Friday, July 29, 2005

Praying for the Shuttle Crew Tonight

I'm disturbed by the reports about the space shuttle Discovery. Here's why, from ABC/AP:

SPACE CENTER, Houston Jul 29, 2005 - Space shuttle Discovery escaped damage from the potentially deadly chunk of foam that broke off from the fuel tank during liftoff, but may have been struck in the wing by a much smaller piece, NASA said Thursday.

Even if the small foam fragment did hit, engineers believe the impact caused no damage of concern, said deputy shuttle program manager Wayne Hale.

In the past, NASA's word was enough for me. But I have two pretty bad memories of shuttle disasters, the first of which I sort of saw coming. Let me explain.

The space shuttle Challenger was originally set to launch January 25, 1986. But on January 23, the shuttle suffered its fourth one-day postponement, and the launch was pushed out to Sunday because of bad weather in Florida and at the emergency landing strip in Dakar Africa. The shuttle also has a landing strip in Spain, but the Challenger was carrying a giant communications satellite worth $100 million that was so heavy the shuttle couldn't have made it to the strip in Moron, Spain. it was described as the "largest privately owned telecommunications spacecraft ever built."

As time went on and the dust storm in Dakar was not clearing, the emergency strip of choice became one in Casablanca, Morocco. But that runway had no lights, so the flight had to be delayed so a landing could happen during daylight hours in Morocco. The Dakar strip had been an issue in the record seven delays of the previous shuttle mission, by the shuttle Columbia.

But Sunday, there was a storm in Florida, and the low clouds were set to break Monday, so the launch was rescheduled yet again.

Monday, the Challenger sat on the pad with additional problems. It had been scheduled to go up at 9:36 am Florida time. According to an article in the Chicago Tribune, although the public was told "strong winds" were grounding the shuttle, in reality, a four-inch bolt on an outside Shuttle door handle was stuck, and ultimately had to be drilled off. It would have stuck out, affecting airflow. AFTER the launch time was missed, strong winds did cover the site - up to 17 miles an hour. So that became the official story.

The launch was rescheduled yet again for Tuesday. And because the shuttle tanks had already been filled, they had to be drained until just before launch the next day, which cost NASA an additional $300,000. The temperature Monday was in the low 40s, but the weather was expected to dip below freezing by Tuesday.

Monday night, the temperature in Florida had dropped to the 20s. The contractor responsible for the booster rockets, Morton Thiokol, had urged NASA to postpone the launch. Engineer Roger Boisjoly voiced concerns that in the icy conditions, the O-rings might not be sealing properly.

Tuesday morning, January 28, the launch was delayed a final time for a couple of hours due to icicles on the structure supporting the shuttle. Or so we were told. At 11:38 am Florida time, the Challenger finally lifted off the platform. 75 seconds later, the Challenger exploded in midair. The O-rings had failed, and the tank blew up, taking the shuttle out.

I was at work that morning, and we had a TV there, and I've watched launches since childhood. I was as enamored of the space missions as anyone. But that day, the world changed completely. This was the first airborne space flight disaster. Our innocence was gone. And I was so angry. I didn't know the details of the delays, but I had heard about the ice, and knew NASA was trying hard to get this shuttle up, and said to myself as I saw the explosion, if only they hadn't rushed. If only they had taken the time to be safe.

The press had made such a hero out of Christine McAuliffe. And I remember a teary Tom Brokaw talking about how he had dated the other woman on the flight, Judy Resnick, and how he had brought her beer and roses. (She didn't have much use for the roses, as I recall, but appreciated the beer.)

One can't help but wonder if the fact that President Ronald Reagan was to give the state of the union address that night had any effect on NASA's schedule. After the disaster, President Reagan postponed the state of the union speech for a week.

The next shuttle disaster occurred on February 1, 2003. This time, the star aboard was the first Israeli in space, Col. Ilan Ramon, who carried the scroll of a holocaust survivor. NASA hired extra security to protect him. A crack had been found in the plumbing, but was not deemed mission-threatening. The year before, NASA had grounded its entire shuttle fleet due to cracked fuel lines. This was nothing, in comparison.

At 10:39 am Florida time, January 16, 1986, shuttle Columbia had "a perfect launch and perfect climb into orbit, and everything is in great shape," according to Rod Navias, a spokesman at Mission Control in Houston.

But by January 23rd, Mission Control knew the shuttle had been struck by foam insulation that flew off the external fuel tank at launch. Mission control wrote the following to two of the crew members in an email:

There is one item that I would like to make you aware of for the upcoming PAO event on Blue FD 10 ... This item is not even worth mentioning other than wanting to make sure that you are not surprised by it in a question from a reporter.

During ascent at approximately 80 seconds, photo analysis shows that some debris...came loose and subsequently impacted the orbiter left wing...The impact appears to be totally on the lower surface and no particles are seen to traverse over the upper surface of the wing. Experts have reviewed the high speed photography and there is no concern for RCC or tile damage. We have seen this same phenomenon on several other flights and there is absolutely no concern for entry.
In the movie Apollo 13, we saw how the people at NASA in those days wracked their brains and did all they could to ensure their astronauts came home alive. But for the NASA of 2003, the Houston Chronicle reported:
Even if the tiles were damaged upon liftoff, Dittemore said, there was nothing the astronauts could have done in orbit to fix them, and flight controllers could have done nothing to safely bring home a severely scarred shuttle.
On February 1, 2003, on reentry, shuttle Columbia entered that window where no contact can be made as the shuttle enters the Earth's atmosphere. Unlike all other missions, however, the shuttle never again made contact, and eventually reports of the shuttle blazing across the sky over Texas and the debris told the tragic story a second time.

So now we hear - if you read this story carefully - that foam debris appears to have again hit the wing of the shuttle. The shuttle did an "unprecedented" backflip to expose its underbelly to cameras at the International Space station, meaning, someone had cause for concern and wanted pictures of the critical heat-shielding tiles.

All we hear from NASA currently are assurances that Discovery is safe and should make it back without incident. But as you see, I've heard NASA's assurances before, and twice they were most tragically wrong.

Me, I'm going to try a little prayer in advance this time. I hope you'll join me. Our spaceworkers need all the help they can get.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

The Rainbow Warrior Rises Again

One of my first online arguments I ever had was over the sinking of the Greenpeace ship "The Rainbow Warrior." It's wild to see it in the news again.

My life of activism started in a poetry class, of all places. My teacher in college was a huge supporter of Greenpeace, and passed their literature around. Loving whales and dolphins and all life in general, I was transfixed by the images of people putting their bodies between the harpoons of whaling ships and the overmatched whales. That's commitment, I thought.

My teacher took us on a protest to the Nuclear Test Site in Nevada, where I met Daniel Ellsberg. It was also the first time I was captured on film for government files. As we protested, a van of men in black drove by with video cameras, filming all our faces. I wondered if they'd captured our names too.

On the way there, I saw for the first time the desert in spring. It was nowhere near as spectacular as the display I saw this last spring, but to see anything blooming in the desert, especially near a nuclear test site, seemed magical to me. I'll remember that trip forever. I rode with a fellow classmate, who commented on how cool it was to see the "shape of the earth" there. There were no buildings, no roads, no power lines in sight. Only the gentle rising and falling of pieces of the planet.

At any rate, that experience happened long before I got online. (I refused to use a computer in school - I was certain I could write faster on a typewriter. Ignorance is definitely NOT bliss, I can atest.) I purchased two books around that time - No Nukes, and Warriors of the Rainbow: A Chronicle of the Greenpeace Movement. The latter told the story of the activists on those ships that I had seen in the pictures in their magazine, and I longed to ride on that ship someday.

So imagine how heartbroken I was to hear that the great Rainbow Warrior, the ship that had saved so many animal and human lives (it was sunk in the South Pacific while the activists protested nuclear tests over the ocean ), was no more.

I suspected the French government from the start. Cui bono? The only people that Greenpeace was blocking were the French and their nuclear tests. But proving it took a little longer. And even after the French admitted at least that "rogue intelligence agents" had done the terrible deed, some in my circle did not believe that could be true. I had to run around and dig out articles and post them. "Not a credible source" someone said, so I found another source, and then another. I think I finally found a US News and World Report article in which the French proclaimed at least partial guilt, and that shut my opponents' mouths.

Today, the Rainbow Warrior is in the news again. The Times of London reported today,
FRANÇOIS MITTERRAND ordered the sinking of the Greenpeace boat Rainbow Warrior, despite the late President’s denials at the time, France was told yesterday.

Exactly 20 years after the bungled operation in Auckland harbour, a report by Admiral Pierre Lacoste, who at the time was head of the DGSE, the French foreign intelligence service, was published by Le Monde.

In Operation Satanic, as the DGSE called the plan, three teams of secret agents used explosives to sink the vessel as it was preparing to sail to observe French nuclear testing at Mururoa atoll in the Pacific. Fernando Pereira, a Portuguese photographer, died in the attack.
We knew the French had sunk it, but we didn't know until today from just how high up the order came.

I also don't recall the name of the operation being known twenty years ago. How utterly appropriate - Operation Satanic.

What will we know twenty years from now about the attacks of 9/11? What will we know in forty? I wonder.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

First Day Reports re London Bombings

As I watched the CNN coverage of the London bombings today, I heard multiple experts, including Octavia Nasser (also spelled Nasr), say the group claiming responsibility didn't use known signatures of Al Qaeda. They even quoted the Koran incorrectly! I wish I had taped what she said, as I knew this was likely truth. Sure enough, a few hours later, all anyone would say was that this was definitely an act of Al Qaeda. Sigh. Like so many other covert operations, the truth disappears quickly in the quicksand of the "official story."

Here are some things I'm wondering about.

1. London is the most surveilled city in the world. There are surveillance cameras all over town, including in the subway system. I passed by cameras affixed to buildings while taking a tour bus around town. I suspect strongly that whoever did this was caught on tape. If no tape surfaces, I'll have to consider that whoever was caught on tape was not someone British intelligence wanted us to know about.

2. Just two days ago, the British were talking about withdrawing from Iraq, leaving us alone to fight the enemy. I predict by tomorrow we'll see a "renewed commitment" from the British to keeping troops in Iraq. Here's a clip from the story in China Daily two days ago:

Britain's defence ministry has drafted plans for a significant troop withdrawal from Iraq over the next 18 months and a big deployment to Afghanistan.

When asked about the article however, a defence ministry spokesman stuck to the official position that British troops would be on the ground in Iraq for as long as
necessary to support the Iraqi government.

"In what would represent the biggest operational shake-up involving the armed forces since the Iraq war, the first stage of a run-down in military operations is likely to take place this autumn with a handover of security to Iraqis in at least two southern provinces," the Financial Times said.

Although I can find no transcript of Nasser's CNN comments, Al Jazeera captured similar comments, in an article titled "Phony reports link Al Qaeda to London attacks":

7/7/2005 9:30:00 PM GMT

A group calling itself "The Secret Organization of Al Qaeda in Europe" posted a statement on an internet site, claiming responsibility for the deadly attacks that hit London on Thursday.

But MSNBC TV translator Jacob Keryakes said that the statement in which the group claimed responsibility for the attacks contained an error in one of the Qura’nic verses it cited. That suggests that the claim is phony, he said.

"This is not something Al Qaeda would do," he said.

The first day after the Kennedy assassination, some incredible news was reported. Kennedy was shot from the front (Oswald was behind). Shots were fired from the Grassy Knoll (Oswald was in the School Book Depository). Six to eight shots were fired (but only two shots were made on the sixth floor, which Dallas police lied and stretched to three. They couldn't stretch that to eight - there wasn't enough time for one man to have made those shots in the window in which the shots transpired).

Within 24 hours, the spin was already in effect. Kennedy was shot from behind, not the front. Only three shots, all Oswald, etc. It took us years to pry out the files that put the lie to all of that.

How long before we know the truth about 9/11 and London? Let's hope it won't take another thirty years. We can't afford to be that patient. Patience is too easily mistaken for consent.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Freedom in the Fog of War

I went to the water tonight to see the fireworks, but it was so foggy all we saw were the bottom tips of the explosions. Somehow, that was the most appropriate thing I could imagine. As a country, we don't have much to celebrate. We're a mere fizzle compared to the dream of what we could be, lost in the fog of war.

Americans are some of the most propagandized people on Earth. Watching the media, you'd think we're the best country in the world in every way. It just ain't so.

  • Our health care is ranked 37th in the world, after such countries as Iceland, Morocco, and Chile.
  • Our unemployment rate is ranked 47th in the world, behind Mexico and Uzbekistan.
  • Our literacy rate is ranked 62nd in the world, behind Poland, Samoa, and the Ukraine.
Well, we should be behind the Ukraine. At least they KNEW when THEIR election was stolen. They respected their exit polls.

And what about our freedoms? Let's see.
  • Americans are not free to travel to Cuba. Still. After forty-five years. Robert Kennedy tried to get the ban lifted after his brother's assassination but was overruled by George Ball in the State Department. Jimmy Carter lifted the ban in 1977, but Reagan quickly reinstated it when he came to office.
  • Americans are not free to hear the truth about their history. TV and radio stations, newspapers and magazines, and even book publishing companies have longstanding relationships with the CIA in particular and the government in general that keep them from telling us what's really going on.
  • Americans are not free to study forbidden science. Whole areas of science are now classified. We're told certain things can't be done, like defying gravity, but in fact black areas of the government have been studying ways to do that for quite a long time now.
So what exactly were we celebrating today, would somebody please remind me?

Oh yeah. Independence. The very thing we're currently denying the Iraqi people....

Friday, July 01, 2005

Why I Like “National Treasure”

I’m still trying to figure out why I liked the film “National Treasure” so much. I confess to multiple viewings. I’ve decided it’s because even a brief brush with some of our real history is such a welcome thing in a film these days. Spoilers within (i.e., don’t read if you haven’t seen the film and want to without knowing more about it.)

I mean, someone actually did research. Homework. And of all the lines to quote from the declaration, how wonderful that in this era of “you’re either for us or against us” the writers chose this particular part: “when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government.” That’s a lot more relevant than the oft repeated, if not oft practiced, “all men are created equal.”

I have a genuine love for the Charters of Freedom – the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. Some great thought went into those documents. I would have loved to converse with Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and other men of wisdom and foresight who set us on a course for a great adventure. That we have strayed from that course is not their fault.

And then there are the locations. The Library of Congress! The National Archives! Independence Hall! I feel like a kid on a field trip every time I see those images. I can see why reviewers, a pretty cynical bunch, weren’t exactly carried away. But for this history and travel lover, it’s a fun trip!

The film also just has some great moments. There are several laugh out loud funny lines (as people who have sat next to me in theaters can uncomfortably atest). After (I’m too embarrassed to say how many) viewings, I still laugh at most of them. There’s a wonderful confluence of writing, acting, timing, direction, and editing that just makes this a crisp and professionally entertaining experience.

There’s the relationship between the father and son, with the son as the romantic and the father the realist who couldn’t stop piping up about how the clues would only lead to more clues, leading nowhere, ruining his life. There was the hint of what’s sadly now considered “old fashioned” morality, i.e., if you’ve told more than one person in your life that you loved them, you’ve been “a little too cavalier with your personal life.” Hey, guilty as charged, but I still appreciate and respect the sentiment!

I never noticed there was a clock on the back of the $100 bill. Of course, I don’t typically carry them around, so no wonder. But it was cool to have that pointed out. And since childhood I’ve been fascinated with the Great Seal of the United States and all the hidden intricacies of the design.

And of course, the thought of stealing something from the National Archives has of course crossed my mind. I mean, who wouldn’t want to see the secret CIA files on the Kennedy assassinations? It was fun to live that out vicariously. Of course I WOULD NEVER DO IT, CIA, NSA, FBI, HOMELAND SECURITY and the rest. STOP BUGGING MY PHONE.

When the woman in the film exclaimed with deep reverence, “scrolls from the library at Alexandria! Could this be possible?” The kid in me cried, “YES!” What I wouldn’t give to have seen and touched some of the treasures of the past. I grew up with books about the Seven Wonders of the World – the hanging gardens of Babylon, the Colossus of Rhodes, and the rest. But the library at Alexandria! What knowledge was lost to the world when that was destroyed?

The film provided a light-hearted, vicarious romp through places I’ve been and times and places I can never visit. It’s just, aw heck, it’s just fun.