Last week, it was reported that NASA’s budget is so thin that it puts “America’s leadership in scientific research is at risk.” (Last year’s NASA budget was around $16 billion, give or take a few hundred million.)
The National Research Council says the space agency is “being asked to accomplish too much with too little.” The group points to the competing demands of building the international space station and returning astronauts to the moon.
So what should a large government agency do when budgets run high and credibility runs low?
NASA is calling on private industry to build next-generation spacecraft that can land on the moon, and it’s got $2 million to back up the bid.
The PowerBlog has often covered the X-Prize folk (here and here) as good examples of the power of private entrepreneurship. Now, these folks’ good old fashioned DIY attitude may provide the answer to returning to the moon.
NASA’s exploration vision calls for putting humans back on the moon in the next decade. The vehicles to land on the moon no longer exist,” X Prize Chairman Peter Diamandis said in a statement. “We believe that entrepreneurial companies can build these lunar spaceships, and a Lunar Lander Challenge can stimulate the required technology in an efficient and rapid fashion.”
For NASA, the $2 million prize money is a small price to pay for the promise of technical innovation from private industry or untapped genius. The contest does not grant NASA intellectual property rights to winners’ inventions, but the space agency asks contestants to be willing to negotiate licensing rights in good faith if it shows interest in a particular technology or design.
I look forward to seeing how well this works (and I suspect it will work quite well). And when it does, I hope someone (perhaps the PowerBlog) will create a pretty cost/result chart comparing the private company that gets us back to the moon and the government agency whose budget is “too thin.”
Here’s an interesting story–Apple Corps is suing Apple Computer for breach of contract. You probably recognize the first Apple as the company owned by Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and the widows of the other two Beatles. Since 1991, Apple Corps has had a deal with Apple Computer: in essence, the music company agrees to stay out of the computer and telecommunications business, and the computer company agrees to stay out of the music business–technically, each has agreed to keep its trademark out of the others “field of use.” All was fine and dandy until innovation reared its head: iTunes. Through its iTunes Music Store, Apple Computer now sells over three million songs a day–a success driven largely by the invention of the iPod. Apple Corps claims that Apple Computer has now elbowed in to the former’s “field of use.”
So this brings up an interesting dilemma: when a company like Apple creates something new–in this case, a new distribution system for music–unimaginable in the time when the terms of a particular agreement were set, how does this change the agreement itself? When the two Apples agreed to stay out of one another’s field of use, what happens when one Apple creates a new field that is similar in some ways to the one it promised to stay out of?
Of course, I am no lawyer, and cannot say how things ought to play out (any thoughts on this from those who know?). But it is worth noting that the creativity of entrepreneurs–in this case, the creative minds at Apple–can easily disrupt common ways of thinking about particular industries. Markets are not static entites, but we often don’t think that innovation can also change our terms of understanding. This is not a negative. Rather, it shows the multiple powers of human creativity: the thing created also demands the creation of new ways of understanding our world and language.
Google announced plans today to partner with the National Archives to digitize the institution’s media holdings, specifically through a pilot project to “digitize their video content and offer it to everyone in the world for free.” The plan is to make these resources readily available for educational use.
As Jon Steinback, Product Marketing Manager of Google Video, writes, “For many momentous events, words and pictures don’t transmit the full sense of what has transpired. To see for one’s self, through video and audio, brings an event to life.”
And here are a couple other multimedia resources that are invaluable for personal edification and classroom education: American Rhetoric and the Internet Archive Moving Images section, which features public domain movies, such as the 1951 classic “Duck and Cover.”
In particular, American Rhetoric features text, audio, and video in an online speech bank (such as, “I Have a Dream,” JFK Inaugural), a bank of famous movie speeches, and a special Christian Rhetoric section.
Not satisfied simply with privately-funded space flights, the X Prize Foundation is currently drafting rules for a lunar lander challenge. The foundation is looking for comments from the public on the current draft, and here are some of the details according to SPACE.com:
According to draft rules for the lunar lander contest, competitors will be challenged to build a vehicle capable of launching vertically, travel a distance of 328 to 656 feet (100 to 200 meters) horizontally, and then land at a designated site. A return trip would then occur between 5 minutes and 30 minutes later.
The X Prize Foundation was behind the successful Ansari X Prize competition in 2004, and when I wrote about the challenge then, I said that “every part of the created cosmos fills a specific purpose within God’s created order,” and that “the feasibility of popular space travel underscores the significance of our solar system as a responsibility and blessing for human stewardship.”
The cultural mandate and blessing says that humans are to “fill the earth and subdue it.” I hope and pray that we can do the same to the moon (and beyond) in a responsible and stewardly fashion. Indeed, in the process of learning about the rest of the cosmos, we may well learn how to take care of the earth better through technological and scientific advancement. If nothing else, perhaps we can make the moon a base for comet-busting lasers.
Some new developments on the idea to move cable television to an a la carte subscription model: Christians and minorities are “concerned.”
According to the Christian Science Monitor, FCC chairman Kevin Martin is pressuring cable providers to move away from the tier-based subscription system to “a full thumbs-up/thumbs-down choice of individual channels.”
In what’s sure to tweak the sensibilities of the cable industry, Martin threatened that if no such moves were made, “basic indecency and profanity restrictions may be a viable alternative.” In other words, it’s the “Do what I want or there’ll be trouble” method of politicking.
The pressure by the FCC may in fact work against the existence of such “family friendly” or religious fare. In a curious confluence, “Democratic politicians and Christian broadcasters are crying foul. They are concerned that a wide expansion of channel choice could raise cable and satellite prices and spell the end of small networks targeted toward niche audiences.”
Martin emphasizes that there should also be “family friendly” packages, but I don’t see the real point of this if people can pick and choose what channels they want themselves anyway. Let them decide what is “family friendly” and what is not. Of course that’s precisely the situation these “niche” broadcasters want to avoid.
For its part, the Family Research Council and its senior legal council Patrick Trueman emphasized the importance of obscenity and decency enforcement on cable and satellite TV, in testimony before a Senate subcommittee last year.
The long wait is finally over. Federal vouchers are coming!
Before you get too excited, however, I have to inform you that the vouchers are not for education. You can’t use these vouchers to send your child to the school of your choice.
Instead, because of the government-mandated switch for broadcast TV from analog to digital bandwidths, set for Feb. 17, 2009, upwards of 20 million television sets will be obsolete, only able to receive the then-defunct analog signals.
“To avoid a consumer revolt, Congress has set aside about $1.5 billion to smooth the transition. Owners of outmoded TV sets will be eligible for two vouchers, worth $40 each, to help buy converter boxes that will enable today’s analog TV sets to receive digital signals,” Fortune magazine reports.
The government argues that the move will open up huge new areas of bandwidth for greater technical innovation and delivery. Once broadcast TV is moved to the digital spectrum, the old analog bandwidths will be auctioned off, and the government stands to make a pretty penny on the deal. “The sale of this valuable, scarce real estate is expected to bring in about $10 billion, maybe more. That will help reduce the federal budget deficit,” writes Marc Gunther.
Of course, those companies buying up the newly-opened space will be better off too: “With the new auction, we will finally become a broadband nation,” says Blair Levin, a Washington analyst with Stifel Nicolaus. “Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Intel, Dell — these companies will all benefit. The more broadband pipes you have, the more applications will come along, the more often you will upgrade your device.”
The interesting thing about these digital tuner vouchers is that one argument for their issue is that the poor will be disproportionately affected by the switch. Gunther writes, “But for consumers with one of those 70 million sets — many of whom are likely to be poor, elderly or uneducated, being forcibly switched from one technology to another will be a nightmare.”
Gunther goes on to describe the “nightmare scenario,” in which “people who depend on free, over-the-air TV for news and entertainment will lose their access, or have to pay more for it, so that the rest of us can get faster service on our Blackberries and ESPN on our cell phones.”
Last I checked, news and weather information on which people depend is still freely available over the radio. And maybe some of us would be better off with less access to TV. AC Nielsen reports (PDF) that “During the 2004-05 TV season (which started September 20, 2004 and just ended September 18, 2005), the average household in the U.S. tuned into television an average of 8 hours and 11 minutes per day.”
We’ve all heard the stories about families on federal assistance in the inner city with big screen TVs, or living in trailer parks with satellite dishes. Nowadays, Marx might say that TV is the opiate of the people rather than religion, or better yet, that TV has become the religion of the people.
The US government is getting set to open up a set of airwave frequencies, vacating the prime estate for obscure channels that will serve its purposes just as well. In addition, the newly available channels will provide a big boost to the capabilities of current wireless telecom providers.
As Gene J. Koprowski writes for UPI, “It’s something like an eminent-domain case — except this time, the government is vacating the space in order to further the technology economy, rather than the reverse.” We might call it something like “common” or “conventional” domain. Wikipedia traces the origin of the term eminent domain as “derived in the mid-19th Century from a legal treatise written by the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius in 1625.” Grotius (1583-1645) was a Remonstrant natural-law theorist.
“With 90 megahertz of additional spectrum, today’s cellular carriers will be tomorrow’s next-generation broadband providers,” Michael D. Gallagher, assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information, said in a statement. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, part of the Department of Commerce, says the channels are to be used for “advanced wireless services.”
The cost of the move is estimated to be around $936 million, which is actually well under previous industry predictions, and will be paid for by the proceeds from the auction of the channels. “We found a way to open up a ‘beach front’ spectrum for key economic activity without jeopardizing our national security,” Gallagher said.
The move follows successful lobbying by the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA). TIA President Matthew J. Flanigan said in a press release, “The passage of the Commercial Spectrum Enhancement Act last year and today’s report by NTIA are important steps in accelerating the deployment of advanced wireless services. Auction proceeds will create billions of dollars of capital investments and increase job growth in the United States.”
All in all, the move looks to be a positive one for economic development in the quickly growing field of wireless communication. And its noteworthy that the government is using its sovereign power to serve the interests of private enterprise rather than jealously guarding its own previously acquired “territory” (although it will look to turn a tidy profit from the sale of the newly opened airwaves).
As the newly-burgeoning field of space tourism takes the first steps towards reality, elements of the federal government are already pushing for stringent regulation. In a 60 Minutes report last night, the Ansari X Prize, “an extraordinary competition created in 1996 to stimulate private investment in space,” has spawned the new space race. This new field is “a race among private companies and billionaire entrepreneurs to carry paying passengers into space and to kick-start a new industry, astro tourism.”
Part of the X Prize credo states the following: “We believe that spaceflight should be open to all — not just an elite cadre of government employees or the ultra-rich. We believe that commercial forces will bring spaceflight into a publicly affordable range.” I have argued previously that the developments in space travel should be recognized by Christians as a confirmation of “the significance of our solar system as a responsibility and blessing for human stewardship.”
Out of recognition of the possibilities for human flourishing represented by private spaceflight, Wired News reports about legislation that was made law last year, allowing the industry to develop “without too much government interference prohibits the Federal Aviation Administration from issuing safety regulations for passengers and crew for eight years, unless specific design features or operating practices cause a serious or fatal injury.”
The idea is essentially the opposite of some applications of the so-called precautionary principle, the idea that something must be proven to be safe before the public can make use of it. The FAA acknowledges that the instituted law instead gives the regulatory body an “informed consent” role to “encourage, facilitate, and promote” private space travel in a way that emphasizes safety. According to newly proposed regulations, “This means that the FAA has to wait for harm to occur or almost occur before it can impose restrictions, even against foreseeable harm. Instead, Congress requires that space flight participants be informed of the risks.”
This set of proposed FAA regulations (PDF) was released last Thursday, comprising what appear to be advisory regulations intended to provide information to the purveyors and consumers of space travel. According to the document summary, “The requirements are designed to provide an acceptable level of safety to the general public, and to notify individuals on board of the risks associated with a launch or reentry.”
Comments about the proposed regulations can be submitted until February 27, 2006. Given the eight-year window referred to in the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004, it seems that even if these regulations are set by the June 23, 2006 deadline, they would not go into effect until 2012.
On another note, G4 (the videogame TV network) has added reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation to its schedule, beginning with an 8-hour marathon on January 8.
A new UN report examines the “digital divide” in developing countries and concludes that the “gaps are still far too wide and the catching-up far too uneven for the promise of a truly global information society.” Stephen Grabill examines the issue and the role that civil society plays in enabling access to information technology.