Archive for the 'Editorializing' Category

If We Can’t Put a Man on the Moon…

Here’s something I posted as a comment on Phil Plait’s blog.  Seemed like it oughta be a post of its own;  now if I could just get Phil’s readership.

The concept here is a very common longing for the good ol’ days of NASA, when failure was not an option, and we could get to the moon instead of just going round and round in Low Earth Orbit.  I hear this a lot.


I have worked on both manned missions and unmanned science missions.  I was old enough to watch and understand as Neil Armstrong stepped off the LM pad, and I find that moment to be the high point of humanity.

So, can we do that again?  No.  Not now anyway.  And it’s not about vision, it’s not about taking chances, it’s not about boldness.

It’s about money.

The Apollo program, at its peak, took 4% of GDP.  Think about that.  1 out of every 25 dollars spent in the US was spent on getting people to the moon, at least for a couple years.  The current US GDP is 14 trillion dollars, so a similar level of effort would be $500 billion per year.  That’s more than 25 times NASA’s current budget.

Getting people (safely) into space and back is bloody expensive.  Take Apollo 13.  Yes, it was great dedication and knowledge and cleverness that got them back alive and safe.  But it was also the existence of high-fidelity simulators, a massive infrastructure, and a huge team of ground personnel that made it possible to bring the astronauts back.  That kind of backup costs a lot of money. And most of it is salaries, which means it costs the same in real terms now as it did in 1965.

I won’t argue that today’s NASA isn’t overly risk-averse, and yes, the effect of this risk aversion has been to add layers of review and bureaucracy rather than to really work at improving reliability.  But to actually return to the glory days of Apollo would require not just the mental commitment but the financial commitment of the Apollo days.

The shuttle was over-hyped, but was it actually badly designed?  Well, if it really were so far from optimal, there would be a better solution by now.  Many very large companies with vast resources have been building rockets for decades, with lots of non-NASA customers, and while there have been minor improvements, things really haven’t changed much.  Getting into space is just hard, and expensive.  Doing it with the reliability we expect if there are people on board is that much more costly.  It’s easy to long for the good ol’ days of Apollo, but until we are ready put our moneys where our mouths is, it ain’t gonna happen.

It’s new to you!

I hate writer’s block. So here’s something from a few years back that I just dug up.

Why do airlines show such lame movies? Over and over… Lake Placid? Seriously?

                               JEFF BRIDGES
    My God, there's a crocodile-shaped computer animation in that lake!

                                BILL PULLMAN
    EEEK!  I just stepped on something that's so gross they'll have to
    edit it out for the airline audience.

                                BETTY WHITE
    Poor dear, it only ate a bear yesterday, it must be hungry.
    I'll have to feed it its daily cow.  Good thing nobody ever notices
    me doing that.  And thank God for those Golden Girls residuals.
    Do you have any idea how much these things cost?

She leads the REAL COW to the water and slaps its rump.  Close-up shot of a
REAL CROCODILE looking menacing.  Cut to long shot of a MUCH LARGER REALLY
FAKEY LOOKING MECHANICAL CROCODILE lunging clumsily toward an obviously
FAKE COW.  It drags the cow back into the water.

                               LOWELL GEORGE
    Wait, aren't I dead?  I know, I'll fly a helicopter over the lake.
    Audiences love helicopters.

Cut to helicopter in lake.

                               LOWELL GEORGE
    Oh no, my flying machine has crashed into the lake with the crocodile.
    It's a good thing they cut that out for the airline audience.  Some
    of them could be frightened by the sight of such a flimsy plot device.
    Hey where's the croc?

                               BILL PULLMAN
    I don't know!  Quick, jump in the water.

LOWELL GEORGE jumps into the water, then BILL PULLMAN jumps into the water.
Mayhem ensues.  Eventually we see the AMAZING VARIABLE-SIZE crocodile inside
the helicopter.

                               LOWELL GEORGE
    Look, it's trapped.  Wasn't that clever?

    YAAAAY, now we can watch October Sky for the 27th time!

                                JULIA ROBERTS
    Not until you've watched Notting Hill at least twice more.

Yes it’s totally out of date, but I assure you it was hilarious back in ’99 when I wrote it.

Things I Hate, Part 5

Kids (yeah, kids.  With X marks on their hands and no-alcohol colored wristbands.  Now get the hell off my lawn) who don’t know the difference between a concert and a bar.  See, a bar is where you go to meet friends, talk, drink, and occasionally pay attention to the band.

Also, “Hang out with your wang out” is mildly amusing, if you are planning to drop trou.  Otherwise repeating it ad nauseum doesn’t even make sense.  C’mon kids, if you’re gonna rock out with your cock out, let’s see it.  Otherwise it’s just talk.

Anyway, what these tots need is a little lesson in paying attention and shutting the hell up.  But who would they listen to?

Hey! Where’d the Cuttlefish Go?

Man, those color-changing creatures sure can be hard to find sometimes.

Digital Cuttlefish!
Bustin’ out rhymes
After all doesn’t pay.

His disguise is remarkable
Here and now gone! He just
Melted away.

Good luck, DC! We’ll catch you on the flipside.

Things I Hate, Part 1

I hate when secretaries send out emails to the entire branch, division, center, or world without putting any effort into organizing them. I give you exhibit A:

Headers, headers, everywhere

Headers, headers, everywhere

I just got a slew of these things in the last two days. C’mon, people, you’re expecting a couple hundred people to read this. Put a little effort into just including the part that matters!


It’s a Miracle!

Let’s see…

Putting a disabled plane down safely in the Hudson when you have decades of experience flying, know how to fly gliders, have an equally experienced crew and top notch controllers helping you, along with several generations of engineering improvements to the airframe, and regular man-overboard drills for ferry operators?  Not a miracle.

Landing a plane at all when you’re a large furry blue monster voiced by John Goodman?  Now that’s a miracle.

Not sure I want Mike Wyzowski as co-pilot, but Sully can be my captain any time!