Thursday, January 26, 2012

Newt’s Bold Space Proposals


While campaigning for the Florida Primary vote, Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich announced on January 25 some bold proposals for accelerating our nation's space activities. These include establishing a permanent lunar base by 2020 (what would be the end of his second term if he wins the 2012 and 2016 elections), developing a new means of propulsion in the same period in preparation for missions to Mars and dedicating 10% of NASA’s budget to offering prizes for development of new space technological capabilities.

Putting aside all the political issues surrounding Gingrich and the current campaign, the question to address here is whether these proposals are realistic, especially given the severe constraints on spending due to the national debt. These initiatives are definitely bold, but as Gingrich pointed out, President John F. Kennedy challenged the nation to reach the moon within a decade at a time when the only experience in human spaceflight was Yuri Gagarin’s single orbit of the Earth and Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight.

The proposal to devote 10% of NASA’s budget to incentive prizes would be a major expansion of the smaller NASA's Centennial Challenges program already offering prizes. Some of the technologies addressed by this program including lunar lander demonstrations, lunar regolith (soil) excavation and astronaut glove designs would be useful to any return to the Moon to stay effort.

The establishment of even a small lunar base by 2020 would greatly accelerate the schedule currently projected by NASA and would seem to require a large increase in spending, a difficult case to make in this current economic and political environment. As Gingrich himself says, this initiative would not be practical doing business as usual at NASA and other government agencies. But some things are already starting to change in the space industry, including NASA’s move to rely on commercial transportation services to carry crew and cargo to the International Space Station (ISS). Cargo deliveries by SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation are set to begin later this year and several companies are vying to provide crew transportation for NASA starting around the middle of the decade. Gingrich did say in his speech that it would be necessary to be "practical" by, for example, using existing rockets such as the Atlas V in the effort. These rockets are not as powerful as the Space Launch System (SLS) now starting to be developed by NASA (under mandate of Congress). But the SLS would not be available until late in the decade at best and would probably be very expensive to operate, given that a smaller number of these large rockets would be procured.

Leading NASA and industry experts are already developing innovative strategies to enable humans to operate beyond Earth orbit and in the lunar vicinity within a few years, including use of small way stations in gravitationally stable points in cis-lunar space (the region of space surrounding the Earth and the Moon). Some of these architectures could make use of existing rockets including Atlas V, Delta IV and Falcon 9. The development of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy (which will have an advertised capability of launching 53 mT (117,000 lb) to low Earth orbit at competitive prices when it becomes available in 2013) will allow some more flexibility to launch larger payloads in support of a lunar effort. The commercial sector could be engaged to use these rockets to deliver hardware to establish a pioneering lunar base to the Moon prior to the arrival of the first lunar crew. That hardware would include equipment to utilize resources existing on the Moon to further develop and expand the facility.

Beyond innovative technical and operational solutions and increased reliance on the commercial sector, establishing a lunar base by 2020 will require forgoing the bureaucratic management style that has dominated government space efforts for the past few decades and a willingness to accept more risk to mission success and adopting greater flexibility in responding to and overcoming failures.

The Gingrich proposal to develop new propulsion technology to enable faster trips to Mars may sound like science fiction, and politicians have been known to try to wish new technologies into existence by throwing taxpayers’ money at them. However, alternative propulsion technologies have been developed and tested to varying levels. Advanced ground testing of nuclear rocket engines was accomplished in the sixties and early seventies before the program was cancelled. Gingrich may have had in mind a program currently under development by the Ad Astra Company called Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR). A prototype is to be tested at the ISS possibly as early as 2014. VASIMR’s designers claim it would reduce travel time to Mars from months to around 39 days. With some additional focused funding, this or a similar technology might become operational around 2020.

Admittedly, this is a very high level analysis without hard numbers, but it would seem that with some fundamental innovations and changes in the way we do business in space, Newt Gingrich’s bold proposals could be achievable, though challenging, under a constrained budget.

For society to undertake this kind of adventure and to accept the risks involved, there needs to be a clear case to be made as for why we should move into this frontier. I’ll make two points very briefly. In the near term, we need to spur new industries to grow our economy to create more jobs and reduce our debt. Space industries, along with biotechnology, information technology and nanotechnology are new industries that can help expand our economy.

Looking to the longer term, we have an obligation and a privilege to expand in order to provide for future generations. Accessing the resources of space to provide for a growing population of human persons is a positive approach to the future. This differs from the Malthusian world view that has been ascendant in our culture in recent times that undermines the dignity of human life and liberty through coercive population control policies that have also distorted the demographic structures of societies around the world.

Expansion into space means some will chose to seek opportunity by settling places beyond Earth. Gingrich addressed this idea by recalling his proposed legislation to grant statehood to a lunar settlement of 13,000 or more residents should they apply. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits national claims on celestial bodies, but it may not be clear how it would address a settlement population applying for annexation. Then again, the people living at a lunar settlement might choose to take their cue from our nation's Founding Fathers and from Robert Heinlein’s novel, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and declare their independence. The future is full of possibilities.

NASA's Day of Remembrance

NASA is observing the anniversaries of its human losses in spaceflight: Apollo 1 (forty five years ago tomorrow), Challenger (twenty six years ago Saturday), and Columbia (nine years ago next Wednesday, February 1).

Here is a link to a NASA multimedia presentation for today's Day of Remembrance.

NASA - Day of Remembrance

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

We Came in Huge Numbers to March for Life

While much of the Old Media didn't bother to tell you, citizens gathered in mass numbers (perhaps hundreds of thousands) in spite of a chilly light rain to March for Life on Monday, marking the 39th anniversary of the infamous Supreme Court decisions that imposed abortion on demand on our nation. The crowd was energized with the realization that this year brings a critical decision point for our society in the fight to protect the dignity of every human life.

The people surged along Constitution Ave. for ~2 hours... convey a beautiful message.

This sign acknowledges a power above the Supreme Court.

The evening before the March, I attended the packed National Vigil for Life Mass and then in the morning I attended the ProLifeCon conference which emphasized the powerful role of new social media in communicating the cause of life.

These little fingers of a baby at 21 weeks of pregnancy that captured the world's attention in 1999...

...belong to Samuel Armas (now 12 years old) who joined his Mom and photographer Michael Clancy, who took that famous photo, at ProLifeCon on Monday. (For more on this famous photo and the controversy surrounding it, click here.)

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Why We March

This is a slightly revised and updated article I first wrote and posted in 2004 at this time.

Sunday, January 22, marks the 39th anniversary of the infamous Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton Supreme Court decisions which imposed abortion-on-demand in the United States. Once again, concerned citizens will gather on Monday, the 23rd, for the annual March for Life, which in recent years has usually drawn more than an estimated 200,000 participants. Now, why do so many people consider it so important to take time on a weekday to come to Washington, DC at the coldest time of the year to make their voice heard on this matter?

Before I go on any further, I need to say a couple of things. First, nothing in this article is meant to condemn anyone who has had an abortion or has been involved in abortion in some way. Far from condemning those with an abortion in their past, the people in the prolife movement are about healing and forgiveness, and want it to be clear that there is hope after abortion. Post-abortion counseling can be found through many church denominations and pregnancy counseling centers.

And second, while the prolife movement consists largely of people with strong religious convictions who feel called by God to defend the defenseless, that doesn't make the protection of human life a narrow, religious issue. The facts that the defenseless exist and that they deserve protection in the human family can be persuasively advocated by non-religiously reasoned arguments.

First, let's start with a little scientific background (from the Science for Unborn Human Life website) about how each of us began our lives as unique human beings. A new human being is conceived when a sperm fertilizes an egg. The sperm has 23 chromosomes and so does the egg. But the fertilized egg has 46, half from each parent, and is genetically unique. These 46 chromosomes, which are fixed at conception, establish the child's sex and are a blueprint for how it will develop, both during pregnancy and after birth.

Blood vessels start to form very early, about 13-18 days after fertilization. Then, on about the 20th day - nearly the end of the third week - the foundation of the brain, the spinal cord, and the entire nervous system is established. The heart begins to beat on about the 22nd day after conception, circulating blood throughout the child. The arms begin to form on about day 26, followed by the beginnings of the legs on day 28, the same day that the mouth opens for the first time.

Both the eyes and ears are developing rapidly during the seventh week after conception. At this time, the thumbs, neck, heels of the feet and all of the fingers are also present. Taste buds begin to form during the eighth week after conception. All parts of the limbs are apparent at this time. In addition, the fingers and toes have lengthened and are completely separated.

By the end of the eighth week the overwhelming majority (several thousand) of the body's organs, structures and systems have already begun to develop. Few, if any, new structures begin to form after this time. During the remainder of the pregnancy, development consists mainly of growth and maturation of the parts of the body that are already present.

Isolated arm, leg and backward head movements begin at about 7 to 10 weeks after conception. During the ninth week, a regular pattern of breathing movements is observed, with a median frequency of about 30 breaths each hour.

These are just the highlights of how you developed during the first 2-3 months of your life. Now consider that a majority of abortions are performed during the tenth to twelfth week of gestation. Some are performed much later in the pregnancy, when the child has grown larger and any unbiased observer would recognize a baby when they see one.

So why if the evidence so clearly indicates that a unique human life begins at conception, how did the deliberate and violent destruction of that life come to be imposed as a 'constitutional right'? Time does not permit describing the whole history of abortion or the intertwining influences of the eugenics and population control movements. Let's start with the socially turbulent late sixties when a growing pro-abortion movement subversively exploited the legitimate aspirations of women for greater rights and participation in society.

The late Dr. Bernard Nathanson, former abortionist and co-founder of the pro-abortion group NARAL, since changed his mind and heart and became a leading prolife advocate. He points out the disinformation at the heart of the pro-abortion campaign.
- "The statistics that we gave to the American public about illegal abortions annually; the statistics we fabricated regarding the number of women dying from illegal abortions annually; all of these matters were pure fabrication and still persist to this very day."

- "We spoke of 5,000 to 10,000 deaths a year. I confess that I knew the figures were totally false. It was a useful figure, widely accepted, so why go out of our way to correct it with honest statistics?"

- "We in NARAL were in the business of coining slogans principally for the media . . . we scattered catchy slogans for them . . . to use . . . in their stories. Slogans like "reproductive rights", "freedom of choice", "pro-choice". For many years we've known them to be hollow and meaningless. They're just catchy and, essentially, without substance."

The movement made rapid progress. California, New York and a few other states passed 'liberalized' abortion laws (though some other states rejected them). But what imposed abortion on American law were two Supreme Court cases, Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, pronounced on January 22, 1973. The combined effect of the two decisions was to effectively impose abortion-on-demand throughout the nine months of pregnancy. Since that time, over fifty million human beings have been exterminated by abortion in the United States.

Aside from the grave issue that was decided, the finding that abortion is part of a constitutional 'right of privacy' is considered an overreach of judicial power even by some legal scholars who describe themselves as 'prochoice'. The 'reasoning' was based on 'penumbras' the justices claim to have seen in the constitution.

Did you know that the two plaintiffs in the Roe and Doe cases, Norma McCorvey and Sandra Cano, have filed affidavits to the effect that they were manipulated into their roles and that the decisions should be overturned? You would think that this development would be considered unprecedented in Supreme Court history, but I guess Chris Matthews, Katie Couric, the New York Times, etc. forgot to inform you.

One fact that is becoming evident that abortion-on-demand is not such a great thing for women. Abortion has left many women emotionally and sometimes physically scarred. Campaigns such as Silent No More and Women Deserve Better are tapping into this hidden anguish.

Also evident is the effect on our society, with conflicting attitudes on how we treat not only the unborn, but also the sick, disabled and elderly. Consider the heart wrenching case of the judicially imposed death of Terri Schindler-Schiavo in 2005. Abortion has torn marriages and families apart, and led to a hardened and increasingly violent culture. The raging debate over embryonic stem cell research and human cloning shows the growing risk posed by a disregard for the dignity of every human life.

So, we have had for the past thirty eight years, a culture that in some ways has grown cynical, forgoing the promise of a hopeful future for instant gratification, or more often, the resignation to unimaginative 'solutions' that pit mother against child or people against the planet. One is reminded of a quote from the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats:
"The blood-dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere a ceremony of innocence was drowned."

These Supreme Court abortion decisions were assumed to have 'settled' the issue in our society. Yet much to the consternation of the pro-abortion establishment, the movement of concerned citizens to protect life has only grown in strength over the past thirty nine years. The prolife movement has pursued multiple paths: educating the public, lobbying and litigating for change, participating in politics, and especially reaching out to help women with unplanned pregnancies. On the political front, abortion Continues to play a pivotal role in the debate over health care and other public legislation. Polling data consistently indicates that, even when economic or other issues determine the outcome of an election, those voters that consider abortion decisive in their voting swing overwhelmingly for the prolife candidates. Presidents, economic cycles and other national controversies come and go, but the struggle for life goes on.

Particularly significant is that the change in public attitudes on abortion is most striking among young people (who've lost peers they've never met). This is manifested in polling results and an upsurge of prolife activism among teens, college students, and new media savvy activists who are exposing the dark side of the abortion industry. This is much to the consternation of their professors and, in some cases, their parents. Sort of adds a new twist to some lyrics from the sixties by Buffalo Springfield:
"Young people speaking their minds, Getting so much resistance from behind."

So the buses are starting to roll, as thousands from distant states once again journey to Washington, where many will gather in prayer the night before or the morning of the March. Then we will rally and march, knowing that those we are trying to defend would some day defend our nation, write great literature, cure disease, compose stirring music, and explore and begin to settle the Solar System.

But more than for their potential accomplishments, we speak out for them simply because of the inherent dignity of each of their lives. In so doing we are responding to a great calling as individuals and as a civilization. And we'll continue to speak and march and work and pray, confident in the hope that, one of these years, we'll no longer face the cold winds. Instead, we'll gather on a warm spring day to celebrate the inclusion of the youngest in the human family within the protection of the law.

South Carolina Picks Newt!

Newt Gingrich has been declared the winner of the South Carolina primary. This makes one each for Romney, Gingrich and Santorum. The campaign now heads to Florida for its Jan. 31 primary.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Innovative Ways to Explore Space


Some key planners in NASA and industry are looking at some unconventional ways to enable NASA to again move out beyond Earth orbit in spite of constrained budgets.
"In the current budget environment, we are taking the view that we can resume human space exploration beyond LEO now … with the systems that we have … or continue to wait for the lengthy development of systems that we wish we had," said Harley Thronson, senior scientist for advanced concepts at the Astrophysics Science Division of NASA Goddard’s Science and Exploration Directorate.


The annual ProLifeCon will be held in Washington, DC on the morning of the March for Life (this year on Monday, Jan. 23). Originally known as Blogs for Life, the conference was renamed last year in recognition of the growing array of social media (blogs, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc.) being used for the cause of life. I've just registered and look forward to this gathering of prolife new media activists.

This conference is one of many exciting prolife events occurring in and around DC in conjunction with the annual march.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Here It Comes for 2012: The Circus on the Severn!

The Maryland General Assembly opens its 90-day session today, dealing with contentious issues from possible tax increases and new regulations to same-sex marriage.

New Hampshire Primary Results

Yesterday's New Hampshire Primary provided a good night for Mitt Romney, though it doesn't seem to have eliminated any of his competitors. It will be interesting to see how the race plays out in South Carolina, with it's more conservative, Republican-only primary voters.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

The Thrilla in Iowa

The Iowa Caucuses (or "Hawkeye Cauci", as Rush calls them) ended in a photo-finish, with Mitt Romney topping Rick Santorum by only 8 votes! Ron Paul came in at a strong third. After many months of pregame activities, things will now happen quickly over the coming weeks & months, starting in New Hampshire next week.

While we have several strong candidates, I'm feeling a little vindicated this morning. At our county GOP convention a year ago in the first straw poll I participated in for this cycle, I picked Rick Santorum. I've admired Santorum for his strong prolife stand while holding strong and articulate positions over a range of social, economic and national security/foreign policy issues. Whoever the GOP nominates, it's time for a change from that "Hope & Change" thing from the last time around.

Monday, January 02, 2012

New Year at the Moon

Using a precision formation-flying technique, the twin GRAIL spacecraft will map the moon's gravity field, as depicted in this artist's rendering. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The NASA GRAIL mission, which was launched last September, has arrived at the Moon. GRAIL-A arrived on New Years Eve, while GRAIL-B arrived a day later, in the new year. The mission is designed to map the interior of the Moon to gain knowledge of its origin and structure.