February 23rd, 2007

#277: Virgin Galactic makes a pact with the devil

According to Ars Technica Virgin Galactic and NASA have finished laying the groundwork "...to further mutual goals in manned and commercial spaceflight."

The only problem is, NASA--being a government agency and all, which has identified space exploration as its bailiwick--is a jealous god and won't tolerate any "horning in" on its territory. While the agency doesn't have the power to actively prevent private citizens (or corporations) from making space flights, it does have the power to wrap such flights in endless webs of red tape, and a call from the right NASA employee to the right FAA employee can stop such operations dead faster than you can say "restraining order".

All the NASA bureaucrat would have to say is something like, "NASA has serious reservations about the safety of the Virgin Galactic spacecraft." and the FAA could then say, "Okay, Branson: Virgin Galactic doesn't send anyone into orbit until we're satisfied it's safe. And since the only government experts on spacecraft work for NASA, we're going to have NASA people head the inquest."

I know that many people regard my opinions about NASA as overly paranoid, but I can't help it. I used to be a staunch full-on supporter of NASA, until I really learned about how the agency did things in the wake of the cutbacks to the space program in the 1970s.

It all started when I did a research paper in college about NASA's quest to build a replacement for the Space Shuttle, the National Aero-Space Plane (NASP). (The ultimate expression of NASP was--before it was cancelled--the X-33 project, which I talked about in this entry.) My research told me things about the Space Shuttle which were never mentioned in all the fluff pieces in the papers; at the time no one ever talked about how delicate the thermal tiles were, or the main engines--

The main engines! Reading Richard Feynman's autobiographies was enough to convince me that the Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs) should never have been man-rated. The damn things run for--what, ten minutes? fifteen?--per flight and then must be completely overhauled. As a jobs program for aerospace engineers, the SSMEs are wonderful...but as tools for exploring space, they're utter junk. (And for the nit pickers, any time you must completely disassemble something and inspect it--even if your inspection reveals that no replacement parts are required--that counts as an "overhaul".)

Reading Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle--especially Jerry Pournelle!--further damaged my opinion of NASA's competency. It was Pournelle who pointed out that NASA took a perfectly usable Saturn V and made it into a goddamned lawn ornament:

This is my own photograph, taken when I was 9 years old and visiting Cape Kennedy, in 1976. At the time I was ignorant of what this meant, what it represented. What a goddamned waste.

On-orbit payload of the Saturn V is 100 tons. On-orbit payload of the Shuttle is 20 tons. Only a government agency could convince itself that reducing per-flight payload while increasing cost-per-flight will result in cheaper access to space.

The fundamental principle of space flight is pretty simple: gross lift-off weight (GLOW) equals booster plus fuel plus payload. Generally speaking you wish to maximize your payload; but the load won't move without a booster, and the booster won't boost without fuel. With chemical rockets, fuel ends up being the majority of GLOW.

Sitting on the launch pad, the Space Shuttle weighs about as much as an Apollo mission (ie a fully-loaded Saturn V, destination Moon) but too much of it is spacecraft and fuel. Even its purported status as a "pickup truck" is misguided; the largest sections of the equally useless space station had to be boosted to orbit by the Russians, who (at least) haven't forgotten basic economics and still build heavy-lift boosters. They may be an old design, but they can heave massive hunks of stuff into orbit and they work.

Think about this: let's say you own a large factory which makes washing machines. How do you ship your merchandise to retailers? Do you send it in loads that will fit in a pickup truck, or do you ship it by the carload? ("Carload" means railroad car, by the way.) Which shipping method will cost more, in aggregate and per unit? Hint: you do not see many pickup trucks sitting at the loading docks at the Maytag factory.

If someone else gets into the business of putting people and stuff into orbit, NASA is going to have a problem convincing congresscritters to fund it. Although I think the best thing NASA could do for manned space flight is simply to get the hell out of the way I know the agency won't do that. Give up bailiwick? Any bureaucrat who suggests that will find himself in a mental asylum, thrown there by his peers, and forgotten.

There's plenty of room in outer space, but in the US, NASA is the gatekeeper. That's why, in Joss Whedon's Firefly, people speak Chinese.

#278: It's because you slept with Chloe Sullivan, you JERK!

This came from a powerfully funny web site called Superdickery. Besides a huge load of examples of Superman being a dick (of which the above image is one, cropped for size) it also has examples demonstrating that Wonder Woman is into bondage, and a selection of seemingly-innocent panels and covers which have serious double entendres in them--whether intentional or not is open for debate.

This also gives me an opportunity to say here that Smallville rules. IMHO it is, hands down, the best implementation of the whole "Superman" phenomenon, and the most recent episode--showing the embryonic efforts of what will, one day, be the Justice League--kicked about six kinds of ass. (Or, it was six kinds of awesome.)

But I can't forgive Jimmy Olsen for bagging Chloe.

Also found on Superdickery.com is a perfect reason why Ronald Reagan was the only US President ever who was made of 100% awesome:

The panel which precedes these shows Reagan standing up and saying, "This office will not bow to terrorism! You have exactly five seconds to surrender yourselves!"

I must make a tee shirt with this on it.

#279: Unintentional humor from the Internet.

More stuff I find funny. First:

These days spammers have to use all sorts of tricks to get past spam filters. It's relatively easy to program a natural-sounding sentence, something which will fool a spam filter into thinking it's a real subject line. They were programming "natural language generators" in the 1970s in BASIC for crying out loud.

It really depends on how sophisticated the spam filter is. (All of these spam e-mails were caught by my ISP's filters and dumped into a holding bin for spam. Heh.) Like you sometimes see at Something Awful I'm going to post pictures of what I imagine these folks look like before my discussion of their subject lines.

Cannon says he/she will attend one of my shows in the future, if I stop using fur. Well, to all the Cannons of the world, let me say for the record that I have not ever used fur, and have no plans to use fur in the foreseeable future. When I have a show, I expect to see you there.

Eveline V. Mcguire sends a sound file about "Jewish Arbor Day" in Israel! Oy, gewalt! The Jews are planting trees in Israel, and I guess they need my help!

Irwin Nolly tells me that Josh will kick "him" out the door. Damn! Sounds like Josh has anger management issues! (And I think it is just possible that Josh may be a bit homophobic. Just a bit.) And I think Josh needs a new door! I wonder if the e-mail is a solicitation for funds to buy Josh a new door, or possibly gender reassignment surgery?

Aldabert Ferris explores the possibility of the sentence fragment by saying, "With Ted The Janitor". That crazy Aldabert! He's such a card!

And various people I don't know say "distant moist", "unfasten persona", "puddle alphabetical", "grapevine jealous", and my personal favorite (because it almost makes some kind of limited sense, unlike the others) "mammoth CPA".

And lastly, Geoffrey L. Castro wraps a riddle in an enigma with his email, "carpeted":

And finally I saw this link on Jerry Pournelle's web site:

I would presume that this URL makes some kind of sense to the infernal machine which spawned it, but it is obviously not meant to be typed by human hands.

Oh well.