Archive for March, 2009

Building a bridge to the other side of the sky

2009/03/27

Way back in the 1960’s, the engineers at NASA realized that throwing away a huge rocket every time that they sent something or someone into space was poor publicity.  So they set about designing a reusable space craft, one that could land like an airplane at a regular airport.  The concept became known as the shuttle, or the Space Shuttle, and it was to be the next big step in space exploration.  The original design was very elegant, two vehicles that were very specialized.  One was a giant carrier wing, which would haul the orbiter on its back up to about 50,000 feet.  The orbiter was designed to reach an altitude of about 180 miles, where it could meet with true space craft, the kind that can never enter atmosphere.

This design was focused on making access to space routine, with launches that did not require complete perfection in every detail, and huge numbers of people.  Because the vehicle did not launch straight up, there were ways of aborting the launch that made safety possible without multiple redundancy in every system.  Going into space was to become as commonplace as flying across the country, which would bring the cost of sending mass into orbit down substantially.

Of course, all of this never happened.  The shuttle became victim of endless compromises and design changes, until it bore practically no resemblance to what had been originally proposed.  Launching straight up was selected over horizontal launching, an external tank had to be added, and booster rockets to lift the external tank.  The only part of the design to survive was the spaceplane configuration, so that the vehicle could land on a runway.

Instead of building a better shuttle to replace the one that we have, we are going to take a huge step backward, and build a step-rocket, which will be thrown away each launch.  And the vehicle will launch straight up, with all of the demands that it requires.  Even landing might have to be done the old fashioned way, in the ocean, which means Navy task forces being on station for days, waiting for a capsule to fall out of the sky.

The Russians already build a very good step rocket, which has been proven time and again.  Instead of duplicating that capability, I believe that we should spend our money on designing the space shuttle that NASA originally wanted, a horizontally-launched, two stage to orbit system with a fly-back carrier wing as the first stage, and an aerospaceplane as the second.  While that is being developed, we can hire the Russians to haul us into space.

Technologies not available in the 1960’s and 70’s would make it possible to build the carrier wing and the orbiter out of composite materials, which would make them lighter and stronger than was possible before.  These vehicles would be just for carrying people into space, not big loads of cargo.  That can still ride on old-fashioned rockets, at least for the time being.  If they don’t have to be man rated, rockets can be built fairly cheaply, especially if they are mass produced.

We currently have the most advanced space craft in the world.  Replacing it with a less advanced technology does not make any sense, when the only way to cut the cost of getting into space is to use the most advanced technologies.  As long as it takes hundreds of people and perfect weather to launch space craft, it will never become sustainable.

Things that they ought to teach in school.

2009/03/25

As I have grown older, I have realized that much of what we need to know is not taught in the grades k through 12.  For starters, I don’t remember anyone ever saying “This is how people learn.  These are the steps that you should take if you really want to learn something.”  Sure, I took notes, just like a few of the other people in Biology, but they were pretty much worthless to me several months later when I was studying for the big test.  Why?  I had never gone back and re-written them, expanding the hasty scribbles into full sentences while the material was fresh in my mind.

When I was going to school, no one seemed to care if I was able to cook a simple meal for myself.  Unless I took Home Economics, my ability to feed myself depended upon whether or not I threw away the instructions before I started cooking.  Ditto most of the technology that is a part of everyday life, like electricity, automotive basics, first aid, what to do when a pipe breaks, how to keep pipes from freezing, and that sort of thing.

And how often do kids learn how to build a fire, keep a fire going, and extinguish a fire?  Or how to fight a fire?  We can’t always wait for the fire department to show up, and knowing a few basics can make a huge difference in the end result.  Everyone should know how to react in an earthquake, yet few people do.

Things like these may not be essential to becoming an asset to some company, but they sure make a difference when we have to deal with the unforeseen.  Understanding how to change a tire may seem like nothing important, until you are a long way from a cell tower, it is getting colder, and you have a flat tire.  Being aware that the battery does not charge on your car when the engine is idling can make the difference between having your car die in the middle of a snowstorm and being able to keep it running.

What I leave behind.

2009/03/25

Please, let me be constructive, productive, positive.  Allow me to work on something that will last long after I am gone, helping others in their daily lives somehow.  A bridge, a railroad, a well, something that will have value to many, not just for me.  Give me work that satisfies my craving for contributing to the whole, work that benefits a lot of people.

My greatest aspiration is that the world will somehow be a better place when I have gone, because of something that I have done.  To know that I have made the lives of others easier, or better, or more fulfilling, that is the reward that I seek.  A great deal of wealth was created during the last few decades, yet that wealth has evaporated like a summer rain.  Let me create wealth that will endure, that is real and tangible.

There is more than enough work to be done making our country more efficient, more sustainable.  Dealing with the changes that we face means finding new ways, new approaches.  Permit me to have a say in those changes, to guide some of our effort.  Then I will know that what I leave behind will be a part of me.

Looking over a cliff at the End Of The World.

2009/03/15

When your world is falling apart, it is little consolation that you are undergoing a paradigm shift which is going to bring about far better things than what you have known before.    Because making the shift means ending old ways, and learning new ones.

If we were smart, we would put the big car companies to work building buses, mini-buses, and passenger vans.    They also could team up with the aircraft manufacturers and begin building high speed trains.  Right now, there are trains that are capable of traveling long distances at 300 miles per hour.  Without any high technology gambles, like magnetic levitation.  Just steel wheels on steel rails.

Riding in an airplane or an automobile is very likely to become a rare thing.  Many people will still own cars, and airlines will still fly, but the numbers are going to be small percentages of what they were, for a couple of reasons;  we are in no danger of running out of oil, but it is getting much more expensive to extract it than it has ever been.  Oil drilling equipment now has to work in thousands of feet of water, to drill miles under the seabed.  Burning hydrocarbons for energy produces a great deal of carbon mon- and di-oxide, gasses which we are hoping to reduce the emissions of.  Everything we do leaves a carbon footprint, and the tracks of the automobile are huge.

The ages of the automobile and the airliner have come to an end, which has been forecast for decades, but no one wanted to believe it could actually happen.  So, we are completely unprepared for switching over to mass transit, or building high speed rail networks.  Because the automobile industry is so deeply rooted in the American culture, the unemployment rate is quite likely to be much higher than at any other time since World War Two.

We will have to, as a nation, recognize that impossibility of continuing to use cars for transportation everywhere before we will accept paying for alternative transportation systems.  As unemployment rises, and incomes shrink, travel by air will become something unusual, except for some business people.  Teleconferencing via broadband will come into its own, and light rail, monorails, and electric buses will take over the streets.

About space stations

2009/03/12

One of the most outstanding scenes in the landmark film “2001: A Space Odyssey” was the Pan Am Space Clipper approaching Space Station 5.  The huge wheel, spinning in the star speckled darkness was a nearly hypnotizing sight.  reality, though may be something entirely different.  The purpose of spinning the space station is to create the illusion of being anchored against a gravity field, a making possible in the free-fall of orbit, things like running, bathing, eating, sleeping, and No. 1 and No. 2.

However, convienence is not the motivation for whirling tons of metal around and around.  Without some kind of gravity field pull us down, we become blobs of jelly, unable to stand up, to walk, even to sit.  The adaptation to weightlessness is amazingly quick, while the recovery from the effects can take longer than the exposure to free-fall.  One answer in science fiction books in the mini-centrefuge, which spins up fast enough that people can stand on the walls, which have become the floor.  So, if you ever walk into a room and notice a toilet hanging from the wall, you will know that your hosts are prepared for free-fall, and will be able to provide you with a device that you are familiar with the operation of, if not the process.

Having the sleeping quarters in a centrefuge might be the answer to exposing crew memebers to long periods of acceleration, (the term for experiencing a gravity field,) without the tedium of confinement in close quarters for long periods of time with nothing to do.  The force created by spinning the container around and around does not have to be the same, oh so powerful 1 g (for Gravity.)  Even the Moon’s miniscule 1/6 of a g might be enough to prevent turning into an ugly bag of water.  So the bunkhouse might take you for a spin.

And remember always the three folks who are living in space right now, zipping by once in a while at 17,500 mph.  If you notice a really bright star moving steading across the heavens, without any blinking lights, non-ballistic motions, or energy beams, you are probably looking at the International Space Station, which is frequently visible from some part of the U. S. or another.The crews rotate out on a flexible schedule, as the transit system is still in the development stage.  But we are learning to live and to work in space.  Most of the work has just been to keep the whole thing working, but problems with the transit system have had major impacts.  For a while there were only two folks on an “expedition” as the tours of duty are called.  Getting anything done was almost impossible.

And they suffered mightly when they returned to Earth, but we have learned much since those days.  Ever wonder where the idea of the ‘glider’ type exercise machine came from?  Up there.  These awesome cordless tools?  (Look for a battery powered floor buffer in the next five years.)  Up there.  Microminiture cameras that provide incredible video?  Take a guess.  Up there, you have to learn to do things differently than you do them down here, which leads to innovation, which leads to invention, which leads to wealth.

Welfare for Science?

2009/03/10

The United States just launched a 600 million dollar mission to look for planets similiar to Earth.  Does someone think that we can get to them?  Does finding them mean that we are not alone?  How will such esoteric knowledge benefit the public?  How small is 600 million compared to 750 billion?  Small enough that no will notice?

When we are looking at giving up our capability to put humans into space, with the retirement of the Space Shuttle, merely for budget reasons, what sense does it make to spend money on science?  Especially when we need to change the perception of Space from scientific research to expanding the sphere of human activities.  Very few people I talk with are aware that there are three people living in space right now, one of whom is a woman.

High technology companies have two primary markets:  military applications and aerospace.  Astrophysicists need new data to do original work.  Both are essential to America’s military strength, because the weapons of war have become so high-tech.  Keeping the scientists eating and the high-technology companies in business is now the province of NASA, which is also responsible to our manned space program.  Which we will not have in another year, or so, because the shuttle is going to be retired, and we have nothing to replace it with, except a concept.

600 million dollars, .6 billion dollars, is less than 1 percent of what we are spending to salvage our financial system.  If we had invested that into the space program, we would be in the middle of a real real estate boom, one on the Moon.  Finding Earth-like planets will do us no good if we can’t learn how to live on this one, and the secrets to living on Earth are going to be found off-Earth, in the resources of the Solar System.  Lots of cheap energy, all the hydrocarbons you can imagine, and land just waiting to be developed.

It is time is set Science aside of a little while, and focus on Survival.  Learning to do things where they won’t affect our only home is the key to having a high-technology lifestyle and a low carbon footprint.  Learning to live and work in space is the most important challenge the race faces, in my opinon, because our extinction is almost assured if we do not.

The Best Racing on TV!

2009/03/04

Something that I find positive in these troubling times is the Volvo Ocean Race Round the World, currently in the middle of leg 5.  Not just the race itself, but the way that the race is being publicized by volvooceanracetv dot com.  The media outlet of the multimillion dollar sailboat race, it has developed from a rough and ready “Are you there, Andy?  We can’t hear you.” type of programming to slick, finished productions, utilizing video taken on the boats, expert editing on shore, and a variety of programs available to watch.

One big change for this edition of the sailboat race round the world is the addition of a media specialist to the crews of the boats.  Even though the boats in the last race had hand held cameras as well as mounted cams, the coverage was spotty, because the crews were too busy racing to sit down and edit video for a couple of hours during their sleep time.  This was a sad thing, because the quality of the cameras was excellent, and the visuals of the open ocean were stunning.

In response, the Volvo Ocean Race organization required that teams each have a member of the crew who was prohibited from handling any sailing duties, be it helping move the huge sail bags to standing watches at the helm.  Their only duty was to record the race from the perspective of the people on the boats.  Because this did not require their complete attention, it was soon realized that the media crewmen were an asset, because they had the time to effect repairs that were time consuming, so that the sailing crew could get some rest when they were not on watch.

Production facilities capable of editing down hundreds of hours of video into a half hour or shorter program every week were also made part of the effort, so that the weekly shows and specials were professional looking, with quality editing and soundtracks.  In the last race, the 2005-2006 series, only one weekly program and a monthly program were produced, and they often had a somewhat amateur feeling to them, kind of like watching home movies.  When it became obvious that the boat crews could not provide enough video to sustain a weekly program, crews were hired to film crew member’s families, and event management going about their duties.

Having enough video to work with is not a problem this time around, at least since the end of leg one.  During leg one, the Puma crew seemed to be the only ones able to produce any  substantial footage for the programs.  Since the Cape Town in-port race though, there has been a much better balance between the various boats.  And each one of them has experienced a lot of drama and excitement, which has made producing gripping episodes much easier.

Even though the carbon footprint of the race is still large, the result of several teams flying containers and shore crews from port to port, the overall impact is probably much smaller than the NASCAR or Formula 1 series, because the competitors are using the wind for their power.  And the wind sometimes has too much power, resulting in rigging being broken, sails ripping, and boats being fractured.  To me, it is refreshing and uplifting to see people competing with each other and Nature without having to burn thousands of liters of petrol, and using up hundreds of tires, but still racing extremely high tech machines.

Money, money, money!

2009/03/03

Long ago, it seems, money was a symbolic representation of work.  Or, at least, value.  But when money is created simply by charging a fee, what is there behind it to make it worth something.  What has been invested to make this new wealth?  For money, in any amount, is wealth.  We claimed to be a wealthy nation, but a great deal of that wealth was created out of whole cloth.

You may be familiar with the process, for it has happened to countless Americans.  You have a credit card, with a fairly low limit.  Because of one thing and another, you get behind on your payments.  If you were close to your credit limit when you got behind, very quickly the late payment fees put you over your limit, so you are charged an overlimit fee each month, and a late payment fee, because you have not paid off the amount overlimit.

As result of these fees, every month, 60 dollars is created out of nothing.  A bank charging an overdraft fee for each check which comes in while the account is overdrawn does the same thing.  Now, imagine this kind of wealth creation going on all over the country, on a grand scale.  Our economy swells quickly because of all the wealth that is being created, leading people to believe that there is enough wealth in the system to raise prices.

As prices go up, workers demand more compensation, which adds upward pressure on prices.  As prices increase, management decides that the current profit margin is too small, and increases it.  Yet, no work has been performed to create any new wealth, no value has been added to anything, just fees charged.  Now, what happens if the credit card holder defaults on their account, walks away from it?  Where is all that wealth that was created by charging late fees and overlimit fees?  It has just vanished, because those fees cannot be collected.

This is merely one example of how wealth can evaporate, something that wealth has been doing enmass recently.   We must begin doing real work, to create real wealth, not imaginary, accounting trick type wealth, or we all are likely to be homeless.