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SpaceX Moon mission extends Elon Musk’s ambitions

Elon Musk, it seems, loves nothing more than to spin plates. When most of us might be looking to lighten the load, he's piling on the ambition.

The serial entrepreneur's latest gambit is to fly people around the Moon. Two wealthy individuals have apparently lodged significant deposits with his SpaceX company to make this journey.

We have no idea who they are, just that these space tourists include "nobody from Hollywood".

That Mr Musk should announce his intention to carry out an Apollo 8-like Moon loop should not really be a surprise; such a venture is on the natural path to deep-space exploration and colonisation – his stated end goals.

What does take the breath away is the timeline.

He's talking about doing this journey in late 2018, in hardware that has not yet even flown. That's Elon for you.

For sure, his Falcon rockets have been working for some time now and the Dragon capsule has become something of an old hand at shuttling back and forth to the International Space Station (ISS). But the circumlunar project is another step on from robotic cargo runs to low-Earth orbit.

The Falcon Heavy, the much bigger rocket that will be needed, should make its debut this summer.

The crew version of Dragon, with its all-important life-support equipment, is targeted to make its maiden voyage at the end of 2017.

This will be an unmanned test outing; the first flight to the ISS with people aboard is slated for the spring of 2018.

That does not leave much time to configure and adapt systems for the longer, more arduous Moon mission.

The Dragon will need some sort of propulsion and service module (with extra propellants, oxygen, water, etc) to help sustain the required trajectory and the tourists for what will be at minimum a 6-to-7-day journey.

"Back in the Apollo days the outbound journey would usually take between two and three days and the same for the return journey, maybe about a one-week round trip once they leave the Earth," commented Jason Davis from the space advocacy group the Planetary Society.

"It is a little bit different than say putting an astronaut in low-Earth orbit on the International Space Station because your quick return to Earth is no longer an option.

"Once you fire that rocket and head towards the Moon, you can't turn around and go home so you are really kind of on your own for about a week with no-one to come and save you if there is a problem."

Mr Musk says his tourists understand the risks, and that they will receive "extensive training before going on the mission."

The entrepreneur hasn't yet confirmed it, but it's hard to imagine the ticketed passengers would fly without also being accompanied by an astronaut of experience. If there is a problem, having someone aboard with intimate knowledge of the Dragon's workings could make all the difference

Of course, history tells us that everything in space "moves to the right". Timelines are rarely fixed. And SpaceX is not immune in this respect.

The Falcon Heavy is behind on its original schedule; like Musk, we all thought he’d be flying people to the ISS regularly by now; and his recently promised robotic Mars landing has just been pushed back two years. And don't forget the long list of satellite operators who've seen their launches delayed in the aftermath of two Falcon mishaps.

So, don't be surprised if this Moon loop also extends into the future. The really interesting sub-plot, however, is what this all means for the US space agency (Nasa).

It can be no coincidence that its leadership has announced that it will be looking to put people on the maiden flight of the agency’s huge new rocket, the Space Launch System, and its associated crew capsule, Orion.

These systems are currently due to fly in an unmanned test configuration late next year. A Nasa inquiry could now see a way to slip the mission to 2019 and make it a manned outing instead.

This would make for an intriguing comparison. You would have two missions launching almost at the same time, to do essentially the same mission profile around the Moon, except one (SLS/Orion) would have cost billions to get to the launch pad while the other (Falcon Heavy/Dragon) would have cost in the hundreds of millions. Certainly there would be an order of magnitude difference in price.

It is said that President Trump is looking very hard at how to expand commercial space activity during his administration. The Moon missions would give him considerable food for thought.

Publicly, both Musk and Nasa are on the same page. The agency, which has invested considerable sums in SpaceX, released a statement late on Monday saying that it commended "its industry partners for reaching higher".

Musk tweeted: “SpaceX could not do this without Nasa. Can't express enough appreciation”.

But the comparisons are inescapable. And this is a wave we are witnessing.

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has been quietly acquiring space credentials through his impressive Blue Origin company. He is building a rocket to rival the Falcon Heavy that he calls New Glenn. He’s even got one on the drawing board that’s bigger still called New Armstrong.

The ambition is the same as SpaceX. So is the cost model. That is, to create something that is considerably cheaper than the public sector can deliver with its burdensome oversight and its (politically driven) distributed manufacturing methods.

After all, it is in part the cost of access to space that has slowed the pace of exploration since the Apollo era.

 

BBC

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Civil Service volatility: Democracy vs Bureaucracy

19th April 2021
President Masisi

Here is how one Permanent Secretary encapsulates the clear tension between democracy and bureaucracy in Botswana: “President Mokgweetsi Masisi’s Government is behaving like a state surrounded with armed forces in order to capture it or force its surrender. The situation has turned so volatile, for tomorrow is not guaranteed for us top civil servants.

These are the painful results of a personalized civil service in our view as permanent secretaries”. Although his deduction of the situation may be summed as sour grapes because he is one of the ‘victims’ of the reshuffle, he is convinced this is a perfect description of the rationale behind frequent changes and transfers characterising the current civil service.

The result of it all, he said, is that “there is too much instability at managerial and strategic levels of the civil service leading to a noticeable directionless civil service.” He continued: “Changes and transfers are inevitable in the civil service, but to a permissible scale and frequency. Think of soccer team coach who changes and transfers his entire squad every month; you know the consequences?”

The Tsunami has hit hard at critical departments and Ministries leaving a strong wave of uncertainty, many demoralised and some jobless. In traditional approaches to public administration, democracy gives the goals; and bureaucracy delivers the technical efficiency required for implementation. But the recent moves in the civil service are indicative of conflicting imperatives – the notion of separation between politicians and administrators is becoming blurred by the day.

“Look at what happened to Prisons and BDF where second in command were overlooked for outsiders, and these are the people who had sacrificially served for donkey’s years hoping for a seat at the ladder’s end. The frequency of the changes, at times affecting the same Ministry or individual also demonstrates some level of ineptitude, clumsiness and lack of foresight from those in charge,” remarked the PS who added that their view is that the transfers are not related to anything but “settling scores, creating corruption opportunities and pushing out perceived dissident and former president, Ian Khama’s alleged loyalists and most of these transfers are said to be products of intelligence detection.”

Partly blaming Khama for the mess and his unwillingness to let go, the PS dismissed Masisi for falling to the trap and failing to outgrow the destructive tiff. “Khama is here to stay and the sooner Masisi comes to terms with the fact that he (Masisi) is the state President, the better. For a President to still be making these changes and transfers signals signs of a confused man who has not yet started rolling his roadmap, if at all it was ever there. I am saying this because any roadmap comes with key players and policies,” he concluded.

The Ministry of Health and Wellness seems to be the most hard-hit by the transfers, having experienced three Permanent Secretaries changes within a year and a half. Insiders say the changes have everything to do with the Ministry being the centre of COVID-19 tenders and economic opportunities. “The buck stops with the PS and no right-thinking PS can just allow glaring corruption under his watch as an accounting officer. Technocrats are generally law abiding, the pressure comes with politically appointed leaders racing against political terms to loot,” revealed a director in the Ministry preferring anonymity.

The latest transfer of Kabelo Ebineng she says was also motivated by his firm attitude against the President’s blue-eyed Task Team boys. “The Task Team wants to own the COVID-19 pandemic and government interventions and always cry foul when the Ministry reasserts itself as mandated by law,” said the director who added that Masisi who was always caught between the crossfire decided on sacrificing Ebineng to the joy of his team as they (Task Team) were in the habit of threatening to resign citing Ebineng as the problem.

Ebineng joins the Office of the President as a deputy Coordinator (government implementation and coordination office).The incoming PS is the soft-spoken Grace Muzila, known and described by her close associates as a conformist albeit knowledgeable.

One of the losers in the grand scheme is Thato Raphaka who many had seen as the next PSP because of his experience and calm demeanour following a declaration of interest in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Secretary post by the current PSP, Elias Magosi.

But hardly ten months into his post, Raphaka has been transferred out to the National Strategy Office in what many see as a demotion of some sort. Other notable changes coming into OP are Pearl Ramokoka formerly with the Employment, Labour and Productivity Ministry coming in as a Permanent Secretary and Kgomotso Abi as director of Public Service Reforms.

One of the ousted senior officers in the Office of the President warned that there are no signs that the changes and transfers will stop anytime soon: “If you are observant you would have long noticed that the changes don’t only affect senior officers but government decisions as well. A decision is made today and the government backtracks on it within a week. Not only that, the President says this today, and his deputy denies it the following day in Parliament,” he warned.

Some observers have blamed the turmoil in the civil service partly to lack of accountable presidential advisers or kitchen cabinet properly schooled on matters of statecraft. They point out that politicians or those peripheral to them should refrain from hampering the technical and organizational activities of public managers – or else the party (reshuffling) won’t stop.

In the view expressed by some Permanent Secretaries, Elias Magosi, has not really been himself since joining the civil service; and has cut a picture of indifference in most critical engagements; the most notable been a permanent secretaries platform which he chairs. As things stand there is need to reconcile the imperatives of democracy and democracy in Botswana. Peace will rein only when public value should stand astride the fault that runs between politicians and public managers.

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Morupisi fights for freedom in court

19th April 2021
morupisi

Former Permanent Secretary to the President, Carter Morupisi, is fighting for survival in a matter in which the State has charged him and his wife, Pinnie Morupisi, with corruption and money laundering.

Morupisi has joined a list of prominent figures that served in the previous administration and who have been accused of corruption during their tenure in office. While others have been emerging victorious, Morupisi is yet to find that luck. The High Court recently dismissed his no case to answer application.

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Pressure mounts on Biden to suspend Covid-19 vaccine patents

19th April 2021
Joe Biden

United States President, Joe Biden, is faced with a decision to make relating to the Covid-19 vaccine intellectual property after 175 former world leaders and Nobel laurates joined the campaign urging the US to take “urgent action” to suspend intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines to help boost global inoculation rates.

According to the world leaders, doing so would allow developing countries to make their own copies of the vaccines that have been developed by pharmaceutical companies without fear of being sued for intellectual property infringements.

“A WTO waiver is a vital and necessary step to bringing an end to this pandemic. It must be combined with ensuring vaccine know-how and technology is shared openly,” the signatories, comprising more than 100 Nobel prize-winners and over 70 former world leaders, wrote in a letter to US President Joe Biden, according to Financial Times.

A measure to allow countries to temporarily override patent rights for Covid related medical products was proposed at the World Trade Organization by India and South Africa in October, and has since been backed by nearly 60 countries.

Former leaders who signed the letter included Gordon Brown, former UK Prime Minister; François Hollande, former French President; Mikhail Gorbachev, former President of the USSR; and Yves Leterme, former Belgian Prime Minister.

In their official communication, South Africa and India said: “As new diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines for Covid-19 are developed, there are significant concerns [about] how these will be made available promptly, in sufficient quantities and at affordable prices to meet global demand.”

While developed countries have been able to secure enough vaccine to inoculate their citizens, developing countries such as Botswana are struggling to source enough to swiftly vaccine their citizens, something which world leaders believe it would work against global recovery therefore proving counter-productive.

Since the availability of vaccines, Botswana has been able to secure only 60 000 doses of vaccines, 30 000 as donation as from the Indian government, while the other 30 000 was sourced through COVAX facility.  Canada, has pre-ordered vaccines in surplus and it will be able to vaccinate each of its citizens six times over. In the UK and US, it is four vaccines per person; and two each in the EU and Australia.

For vaccines produced in Europe, developing countries are forced to pay double what European countries are paying, making it more expensive for already financially struggling economies.  European countries however justify the price of vaccines and that they deserve to buy them cheap since they contributed in their development.

It is evident that vaccines cannot be made available immediately to all countries worldwide with wealthy economies being the only success story in that regard, something that has been referred to as a “catastrophic moral failure”, head of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

The challenge facing developing countries is not only the price, but also the capacity of vaccine manufactures to be able to do so to meet global demand within a short time. The proposal for a patent waiver by India and South Africa has been rejected by developed countries, known for hosting the world leading pharmaceutical companies such US, European Union, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland.

According to the Financial Times, US business groups including pharmaceutical industry representatives, have urged Biden to resist supporting a waiver to IP rules at the WTO, arguing that the proposal led by India and South Africa was too “vague” and “broad”.

The individuals who signed the letter, including Nobel laureates in economics as well as from across the arts and sciences, warned that inequitable vaccine access would impact the global economy and prevent it from recovering.

“The world saw unprecedented development of safe and effective vaccines, in major part thanks to US public investment,” the group wrote. “We all welcome that vaccination rollout in the US and many wealthier countries is bringing hope to their citizens.”

“Yet for the majority of the world that same hope is yet to be seen. New waves of suffering are now rising across the globe. Our global economy cannot rebuild if it remains vulnerable to this virus.”
The group warned that fully enforcing IP was “self-defeating for the US” as it hindered global vaccination efforts. “Given artificial global supply shortages, the US economy already risks losing $1.3tn in gross domestic product this year.”

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