Elon Musk: Bad for the Russian Space Program

Space X’s recent success sending US astronauts into space on its Dragon 2 spacecraft will probably cost the Russian space agency, Roscomos, its $300 million contract with NASA, or about 15% of its budget. NASA spends about 10x as much as its Russian counterpart. From The Bell:

The U.S. spending on space dwarfs that of Russia. The entire budget (Rus) of Russia’s space program between 2016-2025 was about $21.2 billion, compared to the $22.6 billion NASA spent in 2020 alone. Similarly, it will cost (Rus) just over $800 million to build the first pilot prototype for Oryol, while NASA gave SpaceX $3.1 billion to develop the Dragon capsule. The salaries paid to the scientists working on Oryol and Angara are modest: they work (Rus) because of a passion for space, not because it is lucrative.

But Russia is by no means out of the game:

One might get the impression Russia’s space program is falling apart. But this is not entirely the case: in 2019, Russia completed almost 30 incident-free launches, including the Russian–German high-energy astrophysics space observatory SPEKTR-RG that has traveled further from the earth than any Russian or Soviet spacecraft. The trouble begins when it is time to invest in new projects. Minimal funding means it is unwise to expect any breakthroughs from Roscosmos in the near future.

Dmitry Rogozin, the head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos (and apparently a Forbes.ru contributor) published a lengthy column on Monday defending his agency’s relevance:

So who can turn the language of “stagnation” in Russian space? No, the domestic rocket and space industry has not conducted such a number of research and development efforts since the 70s of the last century. Over the next three years, a completely new generation of launch vehicles and space vehicles will appear that can “give battle” to competitors. We have a vision of ways for further development, priorities are set. But most importantly, based on the results of this work, we will have a new generation of designers and engineers with practical experience who can proudly say: “I did it!” For the self-affirmation of an updated industry and its intellectual class, this is very important.

Spacetime to Money

Time, they often say in New York, is money. This can also mean that money is what time is like. Money, being purely quantitative, has no content, but can be exchanged for content: its purchases. The same has become true of time: it, too, is now being exchanged for the content it lacks. Work-time for wages, wages for the unlived time “encapsulated” in the purchase: the “speed” of the automobile, the eternal present of the television screen, the time “saved” in a hundred household appliances, the peace of the retirement pension to come, etc. etc. The fourth lesson of the city is pie in the sky, in which the denial of space and time combine.

From John Berger’s Ralph Fasanella and the City, collected in About Looking.

More about Fasanella here and here. This is Fasanella’s 1959 painting, New York City:


Should We Have Formal Courtship Rituals for Technology?

Here is Marshal McLuhan, in a 1959 speech, describing a kind of courtship ritual that Canadian fighter pilots undergo which culminates in the pilots getting “married” to their planes:

Before being assigned to their common task, they undergo a long phase of what is called “going steady.” When finally assigned to their plane they are publicly “married” by the commanding officer in a sober ceremony. Today, it is felt only marriage can connote the degree of togetherness, tolerance, and sympathy necessary for decision-making in the use of new technology. This new pattern is the subliminal but overwhelming message of the media since the telegraph. Yet nowhere in our educational establishment have we made provision for the study of these profound messages which impose their configurations on the sensory equipment of children from their first days of existence. Yet some such provision would seem to be indicated against the persistent effects of media fallout.

This is from a speech titled Electronic Revolution: Revolutionary Effects of New Media and which I came across in the book Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews (pp. 6-7).

I could find no evidence that the Royal Canadian Air Force actually has such a ritual. But it is an intriguing idea. Before giving my kids their first smart phone would they benefit from going through a courtship period where they first became acquainted with its many benefits and dangers over a period of time sufficient to adequately process and prepare for them, and then finally “marry” it in a ceremony where they publicly commit to use it responsibly?

It sounds like overkill–why adapt some weird ritual when simply educating them might work just as well?

One reason is that collective ritual appears to be a highly effective way of conveying information about potential hazards and ensuring the spread of this information. In a paper titled “Whence Collective Rituals? A Cultural Selection Model of Ritualized Behavior” the French anthropologists Pierre Liénard and Pascal Boyer make the case that collective ritual activates a certain neurocognitive system designed to spot potential hazards. In the abstract to that paper they write that

Ritualized behavior is a specific way of organizing the flow of action, characterized by stereotypy, rigidity in performance, a feeling of compulsion, and specific themes, in particular the potential danger from contamination, predation, and social hazard. We proposed elsewhere a neurocognitive model of ritualized behavior in human development and pathology, as based on the activation of a specific hazard-precaution system specialized in the detection of and response to potential threats. We show how certain features of collective rituals—by conveying information about potential danger and presenting appropriate reaction as a sequence of rigidly described precautionary measures—probably activate this neurocognitive system. This makes some collective ritual sequences highly attention-demanding and intuitively compelling and contributes to their transmission from place to place or generation to generation. The recurrence of ritualized behavior as a central feature of collective ceremonies may be explained as a consequence of this bias in selective transmission.

At a time when the technology available to consumers is rapidly becoming indistinguishable from magic, maybe it makes sense to utilize forms of ritual practice that were formerly reserved for sorcery.

Notes on Gruinard Island

gruinard warning sign

In Norman F. Cantor’s book In the Wake of the Black Plague: the Black Death and the World it Made, I came across the following paragraph:

Anthrax spores buried in the ground remain active for half a century or more as extremely toxic for humans. During World War II both German and Allied biomedical scientists developed anthrax to use in germ warfare. It was employed by neither side in the end, but the Allies tested their variety on an island off the Sottish coast. Fifty years after the war live spores buried in the ground there were discovered and the inhabitants of the island had to be evacuated.

Cantor mentions this incident in passing, as part of his argument that anthrax was a cause of the Black Death, but it got me curious. Fifty years after World War II would be the 1990’s.

I couldn’t find any reference to a Scottish island abandoned in the mid-1990s, but there is the case of  Gruinard Island. This tiny island, which is part of the Inner Hebrides archipelago off the west coast of Scotland, was a testing grounds for weaponized anthrax from 1942 to 1943.

But the island was already vacant. The British government had purchased the island from its owners in 1941 and evacuated the residents in advance of the testing. So at least there’s that.

The British military research facility at Porton Down, the top secret British military complex that rivals Area 51 in secrecy and conspiracy theory generation, monitored the island for 25 years after the tests. When they got around to testing it again in 1979 they found that only the top three inches of ground soil in an area of about three acres around the test site remained contaminated.

Despite the secrecy of the anthrax tests, the scientists actually filmed the tests, and that film has been declassified and can be viewed (where else?) on Youtube. Warning: the video contains pretty graphic images of animal experimentation and autopsies.

Operation Dark Harvest

In 1981 sealed bags of soil from Gruinard Island contaminated with anthrax were left outside of several prominent facilities, including the Porton Down research complex, the Scottish Office in Edinburgh, and the a hotel hosting a Conservative Party conference in Blackpool. This followed messages sent to newspapers claiming that a “team of microbiologists from two universities” along with some locals had collected 300 pounds of contaminated soil from the island. The messages were labelled “Operation Dark Harvest” and demanded the decontamination of Gruinard Island.

The identity of the people behind this operation remains a mystery, but in 2010 the newspaper The Scotsman published an article claiming that “secret files” implicated a shadowy nationalist paramilitary group called the Scottish Civilian Army. This group is thought to be a forerunner of the Scottish National Liberation Army, which would shortly after this time send letter bombs to Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher, among other acts.


And yet it wasn’t until 1986 that the government got around to decontaminating the island. Gary Ackerman, a professor of  Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity at SUNY Albany, wrote the entry on Gruinard Island for the book Weapons of Mass Destruction. He describes the decontamination effort as follows:

In 1986, a private contractor was commissioned to decontaminate a total area of just over 10 acres on Gruinard. After spraying a herbicide and burning away the undergrowth, a system consisting of 30 miles of irrigation tubing was used to soak the ground with 280 tons of formaldehyde diluted in 2,000 tons of seawater in amounts of 50 liters per square meter. Topsoil was also removed in sealed containers and decontaminated. After retreating a few areas in July 1987, no viable spores of B. anthracis were detected on the island. As an extra precaution, forty sheep belonging to a local farmer were allowed to graze on the island from May to October 1987 and were closely monitored.

According to the book Reopening Public Facilities After a Biological Attack: A Decision Making Framework, which contains a case history of Gruinard Island, “Subsequent sampling revealed pockets of surviving spores which were than treated with undiluted formalin.”

Gruinard Today

According to Ackerman, Gruinard today is once again safe for humans and sheep alike:

In its final 1988 report, the IAG concluded that Gruinard Island could be returned to civilian use, and, in May 1990, the island was sold back to the heirs of its original owners. Gruinard Island remained only an interesting historical footnote until the anthrax attacks in November 2001 in the United States, when reporters flocked to Gruinard to recall Britain’s brief foray into biological warfare.

Here is one such article about Gruinard from the BBC dated 8 November, 2001.