Space Shuttle Atlantis: Hail & Farewell…MAYBE

The United States space shuttle Atlantis returned from a 12 day trip to the international Space Station (ISS) yesterday, during what is presently scheduled to be its last space mission.  The mission, named STS-132, (STS=Space Transportation System, the NASA designation for shuttle missions) is the 132nd space shuttle flight.  STS-132 flew 48 million miles.  Atlantis have flown more than $120 million miles during 32 space missions since it began operations in 1985.

In 2003, then-president GW Bush, partially in response to the space shuttle Columbia disaster, made the decision to terminate the space shuttle program by 2010.  However, this decision, tempered by the need to finish construction of the ISS, came with the initiation of a new human space program called Constellation, which was to some extent an upgraded and updated Saturn-Apollo program designed to return Americans to the moon by 2016 (later slipped to 2020), followed in as little as 5 to 10 years with trips to Mars.  US$9 billion have since been spent on Constellation.

Saturn-Apollo was America’s moon program.  Apollo 11 put the first two men on the moon in 1969 and Apollo 17 put the last two on that surface in December 1972, for a total of 12 Americans on the moon.  There were supposed to be three more moon missions, ending in Apollo 20, but then-president Nixon canceled funding for them in 1970, while concurrently supporting the development of the space shuttle program.

When Barack Obama took office in 2009, he commissioned the blue-ribbon group “Augustine Commission” to examine the true state of America’s space program before setting space policy.  When the panel released its findings, the most shocking revelation was that the Constellation program had been grossly underfunded, and could not possibly take humans back to the moon before 2030.  Additionally, humans missions to Mars weren’t even on the radar, based upon the program’s progress and foreseeable funding levels.

Finally, the time lapse between the space shuttle program termination and the beginning of Constellation’s capability to carry humans even to the ISS in low-Earth-orbit (LEO) was going to be at least 7 years, and likely longer.  During that period the USA would have no direct human access to space, but instead would be at the mercy of the Russians and perhaps later the Chinese, Indians and even possibly the Europeans before it once again possessed its own human-rated space transportation system.

However, the USA does depend upon private enterprise for access to space involving commercial and even military payloads.  Thus, president Obama and his advisers reasoned that the USA’s immediate LEO space transportation needs to the ISS could be met most quickly by private companies, if the NASA budget provided seed money for these companies to develop newer, better, and faster technologies that translated into a human-rated “space taxi” capable of transporting humans to and from the ISS.  But for these funds to become available, the space shuttle program would have to end as planned in 2010.

Further, it was reasoned that a trip to Mars or other deep space destination will require technologies not yet developed by either government or private enterprise because of the costs of doing so.  But funds could be available if Constellation was canceled.   Deep space destinations would then be reachable much sooner.

Thus, in accordance with this plan, there are only two shuttle missions left:  STS-133 on shuttle Discovery in September 2010, and STS-134 on shuttle Endeavor in November.  Both are supply missions to the ISS.  Though the schedule may slip into early 2011, these two are the last two approved shuttle flights.

Shuttle Atlantis will be utilized as a backup, ready to roll to the launch pad, for shuttle Endeavor’s STS-134 mission.  This is in keeping with the safety policy NASA instituted after the Columbia disaster, i.e., a second shuttle is always ready to launch on a rescue mission should something happen to primary mission shuttle on launch.

Because Atlantis will be essentially “ready to launch” on a crew rescue mission for the last Endeavor flight to the ISS if necessary, many are reasoning that the launch-ready Atlantis could and should be flown one last time, in June 2011, for one last re-supply mission to the ISS.  It would leave the ISS in better shape once the shuttle program lands.  It would also shorten by at least six months the time that the USA is without it own human space transportation system.

And finally, it would buy some time.  After all, the space shuttle has been America’s premier space vehicle for almost thirty years. It has transported hundreds of humans and most of the ISS components into orbit and made the several in-orbit repairs to the Hubble Space Telescope possible.  Significantly, it’s being retired without another system at least in development.

So hope that the White House and NASA approve that last mission for Atlantis.  Because when the final shuttle finally does land for the last time, it will be a very sad day…the end of a very proud era.

What Last Night’s Vote Results REALLY Mean

Tuesday, May 18, 2010:  Primary elections (and one special election) were held in Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Kentucky and Oregon, USA.

The results:

1.  Pennsylvania:

a.  Arlen Specter, who served five terms as US senator from Pennsylvania (four and 5/6 of which were served as a republican), was defeated in the democratic primary by democratic US congressman  Joe Sestak.

b.  The only real (special) election of the night between a democrat and republican for the remaining term of deceased US congressman from Pennsylvania John Murtha, was decisively won by a democrat, Mark Critz, who served as an aide to Murtha.

2.  Kentucky:  Extreme-right-wing Tea Party member Rand Paul, son of Texas libertarian-leaning republican congressman Ron Paul, won the republican primary to be the republican candidate for US senator in the November election.

3.  Arkansas:  Incumbent conservative democrat US senator Blanche Lincoln, with 45% of the vote, bested Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, with 43% of the vote, in Arkansas’ US Senator Democratic primary.  However, since she did NOT win a majority of the votes (more than 50%), she will face Halter again on June 8th in a runoff election.

4.  Oregon:  In the only significant primary election in that state, incumbent US Senator Ron Wyden won the democratic primary to seek a third full term.

So what does it all really mean?

The GOP had been predicting a huge anti-democrat wave, but in the only official national election for office of the evening, the democrat Mark Critz won the congressional seat vacated by John Murtha against a republican.

The anti-incumbent sentiment might well have had a minor impact on the defeat of Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania, but the 80-year old had been battered by his opponent during the campaign, and many citizens within the electorate had had enough of the king of political “switcheroo”.

Additionally, many politicos had been predicting the demise of the democratic party, referring to the history of the first two years of the Bill Clinton administration as a guide to what’s going to happen in November 2010.  They pointed out that the party that pushes health care reform invariably incurs the anger of the average US voter.  And they also referred to the historical fact that the party that wins the presidential election loses seats in congress during the first national mid-term election after the presidential race.

Perhaps that anti-democrat sentiment combined with the anti-incumbent movement will sweep the old out in favor of the fresh and the new…regardless of political party.  That would favor the GOP, at least from a “numbers” perspective.

But maybe this time there are new dynamics are in play which defies prediction.

There is no question that Americans are upset about the economy, In addition, there’s no question that many forget when the economic recession and resulting job loss actually started.  If the Obama administration rules over a lack of job recovery, than they and everyone associated with them are doomed.  But even this alone cannot explain the mixed results of last night’s balloting:

1.  Arlen Specter, the incumbent, lost.  But he was a switcheroo republican-turned-democrat, having spent 29 of his thirty years in the US senate as a GOP’er.

2. Incumbent Blanche Lincoln did not achieve the required majority to win her primary outright, but she still won a plurality of the vote cast, and is still alive to face the run-off primary election in June.

3.  In Oregon, incumbent US Senator Ron Wyden won the democratic primary to seek a third full term.

So much for the anti-incumbent theory.

In the “new dynamic” category, and in what can only be described as both a Tea Party victory and a defeat for the establishment GOP, Rand Paul won the republican primary.  However, whether he can actually win against a democrat in November is a totally different matter, and one which this blog will be watching closely.

And finally, defying the GOP claim that democrats are dog-meat in 2010 just as they were in 1994 when the last big health care reform overhaul effort failed to pass, democrat Mark Critz won the only real congressional election of the night against a GOP candidate.

So much for the “republicans will sweep the democrats from power” concept.

So what does it all mean?

Almost nothing.

Folks still seem to remember that the republican administration of GW Bush took us to the recess and massive deficit spending.  However, they are also impatient with the Obama administration for not having fixed all this in its entirety over the past year and a half.  Point scored and then point penalized, as they say.

The Tea Party movement has been making a lot of noise about government spending, and government being too big.  But they also have attacked some of the wrong causes and have alienated many moderates within the GOP and independent voters.  Point scored and then point penalized, as they say (again).

The anti-incumbent sentiment against Washington, congress, and government in general is loudly vocal, but not, it seems, strong enough to “throw all the bums outs”.  Point scored and then point penalized, as they say (one more time).

Based upon last night’s results, there is only one solid conclusion that intelligent observers can draw regarding the general elections coming up in November:

There’s going to be an election.  And no one knows who will win…yet.

Is the USA a Judeo-Christian Nation?

There is a distinction between a country whose population is religious in nature, and a country governed by religion.

Iran is a religiously-governed nation.  So is the Vatican (yes, it really is an independent country).

Although Israel is considered a Jewish state, it is really governed by a European parliament-based government.  As is Turkey, though its citizens are predominantly Muslim, and Italy, though its predecessor state was the Holy Roman Catholic Empire and its citizens are predominantly Catholic.

It is an axiom that the more conservative one is, the more one wants his/her religion to be part of their country’s government.  As a result of that desire, those folks will claim that their country is based upon, or founded in a (insert your preferred religion here) tradition.

This is certainly evident in the USA, where the vast majority of the population is Christian, with Judaism next largest religion.  All other religions pale in contrast to these two insofar as percentage of population is concerned.

The citizens of the USA seem to be somewhat more involved in their religions than most other western industrialized nations.  Thus, it can be accurately stated that the US population is somewhat religious.  But, much to the chagrin of the religious right, that does not translate into the USA being a Christian-governed, or even a Judeo-Christian-governed nation, all claims by the far right to the contrary.

Curiously (ignorantly?), many conservatives will argue that the founding fathers were Christians who stamped their faith into and upon the US Constitution.  They will also claim that some of the early leaders of the USA, such as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Thomas Paine, all of whom were involved in authoring of the US Constitution, were Christian men who wanted Christianity  imprinted in that document.  But is that really true?

Let’s look at the facts.

The authors of the US Constitution were for the most part naturalists.  These were educated men who did not rely upon their religion for explanations regarding the physical world around them.

Consider the following statements by Jefferson, Adams and Paine:

Thomas Jefferson wrote regarding religious freedom in the “Revised Code of the State of Virginia”, considered to be his second most important writing:

“Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting “Jesus Christ,” so that it would read “A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;” the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.”

Thomas Paine, in his “Age of Reason”, wrote:

“I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish Church, by the Roman Church, by the Greek Church, by the Turkish Church, by the Protestant Church, nor by any Church that I know of. My own mind is my own Church.”

And finally, John Adams was a man who had strong faith and religion in his personal life, shunned religion in public life.  This is clear in the “Treaty of Tripoli”, which, as US president, he signed in 1796.  Chapter 11 of the treaty reads:

“As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; (emphasis added) as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Musselmen; and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

Additionally, consider the language (and associated 220 years of Supreme Court case law on the issue) of the First Amendment to the US Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Now compare those statements from these educated and consummate leaders of early America to the recent statements by Sarah Palin

“Go back to what our founders and our founding documents meant — they’re quite clear — that we would create law based on the God of the bible and the ten commandments.

Click on the links in this article and/or do your own research.  Then answer the following question:

Who’s right?

ah Palin can’t seem to distinguish between the Bible and the American Constitution.

Appearing recently on Bill O’Reilly’s TV show, Palin advised that what we need to do in this country is –

“Go back to what our founders and our founding documents meant – they’re quite clear – that we would create law based on the God of the bible and the ten commandments.”

Huffington Post

That’s quite a statement – but nothing new to those who would re-imagine this country as one based on religion. Indeed, the religious right has long sought to make the case that the United States was founded on Judeo-Christian beliefs despite the fact that the evidence clearly points to a very different intent.

While purveyors of this notion have come up with any number of reasons to support their claim, the most often cited ‘proof’ is the fact that the Declaration of Independence puts God front and center. The thing is, there was no American nation when we proclaimed our independence from Great Britain. And while the Declaration of Independence is certainly one of the most important political documents in our history, it simply has no legal effect on the laws of this nation. That distinction belongs to the Constitution; our first, and most enduring, statement of the concepts which form the basis of law in the United States.

Another explanation frequently offered up in support of the notion that the founders had God on their minds is the advent of the phrase “In God We Trust” as the nation’s motto. What the religion peddlers don’t appreciate is that the phrase was first used in 1864 – almost 100 years after the founding of the nation – when embossed on the two-cent coin in response to the rising religious fervor in the country as a result of the Civil War. Indeed, the phrase did not officially become our national motto until 1956.

While God played a part in the personal lives of many of our founders (though not all), the truth is that nowhere in the United States Constitution can you find the word “God” – not even once.

An oversight? Unlikely.

In Thomas Jefferson’s autobiography, he comments on the language he used to restate the importance of religious freedom in the document that is his second most famous writing (and the one historians suggest was the creation he was most proud of ), the Revised Code of the State of Virginia.

“Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting “Jesus Christ,” so that it would read “A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;” the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.”

Thomas Jefferson, Autobiography, in reference to the Virginia Act for Religious Freedom

Does this sound like someone who sought to weave Judeo-Christian theory and belief into the creation of the Constitution?

Indeed, no less a religious source than Beliefnet.com acknowledges that Jefferson was a heretic in his time – deeply angered by what he viewed as a total perversion of Christianity after the time of Christ’s death. Given his feelings, it seems highly unlikely that he sought to include the principles of Christian religion into the founding of the nation.

Another key author of the Constitution, Thomas Paine, had this to say in Chapter 1 of his famous pamphlet, The Age of Reason

“I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish Church, by the Roman Church, by the Greek Church, by the Turkish Church, by the Protestant Church, nor by any Church that I know of. My own mind is my own Church.”

Does anyone believe that Thomas Paine sought to include Judeo-Christian beliefs in his drafting of the U.S. Constitution?

As for author John Adams – a man with strong religious beliefs who allowed religion to play a part in his personal life but carefully avoided it in public matters – nowhere is there clearer proof of the man’s approach to this subject than in the little known “Treaty of Tripoli”, signed by President John Adams and confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 1796, less than 10 years after the Constitution’s adoption.

Chapter 11 of the treaty reads:

“As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; (emphasis added) as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Musselmen; and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

Treaty of Tripoli

Could it possibly be any clearer?

If people like Sarah Palin wish to argue that the nation ought to follow a course that places religion squarely into the law making process, I suppose that is their right.

However, the continuous effort by Palin and friends to pervert the true history of the nation and the intentions of the founders is nothing short of subversive and clearly dangerous.

At best, the suggestion that religion rests at the foundation of our legal system is one based on ignorance of the principles that are the heart of this country. At its worse, the effort is little more than an attempt to pervert the philosophy of the nation’s founders in order to re-invent America to meet the religious right’s own objectives and to re-make the nation into something quite different than what it was intended to be.

I respect and appreciate the value of religion in many people’s lives. But if Sarah Palin wants to rule a nation based on God, she really should look elsewhere. There are many countries in the world that would meet her requirements – although she will find that most of them worship the God of Islam. Palin might ask the women in so many of these theocracies how government and law based on religion has worked out for them.

Or Palin and friends might simply look up the word “Pilgrim” in the dictionary and learn about how our own original settlers were fleeing religious persecution at the hands of a Monarch who was also the leader of the Christian church in the land of their birth.

Our founders knew exactly what they were – and were not – doing when determining the nature of law in this country and the importance of a secular government.

While the religious right are free to vote for candidates who share their reliance on religious belief, they are not free to re-imagine the fundamentals of this country – at least not without putting their reinvention through the rigorous process of amending, or re-writing, our Constitution.

That’s the way it was intended to be done and even Sarah Palin doesn’t get to make it otherwise.

Drill, Baby, Drill…or Spill, Baby, Spill?

When the oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico owned by British Petroleum (BP) exploded last month, most people did not expect that two weeks later, the Gulf coast, from at least Texas to Florida, would eventually be threaten by what is becoming one of the biggest oil spills in history.  After all, the oil industry and its conservative deregulation-supporting friends have been claiming for years that modern-day oil drilling is safe, environmentally friendly and good for everyone.

Of course, they have neglected to define whom “everyone” is, in the context of their statements.  Most likely, they simply “forgot” to include such people as fishermen, restaurateurs, and folks whose livelihoods depend either directly or indirectly (as in the domino effect) upon the intertwined economies of the Gulf coast communities, or anywhere else where an “impossible” massive oil spill might occur.  And they must have simply “forgotten” to include environmentalists and people who have properties that might be contaminated by any such “impossible” massive oil spill.

When Sarah Palin ran as the GOP vice-presidential candidate in 2008, she frequently supported opening up America’s coastlines and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. She shouted “drill, baby, drill!”

She very recently repeated her mantra of “drill, baby, drill!” at a speech before the Tea Party movement.  Other conservatives have been equally verbose in their support for continuing America’s addiction to oil by encouraging increased oil drilling in America’s environmentally sensitive areas.  “It’s absolutely safe!”, they keep chanting, as they criticize those pesky lunatic environmentalists warning of a potential disaster.

Over the past two weeks, however, these same oil-drilling supporters have been strangely silent, as the BP oil rig sank and three holes on the ocean floor that BP had been harvesting oil from continued to spew out 210,000 uncontrolled gallons of oil a day.  BP has tried to stop the oil by sealing the underwater wells, though so far it has only been successful in sealing one of those outlets.  The massive oil slick, which is growing in size, made landfall in Louisiana on April 30th.  Sadly, most experts at this point expect the situation to get much worse long before it gets better.

Most shocking of all, however, is the revelation thatinvolves a remote-control shut-off device called an “acoustical switch“.  This device is a last-chance fail-safe device designed to choke off an oil well in an emergency. 

According to the Wall Street Journal, the US Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service, decided against requiring the use of this device by oil companies operating in America, rationalizing that it was not necessary because “rigs had other back-up plans to cut off a well.”  This rationalization by an agency of the Bush administration came after the oil companies complained about the expense (US$500,000 each) of having to install the “acoustic switch”.  Concurrently, these self-same oil companies were reporting enormous profits of over US$40 billion a year (at least!!) at the time!

But wait!  There’s more!!

Remember “Tricky-Dick” Cheney, Bush’s vice-president and overseer of the super-secret Cheney Energy Task Force meetings with the oil industry.  His and Bush’s policy of deregulating everything they possibly could got a boost in those meetings.  According to a recent interview on the Ed Shultz show (which you can watch for yourself HERE), the results of those closed-door meetings were orders issued to the government agencies involved, such as the US Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service, to deregulate as much as possible, and to not regulate anything new.  Were it not for this, the “acoustic switch” might well have probably been required for every off-shore oil rig in the USA, just as they are in other countries, such as Norway and Brazil.  And the Gulf oil spill might have been prevented!

Regardless of political leanings, most people would agree that a primary function of government is to protect public safety, particularly when people cannot do so on their own.  Protecting an industry and environment which is depended upon by a population for their livelihood and economic well-being, as well as their health, is certainly an issue of public safety.  But when a government sacrifices that well-being of its people, even in a small region, in favor of protecting short-term profiteering on the part of the financially powerful, it is not living up to its purpose.  And why would anyone, besides the ruthless profiteer, want a government that does not serve the purposes of the greater good of its people?

It will be months or possibly even years before the full impact of this environmental disaster is completely evaluated.  But it will take more than just investigation to determine exactly how to prevent it from happening again.  It will also take a lot of courage on the part of congress and the Obama administration to make the hard choices necessary to ensure the public safety against another disastrous oil spill.

Step one might just be for President Obama to say, “Oops…on second thought, maybe off-shore drilling isn’t such a good idea, after all.”