Aliens on Mars Again – Yawn

Aliens on MarsThere is another aliens on Mars story making the rounds and I wanted to examine it very quickly. I’ve spoken about this sort of nonsense before but there are two instructive things about this article that caught my attention.

This story is in the Examiner and therefore is pretty easily dismissed, as that sort of news outlet often posts silliness. What I find interesting about this story is that the headline talks about “hard evidence” and the person who wrote the story has a financial stake in people believing in aliens. Both of these things are big red flags when reading a story and I thought, because they are so obvious here, that I’d talk about a little practice you can use when reading or watching the new.

Many news stories from more reputable sources than the Examiner also violate these rules and getting used to spotting things of this nature will keep you from falling prey to the deception.

When a story uses a term like “hard evidence” or any other absolute sort of declaration; be aware. The world is generally a rather gray and muddled place. Political ideologies are not all good or all bad. Just like your crazy Uncle Lou and your sweet Aunt Mary are not all good or all bad. Whenever I read an article that declares absolutes when talking about debatable topics my nonsense radar immediately goes up. Often when I read a story like this from a source better than the Examiner such caution has served me well. When I note something of this nature I immediately start to look for corroborating stories in other places. Often this leads me to find out the original story is filled with misinformation.

When I got to the byline of the story I found the name Michael E. Salla, Ph.D. and it took me only a single search to learn that he has published a number of books and has an entirely made-up philosophy about “exopolitics”. It deals with the idea that world governments are secretly managing the presence of aliens, a vast conspiracy as it were. He has a school, a website (built completely with tables and in desperate need of a WordPress migration), and clearly has a financial stake in people believing in aliens.

This is a huge red flag. When someone writing or reporting on a story has a financial stake in the message being delivered it is highly likely that the message itself is corrupted and probably filled with deceitful information.

That’s the lesson. When you read or watch a story on the news take a few moments to think about the terms being used and the people delivering the story. Look more deeply into the matter, particularly if the ideas are ones with which you are sympathetic.

At some point we have to stop blaming “the media” for “fooling” people and take personally responsibility for allowing ourselves to be fooled. If you are convinced that all Liberals are being fooled by CNN or all Conservatives are being fooled by FOX then it is likely you are the one being foolish.

Tom Liberman
Sword and Sorcery fantasy with a Libertarian Ideology
Current Release: The Broken Throne
Next Release: The Black Sphere

Privately Funded Mars Mission from Dennis Tito – Not so Private

Inspiration MarsNot that long ago a fellow by the name of Dennis Tito proposed a privately financed mission to send a pair of travelers to Mars and back. I was opposed to the project in principle because I prefer robotic missions to manned missions for a number of reason.

My opposition stopped short of saying he shouldn’t go ahead with the project. I felt that if Tito wanted to spend his own money or raise said money from Crowd Sourcing then it was his to spend. That the publicity of the mission might do some good.

Well, the truth comes out. Tito now admits without NASA technology and government money the mission will not go forward. He tries to shame the government into funding his mission and pretty much tries to shift any blame for the mission not taking place to a reluctance by the government to spend your tax dollars.

Tito claims that without the government money he will go ahead with another plan that will launch in 2021. I’m not holding my breath.

The reason I’m posting this update is for those who were greatly enthusiastic about the original story but will not have followed subsequent events closely. It’s a good lesson for all of us. When we hear grandiose schemes we are naturally excited. The idea of doing great things, of participating in such events, is very attractive. I’m not opposed to dreamers and those who support them.

That being said, I’m a pragmatist at heart. It’s great to dream big but it’s vital to work out the details.

A vast quantity of our tax dollars were wasted when President George W. Bush laid out a scheme for a manned mission to Mars and a Lunar Base that was completely unrealistic. At least in this case it’s Tito’s money, not mine.

It seems to me that one of the major problems that we face in the United States is not lack of dreamers, we have more of those than ever, but lack of practical doers. Everyone offers up amazing plans to fix everything and no one does any of the real work necessary to make them happen, or even takes the time to come up with a realistic plan of action. It’s enough merely to promulgate an idea. If that idea doesn’t come to fruition then it’s easy enough to blame someone else.

The next time you hear some amazing story from Tito, Elon Musk, your neighbor, your representative in Congress, or your favorite talking news head, well, take a few minutes to do some research and find out what it will take to make such a plan become reality.

Just a suggestion.

Tom Liberman
Sword and Sorcery fantasy with a Libertarian Ideology
Current Release: The Spear of the Hunt
Next Release: The Broken Throne

The International Space Station – Countdown to Bust

International Space StationWe are now seven years from the likely end of the International Space Station or ISS.

Good riddance, say I.

Not everyone is going to agree with me on this one and there are a lot of people out there hoping to extend the mission past 2020. There are many passionate people on both sides of this debate and I’m open to listening to other opinions. But as things stand, I think of the ISS as a colossal waste of time, effort, and money. That’s not even the worst of it. It’s sucked in so much money and effort that other NASA missions were scrubbed for lack of funding.

In addition to producing almost nothing in the way of useful information it has also prevented us from learning so many other things. Now, I’m sure people will look at the list of what I call “nothing” and tell me how wrong I am. I think that until we actually need to grow tomatoes in space it is not really worth studying growing tomatoes in space. The effect of radiation on people is well-known, it is deadly. Any space travel will require shielding from radiation. Zero gravity is dangerous for human organs and skeletal structure. How much testing of this do we need and what benefit does it give us?

When this thing was proposed it was promised as a laboratory, observatory, and factory in space. It was also planned to provide transportation, maintenance, and act as a staging base for possible future missions to the Moon, Mars and asteroids. It’s been at most a glorified lab.

In the Yahoo article a proponent of continuing the ISS through 2028 says: We don’t know whether we should care, because the utilization [of the ISS] is really still in its early stages. The station hasn’t had a valid chance to demonstrate its research value.

He supposes that perhaps, maybe, in the next four or five years there might be a breakthrough to justify the cost of the thing.

Hasn’t had a chance? It’s been in continuous orbit for nearly thirteen years and currently the cost is about $150 billion and going up fast.

The price of this thing is shared between the US, Russia, Japan, Canada, and Europe (11 partners). Everyone else is backing out as fast as their obligations let them, or faster.

Meanwhile robotic missions continue apace exploring our solar system and giving us real and useful information. Robotic missions are far cheaper, last longer, produce more results, and do not risk the loss of life.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for exploration of space, of the mission of NASA, and of the long-term prospects of colonizing our solar system. I’m just firmly convinced that the best way to achieve those things is with long-term, robotic, exploration missions. I think we already know pretty much what we need to know about low-earth orbit.

Every tax dollar that goes into low-earth orbit exploration competes against private organizations attempting this sort of mission. NASA should be doing things that private industry cannot achieve.

Meanwhile the James Webb Telescope sits doing nothing. It’s total funding capped at $8 billion in no small part because of the ISS. I’m not saying the JWT wasn’t a badly managed project, I’m just saying let’s not pour another $100 billion into the ISS to keep it operational through 2028. Let’s not throw good money after bad.

If I had my way I’d bring back the current residents and shut the ISS down today.

I’d like to hear from those who disagree.

Tom Liberman
Sword and Sorcery fantasy with a Libertarian Twist
Current Release: The Sword of Water (a bargain at $149,999,999,997.01 less than the ISS)
Upcoming Release: The Spear of the Hunt

SLS Boeing Rocket – On Budget Ahead of Schedule

Space Launch SystemThere was a small story in the space section of the science category of NBC News the other day and it caught my attention. I thought about it and then came back to write this post and had to search long and hard before finding it again, it was buried deep. This generally means it didn’t garner much interest in the news community. Well, I noticed.

SLS stands for Space Launch System and it is a large rocket that will likely be used for the manned mission to Mars and other programs that will require a big launch vehicle. Ahead of schedule and on budget. I’ll repeat, ahead of schedule and on budget. How did this happen? Let’s find out!

Before I start I’m going to have to give a small disclaimer. Boeing has a major presence here in St. Louis and some of my best friends work as engineers there. I’m proud of Boeing and my friends although I don’t think any of them work on this project.

The story starts back in January of 2004 when President Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration. Part of this plan was something called Project Constellation which included the Orion Mars Mission. President Bush vaguely outlined a series of lofty goals for the programs in question. Plans were started, studies were made, money was spent, lots of money. Eventually it was largely cancelled after limited progress was made because of the vague goals and reliance on unsolved technical and design challenges. The plans largely called for technology that someone hoped that someone else would figure out.

This is important. I’m not saying President Bush was wrong to dream big. Dreaming big is a good thing. However, it is vitally important to understand that you don’t achieve your dreams by dreaming more. You achieve your dreams by making a practical analysis of the obstacles and coming up with real solutions. The Bush administration failed this test badly. I think this is symptomatic of possibly the largest problem we face in the United States. Somewhere along the line the lesson has become Dream Big and don’t worry about the small stuff. Well, the small stuff is what makes the boom. Dreams won’t come true if you don’t make a realistic analysis of the steps necessary to achieve them.

I’m reminded of the likely apocryphal story of the World War II era German engineers sent to the Eastern Front to quiz the tank commanders on what they wanted in a tank. In the story a commander takes the engineers out back and shows them a Russian T-34, ‘that’, he says.  The engineers scoff saying they can do much better. While almost certainly not a true story the moral applies. We too often ask for a weapon system that relies on technology that does not yet exist. This leads to huge delays, cost overruns, and out-right cancellations. Look up the F-35 and VH-71 Kestrel as examples.

All right, enough of failure. Why is the SLS doing so well? Here’s why. It was designed using existing technology with upgrade “block” versions that will be able to lift increasingly heavy loads. This is important. They decided to start with something they knew could be done and, as progress was made, scale it up for larger payloads. No dreams there. Existing technology and know-how. A realistic plan. Goals analyzed and obstacles understood. Too many projects are built on dreams and that’s a problem. I see it everywhere and I’d bet that many of my readers out there have a story or two to tell about some great idea that consumed time, money, and effort but failed because people didn’t make a practical plan.

Now, there are critics of SLS because it uses Space Shuttle technology and for several other reasons as well. There is a long way to go before we see if the SLS delivers on its promise or not.

The reality is that right now the project is ahead of schedule and on budget. That’s a good thing. Hooray Boeing!

Tom Liberman
Sword and Sorcery with a Libertarian Twist
Current Release: The Sword of Water (buy it, read it, write a review!)
Next Release: The Spear of the Hunt

Hubble eXtreme Deep Field – Religion and Science

Deep Field HubbleNASA released another deep field image of the night sky and it makes me ponder the difference between the religious view of an image like this and the scientific view. The picture shows a small section of the night sky, smaller than the size of the moon, and over five thousand galaxies. Each galaxy has potentially billions of stars although they vary greatly in size.

My thinking today is about how a deeply religious person looks at this compared to the way I look at this and all the middle ground in between. When I see this picture, I see such vastness that it confirms my atheism. No one entity could simply create this amount of material at the snap of a finger or wave of a noodly appendage. I like to think of a field of grass and all the geology, biology, chemistry, and other elements involved in it. To engineer such a thing would be a massive undertaking. Then to extend that to an entire planet, solar system, galaxy, and billions of galaxies that make up the universe. This is beyond any one creator no matter how powerful.

I can’t speak for religious thinking with any certainty but having spoken with religious people over the years they would likely take the opposite view. That such magnificence can’t be some coincidence. They would see a guiding hand that imagined, designed, and created this beauty.

I’m not really trying to come to any conclusions today just thinking about things. The way our minds shape our view of the world around us. Two people can look at exactly the same thing and come to very different conclusions. I’m of the opinion that my brain is somehow, certainly not fundamentally, different from a religious person’s brain. We see the world and interact with the world in different ways.

For me it’s not a matter of choosing to believe or not believe in god, it’s that I don’t, and I never will. I’ve been told that someday I’ll “see the light” and become profoundly religious. Honestly, I can’t imagine that ever happening. It requires a faith that my brain doesn’t understand. I see that picture and the thought that one creator entity made it all, every hydrogen atom, every chemical reaction, and I laugh. It’s impossible.

My religious friends might say that people thought flying was impossible but we do it now. It’s a bad argument because we’ve seen birds and insects fly from long before we could, but the concept is relatively sound. Things that seem impossible yesterday are completely possible today.

I just wonder if there is some genetic predisposition to religious thinking. Some gene-code sequence that makes a person more likely to be a faith-based thinker. I have no answers.

When I speak with most of atheist friends we all generally agree that there is something different going on. I’ll give one example and then call it a blog.

There are things in the bible, torah, quran that are ridiculous concepts. Noah’s Arc for example. It’s not physically possible to get that many animals and that much food in such a small space for a year. Anyway, I mentioned to my friend that at some point a religious person has to look at something like this, admit it’s ridiculous, and then say ‘I believe it anyway’. At some level of their thinking they have to do this. My atheist friend replies, “How do they do that?”

I have no answer. I don’t understand how you could look at something that is clearly false and choose to believe it anyway. I do think there are people more in the middle who don’t believe the bible, torah, quran tells literally true stories but they do believe in a higher power, noodly or not.

I find it interesting. What do you think?

Tom Liberman
Sword and Sorcery fantasy with a Libertarian Twist
Current Release: The Hammer of Fire
Upcoming Release: The Sword of Water

Life on Mars – Curiosity and Religious Spirituality

Curiosity RoverFor my fellow science and space geeks; on the evening of August 5/6 a special event occurs as NASA’s newest rover, Curiosity, attempts to land safely on Mars. It is an extremely heavy rover and the landing is going to be complex. Watch this video and you will be spellbound!

What I want to talk about today is not the astonishing engineering involved nor the budgetary crisis that is affecting NASA at the moment. Both fodder for future blogs but the topic for today is the spiritual effect of finding microbial life on Mars.

There is a lot of speculation in the atheist community, the scientific community, and the religious community on the spiritual impact of such a discovery. In particular this affects biblical literalists. This becomes an issue when dealing with the story of creation. Essentially, there is no mention of god creating life anywhere except on Earth.

Man is given dominion over earth and all its beasts but nothing is mentioned of dominion over Mars and its animals.

I don’t really see this as an issue for those of a faith-based thinking mentality. It will come as no surprise to me that they simply reinterpret the bible to accommodate for new scientific discoveries. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time.

That is one of the beauties of Faith Based Thinking, its incredible flexibility. It really doesn’t matter what anyone says, what the facts are, it is completely up to the believer to determine what they want to believe. It stands in stark contrast to Critical Thinking.

One good example of this, at least as far as the topic at-hand is concerned, is the planet Mars itself. It is nearby to earth (relatively speaking) and has been the subject of speculation since ancient times. Prior to 1965 there was a great deal of thought, both private and scientific, that Mars was home to life. This was based on the changing colors of the surface, the so-called canals, and in no small part to speculative fiction. In 1965 Mariner 4 visited the red planet and dispelled all these illusions. That is science, look at the evidence at hand and make a reasoned hypothesis. When the evidence changes then move on to new theories.

Faith based thinkers threatened Galileo with torture for his support of Copernicanism and the theory of heliocentrism. But, when indisputable facts arose they were able to nimbly change their biblical interpretations. I think we are all generally critical thinkers. When it comes to certain religious ideas people are extremely reluctant and even violently opposed to facts that might oppose those theories.

Therefore, I’m of the opinion that finding life on Mars will not be a threat to those of Judeo/Christian/Islamic beliefs. I’d like to here from my religious readers, if there are any, about what effect the discovery of life would have on their beliefs. Particularly from Evangelicals or others who support biblical infallibility.

Meanwhile, I won’t be staying up until one in the morning to watch people “watching” the landing. I’ll wait until morning and hope for the best!

What effect do you think finding life on Mars would have on religious beliefs?

Tom Liberman
Sword and Sorcery fantasy with a Libertarian Twist
New Release: The Hammer of Fire