Category Archives: Behind The Black

The long term ramifications of SpaceX’s crew Dragon on the future of the human race

Crew Dragon's parachutes deployed
Crew Dragon soon after its parachutes had deployed
during the launch abort test.

The successful unmanned launch abort test by SpaceX of its crew Dragon capsule today means that the first manned flight of American astronauts on an American rocket in an American spacecraft from American soil in almost a decade will happen in the very near future. According to Elon Musk during the press conference following the test, that manned mission should occur sometime in the second quarter of 2020.

The ramifications of this manned mission however far exceed its success in returning Americans to space on our own spacecraft. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine touched upon this larger context with his own remarks during the press conference:

We are doing this differently. NASA is going to be customer, one of many customers. I want SpaceX to have lots of customers.

Bridenstine is underlining the real significance of the entire commercial program at NASA. Unlike every previous manned space project at the space agency, NASA is not doing the building. Instead, as Bridenstine notes (and I recommended in my 2017 policy paper Capitalism in Space), it is merely a customer, buying a product built entirely by a private company. And while NASA is involving itself very closely with that construction, it is doing so only as a customer, making sure it is satisfied with the product before putting its own astronauts on it.

NASA also does not own this product. As Bridenstine also notes (and I also recommended in Capitalism in Space), SpaceX owns the product, and once operational will be free to sell seats on crew Dragon to private citizens or other nations.

This different approach also means that NASA is not dependent on one product. From the beginning its commercial crew program has insisted on having at least two companies building capsules — Dragon by SpaceX and Starliner by Boeing — so that if there is a launch failure with one, the second will provide the agency with redundancy.

Bridenstine was very clear about these points. He wants multiple manned spacecraft built by competing American capsules, both to provide the government with redundancy but also to drive innovation and lower costs.

SpaceX of course is the quintessential example of how to lower costs.
» Read more

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Crew Dragon unmanned launch abort a success

Crew Dragon's parachutes deployed

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has successfully completed an unmanned launch abort test of its crew Dragon spacecraft.

Everything took place exactly as planned. The image to the right is a screen capsule shortly after the main chutes had become fully deployed. The recovery of the capsule is still ongoing, and will take a bit more than an hour. A press conference has been scheduled at 11:30 eastern, viewable on NASA-TV.

Based on what was seen, it appears that SpaceX is ready to put astronauts on this capsule. It is time to do so.

I have embedded a replay of the entire test, below the fold.
» Read more

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NASA: first manned Dragon flight could occur in March 2020

A NASA official today finally admitted that, assuming the launch abort test tomorrow goes well, that first manned Dragon flight to ISS could occur as early as March 2020.

Kathy Lueders, head of NASA’s commercial crew program, told reporters Friday that the Crew Dragon capsule slated to carry Hurley and Behnken into orbit on the so-called “Demo-2” mission could be ready for for flight within a couple of months. “The vehicle will be all ready at the end of February,” Lueders said. “We’re kind of shooting for early March, right now, from a planning perspective. That would be the earliest.”

For years NASA has been reluctant to allow SpaceX to fly at the pace it wishes. Instead, NASA has consistently called for delays and further testing, almost ad infinitum. This admission by Lueders is the first by anyone at NASA that this launch can occur quickly, should tomorrow’s test flight succeed.

There are of course other considerations, such as scheduling the mission at ISS. Regardless, if tomorrow’s flight is a success there will be no justification for any long delays before the manned mission. It will be time to light that candle!

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Tadpole on Mars

Tadpole on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The image on the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on October 7, 2019, and shows a crater on the northern fringe of Arabia Terra, one of the largest transitional regions between the Martian northern lowlands and the southern highlands. It shows a crater with an inlet canyon that makes the entire crater resemble a wiggling tadpole.

This is certainly not first tadpole-resembling crater found on Mars. See for example this press release from February 2018, showing a tadpole crater with the tail being an outlet channel. In today’s image however the channel feeds the crater.

In fact, take a look at the full image. This crater apparently occurred right at the edge of a large mesa cliff, with this impact cutting into the cliff near its bottom. The canyon might have actually existed before the impact, with the crater merely obliterating the canyon’s outlet.

If you look along that escarpment to the east you can see similar southwest-to-northeast flows. One is a canyon flowing downhill through the escarpment, probably resembling what the first canyon might have once looked like before the impact. To the east of this is another tadpole crater. This second tadpole impact however took place on top of the mesa, so the channel flows out from the crater and then down off the mesa, the reverse of the tadpole crater above.

These flow features are consistent with the nature of this transitional zone, a region with many features suggesting it was once the shoreline of an intermittent ocean. That ocean, if it had existed, is long gone, though scattered across the Martian surface are geological ghost features like these that speak of its past existence.

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Wolf puppies play fetch with humans

An experiment raising wolf puppies in close contact with humans has surprisingly found that some of those puppies learn how to play fetch with humans, even strangers.

Playing fetch with your dog isn’t as simple as it seems. Your pooch must be perceptive enough to realize you want the ball back—and social enough to want to play with you in the first place. It’s such an advanced skill, in fact, that many scientists think it could have arisen only over thousands of years of domestication.

But a new study reveals that some gray wolves—the ancestors of dogs—can also play fetch. The work supports the idea that the roots of many of the traits and behaviors we see in domesticated animals, from cats to chickens, may be present in their wild relatives.

…As the pups grew, the scientists noticed that some would retrieve a tennis ball thrown across the room. Intrigued, they tested all the wolves for the ability. When the pups were 8 weeks old, Hansen Wheat brought each one into a large, barren room with someone the animals had never met before. Then she left, and after a few minutes, the stranger threw a tennis ball.

Most of the wolves ignored the ball. But two pups—Lemmy and Elvis—returned the ball twice, the team reports today in iScience. One pup named Sting returned it all three times it was thrown, as seen in the video above. (All the wolves were named after musicians.)

What this study has discovered is likely the very process that produced the first dogs, from wolves. Early humans culled out of the wolf pack the puppies that responded to human behavior, and interbred those puppies to produce a new species that was closely linked to its human masters. And apparently this process can be quicker than some scientists previously believed.

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Strange things at center of Milky Way

Astronomers have discovered an additional four more weird objects orbiting the supermassive black hole, dubbed Sagittarius A* (pronounced A-star) for a total of six, all of which display behavior that is inexplicable.

Part of a new class called G objects, they look compact most of the time and stretch out when their orbits bring them closest to the black hole. Those orbits range from about 100 to 1000 years. “These objects look like gas and behave like stars,” says Andrea Ghez, director of the Galactic Centre Group at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and co-author of a paper in the journal Nature.

The new discoveries are known simply as G3 to G6. G1 was discovered by Ghez’s research group back in 2005, and G2 by astronomers in Germany in 2012. “The fact that there are now several of these objects observed near the black hole means that they are, most likely, part of a common population,” says co-author Randy Campbell, from the Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

It is not surprising that the intense gravitational field of Sagittarius A* rips these objects into elongated stretched objects as their orbits bring them close to the black hole. What is very very puzzling is their apparent ability to spring back to compact form as their orbits take them away from the black hole.

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SpaceX is shifting all Starship design work to Boca Chica

Capitalism in space: In a change in plans, SpaceX is no longer having two competitng Starship design teams working in both Florida and Boca Chica, and is now in the process of moving all hardware to Boca Chica.

Though the article is mostly about SpaceX’s fleet of ships, it notes this change in Starship development plans.

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Lawsuit against DEA for stealing 79-year-old man’s life savings

Theft by government: According to a lawsuit filed yesterday in federal court against the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and officials from both agencies, government officials confiscated the life savings of a 79-year-old man, totaling $82,373, merely because his daughter was transporting the money in cash on an airplane flight.

At 79, he was aging and worried about keeping so much cash on hand, his daughter said, so during one of her visits he asked her to open a joint bank account. Rebecca Brown was catching a flight home from the Pittsburgh airport early the next day and said she didn’t have time to stop at a bank. She confirmed on a government website that it’s legal to carry any amount of cash on a domestic flight and tucked the money in her carry-on.

But just minutes before departure in late August, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent met her at the busy gate and questioned her about the cash, which showed up on a security scan. He insisted Brown put Rolin on the phone to confirm her story. Brown said Rolin, who is suffering mental decline, was unable to verify some details. “He just handed me the phone and said, ‘Your stories don’t match,’ ” Brown recalled the agent saying. ” ‘We’re seizing the cash.’ “

Brown said she was never told she or her father were under suspicion of committing any crime and neither has been charged with anything. A search of her bag turned up no drugs or other contraband. Neither she or her father appear to have criminal records that might raise suspicions.

Brown and Rolin filed a federal, class-action lawsuit Wednesday against the DEA, Transportation Security Administration and agency officials, claiming the agencies violate the Constitution’s ban on unlawful search and seizures by taking cash from travelers without probable cause. The lawsuit claims the only criteria the DEA has for seizing cash is if it finds amounts greater than $5,000.

This is out-and-out theft by these government officials. Not only should the money be returned, every government official involved in this theft should be fired, and possibly face sanctions themselves.

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Arianespace and China complete launches

Arianespace’s Ariane 5 rocket today successfully placed two communications satellites into orbit, one for the commercial company Eutelsat and the second for India.

This was Arianespace’s first launch in 2020.

UPDATE: China’s smallsat solid rocket, Kuaizhou 1A, operated by a Chinese company dubbed GalaxySpace, also launched a commercial communications satellite today.

The leaders in the 2020 launch race:

3 China
1 SpaceX
1 Arianespace (Europe)

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A detailed look at Boeing’s recent aircraft problems

Link here. The article is entirely focused at reviewing only Boeing’s recent aircraft projects (Boeing 787, Boeing 747-8, Boeing KC-46A, Boeing 777X and Boeing 737 MAX), all of which appear to have had a lot of development issues.

The worst of the lot was the KC-46A, with many of the problems shared by our incompetent federal government. Initially proposed in 2001 (that is not a typo), the contract award did not occur until 2010, with delivery of the first 18 planes set for August 2017. The GAO predicted this delivery would be late, and the GAO was right.

Worse, Boeing has had cost overruns on the tanker totaling $3.4 billion above the initial fixed cost development contract of $4.9 billion (that is also not a typo).

The article also cites far too many examples of where Boeing requested waivers in order to meet schedule, even though the waiver allowed serious safety issues to linger, a behavior that reminded me strongly of NASA’s management during the shuttle program, resulting in the loss of two shuttles because the agency preferred to push its schedule rather than deal with serious engineering problems.

When you add the delays, cost overruns, and sometimes absurd mistakes that have occurred during Boeing’s development of SLS, this article is far more disturbing. It gets worse when you consider the issues that have delayed the launch of Starliner, some of which (the parachutes) should not have been an issue considering Boeing’s half century of experience.

All told, these problems portray a company that is akin to our federal government, badly managed and ripe for disaster. While the U.S. aerospace industry would take a deep hit if Boeing went under, that hit however would likely be temporary, especially considering the problems Boeing is having.

Freedom must allow bad businesses to fail so that fresh faces not bogged down by old problems can come to the fore and replace them. If Boeing collapsed I suspect a host of new companies would quickly appear, all likely more capable of producing what the nation’s aerospace industry needs. Because right now, Boeing is certainly not doing the job.

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Watching SpaceX’s Crew Dragon launch abort

The launch abort test flight of SpaceX’s crew Dragon capsule remains on schedule for launch at 8 am (eastern) on Saturday, January 18, 2020.

NASA has announced that it will provide live coverage. I would assume SpaceX will as well, but there is no indication of that at the NASA announcement or at SpaceX’s website.

I will admit that though I very much would like to watch this live, it will go off at 6 am in Tucson, a bit early for this night owl writer.

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A second exoplanet orbiting Proxima Centauri?

Worlds without end: Astronomers think they have found evidence of a second exoplanet orbiting the nearest star, Proxima Centauri.

The planet, a super-Earth called Proxima Centauri c (Proxima c for short), has at least six times more mass than Earth and orbits its star every 5.2 years.

…“Stars like Proxima Centauri are rather restless and continuously present eruptions and spots on their surface, which make the detection of a planetary-induced oscillation very complicated,” says coauthor Fabio Del Sordo (University of Crete and Foundation for Research and Technology-Hellas in Heraklion, Greece). Because the observations span almost two decades, the scientists have confidently ruled out those sources of noise, but they caution that follow-up observations are needed to confirm that the signal comes from a planet.

There is a lot of uncertainty here, requiring an independent confirmation of this result. It would not be surprising if this exoplanet vanished when others took a look, finding it a creation not of a periodic gravitation wobble but of the random fluctuations of the star itself.

If it does exist, it will not likely be a place where life exists. Too far from this very dim red dwarf star to get enough energy. However, as a super-Earth it might someday in the far future be a great mining world.

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Boeing releases video of Starliner’s first orbital demo flight

Capitalism in space: Boeing has released a video showing what it was like to be on its Starliner capsule during its first orbital demo flight on December 20, 2019.

Flying alongside the uncrewed Starliner’s only official passenger — a spacesuit-clad, instrumented dummy (or anthropometric test device) named “Rosie” (after the World War II icon Rosie the Riveter), Snoopy, in plush doll form, served as the vehicle’s “zero-g indicator.” The video shows the doll floating weightless at the end of its “leash” after the Starliner entered Earth orbit.

The video is embedded below the fold. It is relatively boring, which actually is a good thing. The interior of the capsule does not seem much disturbed during each phase of the flight, from launch, separation from launch vehicle, and touchdown.
» Read more

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Spitzer SpaceTelescope shutdown in a week

After sixteen years in orbit, NASA will shut down the Spitzer Space Telescope on January 22, 2020,

The telescope is still functional in a somewhat limited manner but NASA wishes to save the annual budget of $14 million to operate it. Moreover, it will become redundant and significantly superseded once the infrared James Webb Space Telescope launches and becomes operational next year.

NASA had hoped a private organization would take over Spitzer’s operation, but apparently got no takers.

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SpaceIL gets $1 million grant for building Beresheet-2

The Israeli non-profit that built Beresheet-1 has received a $1 million grant in order to pursue building Beresheet-2.

The Blavatnik Family Foundation has provided a one million dollar grant to SpaceIL to support the “Beresheet 2” spacecraft program and advance the goal of landing an unmanned Israeli spacecraft on the Moon. “Beresheet 1”, launched on February 22, 2019, made Israel the 7th country in the world to reach the Moon’s orbit. The new Blavatnik grant will enable SpaceIL to recruit a new CEO to drive plans for “Beresheet 2” forward.

It remains unknown whether Beresheet-2 will ever get built. The money is insufficient to build a new lunar lander. Moreover, several of SpaceIL engineers have left the company and formed their own private space business, partnering with Firefly Aerospace to build their own lunar lander.

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Bernie Sanders campaign organizer: “I’m all aboard for gulags!”

In part two of Project Veritas’s new undercover video series focused on the workers in the Bernie Sanders’ campaign, we discover that Kyle Jurak, field organizer, is enthusiastic about the Soviet Union’s gulags, stating unequivocally that he loves the idea of imprisoning millions of Americans who disagree with him.

I’m all aboard for gulags, like, I feel there needs to be re-education for a significant portion of our society.

He also once again shows an incredible ignorance of what happened in the Soviet Union, claiming that those gulags, which in most ways were the Soviet version of Nazi concentration camps, were nothing more than the equivalent of a low security prison where non-communists were merely housed.

The most important statements however by him in this video, embedded below, is his claim that he knows at least four to six others in the Sanders campaign organization that are of like mind. As I noted yesterday, it appears that Jurek might sadly represent a typical worker in the campaign to make Bernie Sanders our next president. I will not be surprised if Project Veritas follows up with more videos to prove this.

I once again beg my Democratic Party readers to watch this video. Most Democrats are decent people. You need to know that the party you support has been badly infiltrated by some very bad people, and that in fact those people quite possibly dominate that party.

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Martian dry ice frost on glacial remains?

Frost on ridgelines and inside crater
Click for full image.

Close-up of frost

Cool image time! The photo on the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on November 30, 2019. Located just east of Hellas Basin in southern mid-latitudes, the color strip shows dry ice frost both in the crater as well as on the ridgelines to the north. As noted in the caption, written by Candy Hansen of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona,

When we acquired this image, it was [winter in the southern hemisphere] on Mars, but signs of spring are already starting to appear at latitudes not far from the equator. This image of Penticton Crater, taken at latitude 38 degrees south, shows streamers of seasonal carbon dioxide ice (dry ice) only remaining in places in the terrain that are still partially in the shade.

The turquoise-colored frost (enhanced color) is protected from the sun in shadowed dips in the ground while the sunlit surface nearby is already frost-free.

Note for example how the frost disappears in the southern half of the crater floor, the part exposed to sunlight.

What immediately struck me however were the underlying features. The entire northeast quadrant of the crater’s rim appears to have been breached by some sort of catastrophic flow, as if there had been a glacial lake inside the crater that at some point smashed through suddenly, wiping that part of the rim out as it ripped its way through.

To the right is a full resolution inset, indicated by the white box above, of the dry ice frost on the outside of the crater. I find myself however drawn more to the underlying features, which once again have a chaotic aspect suggesting a sudden violent event, coming from the south and moving north.

I have no idea if my visceral conclusions here have any validity. At this latitude, 38 degrees, scientists have found a lot of buried inactive glaciers of ice, so I could be right. Or not. Your guess is as good as mine.

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First asteroid discovered that circles Sun closer than Venus

Astronomers have detected the first asteroid circling the Sun in an orbit that lies entirely inside Venus’s orbit.

In addition to being the first known asteroid with this orbit, the space rock, called 2020 AV2, has the smallest aphelion, or distance from the sun, of any known natural object in the solar system, excluding Mercury. Moreover, by traveling around the sun in a mere 151 days, 2020 AV2 has the shortest orbital period of any known asteroid, according to The Virtual Telescope Project, an online observatory based in Italy.

The reason this is a first is because it is very hard to find such small objects orbiting closer to the Sun than Earth. The glare of the Sun limits what can be spotted. This fact is also why the scientists are unsure of the size of 2020 AV2.

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China completes 2nd launch in 2020

China today successfully launched a earth resource satellite plus two smallsats using its Long March 2D rocket.

Right now in 2020 only SpaceX and China have completed launches, with China leading 2-1. SpaceX however plans on launching another 60 Starlink smallsats on January 20th, which will tie them again.

I expect both to be neck and neck for the rest of the year.

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The fabled yacht Endeavour

An evening pause: Endeavour was built in 1934 in England in an attempt to win the America’s Cup from the U.S. It failed, but according to this Wikipedia page came closer than anyone until Australia II finally took the cup from the U.S. in 1983.

Hat tip Cotour, who notes that “the interior was rumored to cost about $1.2 million.”

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Gully on Mars

Gully in crater on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! If we were told that the photo on the right was taken by an airplane over some southwest desert gully, no one should be surprised if we were to accept that description entirely. The gully sure looks like a lot of drainages one can routinely see when flying over the American southwest, dry, treeless, but showing the typical dendritic pattern seen for most desert water drainages.

Of course my readers all know that this is not in the American southwest, but on Mars, in a crater located in the transition zone between the southern highlands and the northern lowland plains. The image, cropped to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on October 12, 2019.

It appears that this particular gully has been subject to repeated monitoring, since November 2015. A rough and very quick comparison of the earlier image with today’s image does not show any obvious change. This does not mean there hasn’t been any evolution, as my look was cursory, and I could easily be missing changes. Seasonal variations might also be occurring that I could be missing.

The reasons for the monitoring are of course obvious. This gully strongly suggests the flow of liquid downhill. Is that occurring today, or are we seeing the evidence of a past flow from long ago? Only some long term monitoring can tell.

There is also the possibility that we are looking at a buried glacier. The crater is located at 42 degrees north latitude, well within that mid-latitude band where scientists have located many buried Martian glaciers. If so, then the monitoring is to see if that glacier is active in any way.

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A typical worker in the campaign of socialist Bernie Sanders

Another Project Veritas undercover video series has begun, this time focused on the violent, hateful, and murderous beliefs of the workers in the Bernie Sanders campaign.

The first video in the series is embedded below. Lots of bad language, but I think it important that every decent American, from both parties, watch it. Kyle Jurek unfortunately is very typical for many in the inner circles of the Democratic Party. He hates anyone who disagrees with him, considers them evil incarnate, and is quite willing to put them all up against a wall and kill them. And he isn’t alone, for if he was, there would no way anyone with his goals would be a “field organizer” for the Sanders campaign.

If you are long time Democrat, it is time for you to face facts. The party you belong to has nothing to do with the party you joined. It is now a hate-rant, aimed at power achieved by any means necessary. Woe to us all if this crowd wins in November.

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More superEarth exoplanets found circling nearby stars

Worlds without end: Among a new bunch of thirteen exoplanets, astronomers have discovered two more superEarth-sized exoplanets circling nearby red dwarf stars.

The two potentially habitable planets are orbiting GJ180 and GJ229A, which are among the nearest stars to our own Sun, making them prime targets for observations by next-generation space- and land-based telescopes. They are both super-Earths with at least 7.5 and 7.9 times our planet’s mass and orbital periods of 106 and 122 days respectively.

The Neptune-mass planet—found orbiting GJ433 at a distance at which surface water is likely to be frozen—is probably the first of its kind that is a realistic candidate for future direct imaging. “GJ 433 d is the nearest, widest, and coldest Neptune-like planet ever detected,” Feng added.

For a lot of reasons it is likely that life as we know it probably does not exist on these planets. Nonetheless, their close proximity makes it possible to study them, and since we have no such planets in our own solar system they can teach us a lot about planetary formation and evolution.

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First head of Space Force to be officially sworn in

First head of Space Force, General John Raymond of the Air Force, will be officially sworn in today at the White House.

Raymond assumed the duties of the first head of the Space Force on December 20, 2019, when U.S. President Donald Trump signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act that officially launched the new force. “The Space Force will help us deter aggression and control the ultimate high ground,” Trump said at the NDAA signing last month. Officials say the Space Force will organize, train and equip military personnel who primarily focus on space operations.

Raymond was named commander of the new United States Space Command upon its creation in August of last year. That command, which sought to better organize the U.S. military’s space assets and operations, is being phased out as personnel are transferred to the Space Force.

Not surprisingly, a twitter mob immediately formed to protest the fact that a bible, officially blessed by religious leaders at the Washington National Cathedral, will be used during the swearing in. I especially like the over-the-top outrage expressed by the childish leader of this twitter mob:

Mikey Weinstein, president and founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, said Sunday’s ceremony displayed overtones of “Christian privilege” within the Defense Department. “The MRFF condemns, in as full-throated a manner as is humanly possible, the shocking and repulsive display of only the most vile, exclusivist, fundamentalist Christian supremacy, dominance, triumphalism and exceptionalism which occurred at yesterday’s ‘blessing’ at the Washington National Cathedral,” he told Military.com on Monday.

My response to Mikey-boy: You are a very bigoted, very anti-Christian, and a very hateful person. You should get a life.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, it remains to be seen whether the establishment of a separate organization for handling the space-related military needs of the U.S. will do more harm than good. The idea makes sense, as the military for the past two decades has had a problem giving priority to space matters because of in-house turf wars between the various military branches, and thus the U.S. effort has stagnated somewhat.

The track record of Washington in the past half century when such things are attempted however is not good. Instead of getting more focused and accomplishing more, Washington has instead consistently grown a bloated bureaucracy that actually gets less done for more money. And in this case, it appears that might be what will happen here, as the giant budgets for the Space Force put forth by the Pentagon have suggested they are aiming to use it to build new empires rather than streamline and focus operations.

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