Book Review: The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare

“The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” by Damien LewisAfter becoming prime minister in May 1940, one of Winston Churchill’s first acts was to establish the Special Operations Executive (SOE), which was intended to conduct raids, sabotage, reconnaissance, and support resistance movements in Axis-occupied countries. The SOE was not part of the military: it was a branch of the Ministry of Economic Warfare and its very existence was a state secret, camouflaged under the name “Inter-Service Research Bureau”. Its charter was, as Churchill described it, to “set Europe ablaze”.

The SOE consisted, from its chief, Brigadier Colin McVean Gubbins, who went by the designation “M”, to its recruits, of people who did not fit well with the regimentation, hierarchy, and constraints of life in the conventional military branches. They could, in many cases, be easily mistaken for blackguards, desperadoes, and pirates, and that’s precisely what they were in the eyes of the enemy—unconstrained by the rules of warfare, striking by stealth, and sowing chaos, mayhem, and terror among occupation troops who thought they were far from the front.

Leading some of the SOE’s early exploits was Gustavus “Gus” March-Phillipps, founder of the British Army’s Small Scale Raiding Force, and given the SOE designation “Agent W.01”, meaning the first agent assigned to the west Africa territory with the leading zero identifying him as “trained and licensed to use all means to liquidate the enemy”—a license to kill. The SOE’s liaison with the British Navy, tasked with obtaining support for its operations and providing cover stories for them, was a fellow named Ian Fleming.

One of the SOE’s first and most daring exploits was Operation Postmaster, with the goal of seizing German and Italian ships anchored in the port of Santa Isabel on the Spanish island colony of Fernando Po off the coast of west Africa. Given the green light by Churchill over the strenuous objections of the Foreign Office and Admiralty, who were concerned about the repercussions if British involvement in what amounted to an act of piracy in a neutral country were to be disclosed, the operation was mounted under the strictest secrecy and deniability, with a cover story prepared by Ian Fleming. Despite harrowing misadventures along the way, the plan was a brilliant success, capturing three ships and their crews and delivering them to the British-controlled port of Lagos without any casualties. Vindicated by the success, Churchill gave the SOE the green light to raid Nazi occupation forces on the Channel Islands and the coast of France.

On his first mission in Operation Postmaster was Anders Lassen, an aristocratic Dane who enlisted as a private in the British Commandos after his country was occupied by the Nazis. With his silver-blond hair, blue eyes, and accent easily mistaken for German, Lassen was apprehended by the Home Guard on several occasions while on training missions in Britain and held as a suspected German spy until his commanders intervened. Lassen was given a field commission, direct from private to second lieutenant, immediately after Operation Postmaster, and went on to become one of the most successful leaders of special operations raids in the war. As long as Nazis occupied his Danish homeland, he was possessed with a desire to kill as many Nazis as possible, wherever and however he could, and when in combat was animated by a berserker drive and ability to improvise that caused those who served with him to call him the “Danish Viking”.

This book provides a look into the operations of the SOE and its successor organisations, the Special Air Service and Special Boat Service, seen through the career of Anders Lassen. So numerous were special operations, conducted in many theatres around the world, that this kind of focus is necessary. Also, attrition in these high-risk raids, often far behind enemy lines, was so high there are few individuals one can follow throughout the war. As the war approached its conclusion, Lassen was the only surviving participant in Operation Postmaster, the SOE’s first raid.

Lassen went on to lead raids against Nazi occupation troops in the Channel Islands, leading Churchill to remark, “There comes from the sea from time to time a hand of steel which plucks the German sentries from their posts with growing efficiency.” While these “butcher-and-bolt” raids could not liberate territory, they yielded prisoners, code books, and radio contact information valuable to military intelligence and, more importantly, forced the Germans to strengthen their garrisons in these previously thought secure posts, tying down forces which could otherwise be sent to active combat fronts. Churchill believed that the enemy should be attacked wherever possible, and SOE was a precision weapon which could be deployed where conventional military forces could not be used.

As the SOE was absorbed into the military Special Air Service, Lassen would go on to fight in North Africa, Crete, the Aegean islands, then occupied by Italian and German troops, and mainland Greece. His raid on a German airbase on occupied Crete took out fighters and bombers which could have opposed the Allied landings in Sicily. Later, his small group of raiders, unsupported by any other force, liberated the Greek city of Salonika, bluffing the German commander into believing Lassen’s forty raiders and two fishing boats were actually a British corps of thirty thousand men, with armour, artillery, and naval support.

After years of raiding in peripheral theatres, Lassen hungered to get into the “big war”, and ended up in Italy, where his irregular form of warfare and disdain for military discipline created friction with his superiors. But he got results, and his unit was tasked with reconnaissance and pathfinding for an Allied crossing of Lake Comacchio (actually, more of a swamp) in Operation Roast in the final days of the war. It was there he was to meet his end, in a fierce engagement against Nazi troops defending the north shore. For this, he posthumously received the Victoria Cross, becoming the only non-Commonwealth citizen so honoured in World War II.

It is a cliché to say that a work of history “reads like a thriller”, but in this case it is completely accurate. The description of the raid on the Kastelli airbase on Crete would, if made into a movie, probably cause many viewers to suspect it to be fictionalised, but that’s what really happened, based upon after action reports by multiple participants and aerial reconnaissance after the fact.

World War II was a global conflict, and while histories often focus on grand battles such as D-day, Stalingrad, Iwo Jima, and the fall of Berlin, there was heroism in obscure places such as the Greek islands which also contributed to the victory, and combatants operating in the shadows behind enemy lines who did their part and often paid the price for the risks they willingly undertook. This is a stirring story of this shadow war, told through the short life of one of its heroes.

Lewis, Damien. The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare. New York: Quercus, 2015. ISBN 978-1-68144-392-8.

Here is a video review of this book by Ian McCollum of Forgotten Weapons.

 


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Walls of Shame and Silence: Mental Illness in loved ones

This article was published in the local newspaper in Cobb County, The Bright Side’s February 18th issue. )

This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him.

-Mark 5:3-4

Mental Illness is the leading cause of disability in the nation today. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, on in five adults with have an episode of a major mental illness in their lifetime. This means that all of us will have an experience with Mental Illness directly or with someone we know. And yet, Mental Illness is still misunderstood and shunned.

Mental Illness is misunderstood at a character defect in a way unlike most physical illnesses. Even behavior related illnesses, such as cancer from smoking, receive less scorn, than the person disabled through major depression, or the shame after an out of control episode of mania. Added to the shame, people with mental illness often have behaviors which exhaust their family members. Burnt out and ashamed, families struggle to help their loved ones, feeling they are alone with the problem. The very group most critical for recovery are the most burdened and most at risk of burn out.

If we go back to our statistics, one in five adults are affected over their lifetimes. This means families touched by mental illness are not alone, they are disconnected from others in the same situation. Families are left with no energy to breach the walls of shame and silence. If you know someone struggling with mental illness, chances are their loved ones are as well. I encourage you to help support these individuals and let them know they are not alone.

The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) is an organization of people suffering from mental illness and family members. It is a great resource for support.


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TOTD 2-12-2018: How Myths Arise

You have probably heard the story about Polish lancers making a cavalry charge against a German panzer battalion in the opening days of the Nazi invasion of Poland. Men on horses armed with spears attacking tanks. Often the one telling the story will claim they saw a newsreel of it.

You might also have heard it never happened. That is true. It is a great story, but Polish lancers never charged that Panzer unit. It was a myth. The Poles had horse cavalry in 1939 (so did every other nation, including the United States) and actually did launch 17 cavalry charges during the Polish Campaign, fifteen of which were successful. They never charged tanks though. When Polish cavalry encountered German Panzers they dismounted and attacked the tanks with the anti-tank guns organic to Polish cavalry regiments and Molotov cocktails. The only mounted charge around German tanks was an attempt to escape encirclement – and it succeeded.

So how did the story get started? It turns out the myth was the outgrowth of a real-life version of the game of telephone: the one where someone whispers a phrase to a person next to them, who repeats it to the next person until it works its way around a circle getting distorted with each telling. It involves impressionable Italian journalists, mischief-making Panzer troops, the Nazi propaganda machine, Allied occupation forces, and sloppy US newsmen.

It started with an action against a German mechanized division. On September 1, at the Battle of Krojanty, the Polish 18th Uhlans Regiment attacked and scattered German infantry belonging to the 20th Mechanized Infantry Division. Some of the Poles were armed with lances. The charge was successful, but the Poles took casualties, leaving dead horses and men – some armed with lances – on the battlefield.

Hours later, as evening approached a German panzer unit occupied the battlefield. They had not been involved in the fighting. They were looking for a place to rest for the night. After they set up camp they were joined by a group of war correspondents from Germany and still-neutral Italy.

The correspondents assumed the dead lancers had attacked the panzer unit. They asked the camped panzer troops to tell them about the battle. The German soldiers probably saw an opportunity to pull the legs of the gullible newsmen. They not only allowed the misconception to go uncorrected, they embellished it, giving details of the Polish cavalry charge against their tanks.

One Italian correspondent was a romantic. He was so moved by the tale he wrote a story about the doomed heroism of the Polish cavalry, attacking tanks with nothing more than lances and sabers. The story proved irresistible. It was translated to English and widely reprinted in the Western press.

The Germans knew a good story when they saw one, too. They seized on the tale as an example of Polish backwardness, and the folly of their opposing the Reich. Their propaganda ministry made a documentary about the German invasion of Poland, “Geschwader Lützow.” It included a staged cavalry charge, reproducing an incident which never occurred. Both cavalrymen and Panzer troops were actors; the filmed scene was vivid.

After the war Allied historians went through Nazi archives, duplicating material of historical interest and sending it to archives in their home countries. This included copies of “Geschwader Lützow.” It was marked as a documentary. Information about the provenance of the Polish cavalry charge scene was lost.

Captivated by the dramatic imagery, many documentaries about World War II made in the United States ended up using that footage in sections about the invasion of Poland, including (I believe) the weekly series The Twentieth Century. As a result many people believe they saw footage of a Polish horse cavalry charge against German panzers.

It was not until the 1990s, after the fall of the Iron Curtain and the collapse of the Soviet Empire that access to Polish accounts became accessible in the West. During that period what really happened – and the game of telephone running from Italian war correspondents to American documentary makers – was finally explained. It turns out fake news can be the product of innocent misunderstanding combined with mischief making.

Like the myth of the first bathtub in the White House, created by H. L. Menken, the myth of lancers attack tanks has been debunked – but continues to live on.

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User Interface Changes: 2018-02-11

HeaddeskI have made a number of changes to the Ratburger user interface today.  As always, complete technical details may be found on the Updates group.  This post is intended to be more user-oriented and accessible to a general audience.  There have been no dramatic changes, but several adjustments which are intended to improve the user experience.

Editing Posts

Previously, the only way to edit a published post was as described in the Knowledge Base article “Editing Published Posts”: you had to revert the post to a draft, edit it, and then re-publish it.  Now, if you’re the author of a post, you’ll see an “Edit” button below the author information for the post.  Pressing it will take you to the Post Editor where you can edit the post in Visual or Text (HTML) modes and, pressing Update, directly update it on the site.

The previous method of revert to draft continues to work as before, but may be removed in the future in the interest of reducing the amount of local modifications we must maintain from release to release.

Composing Comments

The comment composition editor has been reconfigured from its previous bare-bones settings to allow you to use the “Add Media” button to include images within your comments without the two-step described in the Knowledge Base article “Including Images in Comments on Posts”, which is now obsolete.

This is not yet entirely functional: image alignment settings are ignored for images included in comments, but you can specify links on images and resize them, which you couldn’t do previously.

Editing Comments

You can now edit your own comments on any post using the standard WordPress comment editing facility, which is much more general than the plug-in we previously used (which, for the moment, you can still use, but which I may remove in the interest of maintainability).  Click “Edit” in the header of a comment you’ve made, and you’ll be able to edit it in HTML (but not a visual editor; that’s not something WordPress implements).  You can also, from the comment editor page, delete your own comments.

Fix: Quote Post for Guests

If a guest (not logged-in) visited the site, they’d see a “Quote” link for posts.  Pressing this would cause a harmless pratfall, since guests cannot comment on posts.  This link will no longer be displayed.

These changes retire a substantial part of the wish list for user interface changes.  As always, making any change to Babylonian tower of kludges and hacks which is PHP and WordPress runs the risk of detabilising things.  I have tested these features both from member and administrator accounts on the Firefox, Chrome, Brave, and Chromium browsers and they appear to be working correctly.  If you encounter any problems, first try clearing your browser cache (you shouldn’t ever have to do this, but incompetent implementation of browsers makes it occasionally necessary) and reloading the page, and if the problem persists please report it in the comments below or in the Bug Reports group.


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Hot Shots: A Radioactive Lens

Leica M6 with Summicron 50 mm f/2 lens

Between the 1940s and 1970s, a number of camera manufacturers designed lenses employing thoriated glass in one or more elements. Incorporating as much as 40% thorium dioxide (ThO2) in the glass mixture increases the index of refraction of the glass while maintaining low dispersion. Thoriated glass elements allowed lenses to deliver low levels of aberration and distortion with relatively simple and easy to manufacture designs.

As with everything in engineering, there are trade-offs. Thorium is a radioactive element; it has no stable isotopes. Natural thorium consists of 99.98% thorium-232, which has a half-life of 1.4×1010 years. While this is a long half-life, more than three times that of uranium-238, it is still substantially radioactive and easily detected with a Geiger-Müller counter. Thorium decays by alpha emission into radium-228, which continues to decay through the thorium series into various nuclides, eventually arriving at stable lead-208.

Leica Summicron 50 mm f/2 lensAttached to my Leica M6 film camera above is a Leica Summicron 50 mm f/2 lens which contains thoriated glass. Its serial number, 1041925, indicates its year of manufacture as 1952. This lens was a screw mount design, but can be used on more recent bayonet mount Leica cameras with a simple adapter. Like many early Leica lenses, it is collapsible: you can rotate the front element and push the barrel back into the camera body when not in use, making the camera more compact to pack and carry. Although 66 years old at this writing, the lens performs superbly, although not as well as current Leica lenses which are, however, more than an order of magnitude more expensive.

To measure the radiation emitted by this thoriated glass lens I used a QuartaRAD RADEX RD1706 Geiger-Müller counter and began by measuring the background radiation in my office.

Radiation monitor: 0.12 μSv/h

This came in (averaged over several measurement periods) as 0.12 microsieverts (μSv) per hour, what I typically see. Background radiation varies slightly over the day (I know not why), and this was near the low point of the cycle.

I then placed the detector directly before the front element of the lens, still mounted on the camera. The RADEX RD1706 has two Geiger tubes, one on each side of the meter. I positioned the meter so its left tube would be as close as possible to the front element.

Radiation monitor: 1.14 μSv/h

After allowing the reading to stabilise and time average, I measured radiation flux around 1.14 μSv/h, nearly ten times background radiation. Many lenses using thoriated glass employed it only for the front element(s), with regular crown or flint glass at the rear. This limits radiation which might, over time, fog the film in the camera. With such lenses, you can easily detect the radiation from the front element, but little is emitted backward in the direction of the film (and the photographer). This is not the case with this lens, however. I removed the lens from the camera, collapsed it so the back element would be closer to the detector (about as far as the front element was in the previous measurement) and repeated the test.

Radiation monitor: 1.51 μSv/h

This time I saw 1.51 μSv/h, more than twelve times background radiation. What were they thinking? First of all the most commonly used films in the early 1950s were slower (less sensitive) than modern emulsions, and consequently less prone to fogging due to radiation. Second, all Leica rangefinder cameras use a focal-plane shutter, which means the film behind the lens is shielded from the radiation it emits except for the instant the shutter is open when making an exposure, which would produce negligible fogging. Since the decay chain of thorium consists exclusively of alpha and beta particle emission, neither of which is very penetrating, the closed shutter protects the film from the radiation from the rear of the lens.

Many camera manufacturers used thoriated lenses. Kodak even used thoriated glass in its top of the line 800 series Instamatic cameras, and Kodak Aero-Ektar lenses, manufactured in great quantity during World War II for aerial reconnaissance, are famously radioactive. After 1970, thoriated glass ceased to be used in optics, both out of concern over radiation, but also due to a phenomenon which caused the thoriated glass to deteriorate over time. Decaying thorium atoms create defects in the glass called F-centres which, as they accumulated, would cause the glass to acquire a yellowish or brownish tint. This wasn’t much of a problem with black and white film, but it would cause a shift in the colour balance which was particularly serious for the colour reversal (transparency) film favoured by professional photographers in many markets. (My 1952 vintage lens has a slight uniform yellow cast to it—much lighter than a yellow filter. It’s easy to correct for in digital image post-processing.) Annealing the glass by exposing it to intense ultraviolet light (I’ve heard that several days in direct sunlight will do the job) can reduce or eliminate the yellowing.

Thorium glass was replaced by glass containing lanthanum oxide (La2O3), which has similar optical properties. Amusingly, lanthanum is itself very slightly radioactive: while the most common isotope, lanthanum-139, which makes up 99.911% of natural lanthanum, is stable, 0.089% is the lanthanum-138 isotope, which has a half-life of 1011 years, about ten times that of thorium. Given the tiny fraction of the radioisotope and its long half-life, the radiation from lanthanum glass (about 1/10000 that of thorium glass), while detectable with a sensitive counter, is negligible compared to background radiation.

If you have one of these lenses, should you be worried? In a word, no. The radiation from the lens is absorbed by the air, so that just a few centimetres away you’ll measure nothing much above background radiation. To receive a significant dose of radiation, you’d have to hold the front element of the lens up against your skin for an extended period of time, and why would you do that? Even if you did, the predominantly alpha radiation is blocked by human skin, and the dose you received on that small patch of skin would be no more than you receive on your whole body for an extended period on an airline flight due to cosmic rays. The only danger from thorium glass would be if you had a telescope or microscope eyepiece containing it, and looked through it with the naked eye. Alpha radiation can damage the cornea of the eye. Fortunately, most manufacturers were wise enough to avoid thoriated glass for such applications, and radioactive eyepieces are very rare. (Still, if you buy a vintage telescope or microscope, you might want to test the eyepieces, especially if the glass appears yellowed.)

Related:


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Two Months In

I put up a post after two weeks from the start of Ratburger.org and these were the stats.

53      Posts

400  Comments

38      Members

874    Likes

The two month stats are:

336     Posts

3293   Comments

68       Members

8578   Likes

I think the key to Ratburger.org is the things we don’t do.

  • We don’t monetize our Members.
    • No ads that play videos.
    • No selling of your e-mail addresses.
    • No unwanted commercial e-mails to your inbox.
  • We don’t specialize in error messages like  503.
  • We don’t make you wait forever for our pages to load.
  • We don’t disrespect our Members and treat you like children.

As always the credit for the interface goes to John Walker. He has made some wonderful decisions that have made this site simple and stable.

The next goal is to have about 200 Members. At that number I feel there will be better discussions and more varied posts. So ….. all that is needed is for the current Members to invite two more to the site.  That shouldn’t be too hard for even the Minky* has two friends.

In conclusion, I am very appreciative of time you have spent here. I have learned a lot from your comments and your posts.  Almost as good as a side of fries with my Ratburger but can anything really top that?

* This is the Member with the monkey avatar.

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National Review and David French Continue to Embarrass Themselves

Once again National Review has decided to give space to a man who would not know the truth if it kissed his wife right before his eyes while slapping his momma. In the latest episode of how Clintonesque can I be with words, French writes this:

One of the first and most vital assertions in the entire memo is the claim that “the ‘dossier’ compiled by Christopher Steele (Steele dossier) on behalf of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Hillary Clinton campaign formed an essential part of the Carter Page FISA application.” This statement is initially offered without proof. One has to read down to the next page to see any reference to evidence:

Furthermore, Deputy Director [Andrew] McCabe testified before the Committee in December 2017 that no surveillance warrant would have been sought from the FISC without the Steele dossier information.

When I read this, I had two immediate thoughts. First, what did he actually say? And second, why the subtle change in language from the argument that the “dossier” was an “essential part” of the FISA application to the statement that the warrant wouldn’t have been sought without the dossier “information”? The “dossier” and the “information” are not the same thing.

French goes out of his way to explain why the memo is lacking on context and citations to back up the assertions made in it. He tries to wow you with his extensive experience with handling classified documents. He states that when he would put together target packages on folks while he was in Iraq, there would be citations, drone footage, etc. to back up the claims that the bad guy had to be neutralized. Well, as someone who also had extensive experience handling classified information and putting together similar products, I can tell you that French is selling the readers a load of bull.

First of all, the memo was a classified document and any citations that went into that memo were also classified. Releasing the memo to the general public means that the citations had to be scrubbed as they were not what was declassified. So even if the House Select Committee wanted to include the classified information that went into the memo, they would have to get each and every citation declassified. Likely that means that the actual affidavits that went into the presentation before the FISC would have to go through the declassification process. Certainly those documents should be, but they were not. To claim that not providing the classified evidence behind the classified memo is somehow a mark against the document’s credibility only shows the lack of credibility of the man claiming to have extensive knowledge in classified information.

Second, take a close look at the quoted section above. French is trying to create the notion that the dossier and the information that is in the dossier are two distinct and separate things. This on its own is enough for me to comfortably say that French is a slimeball. What is the freaking dossier if not the damned information in it!? In fact, the very definition of dossier puts the lie to French’s assertion: “a collection or file of documents on the same subject, especially a complete file containing detailed information about a person or topic.” Note, “a complete file containing detailed information.” French says that the dossier and the information are not the same thing. Well how stupid of a statement can one make?

I dropped National Review from my list of trusted places to gain information. When it became demonstrable that the people at National Review were nothing more than warmongering pieces of swine and not really interested in limited government, I walked away. With this latest piece by French, I am more convinced than ever that instead of “Standing athwart History yelling ‘stop'” National Review is “Resting prone in the birdcage yelling ‘Yuck’.” And these are the people claiming to be our betters. The birds in that cage are probably depositing more intelligent things on the cover of the rag than anything you might find written in it.


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Falcon Heavy

SpaceX Falcon Heavy

The first launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy is currently scheduled for Tuesday, 2018-02-06, with a two and a half hour launch window which opens at 18:30 UTC and closes at 21:00 UTC (since this is a test flight which need not enter a precise orbit, the launch time is not critical).  If the launch is postponed, the same launch window will be used on successive days, subject to availability of the range.  The Sunday weather forecast predicts 80% probability of favourable conditions for launch during the Tuesday window.

Falcon Heavy consists of three first stage cores derived from the existing Falcon 9 first stage.  The centre core is specially strengthened to accommodate the structural loads of the boosters and heavier payload, and to attach the two side boosters, which are slightly modified Falcon 9 first stages (in fact, the two boosters to be used on this flight have previously flown on SpaceX Falcon 9 missions).  The three cores ignite simultaneously on the launch pad, with a total of 27 Merlin 1D engines, nine on each core, providing liftoff thrust of 22,819 kN (5.13 million pounds of thrust).  This compares to the 34,000 kN thrust of the Saturn V moon rocket, and 30,255 for the Space Shuttle (main engines plus solid rocket boosters).

But what matters isn’t thrust, but rather a launcher’s ability to deliver payload to where the customer wants it.  Here, the Falcon Heavy, if it works, will become the heaviest lift launcher in service.  Here, I’ll compare payload to low Earth orbit (LEO), since that’s the fairest comparison of launchers: regardless of the ultimate destination, any rocket must first achieve orbital velocity.  The Saturn V could put 140 tonnes into LEO, while the Space Shuttle had a maximum payload of 24.4 tonnes (the reusable orbiter itself weighed 78 tonnes, but does not count as payload).  Falcon Heavy can launch 63.8 tonnes to LEO, more than twice the payload of its closest competitor, the Delta IV Heavy (28.79 tonnes).  Russia’s Proton M+ has a payload capacity of 23 tonnes, while the European Ariane 5 can deliver 21 tonnes to LEO.

This test flight will not carry a payload for a customer.  Many things which can only be tested in flight, particularly the structural loads and aerodynamics of the three core first stage at max Q and separation of the two side boosters from the core (which runs at reduced thrust from shortly after liftoff until separation, and then throttles up to full thrust for the remainder of its burn), and customers who require this kind of lift capability aren’t likely to risk their payloads on a first flight.  Instead, Falcon Heavy will be carrying a car.

Falcon Heavy payload

This is Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster with its Starman test dummy on board, attached to the Falcon Heavy payload adapter.  It will be enclosed in the payload fairing for launch and, if the mission is successful, injected into an orbit around the Sun which will venture as far from the Sun as the orbit of Mars (but will not approach the planet).  The payload serves only as a mass simulator, but has a lot more style than the usual steel or tungsten dummy payload carried on inaugural flights of other launchers.

The three first stage cores are intended to be recovered.  After separating from the centre core, the two side boosters will return to the landing zone at Cape Canaveral for near-simultaneous landings.  The centre core will fly downrange and land on the drone ship in the Atlantic.

The second stage is identical to that of the Falcon 9.  Once the side boosters separate, a Falcon Heavy mission is essentially identical to that of Falcon 9; the white knuckle part will be from liftoff through booster separation.

You can watch a live webcast of the launch attempt on the SpaceX Web site.  Coverage usually starts  around 20 minutes before the scheduled launch time.


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Multidimensional Situational Awareness

At age 24, I found myself attending the Faculté de Médicine of the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. Incidental to the storyline is the fact that, a child of the ’60’s, my academic performance was erratic: all A’s one semester, half C’s the next. This all preceded the great grade inflation in the academy, thus grades at the time reflected actual performance. I was thus not accepted to the US medical schools to which I applied. It may also have had something to do with the fact that I was suspended from school in my (first) junior year, because my roommate and I built a bomb and blew up a tree as a prank – which turned out to be literally earthshaking and attracted unwanted attention from the authorities. We were arrested, pled guilty to malicious mischief, made financial restitution and served one year probation. I was pleasantly surprised, in retrospect and in light of subsequent pyrotechnic events of various stripes, to have never had a visit from the FBI or ATF.

[digression mode – ‘off’] It was in beautiful Lausanne I was first exposed to the majesty of real mountains. The guilt I felt from my father’s paying my way led me to few trips into the mountains, so I initially enjoyed them only from afar. It soon became apparent to me that visual reference to the distant mountains (13 miles directly across Lake Geneva is ´Evian, France and just behind and to the east of it the Alps rise one mile vertically above the surface of the lake). Other mountains farther east were visible as well, on clear days.

In addition to the esthetic sense the mountains gave me, they also functioned as a primordial sort of GPS (or Lausanne Positioning System). By a kind of intuitive triangulation, I discovered I had a sense of my location in and around the city and, for that matter, throughout the “Suisse Romande” (in airplane cockpits, where situational awareness is sacred – so as to avoid the necessity of receiving other, more final sacraments – one has an HSI – a Horizontal Situation Indicator). Beyond its practical benefits, this phenomenon gave me a deep, almost mystical sense of comfort and reassurance. I have pondered the meaning of this, off and on, for many years (I am a self-confessed “meanings” junkie).

I suspect the comfort and reassurance I felt comes from a deep place in the human pedigree. Situational awareness, as we now call it, undoubtedly had great survival value (as did recognizing friend from foe – but that is another post on why humans have racist tendencies by virtue of their default wiring). Now, my life surely did not depend on knowing precisely where I was, yet I had (still have) an abiding sense this is rooted in something deep and pervasive in the human psyche.

I think this need for “situational awareness,” is multi-dimensional, beyond the merely physical. I believe it is generalizable beyond awareness of geographic position to all reflective human thinking, to all consciousness of self. It partakes in what seems to me to be an equally deep need to understand absolutely everything about our surroundings – macro, micro, north, east, west, south, up, down, past, present and future. In myself, I am driven to understand everything I can. As better evidence of the existence and power of this deep thirst for broad knowledge and mastery I cite various individuals throughout history, now called “renaissance (wo)men;” our own John Walker is a living example, known to us by he generous sharing of knowledge. The mastery of our surroundings – the entire human habitat and even places formerly uninhabitable – witnessed particularly since the industrial revolution, is nothing short of breathtaking. The brevity of the period in which this has occurred is nothing short of miraculous, viewed in the sidereal or even merely the geologic time scale. This feat reflects what can be only the fruition of the most fundamental motivations rooted in our being as a species.

Some undoubtedly think of this drive, this search for infinite knowledge, as the quest for God, or believe it represents the spark of God within humanity. Maybe so. More recent philosophers suggest humanity verges upon God-like powers and thus will, effectively, become Gods. This assertion immediately brings the First Commandment to my mind, despite not practicing a religion. It gives me pause.

I wonder if Ratburghers (sic) share any of these impression or thoughts, particularly about my initial fascination with geographic reference to distant things like mountains. This initial impression has led to my presently spending a good bit of time on Google Earth and in the past few months Google Earth VR, as seen through Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. It is, for want of better words, really cool “flying” anywhere at any height, hovering, zooming in or out.” As well, I have downloaded a good bit of DLC (downloadable content) scenery for my two flight simulators (one using VR and another). I just can’t seem to get enough of seeing the Earth from above and witnessing the relationships of all things in my ken.


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