Hutchison, station science, and cosmic rays


Yesterday morning Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) spoke at a Space Transportation Association breakfast. Her relatively brief comments (about 20 minutes, including Q&A; Congressman Tom Feeney spoke for nearly an hour at an STA breakfast last month) focused primarily on last year’s NASA authorization bill and the importance of scientific research on the ISS. Some highlights:

  • Hutchison thinks there needs to be a place in the new American Competitiveness Initiative for NASA: “I want to try and put NASA in that mix. NASA should be doing some of the hard science research. We should be doing it on the International Space Station.” Later she said that she wants NASA administrator Michael Griffin to work with her “to be creative” in finding outside sources of money to support ISS research.
  • A provision of the NASA authorization bill requires NASA to spend 15% of its ISS research budget on non-exploration science, but Hutchison is concerned that NASA is shortchanging those efforts. “The figures that NASA is providing is that our 15% set-aside would be $14 million in 2006, and that would mean that the total International Space Station research budget is $85-100 million. Out of a $1.7-billion budget, I’m not relating to that. So I’m going to ask NASA to go back to the drawing boards and come back with a better number.”
  • Regarding the NASA budget increase for 2007: “I don’t think the three-percent increase in the NASA budget is enough, but I am very pleased that we got an increase.”
  • About the shuttle: “Mike Griffin doesn’t like the shuttle. He thinks it’s a flawed vehicle and I think he’s right. We all agree that it’s a vehicle that has had its problems. It’s also served an incredible function.”
  • One of her big concerns last year was the potential for a gap between the retirement of the shuttle and the introduction of the CEV. Some language that would have mandated eliminating the gap in the original version of the authorization bill, though, was moderated in the final version. “My bill originally said there would be no gap. We were standing firm on no gap. But we compromised because Mike Griffin and the White House said, ‘We can’t promise that.’ So we have, you know, namby-pamby language.”
  • Shortly before that, though, she made a curious comment about opportunities for the private sector servicing the ISS: “That also means that there are more opportunities for private help and private entrepreneurship to maybe extend the shuttles beyond 2010, to get the payloads up, and finish that space station.”
  • “Mike Griffin is doing a super job,” she said
  • Hutchison also endorsed Rep. Ralph Hall to be the next chairman of the House Science Committee once the current chairman, Sherwood Boehlert, steps down at the end of this year. She called him “the greatest supporter of space that I work with on a daily basis.”

There was one curious theme that Sen. Hutchison mentioned on several occasions during her talk: the use of the ISS for cosmic ray research that is somehow tied to energy. “We had a great Commerce Committee hearing with Dr. Samuel Ting, the Nobel laureate at MIT, who talked about cosmic rays being the most important energy source in space that we can start probing to see how we can harness that to provide energy, energy in space, but maybe we can bring it back here too.” Later: “We have so many opportunities for advances in the cosmic research area, for energy, which the president is also committed to, that I don’t want to walk away from those opportunities.” And then, in response to a question about the utilization of the ISS after 2016: “If we are discovering new things with cosmic rays in orbit we will continue to utilize it in some way.”

The hearing she was referring to appears to be a full committee hearing titled “Future of Science” held last November. Ting was one of the witnesses, and in his prepared testimony he does discuss cosmic ray research on the ISS using the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), an instrument whose development he has been leading for several years. However, I have never heard of cosmic rays being harnessed as an energy source of any kind, and his testimony doesn’t contain any overt references to this that I could find. The closest thing is a statement that the technology developed for the AMS could be spun off, such as “the use of superconducting magnet technology for propulsion, energy sources, and to provide safe, light weight and complete radiation shielding for manned interplanetary space travel.” However, the use of those magnets for energy sources would presumably be for applications like nuclear fusion, not cosmic radiation. Is there some link I’ve missed that ties cosmic rays and energy production?

22 comments to Hutchison, station science, and cosmic rays

  • Sure, the missing link is Republicans and brains.

  • Paul Dietz

    Cosmic rays in space as an energy source? Good f-bombing grief. Their energy density is far, far too low. Even the energy density of the solar wind is too low for almost all applications (M2P2 being a possible exception).

  • Chance

    I may be too charitable here, but isn’t it likely she simply misspoke, and meant solar rays?

  • Chance

    (sorry, hit post too soon, here’s what I meant to say)
    I may be too charitable here, but isn’t it likely she simply mispoke, and meant solar rays or that cosmic ray research may have indirect energy applications?

  • This is the same Kay Bailey Hutchison who wants to make the space station a “national laboratory”, like Oak Ridge and Brookhaven, because of its giant scientific research in microgravity. She is fixated on Reagan’s old “quantum leaps” and “lifesaving medicines” model of the space station, despite all that Bush said in the VSE speech.

    Hutchison also did not “misspeak” about cosmic rays. Ting really does lead a cosmic ray project that is planned for the space station, according to Hutchison’s web site. Here is the smoking gun from that page: “The planned research on cosmic rays may provide researchers with vital insights in understanding dark matter. Those insights could, in turn, develop new energy sources.” It seems that she really does not understand the difference between the cosmological distribution of energy and usable energy sources.

    Hutchison is just not competent to make decisions about NASA. It shows you just how awful Congress can be.

  • Hutchison is just not competent to make decisions about NASA. It shows you just how awful Congress can be.

    An inevitable consequence of having a taxpayer-funded space program.

  • Paul, while I agree with most of your comment, the solar wind does have one key (and, in my opinion, vital) application — to drive solar sails.

    Greg: It shows you just how awful Congress can be.

    Would you rather live in a country without a Congress? The price of a citizen legislature is that decisions are made by, well, citizens, not necessarily experts. Also, I’m not so sure that the Space Station as a national lab is really such a bad idea. It’s too early to say. Let’s address this after the Space Station has been complete in orbit for a couple of decades.

    — Donald

  • Would you rather live in a country without a Congress?

    I would rather live in a country with Congress, just like I would rather live in a country with circus elephants, and army bases, and chemical plants. But the circus elephants should be kept in corrals, the army bases should be strictly controlled, and the chemical plants should be guarded and inspected. And likewise public science and engineering projects should be protected from Congress by a layer of expert review.

    If Congresspeople cannot keep their grubby paws off of science and engineering projects that they do not understand, which is to say if they can’t recognize their limits and defer to expert panels, then they should be voted out of office. I don’t blame Hutchison for not having a technical PhD. The problem is that she also doesn’t listen to PhDs, or rather she listens but does not hear. America can do better than that.

  • Greg: I think it’s just possible that there is an expert or PhD out there who disagrees with you, and may offer advice that you don’t like, particularly regarding spaceflight. If the member of Contress or the Senate listens to both sides and makes a considered decision, that’s their job. If, on the other hand, anyone who disagrees with you is by your definition not an expert, the problem is not with Congress.

    — Donald

  • Donald: Just try and find an expert who thinks that cosmic rays are plausible as an energy source for human activities. You can start with Ting himself.

  • Note of clarification: I do not, of course, believe that Cosmic Rays are a plausible energy source. I was referring to the wider issue of Congress having a say on space policy.

    — Donald

  • Any Mouse


    That kind of “leave decisions to a small, essentially self-selected elite” kind of thinking can often lead of into dangerous territory.

  • Any Mouse: But it’s not a self-selected elite. It’s a mutually selected elite, which is something very different and more reliable. After all, we all come to depend on mutually selected elites in our daily lives. If you are sick with cancer, you go to an oncologist, because you need someone with elite training to plan chemotherapy. If your car has transmission trouble, solving that kind of problem requires elite training as well.

    I’m not even saying that Congress or even the Science committees should be replaced by elite expert panels, only that the committees should understand and defer to those panels. As they already do on lucky days.

  • Greg: Understand, yes. Defer, no. Often, there are much wider issues involved which narrow special interests (e.g., scientists) cannot, and connot be expect to, take into account. Decisions on whether and how to persue human spaceflight, for example, are, and should be, only partially related to science. This field also impacts commerce, trade, geopolitics, military issues, et cetera. Part of the reason we have (ideally) a citizen legislature is to prevent small specialized groups from imposing solutions for their needs and concerns onto the population at large.

    In a Republic, whether you like it or not, everyone should have a say on space policy, not only “the experts.” If anything, “the experts” should defer to the needs and desires of the public as a whole. “The experts” role is to devise a solution to try to achieve the desired results, not necessarily to have exclusive decision-making power over what the Republic wants to do.

    — Donald

  • Donald: Well, defer up to a point. I agree that scientists should not be the sole arbiters of how much is spent on science, just like doctors should not be the sole arbiters of how much is spent on health care. But if Congress sets science, or engineering, as a priority, they should then should mostly defer to expert panels for guidance. They should learn panel conclusions before approving them, but they also should not tamper with the conclusions.

    Either you want science or you don’t. You shouldn’t want science and then claim to know better than the scientists.

    Which is not advice that Kay Bailey Hutchison has followed. She seems determined to garble every technical gleam that comes to her. I don’t know if arrogance is part of it, or if it is 100% stupidity. It reminds me of movie caricatures of blockheads, like the classic line from Spinal Tap: “Mine goes up to 11.”

  • Paul Dietz

    the solar wind does have one key (and, in my opinion, vital) application — to drive solar sails.

    Solar sails are driven by light pressure, not by the pressure of the solar wind. M2P2, which I mentioned, exploits the momentum of the solar wind.

  • Paul, correction noted and agreed. I mis-stated.

    — Donald

  • The Lidless Eye

    “Sure, the missing link is Republicans and brains.”

    We need more Democratic rocket scientists like Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee.

  • Chance

    For all concerned, there is a decent article in this month’s American Scientist by Daniel Sarewitz on “Liberating Science from Politics” that you might enjoy if you haven’t already read it.

  • Al

    As a country that has chosen the path of a “representative democracy”, we get represented across the board. Just as there is a bell curve in intelligence across the general population — in any population for that matter — there are smarter Members of Congress, and more … let’s say … dimwitted … Members of Congress.

    It is pretty easy to figure out which end of the spectrum that Senator Hutchison lies.

    The only reason she (and other Members of Congress on her end of the spectrum) do not make bigger fools of themselves is all the aides around them that are continually catching (and trying to prevent) mistakes.

    As others have pointed out, this is equally true for both of the parties.

    – Al

    PS — This should not be news to anybody here. It has been true since the founding of our country.

  • Al, that may be true, but Texus does seem to contribute more than its share of “those politicians.”

    — Donald

  • Oops, if I’m going to make comments like that, I suppose I ought to spell “Texas” correctly.

    — Donald