Sunday, January 15, 2006

Reach for the stars

NASA have been in the news today. For someone who worries about the influence of the the military-industrial complex*, there's a lot to dislike about NASA. Some people will no doubt be shocked that I've raised that leftie conspiracy theory nonsense. The military-industrial complex? Grow up man. That's a boogieman invented by that famous wishy-washy-liberal-leftie peacenik and, er, former Rebublican president, General Dwight D. Eisenhower...
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.
- General Eisenhower 1961
Yes, anyway, NASA. It is fully connected to the MIC. You might hear mention of Lockheed Martin, the largest defence contractor in the US and therefore, the largest in the world, in today's coverage. As they themselves say, "Lockheed Martin supports virtually every NASA mission that leaves planet Earth, including those that explore deep space and other planets in our solar system".

NASA will be the primary means by which space becomes militarised, should the US government choose to continue down that path. It seems clear such a decision would be a breach, in spirit and potentially also materially (depending on the weapons used), of the Outer Space Treaty.The US government has ratified this treaty and is theoretically bound by its terms. In reality, that's unlikely to limit the actions of the current US administration who seem to feel that international agreements are a great idea for other countries.

According to reports, Donald Rumsfeld is a key player in this new urge towards militarising space. There's a line from Lester Lyles (Commander, Air Force Material Command) in that report which unintentionally asks the salient question:
We cannot afford to loose [sic] this battle of technological dominance, and we will not loose [sic] that battle.
Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!

But just who are they fighting this battle for technological dominance with, exactly? The Russians? The Chinese? The ESA? The possibility that the US could lose this battle for technological dominance is, let's be kind, unlikely to happen in the short to medium term.

And the money? NASA has a budget of $16.4 billion for 2006. That's a lot of money.

So there a lot to dislike about NASA for someone with my political outlook. With that in mind, I can only say that today's successful mission was, like, totally cool.
"We travelled about three billion miles in space, we visited a comet, grabbed a piece of it and it landed here on Earth this morning," Dr Don Brownlee, Stardust principal investigator, told reporters at a news briefing in Utah.
Seriously, credit where it's due, that is utterly, amazingly, unbelievably cool. I wanna be an astronaut.

* This is a favourite story from my time at university and I have no found reason to disbelieve the tutor since he related it to us in 1996. In a small tutorial, we were dicussing the pervasive nature of the MIC in the US (it exists in the UK too mind). The tutor had spoken at a conference on the Cold War in the US during the Reagan years. He had shared a platform with one of the top brass from the Pentagon who was to present the US military's judgement of Soviet military capabilities to the conference. The General was sitting next to the tutor on the platform when he pulled some papers from his attache case. He glanced at them, then quickly put them back in his case. Without apparently realising that the man sitting next to him was a respected British academic, he said "Jesus, those were the real figures, can't have this lot hearing those". He then retrieved the correct papers from his case, with suitably inflated judgements, and delivered his speech.

For someone with a leftie streak, it's sometimes difficult to accept that civil servants could deliberately exaggerate the needs of their department in order to persuade government to increase their budgets. It's particularly hard to ignore in the US military though, perhaps because they genuinely believe they need to do it more than most other government departments - "You want answers?" "I want the truth!" "You can't handle the truth!" Never quite understood why so many "right-wingers" in the US don't seem to be able to see it. Small government, big military? Doublethink, Orwell, etc, etc...

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