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July 07, 2008

Comments

Fossil

Sad to say, you boys have slipped into self-bullshitting mode on this one. There are several misconceptions into which you have fallen in your excessive zeal.

The first is that the manned space program has made a unique contribution to the progress of science. Bullshit! The major accomplishment, to date, of the space shuttle and the international space station that has been its follow-on has been to kill the Texas superconducting super-collider, a relatively modest project, but one which threatened NASA's shuttle and space station funding. By way of comparison, the supercollider had several times the circumference of the CERN Large Hadron Collider, about to come on line. The latter, important as it is, is a consolation prize.

This may be hard for layfolk to understand, but supersized particle accellerators are infinitely more important to the progress of real science than low-orbit gymnastics on the part of various middle-aged flyboys. There is a deep mystery at the heart of basic physics--how can we reconcile general relativity and quantum mechanics, given that these two most basic of theories clash head-on at the "Planck scale"? Understand this, and our understanding of the universe is vastly augmented. Unfortunately, this isn't going to be done by hot-shot pilots in pressure suits farting around 200 miles above the Earth's surface for the umpteenth time. It's done by theorists sitting on their asses and staring at the wall; but ultimately, there must be some appeal to data, whence the new generation of accellerators. No space cadets need apply.

Of course, the standard NASA line is that the shuttle made possible a wonder like the Hubble Space Telescope. Bullshit squared! The shuttle almost derailed the Hubble because of continuing delays and headaches with the space-cadet hardware. Moreover, the capacities of the Hubble were severely atenuated by the almost comical limitations of the shuttle. The original design, you see, called for a bigger, more robust instrument. Moreover, it was to be placed in a stable orbit at a "Lagrangian" point of the Earth-Moon system, tens of thousands of miles away. But NASA didn't want a workhorse high-thrust booster; it wanted some pretext for developing the bullshit space shuttle. Thus the Hubble was downsized so as to fit in the shuttle's cargo area and, even worse, placed in a low orbit (because the shuttle can't go beyond that) where, at any given time, half the sky is blocked out by the bulk of the planet beneath. The whole business is a tale told by an idiot.

NASA will respond, of course, that the availability of astronauts on the shuttle made possible the repair and maintainance of the Hubble, specifically, the correction of its initially-defective optics. Yet another steaming helping of bullshit fresh from the NASA kitchen, for the following reasons.

1) A cheap, modest manned program, using Apollo technology, could easily have carried astronauts assigned to repair and maintain the Hubble.

2) Even more, for the resources that were expended in order to get the Hubble in orbit via the shuttle, one could easily have had half-a-dozen Hubbles up there, each needing far less maintainance than the slenderized shuttle version.

[BTW, the bad optics on the initial Hubble were not, for once, NASA's fault; that was due to the absurd secretiveness of DIA, which refused to allow the Hubble developers to test it in its own superlarge collimator--whose existence DIA refused to admit, even though everyone already knew about it. It was also do to the sloppiness of the private corporation holding the mirror-grinding contract.]

In short, using the suttle to orbit the Hubble (and various other gadgets) is like using a Rolls-Royce as a golf cart. There are much faster and cheaper ways to get the job done--in the case of the shuttle, a large workhorse booster without any human "pilots" whose welfare automatically becomes the the chief concern of any mission.

More generally, the rule of thumb is that any valuable science done by human astronauts could have been done, much quicker and for a fraction of the cost, by automated devices. The only exception is the physiology of humans in a weightless environment, which, obvously, needs humans in a weightless environment as test subjects. Even so, the only purpose of such studies is to make it safer to put men in a weightless environment, where they can be subjected to more such studies, leading to more people in a weightless environment,... and so forth. Needless to say, the contribution of this stuff to our basic scientific understanding is rather limited.

So why has NASA been frantically supporting the manned space program and its gimmickry for close to 40 years? Primarily because pictures of flyboys floating around 200 miles above the earth and then landing their overbuilt monster on live TV appeal greatly to a not-terribly sophisticated public and even more to a positively dumb-ass Congress. NASA can keep going to that well ad infinitum, calling this stunt-flying "cutting-edge science," and getting funding for the next round of same. Who cres if it's already been done two hundred times? It may be a one-trick pony--a bad trick and a lousy pony, at that--but the budget still comes through. The flyboys are happy for obvious reasons, NASA bureaucrats are happy because they get to keep their jobs, and, N.B., the private corporations who live off NASA contracts are really happy, because the gravy-train keeps rolling. Who's unhappy? The real scientists dependent on NASA grants who get cut off because NASA's shuttle and space station boondoggles are sacred.

To be blunt about it, even the real science sponsored by NASA is, for the most part, of relatively modest value. Take planetary exploraton, for instance: it might get interesting if actual evidence of present or past extra-terrestrial life turns up on Mars or elsewhere, but aside from that, it's somewhat interesting minerology yielding a bit of insight into the dynamics of the early solar system. Not trivial, by any means--but neither is it basic science of the first rank. It won't tell you zilch about quantum gravity or the protein-folding problem, or whether black holes emit information, or whether the Traveling Salesman Problem is NP-complete. But watching scientists do that really fundamental stuff does not make for interesting television.

One last point: You guys seemed inordinately interested in using your NASA program as a propaganda platform for a rather juvenile and dogmatic version of free-market libertarianism. In making your point, you obviously neglected the typical behavior of private corporations, which I have alluded to above. There's nothing these soi-dissant "free marketeers" love quite so much as a nice, fat government program that funnels a big wad of taxpayer money into their corporate coffers. The less real competition is involved, the happier these fat cats are. NASA's prodigality provides many prime examples.

Libertarianism shares the defects of all ideologies in that it is often indifferent to the messy facts of real life and accurate history. It's a perfect doctrine for a certain kind of google-eyed 14-year-old, but grownups should know better. To my mind, the perfect definition of a free-market libertarian is someone who vociferously insists that the government has no right to prevent him from developing his shorefront property, but who then, once a storm hits, insists that the Army Corps of Engineers must come in and spend millions of tax dollars restoring and protecting his beach, while the Feds must grant him an insurance policy that no private underwriter would ever agree to.

Your devotion to Libertarian oversimplification has, sad to say, clogged your bullshit filter. Please take the necessary countermeasures ASAP.

Fuel

"To my mind, the perfect definition of a free-market libertarian is someone who vociferously insists that the government has no right to prevent him from developing his shorefront property, but who then, once a storm hits, insists that the Army Corps of Engineers must come in and spend millions of tax dollars restoring and protecting his beach, while the Feds must grant him an insurance policy that no private underwriter would ever agree to.

Your devotion to Libertarian oversimplification has, sad to say, clogged your bullshit filter"

Laughable. Completely and utterly laughable.

Seems your brain is clogged, never mind any bullshit filter.

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How come Nasa or the US government did not investigate the Bermuda triangle in the recent years?
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