Saturday, June 05, 2010

Another Odd Political Inversion, Explained

One of the potential space shuttle replacements, SpaceX's Falcon 9, successfully completed its first major test flight on Friday. You'll recall that SpaceX is one of several companies vying for lucrative government contracts literally to do the "heavy lifting" for the space program, including supplying the International Space Station.

There have been a lot of vocal opinions on the decision to privatize the single most critical aspect of NASA's operations, with luminaries no less than Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin coming down with equal passion on opposite sides of the issue. This latest milestone on the road to privatized spacefaring, however, brings with it a slew of politicians weighing in on the policy as it goes forward.

And here's the weird thing: Republicans hate it, and Democrats love it.

And this is totally backwards.

Republicans are for small government, right? They hate the NSF, the NEA, and all those other government programs that waste taxpayer money on things better handled by the market, right? So why would they be in favor of continued government involvement in a program as notoriously overrun by cost as NASA, especially when the market is showing that it's ready to step up with potential solutions? And Democrats, conversely, would seem to want the government to be in control of something as important as human space exploration.

And this inversion has bugged me ever since the story hit, but I think I've figured it out.

Republicans support NASA out of Cold War defense-spending mentality, and never mind that the really cool military space stuff (like the X-37B) is being done directly under military auspices now. The same knee-jerk reaction that gets DARPA and Pentagon projects effectively infinite funding leads the Republicans by and large to support continued government sponsorship of NASA.

Democrats, on the other hand, have always thought that NASA is a giant waste of money that could be spent on social infrastructure, and that makes supporting privatization a win-win scenario. Either free market ideology will pan out and the government will get a decent space program at less cost, or the whole thing will be an abysmal failure and a Democratic government can quietly eviscerate or altogether ditch the space program.

Stupid schizoid politics.

EDIT: Here's an article I found on other contenders for privatizing space travel.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Proof Glenn Beck is a Nine-Year-Old

Found here, and so help me, I thought it was funny too.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Space Exploration Tidbit

Just caught a story about the Japanese Hayabasu asteroid mission. It's just headed home from a near-Earth asteroid named Itokawa, where it may or may not have gotten a sample. Two interesting things about this story.

First, Hayabasu's chemical engines leaked out, losing absolutely all of its fuel. Luckily, the Japanese outfitted the Hayabasu craft with shiny new ion thrusters. Mostly used for low energy adjustments of Earth-orbit satellites' trajectories, this is only the second time an ion engine has been used by a craft exploring further out into the solar system, and the first time it's ever brought anything back. Way cool.

But even more intriguing is the fact that mission control doesn't know whether Hayabusa got the asteroid sample they were after. They know that it landed on the asteroid twice, and they think they know that the sample collection apparatus (a hunk of metal fired into the asteroid to kick up debris) didn't activate as planned. But waitaminute--

Shouldn't they be able to calculate how much mass the craft has picked up by measuring the change in thrust required to move it? If the satellite managed to grab anything at all, it would take the engines longer to accelerate the craft, especially if they're using weaker ion thrusters.

Simple Newtonian physics, right? F=MA. Presumably the force from the ion thrusters remains constant when the craft initiates a burn, so if you know the acceleration you can derive the mass.

Compare the mass on the return trip with the mass on the trip out and you can deduce whether you have any extra mass, which would presumably be a sample.

Any word on whether this has been done? Can't find it anywhere in the news stories.

EDIT: A little more research on the Hayabusa page on Wikipedia reveals that all Hayabusa was intended to collect was asteroid dust. It's possible the mass of such a tiny sample is negligible compared to the mass of the craft itself and thus doesn't factor into navigational calculations. The Apollo astronauts rode orbits calculated with only three digits of pi, so maybe interplanetary navigation isn't as precise as I'd assumed.