Tuesday, January 27, 2015

In Memoriam

High Flight

(Pilot Officer Gillespie Magee, No. 412 Squadron RCAF, KIA 12/11/1941)

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds - and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of - wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long delirious, burning blue,
I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew -
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untresspassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

In respectful memory of:

Virgil I. "Gus" GrissomEdward H. White IIRoger ChaffeeApollo 1, 1/27/1967

Vladimir KomarovSoyuz 1, 4/23/1967

Major Michael J. Adams, USAF: X-15 Flight #191, 11/15/1967

Georgi DobrovolskyVladislav VolkovViktor PatsayevSoyuz 11/Salyut 1, 6/30/1971

Dick ScobeeMichael SmithEllison OnizukaJudy ResnikRon McNairChrista McAuliffeGregory JarvisChallenger, 1/28/1986

Rick HusbandWilliam McCoolDave BrownKalpana ChawlaMichael AndersonLaurel ClarkIlan RamonColumbia, 2/1/2003

Michael Alsbury, VSS Enterprise Flight PF04, 10/31/2014

Requiem aeternam donum est, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Stopping The Earth

The short answer: It can't be done. Not no way, not no how. But first, some background...

I saw this item on Andrew Sullivan's site, a link to an article by Aatish Bhatia about what would happen if the Earth were to somehow stop orbiting around the Sun. Well, the obvious answer is that if it stopped orbiting, it's fall into the Sun. What Bhatia tells us, though, is specifically what would happen, on a day-to-day basis, during the sixty-four and a half days it'd take to get there.

I had no beef with that ... except for one sentence, early on in the article:

"What would happen to us if a giant space finger were to gently stop the Earth in its orbit?"

It didn't hit me right away. It set off a kind of slow-burn ... I don't want to call it annoyance, it doesn't rise to that level, but there's no other word that quite describes the sensation. Something was just not right with that sentence.



Before I reacted any further, I needed figures. What was Earth's mass, and its orbital speed? That will tell us the magnitude of kinetic energy we're talking about. And, once the numbers are crunched, we're talking about 2.685 x 10^33 Joules.

That's a totally nonsensical number. Once numbers get sufficiently large, they cease to have any real meaning. I can't relate that immensity to anything within my, or anyone else's experience. So, we go to find something else sufficiently gigantic that we might be able to use as a yardstick. For this purpose the Sun's total power output might serve. The Sun's power output is, on average, 3.846 x 10^26 Watts.

OK, that's another stupidly big number. But we can divide energy by power to get time. Which is ... 80.8 days.

And, friends, when you collect the Sun's entire power output for eighty freaking days, there is NO WAY to apply that much energy gently. That's like using a atom bomb to gently crack an egg. Or using a 120mm smoothbore tank gun to gently drive a finishing nail. It just ... no. You can't get there from here.

The same thing applies to stopping the Earth's rotation around its axis, which appears to be another popular Google search. People really seem to be afraid that this is a real thing ... which they shouldn't. Stopping the Earth from spinning isn't near as hard as stopping it in its tracks, but it's still so damn hard that it'll take totally stupid amounts of energy to do it. The Earth's rotational energy is 2.138 x 10^29 Joules ... yet again another ridiculously huge number. But we can divide that by the Sun's power output to get an idea of how it relates. It works out to 9 hours, 16 seconds.

And again, the after-effects of such stoppage become irrelevant. The friction of so much energy applied all at once would melt the crust to magma. (Which goes back to the point that there's no way to apply such a stupendous amount of energy gently.) What comes after is kind of beside the point. The rock under your feet suddenly becoming liquid is a much more immediate problem than anything that might happen afterwards.

Besides, no one's ever going to have that much energy all in one place to begin with. You can rest easy now, and stop worrying about this ever happening.

Now, all this reminds me of one of my favorite cheesy '70s sci-fi series ... Space: 1999. The premise, if you'll recall, was that the Moon got blasted out of Earth's orbit.

It was a different time.

So, we'll need some numbers. First, the Moon's mass: 7.348 x 10^22 kilograms. And its orbital speed: 1.022 kilometers per second. The escape velocity at that distance is 1.414 times the orbital velocity, so the escape velocity is 1.445 km/sec. Now, we can compute the kinetic energy before and after the event, and see how much additional energy is required. That works out to be 3.834 x 10^28 Joules. Again, an unbelievably stupendous meaningless number. But we link it back to the Sun's power output, and we get about a minute and a half.

Yeah. No way in Hell is a nuclear waste dump generating that kind of kaboom.

Not that I care. That show is still one of my guilty pleasures.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Fifteen for '15

It's one of those funny things that you really can't seem to quantify or prove, but nevertheless that everyone seems to agree upon: the older you get, the shorter a year gets. No one knows why. But everyone I've ever talked to about it agrees that it's so.

Anyway -- here we are, again. Another new year. Another old one gone to the discard pile. Except that it doesn't really feel all that new. That's something else that happens as you get older. I remember there used to be a magical feeling about approaching midnight on New Year's Eve. Like there was something special about the numbers rolling over to zero. That vanished for me somewhere between thirty-five and forty-five, not entirely sure where.

Having a teenager might have had something to do with it. That'll drive you to cynicism, alcoholism, or (often) both.

But I'm here to tell you, it gets better. They do grow up. They even -- Deo Gratia -- become rational adults.

And so, without further ado, fifteen observations for 2015.

ONE -- I'm going to be doubting the wisdom of this motif come 2020 or thereabouts. Maybe even sooner.

TWO -- Henceforth, I will be referring to Kim Jong-Un as The Great Hambino. When his government stops acting like a hobo on crank, he can have his name back.

THREE -- Big year ahead in spaceflight. For me, the highlight will probably be New Horizon's Pluto/Charon encounter in July. They've woken the ship up from the eight-year hibernation it's been in since the Jupiter fly-by in 2007, and the team is getting ready to begin its science mission in February. This is an encounter that means a lot for those of us who grew up when Pluto was the ninth planet, and to date the only one we haven't seen close up. That ends in July.

FOUR -- But wait, there's more! Dawn will be entering orbit around the dwarf planet Ceres in March, having left Vesta in September of 2012. Despite having been launched a year later than New Horizons, Dawn will end up being the first spacecraft to have a close encounter with a dwarf planet. On the other hand, Ceres may not be as interesting as Pluto ... but then again, it might. We don't know ahead of time what we'll find, which is part of what makes the trip worthwhile.

FIVE -- While the Dragon 2.0 won't fly this year, tomorrow morning we'll get to find out if they can land a Falcon first stage on an autonomous ocean barge or not. SpaceX is saying they have a 50-50 shot of this thing working right the first time. But I sure wouldn't put money on them not being able to figure it out within a flight or two. Once they work the bugs out, this will allow SpaceX to recover, refurbish, and re-use an enormous chunk of flight hardware that everyone else just throws away. Good news for SpaceX, as well as its shareholders and customers; mildly worrisome for everyone else in the business.

SIX -- It will be a while before anything is known for sure, but my guess is that Scaled Composites will identify what went wrong with VSS Enterprise, fix it, and be ready to go back into test by the end of the year. But that depends on a number of things -- the final NTSB report and whether or not Richard Branson wants to press ahead being the two most important ones.

SEVEN -- And last but not least, the planet-hunter Kepler isn't down for the count, after all. They've managed to work out a mode of operation that will allow some observations to go forward, even with its reduced capability. It may be several years before my #4 observation from last year comes to fruition -- that'll probably require much more capable sensors than we currently have -- but I'm still optimistic we'll find a habitable world Out There fairly soon.

EIGHT -- Nothing new to report on the fusion energy front ... yet. But keep an eye on this. The fact that a company as big as Lockheed has laid its name and reputation on the line tells me that they've got a solid path forward. The odds are that we won't hear anything new until it's demonstration time. This points back to items #5 through #7 from last year, and I'll say it again: while concern is warranted about our power future, panic isn't. More and more, it's looking like we'll have the tools we need when we need them.

NINE -- This is a partial call-back to #5 above ... but I just wanted to point out how far 3-D printing has come. The thrusters they're going to use both for contingency aborts and precision landings? Made by 3-D printing, with metal. Not plastic, metal. Also, a 3-D printer has been delivered to the International Space Station. I wasn't aware that was even possible. Early 3-D printing technology required gravity in order to do its thing. Apparently, they've figured out a way around that. Interestingly enough, the first thing they made with their new 3-D printer was a part for the printer ... which tells me we're that much closer to being able to build a machine that can rebuild itself. Cool, and scary, all at the same time.

TEN -- Please, merciful God, spare us Clinton vs. Bush in 2016. Surely there are other candidates. But I fear that may be how the primaries shake out.

ELEVEN -- What a difference a year makes. Several years of 8-8 futility, and all of a sudden the Cowboys turn into an unstoppable-on-the-road juggernaut. Which sets up an interesting situation this coming Sunday in Green Bay -- the irresistible force meets the immovable object. The Cowboys are undefeated on the road. The Packers are undefeated at home. One of those streaks ends on Sunday.

TWELVE -- Somewhat related: is anyone out there still questioning the wisdom of drafting Zack Martin instead of Johnny Manziel? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

THIRTEEN -- While the lower gas prices are nice, something's going on behind the scenes that no one's quite figured out yet. We know that Saudi Arabia spun their taps wide open, what we don't know is why. There are a few possibilities, ranging from the highly likely to the improbable. Increasing the supply drops the price, that's obvious. Question is, who benefits? And who's hurt? Is this intended to put some hurt on the Iranians? Maybe, and a weakened Iran would be a good thing for the Saudis. Do they want to put a squeeze on the Russians? Maybe, insofar as they've provided Iran with backing. Do they want to drive prices low enough to put the resurgent American oil industry in a bind? I tend to think that's an unintended consequence, but I'm just guessing. Low prices put advanced recovery techniques, such as fracking and tar sands, at an unfavorable place on the price curve. But if they see that as such a threat, then ... maybe they're drawing down low enough that it's "smoke 'em while you got 'em" time. But if their reserves were getting that low, the smart play would be to lean it out as long as possible, wouldn't it? In any case, this bears close attention, and you should probably keep an eye on it.

FOURTEEN -- When Autocorrect gets good enough to make this site obsolete, then it's time to worry about Artificial Intelligence.

FIFTEEN -- (Added 11Jan15) Yep. Definitely regretting this motif.

Friday, January 02, 2015

CW Sesquicentennial, Part XLII: The Penultimate Campaign


"An army marches on its stomach." -- Napoleon Bonaparte

Atlanta had fallen, but John Bell Hood knew that wasn't necessarily the end. Sherman's men needed food, and supply. These, he'd have to get from the North. So, reasoned Hood, if he stood astride Sherman's line of supply, he'd have to come out and give battle on Hood's terms. It was with this general intent that Hood marched to the northwest, more or less leaving Georgia the way Sherman came in.

Sherman mounted a brief, half-hearted attempt to follow, then apparently gave it up as a bad idea. This perplexed Hood. He attacked Union forces at Spring Hill, then at Franklin, finally attacking Nashville itself in mid-December, but not a peep came from Sherman. Did Sherman care nothing for his lines of supply?

Hood, in the end, accomplished nothing but the destruction of the Army of Tennessee as an actual fighting force. I wonder if Hood knew what Sherman's plan actually was.

Because Sherman had deduced the dread secret of industrial-age war. Armies marched on their stomachs, yes. But that's a sword that cuts both ways. There are more ways than one to deny Lee's army of its supply. And there are more ways than one of supplying his own men at the same time. And Georgia's rich farmlands had not, as yet, felt the hard hand of war...

This was the bold plan he'd advanced to Grant and Lincoln, so bold that it bordered on suicidal rashness: cut loose. Head southeast towards Savannah, relying on the farmlands themselves for his sustenance. On the way, tear up telegraph wires, rail lines, and anything else of military significance. He had over sixty thousand men, even after cutting General Thomas and his men loose to keep Hood occupied in Tennessee. He had detailed maps drawn up, using data from the 1860 census, showing where the richest farms and plantations were, and what they'd be likely to have.

"I can make this march," Sherman wrote in a telegram to Grant, "And I will make Georgia howl!"

In opposition, General William Hardee could only muster some thirteen thousand troops with which to defend Georgia and the Carolinas. In open country ... that wouldn't be much of a fight. Hardee, not being an idiot, wasn't about to fight in open country. He fortified the approaches to Savannah as best he could, and awaited Sherman's arrival.

There were a few skirmishes along the way, but nothing really worth mentioning. The March itself remains somewhat controversial. His supporters have called Sherman the first modern general, the first to truly understand that by attacking the Confederacy's logistical underpinnings, he was taking the most direct path possible to defeating the Confederate armies in the field. His detractors call him many things -- some not repeatable in a family publication -- but also lay the charge of war criminal at his feet for making war upon civilians. He had an answer for them:

"You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices to-day than any of you to secure peace. But you cannot have a peace and a division of our country. If the United States submits to a division now, it will not stop, but will go on until we reap the fate of Mexico, which is eternal war. The United States does and must assert its authority, wherever it once had power; for if it relaxes one bit to pressure it is gone, and I believe that such is the national feeling."

Sherman believed that what he called "Hard War" (and what we would call today "Total War") made for a shorter conflict, and would lead to a swifter peace with less overall bloodshed. And to be sure, Sherman had drawn up orders to the effect that civilians were to be left unmolested, so long as they did not impede the army's march. Their excess produce would be confiscated, to be sure, but their persons were to be safe.

By mid-December, Sherman's army was arrayed outside of Savannah, and Sherman went about the business of reducing the fortifications that prevented his access to the sea -- and with it, communication with the Union Naval forces in command there. On December 17th, having made contact with Admiral John Dahlgren, he issued an ultimatum to General Hardee in Savannah. Surrender and accept generous terms, or resist and face obliteration. Hardee took a third option: he and his troops slipped out and escaped. In his stead, the mayor of Savannah surrendered the city to Sherman.

A few days later, Sherman telegraphed Lincoln:

"I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the City of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty guns and plenty of ammunition, also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton."

Unwritten, but obviously implied and easily seen by anyone paying attention, was the fact that a Union army would roam at will through the Confederate heartland. That the Confederate army was powerless to defend the Confederacy. This is the point Lee had hoped to make with his two invasions of the North ... but didn't swing enough heavy iron to make the point stick.

Sherman had heavy iron to swing, and plenty to spare. The only question remaining was, who's next?

Actually, that's a trick question. Sherman was heading North, along the coast, to link up with Grant. South Carolina would be next to feel the sting. And there wasn't a blessed thing Jefferson Davis could do to stop him.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Two Bad Days, One Good One

Flight test is a harsh, unforgiving business.

Modern computer modeling can sometimes give you an incorrect appreciation of this. You think you have all the angles figured. You think you've accounted for everything. You think you've analyzed the stresses down to the last nut, bolt, rivet and weld. But there's a small problem ... one of the unfortunate implications of Godel's Incompleteness Theorem is that every model is necessarily incomplete. That is, the only complete model of a thing is the thing itself.

So ... the only way to find out how the thing behaves is to go try it out for real. To try it in the real world, where there are few (and sometimes only one) way to succeed, and innumerable ways to fail.

That's not always a bad thing, by the way; failure can be instructive. But those lessons sometimes come with a staggeringly high price tag.

On the 28th of October, Orbital Sciences Corporation had an Antares launch vehicle sitting on the pad at Wallops Island in Virginia, set to carry a Cygnus resupply pod to the International Space Station. The Antares rocket's first stage is powered by two AJ-26 rocket engines. The AJ-26 is a repackaging by Aerojet General of the Soviet-built NK-33. Originally, the NK-33 was intended to be the main engine for the N-1 lunar booster, with thirty in the first stage and eight in the second stage.

Someone ... oh, God, someone should have thought this through. Because the N-1 "flew" four times, without much variation in the outcome.

Anyway, recycling old rocket bits is Orbital's stock in trade. When they found a bunch of perfectly good rocket engines sitting in a warehouse, someone thought "Score!" Which is how two ex-Soviet engines ended up in an American rocket. Engines, by the way, that were notorious for trying to eat their own turbopumps. Which is more or less how this happened.

At some point you have to wonder if the actual purpose of the NK-33 was the conversion of fuel and structure into shrapnel and combustion by-products. Needless to say, Orbital is now looking for a new engine for Antares. (Addendum, 27Dec14: I'd have expected them to look for a non-Russian engine, but ... yeah, they're using another Russian engine. On the upside, the RD-181 is built in the same factory as the RD-180. The RD-180 has proven fairly reliable so far. On the downside, this puts Antares at the mercy of whatever the hell Putin decides to pull this month. They may yet regret this choice.)

The good news is that nothing was hurt, apart from OSC's pride. The same can't be said for the test mishap suffered by VSS Enterprise.

On October 31st, VSS Enterprise dropped from its White Knight Two carrier airplane for its fourth powered flight, and its thirty-sixth flight overall. Virgin and Scaled Composites had, by all accounts, been pursuing a long and fairly conservative flight test program, expanding the flight envelope bit by bit with each new powered flight. It should have been a fairly routine outing. The full NTSB report won't be available for some time, but what seems to have happened is that the copilot hit the "feather" switch too soon, while the rocket engine was still burning. The sudden nose-down pitch caused the ship to break up in flight, killing both crew on board. (Addendum, 27Jan15: Rarely have I been happier to have been wrong. Peter Siebold, while seriously injured, was not killed in the crash.)

I'm reserving judgement, here. I don't know enough about how it operates ... but it does seem to me that switch should have a guard of some kind. By way of comparison, on the C-130, the paratrooper "jump" light switch has a metal flange that will not allow you to turn that light on unless you've already opened the jump door. And maybe there's already something like that there, and the crew got confused.

Truth is, we just don't know yet, and probably won't know until the report is released.

There is some good news to go along with the bad, though. In early December, there was a test flight of the new Orion crew capsule. NASA looks like they've shook off whatever was ailing them back in their Ares-1X days. On December 5th, a test version of the Orion spacecraft was launched on a Delta IV Heavy booster on a two-orbit test flight. The launch and re-entry both came off without a hitch.

I had heard Ares-1X described as "a low-fidelity test of a bad design." It's not really fair to say that of Orion. Orion took two passes through the Van Allen radiation belts, and the Delta second stage fired a second time on the last orbit, to accelerate into re-entry. The peak deceleration was 8.5 times the force of gravity. This was a fairly rigorous shakedown cruise. It was a legitimate test that NASA could have failed.

They didn't.

Now, it's probably still true that Dragon V2 will beat a manned Orion into space, because Orion is paced by NASA funding and Dragon is paced by the whims of an eccentric billionaire, but once it does fly, Orion will be a top-notch ship. Of that, I'm very confident ... and a few years ago, I wasn't.

Flight test is a harsh, unforgiving business. Its lessons are paid for in blood. But we do learn, and in the end, the lessons are worth it.

Friday, November 07, 2014

CW Sesquicentennial, Part XLI: Decision '64, Part 2


As late in the year as July, President Lincoln's re-election chances were looking sketchy, at best. The Republican Party was undergoing a split, similar to the one the Democrats suffered in 1860. The war had dragged on far longer than anyone had ever thought possible. One group of voters just wanted the war over, at any cost. The other wanted it won, by any means necessary. Neither group was happy with Mr. Lincoln.

But events conspired to deliver Lincoln a reprieve. One, we've already talked about: Sherman's capture of Atlanta. The other wasn't nearly as dramatic, but still important. A Union army under General Philip Sheridan had routed the Confederate army defending the Shenandoah Valley, and Sheridan had rendered the once-productive farmlands to a state such that it was said that a bird flying overhead would have to bring along its own rations. As is so often true, victory covers a multitude of sins. The Radical Republicans were somewhat mollified by the improved fortunes -- and the vindication of Lincoln's overall war plans those improved fortunes indicated. Fremont did get something for his trouble, though; as his price to drop his candidacy, he did manage to get the Postmaster General replaced.

History does not record what beef Fremont had with the existing Postmaster General, who was presumably doing an acceptable job.

Incidentally, there was no Confederate Presidential election. The Confederate Presidency was limited to a single six-year term, with the first actual election scheduled for 1866. Provided, of course, that the Confederacy would last so long.

The November election, when it came, was something of an anticlimax. The popular vote was much closer than the Electoral vote. Although the popular vote counts weren't what you'd call close -- Lincoln won 55% of the vote to McClellan's 45%. In the Electoral College the totals were much more lopsided, 212 to 21. McClellan won his home state of New Jersey, Delaware, and Kentucky. That was about it. Many Northern voters were tired of the war -- McClellan did quite well, winning a sprinkling of counties across the country -- but not enough of them were ready to throw in the towel just yet. With the events of the last year, particularly the last few months, they could smell a sea change.

And ... so could Southerners.

I think they knew they were doomed. Depending on who you ask they'll draw the line here or there, the point at which they knew the jig was up. Some will say Gettysburg, others Vicksburg. General D.H. Hill said Chickamauga was the breaking point ... ironically, a Confederate victory, but one they were unable to exploit. "It seems to me the élan of the Southern soldier was never seen after Chickamauga," Hill would later write. "He would fight stoutly to the last, but after Chickamauga, with the sullenness of despair and without the enthusiasm of hope." But I think it was the re-election of Lincoln that well and truly drew a line under it. They first pinned their hopes on a foreign intervention that never came, and then upon a Northern war-weariness and exhaustion that would not come in time. Undergirding it all was a reliance upon the daring and dash of their soldiers, and now that was gone, too.

But fight they would, with as much as they had, and with all the time they had left.

And so the war rolled on. The Southern armies still in the field had to be subdued. General Sherman in Atlanta had advanced a ... somewhat unconventional proposal to Grant and Lincoln. And, for all its risk and all his worries about it, Lincoln finally decided to let Sherman off the chain.

It was time to end this.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Happy Halloween!

There are some people who claim that the last 20-odd minutes of 2001 were originally intended to have a score by Pink Floyd. It's hard to disagree.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Against All Odds

Seventy years ago, the pieces were in motion that would lead to the largest battle in naval history.

The Pacific strategy that the Allies had been pursuing for two years and change had begun to show fruit. The Naval forces under Admiral Chester Nimitz, and the Army forces under General Douglas MacArthur, had zig-zagged across the ocean, bypassing some pockets of Japanese strength, while seizing other islands to use as way stations. Now, in late October of 1944, the fleet stood off of the Philippine Islands to support the Allied invasion.

This was not merely a vanity project of MacArthur's, although the man had vanity and to spare for it to be so. No, if the Allies were to win possession of the Philippines, the Japanese Navy would be in a terrible fix. Their weapons and ammunition were in Japan. Their fuel, though, that was in Southeast Asia. They had one chance, and one chance only, to smash the invasion.

They basically threw everything they had into the operation. It wasn't a suicide operation per se, it was a cold realization that if they lost the Philippines, the fleet wouldn't be worth much in any event. If they stayed in southern waters, they could maneuver, but couldn't shoot. If they stayed in northern waters, they could shoot, but wouldn't have enough gas left to get anywhere. It was well and truly "smoke 'em if you got 'em" time.

The Japanese fleet was divided up into three sections. The Northern Force, under Admiral Ozawa, had the remaining fleet carriers capable of sailing. Those carriers were mostly devoid of planes or pilots. The disastrous Battle of the Philippine Sea had seen to that. Nevertheless, Ozawa figured he could dangle the flat-tops out there as bait. If he could draw Admiral Halsey into a wild goose chase, if Halsey would go chasing carriers and leave the invasion beaches mostly unguarded, the operation had a decent chance of success. The Southern Force and Center Force would be heavy on large surface combatants, battleships and cruisers, and their target would be to strike the invasion beaches thus left unprotected. Southern Force would be under the command of Admiral Nishimura, and the Center Force under Admiral Kurita. Admiral Kurita's group had the Yamato and the Musashi, the largest battleships that had ever been (or would ever be) built.

The Northern Force would approach the Philippine Sea from the north. The Southern Force would wind its way through the Surigao Strait on its way to the landing grounds. The Center Force would drive up the middle, through the Sibuyan Sea and the San Bernardino Strait.

The plan would depend greatly upon whether Halsey would take the bait. He took it, all right ... hook, line, and sinker.

Of course, the Southern and Center Forces still had to get there. And that was far from guaranteed. The Southern Force was turned back in the Battle of Surigao Strait after taking heavy damage. The Center Force came under heavy air attack from Halsey's carriers, and the Musashi went down somewhere in the Sibuyan Sea. They must have thought that they'd taken care of the Center Force, because no one would thread the San Bernardino Strait at night, in bad weather. Or so they thought.

So, overnight on the 24th, Halsey took most of the Third Fleet north to go hunting for carriers. He left Admiral Kinkaid with a small force of destroyers, destroyer escorts, and escort carriers to guard the invasion beaches from attack. This force was divided into three groups. Task Unit 77.4.1, call sign "Taffy 1", was under the command of Rear Admiral Thomas Sprague, on the escort carrier USS Sangamon. "Taffy 1" also included the escort carrier USS Santee, which I mentioned earlier. Task Unit 77.4.2, call sign "Taffy 2", was under the command of Rear Admiral Felix Stump, on the USS Natoma Bay. Task Unit 77.4.3, call sign "Taffy 3", was under the command of Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague (no relation), on the USS Fanshaw Bay. Near enough, the Task Unit deployment ran from south to north, meaning "Taffy 3" held the north flank and "Taffy 1" the southern flank.

Thus it was at dawn on Wednesday, the 25th of October, that "Taffy 3" was the first to spot the ships of Admiral Kurita's Center Force.

The thing that you must understand, here, is that Yamato -- by itself -- outweighed all of "Taffy 3" put together. Against four battleships, six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and eleven destroyers, "Taffy 3" had six escort carriers, three destroyers, and four destroyer escorts. A more lopsided mismatch could hardly be found. And yet, they had one ace in the hole -- the other two Task Units were not under attack, and could throw their air wings into the fight. Clifton Sprague could count on four hundred aircraft -- mostly fairly new Grumman Wildcats and Avengers -- to turn up the heat on the Center Force.

Not that it mattered. Those thirteen small, thin-hulled ships were all that stood between the Japanese bug guns and the invasion transports. There was only one option.

Commander Ernest E. Evans on board the destroyer USS Johnston said to his crew, "A very large Japanese fleet has been contacted. They are fifteen miles away and headed in our direction. They are believed to have four battleships, eight cruisers, and a number of destroyers. This will be a fight against overwhelming odds from which survival cannot be expected. We will do what damage we can."

Evans ordered flank speed, and charged directly at the Center Force. He was followed shortly thereafter by Commander Copeland on the destroyer escort USS Samuel B. Roberts. After that, Admiral Sprague ordered the rest of his destroyers and destroyer escorts to attack, while he took his carriers towards a nearby rain squall. With all the aircraft launched, the escort carriers had only a single 5" gun, and weren't worth much in a gun fight.

The American ships had one other key advantage, though; their guns had radar-controlled gun directors. While the Japanese ships used dye markers on shells to gauge the range to a target, the American ships merely pointed their gun directors towards what they wanted to hit. Not that the tiny American guns had any realistic chance of piercing the Japanese armor ... but the Japanese had this odd habit of storing their torpedoes on deck, in unarmored containers. They would pay for that design decision today.

The Japanese guns would not have that problem ... except for two minor issues. One, the armor-piercing ammo the Japanese used would more often than not smash straight through the thin-hulled ships without arming, fuzing, or exploding. And two, the American ships were charging in so close that the guns could depress low enough to fire upon them anyway.

The Americans had a run of astounding good luck. Johnson's radar-guided guns scored at least 45 hits on the heavy cruiser Kumano's superstructure, setting it ablaze. Then, as soon as they were in torpedo range, they fired a full salvo of ten torpedoes at the Center Force, hitting Kumano, blowing off its bow. The battleship Kongo was forced to make a hard turn to avoid four torpedoes heading its way. The heavy cruiser Suzuya, stopping to assist Kumano, was taking heavy damage from aircraft. Even the flat-tops got into the action. The Japanese cruiser Chokai got close enough to the USS White Plains to get a reminder that yes, they do carry live ammunition. The gunner on White Plains knew that his 5" gun wouldn't do much damage to Chokai ... but those Long Lance torpedoes sitting on her deck? Another story. The resulting explosion was quite impressive, taking out her rudder and engines. A 500-pound bomb dropped a few minutes later finished the job. But their luck could not last forever.

Johnston was eventually hit, several times, and sank. So was the Samuel B. Roberts, but not before winning the name "The Destroyer Escort That Fought Like A Battleship." Survivors tell of Japanese sailors standing at attention and saluting while their ships went down. Japanese guns would sink two escort carriers, and one more destroyer.

Time and again that morning, these small fragile ships would charge ships ten and twenty times their size, doing what they could. Time and again, aircraft attacked with bombs, then with machine guns, and then lined up to make "dry" attack runs, so that they could draw fire from their comrades that still had ammunition. But as much damage as they were doing to the Japanese, they did not have the firepower to destroy many more ships.

They wouldn't need it. Admiral Kurita had lost two crucial things: surprise, and control of the battle. His ships were maneuvering wildly all over the place. They would have to be regrouped for a strike against the transports ... assuming they could get to the transports. The Third Fleet could show up at any moment, and then the tables would turn with a vengeance. Not that the tables were looking all that great in any case. Kurita had already lost three heavy cruisers, had three more damaged, and just about all of his ships had taken some abuse. He no longer believed he could accomplish his mission, and called for a withdrawal.

The Nihon Kaigun would never again sail in such force. The Battle of Leyte Gulf had broken the back of the Japanese Navy.

(Personal Note: My father was a Machinist's Mate on the escort carrier USS Santee, CVE-29. His assignment was as a ball turret gunner on a Grumman TBF Avenger in Torpedo Squadron 26. Seventy years ago, he fought in the Battle of Leyte Gulf.)

VT-26 Insignia

TBF Avenger from VT-26

USS Santee, CVE-29

Friday, October 17, 2014

How Long? Not Long...

I've been keeping an eye on fusion research for quite some time. Some thirty-odd years ago, I made a short list of developments that would figuratively keep the wolf from our door. There's no particular order to them. As I saw it then, our key long-term problem was resource exhaustion. It's still our key long-term problem. There are three things that can solve that problem if they arrive soon enough. Back then, I saw the first as cheap access to low Earth orbit. I still think that's important ... but I also think that we'll basically get it for free if we get the other two items. So today's list gets pared down to two: high-temperature superconductors, and controlled fusion.

Modern civilization is electrical power. That's a gross oversimplification, but it's nonetheless true that given enough economical, clean power, a lot of our problems go away. Not all, not by any stretch of the imagination, that's an unfortunate consequence of human nature. But just about any resource-based problem you can name can be either greatly reduced or even eliminated if you can throw enough power at it. Water shortage? Cheap desalinization fixes it. Emissions? Plentiful clean power fixes it. And once you take those two off the table, that buys us time to deal with what's left.

High-temperature superconductors are a force multiplier. Most of the power we generate -- about two-thirds of it -- vanishes between the generator and the user. This isn't due to sloth or inattention. This is a fundamental physical fact. If you push one ampere of current across one ohm of resistance, you lose one watt of power. Two amps, four watts. The power lost is equal to the square of the current times the resistance. High-tension lines run at scarily high voltage on alternating current, so that they can reduce the amperage to as low a value as possible. And even with some of the country's best electrical engineers having worked on it for a century or more, a two-thirds loss is the best we've been able to manage. Now, replace those power lines with a high-temperature superconductor. The resistance drops to zero. So do the power losses. At a stroke -- without adding any extra generators -- you triple the deliverable power. And that's before you get to the other things superconductors can do for you: better electric motors, better generators, better everything ... except heaters. The guy who tries to use superconductors to make a better electric heater is going to be a sad, sad man.

Controlled fusion is the other key. We're getting into a resource exhaustion problem to begin with because everything we try to extract power from runs out on us. Coal, oil, even radioactive isotopes will run out on us eventually. Fusion power relies on hydrogen, which is the most abundant element in the entire Universe. Something like 95-99% of everything you see when you look up at night is hydrogen. It is, therefore, something we're extremely unlikely to ever run short of.

Virtually limitless power will change ... well, just about everything.

This is what makes Lockheed's announcement this last Wednesday so important.

For the last decade, several teams have been investigating odd corners of plasma physics to try to find a better way to control the fusion reaction. I've written several times about the Polywell project, founded by the late Robert Bussard, and they had some promising results from 2007 to about 2010, when they went dark. They're still working under a Navy contract, I think. But there were other approaches, too: dense plasma focus, inertial confinement, field-reversed configuration, Z-pinch ... one of them was bound to pay off sooner or later.

The announcement didn't have much detail. What Lockheed said is that they'd build a small reactor within the year, and have a prototype for a 100-megawatt model within five.

First, what this says to me is that the Navy is their primary customer. That's the right size to be a reactor replacement for the Navy's submarines and carriers, but it's also the right size to re-engine their frigates and destroyers. The Navy would like to start putting things like railguns on their surface combatants, but they don't have the power available to do that yet. This will change that.

Second, this is a project Big Oil won't be able to stifle. The small guys, like Bussard's old outfit, they could bully or stymie. Lockheed is the DoD's biggest supplier. If there's anyone that can tell Big Oil to help themselves to a tall, cool glass of SHUT THE **** UP, it's probably Lockheed, the DoD, or both.

Third ... we're close. Real close. I've always said fusion would be the transformational game-changer. We've never been closer to it becoming reality. It won't change everything, and not right away, but fission power will become obsolete overnight. The knock-on effects are going to be tremendous.

There does remain the possibility that it won't work. There's always that chance. I don't think it's very high, though; they wouldn't make such a public pronouncement and stake the company's name and reputation on it unless they were pretty damn sure of their success.

By the end of the decade ... we'll know.

And our world will never be the same.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Small World, Musical Division

You never know what you're going to find when you go down a rabbit hole.

Each of the armed services has a different scheme for aircraft identification. They all use tail numbers. But they have two different ways of coming up with those numbers. The Army and Air Force use the same kind of scheme, where aircraft are identified by fiscal year, and then by sequence within the year.

If you look close at the tail, you'll see black letters "AF", then under those the number 67. This aircraft was procured in FY67, and was the 463rd aircraft procured that year.

The Navy doesn't do that.

If you look very carefully under the horizontal tail -- and I do mean carefully -- you'll see the number 165675. That, very simply, means this is the 165,675th aircraft the Navy has bought since 1940. It's a nice, straightforward system. The downside is that you can't tell by BuNo when an airplane was bought ... but that's a fairly minor quibble.

A couple of weeks ago, I found a web site where you can look up all of those Navy numbers. All of them. So, I got to thinking ... Could I find the TBF Avenger my Dad flew on in WWII? (Flew on, not flew -- he worked the ball turret.)

That list contains the disposition of each airframe, when known. And that first run of Avengers makes for mighty depressing reading. Those that didn't crash or ditch either fell off the catapult, or fell overboard, or were shot down, or just took off for a sortie one day and no one ever saw it again. It made you wonder how anyone survived a tour of duty in Naval Aviation, back in the day. But I did find out a few interesting tidbits that I hadn't known before. For one, air wings went from one ship to another with some frequency. Not all the time, mind you, but if one ship was laid up for repairs its air wing would embark upon an available ship. Which is how the USS Santee, CVE-29, was carrying Torpedo Squadron 26, that you'd ordinarily expect to be embarked upon CVE-26, USS Sangamon. The other discovery came when I stumbled upon a web site devoted to the former sailors aboard the Santee. What I found ... wasn't at all what I was expecting.

See that kid with the saxophone, kneeling on the right? You may have heard of him.

Yes, Tito Puente, the King of Latin Music himself, played with the ship's band when my Dad was in the Navy. And he never once mentioned this. I'm guessing it's because Latin Jazz wasn't his thing. I don't think it was racial. When Chappie James got his fourth star, he told us about how he'd been his crew chief in Korea. But anyway ... I just wish I'd have known sooner.

And that's the other thing I found out: Santana's "Oye Como Va" was a cover. Speaking of covers ...

Anyway, I never did find what I was looking for. But I've found a whole new area of music to enjoy, so it's all good.