Posts Tagged‘congress’

SOPA, PIPA and the Insanity of the US Copyright System.

For over 100 years rights holders have resisted any changes to their business models brought about by changes in technology. From a business perspective its hard to blame them, I mean who wouldn’t do everything in their power to ensure you could keep making money, but history has shown that no matter how hard they fight it they will eventually lose out. Realistically the world has moved on and instead of attempting to keep the status quo rights holders should be looking for ways to exploit these new technologies to their advantage, not ignore them or try to legislate them away. Indeed if other industries followed suit you’d have laws preventing you from developing automated transport to save the buggy whip industry.

The copyright system that the USA employs is a great example of where legislation can go too far at the request of an industry failing to embrace change. At its inception the copyrights were much like patents: time limited exclusivity deals that enabled a creator to profit from their endeavours for a set period of time after which they would enter the public domain. This meant that as time went on there would be an ever growing collection of public knowledge that would benefit everyone and not just those who held the patent. However unlike the patent system copyrights in the USA have seen massive reform in the past, enough so that works that would have come into the public domain will probably never do so.

Thankfully, whilst the copyright system might be the product of an arms race between innovators and rights holders, that hasn’t stop innovation in the areas where the two meet. Most of this can be traced back to provisions made in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) that granted safe harbour to any site that relied on user generated content. In essence it put the burden of work on the rights holders themselves, requiring them to notify a site about infringing works. The site was then fully protected from legal action should they comply with the request, even if they restore the offending material after receiving a counter claim from the alleged offender. Many sites rely on this safe harbour in order to continue running on the web because the reverse, them policing copyright themselves, is both technically challenging and resource intensive.

However just like all the technologies and provisions that have been made for the rights holder industry previously those safe harbour provisions, which enabled many of the world’s top websites to flourish, are seen as a threat to their business models. Rights holders associations have said that the DMCA as it stands right now is too lenient and have lobbied for changes that would better support their business. This has come in the form of 2 recent bills that have dropped in both houses: the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) in the senate and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the house of reps. Both of these bills have attracted heavy criticism from the technology and investment sectors and it’s easy to see why.

At their core the bills are essentially the same. Both of them look to strengthen the powers that rights holders have in pursuing copyright infringers whilst at the same time weakening the safe harbour provisions that were created under the DMCA. Additionally many of the mechanisms described in the bill are at odds with the way that the Internet is designed to work, breaking many of the ideals that were set out in order to ensure ubiquitous access. There’s also many civil liberty issues at stake here and whilst bill supporters have assured everyone that they don’t impact on them in any way the wording of the bill is vague enough to support both interpretations.

The main issue I and many others take with these bills is the shifting of the burden of proof (and thus responsibility) away from the rights holders and onto the web site owners. The changes SOPA advocates mean that web site administrators will be responsible for identifying copyrighted material and then removing it from their website, lest they fall prey to having their domain seized. Whilst this more than likely won’t be the downfall of the sites that made their fame inside the safe harbours of the DMCA it would have a chilling effect on start-ups looking to innovate in an area that would have anything to do with a rights holder group. Indeed it would be the sites that have limited resources that would be hit the hardest as patrolling for copyright infringement isn’t a fully automated process yet and the burden could be enough to drive them under.

It’s also evident that SOPA was put together rather haphazardly when some of the most known copyrights infringement sites, like The Pirate Bay, are actually immune to it. Indeed many sites that rights holders complain about aren’t covered by SOPA (just by the current laws which, from what I can tell, means they’re not going anywhere) and thus the bill will have little impact on their activities.

You might be wondering why I, an Australian who’s only ever been to the USA once, would care about something like SOPA. Disregarding for the moment the principle argument and the fact that I don’t want to see the USA technology sector die (I could justify my point easily with either) the unfortunate reality is that Australia has a rather liberal free trade agreement with the USA. What this means is that not only do we trade with them free of tariffs and duties but we’re also obliged to comply with their laws which affect trade. SOPA is one such bill and should it pass it’s highly likely that we’d be compelled to either implement a similar law ourselves or simply enforce theirs. Don’t think that would happen? A leaked letter from the American ambassador to Spain warned them that not passing a SOPA like bill would see them put on a trade blacklist effectively ending trade between the two countries.  This is just another reason as to why everyone, not just Americans, should oppose SOPA in its current form.

The worst part of all of this is the potential for my site, the one I’ve been blogging on for over 3 years, to come under fire. I link to a whole bunch of different places and simply doing so could open me up to domain seizure, even if it wasn’t me putting the link there. I already have limited time to spend on here and the additional task of playing copyright police would surely have an impact on how often I could post and comment. I don’t want to stop writing and I don’t want people to stop commenting but SOPA has the very real potential to make both those activities untenable.

So what can be done about SOPA and its potential chilling effects on our Internet ecosystem? For starters if you’re an American citizen write your representative and tell them to oppose SOPA. If you’re not then the best you can do is help to raise awareness of this issue, as whilst it’s a big issue in the tech circles, even some of the most versed political pundits were unaware of SOPA’s existence until recently. Past that we just have to hope we’ve made enough of an impression on the USA congress critters so that the bill doesn’t pass, at least in its current form. The hard work of many people has made this a very public issue, but only continued pressure will make it so it won’t damage the Internet and the industries it now supports.

EDIT: It appears that the strong opposition has caused the American congress to shelve SOPA indefinitely. Count that as a win for sanity.

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The Shuttle Era Ends, A New Frontier Awaits.

10 days after Atlantis blasted off on its final trip into space for STS-135 the last ever space shuttle mission has finally returned to earth, signalling an end to the 30 year program and marking the end of an era for space. For many of us young star gazers the space shuttle is an icon, something that embodied the human spirit ever searching for new frontiers to explore. For me personally it symbolized something I felt truly passionate about, a feeling that I had not been familiar with for a very long time. Many will lament its loss but it has come time for NASA to reinvent itself, leaving the routine of low earth orbit for new frontiers that eagerly await them.

 Atlantis’ final firey return back to earth, as seen from the International Space Station.

Image credit: NASA/Johnson Space Center (via @NASA_Johnson) 

The shuttle was, from a technical point of view, too much of a compromise between government agencies for it to be able to achieve the goals set out for it. There’s no denying it was an extremely versatile craft but many of the design decisions made were at odds with the end goals of making a reusable craft that could cater to all of the USA’s launch needs for the next 30 years. Constellation then would look like a step in the right direction however whilst it was a far more appropriate craft for NASA’s current needs their money is better spent on pushing their capability envelope, rather than designing yet another launch system.

NASA, to their credit, appears to be in favour of offloading their launch capabilities to private industry. They already have contracts with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences to provide both launch capabilities and crew/cargo capsules however attempts to fully privatize their more rudimentary activities have been routinely blocked by congress. It’s no secret that much of the shuttle’s manufacturing process is split up across states for purely political purposes (it made no sense to build the external tank so far away that it needed a barge to ship it back) and the resistance from congress for private launch systems is indicative of that. Still they have their foot in the door now and this opens up the opportunity for NASA to get back to its roots and begin exploring the final frontier.

There’s no denying that we’ve made great progress with robotic space exploration, reaching out to almost every section of our solar system and exploring their vast wonders. However not since 1972 has a human left low earth orbit, something people of the time wouldn’t believe if you told them so. Whilst it might not be the most efficient way of exploring the universe it’s by far the best for inspiring the next generation:

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It’s a historic day and it will mark a turning point for NASA and space flight in the USA one way or another. It’s my fervent hope that NASA uses this as an opportunity to refocus on its core goals of pushing the envelope of what’s possible for humanity through exploring that vast black frontier of space. It won’t be an easy journey for NASA, especially considering the greater economic environment they’re working in right now, but I know the people there are more than capable of doing it and the USA needs them in order to inspire the next generation.

NASA Hamstrung By Congress Once Again.

It seems that whenever I mention NASA and the US congress together I’ve never really got anything positive to say. Indeed my last 3 posts tagged congress are all critical of the government’s involvementin NASA’s affairs and how their constant medlinghas caused nothing but harm. Still I recognise that without congress’ involvement there wouldn’t be a NASA at all and that whilst I may lament the organisation being used as a part of pork barrell politics it at least keeps their budget from being drastically slashed. Today I was hoping to write about some of the more positive news that had come out of the US congress but unfortunately the relationship hasn’t changed one bit.

About 4 days ago saw the passing of a bill in congress that saw some funding approved for NASA. Now usually this would be something to celebrate but in true congressional style they’ve managed to bollocks it up once again:

 The House Science and Technology Committee approved H.R. 5781 with strong bipartisan support July 22, sending forward a bill that authorizes only a small fraction of the $3.3 billion NASA sought to invest in a commercial crew transportation system over the next three years. The bill authorized $150 million through 2013 for commercial crew and another $300 million in the form of government-backed loans or loan guarantees. The measure also would continue much of the work being done under NASA’s Constellation program, a 5-year-old effort to build new rockets and spacecraft optimized for lunar missions that President Barack Obama targeted for termination in his 2011 spending proposal delivered to Congress in February.

Now whilst I’m excited at the fact that they’re adding another space shuttle flight to the manifest (as that means I’ll definitely be able to go and see it next year) the rest of the bill shows a complete disregard for Obama’s vision for spacethat was laid down at the start of this year. The idea of replacing all of NASA’s routine activities with cheaper commercial solutions was a sound idea, especially when companies like SpaceX are proving just how capable they are. $3.3 billion would have bought at a rough guess about 30 fully stacked Falcon 9 rockets with Dragon capsules on top, more than enough to tide NASA over for several years. $150 million would probably cover the cost of a single rocket and little more, meaning that all you’d really get would be one demonstration flight.

Keeping the Constellation program alive is something I can’t really support unless it gets a whole bucket load of new funding. Right now many of NASA’s other activities like robotic space exploration and science have suffered because the Constellation program is using resources that were once planned for them. The program’s vision was too ambitious for the amount of funding it was given and unless new money is brought in to complete it NASA will continue to suffer under its burden. You know that this is all done in the name of pork barrelling when the bill will “prohibit NASA from laying off civil servants for at least six months following the bill’s enactment”.

Most often the criticisms I see laid at the commercial alternatives to NASA’s own launch systems is that they don’t have the experience nor do they meet the safety ratings required for NASA’s human program. The first is somewhat valid as whilst companies like United Launch Alliance have a vast wealth of launch experience they have never actually launched people into space on one of their rockets. On the other hand however the requirements for man ratingare well known and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 conforms to all required specifications. ULA has also has specifications for man rated versions of their ATLAS-V and DELTA-V rockets so the notion that commercial space alternatives aren’t up to the task is plainly false.

The bill makes even less sense when you consider some of the most recent developments coming out of the commercial space industry. SpaceX just recently announced their plans for some new launch systems and boy are they impressive:

For the transition from Earth to Mars, however, SpaceX believes nuclear thermal is the preferred propulsion means for the piloted aspect of the mission, while solar-electric power could be used to transport supplies.

The U.S. government “should take the lead on nuclear and commercial industry should take the lead on building heavy-lift launch vehicles,” Markusic says. “Low-level propulsion technology research and development should be government-led, with a transition to flight development in 2025.”

A growth development, dubbed Falcon X Heavy, would employ nine engines clustered in three cores. Collectively these would generate 10.8 million lb. of thrust at liftoff and boost 125,000 kg. to orbit. The ultimate launch vehicle, the Falcon XX, stands as tall as the Saturn V, is configured with six engines in a single core and is designed to lift 140,000 kg. to LEO.

SpaceX’s new rockets are simply staggering in their specifications. The Falcon X Heavy already outpaces the Saturn V (the biggest rocket in history) and the Falcon XX is nipping at the heels of the planned Ares V. They’ve nailed the point that the private industry should be responsible for the more routine activities of getting into space as NASA has no real need to do this when cheaper, viable alternatives are available. Interestingly enough this is the first I’ve heard anyone talk about nuclear thermal propulsionin quite a long time and realistically I’ve always seen it as the next logical step in rocket technology once chemical propulsion reached its limits. Whether or not SpaceX’s push to get NASA to develop such technology gets off the ground is another matter however and it might be another decade before it sees any traction.

I’ve always been disillusioned with the US congress when it comes to meddling in NASA’s affairs and these recent developments haven’t done anything to help that. The private space sector is really starting to pick up steam and it just makes sense for NASA to drop their current launch systems in favor of cheaper alternatives. This will allow them to get back to their roots of pioneering in space rather than getting caught up in the routine activities that can be easily offloaded to someone else. With Elon Musk’s plan to retire to Mars I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more progress from the private sector in the decades to come and right now it looks likely that they’ll become the ones to inspire the next generation. Maybe then congress will wake up and let NASA do what they do best.

Come NASA, Let us Torch the Pork Barrel.

It really never fails to suprise me how much meddling the American congress does in NASA’s affairs, given the fact that their budget takes up a whopping 0.58% of total US government spending. The past 3 decades have seen many of NASA’s great ideas turned on their heads either due to horrible design by committee or from being given directives from people who have absolutlely zero aerospace knowledge. More recently though I grew to apperciate the new direction that Obama had laid out for NASA because, unlike Bush’s vision for space exploration, it was achievable and would lay the groundwork for future missions that would reach further into space than ever before. It seems however that NASA is still struggling to shrug off some of the pork barrel politics that had plagued it in the past and which are now threatening to ruin NASA’s future completely.

Specifically there’s a recent piece of news that tells us that the senate sub-committee in charge of NASA oversight is preparing a bill to derail Obama’s new vision for space:

Though the bill effectively cancels the delayed and over-budget Constellation moon-rocket program — as Obama requested in his NASA budget — it would repurpose that money to build a new heavy-lift rocket while largely ignoring the president’s call to fund new space-faring technology and commercial rockets that would send humans into space.

But his dramatic overhaul of the human-spaceflight program has faced fierce resistance on Capitol Hill, especially from lawmakers in states with other NASA centers or with big NASA contracts like Utah, where the solid-rocket motor that would have powered Constellation’s Ares rockets is manufactured.

The Senate bill, which if passed would lay out the direction of the space program for the next three years, would revive the fortunes of Utah’s solid-rocket maker, ATK, by requiring NASA to keep using its solid-rocket motors for a new heavy-lift rocket.

Alright I can understand that it would be hard for any congress critter to not fight for the jobs of his constituents but realistically the writing has been on the wall for sometime for these folk. The retirement of the shuttles and the infrastructure they rely on was announced over 5 years ago but of course due to the fact that the end date was well outside the current election term there was little resistance to it then. Now that we’re halfway through the current term (with the scheduled end looking to be occuring just a year before the next election) dropping all those jobs that the shuttle program supports doesn’t look too good and they’re fighting it by any means necessary.

Realistically though it’s just an exercise in pork barrel politics. If you take a look at the shuttle’s components you’ll notice that they’re not all made in the same area. That’s fair enough, sometimes you just don’t have the infrastructure. However the reason behind it was pure politics as all of the districts surrounding the Kennedy Space Center wanted a piece of the shuttle pie. As a result the external tanks are made in New Orleans, SRBs in Utah and the Space Shuttle Main Engines in California¹ with each component having to be shipped over to be assembled at the KSC. It spreads the pork around a fair bit but the efficency of the NASA program suffers as a result.

There are of course those who are taking this as a signal that congress supports an alternative vision that a group of NASA engineers have proposed, called DIRECT. Now I’ve always cast a skeptical eye over the DIRECT proposal as whilst it does take advantage of a lot of current infrastructure and reduces the launch gap considerably (on paper) it’s never really got any official traction. Additionally it keeps NASA in the business of designing rockets to use for the rather rudimentary activities that are now being taken over by private space organisations. Thus whilst there might be significant cost savings in comparison to the Ares series of rockets they still pale in comparison to commerical offerings. I still support the idea of NASA developing a new heavy lift launch system solely because it has no current commerical application, but while DIRECT does give this as an option it fails to get away from the inefficencies that plague the shuttle program (namely the giant standing army of people).

Hopefully this proposal doesn’t get any traction as it would just ruin the solid plan that Obama had laid down for the future of humanity in space. It’s time for NASA to break the chains that have been holding it back for so long handing over some of its capabilities to those who can do it cheaper, safer and faster. Only then can NASA hope to return to the days of being a pioneer in space rather than languishing as the glorified taxi service to the ISS, as many would have it be.

¹I can’t 100% guarantee the build location of the SSMEs as Rocketdyne has several locations and I can’t seem to find an official source for their build location. As far as I can tell however, they’re built somewhere different again from New Orleans or Utah.

NASA: Doomed to Repeat Its Mistakes.

Ever since the glory days of Gemini and Apollo NASA has struggled to figure out exactly what their goals will be with human space exploration. This is not to say that they’ve lost all direction, far from it. The majority of NASA’s robotic endeavours have been quite successful and they continue to push the envelope in this space. However when it comes to putting us fleshy beings into the great black vacuum of space they, and in the interest of full disclosure no one else, has managed to send humans any further than low earth orbit for the past 4 decades.

My regular readers will know that I put the majority of blame directly on the US congress as NASA makes for an easy target for budget cuts to spend on other policies. However NASA isn’t blameless in this either with nearly every program they’ve run coming in over budget, past deadline and not entirely to initial specification. The reason behind this is easily demonstrated when you have companies with employees totalling in the hundreds, ala SpaceX, managing to achieve what NASA has done with almost 18,000. A good chunk of that is dedicated entirely to the Shuttle program so NASA will look a lot leaner in the near future but the overwhelming amount of people and thus the bureaucracy that follows it have done nothing to help NASA in achieving its goals.

You might be wondering then what brought this rant on about NASA’s past when I only recently extolled the virtues of their new vision. Well it seems that NASA has failed to learn from its past and has set its sights on developing technology that it has already developed (and in fact, licensed out to a private company):

Astronauts may one day orbit the Earth in roomy balloons instead of cramped tin cans, now that NASA has made inflatable space habitats a priority.

The White House announced a change in direction for NASA on 1 February. Instead of the planned crewed missions to the moon, the agency intends to pour money into research and development (New Scientist, 13 February 2010, p 8).

The outline listed technologies on NASA’s wish list but provided few details. Now NASA has fleshed out its plans in a detailed budget proposal posted on its website on 22 February. One section notes that balloon-like habitats “can be larger, lighter, and potentially less expensive” than traditional ones made of rigid metal walls. They could be used as space stations, or eventually as moon bases. NASA may send inflatable structures to the International Space Station to test their mettle – including their ability to shield against space radiation.

Does that sound familiar to anyone? The technology in question was developed by NASA and called Transhab which was in essence an inflatable space station module that could fit atop of current generation rockets yet deliver almost 3 times the volume of the Columbus module. To say that they were a good idea was a bit of an understatement as not only did they deliver more space on the cheap they were also quite a lot more resilient to things like micrometeorite strikes due to the flexible nature of the material used.

They were such a good idea that space entrepreneur Robert Bigelow licensed the technology from NASA to develop his own line of space habitats under his own company Bigelow Aerospace. You could easily write these guys off as just another startup that had yet to produce anything but they’ve already launched 2 of their own modules with a third (which will be able to take humans on board) well on the way. It would make you wonder then that since the technology is viable, even from a commercial point of view, why did NASA drop it?

As always the blame lies with congress who passed House Resolution 1654 that effectively banned NASA from researching and building their own Transhab structures (as well as climate research, go figure). Luckily HR1654 doesn’t stop NASA from actually using inflatable modules on the station so we may just see some Bigelow hardware on the ISS sometime in the future, but only time will tell.

So you can see why I get all up in arms about the way NASA is handled by the US congress. They’re constantly meddling in their affairs which makes it extremely difficult for them to develop technologies that will make space cheaper and more pervasive than it is today. I’ll admit that this is out of a selfish desire to see cheap space access for myself and all of mankind but with the countless benefits of space technologies and exploration being reaped by us all you can see why I believe in it so much. Whilst the private space industry looks bright I still worry about our forefathers in NASA who’ve had their lust for being on the bleeding edge sated by the red tape of congress.

Congress, Get Your Hands Off NASA!

One thing that’s guaranteed to get me going is the US congress meddling around in NASA’s affairs. They have enough internal troubles as it is without congress getting involved and trying to force them in a certain direction. Sure I can understand that the US wants results for their money and therefore feels they should be able to control their activities but with them investing  only 0.55% of their total budget in the program you can see why I get all hot under the collar when they’re targeted for reductions in spending. In fact the US Defence Force’s spending on space exceeds that of NASA’s budget by a fair margin (it was $22 billion 3 years ago) which just makes it even more ludicrous the amount of meddling congress does in NASA’s affairs.

If you’re wondering what’s spurred this rant it was this particular piece of news that opened up the old wounds of congress sticking its nose in where its not wanted:

Of the $400 million in ARRA funds Congress designated for space exploration projects, NASA initially planned to spend $150 million on competitively awarded projects meant to seed the development of commercial space transportation systems capable of ferrying astronauts to low Earth orbit.

“These efforts are intended to foster entrepreneurial activity leading to job growth in engineering, analysis, design and research, and to economic growth as capabilities for new markets are created,” NASA explained in a commercial crew and cargo white paper it sent Congress in May.

But House and Senate lawmakers told NASA to reduce the amount for commercial crew and cargo development to $90 million.

NASA was fortunate enough to get a small piece of the stimulus pie (about $1 billion total) which it’s spent about half of so far. Much of that went to the Constellation program in the hopes to keep the development on track for a 2015 debut launch. The problem is however that even if they do make that deadline there’s still a 4 year gap where the US won’t have any capability to deliver astronauts to LEO, the ISS and beyond. There are 2 schools of thought as to how they’re going to bridge the gap: the first being for them to continue their arrangements with Russia using Soyuz (although they’re already tapped out) and the second using commercially available solutions. Congress it seems has decided that the second is not worth the money and the first is not particularly feasible.

Seriously, what were they thinking?

The COTS program was a brilliant idea and it has definitely help spur companies like SpaceX forward. Injecting additional cash into these companies would see the development of fully private manned spacecraft accelerated and would thus close the launch gap that NASA is doomed to suffer. I’m not exactly sure what the congress critters have in mind when it comes to NASA but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Their dealings with them, apart from the initial inception for the space race, have always been rather awkward and short sighted.

This also affects their involvement with the International Space Station. They’ve stated in the past that they’re not interested in continuing their support of the ISS past 2015 drastically reducing the ROI on the project (it was slated for 10 years at full functionality, retirement in 2015 would reduce that to 5). Russia however has said that they’re quite happy for the US to detach their modules as they’ll keep maintaining their sections of the craft. They have extensive experience in long term station maintenance so its no wonder they want to keep their investment for as long as possible. The US however seems willing to ditch all their investment in the project without further consideration.

The reason that this is such a big deal is that the other big partners in the ISS, namely the ESA and JAXA, have to rework their schedules in accordance with the US decisions. They’re just cargo services at the moment but even those sort of missions require extensive planning, you can’t just whip up a HTV or ATV in a couple weeks. In fact they’ve begun to put pressure on the US to make a decision about the matter, but it’s still all up in the air.

Really the heart of the problem here is the giant bureaucracy that plagues both NASA and the US congress. SpaceX has proven that they can develop a launch capability with a team of hundreds, not thousands. They’ve also demonstrated that they can recover from launch aborts in a matter of hours, not days. This can all be easily attributed to the fact that they run with a minimal set of red tape and congress’ decision to funnel money away from companies as capable as they are is just unfathomably stupid.

For the negligible expenditure that NASA costs the US I am always confounded by how many people still think its a waste of money. If it wasn’t for NASA you wouldn’t have GPS, satellite television and programmable pacemakers. It would be nice if congress could get their hands out of their business for a while so that NASA can properly define their objectives and hopefully get itself back on track. I’d also love to funnel another 1% of GDP into them in order to develop things like a moon base but I know that’s never going to happen.

Maybe I should start my own nation, with space rockets and SCIENCE. ;)