Daily Archives: December 8th, 2009

Whither the Magna Carta?/VSS Enterprise Debut

There has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth in the UK recently over the signing of the Lisbon Treaty, which in effect over-rides many of the member states individual constitutions. Especially the English Magna Carta, the ancestor of the American Constitution:

I have a copy dated MDCCLXVI (1766) left to me by my father, and to him by his father. The customary law is Saxon, Celtic, even Visigoth.

“All men in our Kingdom have and hold the aforesaid liberties and rights, well and in peace, freely and quietly, fully and wholly, for ever.”

“No free man shall be taken or imprisoned, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any way destroyed, unless by lawful judgment of his peers.”

“No constable or bailiff shall take another man’s corn or chattels without immediate payment, nor take any horses or any man’s timber for castles.”

“Any one may leave the Kingdom and return at will, unless in time of war, when he may be restrained for some short space for the common good”.

Here is a nice one, as the Square Mile falls under the control EU authorities with “binding powers”.

“The City of London shall have all its ancient liberties and free customs.” Merchants should be free from “evil tolls”.

The founding texts of the English Constitution – charter, petition, bill of rights – have one theme in common: they create nothing. They assert old freedoms; they restore lost harmony. In this they guided America’s Revolution, itself a codification of early colonial liberties.

Europe’s Constitution – the Lisbon Treaty, as we know it – began as a sort of Magna Carta. EU leaders agreed at Laeken in 2001 that the Project needed restraining after Danes and Swedes rejected EMU, the Irish rejected Nice, and youth torched Gothenburg in anti-EU riots.

People do not want Europe inveigling its way into “every nook and cranny of life”, they said. Needless to say, insiders hijacked the process. A Hegelian monstrosity emerged. The text says much about the heightened powers of EU bodies, but scarcely a word to restrain EU bailiffs and constables.

The Charter of Fundamental Rights – legally binding in the UK as of Tuesday, when Lisbon came into force – asserts that the EU has the authority to circumscribe all rights and freedoms.

The text was modified after I threw a tantrum in the Daily Telegraph during the drafting process, comparing it to the “general interest” clause used by Fascist regimes to crush dissent in the 1930s.

Article 52 now reads: “Subject to the principle of proportionality, limitations may be made only if they are necessary and genuinely meet objectives of general interest recognised by the Union.”

Don’t be misled by this inverted wording. What it states is that the EU may indeed limit rights in the “general interest”. In other words, our Magna Carta has been superceeded.

It is the European Court (ECJ) that decides what is “proportional” or “necessary”, and it cannot be trusted. The ECJ behaves like the Star Chamber of Charles I, as I learned following three cases where it rubber-stamped the abuse of state power against whistleblowers Bernard Connolly and Marta Andreasen, and German journalist Hans-Martin Tillack.

Mr Tillack was arrested by Belgian police and held incommunicado for ten hours. Incommunicado on the basis of a fabricated allegation by two EU officials. Police went through his notes and computers, identifying his network of informants inside the EU apparatus.

Mr Tillack took the case to the ECJ. It ruled in favour of the system. It always does.

This is our new Supreme Court under Lisbon, its jurisdiction vastly expanded from narrow commercial law (Pillar I) to the breadth of Union law (Pillars I, II, and III).

As my colleague Daniel Hannan writes, Lisbon gives the EU “legal personality” to enter treaties as a state, and contains an escalator clause that lets it aggregate further power without need for ratification by national parliaments – it draws charisma (papal usage) from itself.

French and Dutch voters rejected this leap from a treaty organisation to a unitary state when given a chance in 2005. The revamped version was slipped through by parliaments – except in Ireland, where voters said No, until coerced by events into acquiescence. In Britain, Labour did this knowing with absolute certainty that citizens would have voted No. You can conjure a Burkean argument to justify the denial of a referendum, but that is to traduce Burke.

“Yes’ votes are always pocketed in perpetuity: `No’ votes are good only until the weather changes. Those who feign not to see the asymmetry of this are being cynical.

By acting in this way, the EU has crossed a subtle line. It is no longer legitimate.

So what can a dissenting citizen do? Do we retreat into realpolitik, betting that the EU Project can go only so far before it provokes into an even bigger backlash from Europe’s tribes, and will in any case spend much of the next decade dealing with bitter fall-out from a currency that pits North against South?

Or do we let out a primordial scream, and agitate for total withdrawal from the EU – knowing that our backs are pressed against the wall, that this Government has spent us to the brink of a debt-compound spiral? Morgan Stanley has warned of a Gilts crisis next year. So have others. This is a perilous for time for heroics.

Makes you weep.

The Magna Carta itself is a descendent of ancient Saxon “free-man” laws designed to prevent the ownership by the various warlords to a “freeman’s” property, including the right to carry a personal weapon, usually a short-sword.

Captives or slaves were denied this right, thus carrying a weapon was the mark of a truly ‘freeman.’

But the freemen had an obligation to the warlord to take up arms when the kingdom was in danger of invasion, a kind of ‘volunteer draft.’ Which carries on today in the US military (although some would argue against this).

What the author rails against is that certain rights to the person or property is abrogated in certain sections of the Lisbon Treaty, which is in direct violation of the ancient Saxon laws and its grandchild, the Magna Carta.

Kind of like what the Patriot Act Laws are to the US Constitution.

It’s a return to the Star Chamber as Europe finally tramples Magna Carta into the dust

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Speaking of the British, Sir Richard Branson’s rollout of the new commercial spaceship, ‘VSS Enterprise’ was a complete success, despite of the weather:

Tonight’s Hollywood-style debut of the world’s first commercial suborbital spaceship was a spine-tingling affair – and not just because of the historic occasion, the appearance by a movie star turned governor, or the ice-cold vodka served afterward. It was cold out here in California’s Mojave Desert.

Virgin Galactic’s unveiling of the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane drew hundreds of paying space tourists and travel agents, rocket geeks and glitterati to the Mojave Air and Space Port. For a while, it looked as if stormy skies and brisk winds would force a change in Virgin billionaire founder Richard Branson’s plans for an after-dark, outdoor debut.

But in the end, the spotlights went on and the music blared as scheduled, despite the near-freezing temperatures, the wind and the puddles of rain. SpaceShipTwo rolled down the runway, suspended from its WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson stepped out and smashed bottles of champagne – and Branson’s daughter, Holly, officially gave the 60-foot-long craft its new name: the VSS Enterprise.

The name pays tribute to the sailing ships of old as well, to the fictional “Star Trek” starship – and to the idea that the craft will bring private enterprise into the world of space travel, said Virgin Galactic’s president, Will Whitehorn.

SpaceShipTwo has been under development for years in a Mojave hangar at Scaled Composites – the company that built the craft’s predecessor, SpaceShipOne, to win a $10 million prize for private spaceflight five years ago.

The aerospace guru behind both rocket planes, Burt Rutan, is known for playing his cards close to the vest – and today’s unveiling marked the first opportunity for outsiders to get a close look at his latest brainchild. Rutan told the hundreds of onlookers assembled under a large plastic shelter that he considered himself “the luckiest guy in the tent.”

Unlike Rutan, Branson is known for playing up the glitz game to market his ventures – and tonight’s main event was a Virgin classic: Within minutes after the rollout, the tent was transformed into a lounge, complete with an ice bar, buffet and techno music on the public address system.

Schwarzenegger, who left right after the christening, said he was tickled to be part of the event. “This here today is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done,” Schwarzenegger told the crowd. Even his kids were jealous, he said.

Enterprise’s unveiling marks the beginning of a new phase for Virgin Galactic, coming after last year’s big reveal for SpaceShipTwo’s WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane (dubbed “Eve” in honor of Branson’s mother) and this year’s successful series of rocket engine tests. “Virgin Galactic is now in the final stretch of becoming the world’s first commercial spaceline,” Branson declares in a promotional video.

Branson is spending an estimated $250 million to $400 million on his space venture, which will involve building at least six SpaceShipTwo planes and two WhiteKnightTwo motherships. The company already has signed up more than 300 would-be spacefliers, including actress Victoria Principal, Hollywood director Bryan Singer and 90-year-old enviro-theorist James Lovelock. Paralyzed cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who sampled zero-G two years ago, may eventually fly as well.

The price for a three-day space tour package, including training, is $200,000. That price is expected to come down as the space tourism market takes root.

Touring SpaceShipTwo’s hangar
Is there really enough of a market for space travel to allow Branson to recover his investment? “To be perfectly honest, I’m not too worried if I make money or not,” he told our NBC News crew during a tour of SpaceShipTwo’s hangar in advance of tonight’s ceremony. He said his prime concern was to create something he’s proud of, and have faith that any venture that inspires his pride will end up attracting customers and making money.

Alan Boyle / msnbc.com
Click for video: Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson chats with an NBC video crew Monday with SpaceShipOne’s “Galactic Girl” logo hanging above them in a zero-G pose. Click on the image to watch NBC correspondent George Lewis for “Nightly News.”

The rocketship, gleaming in Virgin Galactic’s blue-and-black livery, sat mounted between the twin cabins of the Eve carrier airplane. Branson said the two planes were linked together for the first time just this weekend.

VSS Enterprise is emblazoned with an image of “Galactic Girl,” a mascot who is modeled after Branson’s mother as she looked in the 1940s, but floating in zero-G. The painting was done by one of her grandsons, Ned Rocknroll.

While we were there, Eve Branson, who admits to being near her 90s, stopped by to look at her likeness. “These are your belly-dancing days,” Richard Branson joked.

“Could have made the boobs a little bit bigger,” his mother said, grinning all the while.

“Never satisfied, never satisfied,” the son replied.

Eve Branson said she was indeed satisfied, calling the likeness “marvelous” and congratulating her grandson, the artist. “Hey, if you put your grandmother on the side of a spaceship, you’re all good,” Ned Rocknroll said.

Richard Branson said he marveled to see the paired craft in their flight configuration. “I thought that I was dreaming. … I hope it’s not a dream. I hope it’s real,” he told us.

What SpaceShipTwo will do
SpaceShipTwo is designed to carry six passengers and two pilots to the edge of outer space, past the 100-kilometer (62-mile) altitude mark. The flight profile would provide about five minutes of weightlessness, a commanding view of a curving Earth below the black sky of space, and the world’s highest roller-coaster ride going up and coming down.

Rutan has kept mum about his expectations for the flight schedule, but observers guess that 2011 or 2012 is the likeliest time frame for the start of commercial service. Between now and then, SpaceShipTwo is likely to go through scores of tests. Ground testing starts on Tuesday, Branson told us.

The first flight tests, due to begin next year, would involve captive-carry flights during which the rocket plane would ride between WhiteKnightTwo’s twin cabins so that Scaled’s team can check the aerodynamics of the combined crafts. Then there would be drop tests, in which SpaceShipTwo would be released and piloted through a glide back down to Earth.

Eventually, the hybrid rocket motor would be added to the mix: SpaceShipTwo would light up its engine in a series of powered flights, climaxing with the full profile for commercial service. SpaceShipTwo would be dropped from WhiteKnightTwo at a height of 60,000 feet, blast off, rise to spaceworthy heights and go supersonic on the way down.

SpaceShipTwo uses the same “carefree re-entry” design pioneered by SpaceShipOne. During the peak phase of the flight, the wings fold forward in such a way that the craft stabilizes itself as it descends through the atmosphere, even without pilot intervention.

Concerns about safety
But testing isn’t simply a case of “flown there, done that”: The new rocketship has been scaled up to more than twice SpaceShipOne’s 28-foot length, as shown in this comparative graphic from Virgin Galactic, and that could affect how the craft performs.

There’s always the chance of suffering a setback during the test phase, as the Scaled Composites team knows all too well: In 2007, a nitrous-oxide tank exploded at Scaled’s rocket test site, killing three of the company’s employees. The tragedy caused significant delays in the SpaceShipTwo development effort.

During today’s unveiling, Rutan said the standards for passenger spaceflight had to surpass the safety record achieved by government-run space programs. “That’s why our program has been longer and more difficult than anticipated,” he said. 

Whitehorn, also laid special emphasis on safety. Like Branson and his family, Whitehorn hopes to get an early ride on the Enterprise, so he has a personal interest in conducting a thorough test program.

“We’re not in a race to do this,” he told me. “We have only one chance to get it right … and many chances to get it wrong.”

New Mexico’s role
If the effort proceeds according to plan, the first commercial flights are likely to take place from New Mexico’s Spaceship America, thanks to millions of dollars of state and local backing. That explains why Richardson as well as Schwarzenegger were on hand today.

The two governors ribbed each other during their pre-christening speeches. Schwarzenegger declared that California has been a leader in the aerospace industry, and added, “I guess New Mexico is always following in our footsteps.”

When it was Richardson’s turn, he talked up his state’s role in the future of the space industry, and then turned to Schwarzenegger. “Governor, you should join me in going to space – but I want you to go first,” he said.

Richardson said private spaceflight could spawn new economic activity not only for tourism, but also for research and industry. “I call on President Obama to embrace commercial space travel,” he said.

In addition to carrying people, SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo could carry scientific experiments. WhiteKnightTwo is designed so that it could launch either the piloted SpaceShipTwo or an unpiloted rocket (“LauncherOne”). And SpaceShipTwo could conceivably bring up experimental packages, even during its testing phase.

Tonight, however, it was the tourists who were in the spotlight. Scores of customers who have already paid the full fare showed up to get their first close-up look at the craft they will someday take into space. Texas eye surgeon Carlos Manrique, a paid-up spaceflight customer who shivered along with me as the Enterprise rolled into view tonight, said he could hardly wait for the ride.

“It’s not just about this,” he said of the glitz that surrounded us. “It’s about the adventure.”

IMHO, billionaires like Branson and Musk are going to usher in a new age of aerospace, like the Wright Brothers did over a hundred years ago, despite of the troubles NASA is experiencing at the moment, despite of the Augustine Commission V2.0 and despite of what President Obama decides or whether the congress-critters fund any concept of a future launcher beyond the space shuttle.

If last night’s festivities in New Mexico are any indication of what’s to come, it’s gonna happen in spite of ourselves.

Spaceship debut causes chills

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