Wednesday’s Book Review: “Science Talk: Changing Notions of Science in American Culture”

9780813544205_p0_v1_s260x420Science Talk: Changing Notions of Science in American Culture. By Daniel Patrick Thurs. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007, paperback reprint 2008. Vii + 237 pgs., acknowledgments, introduction, notes, index. ISBN: 978-0-8135-4420-5, $27.95 paperback.

Science is one element of modern American society that is ubiquitous. We see it all around us, even when we do not seek it, and we cannot envision a life without its presence. We mostly view science and the scientific enterprise as benevolent and positive. Mostly, however, we ignore it, or do we? Americans have engaged in some of the most heated controversies in the nation’s history with science as the center of the debate. That is what this book is about, and not just the debates themselves, but also how those debates have shaped the nature of scientific investigation itself.

We seemingly love these debates, despite the fact that they may be far removed from the issues that affect our lives. For example, many Americans were incensed in 2006 when the Pluto was demoted to dwarf planet status by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). The state legislature of California even passed a resolution accusing the IAU of “scientific heresy.” New Mexico’s state legislators even declared that Pluto will always be considered a planet while in New Mexican skies. This is a rather light-hearted controversy to be sure since very little of significance, perhaps beside pride, is riding on the status of Pluto.

Not so with several other scientific controversies.  In Science Talk: Changing Notions of Science in American Culture, Daniel Patrick Thurs, a fellow in New York University’s Draper Program at the time of its publication, takes aim at five major controversies in science in the United States. Two of those are nineteenth century debates—phrenology and evolution—and the remainder—relativity, UFOs, and intelligent design—are decidedly twentieth century debates. There is considerable riding on these debates, not the least of which is religion and worldview. These debates, besides containing deep ideological fissures, are complicated by the complexity of scientific research and its meaning.

This may seem confusing for many casual observers, prompting many individuals to defer to those they trust. This is unfortunate. Among those comfortable with the role of science in American life, this could foster support for the authority of scientific experts. This deference may, but does not necessarily, lead to blind acceptance of all that is done in the name of science. It may also lead to deference to another type of authority. In the case of evolution and intelligent design this could be a privileging of religious ideals and those who espouse them. In the case of something like UFOs or phrenology or the like it might foster deference to those who claim to have firsthand knowledge of the subject, whether or not they might be credible.

It is important note that in every case the author is seeking to explore contrasting opinions about science and its unfolding throughout the more than two-hundred years of U.S. history. Thurs especially tries to unpack the place of skeptics in this process, counterbalancing that trend with the dominant place science enjoys in which it is credited with inevitably leading Americans to a better future. Using a broad set of sources, ranging from analysis of magazines, newspapers, journals, and other forms of public discourse to personal papers and public opinion research, Thurs describes the rising perception of science as something beyond the capability of ordinary Americans to understand and the need to employ translators between those engaged in the practice of science and the general public.

The rising elitism inherent in the term has both aided in creating a high stature for scientists and the scientific enterprise and a distancing of the population from the practice of science. The lack of general understanding about science has ensured that it will be misunderstood. Accordingly, in something like intelligent design where there is a broad-based effort to misconstrue the nature of the science the result has been confusion, obfuscation, and not a little chicanery.

For readers of this journal, the chapter on the UFO craze of the middle part of the twentieth century will probably be the most interesting. This represents a form of pseudo-science in which the majority of the public accepts as a given that Earth is being visited by extraterrestrials with technologies far beyond what is present here. In some cases this is a benign visitation; in others it represents a ruthless process of horrific medical experimentation.

The evolution of this UFO craze offers a useful case study in the manner in which something beyond the bounds of science intrudes on the scientific enterprise. For their parts, scientists have dismissed claims to visitation but have failed to persuade, in no small part because of the diligence, perseverance, and imaginativeness of advocates. And this despite the lack of any evidence whatsoever to support the claims of visitation.

There is much of value in Talk: Changing Notions of Science in American Culture and Daniel Patrick Thurs should be commended for bringing to light the process whereby scientific controversies have evolved over time. It is an engaging study, one that will benefit all those interested in science and its place in American history.

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The Transit Program and the Origins of Nuclear Power Systems for Spaceflight

Transit 4A being prepared for flight.

Transit 4A being prepared for flight.

Since the dawn of the space age more than 50 years ago, the United States has pursued a variety of methods for delivering electrical power to spacecraft in flight. Nuclear power systems are the only ones that have been found acceptable for deep space missions. Even so, there have been many satellites in Earth orbit that have employed nuclear power sources for the generation of electricity. The first of these for the United States was the Transit navigation satellite program pursued by the U.S. Navy in the early 1960s.

It’s story really began in the latter part of the 1940s when several engineers began to consider the possibility of using nuclear power sources to power spacecraft. By 1949 a full-scale analysis by the RAND Corp. had sketched out the possibilities for uclear power systems for satellites in Earth Orbit. In May 1953, USAF Headquarters took the next step by authorizing development work on a nuclear power source for satellites. This research effort led directly to the nuclear power systems used on spacecraft in the early 1960s.

Pursuing two related avenues, researchs developed both a small nuclear reactor and an RTG, or radioisotope thermoelectric generator. Codenamed SNAP for “Systems for Nuclear Auxiliary Power,” these power sources were numbered with the odd numbers designating RTGs and even numbers for the small nuclear reactors.

For the RTGs, SNAP-1 was built at the Mound Laboratory under the Atomic Energy Commission’s (AEC) supervision in 1954. It used a thermocouple heated by polonium (Po)-210 for fuel. Those first RTG’s capabilities were modest to be sure, and power management was always a consideration in these systems, but they lasted for years and could power a spacecraft on extended missions. In the reactor arena, the SNAP-2 system used a 50-kw(t) reactor system weighing about 600 pounds employing liquid NaK—a sodium (Na) and potassium (K) alloy—as a coolant to transfer heat through a mercury loop. This reaction, basic chemistry really, produced 3 kw of electricity. This led to the research on two additional space power units, SNAP-8 and SNAP-10, emphasizing a metal hydride reactor technology first used in SNAP-2.

These efforts led to a longstanding record of success in meeting the electrical needs of space vehicles. As historian Richard Engler has concluded:

The history of the radioisotope power program is basically a success sto[r]y, although it is certainly not one of linear success. The program was initiated by the AEC under impetus from the Department of Defense but first went public late in that decade as part of the “atoms for peace” movement, with President Eisenhower showing an atomic battery to the world and extolling its peaceful potential uses. Subsequently, while the Defense Department supported mostly test applications of the radioisotopic power devices in space, the program reached its pinnacle of success through uses by the civilian space agency, NASA.

The possibilities of space nuclear power first entered the public sphere in January 1959 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower posed for a photo op with an RTG in the Oval Office of the White house. It was SNAP-3, the AEC-developed power source on which so many engineers pinned their hopes for spacecraft power. AEC officials hailed this RTG as a “significant breakthrough,” one that was reliable, simple, flexible, safe, and just as importantly, they said, “We can tailor the product to fit the customer.”

EisenhowerThe application of nuclear power to spaceflight really began in the 1950s, when the Navy through its contractor, the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) of the Johns Hopkins University, developed RTGs for space navigational satellites. Intended as a method of ensuring the capability of the inertial navigation systems of the U.S. Navy’s Polaris ballistic missile submarines, the Transit system promised 80–100 meter accuracy. Accordingly, it supported one-third of the nation’s strategic triad in enabling targeting and ensuring the deterrent threat posed to the Soviet Union was real.

It originated on March 18, 1958, when the APL’s Frank T. McClure wrote two memoranda to APL Director Ralph E. Gibson: “Yesterday I spent an hour with Dr. [William H.] Guier and Dr. [George C.] Weiffenbach discussing the work they and their colleagues have been doing on Doppler tracking of satellites. The principal problem facing them was the determination of the direction which this work should take in the future. During this discussion it occurred to me that their work provided a basis for a relatively simple and perhaps quite accurate navigation system.” Most important, McClure noted, it offered the solution to a vexing problem of genuine military significance during the Cold War.

The first Transit satellite, Transit 1A, took off from the Space Operations Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, on September 17, 1959, but failed during launch. A second satellite, Transit 1B, was launched on April 13, 1960, and operated for 89 days. There followed a succession of Transit satellites, with a general development of greater capability and longevity interspersed with failures. A vexing issue was how to maximize the spacecraft’s useful service life on orbit—the best that the Navy could achieve seemed to be about a year with batteries and solar arrays. RTGs offered a ready alternative. As John Dassoulas of APL recalled: “I had been looking into the possibilities of isotopic power since we first began the Transit program. We had a five-year goal for the life of the operational Transit, and we weren’t confident that the hermetic seals on batteries would hold up for five years.”

The AEC’s Glenn Seaborg proved a persistent advocate for the use of RTGs. He officially asked the president on May 6, 1961, to approve the first launch, citing the findings of a hazards study that “any danger to the public is extremely unlikely.” He added: “I call this to your attention since this first application of a nuclear auxiliary power source in space is likely to have a wide public impact.” The Department of State resisted this launch, in no small part because of its international implications, but the DoD and the AEC persisted and eventually succeeded in obtaining approval. 

As this took place, the public learned of the impending launch of a nuclear power plant and organized a protest. Picking up on the high-level discussions inside the Kennedy administration, on May 16, 1961, the New York Times broke the story, suggesting that the “problem confronting the Administration…is not so much a technical decision as one of diplomatic, political and psychological considerations.”

Three days later, the New York Times pressed the issue, highlighting concerns from State Department officials “that in event of an unsuccessful launching, the satellite, with its radioactive parcel, could fall on Cuba or some other Latin-American country.” They feared, in the politically charged environment after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, that this would add fuel to any international incident that might result. Some even expressed concern that other nations might “take offense about having radioactive materials flown over their territory.”

Accordingly, the DOD reconfigured Transit 4A to fly without the RTG, reluctantly accepting a lesser capability on orbit. The story differs on how the approval finally came down to fly the RTG on Transit 4A. Some believed that it was the culmination of a monthlong set of internal negotiations between the DoD and the State Department to proceed with the June 1961 launch of Transit 4A. Others claimed that it only contained the RTG because of the intervention of President Kennedy, who personally gave approval to proceed during a small dinner party in which Glenn Seaborg pled the case for the mission.

Figure 1-RTG CasingRegardless, about two days before the scheduled liftoff, a military team flew the RTG from Baltimore to Patrick Air Force Base in Florida, where the launch team destacked the payload and inserted the SNAP-3 system. The vehicle then launched on June 29, 1961, from Launch Complex 17 and operated for fifteen years until the satellite was finally shut down. Transit 4B followed on November 15, 1961, and operated until June 1962 when a thermoelectric converter in the power unit failed. The satellite ceased communications on August 2, 1962, but there were some reports of picking up telemetry from it as late as 1971.

The launch of Transit 4A made headlines. The New York Journal American offered a positive story. It reported: “The successful orbiting of the nuclear device…gives American scientists a significant lead over Russia in the race to harness atomic power for space exploration.” Previous concerns voiced by officials from the State Department withered with the success of this flight, and serious intergovernmental opposition never found traction thereafter.

The initial successes prompted the development of the Transit 5B series of satellites containing nuclear power sources. Launched atop Thor Able-Star rockets, Transit 5BN-1 reached orbit on September 28, 1963, but it achieved gravity-gradient stabilization upside down, which limited its signal output to the ground. Transit 5BN-2 was launched on December 5, 1963, with an RTG power source and operated for approximately one year. The last RTG-powered navigation satellite, Transit 5BN-3, was launched on April 12, 1964, but failed to achieve orbit, and its failure prompted widespread concern. As a U.S. GAO report noted in the latter 1990s: “In 1964, a TRANSIT 5BN-3 navigational satellite malfunctioned. Its single RTG, which contained 2.2 pounds of plutonium fuel, burned up during reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. This RTG was intended to burn up in the atmosphere in the event of a reentry.”

It did, and this sent shock waves through the world community. The Atomic Energy Commission tried to assuage the public’s fears, reporting that “from previous safety analysis and tests it had been concluded the re-entry will cause the plutonium-238 fuel to burn up into particles of about one millionth of an inch in diameter. These particles will be widely dispersed…and would not constitute a health hazard.” This analysis proved too optimistic, leading many to question the use of nuclear power sources for orbital missions into space.

Those questions have abounded ever since. Despite concerns the use of radioisotope thermoelectric generators to power spacecraft to the outer planets has proven a boon to the space program in the first fifty years of its history. Use of this technology invites opposition because of the danger inherent in any launch or reentry to the atmosphere. There have been failures in the past, duly taken notice of by the public, and in each instance refinements and additional requirements to ensure future safety have resulted. This is as it should be.

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Why Do Teams Leave their Host Cities: Major League Baseball in St. Louis as a Case Study

Sportsman's Park in St. Louis, where both the Cardinals and the Browns played baseball for many years in first half of the twentieth century.

Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, where both the Cardinals and the Browns played baseball for many years in first half of the twentieth century.

Between 1902 and 1954 the American League and the National League franchises in St. Louis competed for control of the fans in the city. The National League’s Cardinals eventually won that competition, forcing the Browns to leave for Baltimore where they became the Orioles. During that period the Cardinals became a powerhouse team, winning the World Series in 1926, 1928, 1931, 1934, and 1942, 1944, and 1946. They won several additional pennants during the era. The Browns took one pennant, 1944, and suffered defeat at the hands of a dynastic Cardinals rival.

Throughout this time the Browns and the Cardinals shared a shrinking demographic fan base and this was one of the reasons the Browns eventually left the city. Not only did the pie not expand as time passed, it actually got smaller. That meant that it was only a matter of time before one or the other of the two teams would have to depart the city. Because of demographic shifts since the 1960s one may legitimately speculate as to whether St. Louis remains a major league city as the twenty-first century dawns, since there are so many other larger population centers in the nation, many of them without major league representation.

The Browns dugout in the 1940s.

The Browns dugout in the 1940s.

Second, because of a stagnant population base, the two teams had to compete mightily for the limited dollars available for major league baseball in St. Louis. Competition took place on a broad front. Since baseball is essentially a part of the entertainment industry, delivering a good time to the spectators is critical to the success of a franchise. This can most effectively be accomplished through high quality play on the field.

Without question the Cardinals ruled in this arena, at least after 1926, and they accordingly captured the majority of the baseball fans’ loyalties in the city. In 1926, for instance, the Cardinals won the pennant and had an attedance of 506,000 for the season. The Browns’ attendance was a woeful 81,000. To demonstrate this further, in 1935 the Browns averaged 1,051 per game. Until the Cardinals, buttressed by the brilliance of Branch Rickey’s farm system, began to dominate the National League, the Browns competed very well for the baseball dollar in St. Louis.

Even without fielding a great team, attendance at games could be enhanced by offering other types of attractions. Browns owner Bill Veeck was a master of this, as had been Chris Von der Ahe before him. Veeck’s maxim that more people will pay to see a bad team play ball if other entertainment also takes place than will pay to see a poor team play ball is appropriate. And in 1952 he doubled Browns attendance by offering “bread and circuses” along with a woeful Browns game.

The Cardinals also froze the Browns out of the extended family of supporters in the Midwest and the South. Radio began to make an impact on the sport as early as 1920s, and the Cardinals were an early proponent of the new media’s use to expand its market. The team found that its use of radio significantly expanded its fan base. Routinely broadcasting recreations of its games since the latter 1920s, in 1934 the Cardinals decided not to broadcast regular games that season. Despite an exciting pennant winning team, the gashouse gang led by Dizzy Dean, season attendance fell 283,000 below that of the last pennant winner, the 1931 team. Accordingly, the Cardinal front office believed it had to restore its regular season radio broadcasts.

A department store window in downtown St. Louis at the time that the Cardinals played the Browns in the 1944 World Series.

A department store window in downtown St. Louis at the time that the Cardinals played the Browns in the 1944 World Series.

By the time of the Cardinals dynasty of the 1940s the Cardinals boasted a regional network of 120 stations in nine states, anchored by the powerful KMOX station in St. Louis. From the Great Plains to the Deep South the St. Louis Cardinals became the team most of the heartland identified with, and they rewarded the franchise by making thousands of bus trips to St. Louis to see Cardinals games. The voice of the Cardinals for most of those years was the irascible Harry Caray and millions tuned in every day to hear his stirring accounts of the boys in red. The Browns were late in adopting radio, and it never drew the listeners of the Cardinals.

One of the questions that must be asked about these two teams is if there is any evidence that certain groups followed one or the other of the teams? What was the ethnic, class, or other demographic loyalty for the St. Louis teams at various periods? From the very earliest time, both teams were largely Irish-American and they were embraced by the large German/American constituency in the city. That close relationship remained throughout the Browns/Cardinals era. None of these teams, furthermore, gained much of a following from the African-American community, who reserved their loyalty for the Negro league teams.

But there was more to this than ethnicity. The Cardinals became the embodiment of the American heartland in a way the Browns never did. They were hayseeds, just like most of the people who supported them. They represented rural America—simplicity, rusticity, small towns, Protestant beliefs, and hard-working commoners—and the fact that they won against the representatives of the big city, the New York Giants and Yankees, placed them in good stead with their fans.

And their best players personified those perceived virtues. Dizzy Dean was a southern hick who beat the best anyone had to offer. Is it any wonder that once his playing days were over he could prosper as a broadcaster for the Cardinals cross-town rivals, selling homespun humor and hardcore American values?

The greatest Cardinal of them all, Stan Musial.

The greatest Cardinal of them all, Stan Musial.

The greatest Cardinal, Stan Musial, demonstrated more than anyone those simple virtues. From the backhills of Pennsylvania’s mining country Musial strode across the National League as a giant for more than twenty years, but one who never forgot that hard work, good manners, and honorable actions brought him to greatness. His streak of 895 consecutive games played, which stood as a National League record until broken by Billy Williams of the Cubs in 1970, was one record that Musial especially prized for it demonstrated his commitment to the working class value of coming to work everyday.

There is a Hollywood formula for any successful war movie, and from The Sands of Iwo Jima to Saving Private Ryan it has been played out in most of them. They all have as members of small combat units streetwise punks from Brooklyn or Newark and farmboys from the Midwest and southern country boys and city slickers from New York. The audiences identify with these characters depending on background and familiarity.

Similar dichotomies are at play in major league baseball. While the Dodgers represented working class urbanites, and the Yankees reflected the glitter of the upper class in the big city, the Cardinals symbolized the Midwestern farming culture and the southern backcountry. To the extent that they were successful, and they were very successful during the second quarter of the twentieth century, the Cardinals served to heighten those regions’ collective spirit.

Finally, the Cardinals were able to force the Browns out of St. Louis because of two horrendously bad decisions made by the Browns ownership. First, in 1917 Browns owner Philip C. Ball pushed Branch Rickey out of his organization. Rickey, who was on the way to building a winner and whose efforts bore fruit in the 1920s, went across town to the Cardinals. There he employed the same strategies that he had undertaken with the Browns and the result was Cardinal domination of the National League for the next generation. Had Ball left Rickey alone the Browns might have become the big winners in town.

Second, in 1920 the Cardinals wooden ballpark in St. Louis burned down. Branch Rickey persuaded Philip Ball to grant the Cardinals a long-term lease for the Browns state-of-the-art concrete and steel stadium, Sportsman’s Park. Henceforth, the Cardinals shared the park with the Browns for longer than any other two teams, until 1953. Had the Browns owner said no, the Cardinals, who had no ready capital with which to build their own ballpark, would have been forced to seek a home elsewhere, perhaps somewhere other than in St. Louis. In an irony too great to ignore, the Browns owner sowed the seeds of his teams own demise in 1920, although it took a half century for the team to reach its nadir.

In the end, St. Louis was not big enough for both teams. The Cardinals forced out the weaker of the two teams that shared the St. Louis fan base. This story has been played out in several other cities over time. The Yankees forced the Giants and Dodgers to leave the region in the 1950s. The A’s departed Philadelphia in the 1950s when they could not compete with the Phillies. The Braves left Boston to the Red Sox for Milwaukee. We may see several other moves in the future. The most obvious move we might well see in the next few years is for the Oakland A’s to depart their homw since the 1960s because of the Giants’ hold on the fan base in the bay area.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Seasons in Hell: With Billy Martin, Whitey Herzog, and “The Worst Baseball Teams in History”—The 1973-1975 Texas Rangers”

seasons in hellSeasons in Hell: With Billy Martin, Whitey Herzog, and “The Worst Baseball Teams in History”—The 1973-1975 Texas Rangers. By Mike Shropshire. New York: Donald I. Fine, 1996.

As a Texas Rangers beat reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1973 Mike Shropshire thought he had a great gig, following a major league baseball team around America with a good expense account. Perhaps so, but it was a gig that required him to follow and write about what could arguably be called the worst team in MLB history. In 1973 the Rangers compiled a 56-105 record. It was a far cry from the high quality Texas Rangers team that has been in playoff contention for the last several years.

Among other standouts that year retread pitcher Jim Merritt pitched a three hit shutout and then promptly called a press conference to announce that he had doctored the ball with KY jelly to throw the outlawed spitball. Also during 1973, high school phenom David Clyde made his MLB debut with the Rangers just 22 days after being drafted. He did well in that outing, striking out the side in the first inning after walking the first two batters and winning the game 4-3. But David Clyde never lived up to his hype and lasted only five years in the major leagues and winning only 18 games in his career.

At some level Shropshire’s book is more of a comedy routine than a baseball book. It chronicles, but without much attention to dates, circumstances, etc., the crazy experiences of covering this lousy team. Whitey Herzog—who had a gift for saying what he thought—led this group, whom Shropshire calls F-Troop, Whitey’s Menagerie, and other less complimentary names, was fired near the end of the 1973 season and replaced by Billy Martin for the 1974 campaign. Martin was a hard-driving, hard-drinking, cantankerous personality who knew how to win baseball games and he seemed to work his magic with the Rangers as well. They finished 84-76, placing second in the division; probably as good as anyone could have done. Of course, Martin did have one great player that Herzog had traded for just as he left the Rangers, Ferguson Jenkins, who won a team record 25 games in 1974. No one has topped that record for the Rangers since.

But Billy Martin was a problem and in 1975 he was sacked about halfway through the season when he got into trouble with team management. He was forever in this kind of trouble and he then went on to manage the New York Yankees, where he would continue that pattern, eventually serving five different but equally turbulent tenures as manager of the Yankees.

This is an enjoyable book, somewhat in the style of Jim Bouton’s Ball Four but not so revelatory. It tells what you might already anticipate. These Rangers were not very good, and the players were neither particularly talented nor inspired. They tended to carouse, drink, and get into trouble, sometimes being led by Billy Martin in accomplishing all three. If you need reminders of these horrific episodes in Rangerland, this is the book for you.

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Is There a Military Human Spaceflight Mission on the Horizon?

The space battle sequence from the James Bond film, Moonraker (1979). Is this the future of the military in space?

The space battle sequence from the James Bond film, Moonraker (1979). Is this the future of the military in space?

There has been a long mating dance between the civil and military space programs over the years relative to the role of humans in space. In a succession of recent studies ranging from the Air Force Science Board’s “New World Vista” in 1995 to the Rumsfeld commission’s 2001 analysis of national security space issues, the DoD has persistently sought to find a role for humans in space.

As recently as 2006 some senior military officials remained committed to the possibility of human military missions into space, although this was definitely a minority view in the DoD. Indeed, as robotic technologies have improved, the trend has been away from placing humans in harm’s way in favor of other options. The rise of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) piloted from the remote sites in the 1990s was driven by the desire to limit crew exposure to harm while increasing loiter time over target areas. The success of UAVs in carrying out missions that had formerly required flight crews has emboldened DoD executives to advance this type of technology for all future weapons systems.

In such an environment whatever desires that still exist in favor of piloted military space vehicles have less possibility of achieving this goal than even a few years earlier. At a sublime level, human military pilots appear to be a twentieth century and not a twenty-first century priority.

This is especially the case because rationales supporting human spaceflight overall are a bit nebulous—mostly resting on arguments of national prestige rather than practical applications—there does not seem to be much possibility of this changing in the near term. Of course, one could make the observation that since the end of the Cold War many of the historic policy options, of which the assignment of the U.S. human spaceflight mission to NASA is one, needs to be revisited. Reassigning that mission, or a portion of it, to the DoD might become a possibility should the space agency suffer another disaster on the order of the Challenger and Columbia shuttle accidents, although this represents a long shot in terms of policy options.

More likely is a scenario in which military astronauts will enter space in a manner similar to what soldiers excelled at throughout the first century-and-a-half of the republic: exploring, extending, and protecting the frontier. The United States Army explored the American West, kept order on the frontier, and opened the region to colonization. The frontier army pushed the line of occupation far beyond the settlements that would have resulted otherwise. It raised crops, herded cattle, cut timber, quarried stone, built sawmills, and performed the manifold duties of pioneers in addition to its peacekeeping mission. It also restrained lawless traders, pursued fugitives, ejected squatters, maintained order, and served as the primary interface with the Native Americans.

In this latter role it was more benevolent than remembered in popular conception. This was largely peaceful work, with the military catalyzing the processes of territorial expansion and national development. The military outposts on the frontier also served as cash markets for early settlers and as centers of exploration, community building, and cultural development. In the past the military accomplished these tasks in the American West; in the future it might well do so in space.

This is a far different approach to “military men in space” than has been argued for thus far, but once there is a true space frontier the military will be required to be there just as in the past. How far into the future this might take place is an open question, but it will undoubtedly happen if the United States continues to pursue human space exploration and development.

This would amount to as significant a role for the U.S. military in space as any other that might be envisioned. In the nineteenth century it conducted exploration, as with the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and its civil engineering efforts led by the U.S. Corps of Topographical Engineers and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proved remarkably significant in opening the American West.

In the twenty-first century the military may create a Space Corps of Engineers. Its forces may expand to every location where humanity establishes a presence, especially on the Moon. It may serve as the peacekeepers and the law enforcers. It may preserve American interests against any who might seek to subvert them. Withal, the military presence may well help to open a frontier beyond Earth in the same way that it did on the North American continent earlier. But before those possibilities emerge, there remains little likelihood of the need for military personnel in space.

At the time when the United States is reconsidering its next steps in the human exploration and development of space it bears considering this possibility for the future of military astronauts. What will take place in the near term is very much a matter of yet to be resolved. Federal entities will certainly play a key role. Will they, however, continue to dominate or are there heightened prospects for commercial activities first in low-Earth orbit and ultimately beyond? If it is the latter the prospects for military human space missions expand exponentially as a means of keeping order in this new regime.

This may become the new future for space exploration if Congress accepts the Obama Administration’s approach. If it does the false starts of the past could be replaced by what is envisioned as “A new era of Innovation and Discovery.” This new direction and change is more than just semantics. It proposes a major shift in the way in which the U.S. government approaches human spaceflight. Simply put, it represents a paradigm shift in space exploration.

In this new approach NASA will return to its roots as a research and development organization to develop the transformational technologies while private industry will operate the systems built. Turning low-Earth orbit over to commercial entities, as in the classic 1968 feature film 2001: A Space Odyssey, will force the government out of this arena except for regulatory and other oversight roles. In this environment, there is an important place for the peacekeeping function of a frontier, a natural fit for the DoD in satisfying its quest for human spaceflight capability.

It is quite possible that the approach of the Obama administration to human spaceflight, envisioned as a “new era of innovation and discovery,” does not abandon human exploration but offers instead a sustainable space exploration plan for decades to come. After the fits and starts over many years that Americans have suffered in considering a replacement system for the Space Shuttle, this may well represent a welcome path forward.

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Re-Direct: The National Academy of Engineering Video Contest

NAEThe National Academy of Engineering wants to know how engineering impacts YOU! Enter the Engineering for You (E4U) Video Contest and tell us how engineering creations serve the welfare of humanity and the needs of society.The NAE is offering a $25,000 prize to the most inspiring 1-2 minute video that highlights engineering achievements of the past, present or future. There’s also a “People’s Choice Award” of $5,000 and the top videos in each competition category are eligible for a prize of up to $5,000. We hope that you will participate in the contest and also encourage those in your local communities to participate!  

The deadline to enter is March 31, 2014. Learn more hereFor any additional questions, please email

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Apollo’s Eye: A Cartographic Genealogy of the Earth in the Western Imagination”

300x300_9780801864919Apollo’s Eye: A Cartographic Genealogy of the Earth in the Western Imagination. By Denis Cosgrove. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

Astronaut Joseph Allen recently made the observation that exploring the Moon in the 1960s was never really about going to the Moon. “With all the arguments, pro and con, for going to the Moon,” he commented, “no one suggested that we should do it to look at the Earth. But that may in fact be the one important reason.” This observation is useful in focusing attention on the Earth as a wholistic object in the cosmos and the consideration of Western Civilization’s relationship to it. Denis Cosgrove has contributed in this excellent book a discussion of how the Earth as a globe has been perceived throughout history.

Cosgrove builds his discussion around the key concepts of the globe as classical, Christian, oceanic, visionary, emblematic, enlightened, modern, and virtual. Each of these themes is explored in a chapter and the narrative marches through these ideas as individual epochs. They were not really contained in this way, of course, but it is useful methodology for analysis.

Most importantly, Cosgrove asks how conceiving of the Earth as a Christian globe, or a modern globe, or whatever else it has been envisioned over time has affected the evolution of Western Civilization. This book is very much focused on the West and western thought about the Earth; very little is considered concerning Asia, Africa, or other regions of the world.

Finally, Apollo’s Eye: A Cartographic Genealogy of the Earth in the Western Imagination offers a real contribution by focusing on the globalization of the recent past as a means to connect the peoples of the world into a larger whole. At some level Cosgrove invokes the Spaceship Earth concept in suggesting that human developments over time may be reaching a unity never seen before.

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Re-Direct: Guide to Online Academic Research

textbook-thumb-200x282-80797Accredited has created an on-line resource that will be of use to several researchers. The “Guide to Online Academic Research” offers step-by-step instructions of use to college-level students in undertaking research amid the myriad sites and structures of the Internet. Its major sections are here:

  1. Before You Get Started
  2. Search Engines 101
  3. Evaluate Your Sources
  4. Organizing Your Research
  5. Citing Your Research
  6. Additional Resources

The goal with this guide is to give students the tools necessary to navigate web-based research. It covers quite a lot of information from how to use search engines effectively and assessing the quality of information to critical thinking and proper note taking and organization.

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Historical Analogies and the Commercial Development of Space

I recently completed a study on historical analogies and the commercial development of space. This study explored several historical episodes in U.S. history where the federal government undertook public/private efforts to complete critical activities valued for their public good. This largely resulted from a lack of either sufficient political will to fund them entirely out of the public treasury or insufficient profit motive for private firms to undertake them for purely business reasons.

What if there had never been railroads?

What if there had never been railroads?

The study investigated six case studies: (1) the development of the transcontinental railroad supported by a unique land grant approach to subsidy, (2) support for the airline industry through legislation, appropriate regulation, and subsidies to grow a robust air transport capability, (3) the regulatory regime put into place with the rise of the telephone industry and the creation of government-sponsored monopoly that eventually had to be broken up, (4) government sponsorship of Antarctic scientific stations that evolved into a public/private partnership over time, (5) the fostering of a range of public works projects and their success or failure over time, and (6) the establishment of scenic and cultural conservation zones in the United States and how to balance economic development with preservation.

With the rise of a range of private sector entrepreneurial firms interested in pursuing space commerce, the process whereby those might be incubated, fostered, and expanded comes to the fore as an important public policy concern in a way never before present in the space age. In the United States, and virtually nowhere else in the world, we are witnessing the convergence of several powerful economic forces. These include the need to restore American capability to reach low-Earth orbit for the servicing of the International Space Station, the rise of a hospitality/tourism/entertainment industry interested in space, the development of expansive remote sensing and other applications in Earth orbit, and the possibilities envisioned for opening commercial space activities in the cis-lunar region.

Through these case studies we explore better how to apply more effectively already tested models of government support for commercial activities, and the interactions of both the public and private spheres in a new opportunity zone in space. In each case, a summation yields a range of key points. The following paragraphs relate my key conclusions.

Transcontinental Railroad: The approach taken by government involvement in nineteenth century transcontinental railroad development remains valid to some degree for orbital space operations. The government offered the following six inducements for private development:

  1. Land grants as a means of offering potential future revenue, tied to success in creating the railroad system.
  2. Direct government appropriations to the company involved in the endeavor.
  3. Waivers/modifications to taxes and other regulatory requirements.
  4. Contracts for services once capability is demonstrated.
  5. Government endorsement and backing of corporate bonds/assets.
  6. Indirect support for related but supplemental elements of the railroad transportation system.

In every case these government initiatives were intended to leverage (and not replace) existing private funding, especially additional industry and venture capital.

To those six, we might add the following:

  • Private financing supplemented with government loans.
  • Property and patent rights granted to participating firms.
  • Broadly construed revenues produced from transportation and other fees.

Regardless, one must ask these critical questions in the context of developing new space transportation structures: “How important, in the final analysis, is cheaper access to space? Is it really the key to future growth of space activities?” This seems to be at the cusp of what will go into any stimulation of private space transportation effort.

Commercial Air Transportation: Between 1915 and the 1970s government officials in the U.S. undertook a series of critical initiatives designed to create a commercial airline industry in private hands. Washington lawmakers saw the necessity of fostering new technology for the purposes of national security, economic competitiveness, and pride and prestige. That latter reason was in no small measure because although Americans had invented the airplane in 1903, by 1914 leadership in technology had moved to Europe and the United States had been left in the dust. Catching up became an important driver for federal investment. Government organizations took as multi-faceted approach: military investment, research and development, regulatory efforts aimed at both promoting safety and efficiency and expanded operations, and direct subsidies to commercial entities until the 1960s. Congress could have established national airline run by civil servants, but instead created a favorable climate for private investment in airlines. For instance, the U.S. Congress established the NACA in 1915 to conduct research on flight and in 1921 New York/New Jersey created a port authority with power to issue bonds and collect fees for airfields.

In terms of space transportation there are several lessons to be drawn from the aviation experience. Like the NACA, government agencies could conduct basic research and transfer that knowledge to private firms. In addition, NASA could transfer its operational responsibility to private carriers. Congress could also create the authority—modeled on various earlier efforts such as the Overseas Private Investment Corporation—to provide loans/insurance to space line firms. Either the U.S. government or states could establish spaceport authorities to manage operations from the ground to orbit; federal agencies could also regulate routes and fares. Many of these efforts are already underway and we are on the verge of seeing a new age of entrepreneurial space transportation efforts. There are, however, challenges to this approach, not the least of which is that NASA has a critical path with specific milestone deadlines and is hesitant to change this approach; the loans/insurance incentives may not produce services in time; and liability issues are especially burdensome. Nonetheless, major steps have been taken toward this capability in the last decade.

 Female Indian telephone switchboard operator - "Helen of Many Glacier Hotel." June 26, 1925

Female Indian telephone switchboard operator – “Helen of Many Glacier Hotel.”
June 26, 1925

Telecommunications: Following the invention of the telephone in 1876, the federal government could have owned and operated telephone service—it did so during World War I—or it could have allowed a totally open market. Instead it established phone companies as regulated monopolies under the FCC, with monopolistic privileges only removed in 1980. In essence the following structure emerged:

  • Provided patents, granted monopoly status, and chartered corporations.
  • U.S. Attorney General allowed AT&T to control telephone service as a regulated monopoly (1913).
  • AT&T established Bell Laboratories (1925); Bell Labs developed the first orbiting communication satellite (Telstar 1, 1962).
  • Congress created Comsat, a public-private corporation with monopoly status, to promote satellite communications (1962).
  • Comsat represented the U.S. in the formation of Intelsat and became its managing company.

Might the U.S. government foster a private space communications system that can serve the needs of all users on a commercial basis, rather than having NASA own its on TRDSS satellites? What is the future of space communications? Will the government encourage private entrepreneurs to construct, own, operate, and use lunar communications networks, Mars communications networks, deep space networks? A major challenge: recent experience (Iridium, GPS) suggests that the cost of establishing certain space communications networks exceeds likely revenues.

Antarctica: Antarctica has a legal status similar to that of the Moon. It is utilized primarily for scientific research and no nation can claim its land. Yet basic supplies and logistic support for U.S. operations on the continent are provided by non-federal organizations. Might this become a possibility in the future on the ISS or the Moon? Fostering such an approach to space activities could mean that control of orbital lunar assets would remain with NASA, which would select and fund science projects, oversee policy, and cycle personnel as necessary. Operation of these stations, however, could fall to a company with experience in remote locations, staffed by its own employees. Transportation to and from these stations could also be provided by outside organizations. At the same time, commercial activities could be encouraged.

Public Works: Frequently in the history of the United States the federal government has developed critical infrastructure, often for its national security purposes, but quickly leading to economic development. At times it has relied wholly upon private entrepreneurs. One of the most creative approaches to this process has been the use of the government or quasi-government development commissions to develop resources as a public good. There are many instances of this approach to public/private partnership. For example in the General Mining Act of 1872, the U.S. government set up an uncontrolled but highly entrepreneurial structure that emphasized the principle that discovery conferred ownership. It left a legacy of riches and ruin that few wanted to repeat. More recently commissions have been formed to create vector a more controlled development of the resource. Examples include the Isthmian Canal Commission (1904), Bonneville Power Administration (1937), and the subject of this discussion the Tennessee Valley Authority (1933). This entity was decentralized, not a conventional government agency. Congress provides at least initial appropriation but it was intended to become self-sustaining while delivering a public service. Corporate entities associated with it were empowered both to borrow and spend as well as market goods and services. It served an important economic and social purpose and in the process served as the catalyst for the wholesale transformation of the region.

In the context of lunar development might an organization similar to the TVA be capable of commercially developing the Moon? Questions abound:

  • Should it begin with the establishment of a lunar development commission/corporation?
  • Would a commission/corporation start by building and managing lunar infrastructure for NASA?
  • Would this be followed by an effort to spur economic development?
This artist's conception by Bill Wright captures a possible future lunar tourist moment. Visitors to the "Tranquility Base Memorial Center" view the "Eagle" spacecraft that first landed humans on the Moon from an observation deck as the activities of the Moonbase take place all around.

This artist’s conception by Bill Wright captures a possible future lunar tourist moment. Visitors to the “Tranquility Base Memorial Center” view the “Eagle” spacecraft that first landed humans on the Moon from an observation deck as the activities of the Moonbase take place all around.

National Parks: In terms of applicability to the space frontier, the experience of the National Park Service is most germane in terms of space tourism efforts. When Congress created the U.S. National Park Service in 1916 to conserve natural and historical resources “by such means as will leave them unimpaired,” a key component was to assist the public in reaching those scenic wonders. Accordingly, park managers, recognizing the need for public support to encourage future preservation, allowed private entrepreneurs to commercialize the parks in such a manner as to encourage public visitation. Accordingly, they encouraged railroad companies and other concessionaires to build hotels and related facilities in the national parks. Those concessionaires then paid fees which the National Park Service used to build additional roads and trails. Americans rode and drove to the national parks, vastly expanding tourism and creating the family vacation tradition.

Government officials, as well as policy, could likewise encourage private sector development in space tourism, both in low-Earth orbit and on the Moon. The following possibilities exist:

  • Public officials could expand the use of government facilities by private entrepreneurs as a means of encouraging public use and visitation.
  • Private citizens could then experience space through both remote access as well as direct participation.
  • Private firms could pay fees which government agencies could then use to expand and develop facilities.
  • Government could create a favorable regulatory climate for space tourism.

Beyond these very specific possibilities, NASA could also award lease contracts for habitation/support services of facilities in orbit and on the Moon. Baseline development and operational costs could then be funded by NASA lease. As an additional revenue stream companies could then add tourism for marginal costs. Such an environment could create a public/private space ecology with efficiencies of operations achieved through economies of scale.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Debunked! ESP, Telekinesis, and other Pseudoscience”

debunked_knjiga_1_originalDebunked! ESP, Telekinesis, and other Pseudoscience. By Georges Charpak and Henri Broch. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

Georges Charpak received the Nobel Prize in physics in 1992. His friend and colleague, Henri Broch, is not a Nobel Laureate but has received the Distinguished Skeptic Award from The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). Their book, Debunked! ESP, Telekinesis, and other Pseudoscience, is an enjoyable and effective eviscerating of many of the most common paranormal occurrences in modern society. Charpak and Broch would certainly agree with the bumper sticker I saw a few weeks ago while in a traffic jam in Washington, D.C.: “The goddess is alive and magic is afoot.”

For these authors there is no such thing as magic; there are, however, a seemingly infinite number of charlatans and gullible marks. ESP does not exist; those who say otherwise are either intentionally misleading you or have themselves been misled. They same it true for telekinesis, ancient aliens, astrology, phrenology, and a range of other activities that Charpak and Broch refer to collectively as pseudoscience.

Much of the book is given over to discussions of how practitioners of this pseudoscience convince others that they are legitimate. They focus on ambiguity, illusion, and psychology in convincing others of their authenticity. The so-called “well effect,” essentially preparing astrological fortunes so general and obtuse that they apply to virtually anyone at any time, offers a powerful force for believers. Sometimes it is nothing more than a trick played on those coming to hear of the paranormal and the authors offer several detailed examples of how one can succeed at these. I can hardly wait to carry out the ESP scam explained in the early pages of the book.

Most of this is relatively harmless; but some is deeply troubling. Following the dictates of a charlatan who convinces some true believers to do as he wishes has long been the stuff of pseudo-religion. Some choosing to believe pseudoscientific ideas—think Lysenkism, global warming denial, or a host of other current problems in the scientific world—could spell catastrophe. Charpak and Broch see democracy imperiled in such instances. They write: “we are witnessing a mystification of knowledge, which results in a concept of the world in which many things are forever outside the understanding—and the control—of most people. This odd idea implies a stratification of society into two groups: an upper level consisting of the powerful, who know and do everything, and, far beneath them, those who wonder, admire, and follow without understanding. Ultimately, this leads to a complacent fatalism and the loss of individual responsibility” (pp. 121-22).

This dumbing down of society is a major problem for us all; critical thinking and skeptical inquiry are the only sure measures for a positive future. Nothing points this up more than this particular exchange in the pseudoscience realm. In 2009 a radio talk show host, Rob McConnell, declared that listeners to his show, “The X Zone,” responded to two questions: “Do you believe in ghosts, and did American astronauts really walk on the Moon.” The results are astounding because 77 percent of respondents said yes to belief in ghosts and 93 percent said that they did not believe that the Moon landings had actually occurred. As Seth Shostak from the SETI Institute stated about this: “The respondents believe in ghosts, but do not think NASA put people on the moon. On the one hand, you have uncorroborated testimony about noises in the attic. On the other, you have a decade of effort by tens of thousands of engineers and scientists, endless rocket hardware, thousands of photos, and 378 kilograms (840 pounds) of moon rock.” I am befuddled by these types of responses to modern issues in science.

So are Charpak and Broch. This is an enjoyable and enlightening book. Enjoy!

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