This week’s annoyances


It’s Friday afternoon, and I’m going to point out just a few items in space news that annoyed me this week. (Do NOT ask about the presidential campaign….)

The U.S. Air Force reported August 16 on the failure of its supersonic-combustion-ramjet (scramjet)-powered X-51A flight test, without calling it a “failure” or “failed.”

The experimental X-51A Waverider is an unmanned, autonomous supersonic combustion ramjet-powered hypersonic flight test demonstrator for the USAF.

The USAF’s news release, titled “X-51A flight ends prematurely,” stated that the Waverider “successfully launched from a B-52 Stratofortress over Point Mugu Naval Air Warfare Center Sea Range…. The X-51A safely separated from the B-52,” and “the rocket booster fired as planned.” After that, nothing worked.

According to Reuters, the X-51A crashed just seconds into its test flight. Reuters noted that details of the X-51A program, whose goal is “to get missiles anywhere in an hour are classified and its cost is “undisclosed.”

“It is unfortunate that a problem with this subsystem caused a termination before we could light the scramjet engine,” said Charlie Brink, X-51A program manager for Air Force Research Laboratory.

According to the USAF, the cost of the X-51A is “unavailable.” According to Reuters, its cost is “undisclosed.” According to Newsday,The Pentagon said it has spent as much as $2 billion over the last 10 years on hypersonic technologies and supporting engineering. The Pentagon is funding six major hypersonic technology programs…. The [X-51A] program cost an estimated $140 million, according to”

Why can’t we call a failure a failure and move on? And why is the cost of this program classified?


Next up: results of the National Science Foundation’s astronomy portfolio review, “Advancing Astronomy in the Coming Decade: Opportunities and Challenges,” released this month, including a recommendation to discontinue funding for the Green Bank Telescope (GBT) and the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) by FY 2017.

The GBT and the VLBA are facilities of the NSF’s National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO – which is a collection of facilities, not a place). The NRAO is operated by Associated Universities Inc. (AUI) under cooperative agreement. (Please do not ask me to explain the complicated arrangement.) The NRAO and AUI immediately criticized the review committee’s recommendation: “optimizing the United States’ astronomy portfolio should involve considerations beyond just the question of what can be cut from a particular funding agency’s budget to make room for something new in that same agency’s budget.”

The NSF review committee notes in its report, “Every field of research has ambitions beyond its current means, but [astronomy] faces particularly difficult choices in charting a course toward the science goals of NWNH [New Worlds, New Horizons, the National Academy of Sciences’ latest decadal review of astronomy and astrophysics] and V&V [Visions and Voyages, the Academy’s latest decadal review of planetary exploration] within the budgets expected this decade.”

Readers may recall that Visions and Voyages recommended NASA’s top priority planetary exploration in the next decade should be a Mars sample return (MSR) mission. NASA’s response to this recommendation was to say that MSR was unaffordable and not an option.

Back to the NSF’s astronomy review – I offer this long quote because it’s well stated:

“This Portfolio Review Committee was convened to recommend [NSF astronomy] portfolios best suited to achieving the decadal survey goals under two budget scenarios: (A) [the NSF astronomy division’s] purchasing power drops to 90% of FY11 levels, then rises to 106% of FY11 by FY22, and (B) [its] purchasing power drops to 80% of FY11 levels by mid-decade, and remains flat through FY22. By FY22, the projected AST budget is only 65% in Scenario A and 50% in Scenario B of the budget NWNH assumed in recommending an AST portfolio. Indeed the AST budget is already $45M short of NWNH projections for FY12. This presents a considerable challenge in implementing the strong NWNH recommendations for both new facilities and for maintaining the strength of the grants programs. AST must find the proper balance between current facilities and new endeavors, between large projects and small grants, and between risk and reward. It must continue to invest in the training of a highly skilled and creative workforce. Our recommendations are based on the science goals and program recommendations of NWNH and V&V.”

It seems that, even if scientists can see that aspirations for space science and exploration exceed available government funding now and in the foreseeable future, they tend to go blind when it comes to their own projects.

Finally – may I ask why the aerospace-industrial complex (still) insists on calling its air-and-space-ships “she”s? The whole archetypal female-as-vessel (thus, vessel as “she”) thing bugs me. It’s waaay archaic.

This month, while the media spotlight has been shining on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and its Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) team (not all, but predominantly, male), I heard several men – some of whom are decades younger than I am – talk about MSL/Curiosity as a “she” or a “her.” In a message to NASA employees this week, Associate Administrator for Space Science John Grunsfeld followed the custom: “On her tortuous journey to Mars, the Curiosity rover had to withstand the rigors of flight….  Now that she is safely on the surface, our attention turns to our next mission….”

Yuck. This affectation makes the super-duper-highest-of-high-tech planetary rover sound like a fluffy puppy.

According to the Naval Historical Center, “It has always been customary to personify certain inanimate objects and attribute to them characteristics peculiar to living creatures. Thus, things without life are often spoken of as having a sex. Some objects are regarded as masculine. The sun, winter, and death are often personified in this way. Others are regarded as feminine, especially those things that are dear to us. The earth as mother Earth is regarded as the common maternal parent of all life. In languages that use gender for common nouns, boats, ships, and other vehicles almost invariably use a feminine form. Likewise, early seafarers spoke of their ships in the feminine gender for the close dependence they had on their ships for life and sustenance.”

Is this custom something we want to be perpetuating? Not I.

Let me be clear: I am NOT recommending that we think about spacecraft as “he”s. Contrary to the questionable assessment of the Supreme Court, corporations are not people. And of course machines – ships, aircraft and spacecraft, and planetary rovers – are not people. These “things” don’t have sexes or genders. Let’s get with the 21st century program….


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