Shovel Ready

Please, sir, may we have another?

(CNN) — A NASA satellite crashed back to Earth about three minutes after launch early Tuesday, officials said.

“We could not make orbit,” NASA program manager John Brunschwyler said. “Initial indications are the vehicle did not have enough [force] to reach orbit and landed just short of Antarctica in the ocean.”

“Certainly for the science community, it’s a huge disappointment.”

The $273 million satellite, called the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, would have collected global measurements of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the Earth’s atmosphere to help better forecast changes in carbon-dioxide levels and their effect on the Earth’s climate.

Hard luck for sure. We all need this thing, and the clean coal people need it especially. Look at the bright side: it’s expensive! Plus, all the bureaucratic snags have already been cleared once. It’s shovel ready!

I guess rewarding NASA for this is like sending money to bank managers in gratitude for them destroying the banks, though. Maybe we can outsource the launch vehicle to the French or the Chinese?

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NASA: "A Hopelessly Old-Fashioned View of the Future"

A current Bob Park’s item which I will brazenly quote in its entirety.

In discussing NASA’s future on Tuesday, the NY Times was mesmerized by
the “gap” between the end of the shuttle and the launch of a new bus to
transport astronauts. Forget the damn gap. The 21st Century will be
focused on planets around other suns, and on the bad news about what’s
happening to our own planet. Astronauts can’t go to other stars, but we
can build better telescopes and get a better look at them. Astronauts
will be no help either in studying our own Sun and our own planet, Earth.
We need to finish what we set out to do a decade ago, but were stopped
from doing by the Bush administration: launch an updated Deep Space
Climate Observatory. There is still time, but we urgently need to get
started.

This is point 4 from the Jan 2 ’09 edition which should be visible on Park’s archive page soon. (I get the email version.)

See also, of course, the Triana/GoreSat/DSCOVR fiasco. Desmog has some new allegations about that story, by the way.

 

NASA, DOE, and the Myth of Neutrality

UPDATE: To clarify my point here, US Federal scientific agencies have an aversion to taking positions. SUch aversion is not in line with public desires or expectations, and is ultimately infeasible. A refusal to take a policy position by a public agency on a matter of their specific expertise is equivalent to taking an explicit position that a policy is unnecessary. Saying nothing is not neutral.

Griffin’s blundering into explicitly defending NASA’s silence highlights this problem perfectly. Other agencies, which may demur more gracefully, are nevertheless equally arrayed against solving problems by their excessive reticence.

By now most readers will have heard of NASA administrator Michael Griffin’s gaffes on NPR, for instance:

I’m also aware of recent findings that appear to have nailed down — pretty well nailed down the conclusion that much of [global warming] is manmade. Whether that is a longterm concern or not, I can’t say.

Don’t miss Stephen Colbert’s interesting take on this. It’s fish in a barrel for Colbert, though he did get the fish square between the eyes.

Griffin does not understand that we want more from our professionals than a studied neutrality, but the public doesn’t understand how pervasive his attitude is among the scientists in U.S. federal agencies. The problem is not that Griffin is being bizarre. The problem is that he is being quite typical within his context. Colbert, as usual, isn’t as funny on second thought as he is at first.

Last week I attended a “town hall meeting” conducted by the Department of Energy, on the subject of very large scale computing (“exascale computing”) as applied to energy and environmental simulations (“E3”).

(It is interesting that the meeting is not called E4, exascale for energy, environment and economics, though the fourth “E”, economics, had an important role at the meeting. For now I want to relate my primary frustration with the meeting, where some speakers echoed Griffin’s stance. I’ll have more to say about this whole cluster of concepts in a later posting.)

It was in many respects a great honor to be there, and many of the conversations were far ranging and excellent. The keynote address by Argonne Lab Director Robert Rosner was very much inspiring and to the point of our sustainability issues.

However, subsequent discussion showed a real aversion to actually applying science to inform policy. Specifically, when I suggested at the plenary that we come up with a formal definition of sustainability, and use this to provide a common goal to unify the various efforts being contemplated, this was met with an explicit argument that the policy sector would not like it.

The scientific establishment in the US executive branch is happy to “do science” about this or that policy, but they are adamant that it is not their job to propose or defend a policy. They seem terrified of advancing conversations about energy policy. I wonder what they are so afraid of.

If it is not the Department of Energy’s role to advise the policy sector on complex technical issues regarding energy security, exactly whose job is it?

I hate to bite the hand that feeds me. I have friends in the DOE and at least have some prospect of benefiting from DOE science expenditures. Still, the times are such that DOE (like the other scientific agencies in the executive branch) needs to show some gumption whether they like it or not. It won’t kill them and in the end it will make them stronger and the rest of us safer.

We need experts to recommend policy, not to spend money and leave policy to the politicians. As the world becomes more complicated, the job of the executive branch becomes more technical. To the extent we collectively allow science to duck this responsibility, we assume a very serious risk.

Coming back to Griffin, you will note that he never retracted his opinion. If anything, he tried to reinforce the idea that he had no opinion at all. This is not dissembling. That is not backing down. That is what he was trying to say all along. He is adamantly defending his position that he doesn’t need to have a position and doesn’t have one. The fact that it came across as, hmmm, barking madness, proves that there is no such thing as having no opinion.

What this event should teach us is that scientific agencies cannot possibly operate in some sort of policy-free vacuum. People need expert advice.

Imagine if your doctor said to you “Diagnostically, we are pretty sure you have a serious condition of (let’s say) acute carbonic acid toxicity. We have many volumes of journal articles about your condition, but we’re just scientists. Left untreated this will probably kill you, but since we are value neutral and only interested in facts, it wouldn’t be appropriate for us to suggest whether or not your imminent demise is a good thing. It would certainly be arrogant of us to recommend a treatment.”

Hansen v Griffin; NASA mission

Thanks to Jim Torson, who on the globalchange list points to this interesting report on Hansen’s response to NASA administrator Griffin’s astonishing comments of last week.

This also ties into a “where’s the damned press” meme. Note especially the last three paragraphs from Hansen. Consider whether these results were handled in a manner appropriate to a free society, with respect to not only the responsibilities of the legislative sector but also those of the press.

Tagged “wheres the press”. (Apostrophe left out to help weak search software) Please use this tag on your blogs, or come up with a better name for it.

(PS To my dozens of regular readers: sorry I’ve been away for a while. I have been gathering ammunition for more bloggin’ aplenty though…)