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User Journal

Journal Journal: The Columbia Event

It's tragic to watch the current fallout of the Columbia disaster. Certainly NASA, relevant manufacturers, and the United States Government will be asked to answer for any negligence which may have caused the loss of the shuttle and her seven crew. But I would implore anyone reading this not to conclude that the loss of the Columbia should mean the end of human spaceflight.

If anything, our commitment to space should be radically expanded. The current problems in the space program are the result of all power and authority over the development of space exploration being held in a single decision-making body. NASA, which is a marvelous organization and which certainly provided the basis for the early successes in space, is simply not equipped to move space exploration ahead. It is a government entity, unbound by market considerations, and weighed down by bureaucratic inefficiencies which make radical changes - such as the introduction of new technologies in a cost-effective manner - impossible.

The question, however, must be posed whether space exploration in itself is valuable enough to transfer to the private sector. This question is analogous to the gradual shift in the control of earthbound exploration schemes from sovereign control to chartered corporations. To answer the question, however, without respect to the analogy, no, space exploration in itself is not particularly valuable. It is another medium, another vehicle for transporting humans and their commerce, as well as seeing what's out there. I doubt any private venture at this point would find this to be a profitable scheme without, to be circular, some way to make profits from it.

Thus the analogy: space travel is valuable only insofar as it brings benefit to the people of this planet, or, more specifically, to the shareholders of any corporations which undertake it. In near space, the profits are easy to identify. The GPS system which allows boaters to find their way to fishing spots provided the "spiritual" basis for private venture such as XM Radio. Government-financed spy satellites showed private corporations that money could be made selling space-based imagery of the planet.

But none of these requires human space flight. In order for there to be profit in the human expansion into space, there must be some market for the products which can be produced exclusively or most efficiently in space, whether directly in the case of manufactured goods or indirectly in the case of products developed using experimental data acquired in space. As one discussion group poster noted in response to a question on the necessity of humans to supervise space-based experiments, "It's hard to count ants from 140 miles down."

The International Space Station is a fiasco, and so is the space shuttle. Given the radical developments in materials sciences and knowledge of the effects of space on human bodies, it is as unlikely that the shuttles would have remained in private service for twenty years as to consider that Boeing might continue to build aircraft using the processes and materials perfected during the development of, say, the now-obsolete 727. Even a plane that has had a 30-year lifespan such as the 737 is today not the same plane except in the most superficial way as the first model that flew out of Everett Field.

My plan for space would include the following broad steps. First, ground the shuttle fleet only as long as is necessary to conduct materials review of the launch equipment (fuel tank and rockets), the cooling tile system, and any particularly vulnerable areas of the shuttle's structure (particularly any structural elements on the bottom of the spacecraft). Second, apply any changes rapidly - within no more than two years - with a national commitment to redeploy the shuttle as a stopgap measure in the interests of national security and commerce (as well as prestige). Third, set a hard deadline to retire the shuttles by 2014 at the absolute latest - perhaps 2012 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of American spaceflight. Fourth, provide incentives to corporations to begin manned space flight outside the scope of NASA oversight. Fifth, turn NASA into a regulatory agency for the purposes of establishing safety guidelines; and a science agency which would fund and oversee pure science activities in space. Sixth, provide ongoing incentives for the next two or three decades to promote human exploitation of space by private corporations.

The money for such incentives could probably be found in the monies freed up by the unfortunate loss of Columbia. I would name two incentive packages: the Challenger Fund for the rapid commercialization of space exploration, and the Columbia Fund for the ongoing support of pure science exploration by government or commercial entities. A third package, the Apollo Fund - deriving its name from America's other fatal space mission, Apollo I - would subsidize development of safety mechanisms and alternative propulsion schemes for space exploration.

Our planet is small. Our resources are limited. Only a hundred miles above our heads is the gateway to, literally, a universe of options. There are planets packed with natural resources and room for human habitation. There are asteroids which at once pose a direct threat to our planet and could be a staggeringly rich source of raw materials for the improvement of human civilization. And, as always in a new realm, there is a near infinite space which will provide further insights into this incredible and complex universe in which we are such small but special players.

Now is not the time to draw back from our commitment to space. If anything, we should conclude that the loss of Columbia means that we have reached the limits - after 40 years of remarkable successes - of government monopoly over rich space exploration.

I suspect that the crew of Columbia and their families would agree. After all, they were drawn to the space program because of the opportunity to do something revolutionary, brave, and necessary for our world, not because they wanted to get rich. They would - I hope - support any initiative which would have given them more opportunity to do the work they loved. If we could demonstrate that private control of the space program would, in fact, radically expand that space program - in the same way that private corporations increased and improved the reach of the automobile, the airplane, telecommunications networks, and the Internet - I believe that those astronauts and the astronauts who remain would support us.

Don't give up on space. It is not only our future, but also our present. Make it better, do not declare it dead with those men and women who have died in their ongoing quest to expand the reach and the value of our lives.

User Journal

Journal Journal: Illinois Death Penalty Event

Today Gov. Ryan of Illinois commuted the death sentences of every inmate on Illinois' death row. This is wonderful news for someone who opposes the death penalty - and tragic at the same time. I'll get to my reasons for opposing the death penalty shortly, but first I need to write a bit about the political and social effects of Governor Ryan's act.

I'm actually a little bit unnerved that Ryan would do what he did. He's a lame-duck governor widely regarded as corrupt and facing possible prosecution for that corruption. That's not exactly the spokesman I'd choose to carry the banner of Abolition. What are pro-death advocates going to say? He's got nothing to lose. He's trying to salvage his image by doing this symbolic act. He doesn't know what he's talking about because he's a pharmacist. Death penalty supporters are going to be up in arms to limit the ability of a governor to commute any sentence, and that's really a shame.

I find myself in a peculiar position. By doing what he's done, Ryan has partially emasculated the cause of death penalty opponents in Illinois. Now there's nobody on death row to personify the wrongness of the death penalty. State sponsored killing in Illinois is now entirely an abstract concept, at least until someone is sentenced to death in Illinois under the still-effective death penalty laws. Do you think that now some ambitious prosecutor is going to have tremendous incentive to get a death penalty sentence as soon as possible to re-assert the supremacy of existing law over the "whim" of the state's former chief executive? And so the debate rages on. Ryan didn't do anything effective, except as to the lives of those whose sentences he's now commuted.

Sure, it's established a nifty precedent, but it's precedent with only sentimental weight, dragged down into the morass of politics by Ryan's other activities.

Which is a shame, really. His speech today (January 11) beautifully outlined why the death penalty is wrong. It is arbitrary. It is a violation of the sanctity of human life. It is fraught with the danger that the death penalty may be applied for reasons other than justice. It is, in short, an absolute and perfected punishment governed by the limited and imperfect reason of fallible human beings.

The death penalty represents exactly the sort of vindictive, tribal justice that the rule of law is supposed to replace. Why do we go to court to argue contract disputes? So the parties to that dispute won't go into a back alley to settle their dispute in a duel. Law is supposed to serve the interests of society, not of any one person or group. A law that does serve a particular group must do so only on the understanding that improving (or reducing) the lot of that group will have a consequent beneficial effect on society.

So, who does the death penalty benefit, and what societal improvement results from it?

It would seem that at its base the death penalty serves to placate the suffering victims: to provide them with a vicarious outlet for their rage. An argument can be made that the anger of society is likewise served by killing the killer, but is that true? If that were the case, then it seems logical that the death penalty would be applied globally to all gross wrongs, and certainly to all killings. After all, can't you imagine a situation where a wrong that does not involve a killing creates more social unrest than the killing of a certain person? Is society more upset by the actions of Enron's officers than by the killling of some unknown victim in Alabama? Should - and you should stifle your smart-ass responses here - Enron's officers be put to death to placate society's anger?

If not, and if the death penalty should apply only to horrible killings, whose interests are being served? What benefit derives from the killing of a killer? None. The death penalty removes the killer permanently and thereby eliminates his future threat to society, a death penalty supporter might say. But doesn't an effective and permanent life sentence do the same thing?

I feel no sympathy for persons who kill in horrible ways. (I do, however, feel some sympathy for persons who kill in the heat of passion, under provocation, or because they were unaware of the wrongness of their act.) I think those who kill in terrible ways should be punished in terrible ways. But that punishment should not include death.

This is simply because such a policy reduces the government to an instrumentality of eye-for-eye justice, or precisely the sort of tribal, vindictive justice that law is supposed to supplant. A death penalty government is nothing more than a lynch mob, so organized as to remove the chaos accompanying most lynchings and to insulate society from liability for a vindictive killing. The government, then, is social insurance: a way for society to engage in "bad" behavior without the possibility of suffering consequences from it.

I don't see that as the role of government. I see government as, fundamentally, preserving, protecting, and defending the rights conferred to the citizens by the Constitution, among which is the right to life. Even the most cold-hearted killer has a "zone of dignity" around him guaranteed by the Constitution. It is true that by due process the government can remove a person's rights - incarceration is an example of this.

So why shouldn't the government be allowed to remove the right to life and put to death a person who has, essentially, violated without cause the constitutional rights of another person? I'm forced to admit that the government can in fact void a person's right to life. The Constitution giveth, and the Constitution taketh away.

But a unique feature of our constitutional government is that all governmental acts are subject to recall; no governmental act is absolute. The conflict arises that the death penalty is necessarily a permanent act. A killer cannot be "unkilled" if he is later found to be innocent, or if society later deems his death to be unpalatable. This is a serious problem, because it presents the government with the unsavory choice of acting within its guaranteed powers or restraining itself from using those powers for fear of mistake.

So we confront the problem of justice. It is almost unquestionable that justice requires the punishment of a killer. Both emotion and reason dictate that a wrongdoer should not be permitted to remain free in a civil society where he or she has violated the legal norms of that society. But we face the possibility of a far greater injustice: that the government may exercise its power to cause an absolute effect only to find later that the power was applied incorrectly. Whether the act of putting a prisoner to death is incorrect because of a change in law, exculpatory evidence, or a change in public sentiment is immaterial: we're still left with a dead human being who cannot be brought back to life.

Therefore, while I will certainly argue against the death penalty on moral grounds - namely that it is simply wrong to kill another person - my basic argument against the death penalty is that the government has a duty to exercise restraint in its use of its powers in order to avoid the possibility of greater injustice, especially where existing punitive measures provide effective means to remove the wrongdoer from society.

There is simply no justification for the death penalty, no public good which it can serve which is not otherwise served by other means. It should be abolished.

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