Sunday, July 11, 2010

Irrelevance - The New NASA Reality

Commentary by Bill Hood, Retired Aerospace Engineer

The announcement that NASA's new primary mission is to "reach out to Muslim nations" has raised eyebrows and hackles across the country as well as inside the Congress. Many party stalwarts in the Democratic party are also puzzled and upset. The reaction in the media has been particularly interesting. Each reporter reacts to the news using his own experiential framework as a reference for forming a response. This has led to a host of interesting and informing articles discussing where and how the President has erred.

Upon reflection though, I believe the message being sent by this administration with this new assignment to lead the outreach to Muslim countries is reflective of a much deeper and more fundamental problem directly facing this Administration, and in a slightly more indirect way the American people. After the Cairo speech the president was on the hook to show some kind of outreach that tried to meet the letter if not the spirit of the promises made in Cairo. I think he scanned a list of possible candidate groups in his administration. None were obvious choices, but on reflection he chose NASA. Why he chose NASA is worthy of some thought and discussion. I can almost hear the argument: NASA isn't real busy, and they are real technical and the Arabs will be impressed if we pick NASA as the point organization.

What an astonishing conclusion: "not real busy". This isn't an assignment. Its a death knell.
The Problem -

NASA as it exists now is seen as fundamentally irrelevant not just by the current administration but by most Americans. Most in the republic would be hard-pressed to name one scientific mission launched by NASA in the past year. This is not to detract from the value of the pure science that NASA performs, but accepting the reality of the way NASA is currently seen is key to understanding how to get NASA back on track. As John Kennedy wrote, "you are what you are perceived to be."

NASA was NACA before the Lunar program. An obscure bureau concerned with civil aviation was assigned the Lunar mission and its name was changed to reflect it new mission. It kept the charter to perform its original aviation duties but they became step children to the new and all-consuming mission.

Background -

To understand the scope of the problem we need to look back 50 years. A young Democratic president was facing a formidable problem: The USSR was leading the US in the "space race". The implications were at once disheartening and terrifying to the American public. Never had we felt more vulnerable. Our schools and universities suddenly did not seem capable of producing the intellectual capital needed to protect the nation. The possibility of the homeland being destroyed by superior USSR technology had never seemed so real nor so immediate.

The mission John Kennedy selected for the newly named NASA was "land men on the moon and safely return them to earth and do it by 1970".

One sentence mobilized the US from high school to university and from small companies to huge industries. This technology-driven focus was understood by everyone as a way of centering our attention and effort on what amounted to a war with what were at that time the ultimate bad guys. While some initially decried it as a jingoistic bit of nationalism, their voices were stilled the first time we saw the dark side of the moon and realized the program was going to work. Whole new technologies and industries were developed and tooled. The MIRV and MaRV weapon programs, for example, were direct linear descendants of the guidance and control technology developed for the Saturn/Apollo program.

At the conclusion of the project no one in the world had any doubt as to the winner. Unfortunately this program is often seen as the high point in NASA's existence. While NASA and its supporters can point to the Shuttle program, the many successful scientific missions funded and launched by NASA every year, and the impressive success of the Space Station, none of these has been seen or pursued as a national objective of the highest priority. And this is quite rightly so. None were their decade's equivalent to the Manhattan or Apollo programs.

NASA's current reason for existence has run out of gas.

What To Do About It -

In the same way that JFK looked around for a path that would lead America to a convincing win in the space/missile race, President Obama needs to focus on the one thing that is perceived by the American people as a threat to their ability to pass on to their children an ever improving quality of life. For Kennedy it was winning the space race. For Reagan it was destroying the economy of the Soviet Union.

For this president it should be energy independence. There are many ways to achieve it and I won't try to list the possible choices. But giving this assignment to an organization that includes the old NASA, parts of DoE along with other parts of the government will provide the focus that will solve a huge problem for America. Doing it in less than a decade will sharpen the focus. Along the way it will incidentally solve the "NASA isn't busy" problem. Making the USA energy-independent and reducing our petroleum imports to zero will certainly reduce friction with our friends in OPEC, so perhaps reaching out formally will have less importance in the future. It will also go a long way toward solving the deficit problem. And whatever technologies that are developed in this project will have eager customers in the rest of the oil consuming world.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

NASA to reach out to Muslim world

by Rick Francona

You can't make this stuff up.

By now, we've all seen the news reports that President Barack Obama has instructed NASA Administrator Charles Bolden that his "foremost" mission is "to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science and engineering." Bolden went on to say that this effort would ultimately advance space travel.

This is far removed from NASA's charter - according to NASA's own documents, its mission is to "pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research." Improving relations with part of this planet and making people "feel good" would seem to fall under the State Department, but certainly not NASA. As to the remark that this feel-good outreach will advance space travel, this is just Obama Administration political rhetoric - Bolden, a retired Marine Corps test pilot and NASA astronaut, surely doesn't buy into this drivel. If he does, he should be looking for work.

That said, this lame effort should not take away from the many science, math and engineering contributions of the Muslim world. It might be illustrative to point out just a few of the many.

We all remember, maybe not fondly, algebra. Algebra is derived from the Arabic description of the mathematical concept - hisab al-jabr wal-muqabala (calculation by completion and substitition) - al-jabr became algebra. The father of algebra was a Persian mathematician, astronomer and geographer named Abu ╩┐Abdallah Muhammad bin Musa al-Khwarizmi, resident at a research institution in Baghdad in the early 9th century.

Al-Khwarizmi also pioneered the first systematic solution of linear and quadratic equations, introduced the use of the zero and the decimal (what we now call "Arabic numerals" in which the position of the digit has value), square roots, complex fractions and discovered the principle of the magnifying lens. The word algorithm is derived from his name.

In the field of astronomy, Arab and Persian astronomers were able to determine measurements of the degrees of meridian, equinoxes, eclipses, and the apparitions of the comets. The size of the earth was calculated on the shores of the Red Sea when Europeans still insisted that the earth was flat. The Arabs built a series of observatories throughout the region for further study - of course, all this was aided by the invention of the telescope by Abul Hasan.

Muslims also claim the invention of the mariner's compass, the pendulum and the watch. They were also pioneers in the field of medicine. The list goes on and on.

The Muslim World has made countless contributions, and I am sure they "feel good" about it - the Arabs, in any case, never felt shy about reminding me of them. I am not sure if we need to waste the time of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration chief making sure they do as his "foremost" responsibility.

It almost begs the pun - what planet are these people on?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

NASA: Who Should Reach Out to Whom?

By guest blogger Johnnie Ainsley, Former Space Reporter

On the surface, President Barack Obama’s order to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden to reach out to the Muslim world seems to be a commendable approach to reversing thousands of years of backward thought. Islamists have for too long ignored the liberating spinoffs of science and technology in favor of suppressive thought and the incorporation of mental and physical bondage in their life perspectives. However, shouldn’t the Muslim world reach out to NASA instead?

NASA’s space exploration effort has been an open book to the entire world since its inception in 1958. Since then, its many discoveries have been made available to practically everyone, largely at U.S. taxpayer expense. Consequently, most societies and religions have updated the ancient notion that the Earth is the center of the universe with the more contemporary realization that our planet is a collection of cooled and compacted interstellar fragments orbiting an ordinary star on the fringe of one of billions of galaxies. While debate continues unabated as to whether or not there is a deity controlling our vast cosmos, most societies and religions have embraced NASA’s discoveries and incorporated them in their new world view.

Please note that I said “most” societies and religions, for certainly not all have replaced the ignorance and oppression of their theocratic convictions with the progressive enlightenment of scientific thought. With the exception of some engineering, mathematical and astronomical accomplishments by some Muslim scientists more than a thousand years ago, today’s Muslim world seems to be caught up in a worldwide quest to convert everyone to their point of view, with little regard to the sensitivities and opposing beliefs of others, let alone scientific and biological discoveries that refute their long-held mythological beliefs. Any means they can successfully employ seems to justify their end objective, as demonstrated by the rash of intentional bombings around the world of combatants and non-combatants alike. Anything connected to science, the arts, or philosophical thought outside their comfort zone is suppressed and crushed, perhaps with the lone exception of their love for more knowledge about new ways to build and plant explosive devices undetected, so they can maim, kill and create agony among non-believers.

How does one change thousands of years of backward thinking? More germane, how does NASA intend to encourage the Muslim world to reach out and embrace scientific thought? With the cancerous Islamic climate of death and destruction, the answer evades me. After all, radical Islamic converts vehemently oppose scientific thought and the many improvements NASA’s research and development spinoffs have brought to humanity throughout the civilized world. Were it not for those few accomplishments made by Muslim scientists in the ancient Middle East, their contributions to science and humanity would be relatively insignificant.

Contrasted with the scientific accomplishments of other religions, such as Judaism, the Muslim world has barely made an impact. From Jewish physicist Albert Einstein to Christopher Columbus, from Jonas Salk to Galileo, from Sigmund Freud to Levi Strauss and Joseph Pulitzer, Jewish contributions to humanity go on and on. Jews have won 13 percent of the total Nobel Prizes in literature, 19 percent in chemistry, 26 percent in physics, 41 percent in economics, 28 percent in medicine, and, very importantly, 9 percent in peace. How many such prizes have Muslims won? What is the Muslim world doing to advance science, the humanities, education, and progressive thought? The list is practically empty.

If the Muslim world really wants to feel good about its accomplishments, then its radical members should be more tolerant of the opinions of others and start trying to contribute to a better world instead of working to destroy it. Too, mainstream Islamists should stand up against their radical brothers and sisters and demand they cease the subversion of their Muslim religion. To ignore the violence, in essence, is to encourage it and to allow the radicals to implant a negative image on it in the eyes of peace-loving peoples.

In a recent interview with al-Jazeera, Administrator Bolden told a mostly Muslim audience that the United States is no longer capable of reaching beyond low Earth orbit without help from other nations. Just as the “religion of peace” radicals have at their heart a self-imposed philosophy of returning to the Dark Ages, the notion that this country is incapable of returning to the moon is none other than a self-imposed ploy by our Muslim-leaning president to suppress our leadership in space and technology.

If President Obama is looking to bolster self-esteem by making someone feed good about their contributions to science, math and engineering, he needs to start right here at home by recognizing and supporting all those Americans who have worked so hard to develop the NASA program to return humankind to the moon and beyond. I’m sure the self-esteem of tens of thousands of freedom-loving, religiously tolerant, NASA workers and contractors will be in favor of that.