Nov. 20, 2004 | Updated 2:40 p.m. ET
House OKs suborbital bill: After days of ups and downs, the House approved legislation aimed at putting the regulation of suborbital space travel on firmer footing, and opening the way for paying passengers to take outer-space jaunts.

The roll-call vote on H.R. 5382 (PDF file) was 269-120. To move forward, the bill required a two-thirds majority to suspend the chamber's procedural rules, and that's what it got.

Now the bill moves on to the Senate. Because there's so little time left in Congress' lame-duck session, even one vote in opposition there could be trouble. However, Democrats as well as Republicans on the Senate Commerce Committee were involved in drawing up the text as it is now, so the House vote had been seen as the key test.

Crew and passenger safety emerged as a key point during Friday's House floor debate.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., argued that new legislation was needed to resolve the Federal Aviation Administration's role in regulating piloted suborbital space launches, and that the FAA would be able to step in if a spacecraft was found to be unsafe for the crew or passengers. But Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., contended that the bill is too lax in that regard, and that the FAA would have to stand by until someone is killed or gravely injured.

Rohrabacher said failure to act could drive the infant suborbital space travel industry out of the country. "Don't strangle this industry and drive these entrepreneurs offshore," he pleaded.

The prospects for H.R. 5382 look better today than they did earlier this week, but it's not a done deal quite yet. If it does fizzle out, the next significant announcement just might have to do with Virginia-based Space Adventures' plans to set up a suborbital spaceport in Australia.

Check the House floor proceedings to keep tabs on the progress of the legislation as Congress' lame-duck session dwindles down.

Nov. 19, 2004 | 6:10 p.m. ET
Closing arguments: For years, Jim Muncy has been working behind the scenes to further the private-sector spaceflight agenda — in roles ranging from co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation, to White House aide, to congressional staff member, to private consultant. In his current capacity at the Polispace consulting firm, he advises several space companies and has focused much of his attention on H.R. 5382, the suborbital spaceflight bill we've been talking about so much.

With crunch time rapidly approaching, Muncy sent out this open letter on the bill's prospects:

"Dear Space Advocates and Correspondents:

"This afternoon the House of Representatives had a 40-minute debate on legislation designed to advance the U.S. commercial human spaceflight industry.  It was a good and spirited debate, with bipartisan supporters speaking in favor, and two partisan Democrats speaking against H.R. 5382.

"Unfortunately, the opponents’ arguments reflected the same misunderstanding of this issue that so many people have.  Their presumption is that the federal government needs to set standards to protect the safety of the early adventurers who wish to buy a risky ride into space.  Even before the vehicles that would fly them are designed, let alone built and flying.  Frankly, Mr. Oberstar and Mr. DeFazio, the Ranking Minority Members of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee and its Aviation Subcommittee, seem to believe that we need to regulate spaceflight as if it were just another approach to aviation.

"But rockets are not airplanes, and the Commercial Space Launch Act and the U.S. commercialspace transportation industry are not under the jurisdiction of the Aviation Subcommittee.  Space is a new sphere of economic activity, and the House’s experts on these issues are members of the House’s committee that is focused on America’s future, the Science Committee.

"More importantly, the House worked for several months with the Senate to develop a compromise version of the original H.R. 3752, which was passed by a vote of 402 to 1 in March of this year.  It is important to note that H.R. 3752 told the Secretary of Transportation to promote and license the carrying of 'spaceflight participants' for compensation, i.e., to make money, under an 'informed consent' regime.

"In other words, the rocket company had to tell the passenger how likely it was they might crash, and then the passenger could choose to take the risk or not.  All regulation was focused on making sure the rockets didn’t hurt anyone on the ground.  The Secretary was not given any authority — and has none under current law — to regulate in order to protect people riding on the vehicle.

"And I might just point out, Mr. Oberstar and Mr. DeFazio both voted for HR3752 in March, along with every other Democratic member of the Transportation Committee who showed up to vote.  (The only vote against HR3752 in March was by a libertarian Republican who didn’t think the government had any right to regulate rockets at all!)

"So today’s choice on H.R. 5382 is a choice not between one level of safety and another.  It’s between Congress telling the American people they have a right to go into space and an expectation that, over time, it will become more affordable and more reliable to do so ... and saying 'we can’t be bothered to write legislation to help enable this new industry.'  Fortunately, the American people already have the right to go into space.  And the American free market will make it ever more affordable and ever safer, even without the help of federal regulators.  But it would be a good thing if this bipartisan legislation were enacted into law to help accelerate the process.

"Ironically, the two members speaking in favor of higher safety today will actually leave the industry free to do whatever it wants under current law, with no process by which the Secretary could, let alone would, start to set safety standards.  So perhaps they are more committed to stopping legislation — and a new industry — than safety, after all."

— James Muncy

I'll be glad to publish an equal-time statement from opponents of the bill if one happens to come in today — the Cosmic Log e-mailbox is always open.

Nov. 19, 2004 | 5:30 p.m. ET
Ups and downs for space balloon: JP Aerospace is changing course as it pursues its plan to create what it calls "the other space program," using balloons rather than rockets to get to the final frontier.

The California-based venture had been working with the U.S. military to build a balloon-based, near-space platform for surveillance and communication, but the test program suffered a big setback when high winds ripped up JP's test balloon in West Texas — as we reported back in June. Since then, the Pentagon's program has shifted into its second phase in Oregon, but without JP as a partner.

John Powell, who heads JP Aerospace, said he decided not to sign on for the second phase. "We just lost our shirts on the first one," he told me this week.

That doesn't leave JP Aerospace grounded: Powell said his mostly volunteer group is preparing for a high-altitude balloon mission in mid-December. The balloon would carry experimental packages and video equipment to an altitude of 100,000 feet (30,500 meters).

Powell said one of the experiments would expose carbon nanotube material provided by LiftPort to the elements and see how the stuff holds up. Such material could someday be used in high-altitude lifter systems and space elevators.

Powell still has his heart set on creating a system of transport airships and high-altitude floating platforms — initially, to serve as relay stations for telecommunications. "We also want to use it as a launch platform for our high-altitude rockets," he said.

In the longer term, the system could provide access to orbit. In fact, Powell said JP Aerospace is among the early entrants in the $50 million America's Space Prize , put up by hotel magnate Robert Bigelow to encourage the private-sector development of orbital transports. Powell said JP is already building a 90-foot-long (27-meter-long) airship "on our own dime," but he figures it would take a 3,000-foot-long (915-meter-long) version to win the prize.

To get there, Powell needs sponsors. "Each piece of the system has to stand on its own and pay for itself," he said.

It just goes to prove Grissom's Law, as enunciated in the movie "The Right Stuff": "No bucks, no Buck Rogers."

Nov. 19, 2004 | 5:30 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
'Nova' on PBS: 'Ancient Refuge in the Holy Land'
The Economist: Big Sister is watching you
Slashdot: Apollo 12 at 35
BBC: Try your hand at DNA detective work

Nov. 18, 2004 | 8:30 p.m. ET
Must-see science: Will killer germs defeat our best antibiotics? Were Polynesians among the first Americans? Are there hidden genetic gems within our "junk DNA"? Will Iceland blaze a trail toward a new global hydrogen economy? Scientific sagas addressing these and other mysteries are among the winners in the annual AAAS Science Journalism Awards, announced today.

The awards recognize the nation's best science writing in six categories, taking in magazines, TV, radio and online news outlets as well as large and small newspapers. I was lucky enough to be one of the honorees in 2002, and I'm particularly pleased to see my prolific colleague Carl Zimmer win in the online category this year.

Here's a rundown of the winners, who will receive their awards during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science next February in Washington:

Large newspapers: Amy Ellis Nutt of The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J., won for "The New Plague," a series about the arms race between antibiotics and the germs that are developing resistance to them.

Small newspapers: In the award-winning entry "Ancient Mariners," Melinda Burns of the Santa Barbara News-Press wrote about an unconventional theory that Polynesians crossed the sea to Santa Barbara, Calif., 1,300 years ago and stayed long enough to share their knowledge with the local Chumash people.

Magazines: W. Wayt Gibbs won for "The Unseen Genome: Gems Among the Junk," an inside look at scientists' search for meaning in bits of "junk DNA" that were once thought to be nothing more than white noise within our genetic code.

Radio: Cynthia Graber's prizeworthy piece for National Public Radio, "The Promise of Hydrogen," chronicled Iceland's effort to wean itself off imported oil and switch to hydrogen to fuel ships, cars, trucks and buses.

Television: Writer/producer/director Mark Graber won for "Mars Dead or Alive," a documentary about the Mars Exploration Rover missions that aired on "Nova" on PBS.

Online: Carl Zimmer won for three extended Web log entries on Corante.com relating to evolution. "Hamilton's Fall" focuses on the late evolutionary biologist William Hamilton and his legacy. "Why the Cousins Are Gone" reflects on the ancient, dead limbs hanging from humanity's family tree. "My Darwinian Daughters" looks at what evolutionary biology can teach us about parenting.

Zimmer's Web log, The Loom, represents only one facet of his talent. You can also find his work on magazine racks and bookshelves — heck, you can even hear him on radio. But it's only via the Web that you can get a taste of all those media, and it's particularly cool that Zimmer's latest award recognizes original, long-form blogging. Hmmm, that's something to think about for next year.

Nov. 18, 2004 | 8:30 p.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:
Defense Tech: Army's counterinsurgency strategist speaks
Universe Today: Space elevator? Build it on the moon first
The Guardian: Evolutionary science used in anti-terror war
Technology Review: A new vision for nuclear waste

Nov. 17, 2004 | 8:30 p.m. ET
The science of best sellers: If you've just written the Great American Novel, is it better to get a quick plug on the "Today" show or benefit from slow, steady word of mouth on the Internet? A group of researchers did a statistical analysis of Amazon.com's best-seller list — and concluded that slow and steady is better for sales than a short, sharp shock.

The study, titled "Endogenous Versus Exogenous Shocks in Complex Networks," (PDF file), has been accepted for publication in Physical Review Letters. It's not exactly a page-turner; the prose fairly bristles with arcane statistical calculations. But the four researchers behind the study saw a clear similarity between best-seller sales charts and power-law phenomena ranging from earthquakes to avalanches to Web log links.

They theorized that some best sellers, such as "Strong Women Stay Young," benefit from one-time events such as a glowing review in The New York Times or a plug on TV (an exogenous shock). Other best sellers, such as "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood," percolate through book clubs and other social networks over a period of months (an endogenous shock).

Phil Schewe and Ben Stein provide a concise summary of the results in the upcoming edition of Physics News Update (No. 709), presented by the American Institute of Physics:

"Single triggering events (e.g., a mention on 'Oprah') appear to have much less effect on the sales history of a book than the actions of interconnected groups of people, who may pick up the book after multiple conversations with acquaintances or by hearing about the book secondhand or by remembering a friend's recommendation months or even years after the book comes out," they write. "According to the researchers, marketing agencies could apply their method of classifying and analyzing bestsellers to measure and to maximize the impact of their publicity on the network of potential buyers."

The researchers behind the study are Didier Sornette of the University of California at Los Angeles, Fabrice Deschâtres of the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, Yann Ageon of the Université de Nice-Sophia Antipolis and Thomas Gilbert of the University of California at Berkeley.

Sornette discusses the application of the statistical method to Amazon.com as well to economics and mass extinctions on his own Web page. I've mentioned him previously in connection with his overly gloomy predictions about the stock market's future course.

Nov. 17, 2004 | Updated 6:50 p.m. ET
Suborbital bill fizzles out: The clock is running out on legislation that would have put private-sector suborbital space trips on firmer footing is fizzling out, according to the House Science Committee. At the last minute, H.R. 3752 has run afoul of a jurisdictional dispute between that committee and the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

In today's statement, the House Science Committee said its staff members worked out a deal with their counterparts in the Senate last Friday, but were unable to resolve differences with the Transportation Committee in time for passage during this week's lame-duck session.

"When H.R. 3752 passed the House, the Transportation Committee asserted its jurisdiction but expressed no concerns about the substance of the bill," the statement explained. "But when the Transportation Committee reviewed the final agreement this week, it expressed concerns about both original provisions of the bill and aspects of the final deal, and said it wanted to start over next year with hearings."

Get all the details in the Space News section .

Nov. 17, 2004 | 8:30 p.m. ET
Quick scan of the scientific Web:
LiftPort: Lifter climbs tall building (via Slashdot)
Discovery.com: Another Stonehenge found in Russia?
Chicago Sun-Times: Experts knock claim of 'hobbit' species
The Register: Was Einstein a plagiarist? (via Daily Grail)

Nov. 16, 2004 | 8:15 p.m. ET
Politics of the final frontier: It's crunch time on Capitol Hill for an assortment of outer-space initiatives — and if they are all cleared for takeoff, the next few days could be one of the most productive periods for fans of the final frontier.

For weeks, Senate and House negotiators have been working behind the scenes to revive legislation that could open the way for paying passengers to take suborbital space tours — and for several days, I've been hearing that a resolution is imminent. Today the outgoing chairman of the House subcommittee on space, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., confirmed that the final kinks were being worked out of the legislation, known as H.R. 3752.

"I'm hoping to ensure its passage by the end of tomorrow, so keep your fingers crossed," he told attendees at a space tourism presentation, according to a report on Jeff Foust's Space Politics blog.

Foust and NASA Watch's Keith Cowing also report action on two other legislative fronts:

  • Although the prognosis is somewhat mixed, NASA now appears likely to get close to the full amount requested for this fiscal year's programs, including preparations for the shuttle fleet's return to flight as well as its moon-and-Mars exploration initiative . Today, NASA announced that it has selected 70 proposals to advance the exploration initiative. (A PDF file lists them all.)
  • Meanwhile, NASA is seeking congressional authorization to offer X Prize-style awards in the over-$250,000 range, according to Aerospace Daily. Cowing provides Web links to fresh information about NASA's prize program, known as the Centennial Challenges .

Congress' lame-duck session is expected to last only a week or so, which doesn't leave much time for resolving all these issues.

Some things can wait until Congress' next session, but space consultant Charles Lurio is particularly concerned about the suborbital launch legislation. "Lack of passage this year would require restarting a long, very trying process from the beginning, with a new Congress in which the members and staff will have shifted," he said in an e-mail advisory.

Passing an acceptable version of the legislation would capitalize on the private-spaceflight momentum generated by the X Prize . "This new industry needs a framework to move forward, now that the X Prize has primed it to do so," Lurio said.

Nov. 16, 2004 | 8:15 p.m. ET
Life's mysteries on the scientific Web:
Scientific American: Martian methane boosts hopes for life
National Geographic: How 'Jesus lizards' walk on water
Examiner: Does 'extinct' Tasmanian tiger still exist?
New Scientist: Dinosaurs' bulletproof armor revealed

Nov. 15, 2004 | 8:50 p.m. ET
Common ground on origins: There's nothing like a science vs. religion debate to get the juices flowing. Many of the hundreds of e-mails I received in response to Friday's item on Darwin, evolutionary theory and intelligent design took a strong stand on one side or the other — some so strong that they threatened to break the Fifth Commandment (or is that the Sixth?).

I was particularly struck by an e-mail sent in by Barry C. from Montana: "It's the people most polarized on either end of this debate that do the debating. Most reasonable folks I know see truth in both accounts — evolution and creation. Genesis never says the world is 6,000 years old (that was Ussher) and evolution never said there's no creator."

So rather than presenting another selection of "us vs. them," here is some of the feedback from those who see common ground in the evolution debate:

Dave Fisherowski, Boyertown, Pa.: "As an earth science educator with 35 years experience and a complete believer in a Supreme Being, I am beginning to believe that the philosopher was right when he said that God was a comedienne who was playing to an audience that didn't want to laugh. Science and religion can coexist if we let each do what it was meant to do and not let one overrule the other."

Chad Killblane, formerly of Lincoln, Neb., now living in Okayama, Japan: "First, and foremost, why can't we have policymakers who are well-informed on the subjects they deal with? Second, perhaps the sticker on the textbooks should be amended to say that all scientific theories presented in this text are the subjects of rigorous peer review. That, however, does not mean that they can be taken as absolute fact. Hopefully this would set the valuable and creative minds of our children into a true scientific mode. The problem with many of us (scientific researchers) is, we take theories as fact far too often. Occasionally it takes a brave person to turn us on our ears — after all, if it hadn't been for Planck, light might still be a continuous phenomenon. There’s my 2 cents’ worth. By the way, I am a former biochemist who turned to the dark side, i.e., I'm a theoretician."

Alesia Pearson, Dallas: "Obviously evolution has occured in all life forms. The more researchers study the 'Big Bang' and the beginning of life, however, the more it leads into questioning what instigated life. Is it so hard to believe that there is a creator who started it all and set evolution in motion? A day in the life of an eternal God could be like a billion years to us. Have you noticed how the documented scientific beginning of our earth and life on it (light and dark, land and oceans, life in the seas, then plants, then animals, etc., humans beings last) follows the seven days of creation found in the historic writings of the Christian Bible and Jewish Torah? I have a biology degree and work in the medical field and have no problem with combining scientific and religious facts. Is it possible that both camps of thought are correct?"

Carl Seutter, Wasilla, Ark: "... We need to stop trying to answer scientific questions with religious answers and vice versa. How humans became what we are is scientific and should be answered by the only theory that has scientific data to support it. Who humanity has become and how it got this way is a religious question that is better answered by the various religions. Neither picture is all that pretty, but that is the universe. ..."

Sean Kelley, physicist, Chicago: "God fits within the framework of science, and science within the framework of God, regardless of your particular definition of God. Spiritual faith is a most fundamental property of humans, and the vast majority of Americans have some faith. It is not inappropriate to mention the common root from which faith and science both grow. The puzzle should be presented in schools from the standpoint of science but always making clear that science does not negate spiritual beliefs. ... It is the responsibility of families to teach and in the end, of each individual to come to terms with question of religious faith. But for completeness, I believe it is appropriate to clearly state that evolutionary theory does not preclude the existence of God. Creationism in particular may not be taught, but it should be mentioned that no theory has all the answers. ... A book shouldn't need a sticker. Parents should be the sticker."

Mike Maxwell, Clayton, N.J.: "Teaching science shouldn't be just about teaching facts; it should be at least in part about teaching how science is done. And I don't mean the so-called 'scientific method' (which is more applicable to medicine than it is to most sciences). Rather, I mean how do you evaluate evidence? This part of science is, so far as I can tell, sadly neglected in most science courses. So, I think that it's time for those on the evolution side of this controversy to make lemonade. Instead of behaving like priests — expecting that their theory of evolution should be the only thing taught — there should be an extended survey of arguments pro and con. And yes, there are many arguments against evolution — the point is not to pooh-pooh them, but rather to examine them one by one and refute them with better evidence and explanations (and be open to counter-counter arguments, and so on). In sum, instead of calling on judges to throw creationism out of the classroom, scientists ought to welcome the challenge as a way of showing how science is really done."

Julie Lane, Oviedo, Fla.: "I am a first-grade public school teacher and a devout Christian. The truth is that I have never had a student who did not believe in God. I think it is only fair to teach the many theories of how our world was created, along with evolutionism. It should be taught by simply stating, 'The Christians believe...' or 'The Hindus believe...' To not teach the popular theories besides evolution discriminates against students' beliefs and undermines the foundations of their much-needed value systems. It is time to teach students to respect each others' views. We need to end the selfish concept that it is discriminating to learn about what other huge groups of people so passionately believe."

C. El-Amin: "Scientific theories versus Bible and other scriptural sources is not the fundamental problem in these debates. It is not the Biblical or even Quranic text that is in conflict with scientific findings; rather, it is the literalist approach to scriptural texts that leads to the conclusion that religion is at war with science, even with nature itself. What these evangelical literalists don't know is that they debase the value of the very scriptures that they claim to uphold by reducing their meaning to their narrow, limited and lazy way of thinking about them. ... If they really believe that God is all powerful and the root of everything, why can't they believe that he/she could produce processes that lead to our existence, that take millions of years to occur? Because they are afraid to think beyond the most simplistic and literal levels about anything, even the All-Encompassing Originator whom they claim to worship."

Video: Evolution debate

Quite a few readers asked what was so wrong about questioning the evidence for evolution — and I think even Darwin's fiercest defenders would agree that the questioning is an accepted part of the scientific debate. However, the fact that some people have questions about a theory does not by any means imply that the theory's claims are unsupported by fact. That's where the concept of peer review comes into play.

Almost every scientific theory has gaps — with gravity and black holes and serving as prime examples. But you shouldn't take every gap as a sign that the phenomenon you're studying couldn't possibly have arisen through natural processes. Heck, 95 percent of the universe is still a mystery to us, so there are plenty of gaps yet to be filled in, and plenty of stickers you could paste into science textbooks.

Speaking of books, correspondents on both sides of the debate had reading lists to recommend. On the Darwinist side, one popular choice was "The Blind Watchmaker" by Richard Dawkins. On the other side, "Darwin's Black Box" by Michael Behe was frequently mentioned. But in keeping with today's "common ground" theme, I'll cite John Polkinghorne's "Science and Theology: An Introduction" as this month's Cosmic Log Used Book Club selection. (The CLUB Club highlights books with cosmic themes that should be available at your used-book store or local library.)

Polkinghorne is one of the winners of the $1.47 million Templeton Prize, awarded annually to recognize "research or discoveries about spiritual realities." It's one of the projects affiliated with the John Templeton Foundation, which also lends support to Science & Spirit, a magazine that seeks to bridge the science/religion divide.

Another great resource is the video archive from a series of workshops on evolution and creation, organized by the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences.

Nov. 15, 2004 | 8:50 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the World Wide Web:
NASA: Unraveling the rise and fall of the Maya
Nature: Cyborg geologist explores Spain
N.Y. Times (reg. req.): Crunch! Oof! Well, that's physics
Times of London: Is life all just a dream?

The fine print: Looking for older items? Check the Cosmic Log archive. Share your perspective on cosmic subjects with Alan Boyle. If you link to this page, you can use http://cosmiclog.msnbc.com or http://www.cosmiclog.com as the address. MSNBC is not responsible for the content of Internet links.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments