Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Catch-Up: Jim Benson Dies at 63

Some sad news was released while I wasn't getting updates. Jim Benson, the founder of SpaceDev and Benson Space died of a brain tumor on October 10.

Benson leaves behind a huge legacy. Though Benson Space was dissolved due to Benson's long illness, SpaceDev remains, and is one of the most exciting companies in space equipment manufacturing today. Most notably, in the world of space tourism, SpaceDev designed and constructed the rocket for SpaceShipOne, the first commercial spacecraft. Despite a personal dispute between Jim Benson and Burt Rutan, SpaceDev has also signed a contract to design the rockets for SpaceShipTwo. In addition, SpaceDev is currently designing the DreamChaser, a spacecraft which if built, could be launched into space atop an Atlas V rocket.

Among other accomplishments, Benson was on the board of the California Space Authority, and he founded the non-profit Space Development Institute. And though by all accounts, he tended to be rather blunt in personal conversation, which tended to rub people the wrong way, he will certainly be missed. And with the advances that are continuing to be made toward the goal of space tourism, my guess is that he would not be disappointed.

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Falcon 9 Assembly Nearing Completion

I wasn't sure this website would make it this far, but this is my hundredth post. Hooray! That is, if you don't count posts I've deleted because I mistakenly published them and posts that I've started writing but that haven't been... um... posted yet. But I don't count those, so why should you?

So for my hundredth post, I've decided to take a break from all this catch-up nonsense (keep sucking on that porcupine, NBC) and report on some exciting news that is happening right now.

The progress to SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket has steadily proceeded, and after its earlier successful test firing, it is now being assembled for its first launch at Cape Canaveral.

The first stage flight tank arrived at the cape on December 18th, and was lifted off the truck on December 21st. Since then, assembly of the rocket has gone extremely well by all accounts. If no problems crop up, assembly will be complete as soon as today.

Even more exciting for SpaceX, NASA has officially selected them to provide cargo transfer service to the International Space Station using the Falcon 9 launch vehicle and SpaceX's Dragon-class spacecraft. Really, though, this comes as no surprise, since you don't demolish a launch pad unless you have a good reason.

Oh, here's some cool assembly pictures, credit SpaceX. Notice how small those traffic cones are compared to the nine Merlin engines at the bottom of the rocket, and how those in turn are dwarfed by the rocket itself.

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Catch-Up: Rocketplane Needs More Funding

Well, it was reported in mid-October (thanks again, NBC) that Rocketplane Global is having a few funding issues, possibly due to the economic downturn.

Specifically, The Journal Record, a newspaper from Oklahoma where Rocketplane is based, interviewed the company's CTO, Dave Faulkner. Among other things, Faulkner seemed to indicate that development on the Rocketplane XP had halted completely until more funding is found. Specifically, he stated:

"Rocketplane has scaled way back to the point where the company is now dedicated solely to fundraising, recently letting go of a few more part-time workers."

Rocketplane hasn't made any significant announcements since then. However, it's really no surprise that luxuries like space tourism would have to be put on hold during this economic downturn.

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Catch-Up: WhiteKnightTwo Flies At Last!

It has been conceived, designed, built, postponed, and delayed, but it has finally happened; the first component in the first regular tourist spaceflights has flown!

In the first of many, many test flights, the first WhiteKnightTwo aircraft (named VMS Eve) took off from the Mojave airport on December 21 at 8:17 AM Pacific time and landed one hour later at 9:17 AM. Eve is the first of two carrier aircraft to be created by Scaled Composites for use by Virgin Galactic. If all goes well, Eve will carry the first SpaceShipTwo craft to a 50,000 foot altitude and drop it for the launch of Virgin Galactic's first tourist spaceflights.

By all accounts, test flight number one went extremely well. Dick Rutan (the brother of Burt Rutan, who founded Scaled Composites) stated that the flight was "99 percent on target."

WhiteKnightTwo is slated to start its first test flights coupled with SpaceShipTwo early next year, and if all goes extremely well, the first tourist flights will occur late next year. Here's hoping!

Oh, and you can see a video of awesomeness here.

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Why NBC Can Go Suck A Rotted Porcupine

Okay, remember early this month when I complained that there hadn't been much space tourism news? Yeah, I was kind of wrong about that. But it wasn't my fault.

I blame NBC.

And why would I point my finger so emphatically at them? Well, to explain that, I'll need to get into a bit of history about this website.

When I was starting this website almost a year ago, I was simply relaying information I had seen on TV, or more often by clicking around the internet. However, early on, I decided that if I was going to make this website an awesome place to follow space tourism news, I was going to need to find a way to get regular updates myself. So I started clicking around at the websites for individual companies to see if there was a way to get updates, which in turn prompted me to start writing up company profiles here.

A few of the companies, such as SpaceX, had e-mail newsletter services that I could sign up for, but most of the companies that provide regular updates simply have RSS feeds, which is an easy way to get updates if you want to visit their websites constantly to check them.

Well, I'm way too lazy for that.

So after clicking around the internet a little bit longer, I discovered a website with a service called SendMeRSS. This service watched specified websites for RSS updates and sent them to people through e-mail. So every few days, I would get an e-mail with an update about one of these companies. I even signed up for the New Voyage News and Personal Spaceflight feeds to catch whatever fell through the cracks; they have some great space tourism information too.

Well, little did I know that NBC Universal bought out SendMeRSS about a year ago, and in October, they shut it down. This alone wouldn't have been a problem, except for one big screw you to their customers:

They did it without telling anyone.

Yeah. Awesome, guys. So in early October, I quietly stopped getting updates without any notification that the service was gone. I was still getting updates directly from companies like SpaceX that have their own e-mail newsletter services, so I didn't really notice that there was certain information I wasn't getting anymore, and I assumed the drop in volume was due to a lack of space tourism news. This had two consequences:

1. This website has been heavy on SpaceX news and light on everything else for the past couple of months.
2. I've missed out on some really great stuff.

On the upside, for the next week or two, I'll try to update at least daily to play catch-up, and maybe more. I'll start this afternoon with an awesome piece of news that clued me in to the fact that I wasn't getting the feeds anymore, and after that, I'll go chronologically starting in mid-October when I stopped getting updates. It will take some time to choose a new RSS/e-mail service (preferably one not tied to a corporate overlord) and rebuild the list of feeds I was watching, but it will get done eventually.

And that's why NBC can go suck a rotted porcupine.

Yeah, that's right, NBC. I know this won't even reach the level of a mosquito bite on your massively oversized ass, but I'm taking Heroes off my DVR. I wasn't watching it anymore anyway.

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Monday, December 29, 2008

More problems with the Space Elevator?

The concept of the Space Elevator has plenty of problems; nobody is denying it. Not the least of these problems is the fact that technology needed to manufacture the necessary carbon nanotube ribbons hasn't been invented yet There are also the issues of avoiding storms in the vicinity of the ribbon, providing power to the elevator during its ascent, and how the heck do you launch a satellite tethered to the ground without destroying the tether during launch?

Well, a new study presents a new problem; the Coriolis effect could throw the satellite off-course during the elevator's ascent. Yep, the Coriolis effect. The same effect that makes Canadian toilet water spin one way and Australian toilet water spin the other is going to pose an issue to any potential space elevator.

Because the ribbon tethering the satellite to the ground will be flexible and not rigid, the Coriolis effect will drag a single rising elevator in the opposite direction to the Earth's spin, causing the satellite at the end of the ribbon to be pulled off-course.

Don't understand why this would occur? There's a simple experiment you can perform. Put a large bead on a strong string, and make sure the bead will slide easily along the string. Tie the string to the edge of a merry-go-round and sit in the middle, holding tightly on to the other end of the string so that it is straight. As the merry-go-round is spinning, throw the bead out along the string away from you. You'll notice that as the bead gets closer to the edge of the merry-go-round, it will pull the string in the direction opposite to the spin. This is the same effect.

However, all is not lost; the study proposes a few potential solutions to this problem. The simplest of these is that the elevator would need to ascend incredibly slowly to minimize the effect. However, any elevator ascending at the necessary speed would take over three weeks to arrive at its destination.

Cool Science Fact 1: To say that slowing the elevator would "minimize" the Coriolis effect is an oversimplification; in reality, moving the elevator slowly would allow it time to slow down the Earth's spin, stealing enough energy from the earth's spin so that the effect isn't readily apparent.

Most of the other potential solutions involve various methods of coordinating the ascent and descent of multiple climbers to cancel out the effect. Many of these require two or more ribbons, but that seems likely anyway. Having two ribbons attached to the same satellite is a lot more economical than just one, and anyone who knows anything about space travel knows that you don't send anything into space without a backup.

So all in all, it's a problem, but one that is likely to be easier to overcome than the issue of manufacturing twenty-thousand-mile sub-microscopic tubes of linked carbon atoms.

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Monday, December 8, 2008

XCOR Announces (relatively) Cheap Tickets

Well, in a major announcement, it seems that XCOR is going gung-ho into the space tourism industry with its initial offering of $95,000 for a ticket aboard the XCOR Lynx rocket plane. They announced this alongside an announcement of a partnership with a recently created company called RocketShip Tours to begin immediately selling tickets.

The Lynx is expected to fly one tourist (or other payloads) up to four times per day to the edge of space. Note that I said the edge of space; the Lynx is not a spacecraft, and it will not leave the atmosphere. However, it will get relatively close, and provide a similar experience. XCOR says twenty people had already purchased tickets prior to the announcement and many more are expected in the weeks and months ahead. For just a $20,000 deposit, you could get a ticket as well.

As for me, I'm holding out for the real thing. Virgin Galactic still seems like the most enticing offer.

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Friday, December 5, 2008

SpaceX Announces DragonLab Missions

Just a month after SpaceX announced the development of its DragonLab reusable unmanned spacecraft, it has formally announced the addition of two DragonLab missions to its already ambitious mission manifest.

The first flight of the DragonLab spacecraft (aboard a Falcon 9 rocket) is scheduled for 2010, and the second will launch in 2011. The specific payloads of these flights have not been announced; in fact, the SpaceX press release implies that the cargo has not even been chosen, and that SpaceX has chosen its launch date in part to give interested clients set dates that their payloads could fly if they purchased DragonLab cargo space.

In addition, because DragonLab will include its own propulsion systems, more applications are being discussed, such as spacecraft servicing missions and cargo delivery to the International Space Station

The other purpose of DragonLab, of course, is to prepare and test the technology necessary to launch the planned manned Dragon spacecraft, which will use the same basic structure and hardware as DragonLab.

In addition to this, SpaceX has recently made a successful flight-length test of the complete Falcon 9 propulsion system, so things are looking up for them!

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Get Me Out of this Job!

WOW! Did I really only post once in the month of November? These are sad and trying times indeed. Actually, the reasons are twofold:

One: almost no space tourism news happened in November. None. Nada. Zero. You get the idea. November was a barren wasteland in the world of space tourism (which would normally be a good thing; barren wastelands are typically great places for launching rockets, but I digress).

Two: The company I work for (which for now will remain nameless) decided to contract out my job to another company. Both the old company and the new company have been treating us pretty horribly. I'm not going to mince words here; a flagrantly homosexual hippie version of Michael Moore would get more respect from Rush Limbaugh than we have gotten from our employers. For example, they laid off a fourth of my team, and I ended up taking on most of the extra work. However, the purpose of my team (among other things) is to administer computer accounts for incoming and outgoing employees. So at the same time when hundreds of people are being contracted out to a new company with a major acquisition occurring shortly after, causing the need for thousands upon thousands of accounts to be created and deleted, they remove a quarter of our people because they were "redundant". The result of this is that I have been working through lunch a lot, and frequently going home in the evening with no inclination or ability to do anything other than curl up in a ball under my coffee table and pass out sobbing.

The result of this, of course, is that I am now actively job hunting. Actually, our company has treated us so terribly, that I don't think there is anyone in my department that isn't at least keeping an eye out for better work. But coming home every evening on the verge of collapse, plus job hunting, plus running two businesses (more on that later) has left me with zero time for writing the silly nonsense that I usually put here when there isn't any space tourism news floating around.

But now I'm going to have to make an effort because, well, three stories of significance have come out in the past week. So without further ado, I will write the first! But I think I'll do it separately, since I have rambled here long enough to make it its own post.

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

SpaceX Announces DragonLab

SpaceX came out with a pretty big announcement today; they announced the development of a vehicle intended for cargo transfer and experimentation: the DragonLab.

The DragonLab is an intermediate step toward their proposed Dragon spacecraft. The Dragon spacecraft will be VOTE a manned vehicle launched aboard the Falcon 9 rocket, the first of which is under construction. If it is successful, it will likely be used to transfer crew to the International Space Station after the Space Shuttle is retired.

The DragonLab will be an unmanned cargo vehicle that will be able to supply the International Space Station (through NASA's COTS program) and it VOTE will be capable of independent pressurized and unpressurized experimentation. The DragonLab will use much of the VOTE same technology and structure as the manned Dragon spacecraft, so it will also provide a way to test various systems in advance of the manned version.

This of course, has little or nothing to do with space tourism. I'm writing about it for three reasons:

1. Because SpaceX will likely be indirectly VOTE involved in space tourism through the anticipated launch of the Sundancer space hotel prototype aboard one of its Falcon 9 rockets.

2. Because SpaceX's dragon logo is really really cool (see below).

3. As an excuse to VOTE write a really VOTE annoying VOTE post VOTE on VOTE Election VOTE Day.


Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05


Thursday, October 30, 2008

Prepare for your flight!

I usually don't write a post just to talk about someone else's article, but Universe Today has a great article today on how to prepare for spaceflight. Universe Today is a great source for space and science news, and though they don't usually post about space tourism in specific, they tend to have an article or two on it per month.

Anywho, the particular article I'm talking about describes an event at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS) in which Former astronaut Dan Barry and Zero Gravity Corporation CEO and co-founder of Space Adventures Peter Diamandis gave several interesting and important pieces of advice to future space travelers. The most important to me is number four. Afterall, that's why you're there, right? Look up the word "Numinous" in the dictionary. And read the book Contact. That's right, not the movie, the book. Though the movie is great too. Do it! And vote! But not on a voting machine unless you're recording it!

That and other random commands brought to you today by Joe Space Tourist.

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Voting Machines

Okay, so I work with computers, and have for most of my life. I know a lot about them. I know enough to know that I will never ever vote on one. I'm going to explain my reasoning, and you won't even need to a smidgen about computers to understand it.

When you vote on a voting machine, especially one that doesn't print out a record of your vote, your vote basically goes into this box where who-knows-what happens, and then the box spits out a number. That's the idea, right? Easier to vote by pushing a button, and less money wasted on counting paper ballots. Well, there's a problem with that theory. Several of them, actually. I'll go through them, one by one.

A) Inability to Monitor Voting Machine Behavior

When you vote on a voting machine, your vote goes into some hole where you can't see what's going on, and at the end of the day, the vote totals are spit out of the machine for an election official.

So lets say we've chosen someone to count votes for us by hand. We'll call him Geoff. Voting on a machine would be akin to handing Geoff the ballots, sending him alone into a locked room, and having him come out an hour later to read a piece of paper that has the vote totals. Would you trust him with your vote?

But wait, it gets worse.

B) Inability to inspect the voting machines

Many of the companies who make voting machines won't tell you, under any circumstances what happens inside those machines. They even go to court to keep you from knowing what happens to your vote.

So now our friend Geoff, after counting the votes and presenting you with the total, is asked how he counted the vote, how careful he was, whether he double-checked his work, etc. But he refuses to tell you. If you tell him you're sending someone in to watch him count, he tells you that you'll have to take him to court before he will allow that. But that's okay, your vote can be checked if there's any doubt about how Geoff handled it, right?

Not so fast.

C) No Individual Vote Records

Many voting machines do not print out any kind of record of your vote. So when your vote goes into this black hole, there is never any record of the way that you voted. All knowledge of individual votes is lost forever.

So our friend Geoff, after spending an hour counting the votes, emerges from his locked room with a box of shredded ballots along with his vote totals. If you ask him to show you the votes so you can make sure everything is in order, he hands you the shredded ballots and tells you to figure it out yourself. Nice guy, this Geoff.

Oh, but it gets better.

D) No True Vote Recounts

Because there is no record of these votes, recounting the vote from paperless voting machines is a problem. In particular, when asked to recount the votes, many of these machines simply repeat the totals they have already calculated. There is no record, so what are the machines supposed to do? Go back to the voters and ask them what buttons they pressed?

So when our friend Geoff, standing in front of you with his box of shredded ballots and his sheet of paper containing the vote totals, is asked to recount the votes, he simply looks at the piece of paper and repeats the same number he gave you before. Real helpful. It couldn't get much worse, could it?

Oh, but it could.

E) Error-Prone Voting Machines

Computers break all the time. Even computers designed for the most important applications are prone to errors and failures. Knowing their complexity myself, I'm constantly amazed that they work at all. So why wouldn't this be true of computerized voting machines? In fact, it has been demonstrated several times that voting machines in use in the upcoming election are error-prone.

So our friend Geoff who counted our votes in a locked room and then shredded the ballots? Well, his school records got leaked. So what sort of grades did he get in math? He failed basic arithmetic. Several times. Good thing he's the one counting our votes.

F) Visible Election-Time Voting Machine Errors

Yes, some of these voting machines seem to be so error-prone that the errors are occurring visibly as people vote! Several reports have emerged in the past few days of votes spontaneously and visibly flipping from Obama to McCain, or for choices just not registering at all when touched. If those are the errors that you can see, I wonder what could be going on that you can't see...

So not only is our good friend Geoff bad at math, but his vision is poor as well. Sometimes when he's looking at a vote marked for one candidate, he thinks it's marked for the other one. So he happily adds up his totals before shredding the ballots. Well, at least Geoff doesn't have his own political motivations, right?

Well, maybe...

G) Biased Voting Machine Manufacturers

It has been suggested on several occasions that some of the companies that make these voting machines are biased toward one party or another. The most damning example of this is in 2003 when Wally O'Dell, the CEO of Diebold Election Systems (since renamed to Premiere Election Systems) said this in a letter to Republican Party officials: "I am committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the President next year." Greeeeat...

So not only is Geoff bad at math, shredding ballots, and refusing to let anyone know how he counted, but his boss is assuring people that he will do delivering votes to one of the candidates. Let's hope Geoff isn't excessively concerned about job security. Or angry mobs.

Oh, but believe it or not, it gets worse. In fact, this last point, in my opinion is the most disturbing of them all.

H) Easily-Hackable Voting Machines

Oh, yes. Believe-you-me, people know how to hack into these things. There have been many reports on the low security of these things, and people have come out on many, many occasions saying how easy they are to hack and even providing instructions and videos to prove it. They can be hacked either while the machines are being assembled, or while the hacker is standing in the voting booth. You can even buy used voting machines online to practice with! This is truly frightening. How are we to trust our votes to these machines when tampering with them is so easy?

So here's Geoff's full story:

Geoff has had vision problems all of his life. However, he has decided to make do without glasses or contacts, because he could see "good enough". He is also a bit slow, having failed basic arithmetic several times. Later in his life, he was hired by a big donor to one of the major candidates to be the person who counts our votes. He was given the box of votes and sent onto a locked room alone with no cameras. He sets the box down on the floor, grabs a handful of ballots, and then starts counting. While he is doing this, several people sneak into this room through the air vent and start rifling through the box of ballots (Geoff is a bit hard of hearing too). As Geoff squints hard to see whether a particular ballot is a vote for one candidate or another, the stealthy intruders replace a big chunk of the ballots in the box with some they brought with them, and sneak back out through the air vent. Some of the election officials outside hear the intruders banging around in the vents and become suspicious. When Geoff has finished counting (he's pretty sure he got it right), he writes the vote totals on a piece of paper and begins running the ballots through a shredder. When he finishes that, he emerges from the room with his sheet of vote totals and shredded ballots, which he reports to the waiting election officials. When the suspicious election officials ask to see the ballots to make sure they were the right ones, he hands them the box of ballot-shreds. When they ask him for a recount, he simply reads the totals off of the piece of paper again. When they ask him what went on inside the locked room, he says they'll have to take him to court to find out.

Would you trust your vote to Geoff?

Now I'm not saying that every voting machine have all of these problems, but they all have some of them. And not only the touch-screen voting machines that the media talks about. I'm talking about any computerized device responsible for totaling votes. Touch-screen machines, optical ballot counters, all of it. In my opinion, we really should be doing what Canada does and hand-counting paper ballots. Nearly every study shows that this results in the highest accuracy, and it probably wouldn't be much more expensive than spending thousands of dollars on a voting machine that you have to constantly upgrade and repair. And even if it is a lot more expensive, so be it. It's worth the expense.

So what can you do?

1. Always vote on a paper ballot if you can. Vote absentee if that's what it takes. Some areas (for example, New Jersey) are giving people the option of voting on paper ballots instead of machines. Take advantage of that. Even if your ballot is run through one of these questionable optical scanners, at least there's a paper record.

2. If you do have to vote on a voting machine, video tape it! If you have a phone with a video recorder, record the whole thing! That way, if something does go wrong, you'll have a record to prove it and you can do something about it.

3. Support groups like Black Box Voting who are dedicated to improving this situation. Unless the politicians get it through their thick skulls that these machines need to be abolished (and in my opinion, it should be a constitutional amendment) then these problems will always exist.

Oh, and Happy Birthday Geoff.

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Virgin Galactic Takes its Name Seriously

Well, I mentioned recently that it was inevitable. Somehow, somewhere, and sometime soon, some couple is going to find themselves going at it... in the weightlessness of space. And a few details of this milestone nearly became official.

However, it wasn't to be. An unidentified party came to Virgin Galactic with an offer of $1 million to charter a flight for the purpose of filming a movie. Yes, a porn movie. It appears, however, that Virgin Galactic takes their name seriously enough to have rejected the offer. This means that you still have a chance to be the first to join the sixty-mile-high club.

Yes, I went there. Sue me.

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Friday, October 3, 2008

WhiteKnightTwo - Good and Bad News

Two pieces of interesting news have come put concerning WhiteKnightTwo in the past couple of days. WhiteKnightTwo, of course, is the carrier aircraft for SpaceShipTwo, aboard which tourist space flights will be launched.

Bad news first: The initial flight testing of Eve, the first WhiteKnightTwo aircraft, were supposed to happen within the next month or so. However, they have been postponed for at least a couple of months. Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites (the creators of Eve) have been very quiet about why the flight testing has been postponed; they only say they'll conduct the testing when they are ready.

And now onto the good news: Virgin Galactic is now formally looking into making use of the WhiteKnightTwo craft for scientific studies. It was suggested before that this would be possible, but these are the first steps toward actually doing it. Specifically, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is interested in placing scientific instruments onto the vehicle during the flight testing, as it will be making regular flights at a height of 50,000 feet, which is twice as high as most of its current studies.

This should provide Virgin Galactic with some supplemental income while it awaits the completion of SpaceShipTwo... that is, if Eve ever gets off the ground.

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Space Tourist Decides He Likes It

Does the name Charles Somonyi sound familiar? If it does, then you know that he is one of a very few space tourists. Specifically, he visited the International Space Station in 2007. And he decided he likes it... to the tune of $30 million, give or take $5 million or so.

That's right, he's going back! Next spring, a scant two years after his first space flight, he is going to board a Soyuz capsule headed toward the International Space Station, and in doing so become the first repeat space tourist. It seems he believes the cost it well worth the trip, which is good news for those of us waiting for... less expensive flights.

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

SpaceX (Finally) Has a Successful Launch

Well, they finally did it. After three lost rockets and three lost satellites, SpaceX finally succeeded in their fourth launch attempt! And it's about time.

The payload this time was simulated; just a big chunk of metal to prove that their rockets can indeed successfully launch something into orbit. I frankly didn't doubt this; all of the problems they have had are minor. However, as I said before, minor problems + space = spectacular destruction. This was probably making the investors a bit skittish, but things are good now.

Though the launch was delayed by the better part of a week, everything went off flawlessly. The Falcon 1 launched, the first stage separated, the second stage fired, was turned off, and then was fired a second time later on just to prove they could do it. See for yourself; here's the full 40 minute launch video (credit SpaceX).

This bodes well for their likely launch of the Sundancer space hotel prototype in two years.

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Monday, September 29, 2008

Japaneese Company Announces Space Elevator

I know, I know, I'm way behind on space tourism news. I plan a flurry of posts in the next couple of days to catch up.

It seems the LiftPort Group has some competition! Another group, the Japan Space Elevator Association, has announced that it is in the initial stages of planning a space elevator.

The elevator's cables (presumably made of the same carbon nannotube material that the LiftPort Group plans) will rise out of the atmosphere and cross the 22,000 mile span to a satellite in geosynchronous orbit. The energy required to lift items into space using this telescope is anticipated to be as little as a hundredth of that required to launch a space shuttle. And they only plan to spend a trillion yen to build it.

I couldn't find a lot of information on the Japan Space Elevator Association itself; they don't have an official website that I could find. When I do find more information. I'll write up a full company profile.

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Friday, September 19, 2008

SpaceX Flight 4 Planned for Next Week

Yeah, yeah, I know, it's well past time for me to get back to some actual space news. Well here you go.

SpaceX announced today that barring any unforseen issues, the fourth attempt to fly a Falcon 1 rocket will proceed next week, sometime between Tuesday and Thursday. I'm certainly glad they gave us a bit more warning time than Flight 3's surprise launch and failure.

Also, SpaceX has announced that Flight 5 will likely happen in January, and Flights 6 and 7 are in the works. They anticipate having a flight every four months until 2010, when they will ramp it up to every two months.

If Flight 4 succeeds, it will be SpaceX's first successful launch, as Flights 1, 2, and 3 all ended in spectacular disasters.

In other SpaceX news, they have officially received an operational license from the Air Force to launch from Cape Canaveral. This is another in a long list of steps leading up to the launch of the first Falcon 9, and later, the manned Dragon capsule. I wish them luck!

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A T-Rex Flying a Fighter Jet

I usually hate those images that people make to annoyingly post in online forums to say something about that particular thread, with a couple of exceptions. This is one of them:

So I was looking at that, and the only thing I could think of at that moment that would be more awesome than a T-Rex flying a fighter jet is a T-Rex flying a modified fighter jet that's strapped to a space shuttle solid rocket booster/external tank assembly while the earth explodes. Dinos win.

I then decided that I need to draw that; it was one of the most awesome thoughts I've ever had. If anyone out there has any drawing abilities, see if you can outdo me. It won't be hard.

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Bridge to Nowhere?

Okay, so since McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate, she's been going around saying she's a reformer, and using the following words as evidence: "I said, 'thanks, but no thanks' to the bridge to nowhere." Well, when you look at the record, you find out that she was all for the bridge until it was determined that Alaska would have to pay for it. However, I'm not writing to discuss Palin's dishonesty. I'm writing to express a different bit of dissent:

I'm totally in favor of building the bridge.

And why should I express such an unpopular opinion? Well, it just wouldn't be as much fun to talk about it if everyone agreed with me.

McCain once described the project as "a bridge in Alaska to an island with fifty people on it." This is technically true, but at best, misses the point, and at worst, is intentionally deceptive. Not exactly uncommon with political rhetoric. The bridge in question would be called the Gravina Island Bridge, and would connect the city of Ketchikan, Alaska to the nearby Gravina Island, which is inhabited by fifty people. And an international airport.

Wait, what?

Yes, that's right. There is currently no way to reach this international airport by ground unless you take a ferry, which runs twice an hour, and four times during tourist season. Seriously. Look, here's a map.

That's the city of Ketchikan, the fifth largest city in Alaska on the right, and its local international airport on the left. Notice the big blue gap between them. That's kind of hard to get around, especially considering the fact that boats and that airport are the only ways to access either island! That's right. To get to Alaska's fifth largest city, you have to either take a boat, or fly into its airport and then take a boat. But that's not the only reason for the bridge.

See, the city of Ketchikan sits at the base of some pretty difficult mountains. You'll see them if you hit the terrain button on the map above and zoom out. There isn't a lot of room left for easy expansion of the city. But notice, if you will, the nearby island of Gravina. That's right, the one with the international airport on it. It has plenty of nice flat land ready for development. It would be a whole lot easier to develop it if there were an easy way to get there!

The main argument against the bridge, of course, is the cost. But let's take a look at the cost. Most estimates reveal that the cost of the bridge would be about $400 million dollars. Now what else would 400 million buy that we could do without? Well, that will buy about four miles of four-lane freeway. Yep, four miles. Our freeways are pretty pricey. But guess what? Ketchikan doesn't get any freeways. So the least we could do is build them a freaking bridge to their freaking airport, right?

What else costs $400 million? Well, about three F-22 fighter jets. Yep. those things that litter the grounds of all those military airfields. Three of them would pay for that bridge.

Or dare I get more political? I dare! $400 million would pay for about a day of war in Iraq. Yep. One day. Say, how about we cut the war short by a few days and have a bridge and a massive nationwide party! Sounds like a better use of money to me.

Or how about this one? $400 million buys most of Bush's presidential library! Couldn't we forgo that and instead put up a booth with a cowboy hat, a barrel of oil, and a copy of My Pet Goat?

So let's just build these people their freaking bridge already. It would be rather neighborly of us. And then I could stop hearing about it. Over and over again. Ad-nauseam. Stop it already. Stop it. Stop.

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Friday, September 5, 2008

Reactions to Protesters

Okay, I know I haven't written anything in two weeks or so. It isn't out of laziness this time; I just haven't had a lot to say. No new space tourism news has come out that I am aware of, and with the political conventions going on, I've sort of been in a politics overload and haven't really felt like writing about it. But that changed last night.

I watched (and actually, recorded) both of the dominant parties' presidential candidates' speeches. Last night, Code Pink protesters tried to interrupt McCain's speech several times. Did you notice the excessive amount of U-S-A U-S-A chants? It turns out that many of those were started by delegates trying to drown out protesters who were shouting and holding up signs with slogans such as "McCain Voted Against Vets" (true) and "You Can't Win An Occupation" (it's about time someone makes that point). One of the protesters finally succeeded enough to attract the news networks' cameras and cause a reaction by McCain himself, but she had to start stripping off her clothes to do it.

Code Pink is a group that was formed, mostly by women, to prevent Bush from starting a war with Iraq. These days, they are dedicated to ending it, and have also begun acting on several social issues (health care, for example). They specialize in getting behind the camera, both covertly (slowly standing up behind a speaking politician wearing a pink shirt with an anti-war slogan) and overtly (outright interrupting a speech such as the one last night).

The point I am bringing up here is not that there was a protester. There are protesters everywhere, dissenting against almost every conceivable opinion. What interested me was McCain's reaction: "My friends, don't be diverted by the ground noise and the static. Americans want us to stop yelling at each other, OK?" I found that more than a little patronizing. There are many ways he could have tactfully handled this, but he decided (granted, at the spur of the moment) to be disrespectful toward those with dissenting opinions.

The point I am trying to bring up here is that everything, everything about these political campaigns is scripted and rehearsed ad-nauseam. The only chance we have of potentially seeing these peoples' true personalities is at spur-of-the-moment reactions such as this. And there is a similar example of Obama's reaction when presented with a similar situation.

Early in August, Obama was giving a speech in Florida when a group of protesters used a rather Code-Pink-like tactic, raising a sign behind him and starting to shout while he was talking. The sign said, "What About the Black Community, Obama?" The crowd reacted with boos, and then chants of "Yes We Can" to try and drown them out. (Sound familiar?) At that point Obama turned around and saw the protesters, one of whom was still shouting. And what was his reaction? "Excuse me, young man, this is going to be a question-and-answer session, so you can ask a question later." and then "Sit down. You'll have a chance to ask your questions." This seems a bit patronizing as well, but at least Obama showed a willingness to listen, and later, he did allow the protester to ask a question. This, of course, wouldn't have been possible at McCain's speech last night, but at least McCain might have shown a little respect for dissenting opinions instead of dismissing them as 'static' and 'ground noise'. Dismissing dissenting opinions outright is what Bush does, and it's frankly troubling to me.

Oh, and if McCain wants to win, someone has got to tell him not to walk out to the podium like an old guy who has his pants hiked up to his nipples.

Just sayin'.

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Friday, August 22, 2008

Galactic Suite Announces Maglev Space Flights

Okay, here's a thing...

A company that I had never heard of (and therefore haven't had on my list of space tourism companies) came out an announced today that they will be providing orbital space tourism in the year 2012. Furthermore, they say that 38 people have already signed up!

Galactic Suite was founded last year in Europe. I could not find a ton of information on them, suggesting that I'm not the only one who has never heard of them, but they seem to be interested in drawing from various new technologies and putting them together in ways that will allow for orbital space tourism.

They're based in Barcelona, Spain, and they plan on sending people to "a tropical island" (there are pictures of the island, but I could not find its name) for several weeks of astronaut training before launching them using a combination of magnetic lifting and conventional rockets. This spacecraft will dock with one of several orbital space "spas" (the first of which they intend to have in orbit in late 2012), which each have several modular compartments. These compartments will have various uses, but one side of each of them will be almost entirely transparent. The amenities in this space spa will include a room where tourists can "swim" amongst large bubbles of water.

The most unique concept in this proposed design is the maglev launch solution. Magnets will lift the spacecraft past the speed of sound, then the spacecraft will detach and fire its more conventional rockets. It's an interesting proposal. I'm skeptical as to whether this company can pull it off, but we'll see.

Their logo, however, looks like it was drawn in crayon by a third-grader.

Oh, and here's a picture of the bubble thing (credit Galactic Suite). Enjoy!

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Presidential Candidates' Space Proposals Followup

So I mentioned a few days ago that Barack Obama had announced he was going to study ways to provide more funding for NASA (and therefore ways to conserve jobs in a stretch of Florida important to the campaigns). Well, he didn't waste any time, and on Saturday released a very detailed plan outlining his goals for NASA and how he plans to accomplish them. In short, he plans to provide options for additional shuttle missions after the currently planned 2010 retirement date, he plans to speed up the Constellation program to get the new CEV (crew exploration vehicle) up sooner, and he plans to cooperate with industry and other nations to facilitate this.

It looks like a good plan, but of course, it requires money. Obama's proposal is to provide NASA with an additional $2 billion. After reading much of the plan and skimming the rest, I saw nothing on where this money would come from. But that is NASA's everlasting quandary; how much money do you spend on exploration when there are homeless children to feed and terrorists to be fought? Still I hope it happens. As we saw in the 60s, a sense of exploration can be a great thing.

After that was released, McCain criticized Obama of "saying different things at different times to different people," and in doing so, changing his position on NASA (which, as I previously mentioned, he did). However, such a detailed position paper as the one Obama released when there had only been brief mention of NASA in the past seems like a pretty solid thing. We'll see if he actually has the interest to find the funding for his proposals. And on McCain's part, he claimed to be a longtime supporter of NASA with a proven track-record.

As for their track records, McCain just last year voted against $1 billion in additional funding for NASA, and was the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation when the US gap in manned space travel was created. Obama, to my knowledge, hasn't had the opportunity to vote on issues directly affecting NASA, so we have little way of knowing how serious his support really is. Take everything with a grain of salt.

But hey, here's Obama on the issue of Star Trek. There's always that.

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

SpaceX Followup: Video of Disaster

Well, as a followup to the recent SpaceX news concerning their Falcon 1 launch failure, they have released a video that is rather spectacular. It clearly shows the reason behind the disaster, but then shows the fairing separation succeeding despite the spacecraft spinning wildly out of control. I wish they would have released the video un-cut, but it's still pretty good.

So without further ado, awesome video of disaster:

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Monday, August 18, 2008

Saturday's Poltical Forum Possibly Rigged?

Okay, so I'm kinda pissed.

There was a political forum Saturday where Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, asked the candidates identical questions on various topics, which were played live on CNN. Though I was more than a bit iffy about a political forum being held in a church, I was interested in the forum due to its format; identical questions asked individually of the two candidates.

Warren stated that Obama was randomly selected to be asked the questions first. The idea was (and it was explicitly stated) that McCain would be placed into a "cone of silence" (a soundproof room) while Obama was being asked his questions, so that McCain wouldn't have heard them beforehand.

Obama answered his questions fairly well, considering he was in a forum where people wouldn't necessarily be inclined to agree with a lot of his opinions. There were a lot of opinions concerning issues such as abortion, stem cell research, and gay marriage: basically the right-wing wedge issues. There were very few concerning things like the Iraq war, the environment, and international diplomacy: Obama's strengths. But it was about what I expected from a forum being held in a church, and considering that locale, the questions weren't too one-sided.

Obama's answers were nuanced, and he was clearly attempting to be diplomatic; he was trying to find ways to reach out to voters who would disagree with him on a lot of these issues. I especially liked his answer to the abortion question, in which he tried to specify ways that people on both sides of the issue could work together to reduce the need for abortions in the first place. That's the sort of innovative compromise we need.

When McCain came out, I was a little bit bothered by his answers, and not only because I'm (admittedly) a little biased. Many times, he was extremely quick to respond to questions (sometimes when Warren wasn't even finished asking them) with very black-and-white answers and moral absolutes. There were a couple of questions to which he only gave one-word answers and didn't elaborate at all. While this frankly disturbs me (I don't believe in moral absolutes beyond the obvious ones like "killing people is bad", and I don't think there is any issue facing any national leader that isn't significantly complex), some people are interested in leaders who will make these kinds of absolute determinations and stick to them no matter what. After all, it worked out pretty well for Bush.

Still, I was a little taken aback by McCain's unusually quick answers, considering the fact that he usually pauses a moment or two before answering a question during his campaign. Apparently, I was not the only one, and some reporters actually did their jobs for once and investigated it. See, it turns out that McCain was not in a "cone of silence" after all. So where was he during Obama's interview?

He was in a car on the way to the event.

Yep. You heard me. Warren was either unaware of this, or he lied when he said McCain was "safely in a cone of silence." McCain himself misled the public when Warren asked him what it was like in the cone of silence, and McCain jokingly answered, "I was trying to hear through the wall."

So what do those involved have to say about it now?

Warren says that he flat-out asked the McCain campaign whether the candidate listened in on Obama's interview and that the campaign had "confirmed that McCain did not hear or see any of the broadcast." Yes, I'm sure we can trust a political campaign on that.

McCain spokeswoman Nicolle Wallace had this to say: "The insinuation from the Obama campaign that John McCain, a former prisoner of war, cheated is outrageous." Gee, he's already been proven to lie, or at least mislead, on several occasions. I discussed one of them here (Ethics item one); cheating doesn't seem like that big a step.

To CNN's credit, they themselves have made some of this information public. However, I'm not sure I have done it yet, so I would like to warn anyone who reads this (yeah, all three of you) that the big news networks are a very unreliable source of news. They are motivated by money (and therefore ratings) and have proven time and again that they are not above manipulating a story to increase their ratings. They do this to such an extent that whenever they play a space-related news story of which I have some knowledge, I always notice get something wrong, or exaggerate some aspect of the story to increase its importance, or outright mislead.

A good example of this is a year ago when a few of the Space Station's computers failed, and some of these news networks were playing it up like the whole thing would have to be abandoned! In reality, the computers that failed controlled the station's orientation and oxygen systems. However, the backup orientation systems kicked in until the glitch was fixed, and the station had enough spare oxygen to last nearly three months. Few involved were even worried about the possibility of abandoning the station. You wouldn't know that, though, if you had read this USA Today article, which mentions abandonment in the first sentence, and comes complete with an out-of-context quote from a NASA official.

Great job, guys. Entertainment this is; news this is not.

And that's all I have to say about that.

EDIT: Okay, one more thing to say. I just found out about the website which provides news stories, and then allows people to rate the stories for qualities like accuracy and fairness. And interesting project; we'll see if it works.

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Giant Flying Poop Attacks Sweden!

You heard me. I know this is completely off-topic, but I couldn't resist. A giant inflatable pile of dog poop (created as a piece of artwork called "Complex Shit") escaped from the grounds of a Swedish museum.

The massive conglomeration of turds, unsatisfied with its existence as an oddity displayed for gawking onlookers, wrestled free of the bonds that held it to the Swedish grass. But alas! A system was in place designed to deflate the air-filled poo should it ever break free. Undeterred, the fecal escapee overcame this small obstacle and started flying away with the breeze. But freedom was not enough! In its anger, the crappy museum piece tore through a power line and smashed a greenhouse window before finally coming to a horrid, putrid rest.

Okay, I'm done now.

Well, except for this picture:

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Friday, August 15, 2008

So, I've bought some Wiis?

Um, yeah.. within a couple of weeks, I'm going to be the proud owner of three Wii game consoles. This is something I've always wanted to do, but never bothered; to buy up some hot items during the summer and put them away just to eBay them a couple weeks before Christmas. But now I've gotten around to it, and I am giving it a whirl.

I had to buy the game consoles up in bundles; it's still almost impossible to find *just* a Wii. I tried for two weeks before giving up and going for three bundled systems. But that's alright; I figure I can sell off the bundled bits as well in convenient combinations during the holiday season. And maybe I'll keep a couple of the extra controllers for myself.

So why did I do this? Well, I'll answer with my seventh rule for getting into space:

Rule 7: Always Watch for Ways to Make a Little Extra Cash.

Another way to put that is the ninth rule of acquisition: Opportunity plus instinct equals profit.

Yes, I went there.

Anyway, if I make anything on this, I'm going to put it into my solar panel savings, but the rule still applies. And honestly, I feel a little guilty about worsening already dwindling supplies of something everyone wants to make a little profit, but, what can you say? At least I'm doing it to save the environment... there's always that.

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Obama Proposes Increased NASA Budget

Okay, so I don't usually talk about stories purely about NASA, because NASA is uninterested in space tourism. However, I'm making an exception here because, of course, it's the point at which space tourism and politics meet.

Barack Obama has recently announced his plans for the future of NASA. Well, not so much announced them as talked about them off-handedly as part of a response to a completely unrelated question. Still, I'm saying that counts. Here are some of Obama's comments:

"Here's what I'm committing to: Continue Constellation. We're going to close the gap (between the end of shuttle flight and the next program, Constellation). We may have additional shuttle flights."

"My commitment is to seamless transition, where we're utilizing the space station in an intelligent way, and we're preparing for the next generation of space travel."

"I don't want to give clear figures yet. I want to have a thorough evaluation of a combination of manned and unmanned missions, what kind of exploration would be the most appropriate, and I want the budget to follow the plan. I'd want to see the proposal first."

That's one thing I like about Obama; his tendency to do actual research before making a firm commitment. In all fairness, this can be seen as a politician trying to appear to make a promise without actually promising anything, but I've seen enough anecdotal evidence to convince me that Obama is serious when he makes comments such as this; he wants to make sure he does things right before he actually does them. And it's personally exciting to me that he's interested in closing the five-year gap between the shuttle and the Orion vehicle during which NASA won't have manned spaceflight capabilities. Also, another comment that Obama made represents a reversal of his previously stated interest in slighting the NASA budget and moving some of the money to education programs.

And as if to prove his interest in actually doing the research, a couple of days ago, Ian Bassin, one of Obama's Florida campaign officials, met with about two dozen aerospace executives and NASA contractors. They discussed technicalities concerning Obama's goals, such as job losses when the shuttle is retired and the role of private industry in space exploration (and normally, I'm not in favor of privatizing government interests, but some of these companies are advancing research a lot faster than NASA).

And as if not to be outdone, McCain has quietly updated his website over the past week to include goals for the space program similar to those of Obama. However, it should be noted that McCain was the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation when the five-year gap was created.

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Armadillo Enters Lunar Lander Challenge

Well, Armadillo Aerospace (one of my personal favorite space travel startups) has just announced their entry into the X-Prize foundation's Lunar Lander Challenge.

This comes as no surprise, as Armadillo Aerospace was the only entrant to fly in the 2006 and 2007 X-Prize Cups, similar to this challenge. The Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge will take place in the New Mexico desert in late October. The challenge is designed to get people to construct vehicles with lunar-lander-like capabilities. There are two levels to the competition. Level 1 challenges entrants to construct a craft to take off, hover at 50 meters for 90 seconds, land on a spot 50 meters away, then do the entire thing in reverse, all within two and a half hours. Level 2 requires the craft to hover twice as long and land on a simulated lunar surface full of boulders and craters. Level 2 in particular is designed to simulate the capabilities needed for a real lunar mission.

The previous (and very similar) X-Prize Cups have had no winners. However, in the 2007 X-Prize Cup, Armadillo Aerospace only missed winning the Level 1 competition by 7 seconds.

I figure I should talk a little more about this company; I haven't spoken much about them in the past, but I've been following their progress, and they're pretty impressive.

Armadillo Aerospace was founded in the year 2000 by a group of volunteers dedicated to developing the technology to allow tourists to fly into space (which is, of course, why I talk about them here). They are still a very small group of (mostly) volunteers, operating out of Dallas, Texas. However, their group is very specialized, and they've done some very impressive things considering their size.

Their philosophy on rocket design is inspired from typical software design (not surprising, since one of their members, Jack Carmack, is a well known computer game designer). They design a simple rocket, build it and test it relatively quickly, then design the next one to weed out the bugs and add new features. This method seems to have been serving them well, as it has allowed them to test many, many designs and arrive at relatively advanced rockets without years of research and feasibility studies. They have even done work for NASA and the Air Force, whose methods they have poo-pooed for being way too slow (this is the common argument that most space tourism start-ups use about the government). Also, they have a philosophy of completely admitting it and talking about it when they screw up, which does happen quite often. I think this serves them well.

After the Lunar Lander challenge, Armadillo Aerospace plans on beginning design and construction of its first modular rocket prototype, a later generation of which they hope will take people into space. At about $200,000 a pop, of course.

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Thursday, August 7, 2008

SpaceX Failure Aftermath

More news has come out about the failure of SpaceX's Falcon 1 rocket that I talked about a few days ago.

First of all, the exact cause of the failure has been pinned down (and pretty quickly, I might add). The first stage went off without a hitch. However, after the rocket ceased igniting, there was residual pressure left in its cooling channels that continued to give the rocket a small amount of thrust. SpaceX was aware that this would happen. However, it lasted longer than was predicted; long enough to still be occurring during stage separation. Stage separation itself went off without a hitch; the two stages disconnected from each other perfectly. However, because of the residual thrust in the first stage's rocket, the two stages did not physically separate and this caused the failure.

This is actually a fairly minor problem (note: minor problems in space = spectacular destruction). It didn't occur with the last flight because they were still using the old Merlin 1A engine, and this problem is unique to the Merlin 1C engine. And furthermore, it wasn't discovered in advance because the pressure at which the rocket was tested was almost the same as the residual pressure in the cooling channels. The problem will be fixed with a simple timing adjustment on the stage separation for next launch. Speaking of the next launch, SpaceX announced that this could happen as soon as next month. I certainly hope they give us a bit more advance notification than last time; I'd really like to watch this one.

And how can SpaceX keep operating despite three failures, the loss of three satellites, and no successful launches? Well, SpaceX also announced that they have received $20 million in investments from a technology venture capital firm named Founder's Fund. And a good thing too; they'd be really hurting hurting otherwise.

I'll end this post with an awesome picture of Launch 3 (credit SpaceX), along with some amusing words from Elon Musk, SpaceX's CEO.

"Optimism, pessimism, fuck that; we're going to make it happen. As God is my bloody witness, I'm hell-bent on making it work."

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

All About McCain

So I've been pretty hard on Obama lately. And for good reason. I like the guy, but he's made some pretty crappy decisions as of late. I usually talk about those here, and then I usually end those articles with a caveat like "However, I'm still likely to vote for him, because my differences with McCain are far greater, and I'll write about those soon". Well, I'm finally getting around to it. Today, I'll lay out what exactly it is I don't like about McCain.

Now, for the record, I actually have liked the guy in the past. A lot. I was really rooting for him to win the 2000 Republican primaries. I've been following his career a lot longer than I've been following Obama's. So what's changed? Well, just about everything. But let me go over my differences with him point by point.

Policies are, after all, the most important criteria for choosing a new leader of any sort.

1. Iraq
Seriously? You won't commit to taking us out of Iraq? Oh sure, you say you want the war to end, but you refuse to make any sort of firm commitment (saying, more or less, that we need to take it as it comes). You say you want "victory", but you won't define what "victory" means in Iraq. Guess what? This is exactly what Bush has been saying all along, and look where it has gotten us! If you really are committed to ending the war, at least set yourself apart from Bush a smidgen. Since you fail to do so, I can't trust you on this one bit.

2. Energy
Granted, for a Republican, McCain has had an excellent record in supporting sound energy policies. This is one of the reasons I have liked him in the past. He has heavily supported the development of alternative forms of energy. However, this all changed around 2006, when he started running for president. His energy policy now centers on three things: oil exploration in the US, clean coal technology, and nuclear power. He does mention alternative energy sources, but his website (for example) only has a small paragraph about them buried in a huge page devoted to his energy policies. Go see for yourself. So let me talk about his three main energy proposals.
I actually do think Nuclear technology has a place in meeting our demand for energy, as long as it is done very carefully. However, what McCain (or anyone else, to be fair) fails to mention is the fact that this produces hazardous waste that remains hazardous for tens of thousands of years. Launching the waste into space is too risky. So to deal with it, someplace has to be contaminated almost permanently. The place I see for nuclear energy is a temporary measure to meet our needs while we develop alternative energy sources. This should not be a permanent measure, because we need to limit the amount of waste produced.
Clean Coal and Oil Exploration:
Yes, I put these into the same category because my issues with coal and oil are the same: we will run out of them! And very very soon! I don't actually mind the idea of drilling for more oil (as long as it is done carefully and safely, which it rarely is) or developing safe, clean ways to extract and process coal, so long that these are not the main focus of our energy policy! Putting too much money and energy into these solutions is akin to throwing it away, because it will all be gone before this century is over (and most in the scientific community believe it will happen much sooner than that)! We need to start now to focus our efforts on developing other sources of energy before the coal and oil run dry! Solar, wind, tidal, and geothermal energy are all excellent solutions to our problems; they just need to be developed! Oh hey, and in developing them, we might just be able to create a freaking ton more jobs and help fix the economy at the same time! How's that for a smart idea?

3. Diplomacy
I firmly agree with Obama when it comes to Diplomacy. Of course we should be talking with our enemies! That's how we get them to be, well, not our enemies anymore. Seems to have worked pretty well in North Korea. However, McCain seems dead-set against even taking a second glance at people who we should be negotiating with, whether it is with Cuba, Iran, the Palestinian government, or North Korea.
Wait, North Korea? Didn't I just say we negotiated with them and it worked?
Well, yes. But McCain had this to say prior to the breakthrough, in a joint statement with Senator Lieberman: "We must never squander the trust of our allies and the respect for our highest office by promising that the president will embark on an open-ended, unconditional personal negotiation with a dictator responsible for running an international criminal enterprise, a cover nuclear weapons program and a massive system of gulags." But wait, whoops, the talking worked.

4. Taxes
Do you know how much national debt we have? Nine trillion dollars. Specifically, in the early afternoon of of Tuesday, August 5, 2008 when I wrote this paragraph, we had nine-trillion, five-hundred-sixty-six-billion, seven-hundred-fifty-one million, three-hundred-twenty-three-thousand, eight-hundred-twenty-two dollars and fifty-three cents of national debt. For the record, that's $9,566,751,323,822.53. That almost sounds like a made-up number! A hundred-zillion-gajillion-bazillion! I'll rant more about that later, but my point here is that President Bush added more onto it than any other president in history. Do you know how he did that? He cut taxes during a time of war. And not only once, but three times! While we needed the money to fight an endless war in Iraq and a marginally effective one in Afghanistan simultaneously, we decided we needed to dig ourselves farther into a hole by cutting taxes. And why? It would "help the economy." Well, look where that has gotten us. I'm no economist, and I'm certainly no political expert, but even I could see how this was bad. And I was really ecstatic when McCain stood up and argued against Bush's tax cuts! He argued against them for all the right reasons; because we weren't curbing spending, because we were borrowing heavily from future generations, because they weren't necessarily good for the economy, and because we were at war. I was inspired that someone from the right would have the guts to stand up and say these things. But now? Now he's all for keeping the Bush tax cuts in tact and making them permanent. Hooray.

5. The "Patriot" Act
McCain voted for the "Patriot" Act. Need I say more? (Though, to be fair, Obama voted to reauthorize the darned thing. Oh why oh why did you do that?)

6. Habeus Corpus
Remember my rant a couple of months ago about granting Guantanamo prisoners the right of Habeus Corpus? Back in 2005, when I still liked McCain, he went on and on about how those prisoners should be granted that right. It was great! Here, I'll even give you a direct quote:
"Now, I know that some of these guys are terrible, terrible killers and the worst kind of scum of humanity. But, one, they deserve to have some adjudication of their cases. And there's a fear that if you release them that they'll go back and fight again against us. And that may have already happened. But balance that against what it's doing to our reputation throughout the world and whether it's enhancing recruiting for people to join al-Qaeda and other organizations and want to do bad things to the United States of America. I think, on balance, the argument has got to be--the weight of evidence has got to be that we've got to adjudicate these people's cases, and that means that if it means releasing some of them, you'll have to release them."
And what does he have to say now that the Supreme Court has given them those rights? He called it "one of the worst decisions in the history of this country." No, Mr. McCain, it was one of the best. You're now totally wrong on this one.

7. Lobbying Transparency
If various groups are going to be allowed to make direct appeals to government officials (a.k.a. lobbying), then it's only fair that the people of the United States be allowed to know who is paying for the lobbying, right? Well, McCain used to be vocally for this sort of thing (yet another reason why I used to like him), but as the presidential campaign approached, he voted against legislation that would have done just that.

8. Gay Marriage.
He's against legal gay marriage. Specifically, he has said that he doesn't mind if people have "ceremonies", but that it shouldn't be legal. As I have expressed in the past, I believe this to be a critical human rights issue, and McCain is on the wrong side. Come on, let these people have a little happiness. It's not as if your own marriage is going to crumble and you and your wife will stop loving each other just because some gay people get married somewhere, right?

After all, isn't it rather important for a leader to be ethical while he or she is.. er.. leading?

1. Iraq
When the war in Iraq was approaching, McCain said several times that it would likely be an easy victory and that we wouldn't be there for long. That's fine, and he was certainly entitled to his opinion on that. However, he more recently made this remark: "The American People were led to believe that this would be some kind of day at the beach, which many of us fully understood from the very beginning would be a very difficult undertaking." Hmm, really? And who led them to believe that, Mr. McCain? And hey, I found a YouTube video that contained clips of all of this here.

2. Campaign Finance
This is the main reason I have liked John McCain in the past. He has been a great champion to the cause of limiting corporate influence in the government, which is my personal number one issue period. And while McCain appears to have backed off some of his previous stances during his current presidential campaign, that it not what I'm complaining about here. I'm going to describe a serious ethical lapse.
The campaign finance law works like this where it concerns presidential primaries: if someone opts in to public financing, they get over $5 million in government funding for their campaign, but they aren't allowed to spend more than $54 million before their party's nominating convention. Well, in mid 2007, McCain's campaign was looking pretty well done for. He was almost out of money and down to just a few staffers. So, he took out a couple of loans, stating that he would opt-in to the public financing system and use the government funds as collateral. This is perfectly fine for a candidate to do. However, when McCain had a huge comeback and looked like he had a chance to win the nomination early this year, he decided to arbitrarily opt our of the finance reform to be able to spend all the money he wanted, despite the fact that he had used the government funds as collateral for his loans. This was not only extremely unethical, but also illegal.
But isn't there someone to police this sort of improper behavior, you might ask? Well, there is, I might answer. It's called the Federal Election Commission, or FEC. Unfortunately, the FEC can't act on this. They can't act on anything right now since they don't have a quorum due to Republican stalling tactics. How convenient.
I should mention, in all fairness, that I have completely unrelated issues with Obama concerning campaign finance that you can read about here.

And, well, that's all I can think of right now. Maybe I'll post with more at another time. But did you notice how I never once went after McCain's age, or his personal life, or his temper, or his occasional gaffes? You shouldn't need to stoop to such levels to form an argument against someone. Let's have a clean contest here, guys.

But yeah. I don't think McCain would do us any good at all. If he had been elected in 2000, maybe. But not anymore.

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Monday, August 4, 2008

SpaceX's Third Falcon 1 Launches... And Fails.

I mentioned several months ago that SpaceX normally plays its launches live over the internet, and I'd let you know when their next launch was so that any of the five people who read this blog could watch it.

Well, SpaceX announced Saturday the 2nd that their next launch would be... Saturday the 2nd. Due to the fact that it was Saturday, and I was occupied most of the day by getting my dog washed and having some friends over to my house, I completely missed the thing myself, and was therefore unable to make a post here.

But my dismay due to missing the launch was increased by the fact that the launch failed... again.

Trying to launch highly-expensive satellites on a platform that has never successfully made it to orbit was always a risky idea, but I held out hope that it would succeed. The first stage of the rocket was picture perfect, just like their last attempt, but it failed to disconnect from the second stage, which led to the destruction of the rocket and the three satellites that it was carrying.

SpaceX is going to go ahead with its fourth launch, which may happen as soon as a couple of months for now. However, if that one fails too, I see doom in the future for SpaceX, which would be a tragedy considering its significant potential to the world of commercial spaceflight, and (to a lesser extent) space tourism.

Oh, and a late report says that the rocket was carrying James Doohan's ashes, along with those of 200 other people. James Doohan, of course, played Scottie on Star Trek. Too bad Scottie didn't design the rocket. I actually met the guy once, just a few years before he died. Nice guy. His favorite line was "Captain! There be whales here!"

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Another Barack Obama Complaint

Okay, I started writing this post just after the final congressional votes on the latest FISA bill, but I decided to hold off on finishing it, because I was just too pissed to think objectively about it.

Now it has been a couple of weeks, and I can say with certainty that I am objectively pissed.

And it's not only because Obama went back on his word that he wouldn't vote to give the telecom companies retroactive immunity (which, by the way, is constitutionally questionable), but because it was unquestionably the wrong thing to do.

For a bit of background: after 9/11, the Bush administration asked (without a warrant) for phone records from the major telecommunications companies. Only one company (Qwest) refused to do so. In fact, there were reports that the government was also recording much of the internet traffic that went through AT&T. My conclusion: when my cell phone contract with AT&T runs out, I'm looking into switching to Qwest.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance ACT (FISA) is what regulates this sort of government activity, and for the record, it is just about the least strict law that has ever existed. For example, you can wiretap a phone call, wait 72 hours, then request a warrant from the FISA court after the fact. This court consists of several presidentially-appointed judges whose identities are secret. They then approve or deny the warrants, but details about the warrants themselves are secret, and there is no oversight. The standard of approval of these warrants is fairly loose; if there is some hint that a sliver of information concerning national security might be gained by the wiretap, the warrant is approved. The only information about the FISA court that is made public is when a warrant is approved or denied (though again, not what the warrant was all about). Of the tens of thousands of warrants that have been requested since the court was created in the '70s, only three have been denied. Not exactly your model of strict standards. And (though I'm not sure how this is possible) the "Patriot" Act loosened these standards even more.

To clarify that last statement, I never mention the "Patriot" Act without using either air quotes or real quotes.

So the years pass, the information about the government's requests comes out, and no less than 25 lawsuits are filed against the telecommunications companies. So what does the Bush Administration do? They insist that a bill be passed granting those companies retroactive immunity for national security reasons. Why go through a super secret court with no oversight that denies less than 0.01% of its requests when you can cover it up and then go back later and provide immunity to get yourself off the hook?

And, well, what did the democratic Congress do? They gave it to him. Now I don't believe they would have done that unless at least some of Congress's democratic leaders had been in on it from the beginning, and are trying to save their own butts. However, Obama had no excuse. He claimed that it was part of a compromise with the Republicans, but their concessions were very limited and consisted of (in part) mandates to provide oversight that they were already legally obligated to provide and hadn't. The bill would have passed without his vote. Polls showed that the majority of the population was against the bill. The only possible reason I can think of that Obama would vote for this is as a signal to the telecom corporations (and perhaps others) that he is willing to give in to their demands when he is President, and they need not be afraid of his populist message. Whether or not that is the case, I don't like it. The bill was wrong, and it was unconstitutional.

What makes it unconstitutional?

Section Nine, Paragraph Three of the United States constitution states that "No Bill of Attainder or ex post facto Law shall be passed." This directly follows the passage mandating Habeus Corpus, which I wrote about a few weeks ago. It seems Section Nine has been taking a beating as of late.

"Ex post facto" is latin for "after the fact". An ex post facto law is a law that changes the legal consequences of actions taken in the past, such as the legal consequences of the telecom companies providing records to the government. So there is hope. If one of those lawsuits I mentioned goes to the Supreme Court, there is a strong likelihood that they would overturn this part of the latest FISA bill. But I would rather that it had not been allowed to get that far.

Oh, and I shit you not: as I was in the middle of writing this post, I got a call from the Obama campaign requesting money. I had contributed small amounts to them twice last year. I don't make a habit of contributing to political campaigns, but I made an exception with Obama. I'm proud to say that today, I rejected them flat out and told them why. This is called voting with your wallet, and I am ecstatic that it worked out so well in this case.

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05