Nero was an emperor of Rome, and not looked upon kindly by history. A great fire swept through Rome, rumored to have been started by Nero himself to clear more land for his own estate. Nero supposedly did little to stop it, which is why we have the phrase "Nero fiddled while Rome burned".
The analogy to climate change is glaringly obvious. The burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil has dumped vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the air – far more than the total from all volcanoes combined, for example. This greenhouse gas essentially traps heat*, preventing natural physical processes from letting the Earth maintain its temperature. The end result: the Earth is heating up.
The vast, overwhelming majority of real climate scientists agree with this assessment. Oddly, the fossil fuel industry doesn’t. They sponsor a lot of very loud and very wrong "think tanks" who deny the very existence of the problem the industry itself created. So the Earth heats up, and they fiddle with the truth.
As I wrote recently, global warming is in the news because it’s very likely that the hurricane Sandy was influenced by our changing climate. I’m not the only one to think so. Climate scientist Randy Horton says, for example, that melting sea ice and a declining jet stream may have been in part responsible for steering Sandy into the east coast, instead of over the open ocean as late-season hurricanes usually do.
The deniers, of course, are spinning this faster than the hurricane itself.
Those of us on the side of reality in this issue want it to be about science, but we must see that it’s about politics. When a large number of sitting members of the US House of Representatives science committee are avid and avowed global warming deniers, this is about politics. When we see the fossil fuel industry funding those very people, it’s about politics.
Perhaps that stranglehold of political denial is loosening up a tiny bit. Business Week, not usually known for leftist leanings, just published a story called "It’s Global Warming, Stupid" and put it on their front page. The two presidential candidates have hardly talked about it, and not at all in the debates, despite this being the biggest medium-term crisis the world is facing. President Obama did finally speak out, on MTV of all places (which is actually pretty good; hopefully a younger audience will listen), but could’ve put in a lot more details of what he actually plans to do.
Of course, Governor Romney is wearing his past statements like an albatross around his neck. He has mocked global warming, and said many times he would dismantle FEMA. He flip-flopped on that just this week, kindof, saying FEMA does an important job. However, given that he said it was "immoral" – his word – to fund FEMA, I have a difficult time believing he’s being entirely honest now.
Because the issue was ignored in the debates, Science Debate put on a mock 4th Presidential debate dealing with global warming, with candidate stand-ins talking about the issue. If only that had been real. If only.
So we still have a long way to go. Things in the Senate aren’t much better, with people like James Inhofe (R-OK) still sticking by his claim that the very idea of global warming is a hoax. Happily, some people are willing to hang that one around his neck, too. But it’s not enough. Not nearly.
And there’s more bad news. One of the biggest weapons we have against hurricanes like Sandy is our fleet of weather satellites, tracking the storms and allowing scientists to predict the path and ferocity of storms, sometimes days in advance. Sandy’s track was predicted amazingly well due to this. But our very ability to do this is in jeopardy: the New York Times is reporting that we may be facing a weather satellite crisis, with an aging fleet of satellites breaking down and no replacements ready for launch for quite some time. There may be a years-long gap in our coverage of storms from space because of this.
And during all of this, the deniers fiddle. They argue and spin about statistics, misleadingly plotting data. They talk about sunspots, they talk about cycles, they talk about other planets, and all the while they are desperately trying to distract you from the real issue. The Earth is warming up, the change is real, it’s dangerous, it’s already affecting us noticeably, and we’re not doing anything to stop it.
The public is catching on to this. Recent polls show that Americans are more accepting that global warming is real. That’s good news, and an excellent start.
But it must be translated into action. We have an election coming up in a few days. Many of these climate change deniers are up for re-election, while others are seeking office. If you are an American, I urge you to do your research and vote accordingly. Literally, our future is in our hands.
<em<Image credit: NOAA/NASA GOES Project
* Technically, CO2 is transparent to visible light, but opaque to far infrared. Sunlight gets through, warms up the ground, which then radiates that heat as infrared. The CO2 won’t let that radiate away into space, so the heat stays on Earth, warming the ground (and oceans!) further. But saying "it traps heat" is close enough.
[Update: I originally called the new space policy "visionary" in the title of this post, but after some thought I changed it. It's actually not visionary, it's pragmatic, so I took the word out. Other than that I haven't changed anything in this post since it originally went up.]
President Obama gave a speech at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center today to outline his new, revamped space policy.
You may remember that his last revamping caused quite a stir, with people screaming that it would doom NASA. I disagree. Canceling Constellation still strikes me as the right thing to do, because it was becoming an albatross around NASA’s neck. Mind you, this was also the recommendation of the blue ribbon Augustine panel. You may also note that NASA astronauts are split over all this, with Buzz Aldrin, for example, supporting Obama, and Neil Armstrong and many others disagreeing.
It’s a mess, and hard to disentangle what everyone’s saying. There’s been a huge amount of misinformation about it (with — shocking — Fox news leading the way; they spout so much disingenuousness, nonsense, self-contradiction, and outright stupidity that it makes me want to fly to their studios just to slap them). But Obama’s plan seems pretty clear.
As promised, today President Obama released his planned NASA budget for the year. Not too surprisingly, it’s pretty much as the rumors indicated. There’s a lot to say here, and I have a lot on my mind, so please hear me out.
The Good News
The good news for sure is an increase of $6 billion over the next five years. It stresses new technology and innovation (to the tune of over $1.5 billion), which is also good. A lot of NASA’s successes have been from pushing the limits on what can be done. It also stresses Earth science, which isn’t surprising at all; Obama appears to understand the importance of our environmental impact, including global warming. So that’s still good news.
The very very good news is that half that money — half, folks, 3.2 billion dollars — is going to science. Yeehaw! The release specifically notes telescopes and missions to the Moon and planets. That, my friends, sounds fantastic.
Bye bye Constellation
Now to the other aspects of this budget. As I have written before, this new budget axes Constellation:
NASA’s Constellation program – based largely on existing technologies – was based on a vision of returning astronauts back to the Moon by 2020. However, the program was over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation due to a failure to invest in critical new technologies. Using a broad range of criteria an independent review panel determined that even if fully funded, NASA’s program to repeat many of the achievements of the Apollo era, 50 years later, was the least attractive approach to space exploration as compared to potential alternatives. Furthermore, NASA’s attempts to pursue its moon goals, while inadequate to that task, had drawn funding away from other NASA programs, including robotic space exploration, science, and Earth observations. The President’s Budget cancels Constellation and replaces it with a bold new approach that invests in the building blocks of a more capable approach to space exploration…
I can’t say I disagree with much that’s written there. A lot of it is based on the conclusions of the Augustine commission, a blue-ribbon panel of experts appointed by Obama to look into NASA’s future plans and make recommendations.
The Space Station
The budget calls for extending the International Space Station beyond the 2016 timeline, perhaps for four more years. I would say this is a bad idea, BUT the budget also asks for extending the ISS’s scientific capabilities. I would be happy to see that; ISS is very limited as a science platform. However, the dang thing is already built and in orbit, so it makes sense to spend a little bit more (I was surprised to see only about $180 million for this) to make it useful scientifically. If that becomes the case, then a lot of the issues I have with ISS go away.
Incidentally, the budget calls for a guaranteed $600 million for the next five Shuttle missions to ISS, even if a launch slips into FY11.
Back to the Moon?
So, where does this leave us as far as going back to the Moon? It leaves us delayed, again. That sucks. However, as I have pointed out before, Constellation was already a mess. Behind schedule, over budget, and starved of funding. It was a mandate from the Bush White House, but never got the money it needed from them or Congress to ensure it could be done (this didn’t work when it was attempted from the Bush Sr. White House/Congress either).
I don’t want a repeat of the Apollo program: a flag-and-footprints mission where we go there, look around, and then come home for another 40 years. I want to go there and stay there. Apollo was done as a race, and the goal of a race is to win. It wasn’t sustainable. We need to be able to figure out how to get there and be there, and that takes more than just big rockets. We need a good plan, and I’m not really sure what we had up until this point is that plan.
Building a heavy-lift rocket that can take us to the Moon, Mars, and near-Earth asteroids is not really easy. It’s not like we can dust off the old Saturn V plans and start up the factories again. All that tech is gone, superseded, and we might as well start from scratch with an eye toward newer tech. This budget is calling for that, as well as relying heavily on private companies.
And about that. I’ll say this again: private companies have not yet put a man in orbit, but Space X, as an example, is close to doing so. Once the Shuttle retires later this year, private companies will be putting humans in space before NASA will have the capability to do so again [UPDATE: please see my comment below; the above statement about companies beating NASA is correct]. I am no fan of paying the Russians or other countries to do this for us, and going the route of civilian space makes sense.
Now, Space X doesn’t have the heavy lift capacity that an Ares 5 or other planned NASA rocket might have had… but with routine launches to space covered by private companies, NASA can concentrate on what it should: innovation, pushing the limits, paving the road. Once the road is laid, let others use it.
So I don’t see this as doom and gloom. I see this as 1) putting science and innovation first, and 2) freeing NASA up to do what it does best: explore the boundaries.
Here’s what I think. Warning: political complaining ahead.
Remember: the way we’ve been doing things for 40 years has gotten us literally in circles. It’s perhaps long past time to shake things up and try something different. In my previous posts on this (see Related Posts at the bottom), people are complaining that Obama is killing our Moon plans and gutting NASA. That’s simply not true. I think this may very well save NASA and our future manned exploration capabilities, if this is all done correctly.
As for that, and having said my piece that I think this is a good idea, it may not matter: the other thing to remember is that this must pass Congress first. I honestly don’t think that will happen. For one thing, two many Congresscritters have too big a stake in NASA to let go; if you don’t believe me, read this article where Alabama Congressmen complain about the new budget. When Republicans whine about privatizing something, you know you’re in for a fight, and it’s not like Congressional Democrats haven’t been all that useful in backing up Obama’s plans.
We’ll see how this goes. If it’s business as usual with Congress, then I suspect it may be a lot like the health care plan all over again: lots of spin and noise, lots of knee-jerk reactions because it’s Obama’s plan, lots of "compromise" that’s really just watering down something to make it worse, and then a budget will be passed that won’t be able to get anything done.
I’m pretty damn tired of that, and I’m going to do something about it. I’ll write my Congressmen, and I’ll tell them that the time for bending over backwards is long gone. It’s time to grow a spine, time for boldness, time for innovation. Whether people like it or not, this is the new budget being proposed, and if Congress wheedles over it, then yeah, NASA really will be screwed, and we’ll spend the next four decades circling our planet and gazing at the Moon, wondering when we’ll ever go back.
Perhaps it’s fitting that this news is released on the anniversary of the loss of Columbia — it’s been seven years since that day when the orbiter broke up upon re-entry. A very good case can be made that complacence played a big role in that event. When it comes to space exploration, we must never rest on our laurels, we must never have the arrogance to think we have it all under control, and we must never forget that to explore means to push ahead into unknown territory. That is the lesson of Columbia.
The Moon, Mars, and all of space await us. This new budget may not be perfect, but I strongly suspect it’s the best we can do, and far, far better than the course we currently have laid out. If we don’t push for this now, we may never go back.
A ship may be safe in the harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.
Wow, that’s quite a star lineup! I wish I could’ve been there too. Maybe next year…
And the quote of the night from the President, who said this in response to a young girl who was 14 when she discovered a supernova, and a high school sophomore who found a rare type of pulsar:
NASA’s equipment is some pretty powerful stuff. But astronomy also depends on the curiosity and contribution of amateur astronomers. [...] If they can discover something great, so can any of you other students who are here tonight. All you need is a passion for science.
Damn straight. And awesome.
This is pretty cool: tonight, President Obama will have a bunch of professional and amateur astronomers over to the White House to show the First Family and a group of middle schoolers the sky. The event coincides with the International Year of Astronomy and World Space Week.
And may I say? It’s so so cool to finally have a President who respects science. Yay!