Tuesday, July 26, 2011

July 2011: Musings & Meanderings on the Space Shuttle, Global Warming, & the Economy

I usually write a health and fitness letter around this time of year.  I am going to pass on that topic this year.  It would be a boring letter (not that there are any guarantees that this will be a riveting read by any means).   It is the 21st of the month and another topic has not jumped out and grabbed my attention.  This being the case, I will make this letter one of those true musing and meandering letters I occasional send out.
Most of these pieces are motivated from the news this month and certain articles on the topics I have read.
July 21 - The Space Shuttle:  The Space Shuttle Atlantis landed early this morning in Florida.  With the landing, the thirty year Space Shuttle program comes to an end.  The last Apollo mission was in December of 1972.  There was not another manned US flight until April 12, 1981 when the Columbia was propelled into space riding piggy back on the solid fuel boosters.   From that date, there have been 135 flights.
There were five Shuttles that were built and actually went to space.  They were named Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavor.  Only three remain.   Challenger and Columbia both had mid-air disasters resulting in the loss of both crews and the shuttles as well.  The demise of Challenger was on January 28, 1986.   It was cold and the o-rings on the solid fuel boosters did not seat and seal properly.  Upon take-off, a fuel leak occurred and ignited.  When that happened, the entire booster and shuttle were consumed in flames.  It was a tragic accident that stunned the nation.  It was one of those moments like the JFK assassination, the death of Princess Di, and 9-11, when everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing when they learned of the news.
The Columbia incinerated on re-entry on February 1, 2003 destroyed the orbiter and resulting in the loss of the entire crew.  At launch, 16 days earlier, a piece of insulation broke free of the booster and punctured the leading edge of one of the wings.  The intense heat, reaching  up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and turbulence of re-entry ripped the vehicle apart beginning at that puncture point.  This was also a very sad event but it was not as big of a shock because, I believe, the Challenger disaster 17 years earlier clearly made the public aware of how dangerous these kinds of flights were.
The program cost $209 Billion.  355 individual crew members flew one or more shuttle missions.  The astronauts spent almost 200,000 man-hours in space.  The shuttle fleet has orbited the Earth 21,000 times over the span of the program.  Over the years, the shuttle fleet has taken 3.5 million pounds of cargo into space for 180 specific tasks such as launching satellites and delivering payloads to the international space station.  The shuttle fleet has returned 230,000 pounds of cargo back to Earth.  The shuttle program has had a long and storied life.
I wonder why we end a program like Apollo and now the Shuttle program without having the follow-on project teed up and ready to go?  There is a lot of talk that future space missions will not be government funded but rather private ventures.   The entrepreneurs behind some of these ventures are Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Atlantic, and Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com fame.
I have written in these letters before that I never thought the Space Shuttle and booster system was a good design.  Mostly it was because it did not look slick.  The orbiter it self was big and bulky.  The piggy back launching system was nothing like I expected when I first saw it.  I thought it was downright ugly.  When I read about the tiles that were glued to the orbiter, I was impressed with the ceramic chemistry and design but, really, tiles glued to a space ship?  It made no sense to me.  I do understand the facts and figures quoted above about the number of missions and payloads.  Those numbers are impressive. The system did not appeal to me aesthetically nor did it convey a high level of reliability.  It looked all wrong.
Thus, for me, only one figure stands out.  The bottom line is that two of the five orbiters were destroyed resulting in the lives of the two crews.  The horrible and tragic demise of Challenger and Columbia loom large.  The motto of the program, or at least as I have seen on NASA Space Shuttle coffee cups, is “Failure is not an Option.”  This combined with the lack of a follow-up program leaves me in two minds about the program.
July 22 - Global Warming Re-visited:  The eastern  half of the United States is  experiencing what used to be referred to as a heat wave.  It is no longer called that.  I heard a new term this week that seems to have supplanted “heat wave.”  We are currently under a heat dome.  It is a  term common to meteorologists but not to the public.  Basically, a heat dome is an abnormally large high pressure system in the upper atmosphere that compresses and heats up the air under it causing soaring temperatures.  It would seem that a heat dome causes the old fashioned heat wave.  It makes me wonder if we will have to change the words of the old Irving Berlin song from:

We’re having a heat wave...
We’re under a heat dome...

It would be easy to write about global warming because we are record setting temperatures are being set in the eastern of the United States.   It is partially true because the motivation is from a Washington Post article, “Five Myths about Extreme Weather” was written in the middle of this heat wave... um... heat dome thing we are experiencing.  There was one startling fact in the article:

Globally, June was the 316th month in a row that had a higher temperature than the 20th century average. http://t.co/zrDZtP7

Golly, Mr. Science, that sure seems like a significant statistic.  I wonder what it means.

In quality control, a run of five measurements over the long term average indicates a system that is out of control and that perhaps the system output has changed.  Further investigation is required that would result in an action plan to either return the system to its former level of performance or to simply recalculate the control chart parameters and thus except the new normal.
With regards to climate change, I would naively recommend recalculating the parameters because no action plan is going to fix things very quickly.  316 months in 26 years and four months.  That seems pretty significant.  
The argument against freaking out about global warming is often based on the fact that we have only been tracking temperatures and weather conditions for a hundred maybe two hundred years.  In the history of our planet, we have seen long cycles of warming and cooling and perhaps we are simply seeing something that is in the normal ebb and flow of the planet.  That sounds very rational.  The counter to that would be that since 1900 man’s impact on the Earth has been significant.  In 1900, there were 1.6B people in the world.  Today there are 7.  The amount of carbon emissions has grown exponentially with, my guess is, faster than the population growth.  Furthermore, we have significantly reduced the forests and hence the planets ability to dealing with the increased carbon dioxide.
I am not freaking out, but I am concerned.
July 23 - The Fickle Economy:  Calling the recession of 2008-2009 The Great Recession is apropos.  It was not quite the The Great Depression as officially we never went into depression.  The recovery, and I hesitate to call it that truly, is hardly robust.  Words like sputtering, grudgingly lethargic, and others come to mind.  Job cuts again reared its ugly head in June at companies like Borders, Lockheed Martin, and Cisco.  The total cuts in June were 41,000 jobs.  The number of state and local government workers cut so far this year has been over 140,000.  The official unemployment rate hovers around 9.2% but really it is over 16%.  The difference is the number of people who are no longer on unemployment, no longer looking for work, or working part time jobs far below the salaries they were accustomed to.  This means that one sixth of the American labor force is unemployed or under employed.  
I have contended that while we might officially come out of the recession, we will be a lesser country than we were when we went into it.   I feel even stronger about this than when I first thought and expressed such.  Companies continue to recover.  We see reports of quarterly and annual reports showing profits and good progress.  But, contrary to recoveries of the past, we are not seeing the trickle down to the masses.  Because there are so many less industrial or manufacturing jobs, there are simply less jobs for the masses here to be created when the economy improves.
Housing continues to be lethargic as banks are still working their way through the foreclosure mess.  It is not clear when housing prices may rebound.  It is not clear if people can even afford to buy houses.
While all this happening in the US, the politicos in Washington DC are hanging on to extreme points of view.  The Republicans want to balance the budget, not raise taxes, and let free enterprise capitalism accelerate the recovery.  The Democrats want to raise the debt ceiling, raise taxes, and not balance the budget.  Oddly, they last time the budget was balanced was when Clinton, a Democrat, was President.  When the Republicans took power, a war on two fronts commenced albeit due to the 9-11 attacks and summarily plunged us into record deficit spending.   No one is really trying to bring back good manufacturing jobs to the US.  No one is investing in our people.  No one is trying to resolve the root causes for the lethargic recovery that is making us look more like a European country.
We cannot rely on business.  Most businesses are larger multi-nationals.  Being multi-national they are more like small countries and less beholding to their country of origin especially in the case of US companies.  In their ever striving for more sales and profits, they have moved manufacturing hither and yon.  They are out to grow their companies and create wealth for their shareholders and their senior management teams.   This will take precedence over anything remotely altruistic like creating jobs and bolstering the US economy.  The notion of what is good for business is good for the country may be less true than ever.
I freely admit that macro-economics drive this behavior and that companies would not survive if they did not behave as they have in the past twenty years.  I freely admit that I sometimes scare myself with my socialist sounding rhetoric.  Truly, I do not feel socialist but rather am very interested in finding ways to create an environment that is indeed good for the country and good for business.  I just do not see nor hear anything remotely like that coming from Washington and it really ticks me off.
Europe is no better than the US.  They might even be in worse shape with Greece, Portugal, and now Italy showing major cracks in their economies.  People there want all of the benefits they enjoy but do not want to do what is required to pay the bills for the services and benefits. It is a tough situation.  Part of the reason, I believe our economy coming out of the recession will be like the European countries is because they have probably more service and less manufacturing for longer than we have.  I read an interesting fact in the July 18th New Yorker.  It seems that in Greece, not paying ones fair share of taxes is a national pastime.  It made me think of the Armenians in California.  They operate on a cash is king basis because they do not charge and pay sales tax.  Yet, both in Greece and California people want and express the high level of civil services they are used to, they just do not want to pay for them.  
A sobering reckoning is probably overdue.  This freaks me out a little.

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