Category Archives: Essays And Commentaries

Going back to the Canyon

Grand Canyon
The black dot in the upper left is a condor.

As we did last year Diane and I are heading back to the Grand Canyon today. We will hike down to Phantom Ranch on Tuesday and return on Thursday, with one day at the bottom to do additional hiking. We then head to Grand Canyon Caverns to participate in a dig project there trying to find additional virgin passage. (When we were there last year we broke into approximately 250 feet of previously unknown passage.)

Obviously, posting will be impossible while we are in the Canyon. I should be able to post on the other days, though not as frequently as normal.

The Evening Pause, however, will appear each night this week, with thanks to my readers for helping me find some really interesting videos.

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Looking Forward

In the past week there must have been a hundred stories written celebrating the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11. Here’s just a small sampling:

These articles try to cover the topic from all angles. Some looked at the wonders of the achievement. Others extolled the newspaper’s local community and their contribution. Some used the event to demand the U.S. do it again.

None of this interests me much. Though I passionately want humans, preferable Americans, back on the Moon exploring and settling it, this fetish with celebrating Apollo is to me becoming quite tiresome.
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The next Proton and Angara launches

The competition heats up: Russia has set September 28 as the next launch date for its troubled Proton rocket.

The most interesting detail gleaned from this article however is this:

The Proton-M carrier rocket previously launched on May 16 from Baikonur space center collided with communications satellite Express АМ4R and burned up in the atmosphere above China, leaving Russia without its most powerful telecommunications satellite.

Previous reports had not been very clear about the causes of the May launch failure. All they would say is that “a failed bearing in the steering engine’s turbo pump” had caused the failure about nine minutes into the flight. This report suggests that this failure occurred after separation of the payload and that it then caused the upper stage to collide with the satellite.

Russia is also about to ship its new Angara 5 rocket to the launch site for a planned December launch. This will be the first launch of the Angara configuration that is expected to replace the Proton rocket, and is expected to place a dummy payload into geosynchronous orbit.
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Website upgrade

Update: The upgrade is mostly finished. There are still a few tweaks that either I or Shane will do over the weekend but essentially the site is up and running.
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This evening Behind the Black will be undergoing a significant upgrade. For this reason posting will cease beginning with this post at 3 pm (Pacific) until the upgrade is completed later tonight. When completed the site will be slightly different. Most of the changes will be irrelevant to readers, as I have tried in this upgrade to keep the website how I like it, clean, thoughtful, and not cluttered with unnecessary internet stuff.

Two issues will affect my readers.

  • The spam filter for comments will once again be working. In addition, comments will not be accepted until the commenter completes a Captcha screen. Once this is done, however, the comment will then be instantly approved. I will no longer have to manually approve each comment. This will speed the dialogue. It will also mean that comment threads will remain open forever. Since the spam filter failed in January I have had to close comments on posts after three weeks.
  • The look of the website will change somewhat. These changes are mostly designed to increase traffic, which will not only increase my readership but will help pay for this site. For example, it will be easier to share a post from Behind the Black in many other venues, such as Facebook and Twitter.

To complete the upgrade my software guy, Shane Rolin of Amixa, and I will have to do a number of tweaks and changes after the new site goes live. Thus, be prepared for a short period on Friday where things might not work as they should. By the end of the evening, however, all should be fixed and working properly. If you see a problem after that please feel free to comment here, describing what you see and what you think could be done to fix it. Also feel free to comment here with any additional suggestions for making Behind the Black a better experience. I am always open to new ideas.

The sun continues its ramp down

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

The decline in sunspots continued for the fourth month in a row, increasing the likelihood that the peak of solar maximum has finally come and gone and that we now seeing the beginning of the ramp down to solar minimum. This resulting solar maximum comes close to matching the science community’s final prediction (indicated by the red line), though that prediction was not detailed enough to include the distinct and unusual double peak for this maximum.
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More fraud in peer-reviewed science

The science journal Nature today announced the retraction of two controversial stem cell papers.

The two papers reporting the stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) phenomenon appeared online on 29 January. Questions about the papers arose almost immediately, leading to an investigation by RIKEN, the headquarters of the network of the nationally funded laboratories that is based in Wako near Tokyo. Investigators documented several instances of fabrication and falsification in the papers and concluded that some of these constituted research misconduct on the part of [Haruko] Obokata [the lead author].

Japanese media recently reported that authors had agreed to retract the papers but were discussing the wording of the notice. In the note that appeared today, the authors point to errors previously identified by RIKEN investigations in supplementary documents. They also identify additional errors in both papers, including mix-ups in images, mislabeling, faulty descriptions, and “inexplicable discrepancies in genetic background and transgene insertion sites between the donor mice and the reported” STAP cells. [emphasis mine]

The list of errors now documented sound astonishing. In fact, I can’t see how any serious review by any competent specialist in this field could have missed them all, which suggests that for this research at least the peer-review process is mostly a sham. In fact, in the article Nature admits that its
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China heads for the Moon and Mars.

The competition heats up: In several different news stories today China touted its future plans in space.

The landing test described in the first story above will also be the first test flight of China’s new heavy lift rocket, Long March 5.

That China is both politically and culturally serious about this effort can be seen by the nationalistic enthusiasm for this space effort that permeates these stories. They also can’t help comparing their plans to U.S. efforts.
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The late arrival of Russia’s first private satellite

The competition heats up? The Dnepr rocket launch of 37 satellites yesterday also included the launch of the first private Russian satellite.

TabletSat-Aurura owned by the company SPUTNIX weighs 26.2 kg and is made to operate for one year. It is intended for remote Earth sensing in the interests of a private company. The satellite was made using Russian technologies and a minimum of foreign components. Its cost is about one million US dollars.

Igor Komarov, the head of the United Rocket and Space Corporation, said “the launch of Aurora, the first Russian private satellite, is a successful example of public-private partnership in the field of space exploration as private companies clearly cannot fulfill their strategic tasks without the state. ,,, I am confident that cooperation between the state and private aerospace agencies in designing and manufacturing high-tech craft will become an important stimulus for further development of Russian competitive technologies.”

SPUTNIX Director-General Andrei Potapov said his company’s plans included “creating a cluster of small spacecraft and craft for super high-definition aerial video surveying and imaging with a resolution of down to one meter per pixel”. [emphasis mine]

Why do I have doubts about this Russian achievement? The reasons are twofold.
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Is the Sun’s strange double-peaked solar maximum finally ending?

Last week NOAA posted its monthly update of the solar cycle, showing the sunspot activity for the Sun in April. As I do every month, I am posting it here, with annotations to give it context.

May 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.

For the third month in a row the Sun continued its drop in sunspots, with the total finally slipping below the 2009 prediction for this moment in the solar cycle. If this decline continues through to solar minimum, the shape of the solar maximum will essentially have been established, double-peaked with the second peak stronger than the first, something that solar scientists have never seen before.

At the moment I await word from the scientists that the Sun has completed the flip of its magnetic field polarity in the southern hemisphere. This flip has already occurred in the northern hemisphere, and when the south follows, the maximum will be officially over and we will officiallybegin the ramp down to solar minimum.

Website software expert needed

I am in need of someone willing to manage the backroom software aspects of Behind the Black. My first software designer found he no longer had the time to do it, and the person I found to replace him decided suddenly that he didn’t like my political opinions and unless I wrote my opinions the way he liked he couldn’t do it.

The work wouldn’t be difficult nor very time consuming, but there are several areas of the website software that need cleaning up. If you are familiar with WordPress and website design and would like to help me keep this website up and running, please comment here. I will email you immediately.

This post will remain at the top of the site for the rest of today.

The Sun settling down?

Two weeks ago NOAA posted its monthly update of the solar cycle, showing the sunspot activity for the Sun in April. I have been remiss about doing my monthly post about this, so here it is now, posted below with annotations.

April 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 Sun continued the drop in sunspots seen the previous month, though the total number remains above the 2009 prediction for this moment in the solar cycle. As already noted, that the second peak of this double peaked solar maximum has been much stronger than the first remains unprecedented.

Overall, the maximum continues to be the weakest seen in a hundred years. Whether this is an indicator of future events or an anomaly can only be discovered after the Sun completes this solar solar cycle and begins the ramp up to its next solar maximum, at least five years away.

The next update is only a few weeks away. Stay tuned.

Russia fights back

Much has been made about the sanctions the Obama administration has imposed on any cooperation with Russia due to the situation in Ukraine and how those sanctions might damage the commercial and manned space efforts of the United States.

So far, all evidence has suggested that the sanctions have little teeth. The Obama administration exempted ISS from the sanctions. It also appears to be allowing the shipment of all commercial satellites to Russia for launch. Even a court injunction against using Russia rocket engines in U.S. military launches was lifted when the Obama administration asked the judge to do so.

The Russians now have responded. Why do I take their response more seriously?
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The porksters arrive!

A draft bill in Congress is proposing the Pentagon develop an engine for the Atlas 5 engine to replace the Russian engine now used.

The legislation passed by a House subcommittee Wednesday calls for up the U.S. military to spend up to $220 million next year to kick off full-scale development of the engine, which could be ready for flights no later than 2019. The bill states the Defense Department “should develop a next-generation liquid rocket engine that is made in the United States, meets the requirements of the national security space community, is developed by not later than 2019, is developed using full and open competition, and is available for purchase by all space launch providers of the United States.”

There is no reason for this funding gift to the aerospace industry. For one thing, there are two rockets that already exist that use all U.S. parts, the Delta family of rockets and the Falcon 9. For another, if Congress stays out, the private sector will take care of this need and do it for a lot less and far quicker, while costing the taxpayers relatively little. By making this a government project we guarantee it will be expensive and take forever, thus keeping the pork flowing to Congressional districts without solving the problem.

And speaking of keeping pork flowing to Congressional districts, pork king Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) today ripped into NASA for trying to trim a little from the budget of SLS (which sends a lot of cash to Alabama). He also condemned NASA’s manned commercial effort.
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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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