Obama Considers Merging NASA, Pentagon Programs

January 5, 2009

Bloomberg reports that “Obama’s transition team is considering a collaboration between the Defense Department and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration because military rockets may be cheaper and ready sooner than the space agency’s planned launch vehicle, which isn’t slated to fly until 2015…”

Good idea.

I’ve had some considerable hesitations about the Constellation program since first reading about it. One huge point in Constellation’s favor is that it’s not the Space Shuttle–a program that has served some useful purposes but largely wasted the best part of the potential of the last 35 years of American space flight by blockading us in low-earth orbit and castrating our imagination while sucking up just as much funding as more ambitious–and thoughtful–projects might have consumed. So at least the Constellation is intended to do more without getting us stuck in lovely, expensive dreams of reusable space-planes. But Constellation’s ambition was never matched by the necessary concordance of national leadership and popular support necessary to really carry the funding through to completion. Part of the problem is that, while using modifications of some existing technology (like the Space Shuttle SRB’s), developing a new system for manned space flight is really expensive, and can unnecessarily drain resources from unmanned missions. This isn’t necessarily bad–if the manned missions are ambitious (and well-funded) enough to achieve something worthwhile.

Space policy is difficult because administrations only last four to eight years, and the development of a single mission from inception through R&D to flight readiness is often several times that span. So when the Bush administration held up Constellation without giving it the funding necessary to make truly solid (ie, irreversible) progress before 2009, it was hard to take seriously.

So, taking some of the nice ideas of Constellation (trying to get past near-earth orbit sometime soon) while cutting a lot of the cost of developing new launch vehicles when the DoD already has nice resources available seems to make a lot of sense. Military space programs have always had massive funding yet little publicity. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) published this overview of military and civilian space programs in 2003. Like most CRS reports, it’s invaluable but dry. On the first page you get this telling note:
“Tracking the DOD space budget is extremely difficult since space is not identified as a separate line item in the budget. DOD sometimes releases only partial information (omitting funding for classified programs) or will suddenly release without explanation new figures for prior years that are quite different from what was previously reported.”

The distinction between American military and civilian space efforts serves a few purposes. One is that the less secretive NASA drives public interest in space through education programs. Another is that NASA has programs that have no immediate national security benefit, like robotic exploration missions (keep an eye on NASA’s Pluto-bound New Horizons craft).

But these benefits of having a civilian space program will not necessarily disappear with greater collaboration between the Pentagon and NASA. The major benefit would be eliminating parallel programs to save millions or billions in development costs. Some of this is likely already done, but agency turf wars likely prevent much more.

I would hazard a guess that, especially abroad, the distinction between US-funded civilian programs and US-funded military programs is not especially strong in the public mind. Why? Partly because NASA has a long history of military collaborations. NASA draws on US military pilots for Space Shuttle pilots and commanders and flying military personnel from other countries, such as Ilan Ramon, an Israeli Air Force pilot who perished aboard Columbia. NASA also flew several classified missions lofting military payloads aboard its Shuttle fleet. So the distinction is already blurry.

And, of course, everyone knows (and most people say) that the only reason the US would be likely to fund renewed exploration efforts (going back to the Moon or possibly to Mars) would be to compete with another nation. Given that the Russia’s Sputnik spurred us through Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, it makes sense that China’s current push to go to the Moon could drive us to go back. Is it a prudent investment or a mindless arms race? Hard to say. But if we’re going to do these things as a show of national might, why not be honest about it and do it as a true military-civilian collaboration, and save some money along the way?


Iraq, Women, Democracy, and Liberty

April 8, 2008

(You can have any three of the nouns in the title, but only three, sorry.)

Over at Political Cartel, Karie has written about Iraqi Women’s Rights Falling By the Wayside. She has some astute observations about the paradox of majoritarianism and liberty for women:

Mature, responsible, hardworking women are told to wear headscarves, occasionally not allowed to drive their own cars, and given a 5 p.m. curfew. Their antagonists? Young, uneducated Iraqi men with weapons and no sense of decency. If an Iraqi man kills his wife or daughter because of suspected sexual promiscuity, he can be imprisoned for no more than three years. If a woman kills an adulterous man, she is tried for murder.

As if this weren’t bad enough, the worst part of it is that conditions for women have actually worsened under the surge. Under Saddam Hussein in the early 90s, “enforced secularism” was the law of the land, and women were largely free to go to college and marry who they liked. But now, under the surge, the US is letting things like gender issues slide for stability’s sake. . . It’s incredibly ironic that an American surge in the name of democracy should actually worsen democratic conditions.

The take-home point here is that majority rule and individual liberty are not necessarily compatible. Here’s what I said in the comments section:

This may have an interesting parallel to Turkish society, where secularism (and women’s rights) must be enforced by a somewhat autocratic state (or at least a democracy with a strongly-involved military). Like Iraq and some other areas of the world, it’s arguable that more democracy will lead to less rights for women. Which really sucks.

It also poses an interesting hypothetical–which do we value more: Democracy, or liberty? In some places they seem to go together and even compliment each other, whereas in others they can conflict.

And David Manes followed up:

Liberty is an end in and of itself; democracy is just a means to achieving other ends. If democracy isn’t taking a society to better places (tolerance, prosperity, human rights, etc.) then it is useless. There is nothing magical about simple majoritarianism if it becomes oppressive.

And (master of hegemonic discourse) Steve Denney:

I think Americans, especially, see [liberty and democracy] as commensurate, which is a false perception. Americans think that Democracy will bring about liberty — a non sequitor, because democracy can bring about the proscription of certain liberties, regardless of the ramifications or the consequences.

When we talk about democracy, I think we’re usually referring to “liberal democracies” like the US, Canada, much of Western Europe, etc. Iran is also a democracy, but it’s a theocratic one. It’s quite arguable that the majority really is getting its way in Iran (to the detriment of those who disagree). Turkey is a democracy of sorts as well, but with a sort of military-enforced secularism that likely goes against the mainstream of public opinion and helps to shape public opinion too. Iran is probably closer to democracy, but I’d take living in Turkey any day, because it is a lot closer to liberty. Of course, it’d be great if we could have both.


Srebrenica

July 11, 2007

CNN has a piece on the re-burial of victims of the massacre in Srebrenica in Bosnia in 1995, worth reading. If you haven’t already, you should check out Sheri Fink’s War Hospital, an excellent account of the siege from the perspective of national and international medical doctors trapped in the Muslim enclave.


More Than Meets the Eye

July 11, 2007

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Transformers. Great summer movie–amazing effects, good action sequences, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. And, I used to be in love with the 80’s Transformers movie. So I enjoyed myself tremendously. That said,

1) Did the Air Force underwrite the entire movie or something? It was like the entire movie was product placement for USAF, and it’s probably a good plan since they’re target demographic probably likes action movies about blowing stuff up.

2) I can root for the Air Force with a much cleaner conscience when they’re indiscriminately lobbing missiles and bombs at evil robots (call me a speciesist) than when the targets are people’s houses.

3) Does the “hot girl” in the movie have to wear a gallon of makeup and fry herself in a tanning bed?

4) It’s nice that all the invading alien plots happen to focus on the U.S. Oh wait, this is Hollywood.

5) What’s with the stereotyped Mexican and South Asian characters? And why is the lead always a white male? *Steps off PC soapbox.*


Quoting King

July 8, 2007

I’m currently reading Shane Claiborne’s Irresistible Revolution. I’m sure I’ll blog on it more fully once I’ve completed my leisurely perusal, but for now I’d like to highlight some quotes Shane brought to my attention. These are from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “A Time to Break Silence,” a speech given on the Vietnam war in 1967 at a meeting of “Clergy and Laity Concerned” at Riverside Church in New York City. MLK’s concerns went beyond his (incredible) devotion to civil rights in our country, to an even broader view of social justice. And it’s always good to reflect on values that should bring rich and poor, Christian and humanist, theist and athiest together.

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[It became clear that the war in Vietnam] was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. And so we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools.

Funny how these words still ring true today:

As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask — and rightly so — what about Vietnam? They ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.

And here a call for a brotherhood of man, rooted in King’s own Christianity, though it could as easily be read as a call for a global humanism (in fact, King might have been closer to that than most of the Christians we know):

This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation and for those it calls “enemy,” for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.

King also has this quote from a Buddhist leader on the war in Vietnam:

Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the heart of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom, and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.

If you will, rephrase that quote for me with Iraq in mind instead of Vietnam (not the analogy is a perfect one, but analogies never are… this particular quote however makes a useful point):

Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the heart of the Iraqis and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom, and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.

And here he waxes prophetic. One could make the same claim today about US militarism:

The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality…and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing “clergy and laymen concerned” committees for the next generation.

And another gem:

On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

And here’s another quote, though this time I’ve replaced “Communism” with “terrorism”:

This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense against terrorism. War is not the answer. Terrorism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons. Let us not join those who shout war and, through their misguided passions, urge the United States to relinquish its participation in the United Nations. These are days which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness. We must not engage in a negative antiterrorism, but rather in a positive thrust for democracy, realizing that our greatest defense against terrorism is to take offensive action in behalf of justice. We must with positive action seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity, and injustice, which are the fertile soil in which the seed of terrorism grows and develops.


Letter to a Christian Educator

July 6, 2007

Something special has come into my possession. A student who goes to a private, conservative, Christian school I’m familiar with got upset about some of his terrible liberal professors (all of whom are intelligent Christians who hold at least one position said student simply can’t fathom) and wrote a letter to the president of the university. For some unknown reason, the student then felt compelled to post the letter online for all to see (bragging about his conservative chutzpah, maybe?). Then he got cold feet and removed it… but Google cache is a cruel master and preserves such humorous nuggets in perpetuity. (Edited for brevity and anonymity, but the substance remains accurate.)

This is a copy of a letter I recently sent to [Christian U President] and some other [Christian U] big wigs…. I would encourage all of you to write a letter of your own on any of these issues that concern you. Feel free to copy and paste any of my letter to use in your personal grievance to the “powers that be.”

“Dr. [Christian U President]:
I am a current [Christian U] student and will be entering my junior year of college this fall. With that said, you should be aware that I have encouraged my classmates to also write with their similar concerns.

Oh, I’m sure the comments are a-flooding in.

Dr. [X]’s online journal is where most of his [Christian U]-hating is done… However, there several inappropriate displays outside of his office, in which he mocks [Christian U] and Conservatism. His comments in class have also been insubordinate and inappropriate.
This man is very clearly anti-[Christian U], anti-Conservative and, in my opinion, anti-American.
Regardless of your personal political views, regardless of the political values held by [Christian U]: this is an embarrassment to our school… What kind of message is being sent about [Christian U]?

Wait? A University can hold political values? It’s an embarrassment to have teachers who don’t all think and teach like zombies?

Many have yelled “freedom of speech” in defense of [X]’s comments, but I do not think his Constitutional rights can save him on this one. As you are aware, he is obligated to uphold the standards and principles held by [Christian U]: after having sat under his teaching, I am afraid he is failing miserably.

This student was probably either sleeping or fuming in anger that anyone could think differently, or think to judge America by the same standards as the rest of the world. In fact, I would say said professor’s views on politics flow more understandably from his faith than said student’s views. If I may speak for him, this professor sees himself as a Christian in an unjust world, and finds it as necessary to buck the trend of big “C” Conservatism when it doesn’t line up with his faith.

The day after learning of Dr. [X]’s outlandish comments…I was blown away by comments made in my Biology class. Dr. [Y], my teacher, told my class that there is overwhelming evidence that shows homosexuality is genetically inherited. After making this large, outlandish, sweeping statement, he proceeded to change subjects. I very politely raised my hand and asked if he would show us some of this “overwhelming evidence.” Dr. [Y] then responded, “If you want to add an extra week to this class, we might have time. Are you interested?” I politely responded, “No, I am not interested—I don’t believe it. I just think that’s a BIG statement to make and not show any evidence to back it up.” Dr. [Y]’s response was a simple “ok” and the discussion was over.

The unfortunate thing about general education science classes is that those who are incapable of understanding specific research (due to ignorance of science and unwillingness to consider arguments) are fed conclusions they will simply brush off as ideologically suspect, and the professors often do not have the time to discuss the evidence. This is sad because it misrepresents the process of science while maintaining its conclusions. That said, an extra week of class probably wouldn’t suffice to give this student the background needed to understand (and certainly not trust) such findings.

This is not my first conflict with the science department: in Spring 2006, Dr. [Z] presented the idea of the “Big Bang,” Evolution, and “Millions of years” to my Geology class. I should have written this letter then.

These concepts were likely introduced from the “here’s what most scientists think happened” perspective, not the “this is true” perspective. I should note that Dr. Z is what could be classified as an Old-Earth Creationist. I understand that he believes the Earth is billions of years old, that some species evolved and such, but that humans were a special creation. What’s the problem with that?

These occurrences, along with the showing of Al Gore’s propaganda film “An Inconvenient Truth” in the [auditorium] last semester, have led me to a place of discontent. While the spiritual mindset seems to grow more and more close-minded, the political tolerance on this campus is out of control! Why is it that the religion of environmentalism is promoted…?

Yes! Down with this Godless tolerance! Down with Godless environmentalism! Let us take the Creation and rape it to fulfill our own lust for wealth, oil, and dead Arabs! (Did I mention this student is pro-anything-military? Yeah).

I am not an administrator; I do not claim to know how to fix these problems. I only know that [Christian U] is not the same place it was 2 years ago when I stepped onto this campus. Attending this school has been a GREAT financial burden on me and my family, but it is a burden I have gladly carried—until this point. My parents have often encouraged me, saying, “We know [Christian U] is expensive, but it’s worth it. Public education is full of liberalism and corruption, but [Christian U] is an alternative.”

I wish I had a transcript of that conversation.

I’m not here to say that [Christian U] is corrupt; I simply feel shortchanged. I could receive a liberal, worldly education for one third of the cost at any public university. That is not, however, what I desire: I want to be educated by Christian brothers and sisters, in a Godly manner.

(I don’t see how any of the professors previously mentioned act in an ungodly manner, promoting things like free inquiry, science, evidence, etc.)

Please work to resolve these issues. Dr. [X] has gone unchecked for years—he needs to be controlled. As for Dr. [Y] and Dr. [Z], I’m sure they feel they can say anything “in the name of science,” but I think they are mistaken. There is a higher standard; there is a higher entity than science.

The last paragraph is really my favorite. It’s one thing to disagree with God’s politics (the Right-Wing side, not Jim Wallis’ book), but quite another to say things in the name of science. God forbid that we look at the evidence objectively and consider what it supports or does not support.

Welcome to conservatism.


Let Freedom Ring?

June 12, 2007

I am not a patriot. I dislike nationalism in all its forms, and I hold no extraordinary allegiance to my country of birth. I see no more reason to fight for the economic gain of those who share my nationality at the expense of others as I do to fight for my Caucasian ethnicity.

I do however hold allegiance to certain principles–freedom and justice being primary among them–that I believe are worthwhile. To the extent that America is in line with those principles, or at least better than some other countries, I love America. To the extent that America falls short, I am an irrepressible critic. Principle stands higher than country, and it seems that most of the wars in the world have followed when country stands higher than principle.

Truthdig has a piece on Bush’s (positive) reception in Albania, at the same time as a report was released by the Council of Europe on America’s secret prisons. From the report:

What was previously just a set of allegations is now proven: large numbers of people have been abducted from various locations across the world and transferred to countries where they have been persecuted and where it is known that torture is common practice. Others have been held in arbitrary detention, without any precise charges leveled against them and without any judicial oversight. … Still others have simply disappeared for indefinite periods and have been held in secret prisons, including in member states of the Council of Europe.

So, how should we judge President Bush? They say history will judge him… Who knows, maybe later Americans will retain their penchant for preemptive war and laud Bush as a hero for setting a precedent. That’s not an America that I look forward to. One thing I can certainly say now is that the abuses of freedom and human rights that were often justified in our foreign policy by utilitarian calculations (civil war in Guatemala or elsewhere is better than a Communist takeover) have been thrown front and center by George Bush. From TruthDig:

We will remember that long after it was clear that Guantanamo was doing serious harm to our nation’s reputation in the world—on Sunday, Bush’s former secretary of state, Colin Powell, called for the place to be shut down “this afternoon”—Bush stubbornly kept it open.

Let the scandals of today pass. Certain things will stick in our minds much longer:

We will remember Alberto Gonzales not for his hapless stewardship of the Justice Department or the firings of those U.S. attorneys—well, actually, we will remember him for those things—but we’ll also remember that when he was White House counsel he dutifully provided legalistic justification for subjecting prisoners to treatment that international agreements clearly define as torture.

And, one last note on the Council of Europe report:

Marty [the author of the report] makes this point in his report. “We are fully aware of the seriousness of the terrorist threat and the danger it poses to our societies,” he writes. “However, we believe that the end does not justify the means in this area.” Resorting to “abuse and illegal acts,” he says, “actually amounts to a resounding failure of our system and plays right into the hands of the criminals who seek to destroy our societies through terror.”

If America is a beacon for freedom, justice, and human rights, then she is worthy of praise. If she is a den of selfish, aggressive foreign policy and a hunger for economic gain with no question of its consequences, then she is not. Most Americans don’t really care about numbers killed that much. In truth, American forces have killed (whether purposefully or accidentally) many more civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere then died on 9/11 in New York. The conflagration begun by our military belligerency has arguably resulted in the deaths of more civilians than the continuation of Saddam’s murderous regime would have.

We, as Americans, normally accept these numbers not because we like death, but because we believe the American government is fighting for something that is true, noble, and just: American forces are fighting to preserve the American way of life. If America is not just in its treatment of enemies, are we fighting for justice, or for blind self-preservation?

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