Category Archives: Essays And Commentaries

Russians confirm plan to leave ISS in 2024

The competition heats up: Russian space managers have confirmed that they have endorsed a plan to leave ISS in 2024, when they will assemble their own space station using new modules as well as a significant number of the modules attached to ISS.

On February 24, 2015, the Scientific and Technical Council, NTS, at Roskosmos, the main planning body at the agency led by a newly appointed chairman and the former head of the agency Yuri Koptev, formally endorsed the Russian participation in the ISS program until 2024. It would be followed by the separation of Russia’s newest modules from the ISS to form the new national space station. As previously reported on this site, the initial configuration of the station would include the Multi-purpose Module, MLM, the Node Module, UM, and the Science and Power Module, NEM. Notably, the original Russian ISS component — the Zvezda Service Module, SM — was not included in the plan, thus ensuring that its propulsion capabilities would be available for deorbiting of the outpost at the end of its operational life.

Whether ISS will be functional with just the Russian Zvezda module is not clear. NASA engineers now have about a decade to figure this out and to fix it.

In general the break up of the partnership running ISS will be good for space exploration. The competition between nations will spur development and innovation. It will also free each nation from the shackles of the partnership. The Russians in particular have wanted to utilize ISS for more daring and longer expeditions to research interplanetary travel, and were stymied by NASA’s bureaucracy. Once they start doing this sort of thing on their own station NASA will feel obliged to follow.

Obviously, competition between nations carries risk. As long as there is some agreed to framework for claiming territory on other planets (something that the U.N. treaty does not allow), the nations will be able to compete peacefully. Without that framework, however, will leave room for disagreement and conflict.

It is thus essential that the space-faring nations sit down and work out this framework, and do it as soon as possible before each nation has vested interests in space that are already in conflict with each other. Above all, this new framework has got to abandon the U.N. space treaty with its rules that forbid the claiming and controlling of territory by nations in space. Those rules were never realistic, and literally guarantee that nations will eventually end up at war with each other as they fight to determine who owns what in space.

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Watching politics eat away at climate science

Two stories today today illustrate how the field of climate science is being destroyed by politics.

In the first, a leading climate skeptic chortles over the resignation of Rajendra Pachauri, the man who has headed the IPCC since 2002, who has stepped down because of allegations of sexual harassment by an employee at the institute he heads in New Delhi. In the second, Willie Wei-Hock Soon, a scientist who has published numerous peer-reviewed papers raising questions about global warming science, is attacked for not fully disclosing the sources of his income.

In both cases, the two sides in the global warming debate are using these allegations as ammunition to attack the believability of each side’s stance on the scientific question of global warming. And in both cases, the stories raise literally no questions about the science itself that each man advocated.

I admit that I have attacked Pachauri numerous times in the past, but each time it was because he demonstrated outright ignorance of the field of climate science or had been caught making significant scientific errors. His resignation here however has nothing to do with the science published in IPCC reports, and should not be used as fodder to criticize the theory of human-caused global warming.

Similarly, none of the articles in the mainstream science press about the allegations against Soon have raised a single question about his actual results. All they have done is attack him for not revealing all of his funding sources. His research itself still appears valid. That the largest science journals, Science and Nature, have published articles attacking Soon, with the Smithsonian now piling on as well, without presenting any evidence that he had falsified any of his work, illustrates how corrupt this field has become. The science for these major science journals no longer matters. All that matters is destroying someone who was apparently successful in bursting the balloon on some global warming science.

Until everyone stops playing this game and focuses instead on the data itself and what that data is really telling us, we will get no closer to truly understanding the climate of the Earth. And tragically, I see far too little effort in the climate field to do this.

Sunspot activity tracks prediction

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 to give it context.

As I have noted previously, the ramp down from solar maximum continues to track the 2009 prediction of the solar scientist community (indicated by the red curve) quite closely. As NOAA also notes,

While awaiting final confirmation, all evidence points to the most recent solar maximum having peaked at 82 in April, 2014. This was within the expected range for the peak, but occurred significantly later than predicted.

Since their graph doesn’t show the entire curves for their predictions, the above statement seems reasonable. However, looking at the graph with those curves inserted (see my annotated graph below the fold), it becomes clear that not only did the peak occur much later than predicted, the maximum’s overall activity was also generally less than predicted.
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“Oh, she’s going down.”

Rand Paul today became the fourth senator to announce his opposition to Loretta Lynch, Barack Obama’s nominee for attorney general.

Earlier Wednesday, in his office in the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill, Breitbart News watched as the senator’s legal and press team briefed him final time before the interview. Sergio Gor, Paul’s communications director, his press secretary Eleanor May and attorney Brian Darling were all present.

Paul asked the team about Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-TX) question during Lynch’s Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing about whether she’d oppose using a drone to kill an American citizen on American soil.

When Paul heard about her non-answer—she wouldn’t commit that the federal government does not have such authority—he was incredulous. Furthermore, Paul was appalled that Lynch came out in favor of President Barack Obama’s executive amnesty and the use of asset forfeiture—where the federal government seizes people’s property sometimes with flimsy reasoning, something even the Obama administration has offered slight opposition to—and then told his office staff he’s going to oppose her and aim to derail her nomination chances. “Oh, she’s going down,” Paul said to the room.

The video of Lynch’s non-answer to Cruz’s question is quite shocking. I dare you to watch it and tell me afterward that this administration and Democratic Party is not a threat to your freedom and rights.

Whether the Republicans in the Senate will have the courage to stand up to this threat, however, remains a very big unknown. That four senators have announced their opposition so early is a good sign, but we shall see.

Roscomos puts the squeeze on Ukraine

Two more stories this week provide additional evidence that Roscosmos, the new Russian government-run space corporation that controls Russia’s entire space industry, intends to eliminate its dependence on any foreign contributions, even if that contribution comes from the former Soviet province of Ukraine.

In the first story, Roscosmos ends the commercial use of the Dnepr anti-ballistic missile, built originally in the Ukraine. In the second story Roscosmos makes it very clear that it will focus on using its Russia-made Angara rocket rather than depend on the Ukrainian Zenit, even though Zenit is what the Roscosmos-owned Sea Launch platform was designed to use and Angara is far from operational.

The main result of these decisions will be the bankrupt many Ukrainian space companies. Whether it will bring more business to Angara, however, remains to be seen. Angara has only had one orbital launch, and has hardly tested its many different configurations. At this stage it is highly unlikely that the commercial customers who have depended on Dnepr and Zenit will flock to it, especially since they now have other competitive options available in the west.

Proton launches successfully

The competition heats up: Russia’s Proton successfully launched an Inmarsat commercial satellite into orbit today.

Considering the problems the Proton has had in recent years, this launch success is significant. It suggests that they are back in business.

In related news, a Russian space expert was fired from his job at a hi-tech operation outside Moscow after he publicly criticized the Putin government’s consolidation of Russia’s entire space industry into a single government-run corporation.

Vadim Lukashevich worked at the Skolkovo Innovation Center, a high-tech business park outside Moscow intended as Russia’s answer to Silicon Valley that has partnerships with Western research universities such as MIT. “As I understand it, they [fired me] for a series of interviews in which I criticize the recent decision to liquidate the Federal Space Agency and create a new state corporation called Roscosmos,” Lukashevich told The Moscow Times on Friday.

…Lukashevich, a prominent voice in the Russian space scene, told the BBC the reform would remove any industry accountability and would foster corruption — all while failing to provide Russia with a long-term direction in space.

On Wednesday, a day after the interview was published, he said someone at Skolkovo’s Space Cluster called him to say he had been fired. The caller “apologized several times, saying the decision was imposed on them from above — by a phone call from URSC in the middle of the night,” Lukashevich said

I think that Lukashevich is right, that creating a single government-run corporation will encourage corruption and in the long run will be a disaster for Russia’s space industry. We will see a rebirth of the same problems that destroyed the Soviet Union. In fact, Lukashevich’s firing is illustrative of this.

I also think that in the short term it will likely energize their space program. But only for a short period of time. After they achieve some Soviet-style stunts that appear impressive, the weight of corruption and the lack of competition will cause the industry to collapse in bankruptcy again.

Obama allies himself with Islam radicals

The side that President Barack Obama takes in the worldwide conflict between fundamentalist (and violent) Islam and western Judeo-Christian civilization can be seen I think by three stories this past week:

In the first case Obama chose to hurriedly change his plans so he could attend the funeral of the Saudi king. He did not consider attending or sending an important representative to the demonstrations in France condemning the Charlie Hebdo murders. Nor did he consider attending or sending an important representative to the ceremonies commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

In the second case Obama has made his dislike for Netanyahu and Israel quite clear, almost to the point of performing childish tantrums. Yet, Israel is our ally. It is also the only real democracy in the Middle East that actually attempts to defend western values.

In the third case, Obama has his administration meet with Muslim Brotherhood leaders to coordinate an effort to remove Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, even though al-Sisi is one of the few in the Islamic world demanding that Islam reform itself away from violence.

So, what side do you think Barack Obama is on? Who do you really think he wants to win this war?

Got $500? You too can get a scientific paper published!

A Harvard scientist used a random text generator to create a fake science paper entitled “Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs?” and was able to get it accepted at 17 journals. [Note: the link includes an auto-download of the pdf of the scientist’s fake paper.]

Shrime decided to see how easy it would be to publish an article. So he made one up. Like, he literally made one up. He did it using www.randomtextgenerator.com. The article is entitled “Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs?” and its authors are the venerable Pinkerton A. LeBrain and Orson Welles. The subtitle reads: “The surgical and neoplastic role of cacao extract in breakfast cereals.” Shrime submitted it to 37 journals over two weeks and, so far, 17 of them have accepted it. (They have not “published” it, but say they will as soon as Shrime pays the $500. This is often referred to as a “processing fee.” Shrime has no plans to pay them.) Several have already typeset it and given him reviews, as you can see at the end of this article. One publication says his methods are “novel and innovative”!. But when Shrime looked up the physical locations of these publications, he discovered that many had very suspicious addresses; one was actually inside a strip club.

Essentially, these fake journals are scams to get $500 from scientists, generally from third world countries who can’t get their papers published in the bigger first world journals. (What does that tell us about those bigger first world journals?)

The best line of the article however was this: “Many of these publications sound legitimate. To someone who is not well-versed in a particular subfield of medicine—a journalist, for instance—it would be easy to mistake them for valid sources.” [emphasis mine] It seems to me that if you are a journalist writing about a particular field, you should be reasonably educated on that field and be able to spot a fake journal. I certainly can. That it is assumed that mainstream journalists who report on medicine cannot speaks volumes about the quality of the field.

Ocean science deals with limited budgets

A National Research Council report has outlined a range of budget cuts in the field of ocean science, including significant cuts to infrastructure expenses, in order to focus the available funds more wisely.

Faced with rising costs of going to sea, the ocean-sciences division of the US National Science Foundation (NSF) should immediately slash what it spends on marine hardware, says a new report. It suggests making the biggest cut to the flagship US$386-million Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI), which after years of construction is just months away from being finished.

The report, released on 23 January by the US National Research Council, is likely to guide US oceanography for years to come. It is the first formal attempt to address what many researchers have grumbled about for years — that basic ocean science at the NSF is losing out to the rising costs of infrastructure.

This report and the response of the ocean science community illustrates a pattern going on throughout the sciences. For years, their budgets had been rising so fast that they really didn’t know what to do with the money. (I know they would disagree with me.) This resulted in some laziness in how they spent it, including a great deal of feather-bedding and pork.

Now that budgets have frozen and are no longer growing, and in many cases shrinking back to more affordable levels, they need to figure out what is essential and what is not. This report is part of that effort.

I am seeing this same process happening in other fields as well. Santa, in the form of unlimited federal spending, has gone home, and is unexpected to return for quite some time.

Why I ignored Obama’s State of the Union speech

Space.com has provided a detailed look, with reactions, of President Obama’s prominent mention of space exploration in his State of the Union speech this week.

I didn’t even watch the speech, nor read it, nor really care much at all about what he said. It is garbage, political propaganda that has nothing to do with getting us into space. The speech’s only real purpose is to puff up Barack Obama and his political allies.

The article above mentions Obama’s April 2010 space speech. What I wrote about that 2010 speech in 2010 focused on this promise by Obama:

[A]s stated in the speech’s fact sheet, that he “will commit to making a specific decision in 2015 on the development of a new heavy-lift rocket architecture.” Somehow this commitment was supposed to convince us that, despite his cancellation of the Constellation program (which already has had six years of development under its belt), his willingness to postpone making a decision for five years more would somehow accelerate the program.

How stupid does Obama really think people are? [emphasis in original]

Five years later, does anyone remember this promise? And is Obama making this decision now, as promised? No to both. The only reason he is building SLS is because Congress required him to. And the purpose of that rocket program isn’t to build a rocket, but to pour ungodly amounts of money into congressional districts.

To me, the real news this week was the big money private enterprise is beginning to pour into real development in space. That will get us to the planets, not the egotistical blathering of politicians.

The sunspot cycle update for December

The monthly update by NOAA of the solar cycle, showing the sunspot activity for the Sun in December, was released this past weekend. As I do every month, I am posting it here, below the fold, with annotations to give it context.

Even though sunspot activity in December increased, the slow ramp down to solar minimum continues to track the 2009 prediction of the solar scientist community. The overall intensity of the solar maximum prior to 2014 was considerable less than this prediction, but the numbers throughout 2014 matched that prediction remarkably well.
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Do not submit!

Mohammed Bomb cartoon

The cartoon on the right prompted the first Islamic riots. More recent ones in the French magazine Charlie Hebdo apparently prompted today’s violent murders.

The goal of these Islamic acts of violence: To stop people from criticizing Islam.

My goal in publishing this cartoon: To defy these thugs and to encourage people to criticize Islam. In the past two decades we have seen nothing but violence, terrorism, death, and destruction from this Arabic religion, fed by hatred and bigotry of Jews and Christians. It is time to say so, bluntly.

If Muslims wish this criticism to stop, they need to do something about it themselves, as the President of Egypt has, instead of demanding others to shut up.

A new Russian heavy lift rocket amid Russian budget woes

The competition heats up: Even as Russia today successfully placed a commercial satellite in orbit on the 400th successful Proton rocket launch, Russian sources indicate that — despite budget woes fueled by the drop in oil prices — Russia is moving ahead with the design and construction of a heavy-lift rocket capable of competing with NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS).

From the last link above:

By 2013, Roskosmos drafted a very preliminary roadmap toward the development of heavy and super-heavy launch vehicles. Not surprisingly, it matched closely the strategy that NASA had followed since 2011 within the Space Launch System, SLS, project.

…As the American SLS project, Russian super-heavy launcher plans envisioned building a rocket with a payload of 80-85 tons in the first phase of the program. A pair of such rockets would be enough to mount a lunar expedition. In the second phase of development, the rocket would be upgraded to carry unprecedented 130-180 tons of payload in order to support, permanent lunar bases, missions to asteroids and expeditions to Mars.

As much as I remain a skeptic of SLS, it has apparently struck so much competitive fear in the Russian leadership that they are now willing to try to copy it. Much like the 1980s, when the Soviet rulers bankrupted their nation trying to duplicate American projects like the Strategic Defense Initiative and the Space Shuttle, Putin is now repeating that error all over again. His country has experienced almost a quarter-century of strong economic growth since the fall of communism because, during that time, they focused on capitalism, private enterprise, freedom, and a bottom-up economic structure. Now, they are beginning to abandon that approach and return to the top-down, centralized system of government planning.

As it did in previous century, it will bankrupt them again in this century. Though the Russian government is denying the reports that they are going to trim their space budget, their government’s budget is going to suffer from the drop in the price of oil. Something will have to give.

Update: This review of a book about modern Russia is definitely pertinent: The Land of Magical Thinking: Inside Putin’s Russia

Solar maximum ramp down continues

The monthly update by NOAA of the solar cycle, showing the sunspot activity for the Sun in November, was released on December 8, just before NOAA completely revamped its website. As I have been doing every month for the past four years, I am posting it here, with annotations to give it context.

As noted in previous months, the 2009 prediction of the solar scientist community is looking better and better with time. Though there was an increase in sunspot activity in November, the overall trend continues downward very close to that prediction, though at levels that have generally been less than predicted.

November 2014 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.

Future updates will depend on whether NOAA continues to track sunspots using these same standards. After much searching I was finally able to locate the graph above at this link, suggesting that at least for now, they are holding to these standards. I note however that the links to the 2007 and the 2009 solar cycle predictions have vanished down the memory hole. Fortunately, I still have this data, and can continue to annotate the graphs to compare prediction with actual data.

That they might have removed these predictions from their webpage however is a shame. I have emailed them to ask them about this and will let you know what I learn.

Book news!

Two book items which I think my readers will be interested in:

First, my publisher of the ebook edition of Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8 has asked me to ask my readers to please post book reviews of the book on amazon.com. Presently the book has 47 reviews. If it gets three more, we will be eligible for a number of additional Kindle promotions.

So, whether you liked the book or not, please go to its webpage on amazon and give it a review. Your support will be very much appreciated.

Note also that the sale on amazon continues until the end of December. Until then, you can get the ebook edition of Genesis the Story of Apollo 8 for only $2.99!

Second, I have just published a new book, though on a topic that has nothing to do with space. Circuit Hikes of Southern Arizona was written during my spare time during the past two years while Diane and I explored the many beautiful trails out here in Tucson. Though there are many good Arizona hiking guidebooks, I noticed a lack of guidebooks describing loop trails. Since that is what we were doing anyway, I figured why not assemble my knowledge into a new guidebook and use the opportunity to learn about the modern world of both ebook and print self-publishing.

The print edition of Circuit Hikes is available directly from me here for $15, including shipping. The ebook can be purchased here (directly from me) or from amazon, barnes & noble, and all your normal ebook venders for $10.

This post will remain at the top of the webpage for the next twenty-four hours.

Orion launch on Thursday given go-ahead

The Thursday test launch of an Orion capsule has been given the go-ahead.

Many of the news reports this week about this test flight have referred to Orion as “the spacecraft that will take humans to Mars.” I must note again that this is hogwash. No humans will ever go to Mars using Orion. It is too small and does not have the capacity to keep humans healthy and alive for the year-plus-long flight time necessary to get to and from Mars.

The most Orion can ever be is the ascent and descent module for a much larger interplanetary space vessel, used just for getting humans up and down from the surface of the Earth. The spacecraft that will really take people to Mars will have to be something more akin to Mir or ISS, a large assembly of modules put together in low Earth orbit.

One other tidbit everyone should know about tomorrow’s test flight: Though it is being touted as a test of Orion’s heat shield, the company that makes this heat shield has already abandoned this design, so the test itself is for a heat shield that will never be launched again on another Orion capsule. In addition, the flight won’t test the rocket to be used, as the SLS rocket isn’t ready. Nor will it test the capsule’s life support systems, which are not on board.

Which immediately raises the question: Why in hell is NASA even bothering with this test flight?

Sadly, I can answer that question. This is all public relations, an effort to lobby for funding. That’s it.

Cygnus on Falcon 9?

The heat of competition: Industry rumors now suggest that Orbital Sciences’s first choice for launching its next ISS freighter Cygnus is SpaceX’s Falcon 9.

The articles offers this explanation for why Orbital is favoring its chief competitor:

While flying on a competitor’s launch vehicle might be viewed as awkward, the decision could boil down to one simple determining factor – cost. It has been estimated that a flight on a F9 would set a customer back $62 million. By comparison, United Launch Alliance’s (ULA ) Atlas V 401 launch vehicle, a booster with similar capabilities to the F9, costs an estimated $100 million per mission. Moreover, SpaceX has a proven track record with the Falcon 9.

All true, but I can think of two more reasons SpaceX is the top choice.
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What the Middle East conflict looks like from inside Israel

As I am in Israel this week visiting family, I have had an opportunity to get a feel for the political and cultural atmosphere of the Middle East. Granted, this “feel” is very superficial and subjective, but it is nonetheless instructive, as I am viewing the situation not as a resident but as an outsider who always favors freedom and justice in any political conflict.

Anyway, my sense of the situation here comes from two immediate sources, one cultural and the second personal. First the cultural.
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Heading to Israel

This morning I will be boarding a plane to begin the long tedious airplane flight from Tucson to Jerusalem, Israel, arriving there Thursday afternoon. I might post along the way, but there are no guarantees.

For the next week I will once again be staying with my brother and sister-in-law in their apartment in the west bank settlement of Alon Shvut. It was here at the bus stop just outside the settlement, where Palestinians and Israelis routinely gather to either catch the bus or hitchhike a ride to Jerusalem, that three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped by Hamas operatives, sparking the recent conflict in the Gaza Strip. Then, just a few weeks ago an Arab terrorist when on a killing spree at this bus stop, killing one young woman before the guard at the settlement gate ran down the hill to shoot him.

I might post my impressions of the situation while I am there, or it might have to wait until I return. It depends on my schedule and my desire to work while visiting family. Yesterday’s attack in a Jewish synagogue, once again by Hamas operatives, killing five people whose only crime was that they were praying peacefully, might also touch my family directly, as I think that one of the rabbis killed was a friend of my brother, his wife, and their children. I will find out more when I get there.

Meanwhile, there were Arab celebrations in various locations in Gaza, the West Bank, and even in Jerusalem, congratulating these killers for their barbarous acts.

Close-up image of Philae’s landing site


Agilkia landing site for Philae

Inset of landing site

In the preparation to Wednesday’s landing of Philae on Comet 67P/C-G, Rosetta’s science team has released a great image of the landing site, shown above. To the right is a higher resolution inset of the site itself, with the smallest object visible about 8.5 feet across.

Looking at this inset, there are some obvious worries that we all should be aware of prior to the landing attempt. Though the Agilkia landing site is generally more smooth than most of the comet’s surface, it still has significant hazards. The lower part is strewn with boulders and rocks, many of which are quite large. Any one of these could do serious harm to Philae should it land on them.

Even more interesting is the upper part of the landing site. Though very smooth, the image suggests to me that this is a very thick pile of softly packed material. Philae might land there and quickly sink below the surface, where its cameras will be able to see nothing.

Nonetheless, the science team has also released this outline of Philae’s science timeline after landing. The lander will also be taking images of both Rosetta and the comet during its descent, so even if the landing is a failure we will still get some worthwhile data.

Focusing on strategy instead of substance

This article, about the back room maneuvers by both political parties leading up to last week’s election, has been making the rounds on all the political websites. Called a “must-read, vivid piece”, it reveals all the strategies, mistakes, and childish in-fighting that took place during the campaign, the kind of stuff that makes many people consider politicians such a lower form of life.

I am normally not interested in these smoke-filled backroom stories as I care a lot more about what politicians do when they are in office. This is why I didn’t read the article until today, two days after it was published and after I had seen it quoted in maybe a dozen other political articles about the election.

Having read it I have to agree it is worthwhile reading, but my main take-away is that its focus on the campaign strategies and maneuvers by politicians of both parties epitomizes all that is wrong with modern political journalism as well as the interests too many of its readers. Only once did the article hint at the actual issues crucial to the election, when it summed up the Republican strategy near the beginning of the article:

From the outset of the campaign, Republicans had a simple plan: Don’t make mistakes, and make it all about Obama, Obama, Obama. Every new White House crisis would bring a new Republican ad. And every Democratic incumbent would be attacked relentlessly for voting with the president 97 or 98 or 99 percent of the time.

That’s it. That’s the only hint at real substance in this whole very long and detailed article.

For you see, the election was about Obama and his fumbling incompetence. It was about the policies he and his Democratic supporters in Congress had foisted on the nation. And it was about how those policies have been a disaster for ordinary people all across the nation.

All the games that these politicians play against each other during campaigns really isn’t that important. It might tell you something about their character, but what really matters is what these guys do, when they are in office. Keep that in mind when the next election rolls around, because I guarantee that the politicians and the journalists who write about them are not going to be interested in talking about that. It would be far too embarrassing.

Taking a broad look at Tuesday’s Republican sweep

I don’t have much to add to the numerous reports about yesterday’s election by political pundits far more qualified than I. The Republicans won a big landslide victory yesterday, not only gaining control of the Senate, but winning more seats than expected. They also won more seats in the House than expected, widening their majority there to numbers not seen since the 1920s. In addition, they made it a grand slam by winning a plethora of governorships — many in Democratic stronghold states such as Massachusetts, Illinois, and Maryland — as well as taking control of more state legislatures than ever before.

What matters to me, however, is not the election but what this new Republican majority does with its majority. In the past, 1994 and 2000, they more or less squandered the opportunity to rein in government. In 1994, they allowed the government to grow but at a rate below the rate of inflation so that in a few years this resulted in a balanced budget and surpluses. But the government still grew in power and size. In 2000 they did not even do this, allowing government spending and yearly deficits to balloon, even though they had a Republican president who would have supported them if they had wanted to cut the size of government.

Thus, while I am hopeful, I also remain very skeptical about what will happen in the next few years. In order to prove to me and the conservative base that elected them that these Republicans mean what they say when they say they want to shrink the size of government, they are going to have to prove it with real action. They are going to have show us that they really do want to repeal Obamacare. They are going to have to show us that they really do want to gain some control over the border. And they are going to have to show us that they really do want to cut the budget and get it balanced.

I understand that the Democrats in the Senate and Obama can still block many of these initiatives, but too often Republicans have used this fact as an excuse to not try at all. This must stop! They must apply strong pressure on these left wing ideologues, make them reveal their politics for all to see by forcing them to veto or block these initiatives. Only by demonstrating a resolve to rein in government will anyone believe the Republicans when they claim that’s what they want to do. And by doing so they will also simultaneously expose the Democrats as the left wing ideologues that they are.

Making these points can only be for the good, politically.

Two more points, often unstated but fundamental to what elections in the United States represent.
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Signs of a sunspot ramp down

The monthly update by NOAA of the solar cycle is out, showing the sunspot activity for the Sun in October, As I do every month, I am posting it here, with annotations to give it context.

Despite the appearance last month of the largest sunspot in almost a quarter century, the number of sunspots in October dropped significantly, bringing overall activity back to levels seen in 2012, prior to the second peak in the solar maximum. If things go as expected (not something I would bet much money on), the overall ramp down of sunspot activity should now continue over the next few years. There will obviously be jumps periodically, but the general output of sunspots should steadily decline.

I also want to reiterate what I noted last month, that the 2009 prediction of the solar scientist community is looking better and better with time. Other than over-estimating the total activity somewhat while missing the dip between the two peaks, their overall curve, indicated by the red line, is reasonably close to what has actually happened.

October 2014 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.

Antares launch failure

Immediately after lifting off from the launchpad this evening, Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket exploded, falling back onto the launchpad.

We will have to wait for more details, but regardless this is bad news for Orbital Sciences. The bidding for the second round of cargo contracts to ISS is about to begin, and they will have competition from Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser. This accident will hurt them.

I’ve embedded footage of the launch failure below. The damage to the launchpad itself could be the worst aspect of this, as it will cost Orbital Sciences a great deal of money and time to get the pad rebuilt.

NASA treats Congress like a doormat, again

Stupid: More than a month after publicly awarding commercial crew contracts to SpaceX and Boeing, NASA has yet to brief Congress on the reasons for its decision.

“To date, the Committee has not been briefed on the source selection, nor has it received the source selection statement, despite the fact that the offerors have been briefed, details were released to the press, the [Government Accountability Office] is now involved; and NASA has decided to proceed with the contracts,” Reps. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.) wrote in a letter to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden dated Oct. 21. Smith and Palazzo chair the House Science Committee and House Science space subcommittee, respectively.

“We hope that NASA will not expect taxpayers to blindly fund billion-dollar programs absent any information related to the procurement or contract,” wrote Smith and Palazzo, who are ardent supporters of the Space Launch System, major contractual details of which were only finalized this year and have not yet been made public.

These elected officials are not NASA’s allies when it comes to commercial space, so giving them too much information is probably dangerous. At the same time, the choice of Boeing was certainly done to ease their concerns, and keeping them out of the loop is only going to turn them against the commercial space contracts. It serves no purpose. NASA should instead be trying to show them why picking SpaceX and Boeing made sense, and how these two multi-billion dollar contracts will bring many jobs to their districts.

If NASA doesn’t do this basic political massaging, these guys are simply going to try to cut commercial space out when it comes time to negotiate the budget, as they have already tried to do several times in the past.

But then, when it comes to politics this behavior by the Obama administration is par for the course. They might have the right idea, farming out space exploration to the private sector, but their political implementation has often left much to be desired.

Orion ready for launchpad!

Be still my heart! NASA has completed the assembly of the Orion capsule stack, prior to installing it on its rocket on the launchpad.

I remain decidedly unexcited by this upcoming test flight, which will send Orion up to 3,600 miles and then bring it back to Earth at about 20,000 miles per hour to test the spacecraft’s heat shield.

For example, the exaggerations and overstatements in this one short article tell you a great deal about how oversold the SLS/Orion program is.
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The X-37B goes to Mars

After 675 days in space, the Air Force’s reusable X-37B mini-shuttle successfully returned to Earth today, completing its second flight in space.

There has been a lot of speculation about the secret payloads that the two X-37B’s have carried into space. The Air Force has been very tight-lipped about this, though they have said this:

“The primary objectives of the X-37B are twofold: reusable spacecraft technologies for America’s future in space, and operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth,” Air Force officials wrote in on online X-37B fact sheet. “Technologies being tested in the program include advanced guidance, navigation and control; thermal protection systems; avionics; high-temperature structures and seals; conformal reusable insulation, lightweight electromechanical flight systems; and autonomous orbital flight, re-entry and landing,” they added.

The obvious advantage of the X-37B is that it allows the Air Force to test these new technologies in space, then bring them back to Earth for detailed analysis.

However, I think the most important engineering knowledge gained from this flight will not be from the payload, but from the X-37B itself.
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A reviving solar maximum

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

As much as I am always willing to point out the errors and foibles of scientists when they get something wrong or overstate their conclusions, I also believe it right to give credit when credit is due. I have been saying for several years now that the prediction of the solar scientist community, indicated by the red curve in the graph below the fold, had seriously overstated the Sun’s sunspot production during this solar maximum.

Well, it now appears that, as the solar cycle continues to run its course, that their May 2009 prediction is becoming increasingly correct.
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