the premier of “This Week In Space With Miles O’Brien,” a new show dedicated to keeping space lovers up to speed on the stories and issues making news off the planet.

This is Part 1 of 3, and features interviews with Augustine Commission member and former astronaut Leroy Chiao and SpaceX VP and former astronaut Ken Bowersox on the future of the U.S. manned spaceflight program.

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MRO – Safe Mode No More

December 21, 2009
MRO.  Source:  NASA/JPL

MRO. Source: NASA/JPL

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is on the mend after a long stint in intensive care – what the wizards at the Jet Propulsion Lab call “safe mode.”

Engineers there were able to upload some new software – which they hope will stop MRO’s computers from spontaneously rebooting.  Are they using Vista or something??  Anyway they believe the new software patch has solved the problem and the science should resume in earnest soon. One thing good for Mars lovers – when MRO calls the help desk – it doesn’t end up in voice mail hell.

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Spirit – Wheel Woes

December 21, 2009
Mars Exploration Rover.  Source:  NASA/JPL

Mars Exploration Rover. Source: NASA/JPL

Meanwhile – down on rust colored surface – Spirit is looking a lot like me when I take to the links – that is to say stuck in a sand trap.

The problem is the plucky rover Spirit has a right rear wheel that has gone Tango Uniform (as in Toes Up). Three years ago Spirit’s right front wheel failed – so now the Rover has only one working drive wheel on the right side – making an extrication from the sand unlikely.

But the never say die team at JPL is still working on it – and during a recent troubleshooting session that long-broken front wheel actually moved a bit!

Prospects for any sort of full recovery remain bleak, however.  The best they may be able to do tilt Spirit so its solar arrays will still generate enough juice to stay alive during winter – which comes in May.

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It's All About Politics

December 21, 2009
Source:  NASA/Scott Andrews, Cannon

Ares I-X Launch. Source: NASA/Scott Andrews, Cannon

More on NASA’s future. It appears President Obama is close to making a decision on which course to chart in space.   Whenever he shares HIS vision with the rest of us – the debate will  move to a broader realm – and of course to Congress – where nothing is guaranteed.

The other day , Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi showed her colors in a gabfest with reporters:

“I, myself, if you are asking me personally, I have not been a big fan of manned expeditions to outer space, in terms of safety and cost,” Pelosi told reporters a round table on legislative accomplishments this year. “But people could make the case; technology is always changing.”

Oh, boy.  Fortunately for space fans, there are some people in Congress who do their homework – and are strong supporters of manned spaceflight.

And as it turns out, many of them are big fans of the Bush “Vision for Space Exploration.”

Among the big supporters is the chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, Gabrielle Giffords – a democrat of Arizona – who is married to NASA astronaut Mark Kelly.

On December 2 she held a hearing on the pros and cons of constellation versus commercial alternatives. And it seems clear where she stands:

“We hope to hear from our witnesses as to whether they believe that the burden of proof should be put on those who would propose alternatives to the Constellation program to demonstrate that their systems will be at least as safe as Ares/Orion. Alternatively, do they think it would it be acceptable to reduce the required level of crew safety on commercially provided crew transport services used to transport U.S. astronauts much below what looks to be achievable in the Constellation program?”

I guess you could call that a loaded question…In any case, if he had been in the room that day – former NASA  Administrator Mike Griffin might have stood up raised his hands and said “Amen!”  OK, well maybe the man who once likened himself to Spock would have been a bit more reserved – but he does firmly believes NASA should press on with Ares and Constellation as it is currently envisioned.

One of the big things he is worried about the the time between vehicles – the infamous “Gap.”  Watch below, or read the transcript of our interview.

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Endeavour Snug in the VAB for the Holidays

December 21, 2009
Endeavour in the VAB.  Source:  NASA

Endeavour in the VAB. Source: NASA

The orbiter Endeavour is now looking up – the other day at the cape – workers moved her from the Orbiter Processing Facility to the Vehicle  to the Vehicle Assembly Building – to be mated with her external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters.
The shuttle will roll-out to pad 39A after the holidays on track for an early February launch to the station.

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But Did He Catch the Golden Snitch?

December 21, 2009
SPHERES in the Destiny Laboratory.  Source: NASA

SPHERES in the Destiny Laboratory. Source: NASA

Up on station, it looked a little like a Harry Potter movie the other day – astronaut Jeff Williams broke out what appear to be a pair of Bludgers – used in the game Quidditch. Actually it is part of an MIT experiment called SPHERES to test autonomous formation flying.

Cool stuff – but clearly Williams’s crew mate on the treadmill, Max Suraev, was unimpressed – must be a Muggle.

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