Book Review: Michoud Assembly Facility

“Michoud Assembly Facility” by Cindy Donze MantoIn March, 1763, King Louis XV of France made a land grant of 140 square kilometres to Gilbert Antoine St Maxent, the richest man in Louisiana Territory and commander of the militia. The grant required St Maxent to build a road across the swampy property, develop a plantation, and reserve all the trees in forested areas for the use of the French navy. When the Spanish took over the territory five years later, St Maxent changed his first names to “Gilberto Antonio” and retained title to the sprawling estate. In the decades that followed, the property changed hands and nations several times, eventually, now part of the United States, being purchased by another French immigrant, Antoine Michoud, who had left France after the fall of Napoleon, who his father had served as an official.

Michoud rapidly established himself as a prosperous businessman in bustling New Orleans, and after purchasing the large tract of land set about buying pieces which had been sold off by previous owners, re-assembling most of the original French land grant into one of the largest private land holdings in the United States. The property was mostly used as a sugar plantation, although territory and rights were ceded over the years for construction of a lighthouse, railroads, and telegraph and telephone lines. Much of the land remained undeveloped, and like other parts of southern Louisiana was a swamp or, as they now say, “wetlands”.

The land remained in the Michoud family until 1910, when it was sold in its entirety for US$410,000 in cash (around US$11 million today) to a developer who promptly defaulted, leading to another series of changes of ownership and dodgy plans for the land, which most people continued to refer to as the Michoud Tract. At the start of World War II, the U.S. government bought a large parcel, initially intended for construction of Liberty ships. Those plans quickly fell through, but eventually a huge plant was erected on the site which, starting in 1943, began to manufacture components for cargo aircraft, lifeboats, and components which were used in the Manhattan Project’s isotope separation plants in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

At the end of the war, the plant was declared surplus but, a few years later, with the outbreak of the Korean War, it was re-purposed to manufacture engines for Army tanks. It continued in that role until 1954 when it was placed on standby and, in 1958, once again declared surplus. There things stood until mid-1961 when NASA, charged by the new Kennedy administration to “put a man on the Moon” was faced with the need to build rockets in sizes and quantities never before imagined, and to do so on a tight schedule, racing against the Soviet Union.

In June, 1961, Wernher von Braun, director of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, responsible for designing and building those giant boosters, visited the then-idle Michoud Ordnance Plant and declared it ideal for NASA’s requirements. It had 43 acres (17 hectares) under one roof, the air conditioning required for precision work in the Louisiana climate, and was ready to occupy. Most critically, it was located adjacent to navigable waters which would allow the enormous rocket stages, far too big to be shipped by road, rail, or air, to be transported on barges to and from Huntsville for testing and Cape Canaveral in Florida to be launched.

In September 1961 NASA officially took over the facility, renaming it “Michoud Operations”, to be managed by NASA Marshall as the manufacturing site for the rockets they designed. Work quickly got underway to set up manufacturing of the first stage of the Saturn I and 1B rockets and prepare to build the much larger first stage of the Saturn V Moon rocket. Before long, new buildings dedicated to assembly and test of the new rockets, occupied both by NASA and its contractors, began to spring up around the original plant. In 1965, the installation was renamed the Michoud Assembly Facility, which name it bears to this day.

With the end of the Apollo program, it looked like Michoud might once again be headed for white elephant status, but the design selected for the Space Shuttle included a very large External Tank comparable in size to the first stage of the Saturn V which would be discarded on every flight. Michoud’s fabrication and assembly facilities, and its access to shipping by barge were ideal for this component of the Shuttle, and a total of 135 tanks built at Michoud were launched on Shuttle missions between 1981 and 2011.

The retirement of the Space Shuttle once again put the future of Michoud in doubt. It was originally tapped to build the core stage of the Constellation program’s Ares V booster, which was similar in size and construction to the Shuttle External Tank. The cancellation of Constellation in 2010 brought that to a halt, but then Congress and NASA rode to the rescue with the absurd-as-a-rocket but excellent-as-a-jobs-program Space Launch System (SLS), whose centre core stage also resembles the External Tank and Ares V. SLS first stage fabrication is presently underway at Michoud. Perhaps when the schedule-slipping, bugget-busting SLS is retired after a few flights (if, in fact, it ever flies at all), bringing to a close the era of giant taxpayer-funded throwaway rockets, the Michoud facility can be repurposed to more productive endeavours.

This book is largely a history of Michoud in photos and captions, with text introducing chapters on each phase of the facility’s history. All of the photos are in black and white, and are well-reproduced. In the Kindle edition many can be expanded to show more detail. There are a number of copy-editing and factual errors in the text and captions, but not too many to distract or mislead the reader. The unidentified “visitors” shown touring the Michoud facility in July 1967 (chapter 3, Kindle location 392) are actually the Apollo 7 crew, Walter Schirra, Donn Eisele, and Walter Cunningham, who would fly on a Michoud-built Saturn 1B in October 1968.

For a book of just 130 pages, most of which are black and white photographs, the hardcover is hideously expensive (US$29 at this writing). The Kindle edition is still pricey (US$13 list price), but may be read for free by Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Manto, Cindy Donze. Michoud Assembly Facility. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2014. ISBN 978-1-5316-6969-0.

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Long-Lost First Movie of a Solar Eclipse Found, Restored

In May, 1900, British magician Nevil Maskelyne, Jr., travelled to North Carolina in the United States to observe and attempt to photograph the total eclipse of the Sun on May 28th of that year.  Maskelyne was the son of John Nevil Maskelyne, a celebrated magician who was also the inventor of the pay toilet.  (Neither should be confused with the unrelated Rev. Dr Nevil Maskelyne, the fifth British Astronomer Royal from 1765 to 1811.)  Solar eclipses had been photographed before, with the first completely successful photograph taken of the eclipse of 1851-07-28, but Maskelyne wanted to take the next step and make a motion picture of the eclipse.  He used a camera with a telescopic adapter developed by his father, which he had previously attempted to use to photograph the eclipse of 1898-01-22, but his film was stolen during the return to Britain so we’ll never know what it contained.

The film from the 1900 eclipse was stunning.  I have photographed four total solar eclipses (1999, 2001, 2008, and 2010), and even with modern equipment, dealing with the rapid and dramatic changes in light level in the seconds before and after totality is very challenging.  However Maskelyne managed to do it (nothing is known about his equipment or technique), the result was a total success, which was shown in British theatres.  The film disappeared shortly after its theatrical presentation and was believed to have been lost for over a century.  In 2018, a copy (it is unknown whether this was the original or a print) was found in the archives of the Royal Astronomical Society, whose curator did not know what it was, and upon consultation with the British Film Institute’s (BFI) curator of silent films, it was identified as the Maskelyne eclipse film.  The BFI’s conservators re-photographed the original celluloid film onto 35 millimetre film, which was then digitally scanned and restored as a 4K video.  Here is the restored film.  It is embedded here as a smaller video: click on “Watch on YouTube” to watch in full resolution.

Now, as eclipse videos go, this isn’t a competitor for those made recently, but it is one hundred and nineteen years old, the first successful attempt to make a movie of totality, and shows all of the principal phenomena of an eclipse including the diamond ring, Baily’s beads, inner and middle corona, and prominences.  It is a heck of a lot better than any movie I have made of totality.  It may taken the sleight of hand, sense of timing, and iron nerves of a master stage magician to adjust the exposure so precisely as the events of the eclipse unfolded—I know I could not hope to do it.

The Maskelynes were a creative family: Nevil’s son, Jasper Maskelyne, was the third generation of stage magicians in the family and, after joining the Royal Engineers after the outbreak of World War II, consulted during the war on camouflage and deception to aid British forces.

Here is an article from Atlas Obscura with additional details about the movie and its restoration.  This is the press release [PDF] from the BFI announcing the release of the restored film.

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Ticks

We have been scaring Ms. EThompson with snake stories after learning that she is moving to an area of northern Florida where poisonous snakes abound.   However, I think we would be best to spend our energies cautioning about ticks.

Ticks are small critters that feed on your blood, like mosquitoes, but different.   They are little crawlers.   They are a pest that, like mosquitoes, carry disease.   Some tick-borne diseases are very serious, like Lyme Disease.   There are sixteen different ailments that you can catch from ticks.   Though rarely fatal, they can become chronic.

In a couple of recent discussions I have recommended snake gaiters over boots as preferable to snakeboots.   Snakeboots are stiff and hot and uncomfortable.   Gaiters over boots is way more comfortable, though whether or not it is comparable protection against snakes depends on your boots.

But there is a drawback that must be considered.   Snakeboots also provide improved protection against ticks, who will jump off of the weeds and onto your leg, crawling around until they find a place to bite.   They can climb under the gaiters and get to your socks, burrowing through the socks and then burrowing into your skin.

Bug spray

So the thing to do is to treat your socks and the gaiters with a tick spray.   I frequently see DEET recommended, and that is good, and I recommend it, too, to prevent all sorts of insect bites.   It is not completely effective, but it really helps.

In addition to DEET, there is another product that I also recommend, which is permethrin.   It is easily found as a spray.   Permethrin lasts longer than DEET, so you can spray the gaiters today and they will still have an effect for a couple of weeks.   Spray both the outside and inside of the gaiters.   Spray pants, shirts and socks.   Make sure you do your spraying up on the porch or in the garage, and not out in the flowerbed, because both sprays kill bees and butterflies and other pollinators.   Do not spray near pets, as it can make them sick.   But definitely use this stuff.   Tick fever is dangerous.

Tick Tubes

A new thing I recently learned is tick tubes.   These are coated cardboard paper towel tubes filled with little cotton balls.   The cotton balls are sprayed with permethrin.   You toss a dozen tick tubes around the yard, under bushes and in clumps of flowers.   They are for the little critters that live in the yard.   Mice and chipmunks and squirrels and even moles will find them, and take a prized cotton ball home to line the nest.   The result is that their ticks die.   I have healthier mice, chipmunks and squirrels now, and the result is also that we have fewer ticks.   I have noticed a difference after just one year.

I could make my own but I am too triflin’ lazy and too bothered by the chemical to want to do that by hand.   They come in a box of a dozen tubes.   We put out two dozen in early spring, and then another dozen in late spring.   We don’t see the tubes again until the foliage dies in winter, and then we pick them up and toss them in the trash.

Possums

Opossums are a common woodland critter that have adapted well to the outer suburbs.   They are really unusual in several ways.   One thing about possums is that they have a low body temperature, lower than most mammals.   This makes them resistant to rabies and some other diseases.   It also makes them a less-attractive host to ticks.   But the main thing about possums is that they eat ticks.   They eat lots of ticks.   Possums can be good to have around, on account of they eat ticks.

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“GPS Declassified” in softcover

I just heard that my publisher is releasing a paperback version of my book next spring.  I’m going to try to get them to send an advance copy to Seawriter for him to review in his paper if he’s interested.

I just recorded a podcast with Cold War Conversations which will be released in about two months. https://coldwarconversations.com

I especially recommend the one with a soldier who talked with Rudolf Hess in 1984 – about 29 minutes into https://coldwarconversations.com/episode21/

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Why is Setting up WiFi so Inefficient

A couple of months ago, I moved to a new apartment. I had AT&T in my old place and transferred it to my new one. I couldn’t make a reservation for the new place until the previous tenant canceled service because he had AT&T. The installer had to do a lot of searching for connections. Why wouldn’t they have that in the systems since the previous person had AT&T. The whole process was very inefficient. Dime supposedly lives in Japan so it’s hard to blame it on him.

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Saturday Night Science: The Case for Space

“The Case for Space” by Robert ZubrinFifty years ago, with the successful landing of Apollo 11 on the Moon, it appeared that the road to the expansion of human activity from its cradle on Earth into the immensely larger arena of the solar system was open. The infrastructure built for Project Apollo, including that in the original 1963 development plan for the Merritt Island area could support Saturn V launches every two weeks. Equipped with nuclear-powered upper stages (under active development by Project NERVA, and accommodated in plans for a Nuclear Assembly Building near the Vehicle Assembly Building), the launchers and support facilities were more than adequate to support construction of a large space station in Earth orbit, a permanently-occupied base on the Moon, exploration of near-Earth asteroids, and manned landings on Mars in the 1980s.

But this was not to be. Those envisioning this optimistic future fundamentally misunderstood the motivation for Project Apollo. It was not about, and never was about, opening the space frontier. Instead, it was a battle for prestige in the Cold War and, once won (indeed, well before the Moon landing), the budget necessary to support such an extravagant program (which threw away skyscraper-sized rockets with every launch), began to evaporate. NASA was ready to do the Buck Rogers stuff, but Washington wasn’t about to come up with the bucks to pay for it. In 1965 and 1966, the NASA budget peaked at over 4% of all federal government spending. By calendar year 1969, when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, it had already fallen to 2.31% of the federal budget, and with relatively small year to year variations, has settled at around one half of one percent of the federal budget in recent years. Apart from a small band of space enthusiasts, there is no public clamour for increasing NASA’s budget (which is consistently over-estimated by the public as a much larger fraction of federal spending than it actually receives), and there is no prospect for a political consensus emerging to fund an increase.

Further, there is no evidence that dramatically increasing NASA’s budget would actually accomplish anything toward the goal of expanding the human presence in space. While NASA has accomplished great things in its robotic exploration of the solar system and building space-based astronomical observatories, its human space flight operations have been sclerotic, risk-averse, loath to embrace new technologies, and seemingly more oriented toward spending vast sums of money in the districts and states of powerful representatives and senators than actually flying missions.

Fortunately, NASA is no longer the only game in town (if it can even be considered to still be in the human spaceflight game, having been unable to launch its own astronauts into space without buying seats from Russia since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011). In 2009, the commission headed by Norman Augustine recommended cancellation of NASA’s Constellation Program, which aimed at a crewed Moon landing in 2020, because they estimated that the heavy-lift booster it envisioned (although based largely on decades-old Space Shuttle technology) would take twelve years and US$36 billion to develop under NASA’s business-as-usual policies; Constellation was cancelled in 2010 (although its heavy-lift booster, renamed. de-scoped, re-scoped, schedule-slipped, and cost-overrun, stumbles along, zombie-like, in the guise of the Space Launch System [SLS] which has, to date, consumed around US$14 billion in development costs without producing a single flight-ready rocket, and will probably cost between one and two billion dollars for each flight, every year or two—this farce will probably continue as long as Richard Shelby, the Alabama Senator who seems to believe NASA stands for “North Alabama Spending Agency”, remains in the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body).

In February 2018, SpaceX launched its Falcon Heavy booster, which has a payload capacity to low Earth orbit comparable to the initial version of the SLS, and was developed with private funds in half the time at one thirtieth the cost (so far) of NASA’s Big Rocket to Nowhere. Further, unlike the SLS, which on each flight will consign Space Shuttle Main Engines and Solid Rocket Boosters (which were designed to be reusable and re-flown many times on the Space Shuttle) to a watery grave in the Atlantic, three of the four components of the Falcon Heavy (excluding only its upper stage, with a single engine) are reusable and can be re-flown as many as ten times. Falcon Heavy customers will pay around US$90 million for a launch on the reusable version of the rocket, less than a tenth of what NASA estimates for an SLS flight, even after writing off its enormous development costs.

On the heels of SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin is developing its New Glenn orbital launcher, which will have comparable payload capacity and a fully reusable first stage. With competition on the horizon, SpaceX is developing the Super Heavy/Starship completely-reusable launcher with a payload of around 150 tonnes to low Earth orbit: more than any past or present rocket. A fully-reusable launcher with this capacity would also be capable of delivering cargo or passengers between any two points on Earth in less than an hour at a price to passengers no more than a first class ticket on a present-day subsonic airliner. The emergence of such a market could increase the demand for rocket flights from its current hundred or so per year to hundreds or thousands a day, like airline operations, with consequent price reductions due to economies of scale and moving all components of the transportation system down the technological learning curve.

Competition-driven decreases in launch cost, compounded by partially- or fully-reusable launchers, is already dramatically decreasing the cost of getting to space. A common metric of launch cost is the price to launch one kilogram into low Earth orbit. This remained stubbornly close to US$10,000/kg from the 1960s until the entry of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 into the market in 2010. Purely by the more efficient design and operations of a profit-driven private firm as opposed to a cost-plus government contractor, the first version of the Falcon 9 cut launch costs to around US$6,000/kg. By reusing the first stage of the Falcon 9 (which costs around three times as much as the expendable second stage), this was cut by another factor of two, to US$3,000/kg. The much larger fully reusable Super Heavy/Starship is projected to reduce launch cost (if its entire payload capacity can be used on every flight, which probably isn’t the way to bet) to the vicinity of US$250/kg, and if the craft can be flown frequently, say once a day, as somebody or other envisioned more than a quarter century ago, amortising fixed costs over a much larger number of launches could reduce cost per kilogram by another factor of ten, to something like US$25/kg.

Such cost reductions are an epochal change in the space business. Ever since the first Earth satellites, launch costs have dominated the industry and driven all other aspects of spacecraft design. If you’re paying US$10,000 per kilogram to put your satellite in orbit, it makes sense to spend large sums of money not only on reducing its mass, but also making it extremely reliable, since launching a replacement would be so hideously expensive (and with flight rates so low, could result in a delay of a year or more before a launch opportunity became available). But with a hundred-fold or more reduction in launch cost and flights to orbit operating weekly or daily, satellites need no longer be built like precision watches, but rather industrial gear like that installed in telecom facilities on the ground. The entire cost structure is slashed across the board, and space becomes an arena accessible for a wide variety of commercial and industrial activities where its unique characteristics, such as access to free, uninterrupted solar power, high vacuum, and weightlessness are an advantage.

But if humanity is truly to expand beyond the Earth, launching satellites that go around and around the Earth providing services to those on its surface is just the start. People must begin to homestead in space: first hundreds, then thousands, and eventually millions and more living, working, building, raising families, with no more connection to the Earth than immigrants to the New World in the 1800s had to the old country in Europe or Asia. Where will they be living, and what will they be doing?

In order to think about the human future in the solar system, the first thing you need to do is recalibrate how you think about the Earth and its neighbours orbiting the Sun. Many people think of space as something like Antarctica: barren, difficult and expensive to reach, unforgiving, and while useful for some forms of scientific research, no place you’d want to set up industry or build communities where humans would spend their entire lives. But space is nothing like that. Ninety-nine percent or more of the matter and energy resources of the solar system—the raw material for human prosperity—are found not on the Earth, but rather elsewhere in the solar system, and they are free for the taking by whoever gets there first and figures out how to exploit them. Energy costs are a major input to most economic activity on the Earth, and wars are regularly fought over access to scarce energy resources on the home planet. But in space, at the distance Earth orbits the Sun, 1.36 kilowatts of free solar power are available for every square metre of collector you set up. And, unlike on the Earth’s surface, that power is available 24 hours a day, every day of the year, and will continue to flow for billions of years into the future.

Settling space will require using the resources available in space, not just energy but material. Trying to make a space-based economy work by launching everything from Earth is futile and foredoomed. Regardless of how much you reduce launch costs (even with exotic technologies which may not even be possible given the properties of materials, such as space elevators or launch loops), the vast majority of the mass needed by a space-based civilisation will be dumb bulk materials, not high-tech products such as microchips. Water; hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel (which are easily made from water using electricity from solar power); aluminium, titanium, and steel for structural components; glass and silicon; rocks and minerals for agriculture and bulk mass for radiation shielding; these will account for the overwhelming majority of the mass of any settlement in space, whether in Earth orbit, on the Moon or Mars, asteroid mining camps, or habitats in orbit around the Sun. People and low-mass, high-value added material such as electronics, scientific instruments, and the like will launch from the Earth, but their destinations will be built in space from materials found there.

Why? As with most things in space, it comes down to delta-v (pronounced delta-vee), the change in velocity needed to get from one location to another. This, not distance, determines the cost of transportation in space. The Earth’s mass creates a deep gravity well which requires around 9.8 km/sec of delta-v to get from the surface to low Earth orbit. It is providing this boost which makes launching payloads from the Earth so expensive. If you want to get to geostationary Earth orbit, where most communication satellites operate, you need another 3.8 km/sec, for a total of 13.6 km/sec launching from the Earth. By comparison, delivering a payload from the surface of the Moon to geostationary Earth orbit requires only 4 km/sec, which can be provided by a simple single-stage rocket. Delivering material from lunar orbit (placed there, for example, by a solar powered electromagnetic mass driver on the lunar surface) to geostationary orbit needs just 2.4 km/sec. Given that just about all of the materials from which geostationary satellites are built are available on the Moon (if you exploit free solar power to extract and refine them), it’s clear a mature spacefaring economy will not be launching them from the Earth, and will create large numbers of jobs on the Moon, in lunar orbit, and in ferrying cargos among various destinations in Earth-Moon space.

The author surveys the resources available on the Moon, Mars, near-Earth and main belt asteroids, and, looking farther into the future, the outer solar system where, once humans have mastered controlled nuclear fusion, sufficient Helium-3 is available for the taking to power a solar system wide human civilisation of trillions of people for billions of years and, eventually, the interstellar ships they will use to expand out into the galaxy. Detailed plans are presented for near-term human missions to the Moon and Mars, both achievable within the decade of the 2020s, which will begin the process of surveying the resources available there and building the infrastructure for permanent settlement. These mission plans, unlike those of NASA, do not rely on paper rockets which have yet to fly, costly expendable boosters, or detours to “gateways” and other diversions which seem a prime example of (to paraphrase the author in chapter 14), “doing things in order to spend money as opposed to spending money in order to do things.”

This is an optimistic and hopeful view of the future, one in which the human adventure which began when our ancestors left Africa to explore and settle the far reaches of their home planet continues outward into its neighbourhood around the Sun and eventually to the stars. In contrast to the grim Malthusian vision of mountebanks selling nostrums like a “Green New Deal”, which would have humans huddled on an increasingly crowded planet, shivering in the cold and dark when the Sun and wind did not cooperate, docile and bowed to their enlightened betters who instruct them how to reduce their expectations and hopes for the future again and again as they wait for the asteroid impact to put an end to their misery, Zubrin sketches millions of diverse human (and eventually post-human, evolving in different directions) societies, exploring and filling niches on a grand scale that dwarfs that of the Earth, inventing, building, experimenting, stumbling, and then creating ever greater things just as humans have for millennia. This is a future not just worth dreaming of, but working to make a reality. We have the enormous privilege of living in the time when, with imagination, courage, the willingness to take risks and to discard the poisonous doctrines of those who preach “sustainability” but whose policies always end in resource wars and genocide, we can actually make it happen and see the first steps taken in our lifetimes.

Zubrin, Robert. The Case for Space. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2019. ISBN 978-1-63388-534-9.

Here is an interview with the author about the topics discussed in the book.

This is a one hour and forty-two minute interview (audio only) from “The Space Show” which explores the book in detail.  The audio gets much better after the pre-recorded introduction.

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Trump Trade War to Save the Planet

One of my Facebook friends shared out a tidbit that was new to me.   Giant container ships produce really bad sulphur-based air emissions.   That in itself is not surprising, since they burn heavy “bunker” oil for fuel.   But the extent of their air emissions is staggering.

Just one mega-container ship gives off as many emissions as 50,000,000 cars. That’s right, one ship equals 50 million cars.     The world’s 15 largest ships put out more pollutants (nitrogen and sulphur oxide) than ALL of the world’s cars added up.

By slowing down trade, President Trump can save the planet.   His actions to put the brakes on the number of trips made ferrying containers full of cheap Chinese junk to American Walmarts will reduce the global production of greenhouse gasses by more than several solar farms.

The cargo capacity of a container ship is measured in ‘TEUs’ or ‘twenty foot equivalent units’.    The six largest in the world are all owned by the Orient Overseas Container Line, the two largest each have capacity for more than 21,000 TEUs.

That might sort of make you resent the costs of air emissions testing of your car.

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Russian Rocket Laughs at Lightning

 

Ever since Apollo 12 was struck by lightning shortly after launch, NASA and other western space launch operators have been extremely cautious about launching in weather where there is a risk of lightning—not just lightning strikes in the vicinity of the launch site and ascent trajectory, but anvil clouds and other formations which might contain the charge necessary for lightning discharges.  The exhaust plume of a rocket contains ionised gases, which conduct electricity, and hence can be thought of as a lightning rod hundreds of metres tall.

Russian rockets, by contrast, mostly began their lives as ballistic missiles, where it’s not considered acceptable to say “Bad weather—no World War III today!”, and are famous for launching in blizzards, high winds, and other inclement conditions.

Earlier today (2019-05-27) a Soyuz 2.1b rocket was launched from Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia into skies which NASA would never have dared.  Sure enough, shortly after launch, it was struck by lightning.  It just kept on going like nothing had happened, and delivered its payload (a GLONASS-M navigation satellite) into the desired orbit with no problems.

Here, for comparison, is what happened when Apollo 12 was struck by lightning.

SCE to Aux.

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When did the future become “futuristic?”

It recently occurred to me that people in the past didn’t always anticipate the future with such optimism, nor did they try to predict what great developments would be in store in years to come. Furthermore, even though we would expect to be dazzled if transported to the future, if an individual centuries ago were bumped from one era to one several hundred years later, he might well be unimpressed and far prefer the technology of his own time to what he was seeing from his descendants.

On the other hand, even though in some ways, pre-steam engine, electric lights, germ theory, indoor plumbing, and photography eras are all alike to us development-wise—pretty flat until the spike of the last couple hundred years—there could be significant changes that a time traveler from one past era to another would encounter. What developments from the past do we take for granted, but would impress and intrigue a newcomer to the era? What would be unimpressive?

I think our concept of a bright future, with technology continuing to develop and improve, has enriched our lives. I can’t imagine not thinking this way, but surely for most of the past, there was no reason to project much beyond one’s own children and grandchildren.

Perhaps this idea of a more sophisticated future began with the advances in science in the late 1700’s. The public was interested and excited by the work going on. And then popular science fiction from maybe the late 1800’s (?) through the fifties helped readers imagine a faster, sleeker life beyond their era. It seems like Disney’s parks did much to propagate these hopes of the future.

This sparks other interesting questions. How much did the popular engagement with science and technology drive its rapid development? Surely the degree of interest would influence where private and public monies would be invested.  Popular entertainment and technological development might have a somewhat symbiotic relationship. On the other hand, maybe the public could only be engaged when a significant number could live beyond survival mode. The discovery of circulation of the blood wouldn’t make much impact on me if I’m thinking about my next meal. But wait a century, and the latest papers from the Royal society would be a great hobby to one with a full belly, warm clothes, and transportation.

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Jeff Bezos Gets It

Space colony: O'Neill CylinderEver since I read Gerard K. O’Neill’s The High Frontier (link is to my review when I re-read the book in 2013) in the 1970s, it has been obvious to me that the medium-term human destiny is to expand from using resources on the surface of Earth to exploit the abundant resources of the solar system, where more than 99% of the matter and energy are available for the taking and the constraints of a closed ecosystem do not exist.  There were technological barriers to overcome in order to get from here to there, but none of them required technologies we didn’t already understand or investments greater than were regularly squandered on futile wars or counterproductive social programmes.

I thought, “All it would take is a wealthy individual who gets it and is willing to stake their personal fortune on a human destiny which is optimistic and open-ended, as opposed to the claustrophobic vision of the slavers who see future generations confined on one planet, increasingly under the control of masters who worship at the altar of ‘sustainability’ ”.  The amount of money required to bootstrap this future would be in the round-off of the government budget of a medium-sized industrialised country, but you don’t get vision from coercive government—just control and keeping everybody in their place.

What if I told you that the richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos, completely gets it, and is devoting a substantial amount of his fortune to taking the incremental steps toward a future in which a trillion humans (and probably post-humans, but he hasn’t gone there yet—patience) inhabit the solar system and laugh at things like the “age of limits”, “sustainability”, “green new deals”, and landscapes covered by unsightly bird shredders.  Further, his projects, years in the making, are meeting their goals and progressing toward the next ones.

This would be pretty big news, right?  I mean, we’re talking about what is potentially the greatest change in the way humans live and the aspiration of our species since the invention of agriculture.  But you won’t find it making the headlines it merits, except here.

Here the presentation by Jeff Bezos on 2019-05-09, laying out his vision for the human expansion beyond Earth and how work underway at his company, Blue Origin, is patiently building the infrastructure for the next few steps toward this vision.

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The Threat of China

China has been attacking the U.S.A. ever since the days of Richard Nixon, in many ways subtle and not subtle.   But their attacks have grown more devious, more corrupting, and are preparing them for assaults on America that will be devastating when they are unleashed.

Yes, they have been spying and stealing technical secrets, violating copyrights, trademarks and the plain language of contracts for decades.   But the current state of affairs calls for a confrontation, and I am glad to see President Trump bring a confrontation that is clever and likely to succeed.

I am not prepared to debate the trade issues in the tariffs dispute.   What has me concerned at the moment is the leverage China is gaining over our internet.   It appears that evil Google is preparing to act as an agent of China to destroy America.

I think that if things keep going the way they are, China will position themselves to be able to kill American internet and cellphone communications, while disabling large portions of basic utilities such as electric power transmission and landline phone communications.

I will put links in a comment.   The first item is testimony this week by FCC Chair Ajit Pai, regarding the threat posed by Huawei if they could get embedded into our cellphone services:

“What I will say,” Pai told [Sen. James] Lankford, “is I believe that certain Chinese suppliers, such as Huawei, do indeed present a threat to the United States, either on their own or because of Chinese domestic law. For example, China’s national intelligence law explicitly requires any individual or entity subject to that law to comply with requests to intelligence services.”    He said that poses a problem for 5G networks deployed in one country that could be managed by software that is resident in another country.

The second item is a column at American Greatness by Brandon J. Weichert:

“A greater synthesis between the national security sector, the business community, academia, and the political leadership of the United States is needed if we truly and effectively want to prevent American tech firms from building the weapons of tomorrow for China to use against us today.”

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