Posts Tagged‘usa’

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.

The Internet Filter, Conroy and the Free Trade Agreement.

You know whilst I appreciate that the Internet filter was the trigger for the creation of this blog and has been a healthy source of fodder for me to post on I still wish it would just up and die already. It’s been said time and time again that the filter won’t achieve its goals and will only serve to make Australia more of an Internet backwater than it already is. When you’re planning to roll out a national broadband network at the same time it seems rather counter-intuitive to go ahead and strangle it with an infrastructure bottle-neck that makes said network almost null and void.

That being said I still stand by my position that the filter, at least in its current form, will not make its way into reality. The tech crowd is universally opposed to it and there’s increasing pressure from the giants of the Internet (Google, et al) to abandon such ideas. It seems now that even our good friends across the ocean are starting to have concerns that such a policy would be harmful not only to Australia and its citizens, but also to relations abroad:

Asked about the US view on the filter plan US State Department spokesman Noel Clay said: “The US and Australia are close partners on issues related to cyber matters generally, including national security and economic issues.

…In a speech in January US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put internet freedom at the heart of American foreign policy as part of what she called “21st century statecraft”. The US, she said, would be seeking to resist efforts by governments around the world to curb the free flow of information on the internet and encouraged US media organisations to “take a proactive role in challenging foreign governments’ demands for censorship”.

Clay’s statement added: “The US Government’s position on internet freedom issues is well known, expressed most recently in Secretary Clinton’s January 21st address.  We are committed to advancing the free flow of information, which we view as vital to economic prosperity and preserving open societies globally.”

Conroy’s first response was to say that hey hadn’t heard anything and failed to make any comment on what his opinion was on the matter. I don’t blame him for doing that either as up until recently he was only fighting the people of Australia and a few corporations. Now he’s got to deal with the US putting pressure on him to not go ahead with his proposal and he can’t openly attack them like he has done with Google leaving him with very few rhetorical options. I’m sure his spin doctors are working overtime on this one and I don’t envy the job they have (I mean really how to do brush off an attack from the US government?).

More importantly there’s also the small issue of an agreement that Australia and the US signed in about 6 years ago, the Australia – United States Free Trade Agreement. Back when it was first introduced there was hefty opposition to the proposal, mostly from Australia’s side, as it had the potential to wreck havok on things like the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) and forced Australia to make changes to its intellectual property laws. Despite all this the agreement passed and came into effect on the 1st of January 2005 and hasn’t really come up in political discussions since.

The FTA was much futher reaching than the issues that were brought up in during negotiations. Other areas it covered were financial services, environmental issues, investment and government procurement. More interestingly however there are 2 key areas that the FTA covers that are quite likely to be affected by the proposed Internet filter, and they are:

Telecommunications

This section details agreed upon terms by both countries to assure fair trade between the telecommunications industries in each country. The rules specifically exclude measures relating to broadcast or cable distribution of radio or television programming.

Among other provisions, the agreement lays out rules for settling disputes among the members of the telecommunications industries in one country with the members in the other. It entitles enterprises to:

  • seek timely review by a regulator or court to resolve disputes;
  • seek review of disputes regarding appropriate terms, conditions, and rates for interconnection; and
  • to obtain judicial review of a determination by a regulatory body.

Electronic commerce

The parties agreed to co-operate on mechanisms to facilitate electronic commerce, not to impose customs duties on digital products and for each to apply non-discriminatory treatment to the digital products of the other.

The first relates to how Australia and the US will provide communications infrastructure and services to each other in a fair and equitable way and provides a framework for settling disputes. The bolded point outlines an area where the FTA could be invoked if Australia decides to implement a filter. Whilst the debate is still open on just how much an Internet filter would harm Australia’s ability to do business on the Internet the greater tech community is of the mind that it will be detrimental, regardless of implementation. Whilst this doesn’t directly damage the FTA it could be used as an injunction to stop such a filter from becoming reality, at least for a short while.

Probably the more important part of the FTA that is directly affected by the implementation of the filter is the Electronic Commerce section which explicitly states that there be no discriminatory treatment to digital products. This can extend to information on subjects such as abortion, euthanasia or drug harm minimisation which under the current filter proposal would be outright banned, but are still perfectly legal within the US. There’s also the possibility, thanks to the lack of transparency of the filter and its blacklist, that an online retailer could end up blocked from people within Australia and be effectively barred from trading with us.

I’ll admit that the links to the FTA are a bit tenuous but there’s no doubt in my mind that businesses with an online presence in Australia will suffer under the proposed filter legislation. The FTA is just another bit of ammunition to argue against the filter and with the US now putting pressure on Conroy I’m sure that we’re not too far away from the FTA being mentioned at a higher level. Conroy really has his work cut out for him if he thinks he’ll be able to convince the US that the filter is a good idea.

Would the filter require the FTA to be amended? I doubt it, but then again I’m not particularly qualified to comment on that. If you know (or have a good opinion) let me know in the comments below.

Tip of the hat to David Cottrill for giving me the idea of mashing the FTA with the Internet filter.

The End is Nigh, Dear Shuttle.

For as long as I’ve been alive the United States has only had one vehicle capable of taking members of the human race into space: the Shuttle. I’ve been aware of it for almost as long as I can remember but my passion for it and all things space was only sparked a mere 2 years ago. You can imagine then my reaction when I found out that the Shuttle was soon to be retired and the rage I experienced when I saw how short sighted the USA’s plans were for its replacement. All these emotions came rushing back to me today when I stumbled across this article:

The end is beginning for NASA’s three aging space shuttles, with just five more missions on tap this year before the orbiter fleet retires in the fall.

That is, unless NASA needs a few more months to fly those remaining missions or President Barack Obama chooses to extend the shuttle program to fill a looming gap in U.S. human spaceflight capability.

Though the ultimate path forward for NASA has not yet been decided, the space agency is at a turning point after nearly 29 years of shuttle flight.

It’s really no surprise to anyone but when a program that has been running for almost 30 years is in its final stages with only 5 more launches to go it really starts to hit home. I grew up in a world where the Shuttle was a testament to the human desire to push our boundaries to limits that mere decades before would have thought impossible. The shuttle program has been running for 4 more years than I have been alive and whilst I couldn’t be there to see the first launch in person, you can guarantee that I’ll be there to see the last. It will truly be the end of an era for all of mankind.

Whilst I might be saddened by the decommissioning of the current icon of space I take solace in the fact that the next generation of explorers are more than ready to take over. With companies like Virgin Galactic and SpaceX proving that the same results can be achieved with a fraction of the resources required I can help but have my heart soar ever time I hear the smallest detail about them. It is they who will bring space travel to the everyman and the closing of the Shuttle era is only the beginning of the private space revolution.

2010 is going to be a bittersweet year for all the space nuts out there but we know what the payoff will be. I’m looking forward to making my first trip onto American soil to witness the raw beauty of a Shuttle launch and visit the Smithsonian to witness the history of humanity’s endeavours in aeronautics. I get choked up just watching the launches on Youtube, and I know I’ll be a mess when I see it for real and for the last time ever.

Unless Obama extends the Shuttle’s life, which will excite and annoy me all at the same time 😉

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. 😉

Recession No More.

This morning brings some good news for America and the world at large. After 4 consecutive quarters of the GDP shrinking, the unemployment rate rocketing to 9.5% and the financial markets flailing around in a complete mess the United States of America have managed to drag themselves up out of the dank depths of recession and post some exceptionally strong growth (given the circumstances). Of course it’s not all sunshine and rainbows over there yet, and Obama has recognised this with his recent speech on the matter:

Oct. 29 (Bloomberg) — President Barack Obama said U.S. economic growth in the third quarter affirms that the recession is abating, adding that the nation has “a long way to go” to fully recover and reduce unemployment.

He said a Commerce Department report that the economy grew at a 3.5 percent pace in the third quarter, after shrinking for four quarters, is “welcome news and an affirmation that this recession is abating.” It isn’t enough, he added.

“The benchmark I use to measure the strength of our economy is not just whether our GDP is growing, but whether we’re creating jobs, whether families are having an easier time paying their bills, whether our businesses are hiring and doing well,” Obama told business leaders in a speech on the White House grounds.

He’s being cautious in trumpeting this as a victory for himself and his party and this is with good reason. Right now the last thing that any economy needs is uncontrolled growth as that will just get us back in the same situation in a very short period of time. Right now this serves as an indicator that the work the Obama administration has done in order to combat the financial troubles experienced in America worked and the lessons of the past have not gone unheeded. It would seem that all the naysayers about the various stimulus packages will have to take another look at what they’ve said as it appears that Obama’s ideas have worked despite their vitriol.

Hopefully this is the kind of indicator that will prompt companies to start rethinking their strategic direction. For the last few years most of them have been in at least one form of damage control or cost reduction scheme in order to stay in business. This is of course what has lead to the high unemployment figures that are currently plauging the USA. A few quarters of consecutive, small growth will see most businesses rework their directions from “staying alive” back to business as usual and this will easily be tracked in the unemployment rate. In fact the last 3 months have seen a drop in the unemployment rate of 0.2%. It’s not much, but it’s definitely a start.

For as long as the GFC has been in effect I’ve always been very skeptical about how long its effects would last. Sure when you tallied up the dollar amounts that were lost or “potential loses” the situation looked extremely grim, much worse than the great depression. The knowledge of past recessions however let us ride through this with a few bruises but wiser for the experience. One good thing that’s come of this is tighter regulation of the banks in the USA, something which could have prevented this disaster from happening in the first place.

Overall this is great news for the world at large. When the giant of America was toppled by its own system the world rightly went into panic. After battling naysayers, unwilling congress critters and the scathing eye of the media Obama has won himself a hard fought victory for all of America and this will resonate with the public.

Like my fellow blogger said, he’s going to have no trouble coasting into re-election come 2012.

Delicious Pie.

I’m what you could call an Internet grazer. Throughout most of the day I’ll have my RSS reader open and I’ll usually take a 5 minute break every hour or two to muse over the latest articles that come my way. I usually find quite a lot of interesting info this way and yesterday was no exception. What I came across were two very interesting pie charts that describe the current economic situation in America. The first one shows the personal expenditure breakdown of your average American citizen:

wheredidthemoneygo

The largest section here now comes as no surprise considering that sub-prime home loans were what began the crisis in the first place. What really got me where the runners up of transportation, food and insurance. Adding all of the top 4 up you get around 75% of your average Americans money being spent on just being able to have a roof over their heads and get to work everyday. This really puts the whole crisis into perspective since the people who were getting these loans simply had no fat in their budget to trim when the interest rates rocketed up to their non-honeymoon levels. Granted these people were probably offered loans they would never be able to normally afford in the first place but it still highlights the issues that lead up to the collapse in the sub-prime market.

The next yummy pie chart I came across was this one outlining the previous expenditures of the American government vs the bailout:

2008_us_bailout_vs_other_large_government_projects_pie_chart

This highlights another key issue that hits pretty close to home with one of my major interests. Whilst the enormity of the bailout can not be underestimated when put into perspective like this you can see how many view the bailout as being wasted money. Probably one of the most glaring points in this chart (for me at least) is the comparison between the Iraq war, NASA and the initial quest to land a man on the moon.

Since the end of the space race NASA has been an easy target for budget cuts for politicians looking to cut back on government spending. Whilst I understand that expenditure on a space program can hardly be justified at the dizzying heights that were seen during the Apollo era the continued focus of cutting back on NASA spending only serves to damage America’s reputation as a leader in space. Ironically they may have set themselves up for another race with China, since they have refused their requests to work with them on the International Space Station. I can only hope that China gets their Tiangong 1 station up as scheduled since having another permanent space presence (without international co-operation) would definitely put America on the backseat as leaders of the space community.

What do you take away from these delicious pie charts? 🙂