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

Monday, July 28, 2008

WhiteKnightTwo Unveiled!

I've been in the back woods of the middle of nowhere having a blast for the past week, but I couldn't have picked a better day to return. The day has come, and Virgin Galactic's first WhiteKnightTwo aircraft has been unveiled!

Together at Scaled Composites in Mojave, California, Sir Richard Branson (founder of Virgin Galactic) and Burt Rutan (Designer of SpaceShipOne, among other distinctions) pulled back the hanger doors obscuring the most advanced carbon-composite aircraft ever created. The craft is named Eve, after Richard Branson's mother (though one cannot deny its symbolic connotations). The major hurdles and advances that this craft represents include the longest single carbon fiber aviation component ever created (the 140 ft wing spar).

When it is in full operations, Eve will assist in the launch of SpaceShipTwo up to four times a day by carrying it up to 50,000 feet, and it will also be capable of transporting the spacecraft across the country if needed. Furthermore, other potential uses of the WhiteKnightTwo design have been mentioned, including firefighting and satellite launch applications.

People present at the unveiling (which included Buzz Aldrin and over 100 future Virgin Galactic space tourists) also got to see the first SpaceShipTwo, though heavily shrouded and currently under construction.

Oh, and here's the relevant super awesome picture:

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Politics.... Bleh.

This is the kind of politics I despise. But then I got to looking at it, and started wondering what it was trying to say. Maybe, "If Republicans had been in power, this never would have happened." Wait a moment... whoops.

Okay, maybe that was a bit unfair. But then, so is the billboard. So there you have it.

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Rocketplane Announces Space Weddings

Well, it was inevitable, but now it's official. Rocketplane Kistler, creator of the upcoming Rocketplane XP spacecraft, has announced the availability of space weddings.

The cost of the weddings will be about $2,200,000, and will include everything from the reception to the wedding dress to a ride into space. Because the "space" part of the flight only lasts a few minutes, most of the ceremony will be held on the ground, with the final vows being completed during the flight. The first space weddings are expected to take place in 2011.

And on the space honeymoon front? Well, a NASA adviser has a few things to say about that. Yes, that is inevitable too.

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Monday, July 14, 2008

First Virgin Galactic Flight Booked

Virgin Galactic has announced the passengers of their first tourist spaceflight. And in a fit of irony, those first tourists are all Russians.

Owners of a Russian advertising firm, some of their family, and another Russian businessman and his wife have purchased the first Virgin Galactic tickets, and will be making their flight on the VSS Enterprise once public tourist flights start, currently expected in late 2009 or 2010. Note that this "first" designation does not count Richard Branson (founder of Virgin Galactic) and his family, who will be flying sometime prior to that, in part to emphasize the safety of the flights, and in part because it's really really cool and Mr. Branson is really really rich.

This news story comes with a few Virgin Galactic updates: around 250 people have now booked tickets for Virgin Galactic flights (including apparently 11 Russians). Last time I checked, 250 x $200,000 = fifty million freaking dollars. Just thought I'd mention that. Furthermore 85,000 others have applied, which would appear to imply that when I finally reach my goal, I may need to wait in line a while.

Also, it was mentioned (and I have not seen this explicitly stated until now) that the flights will include about 4 minutes of weightlessness, which is on par with what I expected.

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Sunday, July 13, 2008

A Bit More Progress

Inch by inch, penny by penny, I am slowly making progress toward my goal.

I haven't updated my progress bar in a while, so I thought I'd catch up. After a bit of math, I've reached 4% savings toward my trip to space of choice (and for real this time, I checked)! That puts me at a flight time of 6 minutes 5 seconds and some change out of the two and a half hour total time. And I remember getting really excited when I hit 30 seconds.

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Friday, July 11, 2008

Starchaser to Launch Prototype Rocket

Starchaser Industries, in conjunction with Salford University in the UK, has announced its intention to launch the UK's largest ever rocket in September of 2009. The Nova 2 rocket is 58 feet long, and the launch is intended to test the design's safety systems. A small capsule will be launched from the rocket during ascent, and if all goes well, will safely parachute to the ground.

This is all in an effort to develop - you guessed it - a manned rocket that Starchaser intends to use for tourism launches. The flights are expected to be 20 minutes long, and will include 3 to 4 minutes of weightlessness.

I have only mentioned Starchaser briefly in passing, so now would be a good time to talk a bit more about them.

Starchaser began in 1992 as a group of volunteers headed up by Steve Bennett with an objective of developing an inexpensive method of delivering small payloads into orbit. In 1996, they launched the Starchaser 2, a 21-foot rocket that was then the largest civilian rocket ever to be launched in Europe. They soon set up a base of operations at Staford university and began executing other launches. In 1998, they were incorporated, and have since began manufacturing and selling rocket parts. To date, they have made 16 launch attempts, 16 of which were successful.

Their interest in space tourism is a more recent development. The Nova was launched in 2001, the first private reusable rocket capable of carrying people into space. With the Nova 2 getting ready to launch, Starchaser has also developed a huge educational wing of operations, visiting over 200 schools and educating 150,000 students every year.

I, for one, wish them luck.

Progress: 3.73%  Flight Time: 0:05:35

Thursday, July 10, 2008

SpaceX Test Fires Next Falcon 1

Yeah, I know I've been gone for a while. This is because the business I talked about a couple months ago is finally up and running, and we've been busy perfecting our pricing and our website. As things calm down, though, and we wait for our first orders to come in, I've found a little time to catch up on some space tourism news. And some of these companies have been busy! Not the usual suspects either; some of the companies making news lately are ones that I've only mentioned briefly in passing. So for the next week, I'll be talking about some of these, but as I like to take the news in order, I'll first catch up on some SpaceX news.

SpaceX has successfully test-fired its next Falcon 1 rocket in preparation for its coming launch. If successful, it will be SpaceX's first delivery of a payload into orbit, a critical step for its ambitious planned operations in the next couple of years, including possible manned missions and the probable launch of a space hotel prototype.

The launch of this rocket will take place on the Kwajalein Atoll in the Central Pacific. The first launch window is between July 24 and August 6, and the next is August 29 to October 5. The people at SpaceX are downplaying any rush to launch, stating that they will take their time testing the safety and operations of the rocket. Its payload includes the Trailblazer satellite for the Jumpstart Program of the Department of Defense's Operationally Responsive Space Office, along with two small NASA satellites held by an adapter system developed in Malaysia.

Progress: 3.73%  Flight Time: 0:05:35