On Space Exploration

I have been literally inundated by a request. It would seem that 50% of my readers would like me to post my thoughts on space exploration (you know who you are!) So, by a greater margin than your average presidential election, you win!

In other news, I leave for London tomorrow. Just me, a backpack, and a friend. I'll post a moving travelogue when I get back!


Today I announce a new plan to explore space and extend a human presence across our solar system. We will begin the effort quickly, using existing programs and personnel. We'll make steady progress -- one mission, one voyage, one landing at a time (Bush, 2004).

On January 14th, 2004 President George W. Bush announced a radical shift in the policy of the United States regarding space exploration. Called the Vision for Space Exploration, the plan involves completing the International Space Station (ISS) and retiring the Space Shuttle by 2010, developing a new Crew Exploration Vehicle by 2014, and returning to the Moon by 2020 (Bush, 2004). The plan has been touted as an answer to the aging Space Shuttle program, and the disastrous loss of the Columbia in 2003 (Klotz, 2005). Many scientists believe that the new exploration program is too costly, lacks versatility, and detracts from the pure science missions that have brought NASA such success in recent years (Fillion, 2006 and La Page, 2005). I believe that the rush to retire the space shuttle has clouded the judgment of NASA, the Administration, and the wider scientific community, and caused them to ignore the potential for a shuttle replacement.

The push for the next generation of spacecraft, the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), has become the main priority of NASA (Griffin, 2006). The general design of the spacecraft is a departure form the reusable “spaceplane” concept of the Space Shuttle Orbiter, and bears a striking resemblance to the Apollo missions of four decades ago. The CEV and it’s launch vehicles will reuse many of the propulsion systems of the Space Shuttle, including the massive solid rocked boosters that propel the craft into orbit and the main engines that assist in ascent and slow the Shuttle for reentry. Once in space, the CEV will be capable of docking with the ISS to exchange crews and re-supply the station. The more ambitious use that he spacecraft has been designed for is a lunar landing. By using a lander much like the one from the Apollo program, the CEV will allow four astronauts to explore the lunar surface and return safely to the Earth (Reddy 2006). With minor redesigns, the spacecraft could evolve to perform a mission to Mars (Kluger, 2006).

Initial funding for the CEV project has been approved as part of the FY 2007 budget of NASA (Griffin, 2006), and the total cost is expected to be, conservatively, $104 billion (Fillion, 2006). Steps are being taken at the Kennedy Space Center to adapt launch and construction facilities to accept the CEV and it’s launch vehicles (Coppinger, 2006). The future of the Space Shuttle is not in question. Once the International Space station has been completed in 2010, the shuttle will be retired and the CEV will be brought on-line in a near earth orbit capacity (Dale 2006).

The magnitude of this project, and it’s cost to the scientific missions currently being planned by NASA, is one of the biggest sources of criticism from the scientific community. Michael Griffin, the head of NASA, stated before congress “…I believe that fulfilling our commitments on the International Space Station and bringing the Crew Exploration Vehicle online in a timely manner, not later than 2014 and possibly much sooner, is a higher priority than these science missions during this period,” (Griffin 2006). The science mission that Mr. Griffin alludes to include programs like Deep Impact, the mission that gave us our first glimpse of cometary composition; Hubble, the space telescope that has made plain the wonders of the universe; Cassini, the probe that is providing humanity with a wealth of data about Saturn; The Mars Rovers, which have lasted far past their expected lifetime and provided evidence of water on the red planet; and finally New Horizons, the probe currently en route to Pluto. These missions have provided massive return on the investment made in them.

The CEV program shares more in common with the Apollo program than design and mission, it may share it’s fate. Henry Vanderbilt, a member of the Space Access Society, stated “Like Apollo, NASA’s new plan has built into it the seeds of its shutdown by some future Congress once the warm glow of the first few daring missions has once again faded,” (Klotz, 2005). In the same BBC news article, the program was criticized for being unable to build the permanent bases on the Moon and Mars as promised in the initial Vision for Space Exploration.

I believe that the rush to create the CEV is the natural result of the failures of the Space Shuttle program. An analysis of the literature reveals an attitude of hatred toward the Space Shuttle, and the International Space Station. They are viewed as money pits that provide no scientific returns (La Page, 2005). I disagree with this sentiment. The Space Shuttle and the ISS have shown us that practical human spaceflight is an attainable goal, and that massive construction projects in space are feasible. I think what we need, rather than a huge step backward to the Apollo program, is a step forward that builds on these two lessons.

My vision of America’s next spacecraft is very much like the Space Shuttle. We have learned many lesions with the venerable Shuttle, but I agree that it is time to retire the fleet. They are becoming old and dangerous, and have always been too complicated. What is needed for the future exploration of the Solar System is a simple, reliable, efficient, and versatile space utility vehicle.

Safety should clearly the primary concern of any manned vehicle traveling into space. The current Space Shuttle has no crew escape system during the ascent phase. Such a feature has been included on every NASA spacecraft until the Shuttle, and could have saved the lives of the Challenger crew. Any future vessel should have such a system. The thermal protection system for reentry should also be as advanced and reliable as possible, but should also be easily serviceable and have a redundant protection system in case of a localized failure. While in orbit, the craft should be able to dock with the ISS and provide the crew safe harbor in case reentry is impossible.

Efficiency is another area where the new spacecraft should surpass it’s predecessors. The Space Shuttle only reuses the Orbiter and solid rocket boosters from mission to mission. It then requires months of downtime to service and repair every system on the spacecraft. The new space vehicle should be able to perform missions without wasting major components, and without long delays between launches. The vehicle should also be versatile, capable of delivering payloads or crews to space, aiding in construction of space structures, launching satellites, and servicing space stations and telescopes. There could also be versions of the spacecraft that were unmanned. Launching a robotic vehicle of this scale is possible, as was proven by the Russians when they launched and successfully landed their space shuttle without a crew on board.

This would seem to preclude the exploration of other planets, but it does not. The primary task of the updated space utility vehicle would be the construction of a spacedock. This orbiting space construction yard would be the logical launching pad for missions to the Moon and Mars. Because ships would be constructed in this spacedock, they can be much larger than if they were launched as a unified whole. They would be much better exploration vehicles for long-duration missions to the Moon and Mars, because they would be able to carry much more in the way of provisions and support equipment. It would also be much cheaper to launch from space, because the vehicles do not have to return to Earth. By rendezvousing with the space dock on return to the planet, crews and materials could be ferried back to Earth by the space utility vehicles.

Such a thing is feasible, and has been for some time. What is lacking is the will to perform the task. By returning to the Moon and Mars with updated versions of forty year old spacecraft, what are we proving? Simply that the old designs still work, and that is hardly scientific advancement. By seeking new solutions to new problems, we have a chance to stimulate the scientific potential of the world, and achieve things undreamt of by our predecessors. The first step to achieving this vision is to put a stop to the current direction of NASA, and return to the drawing board with fresh ideas. We need a Vision of Space Exploration that justifies the billions of dollars and dozens of lives invested in the Space Shuttle.


Bush, G.W. “New Visions for Space Exploration.” NASA Headquarters. 14 Jan. 2004.

Coppinger, R. (2006). NASA Space Center facilities modernized ahead of Crew

Exploration Vehicle flights. Flight International. http://www.flightglobal.com/Articles/2006/03/28/Navigation/200/205707/NASA+Kennedy+Space+Center+facilities+modernised+ahead+of+Crew+Exploration+Vehicle.html.

Dale, S. “Remarks by NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale at the 9th annual

Commercial Space Transportation Conference” Federal Aviation Administration.

Washington, D.C. 10 Feb. 2006.

Fillion, R. (2006, March 13). CEV billions criticized as threat to science missions. Rocky

Mountain News. N.P.

Griffin, M. “Statement by Michael Griffin before the House Appropriations

Subcommittee on Science, Depts of State, Justice, & Commerce, & Related

Agencies” US Congress. Washington D.C. 30 Mar. 2006.

Klotz, M. (2006, September 20). Moon plan ‘comes up short.’ BBC News.


Kluger, J. (2006, March 20). Returning to the Moon. Time. 167(12), 96.

Krause, T.R. (2005, August 16th). To Boldly (and Safely) Go …. Wall Street Journal,

p. B2.

Le Page, M. (2006). To Pointlessly go…. New Scientist. 187(2513), 21.

Reddy, F. (2006, February). NASA’s next giant leap. Astronomy. 34(2), 62-68.


On Education Reform

A child miseducated is a child lost
-John F. Kennedy

The words of John F. Kennedy should weigh heavily on our minds as we, the next generation of Arkansas schoolteachers, step into the classroom. Ours is the duty, the honor, and the danger of education. Succeed, and we make a positive difference in the lives of hundreds of students. Fail, and we damn them to ignorance. We must therefore carefully reevaluate what makes a teacher great, and reform our education system to better attract and retain those individuals. The task ahead is difficult, but it must be done if we are to fulfill that most basic promise we make to our children – that theirs will be a better world.

This process of reform begins with the realization that the most basic education system possible is a single student and a single teacher, educator and educated. When we look at the modern education system, we see that the educated have increased in number, but not in type. By this, I mean to say there are many more students, but they have not changed in role – they are still the unit to be educated. On the other side of the system, we see that the educator has changed significantly. Unlike the student, singular, becoming the students, plural, the teacher has transformed into the teachers, administrators, janitors, office workers, accountants, school board members, superintendents, and secretaries of education. This is a change both in the numbers and the roles of the educator. The core assumption we must make is that taken together, these diverse manifestations of the educator exist to perform the same task as the teacher in our simplified education system – educate the student

It follows, therefore, that education system as we know it today exists to serve the teacher. It exists to provide everything necessary for the teacher to go about the business of educating students, from buildings to books, pencils to paychecks. In this manner, the education system ensures the quality of its teachers, and the quality of teaching taking place in the classroom. The reality of the situation, however, is that the education system of today focuses more on tests than teachers. The pressures of recent legislation like the No Child Left Behind Act have increased exponentially the importance of standardized testing in the education system. As a result, schools are doing everything they can to prepare students for tests, often at the cost of true education. Not all is gloom and hopelessness, for there is much money to be made in the modern education system. This money is made, not by teachers, but by test purveyors and publishing houses. Desperate school boards are prime markets for these entities, who honey their ears with promises of increased test scores and therefore more federal funding.

The result of this paradigm shift in education is dramatic. Schools no longer deal in such vagaries as knowledge, comprehension, and fulfillment. Teachers are no longer the educated, inspirational communicators of these values. Instead, schools are now the training houses for the skills of test taking. Teachers fill the role of trainer, distributing study materials from the publishing houses and quizzing students on issues of rote memorization. Students are the real victims of these changes. Rather than partners in an education system, they are the products of the new education industry. All the while, test companies and publishing houses pull in billions of dollars. Textbook sales alone accounted for one third of the publishing market in 2004.

The role of the teacher, having been reduced to trainer, requires a different sort of individual. These trainers need not be highly educated in the subject area, they need not be effective communicators, and they are rarely ever inspirational leaders. They lack, in other words, the ability to teach. It is not a job requirement. This is miseducation in its clearest sense, and must be put to an end. This can be accomplished by placing the role of teacher back at the center of the education system. It requires attracting and retaining individuals that hold true to the values of an educator, rather than a trainer. The time of the almighty test has come to an end, because our children are being lost, one perfect score at a time.

Our redefinition of teacher hinges on three key traits. Teachers must, themselves, be rigorously educated to ensure their knowledge of the subject area. They must be effective communicators to relate their knowledge to the students. Finally, they must be inspirational leaders, giving students the motivation to learn. Together, these make up the core principles upon which we, the next generation of teachers, must be built. The next step is to reform the way such individuals are compensated, in order to both attract fresh talent and retain effective teachers.

It is imperative that we as future teachers understand the value of our own educations. Not only must we have comprehensive knowledge of our field, but we must understand the principles of communication and education. Most education degree programs around the nation are set up to offer these skills, but I fear they make a fundamental error. Future teachers in the fields of math and science are desperately needed in our state, and so we have created specialized science and mathematics education degrees at our colleges and universities. These programs replace the upper level math and science classes with education courses to prepare the teacher for the classroom, but I fear at too high a cost. A teacher must have as rigorous a knowledge of the field as possible, and that means taking courses that go above and beyond the scope of the curriculum. By having this deeper understanding, a teacher is much more effective at conveying the subject to the students. These education courses are useful, but they should amend the regular degree program, rather than replace it.

We must be effective communicators if we are to be the teachers of tomorrow. Without the ability to convey a topic to students in an engaging way, all the knowledge we worked so hard to obtain is useless. By becoming effective communicators, we can explain a topic in several different ways to cater to students different learning styles. As in all communication arts, education is a two way process, and we must be experts at answering any questions students might have. The skills of communication allow us to establish a rapport with the students that clearly places us in control, but in an authoritative rather than authoritarian manner. We must be approachable, and yet not so casual as to be taken advantage of. At the end of the day, students must simultaneously love and respect their teachers, or education cannot take place.

The final trait a teacher must possess, that of an inspirational leader, is the hardest to define directly, but the easiest to identify in a classroom. The classrooms of inspirational teachers are filled with students who are motivated to learn. These students are hungry for that most precious commodity we can give them: recognition. By recognizing their hard work, dedication, and curiosity, we make them feel genuinely good about themselves. Students do not naturally value success in the classroom, they must be taught to love learning. It takes an inspirational teacher to create this revolution in a child’s mind, but once made it is never undone. It should be noted that teachers cannot fake this trait, because that is instantly recognizable. Plastering a room in inspirational posters does not make the teacher any more effective, in fact, it usually indicates the opposite.

There are millions of people out there that possess all the traits of a great teacher, but they never take the job. These people work in the private sector, never truly utilizing the innate teaching ability they hold within. If we can somehow make teaching a competitive field in the job market, we attract these individuals to the classroom and keep them there. Currently, the system of teacher pay in the state of Arkansas is a disaster. Exceptional teachers who hold doctorates in their field are paid a smaller bonus than an ineffective teacher who also happens to coach the cheerleaders. There is clearly an important place in education for athletics and extracurricular activities, but in moderation. To pay the coach more than the teacher who spent a lifetime and a fortune earning a doctorate sends the wrong signal, and discourages another qualified teacher from staying in the classroom. We need to come up with a system of compensation that is fair, but perhaps not equal.

As Americans, we value both fairness and equality, but in the area of compensation they are incompatible. To pay someone fairly is to pay them in accordance with their skills, and to pay someone equally is to pay them as you would any other worker. When faced with a situation where one worker clearly has more aptitude for the job than another, what are we to do? If we pay both equally, we start a race to the bottom, where workers put less and less effort into their jobs secure in the knowledge that they will be paid equally. If we pay both fairly, however, we reward the apt worker, and encourage the other worker become better at their job and earn more pay. This, then, seems to be an appropriate pay system for schoolteachers.

If we are to pay teachers on the principle of fairness, we must formulate a system to measure aptitude. This, however, brings us dangerously close to the culture of testing and evaluation that I struggle so hard against. What we must realize is that everything needs to be taken in moderation. Tests are not inherently evil by any means, but when taken to the extremes of usefulness they become dangerous. It should be the role of the principal to evaluate the performance of the teachers they support. The evaluations should be based on a rubric that takes into account the objective and the subjective measures of success. On the one hand, how are the children performing on the national level? How are the children performing compared to others in the state? Or the district? Or the school? Those measures give an objective measure of teacher performance. They should be equally as important as subjective teacher performance. Does the teacher have a rigorous grasp of the subject? Do they effectively communicate that to students? Do they inspire and encourage the students to learn? Do they go above and beyond what is required of them? These measures taken together are an effective way to measure teacher performance.

We are the future teachers of Arkansas, and ours is the duty to embody these changes. As Mahatma Gandhi stated so simply, so eloquently, we must be the change we wish to see in the world. If we want there to be educated teachers in our classrooms, we must become those teachers. If we want there to be inspirational teachers in our classrooms, we must become those teachers. What we begin here today has the potential to change the course of our state, our nation and our world. The future generations that benefit from our hard work will go on to solve problems we cannot, to accomplish things we cannot, and to dream dreams we cannot. We owe it to the future to change the status quo, to remake the education system of our state into something greater than the sum total of its parts. We declare in one voice the end of miseducation, and the beginning of a better future.



Don't think I could have said it better, myself. More posts to come soon, I promise.



Plan B

The original intent of this site was to be a place where I can post writings on various public issues of personal concern. A column, of sorts – focused on education, politics, science, technology, and whatever else tickles my fancy. Obviously, I’m still working out a few kinks in the system.

What I hope will come out of all this is a weekly updated column with thought-provoking articles and a better layout. I hope you (and by you I’m pretty sure I’m talking to three people) will enjoy the site, so please don’t hesitate to provide some feedback or comment on the articles.




Buttered toast always lands butter-side down. Cats always land on thier feet. These principles lie at the very heart of our understanding of reality. This leads us to today's


If you strap a piece of buttered toast to the back of a cat and drop it, the Universe, for a moment, shatters.


Physics is Phun!

Okay, how fast do you suppose one has to ride a racing bike to blow one of its skinny 120psi tires?


That's right, It was parked. In a closet. With no rider.

I'm a big guy, and I'm used to blowing tires. I was thinking of making a bead curtain out of all my old innertubes, but they're sort of grimy. But this was just shocking! I rode it 10 miles, hauled it upstairs, parked it in the closet, changed clothes, and was on my computer when I heard a pop and a hiss that scared the hell out of me. I thought some important bit in my AC unit had blown, and I would soon succumb to a slow freon death




Hubble Ultra Deep Field

This is one of the most spectacular pictures ever taken - the Hubble Ultra Deep Field. In short, this picture is the farthest into space man has ever peered. What is so amazing about the picture is this: Only five points of light in this photograph are in our own galaxy. Everything else is another galaxy millions upon millions of light years away. The picture was taken over the course of 400 hubble orbits of the Earth, adding to a total exposure time of over 1 million seconds. If this doesn't give you a sense of scale, nothing will.