Five minutes until Starship’s second flight test

November 18, 2023 • 6:53 am

You can watch it at the tweet below (but enlarge it), or here. A bit of background:

SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy rocket – collectively referred to as Starship – represent a fully reusable transportation system designed to carry both crew and cargo to Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars and beyond. Starship is the world’s most powerful launch vehicle ever developed, capable of carrying up to 150 metric tonnes fully reusable and 250 metric tonnes expendable.

Of course this is Elon Musk’s company, and the first flight test failed.

h/t: Bat

Building a rocket with indigenous knowledge

August 22, 2023 • 12:15 pm

It might seem churlish of me to discuss a federally-funded program for young people to integrate “indigenous values” into space exploration, but I discussed a similar aim before with respect to New Zealand, and the article below, from Nature, applies the same aims to an American program. And both programs wound up convincing me of the same three points:

a. “Indigenous values” and “indigenous knowledge” don’t really add much of scientific value to a modern program such as space exploration,

b. The truly “indigenous” aspects of this supposedly salubrious combination of indigenous and non-indigenous knowledge are often superstitious-add ons

c.  Dividing up knowledge and researchers in this way serves only to validate race and indigeneity as the defining traits of one’s persona, and makes science, supposedly a worldwide unifying endeavor, divisive.

Click the screenshot to read the Nature piece:

The gist of the article is that a Native American (Oglala Lakota) student at MIT, Nicole McGaa, entered a NASA-sponsored contest that was limited to Native Americans, who were tasked with designing a rocket that not only “incorporated indigenous values” into the design, but also flew went to the highest altitude. Already you can sense that the “indigenous values” won’t be of much value in overcoming gravity, but here’s the task:

McGaa, who is Oglala Lakota, is entering her fourth year of undergraduate studies in aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. In April, she led MIT’s all-Indigenous rocket team to the 2023 First Nations Launch National Rocket Competition, an annual contest organized by NASA. The competition, held in Kenosha, Wisconsin, provides a platform for Native American students from universities across the United States and Canada to demonstrate their engineering skills through rockets that use high-powered motors. McGaa tells Nature about how she and her team incorporated Indigenous values into their work, why they smudged their rocket before launching it into the skies and her dreams to help astronauts to stay healthy in space.

Somehow something rubs me the wrong way about limiting this competition to Native Americans (why not make it a competition for everyone?) and about “incorporating indigenous values into the work”. That’s already divisive, assuming that Native America values can change the way you design rockets, and perhaps the performance of the rockets themselves. This is in contrast with the assumptions of modern physics and engineering, though I’m willing to admit that perhaps there are some indigenous values that might help. I just don’t know what they are, and rarely are any of them specified.

McGaa describes three, but I find none convincing. Two are not truly “indigenous values”, and the other one is pure superstition.

The first involves cooperation:

Our team operates in a unique way. We have a distributed leadership structure that prioritizes relationship building and taking care of each other. Even during intense periods and crunch weeks, we created a culture of community in which people felt supported and free to declare their other commitments, so that their teammates could accomodate them. We bring snacks to writing sessions, and sometimes go out together to get brunch during the day.

It’s not clear whether this really is unique (except for the snacks and brunch-going), as my reading of how teams building the Mars Rover or the Mars helicopter operate seems to have also been very close and cooperative. Further, it’s not clear that this “culture of community” really does improve the design of rockets, as there’s no control group.

And of course empathy towards your co-workers is not a trait limited to Native Americans. Women, for example, seem to be more empathic and cooperative than men, and I can imagine an all-women team saying the same stuff about their “culture.” But again, no control. In general I don’t think that these competitions should be divided by race or gender. After all, in contrast to sports, there’s no inherent advantage of any group who gets into MIT at building rockets.  If some group of friends who share an ethnicity want to form a team, that’s fine, but I’d say “engineering and science belong to everyone, so let everyone compete against each other.”  Why have a separate contest for any ethnic group of gender if it involves simple engineering?

The second “indigenous value” involves conservation of materials for weight.

Efficiency was inherent in our design: we minimized the material used, and our rocket was low weight. Such efficiency is a feature of care and avoiding excess — key Indigenous principles.

Well, they are also principles for building rockets in general.  And of course there are examples of indigenous excess as well, like driving a gazillion bison over a cliff when you can eat only a few.

The last “indigenous value” resembles some problems with Māori “indigenous knowledge” because it involves superstition:

Our rocket was named MIT Doya. Doya means ‘beaver’ in the Cherokee language; the name was suggested by team member Hailey Polson, who is from that nation. After the rocket was completed, we performed a smudging ceremony, a blessing and purification ritual that typically involves burning sage and which is an important cultural practice for us, by Lake Michigan before the competition. At the contest in April, we successfully blasted our rocket into the sky, and it reached a height of 1,290 metres. We won second place in the competition.

What does the smudging ceremony and building the rocket mean to the team?

The smudging ceremony signifies sending the rocket to the sky with good intentions and the smell of sage. The rocket, propelled by flames, is visiting Father Sky. Everyone on the team comes from different Indigenous tribes and nations. But this ceremony is deeply rooted in our Indigenous identity. For us, having an Indigenous team is not just about building rockets for the sake of it. It will have a lasting impact on Indigenous students at MIT.

I don’t care if they do this, but of course it’s pure superstition, like a Christian team saying a prayer before the launch. It may perpetuate indigenous acts and culture, but there can be no pretense that it makes the rocket fly higher.

At the end, they ask McGaa “what hurdles do you face as an Indigenous student”? and McGaa, who is surely privileged as an MIT student, lets loose with a veritable laundry list of oppression:

There are few Indigenous students at MIT. This means that it’s hard to find mentors and people that can understand and relate to your background and cultural values. People feel uncomfortable when you speak about the specific needs of Indigenous students; it’s as if they don’t want to hear it. And, until 2021, MIT had no Indigenous faculty members. So, there’s almost no one to speak for us. This places a crushing responsibility on us as students to advocate for ourselves and by ourselves. It feels exhausting and lonely, but I am proud to be here. I want to continue to inspire and forge pathways for Indigenous students at MIT.

I wish people would be able to accept and benefit from mentors who didn’t “look like them”. With the new ban on affirmative action, it will be a long time, if ever, until there is equity in university faculties, and there are plenty of professors willing to help Indigenous and other minority students. I’m not sure what “special needs” Indigenous students have: do they involve making up academic deficiencies, or something that’s missing in the psychology and behavior of mentors?. It seems to be the latter based on the assertion above of “crushing responsibility”. But if the needs are purely academic, they can be taken care of by academics. If they’re psychological, they can be taken care of by therapy.  What distresses me is the assumption that, to prosper, a student needs a mentor who “looks like them” because only those of the same ethnic group can truly meet their needs.  I appreciate that faculty should not all be white or male, and I don’t dismiss the value of role models, but I also wish that we could create diverse faculties by hiring on the basis of merit alone.

The indigenization of New Zealand’s Space Policy

June 4, 2023 • 1:00 pm

The other day I forgot to mention that New Zealand has a “National Space Policy” that you can read about here.  Here’s an excerpt from the brief announcement:

The next ‘giant leap’ in New Zealand’s space journey has been taken today with the launch of the National Space Policy, Economic Development Minister Barbara Edmonds announced.

. . . “With the launch of our National Space Policy, we’re presenting a clear and connected picture of New Zealand’s space interests to the world.

“The policy identifies stewardship, innovation, responsibility, and partnership as key values for New Zealand in space. Harnessing these values will inform space-related engagements, policy creation and strategies across government.

The National Space Policy is led by robust objectives of:

  • Growing an innovative and inclusive space sector
  • Protecting and advancing our national security and economic interests
  • Regulating to ensure space activities are safe and secure
  • Promoting the responsible use of space internationally
  • Modelling sustainable space and Earth environments

“This is an important milestone in our space journey as it provides an overview of New Zealand’s values and objectives to guide future space-related policies and regulation.

“This is an ongoing conversation. We will continue to engage with stakeholders and industry,

That sounds good unless you’ve been immersed in New Zealand’s politically correct efforts to indigenize science. This is ultimately based on the view that the indigenous people (Māori) are entitled, via the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi (“Te Teriti”) to coequal participation in science, not just as workers but also entitled to teach their traditional lore, Mātauranga Māori (MM), as coequal in schools to what they call “Western science”.  There is some empirical knowledge in MM, but also a heap of legend, oral tradition, religion, morality, and rules for life. MM, on the whole, is not equivalent to science, but contains science, just as the Bible contains some real history. Yet the interpretation of the Treaty as making all things Māori almost sacred is holding back science in a big way.  So the words “stewardship” and “stakeholders” are, to me at least, code words that this endeavor too will be “decolonized.”

I’ve seen little analysis of the Treaty vis-à-vis education, but it needs to be discussed. The English and Māori versions differ, not all Māori chiefs signed it, and it’s an agreement, not a constitution. Basically, it guarantees the Māori the rights to keep and hold their land, gives Britain sovereignty over the country, but also guarantees that all Māori have full rights as British subjects. Here’s the important part: Article 3 of 3 (English translation on a NZ government site):

In consideration thereof Her Majesty the Queen of England extends to the Natives of New Zealand Her royal protection and imparts to them all the Rights and Privileges of British Subjects.

That’s all well and good, but it’s not clear to me how the “rights and privileges” of British subjects guarantees the Māori the right to have their “way of knowing” taught in government-run science classes. But of course even debating that issue is taboo in New Zealand. (As always, I think MM is an important part of local culture that should be taught as sociology, anthropology, or even religion, but not as science.)

But I have digressed big time. In the link above is another link to the whole government space policy, which is here.

And here’s the interesting bit:

Obligations which apply to all New Zealand space policies

All space policies must also be consistent with New Zealand’s existing commitments, including. . .

  • Te Tiriti o Waitangi: a commitment between the Crown and Māori which provides the basis for ongoing partnerships between the government and Māori on space, including on the implementation of these values and objectives. The Crown is committed to recognising and reflecting Māori interests, including those embodied in the Treaty principles of partnership, active protection, and participation.

Modelling sustainable space and Earth environments

Encouraging inclusive, sustainable space collaborations within New Zealand

Mātauranga Māori and space are deeply connected, with space representing whakapapa (genealogical links to the beginning of the universe), wairuatanga (the spiritual connection between Earth and the universe, derived from Māori cosmology), and tātai arorangi (Māori knowledge of astronomy). The New Zealand government encourages inclusive collaborations with individuals or groups who are currently underrepresented in the space sector (including, but not limited to, Māori); and for these collaborations to work toward sustainable outcomes. The New Zealand government will also strive to further understand and assess representation across the space sector, to best direct inclusive collaboration opportunities.

The treaty is quoted again, and this means that not only will equity apply to the whole policy, but indigenous people will get piles of money to give their take on the policy. More distressing is the dissimulation of the last paragraph, which simply lies when it says that “Mātauranga Māori and space are deeply connected”.  What they’ve done here, as usual, is make an analogy between science (space exploration) and aspects of Māori society that have almost nothing to do with space (whakapapa and wiruatanga are spiritual and moral concepts). The one exception, tātai arorangi, involved learning enough about the positions of celestial bodies to navigate across the south Pacific and, later, judge the seasons for planting or hunting.  But the space bit of MM is no longer a pressing concern to anybody in the country except those whose ancestry may help them get jobs or money.

This is from a discussion of the subject by two academics:

David Perenara-O’Connell

Māngai, Tāwhaki Joint Venture

The knowledge is very clear with regard to how our people came to be here, and that it wasn’t by mistake, and it was through a deep understanding of the stars and the Sun and the Moon and the weather and the birds – all of those things that they were able to harness to get from one place to the next without necessarily knowing where that next place was.

For us at Taumutu and Wairewa – Ngāi Tahu hapū – we are inherently eeling, fishing villages, so we spend a lot of time at night out gathering our kai, and through that, the importance of the Moon, the time of the year when we gather the tuna, which we call the hinapōuri, the time of the dark nights through to the timing of the sky and the constellations that guide us in those mahinga kai activities.

So when you’re gathering tuna on the banks of the river or on the gravels of Kaitōrete with your tamariki and your kaumātua, there’s an exchange of that knowledge about the stars constantly moving overhead.

In the following, “kūmara” is a Polynesian type of sweet potato. Bolding in the text is mine.

Dr Pauline Harris

For Māori, a lot of our knowledge is passed on through word of mouth, but there’s lots of different forms for that. All sorts of information is carried in things like our pūrākau, our stories, our waiata, our songs, our whakataukī. They all carry messages, knowledge, history, information, data.

I’d like to use the example Whānui. Whānui is a star called Vega. Whānui was the father of the kūmara. And his wife and him had these kūmara children, and his brother Rongo-maui wanted to bring the kūmara to Earth. And so he went up there and he asked for the kūmara. Whānui said, “No you can’t have that. You’re not allowed to take my children.” And Rongo-maui stole the children and brought them down to Earth. Whānui was very angry with the fact that his children were taken, and he sent down his other children, which were like caterpillars and stuff, and they were sent down to Earth to destroy the crops of the kūmara so that they couldn’t use them.

There’s lots of different messages in there. There’s messages around the wrongdoing of stealing things but also about the relationship between kūmara and the star Vega or Whānui itself. And when that star rises, it indicates the time of the year, around about March, which is when you have some practice associated with the kūmara.

You can be the judge of whether this knowledge, which was indeed of use to the Polynesian ancestors of the Māori as well as to the early Māori themselves, should now also be deeply integrated into modern space exploration and the policy that guides it.

Starship launch likely today in the next 1.5 hours. Watch NOW!

April 20, 2023 • 8:09 am

I’m posting this quickly, as you don’t want to miss it. Elon Musk’s Starship, designed to be the vehicle to take people to live on Mars or the Moon, is scheduled to launch this morning after the first launch was scrubbed a few days ago.

The one-hour launch window is between 9:28 and 10:28 a.m. Eastern, or 8:28 and 9:28 a.m. Chicago time, and 2:28 to 3:28 pm London time. That means the window starts about 20 minutes after this post goes up. The vehicle will circle most of the globe and is slated to come down

To see it, click on the screenshot below to go to the SpaceX site, and then click the “watch” box, which I’ve circled in red. You’ll be sent to another screen and then you’ll have to hit “watch” AGAIN. Who can fathom Elon Musk.

From the NYT:

What is Starship?

It is the tallest rocket ever built — 394 feet tall, or nearly 90 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty with the pedestal.

And it has the most engines ever in a rocket booster: The Super Heavy, the lower section that will propel the Starship vehicle to orbit, has 33 of SpaceX’s powerful Raptor engines sticking out of its bottom. They are able to generate 16 million pounds of thrust at full throttle, far more than the Saturn V that carried the Apollo astronauts to the moon.

Starship is designed to be entirely reusable. The Super Heavy booster is expected to land much like SpaceX’s smaller Falcon 9 rockets, and Starship will be able to return from space belly-flopping through the atmosphere like a sky diver before pivoting to a vertical position for landing.

Why is SpaceX building Starship?

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is the most frequently launched rocket in the world. Starship is the next step. It would be able to carry far more cargo and many more people than Falcon 9. And because it is fully reusable, Starship could greatly reduce the cost of launching payloads to orbit.

NASA is paying SpaceX to build a version of the vehicle to carry astronauts from lunar orbit to the moon’s surface for the Artemis III and IV missions later in the decade. The spacecraft is also central to Mr. Musk’s vision of sending people to Mars.

What will happen during the flight?

For the test flight on Thursday, Starship will fly almost completely around the Earth, starting from Texas and splashing down in waters off Hawaii.

About eight minutes after the launch on Thursday, the Super Heavy booster will splash into the Gulf of Mexico. The Starship vehicle will fly higher into space, reaching an altitude of about 150 miles and traveling around the Earth before re-entering the atmosphere. If it survives re-entry, about 90 minutes after launching, it will splash into the Pacific Ocean some 62 miles north of the Hawaiian island of Kauai.

But with all the new systems in Starship, the SpaceX founder acknowledged the difficulties of achieving all of the flight’s goals.

“There’s a million ways this rocket could fail,” Mr. Musk said. “I could go on for hours.”

h/t: Jim Batterson

Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic promotes the “compatibility of science and faith” by finding religious people who like science

April 6, 2023 • 9:15 am

This article in the Atlantic isn’t really written by staff writer Conor Friedersdorf, who’s published some good things in the magazine, but is a series of readers’ answers to a question he posed earlier. But it does serve to tout religion and faith, and to promote false claims that science and religion are compatible become some religious people are science fans. (I went after this misunderstanding in Faith Versus Fact.)

Friedersdorf’s into to the piece below:

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Last week I quoted the late astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan on humanity’s place in the cosmos, and asked readers for their thoughts on outer space.

And here is the question he asked his readers:

This week, five planets are aligning in the night sky: Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Uranus, and Mars will all be visible just after sunset, alongside the moon. I’d like to take this cosmic occasion to ask: What role has outer space played in your life, your worldview, or your imagination?

Or: How, if at all, should we keep exploring it?

He then quotes Carl Sagan:

In Cosmos, the astronomer and astrophysicist did his best to give readers a sense of the unfathomable:

No planet or star or galaxy can be typical, because the Cosmos is mostly empty. The only typical place is within the vast, cold, universal vacuum, the everlasting night of intergalactic space, a place so strange and desolate that, by comparison, planets and stars and galaxies seem achingly rare and lovely. If we were randomly inserted into the Cosmos, the chance that we would find ourselves on or near a planet would be less than one in a billion trillion trillion … Worlds are precious.

In Pale Blue Dot, he writes:

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.

In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Maybe we humans ought to spend more time in dark places gazing up at the night sky.

And of course he was inundates with answers about the effect of the planetary alignment—and space exploration itself—on readers’ worldviews.  Surprisingly some readers responded with thoughts about God, or perhaps Friedersdorf selected answer that mention God. Regardless, I think that it’s misleading to couch the answers as showing “The Surprising Compatibility of Science and Faith.”  All it really shows is that people can believe in God and also evince wonder at the universe at the same time, or that science-friendly people can be religious. This of course gives the impression that the readers’ answer buttress some kind of comity between science and faith.   To my mind, that’s not compatibility but cognitive dissonance, as I argue in Faith versus Fact, for science is the very antithesis of faith. But I’ll give a few excerpts of reader’s responses and then reprise my thoughts at the end.

Click to read:

Ben, a man of faith and science, reflects on the biggest and smallest questions:

To explain how I feel about outer space and how it shapes my worldview, I have to start with one of my favorite Bible verses: “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour” (Psalm 8:3-5, KJV).

. . .  believe that understanding the laws and behavior of the universe is one of the few times we can directly observe God’s handiwork. Indeed, looking up at the night sky, I see that humanity is “crowned with glory and honour.”


Glenn was a pastor in Houston near NASA’s Johnson Space Center:

About 75 percent of our church worked in the aerospace industry. It was an interesting experience leading triple-redundancy NASA engineers to “live and walk by faith.”

. . . We have been told that science and faith are incompatible. In fact, there is a vibrant faith community in and around NASA doing the hard work of science. I was having lunch with an astronaut a few weeks after his return from the International Space Station. “You know, I looked out into the void of space,” he said, “and it was black, white, cold, and lonely. And then I looked down at Earth and it was bright green and blue with swirls of white—warm, inviting, and interesting. I decided if I could choose to be any place in the universe, it would be right there on Earth.”


Robert raises the old canard that science takes the awe, wonder, and beauty out of the universe.  Bolding is mine.

Robert, a graduate student in philosophy, harkened back to the ancients:

Like Aristotle, when I was very young, I thought the planets and stars in the sky were something like gods. I don’t think this anymore, of course. Nevertheless, they are in some sense above and beyond us, endowed with a sort of beauty we ourselves are incapable of manufacturing. I simply do not know how someone can gaze at the images from, for instance, the James Webb Space Telescope and think otherwise. Even without technology, there is something marvelous about gazing into the sky and noticing just how much is out there. Thousands of stars, five planets, and even our own galaxy are visible from Earth with the naked eye. Light pollution has crowded out quite a bit of this. But even just a few stars, or a few planets, is enough to see the vastness of it all.

Still, despite the enormous powers of these celestial spheres, they cannot appreciate their own beauty. Humans alone are known to be capable of appreciating the universe in this way. This has always made me ascribe special status to humans, and to think that human concerns are of special importance. I don’t take this to be inconsistent with the scale of it all, but rather a result of it. If we aren’t here anymore, the all the beauty in the universe won’t mean anything to anyone. So something of enormous value would be lost.

I worry that, for all the good that scientific advancements have done for us in understanding space, we’re starting to see the universe as nothing more than a collection of big rocks and balls of gas; these days, the planets and the stars, particularly the moon and Mars, tend to be objects of escapist fantasies more than objects of wonder.

This is a mistake, even for those who think the future of humanity may be space colonization. The beauty of the universe cannot be captured by an exhaustive description of its mechanics or of its utility to us. To think this, rather than appreciating the literally otherworldly nature of outer space, is, I think, the wrong kind of anthropocentrism. The majesty of the heavens has inspired joy, wonder, and creativity in human minds for as long as we have existed, and their beauty is divine. So, I figure, why not let myself think, along with Aristotle, that, even if not literally, the first people were right in thinking that the planets “are gods, and that the divine encloses the whole of nature”?

This view—that understanding more about the universe detracts from its wonder and beauty—was expressed early on by Walt Whitman in his poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” to wit:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
This is written by a man who knew almost nothing about science (the poem was published in 1865), and so learning about the stars and planets was, to Whitman, simply boring.  But this attitude is born of ignorance, and has been eloquently attacked by people like Richard Dawkins, who say, correctly, that if you understand the biology/physics/chemistry behind what we see in nature, it makes it even more wondrous. I cannot understand how anyone can think otherwise!  When you know that there are 400 billion stars in the Milky Way alone, and two TRILLION galaxies just in the observable universe (and many more beyond), and learn how those stars came to be, and how the universe is expanding and is full of black holes that suck everything into them, including light, and that there’s a lot of dark matter out there that we don’t understand—how can these things not add to your appreciation of what you see?


This attitude is related to scientism, a pejorative word meant to apply to the view that science encompasses everything we need to know about reality.  And, in fact, it does, but so far it’s been unable—and maybe always will be—to explain the feeling of awe (“spirituality,” if you will) that comes with moments like looking at the night sky. But how does knowing what you’re really seeing detract from its wonder in interest? It’s that attitude that baffles me.  How much more interesting nature becomes when you understand that it’s the product of a naturalistic process—evolution, often via natural selection!

At any rate, I can’t see any purpose to this article except to tout God, do down science, claim that science detracts from wonder at the same time that it claims that science and religion are compatible? No, science and religion are incompatible, mainly because religious understanding and its truth claims are based on faith, while science’s truth claims are based on empirical evidence. The presence of religious people who like science no more proves that science and religion are compatible than observing sports fans who like science proves that science and baseball are compatible.

Dawkins has explained the fallacy of this view, but maybe it’s time to explain it to people again.

The controversy continues about naming the Webb Space Telescope; the woke won’t give up in the face of the facts

December 20, 2022 • 10:00 am

This article in a recent New York Times tells a sad tale of the vindictiveness of scientific ideologues and their determination to gain control over science by flaunting their own victim status, as well as by blatantly ignoring the truth. It involves the naming of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) over the objections of people who asserted, wrongly, that Webb was a homophobe who fired gay people from NASA and the government (he was administrator of the organization from 1961-1968, and before that the Undersecretary of State from 1949 to 1952).

Click to read the article; if it’s paywalled, judicious inquiry will yield a copy. This is a piece worth reading, and shows that the NYT is not completely woke, for the piece gives an evenhanded story that winds up putting the woke in a pretty bad light.

For a long time, ideologues have criticized the name of the telescope, demanding it be changed (NASA refused to change it). The kvetchers argued that Webb, as both Undersecretary of State and NASA administrator, helped fire gay scientists under orders from people higher in the government. This all stemmed from an executive order issued by President Eisenhower in 1953 barring gay Americans from working for the federal government—an order that wasn’t formally rescinded until Bill Clinton barred job discrimination based on sexual orientation in 1998.

During this period, between 5,000 and 10,000 gay employees were booted out of government jobs. The allegations about Webb arose when NASA decided to name the space telescope after him, claiming that he was complicit in this firing.  But extensive delving into the historical record by several people and agencies shows that these allegations were false. From the NYT (all quotes indented):

Hakeem Oluseyi, who is now the president of the National Society of Black Physicists, was sympathetic to these critics. Then he delved into archives and talked to historians and wrote a carefully sourced essay in Medium in 2021 that laid out his surprising findings.

“I can say conclusively,” Dr. Oluseyi wrote, “that there is zero evidence that Webb is guilty of the allegations against him.”

That, he figured, would be that. He was wrong.

The struggle over the naming of the world’s most powerful space telescope has grown yet more contentious and bitter. In November, NASA sought to douse this fire. Its chief historian, Brian Odom, issued an 89-page report that echoed Dr. Oluseyi’s research and concluded the accusations against Mr. Webb were misplaced.

NASA acknowledged that the federal government at that time “shamefully promoted” discrimination against gay employees. But Mr. Odom concluded: “No available evidence directly links Webb to any actions or follow-up related to the firing of individuals for their sexual orientation.”

. . . As Dr. Oluseyi discovered and NASA’s report confirmed, it was not Mr. Webb but a different State Department official who oversaw the purge and spoke disparagingly of gay Americans.

Indeed, Webb helped to slow down the firing of gay governmental employees:

Secretary of State Dean Acheson denounced the “filthy business” of smearing diplomats. And President Harry Truman, records show, advised Mr. Webb to slow-walk the Republican investigation, while complying with its legal dictates. Mr. Webb did not turn over personnel files to Senate investigators, according to the NASA report.

Webb also has anti-racist bona fides:

Mr. Webb, who died in 1992, cut a complicated figure. He worked with Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson to integrate NASA, bringing in Black engineers and scientists. In 1964, after George Wallace, the white segregationist governor of Alabama, tried to block such recruitment, Mr. Webb threatened to pull top scientists and executives out of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.

Finally, historians who work on gay history haven’t deemed Webb worthy of indictment:

Historians who specialize in this era in gay history said such expectations ignore the historical context. Mr. Webb did not lead efforts to oust gays; there was not yet a gay rights movement in 1949; and to apply the term homophobe is to use a word out of time and reflects nothing Mr. Webb is known to have written or said.

“The activists who say that James Webb should have stood up and spoken against the purges are anachronistic,” said Dr. Johnson, whose Twitter handle is @gayhistoryprof. “No one in government could stand up at that time and say ‘This is wrong.’ And that includes gay people.”

You’d think that would end the kvetching, right? WRONG!  People who argued that Webb was a homophobe didn’t change their tune in light of the multiple studies showing they were wrong. Instead, led by the notoriously woke physicist and activist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a professor at the University of New Hampshire and an activist who doesn’t miss a chance to parade her intersectional victim status (see below), they simply recalibrated their claims, saying that Webb should have stood up to the government. She and her colleagues had written several pieces objecting to the naming of the JWST on the grounds that Webb was a homophobe.

In a blog written with three fellow scientists, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a cosmologist at the University of New Hampshire with a low six-figure Twitter following, said that it was highly likely that Mr. Webb “knew exactly what was happening with security at his own agency during the height of the Cold War,” adding, “We are deeply concerned by the implication that managers are not responsible for homophobia.”

We’ve met Prescod-Weinstein on this site before—as author of a dreadful article on “white empiricism” that tried to conflate physics with social justice.

And she influenced others. Like all the critics of the JWST, Prescod-Weinstein didn’t do the research that NASA and Hakeem Oluseyi had done; they went after the man and his telescope based on rumors and distortions. Note below that Scientific American, now a woke, inflammatory rag of a magazine, participated in the tarring of Webb (see its two articles “The James Webb Space Telescope needs to be renamed“, of which Prescod-Weinstein was a coauthor, and “New revelations raise pressure on NASA to rename the James Webb Space Telescope“).

. . . . as the telescope neared completion, criticism flared. In 2015, Matthew Francis, a science journalist, wrote an article for Forbes titled “The Problem With Naming Observatories for Bigots.” He wrote that Mr. Webb led the anti-gay purge at the State Department and that he had testified of his contempt for gay people. He credited Dr. Prescod-Weinstein with tipping him off, and she in turn tweeted his article and attacked Mr. Webb as a “homophobe.”

Those claims rested on misidentification and that portion of Mr. Francis’ article has been deleted without notice to the reader. Mr. Francis declined an interview.


In October, the Royal Astronomical Society in Britain waded in, declaring that Mr. Webb engaged in “entirely unacceptable” behavior. The society instructed that no astronomer who submits a paper to its journals should type the words “James Webb.” They must use the abbreviation JWST.

The American Astronomical Society demanded in April that NASA issue a formal and public report on its naming decision. And a trio of top scientific publications — Nature, New Scientist and Scientific American — published essays and editorials sharply critical of Mr. Webb with nary a dissenting word. Dr. Oluseyi said Scientific American rejected a letter from him pointing out flawed statements in its essays and rejected his proposal to write about his findings on Mr. Webb.

Scientific American’s editor, Laura Helmuth, declined an interview and wrote in an email that its coverage had been “timely, thorough and fair.”

petition demanding NASA rename its telescope has garnered more than 1,700 signatures, a majority from faculty and graduate students.

“This is about who we canonize and who are our real saints,” Dr. Prescod-Weinstein said in an interview. “We can’t just exonerate a dead white guy who was in the thick of a repressive government.”

There it is: a dead white guy, as if him being dead, white, and male count towards his perfidy. And even though he didn’t fire anybody, he was—as was every government employee in America—”in the thick of a repressive government.” This is what nasty wokesters say when they can’t pin malfeasance directly on someone. She also said this:

Dr. Prescod-Weinstein wrote that if Mr. Webb had been “a radical freedom fighter,” he would not have served in the Truman administration.

There were NO “radical freedom fighters during the Truman administration”!

Prescod- Weinstein’s rancor was exacerbated by Oluseyi’s report, which alluded to her, though not by name:

When Dr. Oluseyi wrote his essay on James Webb, he took to task journalists and an astrophysicist, whom he did not name, for not rigorously researching the accusations. He said that the scientist, who was cited by name in the Forbes article, had “propagated unsubstantiated false information.”

Dr. Prescod-Weinstein wrote on Twitter that she was this unnamed scientist in Dr. Oluseyi’s article and that he “is writing poorly researched articles that are basically hit pieces on me.”

“The leader of a professional society and a senior scientist,” she wrote, is “going out of his way to justify historic homophobia” and “attack a junior queer Black woman professor.”

Months, later, in August 2021, George Mason University recruited Dr. Oluseyi as a visiting professor, and Peter Plavchan, an astronomy professor, offered a tweet of welcome to the man he played a role in recruiting.

Dr. Prescod-Weinstein objected. In a stream of tweets, she said Dr. Oluseyi had championed “a homophobe.”

She wrote that Dr. Plavchan’s welcome was “a reminder that senior men in astronomy can treat junior women” poorly — using an expletive — “and be welcomed by colleagues with open arms.”

Notice the emphasis on her identity, and the victimhood she emphasizes by being attacked by a a “senior” man. When criticized for her inflammatory words, Prescod-Weinsten always brings up the fact that she’s black, gay, a woman, and, sometimes Jewish as well. More from the NYT:

Ms. Prescod-Weinstein, 40, was born in Los Angeles to a family of left-wing activists and is among a handful of Black women to work in theoretical cosmology. Charismatic and outspoken, she describes her writings on race and gender and science as inseparable.

“The civil rights versus gay people schtick is marginalizing and pathetic,” she said. “It’s straight people arguing about the straight canon. As a Black queer Jewish person, I’m not interested.”

Well, Dr. Weinstein, as a white, straight Jewish man (and an old one to boot), I do care: about the truth. Apparently you don’t, and your behavior reeks of self-aggrandizement and sheer nastiness.  Further Prescod-Weinstein also participated in the demonization of Oluseyi by spreading rumors—which again turned out to be false—that he was guilty of transgressions at his former university, Florida Tech.

The attacks against Dr. Oluseyi had shifted, as some accused him of personal misconduct.

Dr. Plavchan said that in July 2021, as word circulated in academia that Dr. Oluseyi might win an appointment at George Mason, he heard from a professor at a different university who claimed that Dr. Oluseyi had mishandled a federal grant and sexually harassed a woman.

Dr. Plavchan said that he reported these accusations to George Mason. Soon Florida Tech officials were combing through records and thousands of emails. They found nothing to substantiate these charges, according to Hamid K. Rassoul, a physics professor at Florida Tech and former dean who took part in the investigation. George Mason went ahead with its appointment in the fall of 2021.

Prescod-Weinstein, who must spend hours a day on Twitter, repeated these false rumors:

On Twitter, Dr. Prescod-Weinstein has pushed some of the same accusations, while not naming Dr. Oluseyi directly. “It continues to be the case that academic institutions play pass the harasser,” she wrote in a veiled reference to Dr. Oluseyi in August 2021. And this past November she questioned on Twitter why journalists have not asked why he left his last job.

Dr. Prescod-Weinstein did not reply to three emails asking for more information.

She’s clearly out to get Oluseyi, and since she didn’t get him for homophobia, she’s wants to get him for sexual harassment.

Another person who had no comment was the editor of Scientific American, whom we know well:

Scientific American’s editor, Laura Helmuth, declined an interview and wrote in an email that its coverage had been “timely, thorough and fair.”

Well, read this Sci Am op-ed, by Prescod-Weinstein and two colleagues, and see if it’s thorough and fair. A few quotes:

When he arrived at NASA in 1961, his leadership role meant he was in part responsible for implementing what was by then federal policy: the purging of LGBT individuals from the workforce. When he was at State, this policy was enforced by those who worked under him. As early as 1950, he was aware of this policy, which was a forerunner to the antigay witch hunt known today as the lavender scare. Historian David K. Johnson’s 2004 book on the subject, The Lavender Scare, discusses archival evidence indicating that Webb, along with others in State Department leadership, was involved in Senate discussions that ultimately kicked off a devastating series of federal policies.

. . . This struggle is not limited to science or to the past: Just a few months ago Representative Joaquin Castro of Texas introduced the LOVE Act of 2020, which “requires the State Department to set up an independent commission to review the cases of individuals who were fired since the 1950s as a result of their sexual orientation, receive testimony, and correct employment records.” Passage of the act would not only prompt an apology from Congress for its past complicity in the lavender scare but also provide protections for queer diplomats at home and abroad.

Yet we can honor the incredible heroes who worked tirelessly to liberate others. Before she became a conductor on the Underground Railroad, a disabled and enslaved Harriet Tubman almost certainly used the North Star, just as it is documented that others did, to navigate her way to freedom. Naming the next Hubble the Harriet Tubman Space Telescope (HTST) would ensure that her memory lives always in the heavens that gave her and so many others hope.

Shoot me now! At any rate, Oluseyi (and remember, he’s president of the National Society of Black Physicists) gets the last word:

Dr. Oluseyi is aware of the risk of damage to his reputation. For just a moment, he sounded plaintive.

“Look, I didn’t care about James Webb — he’s not my uncle,” Dr. Oluseyi said. “I had no motivation to exonerate. Once I found the truth, what was I supposed to do?”

The lesson is that being a black, gay, Jewish woman (or a woman editor of Scientific American) doesn’t give you special abilities to discern homophobia if there is no evidence, nor does it make you immune from criticism. If there’s any lesson Prescod-Weinstein should have learned as a member of the scientific community, it’s that the truth is independent of the personal characteristics of the person who finds it.

But then, in another post I wrote about Prescod-Weinstein, I analyzed her Slate piece called “Stop equating ‘science’ with truth.” To her, the truth is simply what is produced by those who have power, a distinctly postmodern position.

The final lesson is this: the woke never apologize (and they double down on their victims who do apologize), and they never admit they were wrong. Wouldn’t it be lovely if Helmuth and Prescod-Weinstein, along with the other critics of James Webb as a homophobe and Oluseyi as a sexual harasser, admitted they were wrong?

Don’t hold your breath.

Artemis-1/Orion splashdown today: 12:39 EST

December 11, 2022 • 10:00 am

This announcement comes from Jim “Bat” Batterson, and if you’re interested in seeing the splashdown, you can start watching below at 11 a.m. Eastern Standard Time.  If you just want to see the final action, I’d suggest starting to watch about half an hour in advance: roughly noon EST.

From Bat:

Artemis-1/Orion mission ends today with splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off San Diego, California scheduled for 1239 EST.  NASA Live video coverage begins at 1100 EST at the NASA live site.

Here’s a bit of info and some photos of practice rescue using a mock Orion capsule:

Concluding its 25½-day mission, Artemis’ Orion capsule will slow from a dizzying 25,000 mph – roughly a dozen times faster than a rifle bullet – to 300 mph after entering the Earth’s atmosphere. The capsule’s heat shield should reach a roasting 5,000 degrees, or twice the temperature of molten lava.

After a series of parachutes deploy, NASA engineers predict the 11-by-16½-foot capsule should slow to about 20 mph before gliding earthward and striking the sea’s surface within eyesight of the recovery ship’s crew, 50 to 60 nautical miles off the San Diego coast. [According to Bat, bad weather at the site off San Diego has forced the entry 300 nautical miles away—off Mexico.]

The three-parachute configuration will be similar to that used in the Apollo recovery (below)

Comprised of about 95 people, the Orion landing and recovery team includes Navy amphibious specialists piloting inflatable boats; NASA engineers and technicians from KSC and Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas; Air Force weather specialists; and Lockheed Martin Space Operations personnel. A helicopter squadron from nearby Naval Air Station North Island will provide aerial spotting.

The Portland will approach the bobbing Orion, and divers will use sensors to conduct “sniff checks” for leaking hydrazine or ammonia from the capsule, Jones said. Then Navy personnel will attach tending lines to Orion and flood the ship’s well deck with about 6 feet of seawater, and a cable will tow the floating spacecraft through the ship’s lowered stern gate into a specially designed cradle.

Afterward, the Portland will transport the capsule to a pier at Naval Base San Diego.

The unique aspect of the re-entry, not previously used, is the “skip” maneuver, in which the capsule will bounce off the Earth’s atmosphere before plunging through it again. This allows the capsule to reduce speed (therefore reducing the heat the capsule experiences) as well as to permit a more precise landing:

After discarding its unneeded service module, which supplied electricity and power for nearly a month, Orion will do a daring skip maneuver off the edge of Earth’s atmosphere. The capsule will use a bit of our protective envelope, along with associated lift, to skip just like a rock across the surface of a lake. This maneuver wasn’t possible during the Apollo program, but advances in spacecraft navigation make that possible today.

“The skip entry will help Orion land closer to the coast of the United States, where recovery crews will be waiting to bring the spacecraft back to land,” Chris Madsen, Orion guidance, navigation and control subsystem manager, said in a NASA statement(opens in new tab).

“When we fly crew in Orion beginning with Artemis 2, landing accuracy will really help make sure we can retrieve the crew quickly and reduces the number of resources we will need to have stationed in the Pacific Ocean to assist in recovery.”

The maneuver will also reduce the g-forces future Artemis program astronauts will experience once the Orion capsule is crewed. “Instead of a single event of high acceleration, there will be two events of a lower acceleration of about four g’s each,” NASA wrote in the same statement. “The skip entry will reduce the acceleration load for the astronauts so they have a safer, smoother ride.”

Here’s a diagram of a “skip” re-entry from Wikipedia:


Orion/Artemis-1: “On our way home”

December 9, 2022 • 9:00 am

Here’s an update on the Orio/Artemis-1 mission, a photo, a video of what’s going to happen when it splashes down on Sunday, and another video for lagniappe.

I know it is likely too late for today’s Hili, but in case you want to mention location of some updated Artemis material on the Nasa mission blog:  the blog is updated every day or so and the version from Dec 7 has an embedded six-minute video that shows animation of re-entry process that is planned for Sunday and video of earlier sub-orbital tests of the capsule-parachute and recovery ship systems.

Here’s a photo taken of the Moon’s surface during one of the capsule’s closest approaches (the closest it got was 80 miles or 130 km):

(from NASA): art001e002164 (Dec. 5, 2022): Cameras mounted on the crew module of the Orion spacecraft captured these views of the Moon’s surface. On flight day 20 of the Artemis I mission, the spacecraft made its second and final close approach to the Moon before its returned powered flyby burn.

Here’s an informative 6-minute video of what’s happened and how the entry to Earth’s atmosphere and landing will go:

And an appropriate Beatles video; song by McCartney, recorded for the Let It Be album on Jan. 31, 1969. The whole gang is here, including Linda, Yoko, and George Martin and Billy Preston on the keyboards.