Behind The Black Postings By Robert Zimmerman

Essays And Commentaries Archive

Richard Branson manipulates the press again

Two stories today from Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic:

The quote from the first story is especially entertaining:
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The Sun continues to hiccup

It’s sunspot time again! On Monday NOAA posted its monthly update of the solar cycle, showing the sunspot activity for the Sun in February. I am once again posting it here, below the fold, with annotations.

Like it did in January, the Sun’s second peak of the solar maximum continued to beat its first peak, an unprecedented event. Though activity dropped slightly, it still remained above prediction and was only slightly below the first peak’s maximum. Overall, the second peak has been much stronger than the first, something that scientists have never seen before. In the past, when the Sun had a double peaked solar maximum, the second peak was always weaker. Not this time!
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The road to hell

Back on December 31, 2013, I put up a post about a New York Times article in which it was reported that Americorps volunteers were losing their health insurance plans because of Obamacare, much to their chagrin.

In reading the article, the quote that stood out to me was this one from one volunteer named Sarah Sklaw.

Sarah L. Sklaw, a 22-year-old Vista member from New York City, said: “I really support the Affordable Care Act, and I don’t want to be a naysayer. But it was surprising and frustrating to be told that our health coverage would not meet the law’s standards, especially because the Corporation for National and Community Service told us at orientation in August that we did not need to worry about the issue.”

My reaction? “In other words, she supported Obamacare, partly because she was told “if she liked her health plan, she could keep her health plan. Period.” She has now discovered that this was a lie and is angry. Who wudda thunk it?”

Last week Sarah Sklaw emailed me. She was very unhappy about my post because in her mind I misrepresented her feelings about the situation. This is her email:
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The Sun goes boom again!

On Monday NOAA posted its monthly update of the solar cycle, showing the sunspot activity for the Sun in January. As I do every month, I am posting it here, below the fold, with annotations.

January was the most active month for sunspots this entire solar cycle, exceeding the predictions of the solar scientists, an event that has been quite rare during this generally weak solar maximum. In fact, the Sun was so active that for the first time, the second peak in a double-peaked solar maximum exceeded the first peak in sunspot activity.
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Contempt for the law

As I am taking a break from sightseeing and visiting relatives here in Israel, I thought I’d answer a question raised by one of my regular readers, Patrick Ritchie, in a comment a few weeks ago.

Patrick had noticed what seemed a contradiction in my posts and asked me about it. First, he noted my disgust at university officials in South Carolina who were refusing to follow a law requiring them to teach students about the Constitution because they thought it “inconvenient.”

Patrick wrote, “In the post above you state, ‘It might inconvenient, and the law itself might be foolish, but it isn’t up the administrators to decide this. They should be fired.’”

He then cited an earlier post in which I celebrated the Connecticut gun owners who were refusing to register their weapons under that state’s new very oppressive and senseless gun control law. There I had written that “When the law has contempt for freedom, then the only answer is contempt for the law.”

Patrick then asked, “I would appreciate it if you could elaborate on how, in your mind, these two situations are different. More specifically: when (if ever) do you think it is OK for citizens to disregard or break the law?”
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Off to Israel

Posting for the rest of February will be spotty. I am heading to New York to give a lecture the Long Island section of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics on Thursday night, then on to Israel for 10 days to visit family.

For an idea of what it was like to visit Israel last February, check out my earlier posts below, listed in chronological order. In each case, I think you will get a more accurate portrayal of the reality on the ground, in contrast to the political antisemitism of today’s modern intellectual culture.


The uncertainty of knowledge

NOAA this week posted its monthly update of the solar cycle, showing the sunspot activity for the Sun in January. As I do every month, I am posting it here, below the fold, with annotations.

Back in October the Sun’s sunspot activity had plummeted, following almost two years of very weak activity. At that time, I wrote, “It appears the solar maximum has ended. The only question now is how long and deep the upcoming solar minimum will be.”

Well, talk about foolish predictions. I should shake hands with Al Gore and James Hansen for making the mistake of announcing the future as if I know what will happen. The truth is that no one truly understands the Sun’s sunspot cycle.

In January the Sun continued the high sunspot activity of the previous three months, once again producing sunspots in numbers close to the actual predictions of the solar science community. And while all their predictions remain generally high when compared to the actual numbers, they can now feel reassured that the overall length and strength of this solar maximum is beginning to resemble the prediction of the solar scientists who thought this would be a weak maximum.
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Congress hovers over commercial space like a vulture

We’re here to help you: A House subcommittee held hearings yesterday to consider updating the Commercial Space Launch Act that regulates the commercial space tourism industry.

Forgive me if I am pessimistic about anything Congress might do. So far, every time they have updated the law Congress has increased the regulatory regimen, making it harder and more expensive for these companies to get started. Consider these words from Donna Edwards (D-Maryland), the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee:
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The 2014 Birthday Bleg

I really dislike doing this, but someone has to pay the bills, and this website is one way I do it. February 5 will be my sixty-first birthday. As I have done the past two years, I am posting a birthday bleg, requesting donations to help fund the existence of Behind the Black. If you like my webpage and want to support it in any way, please consider donating something. I would be grateful for anything you can give.. Some people have even subscribed, sending as little as $2 per month.

The tip jar can be found in the right column, below the search box.


Better medicine through engineering

For me, the last eight months have been very interesting when it comes to medical treatment. I have had my left hand rebuilt to eliminate chronic pain, I had my heart inspected to make sure it was working properly, and this week I had the retina in my right eye re-attached using some very clever engineering.

For once, this essay will not be about the politics of medicine and the disaster of Obamacare, which is still ongoing. Instead, I will outline how freedom and human creativity has now made possible a whole range of modern medical techniques that are either improving the quality of life for patients or literally saving their lives.
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The fraud in global warming science

You might have noticed a plethora of stories in the last couple of days, reporting claims by NASA and NOAA that 2013 was one of the hottest years ever on record.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Tuesday released its global temperature figures for 2013. The average world temperature was 58.12 degrees (14.52 Celsius) tying with 2003 for the fourth warmest since 1880. NASA, which calculates records in a different manner, said Tuesday that 2013 was the seventh warmest on record, with an average temperature of 58.3 degrees (14.6 Celsius).

How can this be, if there has been a pause in global warming for the past 17 years, as has been admitted by the UN’s IPCC and climate scientists everywhere?

The answer, in my opinion: outright fraud.
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To environmentalists no warming and more bears means global warming and an endangered species

A U.S. Geological Survey science team has determined that the grizzly bear population has recovered enough that the bear can be taken off the endangered species list.

A report delivered in November by the US Geological Survey’s Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team describes a resilient and healthy bear population that has adapted to the loss of pine nuts by eating more elk and bison, keeping fat stores at levels that allow the bears to survive and reproduce. For Christopher Servheen, a biologist who oversees grizzly-bear recovery efforts at the Fish and Wildlife Service in Missoula, Montana, that is not surprising. “Bears are flexible,” he says. “It’s easier to say what they don’t eat than what they do eat.”

Not surprisingly, environmental activists don’t like this decision. They claim that, wait for it, global warming threatens the bear enough that it should not be delisted.
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Another law, another squelched dream

Surprise, surprise! Virgin Galactic space tourists could be grounded by federal regulations.

Virgin Galactic submitted an application to the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation in late August 2013, says Attenborough. The office, which goes by the acronym AST, has six months to review the application, meaning an approval may come as early as February. Industry experts, however, say that may be an overly optimistic projection. “An application will inevitably be approved, but it definitely remains uncertain exactly when it will happen,” says Dirk Gibson, an associate professor of communication at the University of New Mexico and author of multiple books on space tourism. “This is extremely dangerous and unchartered territory. It’s space travel. AST has to be very prudent,” he says. “They don’t want to endanger the space-farers or the public, and they can’t let the industry get started and then have a Titanic-like scenario that puts an end to it all in the eyes of the public.” [emphasis mine]

As I predicted ten years ago, the 2004 revision to the Commercial Space Act puts bureaucrats in charge of the exploration of space by private citizens, a fact that can have no good consequences.
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Yippee! Solar scientists finally get it right

Earlier this week NOAA posted its monthly update of the solar cycle, showing the sunspot activity for the Sun in December. As I do every month, I am posting it here, below the fold, with annotations.

December was an active month for sunspots, so much so that for only the second time during this solar maximum has the Sun’s activity actually met and exceeded the predictions of the solar science community. In fact, the Sun’s high activity in both November and December has made this second peak in solar maximum almost as strong as the first peak in October 2011. Normally, the second peak of a double-peaked maximum is relatively weak. Not so this time.

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Scientists so good they can predict things after it happens

Normally I would post this tidbit when I do my monthly update of the Sun’s solar cycle, due out in sometime in the next week. However, this piece of news is so ridiculous that I have got to post it now, just so everyone can see how far science in the modern world has declined.

For the past three years I have documented the number of times the solar scientists at the Marshall Space Flight Center have changed their prediction for the number of sunspots during this solar maximum. They have revised their prediction so many times with such a large range that it appears that they really don’t have any real system or theory for making this prediction, but are merely guessing based on instinct, opinion, or tea leaves. Moreover, they do not archive their earlier predictions. If I wasn’t documenting them here monthly, there would be no way to know that while today they predict one thing (very close to what is the right number), two years ago their prediction was way off, In recent months, because the changes have become so absurd, I have been making screen captures of each change.

For the past two months they have been stating that the sunspot maximum had occurred during the summer of 2013 with an average daily sunspot number of 65. Below is my screen capture from when they made this change in November.
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An upbeat wimpy maximum holds on

Today NOAA posted its monthly update of the solar cycle, showing the sunspot activity for the Sun in November. As I do every month, I am posting it here, below the fold, with annotations.

As in October, the Sun was more active than it has been for this entire solar maximum. November’s numbers dropped slightly from October, but still remained high, though as has been typical for this solar maximum they remained below prediction.
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Exciting Times in Space

Tonight I will make another of my many appearances on the Space Show with David Livingston. What makes this particular appearance special is that it will be the tenth anniversary of my first appearance on the show. Ten years ago tonight, on December 3, 2003, I appeared with David to discuss both the history of space exploration as well as its future — as we saw it then. (If you want to listen to that first appearance simply go to this link.)

For the first half of the show our discussion mostly focused on history, the 1960s space race, and my book, Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8 (now available as an ebook).

During the second half, our conversation began to range far and wide, speculating about the future of manned space exploration and what would be the best ways to jump start the American effort. Though I did not get everything right, what I said then has turned out to have been a remarkably accurate prediction of what has happened since.

To set the context, this appearance occurred only six weeks before George Bush’s January 14, 2004 speech where he announced his vision for space exploration. At the time we did not know what Bush would say, or even if he would propose anything, though there had been a lot of rumors that Bush was about to make a Kennedy-like speech proposing another Kennedy-like NASA mission to explore the solar system. David Livingston asked me what I thought would happen.
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How not to get to Mars

Yesterday the world’s first space tourist, Dennis Tito, testified before Congress about the plans his organization, Inspiration Mars, has put together to make possible a manned fly-by of Mars by 2018.

The flyby mission would require two launches in quick succession. In the first liftoff, an SLS would loft four payloads to Earth orbit: an SLS upper-stage rocket; a 600-cubic-foot habitat module derived from Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus cargo vessel; a service module that would support the habitat module with power, propulsion and communications systems; and an Earth re-entry pod, which would be based on NASA’s Orion capsule. The second launch — this one likely using a commercial rocket — would deliver the two astronauts to orbit aboard a yet-to-be-selected private spaceship. The crewmembers would then transfer to the habitat module, and the SLS upper stage would propel them on toward Mars.

In making this announcement Tito and his organization challenged Congress and NASA to make it happen. They also admitted that they had initially thought this manned fly-by could be done entirely with private resources, but have looking at it closely realized it needed NASA money and hardware.

What a pipe dream. As much as I support Tito’s effort to accelerate the United States’ space effort, neither Tito’s original ideas as well as this new proposal are realistic. At no time do these dreamers show the slightest understanding of the challenges involved in flying humans in weightlessness for more than a year and as far away as Mars.
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The sun goes boom!

It is always best to admit when you are wrong as soon as you find out. Last month, in reporting NOAA’s monthly update of the solar cycle, I unequivocally stated that

My interpretation of this data tells me that almost certainly the solar maximum has ended. We might see some later fluctuations whereby the sunspot number jumps, but the Sun is clearly beginning its ramp down to solar minimum.

Well, I spoke too soon. Last night NOAA posted the newest update of the solar cycle, and it shows that in October the Sun was more active then it has been in two years. In fact, for only the second time this entire solar cycle the Sun’s sunspot activity actually came close to matching the predictions of scientists. This month’s graph is posted below the fold, with annotations.
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Why governments can't do it

A government official today unwittingly revealed a fundamental and unpleasant truth about how governments: operate. In an interview today, the head of India’s space agency denied that his country is in a space race with anyone.

Mr. Radhakrishnan, Secretary in the Department of Space and Chairman of Space Commission, said each country — whether it’s India, the US, Russia or China — had their own priorities.

“There is no race with anybody. If you look at anybody, they have their own direction. So, I don’t find a place for race with somebody. But I would say we are always on race with ourselves to excel in areas that we have chalked out for ourselves,” he told PTI here in an interview.

How typical. By denying the reality of the competition that India is part of Mr. Radhakrishnan illustrates for me and everyone once again the basic reason all government efforts eventually fail.
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Private space in control

Today it was announced that SpaceX has signed an agreement with NASA’s Stennis Space Center to test a new methane engine there beginning in 2014.

This story is significant in two ways:
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Fresh impacts caused by Curiosity during landing

impacts from Curiosity debris

The image on the right is a cropped close-up of a Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter image taken in early September that shows a fresh cluster of impacts, all smaller than six feet across. Nearby but not visible in this image are four larger craters about 12 to 15 feet in diameter. The impact cluster is located just northwest of Gale Crater and was not present in images taken before Curiosity’s arrival on Mars. The cluster is also in line with other impact craters produced by other debris dropped by Curiosity as it descended onto the Martian surface.

Scientists are at the moment unsure what spacecraft debris caused these impacts.

Assigning each of the impacts to specific pieces of hardware is a challenging puzzle, but it is thought that the four large craters were produced by two large tungsten weights that broke in half to make these four craters, or by pieces of the cruise stage, which was designed to break up in the atmosphere for planetary protection purposes, to kill any Earthly microbes.

The cluster imaged here adds to the mystery, and may have been produced by a piece of the cruise stage that traveled farther through the Martian atmosphere and was therefore more thoroughly fragmented by the time it crashed onto the surface.

Identifying the source of the debris is a challenging engineering problem that also has scientific interest. Knowing what caused the impacts and then studying how the surface was changed by them will tell geologists a great deal about the make up of that surface.


Ramping down from solar maximum

Yesterday, despite the government shutdown, NOAA posted its monthly update of the solar cycle, and as I do every month, I am posting it here, below the fold, with annotations.

My interpretation of this data tells me that almost certainly the solar maximum has ended. We might see some later fluctuations whereby the sunspot number jumps, but the Sun is clearly beginning its ramp down to solar minimum.
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Freeing the Smoky Mountains

Maddron Bald trailhead during the federal shutdown
The Maddron Bald trailhead on October 3, 2013, during
the government shutdown.

Today we did our last hike in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As I described yesterday, we decided to go to a place where we could park on private land and easily hike to a trail in the park. That way, we would reduce the level of power any fascist-minded ranger from the National Park Service might have over us should they confront us for being in our park.

As it turns out, there was no evidence at all of a shutdown at the trailhead we choose. We went to the Maddron Bald trailhead, just off state route 321. The parking area here is small, capable of holding no more than 5 or 6 cars. When we arrived there were three cars there, so we had no problem finding room, as you can see from the image to the left.

There were also no signs indicating the park was closed. Nor were there any barricades or cones. As far as we could tell, it was a normal day in the national park, which to me proved that the restrictions the park service is imposing on New Found Gap Road (as well as elsewhere across the nation) has absolutely nothing to do with their lack of funds. This particular trailhead is not as well known or visited, and is off the beaten track. Moreover, it would be hard to monitor. Thus, the park service chose to make believe it wasn’t there. Smart tourists could come here and enjoy the park, as intended, despite the shutdown.

If the shutdown really required the closure of the park, the park service would have sent a ranger here as well. They did not, proving that their obnoxious efforts are really aimed at causing problems for as many Americans as possible, not securing the park as they dishonestly might tell us.
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Shut down fascism wins in the Smoky Mountains

See my October 3, 2013 update here.

The veterans in DC might be keeping the World War II memorial open by defying the Obama administration, but here in the Smoky Mountains the National Park Service has apparently succeeded in shutting down most access to Great Smoky National Park.

In my post yesterday I described how the park service appeared to be setting up barricades at the various lookouts, parking pull-outs, and trailheads along New Found Gap Road — a public highway through the park which they cannot close — in order to prevent access to the park. Such barricades are inappropriate, unnecessary, and are certainly being done for political reasons. The Obama administration is trying to pressure the Republicans to fold in the budget battle by hurting the American public. By blocking access to these pull-outs the administration is increasing the risks to hikers still in the park and to drivers on the road while damaging the local economy.

Today we drove back up to New Found Gap to see how things were developing and found that my suspicions were correct. While yesterday many of the major trailhead pull-outs were not yet blocked, this evening they all were. As we drove past the New Found Gap parking lot the barricades had been moved into place, preventing our entrance. I also noticed some cars trapped in the lot, as well as some people by the barricades. When I had turned around and returned, I found that a wide enough section of the barricade had been shifted, allowing me to pull into the lot. I immediately drove up to two guys standing by their car to ask them what had happened.
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Shut down fascism in the Smoky Mountains

See my October 2, 2013 update here.

Today, October 1, 2013, my wife Diane and I went hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We did this despite the news from Washington that the federal government had shut down due to the lack of a funding from Congress and that all the national parks were closed.

The news reports had said that the National Park Service would close all roads into the park except for New Found Gap Road, the one road that crossed over the mountains from Tennessee to North Carolina. They couldn’t close this road because it was a main thoroughfare used by the public for basic transportation. Moreover, my research into the hikes we wished to do told me that several of those hikes originated on trailheads along this road. In traveling the road the day before, we had seen that these trailheads would not only be difficult to close, it would be dangerous and stupid to close them. For one, the road was windy and narrow. If there was a car accident or someone had car problems, any one of these parking areas might be essential for the use of the driver as well as local police and ambulances. For another, there are people still backpacking in the mountains who will at some point need to either exit with their cars or be picked up at these trailheads. Closing the trailheads will strand these hikers in the park, with dangerous consequences.

So, despite the shutdown, off we went to hike the Appalachian Trail, going to a well known lookout called the Jump Off, an easy 6.5 mile hike that leaves from the parking area at New Found Gap, the highest point on New Found Gap Road that is also on the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. It is also probably one of the most popular stopping points along the road, visited by practically every tourist as they drive across.
Smokies from the Appalachian trail

The hike itself was beautiful, if a bit foggy and damp. The picture above shows one of the clearest views we had all day. Nor were we alone on this hike. We probably saw one to two dozen other hikers, heading out to either the Jump Off or Charles Bunion (another well known day hike destination along this section of trail).
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The Coney Island of the Smokies

The main drag in Gatlinburg, Tennessee

I must admit I did not expect this. When we made our reservations to stay in a timeshare motel in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, I imagined the town would resemble the small West Virginia towns I am very familiar with from my many years of caving in that state. There would be a relatively quiet main street, with some restaurants, a supermarket, one or two gas stations, and some basic shopping.

What I found instead is a wonderfully energetic example of American capitalism, a carnival amusement area reminiscent of the amusement spots of the past and most epitomized by Brooklyn’s Coney Island.

When I was growing up in Brooklyn in the late 1950s and 1960s, Coney Island was a shadow of its grand past, but it still carried with it much of its old glory. You could stroll along the boardwalk or Surf Avenue and visit hundreds of shops, stores, and amusement rides, most of which were independently owned. In addition, the island also had several larger private amusement parks, such as Steeplechase Park, Astroland, and Luna Park (which unfortunately had closed before I ever saw it), each of which had a collection of their own rides and amusements. With some, like Steeplechase and Luna, you had to pay a separate admission price to get in.

This is exactly what I discovered here in Gatlinburg and the adjacent towns of Pigeon Forge and Sevierville.
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Linking mass extinctions to the Sun's journey in the Milky Way

The Sun's orbit in the Milky Way

In a paper published today on the Los Alamos astro-ph preprint service, astronomers propose that as many as eleven past extinction events can be linked to the Sun’s passage through the spiral arms of the Milky Way. (You can download the paper here [pdf].)

A correlation was found between the times at which the Sun crosses the spiral arms and six known mass extinction events. Furthermore, we identify five additional historical mass extinction events that might be explained by the motion of the Sun around our Galaxy. These five additional significant drops in marine genera that we find include significant reductions in diversity at 415, 322, 300, 145 and 33 Myr ago. Our simulations indicate that the Sun has spent ~60% of its time passing through our Galaxy’s various spiral arms.

The figure on the right, from their paper, shows the Sun’s orbit in red over the last half billion years. The Sun’s present position is indicated by the yellow spot, and the eleven extinctions are indicated by the circles.

There are obviously a great deal of uncertainties in this conclusion. Most significantly, the shape and history of the Milky Way remains very much in doubt, especially since we reside within it and cannot really get a good look at it. Though in recent years astronomers have assembled a reasonable image of the galaxy’s shape — a barred spiral with two major arms and several minor ones — this picture includes many assumptions that could very easily be wrong.

Nonetheless, the paper’s conclusions are interesting.
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A fundamental truth about America

This morning Orbital Sciences successfully launched into orbit its commercial cargo freighter Cygnus to bring supplies to ISS. This was also the second successful launch of its Antares rocket. If Cygnus berths with ISS as planned, the company will then begin cargo operations, joining SpaceX to give the United States two different freighters for bringing supplies to low Earth orbit.

After Antares’ first successful launch in April I wrote the following post, which I think still applies and should be reread. It describes how today’s Cygnus launch success reveals a lot about the future.
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Yesterday, Orbital Sciences successfully completed the first test launch of its Antares rocket, developed, designed, and built in less than five years under a commercial contract with NASA to provide cargo to the International Space Station. The launch went like clockwork, perfectly, with no hitches at all, something that is quite remarkable for a new rocket on its first launch. Kudos to the engineers at Orbital Sciences for a job well done!

Besides demonstrating the skill of Orbital Science’s engineers, however, this successful launch illustrated in stark reality a fundamental fact about the culture of the United States that continues to allow it to stand out from the rest of the world, even as a large percentage of the present generation of Americans are doing their darndest to try to destroy that culture. Moreover, that fundamental cultural fact is basic to human nature, not just the United States, and if we recognize it, it will provide us all the right framework for what to do and not to do in trying to maintain human societies, both here on Earth as well as in the future in space.

In order to understand the true significance of Orbital Sciences’s success yesterday with Antares, however, we must first review the capabilities of the world’s launch industry. I am not going to list all the rockets capable of putting payloads into orbit, only those that are successfully competing for business in the open commercial market.
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Why we must remember

I wrote these following words three years ago on the anniversary of the World Trade Center attack. I think they are worth repeating again, especially considering the confusing debacle of this administration’s Syria policy these past few weeks, and the continuing violent and oppressive behavior of the Islamic revolutionaries in that country.

My words on September 11, 2010:

The President has asked us to consider today “a national day of service and remembrance”. Though the sentiment seems reasonable, I must respectively disagree.

September 11 should not be turned into a day to celebrate volunteerism or service or American charity. Though these values are profound, important, and an expression of much of what makes our nation great, they are not why we remember September 11.

We remember the evil acts committed on September 11, 2001 in order to remind us that there is evil in the world.

We remember these evil acts so that we will have the strength to fight that evil, with every fiber of our being.

We remember those who died in order to prevent future attacks and further deaths.

We remember so that no one can ever try to make believe these events did not happen.

We remember so that no one can spread the lie that the perpetrators were something other than what they were: Men who had decided to kill in the name of Islam, based on what they believed their religion taught them.

And finally, and most important, we remember the horrible events of September 11, 2001 so that those innocent murdered souls — whose only crime that day was going to work — will not have died in vain.


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