Their Sacrifice Helped Us Walk On The Moon

I hadn’t realized this until I saw it in the Examiner, but today is the 40th anniversary of the Apollo I fire that took the lives of Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. The disaster almost derailed the Apollo program, and it took the better part of two years before NASA could make the changes necessary to transform the catastrophe into an improved system that would successfully land men on the moon in 1969:

Exactly 40 years later, the three Apollo astronauts who were killed in that flash fire were remembered Saturday for paving the way for later astronauts to be able to travel to the moon. The deaths of Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee forced NASA to take pause in its space race with the Soviet Union and make design and safety changes that were critical to the agency’s later successes.
“I can assure you if we had not had that fire and rebuilt the command module … we could not have done the Apollo program successfully,” said retired astronaut John Young, who flew in Gemini 3 with Grissom in 1965. “So we owe a lot to Gus, and Rog and Ed. They made it possible for the rest of us to do the almost impossible.”
The memorial service at the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex marked the start of a solemn week for NASA – Sunday is the 21st anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger accident, and Thursday makes four years since the space shuttle Columbia disaster.
Chaffee’s widow, Martha, and White’s son, Edward III, along with NASA associate administrator Bill Gerstenmaier, laid a wreath at the base of the Space Mirror Memorial, a tall granite-finished wall engraved with the names of the Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia astronauts and seven other astronauts killed in accidents.

My father, the Admiral Emeritus, worked on the space program for almost 30 years and met the men on a few occasions. The people at NASA and the contracting companies (where my father worked) took the Apollo disaster very personally. People working on the space program had a strong sense of mission and of being part of history, and the loss of these brave leaders had a terrible impact on everyone involved.
Congress grilled NASA and the astronauts in the program after the disaster, and they put a lot of pressure on the program to end the mission. In the end, Congress relented and all of the agencies and companies involved made significant changes to the equipment and procedures, changes which put Neil Armstrong on the moon and made space flight almost routine for another 17 years, until the Challenger disaster in 1986 almost exactly 19 years after Apollo I.
Not many people know much about the three men, and the most famous — Grissom — is mostly known from his portrayal in The Right Stuff, which made him look petty and somewhat cowardly. A much better representation of Grissom can be found in Tom Hanks’ miniseries, From The Earth To The Moon, which correctly paints Grissom as a tough-minded, hard-driven perfectionist who put everything he had into the program. Grissom was the first man to get flight status in all three NASA space missions (Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo) at the time of the fire, and he pushed NASA and the contractors hard to build the equipment properly. Petty and weak men did not make it into the space program, at least not as astronauts, and Grissom had made two journeys into space already by the time he died.
There were many reasons the Apollo I accident should not have happened, but Grissom, White, and Chaffee knew that the job was dangerous and did it anyway. They should rightly be remembered as American heroes.

Hydrogen Isn’t Green

BMW unveiled its new hydrogen-gasoline hybrid automobile, the Hydrogen 7, and the reviews thus far are less than stellar. If you want to drive an internal-combustion vehicle that only gets 17 miles to the gallon and have its fuel go bad in less than ten days, then the H-7 is the car for you:

And so, in creating the Hydrogen 7, BMW is announcing a future of putatively clean, full-throttle driving. The new car caters to the pleasing fantasy of customers spoiled by high-horsepower engines: That they can conform to ecological standards without making any sacrifices, burning “clean” fuel to their heart’s content. Advertizing images display the Hydrogen 7 against a backdrop of wind turbines and solar panels.
But the image is one of deceit. Because the hydrogen dispensed at the new filling station is generated primarily from petroleum and natural gas, the new car puts about as much strain on the environment as a heavy truck with a diesel engine. Add the loss of environmental benefits involved in the production and transportation of the putatively clean fuel to the consumption of the car itself and you get an actual consumption corresponding to considerably more than 20 liters (5.3 gallons) of fossil fuel.
The environment isn’t the only loser: Customers will also have to shell out a lot of money for their deceptive display of ecologically responsible driving. The current standard price for liquid hydrogen is 57 euro cents (0.73 US cents) per liter (0.3 gallons). And the price tag on a 100 kilometer (62 mile) drive in the Hydrogen 7, at a comfortable speed, is about €30 ($38).

The decision to base the H-7 on an internal-combustion engine, rather than an electric motor based on hydrogen fuel cells, causes most of the problems noted above. The hydrogen has to be stored at -253 degrees Celsius, or near absolute zero, and it has to be vented occasionally, making the tank technology very challenging. The 12-cylinder engine drinks hydrogen or gasoline in equally greedy measure, and the hydrogen will not last more than nine days in the tank without losing half of its ability to fuel the car.
Der Spiegel points out a problem noted by CQ readers in the past; the hydrogen car, like the fully electric car, doesn’t really do much to save the environment. Hydrogen has to be produced using a lot of energy at some point, which means either a normal coal- or petroleum-burning plant or nuclear energy. Essentially, one trades the emissions at the tailpipe for emissions at the smokestack, and given the high efficiency of most internal-combustion engines and their anti-pollution systems, that’s a bad trade.
BMW appears to have produced the worst of both worlds, thanks to its pandering to a muscle-car mentality. Fuel-cell cars use hydrogen much more efficiently and actually could prove cost-effective if the hydrogen could be produced from nuclear plants rather than oil refineries. It doesn’t produce very dramatic power for the vehicle, however, and BMW apparently doesn’t want to trade performance for economic or environmental benefits.
At least they picked their initial target market shrewdly. They plan to sell the first one hundred H-7s to “celebrities”, the only people silly and rich enough to bother with the vehicle.

Bruce Willis, Call Your Agent

It sounds like a story right out of the movie Armageddon, but without the bad dialogue and the mind-numbingly bad love story between Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler. NASA wants to start building spaceships and training crews to attack killer asteroids from outer space:

The US space agency is drawing up plans to land an astronaut on an asteroid hurtling through space at more than 30,000 mph. It wants to know whether humans could master techniques needed to deflect such a doomsday object when it is eventually identified. The proposals are at an early stage, and a spacecraft needed just to send an astronaut that far into space exists only on the drawing board, but they are deadly serious. A smallish asteroid called Apophis has already been identified as a possible threat to Earth in 2036.
Chris McKay of the Nasa Johnson Space Centre in Houston told the website “There’s a lot of public resonance with the notion that Nasa ought to be doing something about killer asteroids … to be able to send serious equipment to an asteroid.
“The public wants us to have mastered the problem of dealing with asteroids. So being able to have astronauts go out there and sort of poke one with a stick would be scientifically valuable as well as demonstrate human capabilities.”
A 1bn tonne asteroid just 1km across striking the Earth at a 45 degree angle could generate the equivalent of a 50,000 megatonne thermonuclear explosion. Attempting to break it up with an atomic warhead might only generate thousands of smaller objects on a similar course, which could have time to reform. Scientists agree the best approach, given enough warning, would be to gently nudge the object into a safer orbit.

The so-called “planet killer” scenario seems somewhat unlikely, although not out of the question. Obviously asteroids have hit the Earth in the past, and have significantly changed the environment as a result. Unfortunately, at the moment we have neither the technology to get to an asteroid in time nor a clear idea about how to keep one from hitting the planet. Many theories abound, but none have any real testing, and a test failure near the planet could inadvertently send one towards Earth that otherwise might have missed.
That’s not the big story here, however. NASA wants a big new project to capture the public’s imagination. Bush announced a new lunar challenge in January 2004, an announcement that produced more yawns than dollars. A moon shot has been done, after all, and many skeptics wonder what purpose would be served by going back except to say we did. Just as in the days of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, taxpayers don’t see any short-term benefits in either a lunar mission or an expedition to Mars, and so have no reason to spend a trillion or so dollars in pursuing them. After all, it’s not as though we have extra money laying around these days.
However, everyone understands what it means to save the planet. Bruce Willis died to save us all, as did the movie itself. Morgan Freeman had to run a country considerably narrower than the one he was given in Deep Impact. Killer Asteroids from Outer Space (or KAFOS, as I like to call ’em) outweigh moon rocks not just in mass but in publicity. This kind of mission could find much more political support and might expedite the development of a true space plane, a project on the boards since the Space Shuttle first began its missions. The training and tactics could help develop more exploration projects in the future. And the money will roll back into NASA.
My father, the Admiral Emeritus, worked on the space program from Mercury to the Shuttle, and it’s always been a source of great pride not just for him but for the whole family. That was a wonderful mission, and it produced techological innovations that greatly improved American lives. I’m in favor of space missions that make sense, and believe space exploration will be a large part of our future. If KAFOS gets us there, then great — but let’s make sure we’re tailoring the budget and the mission to the real threat, and not some hysterics intended to sell books and buy tax money.

Another Success For Non-hEsc Research

British researchers have grown a new liver from umbilical-cord stem cells, a breakthrough of immense proportions that promises the potential of almost-instant organ transplantation:

British scientists have grown the world’s first artificial liver from stem cells in a breakthrough that will one day provide entire organs for transplant.
The technique that created the ‘mini-liver’, currently the size of a one pence piece, will be developed to create a full-size functioning liver.
Described as a ‘Eureka moment’ by the Newcastle University researchers, the tissue was created from blood taken from babies’ umbilical cords just a few minutes after birth.
As it stands, the mini organ can be used to test new drugs, preventing disasters such as the recent ‘Elephant Man’ drug trial. Using lab-grown liver tissue would also reduce the number of animal experiments.
Within five years, pieces of artificial tissue could be used to repair livers damaged by injury, disease, alcohol abuse and paracetamol overdose.
And then, in just 15 years’ time, entire liver transplants could take place using organs grown in a lab.

The “disaster” to which the Daily Mail refers involved six young people who had an unpredicted reaction to a new drug regime, one that almost killed them. The development of liver tissue from umbilical stem cells means that human drug and therapy trials may not require humans — making the process that much safer and quicker, and helping to bring new treatments to market much sooner.
Of course, the main focus will be on transplantation. Liver transplants are notoriously tricky, even live donors; people donate a portion of their livers, betting that they can live a normal and healthy life with only a portion, which usually works out well. If scientists can grow enough liver tissue for these transplants, it will eliminate the need for live transplants, and perhaps most cadaver donors as well. Hopefully that will lead to other types of organ transplants, especially kidneys and pancreases.
Once again, we see that non-hEsc research produces results. We do not have to grind up our progeny in order to live longer and healthier lives. We should allow our resources to follow our successes, especially when we talk about federal funding. The Anchoress has more, as does The Corner.

Should New Stem Cell Procedure Unlock Federal Funding?

The announcement of a new, non-destructive method of deriving stem cells from embryos raised hopes that the Bush administration would lift restrictions on federal funding for human embryonic stem-cell (hEsc) research. The new process takes one or two cells from a blastocyst in a similar method as in-vitro fertilization checks for genetic abnormalities and then grows the cells into theoretically perpetual stem-cell lines. This eliminates the need for the destruction of the embryo and arguable removes the moral objection to funding the process:

Now a team at Advanced Cell Technology – a private company – has found that it is possible to create human stem cells using one or two cells from an early embryo, without doing any damage to the embryo.
In theory, the technique could be used to create both a baby and a set of immortal stem cells unique to that baby that might be used decades later to cure the baby – now adult – of diseases such as Parkinson’s or heart disease.
Much more likely, however, is that it will be used as a research technique to advance stem-cell science.
The technique is similar to pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) where one or two cells are detached from a blastocyst – a very early embryo, created in the case by in-vitro fertilisation – and tested to see if it carries a genetic mutation.

Undoubtedly, this puts a much different light on hEsc research. In fact, it might force hEsc researchers to adopt this method regardless of the existence of federal funding, as any destruction of embryos will be demonstratedly unnecessary. In that sense, the new technique removes a cloud that has hovered over this science since its inception.
Will it be enough to allow for federal funding of hEsc? Politically speaking, I’d say yes. The primary objection to funding hEsc has been the destruction of human embryos. If that stops, then most of the current objections vanish. Certainly the science has other deep ethical issues, including the questions of cloning humans for medical purposes and ownership of the cells and cell lines. None of these, however, have been cited as a reason to block hEsc funding, and the same dilemmas exist for adult and placental stem-cell research anyway.
There are other problems with hEsc research and federal funding. The hEsc efforts have come up empty for the most part; the adult and placental pursuits have resulted in actual therapies and better-controlled processes. One of the reasons why hEsc researchers pressed for federal funding (and repeatedly mischaracterized the lack of such as a “ban” on research) is precisely because the science has shown no practical reward to this point. Private funding has gone towards the sciences that have delivered more tangible victories, resulting in a market decision that marginalizes hEsc.
The question of federal funding for hEsc is one that applies to most federal funding, and that is market distortion. Will federal dollars skew the research market to the point where scientists spend disproportionate resources on less-promising processes, further delaying medical advances rather than promoting them? Market forces can produce short-sighted perspectives, but I’d trust the market over the decisions of a handful of bureaucrats and political appointees about the potential of various directions in medical research.
However, I expect that these questions will not hold back the advocates of hEsc and the claims of miracle cures that privately-funded hEsc research has failed to produce. With the main ethical argument neutered (and with full recognition of the blessings of the new procedure), Congress and the Bush administration will probably rush to provide funds for hEsc research along these lines.
UPDATE: Hugh Hewitt is right about this being a victory for anti-hEsc forces. Without the economic pressure to find a non-destructive method to develop embryonic stem cells, how much longer would we have waited for this breakthrough? Would it have ever come?

Midwives — Natural Assistants Or Unlicensed Menaces?

The New York Times reports today on a prosecution against a midwife for delivering babies in defiance of legislation requiring attendants to be licensed nurses or doctors. Adam Liptak writes that the triggering event in this prosecution was the death of a child during birth, but that the charges have been limited to practicing without a proper license:

Angela Hendrix-Petry gave birth to her daughter Chloe by candlelight in her bedroom here in the early morning of March 12, with a thunderstorm raging outside and her family and midwife huddled around her.
“It was the most cozy, lovely, lush experience,” Ms. Hendrix-Petry said.
According to Indiana law, though, the midwife who assisted Ms. Hendrix-Petry, Mary Helen Ayres, committed a felony punishable by up to eight years in prison. Ms. Ayres was, according to the state, practicing medicine and midwifery without a license.
Doctors, legislators and prosecutors in Indiana and in the nine other states with laws prohibiting midwifery by people other than doctors and nurses say home births supervised by midwives present grave and unacceptable medical risks. Nurse-midwives in Indiana are permitted to deliver babies at home, but most work in hospitals.
Midwives see it differently. They say the ability of women to choose to give birth at home is under assault from a medical establishment dominated by men who, for reasons of money and status, resent a centuries-old tradition that long ago anticipated the concerns of modern feminism.

The midwife in question, Jennifer Williams, assisted a family whose delivery had serious complications. Williams conducted her own pre-natal exams on Kristi Jo Meredith, performed an episiotomy during the birth when the baby’s heart rate showed signs of distress, tried reviving the child through CPR, and after the baby died closed the suture she had made. Both the prosecution and the defense agree that the family has not pursued the prosecution, at least not with any enthusiasm, although Liptak could not get them to comment on the story.
Normally, my approach to questions like this is to ensure that all sides understand the limits and ramifications of their choices and act responsibly; if a family wants a midwife delivery, then let them have one — but the midwife can’t take it upon herself to act outside her own expertise. The prosecution has a strong case that Williams wasn’t acting as a midwife but practicing medicine without a license — and the fact that they have focused on that point shows the proper prosecutorial temperament.
And the first question that should be answered is this — why didn’t anyone call 911 when it started to go wrong?
I’ll share a little story with you that will illustrate my frustration with this. Many years ago (well, not that long ago), friends of mine asked me to help out when their baby was due by babysitting their older daughter. They also asked to borrow my camera for pictures of the birth, so I brought along my Canon AE-1 SLR rig for the father to use. I assumed that they would be going to the hospital while I stayed at their place, but it turned out that they had arranged for a home delivery by a midwife. Labor turned out to be about twenty hours or so, during which time I got regaled with the entire political history of the oppressive male-dominated medical establishment and their extermination of midwives as witches, and so on.
Oh, and by the way, it turned out that the photographer was going to be … me. Surprise!
I didn’t really mind all of this, although it would have been nice had they just told me the entire story when they asked me to volunteer. I considered it a bit odd — well, more than a bit — but relatively harmless, and giving me the opportunity to be present at the birth was really rather sweet. However, that all changed once the labor got serious. The midwife could not get the water to break properly, causing some significant distress to the mother, and then the head got caught in the cervix. It turned out that the baby was a lot bigger than anyone had anticipated. At that point, I suggested we call an ambulance, but the midwife assured me that they had a backup plan for a hospital in case of complications.
It turns out that the hospital was twenty miles away. And this was in Orange County, CA, where we probably passed a half-dozen hospitals as everyone drove from Yorba Linda to the midwife’s preferred birthing center in La Palma. I would have cheerfully strangled the midwife myself by that point, but she disappeared when they took the mother in for an emergency Caesarian. Fortunately, everyone survived the experience, but it turns out that only the father got to see the birth. I loaned him the camera, but I don’t recall if he took any pictures.
I can understand why people might choose a midwife, I truly do. Most probably aren’t as nutty as the one with which I spent almost two days. However, the truth is that births often bring complications, and midwives aren’t qualified to deal with most of them. It seems to me that allowing unlicensed midwives to operate independently in home births asks for trouble, especially when they attempt surgeries and conduct prenatal examinations that supplant those conducted by medical professionals. Hundreds of years of medical research, understanding, and training do not turn people into oppressors; it turns them into professional doctors and nurses who can rely on that knowledge and experience to rescue people when things go wrong.
Addendum: Thanks, Mom, for going to the hospital 43 years ago today.

God Bless Virginia Postrel

Virginia Postrel has decided to donate a kidney to her friend Sally Satel:

Last fall, my friend Sally Satel wrote about the issue in general and her own search for a kidney donor. Between the time she wrote the article and the time it appeared in the NYT, I heard about her situation and volunteered as a donor. Our tissues turned out to be unusually compatible for nonrelatives and, when her Internet donor dropped out, I moved from backup to actual donor. We have our surgeries tomorrow morning.
As surgeries go, the procedure is safe and straightforward–far more so than people think. A donor can live a completely normal life with one kidney. The recipientis not so lucky, since a foreign organ requires a lifetime of immunosuppressant drugs. But that’s a lot better than the alternative.

The donor’s experience isn’t exactly a breeze, either, so don’t let Virginia sell her courage short. With arthroscopic surgery, it’s a lot easier than it used to be; the previous surgical procedure required an incision almost from navel to spine. Now the recovery time is much shorter and the complications have diminished greatly … but it still has its risks and a significant amount of time before the donor gets back to 100%.
On behalf of those who themselves or their loved ones need transplants, thank you, Virginia, and our prayers are with you and your friend. (via Instapundit)

Health News You Can Use

With all of the health scares that get hysterical coverage in the media these days, I thought I would point out a little good news, especially for us middle-aged guys. It turns out that chocolate is health food now:

Leave it to the Dutch to help demonstrate the health benefits of chocolate. A study of older men in The Netherlands, known for its luscious chocolate, indicated those who ate the equivalent of one-third of a chocolate bar every day had lower blood pressure and a reduced risk of death.
The researchers say, however, it’s too early to conclude it was chocolate that led to better health. The men who ate more cocoa products could have shared other qualities that made them healthier. Experts also point out that eating too much chocolate can make you fat a risk for both heart disease and high blood pressure.
“It’s way too early to make recommendations about whether people should eat more cocoa or chocolate,” said Brian Buijsse, a nutritional epidemiologist at Wageningen University in The Netherlands, who co-authored the study.
Still, the Dutch study, supported by grants from the Netherlands Prevention Foundation, appears to be the largest so far to document a health effect for cocoa beans. And it confirms findings of smaller, shorter-term studies that also linked chocolate with lower blood pressure.

Come to think of it, I’m feeling a bit stressed out. I think I’ll find myself about a pound of Godiva.

Dafydd: A Climate Pact Even I Can Applaud

This one caught me totally by surprise: China, India, Australia, Japan, South Korea, and the United States (we led the effort) have just signed an international agreement, the Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, to “keep climate-changing chemicals out of the atmosphere, especially carbon from fossil fuels.” But rather than the Kyoto-Protocol method of setting target goals for emissions reductions that force de-industrialization among complying nations (of which there are actually very few among the Kyoto signers), this new pact aims to reduce emissions by jointly developing new pollutant-control technologies. (Power Line’s John Hinderaker, the only “SuperLawyer” currently blogging in the ‘sphere, is on the story.)

In a move to counter the Kyoto Protocol that requires mandatory cuts in so-called greenhouse gas emissions, [President Bush] is making the technology pitch as part of a partnership with five Asian and Pacific nations, including China and India. The idea is to get them to commit to cleaner energy production as a way to curtail air pollution that most scientists believe is causing the Earth to warm up.
The administration announced late Wednesday that it has reached an agreement with the five countries to create a new partnership to deploy cleaner technologies whenever possible to produce energy.

I’m one of the most rabid despisers of the global-warming mob (globaloney, that is) and their ham-fisted, Luddite attempt to force industrial Western societies back into the past, the pastoral, preindustrial golden age when everyone was treated with love and respect, and lions lay with lambs in arrangements other than prandial.
So why am I wildly approving of this new greenhouse-gas pact, agreement, whatever one calls it? Well, do the obvious…!

Continue reading “Dafydd: A Climate Pact Even I Can Applaud”

Dafydd: ab Hugh’s Universal Rules of Intelligence

Thinking about the terrible shooting of Brazilian electrician Jean Charles de Menezes, shot to death in London by police who mistook him for a suicide bomber, recalls some rules of intelligence and analysis that we should always keep in mind:
1. The Law of Imperfect Precognition: Sometimes there is no “right choice.” Throw the dice.
2. The Law of Imperfect Postcognition: Not even hindsight is ever really 20-20.
3. The Law of Colliding Interests: Five different people can each make a rational decision and still wind up in a melee.
4. The Law of the Rational Onion: There is always another layer of analysis that contradicts everything you’ve already concluded. At some point, you just have to stop.
5. The Law of Models: There is a real reality out there, whether you can see it or not. And it bites.