No Pain, No Gain

Tuesday's Opinion Journal had a piece by Ralph Peters on how the fact that we are now seeing more casualties in Afghanistan is a "good" thing.

While at first reading, such a statement sounds appalling, I agree, in the relative sense of the word "good." That the casualties have so far been low has possibly been an indicator that our war strategy has been insufficiently aggressive, and insufficiently...effective. Many of the Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters who have killed some of our troops, and who we are now destroying, escaped from Tora Bora last fall, when we relied on Afghan troops to corral them, rather than putting our own at risk. Tragically, but necessarily, some of our own are dying now so that future others, perhaps in the thousands, or millions, many of them women and children, will live.

Risk-averse strategies can fail in many spheres — not just military campaigns. In the training and fitness industry, there's an old saying (crass though it may sound in the context of dedicated soldiers who will never come home to their families...) of "no pain, no gain."

And any competent financial analyst can describe the indisputable and inevitable relationship between risk and reward. That's why junk bonds pay a much higher interest rate than the debt of blue-chip stocks, or why startup firms offer a potentially much larger rate of return — with the corresponding chance that the entire investment may evaporate.

The same principle applies to research and development. Over the years, particularly since the Challenger disaster, NASA has become risk averse to the point of impotence. They will spend billions of taxpayer dollars in analysis, to avoid an outright and telegenic failure, even if the goal of the program itself is not achieved.

As an example, consider the X-34 program. It was supposed to produce a vehicle that would demonstrate the ability to fly hypersonically, reliably, as a major step on the way to affordable space access. (Unfortunately, NASA insisted that the contractor use an engine developed by NASA, which they later said was never intended to be a usable engine).

After the vehicle was mostly developed (minus the engine that the vehicle had been designed for, per NASA specifications), and NASA had a failure in a Mars mission, the agency decided that X-34 lacked sufficient redundancy and safety to fly. When they got an estimate of how much it would cost to add these (unnecessary) modifications to add the required redundancy, NASA decided instead to cancel the program.

Result? The vehicle never flew.

And the data obtained from it?


All because NASA was unwilling to risk a failure of an experimental vehicle (the purpose of which is to determine whether or not a particular technology is viable or worth pursuing further).

If you want to know why only governments can afford spaceflight, seek no further than the outcome of this program...

Is It Wrong to Break the Law?

There seems to be a subtle point missing in much of the discussion of Andrea Yates' sanity.

Yes, she called the police because she knew that drowning her children was illegal. But if she (insanely, in my humble opinion) thought that the alternative was to consign them to hell, then she also thought that what she was doing was not wrong.

My opinion — she's mad as a hatter (or at least she was on the day that she murdered her kids). She's probably not a danger to society at this point, but she should get years of confined therapy, and never be allowed to bear any more children.

But the larger point is that all that is immoral is not necessarily illegal, nor should it be. And vice versa. Yes, we all know that killing your own children is wrong, but not simply because there's a law against it. And not all things that are illegal (such as not reporting the location of Jews in Nazi Germany) are wrong.

And the point of this post is that, just because Andrea Yates reported her crime to the authorities, and was willing to accept the consequences, it does not mean that she properly understood the moral implications of her act.

Pioneer, Phone Home

This is pretty neat. After over twenty years, it's still possible to communicate with Pioneer 10, even though it's almost seven and a half billion miles away (twice the distance to Pluto, the most distant planet) and far outside our solar system. It took over twenty-two hours for the last signal to be received and acknowledged. From there, the sun is just another bright star, and there is no heat for the spacecraft except what it can still generate from its depleting plutonium power generator.

This would not have been possible if it had had any other than a nuclear power source.

The numbers involved here are staggering. It's so far away, and the signal so diffuse, that by the time it reaches the earth, it has a power of only ten to the minus 20th or so watts. That's 0.00000000000000000001 (that's nineteen zeros after the decimal point. But we can still pick up the signal, using the huge dishes in places like Goldstone in California).

And the data rate is probably excruciatingly low.

Given the ability to get just a few bits through, I wonder what the conversation was...

Ground: Hello, Pioneer. Are you out there?

Pioneer: Yes.

Ground: How are you doing?

Pioneer: How do you think I'm doing? I'M FREEZING IN THE DARK! What did you think you were doing, sending me all the way out here?! And why don't you ever write?


As I predicted, my column on nuclear waste disposal actually generated a significant amount of e-mail:

From Terry Conaway:

I'm disappointed in you. You didn't even mention the opportunity, to the terrorist, that transport of that many tons of waste material would present. A semi-load to unload every 20 minutes for how many years? Just to transport to a storage site? Those of us who lived though government testing in the 1960s know that to government agencies, clean up of accidents equals "cover-up."

Ummm...Ok. Tighten up that tinfoil hat.

From Howard Youngblood:

I work at a shut-down nuclear power plant (Trojan - outside Portland, Ore.) and was impressed by your knowledge of the nuclear issue and your seemingly pro-nuclear stance (most reporters either don't bother to do the research or are too afraid of angering the anti-nukes to print it)!

At first I thought the article was a joke, but when you stated that you are also familiar with aerospace systems design and believe it to be technically feasible, I was at a loss. I will admit I know a lot more about nuclear physics than rocket science (could be a pun here somewhere if I worked at it). I would like you to explain how you can keep a ton of waste re-entering the Earth's atmosphere (from a failure to obtain a stable orbit) "safe?" Any vaporization would be unacceptable and in my mind the shielding to keep it intact for a terrestrial landing would be beyond our manufacturing capabilities. I checked the calendar and it's not April 1, so what's the deal here?

From Robert Hinkelmann:

How about using low-cost rockets to launch nuclear waste into the sun?

This is just a small sampling. Many of the e-mails had common themes, so I put up a little FAQ (frequently answered questions) here. Enjoy.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity, and beyond at his webblog, Transterrestrial Musings.

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