Victory in Sight?

I certainly hope so.  This story from the Washington Post is encouraging. But it’s not like the CIA has a real great track record of predicting significant events, so let’s hold off on party plans for now.

A common memory from 9/11 is that everyone knew it was terrorism after the second plane hit. Being a former (not “ex”) Marine and military school grad, you can imagine that I follow defense matters pretty closely. It was crystal clear that not only were we at war, but it was almost certainly al Qaeda. And that meant we would be in Afghanistan soon.

It also seemed clear that achieving victory against such a thoroughly depraved enemy would require us to go places we never dreamed of. To do things we never thought we’d do. Our enemy, not being a stand-up army, meant we were going to have get really down and dirty.

They had to come to fear us more than death. How do you do that when they welcome death? We had to change their “hierarchy of needs”, so to speak. If waterboarding three captured AQ big-shots is the worst thing we had to do, then frankly I’m pleasantly surprised. Asymmetrical warfare puts us in the slop, with the pigs, because you can’t defeat people like that by punching in your own weight class. They’re not impressed by Patriot missile batteries or nuclear attack subs.

But you can bet Special Ops forces kicking down their door gets their attention. Can’t do that without knowing which door to kick down, which means you have to have really good human intel. Which takes us back to the pigs-in-the-slop analogy. It’s an ugly business, but necessary. The FBI didn’t bag John Gotti by infiltrating the local boy’s choir. They went where the bad guys were.

I can understand strong differences of opinion about our later excursion into Iraq, but am stunned that there are still people who refuse to understand how completely justified we were in going to the ‘Stan and rooting those people out. Here’s hoping we can bring our guys home soon after a job well done.

Semper Fi.

Missing That New-Book Smell

I’ve had a lot to say here about the Brave New World of e-publishing, but there’s so much about good old-fashioned bookstores to love.

This story from the Wall Street Journal nailed something I couldn’t put my finger on. It’s not just the joy of wandering through a great store, it’s the memories from somewhere unexpected. Somewhere other than your local B&N.

A lot of my recent favorites seem to have come from Seattle. Much of my education in the puny little slice of engineering that I’m qualified for came from Boeing, which meant a lot of time spent in the great Northwest. Weeks at a time away from home meant a lot of time roaming the local bookstores (and there’s a lot of those cool funky independent-sellers out there). When I was finally able to bring my wife with me a couple of years ago, what do you think happened? Sure enough, I found a couple of gems in a little place on Bainbridge island.

As much as the e-book world has opened up exciting new opportunities, I’m going to miss that. I fear it’s going the way of the Dodo.

P.S. Props to my favorite local “funky independent”, The Book Loft. We used to go there all the time, before kids happened.

(Hat Tip: The Passive Voice)

A Sure Sign of the Apocalypse

…is when South Park episodes become reality. Also when smarty-pants eggheads with more education than sense think it’d be a great idea to create   human/animal hybrids.

I mean, what could possibly go wrong?

Now, it’s important to take every single news story you read with a grain of salt. In this case, it may be worth using the whole shaker. There surely must be some finely-reasoned nuance they glossed over that would justify this epic weirdness. Or not. The news media ignore important contextual details all the time. But in this case, it’s really hard to get my head around any possible explanation besides “we could pull this off if only we could talk the government out of enough grant money”.

Let’s all repeat a useful cliche: don’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out.

Guns Don’t Kill People…

BB guns do. Unimaginably tragic.

If you’re considering BB guns for your kids, keep in mind that some of the models you’re likely to find at Wally World are capable of muzzle velocities that are close to a .22 long. They’re easy to find: they’re the really cool rifles your kids are likely to want the most.

Hat tip: The Truth About Guns, a great site for firearms fans who don’t care for the NRA’s Koolaid.

The Jet Set

So, El Presidente has decided it’s time to pile on those vile corporate jet owners.

Yawn. Not like it’s the first time or something.

I have a personal interest in this, being a well-heeled corporate jet owner middle-class slob who happens to work in the airplane business.

So what if a few millionaires don’t get a tax deduction for their fancy private jets? It’s just another loophole they shouldn’t have anyway. Big fat hairy deal, right?


First of all, it’s not really a loophole any more than your mortgage interest deduction is a loophole. All it does is let bizjet buyers deduct the airplane’s loss in value sooner rather than later. It takes a bit of the sting out of laying down that kind of money. And believe me, bizjets have been depreciating at quite a clip lately.

Secondly, the revenue would amount to next to nothing. Chicken feed. Square-root of a donut hole. There are probably rounding errors in this year’s budget that amount to more money.

But it does allow El Presidente to paint all rich people as Scrooge McDuck or the Monopoly guy. Which is what he really wants — facts don’t matter when it’s so much easier to argue from emotion. And he’s counting on that working for most people. Hey, it got him elected so why not?

Color me unimpressed. If you’re interested in truth, here are some nuggets for your noggin:

Mr. Monopoly Guy decides he wants and/or needs a corporate jet for his business and/or personal use. Call it 50/50 (though most really are used for business…and if they’re not, so what? It’s not your money).

Obviously, somebody has to build the jet. That means jobs in Wichita, Savannah, or any number of other places. These are engineers, machinists, aircraft mechanics…highly skilled people in generally good-paying jobs.

He’s also got to hire at least a couple of pilots to fly the thing. That’s two more jobs.

Oh, and these things usually don’t come out of the factory ready to fly. Paint and interior often involves hiring another vendor. More jobs.

Even a brand-new jet requires maintenance, including annual inspections which can get quite expensive. That means he’s either got to hire his own staff or farm it out to yet another vendor. Either way, somebody’s getting paid to work that bird on a regular basis.

The jet needs fuel to go anywhere, and Jet-A ain’t cheap. Who’s gonna pump it? A whole network of airplane service stations called FBO’s (Fixed Base Operators), that’s who. And they employ large staffs of people, all over the country, who are there to take care of Mr. Monopoly Guy’s airplane wherever it may end up.

Suppose he wants to take the jet to Europe? Leaving the country is kind of a big deal and requires a lot of prior coordination with multiple agencies, which is typically not left up to the pilots. Like FBO’s, there are specialized companies full of highly-skilled people who do that stuff for a living.

All of these people get paid, in real money, and use it however they see fit. Just like Mr. Monopoly Guy, albeit on a smaller scale. Maybe Joe Mechanic buys a jetski instead of a bizjet. But take away their customers, and that’s a lot of people out of work who could’ve been spending their income on other pursuits. Trickle-down is real, and that’s how it works.

But these guys are loaded, right? They don’t really care if they lose a few hundred grand in tax deductions…maybe. Changing the rules in the middle of the game tends to make people spend cautiously.

This goes beyond just owners of fancy airplanes, it affects just about any other business endeavor where people choose to spend money. That means all of ’em.

Let’s examine El Presidente’s other strawman example, “best-selling authors”. I also take this one personally, only because I aspire to become one.

Unless your name is Clancy or Rowling and you’ve become your own franchise, here’s how writers make money: after months of sweating blood over your Great American Novel, your agent finally sells it to a publisher. That publisher pays an advance, which is payment against expected sales. If they’re confident it’ll sell big, your advance may be well into six figures (not usually the case, but I can dream).

That advance may be the only money the author ever sees (unless he does the indie e-book thing and keeps 70% of the monthly gross – yay Amazon!). If the book ends up selling more than what the advance was worth, only then will the author begin getting royalty payments. That can easily take over a year, so you’d better make that advance last a while.

So “rich” varies. A funny thing about rich people is they often have irregular incomes, so if they’re smart, they’re quite careful in how they allocate it. Actor Biff Studley might make $10 million this year and nothing the next. Same goes for Chas McHarvard, the hedge fund manager. At that level, it’s unpredictable. How else do you think so many celebrities end up flat broke and doing reality shows on VH1?

Nobody was ever offered a job by a poor man. If they were, it probably didn’t last very long.

Some Guys Have ALL the Luck…

Take a walk on the beach, find a 40-year-old chunk of Saturn V, get to climb around inside a Space Shuttle – on the pad, by the way. All in all, I’d say he had a good day or two.

Hopefully the IRS won’t hit him for gift taxes like they did the poor schlub who caught Derek Jeter’s 3000th hit.

UPDATE: Welcome Instapundit and HobbySpace readers! Hope you enjoy the blog, and I welcome any comments on Perigee. I will continue posting chapters from the original draft, but keep in mind that the final version will see major changes.

Call to Action

Related to my last posting…if you have any interest in how NASA manages its affairs, contact your congresscritter.

Besides gutting Commercial Crew Development (CCDev), this would direct the agency to sink even more money down the rathole of Senate Space Launch System, a heavy-lift booster concept from the whiz-kid engineers senators from — ah, never mind. You can guess which states: if it has a NASA center, you’re getting warm. But if they have their way, it will surely end up much like the proverbial horse as designed by committee…and cost about a gazillion times more than whatever BS number they’re throwing out today.

With all the crazy-@$$ spending that DC desperately needs to cut, Commercial Crew is a paltry sum and would help actual businesses in an actual emerging industry. This is much the same concept as government contracts for Air Mail service that kick-started the airline industry in the 1920’s. It’s a safe bet that SpaceX will have human-capable hardware in orbit while Marshall is still trying to figure out how to put five grains of composite propellant into a four grain casing.

Sorry, had to say that for geek cred. Just using “ten pounds of crap into a five pound bag” doesn’t sound steely-eyed-missile-manly enough.

The take-away: ditch SLS, keep CCDev. One will save a lot of money while the other spends far less on something that will return far more. And it’ll get Americans into orbit, on American equipment, much sooner.

The End of the Beginning

First, a hearty Welcome and Thank You for test-driving my blog. I hope it brings you many hours of enjoyment and thought-provocation. But for now, you’ll have to wade through the obligatory first post self-indulgence…

I’m a space geek, which considering the circumstances was probably unavoidable. My grandfather followed the Gemini and Apollo programs pretty closely, and my uncle lived (still does) not far from Cape Canaveral. I remember all of the moon landing missions, and was lucky enough to see a couple launches of the final Saturn boosters. I collected all of the space-program toys that my grandpa could get from the Gulf Oil stations or that could be pried out of  Tang  jars.

So yeah, I’ve been marinating in this stuff since I was a little kid. And now that the last Space Shuttle is in orbit, it’s high time for me to get off my butt and start blogging.

What the heck does that have to do with anything?

Considering everything I just described, when time came to head off for college, what would’ve been the obvious choice of majors?

Well, English, of course. I like writing.

Okay, you can stop laughing now. Mike Collins, Apollo 11 command module pilot, was once quoted as saying “what the space program needs is more English majors”. So there.

But since nobody else in aerospace apparently feels that way, I embarked on a career in boring old plain-jane aviation. Eventually got qualified as an aircraft performance engineer, something of which I am immensely proud. And I kept on writing.

Again, what does this have to do with anything?

I write about aerospace and other things. And that’s where the Space Shuttle comes in…

NASA has turned into a first-class, grade-A boondoggle. A money pit. A place where great ideas go to die in the bottomless well of bureaucracy. The shuttle essentially became a vehicle with no clear destination, meant to service a space station that didn’t exist. So, we set out to build a space station so the shuttles would have somewhere to go. Can you say “circular logic?” I knew you could.

And then there was Columbia. Out of that tragedy, NASA was presented with a golden opportunity to follow a different path. For the first time, it looked like they would take a competitive approach, like the Pentagon does when they want to buy a new fighter. Let the contractors prototype their own designs, hold a fly-off, and Uncle Sugar will decide which one they want to drop money on. Private industry would have a bigger role in transport to low orbit, and NASA would focus on the higher-risk work of developing technologies that would finally get us beyond Earth orbit again.

Until they decided not to anymore. Until they decided on a do-over of Apollo that ended up being unrealistic, unsustainable, and unaffordable. They set up a slow-motion train wreck that has reached its inevitable outcome: our country no longer has its own access to space.

Hopefully that won’t  be for long.

Human spaceflight is uniquely complex and risky. But it does not have to be mind-bogglingly expensive. Right now, there are private individuals who have invested their own fortunes in new vehicles and hardware that have already driven down the price of access to orbit. And they will continue to drive it down and innovate along the way. In the Sixties, getting people up there was sufficiently new enough, with uncertain benefits, that a government program was the only quick way to do it. But after fifty years, launching to and recovering from orbit is now well-enough understood that it’s time to let private enterprise take over. Let SpaceX or Boeing or Blue Origin get our people and stuff up there, and NASA can get back to doing the research necessary to actually go somewhere again.

We’ve not lost our space program. What we’re doing is unleashing a space industry.

And that brings me back to writing.

I’ve finished a novel, Perigee, which explores the new world of private spaceflight and its tension with the old guard at NASA. The first chapter sets up the end of the Shuttle program, but in a markedly different way than what you might have seen on TV the other day. I’ve posted it here on the blog and offer it up for your enjoyment. Perigee‘s first draft is done, but I’m rewriting some elements. This obviously includes chapter one since, well, there ain’t no shuttles no more. Other chapters will be posted if there’s enough interest, and the full novel will be available at Amazon once I’m satisfied with the final product.

Bottom line: I’m sad to see this era pass only because those things were cool. But let’s face it: all they did was literally fly around in circles. It’s time to go somewhere again. And in the meantime, if I can’t participate in it, I can at least write about it.

This blog will be about a lot of other stuff, too. Very few topics will be off-limits, but this is where my head is today.

In the meantime, Glenn Reynolds summed it up quite nicely in the Atlantic some time ago.

UPDATE: blogger and “recovering aerospace engineer” Rand Simberg is always worth reading on this topic. Here’s his take in Popular Mechanics.