Category Archives: Essays And Commentaries

The Think Tank Culture of Washington

On Monday I attended and gave a presentation at the one-day annual conference of the Center for New American Security (CNAS) in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with the space policy paper I am writing for them, Exploring Space in the 21st Century.

CNAS was founded ten years ago by two political Washington insiders, one a Democrat and the other a Republican, with a focus on foreign policy and defense issues and the central goal of encouraging bi-partisan discussion. For this reason their policy papers cover a wide range of foreign policy subjects, written by authors from both political parties. The conference itself probably had about 1,000 attendees from across the political spectrum, most of whom seemed to me to be part of the Washington establishment of policy makers, either working for elected officials, for various executive agencies, or for one of the capital’s many think tanks, including CNAS.

I myself was definitely not a major presenter at this conference, with speakers like Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), and Senator Joe Reed (D-Rhode Island). I was part of a panel during one of the lunch breakout sessions, where approximately one third of the attendees came to have lunch while we spoke about space. I only had ten minutes to speak, and used that time to outline (1) the influence SpaceX is having on the entire launch industry and (2) the vast differences in cost, development time, and results between the Orion/SLS program and commercial space. Not surprisingly, the aerospace people from the big established companies appeared to be somewhat uncomfortable with what I had to say, though the Airbus people liked it when I made it clear I thought that the U.S. should allow foreign companies to compete for American business, including government launches.

Their discomfort was best illustrated by the one question asked of me following my talk, where the questioner said that I was comparing apples to oranges in comparing a manned capsule like Orion, intended to go beyond Earth orbit, with the unmanned cargo capsules like Dragon and Cygnus, that only go to ISS. I countered that though I recognized these differences, I also recognized that the differences were really not as much as the industry likes to imply, as demonstrated for example by SpaceX’s announcement that they plan to send Dragon capsules to Mars beginning in 2018. After all, a capsule is still only a capsule. The differences simply did not explain the gigantic differences in cost and development time.

I added that Orion compares badly with Apollo as well, noting that Apollo took about a third as long to build and actually cost less. I doubt I satisfied this individual’s objections, but in the end I think future policy will be decided based on results, not the desires of any one industry bigwig. And in this area Orion/SLS has some serious problems. I hope when my policy paper is released in August it will have some influence in determining that future policy.

My overall impression of CNAS, the speakers, and the people who attended was somewhat mixed. Having lived in the Washington, D.C. area from 1998 to 2011, when I attended many such conferences, I found that things haven’t changed much in the last five years. Superficially, everyone was dressed in formal business suits (something you see less and less elsewhere), and they also got to eat some fancy food at lunch.

On a deeper level my impressions were also mixed.
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Russia’s continuing weakness in space

In the heat of competition: Russia this week announced new space agreements with both China and Europe.

The first describes a deal whereby Europe will pay Russia to use its Bion capsules to launch life science experiments. In addition, the article notes that Europe will continue its agreement with Russia to launch commercial Soyuz rockets from its Arianespace launchpad in French Guiana.

The second and third stories describe a variety of negotiations between Russia and China, whereby the two countries will work together in a number of ways, including the possibiliity that China will buy the same Russian rocket engine that ULA uses in its Atlas 5 rocket as well as maybe jointly build a heavy lift rocket with Russia. In the second article, Russia’s deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin, in touting the excellence of the Russian rocket engine, could not help taunting the United States.
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Exploring Space in the 21st Century

For the past two months I have been very focused on writing what I hope will be a somewhat influential space policy paper for the Center for New American Security, comparing the different approaches the federal government has taken in the past fifteen years toward encouraging a robust launch industry in the United States. Essentially the policy paper, Exploring Space in the 21st Century: How the American space effort since 2000, both private and public, is changing the global aerospace industry, compares the big government rocket launch programs like Orion/SLS and the Air Force’s EELV/ULA with the commercial rocket launch contracts that NASA has signed with companies like SpaceX, Orbital ATK, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada to get cargo and crews up and down from ISS.

The comparison is profound, and is devastating to the supporters of big government programs. Commercial space has literally accomplished ten times more in a third the time for a tenth the cost.

That bears repeating: Commercial space ($4 billion) cost one tenth that of Orion/SLS ($43 billion), took one third the time to go from concept to launch (5 years versus 15 years), and accomplished ten times more (22 rockets/capsules versus 2.5 rockets/capsules). In analyzing these numbers, I also took a close look at why the differences are so profound. Surprisingly, the high cost of Orion/SLS has little to do with its engineering challenges, nor is it caused by any significant overcharges by the contractors. The problem is more fundamental.

The paper also reviews the effect the competition introduced by SpaceX has had on the entire launch industry. Launch costs are dropping and innovation is increasing. This, combined with the lessons learned by NASA in commercial space, suggests that the future of getting into space looks quite bright indeed.

This policy paper should be ready for publication sometime in the next two months. On Monday, however, I will be part of a space policy panel at the Center for New American Security’s annual conference in Washington, DC., where I will give a short overview of my findings to a lot of major players in the upper echelons of the Washington elite community. Their response should be quite interesting.

Thus, I will be traveling to DC this weekend, and am not sure if I will be able to post much on Monday, since I very much wish to attend the entire day’s conference and listen to the other speakers, including Vice President Joe Biden. It is my plan to write about what I see once I get back.

The liberal response to terrorism: Disarm the innocent!

They say that insanity is the process where you keep trying to do the same thing over and over again, even though it fails each time.

The liberal, leftwing response to the tragic and horrific mass killing by an insane Islamic terrorist, who found comfort and support from that religion for his murderous ideas, is thus a good illustration of insanity.

That’s just three four examples, but there will be more. [I have added the fourth because it is so expected and must be noted.] The simple fact is that the terrorist in Orlando had gotten his guns legally in a state that has numerous gun control laws specifically designed to prevent such a man from becoming armed. Those laws did nothing to protect innocent people from him.

One decent person armed in that nightclub, however, would have stopped him in his tracks. Unfortunately, according to Florida’s same gun control laws, that nightclub was also a gun free zone. Only criminals and terrorists were allowed to be armed, because they are the only ones who don’t care what the law says.

As Ted Cruz noted in his statement concerning the Orlando attack. “Our nation is at war.” And you can’t win a war by disarming yourself.

Elon Musk sends a tweet and the world listens

The competition heats up: Yesterday Elon Musk sent out a tweet that simply repeated something his company has been saying now for several months — but with one slight additional detail — and the press went gaga.

What Musk said was that SpaceX hopes to reuse one of its used Falcon 9 first stages by September or October. Previously they had merely said they were aiming to do it before the end of the year. Since SES has offered one of its satellites for the job, and since it has had for months two such satellites scheduled for launch by SpaceX in September and October, this announcement by Musk is not really much of a surprise. Yet, the tweet was enough for all of the following mainstream news sources to gin up news-breaking headlines:

I am not really complaining. What I am really noting is how serious the world now takes what Musk and SpaceX are doing. They say they plan to do something new and revolutionary, and people sit up and take notice. And the reasons are twofold. First, everything they have said they were going to do, they have done. Musk’s announcement has to be taken seriously. Second, Musk owns SpaceX, and does not really need anyone’s permission to do this. He isn’t in a negotiation with numerous other players, as has been the case with NASA and its projects for the past half century. We know that if he wants to try something, the only things that could stop him are lack of capital and lack of good engineering, neither of which are an obstacle in this case.

So, be prepared for the first relaunch of a rocket’s first stage sometime this fall. And don’t be surprised if that isn’t the only new thing SpaceX accomplishes at the time.

Sunspot cycle update

NOAA today released its monthly update of the solar cycle, showing the Sun’s sunspot activity in May. It is annotated and posted below.

Mayl 2016 Solar Cycle graph

The graph above has been modified to show the predictions of the solar science community. The green curves show the community’s two original predictions from April 2007, with half the scientists predicting a very strong maximum and half predicting a weak one. The red curve is their revised May 2009 prediction.

Though sunspot activity increased in May, the increase was not significant. The ramp down from solar maximum continues to track the 2007 low prediction for this maximum.

Meanwhile, the Sun continues its first multi-day string of blank days since 2011, now up to 3 days with all indications suggesting it will continue at least one more day. This early blank string, combined with the relatively fast decline in sunspots in the past two years, suggests that the solar maximum is ending sooner than predicted by the 2009 prediction (the red curve above), and that the next minimum will possibly be longer as well.

Billionaires propose big space plans

At separate interviews given during a media conference held this week in California, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos each expressed their thoughts about what they hope to accomplish in space over the next few decades.

First, Jeff Bezos outlined his belief that, in order to protect the Earth, humanity is going to have to eventually move its heavy manufacturing off the planet and into space. He thought colonizing the planets was a cool idea, but his focus remained with Earth, and using space as a way to protect it.

Musk meanwhile revealed his company’s long range plans for Mars, including their firm intention to send a Dragon capsule to the red planet during every future launch opportunity, beginning with 2018. Each mission will provide information needed to improve and develop their engineering so that they can hopefully send humans there by 2024.

A realistic appraisal of both men’s proposals will quickly recognize that they are probably overly optimistic. Bezos might be right that we should move our heavy industries into space, but he is not realistic to think this can happen soon, or is even possible. Musk’s company SpaceX might be laying the groundwork for the eventual colonization of Mars, but to think it will begin happening by 2024 is unrealistic.

Still, what both men are proposing are things that they are personally helping to make happen. Neither man has to get anyone else’s permission or approval to push these dreams. All they need to do is make sure the products they are building for accomplishing these tasks can also make money by providing services to others. Since this is exactly what both men are doing, they will likely achieve far more than anyone can imagine, even if the specific proposals they are putting forth now do not happen in their lifetimes.

This bright and very possible future is far different than the powerpoint proposals that NASA and big government have offered to us over and over again for the past four decades. Those ideas, while also ambitious, could never happen because they were dependent on the approval of too many other players, Congress, the public, the press, the bureaucracy. They were not founded on profits, so they became a drain on the economy instead of a source of wealth. The result was that we have gone nowhere and developed little new space technology in the years since the last Apollo landing.

Only now, with our renewed reliance on capitalism and profits, are we finally beginning to see the dreams expressed in those NASA powerpoint proposals coming to life. And it isn’t the government that is making them happen, but free individuals, with big dreams and the will to pursue them.

Expect there to be privately funded manned missions to Mars in the next decade. And expect there to be factories in orbit, far sooner than anyone expects.

Belize and Guatemala

During my caving trip to Belize last week, we reserved one day off to do some sightseeing. The goal that day was to visit the Mayan ruins of Tikal, across the border in Guatemala about three hours from our resort in Belize.

Arranging this trip was not straightforward. We couldn’t simply get in our rental car and drive off. Locals have found it a bad idea to drive Belizean vehicles in Guatemala, as they are more likely to be attacked. So, the resort arranged for a Belizean driver to take us to the border, where it also arranged for us to be met by a Guatemalan tour guide with her own car.

On the way, we drove through several small towns of both Guatemala and Belize, as shown by the two photos below, with Santa Elena, Belize on top.
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Why I went to Belize

There are many reasons cavers decide to go to faraway places across the globe during their vacations. Some do it because they want to get out of the office. Some go because they like to see exotic sights and strange places well off the beaten path. Some go, like me, because they want the chance to see something new and unexplored. And we all do it because it is fun!

One doesn’t have to go to Belize to get these benefits. I could have traveled to England, Mexico, Hawaii, or any one of several dozen other countries to see the exotic, the new, and the unexplored. In fact, I have already done so in Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and Czechia (the new official name of the Czech Republic). Belize however was relatively close, the local population spoke English, I had never been there before, and most important, someone else was organizing things! When David and Eleanor Larson invited me to join their Belize project I decided this was a great opportunity to visit a strange and new place with a minimum of aggravation or planning. They had already done it, and I merely had to sign up and agree to do whatever their project needed doing. So, off I went.

Upon arrival, I soon discovered several very important additional reasons why this cave project exists. First there are the caves. They are grand and beautiful things, with very vast chambers filled with delicate and rare formations. The picture below, taken by fellow caver Laura Sangiala, shows one wall of the gigantic entrance room of one cave.
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A bibliography of my research into climate

The recent long and refreshing debate thread on the subject of climate change between myself and others on Behind the Black has prompted me to upload my bibliography of the research I did on climate change and the sun’s influence from 2002 to 2010.

This bibliography, which is quite long, can be found here. I have also added a link to it in the top menu just below the banner at the top of the page

Though I stopped adding new entries to this bibliography in 2010, my research has not ceased. I just don’t update the bibliography anymore.

I make it available partly as a reference to my readers, and partly as a document to show that I base my opinions on solid research. I might not be a climate scientist, but I have made sure that I have a solid understanding of the science before speaking publicly about it. I think it wise that more people do the same.

Why Russian aerospace will not compete

The fallout from the scrub and one day delay of the first launch at Vostochny, while Vladimir Putin was there and watching, has generated an investigation and the suspension of one designer.

The official goal of the commission was to find causes of the failed launch attempt and to check the completeness of tests leading to the incident.

However given a minor technical impact of the delay, the investigation likely had the primarily political nature, namely it was aimed to demonstrate to the Kremlin that the industry problems were being dealt with. Moreover, Rogozin also made a decision during the work of the commission to suspend the responsibilities of Leonid Shalimov, the designer general at NPO Avtomatika, which supplied the hardware allegedly responsible for the incident. Rogozin summoned Shalimov to Moscow on May 6, apparently to present the results of the investigation. [emphasis mine]

When you develop any new system or cutting edge technology, things are certain to go wrong. This is the one certainty that I will admit to and gladly embrace, and to which good designers, scientists, and engineers all agree. Vostochny is brand new. It stands barely finished. No launch had ever been attempted there before. For there to be a one day delay because of a minor engineering issue is hardly a sign of poor workmanship. Instead, it suggests the people who built it did a reasonably good job, even as many of their managers ripped them and the project off.

What we see here is an industry that is being run not by people who understand the business, but by distant politicians whose only interest is power and control. Can you imagine any manager in Roscosmos anywhere being willing to approve the start of a radical new engineering project, faced with pressure from Putin and these power-hungry politicians in Moscow? It won’t happen. Until there is a change and the politicians let go of their control of this industry, Roscosmos is going to take the safe route every single time.

Nothing new is going to come from Russia’s aerospace industry for a very long time.

The stupid party, part 2

Update: Thomas Sowell chimes in, expressing some of the same thoughts I do below.

As we approach the Indiana primary next Tuesday, it appears that we are also approaching the moment of truth for Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and the Republican Party. And not surprisingly, that party appears ready to once again shoot itself in the foot, as it did in 1996, 2000, 2008, and 2012.

Polls show that the race is very tight, though the momentum seems to be favoring Donald Trump.

Meanwhile, national polls as well as the analysis of most political insiders say that Trump will lose to Hillary Clinton in November, while those same polls and insiders say that Ted Cruz has a far better shot at winning the national election.

In other words, it looks like Republican voters are going to pick the weaker of the two candidates for their nominee.

Pretty dumb, eh? What makes it even dumber is that even the slightest honest appraisal of the political beliefs of Donald Trump quickly reveals himself to be a RINO, a liberal Democrat with many ties to the corrupt political establishments of both parties. In addition, his political positions both before and during the campaign have revealed himself repeatedly to be a liberal Democratic in all things except illegal immigration, and even here he has shown indications that he will go soft once in office.

Trump is not a corrupt lying politician like Hillary Clinton. He would definitely be a better choice than her. Moreover, the insiders and the polls might be wrong about his chances against her, but I do not think so. Trump’s primary election results suggested to me that he has the support, like Mitt Romney, of a large minority of moderate Republicans and moderate former Democrats (concentrated in the northeast) that will not translate into a majority in the general election. If anything, he has set himself up to be a nice target for the press to destroy, once he is the Republican candidate.

For the Republican Party to favor him over Ted Cruz, a committed conservative who has repeatedly proven his willingness to stand up for these ideals, even under terrible fire from the press, the left, and the Republican leadership that really doesn’t want the right to win, is either madness, or it shows that the country in general no long believes in the ideals that founded it.

I’m not sure which it is, but either way, the future does not look good.

Money for space

The competition heats up: Three stories today about investors putting money into different space related business ventures are worth consolidating into one post, as they all indicate the same thing.

The first story involves a takeover by SES of the O3b satellite constellation that provides internet service globally. They already have 12 satellites in orbit, and have plans to launch 8 more by 2019. A partial list of their customers (Digicel Pacific, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, American Samoa Telecom, Speedcast, Rignet, Bharti International (Airtel), Timor Telecom, CNT Ecuador, Entel Chile and NOAA) illustrates the solidity of the company’s success, which is also why SES is spending $20 million to own it.

In the second two stories we find investment capital being committed for two different and unusual space-tourism-related companies. World View plans to launch high altitude balloons with passengers, taking them up 20 to 30 miles for a several hour journey on the edge of space. That they have secured an additional $15 million in investment even as their deal with the city of Tucson is being challenged in court indicates the confidence the investors have in their business.

SpaceVR is even more interesting. They plan to launch smallsats with cameras providing a 360 degree view, and link them to virtual reality headsets here on Earth. Consumers will then be able to experience being in space, without actually going. Though the press release does not specific how the product will be sold, it suggests that they are aiming for the education and museum market.

All three stories prove that the modern investment community, normally very adverse to high risk endeavors, is increasingly finding that the financial benefits of space travel and anything related to it are worth the financial risks. This fact can only lead to good things for the eventual development and exploration of space.

Moreover, the third story once again demonstrates the value of reducing the cost to get into orbit. SpaceVR’s idea is a very good one, but it couldn’t have happened before SpaceX forced a reduction in launch prices. Beforehand, no one could have afforded to buy the product because of the high cost to launch the satellites. Now, because the launch price is affordable, it can be marketed at a realistic price.

In other words, lower the price, and you increase the number of customers able to buy your product. I expect the rocket business to boom in the coming years.

The Orion fantasy

There is a commercial space conference going on in Colorado this week, which explains the plethora of breaking stories from the new commercial space companies both yesterday and today.

Two stories today from Aviation Week, however, are more about the old big space industry and the old way of doing things, and both reveal the hollow nature of that entire effort.

Both stories are about work Lockheed Martin is doing in connection with its Orion capsule, and both try to convince us that this capsule is going to be the central vehicle for the first missions to Mars.

Function starts in the bones of the spacecraft,” [Mike Hawes, Lockheed Martin vice president and Orion program manager,] said in an April 12 interview at the 32nd annual Space Symposium here. “To be a deep space spacecraft, you have to build differently than you would if your requirements were to stay in low Earth orbit and be quiescent at the International Space Station for a few months. That’s driven Orion from the beginning. Any architecture you look at needs a crew capability, a long-term design requirement. So, you can debate a lot of different missions, but you need that fundamental capacity we have invested in Orion.”

I say balderdash. Orion is an over-priced and over-engineered ascent/descent capsule for getting humans in and out of Earth orbit. Spending billions so it can also go to Mars makes no sense, because its heat shield and other capsule technologies for getting through the Earth’s atmosphere are completely useless in interplanetary travel. Moreover, such a small capsule is completely insufficient for a long Mars mission, even if you test it for a “1,000 day” missions, as Hawes also says in the first article. To send a crew to Mars, you need a big vessel, similar to Skylab, Mir, ISS, or Bigelow’s B330 modules. A mere capsule like Orion just can’t do it.

Eventually, it is my hope that Congress will recognize this reality, and stop funding big space projects like SLS and Orion, and instead put its money behind the competitive private efforts to make money in space. Rather than trying to build its own capsules, space stations, rockets, and interplanetary vessels (something that NASA has repeatedly tried to do without any success), NASA should merely be a customer, buying the capsules, space stations, and interplanetary vessels that private companies have built, on their own, to make money, on their own.

Consider for example Bigelow’s B330. Each module is about as big as Skylab or Mir, and costs mere pennies to build and launch, compared to those government-designed stations. Moreover, Bigelow can build it fast, and repeatedly. Similarly, Orion has cost billions (about $16 billion when it makes its first manned mission in 2021 at the earliest) and will have taken 15 years to build. SpaceX built Dragon in seven years, Orbital ATK built Cygnus in five years, and Boeing is going to build Starliner in about four years, all for about $10 billion, total.

The contrast is striking, and though ordinary people with the ability to add 2 plus 2 can see it, it takes Congressman a little longer (as they need to use their fingers to count). Sooner or later they will get it, and Orion and SLS will disappear. Bet on it.

Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater

Curiosity's traverse

The Curiosity science team recently released a new Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter image, showing Curiosity’s overall route since its landing on Mars in August 2012. I have posted a reduced version on the right.

Similarly, on the Curiosity website you can view this more detailed map of its traverse route. This map is updated regularly as Curiosity continues its climb up Mount Sharp.

Neither of these maps is to me very satisfying or useful, however. Neither shows the overall location of Curiosity within Gale Crater. Nor do they give one a sense of how far it is has come on its climb up the mountain. In fact, it is very unclear how close the rover actually is to the peak from either image.

Thus, I decided to do a little research to get some better context of Curiosity’s position and its overall journey.
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Monthly Solar Cycle update

NOAA released on Monday its monthly update of the solar cycle, showing the Sun’s sunspot activity in February. I am once again posting it here on Behind the Black, as I have done monthly since 2010.

February 2016 Solar Cycle graph

The graph above has been modified to show the predictions of the solar science community. The green curves show the community’s two original predictions from April 2007, with half the scientists predicting a very strong maximum and half predicting a weak one. The red curve is their revised May 2009 prediction.

The change in this month’s graph is so small that you will have to look real close to see it. Essentially, the February sunspot activity dropped only a tiny amount from January’s numbers, though it did drop. As such the decline from solar maximum continues to track perfectly the decline predicted by the low prediction of the 2007 predictions. This prediction success should not be taken very seriously, however, since that same prediction expected the solar maximum to begin two years earlier than it actually did.

The Obama-like promises of Trump

During an interview on CNN yesterday, Donald Trump was asked about Obamacare and the insurance mandate. The first words out of his mouth were “I like the mandate,” which is what most conservative websites are focusing on.

I think it is more important to focus on Trump’s entire answer, which goes on for about two and half minutes. (I have posted the video below the fold, so you can listen for yourself.) As noted at the first link above,

Trump doesn’t have a freakin clue as to what he’s talking about. What he’s obviously done is extract a few focus group tested themes, like “dying on the street,” and “get rid of the lines,” and he simply says these over and over with connecting verbiage. The plan Trump refers to, the one that apparently suspends the idea of supply and demand and guarantees everyone a free lunch, simply does not exist. In the tech field it is a concept known as vaporware.

During Trump’s answer, he notes the dishonesty of Obama for making wild promises about Obamacare that were outright lies (‘If you like your plan, you can keep your plan. Period.” and “Obamacare will cut costs by $2500 per family.”). Trump then proceeds to spout his own wild and unrealistic promises about what he will do about healthcare when he is President. And they sound to me as dishonest and incoherent as the promises Obama made. Both set of promises remind me of school elections when I was in junior high school, where candidates would promise free ice cream at every break and soda machines in the halls. Such promises are silly, childish, and unrealistic, and the voters should try to be mature enough to see that.

Trump might be a better choice than Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, but for Republicans to pick him as their nominee is insane. We can certainly do better.
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The stupid party

The nickname for the Republican Party for the past few decades has been that of the “stupid” party. Why it has this reputation can be explained in numerous ways, from how its leadership in Congress routinely gets hosed in negotiations with Democrats, from how its Presidents since Reagan have routinely allowed liberals from the Democratic Party to dictate policy, from how the party since 2000 has routinely picked losers as its Presidential picks, and from how it has squandered every election victory it has earned since the day Ronald Reagan retired in 1988.

I think two stories today demonstrate that the stupidity is not limited just to the party’s leadership. In the first, we find that in every poll taken comparing a head-to-head election with Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz does better than Donald Trump.

Polling has consistently shown Cruz to have an advantage over Trump in this regard: Fox News found that Cruz would fare 4 points better than Trump, beating Clinton by 7 points (50 to 43 percent) to Trump’s 3 (47 to 44 percent). NBC News and the Wall Street Journal found that Cruz would fare 6 points better than Trump, losing to Clinton by 4 points (49 to 45 percent) to Trump’s 10 (51 to 41 percent). And Quinnipiac found that Cruz would fare 5 points better than Trump, tying Clinton (at 45 percent apiece) while Trump would lose by 5 points (46 to 41 percent).

Nor should we be surprised by this. Trump might sound good now, but when he has to face Clinton (or anyone) in the election, his negatives, which are yuge (to coin a phrase) will sink him. Meanwhile, Cruz’s smart campaign strategy and his remarkable skill at debate make him a wonderful candidate. To paraphrase what he has said numerous times on the campaign trail, I can’t wait to get him in a head-to-head debate with Clinton or Sanders. He will make them look like fools.

In the second story, we find that Trump is crushing all opposition in South Carolina. Cruz comes closest, but even his best poll there so far has him losing by a good margin.

It appears no one is considering the eventual election. Instead, Republicans appear posed to pick a cool reality television star who happens to have a lot of money, merely because he is a cool television star that happens to have a lot of money.

There is madness here, and that madness can only lead to the kinds of villainy that eventually led to the deaths of millions, in places that also put their faith in strong personality cults.

The long decline to solar minimum

On Monday NOAA released its monthly update of the solar cycle, showing the Sun’s sunspot activity in January. As I have done every month since 2010, I am posting it here with annotations to give it context.

What strikes me about this month’s continuing and steady decline in sunspots is how much it illustrates the long and steady nature of the ramp down to solar minimum, even for cycles that are very active. If you look at the ramp down during the previous solar cycle on the graph below the fold, it took four full years to reach solar minimum from a comparable sunspot level to what we have today.
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Two thoughtful endorsements of Ted Cruz

While cable television and the general media goes nuts of the childish feud between Donald Trump and Fox News, Ted Cruz today got two different endorsements that not only supported his nomination for president, but also outlined in detail two completely different reasons for supporting him.

The first, at the website Legal Insurrection, outlined Ted Cruz’s consistent and long term history as a trustworthy constitutional conservative. Not only does the article review Cruz’s history in the Senate, where he did whatever he could to fulfill his campaign promises (often prevented from doing so by his own Republican caucus), the article also looks at his background before becoming a senator. Its conclusion?

In short, Cruz has a long (dating back to his early teens) record of being a conservative in both principle and action.  He didn’t bound out of bed one day, put his finger to the wind, and decide to become a conservative (as was charged against Mitt Romney, among others); he’s always been a conservative. [emphasis in original]

Conservatives have been complaining for decades that they can’t get a reliable conservative nominated to run for president. With Cruz, we actually have that chance, and he will be running against the weakest Democratic candidate since George McGovern.

The second article outlines Cruz’s particular advantages for cleaning out the bureaucratic corruption in the Justice Department and elsewhere in the federal government.
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Orion: construction in slow motion

Today NASA announced completion of the welding of the next Orion capsule, a job that this story said took about three months to do 7 welds. The story also noted this:

After putting on the finished touches, NASA plans to ship the vehicle to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) aboard NASA’s Super Guppy airplane on or about Feb. 1. At KSC, engineers working inside the Neil Armstrong Operation and Checkout Building (O & C) will spend the next two years outfitting Orion for launch in late 2018 by installing all the systems and subsystems for its inaugural flight to the Moon and back.

Overall this is the third Orion capsule that NASA has built, following the Ground Test Article (GTA), which did not fly, and the EFT-1 capsule which successfully launched just over one year ago on Dec. 5, 2014. [emphasis mine]

Three months to do 7 welds. Two years to outfit a capsule. Wow! At that pace they might launch before the end of the century.

Seriously, this is an absurdly slow work pace, illustrating the wasteful nature of the SLS/Orion program. Orion’s budget these days is about $1 billion per year, with a total cost expected to reach $17 billion by the time the fourth capsule is built and launched in 2023, for a project first proposed in 2004.

In other words, it will take NASA and Lockheed Martin almost 20 years to build four capsules for the cost of $17 billion. That is absurd. Compare it to commercial space: The entire budget for all the commercial crew contracts, including both cargo contracts and the manned contract, is about half that, and will produce four different vehicles, all of which will be built and flying by 2019 at the latest. And in the case of Dragon and Cygnus, more than a dozen capsules have already flown.

Is there no one in Washington with the brain power to read these numbers and come to a rational decision about SLS/Orion? It costs too much and isn’t getting us into space. Moreover, at its pace and cost it isn’t doing anything to help the American aerospace industry. Better for Congress to put money into other things, or save it entirely and reduce the deficit and thus not waste it on this pork barrel garbage.

Unfortunately, our elected officials today not only don’t have brains, too many of them are downright corrupt. They prefer to bankrupt the nation for their own petty gain rather than do things that might help the nation grow.

The Palin endorsement of Trump

I usually avoid posting much about campaign stuff, as most of it is foolish childish blather. To me, what is important is what politicians actually do when they are in positions of power, not what they say while they are campaigning.

However, Sarah Palin’s endorsement yesterday of Donald Trump requires a few words, because this is an action by Palin that confirms a great deal about her (not Trump) that I have thought since the day she resigned as Alaska’s governor. To paraphrase one headline, yesterday’s endorsement was a Reality TV Star Endorsing a Reality TV Star.

Sarah Palin, the host of “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” and “Amazing America with Sarah Palin,” has endorsed the star of “The Apprentice” and “The Celebrity Apprentice”

This article is more blunt:
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Sunspot decline continues

NOAA’s monthly update of the solar cycle, showing the Sun’s sunspot activity in December, was posted earlier this week, and I am posting it here, as I do every month, with annotations to give it context.

The decline in sunspots continues, tracking closely the rate of decline predicted by the 2007 and 2009 predictions (the lower green curve and the red curve) but the overall solar maximum has been far shorter and less powerful than predicted.
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Recovered Falcon 9 first stage undamaged

Recovered Falcon 9 first stage

The competition heats up: In an Instagram post, Elon Musk has revealed that the Falcon 9 first stage that successfully landed vertically after launch is in its hanger and is essentially undamaged.

Elon Musk: “Falcon 9 back in the hangar at Cape Canaveral. No damage found, ready to fire again.”

Musk’s post included a higher resolution version of the picture on the right, showing a close-up of the stage near its top. This image reveals that, despite some minor paint damage and dirt, this section of the stage does appear whole and ready to go. Even the landing fins are folded and appear undamaged.

Musk’s post also suggests that the stage is ready for its first post-launch test firing, which underlines how unique this opportunity is. No one has ever had a functioning first stage available for testing after it had been launched and returned to Earth. Past assumptions (an important word) have always said that the stress of launch would damage it enough that it wouldn’t be cost effect to reuse it. SpaceX’s engineers now will have an opportunity to find out if that assumption was true or false. I strongly suspect they will find that this assumption was false, that it was used as a bugaboo by the small-minded to discourage just this kind of effort by SpaceX.

This article notes that Musk has previously said it costs $60 million to build the first stage, but only $200K to refuel it. Since SpaceX says it charges about $70 million per launch, that first stage is most of SpaceX’s cost for each launch. If the stage can reused later, the cost of later launches will thus plummet incredibly. Assume they can only reuse the stage once. Amortized over only two launches the cost is still cut by almost half. More importantly, the ability to reuse will be an incentive for them to build the stage right the first time, so that it can be reused multiple times.

I repeat: The importance of this breakthrough has not yet sunk in. It is going to change the entire aerospace industry and everything we do in space.

Update: I have corrected the post above, which originally incorrectly stated that the picture showed the stage near its base.

Confusion in Russia’s space program

Today Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin appeared on Russian television where he tried to explain the government’s plans for the Russian space program.

He failed, miserably.

First he denied reports from yesterday that the government has cancelled all Moon missions in its still not-yet-finalized proposed ten-year plan for 2015 to 2025.

“We are not dropping the lunar program. Rumors of its death are greatly exaggerated,” Rogozin said during an interview with Russia’s Rossiya-24 television channel.

Despite this denial, he did not provide any details on what Russia plans to do in connection with the Moon during the next decade. Nor did lay out his 10-year plan, which still remains unapproved or finalized despite the fact that its first year is about to begin. Instead, he began describing a new government space project, the development of a super-heavy rocket he dubbed “Fenix.”
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The coming bright age

As regular readers of Behind The Black know, I routinely report on the depressing state of western culture, where our intellectual academic community appears more interested in standing with their eyes closed and their fingers in their ears yelling, “La-la-la-la-la-la-la-la!!!” as loud as they can so they can avoid learning new things or hearing facts that might disturb their tiny little bubble of incorrect assumptions. Such behavior is comparable to the close-minded thinking that caused the medieval dark ages, when the search for knowledge died and Roman culture withered. It took a thousand-plus years for western civilization to come out of that shadow and begin to grow again.

The success of SpaceX yesterday to vertically land the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket while also successfully putting eleven smallsat satellites in orbit however that gives me hope that a dark age is not coming. Despite living in a time when freedom is denigrated, when free speech is squelched, and when oppressive regulation and government control is the answer to every problem, the enduring spirit of the human soul still pushed through to do an amazing thing.

SpaceX’s success is only the beginning. The ability to reuse the engines and first stage will allow them to lower their launch costs significantly, meaning that access to space will now be possible for hundreds if not thousands of new entrepeneurs who previously had ideas about developing the resources of the solar system but could not achieve them because the launch costs were too high. In fact, the launch of Orbcomm’s smallsat constellation by this Falcon 9 demonstrated this. Not only is this company proving the efficiency of smallsats, they now have a launch vehicle, the Falcon 9, that they can afford to use. In the past Orbcomm would have been hard-pressed to finance its satellite constellation using the expensive rockets of older less innovative launch companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

SpaceX however is not alone in revolutioning the launch industry. Blue Origin has also demonstrated some of the same launch capabilities as SpaceX, vertically landing its first stage. In competition these two companies and their armies of brilliant and creative engineers are going to make it possible for the human race to explore and colonize the solar system.

Even as old Earth sinks into increasing regulation, oppressive rule-making, and tyrannical close-mindedness, the explorers of the solar system, led by this new American launch industry, will break away from that morass. Hopefully, the new space-faring societies they create out there amid the stars will, like the settlers of North America in the 1600s, help re-establish freedom for future generations back here on Earth.

SpaceX lands the first stage!

The competition heats up: SpaceX has successfully vertically landed its first stage after putting 11 Orbcomm satellites into orbit.

If you go to the SpaceX website they broadcast the whole thing live. And people are going crazy there right now.

I am sure they will post the video at the SpaceX website and youtube channel later today. The link to the full broadcast of the launch and landing is here. The landing sequence begins at about 25 minutes in, a little less than four minutes after launch.

The Democratic Party’s disconnect from reality

Three stories today once again illustrate better than anything the leftwing Democratic Party’s profound disconnect from reality:

The first story is a new poll of the public’s opinions on the subject of gun control and the idea of banning “assault weapons” (whatever those might be). Not surprisingly, the public opposes future bans, and the trend lines show a continuing and nonstop shift away from gun control and towards gun rights that has been on-going since the 1990s.

A majority of Americans oppose banning assault weapons for the first time in more than 20 years of ABC News/Washington Post polls, with the public expressing vast doubt that the authorities can prevent “lone wolf” terrorist attacks and a substantial sense that armed citizens can help. Just 45 percent in this national survey favor an assault weapons ban, down 11 percentage points from an ABC/Post poll in 2013 and down from a peak of 80 percent in 1994. Fifty-three percent oppose such a ban, the most on record.

Indeed, while the division is a close one, Americans by 47-42 percent think that encouraging more people to carry guns legally is a better response to terrorism than enacting stricter gun control laws. Divisions across groups are vast, underscoring the nation’s gulf on gun issues.

The second story describes how, despite the above very broad and obvious poll numbers, ninety-one House Democrats today introduced a bill to ban the sale and manufacture of “assault weapons”. In announcing the bill, its lead sponsor, David Cicilline (D-Rhode Island), made this vague effort to define “assault weapon”:
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New spectacular images of Pluto

Pluto's mountainous shoreline

Many cool images! The New Horizons science team has today released new images from the spacecraft’s close fly-by of Pluto.

These latest pictures are part of a sequence taken near New Horizons’ closest approach to Pluto, with resolutions of about 250-280 feet (77-85 meters) per pixel – revealing features less than half the size of a city block on the diverse surface of the distant planet. In these new images, New Horizons captured a wide variety of spectacular, cratered, mountainous and glacial terrains.

I have cropped and lowered the resolution of the image above to fit it here. Make sure you click on the link to see it and the other images. As they note,

In this highest-resolution image from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, great blocks of Pluto’s water-ice crust appear jammed together in the informally named al-Idrisi mountains. Some mountain sides appear coated in dark material, while other sides are bright. Several sheer faces appear to show crustal layering, perhaps related to the layers seen in some of Pluto’s crater walls. Other materials appear crushed between the mountains, as if these great blocks of water ice, some standing as much as 1.5 miles high, were jostled back and forth. The mountains end abruptly at the shoreline of the informally named Sputnik Planum, where the soft, nitrogen-rich ices of the plain form a nearly level surface, broken only by the fine trace work of striking, cellular boundaries and the textured surface of the plain’s ices (which is possibly related to sunlight-driven ice sublimation).

Today’s release also includes a short animation of a faint distant Kuiper Belt object, assembled by four images taken by New Horizons. The images don’t show much more than a streak of light, but the feat of imaging this object by a spacecraft billions of miles away in this manner is breath-taking.

Arm yourself

As usual, yesterday’s mass shooting in California caused President Obama and the entire left to go into spasms demanding more gun control. A gunman shows up at a random site and begins shooting innocent unarmed people, and the first instinct of the left is to disarm more people so that vicious murderers will have more unarmed people to nonchalantly murder.

I say, it doesn’t matter whether yesterday’s killers were Islamic madmen, right-wing madmen, left-wing madmen, or plain-old madmen. What matters is that they had an easy time killing lots of people, because those people decided to remain unarmed and helpless in the face of violence.

I say, arm yourself. Get prepared so that if you find yourself in such terrible circumstances you can fight back and possibly survive, and in the process maybe save a lot of other lives as well. The likelihood that there will more such killers, most of whom will likely be Islamic terrorists because that is whom we are presently at war with, is quite high. To sit helpless and not prepared for battle is the height of foolishness.

You are personally responsible. You cannot depend on the police or government to defend you. You need to be prepared to defend yourself.

Arm yourself. The next time a killer shows up there should be ten free Americans capable of stopping him or her in their tracks, before anyone innocent dies.

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