Political Animal

MANNED SPACE FLIGHT….Josh Marshall points

MANNED SPACE FLIGHT….Josh Marshall points to a couple of good articles by Gregg Easterbrook about the space shuttle today: this one written in 1980 and this one written for Time today. In the Time article Easterbrook says:

The space station was conceived mainly to give the shuttle a destination, and the shuttle has been kept flying mainly to keep the space station serviced.

This may seem like a cheap shot, but unfortunately it isn’t. As much as I dearly love the dream of manned space flight and the colonization of other planets, the sad truth is that there’s simply no compelling reason to send humans into space on a regular basis.

  • To perform scientific experiments? Nope. It turns out that there is virtually no scientific research that requires human handholding except the study of human adaptation to space itself. So the only reason to send humans into orbit is….to see how well humans hold up in orbit.

  • To explore Mars? Ditto. It can be done by unmanned probes just as well.

  • To set up space factories? Unfortunately, nobody is much interested in commercial uses of space. Adequate vacuums can be set up on Earth quite nicely, thank you very much, and weightlessness turns out to have very few commercial possibilities.

  • To colonize other planets? Why? In case we bomb each other into the stone age here on Earth? How long would a moon colony last if it didn’t get regular supply visits from Earth?

  • Space tourism? Maybe, but if this is the only reason, then NASA needs to get out of it. Let the private sector do the job.

Yes, manned space flight is romantic, and yes, man is the measure of all things. But the reality is that NASA holds onto manned space flight primarily for PR reasons: they’re afraid that without it the public would lose interest in supporting their scientific mission.

Aside from Cold War “space race” considerations, the original Apollo missions had at least one grand purpose: to see if we could do it. But no one other than a hobbyist would bother flying a small prop plane across the Atlantic today, and likewise there’s not much point in trucking humans back and forth into low earth orbit now that we know we can do that too.

The Columbia disaster is not a good reason to shelve human exploration of space, but there are plenty of others and they have been depressingly obvious for a long time. There are many new, far more interesting frontiers we could be exploring with the money that NASA seemingly spends simply out of habit. It’s time to start exploring them.

FARM TRADE….Farm subsidies are the

FARM TRADE….Farm subsidies are the Achilles heel of rich country protectionism. Who’s worse, the EU or America? Probably the EU, but it’s sort of like arguing about whether Hitler was worse than Stalin. It’s hard to find anything good on either side.

Still, at least there’s irony and humor to be had. Here is what the Economist says about the U.S. position on reducing farm tariffs:

America wants countries with high levels of support (such as those in Europe) to liberalise relatively more than others. The EU wants equal reductions by all.

Heh. Wasn’t that exactly the deal breaker when it came to Kyoto? Except then it was the U.S. insisting on equal reductions from everyone, while the EU demanded that the U.S. accept higher reductions because our output of greenhouse gases was far higher than theirs.

For Euro-bashers, the story also contains some good fodder:

[Franz] Fischler himself says that, if the EU fails to come up with a plan for agricultural trade liberalisation, it ?deserves to be called a political dwarf.?

The odds of winning agreement for any kind of serious agricultural trade liberalization are probably nil, so Europhobes will have a nice juicy quote to throw back in Europe’s face when the inevitable failure occurs.

I should add that, as usual, it is France blocking progress in this area, and this is one of the reasons that American impatience with France is actually sort of amusing. The other EU countries have to deal with French intransigence at least a hundred time more often than we do, but somehow they manage to make do. If they can keep from exploding, so can we.

SADDAM’S SECRET WEAPONS….Via Instapundit comes

SADDAM’S SECRET WEAPONS….Via Instapundit comes this story in Australia’s Herald Sun, which says that Saddam Hussein’s chief bodyguard has fled to Israel and is providing information about the whereabouts of Saddam’s weapons facilities, including:

AN underground chemical weapons facility at the southern end of the Jadray Peninsula in Baghdad;

A SCUD assembly area near Ramadi. The missiles come from North Korea;

TWO underground bunkers in Iraq’s Western Desert. These contain biological weapons.

The source for this story is embittered former weapons inspector William Tierney, so I’m taking it with a grain of salt. The Herald Sun says:

Tierney, who has high-level contacts in Washington that go to the White House, said the information we publish today on Mahmoud’s revelations “checks out, absolutely checks out”.

This kind of bragadoccio doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence. What’s more, aside from the fact that Tierney is unreliable and the Herald Sun is not really my idea of a serious source, this simply doesn’t make sense. Why would Saddam’s bodyguard flee to Israel, of all places? And why would the Israelis leak this information? And why would Tierney then repeat it before inspectors had a chance to visit these sites? It does nothing except give the Iraqis plenty of warning that they’d better move all this stuff posthaste.

This strikes me as bogus, but you never know. Maybe tomorrow morning Hans Blix’s men will conduct a lightning raid on the Jadray Peninsula and discover a swimming pool full of anthrax. We’ll see.


THE UNITED STATES AND THE WORLD….A lot of bloggers ? and mainstream columnists ? take pleasure in mocking the rest of the world for the sin of being insufficiently enthusiastic supporters of U.S. policy. Each new uproarious jibe is an occasion for much back slapping and high fiving, accompanied in more sober moments by a claim that, in any case, the rest of the world doesn’t matter anyway. We are the world’s sole superpower, they intone, we don’t need anyone’s help anymore.

Glenn Reynolds is a prime exponent of this kind of snide and dismissive attitude toward any country that doesn’t support our war with Iraq, but yesterday was not a good day for his write-first-then-think brand of foreigner-bashing. First he wrote that a Canadian television interviewer “has blamed ‘American Arrogance’ for the crash,” but today the interviewee wrote to say that the TV anchor was obviously flustered and “didn’t mean to be offensive.”

Then it was the French: their TV stations weren’t giving the Columbia disaster enough coverage. “That’s representative,” he sniffed, but minutes later was forced to report that “LCI TV (owned by TF1)….has covered this non-stop since the story broke.”

(And of course the Columbia tragedy was also good for some cheap shots at liberals: “lately ‘left-wing’ seems to have become a synonym, in some quarters, for ‘opposing everything.'”)

Why do I care about this? Aside from the poor taste in using yesterday’s tragedy as an excuse to engage in petulant name calling, we are the world’s sole superpower. What use do we have for the rest of the world?

But disasters like yesterday’s should make us think twice about this. The space shuttle is our primary vehicle for boosting both civilian and military payloads into orbit. Suppose ? just suppose ? that sometime in the future we find ourselves temporarily unable to launch a surveillance satellite that’s an important part of our campaign against terrorism. And suppose again that the only realistic alternative is the European Arianne launcher. Wouldn’t it be nice to be on their good side?

Or how about this from today’s Los Angeles Times:

More than 50% of our doctoral engineering students are foreign nationals — fully 43% come from Asia — and increasingly these students are choosing to return to their home countries after graduation.

What if they decide to stop coming altogether?

There’s more: the United States runs an annual trade deficit of $400 billion ? that’s 4% of GDP. If sentiment in the rest of the world turns against us, and foreign consumers spurn American goods, it could send the U.S. economy into a long and deep recession.

The U.S. dollar is also the reserve currency of the world. It is, for example, the primary currency for all oil transactions in the Middle East. But there is no law that says it has to stay that way, and if the dollar were to lose its position in world markets, the U.S. would lose a considerable amount of influence over the world economy.

Isolationism is no longer a feasible foreign policy, and the United States, powerful as it is, is not big enough to run the world without help. Even a cursory look at the globe should be enough to convince the Europhobes of this.

We can acccomplish our goals a lot more easily within a web of friendships than we can if the world is arrayed against us because it fears U.S. military hegemony. Yes, building and maintaining those friendships takes more time and a greater level of maturity, but in the end it’s the only way for us to win the security we seek. It is time to put away our childish things and engage the world as friends and equals once again.