Tag: nasa

Spinning Global Sea Ice

NASA takes the (frozen) cake with this one.

It just released a report on global sea ice coverage that opens with the following sentence:

Sea ice increases in Antarctica do not make up for the accelerated Arctic sea ice loss of the last decades, a new NASA study finds.

NASA continued:

Furthermore, the global ice decrease has accelerated: in the first half of the record (1979-96), the sea ice loss was about 8,300 square miles (21,500 square kilometers) per year. This rate more than doubled for the second half of the period (1996 to 2013), when there was an average loss of 19,500 square miles (50,500 square kilometers) per year – an average yearly loss larger than the states of Vermont and New Hampshire combined.

Could have fooled us!

Figure 1 shows the sea ice coverage (anomalies) measured by satellite, as reported today by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s website Cryosphere Today for the period since 1979 for the Arctic (left panel) and Antarctic (right panel). There has been an overall decline in Northern Hemisphere sea ice and a contemporaneous increase in Southern Hemisphere sea ice. It is also worth noting that the decline in Northern Hemisphere ice stopped about eight years ago, even as the within-year variability has gotten larger (perhaps because of thinning at the margins).


Figure 1. (left) Northern Hemisphere sea ice area anomalies (million square kilometers) from 1979 to present. (right) same for Southern (image source: Cryosphere Today).

Put them together and what do you get?  See Figure 2—the global sea ice history from 1979 through early 2015. The blow-up shows the last 10 years.


Figure 2. Global sea ice area anomalies (red line, million square kilometers) from 1979 to present. The insert shows the data since 2006 (image source: Cryosphere Today).

With the data available to us (and what NASA used, too), let’s check the veracity of NASA’s claims.

Is it true that increases around Antarctica don’t compensate for Arctic decreases? Nope.

The global ice anomaly (Figure 2) for the past two years has remained very close to the 30-yr (1979-2008) average.  This has happened because the increases around Antarctica have completely made up for the losses in the Arctic.

Is the loss of global sea-ice accelerating? Again, nope.

Look at the inset in Figure 2. It represents the second half of the period that NASA has offered to support its acceleration conclusion. Since 2006 (the past 9 years), global sea ice has increased.

How on earth can an extended period of increase be used as support for an accelerating decrease?!

Growing Prosperity and Knowledge Aid Space Exploration

There has never been a better time to be alive on this planet. While many measures of wellbeing are already on a positive trajectory, humanity’s innate curiosity and enterprising spirit continue to push many individuals to seek the stars. The Rosetta mission’s successful comet landing was just the latest development. Privately-funded initiatives, such as SpaceX and Mars One, are taking the lead on a bolder project: a mission to Mars. Greater availability of knowledge and resources is enabling ever-more ambitious space exploration.

Successful space exploration requires expertise. Today, more people pursue advanced degrees globally, many of them in critical fields like physics, math, computer science, geology, and engineering. Furthermore, scientific knowledge compounds over time, and so each generation understands more than the last.

With a higher quantity and quality of scientists, mathematicians, and engineers than at any point in history, humankind is better equipped than ever to tackle the complex challenges of extraterrestrial travel.

Space exploration also requires a tremendous investment of resources. Throughout most of history, even if humankind had possessed the technical knowledge for space travel, scarcity would have prohibited the endeavor. Fortunately, wealth and prosperity are rising rapidly while poverty is in decline. Increasing abundance makes it possible to take on previously unthinkable projects like space exploration. 

Increasing abundance and scientific advancement are expanding humanity’s capacity to pursue ambitious undertakings. Not only has there never been a better time to be alive on this planet, but, thanks to growing prosperity and knowledge, there has also never been a better time to attempt exploration beyond Earth.  


Lobbying the Taxpayers — with Taxpayers’ Money

Some people say innovation is dead in America, but NASA is always looking for innovative ways to extract more money from the taxpayers. The Wall Street Journal reports on some of their innovations in using our tax dollars to persuade us to give them even more of those tax dollars:

In William Forstchen’s new science fiction novel, “Pillar to the Sky,” there are no evil cyborgs, alien invasions or time travel calamities. The threat to humanity is far more pedestrian: tightfisted bureaucrats who have slashed NASA’s budget.

The novel is the first in a new series of “NASA-Inspired Works of Fiction,” which grew out of a collaboration between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and science fiction publisher Tor. The partnership pairs up novelists with NASA scientists and engineers, who help writers develop scientifically plausible story lines and spot-check manuscripts for technical errors.

The plot of Mr. Forstchen’s novel hinges on a multibillion-dollar effort to build a 23,000-mile-high space elevator—a quest threatened by budget cuts and stingy congressmen….

It isn’t the first time NASA has ventured into pop culture. NASA has commissioned art work celebrating its accomplishments from luminaries like Norman Rockwell and Andy Warhol. …

Some see NASA’s involvement in movies, music and books as an attempt to subtly shape public opinion about its programs.

“Getting a message across embedded in a narrative rather than as an overt ad or press release is a subtle way of trying to influence people’s minds,” says Charles Seife, author of “Decoding the Universe,” who has written about NASA’s efforts to rebrand itself. “It makes me worry about propaganda.”

Lobbying with taxpayers’ money isn’t new. But as Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty: “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical.” To compel him to furnish contributions of money to petition his elected officials to demand more contributions from him just adds insult to injury.

Interplanetary Greatness Conservatism

My Washington Examiner column this week is on the final flight of the Space Shuttle, and what looks to be the withering away of the manned space program. In 2004, President Bush announced plans for a moonbase and an eventual Mars mission. But last year President Obama effectively cancelled the moonbase, and has exhibited little desire to liberate Mars. That’s good news, I argue:

“We are retiring the shuttle in favor of nothing,” Michael Griffin, Bush’s NASA administrator, wailed to the Washington Post recently.

Here, as usual, “nothing” gets a bad rap. I’ll be “in favor of nothing” until the advocates of federally funded spaceflight can come up with an argument for it that doesn’t make me spray coffee out my nose.

NASA’s Griffin failed that test in 2005, when he gave an interview to the Washington Post insisting it was essential that “Western values” accompany those who eventually “colonize the solar system,” because “we know the kind of society we would get if you, for example, carry Soviet values. That means you want a gulag on Mars. Is that what you’re looking for?”

Well … is it, punk?

When you strip away the few half-hearted “practical” arguments space partisans offer (it turns out that the space program didn’t even give us TANG, by the way) you’re mostly left with sentimental piffle. Listening to some of them, I’m half-tempted to mount a First Amendment challenge to the space program as an unconstitutional establishment of religion.

A 2008 report from MIT on “The Future of Human Spaceflight” argued that federal funding was justified as a means to promote “an expansion of human experience, bringing people into new places, situations and environments, expanding and redefining what it means to be human.” Those are *scientists* making that argument. But if your best explanation for why spaceflight is a public good gets into “sweet mystery of life” territory, then maybe you don’t have a very good argument for public funding.

Unfortunately, President Obama didn’t actually kill funding for human spaceflight. We’re now embarked on a public-private partnership, with NASA dollars flowing to companies like Space X. In fact, Obama has publicly pledged to seek slight increases in NASA’s budget.

But whether it’s done via a “government-business partnership” or not, there’s no reason we should be funding manned space exploration at all.

This is another thing President Eisenhower got right, incidentally:

he “would not be willing,” he said, “to spend tax money to send a man around the moon … There is such a thing as common sense,” he said, “even in research.” A moon project would be just “a stunt.”

But, since federally funded human spaceflight is a massive, “heroic,” allegedly inspiring but ultimately senseless government crusade, it’s no surprise, I guess, that neoconservatives love it. And nobody loves it more than Charles Krauthammer. Here he is in 2007, waxing rhapsodic about “the music of the spheres.”:

You should feel something when our little species succeeds in establishing new life in a void that for all eternity had been the province of the gods. If you don’t feel that, you are—don’t take this personally—deaf to the music of our time.

Look up, Krauthammer urged spacefans in 2009, after it had become clear that Barack Obama lacked “Kennedy’s enthusiasm” to boldly go, etc. “That is the moon,” Krauthammer declared, and “for the first time in history,” it had become “a nightly rebuke.” This is the burden of the Interplanetary Greatness Conservative: the moon—the very moon!—mocks you.

Personally, I’m deaf to “the music of the spheres.” But I’m all for the efforts of private entrepreneurs who can hear it. If people want to advance space exploration on their own dime and at their own risk, more power to them. And the government should neither help nor hinder them.

Thomas Stays the Course, Scalia Returns to the Fold

A bit lost in last week’s legal news regarding a majority of states now suing over Obamacare, the House voting to repeal Obamacare, and the anniversary of Citizens United, was the first interesting Supreme Court decision of the term.  Most notably, Justices Scalia and Thomas continued their valiant struggle to limit the scope of the constitutional misnomer that is “substantive due process” doctrine.

The case was NASA v. Nelson, a suit challenging the background checks for perspective NASA contractors as violating an evanescent constitutional right to informational privacy. The Court ruled unanimously against the challengers, with Justice Alito writing for the majority that, regardless whether such a right exists, it was not violated by the government’s probing questions on sexual history and mental health.

Justices Scalia and Thomas rightly found problems with this essentially useless ruling. Scalia, joined by Thomas, concurred in the result but wrote separately to say that if a right doesn’t exist then the Court should just say so.  He would have simply held that there is no constitutional right to “informational privacy”:

I must observe a remarkable and telling fact about this case, unique in my tenure on this Court: Respondents’ brief, in arguing that the Federal Government violated the Constitution, does not once identify which provision of the Constitution that might be. The Table of Authorities contains citations of cases from federal and state courts, federal and state statutes, Rules of Evidence from four states, two Executive Orders, a House Report, and even more exotic sources of law….  And yet it contains not a single citation of the sole document we are called upon to construe: the Constitution of the United States….  To tell the truth, I found this approach refreshingly honest. One who asks us to invent a constitutional right out of whole cloth should spare himself and us the pretense of tying it to some words of the Constitution.

In the course of his typically entertaining opinion we see Scalia back to his old self, caustically lambasting the “infinitely plastic concept of ‘substantive’ due process” and suggesting that it is “past time for the Court to abandon this Alfred Hitchcock line of our jurisprudence.”

Indeed, the seemingly oxymoronic concept of substantive due process has received much attention as of late, particularly in last term’s groundbreaking case of McDonald v. Chicago. McDonald, remember, examined whether the individual Second Amendment right articulated in District of Columbia v. Heller applied to the states.  I previously blogged about McDonald here and here, for example.

McDonald came out the right way but for the wrong reasons.  Rather than enforcing the right to keep and bear arms against the states via the Privileges or Immunities Clause, as nearly all constitutional scholars of every ideological stripe contend should be the case, the Court chose to invoke substantive due process.  Even Scalia agreed with this perversion, because apparently 140 years of bad precedent overrides originalism or whatever other interpretive theory he claims to support.  

Justice Thomas, on the other hand, agreed with the principled approach favored by most scholars (and Cato’s own amicus brief) and wrote separately to advocate overruling the Slaughter-House Cases and reinvigorate the Privileges or Immunities Clause.  Curiously, Justice Thomas couldn’t resist filing a separate one-paragraph concurrence in Nelson, seemingly for the sole purpose of citing—and reminding Justice Scalia of—his McDonald concurrence.

After all, Scalia is often regarded as the font of originalism.  In reality, he has proven himself to be an originalist of convenience, accepting corrupt interpretations when the mood strikes him.  During oral arguments in McDonald, for example, Scalia mocked attorney Alan Gura for daring to make an originalist argument that would overturn an old precedent.  Why challenge the substantive due process doctrine, wondered Scalia, when “even I have acquiesced to it?”

Scalia’s faint-hearted originalism does a disservice to that jurisprudential method.  With his acerbic wit, infectious personality, and unrivaled rhetorical skills, Scalia has become the poster-boy for originalism.  In response, the academic elite—who overwhelmingly reject originalism—focus on every Scalia opinion, hoping to catch a glimpse of the true justice who uses originalism to hide decisions often based largely on policy preferences.

Indeed, given Scalia’s pointed and insightful prose, there is always an opportunity to hoist him by his own petard.  In McDonald, for example, it was Scalia who, to use his own Nelson lines, “invoked the infinitely plastic concept of ‘substantive’ due process,” which of course “does not make this constitutional theory any less invented.”  For more on this, see “Judicial Takings and Scalia’s Shifting Sands,” the law review article I recently published with my colleague Trevor Burrus—in which we criticize Scalia’s conflicting views on constitutional fidelity in two cases from last term, McDonald and Stop the Beach Renourishment.

Recall that originalism involves a jurist’s resisting personal biases by trying to maintain fidelity to the very document that gives him his job.  This highly textualist approach is what makes Justice Thomas arguably the most predictable justice in the history of the Court.  And in the law, predictability is a good thing.  Underscoring this point is the concern about Justice Scalia’s vote in the Obamacare litigation—because of his concurring opinion in the medicinal marijuana case of Gonzales v. Raich—while Justice Thomas’s vote is assumed to be in hand.  (Precisely because Scalia is somewhat outcome-oriented, however, I personally don’t share that concern.)

I just hope that going forward, Justice Scalia will have the same thing for breakfast that he did the morning NASA v. Nelson came down.

H/t to my sometimes collaborator Josh Blackman; head over to his spectacular blog to read more extensive analysis.  And thanks to Trevor Burrus for his help with this post.

This Week in Government Failure

Over at Downsizing Government, we focused on the following issues this week:

Obama Budget Still Goes to the Moon

The president’s new budget proposes to end NASA’s Constellation program, a Bush initiative intended to put humans back on the moon by 2020. But Obama’s $3.8 trillion budget still goes to the moon figuratively — if you stacked 3.8 trillion $1 bills, the pile would reach the moon with 20,000 miles to spare!

The president’s proposal to end the Constellation isn’t sitting well with those members of Congress who enjoy large NASA spending in their districts. From the Washington Post:

“The president’s proposed NASA budget begins the death march for the future of U.S. human spaceflight,” Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) said Monday. “If this budget is enacted, NASA will no longer be an agency of innovation and hard science. It will be the agency of pipe dreams and fairy tales.”

Rep. Pete Olson (R-Tex.) said, “This is a crippling blow to America’s human spaceflight program.”

Senator Shelby and Rep. Olson exaggerate –- the proposal would only end government human spaceflight to the moon. Private entrepreneurs are likely to continue pushing into space, especially if we reduce the regulatory and tax burdens.

The administration noted that the Constellation program was “over budget [and] behind schedule,” and that an independent review panel considered it “the least attractive approach to space exploration as compared to potential alternatives.” But this underscores an inherent flaw with a government operating with no legal or constitutional constraints on spending: Congress is generally more concerned with buying special interest support than national need.

While I give kudos to the Obama administration for proposing to end Constellation, they made the wrong decision by not putting the proceeds toward reducing the deficit. Instead, they are proposing that NASA receive a funding increase. A new GAO report on poor acquisition management at NASA, which has been on the GAO’s “high risk” list since 1990, shows why the budget increase is unwarranted.

From the GAO:

However, 9 of the 10 projects that have been in the implementation phase for several years experienced cost growth ranging from 8 to 68 percent, and launch delays of 8 to 33 months, in the past 3 years. These 10 projects had average development cost growth of almost $121.1 million—or 18.7 percent—and schedule growth of 15 months, and a total increase in development cost of over $1.2 billion, with over half of this total—or $706.6 million—occurring in the last year.

See this essay for more on cost overruns in government programs.